In 1570, one of the most important books of the Elizabethan period was published in London. This was Henry Billingsley’s English translation of Euclid, with a preface described on the title page as
…a very fruitfull Preface made by Maister John Dee, specifying the chief Mathematicall sciences, what they are, and wherunto commodious; where also, are disclosed, certaine new secrets Mathematicall and Mechanicall, until these our daies greatly missed.
In this preface, Dee ranges over all the mathematical sciences then known and strongly urges their encouragement and improvement. As a manifesto for the advancement of science, Dee’s mathematical preface has been said to be of greater importance than Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, published thirty-five years later, for Dee fully understood and emphasized the basic importance of mathematical studies for the advancement of science, whereas Bacon underestimated mathematics. Dee’s mathematical preface had a great influence and was widely read until well on in the seventeenth century. Dee also exerted a strong personal influence through his many contacts with the school of mathematicians and scientists which made the later Elizabethan age a period of importance for scientific advance.
Another famous, or infamous, work by Dee is the True and Faithful Relation of what passed for many years between Dr. John Dee and some spirits, published with a strongly disapproving preface by Meric Casaubon in 1659, half a century after Dee’s death. This strange work, more briefly known as the Spiritual Diaries, describes the attempts made by Dee to summon angels with Cabalistic numerological conjurations, attempts made in association with Edward Kelley. It showed Dee in an extremely superstitious light, and stamped him with the reputation of a deluded fanatic, an object of scorn and derision, which lasted throughout the nineteenth century. This reputation eclipsed that of the author of the mathematical preface to Euclid and of the other genuine scientific work, which were completely forgotten.
Only in the present century have scholars begun the rehabilitation of Dee. Ignoring the Spiritual Diaries, they have rediscovered Dee the scientist, Dee the author of the mathematical preface. The pioneer in this respect was E.G.R. Taylor, who in a book published in 1930 examined Dee’s geographical knowledge. Her work established the great practical services rendered by the “conjuror,” through his knowledge of scientific instruments and of geography, to the bold mariners of the Elizabethan age. In a later book (1954) she was concerned with the host of designers and makers of new and improved scientific instruments who flourished in the later sixteenth century in London, and again emphasized the importance of Dee as a leader in this movement. Meanwhile, in 1937, F. R. Johnson had drawn attention to Dee as an astronomer, and to his interest in the Copernican theory. More recently, in 1958, D. W. Waters in his study of Elizabethan navigation emphasized the importance of Dee’s mathematical preface to the English Euclid in encouraging the development of mathematics and navigation.
How is Dee’s reputation as an important mathematician and scientist to be reconciled with his reputation as a “conjuror”? The two types of activity, which seem to us irreconcilable, must have belonged together in some way in Dee’s outlook. The nineteenth century, which excluded Dee from serious consideration because of his “conjuring,” was wrong, as the historians of science have discovered. But to include him as a scientist while excluding the angel magic is also incomplete.
It is very clear in the mathematical preface to Euclid that Dee is following the outlines of that famous textbook of Renaissance occultism and magic, the De Occulta Philosophia of Henry Cornelius Agrippa. Agrippa divides the universe into the three worlds of the Cabalists: the natural or elemental world where the magus operates with natural magic; the middle celestial world where he operates with mathematical magic; and the supercelestial world where he operates with, among other procedures, numerological conjurations. This was how Dee thought, and Agrippa’s book gives the clue to how one man could be a mathematician, interested in encouraging the use of applied mathematics and technology in the lower worlds inhabited by the Elizabethan artisans or “mechanicians,” and at the same time a “conjuror” of forces in higher worlds. Dee’s concentration on mathematics as the key to all the sciences included operating with number in applied mathematics and operating with number to conjure angels.
The researches of modern scholars have shown that Agrippa’s book was the natural, though extreme, outcome of the whole movement which is loosely called Renaissance Neoplatonism. This movement contained a Hermetic or magical core, developed in the Italian Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino, to which Pico della Mirandola added Cabalist magic. The Renaissance Neoplatonist assumed that the whole universe is alive, that it is a vast system of correspondencies, linking the elemental world with the world of the stars and with worlds of spiritual beings beyond the stars. A textbook such as Agrippa’s which describes techniques to be used in the elemental world, in the celestial world, and in the supercelestial world can be seen as the logical outcome of the world view of the Renaissance magus.
Those familiar with the work done in recent years on these sides of Renaissance thought have realized that Dee should be situated within this kind of thinking, that he was a remarkable example of the Renaissance magus, and that his scientific activities as well as his “conjuring” fitted naturally into this outlook. What has been lacking is a full-length study of Dee that would situate him in time, in the milieu in Elizabethan England in which he moved, and within the history of thought and of the Hermetic tradition. Only so could the whole man come before us. This is what Peter French has done in his book John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus.
Many Renaissance scholars have been awaiting such a book as this, hoping for the great gap in our knowledge of the Elizabethan age to be filled by an adequate study of Dee. As the favorite philosopher of Queen Elizabeth I, as the protégé of Leicester admitted to inner court circles, as at the same time the popularizer of scientific knowledge for the Elizabethan artisan class, as the teacher of Philip Sidney, the leader of the Elizabethan poetic Renaissance, as the owner of an astonishing library covering all aspects of Renaissance thought, Dee is the Prospero who touches the Elizabethan age at almost every point, whose version of the Hermetic tradition is a current that runs through that age.
Peter French has written a remarkable book which goes a long way toward filling the gap, though, being a modest and careful scholar, he emphasizes how much more there is to be done, how much has to be made up for centuries of neglect before a complete treatment of the subject can be achieved. He begins with the strange history of Dee’s reputation, of how the name and fame of the philosopher-in-chief to the Elizabethan age degenerated into that of the foolish charlatan of nineteenth-century legend, which rested on the Spiritual Diaries. French points out, quoting the recent researches of P.M. Rattansi on the influence of Hermetic tradition on certain types of Puritan “enthusiasts,” that Meric Casaubon’s publication of the Spiritual Diaries in 1659, with a damning preface, was a semipolitical act which, by destroying Dee’s reputation, aimed indirectly at discrediting Puritan “enthusiasm.”
The Puritan divine John Webster published a defense of Dee against Casaubon in 1677, accusing Casaubon of purposely slandering Dee for personal reasons and stating that Dee was the “greatest and ablest Philosopher, Mathematician, and Chymist” of his age. Thus Dee’s reputation “became a pawn in the religious conflicts of the Commonwealth.” The nineteenth century was totally ignorant of these facts when it accepted Casaubon as the sole guide to Dee. Nor is the modern scholar as yet clear about what can have been the historical stages through which the reputation of the Elizabethan magus passed that led to his being adopted by revolutionary Puritan enthusiasts under the Commonwealth.
After a useful account of Dee’s early life, his pursuit of universal knowledge, his travels abroad and contacts with foreign scholars, French discusses Dee’s library, “Elizabethan England’s Greatest Library,” of which he made a catalogue in 1583, manuscript copies of which survive. For many years I have been trying to get people to look at Dee’s catalogue of his library, and I used it in my book Theatre of the World (1969) to illustrate the extraordinary range of Dee’s studies in magic, science, history, literature, and indeed the whole encyclopedia of knowledge available in his time. By consulting the catalogue one can discover what was the range of books he was using for his preface to Euclid; for example, the discussion of Vitruvian architectural theory (which he rightly regarded as a branch of mathematics) in the preface can be illuminated from the catalogue, which shows that he possessed all the best modern Italian books on architecture.
French carries further the analysis of the library, and through detailed study of the references to Dee and his library by contemporaries he demonstrates that this remarkable library, perhaps unique in Europe for its range, which Dee had collected in his house at Mortlake, was at the service of English scholars and that they frequently used it. His house at Mortlake “became a kind of academy that looked back to the earlier Platonic academies in Florence, emulated the More-Colet circle, and looked forward to the English Royal Society.”
In an intelligent account of the Hermetic philosophy, French relates this to Dee, bringing out the point emphasized in the title of his book that Dee was an “Elizabethan magus.” He examines “magic, science, and religion” as held together in Dee’s outlook, using for this all Dee’s known writings, not only the preface to Euclid but also the obscure figure described in the Monas hieroglyphica, which Dee regarded as the expression in hieroglyphic form of the core of his doctrine. It is impossible to mention all the points of great interest raised in this extremely rich study, though the following may be said to be the main heads of the argument.
There was an exoteric and an esoteric side to Dee’s life and thought. On the outward-looking, practical, exoteric side, he appears as the propagator of mathematical science among the rising artisan class of Elizabethan London, to which the preface to Euclid is directed, with the object of encouraging invention and technology among the “mechanicians,” to be used for the betterment of their estate. There is already here the utilitarian motive in the plea for science, which Francis Bacon is usually supposed to have been the first to emphasize. This side of Dee’s interests made him the friend and adviser of navigators, gunners, instrument makers, and “mechanicians” generally. On the other hand, his teaching had an esoteric core, concealed in the mysteries of the Monas hieroglyphica. Here lay its appeal to the inner circle of poets and courtiers, headed by the Queen herself who expressly asked Dee to explain the Monas to her.
French makes a brave attempt to tackle the Monas and the angel magic to which it is no doubt in some way related. Published in 1564, with a dedication to the Emperor Maximilian II, Dee’s Monas hieroglyphica describes a sign composed of the signs for the seven planets and of the zodiac sign Aries, in which he believed to have found a unifying statement that included the whole universe. The commentary on the Monas combines alchemical, mathematical, and Cabalistic modes of thought, and was probably expressive for Dee of ascent through all the three worlds described by Agrippa—the elemental, the celestial, the supercelestial—to the First Cause or the One. Dee always regarded his Monas Hieroglyphica as his supreme achievement. For this man of extraordinary genius who lived within the categories and magical presuppositions of the Renaissance world of Hermetic Neoplatonism, it was presumably an expression in what Francis Bacon or Leibniz might have called “real characters”—signs believed to be in actual contact with reality—of some profoundly unifying experience.
Like Giordano Bruno, whose career touches his at several points, Dee believed that his initiation into Hermetic mysteries laid upon him the responsibility of becoming a religious leader, with a mission for establishing a universal religion of love which should do away with all religious differences, wars of religion, and persecutions. Unlike Bruno, whose “Egyptian” magical religion implied a kind of deism, Dee believed himself to be profoundly Christian, in contact with good spirits or good angels. However misguided he may have been in his belief in the revelations of his angels, there can be no doubt that Dee was absolutely sincere in his professions of deep piety, and that the religious motive was indeed the mainspring of his life.
French conducts the reader through the complexities of Dee’s mind in a style both critical and clear, and he is firmly historical in placing this strange figure within the context of his age. One of the most remarkable aspects of his book is the number of people in it, the very large number of references to Dee by contemporaries, which he has skillfully assembled to bring out the fact that Dee had some kind of contact with practically everyone of note. The combination of factual presentation of Dee’s movements among his contemporaries with subtle presentation of his ideas and suggestions about their possible influence is particularly interesting in the chapter “John Dee and the Sidney Circle.”
We know from Thomas Moffett that Dee was Sidney’s teacher, but it has not been realized to what extent the whole circle of Sidney’s relatives and friends were familiar with Dee. French shows that the most important and most intimate sphere of Dee’s influence was that of the Sidney circle. We know that Sidney was interested in “the mathematicals” and in “chymistry,” both Dee subjects, and French asks what other aspects of Dee’s outlook might have influenced the young poet who was to be the leader of the Elizabethan poetic renaissance. Here he raises the important question of Hermetic theory of the imagination as basic to the outlook of a Hermetic magus, mentioning those theories of magical animation of mental images in the occult arts of memory to which I have drawn attention in my book The Art of Memory.
French re-examines Sidney’s Apology for Poetry, looking for traces of Hermetic theory and using passages from Dee’s preface to Euclid that have certainly never been used before in connection with Sidney. He wants to establish that Renaissance theories of music, affecting theories of poetry, could have reached Sidney through Dee, and that the creative imagination of the poet is allied to the magical activity of the magus, stimulating the creation of vital poetic images. French is here trying to grapple with the core of the problem of the mental image, its relation to art and poetry, and the relation of Hermetic theories of magical imagination to the stimulation of the creative imagination. The chapter is a little confused; he is trying to do too much and perhaps does not entirely succeed in making his points. But no student of Sidney or of the Elizabethan poetic renaissance should neglect this chapter, which raises the central problems of the “creative imagination” (that jargon-ridden phrase but here not used as jargon) in the context of the study of Dee and his influence.
Finally, in the chapter “John Dee as an Antiquarian,” French discusses Dee as a Tudor historiographer and antiquary, friend of Camden and Stow, an authority on the Arthurian legends, and influential in building up the propaganda for British imperialism around Queen Elizabeth. He “helped to reinvest the Arthurian legends with their old appeal,” which had important implications for Spenser and for the whole Elizabethan political-religious aspiration. Thus even for the Elizabeth cult Dee was indispensable, and this adds the final touch to the picture of the Elizabethan magus as permeating every side of the Elizabethan age, helping to create that age in almost every aspect of its activity, not excluding the creation of the image of the queen who was its symbol.
This scholarly book, based on impressive original research (in the valuable bibliography French cites over seventy manuscript sources which he has consulted), should put an end, once and for all, to the fantastic neglect from which Dee has suffered and to the equally fantastic nonsense which still continues to be written about him. It emphasizes the deeply religious core of Dee’s thinking, and how the difficult problem of his angel magic should not be approached through cheap sneers at the “conjuror,” but through attempts to understand the Renaissance world view of which it formed a part. The only criticism of the book which I have to make is that it is incomplete, but this is anticipated by French’s modesty. “After working on Dee for several years,” he says, “I do not think that a single individual is capable of examining adequately his importance in all areas of Renaissance thought.” He points out that he has not attempted to examine Dee’s influence on the Continent during the phase of his life which began with his departure from England in 1583. “I have merely attempted to make a beginning,” he says, “and to present a picture of Dee that may induce others to study him and his thought.”
The way is now certainly open for the long overdue reassessment of the Elizabethan age in the light of better knowledge of the Renaissance Hermetic-Cabalist tradition and of its Elizabethan representative, John Dee.
Dee has also been attracting attention in Italy during the current year. Furio Jesi in his article “John Dee e il suo sapere” has had recourse to the manuscript catalogue of the library and notes the wide range of scientific interests which it reveals. He emphasizes Dee’s dependence on the De Occulta Philosophia of Agrippa and is fully aware that Dee’s scientific studies belonged to the kind of outlook outlined by Agrippa. Jesi is not well-informed concerning the preface to Euclid, and does not know of Dee’s encouragement of “mechanicians.” He has, however, made rather a careful study of the Monas hieroglyphica and is under the impression that Dee was only in contact with the aristocratic world of the court, and with the Queen, standing aloof from the ordinary world of men. As we know, this is only half the truth, and leaves out the exoteric side of Dee’s teaching.
Jesi emphasizes Dee’s cult of Queen Elizabeth I and his build-up of imperial prospects for her. He points out that in the Monas hieroglyphica Dee appeals to rulers, asking them to follow the way of mystical “adepts” and not of “tyrants,” and suggests that Dee might have envisaged the wide rule which he planned for Queen Elizabeth as the rule of an “adept” in his philosophy. Like other suggestions in this article, the point is intelligently raised though not supported by wide knowledge of the present state of Dee studies. Jesi notes the importance of Dee’s religious position, which allowed him to be “Anglican in England and Catholic in Prague,” arguing that this apparent indifferentism belongs naturally to the attitude of esoteric Christians of the sixteenth century for whom Cabala, associated with Neoplatonism, provided a mystical approach to religious problems which enabled them to keep clear of the ferocity of the wars of religion. Though less firmly based in historical knowledge than French’s analysis of Dee’s religious position, this Italian article corroborates French’s approach.
Jesi is interesting on Dee and the English poets, the discussion of which he limits to two dramatic texts, Shakespeare’s Tempest and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. While avoiding crude statements—that Prospero, the magus, is Dee, or that Abel Drugger, in The Alchemist, is a satire on Dee—he argues that, while Prospero does belong to the kind of outlook exemplified in England by Dee, Ben Jonson is hostile to it and may make direct mocking references to the Monas hieroglyphica. This fits in with Jonson’s later hostile references to Robert Fludd, who succeeded Dee as the representative of the Hermetic-Cabalist tradition in England, and I would agree that much might be learned through careful study of Ben Jonson’s antagonism.
Wayne Shumaker’s The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance is divided into five sections, “Astrology,” “Witchcraft,” “White Magic,” and “Hermes Trismegistus.” “Every literary person,” he states, “knows, or thinks he knows, at least a little about astrology, witchcraft, magic, and alchemy, or about one or more of them, if not, perhaps, about Hermes Trismegistus.”
After describing the recovery in the Renaissance of the Corpus Hermeticum, the collection of writings ascribed to the fictitious “Hermes Trismegistus,” Shumaker gives some account of these works which he thinks represent a philosophical mysticism, entirely free from magic or astrology. Though he mentions that there are numerous other writings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus which are certainly magical, alchemical, or astrological, he says that these have nothing to do with “Hermes himself,” stating that modern scholars, like Festugière, have not thought them relevant to the philosophical Hermetica.
Shumaker is describing, and adopting, the old-fashioned attitude to these writings which sought to keep the philosophical Hermetica quite apart from implications of magic or astrology. W. Scott took this line in his introduction to his edition of the Hermetica (1924-1926). It was completely disproved by Festugière in his foundation work La Révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste (1950-1954), the first volume of which is devoted to the magical, alchemical, and astrological texts with the object of showing that these cannot be separated from the writings of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius because the latter texts, though they are expressive of philosophical and religious meditation, are steeped in the gnostic atmosphere of their period, which implied a religious use of magic and an astrological setting for religious experiences. The Hermetic initiate rises up through the spheres of the planets in his regenerative experience.
Shumaker’s method of reverting to Scott’s type of interpretation while not mentioning that this is against Festugière, whom he cites, seems a strangely unscholarly mode of procedure. I might add, though this is not so important, that he involves me in a similar way, mentioning indebtedness to my works in his preface but not mentioning in his “Hermes Trismegistus” chapter—which the unwary reader might think was based on the first chapter of my Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition—that his interpretation is quite unlike mine, which follows Festugière.
I may seem to have dwelt overlong on this point, but it really throws out Shumaker’s whole approach to the occult sciences in the Renaissance, which arose out of the rediscovery of the Hermetic texts and out of Marsilio Ficino’s interpretation of the magical passages in the Asclepius, as has been established by D.P. Walker. In his pages on Ficino’s magic, which draw heavily on Walker’s Spiritual and Demonic Magic, Shumaker omits Walker’s scholarly demonstration of the sources of Ficino’s magic, thus distorting the whole argument.
There may be some matter in Shumaker’s book of use to students, for example the long analysis of the contents of Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia, though this gives no help in explaining allusions. For example, Agrippa’s mention of “the four furies” will be inexplicable to a student who does not know about the four Platonic furores, or grades of enthusiasm. I dismiss the base thought that perhaps Shumaker does not know about them either, though there is a lack of grasp throughout his book of the fundamental connections between Renaissance Neoplatonism and the Renaissance interpretation of the Hermetica which make it impossible to isolate “White Magic” or “Hermes Trismegistus,” as he tries to do. As for Bruno and Campanella, they are summarized as “implicitly covered under witchcraft,” a truly amazing remark!
The illustrations reproduced from Robert Fludd’s works are not integrated with the text and make no sense in isolation. Bibliographical material is scrappily arranged. The few pages at the end on Hermetic influence on English literature are singularly inadequate. In short this book confuses more than it clarifies, and cannot be recommended as a reliable guide to occult sciences in the Renaissance.
It is only negatively that Shumaker’s book comes into the subject of this article. John Dee’s name does not appear in the index, but on hunting about in the notes I finally located the remark, “the English John Dee, a rather silly man,” followed a page or two later by a reference to Meric Casaubon’s edition of the Spiritual Diaries. These are the only two references to Dee in the book. Shumaker has reverted to the nineteenth century, to the deluded man of Casaubon’s tendentious preface, to total ignorance of all Dee’s other works and activities. This is a wonderful specimen to add to the long history of Dee’s reputation and will no doubt be cited in future books as what must surely be the last attempt at keeping Dee out.
January 25, 1973