Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius
also known as Agrippa von Nettesheim
(b. near Cologne, Germany, 14 September 1486; d. Grenoble, France, ca. 18 February 1535)
magic, alchemy, philosophy, medicine.
Agrippa’s father, Heinrich von Nettesheim, was a citizen of Cologne; nothing is known of his mother. Agrippa’s surname and epithet indicate both his birthplace (Cologne was formerly Colonia Agrippina) and the origin of his family (Nettesheim, a village near Cologne); his given names suggest a Dutch or Flemish influence. Agrippa married three times. His first wife, who came from Pavia and was married to him in 1514, died in 1518 in Metz. They had a son, Theodoricus, who was born in 1515 and died in 1522. Six children were born to his second wife, Jeanne Loyse Tissie, whom he married in Geneva in 1521; she died in 1528. A third union, apparently unhappy, took place the following year.
Agrippa enrolled at the University of Cologne on 22 July 1499. While there he studied law, medicine, magic sciences, and theology—particularly under Peter Ravenna. He also served in the army of Emperor Maximillian I for several years. At the age of twenty he made his first trip to Paris to study; he then went, again in military service, to Catalonia, and finally to Dôle, where he gave lectures on Johann Reuchlin’s De verbo mirifico, In 1510 he spent a short time in London where he stayed with John Colet, the friend of Erasmus, and then he returned to Cologne, where he held theological disputations. That same year, in Würzburg, he met Johannes Trithemius, the abbot of St. Jacob’s monastery. This was probably the most important meeting of Agrippa’s life for Trithemius encouraged him to finish the De occulta philosophia. Following this, Agrippa led a restless, roving life throughout Europe, especially in Italy. Among the places he visited were Milan, Pisa, Pavia (where in 1515 he expounded Hermetic writings), and Turin (where he taught theology), sometimes as an independent rhetorician, sometimes in military service.
In 1518 Agrippa was a public advocate in Metz and the defense lawyer in a sorcery trial; the latter service aroused such opposition that he had to leave town. He then went to Geneva via Cologne and became a physician. During 1523 and 1524 he was a salaried town physician in Fribourg, Switzerland. After 1524 he was at the court of Francis I in Lyons, where he was personal physician to the queen mother and court astrologer. He was always in monetary difficulties and constantly being dunned by his creditors.
In 1528 Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Netherlands, summoned Agrippa to become historian and librarian in Antwerp. Two years later he published his polemic De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium declamatio et de excellentia verbi Dei, which he had begun to draft while still in Lyons. In 1531 he published the first of the three books of the De occulta philosophia (the fourth book is apocryphal), which had probably been written around 1510—1515. After the death of Margaret he returned, via Brussels and Cologne, to Lyons, where he was often persecuted because of his writings. He died in great poverty.
Agrippa’s personality and curriculum vitae are still open to dispute, as is the authorship of his works. He has been described as an “honest, fearless, and generous man … but somewhat vainglorious … ., whereby he himself several times spoiled his chances at success” and also as a scientific swindler. Today Agrippa’s importance is considered to lie in social Page 80 | Top of Articlecriticism that is embodied in his works on magic as well as in his polemic against the vanity and uncertainty of science. He has his De occulta and De incertitudine to thank not only for his fame but also for the doubt cast upon his having been a scientist. For a long time historians lumped him together with Reuchlin and even with Ramón Lull, for he attempted to combine Neoplatonic mysticism and magic—subject to nature—with Renaissance sketpticism. Recent historical investigation does not support this view, however, and assigns him a central place in the history of ideas of the Middle Ages; he is seen as characterizing the main line of intellectual development from Nicholas ofCusa to Sebastian Franck. Modern opinion evaluates him on the basis of his Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Hermetic influences–primarily in the De occulta philosophia–without insisting on his skepticism.
The basic idea of Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia is that from the void God had created several worlds, three of which constitute the All: the domain of the elements, the heavenly world of the stars, and the intelligible cosmos of the angels. These and the things existing in them are endowed with the spiritus mundi (the soul, the fifth element, the quint a essentia in the sense of the Aristotelian “ether”), which is set above the four classical elements. This spirit of’ the world represents the all–germinating force (comparable to the “germ–form” of the Stoics). At the center of these three worlds is man, who, because he is a microcosm and thus represents a mirror image of the macrocosm, can obtain knowledge of everything. The effectiveness of magic, according to Agrippa, is based on the connection of the three worlds. Only the human spirit can uncover the hidden forces present in matter, and by the latter’s aid man can also call on greater forces to serve him. What Agrippa meant by this becomes evident in his small work De triplici ratione cognoscendi Deu,n (1516), in which the role of the cabala as intermediary step in his system signifies that true knowledge is to be found only in the love of God.
Although Agrippa was an admirer of Luther, he understood the verbum Dei as a Catholic; in one letter to Melancthon he called Luther the invincible heretic. Although this aspect of his thought is often neglected, it occupies the key position in his polemic on the arts and sciences, De incertitudine. This work gives emphasis to the tension between the verbum Dei and human knowledge, without providing any basis for the skepticism of which Agrippa has often been accused. Rather, at the beginning of the era of natural science, it is one of the first testimonials to knowledge of the limits of human understanding. Incertitudo here means a real uncertainty of existence, based on the concept of the human being as a created entity.
The question of why the otherwise critical Agrippa published nearly simultaneously two such opposing work as De occulta philosophia and De incertitudine remains open. In the former he appears to follow the metaphysical and speculative tradition of natural philosophy, while in the latter he attempts to overcome the magic of the verbum mirificum. There is no satisfactory explanation for this, a fact of which even Agrippa himself was aware. With a Faustian restlessness (he is considered the historical prototype of Goethe’s Faust) he always returns to this theme in his letters; posterity has often considered this a fault in his character. Such a conflict is representative of Agrippa’s age, however, and demonstrates a point of view widely held in Germany during the Renaissance.
I. ORIGINAL WORKS. Agrippa’s writings are collected in his Opera omnia, 2 vols. (Lyons, n.d.: 2nd ed.. Lyons, 1600). During his lifetime thereof was edited: De occulta philo–sophia, 3 vols. (Vol. 1, Antwerp, 1531; complete ed., Cologne, 1533); De incertitudine et vanitate scientiartnn argue artium declamatio (Antwerp, 1530: Cologne, 1531); Liber de Iriplici ratione cognoscendi Dewn (1516); In artem brevem Ravtnundi Lulli commentaria (Cologne, 1533). Not in Opera oninia: “Contra pestem antidoton,” in P. Poitier, Insignes curationes... et observationes centum, Vol. I (Cologne, 1625).
II. SECODARY LITERATUR.SECONDARY LITERATURE. Works on Agrippa are M. H. Morley, The Life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, 2 vols. (London, 1856): Auguste Prost, Les sciences ei les arts occultes aux XVIe siecle: Corneille Agrippa. sa vie et ses oeuvres, 2 vols. (Paris, 1881–1882); J. Orsier. Henri Cornelis Agrippa, sa vie et son oeuvre dares sa correspondance (Paris, 1911): A. Reichl, “Goethes Faust and Agrippa von Nettesheim,” in Euphorion, 4 ( 1897) 287–301; G. Ritter, “Ein historisches Urbild zu Goethes Faust (Agrippa von Nettesheim),” in Preussische Jahrbuecher, 141, no. 2 (1910), 300–324; J. Meurer, “Zur Logik and Metaphysik des Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim,” in Renaissance and Philosophic, Beitrage zur Geschichte der Philosophic, Adolf Dryoff, ed., Vol. XI (Bonn, 1920); E. Hahn, “Die Stellung des H. C. Agrippa von Nettesheim in der Geschichte der Philosophic,” diss. (Munich–Leipzig. 1923): R. Stadelmann. “Zweifel and Verzweiflung bei Agrippa von Nettesheim,” pp. 80–86 of Vom Geist de.s ausgehenden Mittelalters, Vol. XV of the series Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift ftir Literaturwissenschaft and Geistesgeschichte (Halle, 1929); E. Cazalas, “Les sceaux planetaires de C. Agrippa,” in Revue de l’histoire des religions 110 (1934), 66–82: E. Metzke, “Die ’Skepsis’ des Agrippa von Nettesheim,” in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrifi fiir Literanuwissen.schaft and Geistesgeschichte, 13 (1935), 407–420; L. Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Page 81 | Top of ArticleScience, V (New York, 1941), 127–138; H. Grimm, Neue deutsche Biographie, I (Berlin, 1953), 105–106; Charles G. Nauert, Jr., Agrippa von Nettesheim, His Life and Thought, diss. (University of Illinois, 1955), and “Agrippa in Renaissance Italy; the Esoteric Tradition,” in Studies in the Renaissance, 6 (1959), 195–222; P. Zambelli, “Umanesimo magico-astrologico et raggruppamenti segreti nei platonici della preriforma,” in Umanesimo e esoterismo, Enrico Castelli, ed. (Padua. 1960), 141–174; R. Schmitz, and K. U. Kuhlmay, “Zum Handschriftenproblem bei Agrippa von Nettesheim,” in Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, 46 (1962), 350–354; R. Schmitz, “Agrippa von Nettesheim und seine Bemerkungen ueber die Wirkungen der Magic in Medizin and Pharmazie,” in Pharmazeutische Zeitung, 110 (1965), 1131–1138: Charles G. Nauert, Jr., “Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought,” in Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences, 55 (Urbana, I11., 1965); and G. Rudolph, “‘De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum,’ Tradition und Wandlung der wissenschaftlichen Skepsis von Agrippa von Nettesheim bis zum Ausgang des 18. Jahrhunderts,” in Gesnerus, 23. no. 3/4 (1966), 247–265.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2830900057