Renaissance Philosophy: Lost Origins

[This paper was first presented as an invited lecture to the Phoenix Society (Department of Philosophy), Mount Allison University, on 15 February 1985. A revised version was presented at the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies Conference, Université de Montréal, 2-5 June 1985. This text has not previously been published; the version given here is that of the original Phoenix Society lecture.]


Stories about origins must, by definition, avoid tautology: the rules of the genre demand a differentiation of originating and dependent terms. The central meaning of the biblical account of human origins might thus be said to reside in the difference between the divine archetype and its human image, in mankind's primordial transgression of attempting to surmount this difference, and in the humbling re-definition of the limits separating humankind from its creator which ensued.

A contrasting pattern—one of identical repetition and non-origin—is present in the verses which the seventeenth-century poet Richard Crashaw addressed to that spontaneously combustible bird, the phoenix: “Tibique per tuam ruinam / Reparata, te succedis ipsa” (“Restored to yourself by your fall, you replace yourself”).1 But implicit in these lines is an allusion to the Christian sequel to the biblical origin story, which provides a mediating term—“Christus mihi Phoenix,” in the words of the Elizabethan poet William Rankins—in whom the polarities of the originating difference are reconciled. Christ's self-immolation promises redemption to the poet, who would otherwise, “consum'd by sin,” burn “like a Beacon on a barren hill.” Yet there remains a pathos of distance and of difference in Rankins' vision of the Redeemer's return to “his high-built nest, / A place, unthought, unknowne, unseene, unsaid, / Where with omnipotence he shall be blest....”2

I have begun in this manner in order to emphasize the overarching structures within which Renaissance writers strove to think, to know, to give form and voice to an understanding of their origins. Certain difficulties involved in their project may already be apparent. These included the danger that a return to the origin, if corrupted by motives of power, might become rather a repetition of the original transgression—and the alternate possibility that an origin which was “unthought, unknowne, unseene,” might also be radically unintelligible.

It should be apparent by now that my approach to Renaissance philosophy is not that of, say, a modern philosopher of the analytic school. Following the example of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, “the phoenix of his age,” and a philosopher whose ambition it was to write a “poetic theology,” I am taking “philosophy” in its widest and least technical sense, as embracing certain aspects of theology and of poetry (represented here by Jean Calvin and by that late-comer, John Milton), as well as the speculations of thinkers like Nicolas Cusanus, Marsilio Ficino, and Henricus Cornelius Agrippa. I shall be concerned not with logic, but with origin metaphors—and, in the concluding section of this paper, with the manner in which certain of these metaphors seem at a key moment to subvert the “great argument” of Milton's Paradise Lost. However, I wish first to define two contrasting tendencies in Renaissance origin speculations—tendencies which were briefly held together in the thought of Nicholas of Cusa, but which subsequently diverged.

Ernst Cassirer analyzed Cusanus' return to the origins of the Platonic tradition in terms of his recovery of the Platonic dialectic of chorismos and methexis, separation and participation.3 The former word implies an irrecoverable ontological split between the noetic and the visible, the divine and the human, while the latter permits a conjectural recognition of the ideal within the visible. This recognition, because the fact of chorismos meant that it could be no more than conjectural, led Cusanus into a radical cultural relativism: all traditions, however alien, participate in the Truth.4 For Cusanus the notions of chorismos (separation) and methexis (participation) were complementary. But for writers who were excited by the prospect of a return to Pauline origins of Christian theology, the proper complement to chorismos was divine grace; while those who sought to purify religion and philosophy together by appealing to ancient occult traditions found in those same traditions evidence that the gap between man's estate and the divine was not unbridgeable by human efforts.

What effect did this latter orientation have upon origin speculations? According to Book XV of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the first act of the phoenix, once it is born from the dying body—some translators would say, the spontaneous combustion—of its predecessor, and has acquired sufficient strength, is to fly to the city of the Sun and deposit the parental remains, nest and all, in the porch of the Sun-god's temple.5 One might say that the Renaissance, in contrast, hatched itself out of ashes that had been cooling for almost a millennium; Renaissance thinkers were critically aware of their own historical separation from what they sought to revive and re-embody, and their sustained explorations of the ruins of their parent cultures is expressive of a more complex kind of filial piety.

By the last quarter of the fifteenth century, this poking about in the ashes had revealed to Renaissance thinkers that their parentage was also more complex than that of the phoenix. The Hermetic texts translated from Greek into Latin by Marsilio Ficino in the 1460s—composed, supposedly, by an Egyptian philosopher-king and priest, Hermes Trismegistus, who was thought to be an approximate contemporary of Moses—begin with a divine revelation concerning the creation of the world and the fall of man. (We can recognize that text, the Poimandres—or, for Ficino, Pimander—as a Middle Platonist midrash on Genesis; but Ficino's generation did not have the philological awareness needed to make fine historical distinctions in Greek texts.) Since the vaguely Platonic language of the Hermetic texts made it appear that Hermes must have been a distant but principal source for Plato, Ficino was able to attach the entire Greek philosophical tradition to this and similar originating revelations—a satisfying result for a writer one of whose aims was to reconcile the claims of reason with those of faith.

However it did not take long for troublesome questions to arise about the relation between the Pentateuch of Moses and the Pimander of Hermes. Their accounts of the creation and fall are obviously related, yet also disturbingly different, the latter containing strong gnostic overtones. (The Hermetic Primal Man, for instance, is no earthy Adam, but a divine being.)6 Are these originary texts then related simply in having the same divine origin (in which case neither possesses unique authority), or is one of them—which one?—derived from the other?

The orthodox answer to these questions is obvious enough. But not until Isaac Casaubon showed in 1614 that the Hermetic texts date from the first centuries of the Christian era was the possibility removed that God's revelation to the Hebrews might have been, to begin with at least, a secondary one.7 In the mean time—and for some time after this ill-publicized discovery as well—the effect of the Hermetic texts, reinforced by the discovery of Kabbalistic traditions which offered similarly gnostic revisions of the Genesis story, was to encourage a certain dispersal of originary authority. The divine origin remained the same, but the textual sources which gave access to it appeared to have become bewilderingly various.

But what of the other tendency which I identified? The theology of the Reformers, with its insistence (in Calvin especially) upon the absolute and unmediated sovereignty of he divine Origin, was in part a reaction against Renaissance syncretism, and against this dispersal of originary authority.8 But this theology, in the Calvinist form in which it was most influential in France and England, presented a different sort of obstacle to attempts to think about or represent human origins. A God whose inscrutable will governs every human thought and action, including most significantly the primal sin of Adam and Eve, and whose judgment proleptically blesses the elect and damns the reprobate, before the moment of their birth, to eternal torment, is not merely arbitrary and incomprehensible, but ethically unintelligible as well. Moreover, problems which the theologian can sidestep confront the poet more directly: a continuous narration of human origins can hardly avoid giving life and movement to skeletons that theological discourse is able to keep safely fleshless.

Recent critics of Milton, led by David Quint, have dwelt upon the manner in which, writing at the end of the epic tradition, he managed to invert the relation of priority between that tradition and his own major epic. Soaring “above the Olympian hill,” Milton places his text between the epics which it imitates and their ultimate transcendent origin: his own re-telling of the archetypal story highlights the secondary and derivative nature of its secular models, thus supplanting them by instituting itself as their source.9 To the extent that the two tendencies I have alluded to impinged upon him—and there can be little doubt that Milton was well acquainted with the doctrines of “thrice great Hermes,” as he calls him in “Il Penseroso,”10 or that, despite the sturdy independence evinced by his De doctrina christiana, he was strongly influenced by Calvin11—to this extent, Milton's act of pious usurpation required, to succeed, a kind of reconstitution of the originary authority which had been either partially dispersed or else revealed as arbitrary and unintelligible during the preceding centuries. A consideration of three origin metaphors—the source, the mirror, and the labyrinth—in representative texts of the two tendencies defined above, and then in certain passages of Paradise Lost, will suggest the degree to which he was successful.

Jean Calvin makes frequent use of the source topos, as when he writes, in the first paragraph of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, that “by [divine] benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself.”12 The textual origin for this quite traditional combination of heavenly dew with a divine fountainhead is Genesis 2: 6, which in the Vulgate reads: “Sed fons ascendebat e terra, irrigans universam superficiem terrae.” Renaissance translations, following the Hebrew text, substitute a mist or vapour for this fountainhead: “there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.”13 Like Spenser, who in Book I, canto xi of The Faerie Queene describes the balm flowing from the tree of life as overflowing “all the fertile plaine, / As it had deawed bene with timely raine,”14 Calvin is simply conflating the two translations. However, he refers just as often to textual and divine origins in terms of two other metaphors: the mirror and the labyrinth.

The Law of Moses, Calvin writes, was instituted by God to deprive men of any excuse for their inevitable sins: it is “like a mirror. In it we contemplate our weakness, then the iniquity arising from this, and finally the curse coming from both....”15 And the Law reflects God as well as mankind: in it “there is a perfect mirror of righteousness.”16 Calvin's understanding of natural law is identical. Nature reflects man's fallen state, but at the same time provides “a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible.”17 The true perversity of Calvin's doctrine lies in the fact that these two reflections are causally related: the active image of man's iniquity is conferred on him by God. For Calvin's insistence that God's will is the direct cause of every event, including Adam's first disobedience, deprives the Fall of its explanatory force.18 And natural law exists for precisely the same reason as does the Law of Moses. “The purpose of natural law,” Calvin writes, “... is to render man inexcusable.”19

Equally disturbing is the metaphor by which Calvin expresses the nature of the ultimate divine origin. The world is a labyrinth, he writes; Christ's sufferings, which his elect must share, are “a labyrinth of all evils”; the mind of each man is a labyrinth; and elsewhere, anyone who inquires into divine predestination “will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit.”20 And again: the splendour of the divine countenance “is for us like an inexplicable labyrinth unless we are conducted into it by the thread of the Word....”21 The logic of this is peculiar, for the house of Daedalos did not cease to be labyrinth for Theseus when he was guided through it by Ariadne's thread. Thread and labyrinth are interdependent images—from which it would appear to follow that despite what Calvin clearly wants to say, the thread of the Word, while providing a way into the divine splendour, does not make it any the less labyrinthine and inexplicable. The oddest feature of this passage, though, is that Calvin seems to have forgotten what Theseus found at the heart of the labyrinth—a bestial monster.

In the writings of Calvin's contemporary Cornelius Agrippa the same metaphors recur, but very differently distributed. In his De vanitate Agrippa writes that “God alone contains the fountain of truth, from which he must drink, who desires true doctrines....”22 This fountain apparently does not descend into worldly things, which are without exception false and deceptive. Rather, as Agrippa says in his De occulta philosophia, we must ascend “through each degree of the creation right up to the archetype himself, and drink from him the indescribable virtue of all things”—in consequence of which, “all creatures necessarily must obey us, and all the choir of heavenly beings follow us.”23 In these passages Agrippa is giving a Hermetic twist to a pre-eminently Christian metaphor. But in his most notable use of the metaphor of the mirror, he is clearly concerned with a Hermetic motif. Once we have rejected the body and all corporeal things, he writes, our mens—the supra-rational, quasi-divine part of the mind—“attracts the truth, and suddenly comprehending, beholds in the divine truth itself, as though in a certain mirror of eternity, all the conditions, reasons, causes, and sciences of things both natural and immortal.”24

While making a secondary Pauline allusion, Agrippa in this passage is reversing he Hermetic account of the Fall, according to which the Primal Man, a divine being who was created by God in his image and given dominion over all creatures, descended through the planetary spheres with God's permission to create something himself. But his beautiful form was reflected in the waters of irrational nature, who, receiving this image, smiled up at him; and he, “seeing in her this form like himself reflected in the water, loved it and desired to live in it.” With the will came the action, and thus Man engendered, in the words of Ficino's translation, a “formam carentem ratione” (“a form devoid of reason”).25 The error of the Primal Man—for one cannot speak of sin or disobedience—is identical to that of Narcissus.

Agrippa, in turning away from his own natural form and focusing his mind upon the reflection of it in the divine archetype, was trying to reverse this error and reactivate the divine powers which he believed himself to possess. This project, stripped of its this-worldly magical implications, is concisely echoed by Sir John Davies in the last section of his poem Nosce Teipsum:

Look in thy Soul! And thou shalt beauties find, 
Like those which drowned NARCISSUS in the flood....

And thou, my Soul! which turn'st thy curious eye, 
To view the beams of thine own form divine; 
Know, that thou can'st know nothing perfectly, 
While thou art clouded with this flesh of mine.26

Not surprisingly, Agrippa was disappointed in his hope of a this-worldly regeneration into divine form—and he used the figure of the labyrinth to express his sense of confusion. “But alas for you,” he wrote in 1527 to a friend, “who are your guides, whom will you follow, you who venture to enter the house of Daedalos, from which there is no return? Who are your teachers? ... Beware, lest you be deceived by those who were deceived.”27 Although his orientation remained Hermetic, he went so far in his De vanitate as to associate Hermes with the gnostic sect of the Ophites, who worshipped the serpent of the Genesis story as a bringer of knowledge;28 and his reference to Hermes in this passage under the name of Thoth, the Egyptian god with whom he was identified, is a derisive reflection upon the serpent's promise to our first parents that “you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil....”29

One might say that Calvin's originary labyrinth intrudes itself briefly into Paradise Lost when, in the Argument to Book V, Milton writes that “God to render man inexcusable sends Raphael to admonish him....”30 Milton here echoes the words of Calvin—and we have already seen what Calvin meant by them. But the movement of Milton's metaphors is towards a partial dissolution of his labyrinth. In Book II, the more speculative devils busied themselves with the problems of scholastic and Reformation theology, “And found no end, in wandering mazes lost” (II. 561). The same metaphor, now expressive of divine harmony (though a harmony soon to be disturbed), reappears in Book V in the “mazes intricate” of the angels' mystical “dance about the sacred hill” of heaven (V. 619, 622). It recurs in Book IX, in the “surging maze” of the serpent's coils (IX. 499), and emerges again in Book X, where Adam's acceptance of his own full responsibility for the Fall produces a sudden modulation into the metaphor of the fountainhead:

all my evasions vain, 
And reasonings, though through mazes, lead me still
But to my own conviction: first and last
On me, me only, as the source and spring
Of all corruption, all the blame lights due....   (X. 829-33)

This claim of a secondary, created being to be a source (if only of corruption) may remind the reader of another secondary being's attempt to insert himself, with corrupting intentions, into the source of life itself. “There was a place,” Milton writes in Book IX,

Where Tigris at the foot of Paradise
Into a gulf shot under ground, till part
Rose up a fountain by the tree of life; 
In with the river sunk, and with it rose
Satan involved in rising mist....   (IX. 71-75)

This is of course the fons of Genesis 2: 6, and in rising from it wrapped in mist, Satan, conflating the Vulgate and Hebrew versions of the biblical passage, is also inserting himself, as David Quint observes, into the creative origin of life. But this passage ironically subverts demonic claims to autonomy. “Even as Satan steps into the mist of the source,” Quint writes, “he merely assumes a preexistent typology. Like all secondary creatures, he is condemned to imitation....”31 Quint's suggestion that the same is true, in a different sense, of Milton himself, is strikingly confirmed when we turn to a different passage of the poem.

I am referring to that passage in Book IV which represents the furthest regression of Milton's necessarily repressive explanations of the origins of human evil. At a time before Eve's proud insistence on facing the enemy of mankind “Alone, without exterior help sustained” (IX. 336), and before even the dream-temptation by Satan of which this wilfulness was presumably the result, Eve is telling Adam of her first awakening:

much wondering where
And what I was, whence thither brought, and how. 
No distant far from thence a murmuring sound
Of waters issued from a cave and spread
Into a liquid plain, then stood unmoved
Pure as the expanse of heaven; I thither went
With unexperienced thought, and laid me down
On the green bank, to look into the clear
Smooth lake, that to me seemed another sky. 
As I bent down to look, just opposite, 
A shape within the watery gleam appeared
Bending to look on me, I started back, 
It started back, but pleased I soon returned, 
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love....   (IV. 451-65)

Here is another fountain, but one that opens only into an unmoved mirror of water. Alastair Fowler comments that “The landscape is probably meant to be philosophically significant”—for the water and cave recall the Neoplatonist Porphyry's interpretation of a Homeric image as symbolic of the descent of the soul into matter and sexual generation.32 Fowler also comments separately upon the obvious source of this passage in the Narcissus myth as told by Ovid, and upon the manner in which Eve's narcissism anticipates her subsequent “error of seeking an end in herself or desiring an ideal self....”33 However, another story—one which combines these elements of narcissism and descent—is also encoded in these lines: it is the Hermetic account of the Fall.

It was until recently a critical commonplace to speak of “Milton's Puritan rejection ... of Renaissance syncretism.” But here something would appear to have slipped through the filter, and with damaging results. Eve is “our general mother,” but also Man—for she is, as Adam says, “flesh of flesh, / Bone of my bone”; and in their prelapsarian “unfeigned / Union of mind” they are “one soul” (VIII. 603-04). Her gaze into the watery mirror of nature, like that of the Hermetic Primal Man, is met by an answering smile; and her desire is the same. Eve is drawn away by the divine voice to confront her “other half,” a human form “less amiably mild, / Than that smooth watery image” (IV. 488, 479-80).

But what is one to say of this representation of Eve as a being whose downward tendencies are so immediate and spontaneous? At the furthest regression of Milton's explanation of the beginnings of human evil we have encountered, not an origin, but yet another textual source, another mirror—and another story of the Fall.




1  Richard Crashaw, “Phaenicis Genethliacon & Epicedion,” The Complete Poetry of Richard Crashaw, ed. George Walton Williams (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1970), p. 595.

2  William Rankins, “SOLA faelicitas. Christus mihi Phoenix,” in Rankin, Seven Satires (1598), ed. A. Davenport (London: Hodder & Stoughton for University Press of Liverpool, 1948), lines 37-38, 57-59, pp. 20-22.

3  See Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, trans. Mario Domandi (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1972), pp. 16-20. [I have since briefly discussed Cusanus' recovery of the Platonic dialectic in my essay “Cornelius Agrippa's Double Presence in the Faustian Century,” in Jim Van der Laan and Andrew Weeks, eds., The Faustian Century: German Literature and Culture in the Age of Luther and Faustus (New York: Camden House, 2013), pp. 78-79.]

4  Cassirer, pp. 28-34.

5  Ovid, Metamorphoses, XV. 391 ff. Although the death and renewal of the phoenix is generally understood as a self-immolation (the bird dies, in Henry King's translation, “in a blaze of odorous flame”), Rolfe Humphries is closer to Ovid's text in having it die “among the fragrance” of the spices with which it has adorned its nest. See The Metamorphoses of Publius Ovidius Naso, trans. Henry King (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1871), p. 514; and Ovid: Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955), p. 377. Ovid's wording: “haec ubi quinque suae conplevit saecula vitae, / ilicis in ramis tremulaeque cacumine palmae / unguibus et puro nidum sibi construit ore. / quo simul ac casias et nardi lenis aristas / quassaque cum fulva substravit cinnama murra, / se super inponit finitque in odoribus aevum” (P. Ovidi Nasonis Metamorphoseon libri XV, ed. Hugo Magnus [Berlin: Weidmann, 1914], XV, 395-400).

6  See Hermetica, ed. Walter Scott and A. S. Ferguson (4 vols., 1924-36; rpt. Boulder, Colorado: Hermes House, 1982), Corpus Hermeticum, Libellus I. 12-14, vol. 1, pp. 120-22. [A better text is provided in Corpus Hermeticum, edizione e commento di A. D. Nock e A.-J. Festugière; Edizioni dei testi ermetici copti e commento di I. Ramelli (Nock-Festugière edition 4 vols., 1945-54; rpt. Milan: Bompiani, 2005), Corpus Hermeticum, I. 12-14, pp. 80-81.]

7  See Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), pp. 170, 398-403.

8  See Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), I. v. 3-5, vol. 1, pp. 54-58.

9  See David Quint, Origins and Originality in Renaissance Literature: Versions of the Source (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

10  “Il Penseroso,” line 88, in John Milton, Complete Shorter Poems, ed. John Carey (1968; rpt. London: Longman, 1977), p. 143.

11  See A. D. Nuttall, Overheard by God: Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St, John (London: Methuen, 1980); Alan Sinfield, Literature in Protestant England, 1560-1660 (London: Croom Helm, 1983).

12  Calvin, Institutes, I. i. 1, vol. 1, p. 36.

13  This is the wording of the Authorized or King James Version (1611).

14  Spenser, Poetical Works, eds. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (1912; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1966), The Faerie Queene, I. xi. 48, lines 4-5. There is an odd doubling in this canto: this stream of balm from the tree of life differs from the well of life mentioned in stanza 29, but serves the same function of healing and restoring Red Crosse Knight.

15  Calvin, Institutes, II. vii. 7, vol. 1, p. 355.

16  Ibid., III. xviii. 9, vol. 1, p. 831.

17  Ibid., I. v. 1, vol. 1, pp. 52-53.

18  Institutes, III. xxiii. 7, vol. 2, p. 955: “... no one can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before he created him, and consequently foreknew because he so ordained by his decree.” See also Calvin's “Articles Concerning Predestination,” in J. K. S. Reid, ed. and tr., Calvin: Theological Treatises (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), p. 179.

19  Institutes, II. ii. 22, vol. 1, p. 282.

20  Ibid., III. xxi. 1, vol. 2, pp. 922-23.

21  Ibid., I. vi. 3, vol. 1, p. 73.

22  Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, Opera, ed. Richard H. Popkin (2 vols., Lyon, c. 1600; facsimile rpt. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1970), De vanitate, ch. 100, vol. 2, pp. 299-300.

23  Agrippa, De occulta philosophia, “Epistola nuncupatoria,” in Opera, vol. 1, p. 307.

24  Agrippa, De occulta philosophia, III. vi, in Opera, vol. 1, p. 321.

25  Mercurii Trismegisti Pymander, trans. Marsilio Ficino, ed. Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples (Basle, 1532), sig. A8r-v.

26  Sir John Davies, Nosce Teipsum! 2. Of the Soul of Man, and the Immortality Thereof (1599), lines 1313-14, 1333-36, in Some Longer Elizabethan Poems, ed. A. H. Bullen (London: Constable, 1903), p. 105.

27  Agrippa, Opera, vol. 2, Epistolarum Liber V. xiv, p. 873.

28  See Agrippa, De vanitate, ch. 48.

29  Ibid., ch. 48, ch. 1.

30  John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Alastair Fowler (1971; rpt. London: Longman, 1976), p. 256.

31  Quint, Origin and Originality, p. xx.

32  Paradise Lost, ed. Fowler, p. 221.

33  Ibid., p. 222.