The Philosophy of Natural Magic, by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, L. W. de Laurence ed. , at sacred-texts.com
Such were the mysteries of the Hebrew Cabala, strangely blending a not unrefined philosophy with basest superstition. It remains for us to form some just opinion of the charm they had for many Christian scholars in the first years of the sixteenth century. Reuchlin, or Capnio, was of such scholars the leader and the type; as such, indeed, he was accepted by the young Cornelius Agrippa. He was the greatest Hebrew scholar of his day, and had become so by his own natural bent. Born at Pfortzheim, of the poorest parents, two and thirty years before Agrippa came into the world, taught Latin at the town school, and winning in his youth a ducal patron by his tunable voice as chorister in the court chapel at Baden, by his quick wit, and his serene, lively, amiable temper, he never afterwards lacked powerful assistance.
The life of Reuchlin is the story of the origin of Greek and Hebrew studies among learned Europeans. He was sent with the Margrave's son, afterwards Bishop of Utrecht, to Paris. The fall of Constantinople, in 1453, had caused fugitive Greeks to betake themselves to many European cities, where
they sometimes gave instruction in their language. Reuchlin, at Paris, learned Greek from a Spartan, who gave him instruction also in caligraphy and made him so clever a workman with his pen, that he could eke out his means and buy books with money earned as a Greek copyist. He studied Aristotle with the Spartan. Old John Wessel, of Groningen, a disciple of Thomas a Kempis, taught him Hebrew, and invited him to a direct study of the Bible. At the age of twenty he was engaged by publishers to write a Latin dictionary, which he called Breviloquus. At the age of twenty he taught Greek publicly, laying his main stress on a study of the grammar; the good sense he spoke emptied the benches of the sophisters around him, and produced complaints from old-fashioned professors. It was then urged that all the views disclosed in Greek books were essentially opposed to the spirit and belief of Rome. The monks had no commerce with the language; and when they came to a Greek quotation in a book that they were copying, were used to inscribe the formula "Græca sunt, non leguntur." Reuchlin maintained his ground, at twenty-five wrote a Greek grammar, lectured at Poictiers, and was made licentiate of civil law. His notion of law studies was expressed in a formula that has been applied in other terms to other things: In his first year the young lawyer knows how to decide all causes, in the second begins to be uncertain, in the third acknowledges that he knows nothing, and then first begins to learn. In the last of these stages of progress the licentiate of Poictiers repaired to Tubingen, and practiced as an advocate with such success that he made money and married. At Tubingen, Reuchlin won the confidence of Eberhard of the Beard, became his private secretary and one of his privy-councillors, and went with him to Rome in 1482, his age then being eight and twenty. At Rome he distinguished himself as an orator before the
[paragraph continues] Pope, and was considered to speak Latin wonderfully well for a German. After his return to Germany, John Reuchlin remained with Eberhard in Stuttgard, became assessor of the Supreme Court at the age of thirty, and a year afterwards was elected proctor for the body of the Dominicans throughout all Germany, which unpaid office he held for nearly thirty years. At the age of thirty-one he received at Tubingen his doctorate, and in the year following, that is to say, in the year of Cornelius Agrippa's birth, he was sent with two others to Frankfort, Cologne, and Aix-la-Chapelle, on the occasion of the coronation of Maximilian as Roman emperor. Then it was that Maximilian first became acquainted with him. Reuchlin had then a house at Stuttgard, and was known as a great cultivator of the learned languages, while he was also high in the favor of his own prince, and in constant request as a practitioner of law. In 1490 he was sent to Rome on another mission, and on his way through Florence enjoyed personal intercourse with Giovanni Pico di Mirandola, the scholar who, although a determined antagonist to the astrologers, was a great friend to cabalism and the introducer of the cabalistic mysteries into the favor of Italian scholars. By him Reuchlin was further stimulated to the love of Hebrew lore. When, two years afterwards, Reuchlin was at Linz on state business with the Emperor Frederic III., it was something, indeed, that the base-born scholar was raised to the dignity of court palatine, but it was more to Reuchlin that the court physician was a learned Jew, Jehiel Loans, who perfected his intimacy with the Hebrew. His aim then was, above all things, first to study the original text of the Old Testament, and secondly to read the writings of the Cabalists. The emperor, whose life was then about to close (he died while Reuchlin was at Linz), saw here another way of gratifying the agreeable and
kindly scholar, for he not only made Reuchlin a count palatine (his arms were a golden altar, from which smoke arose, with the inscription "Ara Capnionis"), but he also presented to him a very ancient Hebrew Bible, written carefully on parchment, a treasure then worth three hundred gold crowns, which is to be seen still in the library of the Grand Duke of Carlsruhe, where it is regarded as the oldest of its kind in Europe. With the knowledge imparted by Jehiel Loans, and the actual text in which all mysteries lay hidden, Reuchlin went home enriched as much as he had been ennobled. Hebrew writing was at that time very rare, and was to be met with chiefly in the hands of Jews. At Hebrew Reuchlin labored, collecting Hebrew books and works expounding the Cabala, whenever possible; and eventually he gave life in Germany, as Giovanni Pico di Mirandola was giving life in Italy, to the cabalistical philosophy, the great impulse to this German revival being the publication of the book on the Mirific Word. It first appeared at Basle, in the year 1495, the author's age then being forty-one. It was not published at Tubingen till 1514. The book was regarded as a miracle of heavenly wisdom. Philip Beroaldus told of the Pope's enjoyment, and wrote word also to its author that he had caused not only men of letters, but even statesmen and warriors, to betake themselves to studying the mysteries of the Cabala.
The death of Reuchlin's patron, Eberhard the elder, soon after his elevation to the rank of duke in 1495, was followed by a period of misrule in the little state. One of the first acts of Eberhard the younger was to release his favorite, a dissolute priest, named Holzinger, from the prison in which he had been kept by the good counsel of Reuchlin; and for the further discomfiture of the scholar this man was appointed chancellor over the university of
[paragraph continues] Tubingen. Reuchlin of course resigned. He had been long wanted at Heidelberg, and went there to be cherished by a new patron in the Elector Palatine. He showed, as usual, his lively energy by the establishment of a Greek chair, which the monks pronounced upon the spot to be a heresy; and by venting his wrath against Holzinger in a Latin comedy, denouncing dissolute priests, which he called Sergius, or the Head of the Head. It was written to be acted by the students. A Latin comedy was then a rare thing in the land; and the news that John Reuchlin had written one was noised abroad. Prudent friends counseled him to beware of such unscrupulous and powerful enemies as he would make if he attacked abuses of the priesthood; he submitted to advice, and as he was notoriously answerable for a comedy, and gossip must be satisfied, he suddenly composed a substitute for that first written. When, therefore, the day of the performance came, it was found that the Greek professor had composed a comedy against abuses in his own profession; it was a castigation of dishonest advocates. Scenica Progymnastica the piece was called.
After two years of misrule Eberhard the younger took its consequences; he was then deposed, and Holzinger, the monk, sent back to prison. "When the bricks are doubled, Moses comes," said Reuchlin, and returned to his old post at Tubingen. Hitherto his life of study had not been unprofitable, nor, much benefit as he received through patronage, was it a life wanting independence. "Whatever," he says, "I spent in learning, I acquired by teaching."
An anecdote of this good-humored scholar may be here interpolated, which displays his character in half a dozen points of view. He was detained once in an inn when it was raining very heavily, and of course had his book with him. The rain had driven into the common room a large number of country
people, who were making a great noise. To quiet them Reuchlin called for a piece of chalk, and drew with it a circle on the table before which he sat. Within the circle he then drew a cross, and also within it, on the right side of the cross, he placed with great solemnity a cup of water, on the left he stuck a knife upright. Then placing a book—doubtless a Hebrew one—within the mysterious circle, he began to read, and the rustics who had gathered round him, with their mouths agape, patiently waited for the consequence of all this conjuration. The result was that Reuchlin finished comfortably the chapter he was reading without being distressed even by a whisper of disturbance.
In the year 1502 Reuchlin was elected to the post of general judge of alliance under the terms of the Suabian league. His office was to adjudicate in all matters of dispute among confederates and vassals, concerning the interests of the emperor as Archduke of Austria, the electors and princes. There was a second judge for prelates, counts, and nobles, a third for imperial cities. This post he held during eleven years; he was holding it, therefore, at the time when the young Cornelius Agrippa undertook to comment publicly at Dole upon his book concerning the Mirific Word, Reuchlin then being fifty-five years old, and at the summit of his fame, high, also, in the good esteem of Maximilian. Three years before this date, notwithstanding the great mass of legal business entailed on him by his judicial office, Reuchlin had, to the great help of all students, published a volume of the Rudiments of Hebrew, which included both a grammar and a dictionary. This book, he wrote, "cost me the greatest trouble, and a large part of my fortune." Cornelius no doubt had learnt his Hebrew by the help of it, and was already deep in studies which a few years afterwards brought the monks of Cologne into array against Reuchlin himself, their
hostility somewhat embittered by an inkling of the Latin comedy that was not to be quite suppressed. Cornelius, however, was the first to feel the power of such enemies. By the Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum the monks were destined to come off much worsted from their battle against Reuchlin and the scholars who defended his fair name. Of their fortune in the battle fought against Cornelius Agrippa it is one part of this history to tell.
Reuchlin wrote at a later period (1517) a book upon the cabalistic art. If it is written God created heaven and earth, he interpreted that to mean spirit and matter, the spirit consisting of the angels and ministers by whom the ways of man are influenced. Magic, he said, dealt with evil spirits, but the true Cabala only with the good. He believed in astrology; and so, indeed, did Luther and Melancthon; Giovanni Pico di Mirandola at Florence, while adopting the Cabala, was very singular in his hostility to a belief in influences of the stars. His own faith in cabalism Reuchlin enforced thus: God, out of love to his people, has revealed the hidden mysteries to some of them, and these could find in the dead letters the living spirit. For Scripture consists of single letters, visible signs, which stand in a certain connection with the angels, as celestial and spiritual emanations from God. By the pronunciation of the one, the others also are affected; but with a true Cabalist, who penetrates the whole connection of the earthly with the heavenly, these signs, rightly placed in connection with each other, are a way of putting him into immediate union with the spirits, who through that are bound to satisfy his wishes.
In his book called Capnio, or the Mirific Word, expounded at Dole by Cornelius Agrippa, Reuchlin placed the Christian system in the center of old heathen philosophies, considering many of the doctrines of Pythagoras and Plato as having been taken
from, not introduced into, the wisdom of the Cabalists. The argument is stated in the form of dialogue, which is immediately preceded by a summary of its intention that may very well suffice here for a summary of its contents: "Receive, then, in this book the argument on the Mirific Word of three philosophers, whom I have feigned to be holding such dispute among themselves as the controversies proper to their sects would occasion, as to the best elucidation of the hidden properties of sacred names. Out of which, great as they are in number and importance, occasion will at last be the more easily afforded for selecting one name that is above all names supremely mirific and beatific. And this you may know the whole matter in brief. Sidonius, at first ascribed to the school of Epicurus, but found afterwards, nullius jurare in verba magistri, an unfettered philosopher, travels about to satisfy his thirst for knowledge, and after many experiences enters Suabia, where he meets in the town of Pfortzheim" (Reuchlin's birthplace) "two philosophers—Baruch, a Jew, and Capnio" (Reuchlin himself), "a Christian, with whom he disserts upon many systems, and presently upon the knowledge itself of divine and human things, upon opinion, faith, miracles, the powers of words and figures, secret operations, and the mysteries of seals. In this way question arises concerning the sacred names and consecrated characters of all nations which have anything excellent in their philosophy, or not unworthy in their ceremonies; an enumeration of symbols is made by each speaker zealously on behalf of the rites cherished in his sect, until at last Capnio, in the third book, collects out of all that is holy one name, Jehosua, in which is gathered up the virtue and power of all sacred things, and which is eternally, supremely blessed."