Monday, March 28, 2011

Calder on John Dee's Neoplatonism

Now, although many early neo-Platonists such as Plotinus (who praises for instance the way the Egyptian sages have expressed the true natures of each thing in the hieroglyphs standing for them (86)) or Iamblichus, dealt with the virtues of figures from this point of view, it is Proclus who offers some of the fullest, most explicit discussions, and the most obviously relevant to Dee's present work. He recurs frequently to the theme, seeming to regard the best method in all instruction to be that which he attributes to the Pythagoreans, which falls into three stages (perhaps corresponding to the familiar levels of Sensible Intuition, Abstract Reason, and Spritual Reality) the first and third of which employ this approach. For prior to scientific doctrine the Pythagoreans render manifest the proposed objects of enquiry by approximate similitudes and images, and finally once more have recourse to symbols of a different kind to reveal the arcane virtues of these objects (87). In the preface to his commentary on Euclid, a work in which Dee seems to have been thoroughly steeped, Proclus declares that in Numbers, Figures and Musical Accords are to be found the three ways in which the constitutive reasons of all intellectual, moral and theological truths are presented to the human mind, and later has a lengthy discussion on the virtues of figures reflecting directly on the position taken up in Dee's Monas; after mentioning those used in Art he goes on: "Mais il y a des figures plus importantes et plus remarquables que ces dernieres, notamment celles des ouvrages de la nature: les unes qui concretisent les rapports qui leur sont inherents dans les elements sublumaires, d'autres qui assignent leurs puissances et leurs mouvements dans le ciel; car les corps celestes presentent en particulier et les uns par rapport aux autres une abondante et admirable variete des figures qui montrent tantot d'autres formes apportant les puissances incorporelles et immaterielles par leurs evolutions bien proportionnes," beyond these are the figures of souls "pleines de vie et se mouvant d'elles memes, anterieures aux choses mues...qui...sont au dessus des choses dimensionnes et materielles: figures au sujet desquelles Timee nous renseigne..." "Above these, and more divine, are figures partaking of intelligence," "elles sont fecondes, actives et perfectionnantes de l'universalite des choses; elles sont presentes en toutes celles ci d'une maniere egale et resident en elles avec stabilite; elles apportent l'union aux figures des ames et rappellent les changements des figures sensibles dans les limites qui leur sont propre." Above these again are those of the gods which "terminent ensemble toutes les figures et maintiennent toutes les choses dans leur uniques limites." "La Theurgie, en representant leurs proprietes confere diverses figures a diverses images des dieux," these figures it evolves "d'une maniere mysterieuse, par des signes caracteristiques car ceux-ci revelent les puissances ignorees des dieux." That significant communication is possible in this manner Proclus justifies on the assumption that "il y a, anterieurement aux figures sensibles, des concepts de propre impulsion, intellectuels et divins des figures; nous sommes impressionnees par les figures sensibles et emettons en nous memes des concepts qui sont les images d'autres figures; et c'est pourquoi nous avons la connaissance des figures sensibles par des exemplaires et la connaissance des figures intelligibles et divines par des images; car les concept developpees en nous memes nous montrent les formes des dieux et les limites d'une seule espece de toutes les choses par lesquelles toutes sont ramenees a elles memes et se contiennent mysterieusement en elles-memes." In contemplating such figures the mind is looking as it were in a mirror, being at once both viewer and viewed (88).

Such a position provides an answer to Socrates' objection to such procedures at the end of the Cratylus (89) that the far better and surer way to knowledge is to avoid such an attempt to learn from the image (word or sign), however exact an imitation it may be, and to examine the things themselves, that are supposedly represented. For to Dee, the figures he examines would appear to stand for intelligible concepts, employed by God in creation, principles not directly manifest to sense through particular objects, complex symbolic syntheses of the universal law. This also applies in part to his more conventional "Cabalism," using words and letters, in the Monas, while the way in which other standard objections - as those raised in the Cratylus - were thought to be adequately answered has already been discussed (90). It is interesting however that Roger Bacon relies on the same text as Dee cites in the prefatory letter, to justify such practises; writing "For the Lord says, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the alw till all be fulfilled. And therefore there is an admirable exposition in the book on the meanings of the scriptures stating how the individual letters of the Hebrew Alphabet had significance respecting the ancient people, and how they show the number of centuries through which the state of that race passed as regards its different periods and ages, in accordance with the special powers and potencies ofthe letters....I cannot sufficiently admire the manner in which the examination was derived, although it may seem to the uninitiated to have a weak basis in the letters of the alphabet which are the first rudiments of children. But according to the teaching of the Apostles lesser things are more necessary and are to be accorded greater honour...."(91) Bacon, as Dee here also, gives equal status to the Greek and Latin alphabets. Agrippa does the same, declaring that it is God who has given man discourse in different languages, of which the written characters have a fixed order, and particular shapes which are not the result of chance, or human invention, but divinely formed in accordance with the celestial bodies and angelic powers and the virtue of these. In a manner very close to the method of Dee's Monas, he attempts the reduction of letters to zodiacal and planetary signs (92). Tymme sums up the case in his preface to his proposed translation of Dee's book. Adam he says gave names to creatures "agreeing with their nature," he inscribed in two tablets of stone with prophecies and philosophy in hieroglyphical characters, one of which Noah discovered after the flood in Armenia, and from this the signs of the planets derive. A universal science was then possible by their means, but the knowledge it embodied has since then not only diminished but has been divided up in such sort that its surviving fragments "make one an Astronomer, another a Magitian, a third a Cabalist, and a fourth an Alchemist"; but this lost unity of science Dee's work aims at reestablishing by means of the primitive planetary figures and the Cabalah, which last says Tymme "out of hidden and misticall sciences serveth to make away for men to come unto God."(93)

It is of interest to note the intellectual and historical relation between Dee's approach in the Monas and the search for a real character (Francis Bacon in the Advancement of Learning, called for one which would represent "neither letters nor words but things and notions," and would "serve for an antidote against the curse of the confusion of tongues") and the universal language which occupied so many in the succeeding century - Kircher, Dolgarno Hartleb and through him Boyle, Wilkins (who declared "As men do generally agree in the same Principles of Reason, so do they likewise agree in the same internal Notions or Apprehensions of things") and others, and received in England the attentions and encouragement of the Royal Society (94); Dee's manner of regardig his hieroglyph and its constituent parts approaches in some respects Leibniz' conception of the universal character which underlay, though it has been inevitably overshadowed by his more fruitful vision of a general logical calculus, for this latter implied the possibility of the reduction of all scientific concepts, by analysis, into a small number originally constitutive of them, to be expressed in ideographic symbols, revealing their nature and the operations they allowed of and from which all scientific knowledge might be then deduced. A direct link with seventeenth century thought in this sphere is supplied by Ashmole, who practically quotes verbatim Dee's passage on the planetary signs from his letter to Maximilian: "there are certain Characters for the Planets, Signes, Aspects, Metals, Minerals, Weights, etc., all which have the power of Letters and run current in the Understanding of every Language and continue as Reliques and Remaines of the more Sacred and Secret Learning of the Ancients, whose intentions and words were not expressed by the composition of syllables or Letters, but by Forms, Figures and Characters." This Ashmole urges as a proof of the possibility of a universal language, setting forth the advantages to follow "if some general Forms and Characters were invented (agreeing as neer to the natural quality of the Thing they are to signifie as might be) that (to Men of all Languages) should universally express, whatsoever we are to declare by writing."(95) A further link is the puritan John Webster, educational reformer on utilitarian principles and polemicist against the vanities of conventional academic instruction in the time of the commonwealth, in a work which relies heavily and exlicitly on Dee's Preface for many of its views and proposals. He too presents the current arguments in favour of the possibility of a universal language and the benefits, commercial and other, which would follow from its adoption, but his discussion is oddly involved with cabalism, digressions on the language of Adam, and that in which God conversed with him in the garden, and the musical and geometrical language which provides the structure for creation, and his argument includes a strong plea for the revival and endowment of the study of "Hieroglyphical, Emblematical, Symbolical and Cryptographical learning" by which only the secret knowledge of the ancients will be restored to light, and sure avenues to the comprehension of scientific and religious mysteries opened (96).

One further basic assumption must be noticed as it is fundamental to Dee's whole procedure here, the doctrine - commonly met with in Renaissance neo-Platonism - of the close interweaving and logical interconnection of all things in the universe, which was invoked to justify what otherwise seem very arbitrary mental transitions, when conclusions reached through considerations of one topic are transferred bodily to another, over only the flimsiest bridge of analogy, and which allowed almost indefinite deductive extensions to be made (97) from any one fact that was felt as rightly formulated - that as Plato had declared, since all things are akin, if man could only remember (i.e., learn) one thing rightly, nothing should prevent him attaining a knowledge of all the rest (98). Thus Dee here claims to have discovered the true mystico-mathematical symbols of the planets (they are somewhat formalised compared with those of conventional usage) and their natural combination in a single scheme, and he makes the claim that from this sure starting point by "logical" progress, all sciences should be derivable.

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