Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.