- John Dee's Occultism: Magical Exaltation Through Powerful Signs
John Dee's passion for knowledge and technology led him through what seems like the entire gamut of Renaissance wisdom from antiquarianism to Zoroastrianism. Some books about him leave this heterogeneity unresolved, while others seek to reduce it to order. This one is very much of the second [End Page 109] kind. It sees little or no changes in the main focus of Dee's intellectual program and activities, and speaks of a "permanent and invariable feature that characterized all his works and actions"—the goal of exaltatio (p. 16). It thus invites immediate comparison with Deborah Harkness's 1999 study John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature, where the metaphor said to govern much of Dee's studies is the similar one of Jacob's ladder. György Szó´nyi explains that he only became aware of Harkness's book as he was nearing completion, which means that the earlier book has not impinged on this one as much as it should have. An amalgam of two previous publications, one in Hungarian (1998) and the other in Italian (2004), John Dee's Occultism is also said by the author to reflect the state of Dee scholarship around the year 2000. It is not clear if there has been any delay in publication (and if so it would certainly not have been caused by excessive copyediting), but a sense of time-lapse remains.
The word exaltatio is apparently rare in classical and humanist Latin, but it is used reasonably enough here to denote the idea of the deification of man (sic). Created in God's image and endowed originally with perfect knowledge, man's intellectual aim should be an Adamic or Enochian return to an omniscient understanding of God's world and the technological omnipotence that goes with it. This for Szó´nyi is not only Dee's overriding obsession but the ultimate end and intellectual foundation of all forms of "magic." His book is accordingly divided into two main sections, called "Input" and "Output," where he first searches the texts available to Dee (and virtually all in his library) for expositions of exaltatio and then, second, traces the same theme in Dee's own writings and scryings. The words "influence" and "source" do occur under "Input" but mostly we are warned only to think of an unspecified genealogical "interrelationship" between Dee and what he read. In this guise Szó´nyi offers a helpful and informative sketch of several key versions of exaltatio from the Corpus hermeticum, from Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus, from medieval ceremonial magic, and from the key Renaissance texts of Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Trithemius, Agrippa, Paracelsus (on whose role in the formation of Dee's plans Szó´nyi is particularly good), and Postel. Turning then to Dee himself, the works taken to be critical in showing his full integration in these ancient, medieval, and Renaissance traditions are Propaedeumata aphoristica, Monas hieroglyphica (seen by Szó´nyi as a manifesto for exaltatio), The Mathematicall Praeface, and the spiritual diaries. The book closes with two particularly interesting sections, one on Dee's social and ideological relationship to the "interpretive community" that received and judged his work, and the other an epilogue on Renaissance (specifically Spenserian) poetic symbolism. [End Page 110]
Whatever readers make of Szó´nyi's case for using exaltatio to put coherence into John Dee, they will undoubtedly be struck by two other potentially contentious features of his study. One is the explicit aim, not just of reexamining the "Yates thesis" regarding the significance of intellectuals like Dee in the history of natural philosophy, but of reinstating it, with modifications. The author acknowledges Yates as an original inspiration and, while admitting that her style of intellectual history "has almost entirely been discarded" (p. xv), advocates a cautious return to what he calls her "master narrative." What this mainly amounts to is the reassertion of the idea of "occult philosophy" and "magic...