Agrippa of Nettesheim, Heinrich 1486–1535 Philosopher

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Agrippa of Nettesheim,

Heinrich Agrippa of Nettesheim was one of the most controversial thinkers of his time. He devoted most of his career to the study of the occult, or supernatural. His most famous work, Occult Philosophy (1533), deals with topics such as magic and astrology*. His other works discuss ideas that were controversial for his time. He attacked the clergy and proclaimed the natural superiority of women in a 1509 treatise*. Agrippa counted among his friends other prominent Renaissance figures who shared his interests in the occult arts.

Born in Cologne, in what is now Germany, Agrippa spent most of his life traveling. He lived in Italy from 1512 to 1518. There he became familiar with the philosophers Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. These thinkers believed in a secret body of ancient wisdom handed down through sources such as the Jewish Kabbalists*, the Greek philosopher Plato, and the ancient mathematician Pythagoras. Their works had a strong influence on Agrippa's ideas.

Agrippa spent a year in Switzerland as the city physician in the city of Fribourg. He also served as the personal physician to Louise of Savoy, mother of the king of France. However, Louise dismissed Agrippa when he refused to cast a horoscope for her son. At this low point in his career, Agrippa wrote his most pessimistic work, On the Vanity and Uncertainty of Arts and Sciences (1530). This text attacked all forms of human learning, from law and medicine to the occult sciences that had been the focus of his own studies.

In 1528 Agrippa moved to Antwerp, where he served as a historian to the governor, Margaret of Austria. However, his unusual ideas and attacks on the clergy got him into trouble with his employer and other city leaders. In 1533 Agrippa left Antwerp for Bonn. Two years later he returned to Lyon, where he was promptly arrested because of his public criticisms of the French king's mother. Friends managed to have him released, and he died that year in Grenoble, France.

After Agrippa's death, his works were translated and reprinted in several languages of his day. He developed a reputation as an expert in strange, possibly dangerous forms of learning. Legends even arose about his dealings with the devil. Agrippa's life influenced later legends about Dr. Faust, a black magician featured in a play by Christopher Marlowe. Agrippa's writings paint a picture of a man who mastered many fields of learning, but who ultimately found all of them worthless.

(See alsoMagic and Astrology; Philosophy. )

* astrology

study of the supposed influences of the stars and planets on earthly events

* treatise

long, detailed essay

* Kabbalist

believer in a mystical Jewish religious system that involves reading encoded messages in the Hebrew Scriptures