Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

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Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa00.jpg
Born (1486-09-15)15 September 1486
Cologne, Electorate of Cologne, Holy Roman Empire
Died 18 February 1535(1535-02-18) (aged 48)
Grenoble, Kingdom of France
Occupation magician, occult writer, theologian, astrologer, alchemist, physician, legal expert and soldier

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (/əˈɡrɪpə/; 14 September 1486 – 18 February 1535) was a German magician, occult writer, theologian, astrologer, and alchemist.


Agrippa was born in Cologne on 14 September 1486. In 1512, he taught at the University of Dole in the Free County of Burgundy, lecturing on Johann Reuchlin's De verbo mirifico; as a result, Agrippa was denounced, behind his back, as a "Judaizing heretic". Agrippa's vitriolic response many months later did not endear him to the University.

In 1510, Agrippa studied briefly with Johannes Trithemius, and Agrippa sent him an early draft of his masterpiece, De occulta philosophia libri tres, a kind of summa of early modern occult thought. Trithemius was guardedly approving, but suggested that Agrippa keep the work more or less secret; Agrippa chose not to publish, perhaps for this reason, but continued to revise and rethink the book for twenty years.

During his wandering life in Germany, France, and Italy, Agrippa worked as a theologian, physician, legal expert, and soldier. Agrippa was for some time in the service of Maximilian I, probably as a soldier in Italy, but devoted his time mainly to the study of the occult sciences and to problematic theological legal questions, which exposed him to various persecutions through life, usually in the mode described above: He would be privately denounced for one sort of heresy or another. He would only reply with venom considerably later (Nauert demonstrates this pattern effectively.)

No evidence exists that Agrippa was seriously accused, much less persecuted, for his interest in or practice of magical or occult arts during his lifetime, apart from losing several positions. It is impossible, of course, to cite negatively, but Nauert, the best bio-bibliographical study to date, shows no indication of such persecution, and Van der Poel's careful examination of the various attacks suggest that they were founded on quite other theological grounds.

According to some scholarship: "As early as 1525 and again as late as 1533 (two years before his death) Agrippa clearly and unequivocally rejected magic in its totality, from its sources in imagined antiquity to contemporary practice." Some aspects remain unclear, but some believe this renunciation was sincere (not out of fear, as a parody, or otherwise).[1] Recent scholarship (see Further Reading below, in Lehrich, Nauert, and Van der Poel) generally agrees that this rejection or repudiation of magic is not what it seems: Agrippa never rejected magic in its totality, but he did retract his early manuscript of the Occult Philosophy - to be replaced by the later form.

In the Third Book of Occult Philosophy, Agrippa concludes with:[2]

But of magic I wrote whilst I was very young three large books, which I called Of Occult Philosophy, in which what was then through the curiosity of my youth erroneous, I now being more advised, am willing to have retracted, by this recantation; I formerly spent much time and costs in these vanities. At last I grew so wise as to be able to dissuade others from this destruction. For whosoever do not in the truth, nor in the power of God, but in the deceits of devils, according to the operation of wicked spirits presume to divine and prophesy, and practising through magical vanities, exorcisms, incantions and other demoniacal works and deceits of idolatry, boasting of delusions, and phantasms, presently ceasing, brag that they can do miracles, I say all these shall with Jannes, and Jambres, and Simon Magus, be destinated to the torments of eternal fire.

According to his student Johann Weyer, in the book De praestigiis daemonum, Agrippa died in Grenoble, in 1535.[3]


Woodcut print portrait of Agrippa

Agrippa is perhaps best known for his books. An incomplete list:

  • De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium declamatio invectiva (Declamation Attacking the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and the Arts, 1526; printed in Cologne 1527), a skeptical satire of the sad state of science. This book, a significant production of the revival of Pyrrhonic skepticism in its fideist mode, was to have a significant impact on such thinkers and writers as Montaigne, René Descartes, and Goethe.[citation needed]
  • Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex, 1529[4]), a book pronouncing the theological and moral superiority of women. Edition with English translation, London 1670[5]
  • De occulta philosophia libri tres (Three Books Concerning Occult Philosophy, Book 1 printed Paris 1531; Books 1-3 in Cologne 1533). This summa of occult and magical thought, Agrippa's most important work in a number of respects, sought a solution to the skepticism proposed in De vanitate. In short, Agrippa argued for a synthetic vision of magic whereby the natural world combined with the celestial and the divine through Neoplatonic participation, such that ordinarily licit natural magic was in fact validated by a kind of demonic magic sourced ultimately from God. By this means Agrippa proposed a magic that could resolve all epistemological problems raised by skepticism in a total validation of Christian faith.
One example of the text, not especially indicative of its broader contents, is Agrippa's analysis of herbal treatments for malaria in numeric terms:

Rabanus also, a famous Doctor, composed an excellent book of the vertues of numbers: But now how great vertues numbers have in nature, is manifest in the hearb which is called Cinquefoil, i.e. five leaved Grass; for this resists poysons by vertue of the number of five; also drives away divells, conduceth to expiation; and one leafe of it taken twice in a day in wine, cures the Feaver of one day: three the tertian Feaver: foure the quartane. In like manner four grains of the seed of Turnisole being drunk, cures the quartane, but three the tertian. In like manner Vervin is said to cure Feavers, being drunk in wine, if in tertians it be cut from the third joynt, in quartans from the fourth.

The book was a major influence on such later magical thinkers as Giordano Bruno and John Dee[citation needed], but was ill-understood[citation needed] after the decline of the Occult Renaissance concomitant with the Scientific Revolution. The book (whose early draft, quite different from the final form, circulated in manuscript long before it was published) is often cited in discussions of Albrecht Dürer's famous engraving Melencolia I (1514). (Note that Philosophy of Natural Magic: Complete Work on Natural Magic, White & Black Magic, 1569, ISBN 1-56459-160-3, is simply book 1 of De occulta philosophia libri tres.)

A spurious Fourth book of occult philosophy, sometimes called Of Magical Ceremonies, has also been attributed to him; this book first appeared in Marburg in 1559 and is not believed to have been written by Agrippa.[6]

(A semi-complete collection of his writings were also printed in Lyon in 1550; arguably more complete editions followed, but none is without serious textual problems.)

Modern editions of Agrippa's works[edit]

  • De occulta philosophia libri tres. Ed. Vittoria Perrone Compagni. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 1992: ISBN 90-04-09421-0.
  • Three Books Of Occult Philosophy. Trans. James Freake Edited by Donald Tyson. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1993: ISBN 0-87542-832-0.
  • Three Books of Occult Philosophy Book One: A Modern Translation, Trans. Eric Purdue. IA City, IA: Renaissance Astrology Press, 2012: ISBN 1-10589-879-2
  • Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex. Trans. Albert Rabil, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996: ISBN 0-226-01059-7
  • Of the Vanitie and Vncertaintie of Artes and Sciences. Edited by Catherine M. Dunn. Northridge, CA: California State University Foundation, 1974. ASIN: B0006CM0SW

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "(p.71)". Compilerpress.atfreeweb.com. Retrieved 2013-06-29. 
  2. ^ Tyson, Donald (1992). Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Llewellyn Publications. p. 706. ISBN 978-0875428321. 
  3. ^ Weyer, Johann (date unknown). De praestigiis daemonum. Student of Agrippa.
  4. ^ "Gallica - Agrippa, Henri Corneille (1486-1535). Henrici Cornelii Agrippae De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus 1529" (in French). Visualiseur.bnf.fr. Retrieved 2013-06-29. 
  5. ^ "Agrippa: Declamatio de nobilitate & precellentia Fœminei sexus. (1529)". Esotericarchives.com. Retrieved 2013-06-29. 
  6. ^ "The Fourth Book of Cornelius Agrippa". Retrieved 2013-10-03. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Lehrich, Christopher I. The Language of Demons and Angels. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2003: ISBN 90-04-13574-X. The only in-depth scholarly study of Agrippa's occult thought.
  • Morley, Henry. "Cornelius Agrippa: The Life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim" Vol. I, London: Chapman & Hall, 1856.
  • Nauert, Charles G. Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965: ASIN B000BANHI6. The first serious bio-bibliographical study.
  • van der Poel, Marc. Cornelius Agrippa, the Humanist Theologian and His Declamations. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 1997: ISBN 90-04-10756-8. Detailed examination of Agrippa's minor orations and the De vanitate by a Neo-Latin philologist.
  • Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. University of Chicago Press, 1964: ISBN 0-226-95007-7. Provides a scholarly summary of Agrippa's occult thoughts in the context of Hermeticism.
  • McDonald, Grantley. ‘Cornelius Agrippa’s School of Love: Teaching Plato’s Symposium in the Renaissance’, in Practices of Gender in Late-Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Peter Sherlock and Megan Cassidy-Welch (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), pp. 151–75. An examination of one of Agrippa's university orations, on the subject of love, from a Neoplatonic and Cabalistic perspective.
  • Agrippa was also a character that aided the protagonist in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a video game developed by Frictional Games.

External links[edit]