- The Language of Demons and Angels: Cornelius Agrippa's Occult Philosophy
"My ardour was indeed the astonishment of the students, and my proficiency that of the masters. Professor Krempe often asked me, with a sly smile, how [End Page 676] Cornelius Agrippa went on? Whilst Mr. Waldman expressed the most heartfelt exultation in my progress." Victor Frankenstein's infamous trajectory from Agrippan magic to Enlightenment science and back, serves as a useful reminder of the central question underlying this book: while it is undeniable that Agrippa's magic was influential, we have been unable to explain why he was influential.
Christopher Lehrich's answer agrees well with the conclusions of Van der Poel's important study of Agrippa as a humanist theologian (1997). There, we learned that Agrippa's Neoplatonic background committed him to a fundamental distinction between faith and reason and between the study of divine and created things. Agrippa considered the uncertainties of Christian revelation, not dogma or articles of faith, to be the proper object of theological debate and was willing to accommodate more esoteric texts and interpretive strategies within this project. Lehrich shows that divine things also occupy central stage in the Agrippa's magical De occulta philosophia (1533) through the notion of a "chain of vivification" (57) that connects the natural, celestial, and divine world.
This claim is developed from the perspective of the natural world in chapter 2, of the celestial world in chapter 3, and of the divine realm in chapter 4. These three central chapters are framed by an introductory chapter, announcing possible theoretical ramifications for the history of religion, the history of ideas, and textual criticism, and by a concluding chapter that summarizes the coherence of Agrippa's intellectual project, its implications for early modern history of ideas, as well as the aforementioned theoretical results. As is clear from this brief summary, Lehrich has decided to "begin with a few axes to grind" and to produce "an analysis which sacrifices coverage (and tedium) for depth" (213). The interdisciplinary nature of Lehrich's strategy is rather unusual among students of early modern magic, and his book should be applauded for that reason alone. At the same time, the concluding chapter suggests that Lehrich does privilege Agrippa's De occulta philosophia as an object for the history of ideas, and his book may accordingly be read as a contribution to that specific tradition.
In chapter 2, Lehrich argues for a reading of De occulta philosophia, book 1, as clearing away the vagueness that haunted Ficino's important distinction between natural and demonic magic. Agrippa's solution consists in a rigid application of the aforementioned distinction between natural, celestial, and divine spheres. But since the separation of a natural realm also invited sceptical attacks of the type that Agrippa published in his influential De incertitudine, the three worlds simultaneously remained connected, particularly in the mind of the magus. According to Lehrich, this may constitute the true core of the controversial "Yates thesis": to point out the difference between a "Hermetic" focus on the relationship between scholar and nature, and a "scientific" emphasis on objectivity (94).
This last element is central to chapter 3, which invites us to ascend into the celestial realm. Lehrich offers up a fascinating analysis of Agrippa's mathematical magic, which operates by constructing "an image at a time when stars and planets are in a position favourable to the desired end" (111). This provides the starting-point for an exploration in textual criticism that is strongly inspired by the late [End Page 677] Jacques Derrida's reading of Plato's Phaedrus 274d–275b, which points up our "logocentric" construal of the relation between speech and writing. Lehrich seems to argue that Agrippa's celestial magic constituted a transcendental written language that was simultaneously iconic and symbolic, "a kind of writing which did not require speech" (130). But the dependency of the celestial upon...