Cleaning Up the Cosmos
Or: How a woman, who is so big, penetrates the eyes, which are so small;
A Reading of Ioan Couliano's Eros and Magic in the Renaissance
tu desnudez hecha gracia.
tu desnudez hecha agua.
tu desnudez hecha alma.
-Juan Ramon Jimenez
your nakedness made grace.
your nakedness made water.
your nakedness made soul.)
Souls descend into the bodies of the Milky Way through the constellation of Cancer enveloping themselves in a celestial and luminous veil which they put on to enter terrestrial bodies. For nature demands that the very pure soul be united with the very impure body only through the intermediary of a pure veil, which, being less pure than the soul and purer than the body, is considered by the Platonists to be a very convenient means of uniting the soul with the terrestrial body. It is due to that descent that the souls and bodies of the planets confirm and reinforce, in our souls and our bodies respectively, the seven original gifts bestowed upon us by God. The same function is performed by the seven categories of demons, intermediaries between the celestial gods and men. The gift of contemplation is strengthened by Saturn by means of the Saturnian Demons. The power of the government and empire is strengthened by Jupiter through the ministry of the Jovian Demons; similarly, Mars through the Martians fosters the soul's courage. The Sun, with the help of the Solar Demons, fosters the clarity of the senses and the opinions that make divination possible; Venus, through the Venereans, incites Love...
There is great presumption amongst Catholic intellectuals that the Renaissance is the beginning of the end of "Christendom" and the beginning of all things nasty about the modern world. As it was put to me in seminary in a very curt and self-assured manner, Luther revolted against the secularization of the medieval mind by those lascivious Italians, but in the process, he began the long march to postmodern agnosticism. Luther wanted Christ without the Church. The Enlightenment wanted God without Christ. The nineteenth century wanted morality without God. And the postmodern world doesn't even want morality. But it all began with the deification of man by those decadent Italians. They began the whole historical process that has led to modern science, rationalism, and revolutionary humanism...
Like all myths, this one has its very romanticist appeal. It looks at the inexplicable past through the lens of its own presumptions on how people thought and acted centuries ago. And it can give its adherents the confidence that they themselves have been saved by their perfect faith in their absolute difference from the modern world. As long as they can stay in their mountain sanctuaries, listen to sacred polyphony, decry any type of painting after Fra Angelico, and read St. Thomas Aquinas like the Talmud, they are safe from the contemporary contagion. It is only with very meticulous scholarship such as Ioan Couliano's that we clearly see that this attitude is only the other side of the postmodern coin.
Couliano is not a Christian scholar. One could even call him "anti-Christian" in his perspective. A protege of Mircea Eliade, he is an observer of all traditions and an adherent of none. His aim, then, is neither to refute nor confirm Christianity directly. Of the three figures that loom the largest in his book, Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandolla, and Giordano Bruno, the first was a priest, the second a latter-day follower of Savonarola, and the third an unrepentant heretic. What we wish to address here is not whether Christianity was weakened or strengthened during the Renaissance. It is, rather, what version of Christianity won out, or in other words, how would Christians subsequently change how they believed and how they viewed the world.
Central to Couliano's book is the idea of phantasm. According to traditional ancient epistemologies, man perceives the world through the creation of phantasms in the imaginative faculty. To be very simplistic about it, man perceives the world like he falls in love: an image is engraved into his mind like the figure of a beautiful woman is engraved into the heart. One thus falls in love with the object, one becomes a slave to the phantasm.
The lover carves into his soul the model of the beloved. In that way, the soul of the lover becomes the mirror in which the image of the loved one is reflected.
-Marsilio Ficino, De Amore
Renaissance culture was a culture of the phantasmic. It lent tremendous weight to the phantasms evoked by inner sense and had developed to the utmost the human faculty of working actively upon and with phantasms. It had created a whole dialectic of Eros in which phantasms, which at first foisted themselves upon inner sense, ended by being manipulated at will. It had a firm belief in the power of phantasms, which were transmitted by the phantasmic apparatus of the transmitter to that of the receiver. It also believed that inner sense was preeminently the locale for manifestations of transnatural forcers - demons and the gods.
Magic, then, is the manipulation of phantasms in order to acquire a certain end. Magic has more to do with love and less to do with any idea of magic we have nowadays. One of the greatest feats of magic for Giordano Bruno, for example, is what we would now call the manipulation of mass media. For Bruno, you can manipulate phantasms not just to do a party trick, but also to make entire societies do what you want. It is from here that we get ideas of white magic versus black magic present in the Renaissance. Love is a magician, according to Ficino since,
the whole power of Magic is founded on Eros. The way Magic works is to bring things together through their inherent similarity. The parts of this world, like the limbs of the same animal, all depend on Eros, which is one; they relate to each other because of their common nature. Similarly, in our body the brain, the lungs, the heart, the liver, and other organs interact, favor each other, intercommunicate, and feel reciprocal pain. From this relationship is born Eros, which is common to them all; from this Eros is born their mutual rapprochement, wherein resides true Magic.
-Marsilio Ficino, De Amore
Love, then, was the way to manipulate the universe. The magician performed certain rituals in a dispassionate manner in order to coax things into becoming a certain way, or rather, to reveal how things really were. One such manner was the famous Art of Memory. Another was hieroglyphics. As Couliano writes,
Ficino...conceived of philosophy as an initiation into mysteries, consisting of a gradual rise in intellectual loftiness receiving in response from the intelligential world a phantasmic revelation in the form of figurae.
Through the "performance" of these hieroglyphic figurae,the eye of the soul would open up and thus be able to see the reality not visible with the naked eye. Another gadget was the Iynx, a golden disk with various graphic symbols that such historical figures as Proclus claimed to use to produce rain and other phenomena. Even the abbot of Wurzburg, Trithemius, was rumored to have practiced magic, when he made appear the ghost of the wife of the Emperor Maximilian.
Now, dear reader, you must be thinking that I have totally gone off my rocker. "Does he give any credence to any of this rubbish?" is something that you might be asking. You might think this is all the work of the devil or simple superstition. There is, however, a very rigorous and comprehensive vision of the universe at play here, one that we have long since renounced. For many Renaissance Neoplatonists, the soul fell from the heights through the various spheres of the planets, and that is why the zodiac has any power to predict our tendencies and even our actions (without totally denying free will). We are, at least in our souls, consubstantial with the stars since we fell through them. In this sense, in the Renaissance cosmos, all things are connected and influence each other. That is why even important clerics watched the stars and believed in alchemy. They had a vision of the universe where the default presupposition was that everything meant something, whereas we think that all things are meaningless unless proven otherwise.
The innocence of the "magical" point view can be best described by the following quote from Henricus Cornelius Agrippa:
It is possible in a natural way, removed from superstition and without the intercession of any spirit, for a man to transmit his trend of thought to another man at no matter what distance and location, in a very short time. It is possible to estimate the exact time it takes, but all that takes place within twenty four hours. I knew how to do it myself, and I have often done it...
What Couliano is formulating is that what occurred at the time of the Renaissance was not the birth of the modern scientific mind, but the flourishing of ancient, other-worldly arts. And these were not necessarily demonic or hostile to the Christian view of the universe. They were, rather, a different way of doing things and seeing the world than what we have now. What was prevalent was a belief that the universe was a very enchanted and interconnected place.
For Couliano, then, we did not inherit the world that the Renaissance made, but rather actively broke with the frame of mind that the Renaissance and the time before it had. The Romanian scholar gives the analogy of a wingless fly that only survives in the Galapogos Islands. Genetically, wings of flies aide in their being able to survive and thrive, except in the windy conditions of some South American islands where having wings would make mobility a lethal disadvantage. Thus Couliano characterizes in this way the point of view of modern science where,
people had lost the habit of using their imagination and thinking in terms of "qualities", for it was no longer permitted. Loss of the faculty of active imagination naturally entailed strict observation of the material world revealed by an attitude of respect for all quantitative data and suspicion of every "qualitative" statement.
Because modern science was deemed more innocuous to what was perceived as a Faith in the process of reformation, it was allowed to flourish, while the other arts were suppressed as overly sensuous and even demonic. Of the Protestant Reformation, the massive iconoclasm and rejection of "medieval superstition" speak volumes for the case of the censorship of phantasms and the imagination. But even in Catholic countries, the rationalization and codification started at the Council of Trent of the liturgy and clerical discipline were also indicative of the same reformation. After all, one of the things the Council of Trent did was ban all books on astrology. Couliano also points out how even women's style of dress changed. Women tried to hide their more sensual features, to the point that the style of dress in Catholic Spain was just as repressive as in Calvinist Geneva. As Couliano put it,
The Catholic faith and the Protestant denominations have drawn as close together as possible without being aware of it. Henceforth it is no longer a question of Reformation or Counterreformation... Side by side, they build a common edifice: modern Western culture.
"What is the big deal,then?" you might be asking yourself. To be brief, I would say that the ultimate danger of this modern Western culture is that in warring against eroticism, phantasms, and superstition, it made the universe a dead and vacuous place. From a perhaps overly imaginative vision of the cosmos that was full of angels, demons, and other spirits, we obtain a perspective of the universe as a bunch of randomly floating dead rocks. This has little to do with science and more to do with "scientism": a refusal to look past quantities and the idea that the world is a giant cold grid of numbers. And this effects how we philosophize, theologize, and contemplate our world. Couliano expresses this by the following:
To read in the "book of Nature" had been the fundamental experience in the Renaissance. The Reformation was tireless in seeking ways to close that book. Why? Because the Reformation thought of Nature not as a factor for rapprochement but as the main thing responsible for the alienation of God from mankind.
Citing the Catholic figure of Blaise Pascal, Couliano puts it all quite succinctly that in the Reformed universe there was only "the silence of God exiled from nature".
We, then, are not children of the Renaissance, but rather children of the Reformation, regardless of our creedal affiliations. What has led to our much decried modernity according to Couliano is not the victory of one form of Christianity over the other, but an attempt to purify the cosmos of wonder and magic. It is this destroying of the power of imagination and enthroning of the quantified, dead cosmos, that has given birth to secular society, not the victory of "subjectivism". We killed God because we killed nature. This has meant not the enthroning of man in God's place, but rather the dissection of man to the point where he is nothing, an accidental speck in the meaningless universe. Renaissance humanism, on the other hand, viewed man as the microcosm and image of God, a king in a wondrous and vibrant Creation. This of course is a provocative thesis, but one worthy of much consideration.
I do not expect you, the reader, to buy into what I am saying without further consideration. That is not the point of this essay. What I am saying with Couliano is that our idea of the world is also based on many flawed assumptions and to people in the Renaissance it may have appeared as absurd as alchemy and astrology do to us. Our vision of the world is just as much a product of evolution and historical accident as any other, and it inevitably will change. What I would like you to take away is that maybe our vision of the world is even more toxic to the Christian Faith than the pagan "superstitions" that were being revived in fifteenth century Italy. Maybe in our cleaning up of the cosmos, we threw out the baby of the noble imagination with the "pagan" bathwater.