What is Magic? – A Renaissance Perspective

Portrait of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and several illustrations found in his work Three Books of Occult Philosophy

A clear definition of magic has been hard to find for a lot of people. Some will say that magic is pure intent and will, while others will say that it is pure prayer and worship towards a certain deity. Today we will look at a very clear definition of magic found in De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres or Three Books of Occult Philosophy by none other than Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim. The first book of this work – which is where Agrippa lays out his definition of magic – was first printed in 1531.

Interestingly enough, the definition of magic starts in the second chapter instead of the first, where people would suspect it considering this whole work is supposed to be about occult philosophy and magic. Instead Agrippa opens up his work with an explanation on how the world even functions, which is important for his definition of magic in the second chapter:

“Seeing there is a three-fold World, Elementary, Celestiall, and Intellectual, and every inferior is governed by its superior, and receiveth the influence of the vertues thereof, so that the very original, and chief Worker of all doth by Angels, the Heavens, Stars, Elements, Animals, Plants, Metals, and Stones convey from himself the vertues of his Omnipotency upon us, for whose service he made, and created all these things: Wise men conceive it no way irrationall that it should be possible for us to ascend by the same degrees through each World, to the same very originall World it self, the Maker of all things, and first Cause, from whence all things are, and proceed; and also to enjoy not only these vertues, which are already in the more excellent kind of things, but also besides these, to draw new vertues from above. Hence it is that they seek after the vertues of the Elementary world, through the help of Physick [=medicine], and Naturall Philosophy in the various mixtions of Naturall things, then of the Celestiall world in the Rayes, and influences thereof, according to the rules of Astrologers, and the doctrines of Mathematicians, joyning the Celestiall vertues to the former: Moreover, they ratifie and confirm all these with the powers of divers Intelligencies, through the sacred Ceremonies of Religions.” Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book I, Chapter I.

Here Agrippa lays out the Great Chain of Being; a neoplatonic teaching which proposes the hierarchy of every little thing in our world up to the heavens; which all goes back to the highest being on the chain – the creator of all.

The Great Chain of Being “Anima Mundi” illustrated by Robert Fludd

This introduction to his work alone hints at the fact that a lot of study was a requirement in order to become a magician – at least when it comes to Agrippa’s terms.

Now let’s look at how he actually defined magic in the second chapter, which he conveniently titled What Magick is, What are the Parts thereof, and how the Professors thereof must be Qualified:

“Magick is a faculty of wonderfull vertue, full of most high mysteries, containing the most profound Contemplation of most secret things, together with the nature, power, quality, substance, and vertues thereof, as also the knowledge of whole nature, and it doth instruct us concerning the differing, and agreement of things amongst themselves, whence it produceth its wonderfull effects, by uniting the vertues of things through the application of them one to the other, and to their inferior sutable subjects, joyning and knitting them together thoroughly by the powers, and vertues of the superior Bodies. This is the most perfect and chief Science, that sacred and sublimer kind of Phylosophy [philosophy], and lastly the most absolute perfection of all most excellent Philosophy. For seeing that all regulative Philosophy is divided into Naturall, Mathematicall, and Theologicall.” Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book I, Chapter II.

Here Agrippa lays out how magic works and what magic is in his eyes:

  1. Magic is a faculty of wonderful vertue and full of high mysteries; which contains -> The contemplation of secret(occult) things and knowledge(study) of nature.
  2. Then comes the application of said knowledge in order to use and mix materials to produce certain effects.
  3. Which all has to be applied in accord to the “powers and vertues of the superior Bodies”; which hints at the Great Chain of Being again as well as astrology and planetary magic.
  4. Magic is the most perfect and highest science, a sacred type of philosophy and perfect philosophy.
  5. In order to study this kind of philosophy one must study the different types of philosophies: natural philosophy, mathematical philosophy and theological philosophy.

We see again how much weight Agrippa puts on study; especially considering how he calls magic a type of science and philosophy. Not only that, but he calls it the highest of all as well as sacred philosophy, which is important. For Agrippa the act of magic and study of it was linked to God; a principle he laid out in the first chapter as well as the second. This in itself made magic sacred. Some people will know this type of magic as “high magic” as well.

Pages from a latin edition of De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres

Now on to how he defines the different types of philosophies, which qualify a good magic practioner in his eyes. First let’s look at natural philosophy:

“Naturall Philosophy teacheth the nature of those things which are in the world, searching and enquiring into their Causes, Effects, Times, Places, Fashions, Events, their Whole, and Parts, also […]” Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book I, Chapter II.

Agrippa follows this up by quoting Virgil and sums his definition of natural philosophy up by defining it as an observation of nature, looking into causes and effects as well as weight, calculations, elements, winds and anything connected to things that happen here on earth.

This might be a bit confusing, since Agrippa differentiates between natural and mathematical philosophy. Well, Agrippa states the following about mathematical philosophy:

“But Mathematicall Philosophy teacheth us to know the quantity of naturall Bodies, as extended into three dimensions, as also to conceive of the motion, and course of Celestiall Bodies.” Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book I, Chapter II.

He specifically points to astronomy and astrology. If you ever looked into traditional astrology, then you will be aware of the maths required for it. People back then didn’t have a website to pull up horary or natal charts; they need to know how to calculate everything by hand.

Now for the last type of philosophy, which Agrippa calls “theological philosophy”:

“Now Theologicall Philosophy, or Divinity, teacheth what God is, what the Mind, what an Intelligence, what an Angel, what a Divell [devil], what the Soul, what Religion, what sacred Institutions, Rites, Temples, Observations, and sacred Mysteries are: It instructs us also concerning Faith, Miracles, the vertues of Words and Figures, the secret operations and mysteries of Seals, and as Apuleius saith, it teacheth us rightly to understand, and to be skilled in the Ceremoniall Laws, the equity of Holy things and rule of Religions.” Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book I, Chapter II.

Here Agrippa asserts the importance of the study of God, the spirits which preside in our world as well as the celestial, the mysteries and ceremonies. This basically lays out the importance of knowing what spirit you are working with; since within the Renaissance model of magic spirit work was a major part of the practice and study, as well as that religion and magic as a whole were inseparable for Agrippa.

Agrippa then again puts weight on the study of all three disciplines:

“Whosoever therefore is desirous to study in this Faculty, if he be not skilled in naturall Philosophy, wherein are discovered the qualities of things, and in which are found the occult properties of every Being, and if he be not skilful in the Mathematicks, and in the Aspects, and Figures of the Stars, upon which depends the sublime vertue, and property of every thing; and if he be not learned in Theologie [theology], wherein are manifested those immateriall substances, which dispence [dispense], and minister all things, he cannot be possibly able to understand the rationality of Magick.” Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book I, Chapter II.

He finishes with:

“For there is no work that is done by meer Magick, nor any work that is meerly Magicall, that doth not comprehend these three Faculties.” Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book I, Chapter II.

We can see that Agrippa’s definition of magic severely differs from modern definitions like the ones of pure intent and will. For him magic was a sacred science, philosophy and practice.

How do you define magic? Please let me know!

Recommended Literature

  1. “Three Books of Occult Philosophy” by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim.
  2. “Timaeus” by Plato.
  3. “The Republic” by Plato.
  4. “The Symposium” by Plato.
  5. “The Elizabethan World Picture” by E. M. W. Tillyard

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