Sunday, January 23, 2011

Did Pico suggest a form of angel magic when he recommended "becoming angelic?"

Pico begins his Oration with one of his most controversial ideas, the comparison of angels to humans. David in Psalms wrote that "man is only a little lower than the angels," biblical character's like Jacob had significant encounters with angels, and according to a Hebrew tradition Pico brings into play, the biblical character Enoch became an angel. Pico then discusses what he considers to be the angelology of Paul, as transmitted by Dionysius. Following Dionysius on the structure and functions of the angelic hierarchy, Pico goes on to describe the contemplative angelic life as a model for the human philosophical life, which Pico celebrates as preliminary to initiation into mystical theology.

Since Pico recommends not only imitation of the angelic life, but rivalling angels, becoming angelic, and going beyond the angelic state to achieve union with the divine--and since he refers later to Kabbalah and magic--he has been interpreted as suggesting some kind of magical contact with angels. For example, Frances Yates suggested that Pico brought magic to the supercelestial, and invoked angels using Kabbalah to make magic safe. Yates' interpretation of Pico has been criticized and is no longer widely accepted by Pico scholars without serious qualification, but versions of her vision of Pico are still influencial. Even Brian Copenhaver, a careful scholar and Pico expert, agrees with Yates that Pico means to imply some kind of magical operation at supercelestial levels. I will spend some time looking at Copenhaver's interpretation of Pico's magic and Kabbalah, which he sees as a preliminary stage in Pico's "angelic regimen" based on Dionysian mystical theology. Copenhaver uses the term theurgy to describe Pico both in positive ways--he suggests Pico recognized a theurgy in Kabbalah that he was familiar with from Neoplatonism--and negative ways--Pico was trying to avoid theurgy although he was discussing kabbalistic traditions angelic and divine names and the power of divine speech.

Other scholars do not find as much magic in Pico's text as Copenhaver does. Craven states flatly that no hints of theurgy can be justified based on the limited and obscure textual references that have been interpreted as implying magic. Rabin, in her recent article on Pico's magic, claims that he was not a practitioner of magic although he was interested in theorizing about it. But these views as well as the theurgic or occultist interpretations of Pico's magic have still not fully explained what Pico intended in bringing all these strange Kabbalistic and Neoplatonic notions into play in his theological disputation. Philosophical explanations admittedly have difficulty explaining what Pico's strange magical and kabbalistic notions mean, especially since Pico didn't write much about them, didn't get the chance to explain what he meant by them in his proposed disputation, and never returned to the subject in extant writings, although his contemporaries reported that he remained convinced of the value of Kabbalah (Toussaint).
After discussing some of the theurgic implications that have been suspected in the Kabbalistic and Neoplatonic angel philsophy material in Pico's Oration and 900 Conclusions, I will attempt to show that there is much that philosophical approaches to Pico's angels might have to offer a future theurgic interpretation, although at the end of my chapter I will bring the discussion of possible theurgy in Pico to a close by bracketing the whole question of magic. Pico does not discuss magic outside of the Oration, 900 Conclusions, and Apology, and his mentions of Kabbalah in Commento and Heptaplus are limited. These references to Neoplatonic and Kabbalistic angel lore are tantalizing and provocative, but there is not enough material to build a system, so we must look skeptically at efforts to come to a consistent interpretation of the whole of "Pico's Kabbalistic-Neoplatonic Angelology." Rather than attempt such an interpretation, I will review the most significant moments in Pico's encounters with Neoplatonic and Kabbalistic angelology with the specific focus of what these explorations mean in the context of Pico's commitments to Dionysian and Thomistic philosophical angelology. Pico has given us a great deal of information about the philosophical motivations behind his encounters with these non-Christian traditions concerning angels, although he did not have the chance to give us a full and rigorous systematic account of how he would do angelology differently. Pico's encounter with Kabbalah and Neoplatonism did not result in a new system of angels, but he did make some interesting efforts and contributions to the tradition of Christian Neoplatonism which are not yet well understood in Pico scholarship and are worthy of further study.

Pico seems to be emphasizing in the Oration that the comparison of humans to angels is a biblical problem, rather than some magical practice he is exhorting the reader to attempt. Because of his notorious angel comparison, and the magical implications that have been projected onto it, Pico has been criticized and dismissed in surveys of philosophical approaches to angels as reducing the presence of angels to "apotheosis of the philosopher" or "infusing man with an angelic degree of being."
This is not a fair characterization of Pico's seriousness and piety in approaching the problems of angelology. Rather than dismissing Pico as resorting to angel magic in some kind of sorcerous grab for power, it makes more sense to explain Pico's interest in comparing angels to man in terms of the biblical and Dionysian problems Pico that interest Pico philosophically. Everywhere else when the subject of the angelic hierarchy and the distance between man and angels comes up, Pico emphasizes the distances and preserves the hierarchy. Like Aquinas and Dionysius, Pico sees man as being ontologically inferior to angels, and although he celebrates the ability of man to choose his fate--even so far as union with the divine--Pico does not seem to be suggesting a breaking of the hierarchy. Pico's exhortation to become angelic may strike us as provocative at first, but when we take into account his Dionysian constraints, further mapped out by Aquinas in Aristotelian terms that we will see Pico accepting later in On Being and the One, it seems clear that Pico was being honest when he claimed that his "angel regimen" was a philosophical rather than magical project.

However, before we leave the problem of angel magic behind we must consider the interpretation of Brian Copenhaver, who has given the most sophisticated "theurgic interpretation" of what he calls Pico's "angel regimen" and encounter with Neoplatonic and Kabbalistic angelology in the Oration and 900 These. Copenhaver describes Pico's magic and Kabbalah as being primarily part of his Dionysian mystical project, "Theology, spirituality and philosophy—all in the broadest sense—are the main topics of Pico's Cabala, which shows (or hints) how God reveals himself in the Sefirot, the divine names and the words of scripture." Copenhaver explains the Kabbalistic practices that Pico discusses in mystical rather than magical terms, "leading points of spiritual practice in the Conclusions are prayer, prophecy and ascent to mystical union with God." This relevance of magic to mysticism is understood by Copenhaver in terms of the theurgy of Late Neoplatonism. Mystical union, "is also the main topic of the Oration, where Pico makes positive use of magic and theurgy as steps toward the ascent." Rather than seeing Pico's mysticism in terms of Dionysius, Copenhaver argues that Pico sees magic "as a spiritual technique which, like the higher theurgy of the Neoplatonic philosophers, locates and opens routes to God which ordinarily are unknown to humans."

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