Magic during the Renaissance Period

Prof. Giovanni Pellegrino Calabria
Prof. Ermelinda Linda Calabria
The phenomenon of Magic in the Renaissance period was considered of great importance with characteristics that were quite different from those typical of the Middle Ages. It should be highighted that the conception of Man during the Renaissance period was not only different but even antithetical to that of the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, Man was considered the mirror of the Universe with the latter seen as the mirror of God. In such a scenario, Man was considered capable of grasping the intrinsic correspondence existing between the Universe and God. During the Renaissance, practitioners of magic were those considered aware of such a complex holistic system. In other words, the practice of magic during the Renaissance was a grandiose construction that united and blended Neoplatonism, Astrology, Alchemy, Hermeticism and Esotericism. The knowledge of magic was considered moreover, a way to achieve individual perfection. In effect, during the Renaissance, Man was actually envisaged as a microcosm containing the main characteristics existing in the macrocosm, that is, the Universe. Furthermore, such conception was characterised by a strong anthropocentrism element which during the period took the place of the Theocentrism of Medieval times. In short, Medieval Theocentrism placed God at the centre of everything and relegated Man to a marginal role given the marked emphasis during the Middle Ages of the misery of the human condition. In contrast, during the Renaissance the re-evaluation of the role of Man emerges since the intellectuals of the period taking great pride in their status, believe that human beings can achieve goals unimaginable during the Middle Ages. Consequently, it can be stated that the strong anthropocentrism characterising the Renaissance worldview of Man can be found at the basis of the great importance attributed to magic in the period as by such means, Man desired to dominate and control nature. Thus, a re- evaluation of magic can be evidenced, triggering within itself a global change in the cosmological perspective,. Moreover, the cosmological perspective existing in the period differs greatly from that of the Middle Ages whereby there is a shift from the consideration of a timeless, a historical, motionless Cosmos typical of Thomistic Aristotelianism, to the conception of an open and changeable infinite Universe the forces of which can be captured and manipulated by Man by means of magical practices. Such conception, typical of Renaissance Man, forms the basis of the magic practised during the period. In short, according to its symbolic construction, the divine action of Renaissance magic in the Universe implies its animated and unitary nature: by virtue of his privileged relation with the universal divine principle, Renaissance Man considers himself capable of intervening on the intrinsic nature of the Universe and implementing through magic a manipulation of reality. Thus, the abysmal difference between the conception of magic existing in the Middle Ages and that present in the Renaissance clearly emerges. While in the Middle Ages learned men and the people believed that the power of magic derived from the residual power of the demons (St. Thomas in Suma had clearly stated that those who practiced magic performed idolatrous action in favour of demons) during the Renaissance period this medieval concept was not only abandoned but even completely overturned. During the Middle Ages magic practices were condemned indiscriminately and considered abominable, while during the Renaissance magic came to be considered the privileged method to perfect human nature enabling men to achieve goals unreachable in any other way. In short, in the conception of magic during the Renaissance, a strong sense of Titanism emerges explaining why the Renaissance Man set himself the ambitious goal of perfecting himself and of dominating and controlling nature by means of practising magic. Clearly, magic during the Renaissance period was not practised by the common or non-erudite people of the time, on the contrary, the main intellectuals of the period exalted the practice of magic to the extent that during the Renaissance, the presence in magic emerges of philosophical knowledge drawn mainly from Neoplatonism, together with concepts taken from Astrology and Alchemy. Consequently, magic practised during the Renaissance period was considered on a par if not superior, to Philosophy or Science as understood at the time. Practitioners of magic of the era could boast a vast and profound culture that derived from the Esotericism of the classical world and from Hermeticism. Practitioners of magic during the Renaissance therefore, were considered effective philosophers who did not limit themselves to the mere knowledge of the intrinsic elements of nature and the Universe, but who desired to use such knowledge to dominate and manipulate the energies present in the Universe. In effect, during the Renaissance period, the Cosmos was considered a gigantic organism, reflecting the holistic conception of the Universe according to which there is a close interdependence between macrocosm and microcosm, that is, between the Universe and Man. Interesting is the conception of Man in the Renaissance period considered by intellectuals of the time to be an effective microcosm containing in itself the main characteristics of the macrocosm on a reduced scale. In this respect, it would be appropriate to mention Agrippa one of the most relevant Renaissance practitioners of magic-philosophers. Agrippa in his works distinguishes three types of magic: natural magic, celestial magic and religious magic. In Agrippa’s view, natural magic enabled Man to discover the secrets of nature while the celestial kind gave humans the ability to use the influence of the stars. In turn, religious magic enabled Man to dominate both angelic and demonic spirits. It is evident that Agrippa's religious conception of magic is fully compatible with that embraced in the Bible which condemns all forms of magic in the belief that practices of magic serve only to induce demons to indulge the desires of the practitioners. The Bible clearly highlights that men cannot manipulate the will of the Angels if by their nature they are subject only to the will of God. Consequently, magical practices have no power over angels. Paracelsus, another eminent Author of the time, argued relative to the network of correspondence between the Cosmos and Man, that the psychic energy of the mind could not influence the forces of nature. In conclusion, the present article also highlights that eminent volumes on magic written during the Renaissance period present an extremely surprising, curiously multidisciplinary mix. They include pages of mechanics and chemistry, medical prescriptions, codification of secret writings, glimpses of metaphysics, reflections of theology as well as references to Egyptian magic and biblical prophets, astrological reflections and references to the great philosophers of the Middle Ages. The Authors of the Renaissance period perceived no difference between the astrological-magical vision of the world and the Christian vision of the Universe. At the same time, they did not believe that any barriers existed between magic and science. Furthermore, they attributed an exceptional character to the figure of the Practitioner of Magic considered a man who had reached a level of wisdom that made him different from other men and who lived on a level inaccessible to the uninitiated. For this reason, the Practitioner of Magic had to keep his knowledge secret, as the eventual spread of such knowledge among the people might well have extremely unpleasant consequences.


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