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