Prospectus 3.2: Reevaluating Frances Yates

By October 21, 2011

Here I summarize a group of books that reevaluate the work of Frances Yates. It was Yates’ work on Renaissance Hermeticism that was the foundation for Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire. Thus the reevaluations of Yates, I argue, help us to better situate Mormonism in the history of Christianity. I had considered writing individual reviews but since they interweave it worked to analyze them together. I may do individual reviews of some of these works later.

Francis Yates’s narrative of Hermeticism in the West began with the translation of the Corpus Hermeticum and wound its way through various early modern “magi” to the Rosicrucians and Freemasons.[1] In doing so, Yates elevated this form of “magic” and even argued for its influence on the scientific revolution. Yates’s arguments about science were the most controversial, but recently scholars have critiqued Yates’s use of the term Hermeticism.[2] The critiques have been on three points: 1) that Neoplatonism is a better term than Hermeticism for the movement Yates described, 2) that the movement did not reemerge in the Renaissance but instead had medieval roots, and 3) that “magic” is a problematic term and that “theurgy” is a better descriptor for what Yates’s “magi” were doing.

Brian Copernhaver was one of the first to critique Yates on the first point in 1988, noting that Ficino’s and Agrippa’s “magic” (theurgy) derived from Proclus rather than the Corpus Hermeticum. “The works of Plotinus, Porphyry, Imablichus, Synesius, and Proclus,” argued Copenhaver, “are the most important ancient philosophical sources for the theory of magic in the Renaissance. Research on magic in the Renaissance should shift its attention to these texts and to their interpretation in the early modern period.”[3] Also in 1988, Nicholas Clulee’s biography of John Dee, who had previously been interpreted as one of the Hermetic magi, argued that medieval sources, particularly Roger Bacon, were of greater influence on Dee than those of the Renaissance.[4] Both of these studies would play a significant role in the reconfiguration of Yates’s thesis; yet Yates’s model continued to be influential, inspiring John Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire in 1994, which traced the hermetic ideas Yates had articulated from the English Civil War to Joseph Smith. Works by Arthur Versluis and Catherine Albanese expanded Brooke’s work to broader themes in American religion and culture.[5]

Recently, the work of Wouter Hannegraaf, Gyorgi Szonyi, Florian Ebeling, Stephen Clucas, and Owen Davies have reconfigured the Yates thesis along the line mentioned in the introduction: questioning the use of the term hermeticism, arguing for continuity with medieval thought and practice, and rejecting the use of the term magic.[6] Yates had used the term Hermeticsm broadly, referring both to themes that the were in the Corpus Hermeticum and to movements that she saw as similar, like alchemy and Kabbalah, despite their not being mentioned in the Corpus. This was too vague a definition, the critics argued: said Gyorgi Szonyi, “Taking all this into consideration, one has to conclude that the category of hermeticism must either be enlarged ad infinitum to accommodate all the significant phenomena Frances Yates tried to bring under this label; or it has to be understood as a well-defined but by no means generally influential trend.”[7]

Furthermore, following Copenhaver, these authors argued that Neoplatonism rather than Hermeticism was the philosophy central to Ficino’s project. “Frances A. Yates,” asserted Florian Ebeling, “surely exaggerated when she claimed that Florentine Renaissance philosophy had a fundamentally Hermetic core”—Ficino’s focus, Ebeling explains, was Plato.[8]

Second, these scholars argued for medieval continuity: “There was no ‘rebirth of magic’” in the Renaissance, declared Owen Davies, “no great break with the past, but rather a continuation and development of medieval ideas.”[9] Stephen Clucas called Yates’s narrative “Burckhardtian”: Yates spoke “of the civilizing force of Renaissance culture triumphing over narrow mediaevalism.” In doing so, argued Clucas, “Yates consistently underestimates the continuity and persistence of mediaeval magical practices and techniques in early-modern magic.”[10] Szonyi, Ebeling, Culcas, and Davies all traced Neoplatonic ideas from the Arabic revival of classical thought in the twelfth century and noted the influence on early modern thinkers.[11] Clucas was the most explicit, arguing for the influence of “medieval theurgy” on John Dee. By “medieval theurgy,” Clucas meant a series of text from Arabic sources attributed to Solomon with theurgic purposes.[12]

Only Hanegraaf directly challenged the use of the term magic, arguing that it only be used as an emic category and not an etic one.[13] The others still used the term although they acknowledged the term’s problems.[14] The work of Hanegraaf, along with that of Naomi Janowitz and Randall Styers, convinces me to try to find better, more specific terms for practices that are labeled “magic.”[15]

Despite these critiques, Szonyi advocated “a kind of cautious return to the Yatesian ‘master narrative,’ albeit with some modifications.” The master narrative that Szonyi proposed was the focus on deification (or what Szonyi called “exaltation”) in the Western Tradition and its significance for Dee.[16] The fact that this was a major theme in both Christian Platonism and Mormonism (“exaltation” was even Joseph Smith’s preferred term for deification) makes Syonzi’s master narrative useful for this dissertation. Furthermore, the issue of Hermeticism is complicated by the fact that Hermeticism and Neoplatonism greatly overlapped,[17] that Hermeticism influenced the late Neoplatonists Imablichus and Proclus,[18] that Hermeticism has murky origins,[19] and that where Hermeticism differs from Neoplatonism it does so in ways that are in line with early Mormon theology (greater emphasis on the body, sexuality,[20] and the idea that God was human.[21]) Szonyi simply combined the two terms into “neoplatonic hermeticism.” Because of the awkwardness of this term and that fact that Neoplatonism was more central and better defined, I will focus on tracing Neoplatonic influences while noting that Hermeticism was also important. That is to say, Yates’s work is still valuable and Brooke was right to link Mormonism to her work. This fuller context for Yates’s paradigm will more fully illuminate the work that Brooke initiated.[22]

I will trace Neoplatonic influence on the West by noting five major strains. First is the medieval scientists and medieval cosmology: Neoplatonism influenced the animated cosmos of the medieval world, the survivals of which were deemed “occult” after the scientific revolution.[23] Second the Rhineland mysticism of Meister Eckhart and Johann Tauler greatly influenced early modern mystics and later evangelicals.[24] Third, the theurgists who practiced what is often called “ritual magic,” building on the work of Stephen Clulee and Gyorgy Szonyi. Number four is Kabbalah, or a form of Jewish mysticism that drew heavily on Neoplatonism.[25] Kabbalah greatly influenced Christian mysticism and ritual theurgy but also influenced Smith directly. The fifth strain was the translation of the Neoplatonic texts themselves into English by Thomas Taylor and their influence on Romantics and Transcendentalists of Smith’s era. All of these strands influenced early modern Christian Platonism and all had influences on early Mormonism. I will mention individual tenets of Christian Platonism in greater detail in the chapters focusing on the development of Smith’s theology.

[1] Francis Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964); The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London: Routledge, 1979).

[2] On the scientific implications of Yate’s thesis see H. Floris Cohen, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 169-83.

[3] Brian Copenhaver, “Hermes Trismegistus, Proclus, and the Question of a Philosophy of Magic in the Renaissance,” in Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Ingrid Merkel and Allen G. Debus (Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1988), 93.

[4] Nicholas Clulee, John Dee’s Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion (London: Routledge, 1988). Earlier works that linked Dee to the Yates thesis were Peter French, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus (London: Routledge, 1972) and Francis Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London: Routledge, 1979).

[5] Arthur Versluis, The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

[6] Wouter J. Hanegraaff “The Study of Western Esotericism: New Approaches to Christian and Secular Culture,” in New Approaches to the Study of Religion. Vol 1: Regional, Critical, and Historical Approaches, ed. Peter Antes, Armin W. Geerts, and Randi Warne (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 489-520; Gyorgy E. Szonyi, John Dee’s Occultism: Magical Exaltation through Powerful Signs (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004); Florian Ebeling, The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times, forward by Jan Assmann , trans by David Lorton (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007); Owen Davies, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Stephen Clucas, “John Dee’s Angelic Conversations and the Ars Notoria: Renaissance Magic and Medieval Theurgy,” in John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies In English Renaissance Thought, ed. Stephen Clucas, (Springer Dordrecht, The Netherlands: 2010), 231-74.

[7] Szonyi, John Dee’ Occultism, 89.

[8] Ebeling, Secret History of Hermes, 68, 60-63.

[9] Davies, Grimoires, 46.

[10] Clucas, “John Dee’s Angelic Conversations,” 236.

[11] Szonyi, John Dee’s Occultism, 41-77; Ebeling, Secret History of Hermes, 27-58; Davies, Grimoires, 25-40.

[12] Clucas, “John Dee’s Angelic Conversations,” 240-41.

[13] Hanegraaff, “The Study of Western Esotericism,” 513-16.

[14] Gyrogi Szonyi admits, “The word magic makes one associate a variety of things which may have little in common,” John Dee’s Occultism, 4. Owen Davies concedes, “Defining the meaning of magic is a far trickier task. For all the time, paper, and intellectual energy spent on trying to do so, there is no overarching answer. Any useful understanding must be tied to the cultures of the people being studies in specific periods and places.” Davies, Grimoires, 2.

[15] Naomi Janowitz, Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews and Christians (London: Routledge, 2001); Randall Styers, Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[16] Szonyi, John Dee’s Occultism, 15.

[17] Ebeling shows that in the history of hermeticism, hermetic ideas and texts were almost always coupled with Neoplatonism. Ebeling, Secret History of Hermes.

[18] Ebeling, Secret History of Hermes, 20-21.

[19] We almost never know the author of hermetic texts that were written over an extensive time period. Thus the theology in the various texts cannot be seen a single whole. Heirich Dorrie called hermeticism “a thing without corners or edges.” Quoted in Ebeling, Secret History of Hermes, 11.

[20] Ebeling, Secret History of Hermes, 15-16.

[21] The Corpus Hermeticum, book X says, “Man is a divine being … earthly Man is a mortal god, and that the celestial God is an immortal man.” Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 111. This is very similar to what Joseph Smith taught near the end of his life (discussed below).

[22] Cathy Cutierrez’s Plato’s Ghost: Spiritualism in the American Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) has already applied some of these paradigms.

[23] Davies, Grimoires, 93.

[24] Steven E. Ozment, Mysticism and Dissent: Religious Ideology and Social Protest in the Sixteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973). Upon being attacked for being Platonic by orthodox Lutherans, Jacob Spener, the founder of Pietism, defended himself in print against these attacks,” says Florian Ebeling, “maintaining that he had built his doctrine exclusively on the basis of the Bible. And since there were incontestable parallels between his concepts and those of Plato, he reckoned that Plato had also read the Holy Scriptures.” Ebeling, Secret History of Hermes, 111.

[25] Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 41.

Article filed under Christian History Historiography


  1. Very interesting. I have to admit I’ve not kept up one the debate’s evolution the past decade or so. Back when I looked into a lot of this back in the 90’s I always wondered why those bringing in Kabbalism, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, and so forth didn’t just look at it as a kind of broad or generic neoplatonism since arguably that’s the main influence in all the movements they do mention. To be honest I’ve never been quite clear on how to distinguish hermeticism from neoplatonism; beyond just textual influence claims. I’m interested in what you think about that.

    Comment by Clark — October 22, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

  2. Distinguishing Hermeticism and Neoplatonism is tricky. I remember asking my early Christianity adviser that question and after a pause she said that Hermeticism viewed the body and matter more positively. The tricky thing is that the late Neoplatonists, Iamblichus and Proclus, drew upon Egyptian ritual and Hermetic thinking, so there was even more blending at that point. Plus the two tended to be used together by Christian Platonists. So I’d say there is considerable overlap and are hard to distinguish but that they’re not exactly synonymous (but pretty close). For instance, the Iamblichus viewed the body much more positively than Plotinus. So it’s kind of tricky.

    Christian Platonists, who saw the Corpus Hermeticum as the source of Platonic thought, didn’t bother to distinguish between the two, it was all prisca theologica, ancient wisdom.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 22, 2011 @ 6:27 pm


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