Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia

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First published in Renaissance Quarterly 41.4 (Winter 1988): 614-53. This essay was awarded the Renaissance Society of America's William Nelson prize for the best article in Renaissance Quarterly; it has been the most frequently cited of my scholarly articles. Earlier versions of this essay were presented as “Cornelius Agrippa and the Confounding of Opposites,” Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies Conference, University of Guelph, 2-5 June 1984; and, in revised form, at the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Conference, Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado, 19-20 April 1985. In the version given here some typographical errors have been corrected, and the format has been slightly altered; the essay has not otherwise been changed—except through the addition to note 66 of a helpful clarification shared with me in private correspondence by Paola Zambelli of the University of Florence.

Text of Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia

[First published in Renaissance Quarterly 41.4 (Winter 1988): 614-53. This essay was awarded the Renaissance Society of America's William Nelson prize for the best article in Renaissance Quarterly; it has been the most frequently cited of my scholarly articles. Earlier versions of this essay were presented as Cornelius Agrippa and the Confounding of Opposites, Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies Conference, University of Guelph, 2-5 June 1984; and, in revised form, at the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Conference, Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado, 19-20 April 1985. In the version given here some typographical errors have been corrected, and the format has been slightly altered; the essay has not otherwise been changedexcept through the addition to note 66 of a helpful clarification shared with me in private correspondence by Paola Zambelli of the University of Florence.]

[Index: Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, Hermes Trismegistus, Simon Magus][Date: 1988]

Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia

Michael H. Keefer

When in 1625 Gabriel Naud wished to clear the name of Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) from the pious slanders of the demonologists of the intervening century, he argued that this learned man, who was not only a new Trismegistus in the three higher faculties of Theology, Law, and Medicine, but who desired to travel in body through every part of Europe, and to exercise his mind on all sciences and disciplines, deserved better than to be abused with stories which would be much more appropriate in the magical tales of Merlin, Maugis, and of Doctor Faust, than in writings which are (or rather should be) serious and well-examined....1Gabriel Naud, Apologie pour tous les grands personnages qui ont est faussement souponnez de magie (Paris, 1925), p. 404: ...c'est plustost suivre l'ignorance ou la passion de Paul Jove & des Demonographes, que la verite de l'histoire, de faire un jugement si peu favorable & sinistre de cet homme, qui n'a pas est seulement un nouveau Trismegiste s trois facultez superieures de la Theologie, Jurisprudence & Medecine, mai qui a voulu promener son corps par toutes les parties de l'Europe, & faire rouler son esprit sur toutes les Sciences & disciplines ...; p. 419: Cette preuve qui est la plus forte & la moins desguisee que puissent avoir nos adversaires, estant ainsi rendue vaine & de nulle consequence, il n'y a rien si facile que de venir a bout des autres, lesquelles se liroient beaucoup plus propos dans les Romans magiques de Merlin, Maugis, & du Docteur Fauste, que dans les Escrits serieux & bien examinez, ou qui le devroient estre, de plusieurs Historiens & Demonographes.... (Here and throughout these notes, u/v and i/j have been normalized in accordance with modern practice.)

Naud's words provide an accurate anticipation of the three principal reasons for the interest of modern scholars in the writings of this enigmatic humanist and magician.First, as Naud was most certainly aware when he praised him as another Hermes Trismegistus, Agrippa was a nodal figure in the transmission of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition of the Renaissance. His De occulta philosophia (written by 1510, and printed in a much expanded form in 1533) is studded with quotations from the Hermetica and (usually unacknowledged) from the writings of Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico, Ludovico Lazzarelli, and Johannes Reuchlin. It was, in turn, a major source for such later Hermetists as John Dee, Giordano Bruno, and (in the following century) Thomas Vaughan.2On Agrippa's use of the Hermetica and of the writings of his predecessors in the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition, see Charles G. Nauert, Jr., Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana, Illinois, 1965), pp. 117-39, 153-56; D. P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella (1958; rpt. Notre Dame, 1975), pp. 90-96; and Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London, 1964), pp. 130-47, 281-83. Agrippa's influence on Bruno is discussed in many passages of this latter book; for his influence on Dee, see Yates, The Art of Memory (1966; rpt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1969), p. 257, and Theatre of the World (Chicago, 1969), pp. 23-24, 30-31; also Peter J. French, John Dee (London, 1972), pp. 29-30. His importance to Thomas Vaughan is evident in The Works of Thomas Vaughan, ed. Alan Rudrum (Oxford, 1984), pp. 84-87, 99-103.

Secondly, in his De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium atque excellentia verbi dei declamatio (written 1526, printed in 1530), Agrippa deployed his knowledge of toutes les Sciences & disciplines in a brilliant attack upon those sciencesand upon those who sought to govern their interpretation. This made him an obvious target for orthodox polemicists, both Catholic and Protestant. He was active in the transmission of Erasmian tendencies, and his own works, especially De vanitate, helped to fuel what has been called the Radical Reformation. Paola Zambelli has remarked that the writings of the spiritualist reformer Sebastian Franck, which include a German translation of part of De vanitate, owed as much to Agrippa's inspiration as to Erasmus', and Jean Wirth has established Agrippa's importance as one of the earlier Libertins.3Paola Zambelli, Magic and Radical Reformation in Agrippa of Nettesheim, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 39 (1976), 88-103, 102; see also her article Cornelio Agrippa, Erasmo e la teologia umanistica, Rinascimento 21 (1969), 29-88; Jean Wirth, 'Libertins' et 'Epicuriens': Aspects de l'irrligion au XVIe sicle, Bibliothque d'humanisme et renaissance 39 (1977), 609-13.

His influence in other directions was also considerable: Johann Weyer and Reginald Scot, the two most important sixteenth-century opponents of the witch-craze, drew upon the skeptical side of his thought.4See Christopher Baxter, Johann Weyer's De praestigiis Daemonum: Unsystematic Psychopathology, and Sydney Anglo, Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft: Scepticism and Saduceeism, in The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft, ed. Sydney Anglo (London, 1977), pp. 59, 65, 71-72; 121, 125.

There is evidence, which goes well beyond the echoes of De vanitate in Montaigne's Apologie de Raymond Sebond, that his works were widely read in France as well as in Germany,5See Pierre Villey, Les Sources et l'volution des Essais de Montaigne (2 vols,; 2nd ed.; Paris, 1933), vol. 2, pp. 166-70; Jean de la Taille, Dramatic Works, ed. K.M. Hall and C.N. Smith (London, 1972), p. 23; Andr Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres (2 vols.; Paris, 1584), vol. 2, fols. 542-544v; Gabriel Naud, Apologie, pp. 400-29. Marin Mersenne, in his Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim (Paris, 1623), col. 590, denounced Agrippa as Archimagus; in the same year that this book appeared a man was burned at Moulins for possessing a copy of De occulta philosophia (cf. Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne, ed. Cornelis de Waard and Ren Pintard [Paris, 1932], p. 51n). For indications of Agrippa's influence in Germany, see R. Klibansky, E. Panofsky and F. Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy (London, 1964), pp. 350-65; and Will-Erich Peuckert, Pansophie: Ein Versuch zur Geschichte der weissen und schwarzen Magie (2nd ed.; Berlin, 1956), pp. 135-45.

while on the other side of the Channel he was equally well-known. An English translation of De vanitate was published in 1569 and reprinted in 1575; Sidney refers to this work with respect, while Greville seems to have absorbed its central doctrine, and Nashe (who was also interested in Agrippa's reputation as a magician) its freewheeling and abusive rhetoric.6There is a recent edition of this translation: Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, ed.Catherine M. Dunn (Northridge, California, 1974). Sidney refers to De vanitate in A Defence of Poetry, ed. J.A. Van Dorsten (London, 1966), pp. 49-50; and for indications of the extent of Sidney's interest in Agrippa, see A.C. Hamilton, Sidney and Agrippa, Review of English Studies n.s. 7, no. 26 (1956), 151-57. Greville echoes the main argument of De vanitate in Caelica, 66, and in A Treatise of Religion, st. 107; Selected Poems of Fulke Greville, ed. Joan Rees (London, 1973), pp. 32-33, 53. For indications of Nashe's use of Agrippa, see The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R.B. McKerrow (5 vols.; London, 1904-1910), vol. 3, pp. 151-52, vol. 5, p. 125; and for a brief discussion of the possibility that Nashe felt a more radical affinity with Agrippa, see Jonathan V. Crewe, Unredeemed Rhetoric: Thomas Nashe and the Scandal of Authorship (Baltimore, 1982), pp. 77-80, 113n. One might, with less confidence, add Spenser to the list of Elizabethan writers who drew upon Agrippa. See Spenser: Poetical Works, ed. J.C. Smith and E. De Selincourt (1912; rpt. London, 1966), pp. 624, 541; Douglas Brooks-Davies, Spenser's Faerie Queene: A Critical Commentary on Books I and II (Manchester, 1977), pp. 6, 65, 86, 105; and my article Agrippa, in A.C. Hamilton et al., ed., The Spenser Encyclopedia (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming).

This Hermetic magus and humanist heretic thus cast a large, if irregular, shadow. But of equal interest to literary historians (and this is the third reason for returning to his works) is his penumbrahis unwitting contribution, thanks to the form of demonological narrative which orthodox attacks on him tended to take after his death, to the development of the legend of Faustus. Gabriel Naud's allusion, in his defence of Agrippa, both to the historical Faustus and to his legend suggest a hesitant awareness of this contribution.7As an exponent of Reuchlin's Cabalistic-Hermetic philosophy, Agrippa was subjected to anti-Semitic attacks from 1509 onwardsa year before the Reuchlin affair began (