Agrippa’s three books on magic provide a compelling testament to the cultural turmoil of his time. He encompassed various practices and concepts under the heading “magic”, such as Ptolemaic astrology, alchemy, divination and Hermetic correspondence between upper and lower worlds as well as Kabbalistic speculation on words and numbers as possible avenues of power.
Early Life and Education
Early in his humanist pursuit of occult sciences, Agrippa found favor with Margaret of Austria and Antoine de Vergy as patrons. Renaissance thinkers Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and Johann Reuchlin greatly impacted Agrippa.
The final edition of Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy (De occulta philosophia) differs substantially from the dedication copy sent to Trithemius in 1510. Agrippa expanded and enhanced his text considerably, reflecting his wider interests such as Giorgio’s De harmonyonia mundi, natural magic and Neoplatonic thaumaturgic philosophy.
Agrippa wrote in his book that theology should be taught as isagogic knowledge rather than an advanced science, in order to aid Christians in moral improvement and earthly fulfillment. This emphasis on civic function contrasted with medieval scholastic theology’s focus on intellectual achievement.
From his early days as a mercenary, Agrippa pursued various intellectual interests, cultivating close ties with German humanists such as Colet and Reuchlin. His pursuit of ancient wisdom and thaumaturgical philosophy (such as Lull’s Ars magna) brought him into contact with Albertus Magnus’ medieval tradition that would later inform much of his later writings.
While serving in Dole, Metz, and Paris as town advocate and orator (syndic), his opinions soon brought him into contention with monks – ultimately leading him to defend a woman accused of witchcraft which caused his expulsion from the Dominican order. Following this event he sought patronage elsewhere and eventually was appointed physician to Louise of Savoy (mother of Francis I), at Lyons.
Achievement and Honors
Agrippa was an impressive administrator and made significant improvements to Rome through rebuilding aqueducts, expanding and cleaning up the Cloaca Maxima, creating gardens and porticos, and his just and prudent administration gained him both popular support as well as respect from scholastic philosophers of his day.
De occulta philosophia by Paulus of Perugia was one of the first works to recast classical astrology within Christian esoteric doctrine and openness to Hebrew kabbalistic tradition inspired a mature treatment of essential issues. Paulus famously defended a woman accused of witchcraft which brought him into conflict with inquisitorial handbooks as well as earning him a reputation as an advocate of magic – however Nauert and Van der Poel demonstrate otherwise.
Despite his numerous setbacks, Agrippa remained remarkably faithful to his mother despite her many hardships; though he gave up any claim to aristocratic status.
While in Italy he became acquainted with the work of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. Additionally, he undertook studies in Kabbalah.
De Incertitudine was an acidic critique of human learning and contemporary culture’s proclivity for sophistry.
Agrippa’s growing interest in Neoplatonic and Hermetic writings enabled him to define the relationship between faith and reason more comprehensively, drawing from Plotinian and Ficinian concepts about tripartite psychological faculties such as mens. According to this theory, mind (mens) is the highest portion of soul into which God infuses its innate ideas.
He was originally known as Heinrich Cornelius von Nettesheim but adopted the name Agrippa to emphasize his noble descent. At Cologne University he studied medicine and law but did not attain either degree before turning towards alchemy and magic instead. His writings had an important influence on Renaissance culture, both for their pursuit of occult sciences and against scholastic learning. Additionally, they became legendary across subsequent centuries. He is best remembered for his radical attacks against all forms of knowledge, as well as for writing a treatise on women’s superiority (which was generally dismissed during his lifetime as being humorous). When he died in 1535 at Grenoble, his dog unexpectedly leapt into the Rhone River upon witnessing him nearing death, prompting many people to believe he had bewitched it with magic.