17 February 2009

'Hermetic Magician of a Most Extreme Type' Burned at the Stake Today

I noticed on Wikipedia today that it is the anniversary of Giordano Bruno’s burning at the stake for heresy in 1600. Whenever I think of Bruno, I immediately think of the wonderful book Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Dame Frances Yates (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1991), and it occurred to me to post my favourite passage from this book. Having described at some length the Renaissance ‘Hermetic tradition’ and shown that Bruno was essentially a sort of neo-pagan Platonist practitioner of demonic magic, Yates tells us about how this fellow embarked on a journey to England. Then:

The English ambassador in Paris, Henry Cobham, warned the ever watchful Francis Walsingham [I can just picture Geoffrey Rush reading this note!], in a despatch dated March, 1583, of Bruno’s impending arrival: ‘Doctor Jordano Bruno Nolano, a professor in philosophy, intends to pass into England, whose religion I cannot commend’ (Calendar of State Papers, Foreign, January—June 1583, p. 214). Note that it is Bruno’s religion, not his philosophy, which the ambassador feels that he cannot commend—perhaps an understatement.

If the reader feels somewhat aghast at the state of mind of a noted philosopher of the Renaissance as revealed in this chapter, and is inclined to agree rather strongly with the ambassador, I cannot blame him. But if we want the truth about the history of thought, we must omit nothing. Giordano Bruno, Hermetic magician of a most extreme type, is now about to pass into England to expound his ‘new philosophy’. (p. 204)

Yates’s is an important book, in part for the history of Hermeticism I mentioned, but also because of the evidence it presents that ‘the legend that Bruno was prosecuted as a philosophical thinker, was burned for his daring views on innumerable worlds or on the movement of the earth, can no longer stand’ (Yates, p. 355). I should note, however, that her chapter on St Dionysius the Areopagite (‘Pseudo-Dionysius and the Theology of a Christian Magus’, pp. 117-29), while it accurately reflects the traditional Western interpretation of his writings and therefore that of the Renaissance Hermeticists, cannot be relied upon by those interested in the teaching per se of the Corpus Dionysiacum.


herstory said...

In June 2008, Ibis Press published the first biography of Frances Yates - Frances Yates & the Hermetic Tradition - by Marjorie G. Jones.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, I saw that. It's on my Amazon wish list!

Antonio Vargas said...

Hi, I found this post of your's while googling, do you have any links or books to recommend where I could read up on the relationship of Orthodox Christianity and Hermeticism?

I ask because I'm deeply interested and torn between the two subjects. I've found that in the Roman Catholic Church a very interesting appropriation of some hermetic themes happened (for example, Thomas Aquinas' idea of how God governs the world through the agency of planetary angels and also some ideas of more orthodox Renaissance magicians) but that's all.

Tahnks a bunch,

aaronandbrighid said...

Antonio> Thank you for your inquiry. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that I don't know of any links or books that deal with this subject. I've got many of my own ideas about how the two are similar and how they are different, and I find that I have a great deal of sympathy for many of the hermeticists (especially Ficino, Pico, Reuchlin, and Dee, but even Bruno did not deserve the stake in my opinion!), but I don't know of any Orthodox sources that talk about Hermeticism, nor of any Hermetic sources that talk about Orthodoxy. In her book on Bruno of course, Dame Frances deals with the role of St Dionysius the Areopagite in the Hermetic tradition, but as I've pointed out, she doesn't seem to realise that her interpretation of him (not to mention the Hermetic interpretation itself) is not the Orthodox one.

Sorry I can't help you more! If you're really interested in this topic, I would be happy to try to answer any questions you have myself by private e-mail (I also have another Orthodox friend who's doing a lot of research on Hermeticism and alchemy, but he is much more consistently critical of it than I am), but I'm afraid I don't know of any sources I can point you to.

Antonio Vargas said...

Oh well, thanks a lot anyway, If I ever manage to put down my questions in writing I'll write to you, sure, thanks for the offer.