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Occult Philosophy


OCCULT PHILOSOPHY. "Occult philosophy" is a difficult phrase, at once limited and wide-ranging. In general, it refers to a mode of philosophical thought that seeks metaphysical truth hidden (occult) behind the surfaces of the natural, celestial, and divine worlds. Because its practitioners used magical means to seek these truths, the term "occult" is used here in two of its primary senses.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (14861535?) provided the first definitive statement for occult philosophy in his masterwork, De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres (Three books on occult philosophy), originally drafted in 1510 but greatly revised for its final publication in 1533. Agrippa saw occult philosophy as the synthetic (or constructive) side of philosophy, with skepticism, represented by his 1526 On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Arts and Sciences, as its analytical (or destructive) complement. In his Occult Philosophy, Agrippa argued that behind the natural world, the celestial world of number and Platonic form, and the divine world of Scripture and angels, lay a single, consistent truth: the revealed truth of Christ's incarnation. In light of faith, through magical practice wedded with philosophical analysis, the magician and occult philosopher could achieve certain knowledge of the divine will and its implications for the ordinary world.

Because occult philosophy depended heavily on the synthesis of nontraditional, often non-European, mystical learning with a Christian framework, Marsilio Ficino's (14331499) translation of the Hermetic Corpus in 1460 afforded occult philosophers important working material. But Renaissance occult philosophy began in earnest with Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's (14631494) insertion of Jewish Cabala into Christian magical thought. This marriage of occult exegetical techniques with magic was particularly supported by its placement by Pico della Mirandola under the auspices of Hermeticism, a synthetic and syncretistic tendency that would mark occult philosophy thereafter.

In the sixteenth century, occult philosophy became influential largely through the work of Agrippa, but the term diverged from his rather specialized usage. As a rule, however, its use marked iconoclastic, antiauthoritarian approaches to universal philosophy, as well as a search for esoteric, secret knowledge behind the veil of apparent reality.

Occult philosophy had no fixed religious identity. Agrippa was Catholic, as were Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Francesco Giorgi (or Zorzi) (14671540), Girolamo Cardano (15011576), Tommaso Campanella (15681659), and Athanasius Kircher (16021680), but some Protestant thinkers also found the occult approach useful. For Paracelsus (14931541), John Dee (15271608), and Robert Fludd (15741637), occult philosophy not only demonstrated the truths behind Scripture and nature, but also validated their own varying perspectives on Christianity. In the more radical thinkers, such as Giordano Bruno (15481600), occult philosophy provided a means of rethinking humanity's relationship to God, speculations that prompted Bruno's execution for heresy. While Bruno's case is exceptional in many respects, occult philosophers quite often ran into trouble with religious authorities, perhaps because occult philosophy necessarily seeks truth outside the bounds of established, accepted views.

Occult philosophy's syncretism and universalism are not simply equivalent to what Antoine Faivre has called the "praxis of concordance," the claim of a truth behind all truths, such as the practice of establishing common denominators among several religious, magical, or philosophical systems, which is understood to produce illumination. While occult philosophy does usually accept this "concordance" theory, it is importantly inclusive; that is, whereas in esotericism the concordance approach often entails cutting away supposed mistakes or accretions, occult philosophers generally try to appropriate as much as possible of the system in question. This catholicity has often led to their work being labeled incoherent, unsystematic collections of oddities, but occult philosophers simply eschewed contextless facts in favor of interpreting and appropriating entire systems.


Modern scholars have had a somewhat fraught relationship with occult philosophy. Until the 1960s, occult philosophy primarily cropped up in history of science, where it was sometimes granted that the iconoclasm of occult philosophies promoted observations of nature, leading to the discovery of scientific knowledge. With the work of Frances A. Yates in the 1960s and 1970s, however, occult thought burst onto the wider scene of the history of ideas. Although Yates herself focused largely on Hermeticism in Giordano Bruno and John Dee, her claim that magical thinking promoted the scientific revolution precipitated considerable controversy about occult philosophy. Ultimately, many of Yates's large claims have been found wanting, but occult philosophy itself remains an important, if little understood, issue on the margins of intellectual history.

More recently, scholars have begun once again to rethink the nature and status of occult philosophy. In particular, understanding of the witchcraft phenomenon has prompted consideration of connections between elite and popular ideas of the occult. Recent studies have demonstrated that occult philosophies helped to form broad cultural perspectives on witchcraft, heresy, and popular piety.

With the growing acceptance of interdisciplinary scholarship, the study of occult philosophy is expanding. Currently, most studies focus on particular thinkers and their writings, replacing the older emphasis on situating them within broad intellectual categories; recent studies have focused on Pico della Mirandola, Agrippa, Cardano, Dee, and Bruno. In addition, the trend seems to be moving toward absorption of methods and ideas from other disciplines, notably philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, and the history of religions. As the injection of theory from these disciplines into intellectual history remains somewhat controversial, it seems probable that the study of occult philosophy will absorb some of the radicalism that has invested scholarship on witchcraft, shifting it from a backwater to a mainstream, even trendsetting, area of study.

Most of occult philosophy remains unknown to us, and fundamental questions have not been addressed sufficiently. Its relationship to theories of witchcraft and to the development of science has received some attention, but as yet the answers are provisional. Overall, the connections of this primarily early modern phenomenon with both earlier magic and later occult and esoteric movements remain untouched, and much basic material is still in manuscript. Occult philosophy was influential, extremely visible, and hotly contested in its own time, but until quite recently scholars were unwilling to accept the challenge of understanding why. With the new growth of interest, it seems likely that occult philosophy will provide scholars exciting new perspectives on early modern intellectual and cultural history.

See also Alchemy ; Bruno, Giordano ; Cabala ; Catholic Spirituality and Mysticism ; Dee, John ; Hermeticism ; Inquisition ; Kircher, Athanasius ; Magic ; Neoplatonism ; Paracelsus ; Philosophy ; Scientific Method ; Scientific Revolution ; Skepticism: Academic and Pyrrhonian ; Witchcraft .


Primary Sources

Agrippa, Henry [Heinrich] Cornelius, von Nettesheim. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Translated by James Freake. Edited by Donald Tyson. St. Paul, Minn., 1993. A complete reprint of the 1650 English translation of De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres (15311533), with some corrections and many notes, the latter unfortunately somewhat unreliable. There is no other complete translation into English.

Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. Syncretism in the West: Pico's 900 Theses (1486): The Evolution of Traditional Religious and Philosophical Systems. Translated and edited by S. A. Farmer. Tempe, Ariz., 1998. An excellent critical edition and translation of the complete text, with an interesting but problematic introduction-monograph.

Secondary Sources

Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Oxford and New York, 1997. A landmark study linking witchcraft to the broader intellectual discourse on demonology.

Faivre, Antoine. Access to Western Esotericism. Albany, N.Y., 1994. In addition to several interesting articles and analyses, provides a lengthy annotated bibliography that has not been superseded.

Lehrich, Christopher I. The Language of Demons and Angels: Cornelius Agrippa's Occult Philosophy. Leiden, 2003.The only book-length study of Agrippa's occult philosophy, drawing on numerous academic disciplines and approaches.

Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago and London, 1964. The most important and influential of Yates's many works.

Christopher I. Lehrich

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