(Roughly) Daily

“The structure of the universe- I mean, of the heavens and the earth and the whole world- was arranged by one harmony through the blending of the most opposite principles”*…

Two diagrams from Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia (1533) demonstrating the proportion, measure, and harmony of human bodies — Source: left, right

… And as we undertake to understand that structure, we use the lens– the mental models and language– that we have. The redoubtable Anthony Grafton considers and early 16th century attempt: Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa‘s De Occulta Philosophia libri III, Agrippa’s encyclopedic study of magic that was, at the same time, an attempt to describe the structure of the universe, sketching a path that leads both upward and downward: up toward complete knowledge of God, and down into every order of being on earth…

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s manual of learned magic, De occulta philosophia (1533), explicated the ways in which magicians understood and manipulated the cosmos more systematically than any of his predecessors. It was here that he mapped the entire network of forces that passed from angels and demons, stars and planets, downward into the world of matter. Agrippa laid his work out in three books, on the elementary, astrological, and celestial worlds. But he saw all of them as connected, weaving complex spider webs of influence that passed from high to low and low to high. With the zeal and learning of an encyclopedist imagined by Borges, Agrippa catalogued the parts of the soul and body, animals, minerals, and plants that came under the influence of any given planet or daemon. He then offered his readers a plethora of ways for averting evil influences and enhancing good ones. Some of these were originally simple remedies, many of them passed down from Roman times in the great encyclopedic work of Pliny the Younger and less respectable sources, and lacked any deep connection to learned magic.

[Grafton describes the many dimensions of Agrippa’s compilation of the then-current state of magic…]

But few of the dozens of manuscript compilations that transmitted magic through the Middle Ages reflected any effort to impose a system on the whole range of magical practices, as Agrippa’s book did. He made clear that each of the separate arts of magic, from the simplest form of herbal remedy to the highest forms of communication with angels, fitted into a single, lucid structure with three levels: the elementary or terrestrial realm, ruled by medicine and natural magic; the celestial realm, ruled by astrology; and the intellectual realm, ruled by angelic magic. Long tendrils of celestial and magical influence stitched these disparate realms into something like a single great being…

Agrippa offered, in other words, both a grand, schematic plan of the cosmos, rather like that of the London Underground, which laid out its structure as a whole, and a clutch of minutely detailed local Ordinance Survey maps, which made it possible to navigate through any specific part of the cosmos. Readers rapidly saw what Agrippa had to offer. The owner of a copy of On Occult Philosophy, now in Munich, made clear in his only annotation that he appreciated Agrippa’s systematic presentation of a universe in which physical forms revealed the natures of beings and their relations to one another: “Physiognomy, metoposcopy [the interpretation of faces], and chiromancy, and the arts of divination from the appearance and gestures of the human body work through signs.” Agrippa’s book not only became the manual of magical practice, but it also made the formal claim that magic was a kind of philosophy in its own right…

A 16th century attempt to understand the structure of the universe: “Marked by Stars- Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy,” from @scaliger in @PublicDomainRev.

* Aristotle


As we take in the totality, we might send more modern birthday greetings to a rough contemporary of Agrippa’s, Evangelista Torricelli; he was born on this date in 1608. Even as Agrippa was trying to understand the world via magic, Torricelli, a student of Galileo, was using observation and reason to fuel the same quest. A physicist and mathematician, he is best known for his invention of the barometer, but is also known for his advances in optics, his work on the method of indivisibles, and “Torricelli’s Trumpet.” The torr, a unit of pressure, is named after him.


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