Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


Henry Cornelius Agrippa (letter date 1510)

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...

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John Trithemius (letter date 1510)

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...

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Henry Cornelius Agrippa (essay date 1533)

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...

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Desiderius Erasmus (letter date 1533)

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,...

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Chambers's Edinburgh Journal (essay date 1853)

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,...

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The Eclectic Review (essay date 1857)

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....

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Putnam's Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art (essay date 1857)

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,...

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Lynn Thorndike (essay date 1941)

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...

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Joseph Leon Blau (essay date 1944)

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...

(The entire section is 1883 words.)

Arturo Castiglioni (essay date 1946)

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...

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Hiram Haydn (essay date 1950)

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:


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Donald T. Atkinson (essay date 1956)

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...

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Charles G. Nauert, Jr. (essay date 1957)

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...

(The entire section is 6802 words.)

D. P. Walker (essay date 1958)

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....

(The entire section is 1956 words.)

George H. Daniels (essay date 1964)

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...

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Richard H. Popkin (essay date 1964)

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...

(The entire section is 872 words.)

Charles G. Nauert, Jr. (essay date 1965)

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...

(The entire section is 13772 words.)

Barbara C. Bowen (lecture date 1971)

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...

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Frances A. Yates (essay date 1979)

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...

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Diane Bornstein (essay date 1980)

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...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Linda Woodbridge (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 2713 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 198 words.)