Cornelius Agrippa

He studied law, medicine, and theology too. In the framework of medieval thought we may look upon him as a man of science. He wrote on many subjects, and displayed much clarity of thought. His name was Heinrich Cornelius Aggrippa von Nettesscheim (born: 14 September 1486).

When he was chased out of the city of Metz for defending someone of sorcery, he moved on to Geneva and became a physician. Then he went to Lyons as court astrologer. He was versed in the occult and even practiced magic, divination, and alchemy. But in the end he confessed that all this was a sham. He called the Cabala “a pestilent superstition.” He indulged in such things, he frankly confessed, because people paid him for his expertise in  them. Perhaps many modern practitioners of  pseudosciences will empathize with Agrippa, for, belief-systems are often pandered in accordance with their demand in the marketplace.

The man is remembered for two important books ascribed to his name. One was on occult philosophy. The work may be regarded as a treatise on ancient science, and it was not exactly an original work.. There is  a universal spirit spread out all over the universe, and guiding it. Knowingly or not, in this he echoed Hindu thought when he spoke Out of nothing God created the world of matter, the heavens, and angels. Man was placed at its center. It is because a little of the spirit is encased in this frail body that we are able to know anything. All language and mathematics is a reflection of that spirit. It is thus that we are able to unravel the mysteries of the world around us. He went on to say that with such knowledge one can gain control over nature, even subdue evil spirits. The book had a great impact, and a rumor circulated that the man was a great magician himself, a wielder of secret knowledge, a real Faust in flesh and blood.

Agrippa’s other book is not mumble-jumble. Its English title is On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences. In this hyper-skeptical treatise he tried to show that we cannot be sure about any human knowledge, and that all science was in vain. Of course he was referring to the sciences of his time, when science consisted for the most part of the personal opinions of this thinker or that saint. The point he was trying to belabor, like many thinkers have done, was that there is a clear distinction between knowledge of the perceived world and knowledge of God. The two belong to very different categories. This is good insight, but his conclusion  to the effect that the former is totally uncertain while one can be sure of the veracity of the latter may be questionable if one is grounded only on rationality.

The only dependable thing was verbum Dei: the word of God. This he took very seriously, because, like Descartes “cogito”, this was the only thing of which he could be absolutely sure. How a skeptic like him who had called history a fable, could accept as true  what is only reported as verbum Dei, may not be clear to all his readers.

And yet, there was a time when he upset orthodoxy, because he was bold in his rejection of  papal authority and eloquent in his condemnation of the Inquisition. He was driven out from kingdom to kingdom, got into debt, suffered imprisonment, and died prematurely at forty-eight.

But Agrippa was very insightful when he said that “the pursuit of the sciences is so dangerous and unpredictable that it is far safer to be ignorant than to know.” He wasn’t talking about technology and pollutions and bombs. How prescient, one would say. But he was saying  rather that knowledge “is that which has extinguished the lamp of faith, casting our souls into profound darkness; condemning the truth, it has elevated error to the throne.”

V. V. Raman


About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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