Transcript: 367. Brian Copenhaver on Renaissance Magic

Brian Copenhaver joins us to explain how Ficino and other Renaissance philosophers thought about magic.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We are going to be talking about philosophy, but by talking about magic. So we're going to get into the connections between magic and philosophy. And to do that, I thought we could start by talking about the sources that influenced Renaissance discussions of magic. So obviously, some of these sources would be Greek, but some of them would also be non-Greek.

Brian Copenhaver: Yes, going back to the ancients, but also going back to the not so ancients was quite important for people who made themselves experts on magic during the 15th century in a new way. The way I look at it, before the Renaissance, during the Middle Ages, there really never was a time when educated, literate people were not discussing magic. We can really only say that with certainty about that relatively small group of people in Europe, because of course, otherwise, we just don't have good records. But we do have for that group of people. So if you look at the 13th century, for example, you've not only philosophers, maybe sort of the second and third rank people like Roger Bacon and William of Paris were writing about magic, but also thinkers of the first rank like Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, who I imagine is the best known medieval philosopher. So lots of things were going on before the Renaissance that were well known to people like Marsilio Ficino and Picco della Mirandola during the Renaissance. Ficino's most important innovation was, I think, the most important breakthrough about magic in the Renaissance, because he, for the first time, provided access to ancient thinkers who wrote in Greek about magic and wrote in great detail and wrote in a distinctly philosophical way. So as you know, and our listeners know, these are people usually called Neoplatonists, the most important being Plotinus and Porphyry and Iamblichus and Proclus. Plotinus was born around 200 CE. Proclus died almost three centuries later than that. And Ficino in the 15th century was the first to make their works available in Latin, which more people could read than could read Greek. Now I say first, that's in a first approximation. There were, for example, works by Proclus translated in the 13th century by William of Moerbeke, but these didn't have a lot of influence on how 15th century interest in magic developed. Ficino, and again, this is something that's I think well known by your listeners and certainly by you, that Ficino also translated other ancient Greek texts, the Hermetica, which were attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, which was the Greek name for Egyptian god Thoth. But those Hermetic writings, the ones that Ficino translated, aren't about magic, and Ficino understood that. He says so in his writings. He recognized that this Hermetic literature, which he studied and translated - he recognized that it was a devotional literature. And that it was a devotional literature based on popularizations of theology and philosophy. So Ficino was doing that sort of thing, for example, translating in the Hermetica in the 15th century. And this was before the word Hermetic became a common label for alchemical writings. So if you go to books published around 1550, 1575, 1600, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, you'll very often find the word Hermetic used in that way as basically a synonym for alchemical. And that wasn't the magic that Ficino made famous in 1489. It was in that year, in 1489, that he published the only work of his that was maybe more influential than his translation of Plato and commentaries on the Neoplatonists. In that year, 1489, he published his three books on life. And that was the most influential presentation of a theory of magic since the ancient Neoplatonists. And they, those ancient Neoplatonists, were Ficino's main inspiration. So the key point, I think, is that there was a real breakthrough in the 15th century, which made it possible for Ficino and other people to see magic in a different way than they had seen it before. And here I'm talking about Western Europe, where the intellectual culture was basically a Latin culture. In that culture, after Ficino's work in the 15th century, the attitudes toward magic changed a great deal because he convinced people that there were real philosophical foundations, theoretical foundations for belief in magic.

Peter Adamson: Is there actually a shift that results from Ficino's work by which magic starts to be seen as something more like a science, so on a par with something like medicine or astronomy? Or is there always a kind of divorce between properly scientific disciplines, like let's say astronomy, medicine, or even physics, metaphysics, and something like this applied practice, which is magic?

Brian Copenhaver: That's a great question. And I'm going to pitch my answer specifically to the English word "science." And I might have something or somebody might have something different to say. If we were talking about the German word Wissenschaft, then it might be a different matter, but it isn't, right? So science. I think the English word science is a bad fit for Renaissance thought in general. When Newton, toward the end of the 17th century, published his famous book about physics, he didn't call it the mathematical principles of science. He called it the mathematical principles of natural philosophy. Had the English word science been available, and had Newton been writing in English, as he sometimes did, then you might have seen the word science in that context, but that's not what happened. So rather than science, I think the English word that works better best in this situation is the English word knowledge. And that word works better as a partner for the Latin word scientia, which in turn was paired with the word ars, meaning craft. The basis of scientia was theoretical knowledge that had to meet high standards of a certain kind. Obviously, in order for a craft to put a theory into practice, people need practical experience and information as well as theoretical knowledge in this rather specialized sense. So today, when a physician practices medicine - as we say, we say that physicians practice medicine - these practitioners apply theoretical knowledge of physics, of chemistry, biology to practical medical problems. So Ficino, this famous expert on magic, was a physician, and when Ficino practiced his craft, he applied theoretical knowledge, meaning that he applied his scientia to help his patients. And he did this mainly by regulating diet and trying to shape the local environment for his patients, and also by prescribing mainly botanical medicines for them. 
But he also thought that magic could cure disease. For example, by wearing a jewel carved with an astrological sign, like the sign for the constellation Scorpio, a scorpion. Ficino's practice of medical magic then was grounded in theoretical scientia, most important in this case, astrology - not theoretical scientia, which in his day and Ficino's day was actually taught in medical schools. So Ficino's scientia was not like our science. He had no notion of data collection, of data management and analysis, of controlled experiment, of experimental design, quantitative statistical analysis. He had no laboratory. He had no mechanical or electronic equipment, not to mention computers. So the short answer is no, Ficino's magic wasn't a science or even an applied science, a technology in our sense.

Peter Adamson: But it was applied knowledge, as you put it.

Brian Copenhaver: Yeah. You could say it was a scientia applicata, arusus. That's how he might have put it and did say things like that from time to time.

Peter Adamson: So I think that actually encourages me to explore this parallel to medicine even further, because of course you could say the same thing about medicine. And something we see with medicine in this period is that there's kind of a high medicine and a low medicine. So there's the learned medicine that they're teaching and practicing in a, let's say a university setting. So the kind of thing where you have Vesalius making these discoveries and writing about anatomy. And then you have the so-called low medicine, which is what you would have in the local apothecary or even midwives and so on. And the learned doctors tend to be quite dismissive of that. And I'm wondering, I mean, I know you mentioned that obviously we have much better records for the high intellectual magic than the magic in the street. But is there a similar sort of two level thing going on here, like learned magic versus popular magic?

Brian Copenhaver: So let me approach that with another couple of words, which are sometimes connected with that question. And this is to a great extent because of how anthropology in the late 19th, early 20th centuries became a special place for researching and writing about magic. And because of that, in ordinary English speech, when people applied various pejorative terms, like low, for example, to the thought of people who were not like themselves, the people whom anthropologists went far away to observe. When the people did that, another term, a pejorative term that got into the conversation in a strong way was the word superstitious. And so beliefs in magic might be characterized as in some intrinsic way, low and superstitious, not something for the high culture, not something for people who were reasonable, rational people and not superstitious. So if we think about it, try to pick this apart a little bit, the word superstition, which is the same thing in Latin, "superstitio" in Latin, it's "desidemonia" in Greek. This word wasn't, as it turns out, a key term for Ficino and his contemporaries. They weren't really much interested in talking about superstition. Not that they never did, they just didn't do it very often. And the distinction expressed by the word in those days wasn't a socioeconomic or cultural distinction. It wasn't a distinction, so to speak, between the high and the low or between the elite and the popular. The distinction actually was religious. And it was a distinction between normal and abnormal reverence for the divine. So if you look at the Greek word, the word itself, the parts of it mean something like 'god terror.' And that god terror is meant to be in contrast to normal piety. So a normal pious reverent person like Socrates, for example, right, isn't supposed to experience god terror. Now for the ancient Greeks, like Socrates, the divine was always, always, always plural. The gods were many, the gods were everywhere, and they were everywhere at all levels of the world. Early Christians inheriting this religious culture from pagans applied the Latin word superstitio, as a way of rendering desidemonia. And what they applied it to was the improper worship of low-level gods. These low-level gods were daemonis in Greek and in Latin, and we could render that demons in English. But rendering the demons in English is kind of a problem. So what you'll see is very often in the recent wonderful Cambridge editions of Proclus and the Timaeus Commentary in English, you'll see the word spelled D-A-E-M-O-N rather than demon in order to mark that distinction. Worshipping demons, however you spell the word, worshipping demons was sinful for all Christians, and there were just no class distinctions. So as to how the word superstitio applied, it didn't apply in a way that was sensitive to class. Everybody was involved in problems at all levels, class levels, in sins of superstition. A different word that did have important socioeconomic and cultural balance, it was used more often in Ficino's day, it was maleficium in Latin, M-A-L-E-F-I-C-I-U-M, maleficium. And ordinarily in classical Latin, that word just means what its parts seem to say, doing evil. But Latin writers in the 15th century used it for what we now call witchcraft. And the word maleficium, like the word superstitio, was indeed used as a socioeconomic weapon. Why? Well, because most people who were accused of maleficium, and there were many thousands of them, were female, poor, and powerless.

Peter Adamson: That leads us to the question of how these authors themselves avoided getting in trouble, just like these poor, powerless women were getting in trouble. Presumably they want to reassure their readers, especially if the readers are, let's say, in the papacy or in the inquisition. They want to reassure them that what they're doing is on the right side of the law, is not in conflict with Christianity. So how do they convey the message that their study of natural magic is religiously acceptable?

I suppose it depends on what you mean by study. And then having said that, I think it's important to go back to the distinction between theory and practice. Later on, by the, let's say, after Newton, by the early 18th century, even showing interest in magic was a serious problem, let's say a philosophical problem, that became completely out of bounds for all Europeans. People educated at the university level wanted to be seen as intellectually respectable people. In Ficino's time, that was far in the future. And Ficino knew, because he wasn't just a physician, he was also a priest and also a philosopher, he knew that there were many, many, many learned and respected Christians - like Thomas Aquinas, for example, who was a saint - Ficino knew that such people, perfectly respectable people, wrote about magic, wrote about it sometimes as critics, sometimes as supporters. So if the study of magic means just that, if it means studying magic, there really wasn't any question that there were lots and lots of not just respectable, but sainted people who did that. Now, the study of magic, the closer it gets to the domain of practice, then the dicier things get. But even at the level of practice, Ficino, because of his knowledge of the Neoplatonic philosophers like Plotinus and Proclus, because of that, he also believed that it might be that the practice of magic could have a respectable theoretical basis in philosophy. And both words are key words, both respectable and theoretical. It's not just that in his eyes there was a sound theory, indeed a very rich and interesting theory underlying belief in magic, but also in his view, that theory was quite respectable. It was something not to be ashamed of, but to be proud of as an intellectual property. So like Ficino, in that circumstance, in the 15th century, Ficino being a priest and a philosopher, as well as a physician, there were many other respectable people who wrote at length about magic. Practice was a different matter. And he, for example, Ficino, I guess the best way to put it is this. If you take the two most famous people in this domain in the 15th century, one would be Ficino, the other would be Pico della Mirandola, there's not a scrap of evidence, not a scrap as far as I know, that Pico went anywhere near the practice of magic himself, personally. Ficino, I wouldn't say it quite that strongly. I think it's unlikely that Ficino was doing anything that he would actually call the practice of magic. He does say some things in his writings, which might lead you to think so. Mainly these are things about certain kinds of singing as ways of attracting positive influences or deflecting negative influences from the stars and planets. The reason I think that Ficino himself would have shied away from actually doing that, despite what he said in his writings, is because he knew how, in theoretical religious terms, he knew how dangerous it was. And this is a complicated thing, but I'll say it very briefly. He knew that songs, especially songs with words in them, almost necessarily were messages. So there was a singer and there were people who were sung to, individuals who were sung to. And he realized that those individuals might not just be humans. Some of them might be angels, some might be demons. And once that was clear, then he knew that a practitioner of magic, even that kind of magic, a kind based on song, that kind of practitioner was on thin ice indeed.

Peter Adamson: Can I ask you something about the causal theory that you just mentioned in the middle of that answer? We often call these sciences magic, astrology, alchemy. We call them the "occult sciences," which is possibly a problematic term. But one reason why you might think that that term makes sense is that perhaps the causal mechanism by which something like a magical ritual works or maybe a magical talisman works is somehow hidden. Would Ficino and the other scholars who write on magic in this period, would they have said that in some sense, the reason why magic works is unknowable to us? Or would they have said, 'no, if you have read enough Platinus and other sources and if you've done enough reading and research, then in theory, at least you should always be able to come up with a causal explanation of why magic actually works, when it works.'

Brian Copenhaver: I think it's more like the latter than the former. So maybe it's best to start with the word again, the word occultus. In Latin, the word just means hidden. And strangely enough, the word that it's paired with in Greek in similar circumstances doesn't mean hidden. It means something else. Arretos, which means not hidden but unable to be said or unspoken or ineffable or something like that. But the word that got into the Western tradition of writing about magic in this usage was not arretos, which was used by Galen and it was used by the Neoplatonists in these circumstances. The word that got used was occultus. My guess is that the transformation from something unsayable to something hidden, which might be something unseeable, not visible - that that transition probably happened by way of Arabic sometime between Galen and the 10th or 11th century. I've never been able to figure that out in any empirical way because I can't read Arabic. Somebody who can read Arabic should work on that. Anyhow, the word occultus in Latin means hidden. And in Ficino's medical theory, some properties of physical things are indeed hidden, but others, other properties of other physical things aren't hidden. And here, when I say 'hidden,' what I mean is hidden to the five senses. So thinking about Ficino as a physician, some medicines that he wanted his patients to ingest were bitter, and the bitterness obviously wasn't hidden to them because Ficino's patients could taste the bitterness. But other medicines, like opium, for example, were known to cause drowsiness. But opium doesn't look drowsy, doesn't sound drowsy, doesn't smell drowsy, doesn't feel drowsy, doesn't taste drowsy. Although if opium is the cause, the effect is drowsiness. So the standard doctrine was that that sort of property of material object, of physical substance like opium, that that sort of property was a hidden property. But again, looking at, thinking about the opium, the hidden drowsiness in opium wasn't unknowable in Ficino's medicine because it was hidden. And here, we're talking about Ficino's scientia, not our science. It's Ficino's scientia. So knowledge of this drowsiness, mostly in Ficino's scientia, mostly bypassed the senses and turned instead to reason. And that turn enabled Ficino and others, including, for example, Thomas Aquinas, to rely on a very, very sophisticated theory of occult properties or occult qualities. Meaning qualities of things that can't be sensed but can be understood despite their hiddenness.

Peter Adamson: And something like a magnet would be another example of this, right? So you have things like drugs, you have magnets, you have things like stingrays. I mentioned this in the last episode that there's actually a wide variety of phenomena that have these so-called occult causal powers. And if it's just a kind of, as it were, a known fact that wearing talismans can ward off disease or heal you from a disease, then it actually seems quite rational to extend the theory to cover things like that. And then you need to invoke some kind of philosophical account of what the underlying causal mechanism is there, just as you would invoke something like Galenic humoral theory in the case of a medicine, right?

Brian Copenhaver: Right. Galen writes about this not at length in any one place, but he writes about it often. He very much favored explanations of medical phenomena, like, for example, cures of disease, that were based on cold, wet, and dry. And he very often associated that kind of analysis: the hot, cold, wet, dry kind, with what was rational - not meaning reasonable, but rational in the philosophical sense. And he contrasted it with other kinds of explanation, which gave accounts of phenomena, not in terms of hot, cold, wet, and dry, but in terms of what he called idioteites arretoi, undescribable, unspeakable. It's hard to know how to translate arretoi, properties, idioteites. And then he gave an explanation of how these properties got to be there, what their ontology was. And his answer to that was capole intenocien. They were there by the whole substance. And that by the whole substance, he meant it was a rhubarb plant, then it was the rhubarb plant as a whole, which was the foundation for this property, as distinct from the rhubarb as a tempered process, a mixture, a blend of hot, cold, wet, and dry. And that analysis survived in various ways throughout the Middle Ages. And that's, I think, what in him and in another vaguely contemporary writer with him, Alexander of Aphrodisius, in their writings, that's where the whole concept of occult comes from. But again, strangely enough, in its original form, there's a whole deep cluster of associations in Greek between the idea, the notion, it's hard to use the word idea in this context, the notion of form, eros, and other words in this family that have to do both with knowing and with seeing. But actually, if you look at Aristotle's matter theory, when it comes to giving explanations, his matter theory really isn't about the visual - it's about the haptic, it's about hot, cold, wet, and dry. And yet, during the Middle Ages, whenever people talked about this problem, they didn't see it as a problem about what was unable to be said. They saw it as a problem about what couldn't be sensed. But the word occultus, of all the senses, leans toward the visual sense. We more often think of hidden sights than hidden smells, right? It's a very complicated problem about whether to call things - how much we should use the word occult and how we should use it in talking about these issues. The word occult gained the status it has now in European languages during the 16th century because a book by Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim called On the Occult Philosophy became a best seller. And this book, On the Occult Philosophy, was a book about magic astrology, witchcraft, demonology, divination, etc., etc., etc., including Kabbalah. And all of that stuff, having been described by Agrippa as the occult philosophy, then by other people came to be called 'the occult' or 'occultism.' You only begin to see the words used like that in the 19th century. It's not even 17th or 18th century.

Peter Adamson: It will be coming onto Agrippa actually not too far in the future when we turn to the Reformation. But before I start talking about what's coming ahead, I wanted to ask you one last question. It's kind of a big question, but just to wrap things up, it's pretty clear from everything that you said that the historian of magic certainly needs to know about the history of philosophy. And I'm wondering what you think the reverse is true. So do you think that someone who's interested in the history of philosophy in the Renaissance or in the medieval period, but maybe let's focus on the Renaissance and stuff where we are right now, do you think the historian of Renaissance philosophy really needs to know about the history of magic?

Brian Copenhaver: The short answer is yes. You know, if we're talking about most of antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, then yes. If you're going to have a broad but sufficient understanding of philosophy, then these issues are part of it. There's simply no question about that. You know, eventually I think that becomes not so much the case. So I think if we get to the 18th century and we're in the world of Kant and Hume, then I think it's a different story. I think that magic had so much been repudiated by people who wanted to be thought of as respectable intellectuals, that it's a completely different scene. When Newton died in 1727, even the French were ready to honor him. He had been a member of the French Academy and it was the custom then for a member of the Academy who died to have an "eloge,E an essay in praise of him written and published in the proper place. So the person who did that for Newton was Fontenelle. And we know that Fontenelle had notes from Newton's niece, which showed very plainly that Newton had spent ever so much time working on alchemy. And of course, when Fontenelle wrote his eloge, there was never a word about that because it would have been shameful. So the situation had changed that much within a space of about 200 years between Ficino and Newton. Philosophy in the Anglophone world is a very different matter, as you know, from philosophy where you are, right, on the continent of Europe or philosophy elsewhere in the world. Philosophy in the Anglophone world, the practice of it is usually very, very specialized. And so if you're a specialist in the Anglophone way on, let's say, Aquinas, it's perfectly possible to do a whole lifetime of brilliant and productive work without knowing anything about magic. But if you want to know anything about the environment of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century or the environment of William of Ockham in the 14th century, but not to speak of the environment of Pico and Ficino, both philosophers in the 15th century, then of course you have to know something about magic. However, opinions are divided about whether the environments in which philosophers live are really important for understanding their philosophies. In a recent issue of the British Journal for the History of Philosophy, there was a piece by me on this very subject. I should also mention another piece that your readers might not know, and you had some interesting words to say about magical objects like the magnet or opium and such. And there were lots of them. So if you look about 20 years ago in the journal, The History of Ideas, you'll see a piece by me called "A Tale of Two Fishes." And it's about two fish. One is a fish that we would call a ray, an electric ray, a ray that's electric in the way that an electric eel is electric. And another fish that we call a remora, but which the ancients called a "ship holder," an echinace, because they thought that it had the power to hold a ship back from moving forward. And that was a magical power. So this piece in the journal, The History of Ideas, tracks this cluster of magical objects through the centuries using this pair of fish, the remora and the electric ray, as the sort of armature for the discussions. 


Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.