Lecture 2: Lesser-Known Intellectual Trends in the Early Renaissance:
Humanism, Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism
AdamBlatner, M.D.

October, 4, 2010 Given as part of Senior University Georgetown's Fall 2010 program.
   See also: 1. The Early History of Printing       This is Lecture 2.         3. The Great Pox: Syphilis as an Acute Disease     4. Revolutions in Medicine (Paracelsus, Vesalius, Pare)
                  5. Witch-Hunts               6 Summary            


In the mid-14th century, the Ottoman Turks were just getting started:

In 1453 they  conquered Constantinople, renaming it "Istanbul"  and continued their expansion, taking Belgrade in 1456, and bythe mid-16th century they threatened the gates of Vienna!

As mentioned in the last lecture, one of the build-up events for the Renaissance was the attacks in the early 15th century (the early 1400s) by the Ottoman Turks---then an empire very much in the ascendence---on Constantinople, which was at that time the capital of the shrinking Byzantine Empire. Indeed, though it had lasted for almost a thousand years, over the recent centuries its scope had retreated to little more than the territory around its capital city, and sieges continued. Scholars seeing the end escaped with their precious scrolls and traveled West to find a welcome in Italy. These scrolls generated a lot of psychological energy in Italy and then Europe, fuelling the intellectual Renaissance. (In the mid-16th century, coffee from the Turks also came into Europe---found in the empty camps of the Turks outside Vienna---and helped fuel the later Renaissance and the next 400 years!)    (See maps to right--->)


(Pictures below left). One of the places the scholars fleeing the Turks went was to Florence, a city-state in north-central Italy. In the mid-15th century, it was led by a wealthy merchant prince named Cosimo di Medici. (Theoretically Florence was a republic but the politics were complex. It was more of an oligarchy of the wealthy---which is a little bit true today of many leaders of Western and other countries.) Cosimo in the previous fifty years he had made a fortune in banking and supporting a goodly number of emerging weaving and fabric and many other industries.

In 1436 the main city church in Florence was completed after over a hundred years of construction. Credit is given to Filippo Brunelleschi for the neo-classical dome finished last.

Below left, in 1440,  Cosimo built a beautifu Medici Palace, a grand and imposing building. After the death of his second son, Cosimo found it far from cozy. He said, "Too large a house for so small a family, and thereafter preferred to relax amid the olive groves of his country villa.

Cosimo's second son, Lorenzo, (bust to right) was one of these multi-talented guys, so that he was also called “the magnificent. In addition to his patronage of the arts, he followed up on his dad’s interest in scholarship and brought together a few bright fellows in what might today be called a think tank.

In the picture in the middle above, standing on the left of the group shown, is a portrait of an important fellow, Marcilio Ficino, a priest and scholar, who was the main translator into Latin of a number of classical Greek books, starting in the 1440s. The impact of these translations was electric. It set off a search for other scrolls and books throughout Europe. It began or gave more energy to bibliophilia, a word for book collecting. (Printing hadn't yet come in, but it would soon.) Ficino also translated the writings of Plotinus, a neo-Platonist esoteric scholar---about whom we'll say more later), and these too became classical texts.

On the left is one published over a century later.  Ficino further translated books allegedly by Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary ancient philosopher who presented another group of esoteric ideas---and again more will be said later. Ficino’s translations, then, along with the work of many others, fueled a great deal of intellectual energy. Remember that until that time there hadn't been that many books or scrolls available---many were kept in monasteries and sometimes their pages were written over!   So the Renaissance really did mean rebirth, referring to the influx of positive energy in rediscovery of what was thought to have been lost.

Printing made it possible to begin to collect books. Of course, finer libraries were set up in larger institutions. At first, some disdained the use of printed books, but in time all kinds of books were included. The convent of San Marco, right,  became the first public library in Europe, and included the extensive Medici collection.

Some Definitions

Humanism:  Intellectuals outside the monastery turned away from the scholastic preoccupation with other-worldly or transcendental concerns, and turned back towards interest in what it meant to be human---regarding art, literature, medicine, philosophy, and the like. The writings of the ancient Graeco-Roman cultures became available and relevant. Instead of people's bodies being considered base, physical beauty could be contemplated.

Hermeticism: Study of the writings of the legendary Hermes and, by extension, other related esoteric sources, such as the Jewish mystical writings called Kaballah. There was appeal to reading about hidden knowledge, esoteric knowledge, occult wisdom. Educated people well knew that there were many horizons to what was known, but science per se---nor its technology---had not  yet been developed as a method for pursuing this. Secret wisdom and magic were considered to be in the same general status and validity category as science is today. Symbols were clues, too: Remember the symbol-ologist in the DaVinci code? There is no such specialty, actually, but back then this was a theme:  

Neo-Platonism:  Interest in the writings of Plotinus and others who claimed to be carrying on some of the key ideas articulate centuries earlier by Plato, especially regarding the way physical reality is said to form as a further extension of higher, more subtle realms. These ideas will also be expanded on below.

The key point is that philosophy at that time involved the way ideas came together and fit. Just that experience of ideas corresponding to each other carried a great deal of intellectual excitment. When things corresponded, there was a sense of breakthrough. So much in life didn't make sense, so much darkness and mystery. (It was a time before electric lights when in fact there was a lot of darkness---it wasn't just metaphor.)

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

In a way, this young man is the star of this lecture. The son of a wealthy family, and very bright, Pico studied at several centers around Europe, found their teachings quite inadequate, and hired tutors. Jewish mysticism had been signifcantly developed in the early 13th century and was an exciting source of ideas. As you'll see, in some ways it fit with neoplatonic ideas. (Indeed, the two traditions may have influenced each other in the early centuries of the common era.) By the time he was in his early twenties, Pico had begun to develop a surprising breadth of knowledge and discerned in all this what he thought were many common elements. This bringing together of elements from different traditions is called "syncretism."

Pico was part of that Medici "think tank" in Florence, somewhat of a protege of Marcilio Ficino. At one point he published a book of nine hundred theses that weave together many different traditions---Greek, neoplatonic, kabbalistic, and so forth. It's quite an impressive work of scholarship!

In one of his more well-known texts,  Oration on the Dignity of Man.  This was in a sense the finest summing up of the doctrine of Renaissance humanism!  In a sense, this exhortation about the human potential is illustrated on the left. Humans have it over angels in a way, because they have the free will to raise themselves, or they can get lazy and degenerate. Just as there is a spectrum of consciousness from mere being as a stone or mineral (on the far left), through the living (vegetable), or the senseibility of the horse or other animal, to the capacity for reason and intelligence in the man, the man can choose to adjust himself accordingly: If he studies, contemplates, seeks virtue, he makes use of that Divine Gift. Or he can give in to luxury, or worse, gluttony---at the level of a plant---or accedia, which is sort of like sloth, and become more like a rock. Humans can choose!

A significant contribution by Pico in his work was the integration of Kabbalah into Christian esoteric thinking, from whence it traveled  through Rosicrucian ideas, a little bit of Masonic thought, Theosophy, magick (with a k), and then may be found in the modern neo-pagan tradition called wicca, which is not evil witchcraft but more of a nature sort of religion.

Another one of Pico's ideas is that by adding the breath of God as symbolized by the letter H in Hebrew, the four-letter name of God (in  Latin, the "tetra-grammaton") is converted from YHWH to Yhshua, which is the Hebrew name for Joshua, or Jesus. (The phoneme Dj, or hard J, didn't come into English until the Renaissance!)  (Actually, this is inaccurate if one really knows Hebrew, because Joshua's name doesn't end with an H but a letter Ayin. But Pico missed that. He was trying to make a point. Close, but no cigar.) So sometimes in esoteric or alchemical pictures one may see this YHJUH Hebrew lettering, written left to right---the opposite of how Hebrew runs. Oh, well.

Another gift of Picos was the use of the kabbalistic "tree of life" diagram (Hebrew: Etz Khayyim) shown on the right, which shows the levels of emanation of essence from the pure spirit of God to its earthy manifestation.  (Elsewhere on this website I explain this rather useful diagram as a key to spiritual understanding.)

Prisca Theologia

(It's been fun preparing for this lecture series. I learned all sorts of stuff I hadn't known before!)

People in the middle ages and the Renaissance had a problem: It was clear that the ancient Greeks knew a lot, had good insights, were virtuous---but they weren't Christians! They had not been illuminated by official dogma! How could that be? The answer was that there were some few enlightened souls who had an "in" to the pristine, uncorrupted, "low down" on the "higher ups." It was so sublime  that it couldn't be communicated in ordinary language. It had to be studied and deduced, through a correct interpretation of symbols, an understanding of the meaning of not just words, but the forms of the letters used in writing, the secrets behind the recently reported mysterious hieroglyphic forms of Egyptian writing, or Hebrew, and even the "true" meaning of the Roman and Greek alphabets.

Those who carried the "prisca theologia" included Moses, Isis, the aforementioned Hermes Trismegistus, Pythagoras,  Zoroaster, Orpheus, Plato, and some others. They didn't know who was real and who was legendary---history was not yet well developed.
(<--Here's a picture of Hermes, Isis and Moses, three semi-legendary carriers of this pure knowledge, taken from a fresco painted by  Pinturichhio in the Borgia apartments in the Vatican, done when Alexander VI was pope near the end of the 15th century. Point here is that allegory and esoteric ideas were a stretch, but okay if used by the right people even within the established church.)

Back to Pico:  His story would make a great movie. Around 1486 he published a thick book of 900 theses that brought together all sorts of esoteric doctrines. His point was that Christianity, interpreted correctly, expressed the Prisca theologia, the ancient wisdom. He invited folks from all over to come and discuss his ideas. No one took him up on it. This work, I think anticipated what might today be called inter-spirituality, what the Dalai Lama has been advocating and recently wrote a book on the validity of all faiths. Some folks thought it was brilliant, wonderful. Some folks, like Pope Innocent VIII, or his minions, found a number of questionable points, probably heretical, and suppressed the work. To the side, it is said that the Pope said that this young man wants burning. He was only half kidding, half indulgent, half serious—it was a warning. Good thing Pico came from an influential family. Pico then embarked on some dramatic adventures, an affair with a married woman, imprisonment, repentance, laying low—but he was too dangerous to the politics of Florence, especially after Lorenzo the Magnificent died, and he was poisoned by arsenic and died at the age of 31. (Very recent research has confirmed what had only been wondered about.) Lorenzo’s brother and others took over and had to re-make Pico’s image into something less rebellious.


This general idea is found in the spiritual writings of many mystics and contemplatives in many cultures. Basically, it suggests that mundane reality as it is generally perceived is only the most superficial level. Beyond that is the imagination, which, if undisciplined, blurs into mere fantasy and dreams. Beyond that, if the mind is disciplined, and with the help of self-purification, one can discern realms of higher mind. It turns out there are a number of these levels, each accessible to more rigorous forms of study, purification, and initiation. The idea of levels of initiation are present in many esoteric practices, and though today almost meaningless, can be found as a residue in the different "degrees" of Masonic fraternity.

  Lest we be too quick to find this way too quaint or flaky, let us pause and consider that something sort of like this has been found by science in the last century or so to be so in the physical realm! I recemt;u gave a talk on the emergence of life from earlier forms---as may be seen elsewhere on my website titled the Great Story.

20. There’s a chain of existence from the spiritual or more essential to the complex.

21. Modern people don’t believe this anymore. But on the other hand, many do, but in a somewhat revised form. The whole story of the Big Bang, and the formation of atoms and molecules, and stars and galaxies and the mystery of life emerging, and evolution... well, it’s sort of neo-platonic, but they use fancier words...

22. They didn’t know it in Renaissance Europe, but lots of philosophies had this kind of scheme, from the Kabbalistic tree of life, which I mentioned, to South Asia and the Far East

23 Let’s look at this scheme: It’s sort of a spectrum of complexity and also refinement of spirit.

24. And there were correspondences to the Hebrew alphabet and the Hebrew numbering system.

25... what these mean...

26.  Hebrew was new in intellectual circles—because the whole idea of writing was somewhat new to people who had been for the masses really rather illiterate. Letters had power. When printing started putting out words for more people to read, there was a time of adjustment. Letters had power, magical power. Their shapes and forms—especially foreign letters, Hebrew, bits of Egyptian hieroglyphs— letters were taken to be symbols, not just signs.

A sign just means one thing— h sounds for the phoneme, h. But h as a symbol has all sorts of associations— a man sitting? A throne? Kingship? It’s what it looks like.

By the mid 1600s letters were made non-mysterious, simple signs. But in the 1400s and 1500s they were magical, strange, laden with symbolism. So amulets had magical power. A magical name like abracadabra had a lot of woo-woo!

27 Here’s another diagram associated with Neo-Platonism and the work of Marcilio Ficino and its correlations with musical scales. The music of the spheres.

28. Looking up with clairvoyance or a poet’s visions one could imagine the ranks of higher angels, one level beyond another towards the top... there were pictures like this in the domes of some cathedrals, too.

29. And systems of esoteric initiation had people travel in their imagination and with the help of ordeals and rituals through the different levels—just as there are grades and types of degrees in academia today.

30...so the correspondences in the Jewish Mystical system, the numerology, all fed into the sense that there were secrets and magic to be found...
    And they were right, but it wasn’t what they thought... it dealt with stuff like electricity...

31 We call it occult now, as if that were a put-down, as if things shouldn’t be hidden. We feel entitled to things being transparent, and simple. And yet, most higher learning requires several levels of lower learning—they call them pre-requisites in college—
    But it really means hidden, and the last 400 years have been a time in which that which was occult has been revealed—and you may consider that we’re not half done with this revealing process, that there may be many more things that seem occult to us today that will be obvious in 400 more years...

32.. Another idea that was intriguing but problematical, also, was bringing wisdom of different backgrounds together. Like the Church finally said in 2009 that evolution was okay, and only in 1822 the pope allowed books to be published without prohibition that the earth did go around the sun after all... in spite of the trouble they gave Galileo . So science and religion have been getting a bit more comfortable with each other in some areas. Also different religions. So when Pico proposed more what would be called today inter-spirituality, that was a bit of a stretch. Still, the Dalai Lama just wrote a book about it.

33. So the point is that the kinds of thinking many people do today is really pre-scientific thought.

34. It was and is fueled by the psychology of insight. If the insight turns out to be useful, it’s considered a genius breakthrough. If it’s widely believed, that belief tends to be retained. If it’s rarely believed, that idea tends to be viewed as weird or fanatical.

35. Now an interesting conundrum for intellectuals about the Renaissance is that ever since Thomas Aquinas integrated Aristotle, there’s been a problem what to do with the Ancient Greeks. They were no dummies, it was clear. But neither had they enjoyed the benefit of the revelation of Jesus, so how could they be considered smart?

The answer was to create a category of enlightened beings who were able to tap into a theology that Jesus tapped into, a pristine, pure theology, a “prisca theologia,” that may have been confused as the years went on. Moses was one of these people who got the straight dope right from the top, but as folks thought about it, perhaps so was Pythagoras, and the mythical character Orpheus, and a guy I’ll talk about in a moment named Hermes Trismegistus, and some others. 

36. Here’s a picture of Hermes, Isis, and Moses.
   Now this was in the Vatican, in the apartments of the Pope who was a Borgia Alexander VI. So the theme of allegory and Hermes for a while became mainstream, or acceptable in more liberal circles.

37 Hermes was thought to be a real guy who became deified as the Greek God, thought to have lived maybe as long ago as Moses. Actually, these documents supposedly written by Hermes were probably composed around the 2nd century of the common era. He’s a classic or principal person made okay to think about as a prisca theologia.

38 legend also associated Hermes with the Egyptian god Thoth...

39 another picture

40   in this later painting, , old figures including copernicus are looking forward to a glorious future...

41 Notice the tetragrammaton—4-letter word— y h v h, not well written— there’s that magical Hebrew stuff,,,   and one of those paintings that tie so many things together, astrologically, light and dark, etc.

42. In astrology there are combinations of the 4 seasons that correspond with the four elements and the three variations corresponding with alchemy... making 12 permutations. This was considered portentous, significant.

43. This was a time when the 4 —what the psychiatrist carl jung called the archetype of the quadernity—was important. Folks believed that key things came in 4s , the 4 humors, seasons... the idea that this was a convenient division based on all sorts of psychological tendencies and historical traditions was unthinkable..

44 the four humors, which I’ll mention again in the next couple lectures about disease and medicine...

45 One time I became intrigued with all the ways 4 could be done and made this chart, probably in the early 1970s

46   and planets, and alchemical processes, this was important thinking back then...

47   Alchemy was a great mystery, could fill a whole lecture or several,

48  but let’s just say that the way substances transformed was beginning to be thought about, examined, and this added more fuel to the fire of excitement.

49 while some things were seen as occurring in 4s, other things, like the Trinity, involved an interaction of 3.  The mind sees patterns here. They may be made up, but they seem as if they’re happening out there.

50.  Sulphur,
  51 Mercury, Salt, positive, negative, balance..

52.. Allegory is another point of input, the recognition of mythic validity, or at least the development of a sensitivity to finding ways to understand myths as potentially expressing good Christian truths.

53 such as this athena and centaur

54 medallion   which is another way to speak of the problem of taming one’s passions... an eternal theme for philosophical and self-disciplined pagans as well as true believers.

55 Tarot   and this truth also to be found in another derivative of that allegory on the Tarot card of the chariot.

56 ceiling Isis... other myths also became mainline allegories. I showed you Isis as one of the prisca theologia and here is the more elaborate myth. But of course, interpretations can always be found. The Devil can quote scripture, it is said, and the pious can gain morals from pagan parables.

57   Just to note that these trends began in the early Renaissance and spread. Kabbalah had become quite well-known throughout certain aspects of the intelligentsia of Europe, as did many other of the aforementioned ideas, and each person explored and interpreted these phenomena according to their own biases.  Erasmus was writing and thinking around this time, lending some true wisdom to the correspondences that were beginning to happen. Some improvements in postal dynamics were beginning, though it didn’t get more systematic for a century.

58 Reuchlin was exploring esotericism in Germany following up with what his colleagues were doing in Northern Italy,

 59 And Agrippa was further elaborating ideas. Note the use of his amulet. What I said earlier about letters, numbers, geometry—this still was imagined to have power...

 60   what is magic, anyway? It was clear that it was not necessarily demonic or bad. It could be, but it could also be calling on angelic powers.

61 But still, it’s interesting to get a sense of the power of what seems today like a rather primitive way of getting at the truth. Considering people’s lack of developed technology for finer experiments, the lack even of good lighting, especially at night, the prevalence of mystery regarding health and illness—which we’ll address next time—it is necessary to be critical but, how shall I say it?—not smugly judgmental.

62.  My main emphasis, though, is a little political twist of proposing the improvement in the way we teach critical thinking. Right now it’s superficial, lip service. To really prepare people for an era in which information comes easily—just Google it— then information is no longer the precious limiting agent; instead, judgment is. Knowing how to sift and weigh information, determine what is relevant for the task at hand, doesn’t come intrinsically to young people who for much of their young lives are told what to learn. This opens up another topic known as pedagogy, the art of teaching, applying it to the new situation in contemporary life. But in a sense, that’s what folks have always been doing—coping with new situations.