The 15th-16th centuries in Europe were a time of great scholarship with a focus on esoteric studies. Occult philosophy flourished during this period, pulling from a potpourri of ideas including Neoplatonism, Pythagorean numerology, Gnosticism, Chaldean lore ascribed to Zoroaster, medieval magical thought from Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus, and the Hermetic corpus attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, an Egyptian magus believed to live around the time of Moses.
It was during this time that many of the great occultists – Marsilio Ficino (who revived Hermetic philosophy), Pica della Mirandola (who Christianized the Jewish cabala), Henry Cornelius Agrippa (who wrote a highly influential handbook on occult philosophy), and John Dee (who conjured angels) – flourished.
Cabala and Alchemy
Cabala was the belief that when God gave the written Torah to Moses, he also revealed a secret tradition that was passed orally. This tradition taught that the sacred Hebrew letters revealed secret knowledge if interpreted properly.
Alchemy was also prominent at this time. While modern definitions of alchemy focus on turning metals into gold or the question for the Philosopher’s Stone or the Elixir of Life, the occultists of the Elizabethan era saw it as a means to divinely transmute the inner self. Any exterior changes were a result of an inner change.
The Elizabethan Universe in a Nutshell
Gerald Suster sums up occult philosophy in his book on John Dee with these nine postulates.
- All is a unity, created and sustained by God through His Laws.
- These Laws are predicated upon Number
- There is an art of combining Hebrew letters and equating them with Number so as to perceive profound truths concerning the nature of God and His dealings with Man
- Man is of divine origin. Far from being created out of dust, as in the Genesis account, he is in essence a star daemon.
- As such, he has come from God and must return to Him.
- It is essential to regenerate the divine essence within Man, and this can be done by the powers of his divine intellect.
- According to the Cabala, God manifests by means of ten progressively more dense emanations: and Man, by dedicating his mind to the study of divine wisdom, by redefining his whole being, and by eventual communion with the angels themselves, may at least enter into the presence of God.
- An accurate understanding of natural processes, visible and invisible, enables Man to manipulate these processes through the powers of his will, intellect, and imagination
- The Universe is an ordered pattern of correspondences.
Agrippa, for instance, described the universe in terms of three worlds: the Elemental/ Terrestrial Nature, which was the physical world that could be understood through sciences; the Celestial world, which involved the stars and heavenly bodies and could be understood through astrology and alchemy; and the Supercelestial World, which involved numeric calculations and conjuring of angels.