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II: Underground Routes

The Ancient Theology

by D.P. Walker
Cornell University Press, 276 pp., $14.50

The revolution in the attitude to Renaissance thought which has taken place in recent years rests largely on a new understanding of Renaissance Neoplatonism. In the nineteenth century Neoplatonism meant a movement arising from the rediscovery of the works of Plato and the ancient Neoplatonists, centered in the Medici circle in Florence. There was nothing wrong with this as a fact; what was wrong with the old view of Renaissance Neoplatonism was the assumption that Ficino and his friends read the texts in much the same way as nineteenth-century classical scholars were doing. This assumption led to the impression that Renaissance Neoplatonism meant a vaguely mystical and Christianized revival of Platonic idealism, which had pleasing results in many ways, as in its influence on art and poetry, but which was weak as a philosophy and certainly not in a line of development leading to important seventeenth-century movements.

This view was altered by the discovery that Renaissance Neoplatonists approached the writings of Plato and his followers in a way of their own. At about the same time that the Platonic and Neoplatonic texts were rediscovered, there had also come to light various magical and mystical writings believed to have been written by sages with prestigious names—Orpheus, Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus—in times long before the birth of Plato, probably contemporary with Moses. The most important of these “ancient theologians” was Hermes Trismegistus, supposedly an Egyptian priest and supposedly the author of a body of writings known as the Hermetica. The Renaissance Neoplatonist read these writings believed to be by Hermes with profound respect, as those of the teacher of Plato, and also, by another series of misunderstandings, as those of an inspired prophet of Christianity. Thus Renaissance Neoplatonism had a Hermetic core and was the source of that Hermetic movement which is now seen to be of such fundamental importance for the history of thought.

Though several scholars, particularly Eugenio Garin and Paul Kristeller, had been aware of the importance of studying the Hermetic movement and its sources, it was D. P. Walker who first put these subjects on a firm basis in an extremely learned book, published in 1958, and in some fundamental articles, published a few years earlier. It was Walker who sorted out the complexities of prisca theologia, which he now prefers to call “ancient theology,” and it was he who established by a masterly exercise in precise scholarship that Ficino used the Hermetic magic. These pioneer writings have been somewhat hidden in inaccessible publications, though Spiritual and Demonic Magic is available in a Kraus reprint. In The Ancient Theology, Walker has now republished in a revised and expanded form his basic articles “Orpheus the Theologian” and “The prisca theologia in France.” By the “ancient theologians” he means Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster, Orpheus, and so on, believed to be the ancient sages to whom profound religious truth was accessible and whose teachings were believed to be inextricably involved with those of Neoplatonism.

The most important of the “ancient theologians” was Hermes Trismegistus, the supposed author of the writings known as the Hermetica. Written in Greek by unknown authors in about the second or third centuries A.D., these texts reflect various influences circulating in the late antique period, such as popularized versions of Greek philosophy, probably also Persian and Hebrew influences. It is by no means impossible that there may be some Egyptian influence in the Hermetica; the Egyptian temples were still functioning when they were written. Some scholars deny the Egyptian influence, as does Festugière, the great French scholar whose French translation of these texts is the only authoritative modern translation. Other scholars think that the Hermetica do contain traces of Egyptian influence.

What can be said in a general way is that the Hermetica belong to the atmosphere and background of thought of late antiquity, the time when Christianity was spreading in the midst of a world which was a melting pot of many religions and philosophies. The same is true of the Chaldean Oracles and the Orphica, texts belonging to about the same period and which the Renaissance scholar believed to have been actually written by Zoroaster and Orpheus, just as he believed that the Hermetica were written by the mythical ancient Egyptian priest “Hermes Trismegistus.”

Walker’s articles not only cover precise discussion of the late antique milieu of the supposed writings of the “ancient theologians” but also draw upon his extraordinarily wide and deep knowledge of their use by Renaissance writers and scholars. They are thus fundamental for all those interested in trying to unravel the hidden meanings of Renaissance literature or art, for “the whole structure of the Ancient Theology rests on the belief that the Ancient Theologians wrote with deliberate obscurity, veiling the truth….” And the articles republished in The Ancient Theology are also fundamental for historians of religion in the Renaissance period.

Walker shows that the ancient theology encouraged a liberal and tolerant attitude in religious controversy. “Most of the writers we have examined were more concerned with finding similarities than differences between various philosophies and religions…these liberal tendencies were reflected in practical, religio-political life.” The advocates of the ancient theology held eirenic, reunionist opinions and tended to belong to the middle or tolerant party, known in France as the “politiques.”

A remarkable example of the skillful scholarship with which Walker disentangles the Hermetic elements in well-known writers is the chapter on the ancient theology in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, first published as an article in 1954. In the sequence of the argument of The Ancient Theology as a whole, this reprinted article stands out as the first attempt to relate Sidney as a religious thinker to the Hermetic currents of the Renaissance. It proves with unanswerable logic, and through wide knowledge of the contemporary sources available to Sidney, that Pamela, the Arcadian heroine who refutes the atheism of her wicked aunt, bases her arguments on the ancient theology. Admirers of Sidney, though madly keen to identify the lady to whom he addressed his sonnets, have been less interested in trying to discover what he believed.

The unemphatic style of Walker’s study must not deflect the reader from realizing its extreme importance. The detection of Sidney’s Hermetic theology rests on scholarly techniques as impressive, in their way, as Walker’s detection of Ficino’s Hermetic magic. As well as these chapters based on already published work, The Ancient Theology contains four entirely new studies, all of great interest and importance.

Edward Herbert of Cherbury has a firmly established position in the history of thought as the father of English Deism and as a thinker in whose ideas Descartes is known to have been interested. By a careful analysis of Herbert’s posthumously published book, Walker shows that Herbert’s Deism had a Hermetic basis, a fact hitherto unsuspected which gives a different slant to the whole problem of the early history of Deism. It had not been noticed that Herbert’s thinking in his De religione gentilium bears a striking resemblance to those astral religious philosophies propagated by Giordano Bruno and Tommaso Campanella, the two Italian Magi who were missionaries for a Hermetic religion of the world. This included a kind of astral magic in the cult of the divine in the cosmos, and a kind of deism which they hoped could become a basis for appeasing the religious differences which were leading to destructive wars.

Walker’s analysis of the De religione gentilium leads him to think that Herbert’s eirenic and “politique” religious attitude had a similar foundation. Like Bruno and Campanella, who had hopes of somehow reconciling their astral religion, their Hermetic and magical philosophy of universal harmony, with the Church in a manner that would “unite the whole of mankind and heal all religious differences,” so, thinks Walker, Herbert’s astral Deism included similar aims. “I think that to these two cases [Bruno and Campanella] we can add Herbert, though with very important reservations: he was not a Magus…. But in a tentative form, he was promulgating the same religion as the two Magi, and with the same eirenic intentions.” This is a startling fact for rational historians of Deism to digest.

Walker asks how such influences could have reached Herbert, mentioning various possibilities, to which should be added the fact that an intensive revival of Hermetic thinking had been taking place in Germany in the early seventeenth century, in the circle of the Elector Palatine and his wife, a movement with which Herbert had almost certainly been in touch, as many indications in his autobiography suggest. Walker’s study of Hermetic influences in both Philip Sidney and Herbert of Cherbury will help to connect the Elizabethan with the seventeenth-century phases of the movement.

Another field on which Walker’s original research throws a new light is that of the French Jesuit missions to China in the seventeenth century. By analysis of many contemporary sources, Walker shows that in their conversion of the Chinese the Jesuits made enormous use of ancient theology, particularly of the supposed writings of Hermes Trismegistus, whose teachings, they argued, were consistent with ancient Chinese religious thought. In fact, ancient Chinese mystics, like Fohi, the supposed author of the mysterious I-Ching or Book of Changes, were presented as practically identical with Zoroaster or Hermes Trismegistus, as ancient theologians who understood the true nature of things.

Leibniz was interested in the Jesuit use of the I-Ching, which seemed to him analogous to his own recently invented binary system, to convert the Chinese to Hermes Trismegistus, whence they were inevitably led to Christianity through the time-honored traditions which taught that Hermes was a prophet of Christianity. So strong was the impact of Chinese ancient theology that it was actually used to support the slightly damaged authenticity of Hermes, Zoroaster, and the rest. Chinese ancient theology, by its conformity with Western Hermetic tradition, was thought to have proved the truth of the latter.

Though the Jesuits made use of the element of comparative religion in the ancient theology in their converting methods, they were not liberal in the sense of seeking means of reconciliation between opposing branches of Christianity through appeal to Hermetic tradition, as the “politiques” did. The Jesuit missionaries warmly welcomed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes which made France “toute Catholique.”

Perhaps the most exciting chapter in the book is the last one on the Chevalier Ramsay, Scottish mystic and Freemason, whose addiction to ancient theology was playfully alluded to by his wife when she addressed her letters to “mon cher Zoroastre.” Ramsay’s very popular novel, The Travels of Cyrus, first published in 1727, proves that “even at this late date the Ancient Theology is still a living force.” Cyrus in his travels makes a point of visiting all the countries of the ancient theologians, talking with disciples of Zoroaster in Persia and of Hermes Trismegistus in Egypt. In Ramsay, the ancient theology is combined with a very liberal and mystical Catholicism (he was a friend of Fénelon) and with Freemasonry. And, true to the Hermetic traditions which turned men’s minds toward religious interest in the cosmos, and thence to scientific exploration of its mysteries, Ramsay includes in The Travels of Cyrus long discussions of Cartesian mechanics and of Newton’s aether hypothesis.

I must leave the reader to examine for himself Walker’s profoundly interesting discussion of Ramsay on the aether hypothesis, which Walker connects historically with Ficino’s spiritus theory, the vehicle of his magic Walker concludes:

I think he [Ramsay] did see Newton as standing in a line of Ancient Theologians, as the culmination of a long tradition of pious cosmology…. We now know, thanks to the work of Messrs. Rattansi and McGuire, that this was how Newton saw himself.

It is impossible to do justice in a short review to the wealth of new discovery and new research contained in this book (I have omitted all mention of an important chapter on Savonarola), but I hope that enough has been said to indicate its extreme importance. The work of a scholar of absolute reliability and integrity, it makes available a wealth of material for those interested in the new history of thought, and uncovers the real roots of continuity between the Renaissance and the seventeenth century. From Ficino to Newton, the route lies underground, in the Hermetic tradition.