Fourth from the top

Martin Kemp

  • Collected Essays: Vols I and II by Frances Yates
    Routledge, 279 pp, £12.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 7100 0952 6

Dame Frances Yates was an explorer: someone who pushed forward the frontiers of the generally known world, discovering and charting previously unmapped territory. The metaphors of exploration which abound in her own writings are not, therefore, merely rhetorical devices. Thirty years ago Ramon Lull’s philosophical output was a ‘huge un-climbed mountain’ and she was planning ‘a, reconaissance expedition searching out new routes for some future attempt on the summit’. The range of his thought was a ‘vast and virtually unknown country’. His Abor Scientiae was a ‘forest of trees’ into which she intended ‘to force a way’. She conducted her explorations with a genuine missionary passion. She spoke, characteristically, of being ‘electrified’ when she saw an illustration of Scotus’s cosmology which provided a new insight into Lull’s mysterious art. She had a vivid sense of the reality of the characters she encountered on her intellectual travels. In her speech accepting the Premio Galileo Galilei, which opens the second volume, she credited John Florio, a brilliant promoter of Italian learning in 16th-century London, with introducing her not only to Giordano Bruno but also to ‘members of the Warburg Institute, then newly arrived in London with their wonderful library’. In her dealings with past and present members of the intellectual community, she maintained a transparent honesty. She openly admitted, for example, that Lull’s New Treatise on Astronomy ‘seemed perfectly unintelligible’ on initial acquaintance. And when, even after unrivalled endeavours, there remained areas of doubt, she qualified her interpretation with such words as ‘so far as I am able to understand these results ...’ Her scrupulous sense of the limits of her own findings is entirely consistent with her repeated desire to open up further areas of exploration for her successors.

The territory which Yates made her own was vast, extending across a huge panorama of mystical cosmology, science and semi-science from the Middle Ages to the 17th century. She also conducted expeditions into some of the most remote regions of Classical thought, and made at least one invigorating thrust into 19th-century studies. She belonged to a small band of pioneers – including Lynn Thorndike, Eugenio Garin and D.P. Walker – who moved scientific and spiritual magic to the centre of the history of European thought. She rescued important facets of our intellectual heritage from what she called ‘the dust-heap of useless speculations’, recognising forces within occult disciplines which helped to shape the intellectual motivations of those we consider the founders of modern science. Her research served to demonstrate that our natural tendency to seize upon apparently ‘modern’ notions in early scientific thought gravely distorts our appreciation of the total philosophy from which those ideas sprang.

The key moment in Yates scholarship came when she realised that Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake in 1600, was not so much a martyr for modern thought as an obstinate representative of an ancient form of religious magic. Bruno’s collision with the grammarians in Oxford, so brilliantly illuminated by Yates, did not represent a conflict between a man of the new order and Medievalising provincials. Rather, it was a conflict between Bruno’s ambitious metaphysics and the rigid structures of the ‘new’ humanists, who were loath to admit mathematical and natural speculations as proper subjects for human endeavour. Bruno’s seemingly modern espousal of Copernicus’s theory that the sun lay at or near the centre of our planetary system was actually based upon a very imperfect grasp of astronomical science. The theory appeared true to Bruno because it breached the narrowly finite dimensions of the Ptolemaic system and opened the way to a liberating revival of ancient mysticism.

Yates expressed this emblematically, in a truly Brunian manner: ‘the Ptolemaic spheres are, so to speak, the wires of an imprisoning cage whence the winged heart escapes into Copernican infinity.’ The general principle which we may adduce from her essays on Bruno, culminating in her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), is that what is important in charting the history of thought is not only (or even primarily) the superficial characteristics of the ideas adopted – whether the sun revolved around the earth or vice versa – but the thinking behind the ideas and the ends to which they were devoted. Considered in these terms, even Copernicus and Galileo begin to look rather different: more complex and ambiguous in their relationship to the past, and less untouched by metaphysical assumptions, explicit or implicit.

Yates’s fundamental investigations into Bruno’s mystical roots led her back to Agrippa and Pico della Mirandola in the Renaissance, to the chivalric code of the Middle Ages, to Lull in the 13th century, to the Irishman John Scotus Erigena in the ninth century, to Augustine, to the Cabala and to the strange group of Hermetic writings which purported to express Egyptian wisdom. She was led no less firmly forward to Shakespeare and the Elizabethan poets, to early ecumenicalists, to Bacon, to the French Academicians, to Descartes and to Leibniz. This may sound forbidding, but anyone who has encountered her Art of Memory will know that she provides wonderfully unfussy guidance through unfamiliar territory of great intrinsic fascination and intellectual beauty. The Art of Memory deservedly reached an audience far beyond its academic field.

The first of these volumes of collected essays was the last book to be directly planned by Yates herself before her death in 1981. The second, compiled and edited by J.N. Hillgarth and J.B. Trapp with a preface by D.P. Walker, is to be followed by a third and final volume next year. Volume One is devoted to studies of Lull and Bruno, though not to the relationship between the two magi, and the second, more loosely, to Italian topics from the 14th to the 19th century. The essays presented here originated between 1938 and 1981. This span is all the more remarkable given that she was nearing forty when the first essay was published. All but one of the-pieces in the ‘Lull and Bruno’ collection originally appeared in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. There is a distinct advantage in having them available in a single volume, but they can hardly be said to have been inaccessible until now. The second instalment includes material from more out-of-the-way places, and reprints a number of telling book reviews. The pot-pourri approach adopted by the editors of the later volume does, however, result in a looser association and a more uneven level. Some of the reviews are slight, while more than one of the Lull and Bruno articles seem to belong in the first volume. If they were excluded by Yates herself, this was presumably because she did not envisage their republication. Each essay has been taken over virtually unchanged apart from some updating of the footnotes. The illustrations are the only components which have not adapted well to the new format. Five of the plates in Volume One are duplicated in identical or near-identical form in the Lull articles: images which originally appeared on the same plate lettered a, b, c, d ... are now spread over as many as three sides, and are thus less easy to find.

The magisterial articles on Lull make the most substantial contribution to an area of intellectual history not covered in detail in her previously published books. They establish Lull’s stature beyond doubt, among those responsible for the extraordinary flowering of Christian philosophy in the 13th century. He devised what may be called an abstract rather than a figurative astrology, using an algebraic notation as the basis of his art. His notation signified the dignitates or ‘attributes’ of God – Goodness, Magnitude, Eternity, Power, Wisdom, Will, Strength, Truth and Glory – each of which was assigned a letter from B to K. Enmeshed with these, in a way which Yates did not fully understand in her first article, were the four elements, confusingly labelled A, B, C and D. Some five years after writing it, she had cracked the code with the aid of Scotus’s cosmology. The dignitates were the ‘primordial causes’ which imposed order on chaos and to which the elements were subject no less than every other aspect of the created world. This system provided the basis of his predictive art, the Ars demonstrativa, which aimed to account for the fundamental natures of all created forms. The primary tools of his art were a series of concentric wheels on which the algebraic signs revolved in ever-changing combinations. The approach achieved what may be regarded as the supreme aim of much Medieval science: the computation of natural effects from divine causes.

Yates also showed how the divine ‘attributes’ permeated all levels of nature by means of a ‘ladder of ascent and descent’, arranged in eight stages from the lowly stones to the supreme majesty of God. On the fourth rung from the top came man himself, able through his intellect to penetrate both lower and higher levels of creation. Scotus had already defined the significance of this position for man, standing below the angels but above the animals and partaking of the nature of both. This dual nature gave man unrivalled potentiality, akin to the ‘nobility of man’ in Pico della Mirandola’s later characterisation.

By contrast with Lull’s desire for an abstract astrology, Bruno openly delighted in the thoroughly pictorial imagination characteristic of the later stages of the Renaissance. His vision of philosophy embraced those qualities of imaginative insight generally accorded to poets and increasingly granted to great artists: ‘philosophers are in some measure painters and poets; poets are painters and philosophers; and painters are philosophers and poets.’ It is no surprise, therefore, to find him composing a verbal emblem book, Gli Eroici Furori. This was dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney in 1585 and exercised a profound influence upon Elizabethan poetry. In devising and explaining his visual conceits, Bruno aimed to transform the increasingly stale conventions of Petrarchan love poetry into philosophically significant devices. His philosophising emblems were very much part of his vision of nature as a hieroglyphic compendium of religious doctrines. God was seen as the supreme creator of emblematic devices, concealing his purposes with divine cunning in the book of nature. To reconstitute supreme truth from his study of natural symbols, the philosopher must utilise all the resources of the inspirational arts available to him. In this context, Copernican astronomy became a great new conceit, a supreme hieroglyph which would open the way to a new dimension in religious truth. Yates argued persuasively that Bruno regarded the Copernican motion of the earth as a manifestation of its divine ‘life’, just as the Sacrament of the Altar is ‘moved’ by the divine spirit infused with it. Had Bruno’s advocacy of Copernican ideas remained within the realm of mathematics, his problems would have been less severe. It was when he transformed astronomy into theology that he ran into real trouble.

One of the lietmotifs running through these volumes is Yates’s fascination with intellectual exiles: with John Florio and Giordano Bruno promulgating Italian culture in England, with Henry Wotton nurturing the seeds of the Reformation in Venice, with Paolo Sarpi looking back at the Council of Trent from outside Italy, and with Dante as a literary visitor to Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. These men act as eloquent ciceroni, guiding her along the highways and byways of the territories she is visiting. Her relationship to her ciceroni raises some important questions, however. To what extent has she allowed their proclivities to colour her attitude to the periods and countries she explored? Would different companions have shown her different sights and painted a very different picture? She herself was too good a historian not to be aware that her itinerary relied upon a selective or partial approach, and she always insisted that more investigation was needed. There is nonetheless a sense in which she became too partial in her later works, increasingly seeing the world through the eyes of the occultists whose views she did so much to illuminate. Her interest in mystical codes, in Hermetic wisdom, Cabalism, the Pythagorean magic of mathematics, Neoplatonic transcendentalism, Rosicrucianism and arcane emblematics, caused her to neglect important aspects of the intellectual continuum between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The most significant victim is the Aristotelean tradition of physical and natural science, with the associated techniques of naturalistic representation in the visual arts. As Charles Schmitt’s recent Aristotle and the Renaissance underlines, the predominantly Aristotelean tradition of university philosophy and science was not, as commonly assumed, a static, monolithic barrier to scientific change. A case can be made for insisting that Galileo, Bacon, Harvey and their fellow pioneers emerged from a climate in which the systematic virtues of Aristotelean methodology, the Pythagorean reverence for number and the new tools of visual description were powerful factors in shaping the intellectual landscape. It is a tribute to Yates’s scholarship that we are now in a better position to assess a neglected aspect of this process in our quest for the synthesis of a crucial period in European thought. But we must also admit that the synthesis has yet to be achieved.