Agrippa von Nettesheim, Henry Cornelius
Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim 1486–1535
German philosopher and theologian.
One of the most prominent of the sixteenth-century European occultists, Agrippa was an erudite and versatile scholar knowledgeable in the fields of science, medicine, magic, philosophy, and theology. Dismissed as a charlatan and self-promoter by some commentators, Agrippa has been praised by others for his role in helping to bring about the beginnings of the scientific revolution, and particularly for his steadfast and daring intellectual curiosity in the face of opposition from the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In his best-known work, De occulta philosophia libri tres (Occult Philosophy), Agrippa defends magic from its detractors, claiming that study of magic ultimately leads to knowledge of nature and of God. Alternately, in De incertitudine et vanitate scientarium declamatio inuectiua (Of the Vanity and Uncertainty of Arts and Sciences), an influential but controversial treatise ridiculing humankind's effort to gain knowledge, Agrippa attacks the pretentiousness of learned men and advocates a return to a simple form of Christian faith.
Agrippa was born in Cologne into a family whose members worked for the royal house of Habsburg. After completing his education at the University of Cologne, Agrippa served in the army of Maximilian I of Germany, following him on a military campaign in Catalonia in 1509. That same year Agrippa lectured at the University of Dôle on John Reuchlin's cabalistic treatise De Verbo mirifico; when these lectures came to the attention of the monk John Catilinet, he accused Agrippa of heresy, forcing him to flee in order to avoid imprisonment. Agrippa accompanied Maximilian I on a diplomatic mission to England in 1510 and to Italy in 1511, remaining in Italy for seven years, supported by various noble patrons and lecturing at the University of Pavia on theology and medicine. In 1518 Agrippa was offered a post in Germany as a public defender, but he soon returned to Cologne after being publicly denounced by some monks for defending a woman accused of witchcraft. Having practiced medicine in Geneva and Freiburg, he was appointed physician to Louise of Savoy in 1524 and moved to Lyons. He left her service in 1528, apparently after a quarrel concerning a task she asked him to perform, to work as archivist and historiographer for Margaret, Duchess of Savoy. Suffering from financial difficulties for most of his life, Agrippa was imprisoned for debt in Brussels. After his release, he traveled to Cologne, Bonn, and France in search of work; he was arrested again while in France, allegedly for criticizing Louise
of Savoy, but was soon released. He died in Grenoble in 1535.
Agrippa's first published work, Of the Vanity and Uncertainty of Arts and Sciences (1531), was written in 1527; it was followed by Occult Philosophy, published that same year, but written in 1510. He had delayed publication of the latter treatise until after the appearance of the more acceptable Of the Vanity and Uncertainty of Arts and Sciences because he feared persecution by powerful church representatives who considered his Occult Philosophy a dangerous and heretical work. Occult Philosophy incorporates elements of the cabala and numerology into a wideranging compendium of magic, and presents Agrippa's theory that the universe is divided into three spheres—physics, mathematics, and theology. A mixture of Christianity, Neo-Platonism, and occult science, Agrippa's work garnered much praise from his contemporaries and proved highly influential as a landmark in the Renaissance study of magic. Agrippa also wrote several other treatises, the most notable among them De nobilitate et praeccelentia foeminei sexus (The Nobility of the Feminine Sex), published in 1532 and dedicated to Margaret of Burgundy in gratitude for her patronage. Here, Agrippa asserts the natural superiority of the female sex, marshalling evidence in support of his argument from the Bible and from philosophy. While some critics regard this work as a standard piece of flattery to a patron, others now see it as a clever plea for the equality of women. Agrippa's commentary on the works of Catalonian philosopher Raymund Llull, entitled In artem brevem Raymundi Lullii commentaria, published in 1598, is considered a key contribution to the development of occultism in the sixteenth century.
In his own time and for several centuries afterward, Agrippa was most famous as an expert on magic. His scientific activities and philosophical explorations gave rise to many popular legends—for example, that he could conjure the dead and that he was always accompanied by a large black dog who was actually the Devil. Some scholars believe that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used Agrippa as a model for the original Faust. Moreover, Agrippa's correspondence with scientists and philosophers from many different countries, aided by his knowledge of eight languages, encouraged theories that he belonged to a secret brotherhood of occultists. Scholars have continued to debate the seemingly contradictory relationship between Occult Philosophy and Of the Vanity and Uncertainty of Arts and Sciences, with some recent commentators suggesting ways to resolve the dilemma. For example, Charles G. Nauert, Jr. has suggested that belief in and skepticism about the occult and the limits of human knowledge were present simultaneously in all phases of Agrippa's work; Barbara C. Bowen has argued that Of the Vanity and Uncertainty of Arts and Sciences may be a playful example of the literary paradox genre rather than the anti-intellectual harangue that some readers have deemed it. Overall, critics agree that Agrippa's writings and his desire to unite Christianity and the occult in his works were an important contribution to philosophy, especially to the Renaissance study of magic.
De incertitudine et vanitate scientarium declamatio inuectiua [Of the Vanity and Uncertainty of Arts and Sciences] (treatise) 1531
De occulta philosophia libri tres [Occult Philosophy] (treatise) 1531
De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus [The Nobility of the Feminine Sex] (treatise) 1532
In arrtem brevem Raymundi Lullii commentaria [The Art of Raymund Llull] (commentary) 1598
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SOURCE: A letter to John Trithemius in the year 1510, in Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic, Book One: Natural Magic by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, edited by Willis F. Whitehead, 1897. Reprint by The Aquarian Press, 1971, pp. 28-30.
[Here, Agrippa announces to his former teacher, John Trithemius, his intention to try to restore a respect for magic among his readers.]
To R. P. D. John Trithemius, an Abbot of Saint James, in the Suburbs of Herbipolis, Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim sendeth Greeting:
When I was of late, most reverend father, for a while conversant with you in your Monastery of Herbipolis, we conferred together of divers things concerning Chemistry, Magic, and Cabala, and of other things, which as yet lie hid in Secret Sciences and Arts; and then there was one great question amongst the rest—Why Magic, whereas it was accounted by all ancient philosophers to be the chiefest science, and by the ancient wise men and priests was always held in great veneration, came at last, after the beginning of the Catholic Church, to be always odious to and suspected by the holy Fathers, and then exploded by Divines, and condemned by sacred Canons, and moreover, by all laws and ordinances forbidden? Now, the cause, as I conceive, is no other than this, viz.: Because, by a certain fatal depravation of times and men, many false philosophers crept in, and these, under the...
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SOURCE: A letter to Henry Cornelius Agrippa on April 8, 1510, in Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic, Book One: Natural Magic by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, edited by Willis F. Whitehead, 1897. Reprint by The Aquarian Press, 1971, pp. 31-32.
[Trithemius, who was the Abbot of Saint James, Herbipolis, was well-known as an avid and learned student of philosophy and occult science. Below, he congratulates his former pupil, Agrippa, on the excellence of his Occult Philosophy, warning him to chose carefully with whom he communicates regarding his work.]
John Trithemius, Abbot of Saint James of Herbipolis, formerly of Spanhemia, to his Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, health and love:
Your work, most renowned Agrippa, entitled Of Occult Philosophy, which you have sent by this bearer to me, has been examined. With how much pleasure I received it no mortal tongue can express nor the pen of any write. I wondered at your more than vulgar learning—that you, being so young, should penetrate into such secrets as have been hid from most learned men; and not only clearly and truly but also properly and elegantly set them forth. Whence first I give you thanks for your good will to me, and, if I shall ever be able, I shall return you thanks to the utmost of my power. Your work, which no learned man can sufficiently commend, I approve of. Now that you may proceed toward...
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SOURCE: A preface to Occult Philosophy by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, in Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic, Book One: Natural Magic by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, edited by Willis F. Whitehead, 1897. Reprint by The Aquarian Press, 1971, pp. 25-27.
[In his preface to Occult Philosophy, Agrippa emphasizes his view that a magician is not a sorcerer, but "a wise man, a priest, a prophet."]
I do not doubt but the title of our book of Occult Philosophy, or of Magic, may by the rarity of it allure many to read it, amongst which, some of a disordered judgment and some that are perverse will come to hear what I can say, who, by their rash ignorance, may take the name of Magic in the worse sense and, though scarce having seen the title, cry out that I teach forbidden Arts, sow the seed of heresies, offend the pious, and scandalize excellent wits; that I am a sorcerer, and superstitious and devilish, who indeed am a Magician: to whom I answer, that a Magician doth not, amongst learned men, signify a sorcerer or one that is superstitious or devilish; but a wise man, a priest, a prophet; and that the Sybils were Magicianesses, and therefore prophesied most clearly of Christ; and that Magicians, as wise men, by the wonderful secrets of the world, knew Christ, the author of the world, to be born, and came first of all to worship him; and that the name of Magic was received by philosophers, commended by...
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SOURCE: A letter to Henry Cornelius Agrippa on April 21, 1533, in A Renaissance Treasury, edited by Hiram Haydn and John Charles Nelson, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1953, pp. 394-95.
[A Dutch classical scholar, philosopher, writer, and translator, Erasmus is one of the dominant intellectual figures of Renaissance Europe. His most famous work, The Praise of Folly (1509), written in Latin, is a powerful satire on clerical hypocrisy. Here, he praises Agrippa's On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences, but warns him of the dangers of becoming embroiled in disputes with the monks who considered his work heretical.]
I wrote to you at first in few words, to the effect that the doctrine of your book on the Vanity of Sciences had pleased some of the most learned in these parts. I had not then read the book, but soon afterwards, having obtained it, I bade a famulus read it aloud at supper, for I had no other vacant time, and am myself compelled to abstain after supper from all study. I liked the courage and the eloquence, nor do I see why the monks should have been so angry. As you attack the bad, you praise the good, but they like altogether to be praised. What I advised you before, I would advise you now, that if you conveniently can, you extricate yourself from this contention. Take Louis Barguin for a warning, whom nothing ruined but his simple freedom towards monks and...
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SOURCE: "A Conjuror and a Quack of the Olden Time," in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, Vol. 20, No. 517, November 26, 1853, pp. 340-42.
[In the excerpt below, the anonymous writer considers Agrippa an example of a scientist more interested in wealth and self-promotion than in new discoveries.]
In these days of wonder-working and new lights, it may not be amiss to turn our observation to the lights and wonders which awed and astonished our ancestors. The search after the elixir vitae and the philosopher's stone was a dignified and difficult life employment, to say the least of it; and the great alchymists should not be despised or forgotten by electro-biologists, magnetisers, and table-movers. The great physical philosophers of our own time have not been backward in acknowledging the obligations of science to those men of a by-gone age….
[Our] present task is to show how some among them—men of fame and scientific repute—allowed other desires and other aims to corrupt their search after truth….
In the case of Cornelius Agrippa, the desire of fame and a lofty place in the world mingled with his studies, and we are forced to rank him with the great charlatans, rather than with the great philosophers….
Cornelius Agrippa was a native of Cologne. He was born in 1486, and died in 1524. Long before other men of scientific fame had ceased to study at...
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SOURCE: "Cornelius Agrippa," in The Eclectic Review, n. s. Vol. 1, May, 1857, pp. 467-88.
[In the excerpt below, an anonymous reviewer briefly describes a number of Agrippa's writings, portraying him as a misunderstood and tragic figure.]
[Agrippa's On the Nobleness and Superiority of the Female Sex] is a very learned but exaggerated assertion of the superiority of women to men; every weakness—physical, mental, moral—being exalted into a merit. One can scarcely conceive such a production to be the serious accomplishment of a serious mind, its extravagant perversion of fact and argument so much resembling that grave banter which is the most pungent ridicule. Some of the items are amusing: —
It is because she is made of purer matter that a woman, from whatever height she may look down, never turns giddy, and her eyes never have a mist before them, like the eyes of men.
Even after death nature respects her inherent modesty, for a drowned woman floats on her face, and a drowned man upon his back.
The noblest part of a human being is the head; but the man's head is liable to baldness,—woman is never bald.
The man's face often is made so filthy with a most odious beard, and so covered with sordid hairs, that it is scarcely to be distinguished from the face of a wild beast; in women, on...
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SOURCE: "Cornelius Agrippa-Doctor, Knight, and Magician," in Putnam's Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art, Vol. IX, No. XLIX, January 1857, pp. 70-79.
[Here, an anonymous reviewer provides an overview of Henry Morley's Life of Cornelius Agrippa Von Nettesheim (1856), favorably commenting on several of Agrippa's works.]
Where Agrippa is known, he is known as a magician. In the sixteenth century, everybody knew that he was in commerce with the devil, to whom he had sold his soul. Charitable Butler only says that
Agrippa kept a Stygian pug
I'th garb and habit of a dog,
That was his tutor, and the cur
Read to the occult philosopher,
And taught him subtly to maintain
All other sciences are vain.
But Southey copies a monkish tale describing his study:
The letters were written with blood therein,
And the leaves were made of dead man's skin.
And there was no doubt, in the days of Sir Walter Raleigh, that such was the fact, and that the wretched sorcerer had been better burnt. We shall now see, under the guidance of Mr. Morley, what basis underlay this opinion. The task should be the more grateful, as it must incidentally open up a page in the world's history which we, at all events,...
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SOURCE: "Agrippa and Occult Philosophy," in A History of Magic and Experimental Science, Vol. V, Columbia University Press, 1941, pp. 127-38.
[Thorndike was an eminent scholar of medieval history and scientific activity in the Middle Ages. His major work is the eight-volume A History of Magic and Experimental Science (1923). In the following excerpt from a revised edition of that work, Thorndike presents an overview of Agrippa 's life and career and offers mixed reviews of On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and Occult Philosophy.]
Neither is Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim himself to be reckoned of much weight in intellectual history nor is his book on occult philosophy so important a work in the history of magic and experimental science as one might think at first sight. He was not a person of solid learning, regular academic standing, and fixed position, but rather one of those wayward geniuses and intellectual vagabonds so common in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In 1509, when not yet twenty-three, he lectured at the university of Dôle on Reuchlin's De verbo mirifico, and had a controversy with a Franciscan who called him a Judaizing heretic on that account. Before this in 1507 he had carried on alchemical experiments at Paris and he resumed them in this same year 1509 at Avignon. From 1511 to 1517 he was in Italy, where in 1515 he lectured at...
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SOURCE: "The Fantastic Cabala," in The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance. Columbia University Press, 1944, pp. 78-88.
[Blau examines Agrippa's writings in the context of sixteenth-century study of the cabala.]
In the sixteenth century magic was well-nigh respectable. Many of the most noted men of the century dabbled in it; to some, as to Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, magic spelled power. The universities did not teach magic, but many of their students practiced it. Magic went far beyond mere formulas of incantation; its doctrines were of far greater import than its practices. Much of the most original thinking of the period is to be found in books on magic.
Among the followers and students of the magical art cabala developed considerable popularity. It became, as it were, a part of the philosophic background required of each member of this fantastic fringe of the intellectual life. It is true that often when the word "cabala" was used the doctrine in no way resembled that of the Hebrew cabala….
Some, however, of the sixteenth-century devotees of the magical art actually meant cabala when they used the word, and of these the most distinguished was Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486-1535). Agrippa's interest in the cabala was stimulated by Reuchlin, whose De verbo mirifico the young occultist studied with great care. As early as 1509...
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SOURCE: "Natural Magic," in Adventures of the Mind, translated by V. Gianturco, 1946. Reprint by Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd., 1946, pp. 257-66.
[Below, Castiglioni comments on Agrippa's ideas about "natural magic," commending his attempt, "with a magnificent intuition of the truth, to lead magic into the highroad of the observation of nature."]
Throughout Europe, and particularly in Italy of the fifteenth century, with the revival of learning a first attempt is made by some great scholars to inquire into the problems of the universe, by trying to explain its mysteries rationally. The Humanist, home doctus, becomes the type of the new epoch, taking the place of the homo sanctus….
The idea of the magic action of the word, of the perfection of alphabetical characters, of the value of symbol, which … was fundamental to the magic of the ancients, springs up again in a new form, higher, vaster, and more complete. The value of letters, words, and symbols was derived from the shared secret, the intellectual communion, of those understanding it. Upon the basis of this idea an entire system was slowly built up at the time when culture began to spread and the return to the classic spirit became visible in Humanism, and the revival of Greek philosophy became manifest. The significance of symbol and letter, like that of the opus magnum of alchemists and the...
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SOURCE: "The Counter-Renaissance and the Repeal of Universal Law," in The Counter-Renaissance, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950, pp. 131-75.
[Here, Haydn briefly discusses Agrippa's repudiation of reason and the Law of Nature in On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences.]
Agrippa, as does Montaigne after him, assails the divine origin of law and its universal application [in his Vanitie and Uncertaintie]. He refers to the determination of "aunciente Lawe makers" to bolster the authority of their laws by persuading ignorant people "that they did as they were taught by the Gods." This same device has served Emperor and Pope alike:
For this cause Leo the Pope straightly commaunded all Christain people, that noman in the Church of God should presume to iudge any thinge, nor any man, to iustifie nor to discusse any matter: but by the Authoritee of the holy Counsailes, Canons, and Decretals, whose heade is the Pope….
The like lawe the Emperoure pretendeth to have in Philosophie, Phisicke, and other Sciences, graunting no authoritee to any knowledge, but so much as is geven them by the Skilfulnes of the Lawe….
"Beholde nowe," he declares,
Yee perceive howe this knowledge of the Lawe presumeth to beare swaye over all...
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SOURCE: "Agrippa and the Beginning of Psychiatry," in Magic, Myth and Medicine, The World Publishing Company, 1956, pp. 85-92.
[Atkinson explores the influence of Agrippa's ideas in the formation of attitudes toward the treatment of mentally ill patients.]
Only in recent years has man been able to banish a fear of the unseen which for thousands of years had kept him in perpetual torment. Everywhere about him in the long ago were disembodied spirits, evil, malicious, and cunning. Invisible forms, lurking in every shadow, were thought to be ready to hurl at him some great and terrible misfortune. From the storm reached the outstretched hands of the denizens of the unseen world, and malignant spirits, bent upon his undoing, leered at him from the lightning's flash. Witches with burning eyes cast malevolent glances from the darkness as they swung through the air on unholy errands bent, and salamanders, wreathing and hissing in the flames, set the sparks flying vehemently across his hearth.
Every calamity that had befallen friend or neighbor was believed to have been the culmination of the malicious design of some abominable demon. It was thought that life itself would soon have suffered a frightful termination but for the guardianship of the friendly spirits who waged a perpetual warfare against the innumerable monsters of the air.
Such beliefs were as real to the medieval...
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SOURCE: "Magic and Skepticism in Agrippa's Thought," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XVIII, April, 1957, pp. 161-82.
[In the following excerpt, Nauert examines the interrelationship between belief in occult science and skepticism about the limits of human knowledge, suggesting that both elements were present in all phases of Agrippa's work.]
From his own age down to the present, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535) has received widely varying evaluations from students of his thought. Some have dismissed him cursorily as an intellectual lightweight or as a wicked familiar of demons. Even those who have valued him highly have often done so for most contradictory reasons. Much of this disagreement results from uncertainty about which Agrippa to believe: Agrippa the credulous magician, author of a widely used magical compilation, De occulta philosophia libri tres, or Agrippa the skeptical doubter, writer of De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum declamatio inuectiua. This dual personality as magician and skeptic is evident not only in Agrippa's numerous writings but also in the reaction of others to these writings. To some, such as Giordano Bruno in the sixteenth century and Thomas Vaughan in the seventeenth, the exposition of a magical world, a universe the parts of which are intimately connected by occult bonds, was the fruitful element in Agrippa's thought. Bruno found...
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SOURCE: "Ficino's Magic in the 16th Century," in Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella, The Warburg Institute, 1958, pp. 85-144.
[Below, Walker focuses on the ways in which Agrippa's writings called attention to demonic elements in the philosophy of Marsilio Ficino.]
Any discussion of Agrippa's views on magic is made somewhat uncertain and complicated by the following facts. He did not publish his De Occulta Philosophia, which had been completed by 1510, until 1533, several years after the publication of his De Vanitate Scientiarum (1530), which contains a retraction of the former work and several discussions of various kinds of magic. Agrippa reprinted these at the end of the De Occ. Phil.; in his preface he refers the reader to them and uses Ficino's feeble words to excuse himself for printing a book he had publicly renounced: "I am merely recounting these things, not approving of them". He also says that he has made considerable additions to it.
Before giving any weight to this retraction, we must remember, first, that the De Vanitate is a Declamatio Invectiva, that is, a rhetorical set-piece, and that therefore, though much of it is seriously evangelical, by no means all of its destructive scepticism is meant to be taken in earnest; secondly that, thought it contains one formal retraction of the De Occ. Phil., this is limited...
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SOURCE: "Knowledge and Faith in the Thought of Cornelius Agrippa," in Bibliotheque D'Humanisme et Renaissance, Vol. XXVI, 1964, pp. 326-40.
[Daniels discusses inherent contradictions in Agrippa's writings, noting that his main contribution was to demonstrate "the profound difference between the [Baconian] method… and the method of modern science."]
The enigmatic figure of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535) has been subjected to various interpretations since the early 16th Century. Even his contemporaries were never quite sure what to do with him. Lauded as a great scholar and leading man of letters on the one hand, he was condemned as a wicked practitioner of the black arts and collaborator with devils on the other. Men of later generations were equally divided. The great skeptical works of Sir Philipp Sidney and of Montaigne were consciously modeled after Agrippa's volume, On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Arts and Sciences, while Giordano Bruno and Thomas Vaughan took his three books of occult philosophy as a model. For Marlowe and, to a lesser extent, for Goethe, Cornelius Agrippa was the original Faust.
The difficulty is that there has always seemed to be two Agrippas—the one who wrote De Occulta Philosophia, proclaiming that the world was tied together with pervasive mystic bonds and that the intelligence of man was capable of utilizing the...
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SOURCE: "The Revival of Greek Scepticism in the 16th Century," in The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes, revised edition, Van Gorcum & Comp., 1964, pp. 17-43.
[Below, Popkin focuses on On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences as an "example of fundamentalist anti-intellectualism" that nevertheless played an important role in the revival of interest in ancient skepticism.]
Probably the most notorious of those who have been ranked as sceptics in [the sixteenth century] is the curious figure, Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, 1486-1535. He was a man who was interested in many things, but most notably, occult science. A strange work he wrote in 1526, De Incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum declamatio invectiva… has led him to be classed as an early sceptic. The popularity of this work, its many editions in Latin, as well as Italian, French and English translations in the 16th century, plus its influence on Montaigne, have given Agrippa an undeserved stature among those who played a role in the revival of sceptical thought in the Renaissance.
The book itself is actually a long diatribe against all sorts of intellectual activity, and all types of arts. The purpose, Agrippa tells us in his preface, is to denounce those who are proud in human learning and knowledge, and who therefore despise the Sacred Scriptures as too simple and crude;...
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SOURCE: "Agrippa and the End of a World" and "Fact and Fantasy: Agrippa's Position in Intellectual History," in Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought, University of Illinois Press, 1965, pp. 292-321, 322-34.
[In the following excerpt, Nauert discusses the influence of Agrippa's works, emphasizing the ways in which they "helped shatter the rational and orderly worldview of the great medieval intellectual syntheses" and pointed the way toward the scientific revolution.]
Despite Agrippa's failure to carry through consistently the exposition of his magical world view, and despite the fact that pessimism about human reason dominated his thinking even in his early years, the universe portrayed in De occulta philosophia is an orderly one. If man is unable by reason to comprehend all its secrets, Agrippa felt, still he may be able to find in the divinely revealed traditions of ancient sages, especially of Hermes and the cabalists, the key to mastery of his surroundings. The idea of a closely interconnected world, a world every part of which is alive, and the idea that the divinely illuminated soul can draw down superior powers, celestial, angelic, and even divine, do not represent a break on Agrippa's part with the cultural heritage of either the remote or the more immediate past. His aim of restoring magic to its ancient purity did not at all prevent him from drawing freely on such medieval...
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SOURCE: "Cornelius Agrippa's De vanitate: Polemic or Paradox?," in Bibliotheque D'Humanisme et Renaissance, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, 1972, pp. 249-56.
[Below, Bowen elaborates on On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences as an example of the literary paradox, a genre popular in the sixteenth century. Bowen's remarks were originally delivered as a lecture in 1971.]
Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486-1535), one of the most intriguing figures of the Renaissance, has received a good deal of critical attention but remains a tantalisingly shadowy figure. He has proved most interesting to historians of magic and science, because of his De Occulta philosophia, and to intellectual historians, because of his disputed place in the intellectual development of the Renaissance. He has been curiously neglected by literary specialists, despite his acknowledged influence on Rabelais, Montaigne, Sidney and Marlowe among others. There has been only one full-length study on him in recent years, Charles Nauert's Agrippa and the crisis of Renaissance thought, and this too, as its title indicates, is concerned with Agrippa's relationship to the intellectual climate of his time.
In spite of the quantity of critical work done on Agrippa, one puzzle has remained unsolved, at least for most critics.
Why did he publish, within a few years of each other, a...
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SOURCE: "The Occult Philosophy and Magic: Henry Cornelius Agrippa," in The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, pp. 37-47.
[Yates is a respected writer and scholar of Renaissance philosophy and literature. Her works include Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972), and Astraea: The Imperial Theme (1975). Here, she posits that Agrippa's brand of magic was "really a religion, claiming access to the highest powers, and Christian since it accepts the name of Jesus as the chief of the wonder-working Names."]
The reputation of Henry Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) has been a survival from the witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which he figured prominently as a prince of black magicians and sorcerers. The black magician of the ages of superstition became, in enlightened times, the absurd charlatan unworthy of serious attention. The same process occurred in the case of John Dee with the same result, that a figure of great historical importance disappeared in clouds of nineteenth-century ridicule, from which the scholarship of the twentieth century has slowly begun to rescue him. In the case of Agrippa, his De occulta philosophia is now seen as the indispensable handbook of Renaissance 'Magia' and 'Cabala', combining the natural magic of Ficino with the Cabalist magic of Pico in...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Feminist Controversy of the Renaissance: Facsimile Reproductions, by Guillaume Alexis, Sir Thomas Bird, and Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1980, pp. v-xiii.
[In the following excerpt, Bornstein discusses The Nobility of the Feminine Sex, concluding that it is "an eloquent plea for the education and liberation of women."]
[Agrippa's De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus was written] in 1509, [and] it was dedicated to Margaret of Austria to win her favor. Agrippa did not have a chance to present the treatise to Margaret and did not publish it until almost twenty years later. He had to leave the University of Dôle, where he had been lecturing, because of an attack on the orthodoxy of his lectures by Jean Catilinet, provincial superior of the Franciscans in Burgundy. Agrippa was deeply involved in cabalistic studies and had a reputation as a magician. He served as the model for Faustus in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus.
Agrippa's cabalistic studies are reflected in the abstruse etymologies found in De nobilitate. According to the cabalists, the names of things were taken to be reflections of their essence. He also used the Neoplatonic idea of a hierarchy of creatures. He states that since woman was created last, she is the superior creature. His Hebrew studies are reflected in his frequent use of...
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SOURCE: "The Early Tudor Controversy," in Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620, University of Illinois Press, 1984, pp. 18-48.
[Woodbridge comments on The Nobility of the Feminine Sex in the context of the early Tudor debate about women. She notes that in "sensing the [debate's] ultimate irrelevance to women's struggles, [Agrippa] stood virtually alone."]
When the great Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, scholar of international reputation, theorist of magic, at once humanist and critic of humanist pursuits, undertook a defense of women, something out of the ordinary was to be expected. It is true that his defense, De nobilitate et praecellentia Foemenei sexus, called in Clapham's 1542 translation A Treatise of the Nobilitie and excellencye of woman kynde, is more generously endowed than any other early Renaissance defense with tedious lists of great women in biblical and classical history: women who inspired the love of Greek gods, beautiful women in the Bible, good wives of the Bible and the classics, great female names in religion, philosophy (Diotima et at), prophecy (the Sybils et at), oratory and poetry (Sappho et at), government (Semiramis, Dido, the Amazons), warfare, invention, and even—an Agrippan touch—magic. (Circe and Medea are, eccentrically, praised as better magicians than the male...
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Hamilton, A. C. "Sidney and Agrippa." The Review of English Studies VII, No. 26 (April 1956): 151-57.
Demonstrates that Agrippa's Of the Vanity and Uncertainty of Arts and Sciences "provides a framework within which Sidney attacks the vanity of the arts and sciences and defends the art of poetry."
Judson, Alexander C. "Cornelius Agrippa and Henry Vaughan." Modern Language Notes XLI, no. 3 (March 1926): 178-81.
Discusses the influence of Agrippa's ideas on Vaughan's poem "The Ass."
Kozicki, Henry. "Browning, Pauline, and Cornelius Agrippa: The Protagonist as Magus." Victorian Poetry 28, No. 1 (Spring 1990): 17-38.
Asserts that "Browning knew occultist thought… and that [Agrippa's] Occulta provides the conceptual underpinning of Pauline."
Yates, Frances A. "Giordano Bruno: The Secret of Shadows." In her The Art of Memory, 199-230. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
Briefly explores Agrippa's On the Vanity and Uncertainty of Arts and Sciences as one of the main sources for Bruno's De umbris idearum (1582).
——. "Renaissance Philosophers in Elizabethan England: John Dee and...
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