Sunday, November 21, 2010
current state of my argument on Pico and theurgy
To clarify: I don't think that theurgy was a term Pico used. I'm responding to the use of theurgy to describe Pico by modern scholars. My own definition of theurgy comes from Iamblichus and Dionysius. It seems to me that the "conjuring" perspective on theurgy dates to medieval grimoire magic which uses "theurgia" as a term for conjuring--see Agrippa's critique in De Vanitate. My biggest bone to pick with contemporary uses of theurgies is with the tradition inaugurated by E.R. Dodds, who in "The Greeks and the Irrational" described theurgy as a superstitious magic and "failure of nerve" whereas I see it (following Shaw et al) the way Iamblichus described it, as a religious ritual given by the gods. Whether or not Dionysian theurgy is the same as Neoplatonic theurgy (a controversy I'll cite but not take a side in) it seems clear that neither theurgy was angel magic in the "conjuring sense" although angels are certainly part of the story. I'm writing so much to counter these contemporary scholars on Pico and "the theurgic" because I feel theurgy is a term that hasn't been clarified and thus is responsible for wild misinterpretations of Pico's system. Pico didn't associate theurgy with his concept of magic, which is restricted to the sublunar world, but scholars have assumed he was invoking angels to do magic at supercelestial levels (Yates, Farmer, even Stuckrad seems to fall into this trap). Pico doesn't discuss angels at the same time that he discusses magic, and I don't think angels are implicated in Pico's magic. I'm not saying Pico isn't doing magic, but my understanding is that his magic is closer to the science of Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus than any sorcery. Like Iamblichus (who's rabidly anti-magic in De Mysteriis) Pico wanted to be clear that he wasn't talking about the bad kind of magic, i.e. conjuring. As for Dionysian theurgy, I don't think Pico was even talking about that. He doesn't discuss the Dionysian liturgical theurgy theory, which is where we see most of Dionysius' talk on theurgy. Pico doesn't use the term theurgy, or talk about the Dionysian model of reading scripture as theurgy. He does, on the other hand, go into great detail on Dionysian angelology (following the modifications of Thomas Aquinas to Dionysius' system). My argument is that Pico's angel needs to be disentangled from all this speculation about theurgy--perhaps once we can understand how the angelology works on its own terms (standard Christian Neoplatonism with some original modification from Pico post-Aquinas and in the light of Plato's recently discovered texts) then we can return to the possible "hints of theurgy" which still might be traceable. I think Copenhaver is correct to point to Neoplatonic (but not Kabbalistic!) theurgy as something that might help us understand Pico's mystical ascent, but I think theurgy is a misleading term if not carefully defined. Copenhaver is the only scholar I'm aware of whose use of theurgy to describe Pico's mysticism works. Nobody else has made a convincing argument that Pico should be understood as a proponent of "the theurgic."