The Hermetic Imagination in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Friday, October 5, 2001–Saturday, October 6, 2001
All Day

William Andrews Clark Memorial Library
2520 Cimarron Street

—a conference organized by Pamela Smith, Pomona College, and Peter Reill, University of California, Los Angeles

One of the most important intellectual events of the Renaissance was the introduction into Western Europe, in the fifteenth century, of the Hermetic Corpus, with its central doctrine of the human being as a “little God” who could effect changes in nature by means of “natural magic.” Because scholars viewed this body of texts as contemporary with Moses and thus another source of God’s revelation, it was studied carefully and its effect on Western ideas about the relationship of human beings to nature was far reaching. Where Aristotle had seen human art as imitating nature, Hermetic writings encouraged one to see human art as not merely emulating but rivaling nature. In both art theory and alchemy, the Hermetic adept came to be seen as capable of perfecting and even superseding nature. Isaac Causabon’s proof in 1614 that the Hermetic Corpus was actually compiled around 200 A.D. did nothing to diminish the influence of Hermetic ideas on Western European thought. In the seventeenth century Hermetic ideas would contribute to the view that both art and the “new science” could “master” and command lifeless, malleable nature in the disciplined spaces of the laboratory and workshop. Though Hermeticism, especially in its more obvious forms, increasingly came under attack during the eighteenth century, it still played an important, though more subtle role in shaping some of the Enlightenment’s central institutions and patterns of thought. They range from the rise of the Free Masons to the revitalization of the life sciences and the tremendous flowering of esoteric movements in the last half of the century. This conference brings together scholars from varied disciplines to investigate the contours of this important strain of Early Modern European thought and action.