Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486-circa 1535), German occultist and mystic, played an important part in the Renaissance by popularizing in the North those magical practices and attitudes inherent in the Neoplatonic movement that was initiated in Florence by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. The Renaissance ideal of the Magus, the “divine” man with powers of operating on the cosmos and achieving universal knowledge and power—adumbrated in Pico’s famous Oration on the Dignity of Man—found its theorist in Agrippa who wrote a text book on how to become a Magus. His De occulta philosophia was the best known manual of Renaissance magic, incorporating both the Ficinian magic deriving from the Hermetic revival, and the Cabalist magic indicated by Pico and further developed by Reuchlin and the hosts of Renaissance Cabalists. A few years before the publication of the final version of the De occulta philosophia (1583), Agrippa published his De vanitate scientiarum in which he attacked all sciences as vain and useless, including the occult sciences which he was about to expound enthusiastically in his next book. Which of these two sensational works represents the true mind of Agrippa, the one which teaches the techniques of Renaissance magic and promises to lead the student to Pisgah heights of illumination, or the one which casts doubts on those techniques, and indeed on all human hope of valid knowledge of any kind?
The reversal of mood from visions of power and “knowledge infinite” to total doubt is believed by Nauert to represent a “crisis” in Renaissance thought. The great Faust figures of literature, both Marlowe’s and Goethe’s, repeat the Agrippan pattern of confidence alternating with despair. Nauert examines the argument that doubt is inherent in magic through its reliance on the irrational, and from his analysis of the De vanitate he concludes that Agrippa’s skepticism may derive, not so much from ancient skepticism and the contemporary revival of Sextus Empiricus, as from the mystical tradition, from the “negative theology” of Pseudo-Dionysius, Cusanus, and others. His use of the ass as the symbol of total “unknowing” has mystical implications, and his insistence that faith in Gospel truth is the only refuge from the uncertainty of human knowledge suggests that Agrippa’s spiritual oscillations might represent the hesitations of a Christian conscience disturbed about the legitimacy of the occult philosophy as much as a swing from credulity to skepticism. One undoubted fact in the confused situation is that Agrippa never abandoned his intensive study of the occult sciences either before, during, or after his attack on their vanity. Coupled with the fact that he published his attack on these sciences before he published his textbook on them suggests a simpler explanation of the two books. When accused as a magician on account of the occult philosophy he could usefully point to what he had said of the vanity of magic in the other book. The life of a Renaissance Magus was not a safe one. Ficino was always afraid; Pico got into bad trouble; and Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake. I am not entirely convinced by Nauert’s interesting arguments that the Vanity was not, at least in part, a safety device.
Magic was important in medieval culture, and even more important in Renaissance culture. That fact in itself necessitates careful unblushing study of magic as a historical phenomenon in its own right, whether or not it led mankind toward the great scientific advances of the seventeenth and later centuries. Forgetting that medieval and Renaissance magic involved not just witchcraft and sorcerer’s pacts with the devil but also a whole concept of the world and of the relation of man to the world, those historians of thought who have not judged magic solely as the threshold of modern science have engaged in a virtual conspiracy of silence about its existence. It is as if the religious taboos which frightened most medieval and Renaissance men still weighted on the consciences of present-day historians.
Nauert is quoting from Eugenio Garin’s epoch-making book, Medioeve e Rinascimento (1954). And in relation to the Two Faces of Agrippa to which he devotes so much thought, Nauert remarks that,
Agrippa the Doubter, the destructive critic of his age, has found a deservedly important place in the works of modern intellectual historians, for the categories of modern intellectual history offer a respectable, even a dignified position to those who carped at the remnants of medieval culture. But Agrippa the Credulous, whom Jean Bodin dubbed the “master Sorcerer,” and the hostile Jesuit, Martin Del Rio, called the “Arch-Magician,” what honorable place does the history of European thought have for him?
To this it may be added that if Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia is beyond the pale, then Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola ought also to be hushed up, or at least should no longer appear as they are, vaguely and inaccurately labeled as “Renaissance humanists” in textbooks on the Renaissance. For it is Pico’s conception of the Dignity of Man as Magus which Agrippa sets out to codify; and it is from Ficino’s De vita coelitus comparanda, with its veiled allusions to the Hermetic Asclepius, that he constantly quotes.
In his analysis of the De occulta philosophia Nauert has made full use of D. P. Walker’s fundamental studies of Renaissance magic and of its reliance on pseudo-antique texts of which the Hermetica, attributed to “Hermes Trismegistus,” were the most important. He incorporates Walker’s distinction between “spiritual” magic based on attracting the “spiritus” of the stars, and “demonic” magic aimed at attracting intellectual beings; and he adopts Walker’s analysis of the Agrippan magic as much bolder and more “demonic” than that of Ficino. Where Nauert is defective is in the vagueness of his allusions to Agrippa’s sources. He does not specify what actual treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum Agrippa is quoting; a generic reference to Pimander is not enough, since Ficino included twelve treatises under this title. Nor does he describe their contents nor discuss how they were interpreted in the Renaissance. In fact he gives the curious impression of not having really studied the Hermetic literature nor thought about its problems and its history. For this and other reasons one cannot regard his book as the final treatment of Agrippa, valuable though it is. The works of “Hermes Trismegistus” carried with them, for the Renaissance, Christian overtones owing to the supposed role of Hermes as a prophet of Christianity. It was associations such as these which enabled the Renaissance to build up in its cult of Hermes what amounted to a revival of gnosticism, and Agrippa’s work cannot be studied in isolation from the Renaissance Hermetic tradition as a whole, nor without more detailed attention to the contents of the Hermetic treatises. It is even possible that yet another interpretation of the Agrippa “problem” might be that Agrippa in his reading of the Corpus Hermeticum had imbibed both “optimist” and “pessimist” types of gnosis, both of which are represented in different treatises of the Corpus.
The biographical chapters of Nauert’s book are most scholarly and detailed, and extremely valuable, particularly in establishing Agrippa’s religious position. Agrippa’s birth place was Cologne, where he was educated at the university, then a center of Thomism, though there was also a rival faction which followed the teachings of that famous native of Cologne, Albertus Magnus. It seems probable that Agrippa imbibed an interest in natural philosophy and the occult from his early study of Albertus. The teachings of the Renaissance Magi thus fell on already well-prepared German medieval soil, and it would seem that Agrippa was early in possession of the general principles of Renaissance “Magia and Cabala” as laid down by Ficino and Pico. He became a great wanderer in many countries of Europe, where he was everywhere welcomed by groups of friends or adherents to his views. Paola Zambelli, whose learned articles are basic for the student of Agrippa and who is at work on other publications bearing on this theme, believes that he was the propagator of a secret society; Nauert thinks that there is not enough evidence to prove this. Agrippa had many contacts in Lyons, that focal point for the spread of the Renaissance to France; in 1510 he was in London, studying the Epistles of St. Paul with John Colet; probably about 1511 he went to Italy where he spent seven years, eagerly collecting books, conferring with groups of occultists, and deepening his knowledge of Cabala.
He then returned to the North, a move which took him “from the exciting and vital culture of Renaissance Italy into the very different but also exciting and vital culture of northern Europe on the very eve of the Reformation.” In Metz, Cologne, Geneva, Agrippa was in touch with scholars in sympathy with the new Evangelical teachings (reflected in the Evangelical tone of the Vanity) and who were following the Lutheran movement at first with interest and sympathy though later with alarm and distrust. Some of Agrippa’s associates became Lutherans—and it has even been suggested that Agrippa’s group in Geneva was the center of a disturbed atmosphere out of which Calvinism later developed—but Agrippa himself lived and died a Catholic, though a Catholic “Evangelical” who was also a gnostic magician! A mixture so strange as this is not normally taken into account in histories of sixteenth-century religious movements. Though the extraordinary spiritual excitements generated in the Hermetic-Cabalist ferment may have relevance to the religious history of Europe in ways which have hardly yet been investigated.
AS A Renaissance Magus, Agrippa offers to man the power over nature, and the intimate communion with nature, which Adam possessed before the Fall but which was lost through sin. The illuminated Magus, operating his magics in the three worlds—the elemental world, the celestial world, and the supercelestial world—is presented as a being of immense dignity and power, who through his manipulations of astral magic escapes from astrological determinism. Renaissance magic promised, as Garin has said in words quoted by Nauert “the new way which will open to man the rule over nature.” And, again following Garin, Nauert compares the claims of the Renaissance Magus with those formulated by Francis Bacon for his new science through which men will become “masters and possessors of nature.” It is a pity that Nauert, who is well read in modern Italian scholarship on these themes, happened to miss Paolo Rossi’s book, Francesco Bacone (1957), which explores those connections between the magical revolution and the scientific revolution about which Nauert reflects in several passages of his book. Rossi stresses that Bacon promises that the Great Instauration of the sciences will restore to man the power over nature which Adam had before the Fall! And he argues that Bacon emerges straight out of Renaissance magic and the Renaissance idea of the Magus, which however he consciously modifies and turns in new directions. Pointing to passages in Bacon’s works against Renaissance animism and magic, Rossi evolves the interesting theory that Bacon’s insistence on a humble approach to nature in observation and experiment is a conscious reaction from the proud claims of the Renaissance Magi. It is as it were a program for a reformed and humbled Magus through which he turns into a humble scientific experimentalist and observer, yet is still offered the promise that he shall be lord and possessor of nature.
THE other book under review is of a very different character, being not a detailed research monograph but a series of essays on Machiavelli, Castiglione, Bacon, and Hobbes, with an introductory chapter on “Renaissance and Humanism” and a concluding chapter of “The Idea of Progress.” I imagine that Mazzeo’s book is intended for students who need to have explained to them at some length what the ancients meant by rhetoric or the difference between a cyclic view of history and “the idea of progress.” Nevertheless this is not an unoriginal book though its references (except in the case of Machiavelli) are almost entirely to secondary sources. Its originality lies in the strange choice of the four main figures which seems to have been dictated by the author’s purpose, as stated on the dust jacket, of clarifying “what in the Renaissance was of new and enduring importance.” Machiavelli stands for his famous realism about man and statecraft; Castiglione for “the artistic creation of the self”; Bacon is the prophet of technology and of co-operation in scientific research; Hobbes represents the scientific organization of society and of the state. Thus the reader will learn something about Machiavelli, Castiglione, Bacon, and Hobbes (and find references in the notes for further reading), and will at the same time be led to reflect on the organized society, dominated by technology, in which he lives, and on the opportunity, or lack of opportunity, which it provides for the artistic creation of the self. Inevitably, the last chapter touches on the not unfamiliar problem of the divorce between science and the humanities. This is in its way a thoughtful book; the discussions are interesting and sometimes rather brilliantly expressed. The liveliest chapter, though it may not appeal to all specialists, is the one on Machiavelli, for whom the author has a passionate admiration. The worst chapter is the one on Castiglione, which dissolves for pages into a rapprochement of this stylized courtier with Montaigne, whose ideas on the investigation of the self seem (to me at least) to be of a quite different order.
Mazzeo’s book may cause one to reflect that some branches of Renaissance studies are better established and have been put on a sounder historical footing than others. Through the work of a series of brilliant scholars, Renaissance historiography and political theory are established as deriving from humanistic interest in history plus the practical observation of Italian history and the evolution of the Italian city state. We understand pretty well where Machiavelli came from. But whence came Francis Bacon with his revolutionary statements that science is power, that man can and should gain dominion over nature? So long as Renaissance “Neoplatonism” passes solely as a vaguely eclectic Platonic philosophy, so long as Ficino and Pico are classed as “Renaissance humanists,” so long as a revolutionary figure like Agrippa is banned from the polite society of Renaissance scholars, the historical origins of the forces which eventually turned into the scientific revolution will remain obscure.
March 3, 1966