Friday, January 7, 2011

Pico and Kabbalah

"When I repurchased these [kabbalistic] books at no small cost to myself, when I had read them through with the greatest diligence and with unwearying toil, I saw in them (as God is my witness) not so much the Mosaic as the Christian religion. There is the mystery of the Trinity...[lists various Christian doctines] the orders of the angels... the same things we read daily in Paul and Dionysius... But in those parts which concern philosophy you really seem to hear Pythagoras and Plato, whose principles are so closely related to the Christian faith."

Pico, Oration

While it is true that the study of Christian Cabala is difficult and obscure due to lack of critical editions and need for Latin, Hebrew, paleography--at least we are fortunate to have plenty of resources in English for the study of Pico's Kabbalah. We know a great deal about the Kabbalistic books Pico read and how his translators and Jewish teachers informed his understanding. The pioneering researches of Wirszubski detailed the traditions in Kabbalah which scholarship has been at a loss to precisely describe due to problems interpreting magic. Wirzsubksi warns that mysticism of language and mysticism of prayer might shade into magic, and often do, but I'm not sure if this is a charge that should be emphasized against Pico. Magic is always a problem, but when a thinker explicity describes himself as ruling it out, going to great rhetorical lengths to defend himself, it seems a safe bet that he's genuinely ruling it out. The same is true of Agrippa--the mystical piety of his De Occulta Philosophia is not rejected in his antimagical De Vanitate.

Moshe Idel has argued that Pico does not look to Kabbalah for theurgy, does not indeed look to Kabbalah for what it is but for what use he can make of it in his apologetic program of confirming Christian metaphysics by mining "ancient theology" for ammunition. He struck gold in Kabbalah, aided by his translator Mithridates who fed him spurious numerological information. Pico was not a "syncretist" interested in fusing traditions or open to the otherness of Kabbalah.

Pico describes Kabbalah in Oration as an "ineffable theology of the supersubstantial deity" and "exact metaphysics of intelligible and angelic forms." This sounds more like Dionysian mystical theology than magic. Indeed Pico says that Kabbalah is higher than magic, which he restricts to the natural world, although Kabbalah is said to be needed for magical operations. These magical operations and the explanation of how they work remain a mystery, but Copenhaver seems to me to be on the right track when he relates them to the mystical function of Neoplatonic theurgy. The problem is Neoplatonists just like Dionysius and Pico are careful to describe their theurgy or sacramental theology as nonmagical. Copenhaver does not explain why Pico would think of magic as theurgy.

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