November 6, 2005

Distributing Phlit through Yahoo was so easy that I can’t resist releasing another issue.

1. Yates and Hermetism

In an earlier issue, I mentioned a French saying, “when someone thinks about you, your ear whistles.” Now my wife tells me that there’s a similar saying in Chinese: “when someone thinks about you, the root of your ear itches.”

I asked before, “Why are such sayings found in French [and Chinese] but not in English? Is it possible that the French are more attuned to the occult, to the borderland of consciousness, than the English-speaking peoples? Did the ascetic Protestantism of the English, which repressed so much of human nature, also repress our feeling for the occult?” When I was in China, I noticed that the Chinese communicate by non-verbal means more than we do; when they’re displeased, for example, they express their displeasure with a downward glance, or an averted glance. The same is probably true of Catholic peoples in the West — Italians, for example.

I just finished a book called The Feeling Function, by the prominent Jungian, James Hillman. Hillman says that, in a Protestant culture, “sincerity, simplicity and naiveté are given high place.”1 People in a Protestant culture are preoccupied with acting and thinking according to moral and religious principles, they’re preoccupied with acting and thinking the way they should. The dark borderland of consciousness is overlooked, and occult phenomena are overlooked.

I’m now reading Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, by Frances Yates. She argues that the Renaissance had a keen interest in the Hermetic/occult/magical. Leading Renaissance intellectuals, like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, were preoccupied with the Hermetic writings and with the Cabala. They believed that images, talismans, and statues had magical power. At first, Pico’s writings fell afoul of the church authorities, but in 1492, when Alexander VI became pope, Pico’s writings received the papal blessing. Thus, the papacy allied itself with magic and the occult. The Protestants rejected magic and the occult, and banned images. Here again, we see Catholics receptive to the occult, Protestants overlooking the occult.

One Italian writer who had a keen interest in the Hermetic was Gerolamo Cardano (known in English as Cardanus). Yates calls Cardano “a really deep magician.”2 Like Pico, Cardano fell afoul of the authorities; in 1570, he was arrested and imprisoned for publishing the horoscope of Jesus.

In the early 1570s, Cardano’s life intersects with Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare had a keen interest in things Italian, and traveled extensively in Italy in the 1570s. In 1573, Shakespeare wrote a prefatory letter and poem for one of Cardano’s books, a book known in English as Cardanus Comfort. Scholars have long believed that this may have been the book in Hamlet’s hands when Polonius asks Hamlet what he’s reading.3 Cardanus Comfort contains criticisms of old men similar to those voiced by Hamlet; it also contains remarks on death, sleep and travel that remind one of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.4 In earlier issues of Phlit, I’ve discussed Shakespeare’s links to the Hermetic; Shakespeare’s interest in Cardanus is another such link.

Yates says that the popularity of Hermetism reached its zenith in the late 1500s — just when Shakespeare was reaching maturity. The most extreme and enthusiastic Hermetist, Giordano Bruno, was born in 1548, just two years before Shakespeare. It isn’t surprising that Shakespeare had a Hermetic worldview; in fact, it would be surprising if he didn’t have a Hermetic worldview. (I repeat this remark in every issue of Phlit, just as Cato the Elder repeated, in all of his Senate speeches, Carthago delenda est.)

Yates argues that Botticelli’s famous painting, Primavera, was a Hermetic talisman designed, like other talismans, “to attract the favorable planets and to avoid Saturn.... The picture begins to be seen as a practical application of [Ficino’s magic], as a complex talisman, an ‘image of the world’ arranged so as to transmit only healthful, rejuvenating, anti-Saturnian influences to the beholder.”5 Other Renaissance art-works were also (according to Yates) magical talismans. She says that Dürer’s Melancholia was inspired by the Hermetist Cornelius Agrippa:

Whilst Ficino’s magic avoids Saturn, Agrippa’s magic seeks the Saturnian gifts of high abstract contemplation and pure mathematics. (Thus, as Botticelli’s predominantly Venus talisman, the Primavera, reflects the Ficinian type of magic, Dürer’s predominantly Saturnian talisman, the Melancholia engraving, reflects the Agrippan type of magic.)6

One wonders if the Italian type of magic is related to a sunny, southern outlook, and the German type of magic is related to a gloomy, northern outlook. Did the outlook shape the magic, or did the magic shape the outlook? What is cause and what is effect?

Yates summarizes her argument by saying that an understanding of Hermetism and magic is “necessary for the understanding of the meaning and use of a Renaissance work of art.”7 This is the very argument that I’ve been making with respect to Shakespeare; I’ve been arguing that an understanding of Hermetism is necessary for an understanding of Shakespeare’s worldview. According to Yates, the Hermetic worldview was very popular during the Renaissance — even among scientists. Copernicus quoted Hermes Trismegistus, who called the sun a “visible god.”8

According to my theory of history, our own era is a renaissance-type era, the first since Shakespeare’s time. And we have the same fascination with the Hermetic that the last Renaissance had; for us, as for them, the Hermetic arouses a feeling of religious enthusiasm, and also a feeling of intellectual discovery. As Ficino was the prime Hermetist of the last Renaissance, so Jung is the prime Hermetist of our renaissance.

I’m not suggesting that every renaissance is interested in the Hermetic, nor am I suggesting that an interest in the Hermetic causes a renaissance, I’m merely pointing out an interesting coincidence.... Or could it be more than a coincidence? Will some future scholar argue that the renaissance spirit is particularly receptive to the Hermetic?

2. Yates and Humanism

It should be noted that not all Renaissance intellectuals rode on the Hermetic bandwagon. Within the Catholic church, there were critics of Hermetism, such as those who accused Pico and Cardano of heresy, and those who later burned Bruno. Among Protestants, there was a widespread feeling that religion should be entirely free of magic. Among secular scholars, there were critics as well as supporters of Hermetism. Scholars who drew their inspiration from Rome were less interested in Hermetism than those who drew their inspiration from Greece. The re-discovery of Latin literature began with Petrarch in the 1300s, while the re-discovery of Greek literature began in the 1400s. The original Renaissance humanists were the Latin scholars, who were interested in the subjects that made up the “trivium” in medieval universities: logic, grammar and rhetoric; they were especially interested in grammar and rhetoric. In the 1400s, scholars like Ficino became interested in Greek literature, and in the subjects that made up the “quadrivium” in medieval universities: geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music. (Ficino and other Florentine intellectuals were inspired by Greek scholars who taught in Italy; these Greek scholars first came to Italy in 1439, to participate in a church council designed to heal the schism between Western and Eastern Christianity.) Yates contrasts the Latin humanist with the later Greek scholar:

The humanist’s bent is in the direction of literature and history; he sets an immense value on rhetoric and good literary style. The bent of the other tradition is towards philosophy, theology, and also science (at the stage of magic). The difference reflects the contrast between the Roman and the Greek mind.9

In medieval education, the trivium preceded the quadrivium, as a Bachelor’s Degree precedes a Master’s Degree. Hermetists like Pico and Bruno spoke scornfully of the childish subjects of the trivium, and of the “‘grammarian pedants’ who fail to understand the higher activities of a Magus.”10

The study of Latin literature was unrelated to religion, and could be pursued by a pious Christian or by an unbeliever. On the other hand, the Greek scholars like Ficino and Pico tried to synthesize Neoplatonism and Christianity, and they often “stepped on the toes” of churchmen.

Yates mentions Erasmus as an example of a humanist who was cool toward Hermetism. She describes Erasmus thus:

He believes in polite learning, good letters, good Latinity, and he believes that a golden age will come when there is an international society of politely learned people all communicating easily with one another in an international language of good Latin.... He has absolutely no interest in dialectics, metaphysics, or natural philosophy, and he pours his amusing scorn, in the Praise of Folly, on the schoolmen, and their barbarous Latin.11

As a pious Christian, Erasmus wants to return to the Bible and the Church Fathers, not to the Hermetic writings.

Yates says that the Reformation hated Hermetism and the quadrivium. “The smashing of the ‘idolatrous’ images in the churches was matched by the destruction of books and manuscripts in monastic and college libraries.”12 At Oxford University in 1550, any book with “angles or mathematical diagrams”13 was thrown into the flames.

3. Yates on pre-Bruno Hermetists

Yates mentions several ancient Hermetists, such as Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass. Apuleius lived in the second century A.D., an era that was receptive to Gnostic and Hermetic ideas: “The world of the second century was weary of Greek dialectics which seemed to lead to no certain results.... It turned to other ways of seeking an answer, intuitive, mystical, magical.”14 Yates describes Apuleius as “one of those men, highly educated in the general culture of the Greco-Roman world who, weary of the stale teachings of the schools, sought for salvation in the occult, and particularly in the Egyptian type of the occult.”15 One is reminded of today’s intellectuals, who are drawn to Eastern philosophy. Apuleius’ novel, The Golden Ass, was one of Flaubert’s favorite books, and it also strikes a chord with Jungians; Marie-Louise von Franz devoted an entire volume to it.

Yates also mentions Julian the Apostate, a Roman emperor who lived in the fourth century A.D. Julian rejected Christianity (hence the epithet “Apostate”), and embraced a pagan-Hermetic “religion of the world.”

In her discussion of French Hermetists, Yates says that most of them were Catholics. She mentions one Protestant, however, a man named Mornay:

In a Europe devastated by the awful wars and persecutions arising from the conflict between Reformation and Catholic reaction, Mornay is an example of how men were turning to the Hermetic religion of the world to take them above these conflicts, and as a possible way of escape from the agonies inflicted by fanatical use of force by both sides.16

Perhaps the same is true of today’s intellectuals, perhaps we’re also turning to “the Hermetic religion of the world,” the religion of Apuleius and Julian, the religion of Shakespeare and Jung, and perhaps this “religion of the world” is the best way to unite people, the best way to unite European and Muslim, Jew and Arab, Occidental and Oriental.

Turning her attention to England, Yates argues that Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, contains Hermetic elements. Before being converted to Christianity, the wisest of the Utopians believe in a Hermetic religion. After their conversion, Yates says, they become “Christian Hermetists” and they “display the distinctive badge of religious Hermetism in the sixteenth century, the disapproval of the use of force in religious matters.”17 After More was executed by Henry VIII, Protestant and Catholic extremists ruled the day, and under Elizabeth, “the Reformation was established with an extreme party, the Puritans, in the ascendant. Puritan Anglicanism had quite lost the Erasmian tolerance.”18

There were a few people in England, however, who continued to entertain Hermetic ideas. One of these was Sir Philip Sidney, the leader of a group of “intellectual courtiers” who studied under John Dee, the astrologer, Hermetist, and mathematician. (I doubt Shakespeare was one of these “intellectual courtiers”; he wasn’t on good terms with Sidney.) When the Hermetist Giordano Bruno visited England, Sidney was friendly and receptive. (Bruno and Shakespeare didn’t cross paths, as far as I know.) Bruno dedicated one of his books to Sidney. When Sidney died in 1586, he was working on a translation of a book by Mornay, the Hermetic-Protestant writer mentioned above; Yates says that Mornay was “known to Sidney as a friend and was undoubtedly his favorite theologian.”19 Sidney died while fighting to establish a state in the southern Netherlands, a state based on the principle of religious toleration.

Yates discusses an Italian writer named Patrizi. Like Bruno, Patrizi regarded Hermetism as both a true philosophy and a healthy religion. Like Bruno, Patrizi believed that Hermetism could calm the hostility between Catholics and Protestants.

Patrizi says that a philosopher nowadays is thought to be one who does not believe in God. The reason for this is that the only philosophy studied is that of Aristotle which denies the omnipotence and providence of God.... He asks why those parts of Aristotle’s philosophy which are hostile to God are studied, when a Hermetic treatise contains more philosophy than all the works of Aristotle put together.... Here we have the pious philosophy, based on Hermetism, in a clearly Counter Reformation setting. The Jesuits are advised to use it, and it is a peaceful way of attracting Protestants, without persecution and force of arms.20

Yates says that Patrizi, like Bruno, was “a Hermetic philosopher with a universal reforming mission.”21 While Bruno preached an extreme, un-Christian kind of Hermetism, Patrizi preached a milder, less revolutionary kind of Hermetism. While Bruno was burned at the stake, Patrizi suffered the gentler fate of having his book suppressed.

Now, having written ten chapters and 189 pages, Yates finally turns to the main subject of her book, Giordano Bruno. As she puts it in her charming way, “we are at last ready for the eruption of Giordano Bruno into this book.”22 (I plan to focus on Bruno in the next issue of Phlit.)

By the way, I’m enjoying Yates’ book (Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition) very much, but I’m not sure if it would be suitable for our book group because it’s somewhat scholarly and dry, and also somewhat long (450 pages).

4. Schopenhauer

Our book group recently discussed Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms for the second time (the third time, if you count our ’99 discussion). Like Erasmus, Schopenhauer dreams of an international community of scholars, united by the Latin language. Schopenhauer perceives, however, that this dream is fading away:

The abolition of Latin as the universal learned language, and the introduction in its place of the parochialism of national literatures, has been a real misfortune for science and learning in Europe... It was only through the medium of the Latin language that a universal European learned public existed at all, to the totality of which every book that appeared directed itself.... Patriotism, when it wants to make itself felt in the domain of learning, is a dirty fellow who should be thrown out of doors.23

Schopenhauer notes with approval that Bacon translated his own essays from English into Latin. Schopenhauer himself translated his book On Vision and Colors from German into Latin. The trend that Schopenhauer perceived has now come to fruition: Latin is no longer the universal language of educated people. Is English becoming a universal language? Many non-English-speaking writers — Huizinga, Kundera, Jung, etc. — are now either writing in English, or translating their own books into English. In the interests of culture, wouldn’t it be desirable for English to become a universal language? The French are struggling to prevent this, out of love for their own language. But the beauty of literature isn’t in language itself, it’s in the human spirit that language expresses.

In an earlier issue, I mentioned that Neoplatonism saw the world as “an unreal, derivative and tormenting form of existence comparable to a life in Hades.” I said that this pessimistic view of life resembled Schopenhauer’s view of life. Yates, however, has taught me that there were two flavors of Neoplatonism/Hermetism/Gnosticism: a pessimistic one, and an optimistic one.

For the pessimist (or dualist) Gnostic, the material world heavily impregnated with the fatal influence of the stars is in itself evil; it must be escaped from by an ascetic way of life which avoids as much as possible all contact with matter.... For the optimist Gnostic, matter is impregnated with the divine, the earth lives, moves, with a divine life, the stars are living divine animals, the sun burns with a divine power, there is no part of Nature which is not good for all are parts of God.24

The Florentine Neoplatonists seem to have favored the pessimistic branch of Hermetism, and perhaps they struck a sympathetic chord with Schopenhauer. Modern Hermetists, on the other hand, such as Jung, favor the optimistic branch. We moderns see evil in human nature, but we don’t feel that the world is fundamentally evil, we don’t see life as hell, and we don’t try to transcend our material natures.

Certain passages in Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms struck me as the antithesis of Zen. Consider, for example, this passage from the Introduction:

His mental life is devoted to reflection: the outer world is chiefly material for reflection. [His travel notes] consist almost always of the reflections to which impressions give rise, hardly ever of the impressions themselves. He told the aging Wieland when he met him in Weimar: “Life is a disagreeable thing: I have determined to spend it in reflecting on it.”25

Schopenhauer’s pessimism is un-Zennish, as is his proclivity for reflection.

One of Schopenhauer’s aphorisms also struck me as the antithesis of Zen:

The animal voice serves only to express excitement and agitation of the will; the human, however, serves also to express knowledge; this is consistent with the fact that the former almost always makes an unpleasant impression on us, the voices of a few birds alone excepted.26

Zen celebrates natural sounds; one thinks of Basho’s haiku about the splash of the frog, and Thoreau’s chapter on sounds (in Walden). Animal sounds are spontaneous, they express the energy in nature, which Zen celebrates, and which Schopenhauer regards as blind, pointless, negative, evil. Zen aims at spontaneity, Schopenhauer at knowledge and reflection.

Schopenhauer is a firm believer in physiognomy:

The countenance expresses and reveals the whole essence of a man.... A man’s face as a rule says more, and more interesting things than his mouth, for it is a compendium of everything his mouth will ever say, in that it is the monogram of all this man’s thoughts and aspirations.... One can... receive a purely objective impression of a face, and thus have the possibility of deciphering it, only at first sight.27

Some of Schopenhauer’s remarks on physiognomy are a good example of his misanthropy — a misanthropy so extreme as to be humorous:

Every new face will usually arouse in a person of finer feeling a sensation akin to terror, since it presents the disagreeable in a new and surprising combination.... There are even some upon whose face there is imprinted such naive vulgarity and lowness of character combined with such beast-like narrowness of mind that one wonders why they go around with such a face and do not rather wear a mask.... You should ask yourself what kind of physiognomy is to be expected of those in whom in the course of a long life there has very rarely arisen anything but petty, base, miserable thoughts and common, selfish, base and mischievous desires. Each of them, while it was present, set its mark on his face, and by much repetition deeply engraved itself there.28

© L. James Hammond 2005
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1. The Feeling Function is the second half of a book called Lectures on Jung’s Typology (the first half is The Inferior Function, by Marie-Louise von Franz). This quote is from ch. 7, p. 162. back
2. ch. 7, p. 130 back
3. See The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, by Charlton Ogburn, ch. 26 back
4. Pol. What do you read, my lord?
Ham. Words, words, words.
Pol. What is the matter, my lord?
Ham. Between who?
Pol. I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.
Ham. Slanders, sir: for the satirical slave says here that old men have grey beards; that their faces are wrinkled; their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum; and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams. (II, ii, 189) back
5. ch. 4, p. 77 back
6. ch. 8, p. 146 back
7. ch. 4, p. 81 back
8. ch. 8, p. 154 back
9. ch. 9, p. 160. One thinks of Montaigne’s fondness for literature and history — especially Roman literature and history — and his indifference to metaphysics. I don’t recall any Hermetic ideas in Montaigne. back
10. ibid, p. 162 back
11. ibid, p. 164 back
12. ibid, p. 166 back
13. ibid, p. 167 back
14. ch. 1, p. 4 back
15. ibid, p. 9 back
16. ch. 10, p. 176. Mornay’s full name was Philippe Du Plessis Mornay back
17. ibid, p. 186 back
18. ibid, p. 187 back
19. ch. 10, p. 178. According to Yates, Walter Raleigh was also a Hermetist. Yates says that Raleigh’s History of the World “is peppered with quotations from Ficino’s Pimander and contains a whole section on Hermes Trismegistus, whom Raleigh thinks probably more ancient than Moses and venerates profoundly.”(see footnote on p. 403) Yates says that Bacon was also a Hermetist; comparing Bacon’s New Atlantis and Campanella’s City of the Sun, Yates says that these two utopias “come out of the same stream, and the stream is Hermetic.”(p. 450) back
20. ibid, p. 185 back
21. ibid, p. 185 back
22. ibid, p. 188 back
23. “On Various Subjects,” p. 227-229 back
24. ch. 2, p. 22 back
25. p. 33 back
26. “On Various Subjects,” p. 231 back
27. ibid, p. 232 back
28. ibid, p. 233 back