9/11, Torture, and Law

First published in Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies 1 (2011), http://www.anarchist-developments.org/index.php/adcs_journal/article/view/34. Arguing that a primary motive for the public emergence of torture practices in the American empire after 9/11 was the state's desire to legitimize its account of the events of that day, I propose that the declaration of a permanent state of exception was an intended consequence of the events of 9/11, and suggest that the writings of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt are relevant to the effective demolition of U.S. constitutional law and governance since 9/11. Analysis of his displaced theology leads to the suggestion that resistance to lawless state sovereignty should incorporate Winstanley's project of a “law of freedom.”


Critique will be the art of voluntary insubordination, of thoughtful intractability, aimed at ensuring the desubjugation of the subject in the context of what we could call, in a word, the politics of truth.

Michael Foucault, “What is Critique?”1



The most widely disseminated narrative about 9/11 represents the relationship between the traumatic events of September 11, 2001 and the still unfolding scandal of torture in a worldwide gulag of prisons and ‘black sites’ run by the United States and by co-operating powers worldwide as a sequential one. By this account, when a shadowy network of Islamist fanatics, outwitting the American intelligence, security and air defense apparatuses, managed to strike at the heart of the U.S. financial system and the headquarters of the U.S. military, the American state responded with all the means at its disposal to identify and hunt down the people who had organized the attacks, and to prevent any repetition of them. Extreme measures were resorted to in the handling of people in any way suspected of being enemies—the illegality of which was implicitly acknowledged when Vice-President Dick Cheney spoke of working through “the dark side,”2 or when former CIA counter-terrorism director Cofer Black said that “After 9/11 the gloves came off.”3 Through what may have been excessive or injudicious concern for public safety, the story goes, the Bush administration set aside the niceties of constitutional and international law, producing astonishment among American scholar-ideologues who, until taught otherwise by photographs from Abu Graib, professed to have believed that only other states, “reprehensible regimes,” engaged in torture.4

In every significant detail, this narrative is either false or misleading. The available evidence points to elements within the American state as having at the very least permitted and enabled the events of 9/11. (That evidence includes scholarly exposures of the 9/11 Commission’s novelistic reconstructions;5 as well as refutations of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s analyses of the Twin Towers and WTC 7 collapses by studies which expose disabling methodological errors,6 reveal processes of building collapse compatible only with a hypothesis of controlled demolition,7 demonstrate the falsity of NIST’s explanation of the debris-bursts emanating from many floors below the collapse fronts in the Twin Towers,8 and provide direct proof from the WTC dust that the collapses involved high-temperature exothermic reactions9 and the use of nano-thermate explosives.)10 There are, as well, suggestive indications that the legal transformations and imperial wars for which 9/11 furnished a pretext were planned long in advance.11

But my concern here is not with evidence of this kind. I want rather to engage with the alternative understanding of 9/11 toward which this evidence presses us—which involves relationships between torture, legality, and the events of that day quite unlike those suggested by the ‘official’ narrative.

My discussion of these relationships will take what may seem a circuitous path. After noting that torture in the post-9/11 American gulag has served less as a response to the 9/11 attacks than as a means of constituting the American state’s fictions about 9/11—and that since torture is the basis of the state’s account of what took place, it is, in epistemic terms, a primary and formative element in the orthodox understanding of that day’s events—I will analyze the implications of the state of emergency proclaimed by George W. Bush on 9/11. Legal scholars including Scott Horton and David J. Luban have remarked on haunting parallels between the theories of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt and the effective demolition of constitutional law in the United States since 9/11.12 In my own comments on Schmitt’s view of political sovereignty and systems of law as resting upon a prior, constitutive capacity to decide on states of emergency or exception, I take seriously his identification of political discourse as displaced theology. My use in the fourth and fifth parts of this essay of parallels from Milton’s Paradise Lost and Calvin’s Institutes as measures of Schmitt’s extremism may suggest affinities with Christian anarchism. But in drawing such parallels, I am not participating in Alexandre Christoyannopoulos’s project of recognizing an anarchist orientation within the canonical Christian gospels.13 I am prompted rather by the fact, noted by Giorgio Agamben, that Schmitt’s understanding of a secularizing displacement of theology into political discourse implies, not the “process of growing dis-enchantment and de-theologizing of the modern world” that one finds in the thought of Max Weber, but rather “a continuing presence and significant agency of theology within the modern.”14

Schmitt is of interest here not just as a theorist of an originary presence of arbitrary power and lawless violence within purportedly constitutional bourgeois-democratic states, but also as a jurist credited with having originated tactics that during the past decade have acquired the name of “lawfare”—which means the use of law (through, for example, “legal judgments authorizing torture as an executive privilege,” or “legal advice endorsing immunity for torturers”) to enable executive power to violate constitutional and international law with impunity, as well as the use of law as a weapon of war against those who attempt to constrain state violence by appealing to codes of civil liberties or of international law which the state has supposedly bound itself to respect.15

Evidence of an unmistakable pattern not just of the violation of domestic laws upholding citizens’ rights and international law protecting civilians from unrestrained exercises of military power, but of their systematic dismantling, will lead to my concluding reflections on the role of law in radical democratic resistance to post-9/11 practices of state-terroristic rule by the “sovereign exception.”



I would propose that the relationship between the 9/11 attacks and what ensued was not as advertised. The proclamation on the day itself of a state of emergency, and shortly thereafter of a Global War on Terror, the effective cancellation of the U.S. Bill of Rights through the PATRIOT Act and other measures, and the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were not contingent sequelae of an unforeseen event. On the contrary: the event was a planned pretext for what followed it.16

As to torture, the practices that became so widespread after 9/11 were hardly unprecedented—for although most American political scientists and journalists have averted their eyes from the fact, the U.S. has for over half a century been the principal international disseminator of torture. During the 1950s and early 1960s the CIA developed a new model of torture—adding, as Alfred W. McCoy writes, “sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain” to the existing repertoire “for an effect that, for the first time in the two millennia of this cruel science, was more psychological than physical”;17 the new torture methods were then propagated to American satrapies throughout Latin America and Asia.18

A “ticking time bomb” scenario in which, against all plausibility, the forces of order somehow know everything about an impending mass-casualty bomb attack except where the person in their custody (whom they also know with certainty to be the bomber) has planted his explosives, is regularly used by contemporary apologists for torture to justify “preventive interrogational torture.”19 But the primary purpose of torture in the post-9/11 American gulag has not been to wrest information from enemies, whether about past events or current and future actions. It has served more distinctly to terrorize foreign victims of US aggression, and to help deceive Americans. Henry Shue has argued that “The extraction of information from the victim, which perhaps—whatever the deepest motivation of torturers may have been—has historically been a dominant explicit purpose of torture is now, in world practice, overshadowed by the goal of the intimidation of people other than the victim.”20 There is copious evidence that the dominant form of post-9/11 torture has been “terroristic” in this sense, rather than “interrogational.”21

And yet it is also well documented that a more immediate aim of post-9/11 torture was to provide support for fictions being propagated by the Bush administration. Jonathan Schell has remarked that in late 2001 and 2002,

The Bush administration, hellbent on justifying its forthcoming invasion of Iraq, was ransacking the intelligence bureaucracy to find or produce two things that, it turns out, did not exist: weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq and cooperation between Al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein. [….] Soon, prisoners were being tortured to provide evidence of the Al Qaeda-Saddam link. As Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff, has stated, the “harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 … was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and Al Qaeda.” And according to the recent Senate Armed Services report on the treatment of detainees, a former Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, has confirmed the charge. “A large part of the time,” he told Army investigators, “we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq […].”22

The WMD and Saddam-al Qaeda fictions may be remembered as notorious failures, but they served their short-term purpose of stirring up war fever, and the U.S. corporate media dutifully withheld the evidence of their falsity from the American public until it could make no difference. Despite early and continuing refutations, another torture-based fiction, the 9/11 Commission Report, appears to be enjoying some degree of continuing success, at least among propagandists for the official story: in the first chapter of his recent polemic against 9/11 skeptics, Jonathan Kay recommends it to readers “who wish to devote more time to the issue.”23 But in early 2008 an analysis of this text conducted for NBC News by Robert Windrem and Victor Limjoco revealed that “more than one-quarter of all footnotes in the 9/11 Report refer to CIA interrogations of al Qaeda operatives subjected to the now-controversial interrogation techniques”24—or, in Windrem’s words, “enhanced interrogation techniques, or torture.”25 Moreover, “Most of the information in Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Report came from the interrogations. Those chapters cover the initial planning for the attack, the assembling of terrorist cells, and the arrival of the hijackers in the U.S.”26

The fact that the 9/11 Commission Report’s “most critical chapters, those on the planning and execution of the attacks,”27 are based on torture raises a problem that goes beyond any questions of legality: statements arising out of torture have no evidential value, because the intentionality they express is that of the torturers. Admissions elicited from “9/11 mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for example, might well be confirmed by those of Abu Zubaydah, another “high-value” prisoner—but when one knows that the former was waterboarded a hallucinatory one hundred and eighty-three times by the CIA, and the latter eighty-three times,28 both the admissions and their confirmation are meaningless.

As Elaine Scarry wrote in a classic study, “torture consists of acts that magnify the way in which pain destroys a person’s world, self, and voice”; and torturers “mime” the effects of pain by “breaking off the voice, making it their own, making it speak their words….”29 Torture, in short, is a form of ventriloquism—and the 9/11 Commission Report’s statements about the agencies responsible for the attacks that launched the War on Terror therefore have the epistemic status of pure fiction.30

The 9/11 Commission’s own members appear to have been troubled by the information they were receiving from the CIA, but their requests to interview the “high-value” prisoners, or, failing that, their interrogators, were denied—and led only to a further round of torture interrogations.31 In 2005, the CIA destroyed its videotapes of interrogations, in defiance of court orders requiring their preservation.32 Not merely is the torture ‘evidence’ effectively fictional, then, but the primary documents which might have allowed a judgment of the meaning—and the accuracy—of the transcripts supplied to the Commission no longer exist.



According to the interpretation advanced by George W. Bush and his government, the attacks of 9/11 were an expression by Muslim fanatics of irrational hatred for the freedoms enjoyed by Americans. If the crime in this view had a religious dimension, so also did Bush’s public response to it. Speaking on September 14, 2001 from the pulpit of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, he declared that

our responsibility to history is already clear: To answer these attacks and rid the world of evil. War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. This Nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. [….] In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America, because we are freedom’s home and defender. And the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time. On this National Day of Prayer and Remembrance we ask Almighty God to watch over our Nation and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come.33

The most immediate message of 9/11 was that Americans are not safe in their own cities: Bush claimed they could be made safe once more by an answering violence, eye-for-an-eye, that would destroy the shadowy Islamist network blamed for the attacks, together with all of its adherents and supporters, whether governments, gangs, or individuals.

When might the world at last be purged of evil? In his National Cathedral address, Bush declared that “This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.” (That hour, it gradually emerged, might be long-deferred: retired General Wesley Clark has revealed that in October 2001, by which time the bombing of Afghanistan had begun, the Pentagon received a memo from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld laying out plans for the military to “take out” a further seven Middle Eastern and North African countries over the next five years;34 and in January 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney announced that the global war on terror might last for generations.)35

Bush—an unlikely diarist—was said by CBS News to have written in his diary on the evening of September 11 that “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.”36 The National Cathedral address was, in response, both a declaration of war and also a sermon, situating the 9/11 attacks within a discourse of divine providence: “God’s signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own.” Nonetheless, “This world He created is of moral design.”37 Acts of sacrifice, generosity, courage, and resourcefulness in the responses of ordinary Americans on 9/11 were taken in this sermon as evidence of the nation’s essential goodness—and therefore, by implication, of its fitness for the leading role in an apocalyptic Manichaean drama of good versus evil.

By means of this unprecedented declaration of war in a cathedral, the French 9/11 skeptic Thierry Meyssan remarked in 2002, “the American government consecrated […] its version of events. From then on, any questioning of the official truth would be seen as sacrilege.”38 We had entered the domain of what the Nazi jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt called “political theology.”



Carl Schmitt’s book Politische Theologie (1922) famously defined sovereign power in terms of its capacity to suspend, through a state of exception or of emergency, the structure of legality and rights over which it ostensibly presides. By the same act or decision, the sovereign power also exempts itself from whatever system of law it applies to others; this sovereign exception or self-exemption is therefore one of its defining features.39 Intimately linked to this view of sovereign power is Schmitt’s view that all significant modern theorizing of the state rests upon a secularizing displacement of theological concepts. Not surprisingly, his analysis of the structure of the exception is overtly displaced from the domain of theology.

Schmitt reproduces the traditional distinction between divine transcendence and immanence when he writes that the sovereign is “at the same time outside and inside the juridical order”: “the sovereign stands outside the juridical order and, nevertheless, belongs to it, since it is up to him to decide if the constitution is to be suspended in toto.”40 Theological in the same sense is Schmitt’s claim that the exception, while defying general codification, “simultaneously reveals a specifically juridical formal element: the decision in absolute purity.” This claim rests upon the fiction that what precedes a juridical order must be chaos, and that only a sovereign power possessing an absolute and unshared power of decision-making can “creat[e] a situation in which juridical rules can be valid.” Schmitt outlines this position in a sequence of aphoristic assertions:

There is no rule that is applicable to chaos. Order must be established for juridical order to make sense. A regular situation must be created, and sovereign is he who decides if this situation is actually effective. All law is ‘situational law.’ The sovereign creates and guarantees the situation as a whole in its totality. He has the monopoly over the final decision. Therein consists the essence of State sovereignty, which must therefore be properly juridically defined not as the monopoly to sanction or to rule but as the monopoly to decide […].41

George W. Bush’s declaration at a 2006 press conference that “I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best” was interpreted at the time as a childish tantrum provoked by journalists’ questions about his refusal to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.42 One might just as plausibly hear it as a vernacular echo of Schmittian decisionism, which someone in Bush’s entourage (possibly from the Justice Department, whose constitutional experts had been advancing since September 2001 a similar view of executive power and privilege)43 may have attempted to expound to him.

Nor was this the first or only statement by Bush that resonates with Schmittian doctrines. “I’m the commander,” he told one journalist in mid-2002: “See, I don’t need to explain […]. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.” To another journalist who asked in mid-December of the same year about the decision to invade Iraq, he replied: “There’s only one person who is responsible for making that decision, and that’s me.” And to a third, on the same subject, a fortnight later: “I’m the person who gets to decide, not you.”44

Schmitt’s statement about the imposition of order on chaos implies a kind of creation-myth, which we may recognize as sharing the voluntaristic resonances of a classic meditation on the Christian creation story—the one in which Goethe’s Faust, revising Luther’s translation of the opening words of the Gospel of St. John (“Im Anfang war das Wort”), arrives finally at “Im Anfang war die Tat!”—“In the beginning was the Deed!”45

But Schmitt’s implied myth is not the standard one of creation ex nihilo (for prior to the establishment of judicial and social order by a Schmittian sovereign power there must exist a disordered aggregate of people). It resembles, rather, Milton’s version in Paradise Lost: a story of creation through the imposition of order upon chaotic matter that is not-yet nature, a “wild abyss” of warring “embryon atoms,” the domain of a personified Chaos—out of whose “dark materials” the “Almighty Maker” fashions a cosmos46 which includes hell, the place of “torture without end” into which he casts Satan and the other rebel angels.47 For Milton, this primal matter is not passive, but effectively resistant to the imposition of order: once Satan has found his way out of hell, Chaos, the “Anarch”48 or non-ruler of the abyss of disorder that lies outside hell’s gate, gives him directions to the new world, hoping he will ruin it and return it to its prior condition.49 And the sequence of creation indicated by Chaos to Satan appears significant: the sovereign power made “First Hell, / Your dungeon, stretching far and wide beneath; / Now lately Heav’n and earth, another world / Hung o’er my realm….”50

Schmitt, analogously, sees sovereign power as creating order out of a resistant social chaos, and doing so precisely through the sovereign’s primal capacity to resort to unregulated force by deciding on a state of exception or emergency—which Giorgio Agamben has suggestively described as the creation of “a space devoid of law [….] the creation of a zone of anomy in which all legal determinations find themselves inactivated.”51

Spatialized accounts of Schmitt’s state of exception, or of the theologians’ hell (which becomes a condition of perpetual separation from and punishment by the sovereign power), are of course metaphorical. As the devil Mephastophilis informed one transgressive inquirer, Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, hell, “Where we are tortur’d and remain forever [….] hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d / In one self place, for where we are is hell….”52 It remains the case that in Schmitt’s creation, as in Milton’s, an ordered cosmos is complemented by an antecedent “space devoid of law” that exists, potentially or in actuality, at the will of the sovereign power—and that can be recognized, once we move beyond Schmitt’s abstractions into thinking about the experiential realities of the exercise of power beyond law, as a space or condition of horror and suffering, within which sovereign power is perceived, as by Milton’s fallen angels, in terms of “wrath or might.”53



Much of Schmitt’s displaced theologizing could be linked, depending on one’s taste or whim, to sources ranging from Søren Kierkegaard (whom he goes on to quote, without naming him, in the first of the passages quoted above from Politische Theologie) to Blaise Pascal (whose Pensées include meditations on justice and force, among them the radical acknowledgment that “being unable to make what is just strong, we have made what is strong just”).54 But his closest affinities are with the harshest of the magisterial Reformers, Jean Calvin.

Even prior to any secularizing displacement, Calvin’s theology has strong political overtones. Regulating the faithful and society at large were for him aspects of the same issue; and the final chapter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion is a substantial treatise on civil government—one of whose first principles is that governance of all kinds must be strict, because in the fallen state of humankind “the insolence of evil men is so great, their wickedness so stubborn, that it can scarcely be restrained by extremely severe laws….”55 (Schmitt, similarly, argued in “The Concept of the Political” [1927] that any adequate political theory must acknowledge human wickedness and corruption as so deeply ingrained that a strong state is needed to impose order, sternly distinguishing between friend and enemy, both internal and external.)56

Calvin, for whom the absolute and unconditioned nature of God’s sovereign power is axiomatic, anticipates Schmitt’s Dezisionismus in his claim that “providence is lodged in the act”57—by which he means that will is the primary aspect of this sovereignty: God’s omniscience rests upon the fact that everything that occurs has always already been determined, down to the least particle of its futurity, by his will.58 This sovereign power exempts itself from any constraint by its own laws, and also—since its hidden determinations are said to be incomprehensible to human minds—from any possible criticism of deviations from those laws.

Calvin, though a theocrat, is in some respects less willing than Schmitt to theologize politics. He regards “Christ’s spiritual Kingdom and the civil jurisdiction” as “things completely distinct.”59 And while preaching obedience to the civil power, as divinely ordained—and even extending God’s sovereign exception to human rulers60—he provides an opening for resistance to tyranny by noting constitutions in which the magistracy includes officials (the Spartan ephors, Athenian demarchs, Roman tribunes, or parliaments of his own time) appointed by the people “to restrain the willfulness” of their rulers.61

But the important parallel between Calvin’s theology and Schmitt’s politische Theologie resides in the fact that both are antithetical to any coherent notion of justice. Although the title of his major work (Institutio Christianae religionis in the original Latin) repeats that of the Institutiones, the first part of the four-part codification of Roman law attributed to the sixth-century emperor Justinian,62 Calvin’s thought is foundationally equivocal: its primary term, subsuming all other categories and agencies, is a sovereign divine will whose attributes—among them mercy or justice—are incommensurable with any merely human understandings of these words. That same sovereign will frustrates any recognition of laws and orders of causality operating within nature, for Calvin ascribes even such regularities as the sun’s daily rising and the fact that our food becomes nourishment to singular and repeated acts of divine will.63 As for the Law of Moses, or for “natural law” (understood by many theologians as a system of ethical injunctions implanted within nature by a beneficent creator): their function, in Calvin’s view, is simply condemnatory—to render us “inexcusable.”64

The result is what the nineteenth-century historian W. E. H. Lecky called “religious terrorism.”65 Calvin understood the Pauline doctrine of election to salvation as necessarily implying a parallel reprobation of the non-elect—who are thus chosen from all eternity for damnation.66 Complaints against the injustice of a sentence of endless torture passed upon the unborn receive an answer at once proleptic and ad hominem. By the end of their lives, the reprobate will have deserved damnation, because they will have failed to obey the commandments to love and have faith in God (acts possible only for those who have received the arbitrary gift of divine grace.)67 And questioning divine justice shows unregenerate hostility to God—a sign that the questioner may have been chosen by God’s hidden will for everlasting torment.68 Calvin indeed belongs among those who, as Lecky wrote, in the period culminating in the sixteenth century “diffused throughout Christendom a religious terror which gradually overcast the horizon of thought.”69

If Calvin puts himself at odds with justice through his claim that “God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous,”70 Schmitt does likewise through his contributions to the Nazi doctrine that the Führer’s words have the force of law.71 One might therefore ask why Schmitt’s ideology of the sovereign exception should be understood, any more than Calvin’s, as providing leverage for a generalized critique of law.

Like Franz Kafka’s haunting parable “Vor dem Gesetz” (“Before the Law”), and the nightmarish novel, The Trial, in which that parable recurs, they may indeed provide matter for critical reflection on the systems of law that we actually have.72 But one defining feature of any genuinely democratic system of law and any genuinely democratic jurisprudence must be that they do not grant exceptions to the powerful.

It is easy enough to see why systems of purported justice and equity which in fact defend invidious disparities of property, class, gender, and race should incorporate notions of legality in which, either mythically or in secularized terms, a foundational space is reserved for the exercise of state power unfettered by legality. But while actual historical polities may undergo clearly demarcated processes of change, some of them convulsive, they do not move in the manner imagined by Schmitt from a prior state of chaos to one of forcibly established juridical order. All human societies have structures of customary law (nomos), and while the ethnocentricity and racism of literate people may lead them to scorn oral codifications of law such as the Kaianereh’ko:wa (Great Law) of the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations, which work through various combinations of formal recitation, mythic narration, and customary practices, those structures have complexities adequate, in most cases, to the situations for which they were developed.73 While they may encode patterns of inequity and violence, they also typically organize the sharing out, protection, and preservation of common land and resources.74 There can in any event be no justification for dismissing them as anomic or chaotic.

Why, then, accept a violently obscurantist origin myth, or confine oneself to a juristic rhetoric that effaces both historical realities and the possibility of emancipatory transformations—unless (as one may suspect is the case with Schmitt) that is the unacknowledged aim of the exercise?



‘After 9/11, everything changed’: a tedious cliché. There has in fact been a remarkable degree of continuity in many aspects of the behaviour of the American empire, ranging from torture to what neoconservative journalist Jonah Goldberg approvingly called the “Ledeen Doctrine”: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”75 The rhythm of this state-terroristic violence may have accelerated since the early 1990s when Michael Ledeen entertained an audience at the American Enterprise Institute with these or similar words,76 but the coups against democratically elected but insufficiently subservient governments in Venezuela (2002), Haiti (2004), and Honduras (2009)—not to mention military interventions in Panama, Somalia, Colombia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Libya—have followed long-established patterns.

And yet there have been very significant changes. None of George W. Bush’s predecessors publicly echoed Schmittian decisionism in the same manner. And beyond the mere rhetoric lies a dismaying reality: Bush declared a state of emergency on 9/11, which was formally proclaimed three days later, and has remained in effect ever since;77 and at the same time his administration took the overlapping step of implementing “continuity of government measures,”78 which have likewise apparently not been rescinded.

“Continuity of government,” as Peter Dale Scott has noted, is an innocent-sounding but misleading term. Planning carried out under this name since the early 1980s, which was initially intended to ensure that the executive powers of the U.S. government would be able to survive a nuclear attack, morphed quickly into organizing for a state of exception in which constitutional government would be suspended. Not merely was its planning carried forward under conditions of dubious legality—Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who were central figures in this planning during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, continued to be involved in it during the Clinton years, despite being out of public office—but continuity of government has come to mean the supplanting of representative democracy and constitutional law by what is in effect a military dictatorship.79

Under continuity of government, the institutions of the American republic remain in place (as was the case in Rome two millennia ago, when the Roman republic declined into an imperial autocracy). But power has shifted decisively into the hands of an executive-military-security apparatus complex, some at least of whose domestic decisions are implemented by the “shadow government” brought into being after 9/11.80

Even without knowing of or recognizing the implications of continuity of government protocols, commentators on post-9/11 American domestic and foreign policies have accurately summed up what has occurred. Gore Vidal, for example, remarked in 2002 that “it does seem fairly plain to many civil libertarians that 9/11 put paid not only to our fragile Bill of Rights, but also to our once-envied republican system of government….”81 In 2007, Barbara Olshansky wrote that

post September 11 America is a country governed by politicians who seek unchecked power to pursue their ‘global war on terror’ and who express a chilling disregard for human rights and the rule of law in that pursuit. [….] In the name of subduing [fear of outside forces], we have given the executive branch free rein to adopt secret policies that disregard the separation-of-powers principle and weaken our system of checks and balances. In its pursuit of unfettered executive power, the Bush administration runs roughshod over the constitutional foundations of our democracy.82

Many aspects of the implanting of authoritarian governance do indeed appear to have been carried out in secret by the Bush regime. Steven Aftergood, writing on behalf of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, noted in February 2008 that

Of the 54 National Security Presidential Directives issued by the [George W.] Bush administration to date, the titles of only about half have been publicly identified. There is descriptive material or actual text in the public domain for only about a third. In other words, there are dozens of undisclosed Presidential directives that define U.S. national security policy and task government agencies, but whose substance is unknown either to the public or, as a rule, to Congress.83

However, the supplanting of constitutional government by an unconstrained sovereign power ruling in a state of exception has not been entirely secretive or lawless: it has also been a matter of Congressionally-approved bad law driving out good. As John W. Whitehead writes, the USA PATRIOT Act

has driven a stake through the heart of the Bill of Rights, violating at least six of the ten original amendments—the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments—and possibly the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well. The Patriot Act has also redefined terrorism so broadly that many non-terrorist political activities such as protest marches, demonstrations and civil disobedience are considered potential terrorist acts […].84

There appears to have been an ongoing implementation of continuity of government measures,85 whose effects seem unmistakable. Barbara Olshansky quotes from the U.S. Supreme Court’s judgment in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004):

We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens. Whatever power the United States Constitution envisions for the Executive in its exchanges with other nations or with enemy organizations in times of conflict, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake.

But “Despite the Supreme Court’s rulings,” Olshansky comments, “the administration has stubbornly and purposefully refused to deviate from its itinerary of operating outside the rule of law.”86 (There is some irony to the Supreme Court being treated with contempt by the regime it installed through the stunningly lawless Bush v. Gore decision.)

Glenn Greenwald sums up the implications of a lawlessness that appears to have engulfed the American judiciary as well as the executive power:

Not a single War on Terror detainee has been accorded any redress in American courts for the severe abuses to which they were subjected (including innocent people being detained for years, rendered and even tortured), and worse, no detainee has been allowed by courts even to have their claims heard. After the U.S. Government implemented a worldwide regime of torture, lawless detention, and other abuses, the doors of the American justice system have been slammed shut in the face of any and all victims seeking to have their rights vindicated or even their claims heard. If an American citizen can’t even sue political officials who lawlessly imprison and torture him in his own country—if political leaders are vested with immunity from a claim of this type—what rational person can argue that the rule of law or the Constitution binds our government officials?87



In an essay written in 2006 to justify torture, neoconservative journalist Charles Krauthammer moves from the standard ticking time bomb argument to the “far from hypothetical” case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed:

He not only was the architect of the 9/11 attack that killed nearly three thousand people in one day, most of them dying a terrible, agonizing, indeed tortured death. But as the top al Qaeda planner and logistical expert he also knows a lot about terror attacks to come. He knows plans, identities, contacts, materials, cell locations, safe houses, cased targets, etc. What would you do with him?

Krauthammer proposes that it would be “a gross dereliction of duty” if any government that held this man a prisoner failed to torture him,88 using measures of a “level of inhumanity […] proportional to the need and value of the information.”89

One rhetorical peculiarity of these maneuvers may escape the casual reader. Krauthammer has put the question of what to do with this prisoner into the present conditional tense—and yet everything he knows about him stems from the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had already been subjected to grueling tortures, the ‘intelligence’ from which had been uncritically incorporated into the 9/11 Commission Report—a text that, two years later, Krauthammer has evidently read. His present tense elides this epistemic loop, and with it the fact that he is using ‘intelligence’ derived from torturing KSM to justify torturing KSM—in search, presumably, of something like the implausible confessions to terrorist ventures of all kinds, real and imaginary (including a planned operation against a Washington state bank that wasn’t built until long after KSM’s arrest), that would be entered into evidence in the 2006 trial of the putative ‘twentieth hijacker,’ Zacharias Moussaoui,90 and would reappear in 2007 in a judicial review of KSM’s “combatant status” by a Guantánamo military tribunal.91

Even were we to discard the evidence, alluded to at the outset, which suggests that the real architects of 9/11 were people highly placed within the American state, the fact remains that Krauthammer’s rhetoric mirrors the tactics used by 16th century apologists of witch-persecutions—who knew that suspected witches must be tortured to reveal evidence of their wicked conspiracies with Satan, because witch-hunters already had copious evidence, derived from the torture of suspected witches, of the horrifying reality and destructive power of that Satanic alliance.92

We encounter in this example a structure that has already recurred throughout this essay—in which a violence exercised by sovereign power that exempts itself from the constraints of legality (in this case, the constraints of existing U.S. and international law) is represented, whether discursively or mythically, as the enabling condition of public order and safety.

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the creation of hell precedes that of heaven and earth; in Calvin’s theology, the judgment by a sovereign will that all of humanity (thanks to the divinely willed fall of our first parents) deserves the torments of hell is conceptually prior to the arbitrary grace which partially reverses that judgment by creating an ordered community of faith; and in Schmitt’s political theology the primary attribute of the order-imposing sovereign power is its capacity, at its own whim, to suspend the workings of law in order to exercise unconstrained violence.

9/11 complicates this structure. According to the orthodox political theology of 9/11, a nation that already approached perfection in its devotion to liberty was attacked, because of its very goodness, by forces of evil; a gloves-off or “dark side” suspension of legality in a global war on terror has been required to fend off those forces and defend liberty. Yet as we have seen, a primary motive of the resort to the “dark side” was to generate fraudulent torture-based ‘intelligence’ that would support this orthodox fiction.

In the very different story to which other—untainted—evidence points, the “dark side” is not just incidental, a matter of evil tactics used against the powers of evil: it is, rather, the arche and the telos of 9/11, the event’s starting point and its goal. The hijacking attacks were facilitated and enabled by a multi-faceted suspension of many of the normal functions of military, intelligence, and civilian officials—which, since the functions of these servants of the state are legally mandated, was also an effective suspension of legality. The goal appears to have been a lasting “state of exception” in which the militarized state, while continuing to project a mythology in which it defines itself as the guarantor and protector of an increasingly abstract “freedom,” in fact suppresses the limited freedoms announced within the state’s own foundational legal documents, its Constitution and Bill of Rights.



In the concluding chapter of his book Black Bloc, White Riot, A. K. Thompson brings together several thinkers whom I would also like to consider (if to somewhat different effect).93

Thompson quotes Jean Baudrillard’s claim, in The Spirit of Terrorism, that the attacks of 9/11 radicalized both “the world situation” and “the relation of the image to reality”: “Whereas we were dealing before with an uninterrupted profusion of banal images and a seamless flow of sham events, the terrorist act in New York has resuscitated both images and events.”94 Observing that “Two accounts of epistemic and political resolution seem to be at work” in this claim—one in which “the disjuncture between signifier and signified is resolved in catastrophe,” so that “things and their names once again become inseparable,” and another in which the image “consumes the event entirely”—Thompson argues that these are in reality “only two phases of a single process by which the image is reenergized as a modality of representational politics.” For, following a momentary “short circuit in the representational sequence,” the meaning of the terrorist act becomes evident: “It’s an action in excess of the law that serves in the end to reaffirm the law itself,” and to revitalize “constituted power.”95

A more cautious return to the images and events of 9/11 might suggest that the crucial “short circuit”—one that is by no means merely momentary—is to be found, not in the representational sequence as such, but rather in its implicit causality. The unforgettable central images of 9/11—the impacts of the two hijacked aircraft, followed by immense deflagrations of jet fuel, and the violent disintegration of the twin towers into pyroclastic dust clouds that enveloped most of lower Manhattan—appeared to viewers of that appalling spectacle to constitute a causal sequence: from impact, to building fires, to collapse. But that impression of causality (together with NIST’s shabby attempts to give it scientific credibility) is refuted by the evidence I cited in the first part of this essay, which reveals both the insufficiency of impact damage and the ensuing fires to produce the observed effects, and also the presence of other intervening causes.

Thompson notes in passing Guy Debord’s view, expressed in his Commentaires sur la société du spectacle (1988), “that the state itself invented terrorism as its representational negation, the enemy that confirms it.”96 In rejecting the false causality of the spectacle of 9/11, we can permit ourselves to cite Debord at greater length. “Such a perfect democracy,” he wrote with acid irony,

constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.97

Thompson refers as well to the great German critic, Walter Benjamin—but to an early and unsatisfactory essay, the “Critique of Violence.”98 More relevant to my subject are remarks from one of Benjamin’s last texts, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” written shortly before his death in 1940:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.99

But what would it mean, in a post-9/11 world where lawlessness and torture are being institutionalized, to speak of bringing about “a real state of emergency”? One would like to hope that the fatuous Baudrillardian game of pretending to resist capitalism by acceding to its demands to spend oneself silly has been abandoned; the folly of playing to the strength of those who have long since possessed an effective monopoly on violence, whether legal or extra-legal, should be no less apparent. Is Benjamin here participating in a tendency to idealize and aestheticize violence that Luigi Fabbri had analyzed and stringently criticized in his 1917 essay, “Bourgeois Influences on Anarchism”? Violence, Fabbri acknowledges, may be unavoidable, but he objects on ethical grounds to any glamorizing by bourgeois writers of its intrinsic ugliness, and on political and philosophical grounds to the resulting displacement of attention from goals to actions.100

Or can we perhaps give Benjamin credit for an irony analogous to that of Debord’s “perfect democracy”? Might it not be a “real emergency” for the advocates of a state of exception to find themselves confronted by a growing non-violent and egalitarian movement for radical democracy, calling not just for a full restoration of prior rights and freedoms, but for the implementation of an ongoing project to which, more than three and a half centuries ago, the Digger activist Gerrard Winstanley gave the resonant name of “the law of freedom”?101




1  Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, intro. John Rajchman, trans. Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007), p. 47; translation modified.

2  Cheney used the phrase in an NBC interview with Tim Russert on 16 September 2001; for his full statement, see Dan Froomkin, “Cheney’s ‘Dark Side’ Is Showing,” Washington Post (7 November 2005), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/blog/2005/11/07/BL2005110700793.html.

3  John Barry, Michael Hirsh, and Michael Isikoff, “The Roots of Terror,” Newsweek (24 May 2004); quoted by Reed Brophy, “The Road to Abu Graib: Torture and Impunity in U.S. Detention,” in Kenneth Roth et al., eds., Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever OK? A Human Rights Perspective (New York: The New Press, 2005), p. 146. This “gloves off” cliché, which appears in Black’s Congressional testimony in 2003, was used in October 2001 by a senior officer in Afghanistan to tell an interrogator of ‘American Taliban’ John Walker Lindh that he had authorization from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office to treat the prisoner brutally (see Brophy, pp. 147-48; and Frank Lindh, “America’s ‘detainee 001’—the persecution of John Walker Lindh,” The Observer [10 July 2011], http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/10/john-walker-lindh-american-taliban-father).

4  See Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Reflection on the Problem of ‘Dirty Hands’,” in Sandford Levinson, ed., Torture: A Collection (2nd ed., Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 77.

5  See Michel Chossudovsky, America’s “War on Terrorism” (Pincourt, Québec: Global Research, 2005); Peter Dale Scott, The Road to 9/11: Wealth, Empire, and the Future of America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); and David Ray Griffin, The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2005).

6  James Gourley et al., “Appeal Filed with NIST, Pursuant to Earlier Request for Correction,” Journal of 9/11 Studies 17 (November 2007), http://www.journalof911studies.com/volume/2007/AppealLetterToNISTGourleyEtAl.pdf; and David Ray Griffin, The Mysterious Collapse of World Trade Center 7: Why the Final Official Report about 9/11 is Unscientific and False (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2010).

7  Graeme MacQueen and Tony Szamboti, “The Missing Jolt: A Simple Refutation of the NIST-Bazant Collapse Hypothesis,” Journal of 9/11 Studies 24 (January 2009), http://www.journalof911studies.com/volume/2008/TheMissingJolt7.pdf; David Chandler, “WTC7 in Freefall: No Longer Controversial,” Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth (2010), http://www.youtube .com/watch?v=rVCDpL4Ax7l.

8  Kevin Ryan, “High Velocity Bursts of Debris From Point-Like Sources in the WTC Towers,” Journal of 9/11 Studies 13 (July 2007), http://www.journalof911studies.com/volume/2007/Ryan_HVBD.pdf.

9  Steven E. Jones et al., “Extremely high temperatures during the World Trade Center destruction,” Journal of 9/11 Studies 19 (January 2008), http://www.journalof911studies.com/articles/WTCHighTemp2.pdf; see also “Forensic Metallurgy: Metallurgical Examination of WTC Steel Suggests Explosives,” 9-11 Research, http://911research.wtc7.net/wtc/evidence/metallurgy/index.html.

10  Niels H. Harrit at al., “Active Thermitic Material Discovered in Dust from the 9/11 World Trade Center Catastrophe,” Bentham Open Chemistry & Physics Journal 2 (2009): 7-31, http://www.bentham.org/open/tocpj/articles/V002/7TOCPJ.htm?TOCPJ/2009/00000002/00000001/7TOCPJ.SGM. One objection to studies that support a hypothesis of controlled demolition has been that they do not explain how preparations for it could have escaped public observation. But as a matter of methodology, questions of human contingency cannot displace observed physical occurrences in the order of explanation.

11  The voluminous PATRIOT Act, rushed through Congress on the wings of the anthrax attacks, was clearly prepared in advance of 9/11. It appears also that in July 2001 American diplomats threatened an attack on the Afghan Taliban regime, scheduled for October; the evidence, from reports in the Guardian and BBC, was summarized by Gore Vidal, Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press / Nation Books, 2002), pp. 15-17.

12  See Scott Horton, “The Return of Carl Schmitt,” Balkinization (7 November 2005), http://balkin.blogspot.com/2005/11/return-of-carl-schmitt.html; Horton, “State of Exception: Bush’s War on the Rule of Law,” Harper’s Magazine (July 2007), http://harpers.org/archive/2007/07/0081595; and David J. Luban, “Carl Schmitt and the Critique of Lawfare,” forthcoming in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law; available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1797904#%23. (I owe to Luban the references to Horton’s articles at the Balkinization blog here and in note 15 below.) It is not unfair to label Schmitt a Nazi: some of his most influential publications were published before the rise of Nazism, but he became a prominent Nazi jurist and legal theorist from 1933 onward, and in decades of active life after World War II never expressed regret for that commitment.

13  See Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2010). Although Christoyannopoulos’s primary aim is to construct a genealogy of Christian anarchism, I would question his decision to confine himself to the canonical gospels (which postdate the Pauline appropriation of a movement of the ebionim, or destitute, and the sack of Jerusalem in C.E. 70), and to ignore current historical and textual-critical studies (which draw on non-canonical texts including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library) of the movement’s radically egalitarian insurgent matrix. These studies include John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1998); Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus (New York: Viking Penguin, 1997); and Eisenman, The New Testament Code (London: Watkins Publishing, 2006). The textual naivety of Christoyannopoulos’s decision to take the canonical gospels at “face value” as “valid accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus” (p. 15) will be evident to any reader of Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005; rpt. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007).

14  Giorgio Agamben, Il Regno e la Gloria: Per una genealogia teologica dell’economia e del governo. Homo sacer II, 2 (2nd ed., Turin: Universale Bollati Boringhieri, 2009), p. 15; my translation.

15  I have quoted here from Philip Giraldi, “All’s ‘Fare’ in War,” Antiwar.com (7 July 2011), http://original.antiwar.com/giraldi/2011/07/06/alls-fare-in-war/. See also Scott Horton, “Carl Schmitt and the Military Commissions Act of 2006,” Balkinization (16 October 2006), http://balkin.blogspot.com/2006/10/carl-schmitt-and-military-commissions_16.html; Horton, “Carl Schmitt, the Dolchstoßlegende, and the Law of Armed Conflict,” Balkinization (21 October 2006), http://balkin.blogspot.com/2006/10/carl-schmitt-dolchstolegende-and-law.html; Horton, “A Kinder, Gentler Lawfare,” Harper’s Magazine (30 November 2007), http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/11/hbc-90001803; and Luban, “Carl Schmitt and the Critique of Lawfare,” 5-10.

16  This may seem a bold claim: I am proposing simply that patterns of intentionality evident within state action (or abstention from action) on 9/11 are linked to the intentionality of later state responses to the events of that day. Two essays in Paul Zarembka, ed., The Hidden History of 9/11 (2nd ed., New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008), are relevant to these patterns of intentionality: David McGregor, “September 11 as ‘Machiavellian State Terror’,” pp. 183-214; and Diana Ralph, “Islamophobia and the ‘War on Terror’: The Continuing Pretext for U.S. Imperial Conquest,” pp. 253-90. The evidence relating to the material facts of the destruction of WTC 1, 2 and 7 cited in notes 6 to 10 above points to extensive advance planning of demolitions, whose timing was linked to attacks with hijacked aircraft which succeeded due to multiple lapses within the U.S. air defense system. (The suspect nature of these lapses has been widely studied: see, for example, Scott, The Road to 9/11, pp. 194-235; and Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed, The War on Truth: 9/11, Disinformation, and the Anatomy of Terrorism [Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2005], pp. 267-316.)

17  Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Metropolitan/Owl, 2006), pp. 26-53. The words quoted, from p. 50, describe the CIA’s Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation handbook (1963).

18  See, for example, Lesley Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); and McCoy, A Question of Torture, where details are given on the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, which between 1966 and 1972 involved the murder of 82,000 suspected enemies and of 26,000 prisoners (pp. 62-71), similar operations in Uruguay, Colombia and Central America from the late 1960s to the 1980s (pp. 71-74), the exporting of torture to Iran in the 1960s and 70s (pp. 74-75), and to the Philippines from 1972 to the early 90s (pp. 75-86), and continuities in torture training and the effective legalization by 1997 of CIA torture techniques (pp. 86-107). See also Kate Millett, The Politics of Cruelty (New York: Norton, 1994), pp. 253-79 (on Guatemala and El Salvador). The American military denied any involvement in Central American atrocities, but in 2004, after the outbreak of resistance to occupation in Iraq, senior officers spoke openly of moving to a “Salvadoran option.”

19  Oren Gross, “The Prohibition on Torture and the Limits of the Law,” in Levinson, ed., Torture, p. 237.

20  Henry Shue, “Torture,” in Levinson, ed., Torture, p. 53.

21  These are Shue’s terms. See the Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the Treatment by the Coalition Forces of Prisoners of War and Other Persons Protected by the Geneva Conventions in Iraq During Arrest, Internment and Interrogation (February 2004), in Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel, eds., The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Graib (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 383-404, for evidence of terroristic treatment (including routine torture) of detainees in Iraq. It seems to have been widely understood that most detainees had no connection to the Iraqi resistance: intelligence officers are quoted as estimating that 70% to 90% of them had been “arrested by mistake” (p. 388).

22  Jonathan Schell, “Torture and Truth,” CBS News (7 June 2010), http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/05/28/opinion/main5047700.shtml. It should be noted that evidence of Iraqi WMDs and links with al Qaeda did not just “turn out” not to exist. Senior American officials knew in 1995 from the interrogation of Saddam’s defector son-in-law that Iraqi WMD programs had been cancelled after the 1991 Gulf War and existing stocks of biological and chemical weapons destroyed. And U.S. claims about al Qaeda links—based upon a meeting in Prague between Mohammed Atta and Iraqi diplomats that never occurred, supposed treatment in Iraqi hospitals of the largely fictional terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and the existence, in a part of northern Iraq bordering on Iran that had been removed from Saddam Hussein’s control, of a training camp run by a CIA-supported fringe group—were wholly implausible.

23  Jonathan Kay, Among the Truthers (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2011), p. 20.

24  Robert Windrem and Victor Limjoco, “9/11 Commission Controversy,” MSNBC (30 January 2008); though deleted from the MSNBC website, this article is available at http://911research.wtc7.net/cache/post911/commission/msnbc_commission_torture.html.

25  Robert Windrem, “Blogs & Stories: Cheney’s Role Deepens,” The Daily Beast (13 May 2009), http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-05-13/cheneys-role-deepens/p/.

26  Windrem and Limjoco, “9/11 Commission Controversy.”

27  Windrem, “Cheney’s Role Deepens.”

28  “September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ‘waterboarded 183 times’,” The Sunday Times (20 April 2009), http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article6130165.ece.

29  Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985; rpt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 50, 54.

30  This does not invalidate other non-torture-based statements made within the Report. But the fact that nearly every claim in the Report’s “most critical chapters” is based on torture does wholly invalidate the narrative of those chapters.

31  See “The 9/11 Commission & Torture: How Information Gained Through Waterboarding & Harsh Interrogations Form Major Part of 9/11 Commission Report,” Democracy Now! (7 February 2008), http://www.democracynow.org/2008/2/7/the_9_11_commission_torture_how.

32  “Complete 911 Timeline: Destruction of CIA Interrogation Tapes,” History Commons, http://www.historycommons.org/timeline.jsp?timeline=complete_911_timeline&complete_911_timeline__war_on_terrorism__outside_iraq=complete_911_timeline_destruction_of_cia_tapes. See also Marisa Taylor, “No charges over destroyed CIA tapes,” Miami Herald (10 November 2010), http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/11/10/1917891/no-charges-over-destroyed-cia.html.

33  George W. Bush, “Remarks at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance Service, September 14, 2001,” The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=63645#axzz1ODDkXOtT.

34  See Amy Goodman, “Gen. Wesley Clark Weighs Presidential Bid: ‘I Think About It Everyday’,” Democracy Now! (2 March 2007), http://www.democracynow.org/2007/3/2/gen_wesley_clark_weighs_presidential_bid. The countries in question were Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran.

35  “Cheney: War Could Last Generations,” NewsMax.com Wires (17 January 2004), http://archive.newsmax.xom/archives/articles/2004/1/16/232041.shtml.

36  Quoted from The Washington Post (27 January 2002) by David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11 (2nd ed.; Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2004), p. xi.

37  George W. Bush, “Remarks.”

38  Thierry Meyssan, 9/11: The Big Lie (London: Carnot, 2002), p. 79; quoted by Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor, p. xv. Two years later Griffin—a prominent theologian and philosopher of religion as well as a 9/11 sceptic—was himself accused of something like sacrilege: Tucker Carlson, interviewing him on MSNBC TV, said that it was “wrong, blasphemous, and sinful” to have published books concluding that the evidence pointed to government complicity in the attacks of 9/11. See “‘Tucker’ for August 9,” The Ed Show, MSNBC TV (updated 10 August 2006), http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14285603.

39  Carl Schmitt, Politische Theologie. Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität (Munich: Dunckler & Humblot, 1922); Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George D. Schwab (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985; rpt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

40  Politische Theologie, p. 13. Here and below I am quoting passages from this text as translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen in Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998)—in this instance, in Agamben, p. 15.

41  Politische Theologie, pp. 19-21; trans. by Heller-Roazan in Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 16.

42  Dick Meyer, “Bush: The Decider-In-Chief. Dick Meyer On the Biggest Kid of All,” CBS News.com (20 April 2006), http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/04/20/opinion/meyer/main1523934.shtml.

43  See for example Jay S. Bybee, “To: Alberto R. Gonzales, Counsel to the President, Re: Standards of Conduct for Interrogation under 18 U.S.C.§§2340-2340A” (August 1, 2002), in Greenberg and Dratel, eds., The Torture Papers, p. 204: “both courts and prosecutors should reject prosecutions that apply federal criminal laws to activity that is authorized pursuant to one of the President’s constitutional powers.” These powers make “the security of the nation” the president’s foremost objective; Bybee quotes Alexander Hamilton’s argument that since “the circumstances which may affect the public safety” are not “reducible within certain determinate limits,” it follows “that there can be no limitation of that authority […] in any matter essential for its efficacy” (p. 205). The passage from Hamilton had previously been used by John C. Yoo, “Memorandum Opinion for Timothy Flanigan […] The President’s Constitutional Authority to Conduct Military Operations Against Terrorists and Nations Supporting Them” (September 25, 2001), in The Torture Papers, p. 4.

44  Mark Crispin Miller, Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order (New York: Norton, 2004), p. xxi.

45  Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Faust, ed. Hanns W. Eppelsheimer (1962; rpt. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1973), line 1237.

46  John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II, lines 910 (“wild abyss”), 900 (“embryon atoms”), 895, 907, 960 (“Chaos”), 915-16 (“Almighty Maker,” “dark materials”), in The Annotated Milton: Complete English Poems, ed. Burton Raffel (New York: Bantam Classics, 1999), pp. 199-202.

47  Paradise Lost, Book I, line 67, p. 137.

48  Book II, line 988, p. 202.

49  Book II, lines 1007-09, p. 203.

50  Book II, lines 1002-05, p. 203.

51  Giorgio Agamben, “The State of Emergency,” lecture at the Centre Roland-Barthes (Université de Paris VII, Denis-Diderot), c. 2005, available online at http://www.generation-online.org/p/fpagambenschmitt.htm. The lecture condenses arguments made at greater length by Agamben in State of Exception (Stato di eccezione, 2003), trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); and followed up in Il Regno e la Gloria (2007) and in The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath (Homo Sacer, II, 3) (Il sacramento del linguaggio. Archeologia del giuramento, 2008), trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

52  Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus: A critical edition of the 1604 version, with a full critical edition of the censored and revised 1616 text, ed. Michael Keefer (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2008), II. i. 120-23, p. 209. Milton develops this concept in Paradise Lost, Book IV, lines 18-23.

53  Paradise Lost, Book I, line 110, p. 138.

54  Blaise Pascal, Pensées, no. 294, in Pensées et opuscules, ed. Léon Brunschvicg (Paris: Hachette, 1961), p. 467: “Et ainsi ne pouvant faire que ce qui est juste fût fort, on a fait que ce qui est fort fût juste.” Jacques Derrida comments on this and related passages in “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’,” Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 238-39.

55  Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (2 vols.; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), IV.xx.2, p. 1487. (The pagination in the two volumes of this edition is continuous; vol. 2 begins at III.xx.1.)

56  Schmitt, “Der Begriff des Politischen,” Archiv für Sozialwissenschaften und Sozialpolitik 58 (1927); The Concept of the Political, trans. George D. Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 60-68.

57  Calvin, Institutes, I.xvi.4, p. 202.

58  See Institutes, III.xxiii.6, p. 954: “he foresees future events only by reason of the fact that he decreed that they take place”; and also III.xxiii.7, p. 955, where Calvin, who has elsewhere repeatedly blamed humankind’s wickedness and natural tendency to hate God upon the primal act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden, asks: “whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many peoples, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death unless because it so pleased God? [….] The decree is dreadful indeed, I confess. Yet no man can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before he created him, and consequently foreknew because he so ordained by his decree.”

59  Institutes, IV.xx.1, p. 1486.

60  In Institutes, IV.xx.10, p. 1497, Calvin claims that since no restraint is laid on God’s justice in punishing misdeeds, magistrates are entitled to violate the divine law against killing: “if it is not right to impose any law on him, why should we try to reproach his ministers?”

61  Institutes, IV.xx.31, p. 1519.

62  The Latin word institutio has a range of meanings relating to disposition, arrangement, instruction, education, and established custom; Justinian’s Institutiones is a manual designed to introduce students to the full body of the law, the Corpus Juris.

63  Institutes, I.xvi.2, p. 199; I.xvi.7, p. 206.

64  Institutes, I.vi.14-15, pp. 68-69; II.vii.3, p. 351; II.vii.7, pp. 355-56; II.viii.12, p. 377.

65  W. E. H. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe (2 vols.; 1865, rpt. New York: Appleton, 1888), vol. 1, pp. 37-38, 78-82.

66  Institutes, III.xxi.5, p. 926; III.xxi.7, p. 931; III.xxii.2, p. 934; III.xxiii.1, pp. 947-48.

67  Institutes, III.xxiii.11, p. 959; III.xxiv.14, p. 981.

68  Institutes, III.xxiii.2, pp. 949-50.

69  Ibid., vol. 1, p. 81.

70  Institutes, III.xxiii.2, p. 949.

71  Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 184.

72  See, for example, Jacques Derrida, “Before the Law,” in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 181-220.

73  For a brief discussion of collisions between oral law and the legal-coercive apparatus of the Canadian state, see the last section of my essay “The Harper Government and ‘War-on-Terror’ Immigration Policy,” in Hartmut Lutz, ed., What Is Your Place: Indigeneity and Immigration in Canada (Augsburg: Wißner-Verlag, 2007), pp. 169-90.

74  I have touched on this issue in the concluding pages of my essay “Resisting the Post-National: Canadian Critiques of the Geo/Cultural Politics of Globalization,” in Gunilla Florby, Mark Shackleton, and Katri Suhonen, eds., Canada: Images of a Post/National Society (Frankfurt and New York: Peter Lang, 2009), pp. 39-54.

75  Jonah Goldberg, “Baghdad Delenda Est, Part Two,” National Review Online (23 April 2002), http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/205187/baghdad-delenda-est-part-two/jonah-goldberg.

76  Goldberg remembered Ledeen, an influential right-wing ideologue, outlining this doctrine in “more or less” these words in a speech at the AEI in the early 1990s.

77  For the most recent extension of the state of emergency, see “Letter from the President on the Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to Certain Terrorist Attacks,” The White House / President Barack Obama (10 September 2010), http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/09/10/letter-president-continuation-national-emergency-with-respect-certain-te.

78  The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (New York: Norton, 2004), p. 38; see also p. 326: “Contingency plans for the continuity of government and the evacuation of leaders had been implemented.”

79  See Peter Dale Scott, The Road to 9/11, pp. 183-245, for a detailed account of the evolution of continuity of government planning, and its implementation after 9/11.

80  Barton Gellman and Susan Schmidt, “Shadow Government Is at Work in Secret,” The Washington Post (1 March 2002), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/09/AR2006060900891.html, quote one participant as saying that “the shadow government has evolved into an indefinite precaution,” and note that “Only the executive branch is represented in the full-time shadow administration.” See also Francie Grace, “‘Shadow Government’ News to Congress,” CBS News (1 March 2002), http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/03/01/attack/main502530.shtml.

81  Gore Vidal, Dreaming War, p. 11. Vidal adds that the republican system of government had “taken a mortal blow the previous year, when the Supreme Court did a little dance in 5-4 time and replaced an elected president with the oil-and-gas Cheney-Bush junta” (p. 12).

82  Barbara Olshansky, Democracy Detained: Secret Unconstitutional Practices in the U.S. War on Terror (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007), pp. 1-2.

83  Steven Aftergood, “The next president should open up the Bush administration’s record,” Nieman Watchdog (7 February 2008), http://niemanwatchdog.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=ask_this.view&askthisid=00321. (I am indebted for this reference to “Investigation into Whether America is Still a Constitutional Government,” http://constitutionally.blogspot.com.)

84  John W. Whitehead, “A week in the life of a police state,” ColdType 57 (June-July 2011), p. 50, http://www.coldtype.net/Assets.11/pdfs/0611.CT57.pdf. It should be remembered that the Patriot Act was passed under the duress of anthrax attacks on the offices of the Democratic Party’s congressional leadership—attacks which, given the implausibility of the FBI’s lone-mad-scientist scenario, invite classification as instances of state terrorism or state crimes against democracy.

85  For evidence that the process is indeed ongoing, see Peter Dale Scott, “‘Continuity of Government’ Planning: War, Terror and the Supplanting of the U.S. Constitution,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 21-2-10 (24 May 2010), http://japanfocus.org/-Peter_Dale-Scott/3362; and “Is the State of Emergency Superseding the US Constitution? Continuity of Government Planning, War and American Society,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 48-1-10 (29 November 2010), http://japanfocus.org/-Peter_Dale-Scott/3448.

86  Olshansky, Democracy Detained, pp. 4-5, quoting from Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 535 (2004).

87  Glenn Greenwald, “U.S. justice v. the world,” Salon.com (18 February 2011), http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/02/18/justice/index.html. For evidence that these facts should be understood within the context of an ongoing dismantling of international law, see Philippe Sands, Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rules (2nd ed., London: Penguin, 2006); and Afua Hirsch, “Ministers move to change universal jurisdiction law,” The Guardian (30 May 2010), http://www.guardian.co.uk/2010/may/30/change-universal-jurisdiction-law.

88  Charles Krauthammer, “The Truth about Torture,” in Levinson, ed., Torture, pp. 309-10. Krauthammer tries to fudge the issue, speaking first of keeping the prisoner “isolated, disoriented, alone, despairing, cold and sleepless, in some godforsaken hidden location,” and then substituting the term “coercive interrogation” (p. 310). He means “torture.”

89  Ibid., p. 313. The information in this case would be “high value” and urgently needed, which would presumably justify extreme inhumanity.

90  See David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor Revisited: 9/11, the Cover-Up, and the Exposé (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2008), pp. 216-17.

91  “Verbatim Transcript of Combatant Status Review Tribunal Hearing for ISN 10024” (10 March 2007), available online at http://i.a.cnn.net/cnn/2007/images/03/14/transcript_ISN10024.pdf. This 26-page document provides an interesting glimpse of the normalizing of torture in U.S. military ‘justice’. The text gives no indication of the contents of a written statement supplied to the tribunal by KSM “regarding alleged abuse” (p. 7). Asked by the presiding officer whether statements he made to his interrogators between 2003 and 2006 were “made as the result of any of the treatment you received during that time frame,” KSM replies: “CIA peoples. Yes.” Rewording the question about torture, the presiding officer receives a second response (partially censored) that is suggestive of mental confusion, and drops the issue (pp. 14-15). The document then incorporates a confession statement (pp. 17-19) in which KSM admits direct responsibility for every actual, projected, or merely rumored operation ever associated with al Qaeda—including a planned attack on the Plaza Bank in Washington state, built three years after KSM’s capture, and others that seem wholly imaginary, such as “the operation to destroy Heathrow Airport, the Canary Wharf Building, and Big Ben on British soil” (p. 18).

92  For a key example of this tactic, see Jean Bodin, De la démonomanie des sorciers (Paris: Jacques du Puys, 1580). Bodin was a political philosopher of major stature as well as a fanatical witch-hunter.

93  A. K. Thompson, Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent (Oakland and Edinburgh: AK Press, 2010), pp. 157-69.

94  Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism (London: Verso, 2002), p. 27; quoted by Thompson, p. 164.

95  Ibid., pp. 164-65.

96  Ibid., p. 65.

97  Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, trans. Malcolm Imrie (London: Verso, 1998), p. 24. (In the preceding pages, Debord remarks on the scandalous freedom from scandal, in contemporary democracies, of the tyrannical ventures of such groups as the Italian “parallel government, P2, Potere Due”—on which, see p. 22 and also p. 53.)

98  Dating from the early 1920s, this essay is disabled by two facts: it was composed in silent dialogue with early texts of Carl Schmitt, some of whose preconceptions it accepts; and it confuses the central issue by defining strike action as incorporating “extortion” and the use of “force in attaining certain ends,” and hence as a form of violence. See Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), p. 282.

99  Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History, VIII,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (1970; rpt. London: Fontana, 1973), pp. 248-49. This text is also available as “On the Concept of History,” in Benjamin, Selected Writings, ed. Michael W. Jennings et al. (4 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996-2003), vol. 4. One might prefer, in the present context, to speak of a struggle against “proto-fascism,” which is diagnosed by Henry Giroux in Against the New Authoritarianism (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2005), pp. 30-82.

100  Fabbri writes that “literary poseurs […] offend fallen anarchists” even in praising them, “because their eulogies draw their force and motive precisely from that which, according to anarchist principles, is painful and deplorable though perhaps a historical necessity.” While rejecting Tolstoyan pacifism, Fabbri insists that violence “is always an ugly thing, be it individual or collective,” asserting at the same time that the subject distracts us from something more important: “But we’re not dealing with this, but with the tendency, derived from bourgeois influences, of ignoring goals and making actions the primordial preoccupation.” Fabbri, “Bourgeois Influences on Anarchism,” trans. Chaz Bufe, anarkismo.net (25 September 2009), http://www.anarkismo.net/article/14544.

101  Gerrard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom in a Platform or, True Magistracy Restored [1652], ed. Robert W. Kenny (New York: Schocken Books, 1973).  

‘Fairer than the evening air’: Marlowe’s Gnostic Helen of Troy and the Tropes of Belatedness and Historical Mediation

Forgive the interruption, but is there a scholar anywhere who does not respond to this Wittenberg man's notion of his alma mater in flames, or cannot take pleasure in imagining one or two close colleagues at the heart of a similar conflagration? But the thought of long-haired Achaeans running bronze-clad through Wittenberg, spearing astonished academics in the streets of their plundered and burning city, is perhaps not uppermost in Faustus's mind.   

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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.”   




Agrippa, Henricus Cornelius. Opera. 2 vols. Ed. R. H. Popkin. 1600; facsimile rpt. Hildesheim, 1970.

----. Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences. Trans. J. Sanford (1569), ed. Catherine M. Dunn. Northridge, CA, 1974.

----. Henry Cornelius Agrippa his Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy.... Arbatel of Magick. Trans. Robert Turner. London, 1655.

Backus, Irene. “Agrippa on 'Human Knowledge of God' and 'Human Knowledge of the External World'.” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 65 (1983): 147-59.

Belot, Jean. Les fleurs de la philosophie chrestienne et morale. Ou réfutations de Henry Corn. Agrippa & de P. d'Abano en leur philosophie occulte. Paris, 1603.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. 1970; rpt. London, 1973.

----. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne, intro. by George Steiner. 1977; rpt. London, 1985.

Bodin, Jean. De la démonomanie des sorciers. Paris, 1581.

Browne, Alice. “Descartes's Dreams.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 40 (1977): 256-73.

Calvin, Jean. Ioannis Calvini opuscula omnia in unum volumina collecta. Geneva, 1552.

----. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles. 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1960.

Casaubon, Meric. A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasme. 1655; rpt. London, 1656. (Qtd. by Spiller)

----, ed. A True and Faithful Relation of what passed for many years between Dr. John Dee … and some spirits.... London, 1659.

Delph, Ronald K. “From Venetian Visitor to Curial Humanist: The Development of Agostino Steuco's 'Counter'-Reformation Thought.” Renaissance Quarterly 47 (1994): 102-39.

Derrida, Jacques. “Cogito and the History of Madness.” In Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, 31-63. Chicago, 1978.

----. “La langue et le discours de la méthode.” In Daniel Bougnoux et al., eds., Recherches sur la philosophie et le langage, 35-51. Grenoble, 1983.

Descartes, René. Oeuvres. Ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery. 11 vols.; 1897-1909; rpt. Paris, 1974.

----. The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Trans. E. S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross. 2 vols. 1911; rpt. Cambridge, 1973.

----. Oeuvres philosophiques. Ed. F. Alquié. 3 vols. Paris, 1963-73.

Dronke, Peter. Hermes and the Sibyls: Continuations and Creations. Cambridge, 1990.

Festugière, A.-J. La révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste. 4 vols. Paris, 1950-54.

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.

Garasse, François. La doctrine curieuse des beaux esprits de ce temps. 2 vols. 1623; facsimile rpt. Farnborough, 1971.

Gilson, Étienne. Études sur le rôle de la pensée mediévale dans la formation du système cartésien. 2nd ed. Paris, 1951.

Gouhier, Henri. Les premières pensées de Descartes: contribution à l'histoire de l'anti-renaissance. Paris, 1958.

Graesse, J. G. T. Trésor de livres rares et précieux ou Nouveau dictionnaire bibliographique. 7 vols. Dresden, 1859-69.

Grafton, Anthony. Defenders of the Text: The Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science, 1450-1800. Cambridge, MA and London, 1991.

Gregory, Tullio. “Dio ingannatore e genio maligno. Nota in margine alla Meditationes di Descartes.” Giornale critico della filosofia italiana 4th series, 5.4 (Anno 53 [15]; 1974): 477-516.

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.

Hine, William L. “Marin Mersenne: Renaissance naturalism and Renaissance magic.” In Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, ed. Brian Vickers, 165-76. Cambridge, 1984.

Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Ed. Norman Kemp Smith. 1947; rpt. New York, n.d.

Iamblichus. Les mystères d'Égypte. Ed. and trans. Édouard des Places. Paris, 1966.

Judovitz, Dalia. “Derrida and Descartes: Economizing Thought.” In Derrida and Deconstruction, ed. Hugh J. Silverman, 40-58. New York and London, 1989.

Keefer, Michael H. “Misreading Faustus Misreading: The Question of Context.” The Dalhousie Review 65.4 (Winter 1985-86): 511-33.

----. “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.

Korkowski, Eugene. “Agrippa as Ironist.” Neophilologus 60 (1976): 594-607.

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)

Lenoble, Robert. Mersenne ou la naissance du mécanisme. Paris, 1943.

Marcel, Raymond. “La fortune d'Hermès Trismégiste à la Renaissance.” In L'humanisme français au début de la Renaissance, ed. André Stegmann, 137-54. Paris, 1973.

Maritain, Jacques. The Dreams of Descartes. Trans. M. L. Andison. 1944; rpt. Port Washington, NY, 1979.

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.

McGrath, Alister. The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation. Oxford, 1987.

Mersenne, Marin. Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim. Paris, 1623.

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

----. La vérité des sciences, contre les septiques ou Pyrrhoniens. Paris, 1625.

----. Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne. Ed. Cornelis de Waard and René Pintard. Paris, 1932.

Montaigne, Michel de. Essais. Ed. Pierre Michel. 3 vols. Paris, 1965.

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

More, Henry. A Collection of Several Philosophical Writings. 2 vols. Facsimile rpt. New York and London, 1978.

Moyal, Gabriel. “La traduction et ses interprétations: les songes de Descartes.” Texte 4 (1985): 161-76.

Naudé, Gabriel. Apologie pour tous les grands personnages qui ont esté faussement soupçonnez de magie. Paris, 1625.

Ong, Walter J. Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue. Cambridge, MA, 1958.

Ozment, Stephen. Mysticism and Dissent. New Haven, 1973.

Paracelsus, Theophrastus (attrib.) Paracelsus Of the Supreme Mysteries of Nature. Trans. Robert Turner. London, 1656.

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1979.

Poulet, Georges. Études sur le temps humain. Vol. 1. Paris, 1949.

Randall, John Herman. The Career of Philosophy. 2 vols. New York, 1962-70.

----. “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.

Schuster, John A. “Descartes' Mathesis Universalis: 1619-28.” In Stephen Gaukroger, ed., Descartes: Philosophy, Mathematics and Physics, 41-96. Brighton, 1980.

Secret, François. Les kabbalistes chrétiens de la renaissance. Paris, 1964.

Spiller, Michael R. G. “The Idol of the Stove: the Background to Swift's Criticism of Descartes.” Review of English Studies n.s. 35 (1974): 15-24.

Steuchus, Augustinus. De perenni philosophia. Lyons, 1540.

Suavius, Leo [pseud. of Jacques Gohory]. Theophrasti Paracelsi philosophiae et medicinae utriusque universae, compendium. Basle, 1568. (Qtd. by Gouhier)

Thevet, André. Les vrais pourtraits des hommes illustres. 2 vols. Paris, 1584.

Tyard, Pontus de. Deux discours de la nature du monde. Paris, 1578. (Qtd. by Walker)

Villey, Pierre. Les sources et l'évolution des Essais de Montaigne. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Paris, 1933.

Wagner, Jean-Marie. “Esquisse du cadre divinatoire des songes de Descartes.” Baroque: revue internationale 6 (1976): 81-95.

Walker, D. P. The Ancient Theology. London, 1972.

Wirth, Jean. “'Libertins et 'Epicuriens': aspects de l'irréligion au XVIe siècle.” Bibliothèque d'humanisme et renaissance 39 (1977): 601-27.

Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago, 1964.

----. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. 1972; rpt. St. Albans, 1975.

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

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



Accommodation and Synecdoche: Calvin's God in King Lear

Accommodation and Synecdoche: Calvin's God in King Lear

I am concerned with synecdoche primarily as a figure of thought through which an individual recapitulates or incorporates the attributes of a higher order of being that, in a sense, encloses him. This figure might be seen as linked in various ways to allegorical figuration, to that form of metonymy which substitutes effect for cause, and to the metaphysical doctrine of correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm (a doctrine which, as Kenneth Burke observed, is synecdochic in nature).... Accommodation, the other form of allusive figuration which concerns me, must be approached in a different manner. I have already suggested that it is present in King Lear in a displaced form....

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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.” 


Renaissance Philosophy: Lost Origins

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

4  Cassirer, pp. 28-34.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21  Ibid., I. vi. 3, vol. 1, p. 73.

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

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

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

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

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

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

28  See Agrippa, De vanitate, ch. 48.

29  Ibid., ch. 48, ch. 1.

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

31  Quint, Origin and Originality, p. xx.

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

33  Ibid., p. 222.   


Le Dieu de Calvin et le langage du destin et de la fortune dans la tragédie de la Renaissance française

[First published in the Revue de l'Université Sainte-Anne (1982): 8-18. Given the very limited circulation of this journal, I also sent the piece to Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance, whose editor Alain Dufour declined it, remarking (quite accurately) that the essay was “manifestement pensé en anglais”—but generously hoping that an English version of it (which, in the event, I did not publish) might appear in an American or English journal “de plus large diffusion que la nôtre.” Were it not for kind corrections made by my colleagues René LeBlanc and Alain Chabot, this text would have been clumsier still.

The thoughtful comments on this essay which Dufour also shared with me may be of interest for what they show about the ways Calvin was being read at the time. Praising the essay as a whole (“dans l'ensemble vous avez parfaitement raison”), he thought the opinion of Richard Griffiths criticized in my opening paragraphs to be so obviously “stupide et erronnée” as not to need refutation—while also conceding it to be “bien typique du XXe siècle.” He also suggested that my “antipathie pour Calvin” might be attenuated by considering his theology “dans la suite de la chûte d'Adam et dans la perspective du péché originel”—forgetting, perhaps, the notorious passage in which Calvin conceded that Adam's Fall was itself willed by God: “The decree is dreadful indeed, I confess. Yet no one can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before he created him, and consequently foreknew because he so ordained by his decree” (Institutes, III. xxiii. 7).

I have made some corrections of typographical errors and of infelicitous turns of phrase, but have not otherwise updated the text or the notes.]



S'apercevoir que la tragédie traite de la nature problématique de la justice divine n'est rien de nouveau.1 Cependant, c'est une perception que les critiques de la tragédie française de la Renaissance ont parfois negligée à cause de certaines singularités de ce genre littéraire. Au cours de la deuxième moitié du seizième siècle en France, on peut distinguer (en excluant les comédies de la période) entre des pièces religieuses, où l'emploi des épisodes de l'Ancien Testament fait preuve d'un esprit plutôt partisan ou sectaire que dramatique, et d'autres pieces d'inspiration classique, dans lesquelles l'influence de leurs modèles est partout en évidence. Les premières abusent parfois de la patience du lecteur, tandis qu'en lisant ces dernières il est souvent difficile de croire qu'elles ne soient que des exercises d'imitation: car non simplement des sententiae mais des allocutions et même des scènes entières ont été empruntées de Sénèque ou d'Euripide.

Les pièces de forme classique (ou se voulant classique) de cette époque se définissent le plus clairement comme étant artificielles (au sens moderne et péjoratif du mot) dans leur emploi du langage de la fatalité—ce qui inclut les notions complémentaires de la nécessité et du caprice, du destin et de la fortune.2 Comme l'écrit un critique contemporain, la conception classique du destin, “se heurtant contre l'idée chrétienne d'un Dieu plein de bonté, aurait dû inquiéter ces dramaturges..., mais personne n'a jamais voulu modifier cette idée du destin, car faire ainsi serait condamner les auteurs clasiques, qui ne pouvaient avoir tort.” L'emprunt de cette conception du destin par les tragiques français de la Renaissance constituait, selon ce critique,

un divorce de leurs tragédies d'avec la réalité, car tandis que les spectateurs anciens croyaient (ou faisaient mine de croire) aux forces qui avaient de l'emprise sur les personnages de la tragédie ancienne, ces forces s'opposaient totalement aux croyances chrétiennes du seizième siècle. N'importe quelle conception de la grâce qu'un chrétien eût eu, il n'eût pas pu tolérer le gouvernail sauvage et irraisonné de l'ananke. Maints tragiques ont dû copier des textes anciens sans penser, en négligeant toute contradiction entre leurs propres idées et celles de leurs modèles.3

L'image que ces remarques évoquent—celle d'un art terne pratiqué avec un fatalisme pervers par des érudits schizoïdes—est bizarrement fourvoyante. Je ne veux ni éxagérer les qualités littéraires de ces pièces, ni prétendre qu'elles possèdent les connexions complexes avec “la réalité sociale” qui charactérisent le théatre populaire anglais après 1586. Mais on peut suggérer qu'une plus ample connaissance du Dieu chrétien du seizième siècle donnerait au critique une sympathie accrue pour ces dramaturges, et révèlerait la justesse singulière de ce langage du fatalité qu'ils ont emprunté en ce qui a trait aux aspects les plus âpres de leurs croyances religieuses.

Dans l'histore littéraire, au moins, l'acte gratuit est une illusion. Les emprunts littéraires ne sont jamais immotivés, et les critiques qui insistent pour comprendre d'une façon étroite les motifs pour de telles appropriations n'auront qu'eux-mêmes à remercier si les explications conséquentes sont stériles. On peut croire que les tragiques du seizième siècle étaient clairement conscients de leurs propres besoins d'imagination. Thomas Sebillet, qui en 1549 publia l'Iphigene d'Euripide poete tragiq, écrit dans son Art poetique François (1548):

... en ce avons nous comme en toutes choses suivy nostre naturel, qui est de prendre dés choses estrangéres non tout ce que nous y voions, ains seulement que nous jugeons faire pour nous, et estre a notre avantage.4

Bien qu'il s'agit ici de la manière dont les auteurs de moralités se sont servis de la tragédie ancienne, il n'est pas évident que le changement d'orientation après 1550 vers une imitation fidèle des formes anciennes dans la tragédie “régulière” aurait entrainé une perte de cette conscience de ce qui fut “a nostre avantage.”

De nombreux textes de cette époque révèlent, quant à certains aspects de la piété chrétienne, une convergence avec la vocabulaire classique de la fatalité. Les clameurs contre le sort et la fortune qui, au goût des modernes, encombrent les tragédies du seizième siècle, se montrent dans ce contexte non seulement comme étant des imitations littéraires, mais aussi comme constituant un langage alternatif, autorisé par le prestige des auteurs classiques, dans lequel des chrétiens purent exprimer des inquiétudes qui surgirent de leurs propres croyances à propos de la justice et de l'intelligibilité de la providence divine.

Le De Constantia de Juste Lipse nous offre un exemple convenable de cette convergence. Son intention principale dans cet oeuvre fut de fournir une défense soutenue et élégante de la justice divine dans tous ses aspects, mais par inadvertance il ya des brèches dans cette défense. À plusieurs endroits Lipse a recours à des analogies avec le théâtre, dont deux sont d'importance spéciale. La première se présente dans un passage où Lipse soutient la lenteur de la vengeance de Dieu, sous prétexte qu'elle tombe d'autant plus lourdement sur les méchants qu'elle s'est fait attendre:

Dites-moi, en regardant une tragédie, pouvez-vous supporter de voir Atrée ou Thyeste au cours du premier ou deuxième acte se promener en majesté sur la scène, les voir régner, menacer et dominer? Je crois que oui, quand vous saurez combien peu de temps durera leur prosperité, et quand vous pourrez les voir confondus au dernier acte. Alors, dans cette tragédie du monde pourquoi êtes-vous moins favorable envers Dieu qu'envers un pauvre poète? Ce méchant-ci prospère, ce tyran-là reste en vie. Laissez faire pendant quelque temps. Souvenez-vous que ce n'est encore que le premier acte, et considérez que des afflictions et des sanglots suivront leur apaisement. Cette scène sera bientôt couverte de sang... Car notre Poète est singulièrement adroit dans la pratique de son art, et n'enfreindra pas à la légère les lois de sa Tragédie....5

Une pareille moralisation de Sénèque se montre parfois dans les commentaires écrits à cette époque.6 Mais les idées de Lipse sur la justice divine et sur la tragédie furent en réalité plus complexes que ce passage ne le suggère. Un autre chapitre, où il nous propose de nous réconforter par une austère contemplation de l'universalité de la misère, sape le complaisance de son analogie antérieure:

Imaginez (si cela peut vous divertir) que vous soyez avec moi au sommet de cette haute colline de l'Olympe: regardez de là toutes les villes, les provinces, et les royaumes du monde, et pensez que vous y voyez autant d'enclos pleins de calamités humaines: ce ne sont que des théâtres et des lieux préparés dans le but que la Fortune y puisse jouer ses tragédies sanglantes.7

Il s'agit ici non pas de tragédies familiales, mais de guerres civiles, de saccagements et de massacres. À quelle fin morale puisse servir maintenant ces tragédies? et pourquoi le Poète s'appelle-t-il maintenant la Fortune, et non pas Dieu?

Evidemment, les lois dont “notre Poète” se sert pour régler sa tragédie sont moins intelligibles et moins rassurantes, même vues d'une perspective olympienne, que Juste Lipse eût voulu nous faire croire. Quand Lipse fait face aux catastrophes de son siècle, il glisse d'une explication providentielle des évènements au vocabulaire classique de la fatalité comme si ils étaient équivalents. Bien entendu, l'idée habituelle de la relation entre ces deux ordres d'explication, l'une divine et l'autre déterministe, resta hiérarchique. Ronsard, par exemple, distingua clairement entre les deux en adressant ces mots à l'Éternité:

Tu ordonnes tes loix au severe Destin, 
Qu'il n'ose oultrepasser, & que luymesme engrave
Fermes au front du Ciel....8

Le destin des cieux n'est que l'instrument de la providence, et le plus haut niveau de la causalité pourvoit l'inférieur d'une rassurante qualité d'intention. Mais les poètes tragiques purent douter qu'il soit toujours possible de séparer les deux. On pourrait appliquer à un dieu vengeur des mots dont Nabuchodonosor, “[l']Execrable instrument de la rancoeur celeste,” se sert dans la tragédie Les Juifves de Robert Garnier pour justifier sa propre cruauté: “Celuy ne regne pas qui son vouloir limite: / Aux Rois qui peuvent tout, toute chose est licite.”9

Mais quand it devient difficile de maintenir une distinction morale entre ce dieu vengeur et le Destin ou la Fortune, la tragédie de “notre Poète” risque de déchoir de la moralité des interprètes de Sénèque dans le chaos moral de ses pièces elles-mêmes.



Le vocabulaire classique de la fatalité ne fut pas redécouvert par la Renaissance: il n'avait jamais été oublié. Mais bien que le destin astrologique et la déesse Fortuna acquièrent souvent dans des textes médiévaux l'apparence d'une indépendance de toute explication chrétienne, ce n'est qu'avec l'essor du nouveau (ou vieux-nouveau) genre de la tragédie que la relation entre ces deux niveaux de la causalité, la providence et la fatalité, devint foncièrement problématique. Comme le suggère l'exemple d'une convergence des deux que je viens de discuter, l'accusation d'une imitation aveugle des modèles classiques ne doit pas être notre réaction immédiate lorsque nous rencontrons dans une tragédie du seizième siècle un tel mélange des vocabulaires chrétiens et classiques. Nous ne blâmons pas Racine de s'égarer de ses croyances chrétiennes lorsqu'il réfère la tragédie de Phèdre au destin et aux dieux païens plutôt qu'à la providence de Dieu:

... elle est engagée, par sa destinée et par la colère des dieux, dans une passion illégitime, ... et lorsqu'elle est forcée de la découvrir, elle en parle avec une confusion qui fait bien voir que son crime est plutôt une punition des dieux qu'un mouvement de sa volonté.10

Donc nous ne devrions pas non plus soupçonner Robert Garnier d'une confusion élémentaire quand il écrit d'une façon typique des tragiques du seizième siècle dans la dédicace de La Troade: “... Voyant nos ancestres Troyens avoir, par l'ire du grand Dieu, ou par l'inévitable malignité d'une secrette influence des astres, souffert jadis toutes extremes calamitez....”11 Garnier offre à ses lecteurs un choix de perspectives sur une structure redoublée de la causalité, mais, au même moment, il révèle ses propres incertitudes quant à la nature de la justice divine. Comme Racine dans la préface à Phèdre, où son vocabulaire classique rend inoffensive une inversion proléptique de la relation habituelle entre le crime et le châtiment sans dissimuler sa pertinence à des contentieux théologiques, Garnier semble toucher dans ces mots quelque chose qui est proche au coeur de sa vision tragique.

Il y a vingt-cinq ans, Lucien Goldmann affirma que les structures de la tragédie racinienne deviennent nettement plus intelligibles lorsqu'on les étudie dans le contexte de la théologie janséniste dans laquelle Racine fut élevé.12 Je voudrais suggérer que la théologie de Jean Calvin fournit un contexte également illuminant pour l'étude de plusieurs aspects de la tragédie du seizième siècle. Ce ne sont pas les allégeances sectaires des écrivains qui me concernent, mais plutôt le fait que le défi que Calvin lança quant aux positions courantes sur les doctrines telles que la prédestination et le libre arbitre produisit un certain décalage de tout l'étendue du discours théologique et littéraire. Même ceux qui s'opposaient le plus amèrement à ses idées et à leurs corollaires politiques durent, ce faisant, confronter des aspects de la Bible et de la tradition chrétienne qui sont sévères et même menaçants—et comme la troisième partie de cet essai le montrera, Calvin fut difficile à réfuter, en dépit de l'extrémité de ses conclusions.

Dans ce qui suivra ma brève analyse de la théologie de Calvin, des commentaires sur deux pièces, Abraham sacrifiant de Théodore de Bèze et Saül le furieux de Jean de la Taille, suggéreront à la fois que certains aspects du calvinisme fournirent un motif puissant pour la développement de la tragédie en France, et que l'influence étendue de Calvin rend intelligible cette tendance vers une convergeance du concept de la providence et des idées païennes sur la fatalité qui caractérise ce genre littéraire. Il n'est pas question de qualifier de calviniste ce genre, car même lorsqu'un tragique peut être identifié comme huguenot, la tragédie française de la Renaissance n'est calviniste que dans le même sens qu'une perle est fait de sable: dans les deux cas la forme mûre s'atteint par un accroissement à l'écart de l'irritant initial, qui reste cependant encastré au centre.



Dans n'importe quelle discussion de l'impact littéraire du calvinisme il faut distinguer entre sa structure logique, qui est déjà assez sévère, et son éthique autoritaire, qui en insistant sur l'acceptation sans question de cette structure la rend effectivement repoussante. Cette structure a des implications tragiques, mais un écrivain troublé par cette théologie ne pourrait guère écrire une tragédie sans s'être dégagé jusqu'à un certain point de l'éthique du calvinisme.

Le trait structural le plus saillant du calvinisme est sans doute la doctrine notoire de la double prédestination. Mais comme Jean-Daniel Benoît l'a remarqué, la double prédestination n'est pas, “comme on l'a parfois soutenu, le centre du calvinisme, mais plutôt la dernière conséquence de la foi en la souveraineté absolue de Dieu et en la grâce du Christ; elle constitue non pas un point de départ, mais un aboutissement.”13

En définissant sa propre position par contraste avec celle des calvinistes anglais de sa génération, Richard Hooker dans sa grande oeuvre Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity cita l'adage de Théophraste: “Ceux qui cherchent une raison de toutes choses renversent totalement la raison.”14 Les doctrines de Calvin menacent de renverser non seulement la raison, mais aussi toute signification humaine. Pour Calvin, “la raison de toutes choses” est la volonté souveraine et illimitée de Dieu. Car Dieu est en vérité tout-puissant, donc sa volonté est souveraine dans le sens qu'elle gouverne toutes choses directement et sans intermédiaires; par conséquent, toute idée de la contingence ou de l'autonomie des êtres crées n'est qu'une invention impie. Selon Duns Scotus, ceux qui nient que tout être ne soit contingent “devraient être assujettis à des tortures jusqu'à ce qu'ils concèdent qu'il soit possible qu'ils ne fussent pas torturés.”15 Calvin, qui dénonça les scotistes comme des sophistes pestilentiels, indiqua assez clairement qu'à son avis ceux qui défendent obstinément la contingence et le libre arbitre sont eux-mêmes prédestinés à des supplices éternels, car une dérogation opiniâtre à la majesté souveraine de Dieu met en évidence la tendance naturelle des hommes déchus de sa grâce, des réprouvés, à s'opposer à leur Créateur.16

De son interprétation de S. Paul il s'ensuit qu'il y a une opposition totale entre la nature humaine, qui est déchue et délibérément perverse, et cette divine grâce qui ensevelit notre inimitié naturelle envers Dieu et nous amène à l'obéissance fidèle à la parole de Dieu. Dans les mots de Calvin, “il ne faut pas estimer que la chair soit bien mortifiée, sinon que tout ce que nous avons de nous soit annéanty et aboly.”17

On peut s'apercevoir par conséquent que le langage subit un certain surmenage. Car bien que tout acte et toute pensée, bon ou méchant, des hommes et des esprits soit totalement gouverné par la volonté de Dieu, les méchants sont néanmoins condamnés pour leur entêtement, leur mauvaise volonté. Ils ne sont pas libres de faire autrement qu'ils ne font, mais puisque leur volonté est engagée dans les péchés que Dieu veut qu'ils commettent, c'est eux qui sont coupables. Dans un passage mémorable, Calvin repousse toute suggestion que Dieu puisse être blâmé pour la méchanceté humaine dont sa volonté insondable est la cause:

Et d'où vient la puanteur en une charogne après qu'elle est ouverte et pourrie? Chacun void bien que cela vient des rais du Soleil, et toutesfois personne ne dira qu'ils puent pourtant. Ainsi, puisque la matière et faute du mal consiste en un mauvais homme, pourquoy Dieu en tirera-il quelque macule et ordure, s'il en use selon sa volonté? Pourtant chassons ceste petulance de chien, laquelle peut bien abbayer de loin la justice de Dieu, mais ne la peut attoucher.18

Cette insistance sur la souverainté divine rend problématique l'idée même de la volonté humaine. Mais le langage et la logique sont d'autant plus surmenés par la doctrine éminemment logique de la double prédestination. Si Dieu choisit dans l'éternité ceux qui recevront sa grâce justifiante, alors (étant donnée la notion calvinienne de la justice divine) ce n'est qu'une argutie que d'affirmer que les autres seront laissés à se débrouiller tant bien que mal. Soit qu'on est élu, soit qu'on est réprouvé; et les réprouvés sont rejetés non pas parce que Dieu, étant omniscient, préconnaît leur méchanceté, mais plutôt parce qu'ayant voulu leur méchanceté, il la préconnaît.19 Jusqu'ici ça va. Si Calvin avait respecté son propre avertissement que le mystère de la prédestination est un labyrinthe où celui qui “se fourre et ingère en trop grande confiance et hardiesse ... ne trouvera nulle issue,” et que

ce n'est pas raison que les choses que Dieu a voulu estre cachées ... soyent ainsi espluchées des hommes, et que la hautesse de sa sapience, laquelle il a voulu estre plustost adorée de nous qu'estre comprinse ... soit assuiettie au sens humain,20

il eût pu éviter les dures conséquences de sa version de cette doctrine. Mais poussé autant par son honnêteté farouche que par la polémique de ses adversaires, il suivit Luther en distinguant entre la promesse du Nouveau Testament de salut à tous ceux qui croient au Christ, et la volonté impénétrable de Dieu qui refuse à la plupart des hommes la grâce sans laquelle cette foi est impossible. L'affirmation brusque de cette position par Luther21 fut ouverte à l'accusation “qu'il y aura deux volontés contraires en [Dieu], entant qu'il décerneroit en son conseil estroit les choses qu'il a manifestement defendues par sa Loy....”22 Accusation que Calvin rebuta en citant maints textes bibliques, et en insistant que la volonté de Dieu,

laquelle est une et simple en soy, nous semble diverse, pource que, selon nostre rudesse et débilité de sens, nous ne comprenons pas comment il veut et ne veut point en diverses manières qu'une chose se face.23

Un argument de St Augustin lui fournit une justification lui fournit une justification élégante pour ses propres équivoques sur la volonté. Si Dieu veut qu'un homme meure, un méchant fils peut vouloir la même chose, tandis qu'un bon fils ne la veut pas. Mais bien que ce dernier veuille ce que Dieu ne veut pas, c'est sa piété filiale et non pas la méchanceté de son frère qui s'accorde avec la bonne volonté de Dieu et ce que les hommes peuvent vertueusement vouloir,24 et il n'est plus question de “songer qu'il y ait variété en Dieu, comme s'il changeoit conseil, ou qu'il se contredist.”25

La position de Calvin repose sur la souveraineté absolue et inscrutable de Dieu, qui “fait tout ce qu'il veut (Pseaum. 115, 3),” et sur “la tardivité de nostre sens,”26 qui nous empêche de sonder ses intentions. Les yeux de la foi résolvent la duplicité apparente de la volonté de Dieu en une image simple, mais incompréhensible. Cependant, Calvin considère par quels moyens la volonté divine s'avance vers ses fins secrètes, il indique que bien qu'elle ne soit pas en guerre avec elle-même, elle fait la guerre sans provocation contre la plupart de l'humanité:

Pourtant ceux qu'il a créez à damnation et mort éternelle, afin qu'ils soyent instruments de son ire et exemples de sa séverité, pour les faire venir à leur fin ou il les prive de la faculté d'ouyr sa parolle, ou par la prédication d'icelle il les aveugle et endurcist davantage.27

Le but de cette réprobation n'est point rassurant:

Parquoy ce que les réprouvez, ayans le royaume de Dieu ouvert, n'obtempèrent point, cela sera droitement reietté sur leur perversité et malice, moyennant qu'on adiouste conséquemment qu'il[s] ont esté asservis à cette perversité, d'autant que par le iugement équitable, mais incompréhensible de Dieu, ils ont esté suscitez pour illustrer sa gloire en leur damnation.28

La doctrine calvinienne de l'inscrutabilité de Dieu propose une solution au problème du mal qui est obverse dans sa structure en comparaison avec celle que proposèrent les hérétiques gnostiques. Le Dieu caché des gnostiques était bon, et le Dieu révélé, ce demiurge qui gouverne le monde, fut la source ou du moins le soutien du mal. Ici, par contraste, c'est l'aspect révélé de Dieu—la promesse universelle de salut à tous ceux qui auront de la foi—qui est plus évidemment bon, et c'est Dieu lui-même, demeurant caché et incompréhensible, qui par sa volonté inscrutable produit le mal. Mais puisque cette doctrine calvinienne insiste pour blâmer les instruments de la volonté de Dieu plutôt que cette volonté elle-même, la doctrine est moins une solution au problème du mal qu'une mystification, une négation que le langage et la logique, qui expriment des valeurs humaines, soient adéquats pour englober les sources de la misère humaine. Dieu étant juste et miséricordieux, si donc dans l'éternité il prédestine la plupart de l'humanité à des supplices sans fin, celà doit être accepté comme une expression de la justice et de la miséricorde.

Non seulement ces deux attributs divins, mais encore tous les autres, deviennent problématiques à cause de cette théologie. Car l'incompréhensibilité de Dieu signifie, selon Calvin, qu'il n'existe pas de lien précis entre la réalité divine et toute indication, même biblique, des attributs de Dieu. À cause de notre faiblesse, qui ne nous permet aucunement de comprendre sa nature exaltée, Dieu se représente dans l'Écriture Sainte non pas comme il est en lui-même, mais comme il nous apparaît: toute description biblique de Dieu est accommodée à nos capacités humaines.29

Sans trop exagérer, on pourrait décrire cette théorie de l'accommodation comme étant une espèce d'anticipation théologique de la parabole de Hans Christian Andersen sur les nouveaux vêtements de l'empereur. Les accommodations de l'Écriture Sainte sont vraisemblablement dirigées autant à Jean Calvin qu'au reste de l'humanité, mais il insiste constamment pour les dépasser: un peu comme l'enfant embarrassant dans le conte d'Andersen, il nous informe que ces accommodations, ces vêtements, ne sont pas réels. L'empereur n'étant pas dans ce cas lui-même perceptible, on pourrait dire qu'il risque par conséquent de disparaître. Car lorsque Dieu commence à perdre ses attributs anthropomorphiques, il peut facilement se confondre avec les idées plus abstraites du destin et de la fortune.

Cent cinquante ans plus tard, George Berkeley, l'évèque de Cloyne, écrit que

... celui qui vient à Dieu, ou entre dans l'église de Dieu, doit d'abord croire qu'il y a un Dieu qui est dans une certaine mesure intelligible, et non simplement croire qu'il y a un pouvoir quelconque; car si l'on n'a aucune idée, quelque inadéquate que ce soit, de ses qualités ou de ses attributs, ceci pourrait être le destin, le chaos, la nature plastique, ou quoi que ce soit, aussi bien que Dieu.30

Calvin lui-même dut se défendre contre l'accusation qu'il confondit la providence avec le destin:

Ceux qui veulent rendre ceste doctrine odieuse, calomnient que c'est la fantasie des Stoiques que toutes chose adviennent par nécessité.... toutefois nous ne recevons pas ce vocable dont usoyent les Stoiques, assavoir: Fatum.... Quant est de l'opinion, c'est faussement et malicieusement qu'on nous la met sus. Car nous ne songeons pas une nécessité laquelle soit contenue en nature par une conionction perpetuelle de toutes choses, comme faisoyent les Stoiques. Mais nous constituons Dieu maistre et modérateur de toutes choses, lequel nous disons dès le commencement avoir, selon sa sagesse, déterminé ce qu'il devoit faire, et maintenant exécute par sa puissance tout ce qu'il a délibéré. Dont nous concluons que non seulement le ciel et la terre et toutes créatures insensibles sont gouvernees par sa providence, mais aussi les conseils et vouloir des hommes, tellement qu'il les dresse au but qu'il a proposé. Quoy donc? dira quelcun, ne se fait-il rien par cas fortuit ou d'aventure? Ie respon que cela a esté tresbien dit de Basilius le grand, quand il a escrit que Fortune et Aventure sont mots de Payens, desquels la signification ne doit point entrer en un coeur fidèle.31

Pour Calvin autant que pour ses contemporains, le destin et la fortune furent des termes associés dont l'un évoqua très vite l'autre. Mais d'après le paragraphe suivant, même “un coeur fidèle” ne peut pas entièrement rejeter la signification du mot “fortune”:

Toutesfois pource que la tardivité de nostre esprit est bien loin de pouvoir monter iusques à la hautesse de la providence de Dieu, il nous faut pour la soulager mettre icy une distinction. Ie di doncques, combien que toutes choses soyent conduites par le conseil de Dieu, toutesfois qu'elles nous sont fortuites. Non pas que nous réputions fortune dominer sur les hommes pour tourner haut et bas toutes choses témérairement (car ceste resverie doit estre loin d'un coeur Chrestien); mais pource que des choses qui adviennent, l'ordre, la raison, la fin et nécessité est le plus souvent cachée au conseil de Dieu et ne peut estre comprinse par l'opinion humaine, les choses que nous savons certainement provenir de la volonté de Dieu nous sont quasi fortuites; car elles ne monstrent point autre apparence....32

Pareillement, écrit-il dans le même passage, le mot eventus (qui signifie soit le destin, soit la fortune) est souvent répété dans les Ecclesiastes parce que les hommes ne peuvent pas pénétrer tout de suite à la première cause de toutes choses, qui reste cachée.

Il y a un parallèle frappant entre ce passage et les remarques de Calvin ailleurs sur le sujet de l'accommodation. En effet, les attributs bibliques de Dieu et le langage de la fatalité ont le même statut: ils correspondent à ce que notre faiblesse peut saisir et comprendre, tandis que la réalité divine reste au-delà de ces apparences. Dans chaque cas, Calvin peut résoudre les contradictions apparentes de l'écriture et de l'expérience en faisant appel à l'incompréhensibilité de Dieu—c'est-à-dire à un niveau de la nécessité aussi capricieux que l'autre. Les buts de la providence et de la prédestination ne peuvent pas être saisis par le discours de l'éthique. Comment donc choisir entre les déterminations arbitraires et gratuites d'un Dieu inintelligible et le règne du destin et de la fortune? Comment même faire la distinction entre les deux? Calvin répliquerait: par la foi. Mais la foi n'est pas un critère externel, elle est plutôt le corrélatif subjectif de l'élection arbitraire de Dieu.

On pourrait maintenant commencer à apprécier l'attraction effrayante du genre de réflexion critique que je viens de poursuivre pour certains écrivains du seizième siècle—et l'urgence craintive avec laquelle d'autres (dans ce cas Juste Lipse) les prévenaient contre de telles spéculations:

Esprit errant! Que voulez-vous dire par cette curiosité soucieuse? Voulez-vous sentir ces feux celestes? Ils vous feront fondre comme de la cire. Voulez-vous monter dans la tour de la providence? Vous tomberez bientôt la tête en première. De même que des phalènes et d'autres petites mouches volèrent nuitamment autour d'une chandelle jusqu'à ce qu'elle les brûle, de même folâtre l'esprit de l'homme autour de cette secrète flamme céleste.33



Abraham sacrifiant (1550), la seule pièce de Théodore de Bèze, nous amène près de la source de la théologie calviniste. Cette pièce, qui fut imprimée plus d'une année avant la première performance de la Cléopâtre captive de Jodelle, est aussi l'une des sources de la tragédie française, ayant plusieurs des traits formels de la tragédie régulière.34 On pourrait s'attendre à ce qu'une pièce didactique écrite par un théologien dogmatique ne serait pas irrésistible pour des lecteurs modernes, et il faut admettre qu'Abraham et Isaac sont tous les deux bons calvinistes. Mais en dépit de son contenu théologique explicite et de sa crudité formelle, la pièce atteint un point culminant qui est assez impressionant.

Le problème central d'Abraham, mis à part son amour paternel pour Isaac, est la duplicité apparente de Dieu: le veillard fidèle est tourmenté par la contradiction entre la promesse antérieure d'une postérité nombreuse et l'ordre de Dieu de sacrifier son fils unique.35 Mais on doit comprendre que c'est Satan, qui est sur la scène dans le costume d'un religieux pendant qu'Abraham réflechit à sa situation fâcheuse, qui incite ces doutes.

Comment? comment? se pourroit-il bien faire, 
Que Dieu dist l'un, et puis fist du contraire? 
Est-il trompeur?     (713-15, p. 95)

La question d'Abraham nous est familière, et il peut y répondre d'une façon calviniste:

Que dy-je? ô Dieu! puis que l'as ordonné, 
Je le feray: las, est-il raisonnable
Que moy qui suis pecheur tant miserable, 
Viene à juger les secrets jugemens
De tes parfaicts et tressaincts mandemens?     (720-24, p. 95)

Cependant la contradiction demeure. Peut-être, pense Abraham, que l'ordre d'immoler Isaac ne fut qu'un rève trompeur ou le mensonge d'un démon, doutes qu'il rejète avec une facilité qui devrait alarmer le lecteur post-cartésien.36 Mais il est enfoncé encore une fois dans le déséspoir par sa reconnaissance de ce qu'on pourrait appeler une forme du paradoxe du menteur crétois: “Mais le faisant, je ferois Dieu menteur” (743, p. 97). L'acte d'obéissance, la sacrifice d'Isaac, saperait l'autoritié de celui qui exige cette obéissance, et plus horrible encore, ce serait Abraham lui-même qui devrait jeter le discrédit sur le Dieu auquel il se fie. À quoi donc sert la foi?

Las est-ce en vain qu'en toy j'ay esperé? 
O vaine attente, ô vain espoir de l'homme!     (754-55, p. 97)

Se demandant, avec justesse, quelle sera la réaction de ses semblables à l'affaire, il invite Dieu à considérer ses propres intérêts:

Et toy, Seigneur, qui te vouldra prier? 
Qui se vouldra jamais en toy fier?     (783-84, p. 98)

Mais le ciel demeure muet, et Abraham, qui ne voit aucune solution à son dilemme, prie pour la mort. Satan remarque, “Le voilà bas, si Dieu ne le releve” (783-84, p. 99).

Bien qu'il ne soit pas un personnage parlant dans cette pièce, Dieu ne rate pas cette directive. Ayant reçu (on peut le supposer) une perfusion de grâce, Abraham devient entièrement plus allègre: puisque Dieu créa Isaac, raisonne-t-il, Dieu peut toujours le ressusciter (voir Héb. 11: 17-19). Rétabli dans l'orthodoxie calviniste, Abraham s'excuse de sa faiblesse humaine et dénonce la chair:

Arriere chair, arriere affections: 
Retirez vous humaines passions, 
Rien ne m'est bon, rien ne m'est raisonnable, 
Que ce qui est au Seigneur aggreable.     (815-18, pp. 100-01)

Bèze a trop de sens dramatique pour laisser Abraham réussir entièrement à se refaire comme le monstre de la foi que ces mots révèlent. Mais à ce stade la pièce n'est plus une tragédie, car les problèmes soulevés par l'ordre de sacrifier Isaac ont été résolus (formellement, au moins) par la foi d'Abraham. La scène finale, qui contient sa révélation à Isaac du vouloir de Dieu, la soumission fidèle d'Isaac et les efforts d'Abraham pour s'endurcir pour l'acte, représente le point culminant de la pièce, mais qui ne pourrait être tragique que si la foi du patriarche était illusoire.

Cependant, comme un bref examen du rôle de Satan dans la dernière scène le confirmera, la structure d'Abraham sacrifiant est proche de celle d'une tragédie. Durant toute la partie centrale de la pièce, Satan stimule, ou même suscite, les doutes rationnels d'Abraham à propos des contradictions de Dieu, mais une fois que ce dernier a renforcé la foi d'Abraham, il n'y a plus de questions à poser: Isaac et son père ne peuvent que souffrir, et Satan devient l'un des spectateurs. Ce qui s'ensuit est peut-être surprenant: Satan est déchiré par ce qu'il voit:

Ennemi suis de Dieu et de nature, 
Mais pour certain ceste chose est si dure, 
Qu'en regardant ceste unique amitié
Bien peu s'en fault que n'en aye pitié.     (841-44, pp. 102-03)

Lorsque Isaac se soumet doucement à la mort qui s'approche de lui, Satan trouve le spectacle intolérable, et s'enfuit de la scène. Le message est clair: la foi chasse le diable. La représentation d'un mystère religieux, la préfiguration du sacrifice rédempteur du Christ, peuvent maintenant se dérouler dans un atmosphère non troublé par les ironies de Satan.

Mais le lecteur moderne trouvera une autre signification dans ces évènements. Car tandis que Bèze, en mettant de tels mots dans la bouche du diable, semble indiquer que la pitié seule n'est pas la réponse correcte, l'émoi de la pitié dont Satan veut s'échapper est vraisemblablement la réaction des spectateurs; et puisque Bèze rend aussi pitoyables qu'il le peut las adieux du père et du fils, l'obéissance filiale s'Isaac, et les tâtonnements d'Abraham avec le couteau, on pourrait suggérer qu'il nous invite ainsi à suppléer nous-mêmes l'intérêt éthique qui disparaît de la pièce avec le départ de Satan. L'ennemi rationel de l'humanité ne peut pas supporter de voir la conclusion qu'il anticipe; le créateur contradictoire de l'homme laisse se prolonger l'agonie des fidèles.

Étant donnée la conclusion, la tendance du lecteur moderne à se ranger du côté de Satan fait valoir la doctrine calviniste que l'homme, sans la grâce, est l'ennemi de Dieu. Mais cette tendance peut aussi suggérer combien la résolution heureuse de la pièce est fragile. Bèze exige que nous reconnaissions, avec Abraham, que la foi est certaine et que Dieu est constant plutôt que contradictoire, quelles que soient les apparences. Mais ceci implique que nous devons également suivre le patriarche en voulant renoncer et à la raison et aux émotions humaines.37 C'est une résolution comique qui coûte cher. Les évènements de cette pièce sont peut-être assez puissants pour pouvoir contraindre l'acquiescement, mais une forme dramatique qui représente la rédemption de l'humanité seulement à condition qu'elle rejette ses qualités essentielles ne pourrait guère être une forme stable: on pourrait s'attendre soit à ce qu'elle dégénère en propagande, soit à ce qu'elle se développe vers l'accomplissement de l'impulsion tragique qu'elle réprime tout en l'exprimant.

L'Abraham sacrifiant de Bèze initia une tradition de la “tragédie” biblique et calviniste, propagandiste et polémique dans son intention, qui fut un élément significatif dans la diffusion rapide du calvinisme en France durant les années 1550, et qui s'épanouit pendant une quinzaine d'années à côté de la tradition classiciste et courtoise dont le premier exemple fut Jodelle. Mais les problèmes soulevés par la pièce de Bèze furent repris vers 1562 par Jean de la Taille, à qui ses deux tragédies donnent une place à côté de Robert Garnier et Antoine de Montchrestien comme l'un des meilleurs tragiques de la Renaissance française, et dont le petit traité “De l'Art de la Tragedie” est un document important. Considérant la pièce de Bèze et celles de ses successeurs “indignes du nom de Tragedie,” La Taille insista sur la différence entre une tragédie et un sermon: “Et si c'est un subject qui appartienne aux lettres divines, qu'il n'y ait point un tas de discours de Theologie, comme choses qui derogent au vray subject, et qui seroient mieux seantes à un presche....”38 Ses propres tragédies, Saül le furieux et La Famine, sa continuation, incluent des sujets bibliques dans des formes classiques; sa connaissance de Sénèque et d'Euripide est partout en évidence, jusqu'au point où ses plus récents rédacteurs ont pu écrire:

La Taille ne réinterprète pas la tragédie classique afin d'y intégrer des idées judaeo-chrétiennes, il se contente à démontrer que des histoires de l'Ancien Testament remplissent toutes les exigences de la tragédie. Saül le furieux et La Famine ne sont pas des tragédies religieuses, mais plutôt des tragédies classiques avec des intrigues bibliques.39

Mais peut'on si facilement distinguer entre les aspects religieux et classiques de ces pièces? Je ne voudrais pas obscurcir la très grande différence entre les tragédies de La Taille et, par exemple, les informes “Tragedies saintes” de son contemporain Louis Des-Masures. Les premières sont classiques et religieuses, alors que les autres, bien que religieuses (pour ne pas dire dogmatiques), ne sont des tragédies qu'à titre gracieux. Saül le furieux, comme sa page de titre nous en avertit, est “Faicte selon l'art et à la mode des vieux Autheurs Tragiques”; Des-Masures, en revanche, écrit

Pour servir à instruire, et non pour plaisanter, 
Ni de Dieu le mystere, et la saincte Parole
Destourner, par abus, à chose vaine et folle....

Refusant avec mépris d'offrir

Des mensonges forgez, et des termes nouveaux
Qui plaisent volontiers aux humides cerveaux
Des delicates gens,

il voulait plutôt “qu'on s'estudie / De rendre au naturel l'antique Tragedie.”40

Cependant La Taille tenait à écrire des pièces “au moule des vieux, comme d'un Sophocle, Euripide, et Seneque”; il voulait “adopt[er] at naturalis[er] la vraye Tragedie et Comedie ... qui toutefois auroient aussi bonne grace en nostre langue Françoise, qu'en la Grecque et Latine.”41 “Rendre au naturel” la tragédie, ou la “naturaliser”: le contraste est clair et net. Toutefois la fin religieuse de Saül le furieux est consciente et bien définie: La Taille voulait

montrer à l'oeil de tous un des plus merveilleux secrets de toute la Bible, un des plus estranges mysteres de ce grand Seigneur du monde, et une de ses plus terribles providences.42

Il s'occupe du problème de la justice divine, et cela d'une manière non dogmatique, mais proprement tragique.



Au moment de sa première apparence sur a scène, Saül n'est pas lui-même un modèle de la justice: aspergé du sang de ses propres sujets, il fulmine dans la folie:

Je veux monter au ciel, que mon char on attelle, 
Et comme les Geants entassants monts sur monts, 
Je feray trebuscher les Anges et Daemons, 
Et seray Roy des Cieux....    (245-47, p. 32)

Lorsqu'il revient à lui-même et reconnaît ce qu'il a fait, la cause de cette folie à la fois classique et biblique devient claire: il est opprimé moins par la menace militaire des Philistins (contre lesquels ses fils, courageux mais de maivaise augure, sont déjà sortis pour guerroyer), que par l'accablante réalisation qu'il est déchu de la grâce de Dieu et a encouru sa haine.

La demande angoissée de Saül pour la raison de cette haine reçoit une réponse sévère: son écuyer lui rappelle qu'ayant été enjoint par Dieu, par l'intermédiaire du prophète Samuël, de massacrer tous les Amalécites, Saül “par grand courtoisie” épargna leur “triste Roy Agag” (309-10, p. 33).43 Sa propre injustice folle est donc la punition de son désir désobéissant de substituer sa propre miséricorde humaine à la justice divine.

La réaction de Saül (dont le premier vers est marqué commen une sententia) expose le problème fondamental de la pièce:

“O que sa Providence est cachee aux humains! 
Pour estre donc humain j'esprouve sa cholere,
Et pour estre cruel il m'est donc debonnaire?    (312-14, p. 33)

La signification principale du mot “humain” dans le vers 313 est clairement indiquée par son contraste avec le mot “cruel” dans le vers suivant: c'est contre le paradoxe que sa propre miséricorde lui a coûté la miséricorde de Dieu que Saül proteste. Mais la signification d' “humain” est colorée initialement par le fait que ce mot suit le substantif générique “humains”” après avoir émis un lieu commun à propos de la providence, Saül semble se plaindre qu'il ressent la colère de Dieu simplement pour être un homme. Dans ce contexte de paradoxe et d'ambiguïté, la mention du mystère de la providence évoque la théologie calviniernne que je viens d'analyser: on peut se demander si Saül était même libre d'obéir à l'ordre du prophète.

Qu'il soit libre ou destiné, Saül refuse d'abandonner sa propre perspective pour celle de Dieu:

Hé Sire, Sire, lás! fault il donc qu'un vainqueur
Plustost que de pitié use fier de rigueur, 
Et que sans regarder qu'une telle fortune
Est aussi bien à luy qu'à ses vaincus commune, 
Egorge tant de gents? vault il pas mieux avoir
Esgard à quelque honneur, qu'à nostre grand pouvoir?    (315-20, p. 33)

Mais comme son écuyer avertit le roi, il est dangereux de parler “ainsi sans reverence / Du destin de là haut” (321-22). Il conseille à Saül: “Mais plustost sa justice humble recognoissez, / Sans accuser ainsi vostre celeste Maistre” (324-25, pp. 33-34).44

En termes de théologie, Saül a tort. Toutefois, au cinquième acte, la réaction de David à la nouvelle de sa mort met en évidence le fait que ses actions coupables étaient superposées à une nature foncièrement innocente: losque le soldat qui amène la nouvelle demande à David pourquoi il pleire celui qui voulait le tuer, il réplique:

               —C'estoit l'Esprit maling
Qui l'affligeoit, car il n'estoit enclin
De sa nature à telle chose faire,
Et ne fut oncques un Roy plus debonnaire.    (1229-32, p. 58)

Comme dans la pièce de Bèze, Dieu exige une répression des impulsions humaines, mais Saül, par contraste avec Abraham, désobéit. Abraham est dégagé de son dilemme par la grâce de Dieu, mais l'autre est pris au piège. Il semble reconnaître sa première désobéissance comme providentielle, et l'action de Dieu sur lui le rend plus inexcusable: la persécution de David par Saül, ainsi que de tous ceux qui lui ont donné asile, est citée contre lui, et sa révolte titanesque (“Je veux monter au ciel...”) n'est qu'un autre symptome de la même folie envoyée par Dieu. Il sait bien qu'il a perdu cette “benigne grace” par laquelle il fut installé comme roi, et il est conscient à la fois de la volonté de Dieu et de la futilité d'y résister:

Je sçay bien qu'aux mortels appeller il ne faut
De son Arrest fatal decidé de la haut....    (397, 399-400, p. 35)

Son écuyer cherche à l'encourager: “Ne vous desesperez, mas avecques fiance, / Et bon espoir prenez vos maux en patience...” (405-06, p. 36). Mais c'est peine perdue.

Saül atteint sa pleine stature tragique à travers sa détermination de savoir, et si possible de détourner, ce qui est en réserve pour lui. Il s'agit encore là d'une révolte et non pas d'obéissance, et encore une fois Saül accroit sa culpabilité. Mais cette détermination annonce un virage perceptible dans le vocabulaire de la pièce, d'une emphase sur le vouloir de Dieu (ce qui reste toutefois l'explication principale des évènements) vers un usage plus fréquent et presque systématique du langage du destin et de la fortune.

Saül. “Le prudent peut fuir sa fortune maligne. 
L'Escuyer. “L'homme ne peut fuir ce que le ciel destine.
Saül. “Le malheur nuit plus fort venant à despourveu. 
L'Escuyer. “Mais il cuit davantage apres qu'on l'a preveu. 
Saül. Bref se sçauray mon sort par l'art de Negromance. 
L'Escuyer. —Mais DIEU l'a defendu....    (457-62, p. 37)

Après ce moment, la reconnaissance que le destin et la fortune ne sont que des expression d'un niveau plus haut de la causalité devient de plue en plue problématique.

J'ai commenté ci-dessus que la résistance de Calvin à n'importe quel mélange du concept de la providence et du langage de la fatalité fut accompagnée par sa reconnaissance que ce langage païen constitue une expression valide des limitations de notre perspective naturelle sur le monde. Cependant, cette reconnaissance ne l'empêcha pas de suggérer (comme c'est le cas dans cette pièce) que l'usage de ce langage est motivé par l'opposition, également naturelle, de l'homme à Dieu:

... combien que la faveur de Dieu et sa bonté, ou la rigueur des ses iugemens, reluisent la plus souvent en tout le cours de sa providence ... néantmoins quelque fois les causes de ce qui advient sont cachées, tellement que ceste pensée nous entre au cerveau, que les affaires humains tournent et virent à la volée, comme sur une roue, ou nostre chair nous solicite à gronder contre Dieu, comme si Dieu de iouait des hommes en les démenant çà et là comme des pelottes.45

Mais la désapprobation de Calvin de réduisit pas, et peut-être même augmenta-t-elle, le cours des mots de Plaute que Juste Lipse citerait et que Montaigne répéterait:

Les dieux s'ébattent de nous à la pelotte, et nous agitent à toutes mains: Enimvero Dii nos homines quasi pilas habent.46

Bien que La Taille ne se serve pas de cette image, Saül le furieux fait valoir la même tendance. Un fusionnement graduel de la providence avec le destin et la fortune au quatrième acte culmine au coinquième dans le cri: “ô dure cruauté / Des cieux malings!” (1479-80, p. 65).

Dans le troisième acte, qui est assez impressionant, Saül découvre en vérité les détails de son sort par l'art de la nécromancie. L'esprit de Samuël offre une prophétie effrayante: Saül et ses fils mourront sdans la bataille, et leurs descendants seront exterminés—“Et le tout pourautant qu'à la divine voix / Obeï tu n'as point ainsi que tu devois...” (773-74, p. 46). Samuël disparaît, Saül s'écroule. Encore une fois, la pitié humaine se montre par contraste avec l'inflexibilité divine: la Phitonisse insiste, contre la volonté de Saül, qu'il doit manger, et vivre, pour “déplaire au sort” (834, p. 47).

Acceuilli au quatrième acte par la nouvelle de la mort de ses fils, Saül est détourné de se suicider par son écuyer:

Il ne fault point qu'ainsi vostre vertu succombe, 
Ny que du premier choc de Fortune elle tombe: 
Et si vous n'estes point des ennemis vainqueur, 
La fortune vainquez d'un magnanime coeur.    (1019-22, p. 52)

Saül vient d'admettre la vérité de la prophétie de Samuël, donc ces mots, venant d'un homme qui se tenait à côté de Saül durant toute la scène de l'invocation de Samuël, ont un ton nettement païen. S'ensuivent des persuasions plus orthodoxes:

DIEU sans cesse ne donne aux justes leur souhait, 
Ains par fois les chastie, et purtant ne les hait.    (1045-46, p. 53)

Dieu est en train d'éprouver Saül, comme il éprouva Abraham et Joseph, et, comme ceux-ci, Saül devrait de tenir ferme comme un rocher contre la tempête:

Ainsi ne vous laissez abbattre à la Fortune, 
Esperez que tousjours viendra l'heure opportune, 
Et maistrisant constant l'inconstance de la sort, 
Monstrez que vrayement vous estes d'un coeur fort, 
DIEU (peut-estre) voiant vostre constance ferme, 
Bening vous fera veoir de vos travaux le terme.    (1055-60, p. 53)

Mais il est déjà très évident que cette distinction conventionelle entre deux niveaux de la causalitié, l'un abstrait et malin, et l'autre personnel et bienveillant, ne s'applique pas à la situation de Saül; Dieu ne veut pas l'éprouver, mais plutôt le détruire.

Par conséquent, ces deux niveaux de la causalité commencent à s'entremêler. J'ai mentionné ci-dessus la théorie de Calvin à propos de l'accommodation, selon laquelle l'Écriture Sainte nous offre dis similitudes corporelles et psychologiques afin que nous ayions quelque idée de Dieu, qui cependant reste incompréhensible. On peut constater dans Saül le furieux un processus inverse: les analogies de l'Écriture sont en train de se désagréger. Le Dieu qui détruit Saül s'est si complètement écarté de toute conception humaine de la justice et de la miséricorde que tout langage qui implique la personnalité commence à lui devenir inapplicable. Dans cette pièce le langage du destin et de la fortune devient une inversion empirique de la théorie de l'accommodation.

Naturellement, puisque La Taille fut un chrétien qui s'adressait à des chrétiens, il y a une certaine résistance dans la pièce à ce processus de l'inversion. Le choeur des Lévites dont les commentaires et les lamentations séparent les cinq actes comprend le manque de foi de Saül et son recours à la magie comme étant les raisons pour la malédiction de Dieu et l'imminent massacre des juifs par les philistins. Selon les Lévites, Dieu veut éprouver son peuple élu:

S'il est ainsi ne murmurons
Mais patiemment endurons
Tout cela qui vient de sa main, 
Soit rigoreux ou soit humain.    (897-900, p. 49)

À vrai dire, ce qui s'ensuit est rigoreux, et c'est durant le quatrième acte, qui est introduit par ce chant choral, que la tendance vers un mélange du vouloir de Dieu et du langage abstrait de la fatalité apparaît le plus clairement. Mais le choeur, qui de la perspective des compagnons de misère est temoin de la chute de Saül, établit néanmoins une certaine tension entre une vue “inaccommodée” de Dieu et un point de vue selon lequel son injustice inhumaine conserve encore une qualité personnelle.

Dans le troisième acte, Saül se plaint de l'inconstance de Dieu dans des mots évocateurs des lamentations de casibus contre l'inconstance de la fortune:

Tu me fis sacrer Roy, tu me haulsas expres
A fin de m'enfondrer en mil malheurs apres! 
Veux-tu donc (inconstant) piteusement destruire
Le premier Roy qu'au monde il pleut à toy d'eslire!    (809-12, p. 47)

Cette allusion devient explicite dans la réaction du second écuyer à la mort de Saül:

O Deconfort! ô quel Prince aujourd'huy
Tu as perdu Israël plein d'ennuy! 
Ha sort leger, flateur, trasitre et muable, 
Tu monstres bien que ta Rouë est variable! 
Puis que celuy que tu as tant haussé, 
Est tellement par toy-mesmes abbaissé....    (1303-08, p. 60)

Selon les indications scéniques, celui qui prononce ces mots assistait à la prophétie de Samuël au troisième acte—nonobstant il se réfère au sort ou à la fortune comme ayant produit la mort de son roi. On ne devrait pas trop insister sur un tel détail, car ses vers sont purement conventionnels—mais d'autre part il ne faut pas oubler que la juxtaposition des conventions n'est pas elle-même sans signification.

Les derniers mots échangés par Saül et son écuyer contiennent encore une mention de la fortune:

Le I. Escuyer. Ha pourquoy voulez vous l'esperance estranger? 
Saül. Pour ce qu'elle ne peut dans mon Ame loger. 
Le I. Escuyer. Vous aurez la Fortune une autrefois meilleure. 
Saül. —O malheureux celuy qui sur elle s'asseure.    (1065-68, p. 53)

Selon les apparences, Saül rejette toute confiance en la fortune. Mais je suggérerais que ces mots constituent au même moment le reniement final de son foi en Dieu.

Comme je l'ai mentionné ci-dessus, ce refrain est repris par David, le “meilleur Esleu” (758, p. 45) auquel Dieu vient de donner le royaume de Saül. Le David de la trilogie de Louis Des-Masures chante les louanges de Dieu, en disant que “C'est luy qui met son honneur en ma bouche.”47 Mais le David de La Taille, en déplorant la mort de Jonathan et de Saül, s'exclame: “ô dure cruauté / Des cieux malings!” (1479-80). Qui a mis ces mots dans sa bouche? Poser cette question, c'est devenir conscient du fait que le mélange du vouloir de Dieu et du langage de la fatalité dans cette pièce représente une espèce de retraite du Dieu de Calvin de la psyché humaine. Il serait fourvoyant d'attribuer le libre arbitre aux personnages de cette pièce chargée de destin, car une necessité capricieuse, qui est encore Dieu, maintient toujours son autorité. Néanmoins, la reversion partielle de la déité anthropomorphique des “accommodations” bibliques vers une puissance aussi impersonnelle qu'impénétrable crée un certain espace dans lequel une forme limitée et nécessairement tragique de l'autonomie humaine peut s'épanouir. Saül, le héros tragique, est cruellement pris au piège, mais comme David, son successeur, il porte ses propres paroles dans sa bouche.

Ici, peut-être, avons-nous découvert la raison la plus profonde de toutes celles qui incitaient les écrivains du seizième siècle à utiliser le langage classique de la fatalité. Ce vocabulaire portait le prestige de la culture antique et permettait aux écrivains d'exprimer les tensions et les craintes occasionnées par une forme intransigeante et dure du christianisme. En plus, il permettait aux hommes de se voir avec une fierté humaniste comme étant capables de répondre à la situation la plus horrible qu'ils pouvaient s'imaginer, celle d'être abandonnés autant par Dieu que par leurs semblables, avec une dignité qui serait leur propre possession. 





1  Je tiens à remercier Professor Alison Fairlie de Cambridge University, et mes collègues René Leblanc et Alain Chabot de l'Université Sainte-Anne, pour leurs corrections et commentaires.

2  Voir Daniel Martin, Montaigne et la fortune: Essai sur le hasard et le langage (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1977).

3  Richard Griffiths, The Dramatic Technique of Antoine de Montchrestien: Rhetoric and Style in French Renaissance Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 28-29: “[the classical conception of fate,] clashing as it does with the Christian idea of a loving God, must have worried these dramatists...; but no attempt was ever made to modify it, for to do so would be to condemn the the classics, and the classics could do no wrong.... In imitating Seneca (and to a certain extent the Greeks), Renaissance dramatists took over this conception of fate. In doing so they were divorcing their tragedies from real life, for whereas the ancient audiences believed in, or at least pretended to believe in, the forces which held sway in their tragedies, these forces stood in complete contrast to the Christian beliefs of the sixteenth century. Whatever conception of grace a Christian might have, he could hardly stomach the savage, unreasoning rule of ananke. Many tragedians must have copied the originals unthinkingly, ignoring any contradictions between their own thought and that of their models.”

4  P. LeBlanc, ed., Les écrits théoriques et critiques français des années 1540-1561 sur la tragédie (Paris: Nizet, 1972), p. 56.

5  Faute de mieux, je cite une traduction anglaise de l'oeuvre de Lipse: Two Bookes of Constancie. Written in Latine by Iustus Lipsius, Englished by Sir John Stradling, ed. Rudolf Kirk (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1939), Book II, ch. xiii. p. 163: “Tell me, in beholding a tragedy, will it stomacke thee to see Atreus or Thiestes in the firste or second acte walking in state and majestye uppon the scene? To see them raigne, threate and commaund? I thinke not, knowing their prosperitie to be of small continuance; And when thou shalte see them shamefullie come to confusion in the last Acte. Now then in this Tragedy of the World, why art not thou so favourable towards God, as to a poore Poet? This wicked man prospereth. That Tyrant liveth. Let be awhiles. Remember it is but the first Act, and consider aforehande in thy mind, that sobs and sorrowes will ensue uppon their sollace. This Scene will anon swimme in bloud.... For that Poet of ours is singular cunning in his art, and will not lightly transgresse the lawes of his Tragedie....”

6  Voir, par exemple, les vers avec lesquels Thomas Nuce préface la traduction par Studley de l'Agamemnon de Sénèque:

This deed was done by Talion law, 
    here blood did blood require, 
And now Thyest hath that revenge
    that he did long desire. 
Whereby thou chiefly mayst be taught
    the providence of God
That so long after Atreus' fact
    Thyest's revenge abode.

(Cité de G. K. Hunter, “Seneca and English Tragedy,” dans son Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: Studies in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1978], p. 185 n.)

7  Two Bookes of Constancie, Book II, ch. xxvi, p. 199: “Suppose (if it please thee) that thou art with me in the top of that high hill Olimpus; behold from thence al townes, provinces, and kingdomes of the world, and think that thou seest even so many inclosures ful of humain calamities: these are but only Theaters and places for the purpose prepared: wherein Fortune playeth her bloudy tragedies.”

8  Pierre Ronsard, “Hymne de l'Éternité,” 32-34, dans French Renaissance Scientific Poetry, ed. Dudley Wilson (London: Athlone Press, 1974), p. 130.

9  Les Juifves, 1840, 923-24; dans Robert Garnier, Les Juifves, Bradamante, Poésies diverses, ed. Raymond Lebègue (Paris:Société les Belles Lettres, 1949), pp. 95, 55.

10  “Préface” à Phèdre, dans Théâtre complet de J. Racine, ed. Félix Lemaistre (Paris: Garner, s.d.), p. 489.

11  Cité dans Griffiths, Dramatic Technique, p. 29.

12  Lucien Goldmann, Le Dieu caché: Étude sur la vision tragique dans les Pensées de Pascal et dans le théâtre de Racine (Paris: Gallimard, 1959).

13  Jean Calvin, Institution de la religion chrestienne, ed. Jean-Daniel Benoît (5 vols., Paris: Vrin, 1957-63), vol. 4, p. 406 n. 1.

14  Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. Christopher Morris (2 vols., 1907, rpt. London: Dent, 1954), vol. 1, p. 177: “They that seek a reason of all things do utterly overthrow Reason.”

15  John Duns Scotus, The Oxford Commentary on the Four Books of the Sentences, I. xxxix, dans Philosophy in the Middle Ages, ed. Arthur Hyman et James J. Walsh (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1974), p. 592: “... those who deny that any being is contingent should be subjected to torments until they concede that it is possible for them not to be tortured.”

16  Voir Calvin, Institution, III. xv. 6, I. xvii. 1-2, II. v. 1-5, III. xxiii. 1-3.

17  Institution, ed. Benoît, III. iii. 8, vol. 3, p. 72.

18  Ibid., I. xvii. 5, vol. 1, pp. 242-43.

19  Voir Institution, III. xxiii. 7.

20  Institution, III. xxi. 1, vol. 3, pp. 406-07.

21  Voir, par exemple, De servo arbitrio, dans D. Martin Luthers Werke, ed. P. Pietsch et al. (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus, 1883-1948), vol. 18, p. 685: “Illudit autem sese Diatribe [i.e. De libero arbitrio d'Erasme] ignorantia sua, dum nihil distinguit inter Deum praedicatum et absconditum, hoc est, inter verbum Dei et Deum ipsum. Multa facit Deus, quae verbo suo non ostendit nobis. Multa quoque vult, quae verbo suo non ostendit sese velle. Sic non vult mortem peccatoris, verbo scilicit, Vult autem illam voluntate illa imperscrutabili.”

22  Institution, I. xviii. 3, vol. 1, p. 258.

23  Institution, I. xviii. 3, vol. 1, p. 259.

24  Institution, I. xviii. 3.

25  Ibid., vol. 1, p. 259.

26  Ibid.

27  Institution, III. xxiv. 12, vol. 3, pp. 463-64.

28  Institution, III. xxiv. 14, vol. 3, p. 466.

29  Institution, I. xvii. 13.

30  George Berkeley, Alciphron or the Minute Philosopher, Fourth Dialogue, 18, dans The Works of George Berkeley Bishop of Cloyne, ed. A. A. Luce et T. E. Jessop (9 vols., London: Nelson, 1948-57), vol. 3, pp. 164-65: “... for he who comes to God, or enters himself in the church of God, must first believe that there is a God in some intelligible sense; and not only that there is something in general, without any proper notion, though never so inadequate, of any of its qualities or attributes: for this may be fate, or chaos, or plastic nature, or anything else as well as God.”

31  Institution, I. xvi. 8, vol. 1, pp. 232-33.

32  Institution, I. xvi. 9, vol. 1, p. 234.

33  Two Bookes of Constancie, Book II, ch. xii, p. 159.

34  Voir Théodore de Bèze, Abraham sacrifiant, ed. Keith Cameron, Kathleen M. Hall et Francis Higman (Genève: Droz, 1967), pp. 20-26. Mes citations de cette pièce sont identifiées selon le vers et la page.

35  Il n'y a aucune mention d'Ishmael, fils d'Abraham et de Hagar.

36  Voir René Descartes, Méditations, I, II, dans ses Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. Ferdinand Alquié (3 vols., Paris: Garnier, 1963-73), vol. 2, pp. 406, 412, 415.

37  Voir Abraham sacrifiant, 815-18 (cités au-dessus), et Calvin, Institution, III. iii. 8: “il ne faut pas estimer que la chair soit bien mortifiée, sinon que tout ce que nous avons de nous soit annéanty et aboly.”

38  Jean de la Taille, Dramatic Works, ed. Katheen M. Hall et C. N. Smith (London: Athlone Press, 1972), “De l'Art de la Tragedie,” p. 20.

39  Dramatic Works, “Introduction,” p. 6: “La Taille does not re-interpret classical tragedy in order to integrate Judaeo-Christian concepts; he is content to demonstrate that Old Testament stories fulfil all the demands of tragedy. Saül le furieux and La Famine are not religious tragedies, but classical ones with Scriptural plots.”

40  Louis Des-Masures, Tragédies saintes, ed. Charles Comte (Paris: Hachette, 1907), “Au seigneur Philippe le Brun,” 120-22, 171-74, pp. 7-8.

41  La Taille, “De l'Art de la Tragedie,” Dramatic Works, p. 21.

42  Ibid., p. 19. Dans le paragraphe suivant, La Taille propose une définition générale de la tragédie dans laquelle la Fortune semble remplacer la providence: “... Son vray subject ne traicte que des piteuses ruines des grands Seigneurs, que des inconstances de Fortune, que bannissements, guerres, pestes, famines, captivitez, execrables cruautez des Tyrans....” Mes citations de Saül le furieux sont identifiées selon le vers et la page.

43  Au troisième acte, l'esprit de Samuël annonce à Saül la destruction préscrite de son “genre total” dans des termes pareils (773-76, p. 46); cette partie de l'histoire est traitée dans La Famine.

44  Comme “fier” dans le vers 316, “humble” dans le vers 324 a un sens adverbial. C'est la reconnaissance humaine qui doit être humble, et non pas la justice de Dieu.

45  Calvin, Institution, ed Benoît, I. xvii. 1, vol. 1, p. 236.

46  Michel de Montaigne, Essais, ed. Pierre Michel (3 vols., Paris: Gallimard, 1965), III. ix, vol. 3, p. 228. Les mots de Plaute sont du prologue des Captifs, vers 22; selon Pierre Michel, Montaigne les aurait lu chez Juste Lipse, Saturnalium sermonem libri, livre 1, chap. 1.

47  Des-Masures, David combattant, vers 93, dans Tragédie saintes, ed. Comte, p. 17.