Renaissance Science – XXIV

It might be considered rational to assume that during the period that is viewed as the precursor to the so-called scientific revolution, which is itself viewed as the birth of modern science, that the level of esotericism and the importance of the occult sciences would decline. However, the exact opposite is true, the Renaissance saw a historical highpoint in the popularity and practice of esotericism and the occult sciences. We have already seen how astro-medicine or iatromathematics came to dominate the practice of medicine in this period and horoscope astrology continued to be practiced by almost all astronomers till well into the seventeenth century. We also saw how, not just due to the efforts of Paracelsus, the practice and status of alchemy also reached a high point during this period. Now, I would like to take a look at the emergence of natural magic during this period and the processes that drove it.

There was nothing new about the supposed existence of magic in the Renaissance, but throughout the Christian era magic was associated with demonic forces. It was thought that people, who practiced magic, were calling on the power of the devil. Augustinus, who had been a practicing astrologer and believed that astrology worked, thought it could only do so through demonic forces thus his famous condemnation of the mathematici, by which he meant astrologers and not mathematicians. What was new in the Renaissance was the concept of a magic, natural magic, that was not dependent on demonic forces. This is the origin of the concept of the distinction between black magic and white magic, to use the more modern terms for it. Various groups of texts that found prominence in the Renaissance humanist search for authentic texts from antiquity were instrumental in this development. In roughly the order of there emergence they were the philosophy of Plato and in particular the work of the Neoplatonists from the third century CE, the Hermetic Corpus, and the Jewish Kabbalah. In the first two of these the humanist scholar Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) played a pivotal role. 

Marsilio Ficino from a fresco painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ficino was the son of Diotifeci d’Angolo a physician whose patron was Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464) a major supporter of the humanist Renaissance. Ficino became a member of the Medici household and Cosimo remained his patron for his entire life, even appointing him tutor to his grandson Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492).

Cosimo de’ Medici portrait by Jacopo Pontormo Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the Council of Florence (1438-1444), an attempt to heal the schism between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, Cosimo de’ Medici became acquainted and enamoured with the Greek Neoplatonic philosopher Georgius Gemistus Pletho (C. 1355–c. 1450), who was also the teacher of Basileios Bessarion (1403–1472) another highly influential Renaissance scholar.

Portrait of Gemistus Pletho, detail of a fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Returning home Cosimo decided to refound Plato’s Academy and appointed Ficino to head it, who then proceeded to learn Greek from Ioannis Argyropoulus (c. 1415–1487), another Greek, who came to Italy during the Council of Florence.

Ioannis Argyropoulos as depicted by Domenico Ghirlandaio Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today Plato is regarded as one of the greatest and most important of all Western philosophers, there is a saying that Plato is just footnotes to Socrates and Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) once quipped that Western philosophy is just footnotes to Plato, so it might seem strange to us that during the Renaissance Plato was virtually unknown in Europe. In the Early Middle Ages, the only one of Plato’s worked that was known in Latin was the Timaeus (c. 360 BCE) his speculations on the nature of the physical world, about which George Sarton infamously wrote in his A History of Science (Harvard University Press, 1959):

The influence of Timaeus upon later times was enormous and essentially evil. A large portion of Timaeus had been translated into Latin by Chalcidius, and that translation remained for over eight centuries the only Platonic text known in the Latin West. Yet the fame of Plato had reached them, and thus the Latin Timaeusbecame a kind of Platonic evangel which many scholars were ready to interpret literally. The scientific perversities of Timaeus were mistaken for scientific truths. I cannot mention any other work whose influence was more mischievous, except the Revelations of John the Devine. The apocalypse, however, was accepted as a religious book, the Timaeus as a scientific one; errors and superstition are never more dangerous than when offered to us under the cloak of science. 

George Sarton  A History of Science (Harvard University Press, 1959)

Strong stuff! Somehow Plato got ignored during the so-called Scientific Renaissance and unlike Aristotle his works were not translated into Latin at this time. In 1462 Cosimo de’ Medici supplied Ficino with Greek manuscripts of Plato’s work and commissioned him to translate them into into Latin, a task that he carried out by 1468-69, the works being published in 1484. Ficino also translated the work of many of the Neoplatonist in particular the work of Porphyry (c. 234–c. 305) and Plotinus (c. 204–270 CE). 

So, what does this revival in the philosophy of Plato have to do with magic, natural or otherwise? The answer lies in that which Sarton found so abhorrent in Plato’s philosophy of science. Plato’s philosophy of scienced is heavily laced with what can be simply described as a heavy dose of mysticism and it is this aspect of Plato’s philosophy that is strongly emphasised by the third century Neoplatonists. I’m not going to go into great detail as this blog post would rapidly turn into a monster, there have been numerous thick books written about the Timaeus alone but will only present a very brief sketch of the relevant concepts.

According to Plato the cosmos was created by the demiurge, the divine craftsman, as a single living entity, which he then endowed with a world soul. It was this concept of the Oneness of the cosmos that was at the core of the philosophy of the third century Neoplatonists and in Ficino’s own personal interpretation of Platonic thought. How this relates to natural magic, I will explain later after we have looked at Ficino’s translation of the Hermetic Corpus. 

In 1460, Leonardo de Candia Pistola, one of the agents Cosimo de’ Medici had sent out to search European monasteries for ancient manuscripts, returned to Tuscany with the so-called Corpus Hermeticum. This is a collection of seventeen Greek texts supposedly of great antiquity and written by Hermes Trismegistus a legendary Hellenistic creation combining elements of the Egyptian god Thoth and his Greek counterpart Hermes. Ficino interrupted his translation of Plato and immediately began translating the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin; he translated the first fourteen of the texts and Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447–1500) translated the other three.

Lodovico Lazzarelli (via his muse) presents the manuscript of Fasti christianae religionis to Ferdinand I of Aragon, king of Naples and Sicily. (Beinecke MS 391, f.6v) Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are other Hermetic texts most notably the Emerald Tablet an Arabic text first known in the eight or early nine century and the Asclepius already know in Latin during the Middle Ages. 

Once again, the subject is far to extensive for an analysis in a blog post, so I will only sketch a brief outline of the salient points. The hermetic texts are a complex mix of religious-philosophical magic texts, astrological texts, and alchemical texts. The religious-philosophical aspect has a strong similarity to the Platonic theory of the One, the cosmos as a single living entity. In hermeticism, God and the cosmos are one and the same thing. God is the All and at the same time the creator of the All. Hermeticists also believed in the principle of a prisca theologica, that there is a single true, original theology, which for Christian Hermeticists originates with Moses. They believed Hermes had his knowledge direct from Moses. A central tenet of Hermeticism was the macrocosm-microcosm theory, as above so below. Meaning the Earth is a copy of the heavens, astrology and alchemy are instances of the forces of the heavens working on the Earth. 

Macrocosm-Microcosm Lucas Jemnnis Museum Hermeticum (1625)

Combining Neoplatonic philosophy and Hermeticism, Renaissance humanists developed the concept of natural magic. Rather than a magic based on demonic influence, natural magic works by tapping directly into the forces of the cosmos that are the source of astrology and alchemy. 

The Kabbalah is a school of Jewish esoteric teaching that is supposed to explain the relationship between the unchanging, infinite, eternal God and the mortal, finite cosmos, God’s creation. Renaissance humanist believed in the ideal of the tres linguæ sacræ (the three holy languages)–Latin, Greek, and Hebrew–the languages needed for Biblical studies. The scholars of Hebrew stumbled across the Jewish Kabbalah and began to incorporate it into the Renaissance mysticism. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) an Italian Renaissance nobleman and student of Ficino

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola portrait by Cristofano dell’Altissimo (c. 1525–1605) Source: Wikimedia Commons

founded or created a Christian Kabbalah, which he wove together with Platonism, Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism, and Hermeticism. A heady brew! Given his own personal philosophy, which included a form of natural magic that he called Theurgy, operation of the gods, I find it more than somewhat ironic that Pico is hailed as an early rejecter of astrology.

The Christian Kabbalah was developed by Pico’s most noted follower in this area, the German humanist, Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522), who not only propagated the Christian Kabbalah but fiercely defended Jewish literature against the strong Anti-Semitic movement to ban and burn it in the early sixteenth century.

Johann Reuchlin, woodcut depiction from 1516 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was a highly influential teacher of Hebrew and became professor for Hebrew at the University of Ingolstadt. Amongst his most notable students were his nephew Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560) (it was Reuchlin who suggested that Philip adopt the humanist name Melanchthon a Greek translation of his birth name, Schwartzerdt) and the Nürnberger reformer, Andreas Osiander (1498­–1522), who famously authored the Ad lectorum at the beginning of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. Even Martin Luther consulted Reuchlin on Hebrew and read his texts on the Kabbalah, whilst disagreeing with him.

Hermeticism was adopted by many leading thinkers in the Early Modern Period including Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), Francesco Patrizi (1529–1597) (an influential and much discussed philosopher in the period, who is largely forgotten today except by specialists), and Robert Fludd (1574–1637), who notoriously disputed with Johannes Kepler, rejecting Kepler’s mathematics-based science for one based on what might be described as hermetic mandalas. Even Isaac Newton (1642–1727) processed a substantial collection of hermetic literature. 

The English Renaissance historian Frances Yates (1899–1981) argued in, her much praised, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) that hermeticism played a central role in the emergence of heliocentric astronomy in the Early Modern Period. Even Copernicus appears to quote Hermes Trismegistus in his De revolutionibus in his hymn of praise of the Sun to justify its central position of the cosmos:

At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. [Hermes] Trismegistus labels it a visible god and Sophocles’ Electra, the all-seeing. 

Yates’ thesis is now largely rejected by historians of astronomy, but her book is still praised for making people aware of the extent of hermeticism in the Early Modern Period. It is difficult to assess if hermeticism had any direct or indirect influence on the development of science during the period, but it was certainly very present in the intellectual atmosphere of the period.

Before I turn to natural magic it is interesting to note that the highly influential, humanist scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614), who through the much-propagated philological analysis of texts was able to show, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, that the Corpus Hermeticum was not as ancient as its supporters claimed but was created in the early centuries of the common era and was thus contemporaneous with the Neoplatonic texts. Casaubon’s analysis was largely ignored by the supporters of hermeticism in the seventeenth century.

Isaac Casaubon artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

 As already stated above natural magic was the belief into the possibility to directly tap into the forces within the single, living, cosmic organism, of the Neoplatonists and Hermeticists, that were present in astrology and alchemy. One of the strongest propagators of natural magic was the German polymath Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535).

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim Source: Wikimedia Commons

He presented his views on the topic in his widely read De Occulta Philosophia libri III (Three Books of Occult Philosophy) the first volume of which was published in Paris in 1531 and the full three volumes in Cologne in 1533.

Man inscribed in a pentagram, from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia libri III . The signs on the perimeter represent the 5 visible planets in astrology. Source: Wikipedia Commons

In an earlier work, De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium declamatio invectiva (Declamation Attacking the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and the Arts, Cologne 1527) he wrote the following explanation of natural magic:

Natural magic is that which having contemplated the virtues of all natural and celestial and carefully studied their order proceeds to make known the hidden and secret powers of nature in such a way that inferior and superior things are joined by an interchanging application of each to each: thus incredible miracles are often accomplished not so much by art as by nature, to whom this art is a servant when working at these things. For this reason magicians are careful explorers of nature, only directing what nature has formally prepared, uniting actives to passives and often succeeding in anticipating results; so that these things are popularly held to be miracles when they are really no more than anticipations of natural operations … therefore those who believe the operations of magic to be above or against nature are mistaken because they are only derived from nature and in harmony with it.

The other major figure of natural magic was the Italian polymath Giambattista della Porta (1535(?)–1615), a respected figure in the Renaissance scientific community, who authored the Magia Naturalis, first published as a single volume in 1558, which grew to twenty volumes by 1589.

Giambattista della Porta artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have written an extensive blog post on della Porta and his book here, so I won’t add more here. He describes natural magic thus:

Magick is nothing else but the knowledge of the whole course of Nature. For, whilst we consider the Heavens, the Stars, the Elements, how they moved, and how they changed, by this means we find out the hidden secrecies of living creatures, of plants, of metals, and of their generation and corruption; so that this whole science seems merely to depend upon the view of Nature … This Art, I say, is full of much virtue, of many secret mysteries; it openeth unto us the properties and qualities of hidden thins, and the knowledge of the whole course of Nature; and it teacheth us by the agreement and the disagreement of things, either so to sunder them, or else to lay them so together by the mutual and fit applying of one thing to another, as thereby we do strange works, such as the vulgar sort call miracles, and such men can neither well conceive, nor sufficiently admire … Wherefore, as many of you as come to behold Magic, must be perswaded that the works of Magick are nothing else but the works of Nature, whose dutiful hand-maid magick is.

Both Agrippa and della Porta were widely read and important parts of the philosophical debates around science in the Renaissance but it is difficult to say whether their concept of natural magic any influence on the development of science in this period. It can and has been argued that because natural magic was inductive by nature that it influenced the adoption of induction in the scientific method in the seventeenth century. There exists a debate amongst historians to what extent Francis Bacon was or was not influenced by hermeticism and natural magic. Others such as Bruno and John Dee certainly were. Dee included magic as one of the mathematical disciplines in his Mathematicall Praeface to Henry Billingsley’s English translation of The Elements of Euclid.

It probably seems strange to include a long essay on what is basically occult philosophy in a series on Renaissance science, but one can’t ignore the fact that Neoplatonism, hermeticism and natural magic were all separately and in various combinations an integral part of the intellectual debate of the period between fourteen and seventeen hundred.


Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, History of science, Renaissance Science

2 responses to “Renaissance Science – XXIV

  1. Carmelo Terranova

    Great post Thony. Do you mind I ask you a question related to the subject of the post? Do you, or more in general, historians of astronomy, think that Neoplatonic/Hermetic/Neopythagorean ideas influenced Copernicus’ astronomy during his Italian period (when philosopers like Zorzi put metaphorically/literally the sun at the center of the universe in their works), or the evidence for this is limited? You said, as I already suspected, that Yates’s thesis has fallen out of favor in regard to Hermeticism’s influence on science, but what about specifically heliocentricity? Or is scholarly consensus on the Copernican question settled on other theories (eg. astrological reasons, see Westmann; Christian principle of economy against Ptolemy’s complicated system, going back to medieval ideas; purely technical reasons, see Neugebaur and Swerdlow; other reasons…)?

    • Carmelo Terranova

      Sorry Thony, I have re-read the section of the post on Copernicus and you also say that Hermetic influence on astronomy is no longer held by scolars (I had focused on the following paragraph when you talk about direct or indirect Hermetic influence on “science” tout-court). Anyway, my question is still about scholarly consensus on the so-called “Copernican question” (if there is one ofc).

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