Cornelius Agrippa and Renaissance feminism at the BPH blog

H. C. Agrippa – occult, sceptical, and feminist philosopher of the Renaissance.

The BPH/Ritman Library’s blog has an article-length post up by my good friend and colleague Joyce Pijnenburg, on the Renaissance humanist and “occult philosopher” Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and his lesser known treatise on the nobility  of women. I remember being fascinated by this work when I first “discovered” Agrippa in my late teens – back then it was an eye-opener for me to find that the man who had been embraced by modern occultists as “their” intellectual patron, primarily for his Three books of occult philosophy (and the spuriously attributed Fourth book), had also produced works of sceptical philosophy (De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium), as well as a work that might classify as “Renaissance proto-feminism”. Agrippa is certainly more interesting than he’s often made into.

Joyce takes a closer look at this little-explored Renaissance feminist current, and transposes it  with certain contemporary issues discussed by Slavoj Žižek (whom, I must confess, I generally see as a stand-up comedian rather than a philosopher – some sharp observations, much hyperbole, and a lot of hilarity). The article  is entitled “Does woman exist? Agrippa von Nettesheim and Slavoy Žižek on Women and (their) Presence”. As an additional teaser before you go and read the whole thing, here’s the abstract:

Today the early modern humanist and magus Agrippa von Nettesheim (15th-16th century) is mostly known for his works Three Books on Occult Philosophy and On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Arts and Sciences. In his own day, however, Agrippa also gathered fame with the short but influential treatise Declamation on the Preeminence and Nobility of the Female Sex, in which he sings the praise of women from various perspectives and even argues their superiority over men. The treatise evidences his participation in, and partial dependence on, a very early wave of what one may call feminism, which had emerged in the early 15thcentury. In the late 17th century, Agrippa’s translator Henry Care adapted the Declamatio, eloquently and enthusiastically adding some arguments of his own. Agrippa was evidently inspired by specific hermetic and kabbalistic ideas while writing the Declamatio.And indeed it seems that the most original arguments he adds to the feminist arsenal of his day are based on the worldview according to which human beings are the mediators between the Absolute, or God, on the one hand, and the relative, or the world, on the other.

Many of the themes taken up by the two early modern feminists Agrippa and Care are also central in contemporary feminism. In order to relate feminist notions to hermetic, kabbalist and platonist worldviews, I compare Agrippa’s and his translator’s arguments to some of the views of Slavoj Žižek (1949-) as presented in his collection of essays The Metastases of EnjoymentOn Women and Causality. The main questions touched upon are, firstly, whether the ‘feminine’ is dependent upon the ‘masculine’, or free from it; and secondly, whether women should primarily be praised for what they might be thought to reflect, or (/also) for what, and how, they already are.

Read the full version, and find out what Hermes, Plato, and the Kabbalah have to do with feminism.

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  1. […] Yesterday I recommended Joyce Pijnenburg’s excellent discussion of Cornelius Agrippa and the Hermetic/Platonic/Kabbalistic influence on Renaissance feminism. Today, Sara Veale of Invocatio added some reflections on what the ancient hermetic sources actually have to say about women. The argument is that the Hermetica had to be read rather selectively for Agrippa to find support for his proto-feminist project. In other words: here, as elsewhere, we must clearly separate the Hermetica from the hermeticists of the Renaissance. This point, of course, is always valid when we are dealing with reception, particularly in the case of normative projects in religion or philosophy. It’s little use  reading the gospels alone if one wants to  find out what various Christian denominations of today actually preach. And it’s foolish to expect contemporary ethicists who (sometimes) identify as neo-Aristotelians (say, Martha Nussbaum) to buy every detail of Aristotle’s doctrines of the soul, or indeed his views on women. […]

  2. […] Cornelius Agrippa and Renaissance feminism at the BPH blog ( […]

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