Introduction II.B:

2. The Renaissance Magus

  1. Occult Qualities & Magic
  2. Empiricism
  3. Natural Magic
  4. Spiritual Magic
  5. Renaissance Magi

a.    Occult Qualities & Magic

One implication of the Hermetic philosophy is that these chains of emanation establish hidden connections between things.  For example, objects that participate in the same Form have an "occult" (hidden) "sympathy."  Thus, by the doctrine of signatures, herbs could be selected according to their appearance (form) and used to treat a disease according to their sympathies (e.g., a plant with solar sympathies, such as sunflower, might be used to draw down sunny warmth to balance the excessive cold-dryness of melancholy).  (Hermetic texts were often criticized for their obscurity, a consequence of the symbolic character of many of these sympathies.  This obscurity was also intended to restrict potentially dangerous knowledge to the wise and morally pure.)

Therefore Hermetic philosophers came to understand the universe as a vast, intricate network of occult sympathies and antipathies, with vertical linkages between the levels of the earth, the heavens, the World Soul, and the archetypal Ideas, and horizontal linkages within each of these levels.  Manipulation of these hidden connections provided a basis for magical practice, and suggested that the natural world might be manipulated to achieve some purpose (good or evil).

b.    Empiricism

One consequence of the occult character of the sympathies and antipathies was that they were difficult to determine by reason alone.  Therefore, in contrast to the scholastic Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and the mechanical philosophy (which we'll discuss shortly), in which all truths were supposed to be discoverable by pure reason, the magical philosophers resorted to empirical methods, to experiments, for they thought that reason would be inadequate to discover the hidden connections.  (In this they were following in the  empirical footsteps of other practitioners, such as doctors, herbalists, and farmers, whose orientation as more practical than speculative.)  The empirical approach of the magicians was an important contribution to the later development of experimental science.

c.    Natural Magic

Among the practitioners of Hermetic philosophy, we may distinguish several kinds of magician.  Natural magicians employed the occult sympathies and antipathies for strictly practical purposes, such as healing diseases (of the soul as well as of the body), protection, finding things (e.g. lost or stolen objects, treasure), and (in practical alchemy) making gold.  No doubt many of these people were charlatans, but sincere natural magicians laid much of the foundation of later experimental sciences, including pharmacology, metallurgy, chemistry, and astronomy.  Indeed, although their theoretical framework has been abandoned by modern science, the aims and methods of the natural magicians was not very different from those of modern technologists (although they tended to treat Nature with more respect, for they experienced her as divine).  Both seek power over nature.  (Aristotelian philosophers, in contrast, did not seek power over Nature.)

d.    Spiritual Magic

Natural magic is so called because it limited its concern to the occult forces within nature.  Other magicians did not limit themselves to the horizontal sympathies within natural realm, but were also interested in connections to the higher realms.  That is, magical rites involving material objects and processes could use vertical sympathies to establish connections with celestial beings and angels, an art often called spiritual magic.  (The archetypal Ideas were understood as angels in the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem magical traditions.)  That is, the signatures of things in the natural world were signs, put here for us by God, to facilitate our communication with the divine realm, in particular, for the invocation of angelic beings.

Sometimes such divine aid was sought for practical purposes no different from those of the natural magicians (e.g. healing).  However these magicians also used their art for purely spiritual purposes, such as having divine visions, becoming more Christ-like, knowing the will of God, and righting the spiritual imbalances of the community.  In this the practitioners of spiritual magic were much closer to the original meaning of "magician," for the ancient Persian Magus was a wise and highly respected priest-magician.  Even alchemy had a spiritual side, and some alchemists were quite explicit in saying that their goal was not to transmute "vulgar" (common) lead into "vulgar" gold. but to transmute the inner lead of the soul into spiritual gold.

e.    Renaissance Magi

Clearly, the boundary between practitioners of natural magic and those of spiritual magic was not firm, and individual magicians might do more or less of each, depending on their goals, training, talents, and employment.  In any case, beginning in the fifteenth century there appear a number of Renaissance magi, typically well-educated practitioners of magic, often with university and ecclesiastical connections, and often providing magical services to the state.  Among the well-known Renaissance magi were Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), his student Pico della Mirandola (1463–94), Johann Trithemius (1462–1519), Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535), Paracelsus (1493–1541), and John Dee (1527–1608), who was the personal wizard and astrologer of Queen Elizabeth I!  Although for the most part they were pious and well-intentioned, they were often suspected of diabolical activity as a consequence of their reputed power and of the occult forces with which they operated.  The Faust legend, and especially Goethe's version of it, draws on the character of the Renaissance magus (especially Agrippa).

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