Platonic Influence


(The following is an edited piece pilfered from an article I wrote for one of my college classes. The general scope of the full article was the Christian-Hermetic synthesis that occurred during the Renaissance. However, it gives a general overview of certain concepts that pretty much started with Plato, and were almost immediately embraced by Western and Near-Eastern Mystics.)

The Renaissance, in contrast to its forbear the Middle Ages, embraced the Classical culture that had died out over a thousand years before its inception. Along with art, music, and sculptural nudity, one thing that epitomized the Classical Age was the practice of philosophical inquiry.

As classical works of the Graeco-Roman era were translated and disseminated, many Christians were surprised to find that the writings of ancient Pagans indeed held hints of monotheism within them. In addition to the aforesaid monotheistic hints, were found morals and virtues esteemed by the Church and its adherents to be “Christian” in nature, and specifically had been there centuries before the death of their savior. The more they researched and read, the more these Christians began agreeing with many of the ideas and postulates of ancient philosophy. As an added bonus, they found that many of the “Church fathers” of late antiquity also agreed with these ancient authors. This began giving many so-called “Christian” students of the occult loopholes which could theoretically justify their mystical and magical practices.

“So concerning the whole Heaven or World – let us call it whatsoever name may be most acceptable to it – we must ask the question which, it is agreed, must be asked at the outset if inquiry concerning anything: Has it always been, without any source of beginningl or has it come to be, starting from some beginning? It has come to be, for it can be seen and touched and it has body, and all such things are sensiblel and as we saw, sensible thing, that are to be apprehended by belief together with sensation, are things that become and can be generated. But again, that which becomes, we say, must necessarily become by the agency of some cause. The maker and father of this universe it is a hard task to find, and having found him it would be impossible to declare him to all mankind.” -Plato, Timaeus.

The above passage comes from the most influential and important of all of Plato’s dialogues where Renaissance occultism is concerned. Timaeus not only bespoke of a grand architect of the universe – the Demiurge, who Christians would immediately deem to be none other than God the Father, creator of heaven and earth in the Book of Genesis, but also laid out an entire celestial cosmology, which could be, to the Renaissance magician, manipulated through the implementation of mystical formulae.

Let us rather say that the world is like, above all things, to that Living Creature of which all other creatures, severally and in their families, are parts. For that embraces and contains within itself all the intelligible living creatures, just as this world contains ourselves and all other creatures that have been formed as things visible. For the god, wishing to make this world most nearly like that intelligible thing which is best and in every way complete, fashioned it as a single visible living creature, containing within itself all living things whose nature is of the same order.”Timaeus

Thus, God (to the Renaissance Christians who interpreted the text, since Plato, being a polytheist, had an obviously different attitude concerning this “god”), the grand architect of the universe, created the world to be singular and perfect – a true representation of divinity itself. The world of Timaeus, and ostensibly that of the Christians interpreting the text, was perfect and good, being fashioned by this mighty divine creator God found within the pages of Genesis.

Monotheistic nuances notwithstanding, Timaeus also held many gems of wisdom for the more practical occultists of the Renaissance. The number four, holding many secrets and nuances to the mystically-minded, revealed itself most importantly (at first), as the four classical elements of antiquity, which Plato made certain to include in his cosmogony.

“Now that which comes to be must be bodily, and so visible and tangible; and nothing can be visible without fire, or tangible without something solid, and nothing is solid without earth. Hence the god, when he began to put together the body of the universe, set about making it of fire and earth. But two things alone cannot be satisfactorily united without a third; for there must be some bond between them drawing together… Now if it had been required that the body of the universe should be a plane surface with no depth, a single mean would have been enough to connect its companions and itself; but in fact the world was to be solid in form, and solids are always conjoined, not by one mean, but by two. Accordingly the god set water and air between fire and earth, and made them so far as was possible, proportional to one another, so that as fire is to air, so is air to water, and as air is to water, so is water to earth, and thus he bound together the frame of a world visible and tangible.” -Timaeus

As seen above, not only did Plato make the four elements correspond to a geometrical format (he later expounds upon the double and triple proportions: 1, 2, 4, 8 and 1, 3, 9, 27 respectively), but he also established a descending order that spoke of their inherent theoretical density: Fire → Air → Water → Earth, with Fire being the least dense of the elements and Earth, of course, being the heaviest. The four-fold nature of the world was also expounded upon by mystics in other mathematical manners. For example, the addition of the numbers one through four equal ten (1+2+3+4=10), the decad, or “perfect” number, thus further proving, to the minds of the Hermeticists, the inherent harmony found within Plato’s cosmology, and subsequently, the world itself. Granted, this harmony was considered old news by the time of Plato’s writing, having been professed by Pythagorean mystics centuries earlier as the mysteries of the tetractys and decad, but to the Hermeticists rediscovering ancient wisdom, these were profound mysteries indeed.

It should be noted that these concepts had already been adapted by Kabbalists centuries before this. As Kabbalistic theory, which had already been influenced by the Timaeus, began to also penetrate the writings of the Renaissance occultists, the number four would be found to correspond with the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable four-fold Hebraic name of God: YHVH (the Hebrew letters Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh, rendered by Renaissance writers as “Jehovah”, and by many modern authors as “Yahweh”). Each of the four elements would be associated with a letter of the Tetragrammaton, as well as one of the four theoretical Kabbalistic worlds. The additional permutations of the four that yield ten would then correspond to the ten sephiroth of the Tree of Life, which was, for lack of a better term, a blueprint representation of the theoretical universe.

As Plato further spoke of the four elements as approached geometrically in the double and triple geometric proportions, yet another “sacred” number embraced by the later Hermeticists emerged: Seven. If taken in order, the proportions yielded seven specific numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9 and 27, respectively. Also, if we take the “perfect” number 10 of any particular thing (rocks, grapes, sticks, etc.) and arrange them in an ascending shape pyramid, (following yet again the 1+2+3+4=10 arrangement), four rows result (think beer pong, if you’re still having trouble).

Three sides and four rows thus yielded both seven and ten, further “proving” their numerical sanctity (as well as the perceived genius inherent to the ordered universe as described by Plato) to the Renaissance occultist. The number seven was placed in an even more prominent position, both by Plato and the later Hermeticists, due to its correspondence to the “Seven Holy Planets”: Sol, Luna, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn, of which Plato referenced, in addition to the Zodiac and sidereal equator, as “circles”, all existing within the World Soul. In addition, the glyph of Venus, associated with the number seven, is the only planetary glyph that can encompass all of the sephiroth on the diagram of the Tree of Life, thus giving even more “gravitas” to the concept.

… but the inner revolution he split in six places into seven unequal circles, severally corresponding with the double and triple intervals, of each of which there were three.” -Timaeus

As Hermetic knowledge grew, expanded, and combined with the Judeo-Christian mysticism of the time period, the numbers would each have specific correspondences attributed to them. Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, writing in the early 16th century in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy (which was and still is a store-house of information concerning the magical practices if the Renaissance), corresponded the number 7 not only with the above celestial bodies, but also with particular angels, days of the week, musical notes, body parts, holes of the head (nostrils, etc.), stars of the Pleiades, metals, birds, fish, mammals, stones, Roman kings, Roman hills, infernal habitations, wise men of Greece, etc. etc. etc. This system of correspondence would not only be utilized as a mnemonic technique, but it would also be an integral part of Hermetic spell-casting during the Renaissance, whether through ritual incantations, the construction of magical talismans, the summoning of spirits to perform tasks for the magician, or just about any other magical endeavor.

It should be noted that the practice of astrology was considered a necessity to the practitioners of Hermetic magic during the Renaissance, due in part to the importance Plato placed upon the power of celestial bodies. This stress was perpetuated by the Platonists, Neo-Platonists, Kabbalists and Hermeticists who came after. As Agrippa quipped:

There is therefore such a kind of Spirit required to be, as it were the medium, whereby celestial souls are joined to gross bodies, and bestow upon them wonderful gifts… By this Spirit therefore every occult property is conveyed into herbs, stones, metals, and animals, through the Sun, Moon, planets, and through stars higher than the planets.” -Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy

Each planet would subsequently have multiple terrestrial representations naturally occurring upon the Earth, each one imbued, to a certain extent, with the “essence” of the corresponding planet in question. For example, things such as iron, jasper, garlic, wolfsbane, nettle, crow’s feather, snake skin and the like would be deemed to be under the dominion of Mars. Therefore, if a magician wished to cast a spell in order to succeed at a particularly “martial” endeavor (say, to emerge triumphant from a duel), he would make certain to use components that were under Mars’ celestial jurisdiction. Astrological charts would most probably be implemented as well, in order to determine the most advantageous time for the spell-casting to occur.

We have spoken in the foregoing chapters of the divers kinds of divinations: but this is to be noted, that all these require the use and rules of astrology, as a key most necessary for the knowledge of all secrets; and that all kinds of divinations whatsoever have their root and foundation in astrology, so as that without it they are of little or no use…” -Agrippa

Another mystical practice that a magician might have made use of is that of the observation of planetary hours. This would involve the dividing of the day and night into twelve equal parts each, thus assigning a planetary ruler to each part (i.e. “hour”) of the day and night. As one would expect, the day and night hour lengths would fluctuate depending upon the time of the year and the subsequent amount of daylight, except during the instances of the Spring and Fall Equinoxes.

The first “hour” of each day would be ruled by the traditional ruler of the day in question: the Sun for Sunday, the Moon for Monday, etc. From there, the hours would follow a descending loop order as follows: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury and Moon. It should be noted that this descending planetary order was due to the perceived speed of motion of the celestial bodies in question, where those bodies that moved the slowest were deemed the farthest from the Earth (and therefore closer to the ambiguous “divine realms”). For a more complete explanation of the system of planetary hours, you may read here.

*All quotes from Plato come from Plato’s Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato translated with a running commentary, by Francis MacDonald Cornford (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952). All quotes from Cornelius Agrippa come from Three Books of Occult Philosophy, translated by James Freake, and edited/annotated by Donald Tyson (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1993).