Magic Manifold in the Humanist writings of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Christopher Marlowe: Part I

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and Christopher Marlow (1564-1593) in their respective works, On the Dignity of Man (first presented in 1486) and The Tragedy of Dr. Faustus (published in 1604) articulate the characteristics of the renaissance magician in its promise and its peril. In both instances, magic is the secret knowledge that bestows power upon the individual and exemplifies the traditions of humanist philosophy. Magicians could delve into the mysteries of the ancients and discover things both demonic and angelic. If this knowledge were pursued wisely it could lead people to become like the loftiest of angels, and if misused it would make them into the most wretched of beasts. The Tragedy of Dr. Faustus serves as a warning against black magic that was the dark reflection of humanist ideology, while white magic, for della Mirandola, was the highest form of thought common to all great thinkers and prophets of every culture and every age.

Renaissance humanism was characterized by several principles and in this articles, as well as the one which follows it, we will be exploring some of them in relation to the two abovementioned texts, della Mirandola’s, which was one of the founding documents of the Italian renaissance, and Marlow’s which serves as a later English commentary. In this installment, we will be tracing the role that the belief in the dignity of man and his place in the cosmos played in della Mirandola’s notion of the magician, as well as how he sought to demonstrate this with a syncretic reading of a variety of ancient sources in the search for a universal, unifying truth. This study led many humanists to believe in the fundamental unity of all philosophies and theologies, all pointing towards some divine goal, a goal which necessitated the elevation of the human through all the links in the great chain of being to fulfill this potential.

Rather than focusing on human limitations, the humanists believed that nothing in the world could be found that was more worthy of praise than man. Pico della Mirandola was one of the most vocal proponents of this idea, and even went so far as to describe man as being outside the great chain of being. This chain, conceptualized since at least the middle ages as the hierarchical connection of all things in the world, from stones, to plants, fishes, birds, humans, angels, all ultimately lorded over by God, was a common motif in much philosophical and religious thought of the time, but few sought to remove man from his place between angel and animal. Yet della Mirandola proposed a world in which God said to man: “I have given you no fixed place, no fixed outline, no fixed task, so that you may undertake any task and occupy whatever place you wish”. This gift enabled man to ascend or descend in the order of creation, as he pursued good or evil, and thus gave a more vital role to the individual human in the scheme of creation. The spirit of ebullience that this freedom created in the humanists is pointedly expressed by della Mirandola’s remarking: “what generosity of God the Father, what great fortune for man! Who could fail to admire the chameleon that we are!”

In many cases the humanist ideals seemed to be supported by Ancient Greek and Hebrew texts that were then gaining in influence. Through studying the writings of such ancients as Plato, Moses, and the mythical demigod of the hermetic tradition, Hermes Trismegistus they came to see in all of them a fundamental unity with their own thought. These early humanists considered themselves more closely related to the ancients than to the philosophers of the Middle Ages (indeed, it led them to characterize the age that stood between themselves and the ancients as a “middle” age, from which we have the term itself!).

In studying the ancient texts the Renaissance humanists interpreted the myths and stories they encountered allegorically. This led to a proliferation of symbolic references that would have been considered heretical in earlier generations. Comparisons of the mythology of the ancients with Christianity were common and resulted in such works as the surprisingly titled Christ’s Chalice, Hermes’ Cauldron. This conflation was possible, indeed, vital to expanding the scope of human knowledge because Christ, Moses, Plato and Pythagoras were all preaching different aspects of the same reality. They only differed in the manner in which they chose to present these underlying truths.

The importance of Pico Della Mirandola to this movement cannot be stressed enough. Indeed, for many historians and humanist his On the Dignity of Man is considered to be the document that laid down what it meant to be an Italian humanist. While della Mirandola firmly believed in the freedom of the individual and his ability to move up or down the great chain of being, however, he saw the ultimate expression of this freedom as the ability to ascend it.

In The Dignity of Man, della Mirandola uses a curious symbol to express the individuals who seek an angelic state. He chooses to call all those who have obtained the divine truths magicians. At first he employs the analogy of a farmer to describe what these people are, saying: “as the farmer marries elm to vine, so the magician marries earth to heaven, that is, lower things to the qualities and virtues of higher things”. Furthermore, della Mirandola makes it clear that the magician is the minister and not the maker of nature, which was the providence of God alone, although his quest for understanding does ultimately lead him to the knowledge of nature, and thus of God. This was also reflected in one of his nine hundred thesis when he stated that “there is no clearer evidence for the divinity of Christ than is provided in magic art and the Cabbala”. Considering the importance of della Mirandola to the Renaissance and the long list of philosophers that he claimed to have possessed the powers of the magician, it is crucial to understand what he meant when he talked about white and black magic and the role of these enigmatic figures. Indeed, we must understand if we wish to learn what he thought it meant to be a human being.

della Mirandola’s magicians and the practitioners of black magic both have a close relationship to secrets. He speaks of the great journeys such magicians as Plato and Pythagoras went on to learn white magic. When they returned from these journeys they “held it chief among their esoteric doctrines”. The studying of their writings was essential for the humanists, for to them “the texts were thought […] to point to something different, something more profound and more secret, which did not appear on first sight”. For those who could discover them, these secrets were the tools by which the initiated would come to the joy of wisdom. In contrast to using secrets to test the person seeking such heights, practitioners of black magic were seen to be those who worked in secret because they would come to public shame for practicing their art, for it was by its very nature “the most fraudulent of arts”. Both of these types of magic function through a kind of secrecy, either because of the rarity of understanding and the need to be tested, as in della Mirandola’s white magic, or because of the very deceptive nature and need to be an invisible agent of ones of greed which he described as the goal of black magic. However, even the magician must be careful to veil his secrets in allegory in the face of the inquisition and della Mirandola warned his listeners: “that there are many people who, as dogs bark at strangers, so also often condemn and hate what they do not understand”.

With his exclusively negative treatment in these writings, it is difficult to get a full image of what della Mirandola had in mind for the black magician, other than that it was the antithesis of the philosopher. Whatever black magic was, all laws and well-ordered states abhorred it, for it called people away from God, and delivered them over to the powers of wickedness. Finally, being the antithesis of white magic, it was the art that made people descend to the level of the beasts in the great chain of being, thus concerning themselves only with worldly gains. Christopher Marlow, writing over a hundred years later would come to exemplify, as well as complexity the image of the black magician, while at the same time critiquing the humanist tradition from which he was, in many ways, descended. It is to this topic that we shall turn in the next installment of “Magic Manifold”.


For More Information:

Dresden, S. (1968). Humanism in the Renaissance. Trans. Margaret King. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Garin, Eugenio. (1965). Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance. Trans. Peter Munz. Great Brittan: A. T. Broom & Son.

Marlow, Christopher. (2003). The Tragedy of Dr. Faustus. Ed. Roma Gill. America: W.W. Norton & Company.

Mirandola, Giovanni Pico della. (1998). On the Dignity of Man. Trans. Charles Glenn Wallis. Indianapolis: Hackett.


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