[W]hile De vanitate does not spare such disciplines as logic, dicing, prostitution, and scholastic theology, it attacks only the most obviously demonic forms of magic, and actually praises others. To Spenser's generation, the attractiveness of Agrippa's two major works [...] seems to have lain in their unstable but persuasive fusion of apparently Protestant doctrines with occult and Neoplatonic ideas. 

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Cornelius Agrippa’s Double Presence in the Faustian Century

Exponents of the current of thought and interpretation that for present purposes I have labeled the "Faustian paradigm" were [largely] excluded from positions in the institutions of higher learning. [....] Surprisingly, perhaps, analogous patterns of exclusion persist within contemporary scholarship. Historians of humanism, for example, have tended to exclude "speculative humanists" like Reuchlin and Agrippa from full membership in the tribe, while confessional and disciplinary boundaries have produced similar deflections within the historiography of the Reformation [...]. 

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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.)

The Dreamer's Path: Descartes and the Sixteenth Century

[First published in Renaissance Quarterly 49 (1996): 30-76, this essay had a long pre-history. An early outline of its arguments was presented in a paper delivered to the research seminar of the School of English and American Studies at the University of Sussex in November, 1975; subsequent developments appeared in the final chapter of my doctoral thesis (“This Fatal Mirror”: Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the Legend and the Context [University of Sussex, 1980]), and in a conference paper, “'The Order of Discovery': Descartes, Faustus, and the Place of Literature in the Teaching of Philosophy,” 14th Atlantic Philosophical Association Conference, Université Sainte-Anne (4-6 November 1983).]


[Descartes] ne croioit pas qu'on dût s'étonner si fort de voir que les Poëtes, même ceux qui ne font que niaiser, fussent pleins de sentences plus graves, plus sensées, & mieux exprimées que celles qui se trouvent dans les écrits des Philosophes. Il attribuoit cette merveille à la divinité de l'Enthousiasme, & à la force de l'Imagination. . . .

Adrien Baillet, Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (1691), paraphrasing Descartes' Olympica manuscript of 1619-1620 (Descartes, 1974, 10: 184)1


Methode ist Umweg.

Walter Benjamin, “Epistemo-Critical Prologue,” The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Benjamin, 1985, 21, 28)



Jacques Derrida begins a recent reflection upon Descartes' Discours de la méthode by remarking upon the metaphor of the path, the way or road contained within the etymology of the word 'method': “methodos, metahodos, c'est-à-dire 'suivant la route', suivant le chemin, en suivant le chemin, en chemin.” Implicit in this metaphor, as also in any concept of method, he finds a certain historicity: “There can be no method without, necessarily, an advance (cheminement)..., or proceeding (démarche); ... without a flow (cours), a sequel, a sequence: so many things which also form the structure of any history” (Derrida, 1983, 36 [my translation]). If method and history (including the sense of history as narrative) thus meet and overlap in the metaphor of the road or way—hodos in Greek, and in Latin via, iter—so too, Derrida suggests, they share a certain iterability. History, though it may be the domain of the singular event, is only constituted as history through iteration and reiteration. Method, on the other hand, which consists precisely of the rules of transposition that ensure iterability and repetition, annuls a certain historicity of the singular event.

The relation between history and method is thus, he proposes, a paradoxical one—and this paradox is displayed in an especially provoking form in the singular historical event constituted by Descartes' autobiographical discourse on method, a story told in a historically determined language which at the same time sets out to provide the foundations for a rational and universally valid system of precepts, maxims and laws. Derrida finds that the etymology of the word 'discourse' compounds the paradox. Discurrere, meaning to run about, to make an excursion, and also to digress, later came to signify, in addition, to follow an itinerary in speech. Discursivity is thus in effect itinerant speech, and the notion of a discourse on method acquires an element of redundancy through the traces in both its terms of the same hodos, cursus, path or itinerary (Derrida, 1983, 37-40).

After commenting on Parmenides' Poem of the hodos as an inaugural discourse of the path which resists incorporation either into a Platonic reflection on method or an Aristotelian system of rhetoric, and on Heidegger's view of the Wegcharakter des Denkens as a second instance of a discursive itinerary which exceeds the delimitations of direction, rules, or method, Derrida concludes by remarking on the doubleness, the duplicity of methodos and its cognates in Greek (in some contexts the word means artifice, fraud or perversion—voie détournée, meta hodos), and by observing how insistently roads and paths—“diverses voies,” “le droit chemin”—recur in Descartes' Discourse on Method (Derrida, 1983, 41-51).

Given Derrida's insistent blurring in this essay of method and history, of rationality and rhetorical sequentiality; given also his express dissatisfaction with Heidegger's attempts to ascribe to “the Cartesian moment” the origins of an “ideology of method” (46),2 it may seem surprising that he does not take this occasion to reinsert the Cartesian discourse on method into history, to recognize it as a re-direction and extension of discursive itineraries that had perhaps been well-travelled by Descartes' immediate predecessors.

Rather than reproaching him for this omission, I would like here to explore a small stretch of this 'road not taken.' I will not be concerned with what is, for rhetoricians at least, the most familiar immediately pre-Cartesian 'method,' the dichotomizing dialectic of Peter Ramus and its anticipations in such earlier writers as Rudolf Agricola and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples.3 Descartes was conspicuously not interested in static, spatial schemata of this kind, preferring instead to elaborate a method which, though aimed at the discovery of operative eternal truths, was itself conceived of in temporal terms, as a discursive path, a narrative. Nor do I intend to comment on Descartes' indebtedness to another more obviously scientific method, the metodo risolutivo and metodo compositivo developed by Galileo out of the analytic and synthetic logic of Giacomo Zabarella and the other Paduan Aristotelians (see Randall, 1968, 222-51, and Randall, 1962-70, 1: 339-60).4

My own method in this essay, following the dictum of Walter Benjamin—“Methode ist Umweg”—will at times be deliberately digressive. However, my deviations from some of the standard paths of critical exegesis are undertaken with the aim of bringing to light certain continuities between Descartes' own narratives and earlier discursive paths. I want to argue that two of these, Renaissance Hermetism and its near-opposite, Calvinist theology, are of large (and largely unrecognized) importance in Descartes' development of his own distinctive path.

Étienne Gilson's demonstration that Descartes' philosophical vocabulary is affiliated to the scholastic traditions of the via antiqua and the via moderna has not prevented more recent commentators from continuing to understand Descartes as the fons et origo of a specifically modern mode of philosophizing. My intention here is less to disrupt than to complicate this perception. I do not wish to challenge Descartes' originality, much less to suggest that he was passively 'influenced' by two currents of sixteenth-century thought which, though both obsessively concerned with a recovery of origins, differ from one another in doctrinal terms as much as from his own project of returning to first principles. I am interested rather in considering the possibility that Descartes' originary rationalism may have been marked, in no merely superficial manner, by tendencies of a quite different order which were implicated in its primal gestures of constitution and exclusion.

Descartes was, if anything, reacting against Renaissance modes of speculation (in this sense he belongs to what has been called the “anti-Renaissance”). However, he was also re-using them, though very selectively. His path remains, by this analysis, original; but it seems to have begun, in a characteristically Renaissance manner, with a return ad fontes—in one case to Hermetic sources which owed their prestige to the belief that they antedated the Greek philosophers, and were as ancient as any of the Hebrew scriptures; and in another to theological writings which, in their analytical and exegetical rigor, were professedly a return to the uncorrupted teachings of the early Church.



Where better to begin than with the first appearance in Descartes' writings of the path, the hodos or iter that so interests Jacques Derrida? The text in question, a mere jotting preserved in the notes which Leibniz made in 1676 from Descartes' manuscript remains, could hardly be simpler:

Somnium 1619 nov., in quo carmen 7 cujus initium:

Quod vitae sectabor iter? . . . Auson[ius] (Descartes, 1974, 10: 216).

(“The dream of November 1619, and in it the seventh poem of Ausonius which begins: 'What path in life shall I follow?”)

Though simple, this jotting is of enormous import—for according to Descartes' first biographer, Adrien Baillet, the dream (or rather dreams) referred to here coincided with what Descartes himself in his Discourse on Method said was the first enunciation of his philosophical method, and hence the starting point of his path as an independent thinker. But this brief text is at the same time elusive. Henri Gouhier took it to represent an inaugural moment—the moment at which, having woken from his dreams, the young Descartes began the process of retrospectively reconstructing them as a legitimation of his philosophical project.5 However, it seems no less probable that these words are Leibniz's rather than Descartes'—that they amount to a reading note, rather than a transcription from that “petit registre en parchemin” which was found among Descartes' papers after his death, and which at some time in the eighteenth century was lost or destroyed. But whatever the authorship of this text, another sentence of Leibniz's—this time definitely in his own words—confirms Baillet's view of the importance of the dream or dreams:

Descartes for a long time devoted himself to studies at the Jesuit college of La Flèche, and as a young man formed the plan of emending philosophy after some dreams, and long meditation on that passage of Ausonius: “What path in life shall I follow?” (Leibniz, 4: 311, qtd. from Browne, 265)6

Moreover, Descartes' own account of this episode is preserved, though in distorted form, in Baillet's paraphrase of his lost Olympica manuscript.

In what sense, then, is it significant that the question remembered in these brief annotations—“Quod vitae sectabor iter?”—and remembered, it would seem, as a metonymy for the whole of Descartes' annunciatory experience of the night of November 10-11, 1619, came to him not as part of a methodical sequence of thought, but in a dream-revelation, one which he received (to cite his own words, quoted by Baillet) “cùm plenus forem Enthousiasmo”—in a state, that is, of divine exaltation, inspiration, or possession? (Descartes, 1974, 10: 179).7 And what should we make of the fact that the choice of paths presented itself, at the moment which Descartes then and subsequently understood as the inauguration of his own hodos and his own method, in the form of a citation from the poet Ausonius, and thus as something already iterated and reiterated?

Let us consider these dreams. Adrien Baillet's Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (1691), which paraphrases extensively from the manuscripts to which the biographer had access, reveals that Descartes' philosophizing in his famous “poêle” in the winter of 1619 was, initially at least, a different process from that orderly sequence of thoughts recounted in the Discourse on Method. This process appears to have culminated in three dreams on the night of November 10th, 1619, in the course of which Descartes was crippled by ghosts, whirled about by a sudden wind, pushed by an evil spirit—this same wind—towards (of all places) a church, advised that an unnamed person wished to give him a melon, frightened by thunder, and finally engaged by another unknown person in conversation over a Dictionary, which signified “nothing other than all the sciences brought together,” and an anthology of Latin verse, by which Descartes understood “Philosophy and Wisdom joined together” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 181-84).

For what it may be worth, we have Descartes' word that his meditations in 1619 were bound up with an exercise of deliberate doubt. In Part Two of the Discourse he says of this aspect of his meditations in the “poêle” that “as regards all the opinions which up to this time I had embraced, I thought I could not do better than endeavour once for all to sweep them completely away, so that they might later on be replaced, either by others which were better, or by the same, when I had made them conform to the uniformity of a rational scheme” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 89; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 581). If Baillet's Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes can be trusted, this was a painful experience: “he had no less to suffer than if it had been a matter of stripping away his very self.” And according to Baillet, this self-imposed torment, this attempt to represent his mind to himself “entirely naked,” led directly to the night of dreams. Descartes' efforts “threw his mind into violent agitation.... He tired it to such a degree that his brain became overheated, and he fell into a kind of enthusiasm which so worked upon his already exhausted mind that he prepared it to receive the impressions of dreams and visions” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 180-81).8 The dreams thus seem not to have been an accidental by-product of this process, but rather its desired consummation. Indeed, Baillet attributes to Descartes' Olympica manuscript the statements “that the Genius which excited in him the enthusiasm by which he had felt his brain heated for some days had predicted these dreams to him before he went to bed, and that the human mind had no part in them” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 186).9

What path can be traced in these dreams? In the first of them, Descartes was terrified by the apparition of “quelques fantômes,” and thinking he was walking in the streets, he felt himself to be struck by such a weakness on his right side that he could not maintain himself upright, and had to “lean to his left side in order to be able to get to the place where he wanted to go....” Ashamed of this posture, he tried to straighten himself, but a sudden swirling gust of wind spun him around three or four times on his left foot. Hardly able to stand, he noticed a school in front of him—one is reminded of the Jesuit college of La Flèche where he was educated—and entered it “to find a refuge, and a remedy for his disorder”: he hoped to reach the school church and to pray there (Descartes, 1974, 10: 181).

The structure of the dream seems clear up to this point. It is the right side of Descartes' body image that is struck with weakness. If one can apply to the imagery of this dream some of the conventional associations of 'left' and 'right,' then the phantoms, the sinister wind and the weakness of Descartes' right side would together represent opposition, both internal and 'demonic,' to his conscious project of ridding himself of his former opinions, of stripping his mind naked. The most conspicuous clothing of the mind (to fill out the Neoplatonic metaphor) is the body; one might say that through the humiliating terrors of this dream the demonic body is fighting back. And in so doing it deflects the dreamer from his initial path, meta hodos: almost from the first moment of his dream, then, he is following a “voie détournée.”

Having decided to enter the church, the dreaming Descartes would seem, rather curiously, to have begun to find reasons for not doing so. Realizing that he had passed a man whom he knew without saluting him, he attempted to turn back, but was violently rebuffed by the wind. At the same time, though, he noticed another person, who called him politely by name, and informed him that a certain gentleman had something to give him—the famous melon. As a group of other people formed around him, Descartes, still hunched over, observed that they stood upright and firm on their feet, and also that the wind was greatly diminished in force. At this point he awoke—without having entered the church, one may remark.

The path marked out by this first dream is a paradoxical one. Descartes at its beginning had a goal, “the place where he wanted to go”; but crippled by the ghosts, and spun about by the wind, he directed his steps instead to a church as a place of refuge, only to find that the wind which had previously obstructed him was now pushing him in that direction, while at the same time blowing against the church (“le vent … souffloit contre l'Eglise”). What seems really to have frightened Descartes—Baillet's wording is unfortunately imprecise at this point10—was not so much his own disability, or the humiliation of being spun around like a top, as the discovery that the wind which had attacked him was furthering his decision to seek refuge in a church. His own pious will was suddenly revealed to be in accord with the demonic force which was oppressing him. One could hardly ask for a clearer dream image of psychic overdetermination. The issue raised is that of autonomy or free-will: if Descartes wills what the wind wills, then what is his will—or, more precisely, whose is it? The young Descartes has no answer to this question: as he wrote in what Henri Gouhier believes to have been part of the Olympica manuscript, “God made three marvels: things from nothing, free-will, and the Man-God” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 218).11

Descartes' own interpretations of this first dream only heighten the sense of paradox. On waking, “he felt a real pain, which made him fear that this might have been the work of some evil genius who wished to seduce him.... He prayed to God, asking to be guarded from the evil effect of his dream....” But the process of interpretation which continued after he awoke from his third and last dream complicated this identification of the power at work in the first one. According to Baillet's paraphrase, “The wind which pushed him towards the college church when his right side was weakened was none other than the evil Genius which was trying to throw him by force into a place where he was planning to go voluntarily.” In the margin Baillet quotes Descartes' own words: A malo Spiritu ad Templum propellebar.” He continues: “This is why God did not permit him to advance further and let himself be carried, even into a holy place, by a spirit whom He had not sent—although Descartes was convinced that it had been the Spirit of God who had made him take his first steps towards this church” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 182, 185-86).12

The dreamer's behaviour is thus, in retrospect, doubly overdetermined—first by the demonic forces represented in the dream, and then, simultaneously, by the God whom his interpretation inscribes in it as the initial prompter and final preventer of his movement towards the church, and thus as the unseen author of what had seemed to be Descartes' own actions. One is left with a disturbing overlap between the (presumably good) Genius who excited Descartes' state of enthusiasm and predicted his dreams to him, the evil spirit or evil Genius who in the first of those dreams attempted to push him into a church, and the God whom his interpretation summoned up to dispose of this paradox.

Baillet tells us that after dreaming his first dream, Descartes meditated for some two hours. He then fell asleep again, but was awakened at once by a sound like a clap of thunder, “and opening his eyes, he saw many sparks of fire scattered about the room.” This second dream, which he initially found as terrifying as the first, he later understood to be “the signal of the Spirit of Truth which descended on him to possess him”; the terror which it inspired was “the remorse of his conscience over the sins he might have committed in the course of his life till then” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 182, 186).13

The third dream, while lacking the narrative shape of the first, condenses its vivid imagery into a textual metonymy, and supplements this with what is quite clearly a response to the project of Descartes' waking mind. In this dream, which he took to signify his future, Descartes found two books upon his table, a dictionary and an anthology of Latin poetry: it was in the latter of these that he found the poem of Ausonius beginning with the words Quod vitae sectabor iter?” which he appears later to have remembered as a metonymy for the whole dream-experience. Before he awoke, Descartes understood the dictionary to mean “nothing other than all the sciences brought together,” while the anthology “indicated in particular, and in a distinct manner, Philosophy and Wisdom joined together”; upon waking, “he was bold enough to persuade himself that it was the Spirit of Truth who had wished to open the treasures of all the sciences to him by this dream” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 184-85).14


But in what manner were these dreams related to the path Descartes did in fact follow, or to the philosophical method which is its most important textual residue? Baillet interpreted Descartes' words “X. Novembris 1619, cùm plenus forem Enthousiasmo, & mirabilis scientiae fundamenta reperirem &c.” as meaning that on the day preceding the night of dreams he had discovered, in a state of exaltation, the foundations of a marvellous science. By this account, the dreams would seem not to have constituted his discovery, but rather to have confirmed it, and perhaps expanded its implications.

The nature of the “marvellous science” remains to some extent a mystery. That it was initially unclear to Descartes himself may be suggested by a marginal note which, according to Baillet, he added to the Olympica manuscript: XI. Novembris 1620, coepi intelligere fundamentum Inventi mirabilis” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 179): “November 11, 1620, I began to understand the foundations of the marvellous invention.”15 This marvellous science would seem to have included some of the ideas on method developed in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written by 1628). The concept of a universal wisdom to be attained through a recognition of the interrelatedness of all the sciences (Rule 1) is clearly present in the dictionary and the anthology of the third dream. And the evident parallel between Descartes' “simple natures” theory (Rules 6, 8, 12) and the geometrical problems upon which he had been working in 1618 and early 1619 suggests that he had struck upon the idea of generalizing that mathematical logic, which he described to Isaac Beeckman in March 1619 as a “fundamentally new science,” and also as “an incredibly ambitious project” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 37-39), into a universal method of inquiry. More important, from my point of view, is the strong probability that the meditations which culminated in the dreams of 1619 embodied a process of deliberate doubt that was aimed at establishing an unshakeable “knowledge of the naked understanding”—upon which “the knowledge of all things else depends” (Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Rule 8; Descartes, 1973, 1: 24-25).

Almost a decade after the annunciatory experience of his dreams, Descartes returned to this use of doubt in a more rigorous manner: in Part III of the Discourse he dates to the years 1628-29 his formulation of the arguments which led him through a systematic doubt of everything that could be doubted to the Archimedean point of “I think, therefore I am,” and from thence to a reconstruction of philosophy (Descartes, 1973, 1: 100).16 His letters, as R. H. Popkin has noted, also indicate “that around 1628-29 he was struck by the full force of the sceptical onslaught [that is, of the contemporary revival of Pyrrhonism], and the need for a new and stronger answer to it” (Popkin, 174).

There are clear differences between the doubt of 1619 and that of 1628-29. The latter formed part of a sophisticated argument, while the former, though in some sense methodical, and evidently expected to produce a guarantee of reliable knowledge, appears not to have been integrated into any systematic philosophical construction. Moreover, while the doubt of 1628-29 could be described as abstract and theoretical, that of 1619, as the dreams attest, was inextricably linked to the path of Descartes' own life. But despite these differences, Descartes seems to have seen a close connection between his meditations in the “poêle” and the argument he constructed almost a decade later. In Part II of the Discourse (which also contains a masked allusion to the dreams of 1619),17 the description of his doubting in 1619 is closely followed by the enunciation of the four elementary rules of his method, the first of which proposes a criterion of clarity and distinctness as the basis for determining which judgements may be accepted as indubitable. The use of this criterion is thus made a part of the 1619 meditations—even though its philosophical basis is established only in Part IV in the argument which follows from the systematic doubt of 1628-29.

A more conclusive link between the experience of 1619 and the argument of 1628-29 can be found in the unfinished dialogue La recherche de la vérité par la lumière naturelle, in which Descartes' spokesman responds to objections against the systematic doubt which he is proposing with the assurance that

these doubts which alarmed you to begin with, are like phantoms and vain images which appear at night in the uncertain glimmer of a feeble light. If you flee from them, your fear will follow you, but if you approach as though to touch them, you will discover them to be no more than air and shadow, and will in the future feel more confident in any such encounter. (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 1121)18

This is, unmistakably, an echo of the first of Descartes' three dreams: he was frightened by phantoms, and crippled by a demonic wind; but he resisted, and after the thunderbolt of his second dream and the revelation of the third, could look back on these terrors without fear. Perhaps more importantly, this passage provides a link between the evil genius of Descartes' first dream and that other evil genius who constitutes the final, 'hyperbolic' form of Cartesian doubt in the Meditations of 1641: the phantoms, who in the dream of 1619 were clearly allied to the wind, here represent systematic doubt.

This linkage between the doubt and dream-experience of 1619, the argument refuting scepticism which Descartes developed in 1628-29 and to which he gave literary form in La recherche de la vérité and in the Discourse, and the Meditations in which he cemented the metaphysical foundations of his new philosophy, draws our attention to the banal fact that the arguments of systematic doubt are a threat to, and the Archimedean point of cogito, ergo sum a proclamation of, human autonomy. The connection may also serve as a reminder that what Cartesian philosophy identifies as its own primal scene remained substantially unchanged between 1619 and the 1640s. The dream-walker of 1619, or the thinker of the Meditations who is willing to assume that his thoughts may be a dream, encounters or hypothesizes an evil Genius who threatens to make him the helpless object of its manipulations. In this sense the evil spirit of 1619 poses the more radical threat, raising the unanswerable question of whether Descartes' decision to seek refuge in a church was psychologically overdetermined; the power of the evil Genius in the Second Meditation, in contrast, is restricted to the epistemic level by Descartes' insistence that his own thoughts “spring up of themselves” in his mind, and are inspired by nothing beyond his own nature (for the Latin and French versions of this passage, see Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 183, 417 respectively).

The dreamer escapes from this predicament through an act of resistance—in the first case by refusing to let the spirit push him into a church, and in the second by insisting, “let [the evil Genius] deceive me as much as he will, he can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think I am something” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 150; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 183, 415)—an act which is then divinely authenticated. In 1619 Descartes subsequently discovers in his resistance the agency of a benevolent God who wanted to reveal to him the treasures of all the sciences; in 1641 he argues the existence of a similarly benevolent God, who “cannot be a deceiver” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 150 [Meditation II], 1: 171 [Meditation III), and who thus provides him with the criterion of clarity and distinctness that legitimizes his method of discovery.



The very improbability, the extravagance of a path which, beginning in religious enthusiasm and dreams, appears to lead without detour to the method of Cartesian rationalism, will perhaps justify a degree of interpretive indirection on our part. The result may be a kind of fable. But so also, by Descartes' own account, is the Discourse on Method—which, in a well-known passage, modestly indicating that he does not insist that others should adopt the paths he himself has followed, he likens to “a history, or, if you prefer it, a fable....”

Three paragraphs later, speaking not of his own text but of the histories and fables of the ancients, Descartes remarks that “fables make one imagine many events possible which in reality are not so, and even the most accurate of histories, if they do not exactly misrepresent or exaggerate the value of things in order to render them more worthy of being read, at least omit in them all the circumstances which are basest and least notable....” He compares the reading of such texts, which he himself abandoned once his schooling was finished, to travel in foreign lands, too much of which, he says, makes one “a stranger in one's own country”—this from a man who had spent more than half of the preceding two decades outside his native France (Discourse, I; Descartes, 1973, 1: 83, 84-85).

One notes with interest the inadvertent warning here, and also the implicit link between Descartes' own history or fable and those of the ancients, which it seems to be part of his purpose to supplant. Is there perhaps, in addition, some more intimate connection between this autobiographical narrative and certain ancient fables (a word which Descartes' text does not require us to understand in a narrowly literal sense)? In one of the paragraphs which intervene between the passages I have quoted, he writes that “la gentillesse des fables réveille l'esprit”: “the grace of fables awakens the mind” (Discours, I; Descartes 1963-73, 1: 572). He is speaking here of the education of children. But it may shortly come to appear that the connection between fables and intellectual awakening has deeper resonances in the writings of this dreamer, this consummate story-teller.

Taking the word 'fable' in its widest sense, as applying not merely to a certain kind of moralized or didactic narrative, but also more generally to discursive paths and narratives of legitimation to which we grant at best a partial or conditional assent, let us ask which of the 'fables' current in Descartes' early manhood could have provided him with the materials—including the dream-revelation of November 1619—for the construction of his own history or fable, the Cartesian Bildungsroman.

The answer will not necessarily be a simple one. Writers of the period were almost inescapably caught up in complex ideological, and often also physical, conflicts. Descartes was himself serving as a volunteer with the Imperial army in the opening campaign of the Thirty Years' War when he experienced his dream-revelation, and while in Germany he experienced some of the excitement generated by the apocalyptic fantasies of those bizarre offshoots of Lutheranism and Hermetic magic, the Rosicrucian manifestos (texts which, as Frances Yates showed, there is good reason to connect with the political and ideological tensions that led to war).19 During his absence from France there occurred the Huguenot revolt of 1621, one of the instigators of which, the tragic poet Antoine de Montchrestien, was killed in a skirmish in Normandy that October (Griffiths, 14-18). And on Descartes' return to Paris in 1623 he was himself briefly suspected of being one of the Rosicrucian 'invisibles,' over whose supposed arrival in the city to spread their 'atheistical' and magical doctrines writers like the Jesuit François Garasse were trying to stir up alarm. For Descartes this was a dangerous situation: in 1619 Giulio Cesare Vanini had been burned at the stake in Toulouse for 'atheism,' and there seems to have been around this time an epidemic of sorcerer-burnings in France, one of whose victims in 1623 was a man executed at Moulins for the crime of possessing a copy of that sixteenth-century encyclopaedia of magic, Cornelius Agrippa's De occulta philosophia.20 The climate, in short, was an increasingly repressive one.

The books written by François Garasse and by Marin Mersenne in the early 1620s are of interest as showing with some clarity what it was that was being repressed. Garasse makes clear at the outset of his loose-lipped attack upon the subversive currents of the age that he is primarily concerned with sceptical and libertine tendencies, with those “beaux esprits” who set themselves up as opponents of “the heavy yoke of superstition,” but he sees these tendencies as closely allied to an interest in “le secret des causes naturelles,” in Neoplatonist mysticism, magic, the cabala, and alchemy (Garasse, 1: 2-4).21

Although, unlike Garasse, Mersenne was a serious scholar, his Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim also attacks 'atheists' and deists like the unfortunate Vanini along with magi like Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico, Cornelius Agrippa, and (most emphatically) that Hermetic philosopher and avowed supporter of the Rosicrucians, Robert Fludd, who had recently published an extended cabalistic interpretation of Genesis—and whom Mersenne calls a cacomagus,” a haereticomagus," and (punning on his name) “one soon to be submerged in the eternal floods” (Mersenne, 1932, 62).22 It would be possible for analytical purposes to distinguish between Mersenne's treatment of these tendencies, but Robert Lenoble's conflation of the two as related aspects of “Renaissance naturalism” is probably closer to Mersenne's own view of the matter (Lenoble, 5 ff.).

Having discharged himself of this counterblast against magical or naturalistic appropriations of Christian doctrines, this summa against Renaissance magic, its whole way of thinking, and all its offshoots in the vast contemporary dissemination of magical practices” (Yates, 1964, 434), Mersenne in the following year attacked the scepticism of Pierre Charron, the 'Renaissance naturalism' of Jerome Cardan and the Hermetism of Giordano Bruno in L'Impiété des déistes, athées, et libertins de ce temps (1624). The main body of this work, however, is devoted to refuting a Deist poem, the mocking libertinism of which Mersenne correctly understands as prompted less by these currents of thought than by the harsh paradoxes of Calvinist theology. Mersenne argues against this anonymous “Poëte Calvino-déiste” (and also against Calvin) that God's will and his foreknowledge are in no sense the cause of our sins, and that our actions “do not follow the absolute will of God” Mersenne, 1624, 572).23 Not surprisingly, his defence of God's justice slides into the familiar equivocations that it was Calvin's purpose to confront and to eliminate: arguing in one chapter that we can do nothing, for good or evil, without divine aid, Mersenne maintains in the next that “God's foreknowledge, his will, and also his laws and all his works, are in no sense prejudicial to our liberty” (Mersenne, 1624, 471-72, 477-78 [ch. xvii], 517 [ch. xviii]).24

In 1625 Mersenne published another fat book, La vérité des sciences, a dialogue of some one thousand pages in which the opinions of an Alchemist, who believes his science “capable of renewing the whole world, and dispersing the shadows of ignorance by some extraordinary new light” (Mersenne, 1625, 3),25 are demolished by a Sceptic, whose tropes are in turn refuted by Mersenne himself in the person of the Christian Philosopher, and supplanted by his own mitigated, constructive scepticism. But if the primary target of this book is the current wave of Pyrrhonist scepticism, it also contains a reminder of Mersenne's opposition to “those magicians and charlatans known as Brothers of the Rosy Cross, who boast of understanding [Hermes] Trismegistus and all the cabalists of Antiquity...” (Mersenne, 1625, 566-67).

Catholic orthodoxy, then, saw itself as threatened in the early 1620s by searchers into “the secrets of natural causes” who, practising one or another form of Hermetic and Cabalistic magic or alchemy, at the same time appropriated Christian doctrine for their own purposes; by deists and libertines, whose reaction against the hard doctrines of Jean Calvin led them to scoff at all of the more punitive tenets of Christianity; and also, increasingly, by Pyrrhonist sceptics, who threatened not so much the faith as its appendages of rational theology and scholastic philosophy. Despite their obvious diversity, these tendencies were not roped together arbitrarily by Garasse and Mersenne: they in fact overlap in ways that have a direct bearing upon Descartes' meditations in November 1619.

That Descartes read Montaigne is well known. In the next section of this essay I wish to show that there is reason to believe that he was also acquainted with a tradition of sixteenth-century occultism to which Montaigne's scepticism is in certain respects connected. And in the concluding three sections I will propose that Descartes' thought took shape as an itinerary across a discursive field structured not only by the scholastic texts to which modern Cartesian scholarship has so insistently drawn attention, but also (and decisively) by two diametrically opposed groups of texts: the 'philosophical' writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and the theological writings of Jean Calvin.



Montaigne and his successors argued that all human opinions are doubtful, and that consequently we should not merely suspend our judgment as to their truth or falsity, but should actually reject their claims to any truth value. Yet as R. H. Popkin has remarked, sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Pyrrhonists wished not simply to destroy the supposed certainties of human knowledge, but also to prepare the mind to receive a superhuman truth that could come only from above: the “nouveaux Pyrrhoniens” aimed, as much as the mature Descartes did, “to find certain knowledge. But they hoped”—rather like the Descartes of 1619—“to find it miraculously, to have it suddenly delivered to them by God” (Popkin, 182). Their Pyrrhonist tropes, demolishing any human criterion of truth, made them the more thirsty for a divinely authorized criterion. Thus, for example, Montaigne writes in his “Apologie of Raymond Sebond” (I quote from the translation of Florio) that Pyrrhonism “representeth man bare and naked, acknowledging his naturall weaknesse, apt to receive from above some strange power, disfurnished of all humane knowledge, and so much the more fitte to harbour divine understanding, disannulling his judgement, that so he may give more place unto faith” (Montaigne, 1904-06, 2: 233).26

At this point, as has often been observed, Montaigne's debt to the fideism of Cornelius Agrippa's De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium (1530) is palpable (see Villey, 2: 166-70). And the writings of this early sixteenth-century humanist and magician anticipate in a remarkable way the full range of tendencies attacked by Garasse and Mersenne. Agrippa's De occulta philosophia libri tres (1533), which was of central importance to magi from John Dee and Giordano Bruno in the sixteenth century to Thomas Vaughan in the 1650s, made him notorious as a Hermetic magician and cabalist; and a spurious Fourth Book which was widely accepted as authentic exaggerated the demonic implications of his magic. But not only did Agrippa practise and write about all of the occult sciences, including alchemy, he also wrote against most of them in his De vanitate. In this book, setting out to demolish or at least to cast doubt upon all human arts and sciences, he presented himself as at once a radical evangelical reformer, a sceptic, and a mocking subverter of the established order and its pieties—as, in effect, the Lucianic ironist and libertine denounced by Calvin in his De scandalis.27

Agrippa seems to have been widely read in France. The Latin text of De vanitate, first published in 1530, was frequently reprinted, and the work went through at least five editions in French by 1617 (two more followed in 1623 and 1630).28 Different editions of Agrippa's Opera were also in circulation, the most recent being the one printed at Lyons in 1600. Needless to say, he was a controversial figure: Jean Bodin attacked him in 1580 as “the greatest sorcerer of his age” (Bodin, fol. 20, sig. E4, fol. 219-20, sig. IIi 3v-4), and four years later André Thevet lamented that “Had it pleased God that Agrippa should have drowned only himself in that abyss of impiety, we would not today be faced with such a heap of atheists, backbiters and lampooners as this century has produced.... He hatched infinite swarms both of magicians and of atheists...” (Thevet, 2: fol. 544).29 In the early seventeenth century Agrippa continued to attract comment: in 1603 Jean Belot criticized (at the same time plagiarizing) his occult philosophy (Belot; see Secret, 290); in 1623 Mersenne denounced him as an Archimagus” (Mersenne, 1623, col. 590); and two years later Gabriel Naudé defended his reputation, along with that of other “great men falsely accused of magic” (Naudé, 400-29).

Perhaps more to the point, Descartes mentions Agrippa in a letter of April 1619 to Isaac Beeckman. In March of that year he had written to Beeckman of his plans for a “fundamentally new science” which he contrasted to the Ars brevis of Raymond Lull. In April, he told of meeting a man who, while admitting that Lull's art and Agrippa's commentaries on it consisted of a mere ordering of the parts of dialectic, also claimed that there were, in addition, certain keys which could open up the secrets of this art. To Descartes' request that he check this in his copy of the book, Beeckman replied that the supposed keys are in Agrippa's text; “you yourself would have noticed them, not long ago, had you wished to” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 165-68). During the previous winter, then, when he and Beeckman were together, Descartes had access to this book—and as Charles Adam proposed, there is reason to believe that the book in question was the Lyons edition of Agrippa's Opera published in 1600 (see Descartes, 1974, 10: 63, note d, and Gouhier, 28, 111). From the contempt with which Descartes wrote to Beeckman of the Lullian whose claims of secret knowledge inspired his request—“his knowledge, drawn from books (libris), was on his lips (labris) rather than in his mind”—interpreters of this episode have too easily concluded that Descartes felt a similar contempt for Agrippa. But this opinion in fact echoes Agrippa's own dismissal, in De vanitate, of the Art of Lull as one which “availeth more to the outward shewe of the witte, and to the ostentation of Learninge, then to gette knowledge, and hathe mutche more presumptuousnesse, then efficacie” (Agrippa, 1974, 56 [ch. 9]).30

I have no intention of substituting, in place of the “roman rosi-crucien”31 of certain modern scholars who would have made Descartes an adherent of that shadowy sect, an even less substantial “roman agrippain.” On the other hand, it might be rash to accept at face value Descartes' statement in the Discourse that even before leaving La Flèche he knew well enough what false doctrines were worth “to be subject to deception neither by the promises of an alchemist, the predictions of an astrologer, the impostures of a magician, or the artifices or empty boasts of any of those who profess to know more than they do” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 576). For his attitude towards imposture and artifice was perhaps more complicated than this text would suggest. In La recherche de la vérité his spokesman Eudoxus lays out the order he will follow in expounding his method: beginning with “the rational soul, in which all our knowledge resides,” he will then consider its author and His nature, our knowledge of other creatures, the operations of our senses, and the manner in which our thoughts become true or false. “Then I shall display here the works of man upon corporeal objects, and having struck wonder into you with the most powerful machines, the rarest automata, the most specious visions, and the subtlest impostures that artifice can invent, I shall reveal to you their secrets, which are so simple and so innocent that you will henceforth wonder at nothing in the works of our hands” (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 1114). What Descartes promises is to demystify the impostures of artifice: he will incite wonder only in order to efface it. But the first step of this double movement is one of self-imposition through artifice—and turning to Descartes' manuscripts of the years 1619 to 1621, one finds repeated intimations of this same first step, but no hint of a subsequent demystification. He proposes, for example, that

In a garden one can make shadows which represent diverse figures, such as trees and others. . .

Item, in a room, to arrange that the rays of the sun, passing through certain openings, represent various numbers or figures:

Item, to make appear, in a room, tongues of fire, chariots of fire and other figures in the air; all this with certain mirrors which focus the sun's rays on those points.... (Descartes, 1974, 10: 215-16)

Such “visions apparentes” as these, derived, it would seem, from a reading of Giovanni Battista Porta's De magia naturali (1558), were part of the stock in trade of Renaissance natural magic. So also were automata like the famous dove of Archytas, which is mentioned by Descartes in another note, and which, as Charles Adam remarks, he could have read about in Agrippa's De occulta philosophia.32

In 1628, according to Beeckman's journal, he and Descartes amused themselves by mocking Agrippa and Porta (Descartes, 1974, 10: 347). But it seems likely that nine years earlier, Descartes might easily have understood Agrippa—the more sceptical side of him, that is, the author of De vanitate—as writing from a situation not unlike his own. Ferdinand Alquié has remarked of Descartes' account of his schooling in the first part of the Discourse on Method that “At the end of such a description, one is convinced that Descartes' doubt was not simply voluntary and methodical. In his youth and at the end of his studies, Descartes experienced a doubt that was profound and spontaneous, a real disillusionment” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 576 n.2). This young man apparently had access to Agrippa's Opera omnia at the time of his encounter with Beeckman in the winter of 1618-19, if not before. He might then have been receptive to the Hermetic illuminism which pervades both the third book of De occulta philosophia and the later chapters of De vanitate—where Agrippa insists, for example, that

God alone contains the fountain of truth, from which he must drink who desires true doctrines: since there is not, nor can be had, any science of the secrets of nature, of the separate substances, much less of God their author, unless it be revealed by divine inspiration. For divine things are not touched by human powers, and natural things at every moment flee from the power of sense....33

Another text printed in the same edition of Agrippa's Opera, entitled De magia seu pneumatica veterum and ascribed to one 'Arbatel,' may help to explain the title of Descartes' Olympica (the word does not occur in classical Latin)—and may also in some sense underlie the revelatory experience recorded in that manuscript. Seven of the forty-nine aphorisms which constitute this short text are concerned with Olympic spirits or the spirits of Olympus. 'Arbatel' writes that these stellar intelligences are counted among the angels of God by whom, according to the New Testament and the traditions of the Egyptians (which is to say the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus), all sciences have been delivered to mankind; the particular role of Olympic spirits is to declare human destinies and to impart wisdom (Agrippa, 1970, 1: 710-13 [Arbatel, De magia, aphorisms 12-15]). A magician is defined in this text as one to whom, by the grace of God, the spirits have given knowledge of the secrets of nature; shortly thereafter the writer adds—I quote from a seventeenth-century translation—that “The passage from the common life of man unto a Magical life, is no other but a sleep, from that life; and an awakening to this life...” (Agrippa, 1655, 213 [aphorisms 41 and 44]).34 Yet this transition may be a dangerous one, for while Olympus and the inhabitants thereof, do of their own accord offer themselves to men in the form of Spirits,” another kind of being is attracted to us by our sins—evil spirits, who in another aphorism are said to be the cause of all corruption in human knowledge, “sow[ing] tares amongst the children of disobedience, as it is manifest out of St. Paul, and Hermes Trismegistus.” Whoever therefore wishes spiritual illumination must “keep himself from all enormious sins, and diligently pray to the most High to be his keeper; and he shall break through all the snares and impediments of the devil...” (Agrippa, 1655, 194, 184 [aphorisms 19, 12, 19]).35

For all its naivety, this text reflects a mind-set not far removed from that of the dreams recorded by Descartes in his Olympica, in which the assault of an evil spirit and an incitement to remorse over his past sins was followed by a kind of revelation. His dreams seem to have authenticated, rather than transmitted, the mirabilis scientiae fundamenta. But their genre is clearly that of the dreams alluded to in a Paracelsan text according to which

Many wonderful Arts and Sciences also have seemed to be made appeare to Artists in their dreams. . . : this oftentimes happeneth, but the greatest part perisheth in oblivion: some rising early in the morning, say, This night a wonderful dreame appeared to me, as that Mercury, or this or that Philosopher corporally appeared to me in a dreame, who taught me this or that Art; but it is fallen out of my memory. . . .

The author of the Olympica was presumably familiar with the sort of advice this text offers: “To whom any such thing hath happened, he ought not to go forth out of his chamber, nor speak with any man … until he call to remembrance that which he had forgotten” (Paracelsus, 47-48).36



My argument does not require us to believe that the young Descartes was conclusively influenced by the writings of sixteenth-century occultists like Agrippa, Paracelsus, or 'Arbatel'—most of which he could with good reason have dismissed, even in 1619, as superstitious, silly, and vain. However, I would propose that he was familiar—whether directly or indirectly—with the 'philosophical' writings attributed to Hermes (or Mercurius) Trismegistus. Agrippa and other occultist writers would have pointed him in this direction: the philosophical Hermetica were a principal source both of Renaissance magical doctrines and of that prisca theologia, larded with supposedly pre-Christian anticipations of Christianity, which legitimized this magic. Oddly enough, more orthodox writers could also have directed him to Hermes. Even for those polemicists of the 1620s, Garasse and Mersenne, the name of Hermes was not one to be scoffed at. The former, in speaking of destiny, places “Mercure Trismégiste” at the head of a list of “les plus sages d'entre les Philosophes” who have written on this subject, if too obscurely for Garasse's taste (Garasse, 1: 345-46). And Mersenne, the first two chapters of whose L'impiété des déistes consist of a declamation in the Hermetic manner on the excellence of man, in a later chapter refers his reader for evidence of the piety of ancient philosophers to the De perenni philosophia (1540) of Augustinus Steuchus Eugubinus—a work which, presenting Mercurius Trismegistus as the “most ancient source” from whom the Greek philosophers derived their theology, also expounds his opinions in some detail.37 Other writers, whom Descartes might have read before 1619, are very much more positive. Pontus de Tyard, Bishop of Chalon-sur-Saône, compared the prayer at the end of the first dialogue of Hermes' Pimander to the psalms of David (Tyard, fol. 112v-113; qtd. in Walker, 69); and François de Foix, duc de Candale and Bishop of Aire, believing that Hermes had received from God “the same instruction as had Moses, the prophets and the apostles,” wrote that “since he agrees with and expounds the scriptures, … one cannot go wrong in revering his opinion” (Foix, sig. A2; qtd. in Walker, 69). (Foix de Candale, interestingly, was a mathematician as well as a Christian Hermetist: of his five published works, “three are editions and translations of the Pimander.... The remaining two are editions of Euclid's Elements” [Harrie, 503]).38

What, then, could Descartes have found in Hermes Trismegistus? An answer, of a kind, to that fear of psychological overdetermination which is imaged in the first of his three dreams (and which Mersenne's attack upon the deists might suggest was prompted by the doctrines of Calvin)—for the Hermetic writings contain repeated proclamations of the quasi-divine autonomy of the human mind. But much else besides.

I have proposed that in his meditations of November 1619 Descartes was trying to separate his mind from his body (the left-right asymmetry of his first dream suggests that he succeeded in creating such a psychic split), and that he was doing so in the expectation of being rewarded with a visionary revelation. His doubt, his rejection of all his previous opinions, was also an attempt to recognize and isolate that which in him could truly know: his own essential self. One need go no further than the first and thirteenth dialogues of the Hermetic Pimander in order to appreciate the Hermetic orientation of this project.

The first dialogue, the seminal Hermetic text (whose title Poimandres or Pimander Marsilio Ficino took to apply to the whole body of Hermetic writings he translated), consists largely of a vision and a divine discourse which result from the narrator's meditation de rerum natura: “my intellectual perceptions were borne aloft,” he says, “and my bodily senses lulled, as commonly happens to those who, through fatigue or satiety, are oppressed by sleep—when suddenly I perceived a being of immense size who called me by name, saying: 'What, o Mercury, do you wish to hear, to consider, to learn and understand?'” To this being, which identified itself as “Pimander, the mind of the divine power,” he replied: “I want to learn the nature of things, and to know God.”39

The eschatology of this text (which later dialogues of the Corpus Hermeticum, the thirteenth in particular, assimilate to the notion of a this-wordly rebirth or deification) involves a progressive release of the true self from what envelops it: the inactive character (ociosus habitus) is “relinquished to the [avenging] daemon and laid aside; the bodily senses … return to their sources...” (Hermes, 1532, sig. B3).40 Having received his revelation, Hermes cries out against the “enticement of irrational sleep”; he has learned that whoever recognizes himself “has obtained the good which is above being”; but he whom the body envelops “in the deception of love” remains wandering “in darkness, perceiving by sense the evils of death” (Hermes, 1532, sig. B3v, Bv).41 Secure in his possession of the truth about the creation of the world, the origins of mankind, and the way to salvation, Hermes says: “I inscribed the benefaction of Pimander in my innermost mind, and having obtained all that I had sought, reposed in joy. For the sleep of the body became sobriety of the mind, and the closing of the eyes true intuition (verus intuitus), and my silence a fertile gestation of the good, and the speaking of the word a begetting of all good things” (Hermes, 1532, sig. B4).42

In the thirteenth dialogue of the Corpus Hermeticum, the mystery of a this-worldly rebirth is associated with a similar kind of experience, and the dualist ascesis of other tractates (notably the first, fourth, and seventh) is developed into what might be described as an embryonic instrumental scepticism—instrumental, because its purpose is to prepare for a revelation which will efface all ignorance and doubt. Hermes' disciple has prepared himself for rebirth by “banish[ing] the deceptions of the world from [his] mind” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G4)43; he is then initiated into a mode of understanding from which the deceptions of the senses are excluded, and which is purely mental. Hermes' insistence that his own reborn form cannot be perceived by bodily sight excites in his disciple a state of inspired frenzy or madness—in effect, what Descartes' age called 'enthusiasm'—to which Hermes responds in these words: “May you too, my son, go forth from yourself sleeping, like those who are taken up by visions in their sleep” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G4v).44

What follows, however, is a waking initiation, a regeneration whose author, according to Hermes, is “the Son of God, the one man, by the will of God” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G4v).45 That which is true, says Hermes, is “that which is unperturbed, unlimited, without colour, without shape, undivided, naked, clear, comprehensible to itself, unchangeable, good, and wholly incorporeal.” This truth is accessible to the mind, because the mind's purged form is what constitutes it: “Return into yourself, and you will understand: desire it and it will be. Purge the senses of the body; release yourself from the irrational afflictions of matter” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G4v-G5).46 Rebirth and deification are achieved when Hermes' disciple is lifted by divine power into contemplation of the truth: the ten powers of God (of which the first is knowledge of God) descend into him to expel the twelve afflictions of matter. This descent of the powers of God is a begetting of intellect which permits a recognition of the self as divine, and also a form of understanding “not by eyesight, but by an act of mind” which gives an immediate knowledge, as though from the inside, of all nature (Hermes, 1532, sig. G6).47 To his disciple's exultant statement that he now sees the All, and sees himself in the Mind, Hermes replies: “This, my son, is regeneration: no longer to attend to three-dimensional corporeality” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G6v).48

There are strong grounds for claiming that Descartes' meditations and dream-revelation in November 1619 followed the Hermetic paradigm established in these texts. The dualist ascesis undertaken in the hope of a visionary illumination, the separation of mind from body, the pervasive 'enthusiasm' and the resulting sense of empowerment and certainty: all these suggest that Descartes' reading had led him to the writings of Hermes. “La gentillesse des fables réveille l'esprit”: these, it would seem, were among the fables which contributed at a crucial moment to the awakening of his mind. And they were fables in the additional sense that their supposedly ancient author was himself entirely fabulous. The Huguenot scholar Isaac Casaubon demonstrated in 1614 that the Hermetic writings—previously thought to be the work of an approximate contemporary of Moses—were composed no earlier than the first century A. D.; however, this work of demolition seems not to have become widely known until the late 1620s (Grafton, 145-61),49 and because it was published as part of a polemic against the Catholic church historian Baronius, it was not accepted in some circles until at least several decades later.

There may then be unsuspected reserves of meaning in Descartes' declaration in the Letter to Father Dinet appended to the Meditations and the Objections and Replies—a declaration which he admits “may seem paradoxical”—that while in the philosophy taught in the schools, “in so far as it is Peripatetic and different from others, there is nothing that is not new, on the contrary there is nothing in mine that is not ancient....” By this Descartes means that the principles of the Aristotelians were innovations when they were first introduced, and have since been the subject of constant revisions and wranglings; he, in contrast, accepts only those principles “which up to now have been known and admitted by all philosophers, and which for that reason are the most ancient of all...” (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 1088). Would it be extravagant to construe these words as implying some degree of affiliation to that most ancient philosopher Hermes Trismegistus, who was still, in the 1640s and later, being held up by a distinguished member of Dinet's Jesuit order as the major source of what Steuchus a century earlier had called the philosophia perennis? (see Yates, 1964, 416-23).



The Hermetic writings mentioned above would seem to anticipate in certain respects the movement of Descartes' mature philosophy through scepticism to a perception of the irreducible incorporeal self, an abstract knowledge of God, and a division of the world into thinking substance and extension. Whether these anticipations are sufficiently distinct to be of analytical interest is another matter altogether. Yet it does seem worth remarking that there appear to be echoes of these texts (and of derivative Renaissance texts) in Descartes' mature writings.

Consider, for example, the concluding paragraph of the first of his Meditations of 1641. It is here that Descartes introduces for the first time the hypothesis of an “evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, who has employed all his energies in deceiving me....” Whatever the logical force of this supposition, its immediate rhetorical effect is to dispose of the speaker's body: “I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to have all these things” (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 181).50

One way of responding to the evil genius hypothesis—perhaps, in any context but the present, a slightly eccentric way—would be to observe that this passage constitutes part of a rather peculiar sequence of metaphorical exchanges in Descartes' writings. These exchanges involve two primary terms, the body and the evil genius, and also a third term—“quelques fantômes”—which in some sense mediates between them. The sequence can be traced in three texts: in the Olympica and La recherche de la vérité, as well as in this passage of the Meditations.

In Descartes' first dream of November 10, 1619 the phantoms which make the right side of his body powerless are apparently allied to the wind, the evil genius. In a passage transcribed by Leibniz which Alquié believes formed part of the Olympica, Descartes himself commented on the more obvious of these dream-metaphors: Sensibilia apta concipiendis Olympicis: ventus spiritum significat....” “Sensible things enable us to conceive the things of Olympus: wind signifies spirit....” This linkage of wind with spirit is unexceptionable—though in the context of the first dream it may seem peculiar that Descartes makes no attempt to draw a line between the wind which is an evil genius and a wind blowing from Olympus. But what of the phantoms? Are they not also a metaphorical vehicle? Another remark copied by Leibniz from the same text indicates an awareness that metaphorical exchanges can operate in more than one direction: “Just as the imagination uses figures to conceive bodies (Ut imaginatio utitur figuris ad corpora concipienda), so the intellect uses certain sensible bodies to figure spiritual things (ita intellectus utitur quibusdam corporibus sensibilibus ad spiritualia figuranda)....” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 218, 217). The chiastic form of this sentence makes explicit a paradoxical doubleness: the figures bodied forth by imagination are an immaterial representation of the corporeal, while the sensible bodies summoned up by the intellect are a corporeal figuration of the spiritual. If Descartes' first dream incorporates a double exchange of this sort, then just as the wind signifies the evil genius, so the phantoms would signify the body from which it had apparently been the dreamer's waking project to divorce himself.

This imaginative figuration recurs in La recherche de la vérité in what may at first seem a strikingly different manner: the “phantoms and vain images” by which Descartes represents the systematic doubt he is proposing will, he promises, be revealed upon a close approach as nothing but air and shadow: “rien, que de l'air et de l'ombre.” In what way are these phantoms related to the body?

I would like to suggest that the last word of that sentence in La recherche de la vérité—“rien, que de l'air et de l'ombre”—may have resonances inaudible to the modern reader. In a commentary on Paracelsus by Jacques Gohory, a sixteenth-century occultist, one reads that “The Olympic spirit who plucks away the shadow (Spiritus Olympicus qui umbram avellit), and in this the cabalistic art consists, is the star in man” (Suavius, 52; qtd. in Gouhier, 88, n. 7). The shadow or umbra is explained by Marsilio Ficino in his Theologia Platonica as the term applied by the 'ancient theologians' to the elemental murk (caligo elementalis) with which the soul is surrounded, most particularly during this life (Ficino, 233). Iamblichus, similarly, in his De mysteriis Aegyptiis, identifies the body and matter with shadows and irrationality (Iamblichus, VI. 4, 185). So also does one of their common sources, the first dialogue of the Pimander of Hermes Trismegistus—where, in Ficino's translation, the key word is again umbra, and where the insistent lesson is of a separation of mind from body which will free the self from the deceptions of the senses and from what in the thirteenth dialogue are called “the irrational afflictions of matter” (Hermes, 1532, sig. B2).51

Did Descartes' Olympic spirit, in proclaiming his destiny, free him from his umbra at the same time as from any lingering fear of those “ombres” which had appeared to him at the beginning of his first dream? What then of the act of demystification in La recherche de la vérité which undoes the metaphor of the phantoms, reducing them to air and shadow? Might one describe this as a controlled repetition of that foundational experience? The phantoms which in the dream were linked to the body now signify fears prompted by doubt—a shift in signifieds which may seem less startling if it is remembered that what Baillet wrote of as Descartes' attempt to represent his mind to himself “entirely naked” was recalled by the philosopher in his Discourse as a project of ridding himself of his former opinions. There is, surely, no reason to regard these two descriptions as mutually contradictory.

In the Meditations the same complex of metaphorical exchanges resurfaces. One encounters in the First Meditation not the phantoms of doubt, but in their place the evil genius (whose earliest appearance, in the dream of 1619, was as their supplement and ally)—and the act of confronting this demon of doubt effectively does away with the body by imposing a recognition of the self as incorporeal, as radically disembodied—as a res cogitans.

The extraordinary labyrinthine simile with which Descartes concludes the First Meditation may contain less distant echoes of Hermetic texts. Descartes writes that the task of resisting the hypothetical evil genius, of taking his belief in his own body to be the result of demonic deceptions, of suspending all judgments,

is a laborious one, and insensibly a certain lassitude leads me back into the course of my ordinary life. And just as a captive who in sleep enjoys an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that his liberty is but a dream, fears to be awakened, and conspires with these agreeable illusions to prolong his deception, so insensibly of my own accord I fall back into my former opinions, and I am anxious about being roused from this slumber, lest the laborious wakefulness which would follow the tranquillity of this repose should have to be spent not in daylight, but in the excessive darkness of the difficulties which have just been discussed. Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 181-82 [Latin text], 1: 412-13 [French version]).52

This simile achieves a remarkable inversion. Ordinary waking consciousness is compared to a captive's dream of liberty, an agreeable illusion, a state of repose. And the peculiar disembodied state into which Descartes has projected himself—in which he has raised the fear of insanity, and suspects he could be dreaming, or subject to the systematic deceptions of the evil genius—is a true, a strenuous wakefulness (in which, presumably, resistance to captivity becomes possible). If Plato's allegory of the cave seems the most obvious source for this passage, that is only because modern Cartesian scholars are more likely to have read Plato than Hermes. The first dialogue of the Pimander links slavery and confinement with the enticements of “irrational sleep,” and preaching a return to the wakeful state in which we were created, calls upon us “who labour in want, enveloped in the shadows of ignorance,” to recover our true selves (Hermes, 1532, sig. A8v)53 Descartes may have been remembering either—or more probably both—of these ancient fabulists when he wove together this brilliantly persuasive text.



When Cornelius Agrippa in his De vanitate turned from the labour of refuting the philosophers to the more congenial business of calling them names, one of the most provoking things he could think of to say was that philosophy first developed out of the “trifles and fables” of the poets—which, he says in another chapter, were “written to no other ende, but to the delite of fooles...” (Agrippa, 1974, 143 [cap. 49], 33 [cap. 4]). I have been suggesting here that Descartes' philosophy was decisively indebted to those writers of the first centuries A. D.—one might almost call them poets—who effectively created Hermes Trismegistus by fathering upon this Hellenized form of the Egyptian god Thoth a body of quasi-philosophical writings. This is not to challenge Descartes' claim to have returned to first principles; it is, rather, to give force and specificity to what would otherwise be a banal observation: namely, that any sense of what first principles are, and any project of returning to them, must both be textually conditioned.

Descartes' own insistent metaphor of the path suggests as much. Quod vitae sectabor iter? Before it can be followed, the path must in some sense be already delineated—failing which, one is at the mercy of that blind curiosity which, in Rule 4 of the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Descartes says leads men to “conduct their minds along unknown routes,” hoping to find by pure chance the truth they seek (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 90). Yet while the existence of a “vrai chemin” which is to be followed is implied by the notion of method, the formulation of this notion also suggests the projection of previously undiscovered paths, and the construction of new roads.54 The metaphor is inescapably duplicitous.

To say that the path which became Descartes' fully elaborated method was in some sense supplied to him by the revived Hermetic tradition of the Renaissance does not therefore amount to rejecting what must be obvious—that his interest in certain features of this tradition, partial to begin with, was in most respects rapidly outgrown. In Part II of the Discourse, speaking of his meditations of November 1619, and of his decision to strip himself of his former opinions, Descartes writes: “But like a man who walks alone and in darkness, I resolved to go so slowly, and to use so much circumspection in all things, that even if I advanced only very little, I would at least take care not to fall” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 584). This, it would seem, is a masked allusion to what I have called the primal scene of Cartesian philosophy, in which Descartes' best efforts barely sufficed to keep him from falling—yet it appears to be back-dated from the first dream of November 10 to the period immediately preceding the dreams. When, by my analysis, Descartes was re-fashioning himself according to a Hermetic paradigm—entering, that is to say, a path marked out by Hermes and his Renaissance interpreters—he was thus, by his own retrospective account, advancing alone, cautiously and in the shadows. The duplicity of the path metaphor validates this statement: even if one believes that, in recalling his past, Descartes was also revising it, one can concede that, whatever his debts to a Hermetic paradigm, he was also in late 1619 engaged in searching out a new path.

This process, as Étienne Gilson demonstrated long since, involved an appropriation of elements of the scholastic tradition. And to the literary expression of the resulting system even the egregious François Garasse may have contributed: a sentence in La doctrine curieuse des beaux esprits anticipates closely the famous first sentence of the Discourse on Method, and may well be its immediate source.55 I will not attempt to explain how Descartes' Hermetic borrowings may be related to his appropriations of certain features of scholastic philosophy, much less how he could have read as far as page 56 of Garasse's book before throwing it aside in disgust. But an indication, in concluding, of another tradition to which Descartes appears also to have been responding may help both to reveal more fully the originality of his itinerary and to complete my analysis of his relations to Hermetism.

In the second section of this essay I remarked on the image of psychic overdetermination provided in Descartes' first dream of November 10, 1619 by the wind's attempt to push him into a church in which he had already decided to seek shelter from that same wind; and I commented also on the curious overlap, in Descartes' own interpretation of his dreams, of his good Genius, the evil spirit, and the God who governs the entire episode. If the wind, and the spiritual force it represents, threatened the dreamer's autonomy, his resistance implies a counter-assertion by—one might say—either the self-determining mens of the Hermetists or the nascent Cartesian subject. In the following section I observed that the arguments of systematic doubt, in the culminative form of the evil genius hypothesis, constitute an analogous threat to human autonomy—one which is triumphantly resisted by the proclamation of cogito, ergo sum. Tullio Gregory and other scholars have with admirable precision situated the evil genius of the Meditations, and the closely-linked issue of whether God can be a deceiver, in relation to late-scholastic discussions of the same questions.56 But I would propose that the evil spirit of the Olympica and the evil genius of the Meditations are more pressingly related to that Calvinist theology which Mersenne's refutation of the “Poëte Calvino-déiste” shows to have been a live issue at the time. In confronting these spirits, Descartes was standing up to the most extreme contemporaneous threat to the autonomy he wished to assert: he was in effect confronting the God of the Calvinists.

There are several good reasons why a young man who wished to establish a secure and metaphysically-grounded method of discovering the truth should have found himself engaged in such a confrontation. Politically speaking, Calvinism may have been a spent force in France by 1619, but it continued to pose an intellectual challenge as a persuasive explanation of the relationship between an omnipotent and omniscient deity and a creation which is somehow distinct from him.

The insistence on the complete and uncompromised sovereignty of God's will which is one of the distinguishing features of Calvin's theology entails a rejection of the autonomy of created beings, the possibility of free-will, and the very notion of contingency, as derogations from the majesty of the Creator.57 The ethical consequences of this doctrine are disturbing: God's will, according to Calvin, is the active cause of every event or action, either good or evil; and God foreknows who will be damned and saved for the very good reason that he has willed it from all eternity. This judgment actualizes itself in humans, through divine grace or the lack of it, in the form of the individual's self-validating conviction (which amounts either to faith or to despair) with respect to his or her eternal destination.

Calvin can avoid the conclusion that God is evil (a conclusion drawn by the poet whom Mersenne took such pains to refute in L'impiété des déistes) only by asserting God's utter incomprehensibility. He distinguishes repeatedly between the inscrutable reality and the accommodated forms in which the divinity typically represents himself to humankind. But accommodation, a trope of mediation between the human knower and the unknowable, is also one which invests with an aura of the fictive the divinely-authored discourses to which it is applied, making them fables as well as vehicles of—here one needs inverted commas or scare quotes—of 'truth.' As a result, the attributes ascribed by God to himself are deprived of any distinct meaning, since they correspond neither to the incomprehensible divine reality nor to human realities (God's justice and human justice, to take one example, are said to be incommensurable).58

In effect, contingency is displaced by this theology from the phenomenal to a transcendental realm—where it assumes the alarming form of a divine will which the faithful will term inscrutable, but which others (at their own risk) may prefer to call arbitrary and capricious. This divine will empties the concept of natural law: according to Calvin, the sun rises each day by God's command alone (Calvin, 1960, I. xvi. 2), and “not even an abundance of bread would benefit us in the slightest unless it were divinely turned into nourishment” (Calvin, 1960, 2: 909 [III. xx. 44]). The system of nature serves to confirm that state of condemnation which is the common lot of all except those who receive the arbitrary gift of divine grace: “The purpose of natural law,” Calvin writes, “... is to render man inexcusable” (Calvin, 1960, 1: 282 [II. ii. 22]). The problem posed on the ethical level by a deity who cannot reliably be distinguished from the evil spirits who are among his agents thus appears to resurface on the epistemic level: the natural world is as much a structure of entrapment as it is an object of knowledge, and any sense that it is bound by law is subverted by assertions that the divine will which in every respect controls it is itself both unconstrained and unintelligible.

In his Second Meditation, Descartes determines that whatever the efforts of the evil genius, “without doubt I exist also if he deceives me”—from which it follows “that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 150; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 183, 415-16). But this position of decipior sive cogito, ergo sum is separated by a wide chasm from the assurance that such a reflexive self-recognition can provide a criterion of certainty from which other truths can be deduced. Descartes' movement in the Meditations from the evil genius hypothesis to the assurance that God is the guarantor of truth is, in effect, an act of faith. In his reply to the second set of Objections (composed by Mersenne), he insisted that an atheist cannot possess true science: “he cannot be sure that he is not deceived in the things that seem most evident to him...; and though perchance the doubt does not occur to him … he can never be safe from it unless he first recognizes the existence of a God” (Descartes, 1973, 2: 39; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 565).

To Mersenne's remark that the Scriptures themselves indicate that God may sometimes deceive us, Descartes responded with an intriguingly duplicitous use of the trope of accommodation. “Everyone,” he says, “knows the distinction between those modes of speaking about God which are commonly used in the Scriptures, and which are accommodated to the vulgar understanding (ad vulgi sensum accommodatos)..., and those others which express a more naked truth (magis nudam veritatem)..., and which everyone should use in philosophy...” (Descartes, 1974, 7: 142; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 566-67). Yet having thus dismissed inconvenient scriptural passages as irrelevant, on the grounds that philosophy should concern itself with the underlying verity rather than with accommodated representations of God, he then refuses even to consider the possibility that what we perceive as true may appear false to God or to an angel, and thus, as an accommodated representation, be relatively true but, in absolute terms, false. “Why should we be bothered with this absolute falsity, since we neither believe in it nor even suspect its existence? We have assumed a conviction or persuasion so strong that nothing can remove it, and this is clearly the same thing as perfect certitude” (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 569-70). Scepticism is thus vanquished, not by necessary arguments, but by an irresistible subjective conviction that is objectively self-validating.

A suspicion that there is something reminiscent of Calvinism both in Descartes' evil genius and in his intuitionism can draw support from R. H. Popkin's assertion of structural parallels between the arguments of the Meditations and Calvin's understanding of the nature of religious knowledge. In Popkin's words, “The same mental event in which [the Calvinist] gains his assurance somehow transcends itself and reveals to him God, the source of the event, who then guarantees that the content of the event, the religious truths, are not only personal beliefs, but also truths that He has ordained.” In an analogous way, “The cogito leads us to the rule of truth, the rule to God, and God provides the objective assurance of our subjective certitude. Having started on the way to truth by experiencing the illumination of the cogito, one ends by realizing that the indubitability of all clear and distinct ideas is not only a psychological fact that one accepts and lives with, but is a God-ordained fact, and hence objectively true” (Popkin, 190-91).

However, the analogy is not complete, for Descartes' act of faith follows, not the Calvinist's admission of total helplessness, but rather a proclamation of irreducible autonomy. He does not throw himself upon God's mercy; rather, he demonstrates that even the evil genius whom in the First Meditation he substitutes for the notion of a possibly deceptive deity could not deprive him of one basic truth—and his defiance of this demon is a kind of exorcism.

The dreams of November 1619 contained a similar element of exorcism. Unhappy consciences, Calvin wrote, “find no rest from being troubled and tossed by a terrible whirlwind...” (Calvin, 1960, 2: 1007-08 [III. xxv. 12). But Descartes' willed fulfilment of a Hermetic paradigm of regeneration enabled him to confront and to transcend a similar challenge to his autonomy: having resisted the wind which spun him around like a top, he was granted a revelation by the Spirit of Truth.

Appropriately enough, given Descartes' interest in fables, this interweaving of motifs derived from Hermetism and from Calvinism is itself anticipated by the culminative Renaissance version of a fable which originated in the sixteenth century (and which in its canonical post-Enlightenment versions has become a vehicle for explorations of the dilemmas of subjectivity in the modern era). I refer to the legend of Faustus, which Descartes could have encountered in his youth in Palma Cayet's French translation of the German Faustbook—and, in particular, to Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, a play which Descartes is most unlikely to have encountered in any form.

Marlowe's Faustus proclaims his affiliations in the first scene of the play when he expresses his desire to be “as cunning as Agrippa was, / Whose shadowes made all Europe honor him” (Marlowe, 1968, A: 150-51).59 In what might seem to be an exaggerated anticipation of Part I of the Discourse on Method, but is more clearly a parody of Agrippa's attempted demolition of all forms of human knowledge in De vanitate, Faustus dismisses the academic disciplines he has mastered (“Philosophy is odious and obscure, / Both Law and Physicke are for pettie wits,” and “Divinitie” is “Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vilde” [Marlowe, 1968, A: 139-42]), and turns instead to magic, which he praises in terms reminiscent of the more enthusiastic chapters of De occulta philosophia:

O what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor, of omnipotence
Is promised to the studious Artizan?
All things that moove betweene the quiet poles
Shalbe at my commaund.... (Marlowe, 1968, A: 83-7)

The extent to which this trajectory parallels the path that led Descartes from a rejection of “all the opinions to which I had hitherto assented” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 581) to a method which promises to make us “masters and possessors of nature” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 119; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 634) should not be exaggerated. This stage magician, however, confronts a challenge to his autonomy which is closely analogous to the problem of overdetermination faced by Descartes in 1619. The key moment in his turn to magic (and to the invocation of his evil genius Mephastophilis) is a passage, packed with Calvinistic overtones, in which Faustus finds in the New Testament an iron doctrine of necessity that condemns him to “everlasting death” (Marlowe, 1968, A: 76).60 Magic, which at certain points in the play acquires clear Hermetic resonances (cf. Marlowe, 1991, xlv-xlvi), is thus for Faustus a response to despair, and a despairing assertion of autonomy and self-determination: “A sound Magitian is a Demi-god, / Here tire my braines to get a Deity” (Marlowe, 1968, B: 88-89). The futility of this stance is made evident when, in the play's final scene, Faustus finds himself so thoroughly permeated by external agencies that he cannot make even the gestures of penitence:

. . . ah my God, I woulde weepe, but the divel drawes in my teares, gush foorth bloud, instead of teares, yea life and soule, Oh he stayes my tong, I would lift up my hands, but see, they hold them, they hold them. (Marlowe, 1968, A: 1416-20)

Like Descartes' dreams, the play contains a scene of reading; in this case, however, the act of reading appears to be overdetermined, and guided not by the Spirit of Truth but rather by demonic powers—a notion made explicit in lines added to the play early in the seventeenth century in which Faustus learns from his attendant spirit that even his initial dismissal of Christian theology was not an autonomous act:

'Twas I, that when thou wer't i'the way to heaven,
Damb'd up thy passage, when thou took'st the booke,
To view the Scriptures, then I turn'd the leaves
And led thine eye. (Marlowe, 1968, B: 1989-92)

Even if he never encountered any form of this fable, Descartes might be said to have effectively revised it: confronting the manipulations of his evil spirit at the beginning of his itinerary, he subsequently integrated them into an argument designed to provide a firm metaphysical footing for an autonomous subjectivity.

However, his contemporaries, among them Meric Casaubon, son of the Isaac Casaubon who in 1614 had dated the Hermetica, were not uniformly impressed with the resulting rationalism.61 In A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasme (1655), Meric Casaubon ranked Descartes' philosophy with the “Mysticall Theology” of Numa Pompilius and Minos, who, “to make their law received as oracles, did their best to perswade, that they did not come by them as other men did theirs, but that they were the fruits of Caves and darknesse...” (Casaubon, 172-73; qtd. in Spiller, 19-20). And in an unpublished text written in the late 1660s—a quarter-century still before the publication of Baillet's biography revealed the details of Descartes' meditations in November 1619—the younger Casaubon returned to the attack: “... for his Method: I took him for one whome excessive pride and self-conceit (which doth happen unto many) had absolutly bereaved of his witts.... A cracked brain man, an Enthusiast … I took him to be...” (Spiller, 21). Meric Casaubon's writings do not, on the whole, give evidence of unusual perspicuity. But in recognizing Descartes' method as a product of 'enthusiasm,' he had identified a feature of it that has been largely neglected by modern readers of the Discourse on Method and the Meditations.

Casaubon's contemptuous identification of 'enthusiasm' with folly or madness (the latter deprived, quite clearly, of the heroic resonances given it by Ficino and other Renaissance interpreters of Plato) is very much a reflex of his time—which was the time, also, of Butler's Hudibras and of Henry More's polemics against 'enthusiasm.' But another more interesting and less dismissive understanding of the relation between reason and madness in the philosophy of Descartes has recently become available. I am thinking, again, of Jacques Derrida—this time of the well-known essay “Cogito and the History of Madness,” in which he has this to say of Descartes' Evil Genius hypothesis and its resolution in the 'cogito':

The hyperbolical audacity of the Cartesian Cogito, its mad audacity, which we perhaps no longer perceive as such because, unlike Descartes' contemporary, we are too well assured of ourselves and too well accustomed to the framework of the Cogito, rather than to the critical experience of it—its mad audacity would consist in the return to an original point which no longer belongs to either a determined reason or a determined unreason, no longer belongs to them as opposition or alternative. Whether I am mad or not, Cogito, sum .... for even if the totality of what I think is imbued with falsehood or madness, even if the totality of the world does not exist, even if nonmeaning has invaded the totality of the world, up to and including the very contents of my thought, I still think, I am while I think. Even if I do not in fact grasp the totality, if I neither understand nor embrace it, I still formulate the project of doing so, and this project is meaningful in such a way that it can be defined only in relation to a precomprehension of the infinite and undetermined totality. This is why, by virtue of this margin of the possible, the principled, and the meaningful, which exceeds all that is real, factual, and existent, this project is mad, and acknowledges madness as its liberty and its very possibility. (Derrida, 1978, 56)

Despite my invocation of Derrida at the beginning and end of this essay, it should be apparent that the itinerary of this essay is not a Derridean one. For that philosopher, though claiming to locate “the very historicity of philosophy” in what he describes as a dialogue between hyperbole of the kind exemplified by the Cogito and “determined historical structures,” at the same time maintains that the Cartesian hyperbole “cannot be enclosed in a factual and determined historical structure, for it is the project of exceeding every finite and determined totality” (Derrida, 1978, 60).

My argument is a quite different one. For while in identifying the indebtedness of this dreamer's path to the discourses of Hermetism and of Calvinism I would not want to obscure the sense in which his thinking remains (to borrow the words of Walter Benjamin) “a leap in the open air of history” (Benjamin, 1973, 263), I hope to have shown that it is most precisely in the pivotal hyperbolic gestures of his thought that Descartes makes manifest his participation in a particular historical moment.

It is only, I think, in historical terms that one can begin to appreciate the multiple ironies of the Cartesian itinerary. A century before Descartes, the magus Cornelius Agrippa hoped all his life for a miraculous illumination that he never received; nor did Michel de Montaigne claim to have received the illumination that he thought possible. Descartes, however, had in 1619 rendered his mind “bare and naked”—and had indeed received from above a guarantee of truth and certainty. A fitting reward, presumably, for his belief that the writings of poets, since they are inspired by enthusiasm and the force of imagination, contain profounder thoughts than those of the philosophers.





1 In quoting from Renaissance and seventeenth-century sources, I have modernized u/v and i/j, but have not altered spellings in any other way.

2 Derrida remarks that “there is always a moment in [Heidegger's] analysis when, more or less furtively, discretely, he discloses before Descartes—notably in Plato rather than in Aristotle, but in the Greeks at any rate, the beginnings of this Verstellung, this disfiguration” (46). Derrida would of course object to the notion that any secure point of origin can ever be identified.

3 On Ramus and Agricola see Ong. Ramus was no doubt familiar with Lefèvre's Introductio in Ethicen Aristotelis (Paris, 1525), which begins (sig. a.ijr-v) with a table of dichotomized virtues and vices, states of mind etc., each of which is then treated in three sections: a definition, a sequence of quaestiones, and answers to these (elementa).

4 In addition to a directly methodological indebtedness, one might suggest that Descartes would have found resonances with the 1619 experience discussed in this essay in a passage like the following, from Galileo's The Assayer (1623): “that [philosopher] will indeed be fortunate who, led by some unusual inner light, can turn from dark and confused labyrinths in which he might have gone perpetually winding with the crowd . . .” (Galileo 240). The thinking of Zabarella may also have reached Descartes through other channels: see for example Alister McGrath's suggestive remarks on the influence of Zabarella on Théodore de Bèze's systematizing of Calvin's theology (McGrath 191-95).

5 Ascribing this text to Descartes' Experimenta manuscript, Gouhier identifies it as the experiential basis of the dream-narrative in the Olympica manuscript, according to which Descartes awoke for the third and final time while meditating on the poem of Ausonius beginning “Quod vitae sectabor iter?” Gouhier argues that the further removed in time anything in the narrative is from this waking moment, the more completely it is a retrospective reconstruction rather than an account of any actual dream-experience (Gouhier, 32-41). Resting as it does upon the assumption that the words in question are Descartes' rather than Leibniz's, this argument scarcely justifies Gouhier's reference in inverted commas to “les 'songes' de Descartes.” Even if the words are Descartes', it is not evident to me why one part of an autobiographical text should be privileged as being somehow less a retrospective reconstruction than all the rest of it.

6 Leibniz's Latin original: “Cartesius diu Flexiae in collegio Jesuitarum studiis operam dedit, juvenisque emendandae Philosophiae consilium cepit post somnia quaedam et illud Ausonii diu expensum: quod vitae sectabor iter?”

7 'Enthusiasm here carries a sense close to that of 'divine inzpirtion.' See Henry More, Enthusiasmus triumphatis, sect. II (More, 1: sig.s4v). My quotations in English from Descartes' writings are, where possible, based upon the translation of Haldane and Ross (Descartes, 1973)--although in places where this translaton seems to me inaccurate, I have not hesitated to modify it. Page references are in most cases given to the Latin and/or French texts in the editions of Adam and Tannery (Descartes, 1974) or of Alquié (Descartes, 1963-73).

8 Baillet's French: “.... il n'eut pas moins à souffrir, que s'il eût été question de se dépouiller de soy-même. Il crût pourtant en être venu à bout. Et à dire vrai, c'étoit assez que son imagination lui présentât son esprit tout nud, pour lui faire croire qu'il l'avoit mis effectivement dans cét état. Il ne lui restoit que l'amour de la Vérité.... Ce fut la matiére unique des tourmens qu'il fit souffrir à son esprit pour lors.... La recherche qu'il voulut faire de ces moiens, jetta son esprit dans de violentes agitations.... Il le fatigua de telle sorte, que le feu lui prît au cerveau, & qu'il tomba dans une espéce d'enthousiasme, qui disposa de telle manière son esprit déjà abatu, qu'il le mit en état de recevoir les impressions des songes & des visions.” Baillet does not indicate any textual source for these statements. For a discussion of the problems raised by the fact that Descartes' Olympica survives only in a few fragments, and in Baillet's paraphrase and commentary, see Moyal.

9 Baillet's French: “Il ajoute que le Génie qui excitoit en luy l'enthousiasme dont il se sentoit le cerveau échauffé depuis quelques jours, luy avoit prédit ces songes avant que se mettre au lit, & que l'esprit humain n'y avoit aucune part.”

10 Baillet wrote as follows: “Etant honteux de marcher de la sorte, il fit un effort pour se redresser; mais il sentit un vent impétueux qui, l'emportant dans une espéce de tourbillon, lui fit faire trois ou quatre tours sur le pied gauche. Ce ne fut pas encore ce qui l'épouvanta. La difficulté qu'il avoit de se traîner, faisoit qu'il croioit tomber à chaque pas, jusqu'à ce qu'ayant apperçu un collége ouvert sur son chemin, il entra dedans pour y trouver une retraite, & un reméde à son mal. Il tâcha de gagner l'Eglise du collége, où sa prémiére pensée étoit d'aller faire sa priére; mais s'étant apperçu qu'il avoit passé un homme de sa connoissance sans le saluër, il voulut retourner sur ses pas pour lui faire civilité, & il fut repoussé avec violence par le vent qui souffloit contre l'Eglise.” The dreamer's terror might have been inspired by the fact that he found himself scarcely able to stagger along, but given that he was a young man with philosophical ambitions, it was more probably prompted by the paradox with which the episode of his turn towards the college church culminates.

11 See Gouhier, 11-17, for an analysis of the relations between the Olympica manuscript and the texts preserved in Leibniz's copy under the title Cogitationes privatae.

12 Baillet's French: “Il se réveilla..., & il sentit à l'heure même une douleur effective, qui lui fit craindre que ce ne fût l'opération de quelque mauvais génie qui l'auroit voulu séduire. […. ] Le vent qui le poussoit vers l'Eglise du collège, lorsqu'il avoit mal au coté droit, n'étoit autre chose que le mauvais Génie qui tâchoit de le jetter par force dans un lieu, òu son dessein étoit d'aller volontairement. C'est pourquoy Dieu ne permit pas qu'il avançât plus loin, & qu'il se laissât emporter, même en un lieu saint, par un Esprit qu'il n'avoit pas envoyé: quoy qu'il fût trés-persuadé que c'eût été l'Esprit de Dieu qui luy avoit fait faire les prémiéres démarches vers cette Eglise.”

13 Baillet's French: “... il crût entendre un bruit aigu & éclatant, qu'il prit pour un coup de tonnére. La frayeur qu'il en eut, le réveilla sur l'heure même; et ayant ouvert les yeux, il apperçût beaucoup d'étincelles de feu répandües par la chambre. […. ] L'épouvante dont il fut frappé dans le second songe, marquoit, à son sens, sa syndérêse, c'est-à-dire, les remords de sa conscience touchant les péchez qu'il pouvoit avoir commis pendant le cours de sa vie jusqu'alors. La foudre dont il entendit l'éclat, étoit le signal de l'Esprit de Vérité qui descendoit sur luy pour le posséder.” A connection between sparks and synderesis appears to be traditional. Meister Eckhart wrote as follows about the parable in Luke 14: 16-17 of the man who prepared a great feast and sent his servant to invite his friends: “It seems to me that this servant is the spark of the soul [daz vünkelin der sele], which is created by God and inserted [into the soul] as a light from above. It is an image of divine nature, contantly opposed to everything that is not of God. But it is not a power of the soul.... It is called a synteresis, and that designates both a connection [with God] and an aversion [from all that is not God]. It has two activities. The one is bitter combat against every impurity. The other is constant attraction to what is good” (qtd. from Ozment, 7).

14 Baillet's French: “Il jugea que le Dictionnaire ne vouloit dire autre chose que toutes les Sciences ramassées ensemble; & que le Recueil de Poësies, intitulé Corpus poëtarum, marquoit en particulier, & d'une maniére plus distincte, la Philosophie & la Sagesse jointes ensemble. [… ] Voyant que l'application de toutes ces choses réüssissoit si bien à son gré, il fut assez hardi pour se persuader que c'étoit l'Esprit de Vérité qui avoit voulu lui ouvrir les trésors de toutes les sciences par ce songe."

15 Jacques Maritain followed G. Milhaud in rejecting Baillet's interpretation of the mirabilis scientia and proposing that “the plenitude of enthusiasm, the dream and the discovery are but one and the same event” (Maritain, 189n.). Most interpreters, however, associate the mirabilis scientia with the method, and regard the dreams as an authentication of meditations which preceded them. See, for example, Schuster, 83-84 n. 32, 87 n. 64.

16 Descartes' allusion to Archimedes occurs at the beginning of the Second Meditation (Descartes, 1973, 1: 149). The Regulae or Rules presumably antedate the precise formulation of these arguments; they show, nonetheless, that he had already worked out some of their elements. Consider his first example of an intellectual intuition: “... each individual can mentally have intuition of the fact that he exists, and that he thinks” (Rule 3; Descartes, 1973, 1: 7). In Rule 12 he writes that “If Socrates says he doubts everything, it follows necessarily that he knows this at least—that he doubts”; and he presents the following propositions as necessary rather than contingent: “'I exist, therefore God exists' … 'I know, therefore I have a mind distinct from my body'” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 43).

17 Descartes writes: “But, like a man who walks alone and in darkness, I resolved to go so slowly, and to use so much circumspection in all things, that even if I advanced only very little, I would at least take care not to fall” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 584). As Georges Poulet observed, “toute cette seconde partie du Discours est, sans que Descartes y fit formellement mention du songe, remplie de l'expérience même que le songe lui communiqua” (Poulet 24).

18 The French text: “... je vous avertis que ces doutes, qui vous ont fait peur à l'abord, sont comme des fantômes et vaines images, qui paraissent la nuit à la faveur d'une lumière débile et incertaine: si vous les fuyez, votre crainte vous suivra; mais si vous approchez comme pour les toucher, vous découvrirez que ce n'est rien, que de l'air et de l'ombre, et en serez à l'avenir plus assuré en pareille rencontre.”

19 See Descartes, 1974, 10: 193-200, 214; also Yates, 1975.

20 Vanini combined the Aristotelianism of Averroes and Pomponazzi with the naturalistic philosophy of Cardano and Telesio. On the burnings of sorcerers at this time, see Lenoble, 30 ff. For the man burned at Moulins, see Mersenne, 1932, 51 n3.

21 “[L]e pesant ioug de la superstition” is Garasse's own phrase. Two further books by Garasse, published in 1624 and 1625, repeated and expanded his vituperations, but also brought on a crushing counter-attack by the Jansenist theologian Saint-Cyran which resulted in the condemnation of Garasse's “buffooneries” by the Sorbonne in 1626. See Popkin, 111-15.

22 The wording of Mersenne's pun on Fludd's name (the Latinized form of which was De Fluctibus) is “brevibus submergendum fluctibus aeternis.”

23 I have quoted from the title of Ch. xx: Auquel il est monstré que nos actions ne suivent pas l'absolu vouloir de Dieu....” On p. 539 Mersenne writes, “Pour moy je croy que cet homme a esté Calviniste...”; on p. 580, after attacking the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, he refers to him as “ce Poëte Calvino-déiste.”

24 Mersenne, 1624, 517 (ch. xviii): “... la volonté de Dieu n'est point cause de nos pechez, mais nous tous seuls: … sa prescience, & sa volonté, aussi bien que ses loix, & toutes ses oeuvres ne prejudicient en rien à nostre liberté....”

25 This is in fact the Sceptic's characterization of alchemy: “On diroit à vous ouyr parler, que vostre Alchymie seroit capable de restaurer tout le monde, & faire évanouyr les tenebres de l'ignorance par quelque éclat extraordinaire....”

26 What Florio translates as “bare and naked” is “nu et vide” in Montaigne's text (see Montaigne, 1965, 2: 226).

27 For Calvin's denunciation of Agrippa and other Lucianici homines,” see De scandalis, in Calvin, 1552, sig. Ccc2-3; and for analyses of Agrippa's ironies and libertine tendencies, Korkowski, 594-607, and Wirth, 609-13. On Agrippa's relation to the 'radical reformers,' see Zambelli, 1969 and 1976. De vanitate has often been discussed as an early instance of sixteenth-century scepticism; R. H. Popkin in surveying these discussions finds the work to be an instance less of scepticism than of “fundamentalist anti-intellectualism” (Popkin, 24); Backus argues for different reasons that the term 'sceptic' is inappropriate. But neither Popkin nor Backus takes any notice of Ch. 7 of De vanitate, where there is a brief but coherent argument to the effect that our senses are often deceived and cannot in any case “attaine to the intellectual nature, and the causes of the inferiour things,” from which it follows that “al these derivations and sciences, which are fast rooted in the senses shalbe uncertaine, erroneous, and deceiptful...” (Agrippa, 1974, 49).

28 See Gouhier, 114, and Graesse, 1: 45.

29 Thevet's French: “Et, pleut à Dieu, que tout seul il se fust noyé en ce goulfre d'impieté, auiourd'huy nous n'aurions un tas d'Athees, de mesdisans & brocardeurs, comme ce siecle les nous a produict.... Pour la Magie & Atheisme Agrippa en a esclos une infinité de formillieres....”

30 Agrippa's Latin reads as follows: “Hoc autem admonere vos oportet, hanc artem ad pompam ingenii & doctrinae ostentationem potius, quàm ad comparandam eruditionem valere, ac longè plus habere audaciae, quàm efficaciae” (Agrippa, 1970, 2: 40).

31 The expression is Henri Gouhier's; see Gouhier, 150-57.

32 For the evidence that the young Descartes had read Porta, see Gouhier, 112-13. The natural magic of optical illusions could be used to demystify commonly accepted superstitions: thus Vanini had proposed in his De admirandis naturae deaeque (1616) that stories of angelic apparitions could be accounted for by mirrors; see Mersenne, 1623, cols. 475-8, 500-37, and Hine, 167-70. On Descartes' allusion to the dove of Archytas, see Descartes, 1974, 10: 232.

33 Agrippa, 1970, 2: 299-300 (cap. C): “DEUS enim solus fontem veritatis continet, a quo haurire necesse est qui vera dogmata cupit, cum nulla sit nec haberi possit de secretis naturae, de substantiis separatis, deque ipsorum authore Deo scientia, nisi divinitus revelata: divina enim humanis viribus non tanguntur, & naturalia quovis momento sensum effugiunt....” 'Separate substances' means spirits or intelligences. On that Hermetic illuminism which is the basis of Agrippa's understanding both of the highest forms of magic and of the Christian religion, see my article “Agrippa's Dilemma” (Keefer, 1988a).

34 Compare Agrippa, 1970, 1: 735: “Transitus de communi hominum vita, ad vitam magicam, non est alius nisi de cadem vita dormientem ad eandem vitam vigilantem.”

35 Cf. Agrippa, 1970, 1: 719, 711. The reference in aphorism 12 is to Romans 1: 18-23 and to the 'Hermetic apocalypse' in the Asclepius—for the text of which see Hermes, 1960, 2: 326 ff., and Hermes, 1992, 81-83.

36 For detailed discussions of the genre of Descartes' dreams in terms of the classical tradition of dream-interpretation, see Browne and Wagner.

37 In the first two chapters of L'impiété des déistes Mersenne is clearly appropriating for his own uses that discourse on human power and dignity one of the major sources of which was the Hermetic Asclepius; the speaker in his dialogue who delivers this declamation is “Aesculape.” On p. 140 Mersenne refers the reader to Steuchus—who devoted the major part of I. viii-x, xxiii-xxvi, II. xvii, and X. x of his De perenni philosophia to expounding Hermetic texts; in I. x he writes: “Is ut apparet fuit fons Graecae Philosophiae, inde Theologiam hauserunt”; and in X. x: “Mercurius Trismegistus vetustissimus fons, unde manavit Graecorum Theologia...” (Steuchus, 21, 577). As Mersenne was well aware, Steuchus was also an unimpeachably orthodox Counter-Reformation polemicist whose other books include Pro religione christiana adversus Lutheranos (1530) and Contra Laurentium Vallam, de falsa donatione Constantini, libri duo (1547): see Delph, 104-36.

38 For indications of the range of writings in which the young Descartes could have encountered similarly laudatory references to Hermes, see Yates, 1964, Marcel, and Dronke. On the Hermetic writings, see Festugière, Fowden, and Copenhaver's very useful bibliography in Hermes, 1992.

39 Hermes, 1532, sig. A6: “Cum de rerum natura cogitarem, ac mentis aciem ad superna erigerem, sopitis iam corporis sensibus, quemadmodum accidere solet iis, qui ob saturitatem vel defatigationem somno gravati, sunt: subito mihi visus sum cernere quendam immensa magnitudine corporis, qui me nomine vocans, in hunc modum clamaret: Quid est ô Mercuri, quod et audire & intueri desideras? quid est quod discere atque intelligere cupis? Tum ego: Quisnam es inquam? Sum inquit ille Pymander, mens divinae potentiae, ac tu vide quid velis, ipse vero tibi ubique adero. Cupio inquam rerum naturam discere, deumque cognoscere.” Rather than quoting from Cophenhaver's excellent translation (Hermes, 1992), which is made from the Greek texts of the Hermetica and draws upon the best contemporary scholarship, I have preferred to use Ficino's Latin translation, which was the most widely available version of the Hermetica during the period with which I am concerned.

40 The Latin of Ficino's translation: “Morum ociosus habitus daemoni conceditur atque dimittitur. Sensus corporei partes animae facti, suos in fontes refluunt....” The daemon alluded to here is presumably the avenger mentioned several sentences previously by Pimander (sig. B2v): “Contra ab ignaris, improbis, ignavis, invidis, iniquis, homicidis, impiis, procul admodum habito, permittens eos daemonis ultoris arbitrio, qui ignis acumen incutiens, sensus affligit....”

41 Ficino's Latin: “O populi viri terrigenae, qui vosmetipsos ebrietati, somno, & ignorantiae dedidistis, sobrii vivite, abstinete a ventris luxu vos, qui irrationali somno demulcti estis” (sig. B3v). “Demum qui seipsum recognovit, bonum quod est super essentiam consecutus est. Qui vero corpus amoris errore complectebatur, is oberrabat in tenebris mortis mala sensu percipiens” (sig. Bv).

42 “Ego autem Pymandri beneficium inscripsi penetralibus animi, atque adeptus quae petieram omnia in gaudio requievi: Corporis enim somnus animi sobrietas extiterat. Oculorum compressio verus intuitus. Silentium meum bonitatis foecunda praegnatio. Sermonis prolatio bonorum omnium genitura.”

43 “Ecce iam paratus sum pater, a mente mea mundi deceptiones excussi.”

44 “Cernis me oculi fili? Quando vero meditaris intentus corpore atque aspectu, non oculis hisce videro. TAT. In furorem me insanumque mentis oestrum ô pater nimium concitasti, in praesentiarum meipsum haud video. TRIS. Utinam fili charissime tu quoque teipsum dormiens transcurrisses, instar eorum qui in somno insomniis occupantur.”

45 “TAT. Dicage quis erit regenerationis autor? TRIS. Dei filius, homo unius voluntate dei.” Passages like this encouraged Renaissance readers to accept Hermes as a pagan prophet of the coming of Christ.

46 “TAT. … Quid ergo verum Trismegiste? TRIS. Quod non perturbatum, non determinatum, non coloratum, non figuratum, non concisum, nudum, perspicuum, à seipso comprehensibile, intransmutabile, bonum, ac penitus incorporeum.” Sig. G5: “TRIS. Absit hoc ô fili: recurre in teipsum, & consequeris: velis, ac fiet: purga sensus corporis, solve te ab irrationabilibus materiae ipsius ultoribus.”

47 “Quicunque igitur propter benignitatem generationis, quae secundum deum est, sensum dimittit corporeum, seipsum cognoscit ex divinis compositum, factusque indeclivis divina potentia tota mente laetatur. TAT. O pater concipio, non oculorum intuitu, sed actu mentis, qui per vires intimas exercentur. In coelo sum, in terra, in aqua, in aëre, in animalibus sum, in arboribus, in corpore, ante corpus, atque post corpus, & ubique.”

48 “TAT. Eia pater universum video, meipsum in mente conspicio. TRIS. At haec est regeneratio fili, non adesse ulterius corpori quantitate dimenso.”

49 In 1630 Mersenne made use of Casaubon's demolition of Hermes in his controversy with Fludd; his earlier writings show no awareness of Casaubon's work (Yates, 1964, 434-40).

50 In the French text (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 412) this last paragraph is divided into two paragraphs.

51 “TRIS. … cur digni morte sint ii qui in morte iacent? PYM. Quia praecessit proprio corpori tristis umbra, ex hac quidem natura humida, ex hac vero corpus in mundo sensibili constitit....” In the vision of the cosmogonic process with which this text begins (sig. A6v), an “umbra quaedam horrenda” turns into the “natura humida,” with great effects of son et lumière. In the “dialogus decimitertius” Hermes exhorts his disciple: “... purga sensus corporis, solve te ab irrationabilibus materiae ipsius ultoribus” (sig. G5).

52 The translation offered here is largely based on that of Haldane and Ross in Descartes, 1973, 1: 148-49.

53 “Homo igitur harmonia superior extitit: in harmoniam vero lapsus, periclitatus, servus effectus est. Hic utriusque sexus foecunditate munitus ab eo qui amborum sexuum fons est, vigilque factus ab eo qui est vigilans, continetur, atque eius dominationi subjicitur.” Sig. B3v: “O populi viri terrigenae, qui vosmetipsos ebrietati, somno, & ignorantiae dedidistis, sobrii vivite, abstinete a ventris luxu vos, qui irrationali somno demulcti estis.... Revocate iam vosmet, qui laboratis inopia, ignorantiae tenebris involuti.”

54 For the metaphor of a pre-existent path, see Discours, III (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 594, 598); the notion of building a new road appears in Part II, where the idea is said to be inapplicable to “la réformation des moindres choses qui touchent le public” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 582).

55 Garasse, 1: 56: “Jamais Platon n'avança plus belle maxime que celle par laquelle il dit qu'il n'y a partage au monde si bien faict que celuy des Esprits, d'autant, dit-il, que tous les hommes en pensent avoir assez, il n'y a si pauvre idiot qui ne s'en contente....” Compare Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 568.

56 See Gregory, and the works by other scholars, especially H. G. Frankfurt, R. Kennington, and G. Rodis-Lewis, which are cited in his article.

57 Calvin's view of divine sovereignty and of its consequences with respect to contingency, free-will and human autonomy is set forth in Calvin 1960, 1: 197-217 (I. xvi.1-9, I. xvii.1-5). On free-will, see further II. ii.1-11, II. ii. 26-7, II. iii. 5, II. v.1-19. On the primacy of the divine will, see III. xxiii. 6. In these remarks on Calvin I am drawing upon my essay “Accommodation and Synecdoche” (Keefer 1988b).

58 For instances of Calvin's reliance on the notion of accommodation, see Calvin, 1960, I. xi. 2-3, I. xiv. 3, I. xvii.12-13, II. xi.13, II. xvi. 2. The notion is also implicit in I. xvi. 9 and III. xviii. 9. David Hume was to write, with obvious reference to Calvinism: “The Deity, I can readily allow, possesses many powers and attributes, of which we can have no comprehension: But if our ideas, so far as they go, be not just and adequate, and correspondent to his real nature, I know not what there is in this subject worth insisting on. Is the name, without any meaning, of such mighty importance?” (Hume, 158).

59 Quotations from this play are identified by the text cited (A refers to the text of 1604, and B to that of 1616) and by line numbers. The “shadowes” alluded to in A: 151 are usually taken to refer to the spirits of the dead raised in necromancy.

60 For analyses of the interweaving of Hermetic and Calvinistic motifs in this play, see Keefer, 1985-86 and 1987, and Marlowe, 1991, xlv-lv, 181-211.

61 In one respect at least, the son followed in his father's footsteps: Isaac had exploded the reputation of Hermes; Meric did the same for Dr. John Dee, the English Hermetist, mathematician and magus, when in 1659 he published a large part of Dee's “spiritual diaries.”   




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Ficino, Marsilio. Marsilio Ficino and the Phaedran Charioteer. Ed. and trans. Michael J. B. Allen. Berkeley, 1981.

Foix de Candale, François de. Le Pimandre de Mercure Trismegiste de la philosophie chrestienne. Bordeaux, 1579. (Qtd. by Walker)

Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge, 1986.

Galilei, Galileo. Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. Ed. and trans. Stillman Drake. New York: Anchor, 1957.

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Griffiths, Richard. The Dramatic Technique of Antoine de Montchrestien. Oxford, 1970.

Harrie, Jeanne. “Duplessis-Mornay, Foix-Candale and the Hermetic Religion of the World.” Renaissance Quarterly 31 (1978): 499-514.

Hermes Trismegistus [pseud.]. Mercurii Trismegisti Pymander, de potestate et sapientia Dei. Trans. Marsilio Ficino, ed. Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples and Michael Isengrin. Basle, 1532.

----. Corpus Hermeticum. Ed. A. D. Nock, trans. A.-J. Festugière. 4 vols. Paris, 1960.

----. Hermetica. Trans. Brian P. Copenhaver. Cambridge, 1992.

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----. “History and the Canon: The Case of Doctor Faustus.” University of Toronto Quarterly 56 (1987): 498-522.

----. “Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia.” Renaissance Quarterly 41 (1988): 614-53.

----. “Accommodation and Synecdoche: Calvin's God in King Lear.” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 147-68.

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Lefèvre d'Étaples, Jacques. Introductio in Ethicen Aristotelis. Paris, 1525.

Leibniz, G. W. Die philosophischen Schriften von G. W. Leibniz. Ed. C. J. Gerhardt. 7 vols. Berlin, 1875-90. (Qtd. by Browne)

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Marlowe, Christopher. Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" 1604-1616: Parallel Texts. Ed. W. W. Greg. 1950; rpt. Oxford, 1968.

----. Christopher Marlowe's “Doctor Faustus”: a 1604-version edition. Ed. Michael Keefer. Peterborough, Ontario and Lewiston, NY, 1991.

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----. L'impiété des déistes. Paris, 1624.

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----. The Essayes of Michael Lord of Montaigne. Trans. John Florio. 3 vols. London, 1904-06.

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----. “The Development of Scientific Method in the School of Padua.” In Renaissance Essays, ed. P. O. Kristeller and P. P. Wiener, 217-51. 1968; rpt. Rochester, NY, 1992.

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For and Against the Moon

[First published in English Studies in Canada 15.3 (1989): 305-18. I have corrected several typographical errors, and have added a few words (in square brackets) to note 14. The text of this essay is otherwise unchanged.]



Vacuous, white bone; everyone sees it
Who knows what it is for? 
It is said the moon can drive men mad
Are you for or against the moon?1


One senses a hint of autumn in the air: it is in fact early September as I write this, but I mean another kind of autumn. Not long ago it might have seemed that the high summer of deconstruction in literary theory was going to be indefinitely prolonged. Yet suddenly the signs of change are all about us: a nuanced past tense in the Modern Language Review (“When Deconstruction was at its height, one never quite knew how serious a posture of response was required”); a measured declaration in the first issue of New Formations (“The decade of deconstruction, it seems, is over”); and in the first issue of Textual Practice, more decisively still, a reviewer's discovery in recent work by a leading American deconstructionist of “a return to logocentrism of the most daring and unrepentant kind....”2 Daring and unrepentant logocentrism? The literary theorists are flocking together, it would appear, in preparation for one of their periodic migrations.

The prospect of their colleagues' impending change of climate, and perhaps also of coloration, would no doubt be a source of satisfaction to the winter birds among us, were it not that the latter perhaps harbour some suspicion of the migrants' imminent return in another less gaudy and more serviceable plumage (that, say, of the new historicism, or of cultural materialism—both of which challenge more fully the doctrines of New Criticism and its successor theories than do the deconstructive modes referred to by some of their American practitioners as the new New Criticism). In the meantime, those who are not sure whether they belong to either flock may find profit in returning to certain of the inaugural texts of deconstruction, which it may now be possible to read in a new and cooler mood, with diminished anxiety and with greater pleasure.

Of course, it may well be that predictions of the withering away of deconstruction are premature. Critics who have seen a relation between the metaphysical obsessions of deconstruction and a failure to engage with problems of historicity3 are unlikely to side with trend-spotters who would allot to each critical tendency a fixed span (“the decade of deconstruction”), after which period it is to be erased and supplanted by the next manifestation of a rootless present. And others may share the view of Alan Kennedy, who does not want to see deconstruction passed by before he has “even begun to feel confident about what the limits of deconstruction might be.”4 This mode of criticism may thus continue to be widely practised. Indeed (to lapse once more into metaphor), as I write there is a spring tide in the Annapolis Basin a hundred yards from my window, and the moon seems no less full than it did last night. But what is this moon?

Let us define it, with the help of Wittgenstein, as a kind of absence. If we are willing to take the word of one eminent contemporary critic and theorist (Harold Bloom), it would appear that reading, whether wilfully so or not, is also inevitably misreading. Consider, then, the opening aphorism of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “The world is all that is the case.”5 Wilfully misreading these words, I would like to ask: But is there not also the moon?

In the context of Derridean deconstruction, the question may be less witless than it seems. Elsewhere in the Tractatus Wittgenstein wrote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (proposition 5.6), and “Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits” (proposition 5.6 1)—from which follows the doctrine, announced in the preface and repeated as the concluding sentence of the work (and thus itself an enactment of those limits), that “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”6 In contrast to the early Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida has persistently defied any such limits, both by placing himself outside them in his practice as a writer, and also by insisting (especially in those early books and essays which are still the basis of his reputation in the English-speaking world) that any act of delimitation is subverted by the weave of differences and deferrals, of absence, trace, and supplément, which he sees as constituting language itself. Challenging, like Nietzsche,7 the first principles of logic (those of identity and non-contradiction), his aim has been to make enigmatic, to deconstruct, any possible metaphysic of presence, and thus to undo or at least expose the “logocentric repression”8 which by his account has characterized the whole tradition of Western metaphysics.

This Derridean project has in many respects enjoyed a remarkable success. Lucretius proved the universe to be infinite by arguing that if a person went to the edge—wherever one took that edge to be—and threw a spear, it would ether be blocked by something or else would speed on its way. Since the thought-experiment can be repeated from whatever new edge one's spear-throw reveals, either case shows that the universe continues without end or limit.9 Similarly, Derrida, throwing spears in both directions from the edge of the world defined by Wittgenstein's Tractatus, has revealed receding infinities on both hands: one spear, thrown into the gap between signifier and signified, splinters the latter into an infinite regress of supplemental signifiers; another, hurled at the “transcendental signified” which in “logocentric” metaphysics puts an end to this regress, sails on without resistance.10 Standing, then, within the labyrinth (his metaphor) that is raised by his banishment of metaphysical presence, Derrida wrote in La voix et le phénomène, in what may seem to be deliberate opposition to the last words of the Tractatus: “It remains, then, for us to speak, to make our voices resonate throughout the corridors in order to make up for the breakup of presence [pour suppléer l'éclat de la présence].”11 Suppléer, éclat: the words themselves resonate with ambiguity.

But where is this labyrinth? I hope that I can answer, “On the moon,” without being misunderstood. In the course of his brilliant study of “Plato's Pharmacy,” Derrida investigates Socrates' allusions in the Phaedrus and the Philebus to Theuth or Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and of the moon, and in a brief digression into Egyptian mythology argues the metaphorical identity of these two divine functions. Ammon-Ra—Ammon (the hidden), Ra (the sun)—“is god the creator, and he engenders through the mediation of the word.... we encounter here a hidden sun, the father of all things, letting himself be represented by speech.”12 Thoth, the moon-god, divine scribe, and eldest son of Ra (and thus a secondary, engendered god), announces in language “an already formed divine thought, a fixed design. The message itself is not, but only represents, the absolutely creative moment. It is a second and secondary word.”13 To Thoth's secondariness, both as god of the moon and as god of writing, is added the fact that he is made responsible in several papyri for the plurality of languages—and in Plato's Philebus for differentiation within language. In what follows, the familiar terms of Derrida's deconstruction of presence—absence, trace, supplément—assert themselves forcefully:

As the god of language second and of linguistic difference, Thoth can become the god of the creative word only by metonymic substitution, by historical displacement, and sometimes by violent subversion.

This type of substitution thus puts Thoth in Ra's place as the moon takes the place of the sun. The god of writing thus supplies the place of Ra, supplementing him and supplanting him in his absence and essential disappearance. Such is the origin of the moon as supplement to the sun, of night light as supplement to daylight. And writing as the supplement of speech.

Citing, from ancient Egyptian texts, examples of this substitution of Thoth for Ra, of the moon for the absent sun, and of the subsequent word-play which establishes further chains of signification, Derrida remarks that

This process of substitution ... thus functions as a pure play of traces or supplements or, again, operates within the order of the pure signifier which no reality, no absolutely external reference, no transcendental signified, can come to limit, bound, or control....14

Through the analysis of this mythical structure the moon thus becomes not merely a conspicuous example of the Derridean supplément, but also a metaphorical vehicle whose tenor is the whole play of substitution and supplementarity—which is to say, superimposing a spatial metaphor, the topos where these substitutions take place. It is, surely, in recognition of the further lunar overtones of this analysis that Derrida writes, in the same sentence from which I have just quoted, of “this substitution, which could be judged 'mad' since it can go on infinitely in the element of the linguistic permutation of substitutes, of substitutes for substitutes....”15

Other suppléments quickly manifest themselves and proliferate in the tenor of this lunar metaphor. Depending on the degree of blindness involved in the world's attempts to define itself, Derrida's discourse may not seem indisputably a part of “that which is the case”; yet through his deconstructive analyses of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, and Austin it has raised tides even within the most strictly delimited of logical worlds.16 It is also consciously eccentric, both in its challenge to the idea of a centre, point of presence, or fixed origin which would inform “the structurality of structure,” and also in its choice of a ludic rhetoric that is meant to exemplify the free-play of signifiers opened up by this de-centring.17 But is this free-play not to some extend illusory, since by Derrida's own admission it resolves itself into an orbit around the traditions that he wishes to deconstruct? And once the rules of the language-games of deconstruction have been assimilated, is there not some danger that his arguments, however unexpected certain of their swerves, may become in their extended form as predictable as the phases of the moon?

Lunar and orbital, again, is Derrida's relation to the problem of institutional appropriation. For if the serene resistance to appropriation which is an important recurring feature of his writings constitutes the angular momentum of his path, it is balanced by the gravitational pull of those institutions in France, America and England—most evidently the Tel Quel group, the Yale formalists, and the New Accents writers—which in disseminating his thought have also appropriated it for their own ends. Gerald Graff, describing deconstruction as “a strategy for making texts immune to appropriation by the consumer,” at once added that “the very procedures by which texts are made to seem unmanageable rather easily become a critical commodity fetish—that is, the styles of resisting commodification themselves become commodities.”18 Whether or not this description is fair, such a drift was wryly exemplified by Christopher Norris when he wrote in his book Deconstruction that “Critical theory is nowadays a reputable academic business with a strong vested interest in absorbing and coming to terms with whatever new challenges the times may produce.”19 (Is not this precisely the vaguely upbeat language of the corporate Annual Report to shareholders?)

Derrida is himself well aware of this problem of appropriation, but his stance with regard to it has remained paradoxical. Calling in 1983 for a “new responsibility” that would seek to “unmask—an infinite task—all the ruses of end-orienting reason, the paths by which apparently disinterested research can find itself indirectly appropriated, reinvested by programs of all sorts,” he pointed to the intrusion of a state-directed military or 'national-security' orientation into all fields of research, including his own:

From now on, so long as it has the means, a military budget can invest in anything at all, in view of deferred profits: 'basic' scientific theory, the humanities, literary theory and philosophy.... What is produced in this field can always be used. And even if it should remain useless in its results, in its productions, it can always serve to keep the masters of discourse busy: the experts, professionals of rhetoric, logic or philosophy who might otherwise be applying their energy elsewhere.20

In the face of this apparent admission that there may after all be a hors-texte, and that even if (thanks to his dialectical ruses) the deconstructionist's pure free-play in language cannot be directly appropriated, it may in some sense be always already appropriated, Derrida's continued adherence to a kind of sceptical ataraxia seems courageous, if also perhaps naïve. Gerald Graff appears to have cut deeper into the question of appropriation when he asked:

Isn't it at least possible that nature, essence, immanence, and other logocentric concepts are less of a live issue than they once were, that these and other hierarchical concepts were rendered negligible long ago by a more powerful 'deconstructive' force than that of any school of philosophy or criticism, namely, the force of consumer capitalism itself? Aren't strategies of textual dissemination of questionable effectiveness if the culture they seek to strike against is already more like a disseminated text than an organically unified one?21

Derrida of course regards with distaste and alarm the transformations being worked in our culture by the hegemonic forces of consumer capitalism, and he has spoken out strongly against these forces. But to the extent that the strategies of deconstruction repeat these transformations on an intellectually rigorous level, there would seem to follow from Graff's comments another, harsher question—which I will pose in the form of an allusion to Derrida's analysis in “Plato's Pharmacy” of the Platonic pharmakon: Is deconstruction itself a remedy, or has it rather been a poison? To put the question in these terms is already to reveal a distortion, an incomprehension even, of the Derridean text: for the word pharmakon means both “remedy” and “poison,” as well as several other things; and this appropriation of the term constitutes an allegorizing of his text that Derrida might well reject with contempt. Yet the insistence with which this or similar questions have been raised, and with which one or the other answer has been pressed, may serve as a reminder that the Derridean intervention has not occurred in a vacuum, and that the various appropriations of his thought have not been without consequences.

“Hands, hold you poison or grapes?”22 Either alternative seems inappropriately apocalyptic. We are concerned here with a secondary phenomenon (though one which emphatically reveals the secondariness of all other cultural phenomena), and therefore with a symptom, as much as with a cause. Deconstruction may be a poison for the paranoid, and a remedy for dogmatism (though ironically, some of its American offshoots have at times tended to acquire certain of the vestments of dogma). But as I have been trying to insinuate for several paragraphs already, deconstruction is also, on Derrida's own account, the moon.

What the early Wittgenstein excluded from “the world” and consigned to silence can, in his own terms, still be thought—“for in order to be able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought)”—but it can, by his definition, only be thought as nonsense.23 To which Derrida would reply that a refusal to examine the institutions and exclusions of the principle of reason itself, when compounded by a pre-emptive definition of the thought which does so as “nonsense,” is no more than obscurantism.24

Wittgenstein's “world,” Derrida's “moon.” Those who have found the relentlessly inquiring stare of the latter alarming may wish to summon up the image of that space, adjacent to “the neighbouring moon,” yet on the outside of the limit which defines “the firm opacous globe / Of this round world” and separates it from Chaos: the image of that “windy sea of land” which Milton, in Book III of Paradise Lost, calls limbo or the Paradise of Fools, and which he reserves for “embryos and idiots,” for

All the unaccomplished works of nature's hand, 
Abortive, monstrous, or unkindly mixed....25

Others, who for whatever reason have not felt threatened by the deconstructive enterprise, might prefer to evoke the thirty-fourth canto of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, in which Astolfo, travelling to the moon, discovered “no folly, / For still that here with us remaineth wholly.” Instead he found, in receptacles of different sizes, the mislaid sanity and wisdom of those on earth

That think they have great store of wit and boast it
When here it plain appeared they quite had lost it.

There also, in a scene suggestive of Derrida's account of the quasi-originary weave of différance, Astolfo encountered the Parcae or Fates, who out of “diverse fleeces”—wool, lint, silk, and cotton—spin “Threads infinite of divers stuff and hue.”26

One further aspect of the moon-metaphor set in motion by Derrida and pursued here remains to be considered. Quite simply, the moon itself is not a novelty—a fact which may seem of some significance should we attempt at some point to assess our responses both to this writer and to his critics. According to Derrida's own analysis of Egyptian mythology, an awareness of différance and of the linguistic archi-trace goes back at least as far as to the priests of Memphis; and as I wish briefly to indicate, certain features of Derrida's thought are anticipated by the sophist Gorgias, by the ancient sceptics, by Valentinus the Gnostic, and by a number of Renaissance writers.

Let us consider these anticipations in historical sequence. Although Derrida protects himself in “Plato's Pharmacy” by remarking that “this reading of Plato is at no time spurred on by some slogan or password of a 'back-to-the-sophists' nature,”27 his argument in this text is nonetheless profoundly Gorgian. In saying this I am not referring primarily to his extended use of Gorgias' Encomium of Helen to establish the important point that the analogy (logos) between the relation of pharmakon to body and that of persuasive logos to soul is anomalous, in that one of its terms recurs as the name of the analogy—from which it follows that “The pharmakon is comprehended in the structure of logos.”28 I am interested rather in the co-presence of Gorgias, earlier in Derrida's text, in a well-known passage on “the dangerous supplement” which contains no mention of the old sophist. The supplément “is not, so to speak, dangerous in itself, in that aspect of it that can present itself as a thing, as a being-present. In that case it would be reassuring. But here, the supplement is not, is not a being (on). It is nevertheless not a simple non-being (mé on), either. Its slidings slip it out of the simple alternative presence/absence. That is the danger.”29 I find it hard not to hear this, in context, as an echo of Gorgias' refusal to permit any clear distinction between being and non-being (on kai mé on)—an echo, in particular, of the argument in Gorgias' text On Nature or that which is not (peri tou mé ontos) that “it is not possible [for anything] either to be or not to be” (ouk estin oute einai oute mé einai).30 Gorgianic overtones are strengthened when, two paragraphs later, Derrida exemplifies the workings of this Platonic supplément-pharmakon by alluding to what Freud called 'kettle-logic': “1. The kettle I am returning to you is brand new; 2. The holes were already in it when you lent it to me; 3. You never lent me a kettle anyway.”31 This, again, sounds very much a displaced reminiscence of the principal argument of Gorgias' Peri tou mé ontos, which is, “firstly, that nothing exists; secondly, that even if anything exists it is inapprehensible by mankind; and thirdly, that even if anything is apprehensible, yet without a doubt it is inexpressible and incommunicable to one's neighbour.”32 Derrida's argument would thus appear itself to be anomalous, with respect to its Gorgianic roots, in precisely the same manner as that in which it shows logos to be anomalous: the same form of inquiry which reveals the pharmakon to be embedded in logos also shows Derrida's argument to be itself permeated by the meontic logic of Gorgias.

Derrida's affiliations with the ancient sceptical tradition, which in recent decades has attracted renewed scholarly interest,33 are perhaps more obvious. It may then be sufficient to quote A. D. Nuttall's observation that

The third of [the Pyrrhonist philosopher] Agrippa's “five modes of perplexity,” the mode of relativity,” neatly encapsulates the history of structuralism and its resolution into scepticism: “The mode derived from relativity declares that a thing can never be apprehended in and by itself, but only in connexion with something else. Hence all things are unknowable.” Agrippa's second mode of perplexity mirrors Derrida's principle of indefinite deferral: “The mode which involves extension ad infinitum refuses to admit that what is sought to be proved is firmly established because one thing furnishes the ground for belief in another, and so on ad infinitum.” Agrippa applies the principle to rational demonstration, Derrida to semantic confirmation. The end result in either case is virtually the same.34

In alluding, next, to Derrida's Gnostic affinities, I do not wish to be mistaken for a practitioner of the kind of heresiological polemic of which there have been some notorious recent examples.35 I would simply suggest that any reader of the hostile accounts of Valentinian Gnosticism in Irenaeus and Hippolytus, of Valentinus' own Gospel of Truth, and of some of Derrida's early texts, among them the essay “Force et signification” and the opening chapters of De la grammatologie, can hardly fail to observe certain very striking parallels.36

The Renaissance anticipations of Derridean deconstruction, if more diffuse, resonate oddly with that Derridean text, “Plato's Pharmacy,” from which I have drawn the key metaphor of this essay. Beginning in the latter part of the fifteenth century, recurrent tides of excitement were generated among humanist scholars by the recently translated writings attributed to the Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus—who is none other than the Hellenized form of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and of the moon. The fact that this Hermes, the king, priest, and prophet who gave laws and letters to the Egyptians, was wholly legendary, and that his supposed writings actually date from the first centuries of the Christian era, came to light only in the early seventeenth century.37 He had in the meantime been accepted by many scholars for more than a century as an approximate contemporary of Moses, as the author of a professedly inspired account of the creation which overlaps with and pulls against the book of Genesis, and as a philosopher from whose writings the doctrines of Plato were derived. One of the results of this was a quasi-deconstructive reversal of the normal flow both of causality and of textual authority—the establishment of a habit of reading which made the Hermetic appropriation of commonplaces from the schools of Middle Platonism into the ancient sources of Plato's thought, and the Hermetic creation myth (thanks in part to its parallels with the Kabbalistic speculations then being revealed to Christians by Jewish scholars exiled from Spain) into a revelation of the esoteric meaning of the Genesis story. Another result—perhaps appropriately, since to Hermes was traditionally ascribed the definition of God as “an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere, and whose circumference nowhere”38—was a certain de-centring of originary authority: the divinely inspired Hermes was a direct challenge to the exclusivity of the Judaeo-Christian revelation, and however much a Hermetist might strive to reconcile the two (“I am a Christian,” wrote one of them, “and at the same time not ashamed to be a Hermetist”),39 interpretive tensions, which rapidly also acquired political dimensions, were inescapable.

Among the manifestations of the Hermetic vogue of the Renaissance could be cited the strange career of another Agrippa—not the Pyrrhonist philosopher, but the humanist, lawyer, and also magician and doctor (and thus pharmakeus), Henricus Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim. Author of the notorious De occulta philosophia, this Agrippa was also, like the Pyrrhonist, a refuter of first principles: his most widely read and translated book was a quasi-encyclopaedic 'deconstruction' of all arts and sciences as vain and uncertain.40 Cornelius Agrippa was praised by later writers as another Hermes Trismegistus—and also, as befitting a proto-Derridean pharmakeus, attacked as a sorcerer; his writing, which he himself announced should be of medicinal value, was by hostile polemicists declared to be a “mortal poison.”41 Nor was he soon forgotten. André Thevet, writing a half-century after Agrippa's death, bewailed among “les malheurs de nostre France” the fact that his country still supported followers of Agrippa, who, “making as though to take the moon between their teeth, trim, clip, cut back, limit, divide and dismember the power of Eternal God....”42

If these anticipations, however shadowy and incomplete, suffice to remind us that the moon is indeed no novelty, they also lead to a slightly embarrassing question. The fields to which I have alluded have all been the objects of intensive scholarly study over at least the past several decades. Why, then, should literary critics have been so startled by the reappearance and the creative adaptation in Derrida's writings of motifs which during the intervening centuries had never been wholly eclipsed—so eager, on the one hand, to carry the moon in their pockets; and, on the other, to howl against its minions like Irish wolves?

One might at the same time ask whether there has not been an element of conscious self-deception in Derrida's own repeated rhetorical representations of logocentric metaphysics as an effectively monolithic tradition of thought. His own forms of argument tend very quickly to dissipate this phantom: any apparent monolith is revealed by a deconstructive reading to be traversed by fissures, to be openly ruptured—indeed, to be constituted on and in response to the network of indeterminacies of which these are only the first ostensible signs. The Platonic logos—to revert to the example at hand—is built upon and subverted by the Gorgian/Socratic pharmakon. But has this, or something analogous, not been the case throughout history as well as in this inaugural textual example? Does the duplicitous relationship between hegemonic construction and sceptical devolution—between, on the one hand, the selective appropriations of dogmatism, and, on the other, a mélange of collaboration, resistance, and subversion—not seem to be repeated in perpetually different ways in the ideological and literary strugglers of other ages, including our own?

The Derridean mythos of a monolithic metaphysical tradition of logocentric repression is thus to some extent undercut both by the forms of analysis which Derrida himself has practised and also by the traces, sometimes visible within his own writings, of counter-traditions which have in various ways anticipated his sceptical stance. But at the same time, paradoxically, the receptions of his thought, the positions taken for and against the moon, effectively legitimize this story by demonstrating that it was one which we urgently needed to have told to us. Only in a literary-academic culture in which subversive counter-traditions had been and were being very efficiently repressed—a culture which indeed was instituted in the nineteenth century for the purpose, among others, of reproducing orthodox ideologies and mystifying class and gender oppression43—could such a narrative have been believed. And believed, because while Derrida's own writings may give it the lie, the aggressive manner in which orthodox academic critics initially responded to them are at least partial evidence of this story's truth.

* * *

I could claim that this essay has been an exercise in what Derrida calls “la mythologie blanche.” Or it might more fittingly be described, in a phrase of the poet Émile Nelligan, as “clair de lune intellectuel.”44 From the play with metaphor in which I have indulged it might seem rash to draw even tentative conclusions. However, one question does return with a certain insistency: namely, to what extent has Derrida succeeded in his stated desire to be exorbitant? He wrote, in De la grammatologie:

But what is the exorbitant?

I wised to reach the point of a certain exteriority in relation to the totality of the age of logocentrism. Starting from this point of exteriority, a certain deconstruction of that totality which is also a traced path, or that orb (orbis) which is also orbitary (orbita), might be broached.45

The echo in this passage of the Archimedean gesture of Descartes' Second Meditation (which suggests a deeply ingrained metaphysical habit of mind);46 the lunar, and thus orbital, quality of the “point” chosen from which to deconstruct the orbis terrarum of logocentricity; the tendency of deconstructionist texts to fall into a different rut (orbita) of their own: all these may indicate that the project was in certain respects constrained from the start.

Yet the attempt can be honoured—and seconded, if perhaps in other modes. A half-century ago Walter Benjamin wrote that “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”47 In the interim these words have not ceased to be true; and it continues to be the case that conformism—in a gesture which is the precise opposite of Derrida's characterization of his own project—designates as 'exorbitant' the Other which it seeks to exclude, to silence, and to suppress. It is also the case that the vigour of any discipline in the human sciences is directly related to the extent to which it incorporates the exorbitant—with the aim not of domesticating it, but rather of bringing about a critical reorientation both of the discipline and of the society which that discipline serves as one of its modes of reproduction.




1  Tom Wayman, “Full Moon in Winter 5 O'Clock Unemployment Spaceshot Era,” lines 15-16, 25-26, in his For and Against the Moon: Blues, Yells, and Chuckles (Toronto: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 15-16.

2  A. D. Nuttall, “Solvents and Fixatives: Critical Theory in Transition,” Modern Language Review 82.2 (1987), 273; Gregor McLennan, “Rescuing Reason,” New Formations 1 (1987), 142; Roger Poole, “Midrash” (rev. Of Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick, eds., Midrash and Literature), Textual Practice 1 (1987), 86.

3  See, for example, Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); and also my article “Deconstruction and the Gnostics,” University of Toronto Quarterly 55.1 (1985), 74-93.

4  Alan Kennedy, “Criticism of Value: Response to John Fekete,” in Literature and Politics/Literary Politics, ed. Michael H. Keefer, Dalhousie Review, special double issue, 66.1-2 (Spring/Summer 1986), 87. Kennedy is course well aware that Derrida insistently questions the very possibility of delimitation; see, for example, Derrida's Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. ix-xi, 25.

5  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (1961; rpt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 5.

6  Proposition 5.6 and the first sentence of 5.6 1 appear on p. 56. The aphorism about silence appears on pp. 3 and 74.

7  See, for example, Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), section 516, pp. 279-80.

8  Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967), pp. 103, 74.

9  Lucretius, De rerum natura, ed. Cyril Bailey (2nd ed., 1922; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), i.968-83. (I am indebted for this reference to A. D. Nuttall, Dostoevsky's “Crime and Punishment”: Murder as Philosophic Experiment [Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, for Sussex University Press, 1978], p. 123.)

10  See De la grammatologie, chapters 1 and 2.

11  Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. D. B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 104; La voix et le phénomène (Paris: P.U.F., 1967), p. 117. (I am indebted to Newton Garver, in the preface to the English translation of this work [p. xxviii], for the perception of a link between this sentence and the first proposition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus.)

12  Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), “Plato's Pharmacy,” p. 87.

13  Ibid., p. 88.

14  Ibid., p. 89. The translation of the opening phrase of this passage seems clumsy. Derrida wrote: “Dieu du langage second et de la différence linguistique, Thot ne peut devenir le dieu de la parole créatrice que par substitution métonymique, par déplacement historique et parfois par subversion violente.” La dissémination (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972), p. 100. [I would translate this as “God of secondary language....”]

15  Dissemination, p. 89.

16  See, for example, Richard Rorty, “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida,” in his Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 90-109, and the essays cited in Rorty's first note to that essay; also Christopher Norris, The Deconstructive Turn: Essays in the Rhetoric of Philosophy London: Methuen, 1983), and The Contest of Faculties: Philosophy and Theory After Deconstruction (London: Methuen, 1985); and, in addition, the Philosophy and Literary Theory issue of The Monist 69.1 (January 1986).

17  See the well-known essay “La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines,” in L'écriture et la différence (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967), pp. 409-28.

18  Gerald Graff, “The Pseudo-Politics of Interpretation,” Critical Inquiry 9.3 (March 1983), 606-07.

19  Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 1.

20  Derrida, “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes f its Pupils,” Diacritics 13 (Fall 1983), 16, 13.

21  Graff, “The Pseudo-Politics of Interpretation,” 606.

22  Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems 1934-1952 (London: Dent, 1967), p. 58.

23  Wittgenstein, Tractatus, p. 3.

24  See Derrida, “The Principle of Reason,” 7-15.

25  Milton, Paradise Lost, ed Alastair Fowler (London: Longman, 1971), Book III, 418-98, pp. 167-72.

26  Ariosto's Orlando Furioso: Selections from the Translation of Sir John Harrington, ed. Rudolf Gottfried (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1971), canto 34, 638-704, pp. 296-98.

27  Derrida, Dissemination, p. 108.

28  Ibid., p. 117.

29  Ibid., p. 109.

30  I am quoting from the work De Melisso Xenophane Gorgia, attributed to Aristotle, as cited and interpreted by G. B. Kerferd, “Gorgias on nature or that which is not,” Phronesis 1 (1955), 3-25. (As Kerferd observes, there are several possible English renderings of this passage.)

31  Derrida, Dissemination, p. 111. Derrida at once characterizes the 'kettle-logic' of 'Plato-Rousseau-Saussure' as follows: “Analogously: 1. Writing is rigorously exterior and inferior to living memory and speech, which are therefore undamaged by it. 2. Writing is harmful to them because it puts them to sleep and infects their very way of life which would otherwise remain intact. 3. Anyway, if one has resorted to hypomnesia and writing at all, it is not for their intrinsic value, but because living memory is finite, it already has holes in it before writing ever comes to leave its traces. Writing has no effect on memory.” As Christopher Norris remarks, “This 'kettle-logic' is the means by which the Phaedrus both persistently raises the question of writing and just as persistently manages to evade, suppress or contain its large implications.” Norris, Derrida (London: Fontana, 1987), p. 40.

32  Gorgias, Peri tou mé ontos, as reported by Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians, I. 65. The translation makes use of the version of R. G. Bury, Sextus Empiricus with an English translation (4 vols., Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1933-49), vol. 2, p. 35, and that of R. K. Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1972), p. 42. Howard Felperin, describing it as “The first work of thoroughgoing (what I shall later term 'hard-core') deconstruction to come down to us,” suggests that this Gorgian text is “so striking in its wholesale anticipation of the contemporary project as to demand reconsideration of the cultural and philosophical context that could have conditioned it” (Beyond Deconstruction [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985], p. 104n). Felperin, who performs the remarkable feat of attacking Derrida at length without quoting him or even so much as naming one of his writings, does not attempt such a reconsideration.

33  Instances of which in the past few years include Myles Burnyeat, ed., The Skeptical Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), and Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes, The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

34  A. D. Nuttall, A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality (London and New York: Methuen, 1983), p. 36. Nuttall is quoting from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, trans. R.D. Hicks (Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1925), ix.89, 88, vol. 2, pp. 500-01. See also A. J. Cascardi, “Skepticism and Deconstruction,” Philosophy and Literature 8 (1984), 1-14.

35  I am referring in particular to the Charles Eliot Norton lectures given at Harvard in 1979-80 by Dame Helen Gardner and published as In Defence of the Imagination. Frank Kermode, one of Dame Helen's targets, replied with devastating effectiveness in “On Being an Enemy of Humanity,” Raritan 2.2 (1982-83), 87-102.

36  I have discussed some of these in my essay “Deconstruction and the Gnostics.”

37  See Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964; rpt. Chicago: University of Chicasgo Press, 1978), and Anthony Grafton, “Protestant versus Prophet: Isaac Causaubon on Hermes Trismegistus,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 46 (1983), 78-93.

38  The earliest surviving text in which this aphorism occurs is the twelfth-century Liber XXIV philosophorum. See Robin Small, “Nietzsche and a Platonist Tradition of the Cosmos: Center Everywhere and Circumference Nowhere,” Journal of the History of Ideas 44 (1983), 89-104. I have studied certain implications of this definition in “The World Turned Inside Out: Revolutions of the Infinite Sphere from Hermes to Pascal,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme n.s. 12.4 (1988), 303-13.

39  Ludovico Lazzarelli, De summa hominis foelicitate dialogus, qui inscribitur Calix Christi et Crater Hermetis, in Eugenio Garin et al., eds., Testi umanistici su l'ermetismo (Rome Fratelli Bocca, 1955), p. 56: “Christianus ego sum ... et Hermeticum simul esse non pudet.”

40  The standard study of this writer is Charles G. Nauert's Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965); see also my article “Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia,” Renaissance Quarterly 41.4 (1988), 614-53.

41  Gabriel Naudé, in his Apologie pour tous les grans personnages qui ont esté faussement soupçonnez de magie (Paris, 1625), p. 404, calls Agrippa “un nouveau Trismégiste”; Jean Bodin, in De la démonomanie des sorciers (Paris, 1581), fol. 219V, denounced him as “le plus grand Sorcier qui fut oncques de son aage.” In the preface to De occulta philosophia, Agrippa proposes that what he writes of magic might be put to use in the same way as doctors use poisons as antidotes: “nam & medicorum volumina inspicientibus contingit cum antidotis & pharmacis simul etiam venena legere.” Opera, ed. R.H. Popkin (2 vols., Lyon, c. 1600; facsimile rpt. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1970), vol. 1, sig. a2v. André Thevet, in Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres (2 vols.; Paris, 1584), vol. 2, fol. 544, wrote of Agrippa's book De vanitate that “Il n'y a coin ny secret d'aucune discipline, lequel il n'ait fureté & y ait vomy quelque regorge de sa mortelle poison.” 

42  Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits, vol. 2, fol. 544V: “I'ay honte qu'il faille que ie ramentoyve les malheurs de nostre France, qui encores pour le iourdhuy soustyent des Agrippins, esquels soubs quelques traicts estranges & espouventables font estat de prendre la lune avec les dents, taillent, roignent, retranchent, moderent, partissent & despiecent la puissance de l'Eternel, lequel ils veulent assubiectir aux niaiseries, qu'asses sottement ils s'impriment dans la cervelle.”

43  See, for example, Robert Holton, “A True Bond of Unity: Popular Education and the Foundation of the Discipline of English Literature in England,” in Literature and Politics/Literary Politics, Dalhousie Review 66.1-2 (Spring/Summer 1986), 31-44.

44  Jacques Derrida, “La mythologie blanche: la métaphore dans le texts philosophique,” in Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Minuit, 1972), pp. 247-324; Émile Nelligan, Poésies complètes 1896-1899, ed. Luc Lacourcière (1952; rpt. Montréal and Paris: Fides, 1968), p. 41.

45  Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 161-62.

46  René Descartes, “Méditation seconde,” in Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. F. Alquié (3 vols.; Paris: Garnier, 1963-73), vol. 2, p. 414: “Archimède, pour tirer le globe terrestre de sa place et le transporter en un autre lieu, ne demandait rien qu'un point qui fut fixe et assuré. Ainsi j'aurai droit de concevoir de hautes espérances si je suis aussi heureux pour trouver seulement une chose qui soit certaine et indubitable.”

47  Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), p. 257.    

Right Eye and Left Heel: Ideological Origins of the Legend of Faustus

[This essay was first presented at the conference on CONTEXTS: The Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, University of Manitoba (13-16 May 1987); a revised version was read the Renaissance Seminar, University of Sussex, 25 October 1988. It was first published in Mosaic 22.2 (Spring 1989): 79-94.]


The old is dying, and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.

(Antonio Gramsci, qtd. in Marzani 296)


My subject is the sixteenth-century legend of Doctor Faustus, the protagonist of which is a university scholar in full rebellion against the received system of knowledge. I shall argue that the early forms of this legend both participate in and record the orthodox suppression of an actual challenge to this system; the legend may therefore speak to us with renewed relevance at a time when the current organization of the field of textual studies is again being challenged, in the name this time of “comparatist” or “interdisciplinary” modes of analysis.

The words of Gramsci which I used as an epigraph might with equal validity be applied to both situations. The very familiarity of this dictum, however, permits the reader all too easily to forget its figurative nature. Consider then, a more recent development of the same allegory, drawn from a well-known essay by Jacques Derrida:

Here there is a kind of question, let us still call it historical, whose conception, formation, gestation, and labor we are only catching a glimpse of today. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the operations of childbearing—but also with a glance toward those who, in a society from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnamable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity. (293)

Ripped untimely from their contexts and superimposed in this manner, as variations on a theme, the words of Gramsci and Derrida seems to coalesce into a single grotesque image—grotesque, in the first instance, because Gramsci's words evoke, though without laughter, that bizarre image of the senile hag in childbirth which Mikhail Bakhtin identifies as a recurrent, perhaps an organizing feature of the Renaissance counterworld of carnival; and in the second grotesque, not just because what is at issue is emphatically paradoxical, but also because of the way in which the reader's glance is made to flicker between the unnameable birth in progress and the unnamed ones whose averted eyes certify it as monstrous. Yet while the superimposed layers of this image may appear to coalesce, there remains an obvious and powerful tension between them. The monstrosity that is no more than implicit in Gramsci's words becomes inescapable in Derrida's—which, if their perhaps disingenuous ambivalence be counted as morbid, may themselves be taken to exemplify at least one of the symptoms alluded to by Gramsci.

One subsidiary function of this essay will be to pose the question of whether, or to what degree, this conflated image of a laboring expectancy, of a monstrous birth in the offing, of the old struggling to deliver or miscarry the new, can convey what is at stake in the turn to an interdisciplinary mode in literary studies. This interdisciplinary turn might by the cynical be seen as an attempt to generate new and productive forms of intellectual practice out of the interstices between disciplines, some of which have themselves been described by their more searching practitioners as played-out and sterile. (One thinks, for example, of Richard Rorty's remarks to the effect that “that literary genre we call 'philosophy'” has “outlived its usefulness” [xiv], or of Terry Eagleton's recent study of literary theory, which begins by recognizing literature as an illusion and ends by identifying literary theory as another one and proposing that the best possible thing for it to do would be to argue itself out of existence [204].) Indeed, an ambivalence comparable to that of this grotesque compound image appears to traverse the very notion of an interdisciplinary approach to literature—for to speak in such terms is at one and the same time to transgress disciplinary boundaries and to re-assert them as defining the limits to that which is being approached, and consequently its nature as an object of study.

Thus, if certain forms of ideological closure are implicit in the division of textual studies into disciplines, it is arguable that interdisciplinary studies may serve as much to perpetuate as to subvert these forms of closure. A discipline in the human sciences—to hazard a partial definition—might be termed an apparently self-authenticating, self-perpetuating social narrative which recounts a variously defined “us” to ourselves, in the process “disconcealing,” structuring and objectifying this collective identity (Lyotard 18 ff.; Gadamer 103). The material substratum of this meta-narrative is in every case a sequence of relationships, of authority and of submission, between doctor and discipulus—a banal fact which may, however, suggest a similarly close relationship between the derivative terms “doctrine” and “discipline.” Such a relationship is more clearly perceptible in the manner in which the subject-matter of the methodologies that apparently shape the meta-narrative of the discipline are themselves delimited by certain broad doctrinal or ideological commitments which the discipline in turn legitimizes.

English studies, for example, in their New Critical phase commonly took as axiomatic the autonomy and “organic unity” of the text, consequently imposing a severely reductive meaning upon the idea of “context,” which came to denote an inert background from which the individual canonized text had decisively separated itself, rather than something inextricably interwoven (contextus) with all texts as a condition of their textuality. At the same time, not surprisingly, New Critics tended to attribute an analogous autonomy both to the act of writing and to characters in the texts that they explored. The discipline thus both echoed and legitimized an ideology of individualism which, in attenuated form, is still routinely an object of devotion for liberal (and illiberal) political orators. After a period of conceptual “disorder” in which traditionalists have regularly lamented a lack of system and coherence (see for example Cain 93), a similar cycle of legitimation may now be developing in the “new new criticism”—which perhaps seeks less to complete the overthrow of its once-hegemonic namesake that (in a familiar deconstructive doublet) to supplant and supplement, replicating its ideological functions in a mood of ironic dispersal rather than of unification.

My primary concern in this essay, however, is to propose an ideologically-based analysis of the origins of the legend of Faustus—a legend in which, as every reader of Marlowe or Goethe knows, the inadequacy of the traditional academic disciplines is proclaimed at the outset. In mastering philosophy, medicine, law and theology, Goethe's Faust has learned only “dass wir nichts wissen können” (line 363). His gestures of dismissal echo those of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, who in summarizing his rejection of the principal academic disciplines of his day declares that “Philosophy is odious and obscure, / Both Law and Phisicke are for pettie wits”—and “Divinitie,” traditionally the queen of the sciences and the ideological matrix in which the others subsist, is “basest” of them all, “Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vilde...” (A: 139-42).1 Marlowe's Faustus has at this point already turned to the “Metaphysickes of Magicians” (A: 79), which hold out to him, not the dialectical skills of which he already boasts, nor the medical powers which, having mastered, he could respect only if they enabled him to raise the dead and to be more than human, nor the despicable trivialities of the law nor, finally, that promise of “everlasting death” (A: 76) which is all he can find in the New Testament—but rather a dominion that “Stretcheth as farre as doth the minde of man” (A: 91).

Yet in this play, as in other Renaissance versions of the story, the attempt to substitute for the orthodox disciplines a form of power/knowledge which would be immediately transitive in its effects both upon the knower and upon the world that it subjects to him, thus dislocating and transcending the hegemonic system of discourses, is wholly abortive. It is noteworthy that the play contains a powerful analogue to that grotesque compound image of a monstrous birth, or non-birth, with which I began. In the first scene Faustus sums up his desires in two resonant lines: “A sound Magician is a mighty god: / Here tire, my braines, to get a Deity” (A: 92, B: 89).2 He thus announces a project of a self-begotten rebirth into divine form which would deliver him into “a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,” at the same time giving him sway over the world itself: “All things that moove betweene the quiet poles / Shalbe at my commaund...” (A: 83-84, 86-87). This initial aspiration is inverted in Faustus's last soliloquy, where he wishes futilely that he might evade eternal punishment by being “changde /Unto some brutish beast” (A: 1490-91). Moreover, in what sounds perversely like a kind of prayer, he cries:

You starres that raignd at my nativitie,  
whose influence hath alotted death and hel, 
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist, 
Into the intrailes of yon laboring cloude, 
That when you vomite foorth into the ayre, 
My limbes may issue from your smoaky mouthes, 
So that my soule may but ascend to heaven.... (A: 1474-80)

Faustus is reduced to an abject attempt to surrender his bodily integrity in a disgusting reversal of birth; having aspired to “rend the cloudes” (A: 89), he now begs for physical dissolution in their entrails. The bargain proposed—of resorption into a dismembering womb, and of regurgitation and dispersal, in exchange for the salvation of his soul—is the most violent expression of despair in the play.

It is one of the many ironies of this play that Faustus's counter-disciplinary, undisciplined, demonic way to a species of power/knowledge itself quickly assumes the features of a parody discipline: what Faustus achieves with his sophistical critique of the ends and limits of the academic disciplines is, in Constance Brown Kuriyama's helpful portmanteau coinage, “omnimpotence” (95). Overtones of a conventional doctor-discipulus relationship are implicit in Faustus's desire to accelerate his study of magic through the “sage conference” of Valdes and Cornelius (A: 131). (Perhaps because this demonic counter-discipline is parasitic upon the forms of knowledge which he already possesses, the arrogant novice has little to learn: Valdes tells him, “First Ile instruct thee in the rudiments, / And then wilt thou be perfecter than I” [A: 194-95].) In the comic scene which immediately follows Faustus's conjuration of Mephostophilis, however, a doctor-discipulus, master-servant sequence becomes explicit.

Here Wagner, who is Faustus's servant, engages the beggarly clown as his own servant with the promise to “make [him] go like Qui mihi discipulus” (A: 375), with the inducement that (as he says) “I will teach thee to turne thyself ... to a dogge, or a catte, or a mouse, or a ratte, or anything” (A: 421-22), and also with the coercive assistance of two devils whose capacity to terrify the clown awakens the latter's interest in what he calls, in the 1616 quarto, “this conjuring Occupation” (B: 379). Shortly thereafter, Faustus is himself subjected to a similar coercion, and bullied by Lucifer, Belzebub and Mephostophilis into accepting constraints upon his very thoughts: “Thou art damn'd, think thou of hell” (B: 642); “Thou shouldst not thinke on God. Thinke on the devill” (B: 662-63). His surrender, with a vow “never to looke to heaven,” elicits from Lucifer the suave reply: “So shalt thou show thy selfe an obedient servant...” (B: 666-67). However, the reader or playgoer has already been made aware, in a lighter way, that this occupation or discipline involves strict constraints. Wagner, in his sternest manner, says to the clown: “Villaine, call me Master Wagner, and see that you walke attentively, and let your right eye be alwaies Diametrally fixt upon my left heele, that thou maist, Quasi vestigiis nostris insistere” (B: 384-87). “God forgive me,” says the clown, “he speaks Dutch fustian: well, Ile folow him, Ile serve him, thats flat” (A: 435-36).

Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said of the scholars who have studied the early forms of the legend of Faustus is that they would appear, with some notable exceptions, to have followed Wagner's instructions to the letter. Goethe specialists concerned to trace his footprints among a mass of source materials, or Marlovians getting up the obligatory background; folklorists working to identify sources and analogues to the motifs absorbed into the legend; practitioners of a sometimes more or less inert form of literary historiography; students of Renaissance occultism or, more rarely, of humanistic and Reformation controversies—they have for the most part adhered to the paths prescribed by their respective disciplines. It would be churlish to deny that these scholars have provided a basis for the understanding of something more than the disparate parts made visible by their studies. Yet, as may be suggested by the critical perspective upon disciplinary constraints which is built into the legend, at least in its Marlovian and Goethean forms, the origins and early development of the Faustus story cannot be adequately comprehended within the bounds of any single discipline. Although the legend is by common consent of major importance in that cultural manifold which is their shared, or rather partitioned, object of study, from the point of view of each separate discipline its early forms appear somehow peripheral. The reason for this, I would argue, is that the intelligibility of these early forms of the legend is inseparable from their ideological functions as polemical narrative—and it is these functions which the division of textual studies into disciplines serves to suppress and to make invisible.

“Polemical narrative,” I have said: let us be more precise. Whatever may be said about the motifs drawn into it from, for example, the patristic legend of Simon Magus and the medieval legends of Cyprian, Virgilius or Theophilus (see Butler 73ff.), the legend of Faustus arose in the early decades of the sixteenth century as a form of ideological assassination, as an abusive attack upon representatives of a current of thought which proposed to deconstruct and to transcend the orthodox categories of knowledge, which appropriated Christian doctrine in the service of a kind of gnosis, a radically heterodox power/knowledge, and in which, finally, the metaphor of rebirth that is parodied and inverted in Marlowe's play occupied a central place.

There is not space here to do more than name a few of the prominent early exponents of this Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition—Marsilio Ficino, philosopher and translator of Hermetic, Platonic and Neoplatonic texts; Giovanni Pico, polymath, philosopher, and Cabalist; Joannes Reuchlin, embattled Hebrew scholar and Cabalist; Joannes Trithemius, abbot, annalist and magician; Ludovico Lazzarelli, humanist poet and Hermetic enthusiast, Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, an evangelical humanist, the prime reinterpreter of Aristotle for his generation; Cornelius Agrippa, encyclopedic occultist and skeptic.

Similarly, at this time one can only gesture at some of the works of modern scholarship which have restored this invasive tradition to view: the essays of Garin, Kristeller, Secret, and Walker; iconological studies by Wind and by Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl; explorations by Zambelli, Zika, and Grafton of orthodox reactions to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus and to such Hermetists and Cabalists as Agrippa and Reuchlin; and Frances Yates's speculative historical reconstructions—which have themselves provided the occasion for cross-disciplinary warfare between intellectual historians and historians of science.3

The connections between this current of thought and the Faustus legend may intially seem far from obvious. In the first complete version of the legend to be printed, the Historia von D. Johann Fausten published by Spiess in 1587, there remain only traces of what I would call the originary polemic against the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition, while a broad current of anti-Catholic polemic is in evidence throughout the text. If the narrative exfoliation of the legend resulted in an occultation of the ideological polarity from which it sprang, however, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus might be said to constitute a return of the repressed. As I have argued in another essay (“Misreading”), the more authentic 1604 version of this play embodies an unbalanced dialectic between a Reformed theological orthodoxy which it simultaneously affirms as inescapable and exposes as intolerable, and that other ideology which is the basis of Faustus's unstable ambitions, and to the nature of which he offers an important clue when he aspires to be “as cunning as Agrippa was, / Whose shadowes made all Europe honor him” (A: 150-51).

The German humanist and magician Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535)—whose “shadowes” were the theatrical displays of necromancy with which this “abundant scholar” was popularly thought to have astonished his contemporaries, among them Erasmus, More, Luther's protector the Elector of Saxony, and the Emperor Charles V (Nashe 297-99)—can provide a focus for our inquiries. Of Agrippa's many books the best known was De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium atque excellentia verbi Dei declamatio, which anticipates Marlowe's Faustus in its rhetorical demolition of all orthodox forms of knowledge, from logic to courtly place-seeking, and from whore-mongering to scholastic theology. Despite the evangelical posture which gives shape to its satire, this book was suspected (by, for example, Thevet vol. 2, 544r-v) of being a kind of ground-clearing operation for the magical doctrines espoused in Agrippa's other major work, his De occulta philosophia, an encyclopedia of occultism in which appear rhapsodic flights (such as the “Epistola nuncupatoria” to Book III, and also that would seem to underlie Faustus's praise of magic. The relationship seen by some sixteenth-century readers between these books is thus parodied by the pattern of Faustus's first soliloquy. Moreover, a Hermetic doctrine of spiritual rebirth which entails the acquisition of divine powers is the basis both of Christian faith as Agrippa understands it in De vanitate and of the highest forms of magic described in Book III of De occulta philosophia (see Keefer, “Dilemma”).

There are strong reasons for locating the historical Doctor Faustus on the radical fringe of that Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition of which Agrippa was one of the most notorious exponents.4 Georg of Helmstadt, or Georgius Sabellicus Faustus (as he came to call himself), first comes to light as a magician in a letter written in 1507 by Joannes Trithemius (to whom Agrippa three years later dedicated the first manuscript version of De occulta philosophia). From this letter is appears that Faustus claimed astonishing magical powers, boasting, for example, that if all the works of Plato and Aristotle were lost he could restore them—as Ezra did the writings of Moses—with increased beauty, and bragging in addition “that the miracles of Christ the Saviour were not so wonderful, that he himself could do all the things that Christ had done, as often and whenever he wishes.” Faustus's transgressions were not merely verbal for, according to Trithemius, he also disgraced himself as a sodomite (Palmer and More 83-86). Frank Baron's analysis of this letter has shown both that Faustus, drawing with wild eclecticism upon a variety of magical traditions, associated himself with Zoroaster and Numa Pompilius, among others; and also that Trithemius, himself struggling against accusations of black magic, took the occasion to denounce him as a means of displaying his own orthodoxy (23-29).

Nowhere, of course, does Trithemius associate Faustus with the Hermetic-Cabaistic tradition to which he himself adhered. One may suspect, however, that he knew more about Faustus than his letter reveals. In 1506, and again at greater length in 1514, Trithemius described a visit to the court of Louis XII of France made in 1501 by a similarly boastful magician, one Joannes Mercurius de Corigio (see Garin, Testi 45-46). Here again there are no direct indications of Hermetic or Cabalistic affiliations; but in this case, unlike that of Faustus, the man left writings which have survived, as have those of his disciple, the humanist Ludovico Lazzarelli (see McDaniel; Kristeller, “Lazzarelli”; Ruderman). From these it is clear that Joannes Mercurius was more than just a bizarre magician and prophet: he claimed, with something like the eclecticism of Faustus, to be at once Hermes, Enoch, Apollonius of Tyana, and Christ; and Lazzarelli's writings about him reveal a knowledge of the Cabala. Moreover, the wording of Trithemius's text lets slip the fact that he was aware of the man's true oddity: he writes that Joannes Mercurius scorned “almost all the ancients together, the philosophers as much as the theologians, since he might declare all of them, excepting only himself, to have been unlearned.”5 If we knew nothing else about this bizarre figure, the words “excepting only himself” would seem merely a clumsy turn of phrase. But as Trithemius undoubtedly realized, the man literally believed himself to be one of “the ancients”—or rather, several of them combined. There are then grounds for believing that in the case of Faustus, Trithemius also knew more than he was willing to commit to paper.

A further sampling of this learned abbot's correspondence reveals a fact that is of equal interest. Like Mercurius's disciple Lazzarelli, who seems, shortly before 1494, to have initiated the elderly King Ferdinand of Aragon into the mystery of Hermetic rebirth into divine form (D.P. Walker, Spiritual 64-72), and like Mercurius himself, who would appear to have had similar designs upon Louis XII of France in 1501, Trithemius attempted to disseminate magical beliefs and practices through the conversion of powerful princes. In 1503 he wrote to the Margrave of Brandenburg in the hope of enrolling him as a student of natural magic, of establishing for him a program of studies in this art, and (it would seem) of subsequently persuading other rulers to follow his example (Trithemius sig. G3-Hv). Trithemius's persuasions, which emphasize the political as well as spiritual advantages to be gained from a knowledge of magic, may seem staid in comparison with those of Mercurius, who made wild promises of good fortune and longevity to the King of France, or of Lazzarelli, whose conversion of Ferdinand involved a strongly heterodox appropriation of Christian doctrine. While Trithemius was playing the same game, however, it was obviously not in his interest to reveal how much his own magical doctrines were derived from the same sources as those of such embarrassingly indiscreet practitioners as Lazzarelli and Mercurius—or Georgius Faustus.

The association of the historical Faustus with the radical wing of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition is reinforced by a letter of the humanist Mutianus Rufus, who encountered him in 1513, and scornfully proposed that the Dominican theologians who were trying to destroy “the philosopher Reuchlin” should take aim at this man instead (Palmer and More 87-88). Here again one may see an attempt to deflect hostile attention from a mainstream exponent of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition to a figure on its radical periphery. Besides being a noted Hebrew scholar, Reuchlin was the author of De verbo mirifico (1494), a Cabalist exposition of the magical powers inherent in the name of Jesus. Agrippa borrowed heavily from this work in De occulta philosophia (see Zika, “De verbo” 138, “Reuchlin” 242-43), and also lectured on Reuchlin's book at the University of Dôle in 1509. (For this act he was denounced before the court of Margaret of Austria as a judaizing heretic, and lost his position at the university [Nauert 25-28]—another instance of orthodox reaction to this current of thought.)

The Reuchlin connection can take us farther still. In 1515 and 1517 Reuchlin's defenders struck out at the theologians with the famous Letters of Obscure Men. A riposte published by Ortwin Gratius in 1518, the Lamentationes obscurorum virorum, contains an intriguing exchange of letters about sinister demonic practices between “Agrippa Stygianus” and one “Georgius Subbunculator” (Zambelli, “Agrippa von Nettesheim,” 280, “Magic”). The latter name, if indeed it is a derisive modification of “Georgius Sabellicus,” is a telling one—for Faustus in his eclectic heterodoxy was in effect a subbunculator, a “botcher-up of old clothes.”

The names of Agrippa and Faustus (who died in 1535 and c. 1537 respectively) were subsequently paired with increasing frequency. Agrippa's brief service in the court of Charles V was absorbed, within several decades, into the legend of Faustus: both magicians were rumoured to have won victories for the emperor by magic (Palmer and More 103; Thevet, vol. 2, fol. 542v-543). In addition, the libel, first printed in 1546, that Agrippa's black dog was a devil, was echoed two years later by the claim that Faustus's dog, and his horse as well, were devils (Nauert 327; Palmer and More 98). It seems to have become almost a convention to associate Faustus, as Melanchthon did, with “iste nebulo qui scripsit De vanitate artium” (Palmer and More 102), with that “scoundrel” Agrippa.

Faustus, however, proved to be a more appropriate focus than Agrippa for the development of hostile legends. This “great sodomite and necromancer,” as the city records of Nuremberg called him in 1532 (Palmer and More 90), was a far more extreme transgressor of social and ideological codes; he also conveniently left no writings behind him. Agrippa, in contrast, was a famous (and in some circles well-respected) man of letters. His pupil Johannes Wier came to his defense in his widely-read De praestigiis daemonum (1563), a book which also attempts to redirect the attention of persecutors from the innocent women whom they were torturing as witches to the activities of learned magicians (Wier fol. 67-77, 206v-207, 368; cf. Baxter 57-62), and the fourth edition of which, printed in 1568, contains several anecdotes about the misdeeds and violent death of Faustus (Palmer and More 105-07).

The development of the central core of the Faustus legend (to which popular tales about, for example, Faustus devouring a load of hay could subsequently be added at will) thus forms part of the history of orthodox responses to heterodoxies associated with magical practices. Norman Cohn has argued persuasively that orthodox reactions to the medieval tradition of ceremonial magic during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries laid the foundation for the stereotype of the witch, which was fully elaborated only in the early fifteenth century (164-205). After the 1470s, however, the church found itself facing a new form of Hermetic and later also Cabalistic magic which claimed to be based upon the purest and most ancient religious traditions and to be in conformity with the true uncorrupted teachings of Christ. Medieval grimoires and pseudo-Solomonic texts could be easily enough condemned as sorcery and witchcraft—but what was one to say of the pious Hermes Trismegistus and the holy Cabalists? Were their modern interpreters—respected scholars and philosophers like Ficino, Pico, Trithemius and Reuchlin—also witches and sorcerers? The question did not initially take that form. Giovanni Pico was condemned in 1487 on theological rather than on demonological grounds—and then absolved in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI in terms that gave support to his theological claims for magic and cabala (Yates 113-14).

As social, political and ideological tensions increased in the early sixteenth century, however, the tone of the debate began to change. Shortly after the turn of the century Charles de Bouelles, who had visited Trithemius at his monastery of Spanheim and made use of his famous library, denounced him as having a pact with the devil (Wier fol. 75v). At about the same time, Gianfrancesco Pico, a nephew of the more famous Giovanni who shared neither his uncle's philosophical opinions nor his enthusiasm for magic, attacked in his De rerum praenotione (1506-07) any conflation of Christian and pagan traditions, denouncing Orpheus and Apollonius of Tyana as demonic magicians—and letting off Ficino, whose talismanic magic he linked with that of Apollonius, only because of his submissive attitude to the church (Walker, Spiritual 146-49). In this text the younger Pico also told stories, among them one about a magician who had promised to a curious and unwise prince “that he would present to him the siege of Troy as on a stage or in a theater, and would show him Achilles and Hector as they were when they fought.” This magician's pretended knowledge of future events let him down, however: he was promptly carried off by a devil (qtd. in Wier fol. 71r-v). A decade later, in 1515, Jerome Benivieni had to defend the reputations of Ficino and Giovanni Pico against the accusations of a preaching friar that they had attempted to unite their souls with God, perform miracles and prophesy by means of magical and cabalistic rites (Secret 77-78). The philosophers, it would seem, were being assimilated by the orthodox to the pattern of extreme Hermetists like Mercurius or Faustus, who actually claimed to be capable of such things.

Why, however, did the Faustus legend develop in Lutheran, rather than in Catholic or Calvinist circles? A tentative answer to this question may be sought in several facts. First, the Catholic church was less automatically predisposed than were the Reformers to identify any mention of magic as demonic sorcery (Thomas 27-89). Next, the reforming impulses of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition, its claim to restore the pristine verities of the Christian religion, and its doctrines of illumination and rebirth all outflanked the teachings of the neo-Augustinian Reformers.6 No less significantly, certain late-patristic texts which Calvin rejected as “putrid fables” (vol. 48, viii) were used and transmitted at the University of Wittenberg under Luther and Melanchthon.

I refer in particular to the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, and to the apocryphal Acts of the apostles Peter and Paul.7 These texts record a series of debates and magical contests between St. Peter and Simon Magus, the Gnostic heresiarch and magician whose teachings had been refuted by such orthodox polemicists as Irenaeus and Hippolytus in the second and third centuries A.D. (The name Faustus, it may be added, appears in association with Simon in the pseudo-Clementine texts; and heresies similar to those of Simon recur in the late fourth century in the mouth of Faustus the Manichee, who was refuted by St. Augustine [see Wentersdorf 215-19].) The heresies of Simonian Gnosticism, as presented in the Recognitions, resemble those of the major “gnosticizing” Hermetic texts, which date from the same period and which later formed the core of the Renaissance tradition espoused by Reuchlin, Trithemius, and Agrippa.8 The legend of Simon Magus, moreover, shows the same pattern of development—from doctrinal and demonological polemic to a narrative exfoliation resulting in the occultation of the Gnostic ideology—that I have shown to be traceable in the Faustus legend. Furthermore, in several important respects—the emphasis upon demonic flight, the episode of Helen of Troy, and the magician's irretrievable damnation—the later legend borrows from the earlier one. The Simon Magus legend is thus not merely the earliest of a large number of textual sources of the Faustus legend; it is also in a full sense its prototype and parallel.

To these ideological, etiological and structural parallels can be added a further, functional one. Melanchthon, whose statements about Faustus imply that he had encountered him, both in Wittenberg and perhaps also previously (Palmer and More 101-02)—although what he says about the man's Christian name and birthplace is contradicted by earlier sources (Baron 11-16)—repeatedly compares the sorcerer to Simon Magus. One may suspect that a kind of ratio is being constructed. The antichrist Simon Magus opposed, and yet by his very presence also testified to, the apostolic mission of St. Peter and St. Paul; Melanchthon's stories about Faustus imply a similar guarantee through demonic opposition of his own and Luther's quasi-apostolic role. A suspicion that such a ratio may underlie the Lutheran legend is strengthened by the curious response of one Augustine Lercheimer, a graduate of Wittenberg in the 1540s, to the publication of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten in 1587. Denouncing it angrily as “trivial, false, and nasty,” as a libel both upon the university with which it associates Faustus and also upon “Luther, Melanchthon, and others of sainted memory,” Lercheimer then proceeds, very oddly, to tell a story which links Faustus more intimately to the Lutheran leadership than does anything in the Faustbuch. It would appear that when Faustus was in Wittenberg, “he came at times to the house of Melanchthon,” of all people, where he received both hospitality and admonitions. Resenting the latter, he told his host one day as they descended to dinner that he would make all the pots in his kitchen fly up through the chimney. To which Melanchthon replied, with less than his usual eloquence, “Dass soltu wol lassen, ich schiesse dir in deine kunst”—and the magician, of course, was powerless to harm “the saintly man” (Palmer and More 121-22). This Kitchen Debate reproduces in miniature the rhetorical and magical contests between St. Peter and Simon Magus. The fact that Lercheimer evidently felt it to reflect credit upon his teacher speaks volumes.

* * * * 

The Faustus legend of the sixteenth century thus preserves, for those whose disciplinary commitments do not blind them to the evidence, traces of a vicious ideological struggle—one in which, to oversimplify matters somewhat, a radically relativistic current of thought which challenged religious and academic orthodoxies succumbed to the onslaught of an authoritarian, exclusivist biblical fundamentalism that had made its own compromises with the structures of political power. Such defeats are seldom absolute: thus, in 1619, the young René Descartes's dreams of a mathesis universalis and of a single method of inquiry which would reunify the scattered sciences were stimulated by his reading of Agrippa and of the Hermetic fantasies of the Rosicrucian manifestos (Descartes, vol. 10, 165, 167-68, 193-200, 214). Yet it was a defeat. However misleadingly, Joannes Reuchlin has most often been remembered by historians as the occasion of a violent ideological struggle between “humanists” and “scholastics” (the real issues, as Zika [“Reuchlin and Erasmus”] and Overfield have argued, were Reuchlin's courageous opposition to orthodox anti-semitism, in particular that of the Dominican order, and his propagation of Cabalistic magic). Cornelius Agrippa has survived, more dubiously, in the rhymes of the English translation of Struwwelpeter as “tall Agrippa,” who dips young racists into his enormous inkwell, from which they emerge as black as the child whom they have been tormenting. Despite their reputations as scholars, however, the comparatist, counter-disciplinary turn which Reuchlin and Agrippa represented had little if any impact upon university curricula in their century.

This fact may seem hard to regret, if one pauses to reflect upon the more wildly irrational elements in their writings, and upon their systematic failure to distinguish between the natural order and the order of words. However, something more fundamental was also at stake—quite literally so—in the ideological struggles whose traces I have been investigating.

One can scarcely speak of the legend of Faustus without remembering the central function in most of its versions of “das Ewigweibliche.” The “eternal feminine,” or the “eternal in woman”—whether figured by Goethe as “Una poenitentium ... sonst Gretchen genannt,” or by Marlowe as that glamourously demonic Helen whose lips suck forth Faustus's soul—draws the protagonist in the direction in which he was already going. It cannot have escaped attention that the central metaphor of this essay is derived from a different male image of the “eternal feminine,” one which registers quite precisely a male fear of the female body, and which uses it to symbolize the “monstrous” processes which escape masculine control. 

It may therefore be relevant to observe, in concluding, that one of Cornelius Agrippa's earliest writings was entitled De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (1509). In this text he argues (I quote from the translation of 1542) that “betwene man and woman by substance of the soule, one hath no higher pre-emynence of nobylytye above the other, but both of them naturally have equall libertie of dignitie and worthynesse. But all other thynges, the which be in man, besydes the dyvyne substance of the soule, in those thynges the excellente and noble womanheed in a manner infynytely dothe excell the rude grosse kynd [i.e. nature] of men...” (sig. Aiiv-Aiii). In this text Agrippa subverts a long-established misogynist tradition with its own weapons of philological argument and the citation of scriptural and patristic authorities. The work is exuberantly playful, but that predominantly male scholarly tradition which has interpreted it as no more than an exercise in paradox is perhaps mistaken. For while Agrippa's arguments are in places deliberately frivolous, they also insistently call into question the established order both of gender relations and of ecclesiastical power (Wirth 609-13). In other writings Agrippa took a vigorous stand against the demonization of the feminine and of the female body which was under way in his lifetime. He mocked the theological faculty of the University of Cologne for having given its approval to that brutally misogynist text, the Malleus maleficarum (Opera, vol. 2, 1043; see Lea, vol. 2, 337-43). Moreover, in 1518 in Metz he put his career and his life on the line in his successful defense of a woman who had been accused of witchcraft and tortured by the local inquisitor (Nauert 59-61).

I conclude, then, with a question. Is it merely a coincidence that the period between 1560 and the late 1580s, during which the Faustus legend received its full narrative elaboration, also saw the first major outbreak of witch-hunts in Western Europe (Monter 35; Midelfort 32, 86-89; Macfarlane 26-27)—an outbreak in which, with the vehement approval of orthodox intellectuals, thousands of people, most of them women, were imprisoned, tortured and judicially murdered? One may be reminded of the image of Gretchen, the desired and the betrayed, which appeared to Goethe's Faust on Walpurgis Night, and of Faust's response to this apparition:

Welch eine Wonne! Welch ein Leiden! 
Ich kann von diesem Blick nicht scheiden. 
Wie sonderbar muss diesen schönen Hals
Ein einzig-rotes Schnürchen schmücken, 
Nicht breiter als ein Messerücken! (4201-05)

Or, in Barker Fairley's translation: “What joy, what suffering. I can't take my eyes off her. Strange how the red line round her lovely neck suits her. Not wider than the back of a knife” (73).




1  My quotations from the Greg edition are identified by line numbers and by text (A refers to the edition of 1604 and its reprints of 1609 and 1611, B to the substantially revised and bowdlerized edition of 1616). U/v and i/j have been silently altered to conform with modern practice, and errors in Latin phrases are silently corrected. For the principles governing my use of the A and B texts, see Keefer, “Verbal Magic” and “History.”

2  These lines offer an interesting textual crux: the B-version of A: 92 contains what seems to be an ideologically-motivated softening of the meaning (“Demi-god” for “mighty god”), but the following line in A shows signs of memorial corruption (hypermetrical self-address, internal rhyme, suppression of the metaphor of begetting). I have given to B: 89 the punctuation of Jump's Revels Plays edition.

3  Yates's exaggerated claims about the formative role of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition in the development of scientific mentalities have been challenged by Westman, by Vickers, and by Schmitt, who is criticizing Yates went so far as to propose that “Hermeticism never becomes a real driving force of any significant cultural movement during the Renaissance” (207)—a remark which may suggest that he, as much as Yates, would have done well to attend to Garin's warning against “troppo facili sintesi” (“Divagazioni” 466).

4  Baron's attempt to do so on the basis of Faustus's possible associations at Heidelberg University in the 1480s (20-22) is purely conjectural—although his discovery that Faustus studied there is of major importance. I have tried to show here that there are solid textual grounds for linking Faustus with the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition.

5  My translation. Trithemius wrote: “contemnens veteres pene cunctos, tam Philosophos, quam Theologos, cum prater se unum omnes diceret fuisse indoctos...” (Garin, Testi 46).

6  An early instance of the unstable relationship between the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition and its near-opposite, predestinarian theology, is studied by D.P. Walker (Theology 42-62). In some cases the reforming impulses of this tradition were absorbed into orthodox evangelical movements (see for example Rice 19-29; Copenhaver 189-211). The concluding chapters of Agrippa's De vanitate, in which a quasi-Lutheran vocabulary is used to convey a thoroughly instrumental, Hermetic view of illumination and rebirth, exemplify an inverse process.

7  The Recognitions, first printed in 1504 by Lefèvre d'Étaples, is one of two surviving fourth-century recensions of a lost third-century work, itself a compilation of earlier Christian and Gnostic texts (Cullmann 63-131; Hennecke-Schneemelcher, vol. 2, 542-45). The Acts of Peter and Paul, which dates from the sixth or seventh century but incorporates parts of the second-century Acts of Peter (Hennecke-Schneemelcher, vol. 2, 575) was current in the Renaissance in a Latin translation dating from 1490 (A. Walker xiv).

8  These are the first, fourth, seventh and thirteenth tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum. For indications of their significance as a group, see Festugière 11; Nock, Corpus, vol. 1, 16, 61, 128n); Nock, Essays, vol. 1, 85. There are English translations of these texts in Grant (Anthology 211-33); the term “gnosticizing” is applied to them by Grant (Gnosticism 148).    





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----. The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. Ed. John D. Jump. 1962. London: Methuen, 1974.

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Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia

Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia

When in 1625 Gabriel Naudé wished to clear the name of Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) from the pious slanders of the demonologists of the intervening century, he argued that this learned man, “a new Trismegistus in the three higher faculties of Theology, Law, and Medicine, [...] who [...] exercise[d] his mind on all sciences and disciplines,” deserved better than to be abused with stories “which would be much more appropriate in the magical tales of Merlin, Maugis, and of Doctor Faust....”

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Misreading Faustus Misreading: The Question of Context

[First published in The Dalhousie Review 65.4 (Winter 1985-86): 511-33. I have made several small changes to the text, and have updated some of the notes to incorporate references to more recent scholarship.]


[Faustus]:   Now would I have a booke where I might see al characters and planets of the heavens, that I might knowe their motions and dispositions. 
[Mephastophilis]:   Heere they are too.                  Turne to them
Fau:   Nay let me have one booke more, and then I have done, wherein I might see al plants, hearbes and trees that grow upon the earth. 
Me:    Heere they be. 
Fau:    O thou art deceived. 
Me:    Tut I warrant thee.                      Turne to them               (A: 618-27)1




Marlowe’s Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus opens with the spectacle of a man bending his mind to a strange task of self-transformation. Struggling against the limits of humanity, Faustus aspires to be something more:

A sound Magician is a mighty god: 
Here tire, my braines, to get a Deity!   (A: 92, B: 89)2

A god, then, and self-begotten. The notion is at once magnificent (“All things that move betweene the quiet poles / Shalbe at my commaund” [A: 86-87]); desperate, in that it emerges as an alternative to the promise of everlasting death which Faustus finds in the New Testament; and faintly ridiculous. The intentions of this would-be god, once he descends to particulars, smell oddly of the study. He will overturn, for himself at least, that law of destiny concerning scholars that Marlowe enunciated in his Hero and Leander—“Grosse gold, from them runs headlong to the boore”;3 his servile spirits will

                         flye to India for gold, 
Ransacke the Ocean for orient pearle, 
And search all corners of the new found world
For pleasant fruites and princely delicates

—but not before they have resolved him “of all ambiguities” (A: 114-17, 112). The academic manifests himself again in the slide from thoughts of “straunge philosophie” into the musings of an armchair strategist who will have his spirits “wall all Germany with brasse” and will “levy souldiers with the coyne they bring, / And chase the Prince of Parma from our land”—musings which are interrupted by the slightly puerile notion of filling “the publike schooles with [silk] / Wherewith the students shalbe bravely clad” (A: 118-25). The indirectness of all this is curious: Faustus will be a god, but by proxy; a god, perhaps, in academic robes.

These oddly unfocussed desires presuppose a capacity for self-determination that is, however, utterly denied by the structure of spiritual forces within which Faustus lives and by which he is permeated. Faustus’s is a career in which the false-heroic, the fatuous, and farcical are mixed in approximately equal quantities with something that is less easily labeled, but which includes a pervasive fear of torture and of death, iridescent verbal barriers constructed to shut out that fear, and a corrosive self-awareness which dissolves them to re-state a debilitating terror in still stronger terms. At the end of this career, he is reduced to craving a different kind of transformation:

Ah Pythagoras metemsucossis were that true, 
This soule should flie from me, and I be changde
Unto some brutish beast….   (A: 1491-93)

But in a manner vaguely reminiscent of the paradoxes of Nicholas of Cusa’s docta ignorantia, a measure of dignity is extracted from its utter opposite. Thus for example, in his last hour Faustus’s desperate will to live finds voice in a line marvelously appropriated from the Amores of Ovid: “O lente lente currite noctis equi” (A: 1459).4 And, academic to the end, the last thing he can think of to abdicate is his necromantic scholarship: “Ugly hell gape not, come not Lucifer, / Ile burne my bookes, ah Mephastophilis” (A: 1507-08).

Over the past three quarters of a century or more—a period, coincidentally let us say, during which English studies have become professionalized as the almost exclusive domain of university teachers—this tragedy of a university teacher has risen from comparative obscurity to a position close to the centre of the literary canon. Edited and re-edited by modern scholars, mulled over by critics, reprinted in both the Norton and Oxford anthologies of English literature, Doctor Faustus has become one of a small number of almost inescapable objects in the humanities curricula of universities in the English-speaking world. Yet strangely enough, despite all this attention, despite a general conviction that it is laden with significance, Doctor Faustus is a play which tends to be remembered in the barest outline, or in terms of a few anthology pieces—among them the dangerously playful speech to Helen and the splendid last soliloquy. Is the play really no more than an obscure setting for such brilliant fragments? Or does our forgetfulness—which contrasts oddly with the play’s continued success on stage—suggest rather some defect in our understanding of the articulation of the whole? The principle of charity, together with whatever modesty one can muster, should incline us to the second alternative.

By what kind of scholarly necromancy of our own, then, can we re-animate this play with sufficient vigour to enable us to respond to it in its entirety? First, and most generally, how is one to receive this strange text which is apparently so simple in its dramatic action, yet so unforthcoming as to the meaning of that action? As an orthodox cautionary tale of one “Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise, / Onely to wonder at unlawful things, / whose deepenesse doth intise such forward wits, / To practise more then heavenly power permits” (A: 1514-17)? But a careful consideration of its syntactical ambiguity may suggest that this exhortation is subtly duplicitous.5 As a tragic outcry against the constricting force of this same orthodoxy, then, and a subversive exposure of its inhumanity? Or as a fool’s progress laced with bitter absurdities, a sardonic comedy in the Marlovian mixed style? “Marlovian,” one says—but how much of the mixture is Marlowe’s work, and to what extent must we admit that a play which survives in two distinct versions, one bowdlerized and revised, both textually corrupt, and both structurally defective, is an indeterminate object, a kind of palimpsest the final blurred shape of which is far removed from the design of its first shaper?6

Doctor Faustus, one may confess, is all of these: palimpsest, black comedy, tragedy, dramatic homily. And to the extent that its text is genuinely indeterminate it is many other things as well. But to speak more immediately of what it offers us, this play, in both versions or any combination of the two, is ideological in a peculiarly insistent and intimate manner. Of course, all fictive discourse is ideological in the broad sense that it contributes in a historically specific manner to a society’s self-representations. And the genre to which this play is traditionally attached is explicitly ideological to a high degree: Elizabethan tragedy typically reflects upon social codes and their natural, celestial and theological resonances through a many-voiced mimesis of power and erotic relations, of conflict, disorder and catastrophe. Yet “the dalliance of love, / In courts of Kings where state is overturnd, / …the pompe of prowd audacious deedes” (A: 4-6), assassination, incest, adultery, conquest and revenge—all these, the common stuff of Elizabethan tragedy, are largely if not wholly absent from Doctor Faustus. This play instead deals sensationally with the most private and insidious fear of Elizabethans: that of damnation, of unending torment in this life and next. The crucial decisions of its protagonist, which involve in the first place a rejection of all orthodox modes of thought, are made in isolation from any human community; and Faustus is again alone in his final suffering. Whatever social context the play provides for him is curiously peripheral to this private trajectory. For Faustus struggles not with other humans, but with heaven, hell, and his own obdurately fearful self—all of which are in a related way ideological constructs.

The ideological qualities of Doctor Faustus are further testified to by the early non-authorial deformations of its text, which in some instances were clearly prompted by a desire to limit the anxieties which it provokes—and also by the extraordinary diversity of the modern receptions of the play, many of which reveal a similar motivation. Accordingly, one might well ask whether any critical interpretation is likely to reveal as much about the play’s complex genesis as a product and reflection of the form and pressure of its age, or about the subsequent unfoldings of its meaning, as it does about the critic’s own ideological prejudices.

Or would it be more honest to aim this question in a different direction? What, then, are our motives, as readers, in returning to this play? Delight, most obviously, in its wit, its grotesque ironies, its uneven depths and resonant terrors. Who, after all, will turn with any eagerness to something that does not provoke delight? The question is St. Augustine’s—who also pertinently wondered what the hidden processes are that govern our erratic fixations of delight.7 To what in us, then, does this play respond? Perhaps, on the most naïve level (but one that is well represented in modern criticism), to a desire for reassurance as to certain certainties: among them our possession of free-will (does Faustus not wilfully choose his own damnation?) and the existence, for other ages if not for us, of objective powers of good and evil. And at the same time, possibly, to a desire to enjoy, without the effort of being saved, the most dubious of all the privileges of the blessed: that of witnessing from a safe distance the terrors of the damned. The large ironic inversions of Doctor Faustus can thus answer to its readers’ submission to ideological circumscription—or indeed, to a more complex attitude of skepticism as to the very possibility of escape from one or another form of such enclosure. But the play also responds, with equal if not greater directness, to the contrary experience of resistance. Those who are disinclined to approve the permeating orthodoxies of their own age (which, like Faustus, they will find it easier to reject than to expel) may see their difficulties prefigured in this play’s interrogation of a theological orthodoxy which it cannot openly challenge, but whose harsh outlines it can nevertheless expose.

The dominant rhetorical mode of the play, however, is self-interrogation and second-person self-predication. This peculiarity may make it of particular interest to readers engaged in the self-reflexive labyrinths of contemporary literary theory. It is his habitual mode of self-address—“Settle thy studies Faustus” (A: 30); “what art thou Faustus but a man condemned to die?” (A: 1169); “Accursed Faustus, where is mercie now?” (A: 1329)—which in large part constitutes the dramatic identity of Faustus, and which does so in terms of an increasingly powerful recognition of the end that is in store for him. At the same time as they enact a split between a perverse wilfulness and the strangely passive self which is addressed, his self-reflections construct a trap of self-authenticating predication, a dialogue of one voice in which the self identifies, and names as its own destiny, an eschatologically defined Other within the self. Whether this uncentred self that is constituted and betrayed by its own discourse be related to a Heraclitean equation of ethos and daimon, to its obvious context in sixteenth-century Protestant theology, or to the theories of Lacan, Foucault, or Derrida, its contemporary appeal is evident.8

But does Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus not also answer to a certain apocalyptic mood in late twentieth-century culture? To the degree that we accept, with whatever ironic reservations, one or another form of alignment with Faustus as a figure who carries meaning for our own age, are we not, almost unavoidably, remaking the play as an allegorical apocalypse, prophetic of some fatal imbalance in a culture which modern writers have with some frequency described as “Faustian”?9 And is this remaking perhaps one sign of a vertigo in our culture analogous to that which informs the “tragicall history” of Faustus—a vertigo which (as the conflation of obscene jargon and pious hopes in what are euphemistically termed ‘arms control’ negotiations may suggest) combines an unspeakable desire for the erasure of our own collective history with a shuddering recoil from that desire?10

Such motives for returning to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus have in common a firm anchorage in present-day concerns. (The same would also be true of any more adequate list.) It might be an exaggeration to claim that the overlap, real or illusory, between these concerns and those of Marlowe’s play is what enables us to recuperate and reimagine it. But this overlap is certainly the basis of what makes us want to do so. In each instance, then, the play is being encountered not in isolation, but rather through the mediation of more recent texts. This mediation is obvious enough when these are works of interpretation—inflected, whether they are literary-historical, New Critical, poststructuralist, New Historicist, cultural materialist, or materialist-feminist, with one or another form of theory—or of literary theory proper. It is perhaps less easy to tell when one’s responses are being molded—when, that is, the play as one perceives it is being re-shaped—by prior readings in cultural and intellectual history, theology, or philosophy. Less obvious still is the mediating effect of post-Marlovian versions of the Faustus legend. One may suspect a certain unconscious Goethean influence in the work of a critic who consistently gives Goethe’s spelling (“Mephistopheles”) to the name of the attendant spirit in Marlowe’s play.11

It might then be asked how much of one’s own appreciation of the play’s lucid ironies and solipsistic overtones is perhaps due to an awareness of the dramatic fragments published by Paul Valéry under the title Mon Faust, or to what degree one’s perception of it as implicitly allegorical may be derived from a reading of Thomas Mann’s allegorical reworking of the legend, or from another superb Faustian novel published in the same year as Mann’s Doctor Faustus, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The word “Faustian” itself has a curious history extending from nineteenth-century interpretations of Goethe’s Faust, through the vaguely Nietzschean allegories of Faust in Spengler’s Decline of the West, to an increasingly pessimistic modern usage that seems to refer less often to Goethe than to the Marlovian and pre-Marlovian versions of the legend.12 The confused history of this term may thus be emblematic of the more subtle conflation of critical, dramatic, novelistic—and perhaps also operatic and cinematic—reinterpretations of the Faustus legend which is arguably at work in our approaches to Marlowe’s play.

Finally, what of the actual editions through which we experience this play? Are their choices between textual alternatives (not to mention their introductions and annotations) so purely objective as to be uncontaminated by modern needs and prejudices? Are these edited texts, then, not also theory-laden forms of interpretive mediation? And even if, for critical purposes, we make use of facsimile or parallel-text editions, is our sense of the play’s shape not influenced by the conflated reading-texts in which we first encountered it?

Any modern reading of Doctor Faustus may therefore be expected to differ from the play as received by Marlowe’s contemporaries by at least as much as the Don Quixote of Pierre Menard, in Jorge Luis Borges’s story,13 differed from those textually identical chapters of the novel by Cervantes which it so painstakingly reconstituted—but with such a wealth of new meanings! If this amounts to saying that all readings of the play are misreadings—even the most careful and scholarly ones—it is a wholly appropriate result. For misreading, in one form or another, seems to be a recurrent feature of the legend of Faustus. Thus, for example, in the third scene of Goethe’s Faust, its protagonist, wrestling with the biblical Greek, concludes by rendering the first words of the Gospel of St. John as “Im Anfang war die Tat!”14 This eccentric translation has been taken as setting the thematic tone of the whole work, which might indeed be described as an epic comedy of translation, in all the manifold senses of that word.15 In a perhaps less complicated but equally instructive sense, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus could be called a tragedy of misreading.



Faustus’s first gesture on stage, it would seem, is to take up a book—“Sweet Analitikes tis thou hast ravisht me”—and to read from it: “Bene disserere est finis logices” (A: 36-37). But this definition is not from “Aristotles workes” (A: 35); rather, as any university-educated Elizabethan would at once have recognized, it is the Ciceronian definition made famous by the innumerable editions of Peter Ramus’s works on dialectic.16 Faustus is not reading Aristotle at all, but rather Aristotle as distorted by Ramus—who, as Marlowe has that pedagogue say himself in The Massacre at Paris, had reduced Aristotle’s logic “into better forme.” A dissenting view as to this “better” is provided in the same scene of that play by the Duke of Guise, who in ordering the murder of Ramus, informs him that his offense lay

in having a smack in all, 
And yet didst never sound anything to the deapth. 
Was it not thou that scoftes the Organon, 
And said it was a heape of vanities? 
He that will be a flat dicotamest, 
And seen in nothing but Epitomies: 
Is in your judgment thought a learned man. 
And he forsooth must goe and preach in Germany….17

Faustus, who has clearly attended to this Ramist ‘preaching,’ is off to a rocky start in his own project of beginning “To sound the deapth of that thou wilt professe” (A: 32). His dismissal of logic—

Is to dispute well Logickes chiefest end? 
Affoords this Art no greater miracle? 
Then read no more, thou hast attain’d that end   (B: 37-39)

—is a transparent sophism. Fittingly enough, when he tells himself to “Bid Oncaymaeon farewell” (A: 42), the formula is again not Aristotelian: its author is the sophist Gorgias, who in the course of arguing that nothing exists, or if anything does it is inapprehensible, or if apprehensible it is incommunicable, maintained that both the existent and the non-existent (on kai me on) do not exist.18

The intertextual density of Faustus’s first misreading is surely surprising. Marlowe is of course recycling tags remembered from his six years of study at Cambridge, and one can only guess whether he is doing so carelessly or with an arrogant precision. But his deployment of them may suggest that the mildly satirical characterization of Faustus in these lines is more exact than the modern playgoer (or the vast majority of Elizabethans) would be likely to suspect. In quoting Ramus (who was controversial at Cambridge in the 1580s, and whom the author of The Massacre at Paris would hardly himself have confused with Aristotle), Faustus is alluding to a logic already subverted by rhetoric,19 and the manner in which he does so may provide a measure of his own unscrupulousness as a rhetorician. To offer a modern equivalent, it is as though one brandished what appeared to be a copy of one of Husserl’s works, and then, reading from it one of the deconstructive tropes of Jacques Derrida, rejected Husserl on the basis of that sample of ‘his’ thought. Faustus’s misreading can of course be taken as a simple error (and, given his pretensions, a most revealing one): however, it may also be read as one symptom of a more complicated and deliberate kind of folly.

Having dismissed medicine and law with equal facility, Faustus turns to the one remaining scholastic discipline, theology. His prompt misreading of two key New Testament passages is no longer merely an academic joke, however. It indicates with syllogistic clarity the form of his self-entrapment:

Jeromes Bible, Faustus, view it well. 
Stipendium peccati mors est: ha, Stipendium, &c
The reward of sinne is death: that’s hard. 
Si peccasse negamus, fallimur, & nulla est in nobis veritas
If we say that we have no sinne, 
We deceive our selves, and theres no truth in us. 
Why then belike we must sinne, 
And so consequently die. 
I, we must die an everlasting death….   (A: 68-76)

Faustus misreads the words of St. Paul (Romans 6: 23) and St. John (1 John 1: 8) because he has lifted them out of their contexts, failing in each case to notice that the words he quotes form only the first half of an antithetical construction. The second clause of Romans 6: 23—“Gratia autem Dei, vita aeterna in Christo Jesu Domino nostro” (“but the gifte of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”)—and the next verse in the epistle of John—“Si confiteamur peccata nostra: fidelis est, et Justus, ut remittat nobis peccata nostra, et emundet nos ab omni iniquitate” (“If we acknowledge our sinnes, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sinnes, & to clense us from all unrighteousnes”)—conditionally withdraw the condemnations which are all that Faustus sees.20

It will be observed that only by re-contextualizing these biblical passages can one begin to explain how Faustus has misread them. We are already embarked upon this process once we have identified and completed the passages which he quotes. It is only a small second step to suppose that a fair proportion of the people in any Elizabethan audience would have been able to do the same from memory (or, at the very least, to recognize the specific nature of Faustus’s error).21 How much further should we go in re-contextualizing Faustus’s misreading? Or rather, since some of the factors of interpretive prejudice which I have mentioned begin at this point to make themselves felt, how much further do we want to go? Faustus’s misreading of theology, like his dismissal of the other academic disciplines, is clearly motivated. His initial decision to ‘settle his studies’ includes the intention to “be a Divine in shew, / Yet levell at the end of every Art” (A: 33-34). He will profess theology only a hypocritical cover for what is quickly revealed as an aggressive project of taking aim at the end (which is also to say the final purpose and the corresponding limit) of every discipline.22 But are our readings—or misreadings—of his words not also motivated?

We need go no further in restoring the context of this passage if we wish to see this play as a morality, and Faustus as a proud incompetent, a fool in the line of Moros, the witless protagonist of W. Wager’s homiletic play The Longer Thou Livest The More Fool Thou Art (1569). Yet a contextual examination of Faustus’s first misreading has raised the possibility that his folly may be of a more interesting kind, more akin perhaps to the Moriae Encomium of Erasmus than to Wager’s Moros. And a further consideration of context may incite us to wonder how adequate a scoffing analysis of Faustus’s folly is as a response to the implications of this passage. It is indeed ironically appropriate that a scholar who has arrogantly dismissed logic and law should restrict himself, in Pauline terms, to the condemnation of the Law—and with a syllogism, too. But a more suitable reaction to this might be the proverbial “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Marlowe scholars have long been aware of two striking sixteenth-century parallels to Faustus’s syllogism. As Douglas Cole observed, ‘Faustus is blinded here by precisely the same flash of ‘logic’ which the devil in Thomas Becon’s Dialogue Between the Christian Knight and Satan (1564) employs (also in a syllogism) to tempt the knight to despair, and which in Spenser’s Faerie Queene Despair uses to tempt Red Cross to spiritual death.”23 Both knights, unlike Faustus, escape this diabolical logic in the only possible way, by transcending it through an appeal to grace. Becon’s knight is able to defend himself: he accuses Satan “of calumniating and depraving the scripture …. For where my God hath spoken and taught those things that do agree and ought to be joined together, these thou dost partly allege, and partly omit and leave out.” And he appeals from the Law to the Gospel, “that is to say, grace, favour, and remission of sins, promised in Christ.”24 But Spenser’s Redcrosse Knight is saved only by the intervention of Una:

Come, come away, fraile, feebler, fleshly wight, 
Ne let vaine words bewitch thy manly hart, 
Ne divelish thoughts dismay thy constant spright. 
In heavenly mercies hast thou not a part? 
Why shouldst thou then despeire, that chosen art? 
Where justice growes, there grows eke greater grace….25

Two crucial differences between these texts and Marlowe’s version of what Luther called “the devil’s syllogism”26 are immediately apparent. The first is that Faustus is tempted by no-one but himself. The parallels adduced by Douglas Cole may suggest that an Elizabethan audience could have identified Faustus’s syllogism as a diabolical temptation to despair. But where, in this case, is the demonic tempter? This question receives an alarming answer in lines which were very probably added to the play in 1602—and which therefore constitute the earliest interpretation of this scene which we possess. In the 1616 quarto, in his last words to Faustus, Mephostophilis claims:

’Twas I, that when thou wer’t i’ the way to heaven, 
Damb’d up thy passage, when thou took’st the booke, 
To view the Scriptures, then I turn’d the leaves
And led thine eye. 
What weep’st thou? ’tis too late, despaire, farewell, 
Fooles that will laugh on earth, most weepe in hell.   (B: 1989-94)

It appears to have been Marlowe’s heavy-handed revisers, not Marlowe himself, who chose to make inescapable—assuming that Mephostophilis is not lying—a possibility that is only implicit in the first scene of the play. (But the possibility is very definitely there.)

The second difference between Marlowe’s and his predecessors’ treatment of the devil’s syllogism resides in the fact that while Becon’s knight is able, “through the grace that [he has] received,”27 to appeal to God’s mercy, and while Una is there to remind Redcrosse of this same grace and mercy, the notion of divine mercy is no more than hinted at in Doctor Faustus until after Faustus has committed apostasy and signed his pact with the devil, and it is strikingly absent from this first scene. Faustus is reminded by his Good Angel of a quite different aspect of the divine nature:

O Faustus, lay that damned booke aside, 
And gaze not on it, lest it tempt thy soule, 
And heape Gods heavy wrath upon thy head, 
Reade, reade the scriptures, that is blasphemy. (A: 102-05)

This may seem very much the sort of thing that a Good Angel ought to say, but it certainly offers no escape from the syllogism that Faustus has just propounded. Indeed, these words, addressed to a man whose soul has evidently already been tempted by the necromantic book he is holding, are perhaps less akin to the intervention of Spenser’s Una than to the persuasions of Despaire:

Is not the measure of thy sinful hire
High heaped up with huge iniquitie, 
Against the day of wrath, to burden thee?28

Is it appropriate to wonder why the Good Angel neither suggests to Faustus the sort of question that George Herbert asks—“Art thou all justice, Lord? / Shows not thy word / More attributes?”—nor tries to prompt him to the request that follows from it: “Let not thy wrathfull power / Afflict my houre, / My inch of life…”?29

Liberal Christian readers who wish to understand this play in the light of their own convictions—who wish, that is, to think of Faustus as sharing the autonomy and free-will that they believe themselves to possess—may feel that this conjectural restoration of context has already gone too far for comfort. To which one can only reply that it is not evident that Marlowe wrote this play—or any of his plays—with the intention of providing solace for troubled minds. We are of course free to break off our inquiries at any point that pleases us, even to the point of receiving the play in the spirit of that reviser who altered Faustus’s cry in his last speech from

Oh God, if thou wilt not have mercy on my soule, 
Yet for Christs sake, whose bloud hath ransomd me, 
Impose some end to my incessant paine   (A: 1483-85)

to the safer, if less interesting

O, if my soule must suffer for my sinne, 
Impose some end to my incessant paine….   (B: 2067-68)

Yet it is only fair to ask that those who align themselves with censors of this kind—who choose, so to speak, to wear the tartan of Thomas Bowdler’s clan—should at the same time renounce any pretensions to critical open-mindedness.



The implications of unfreedom in Faustus’s syllogism and in his Good Angel’s failure to mention the essential notion of mercy may be further strengthened if one remembers the drift of St. Paul’s words in the passage from which Faustus lifted the major premise of his syllogism. The apostle, in contrasting a state of bondage to sin with one of bondage to God, speaks of freedom in a sense which seems to exclude any overtone either of autonomy or of free-will:

For when ye were the servants of sinne [douloi ite tis hamartias], ye were freed from righteousness. What frute had ye then in those things, whereof ye are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now being freed from sinne, and made servants unto God [doulothentes de to theo], ye have your frute in holiness and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sinne is death: but the gifte of God is eternal life…. (Romans 6: 20-23)

(I have interpolated St. Paul’s Greek as a reminder that “servant” has lost much of its sixteenth-century force: the Revised Standard Version [1952] translates these words as “slaves of sin” and “slaves of God.”)

Faustus’s misguided use of the words of St. Paul and of St. John results in a perverse response to Christian teachings: he concludes (to borrow the wording of Romans 6: 21) that “the end of those things is death.” And in reducing Christian theology to a doctrine of necessity, he goes one step further:

What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera
What wil be, shall be? Divinitie, adieu….   (A: 77-78)

But is Faustus perverting Christianity, or is he rather recording the extent to which the Christianity he knows has itself been perverted by the acceptance of notions of an arbitrary divine sovereignty, whose condemnations to everlasting torment both precede and produce the offences which they punish?

In all but their gesture of dismissal, the lines in which Faustus quotes the familiar Italian proverb amount to a parodic reduction of the Calvinistic teachings on predestination that were the official doctrine of the Anglican Church throughout the reign of Elizabeth I (and that rested primarily upon the common Protestant understanding of Romans 8: 28-9: 24). The possibility is thus raised in the first scene of Marlowe’s play that Faustus may not be one of those chosen by the Calvinist God of the Anglican Church to have a part in heavenly mercies.30 Douglas Cole, in a passage from which I have already quoted, has suggested precisely this:

Faustus’ desperation will be a torment to him in the future; now it spurs him to indulge in his own dreams of power. His attitude and decision are exact replicas of the thoughts of the reprobate described by Wolfgang Musculus, whose theological works were read and esteemed in the schools of Reformation England: “Why shoulde I trouble and travell my selfe in vaine? and doe those things which doe like my mind, seeyng that I do know I am determined to destruction?”

But Cole seems not to have registered the meaning of this term “reprobate,” since he continues to urge that Faustus makes “his original choice by himself.”31 Alan Sinfield presents the issue with greater clarity when he writes that “Elizabethan orthodoxy would make Faustus’s damnation more challenging than most modern readers might expect, by denying that Faustus had a choice anyway: it would regard Faustus, not as damned because he makes a pact with the devil, but as making a pact with the devil because he is already damned.”32 Given this possibility, is there a sense in which Faustus’s handling of scriptural texts, in addition to being a gross misreading, may also be the appropriate, indeed inevitable response for someone in a state of bondage to sin?

The Bible came to sixteenth-century Protestants equipped with a theory of reading (and, significantly, of misreading). Thus Elizabethan Anglicans prayed to God for “grace to love thy holie word fervently, to search the Scriptures diligently, to reade them humblie, to understand them truly, to live after them effectually.” The operative word is “grace”—lacking which, scriptural study could only result in misinterpretation and mortal sin. For (to quote from another of the “Godly Prayers” printed with many editions of the Prayer Book), “the infirmitie and weaknesse of man” are such that we “can nothing doe without thy godly helpe. If man trust to himselfe, it cannot bee avoided, but that hee must headlong runne and fall into a thousand undoings and mischiefs.”33

But this insistence upon divine grace, and upon human weakness and perversity, would seem to have produced a tendency to separate, if only for purposes of emphasis, the two halves of the very texts from which Faustus quotes. Roma Gill has observed that Faustus’s English rendering of 1 John 1: 8 repeats the wording of The Boke of Common Praier (1559), where in the order for Morning Prayer this verse is quoted without the following one—the sense of which is fully conveyed, however, by the ensuing exhortation to general confession.34 A more radical truncation of this text occurs in Article XV of the Church of England, which ends with these words: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Full stop. Nothing remotely like 1 John 1: 9 appears in the following articles, or indeed anywhere among the Thirty-Nine Articles. In Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion there occurs a similar truncation, this time of the words of St. Paul. Calvin is here fulminating against the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins:

… if God has revealed his will in the law, whatever is contrary to the law displeases him. Do they fancy God’s wrath so feeble that the death penalty will not immediately follow? And he has clearly declared this …. He says: “The soul that sins shall surely die.” [Ezek. 18: 4, 20, Vg.] Likewise the passage just cited: “The wages of sin is death” [Rom. 6: 23]. What they confess to be sin because they cannot deny it they nevertheless contend is not mortal sin…. But if they persist in their ravings, we bid them farewell. Let the children of God hold that all sin is mortal. For it is rebellion against the will of God, which of necessity provokes God’s wrath, and it is a violation of the law, upon which God’s judgement is pronounced without exception. The sins of the saints are pardonable, not because of their nature as saints, but because they obtain pardon from God’s mercy.35

And so Calvin ends his chapter. The strong family resemblance between this argument and Faustus’s syllogism can hardly escape notice. Calvin does supply, in the last sentence of this passage, something that might be taken as a loose approximation of the meaning of the latter half of Romans 6: 23. This sentence, moreover, has scriptural authority: it echoes Romans 9: 15-16 (which in turn quotes Exodus 33: 19). But Calvin has chosen to emphasize the tautological nature of the Pauline doctrine: all sins without exception are mortal, he says, except those of the saints, which are forgiven not because they are saints but because they are forgiven. One can imagine a graceless reader asking, “What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera?”



I have suggested that when we read Doctor Faustus we are, inevitably, misreading it: the play has been effectively decontextualized by the passage of nearly four centuries; it comes to us mediated (which is also to say re-contextualized) by concepts of which its first shapers had no inkling; and we turn to it with motivations that differ in many respects from those of its Elizabethan audiences. In reading this first scene, then, we are also misreading Faustus misreading. Our act of misreading can be said to parallel the parodic enactment of scholarly misreading which is its object, and in which the same elements of decontextualizing, mediation, and motivation are more blatantly evident.

The parallel is not, perhaps, very exact. If only because of our situation in time, our readings of the play are always in some sense misreadings—yet they are not intentionally so. To take two prominent examples, the misreadings of Sir Walter Greg and Leo Kirschbaum were obviously motivated—in both cases by a desire to have the play reflect a mid twentieth-century Christian orthodoxy.36 Although the resulting contextual and interpretive distortions oblige us to define this aspect of their work as more ideological than critical, to call what we now identify as errors deliberate would be absurd. In contrast, Faustus’s misreadings do seem to be deliberate. He makes his hypocrisy clear when he sets out to “be a Divine in shew, / Yet levell at the end of every Art” (A: 33-34). And the aggressive intention suggested by “levell at” is fully realized in what follows. Aristotle, so stripped of context (and of content) as to be no more than a name, is mediated by Ramus and Gorgias; the tags lifted from St. Paul and St. John are filtered through a reprobate’s version of Eizabethan Anglicanism; and the whole rhetorical performance points towards the praise of magic into which it devolves.

Yet something appears to be missing—and this lack may restore the parallel between Faustus’s misreadings and our own. A deliberate misreading is, necessarily, a duplicitous, a double reading: the very notion implies some awareness of an authentic or subjectively correct interpretation which is overlain by a second, false one. But is such a structure present in Faustus’s speech? Its inadvertent ironies suggest otherwise. The question of eternal life is displaced into medicine—“Couldst thou make men to live eternally, / … Then this profession were to be esteem’d” (B: 51, 53)—while in its proper realm, theology, Faustus can find only the promise of “everlasting death” (A: 76). And he is deaf to the ominous theological overtones of the fragment he quotes from Justinian: “Exhereditari filium non potest pater, nisi—” (B: 58). Any authentic understanding which his words may convey is embedded in them at a level inaccessible to Faustus himself.

Clearly, it can still be said of him in this scene that he is foolish, or comically incompetent: there is no need for Marlowe critics to abandon one of their favourite judgments of his character.37 But the same reconstruction of context that makes this judgment possible also alters the terms in which it can meaningfully be pronounced. For if Faustus’s misreadings apparently lack the conscious duplicity that their deliberateness would imply, the manner in which he decontextualizes and recontextualizes scriptural passages, composing them into a recognizable “hard” doctrine (A: 70) that for him amounts to a necessary condemnation, seems to reveal the hidden presence in this scene of another will, external to him, and yet operating through him. Here already, is a first hint of that eschatologically defined Other within the self that becomes explicit in Faustus’s subsequent despairing self-definitions.

From a modern perspective, as I have suggested, there seems to be something odd about a univocal hypocrisy, a practice of misreading that appears deliberate, but not duplicitous.38 In sixteenth-century terms, however, this kind of hypocrisy, and the psychic overdetermination which it implies, are immediately intelligible. I am thinking, again, of Calvin’s Institutes. There the term “hypocrite” is reserved for those among the reprobate who, though condemned from all eternity by God’s inscrutable will, are given enough grace to have some insight into his Word—yet not enough to enable them faithfully to persevere in the truth.39 Faustus, though “grac’t with Doctors name, / Excelling all, whose sweete delight disputes / In heavenly matters of Theologie” (A: 18-20), has become blind to the obvious meaning of the scriptural text—but blind in a manner that reveals him as a hypocrite in precisely this sense.

The cause of the “blinding of the impious,” Calvin insists, is “not to be sought outside man’s will, from which the root of evil springs up….” But as he quickly goes on to show, man’s will, though culpable because it is a will, is permeated by external causes, and by one cause in particular: “Very often God is said to blind and harden the reprobate…. For after his light is removed, nothing but darkness and blindness remains. When his Spirit is taken away, our hearts harden into stones.”40 As Faustus himself confesses, after signing his blood-pact: “My hearts so hardned I cannot repent” (A: 647). What, then, of our response to his follies? The laughter which they provoke cannot, I think, be wholly light-hearted.



How does this recognition of a double misreading, operating both within the text and in our receptions of it, affect what we make of Doctor Faustus? My question, at the outset, as to what kind of scholarly necromancy might enable us to respond to this play in its entirety may have raised hopes (since moderated, no doubt) of a new interpretation of the whole. But I have not attempted here to offer a complete new (mis-)reading which the unwary reader, appropriating Faustus’s words, might expect would be “a greater helpe to me / Then all my labours, plodde I nere so fast” (A: 99-100). My concern has been rather to point out ways in which the play itself seems to guide us towards interpretive principles that may serve to limit the errors of our future misreadings.

From my claims about misreading it does not follow that there are no distinctions to be made between more and less competent misreadings, or that, as Harold Bloom has proposed, the difference between better and worse is simply a matter of “the strength of imposition.”41 This Panglossian neo-pragmatism—whatever imposes itself upon the tribe of critics, for whatever reasons—is ‘strong’—erases any distinction between the critic and the ideologue. And applied to this play, it would obscure the most important lesson of the parallel between our own and Faustus’s misreadings.42

That Faustus is misreading is quickly apparent. But it is only through a differential awareness of the ideological and historical distances between Aristotle, the system-builder, Gorgias, whose skeptical tropes he refuted, and Ramus, who dichotomized Aristotle—or between the New Testament writers, the Reformers, and Faustus’s own reprobate reductionism—that we are able to say how he is misreading, and what therefore the act may mean. A similar differential awareness of the distance between our own age and Marlowe’s is what shows us that our own readings are misreadings. (Modesty aside, is there anything else that prevents us from assuming that our own interpretations are, quite simply, right?)

Insofar as this second form of awareness remains abstract, it is useless. For unless cynicism is a virtue, there is no more merit in knowing one is wrong, without trying to remedy the error, than there would be in an obstinate persuasion that one’s critical intuitions were the gospel truth. But in this case the same factors that condition an awareness of both kinds of misreading, Faustus’s and ours, also expose a form of ideological closure that has distorted many of the recent interpretations of this play—and at the same time press us towards an interpretive methodology that could loosely be described (with a nod to Michel Foucault’s ghost) as archaeological.

It might seem rudimentary to suspect that a play as insistently ideological as Doctor Faustus must be reacting in a systematic way—whether sardonically, subversively, despairingly, or in some combination of these—to the Calvinist theological orthodoxy of the day. Yet this is an insight which critics have until very recently striven to repress.43 Can one do so, it must be asked, without pre-emptively closing off certain avenues of approach, or without radically de-historicizing the play, and thereby committing oneself in advance to a series of interpretive errors, of which an overflow from the dogma of textual autonomy to a dogmatic belief in Faustus’s psychological autonomy is only the most obvious?

As for interpretive principles or methodology, it might fairly be asked whether, having projected the issues of context, mediation, and motivation onto the play, I should be in any way surprised to find them reflected back at me. Yet there are indications within the play—which no-one but Marlowe can be suspected of having planted there—of the same kind of active awareness of ideological and historical differences that I have been proposing as a basis for our critical approaches to it. These indications of course include Marlowe’s use of Reformation theology, but they point in other directions as well.

It has seldom been remarked that the only sixteenth-century writer mentioned by name in Doctor Faustus is the German humanist and magician Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535): Faustus aspires to be “as cunning as Agrippa was, / Whose shadowes made all Europe honor him” (A: 150-51). These “shadowes” are the necromantic displays with which, in Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), this “abundant scholar” Agrippa is said to have astonished his contemporaries, among them Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, the Duke of Saxony (Luther’s protector), and the Emperor Charles V.44 Faustus entertains the same emperor, and later his own colleagues at Wittenberg, with a similarly theatrical magic. But Marlowe’s interest in Agrippa ran deeper than did that of his friend Nashe.

There is no trace of Agrippa either in the German Faustbook or in the English translation, The Historie of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus (first printed c. 1588, first surviving edition 1592), that was Marlowe’s primary source. But in some of the earliest incomplete versions of the legend, the name of Faustus is linked with that of his contemporary, Georgius Sabellicus Faustus (whom printed sources begin to call “Johann” only in the 1560s). As early as 1518, “Agrippa Stygianus” was represented by a hostile polemicist as exchanging sinister letters with one “Georgius Subbunculator.”45 This name, if it is indeed a derisive modification of “Sabellicus,” is a telling one—for Faustus was, in effect, a ‘botcher-up of old clothes’: he was already notorious for his wildly eclectic heterodoxy.46 Agrippa’s brief association with the court of Charles V was absorbed, within several decades, into the legend of Faustus: both magicians were remoured to have won victories for the emperor by magic.47 And the libel, first printed in 1546, that Agrippa’s black dog was a devil, was echoed two years later by the claim that Faustus’s dog, and his horse as well, were devils.48 It seems to have become almost a convention to associate Faustus, as Philipp Melanchthon did, with “iste nebulo qui scripsit De vanitate artium49—that “scoundrel” Agrippa whose De vanitate (1530) was widely read and translated into several languages, and whose other major work, De occulta philosophia (1533), made him the most notorious sixteenth-century exponent of Hermetic and Cabalistic magic.

Marlowe does more than just associate the two: his Faustus, in the first scene at least, is a close parody of the Agrippan magus. Agrippa’s brilliant deconstruction, in the declamatory invective of De vanitate,50 of all of the orthodox forms of knowledge—from logic to dicing, and from whore-mongering to scholastic theology—was widely believed, despite its evangelical orientation, to have been designed to clear the ground for his fusion of magic with Christianity in De occulta philosophia: though Agrippa (in the words of his English translator) was “Professinge Divinitee,” he was doing so hypocritically.51 This precisely the pattern of Faustus’s own declamatio invectiva, which concludes with a rhapsodic praise of magic for which there are close parallels in De occulta philosophia.

Behind Faustus’s misreadings, then, there lies another one: Marlowe’s misreading of Agrippa. Let us superimpose these misreadings: Marlowe’s parodic misconstrual of Agrippa, whom Calvin in his De scandalis (1550) denounced as an atheist;52 and Faustus’s parodic misreading of a Calvinistic theology, which is undertaken in the service of an Agrippan commitment to magic. The effect is not quite dialectical: the balance is not even. Yet neither can this pattern be reduced to a static structure of ironies. For Marlowe is not merely re-writing, with whatever increase in sophistication, the legend of Faustus; he is exploring its historical and ideological roots.

Where does this leave the modern interpreter, the perpetual third party in this dance of misreadings? Midway, perhaps, between the exasperated refusal of Faustus, in those lines from another scene of reading which I cited as an epigraph to this essay, to believe that the book he has been given has pre-empted the demands he wants to make of it—“O thou art deceived”—and the pat Mephastophilian reply: “Tut I warrant thee” (A: 626-27). Our thirst for knowledge, our continuing itch to write one more work of interpretation, will continue to result in parodies of what is there to be reconstructed and understood, just as those exchanges, in which Faustus pleads with Mephastophilis to “let me have one booke more, and then I have done” (A: 622), are themselves a parody of that resonant passage from the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon which in the Vulgate text ends, after a catalogue of the wonders that Solomon has learned, with these words: “omnium enim artifex docuit me sapientia”—“for Wisdom, the artificer of all things, taught me.” 53

As though to point the moral, Agrippa quotes this passage in the peroration to De vanitate—but at the same time he misreads, or perhaps parodies it. Adding one letter, he writes “sapientiam”—and wisdom becomes, not his teacher and beloved, but rather the content of what he now knows; not a category of the sacred and an aspect of the divine, but an instrument of his own thirst for knowledge and for power.

More decisively than Agrippa or any of his contemporaries, we have turned away from the constricting notion of Wisdom as a hypostatized agent or artificer. But to transpose wisdom into the accusative case, to treat the text—any text—as endlessly vulnerable to whatever uncontrolled remakings our own needs may dictate, is to accept a different kind of ideological closure—one which an historically alert criticism will want to avoid.




1  All quotations from the play are from W. W. Greg, ed., Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” 1604-1616: Parallel Texts (1950; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968). Quotations are identified by the text from which they are drawn (A refers to the edition of 1604 and its reprints in 1609 and 1611, B to the substantially revised edition of 1616), and by their line numbers in Greg’s parallel-text edition. Where the 1609 or 1611 editions correct misprints in the 1604 text, I have felt free to substitute their readings without comment. Words enclosed in square brackets are my emendations. U/v and i/j have been silently altered throughout to conform with modern practice, and errors in Latin are silently corrected.

2  The punctuation given to B: 89 here is that of John D. Jump’s Revel Plays edition (London: Methuen, 1962).

3  Hero and Leander, line 472, from Roma Gill, ed., The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, vol. 1: All Ovids Elegies, Lucans First Booke, Dido Queene of Carthage, Hero and Leander (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 201.

4  Ovid, Amores, I. xiii. 40: “clamares: ‘lente currite, noctis equi!’”—a line rather flatly rendered by Marlowe in his translation of All Ovids Elegies as “Then wouldst thou cry, stay night and runne not thus” (Complete Works, vol. 1, ed. Gill, p. 32).

5  The reader or listener who initially attaches the second of these syntactically parallel clauses to the same subject as the first (to Faustus, that is, rather than to “things”) commits a momentary misconstruing of the sense which may seem scarcely possible for anyone who already knows the lines—but which, if made on first acquaintance with them, can only be corrected by the ensuing recognition that “such forward wits” are not to be identified with “the wise”. To conflate the two, even momentarily, would be to find oneself stumbling between the two poles which these lines emphatically distinguish—or, in terms of one’s response, between a dangerous empathy with one forward wit (encouraged, surely, by his final soliloquy) and the negation of that empathy in a complacent self-identification as one of the wise. The possibility of such a conflation, however remote it may seem, and however dependent upon such intangibles as the length of the actor’s pause at the line ending after the first clause, is nonetheless a risk built into the syntax of these lines, and thus, at whatever level, a part of what they mean.

6  On the two texts of Doctor Faustus, see my essay “The A and B Texts of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus Revisited,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 100. 2 (2006): 227-57; and the introduction to my edition, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus: Christopher Marlowe: A Critical Edition of the 1604 Version and of the Censored and Revised 1616 Text (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2008), pp. 17-48, 88-132.

7  Augustine, Ad Simplicianum de diversis quaestionibus, I. qu. ii. 21; cf. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (1967; rpt. London: Faber and Faber, 1975), p. 155.

8  The Heraclitean paradox ethos anthropo daimon equates selfhood with daimonic otherness (for the text, see G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts [1957; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977], p. 213). According to Lutheran and Calvinist theologians especially, selfhood is in a similar manner permeated and hollowed out by external agencies both demonic and divine. Analogous effects are produced in poststructuralist thought by the recurrent emphasis on subjectivity as discursively constituted, and thus always secondary to discursive structures that can acquire a daimonic force.

9  This tendency comes close to the surface in Charles Marowitz’s literal remaking of the play, which opens with a “Conversation in Purgatory” between Faustus and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist and director of the Manhattan Project. See The Marowitz Hamlet and The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970).

10  See Robert Jay Lifton, Imagining the Real, chapters 8 and 9 in Lifton and Richard Falk, Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism (Toronto: CBC, 1982), pp. 66-99, for a suggestive analysis of various forms of vertigo induced by the threat of nuclear extinction.

11  See M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (1935; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 150-55. (On pp. 36 and 118 of the same book “Faustus” becomes, as in Goethe's play, “Faust.”) Although the A and B texts are inconsistent in their spellings of the devil's name, the most frequent form in A is “Mephastophilis,” and the normal form in B is “Mephostophilis.” The edition from which Bradbrook is quoting, that of F. S. Boas (London: Methuen, 1932), gives the spelling “Mephistophilis,” which also suggests some Goethean influence. Recent editors have gone whole-heartedly for the Goethean spelling: see David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, eds., Doctor Faustus: A- and B-texts (1604, 1616) (The Revels Plays, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993); Mark Thornton Burnett, ed., Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays (London: J. M. Dent, 1999); and Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey, eds., Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays (London: Penguin, 2003).

12  Symptomatic of this is the greater force of Marlovian than of Goethean echoes in Lowry’s novel, and the fact that Mann’s Doctor Faustus goes back to the Faustbook of 1587, an English translation of which was the principal source of Marlowe and his collaborators.

13  Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, ed. D. A. Yates and J. E. Kirby (1964; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), pp. 62-71.

14  Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Faust: Eine Tragödie, ed. Hanns W. Eppelsheimer (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1962), line 1237, p. 40.

15  These include translations in time and space, of one culture and its forms of expression into another, and a translation, finally, into a higher realm of being. Some of these senses are analyzed by Marc Shell in “Money and the Mind: The Economics of Translation in Goethe’s Faust,” MLN 95 (1980): 516-62.

16  See Walter J. Ong, S.J., Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue (1958; rpt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 160 (and 377-48, notes 41 and 42), 178 (and 350 n. 39). See also Peter Ramus, The Logike of the most excellent philosopher P. Ramus Martyr, Newly translated, and in divers places corrected, after the mynde of the Author, trans. Roll. Makylmenaeus Scotus (1574; facsimile rpt. Leeds: Scolar Press, 1966), p. 17: “Dialectic otherwise called Logic, is an art which teacheth to dispute well.”

17  The Massacre at Paris, lines 390-97, in The Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke (1910; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), p. 457. Both in the Guise’s words and in Ramus’s defence of his teachings, Marlowe shows himself to be well informed about Ramus. Ramus did indeed “preach” in German and Swiss universities from 1568 to 1570 (see Ong, Ramus, p. 28), and the improbably named “Shekius” of line 410 is one Jacob Schegk (Schegkius, Shecius), author of De demonstratione libri XV (Basle, 1564), which contains an attack on Ramus (Ong, Ramus, pp. 15, 388).

18  The words come from a text of Gorgias, On Nature or that which is not (peri tou me ontos), a version of which is preserved by the skeptic Sextus Empiricus in his Adversus mathematicos VII. 65-86; see Sextus Empiricus, ed. and trans. R. G. Bury (4 vols.; Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933-1949), Adversus mathematicos VII. 66, vol. 2, p. 34. For more recent translations of Gorgias’s text, see Rosamond Kent Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1972), pp. 42-46; and John Dillon and Tania Gergel, eds., The Greek Sophists (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. 67-75. The phrase Faustus quotes may be Marlowe’s back-translation from the Latin translation of Sextus’s Adversus mathematicos published by Gentian Hervet in 1569, just as Faustus’s quotations from “Jerome’s Bible” appear to be a back-translation into Latin from an English version of the Bible. It is also possible that Marlowe had access to Greek manuscripts of Sextus Empiricus owned by Henry (subsequently Sir Henry) Savile and by the Oxford scholar John Wolley; the existence of these mss. is noted by William M. Hamlin in “A Lost Translation Found? An Edition of The Sceptick (c. 1590) Based on Extant Manuscripts [with text],” ELR 31 (2001): 38, and in “Casting Doubt in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus,” SEL 41 (2001): 270 n. 8.

19  See Ong, Ramus, p. 49 (“The story of Ramism, in fact, is largely the story of unresolved tensions between the logical and the rhetorical traditions”), and p. 188; and for a reference to the Cambridge Ramist controversies, see Ramus, p. 91.

20  The English translation is that of the Geneva Bible of 1560. Although Faustus says he is quoting from the Vulgate text (“Jeromes Bible”), Marlowe’s Latin in fact deviates from the Vulgate text of these verses (“Stipendium enim peccati, mors”; “Si dixerimus quoniam peccatum non habemus, ipsi nos seducimus, et veritas in nobis non est”). It may be significant that Marlowe’s re-translation into Latin of 1 John 1: 8 avoids any direct implication of responsibility: compare Faustus’s passive “fallimur” with the Vulgate’s “ipsi nos seducimus” and with the Greek heautous planomen.

21  These passages were regularly expounded in sermons, and also recur with some frequency in the daily readings prescribed for Anglican services during Elizabeth’s reign: Romans 6 on the day after Epiphany, on Easter morning, the seventh Sunday after Trinity Sunday, and again in early September; 1 John 1 in late April, late August, and in the third week of December. In the Order for Morning Prayer, 1 John 1: 8 is quoted immediately before the exhortation to general confession; the sense of 1 John 1: 9 is conveyed by the wording of the Commination against Sinners. See The Prayer-Book of Queen Elizabeth, 1559 (London, 1890), pp. 42, 144.

22  Aristotle begins his Nicomachean Ethics with the statement that “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim” (The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes [2 vols.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984], vol. 2, p. 1729 [1094a]). Faustus is both echoing and perverting this doctrine. One might initially think his meaning comparable to that of sentences cited by the OED from works printed in 1604 and 1626: “There can be no man, who works by right reason but … he aimeth at some end, he levels at some good”; “Every Christian is obliged to level at perfection” (OED, “level,” v1. 7). But it quickly becomes evident that “level at” here implies deliberate opposition, as in 2 Henry IV III. ii. 243-44: “the foeman may with as great aim level at the edge of a penknife,” and Antony and Cleopatra V. ii. 326: “She levelled at our purposes….”

23  Douglas Cole, Suffering and Evil in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe (1962; rpt. New York: Gordian, 1972), p. 199. The date which Cole gives for Becon’s Dialogue is probably that of a reprint; the work was written in the reign of Edward VI.

24  The Catechism of Thomas Becon, with other pieces written by him in the reign of King Edward the Sixth, ed. J. Ayre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1844), pp. 628-29.

25  The Faerie Queene I. ix. 53, in Spenser: Poetical Works, eds. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (1912; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 50.

26  See Susan Snyder, “The Left Hand of God: Despair in Medieval and Renaissance Tradition,” Studies in the Renaissance 12 (1965): 30-31.

27  Becon, p. 636.

28  The Faerie Queene I. ix. 46; Spenser: Poetical Works, p. 49.

29  The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. C. A. Patrides (1974; rpt. London: Dent, 1977), “Complaining,” lines 11-13, 16-18, p. 153.

30  For evidence that the God of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Anglican orthodoxy was indeed the God of Calvin, see Alan Sinfield, Literature in Protestant England, 1550-1650 (London: Croom Helm; Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983); and John Stachniewski, The Persecutory Imagination: English Puritanism and the Literature of Religious Despair (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

31  Cole, pp. 199-201.

32  Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 230.

33  The Prayer-Book of Queen Elizabeth, 1559, pp. 150, 148.

34  Roma Gill, “The Christian Ideology of Dr. Faustus,” in M. T. Jones-Davies, ed., Théatre et idéologies: Marlowe, Shakespeare (Paris: Jean Touzot, 1982), p. 186; see The Prayer-Book of Queen Elizabeth, p. 42.

35  Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), II. viii. 59, vol. 1, pp. 422-23.

36  Kirschbaum is openly dogmatic, writing, for example, that “the viable eschatology of the play is so rigid that ambivalence in interpretation is ruled out. If the modern mind … sees Marlowe’s main character as the noble victim of a tyrannical Deity, it is simply being blind…. No, there is no ambiguity on the main issues in the play” (Kirschbaum, ed., The Plays of Christopher Marlowe [Cleveland and New York: Meridian, 1962], p. 103). See also his influential articles, “Marlowe’s Faustus: A Reconsideration,” Review of English Studies 19, no. 75 (1943): 225-41; and “The Good and Bad Quartos of Doctor Faustus,” The Library 26 (1946): 272-94. Greg’s much more interesting misreadings have been studied in my essay “History and the Canon: The Case of Doctor Faustus,” University of Toronto Quarterly 56.4 (1987): 498-522; and also by Constance Brown Kuriyama, “Dr. Greg and Doctor Faustus: The Supposed Originality of the 1616 Text,” ELR 5 (1975): 171-97; Michael J. Warren, “Doctor Faustus: The Old Man and the Text,” ELR 11 (1981): 111-47; and Laurie Maguire, Shakespearean suspect texts: The ‘bad’ quartos and their contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

37  See, for example, Gerald Morgan, “Harlequin Faustus: Marlowe’s Comedy of Hell,” Humanities Association Bulletin 18 (1967): 22-34; and A. N. Okerlund, “The Intellectual Folly of Dr. Faustus,” Studies in Philology 74 (1977): 258-78.

38  From a ‘postmodern’ perspective, one that takes into account recent developments in Marxist and poststructuralist literary theory, such a phenomenon may be less surprising. See, for example, Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977); David C. Hoy, The Critical Circle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982); and Robert Weimann, Structure and Society in Literary History (2nd ed.; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984).

39  Calvin, Institutes III. ii. 10-12.

40  Institutes II. iv. 1, vol. 1, p. 310; II. iv. 3, vol. 1, pp. 311-12.

41  Harold Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), p. 125.

42  My criticism here is directed not so much against the maps of misreading offered by Bloom in a series of his early books—his insights have been fruitfully applied by other scholars—as against his programmatic hostility to historical contextualizing of the kind attempted in this essay.

43  J. P. Brockbank, for example, tried to save his argument that while Doctor Faustus may be a Calvinist, Doctor Faustus is Augustinian in orientation, by ascribing the alarming response to Faustus’s prayer in Act II (he calls on Christ, but is answered by the appearance of a demonic trinity) to Marlowe’s “characteristic love of excess” (Brockbank, Marlowe: “Dr. Faustus” [London: Arnold, 1962], pp. 41-42). Other critics have often simply not understood what is at stake. Thus Paul Kocher, declaring that “Faustus is the only one of Marlowe’s plays in which the pivotal issue is strictly religious and the whole design rests upon Protestant doctrines,” promptly contradicts his second clause: “This issue, stated simply, is whether Faustus shall choose God or the evil delights of witchcraft” (Christopher Marlowe: A Study of His Thought, Learning, and Character [1946; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962], p. 104). The objection of some critics that a Calvinist context would make superfluous the interventions of the Good Angel and the Old Man, as well as the threats of the devils (for example, Michael Hattaway, “The Theology of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus,” Renaissance Drama n.s. 3 [1970]: 76), is sufficiently refuted by a reading of Calvin’s Institutes I. xiv. 9, 19; II. v. 4; and III. xx. 46. The suggestion that a predestinarian structure would destroy suspense or alienate audience sympathies (cf. Pauline Honderich, “John Calvin and Doctor Faustus,” Modern Language Review 68 [1973]: 2, 10) is no more relevant to this play than it would be to the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. For evidence of continued opposition to Calvinist contextualizing, see T. McAlindon, “Doctor Faustus: The Predestination Theory,” English Studies 76 (1995): 215-20.

44  Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 297-99.

45  The text in question is Ortwin Gratius’s Lamentationes obscurorum virorum (1518); see Paola Zambelli, “Agrippa von Nettesheim in den neueren kritischen Studien und in den Handschristen,” Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 51 (1969): 280; and “Magic and Radical Reformation in Agrippa of Nettesheim,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 39 (1976): 69-103.

46  A letter from the Abbot Johannes Trithemius to a friend who taught at Heidelberg (of which university both Trithemius and Faustus were graduates) records Faustus’s activities in Gelnhausen, Würzburg and Kreuznach in 1506-07: these include boasts that he could perform all the miracles of Christ whenever he wished and restore lost philosophical texts, claims of high skill in necromancy and other forms of divination, and the assumption of titles which suggest an eclectic awareness of several magical traditions. See Frank Baron, Doctor Faustus from History to Legend (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1978), pp. 11-39.

47  “Idem Faustus magus … vane gloriabatur de so omnes victorias, quas habuerunt Caesariani exercitus in Italia, esse partas per ipsum sua magia, idque fuit mendacium vanissimum” (Johannes Manlius, Locorum communium collectanea [1563], quoted in P. M. Palmer and R. P. More, The Sources of the Faust Tradition from Simon Magus to Lessing (1936; rpt. New York: Haskell House, 1965], p. 103). The story that Agrippa was responsible for the victories of Charles V was refuted by André Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres (2 vols.; Paris, 1584). fol. 542v-543.

48  The claim that Agrippa’s dog was a devil was first made by Paolo Giovio, Elogia doctorum virorum (1546); see Charles G. Nauert, Jr., Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), p. 327. The expanded claim about Faustus was made by Johannes Gast in his Sermones conviviales (1548); see Palmer and More, The Sources of the Faust Tradition, p. 98.

49  Manlius, Locorum communium collectanea; in Palmer and More, p. 102.

50  The full title of the first edition of 1530 is De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium atque excelentia verbi dei declamatio; according to Barbara C. Bowen, “Cornelius Agrippa’s De vanitate: Polemic or Paradox?”, Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 34 (1972): 250, this was expanded in the 1531 Cologne edition to “declamatio invectiva.”

51  Catherine M. Dunn, ed., Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences (Northridge: California State University Press, 1974), cap. 1, p. 12. This translation, first published in 1569, was reprinted in 1575. A suspicion that Agrippa’s evangelical claims were hypocritical is evident in André Thevet’s Les vrais pourtraits et vies, vol. 2, fol. 544r-v. I have explored the links between Agrippa’s two major works in “Agrippa’s Dilemma: Hermetic ‘Rebirth’ and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia,” Renaissance Quarterly 41 (1988): 614-53.

52  See Lucien Febvre, Le problème de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle (1942; rpt. Paris Éditions Albin Michel, 1968), p. 125; and Zambelli, “Magic and Radical Reformation,” 101.

53  Wisdom of Solomon 7: 17-21. Agrippa quotes this passage in De vanitate; see his Opera, ed. R. H. Popkin (2 vols.; c. 1600; facsimile rpt. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1970), vol. 2, p. 314. The first edition of 1530 also reads “sapientiam.”