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Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486 - 1553)

A Short Biography

The life of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (September 14, 1486 – February 18, 1535) was a German magician, occult writer, astrologer, and alchemist.

Agrippa was born in Cologne in 1486. In 1512, he taught at the University of Dole in France, lecturing on Johann Reuchlin's De verbo mirifico; as a result, Agrippa was denounced, behind his back, as a "Judaizing heretic." Agrippa's vitriolic response many months later did not endear him to the University.
In 1510, he studied briefly with Johannes Trithemius, and Agrippa sent him an early draft of his masterpiece, De occulta philosophia libri tres, a kind of summa of early modern occult thought. Trithemius was guardedly approving, but suggested that Agrippa keep the work more or less secret; Agrippa chose not to publish, perhaps for this reason, but continued to revise and rethink the book for twenty years.

During his wandering life in Germany, France and Italy he worked as a theologian, physician, legal expert and soldier.

He was for some time in the service of Maximilian I, probably as a soldier in Italy, but devoted his time mainly to the study of the occult sciences and to problematic theological legal questions, which exposed him to various persecutions through life, usually in the mode described above: He would be privately denounced for one sort of heresy or another. He would only reply with venom considerably later. (Nauert demonstrates this pattern effectively.)

There is no evidence that Agrippa was seriously accused, much less persecuted, for his interest in or practice of magical or occult arts during his lifetime, apart from losing several positions. It is impossible of course to cite negatively, but Nauert, the best bio-bibliographical study to date, shows no indication of such persecution, and van der Poel's careful examination of the various attacks suggest that they were founded on quite other theological grounds.

It is important to mention that, according to some scholarship, "As early as 1525 and again as late as 1533 (two years before his death) Agrippa clearly and unequivocally rejected magic in its totality, from its sources in imagined antiquity to contemporary practice." Some aspects remain unclear, but there are those who believe it was sincere (not out of fear, as a parody, or otherwise). Recent scholarship (see Further Reading below, in Lehrich, Nauert, and van der Poel) generally agrees that this rejection or repudiation of magic is not what it seems: Agrippa never rejected magic in its totality, but he did retract his early manuscript of the Occult Philosophy -- to be replaced by the later form.

According to his student Johann Weyer, in the book De praestigiis daemonum, Agrippa died in Grenoble, in 1535.

Famous sayings

He said: "Nothing is concealed from the wise and sensible, while the unbelieving and unworthy cannot learn the secrets." He emphasized: "All things which are similar and therefore connected, are drawn to each other's power." This is known as the law of resonance.

Agrippa is perhaps best known for his books. An incomplete list:

• De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium declamatio invectiva (Declamation Attacking the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and the Arts, 1526; printed in Cologne 1527), a skeptical satire of the sad state of science. This book, a significant production of the revival of Pyrrhonic skepticism in its fideist mode, was to have a significant impact on such thinkers and writers as Montaigne, Rene Descartes, and Goethe.

• Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex, 1529), a book pronouncing the theological and moral superiority of women. Edition with English translation, London 1670

• De occulta philosophia libri tres (Three Books About Occult Philosophy, Book 1 printed Paris 1531; Books 1-3 in Cologne 1533). This summa of occult and magical thought, Agrippa's most important work in a number of respects, sought a solution to the skepticism proposed in De vanitate. In short, Agrippa argued for a synthetic vision of magic whereby the natural world combined with the celestial and the divine through Neoplatonic participation, such that ordinarily licit natural magic was in fact validated by a kind of demonic magic sourced ultimately from God. By this means Agrippa proposed a magic that could resolve all epistemological problems raised by skepticism in a total validation of Christian faith.

One example of the text, not especially indicative of its broader contents, is Agrippa's analysis herbal treatments for malaria in numeric terms: "Rabanus also, a famous Doctor, composed an excellent book of the vertues of numbers: But now how great vertues numbers have in nature, is manifest in the hearb which is called Cinquefoil, i.e. five leaved Grass; for this resists poysons by vertue of the number of five; also drives away divells, conduceth to expiation; and one leafe of it taken twice in a day in wine, cures the Feaver of one day: three the tertian Feaver: foure the quartane. In like manner four grains of the seed of Turnisole being drunk, cures the quartane, but three the tertian. In like manner Vervin is said to cure Feavers, being drunk in wine, if in tertians it be cut from the third joynt, in quartans from the fourth.

The book was a major influence on such later magical thinkers as Giordano Bruno and John Dee, but was ill-understood after the decline of the Occult Renaissance concomitant with the Scientific Revolution. The book (whose early draft, quite different from the final form, circulated in manuscript long before it was published) is often cited in discussions of Albrecht Dürer's famous engraving Melencolia I (1514). (Note that Philosophy of Natural Magic: Complete Work on Natural Magic, White & Black Magic, 1569, ISBN 1-56459-160-3, is simply book 1 of De occulta philosophia libri tres.)

A spurious Fourth book of occult philosophy, sometimes called Of Magical Ceremonies, has also been attributed to him; this book first appeared in Marburg in 1559 and was certainly not by Agrippa.
(A semi-complete collection of his writings were also printed in Lyon in 1550; arguably more complete editions followed, but none is without serious textual problems.)

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