Agrippa von Nettesheim, Henricus Cornelius (1486–1535)

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Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, a colorful Renaissance figurea diplomat, a military adventurer, a kabbalist, an expert on occult science, a medical doctor, a lawyer, a theologian, an early Reformer, as well as a troublesome and troubled intellectualwas born of minor nobility in or near Cologne. His first official position was that of a court secretary of the Holy Roman emperor. He was sent to Paris in 1506 and there joined a secret group of theosophists. He next became involved in a revolutionary plot in Catalonia. In 1509 he gave lectures at the University of Dôle, on Johannes Reuchlin's kabbalistic De Verbo Mirifico. He learned Hebrew and immersed himself in kabbalistic, Gnostic, and hermeneutic writings. This research culminated in three volumes on occult science, De Occulta Philosophia, written in 15091510 but not published until 15311533 in Cologne (trans. by J. F., London, 1651). At Dôle he also wrote on the superiority and nobility of women and entered into his first marriage. These early unpublished writings touched off a fight between Agrippa and certain conservative monks, who accused him, along with Reuchlin, Desiderius Erasmus, and the French humanistReformer Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples, of being Judaizers and heretics.

In 1510 Agrippa was sent to London, where he lived with Erasmus's friend John Colet, who interested Agrippa in St. Paul's epistles. Next, Agrippa lectured on theology in Cologne. From 1511 to 1513 he fought in various Italian campaigns and engaged in theological battles, even with the pope. In 1515 he taught occult science at the University of Pavia. Three years later Agrippa became public advocate and orator of Metz and was soon embroiled again in theological battles and in defending a peasant woman accused of sorcery. The opposition of the inquisitor of Metz forced him to leave. Agrippa's wife died soon after, and he retired to Geneva. In 1522 he remarried and became a medical practitioner. He was appointed physician to the queen mother of France and became involved in a demoralizing struggle to collect his salary and to fulfill his duties. At the queen mother's orders he was stranded in Lyons from 1524 to 1526 without funds and without permission to leave. Agrippa wrote many bellicose letters to the court, antagonizing numerous people but settling nothing. His only official duty was the drawing up of horoscopes (which he knew were useless and fraudulent). In this period Agrippa wrote his major work, De Incertitudine et Vanitate de Scientiarum et Artium (Antwerp, 1530; trans, by James Sandford as Of the Vanitie and uncertaintie of artes and sciences, London, 1569), attacking every type of intellectual endeavor and art, as well as courtiers, princes, and monks. Even kabbalistic and occult researches were disowned as superstitious rhapsodies. Only pious Bible study remained worthwhile.

Agrippa abandoned hope of regaining court favor or receiving his salary and in 1528 went to Antwerp, where he had a brief flurry of success. He was appointed historiographer to Charles V, achieved success as a medical doctor, and finally published his works. This happy phase was soon followed by catastrophes. His second wife died of the plague. The publication of his Vanity of the Sciences outraged Charles V. Agrippa was jailed and branded a heretic. A disastrous marriage left him financially ruined and miserable. He returned to Germany, battled with the inquisitor of Cologne, and was banished in 1535. Having fled to France, he was arrested for having criticized the queen mother, was released, and died in Grenoble.

Agrippa was notorious as a magician and as a stormy opponent of the monks and the "establishment." He made his main intellectual contributions as an expositor of kabbalism and occult science, as a critic of all intellectual activities, and as a Reformer within Catholicism. His De Occulta Philosophia tried to explain the universe in terms of kabbalistic analyses of Hebrew letters and their relations to natural phenomena and divine understanding; in terms of the Pythagorean numerological symbols; and of the Christian interpretation of kabbalism and Pythagoreanism. De Occulta Philosophia played a major role in Renaissance magical and kabbalistic studies.

Agrippa's Vanity of the Sciences was one of the first contributions to the Renaissance revival of skepticism, but its weapons were denunciation and ridicule, not philosophical analysis. It is more a bitter version of Erasmus's In Praise of Folly than a serious epistemological examination of whether knowledge can be gained by human means. Its final appeal is to a type of fundamentalistic anti-intellectualism. The work represents a stage in Agrippa's journey from occult studies to a simple biblical faith opposed to late medieval Scholasticism. Agrippa, although he did not revolt against Catholicism, lacked Erasmus's patience and calm and became almost a Catholic Martin Luther, violently denouncing monks, Scholastic theologians, and others. In the end he rejected occult studiesand all othersas a way of penetrating the divine mysteries, and he proclaimed: "It is better therefore and more profitable to be idiots and know nothing, to believe by Faith and Charity, and to become next unto God, than being lofty and proud through the subtilties of sciences to fall into the possession of the Serpent."

See also Colet, John; Erasmus, Desiderius; Gnosticism; Hermeneutics; Kabbalah; Luther, Martin; Medieval Philosophy; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Renaissance; Skepticism, History of.


works by agrippa

Die Eitelkeit und Unsicherheit der Wissenschaften und die Verteidigungschrift, edited by Fritz Mauthner. Munich: Müller, 1913.

De occulta philosophia, edited by Karl Anton Nowotny. (Faksimile des ältesten Kölner Druckes, 1533.) Graz, Akademische Druck u. Verlagsanstalt, 1967.

Opera. Hildesheim, NY: G. Olms, 1970.

Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic. Book One: Natural Magic which Includes the Early Life of Agrippa, His Seventy-four Chapters on Natural Magic, New Notes, Illustrations, Index, and Other Original and Selected Matter. New York: S. Weiser, 1971.

Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences. Northridge: California State University, 1974.

Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus edited by Elisabeth Gössmann. München: Iudicium. 2nd ed., überarbeitete und erw. Aufl., 1996.

works on agrippa

Bayle, Pierre. "Agrippa." In Dictionnaire historique et critique. 2 vols. Rotterdam, 16951697.

Blau, Joseph. The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944.

Morley, Henry. The Life of Henry Cornelius von Nettesheim. 2 vols. London, 1856.

Nauert, Charles G. Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965.

Nauert, Charles G. "Magic and Skepticism in Agrippa's Thought." Journal of the History of Ideas 18 (1957): 161182.

Popkin, R. H. History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes. Assen, 1960; New York: Humanities Press, 1964.

Prost, Auguste. Les Sciences et les arts occultes au XVIe siècle: Corneille Agrippa, sa vie et ses oeuvres. 2 vols. Paris: Champion, 18811882.

Walker, D. P. Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella. London: Warburg Institute, University of London, 1958.

Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London, 1964.

Zarathustra, Frater. Index to Agrippa's Occult Philosophy or Magic. Book 1, Natural magic. Fremont, CA: Technology Group, 1993.

Richard H. Popkin (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)