- Natura sagax —Die geistige Natur: Zum Zusammenhang von Naturphilosophie und Mystik in der frühen Neuzeit am Beispiel Johann Arndts
This enticingly-titled study, originally a Berlin dissertation supervised by Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann, focuses on the interrelationships between natural philosophy and mystical theology in a series of important early modern thinkers, concluding with the Lutheran theosoph Johann Arndt (1555–1621). While Arndt stands as the center of attention, much of the work is concerned with figures whom Neumann regards as key predecessors: Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico, Johannes Reuchlin, Paracelsus, and the spiritual alchemist Heinrich Khunrath. Neumann is the first scholar to take into account all of Arndt's early writings, which he believes can help us properly understand the more famous works, in particular the immensely influential True Christianity (1605). He presents Arndt as a prime exemplar of Renaissance efforts to envision nature as a revelation of the divine, to grasp the intimate connections between nature and spirit and thus open the way to the ultimate transformation and redemption of creation. Arndt was therefore anything but the good Lutheran he claimed to be; rather he was a thoroughgoing Neoplatonist, mystic, pansoph, and spiritualist.
At base this is traditional intellectual history, concerned to follow an evolution of concepts among chosen thinkers. In part 1 Neumann undertakes to trace the Renaissance conception of the philosophia pia et perennis, an ancient wisdom involving an inherently spiritual quest for universal understanding. Desiring to establish Arndt as heir to this tradition, he is more interested in emphasizing what figures such as Ficino and Paracelsus shared than in what separated them. Part 2 studies natural philosophy and magic from Ficino to Arndt, beginning with an extended discussion of Neoplatonic hierarchy and exploring various other principles of cosmological and magical thinking, such as the metaphysics of light. Part 3 is most explicitly devoted to Arndt, although here too Neumann refers repeatedly to the line of Ficino's heirs; he also examines the influence of others who stood less clearly in that line, such as Valentin Weigel. Part 4 briefly attempts a "systematic overview." This outline, and Neumann's use of typically German decimal-style subdivisions, might suggest strong organization. But in fact Neumann's treatment of this often difficult material might best be described as kaleidoscopic. He wanders among these thinkers with a dizzying lack of apparent order, circling amid the [End Page 601] complexities of Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, magical healing, the two books, alchemical symbolism, mystical union, and apocalypse in ways that that will leave even fully initiated readers wishing for more signposts.
Neumann's overarching argument is that Arndt, though most commonly treated as a Lutheran theologian, is properly understood as an exponent of the Renaissance tradition of Neoplatonic speculation and magic. More, he synthesized ideas from his forerunners, combining them with spiritualist teachings from Weigel, along with other strains such as the late medieval mysticism of the Theologia Deutsch. From Ficino and Pico came basic principles such as universal hierarchy, the immortality of the soul, and nature as a system of revelatory signs. Along with Pico, Reuchlin developed notions about the power of the all-pervasive divine word. The Paracelsian contribution, more obvious and perhaps stronger than any other, lay primarily in an emphasis on immediate experience in both the natural and spiritual realms. Khunrath's ideal of alchemical purification reinforced the dynamic, eschatological elements in natural-philosophical and magical thinking. Building on this evolving complex of ideas, Arndt discovered a universe in which the semantic fullness of nature, Scripture, and history promised a restitution of the divine image in the world and humankind. Neumann does recognize ways in which Arndt differed from his forerunners. For instance, Arndt's teaching that the divine wisdom in nature was beyond reason, and could be apprehended only through immediate experience, was a manifest departure from Ficino's Platonic idealism.
Among the influences cited to explain Arndt's accent on...