Agrippa von Nettesheim, Heinrich Cornelius


Agrippa von Nettesheim, Heinrich Cornelius
(1486-1535)
   German humanist and polymath, known in his own time principally for his learning in magic and other occult sciences. Born near Cologne and educated in liberal arts there, he seems to have studied also at Dôle, Paris, and Pavia and claimed degrees in both law and medicine. He studied Greek and Hebrew and investigated occult learning that he believed to be very ancient, such as the Jewish mystical thought known as Cabala and the Hermetic books. In 1510 Agrippa produced the first version of his famous book on magic, De occulta philosophia / On Occult Philosophy, which was first printed in 1531-1533. Although he was influenced by the German humanist and Cabalist Johann Reuchlin and the occultist abbot Johannes Trithemius of Sponheim, his mastery of both humanistic studies and the occult arts increased greatly during six years (1512-1518) spent in Italy. He may have taken a law degree during this period, but he spent most of it studying and lecturing on occult arts and Neoplatonic philosophy. His subsequent writings, including the revised version of De occulta philosophia, show influence by the Italian Neoplatonists Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Like them Agrippa affirmed the existence of a body of secret learning, originally revealed by God and embodied in the books of the Jewish Cabalists, Hermes Trismegistus, Pythagoras, Zoroaster, and Plato. These interests reflect a Christianized religious universalism that acknowledged a divine revelation at the roots of every human culture.
   Between 1518 and 1524, Agrippa lived in Metz, Geneva, and Swiss Fribourg as city legal counsellor, medical director of the civic hospital, and city physician, respectively. In this period he displayed sympathy with the Lutheran Reformation, though he was a critic of church corruption and clerical arrogance rather than an adherent of Lutheran theology. At Metz Agrippa defended the French humanist Lefèvre d'Etaples from attacks by local mendicant friars. In 1524 he moved to Lyon as personal physician to Louise of Savoy, mother of King Francis I. Resentment of his outspoken criticism of the queen mother, suspicions of sympathy for Martin Luther, and objections to his study and practice of magic caused him to lose favor at court.
   During this time of disappointment and financial hardship, Agrippa wrote his second major book, De incertitudine et vanitate scientium et artium / On the Uncertainty and Vanity of All Sciences and Arts, first published in 1530. In it he discusses every field of human endeavor and every type of academic learning and concludes that all of them are unreliable and useless; only a simple Christian piety based on the words of Scripture has enduring value.
   In 1528 he moved to the Netherlands, where he became historiographer to the governor, Margaret of Austria. Once again, Agrippa's interest in magic, suspicions that he favored the Lutheran cause, and resentment of his caustic attacks on traditional learning and established religious and political authorities cost him the favor of his patron. He left the Netherlands in 1532 to live with a new patron, the archbishop-elector of Cologne, Hermann von Wied. He moved to Lyon in 1535 and was briefly arrested because of his public criticisms of the mother of King Francis. He died at Grenoble later that year.
   In his own time and for centuries afterward, Agrippa was famous (or infamous) chiefly for his knowledge and active practice of occult arts such as astrology and alchemy, but also for his skeptical book on the uncertainty of human knowledge, De incertitudine et vanitate. Popular stories about his magical learning and practices made him the subject of legends and bred rumors of diabolical connections. These stories merged with contemporary legends about the German charlatan Georg Faust (ca. 1480-1540), so that the literary figure of Faust in German popular books and in the famous play by the English dramatist Christopher Marlowe contains elements derived from the life and legend of Agrippa. He revelled in paradoxical assertions contrary to contemporary opinion, a tendency expressed not only in De incertitudine et vanitate but also in his De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus / On the Nobility and Superiority of the Female Sex, which defended the proposition that the female sex is not only equal but actually superior to the male sex, an opinion wildly contrary to prevailing opinion. This little book was frequently reprinted and translated into several European vernaculars during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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