Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius
Agrippa was the main expounder of the occult philosophy, which is the knowledge of the hidden causes of things and is finalized to their manipulation by magic. Magic, in turn, is the highest form and the end of philosophy. According to his De occulta philosophia, magic is threefold: natural (concerning sublunar world), celestial (concerning stars and heavenly intelligences), and divine (concerning God and higher angels). It consists of the manipulation of concrete objects and of the summoning of intelligences and God, which is performed on the basis of the precepts of the Kabbalah. Agrippa’s overall aim was to purify magic from its necromantic and irrational components: this would enable the restoration of the prelapsarian condition of man (in accordance with the Hermetic ideal of deification) and a Christian reform of culture. The critique of philosophical knowledge and of every science, presented in Agrippa’s De vanitate, and his critique to the subordination of woman typical of Scholastic theology, contained in the De nobilitate foeminei sexus, are functional to these ends.
KeywordsFrench Court Imperial Historiographer Canonical Interpretation Scholastic Philosophy Natural Magic
Cornelius Agrippa was born in 1486 near Cologne, where he studied from 1499 and became magister artium in 1502. After his graduation, he joined the imperial army and traveled to Spain (1508) and to France, where he started his academic activities in Dôle, teaching Johannes Reuchlin’s De verbo mirifico, and wrote his De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminae sexus. In the same years, he completed the first version of his De occulta philosophia (Agrippa 1992). In 1509 or 1510, he left Dôle after having been accused of “Judaizing heresy,” as Reuchlin’s De verbo mirifico relies on a Cabalistic exegesis of the Jewish Bible and on Jewish scholarship to argue for the nature of Jesus as Messiah (Zika 1976; Lehrich 2003, 26; Perrone Compagni 2005, 16; Nauert 2011). Afterward, he traveled in Germany, the Netherlands, and England, serving Maximilian I as diplomat, and from 1511 in Italy. At the University of Pavia, Agrippa taught Plato’s Symposium and the Pimander (part of the Corpus Hermeticum), and in Turin he taught theology. In 1518, he moved again to France and became public advocatus in Metz, where he clashed with the local inquisitor while defending a woman accused of witchcraft and entered in a dispute with the Dominicans, as he denied a legend on the marriages of St. Anne (Agrippa 1534). He thus left Metz and practiced medicine in Geneva, Fribourg (1521–1523), and at the French court in Lyon from 1524 on, where he held the position of physician of Louise, the mother of the King. In Lyon, Agrippa suffered financial and personal problems as he could not obtain support from his patroness Marguerite of Alençon. Eventually, he left the French court and became, in 1528, imperial historiographer in Antwerp, but he lost this position after having published his De vanitate (1530), containing an attack to the mendicant orders which led the governor of the Netherlands, Margaret of Austria, to report it to the theological faculty of Louvain. Finally, in 1532 he came into service of the Archbishop of Bonn but was again attacked by the Dominicans, as he was about to publish the full version of his De occulta philosophia that they considered heretical. This edition was intended to provide a complete presentation and defense of his work, as only a manuscript version (1510) was circulating. Eventually, this edition appeared in 1533. In 1534–1535, he moved again to France and died in 1535 in Grenoble (Van der Poel 1997, 15–49; Lehrich 2003, 25–42; Blum and Müller-Jahncke 2010; Nauert 2011).
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition
Agrippa was the main expounder of occult philosophy, i.e., the knowledge of the hidden properties of things that makes possible their manipulation by the techniques of magic, which is the highest form and the end of philosophy. His overall aim was to purify magic from its necromantic and irrational aspects, which would enable the deification of man and the restoration of the prelapsarian unity with God (Perrone Compagni 2000). Being interested in occult philosophy since he had read Albertus Magnus’s Speculum astronomiae, containing a defense of the influence of stars on bodies (Zambelli 1992b), in his De occulta philosophia, Agrippa divides magic into three kinds: natural, which is the manipulation of concrete objects (Lehrich 2003, 44–97) and of the world spirit that underpins their occult properties (Nauert 2011); celestial or mathematical magic, which concerns the powers of stars and the intelligences (as lower angels) governing them, summoned by numeric formulas and images (Lehrich 2003, 97–113); and divine or ceremonial magic, which consists of theurgical rites – such as the use of the name of higher angels and God – based on the contents of the Kabbalah, which Agrippa knew in the Christianized version of Giovanni Pico, Reuchlin, and Francesco Giorgio Veneto (Perrone Compagni 1982). In his De vanitate, on the other hand, Agrippa distinguishes between natural magic – which is natural philosophy itself – and ritual magic, which has a demonic character (Zambelli 1992a, 2007, 13–34). The apparent contradiction with his De occulta philosophia can be explained in the light of his program of a Christian reform of culture (influenced by Erasmus, Zambelli 1970; Van der Poel 1997), to which his purging of magic was functional. In his De vanitate, he uses skeptical arguments to criticize all sciences, only in order to show that these are less reliable than faith in guiding man to the knowledge of God (Van der Poel 1997, 112–115) and to establish a prisca theologia where faith and reason are perfectly balanced and the original harmony with God is restored (Perrone Compagni 1997, 2000, 2009). Such ideal of harmony and deification was inspired by Platonism and Hermetic philosophy, underlying also his De homine and De triplici ratione cognoscendi Deum (Agrippa 1958, 2005; Perrone Compagni 2005). Agrippa’s criticisms are moreover directed against scholastic philosophy and theology, which are the main targets of his De nobilitate foeminei sexus, where the canonical interpretation of Eve’s sin is disregarded as authoritarian and equality of sexes is devised as part of the reappropriation of the prelapsarian condition (Agrippa 1529, 1990, 1996; Perrone Compagni 2006).
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