- (De)colonizing Early Modern Occult Philosophy
Liana Saif, Matthew Melvin-Koushki, Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, John Dee, Frances Yates, occult philosophy, astrology, magic, kabbalah, Islam, Neoplatonism, Neopythagoreanism
The quest to marry Plato and Aristotle defined Western intellectual history in the medieval and early modern periods; and it was only theoretically and historically achieved by means of Arabic astral magic. So argues Liana Saif in The Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy, a recent installment in Palgrave's burgeoning Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic series. This study is a thoroughly revised version of the author's 2011 Birkbeck, University of London doctoral thesis; it dispenses with that study's concluding discussion of seventeenth-century European developments (material she has published separately),1 and adds instead two chapters on the Arabic-Latin translation movement of the twelfth and thirteenth as foundation of subsequent philosophical developments in Europe. Between the Bacons, she here prefers Roger to Francis. Nevertheless, the focus of the book remains heavily early modern: Saif seeks to show the debt of a trinity of Renaissance thinkers—Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and John Dee—to Arabic natural philosophy, especially astrology, and its Latin scholastic receptions.
Such a thesis is, of course, hardly new; but vanishingly few Western intellectual historians are competent Arabists and Latinists in equal measure and so in a position to substantiate it. As a consequence, the profound Arabicness [End Page 98] of early modern Latin occult philosophy is often assumed but rarely acknowledged, much less explored—making a properly comparative intellectual history of the early modern Western—that is, Islamo-Christian—world all but impossible. This study, by a competent Arabist-Latinist, synthesizes and extends the work of Charles Burnett, Richard Lemay, and David Pingree in particular to show up the persistent Eurocentrism of the field and limn the historical mechanics of that debt. For all that it serves to further undercut and retire the Warburg Interpretation of these occult-philosophical heroes of the Renaissance, emphasizing medieval-early modern scholarly continuity over rupture and eschewing a Yatesian teleology by discarding the "Scientific Revolution" altogether, Saif's project is thus a quintessentially Warburgian one, and faithful to the spirit, if not method, of Yates.
The book is tripartite in structure—Arabic, Arabic-to-Latin, Renaissance—and its eight chapters discuss a number of representative figures and texts from each period. Saif's treatment of the Arabic sources is comparatively brief (chapters 1–2, 9–45), and largely summarizes existing scholarship while providing occasional correctives. A larger percentage of the book, roughly a quarter, is given to the Latin reception of these Arabic texts in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (chapters 3–4, 46–94). Nearly a full half is given to the Renaissance sage-mages Ficino, Pico, and Dee; important correctives to the current literature are here offered (chapters 5–7, 95–171). The final chapter treats of volitional causation and celestial souls and daemons as "cosmic vital agents," themes that run like a red thread through the book (chapter 8, 172–94). As an Islamicist myself, I will give disproportionate space to the first section in my summary below for the benefit of Europeanist readers more familiar with the early modern Christian material, then detail why this book is an important intervention in current narratives of the adoption of Islamic science by the West (usually construed, wildly antihistorically, as exclusively western Europe); I will further identify remaining lacunae and suggest directions for future, non-Eurocentric research into early modern Western intellectual and cultural history.
As Saif argues, the Arabic basis for medieval and early modern Latin occult philosophy is in the first place astrological: it was the pressing natural-philosophical need to explain whether and how celestial bodies causally influence terrestrial ones—a doctrine asserted but not explained by Ptolemy, and flatly rejected by Neoplatonists like Plotinus—that impelled Arabic thinkers, including in the first place Abū Maʿshar Balkhī (d. 886) and his mentor al-Kindī (d. 873), to infuse Neoplatonic metaphysics with Peripatetic physics. This marriage of Plato and...