Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim

[First published in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Craig (10 vols.; London and New York: Routledge, 1998), vol. 1, pp. 130-33.]


Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535)

Famous in the sixteenth century for writings in which he steps forward variously as magician, occultist, evangelical humanist and philosopher, Agrippa shared with other humanist writers a thoroughgoing contempt for the philosophy of the scholastics. In his more evangelical moods Agrippa could be taken for a radical exponent of the philosophia Christi of his older contemporary Erasmus, or mistaken for a follower of Luther, whose early writings he actively disseminated in humanist circles. However, his deepest affinities are with magically inflected philosophies: the Neoplatonism and Hermetism of Marsilio Ficino, and the syncretic Christian Cabala of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin and Johannes Trithemius.

As well as expounding an influential magical view of language, Agrippa contributed to the sixteenth-century revival of scepticism, denounced the “tyranny” of those who obstructed a free search for truth, criticized the subjection of women and (with a courage unusual in his time) resisted and mocked the instigators of the witch-craze. Finding in Hermetic-Cabalistic doctrines the inner truth both of religion and of philosophy, Agrippa was also aware of parallels between these magical doctrines and the Gnostic heresies. His heterodoxy made him a target for pious slanders: within several decades of his death he became the protagonist of demonological fictions which were soon absorbed into the legend of Doctor Faustus.


1  Life

2  Verbal magic

3  Agrippa as sceptic and free-thinker

4  Agrippa as feminist

5  Agrippa's philosophical influence


1  Life

Born to a family of the lesser nobility in Cologne (from whose Latin name, Colonia Agrippina, he drew his humanist cognomen), Agrippa took his first degree at Cologne in 1502; after further studies in Paris and elsewhere, he claimed to have doctorates in canon law, civil law and medicine—and also to have been knighted in recognition of military service.

In 1508 he took part in an unsuccessful military adventure which a secret occultist society of which he was a member undertook in Spain, possibly at the behest of the emperor Maximilian I. Members of this society subsequently became prominent in French humanist and court circles, providing Agrippa with a network of supporters upon whom, as his reputation for encyclopedic learning grew, he was able to draw in his searches for patronage. When in 1509 he lectured on Reuchlin's Cabalist philosophy at the University of Dôle in Franche-Comté and wrote De nobilitate, Agrippa had hopes of preferment in the court of Margaret of Austria, regent of Franche-Comté and the Low Countries. These were dashed when he was denounced at court by a prominent Franciscan as a “judaizing heretic.” Returning to Germany, he completed the first version of De occulta philosophia in 1510, and in the same year travelled to England, apparently in the service of Maximilian I.

For the first several years of his Italian sojourn, which lasted from 1511 to 1518, Agrippa continued to serve the emperor both as diplomat and soldier. But by 1515 he was lecturing on the Hermetica at the University of Pavia—a position which he promptly lost, along with his library and other possessions, after the French victory at Marignano. In 1518 Agrippa moved north again, taking up a position as city orator and advocate in Metz. Intervening there in the case of a woman accused of witchcraft, he secured her freedom, recovered her property, and accused the inquisitor responsible for torturing her of heresy. But this and other instances of resistance to tyranny and obscurantism made him unpopular with the orthodox. He returned to Cologne in 1520, lived from 1521 to 1523 in Geneva (where he was at the centre of a group of reforming tendencies), and then moved to Fribourg, where he practised medicine.

In 1524 Agrippa secured a place at the French royal court at Lyons as personal physician to the queen mother, Louise de Savoy. But by 1526 he was in trouble, having rashly revealed his sympathy for the rebellious Duc de Bourbon and the emperor Charles V, who was at war with king François I. During the same year Agrippa wrote De vanitate, which includes a vehement critique of the corruption and venality of court life. Perhaps as a result, his salary was withheld, while at the same time he was refused permission to leave the court.

Dismissed at last in 1528, Agrippa obtained a place in the court of Margaret of Austria at Antwerp as historiographer to the emperor Charles V. But when Margaret died in late 1530 he was again unable to secure payment for his services. And he was now in more serious trouble. The printing of De vanitate in 1530 had earned him condemnations from the theological faculties of Paris and Louvain, which led to difficulties with the imperial privy council. In 1531 the printing of a much expanded version of De occulta philosophia was blocked after the first of its three books had been printed; two years later, thanks to the patronage of the reform-minded Archbishop of Cologne, Agrippa was able to see this book and several others, including De nobilitate and a commentary on the art of Ramon Lull, through the press.

Returning in 1535 to Lyons, Agrippa was imprisoned by François I for having written against Louise de Savoy. Released through the intervention of friends, he died shortly afterwards in Grenoble.


2  Verbal magic

Agrippa derived from the Neoplatonists (and ultimately of course from the Cratylus) the view that the power inherent in natural things lives on and is latent in “the form of the signification” (DOP, I. lxx). Because the hidden powers of things proceed in the first place from celestial causes, and because the celestial powers which move the elemental world, acting from circumference to centre, originate with “the word of God, which word the wise Chaldeans of Babylon call the cause of causes,” it follows that the philosopher or magician whose words can draw upon the power of this originary creative Word should be able to intervene powerfully in the natural order (DOP, II. lx). Agrippa's insistence on the purely natural quality of verbal magic cannot disguise the heterodox implication of this view of language, which is that the magician can get in at the top of the hierarchical structure of the cosmos because his “mysterious words” and “ingenious speech” draw upon the power contained within God's Word—a term which refers to the canonical scriptures as well as to Christ, the creative Logos.


3  Agrippa as sceptic and free-thinker

The main purpose of De vanitate is to being the reader to a position of Christian fideism (though one in which Christian faith is thoroughly infused with Hermetic and Cabalistic motifs). To this end Agrippa's chapter on logic makes a brief but effective deployment of sceptical arguments. Aristotle's principles of demonstration, he argues, require an understanding of causes and principles to which we give our assent on the basis either of authority or of sense-based experience (for knowledge is agreed to arise from the senses, and Averroes makes agreement with sensible things a criterion of truth). But the senses are often deceived, and furthermore cannot to the intellectual level at which we encounter the causes of lower things. It is therefore manifest that “the way of the truth is shut up from the senses,” and that sciences rooted in them are “uncertain, erroneous and deceitful” (De vanitate, cap. 7). Appeals to authority are no more acceptable, since the final recourse of the scholastics against those who deny the first principles of their science is to violence, “so that of philosophers they are made torturers and hangmen, since they compel us by force to confess that which they should teach by reason” (cap. 1).


4  Agrippa as feminist

In De nobilitate Agrippa argues that “between man and woman by the substance of the soul one has no higher pre-eminence of nobility above the other, but both have by nature equal liberty of dignity and worthiness. Yet in all other respects, apart from the divine substance of the soul, the excellence and nobility of womankind surpasses beyond limit the rude gross nature of men.” Some of the examples with which he develops this claim are deliberately frivolous, and yet he does insistently challenge the misogynist legal culture by which women, “being subdued as it were by force of arms, are constrained to give place to men, and to obey their subduers, not by any natural or divine necessity or reason, but by custom, education, fortune, and a certain tyrannical occasion.” François Rabelais's portrait of Agrippa as Herr Trippa, an occultist who is ready to predict Panurge's cuckoldry by all the magical arts at his disposal, while remaining unaware that the court lackeys are lining up to frolic with his own wife (Le tiers libre des faicts et dicts héroiques du bon Pantagruel [1546], ch. 25), can be understood as a sardonic response to Agrippa's feminism. A more positive response is evident in Johannes Wier's De praestigiis daemonum (1563), a book which in some parts of western Europe had a moderating effect upon the witch-hunts of the time: Wier, who had been Agrippa's student, adopted his opinion that the elderly women who were the prime targets of the witch-hunters were suffering from melancholia rather than demonic possession, and that Christians should give them spiritual and material comfort rather than persecuting and torturing them.


5  Agrippa's philosophical influence

The apparent contradiction between the sceptical fideism of De vanitate and the encyclopedic syncretism of De occulta philosophia is to some extent dissipated by Agrippa's reliance in both books upon a Hermetic-Cabalistic doctrine of spiritual rebirth and deification. However, Agrippa is neither a coherent nor in most respects an original thinker. His most strongly voiced opinions are often taken verbatim from the works of Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico and Johannes Reuchlin, and since he typically appears more interested in assembling diverse opinions on a subject than in assessing their relative truth, his own impulses may seem more antiquarian than philosophical. (Given the hostility he encountered from theologians of the mendicant orders from 1509 onwards, one may suspect that he was content to allow the material he had assembled to work within the reader's mind, without himself taking the risk of underlining its heterodox implications.)

Agrippa was widely read for well over a century after his death. He was, on the one hand, denounced by Jean Calvin in De scandalis (1550) as a mocker of sacred truths in the vein of Lucian of Samosata, by Jean Bodin in De la démonomanie des sorciers (1581) as the leading sorcerer of his age, and by André Thevet in Les vrais pourtraits et view des hommes illustres (1584) as having spawned hordes both of scoffers and magicians. On the other hand, his works were also cited and echoed by literary figures ranging from Jean de la Taille to Sir Philip Sidney, Fulke Greville, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe, as well as by occult philosophers from John Dee and Giordano Bruno to Thomas Vaughan. Moreover, Michel de Montaigne's scepticism, which represents man as “naked and empty, acknowledging his natural weakness, apt to receive from above some strange power, disfurnished of human knowledge, and so much the more fit to harbour divine understanding, nullifying his judgment so as to give more place to faith” (Essais II. xii, vol. 1, p. 562), is clearly indebted to Agrippa's De vanitate. Perhaps more significantly, it has recently been argued that René Descartes's writings, from the early Olympica and Cogitationes privatae (1619-21) to the Meditations (1641), make sustained use of motifs derived from the philosophical Hermetica, and that Descartes' understanding of the Hermetic writings was conditioned by his early reading of Agrippa (see Keefer 1996).


List of Works:

Agrippa, Henricus Cornelius (1509, printed 1532) De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus, Cologne; Of the Nobilitie and Excellencie of Womankynde, trans. Thomas Clapham (1542), London.

------ (1526, printed 1530) De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium atque excellentia verbi dei declamatio, Cologne; Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, trans. James Sanford (1569), ed. Catherine M. Dunn (1974), Northridge: California State University Press.

------ (1533) De occulta philosophia libri tres, Cologne; Three Books of Occult Philosophy, trans. James Freake (1651), ed. Donald Tyson (1993), St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications.

------ (c. 1600) Opera, 2 vols., Lyons; ed. R. H. Popkin (1970), facsimile rpt., Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms Verlag.


References and further reading:

Hermes Trismegistus [pseud.] (1992) Hermetica, ed. Brian P. Copenhaver, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (The best English translation of writings in which Agrippa was obsessively interested.)

Jordan, Constance (1990) Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. (Includes an analysis of Agrippa's place on the feminist side of Renaissance debates on the status of women.)

Keefer, Michael (1988) “Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia,” Renaissance Quarterly 41: 614-53. (Explores the commonalities and divergences of Agrippa's two major works in terms of their deployment of motifs derived from the Hermetica and their author's awareness of parallels between Hermetic texts and Gnostic heresies.)

------ (1996) “The Dreamer's Path: Descartes and the Sixteenth Century,” Renaissance Quarterly 49: 30-76. (Referred to in §5, this essay argues that Agrippa's writings led Descartes to Hermetic texts which were decisive in shaping his philosophical project.)

Montaigne, Michel de (1962) Essais de Montaigne, 2 vols., ed. M. Rat, Paris: Éditions Garnier Frères.

Nauert, Charles G., Jr. (1965) Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought, Urbana: University of Illinois Press. (The standard biography and the most detailed study of Agrippa's thought.)

Tomlinsin, Gary (1993) Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, pp. 44-66. (The best summary account available of Agrippa's magic.)

Yates, Frances A. (1964) Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (This compulsively readable account of Renaissance magical traditions includes a rather dismissive account of De occulta philosophia.)

------ (1979) The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (Gives greater emphasis than Yates' previous books to the influence of Kabbalah on Renaissance occult philosophy.)

Zambelli, Paola (1969) “Cornelio Agrippa, Erasmo e la teologia umanistica,” Rinascimento 21 (2nd series, 10): 29-88.

------ (1976) “Magic and Radical Reformation in Agrippa of Nettesheim,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 39: 69-103.

------ (1985) “Scholastiker und Humanisten: Agrippa und Trithemius zur Hexerei,” Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 67: 41-79. (These and other articles by the leading Agrippa scholar have been crucial in situating his writings in relation to Erasmian humanism, the radical Reformation, and overlapping views of magic and witchcraft.)