The Occult Philosophy in Elizabethan England

Dame Frances Yates’ work is a study of Christian cabalism as it was understood in Elizabethan England.  She argues that “occult” philosophy was the dominant philosophy and sees Cabala as “supposed esoteric tradition passed down from Moses through the ages.  It includes the ‘Sephiroth,” “intermediaries or emanations of the divine” (Yates 2).”

Cabalism didn’t arise in a vacuum but was mediated through several countries, religious groups, and wandering philosophers (Bruno et al). These men gave us the idea of the Magus.   A magus is “a lofty figure, endowed with powers of operating on the world” (21).

The Renaissance magicians thought of themselves as “white magicians.”  Angels and not demons. Angelic influences pour down through the Sephiroth (77).  

Lull’s Theory

“Everything in the natural world is composed of the four elements…to [which correspond] the elemental qualities–cold, moist, dry, hot” (12).  

Lull doesn’t believe in astrology in the sense of horoscope.  Rather, he holds that the planets correspond to Neo-Platonic powers (very similar to CS Lewis in That Hideous Strength).  These forces weren’t evil per se.   They are good (as all of God’s creation is).  Rather, they can be used for evil purposes and in that sense can become a terror to the wielder (29).

While respectable academics might scoff at any “occultism,” few doubt the Neo-Platonism of the time as seen in Spenser and others. The Neo-Platonic poets posited a mystical, Arthurian side of the British Empire (93).  And Yates’ genius is able to make sense of otherwise difficult moments in the Spenserian tradition.  By positing a hermetic undertone, Yates opens up mysteries in why Spenser opted for 12 Books when there are not 12 Aristotelian virtues. Yates suggests that for Spenser the “12” is a combination of both 12 Aristotelian virtues and the sign of the Zodiac (119).

Yates advances the conclusion that Spenser’s poem is not only a Neo-Platonic manifesto (which is true and rarely disputed) but one that is based on the Christian cabala of Giorgi and Agrippa (123).
As always, Yates gives us top-notch scholarship.   There are only a few minor qualms.  Parts of the book repeat itself and other parts don’t appear immediately relevant.

About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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