Misleading antilogiké: A response to James Murray's “Disputation, Deception and Dialectic: Plato on the True Rhetoric (Phaedrus 261-266)”

[This text, written as a response to another paper and presented at the 16th Atlantic Philosophical Association Conference at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton (3-5 October 1985), has not previously been published.]


My function here is vestigial in a double sense. The response to a conference paper might be said to stand in approximately the same relation to that paper as the appendix to the gut: the appendix can cause discomfort, even peritonitis, but provides no special help in the process of digestion. Moreover, the practice of offering an oral response to an orally presented argument is itself a vestige, bequeathed to us by the universities of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, of the scholastic arts faculty tradition of the disputatio.

One may suspect, incidentally, that this tradition is in part responsible for that identification of antilogiké with eristiké which James Murray, following G. B. Kerferd, so ably undoes. For the disputatio amounted to a training in what was called dialectic, but seems more often to have consisted of eristic combat. Logos was challenged by antilogos, and the subjects under discussion included such questions as the following (paraphrased from the Sophismata of Jean Buridan): “If Socrates says, 'Plato should be cursed if he curses me, and not otherwise,' and Plato says, 'Socrates should be cursed if he does not curse me, and not otherwise,' does Socrates curse Plato?”1

Predictably, given that such exercises in modal logic were aimed at boys in their early teens, this antilogistic tradition resulted in an effective devolution of logic into rhetoric.2 As Peter Ramus, one of its most famous products, wrote in the mid-sixteenth century, “Bene disserere est finis logices”: “Logic's chiefest end is, to dispute well.” It may be significant that this definition is derived from Cicero, who stands at the end of another antilogistic tradition, that of the Platonic Academy.3 These historical devolutions of dialectic into dogmatic scepticism in one instance, and into an art of rhetoric in the other, may have some bearing on Plato's attempts to assimilate antilogiké into a true rhetoric which will advance the cause of (his) philosophy. Or are they merely misleading irrelevancies (apatemata)?

My function, I have said, is vestigial: an unflattering situation. And to compound my problems, James Murray's paper, with understated skill, wedges its respondent into a position reminiscent of the conditional curses of Buridan's sophism, or perhaps of the paradox of the Cretan Liar. In order to properly discharge my antilogical function in this vestigial disputatio, I should, after some initial gestures of insincere praise, oppose his argument by (for example) demonstrating a convergence of antilogiké with eristiké in Plato's text—thus, effectively, playing Socrates to his Lysias. But since his argument includes the claim that antilogiké, properly used, is part of the true philosopher's equipment, my antilogistic reasonings would, at the same time, define me as a rhetorician rather than a philosopher, as Lysias to his Socrates—or, in language suggested by Plato's Sophist,4 as a magician, a poisoner, a pharmakeus, rather than a doctor of souls.

Which gives rise to a further paradox. For on the one hand, I believe Murray's argument to be accurate and solid—while on the other, I am in fact a rhetorician rather than a philosopher. If I have not already given sufficient evidence of sophistic leanings, I can cement the point by confessing that my quotation of Ramus was at second hand: my source for it is Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, a pharmakeus if there ever was one—and who, by the way, pretended to be reading from Aristotle when he quoted Ramus.5

The fact that in the same scene of Marlowe's play Faustus also makes Aristotle appear to be the author of the Gorgian phrase on kai mé on can serve as my pretext for making a vaguely similar claim about the passage from the Phaedrus that James Murray discusses.6 Plato seems here to be re-writing Gorgian rhetoric, and Socrates to be practising it; the Gorgian echoes in this passage may be strong enough to complicate our acceptance of the way in which Plato is deploying the terms antilogiké and apaté.

Gorgias regarded persuasion as a quasi-magical art which works on people by molding a false argument (de pseudé logon plasantes). It rests upon deceptions or misleadings of opinion (doxis apatémata), but is apparently morally neutral, both because Gorgias contrasts it to another magical art that rests upon errors or sins of soul (psuches hamartémata), and because doxai are all that are available to us.7 Gorgias said of tragedy, which he presumably regarded as a species of persuasive discourse, that it produces “a deception (apaté) in which the deceiver is more justly esteemed than the nondeceiver and the deceived is wiser than the undeceived.”8 I am not sure that this is radically different from the meaning of apaté that Murray finds in Plato's argument, or from what we may conclude about the deployment of apatémata in the splendid rhetoric of Socrates's second oration.

“Speech is a powerful lord,” says Gorgias (logos dunastis megas estin).9 The case of Helen shows persuasion to amount to the same thing as force: 'misleadings' of opinion are a matter less of seduction than of abduction. This assimilation of peitho to bia is clearly an example of the kind of misleading that Socrates is talking about at 261d and onwards. But what are the results of Socrates's own oration (how much of which is epistéme and how much doxa I leave you to judge)? Will young Phaedrus return to his friend Lysias, or have his affections been transferred? Has Socrates effectively abducted him?

Gorgias seems to be present here in other ways as well. Socrates is mockingly self-aware, in his first oration, of the degree to which his style “is already not far from dithyrambic” (238d); Diodorus Siculus quotes these very words in describing the declamatory style of Gorgias.10 But I am thinking more particularly of Socrates's response, at 261b-c, to Phaedrus's profession of ignorance as to the more general applications of rhetoric: “'What? Are you acquainted only with the 'Arts' or manuals of oratory by Nestor and Odysseus, which they composed in their leisure hours at Troy? Have you never heard of the work of Palamedes?' PHAEDRUS: 'No, upon my word, nor of Nestor either, unless you are casting Gorgias for the role of Nestor, with Odysseus played by Thrasymachus, or maybe Theodorus.'”11

If Guthrie is right in suggesting that sophistic technai, or manuals of rhetorical instruction, “may have consisted largely of models to be learned by heart,”12 then Socrates's joke appears to refer to a practice of using the speeches of Homer's heroes as though they were technai like Gorgias's Encomium of Helen or Apology of Palamedes—to the latter of which Socrates is clearly referring. The allusion is a resonant one, since as Guido Calogero has shown, Plato's Apology of Socrates both echoes the wording of Gorgias's Apology of Palamedes and rests upon the same ethical principle of nemo sua sponte peccat; moreover, Socrates names Palamedes as the first of the unjustly condemned heroes whom he hopes to meet in Hades (Apology 41b).13 In this context, Phaedrus's association of Gorgias, the author of Palamedes' defence, with Nestor, and of Thrasymachus with Odysseus, the accuser of Palamedes, may have some significance.

Is there, then, a certain doubleness to this dialogue? Do its argumentative and its mythic structures mesh with one another, or pull in different directions? And while moving beyond Gorgias in certain respects, does it yet remain profoundly Gorgian in others?

But perhaps my own barefooted splashings in the Ilissus have deafened me to the voices of Plato's interlocutors. Having, then, sufficiently muddied the waters, let me conclude by thanking James Murray for his most stimulating paper, and by lapsing into the role of Lysias, the last words of whose speech I now repeat: “I think I have said all that is needed; if you think I have neglected anything, and want more, let me know” (234c).




1  John Buridan, Sophisms on Meaning and Truth, trans. T. K. Scott (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966), pp. 221-22.

2  See Walter J. Ong, S.J., Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue (1958; rpt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).

3  Ong, pp. 160, 347-48 notes 41 and 42, and pp. 178, 350 n. 39.

4  Sophist 230b-c, 234e-235a, in Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., Plato: The Collected Dialogues (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 973, 977-78.

5  See Marlowe's “Doctor Faustus” 1604-1616: Parallel Texts, ed. W. W. Greg (1950; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 164 (1604 text, lines 36-38).

6  Ibid., 1604 text, lines 38-42: “Is, to dispute well, Logickes chiefest end? / Affoords this Art no greater myracle: / Then reade no more, thou hast attaind the end: / A greater subiect fitteth Faustus wit, / Bid Oncaymeon farewell....” See Sextus Empiricus, Adversus mathematicos, VII. 66, for the Gorgian expression; the text is reprinted in Hermann Diels, ed., Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (4th ed.; 3 vols.; Berlin, 1922), vol. 2, p. 243 (Gorgias, fr. 3).

7  I am paraphrasing and quoting from the Encomium of Helen (Diels, fr. 11. 8-11, vol. 2, pp. 251-52). Our confinement to the realm of opinion is implicit throughout this text and argued in Gorgias's On the nonexistent or on Nature (fr. 3).

8  Diels, fr. 23; the translation is that of George Kennedy in R. K. Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1972), p. 65.

9  Diels, fr. 11. 8, p. 251; Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists, p. 52.

10  Diels, “Leben und Lehre,” 4, p. 237; Sprague, p. 33.

11  The translation is that of R. Hackforth, in Hamilton and Cairns, eds., Plato: The Collected Dialogues, p. 506.

12  W. K. C. Guthrie, The Sophists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 270. Guthrie is here speaking of the technai of Gorgias.

13  Guido Calogero, “Gorgias and the Socratic Principle nemo sua sponte peccat,” in Carl Joachim Classen, ed., Sophistik (Darmstadt, 1976), pp. 408-21, esp. 413-16.    

Misleading antilogiké: A response to James Murray's “Disputation, Deception and Dialectic: Plato on the True Rhetoric (Phaedrus 261-266)”

Is there, then, a certain doubleness to this dialogue? Do its argumentative and its mythic structures mesh with one another, or pull in different directions? And while moving beyond Gorgias in certain respects, does it yet remain profoundly Gorgian in others?

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

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

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

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Misreading Faustus Misreading: The Question of Context

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


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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to the safer, if less interesting

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27  Becon, p. 636.

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

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

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

31  Cole, pp. 199-201.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.