Saturday, January 8, 2011
Who is my Audience?
I was inspired to work on "The Influence of Pseudo-Dionysius on Christian Cabala" in some form originally when I read about Deborah Harkness' work on Dee's marginalia of Dionysius. I had taken a philosophy course on Pseudo-Dionysius and some courses on Jewish Mysticism, but I was little prepared at the time! Next big influence was meeting Allison Coudert, who was very generous with her time and invited me to give a paper on my topic at her UC Davis Esotericism conference. She told me about studying with Frances Yates, meeting Gershom Scholem, and gave me her opinion on Pico and Hermeticism, which she said she still holds to this day. I was trying to write a paper about Dionysian theurgic angelology informing Renaissance Magic as a "Magical Theology," and making the drastic focus/scope mistake of trying to talk about Yates' whole cast of Christian Cabalist characters. I didn't succeed in producing what I was trying to produce and in hindsight much of those early efforts seem like a waste in the light of my current project. But at the conference I had conversations with scholars I greatly admired, like Christopher Lehrich and Joscelyn Godwin who seemed to immediately recognize the seriousness of what I was doing. Their encouragement and listening aided me in understanding how I should be thinking about who I am writing for. While I began my project with the idea that I would make Pico's magic accessible to the academic audience, now my intent is to make Pico's philosophical angelology available to both the academic and the magical audience. The academic audience turns out to be more confused and troubled by controversy than I had at first realized as an acolyte of Yates. I'm now firmly in the camp that calls into question hasty occultist interpretations of Pico even as I concentrate on the very problems of Pico's magic/theurgy/angel that have led to these interpretations.
It wasn't until much later when I discovered the historiographical research of Craven and Copenhaver, which changed my mind about the use of terms like "gnosis" "theurgy" and "radical" to describe Pico's project. After Craven (and Dulles!) I don't see Pico as anti-scholastic, and now have a much better sense of the subtle difficulties in understanding Pico's complex reactions to ancient and medieval philosophers. After Copenhaver I see his magic as a medieval mystical project, although I am ambivalent about certain of Copenhaver's uses of theurgy to positively describe Pico's mystical ascent techniques. I realized at some point that I wanted to make a contribution building on these insights into Pico's mysticism.
In my studies at GTU, I went through graduate courses on Aquinas and Platonism, Plotinus, and Proclus, as well as a reading course on Cusa with my mentor the Divine Mark Delp, an expert on Dionysius and medieval hermetic texts. This gave me a thorough grounding in the problems of philosophical theology which Christians like Dionysius, Aquinas and Pico inherited from the Neoplatonists. I realized from reading Pico's texts that this is the philosophical tradition which matters for Pico's approach to Kabbalah, which he describes in Dionysian terms as "ineffable theology" and "Angelic metaphysics." The problem I see that I can make a contribution to alleviate is making available the current research on the Platonism of Dionysius and Aquinas, which made such an impact on Pico but has not been rigorously discussed in the Pico literature. While I was working on this problem fate intervened, and I discovered the amazing books of Michael Dougherty and Crofton Black, which establish beyond question the philosophical seriousness as well as the sincere Christian piety of Pico, and have greatly illuminate his Platonism. I want to write the first synthesis of this material in the context of the theme of angels, which strikes me as one of the most vexed questions in Pico studies and deserves its own study.