Censoring Phantasy: Abolition of the Phantasmic

Excerpts from Eros and Magic in the Renaissance by Ioan P. Couliano

Chapter Nine

It is probably due to the influence of liberal Protestants that some history books still maintain that the Reformation was a movement of emancipation, whose aim was to free people from the repressive tutelage of the Catholic Church. Considering the multiplicity of Protestant sects, this idea might not be totally wrong, but it surely does not correspond to the original purposes of the Reformation, or to the ideologies of the main reformed denominations, Lutheranism and Calvinism. In leafing through history textbooks, we often come across this explanation of the Reformation: at the beginning of the sixteenth century there was a rich Church, organized into a powerful State and acting as such; the clergy and monks, for the most part, were also occupied with worldly things; trade in religious articles prospered; Luther came to end this situation through liberal reform: he granted the clergy the right to marry, he rescinded dealings in indulgences and the cult of images, he reduced to a minimum the external forms of ritual in order to concentrate on inward religious experience.

This is an explanation that takes results for causes and is satisfied with a moralistic point of view which, though useful in principle, is nevertheless dangerous in application. On the contrary, a breath of liberal air had been circulating in the Renaissance Church, which, through the cleavage between the modern mentality of the clergy and Christian morality, had led to many abuses. It was at this point that Luther arrived on the scene to reestablish the purity of the Christian message. Far from appearing as a liberal movement, the Reformation represented, on the contrary, a radical-conservative movement within the bosom of the Church, where it had several precursors (of whom it will suffice to mention here the preacher Savonarola in Florence). The Reformation did not claim to “emancipate” the individual; on the other hand it aimed to reestablish in the world a Christian order it believed the Catholic Church-which in its view had become a temporal institution-was unable to maintain. This is why the reformers consider the Church to be a supererogation which does not answer to the spirit of Christianity, and, by returning to the Bible, they intend not only to refute Catholicism but also to reestablish the original purity of the Christian community.

The revival of interest in eschatology, iconoclasm, rejection of traditional ecclesiastical practices, general participation in the creed, acceptance of marriage of the clergy as a malum necessarium permitted by St. Paul, are only a few aspects of the Reformation. Its most important result which, under the influence of Melanchthon, will in the final analysis be less apparent in the Lutheran Church than in that of John Calvin in Geneva and among the English Puritans, is the total rejection of the “pagan” culture of the Renaissance, of which the sale substitute is the study of the Bible. To attain this goal, the Protestant denominations do not hesitate to launch an intolerance which at first exceeded the intolerance of the Catholic Church, made more indulgent by the experience of the Renaissance. Characteristic of the Reformation is the fact that, recognizing no cultural reference other than the Bible, it repeated a situation in the history of primitive Christianity that corresponded to a phase of its birth: a Jewish sect engaging, rather hesitantly, in a dialogue with the Gentiles. Far from abrogating the Torah, the sect accepts the Old Testament as a whole, except to state that the life of the Christian is located not under the sign of the Law but under the sign of Grace. Now the Jewish religion is distinctive because, drawing its originality from the reaction against the Canaanitic cults, it has no graven images and it attempts to give a historical meaning to that which was represented by the neighboring peoples as periodical fertility cults. Hence, one of the most important goals of the Reformation is to root out the cult of idols from the Church. The results of this iconoclasm are tremendous if we consider the controversies about the Art of Memory aroused by Bruno in England: ultimately, the Reformation leads to a total censorship of the imaginary, since phantasms are none other than idols conceived by the inner sense.

Renaissance culture was a culture of the phantasmic. It lent tremendous weight to the phantasms evoked by inner sense and had developed to the utmost the human faculty of working actively upon and with phantasms. It had created a whole dialectic of Eros in which phantasms, which at first foisted themselves upon inner sense, ended by being manipulated at will. It had a firm belief in the power of phantasms, which were transmitted by the phantasmic apparatus of the transmittor to that of the receiver. It also believed that inner sense was preeminently the locale for manifestations of transnatural forces-demons and the gods. By asserting the idolatrous and impious nature of phantasms, the Reformation abolished at one stroke the culture of the Renaissance. And, since all the Renaissance “sciences” were structures built on phantasms, they too had to be overpowered by the weight of the Reformation. But, we ask, what was the reaction of the Catholic Church? …the Church embarked on its own reform (which historians usually call the Counterreformation). Far from consolidating the positions assumed by Catholicism during the Renaissance, this movement severed itself completely from them and went in the same directions as protestantism. · It was along the lines of severity and harshness that the Reformation developed, from the Protestant as well as the Catholic side. The Counterreformation, however, has its own important characteristics. At the Council of Trent, which took place in the second half of the sixteenth century, the Church made clear its new style of behavior. It decided to assign the instrument of the Inquisition, which had been created in the twelfth century at the time of the anti-Cathar campaigns and had traditionally been in the hands of the Dominicans to anew, rigorous order dating from the sixteenth century: the Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius of Loyola. Henceforth, the name of the Holy Inquisition is intertwined with that of the Jesuits.

In the spiritual practices of the Jesuits, the phantasmic culture of the Renaissance is revealed in all its power for the last time. Indeed, education of the imagination represents the teaching method of Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, printed in 1596. The disciple is called upon to practice a sort of Art of Memory. During these exercises he must imagine the atrocious tortures of Hell, the sufferings of humanity before the incarnation of Christ, the birth and childhood of the Lord, his preaching at Jerusalem-while Satan, from his dwelling place in Babylon, launches attacks by his demons throughout the world-and, finally, Calvary, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It is a question not of pure meditation but of an internal phantasmic theater in which the practitioner must imagine himself in a role of spectator. He is not only to record what happens but to observe the actors through the senses of sight, hearing, and touch (Secunda Hebdomada, dies I-VII). Introjected in his own phantasmic apparatus, the phantasm of the practitioner is to participate-in a more or less active way-in the development of the scenario.

Loyola’s exercises obviously derive from the great achievements of the Renaissance in the manipulation of phantasms. But here these phantasms are placed at the service of faith, to accomplish the reform of the Church, which amounts to saying that they are actively in opposition to the legacy of the Renaissance. In Loyola, we find that the culture of the phantasmic directs its weapons against itself. At the end of several decades, this process of self-destruction will be almost complete.

(ii) Some Historic Paradoxes

…. The Reformation interests me only to the extent that it produced censorship of the phantasmic and, consequently, a profound change in human imagination.

…In the seventeenth century we observe two curious phenomena: the Reformation comes to fruition, and people begin to think, to speak, to act, and to dress in an entirely new way, but this occurs in the Protestant faction as well as in the Catholic, so that, despite the external differences between the Churches, the difference between the spirit of the Protestant Reformation and the spirit of the Catholic one are reduced to empty questions, such as the dispensing of communion, the confession of sins, and marriage of the clergy. A process of normalization occurs now, finding expression in the appearance of a new culture with more or less unitary traits from London to Seville and from Amsterdam to Wittenberg, Paris, and Geneva. …Without abandoning its millenary traditions, the Catholic Church moves towards Protestantism; for its part, Protestantism, without giving up the reforms for which it had done victorious battle on the local front, becomes consolidated in big institutions which more and more resemble the Catholic Church. The Catholic faith and the Protestant denominations have drawn as close together as possible without being aware of it.

Henceforth it is no longer a question of Reformation and Counter-reformation. Ever unwilling to recognize it, the principal Western faiths no longer fight alone. Side by side, they build a common edifice: modern Western culture. Individuals can still harbor deep suspicions regarding those who, they think, are on the other side of the barricades. In their total adhesion to their party, to their institution, they do not even perceive that those they consider adversaries resemble them and that the conflict at issue is no longer the essence of Christianity but merely a few matters of internal organization. The pagan culture of the Renaissance has been vanquished. To that result Catholics and Protestants contributed equally, unaware that, far from fighting among themselves, they had done battle against a common enemy.

All of this seems quite simple without necessarily being so. The Reformation, at its inception, draws into its orbit-even though it disavows them almost immediately-an extremely varied series of movements of the “left,” on a scale that goes from liberalism to libertinism, from utopianism to the spirit of revolution, from antiauthoritarianism to egalitarianism. These movements had appeared as a direct result of the Renaissance and, in their most useful manifestations, worked in conformity with the spirit and “sciences” of the Renaissance. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, a liberal and utopian Catholicism still exists, represented by Brother Tommaso Campanella, who, after more than twenty years of persecution, nevertheless finds a pope in need of his knowledge of spiritual magic. In his reclusion, Campanella is visited by one of Johann Valentin Andreae’s group of friends. The influence of the Calabrian monk on the liberal Protestant movement concealed behind the “farce” of the Rosicrucians cannot be ignored. The singularity of the great thinkers who gravitate around this movement a Robert Fludd, a Kepler, a Descartes, or a Bacon-is that they refuse to subject themselves entirely to the reformed religion and continue to seek their sources of inspiration in the culture of the Renaissance. We are at the beginnings of modern science, which represent a continuation of the Renaissance insofar as the great discoveries of the seventeenth century still derive from the postulate of analogies between microcosm and macrocosm and from a complex of Pythagorean ideas about the harmony of the world; we are also at the beginnings of a negation of the Renaissance, insofar as the spirit of the Reformation produces a substantial modification of the human imagination.

As for the liberal and utopian movements, persecuted by the official churches-in a Europe rigorously moralistic and divided between two powers which, though enemies in principle, have the same essential

spirit-they will finally gain an enormous underground influence in the form of secret societies. The progress of the spirit of liberal institutions represents another of history’s enigmas, outside the province of this book. In the beginning, Protestantism-be it Luther’s conservative movement in Germany or the Calvinist terror in Geneva or the Puritan terror in England-was certainly no more liberal than the Jesuits. Nevertheless, we see in England the appearance of democratic institutions, whereas the Jesuits, before their expulsion from Latin America, organized on that continent the first communist experiment in modern history and possibly the only one that ever worked. It is not impossible that these paradoxes can be explained as an extension-or a revenge-of the culture of the Renaissance?


(iii) The Controversy about Asinity

… Agrippa and Bruno were both impulsive men with an amazing incapacity to understand the people and situations surrounding them. But, whereas Agrippa seems to renounce (for the sake of form?) his past as an occultist and to enter the ranks of the reformers, Bruno aspires to defend his ideas even into martyrdom, convinced that people great in spirit do not flinch from physical pain. Agrippa is too naive to compromise but sufficiently realistic to retract his ideas; on the other hand, Bruno is too proud to retract, but, having yielded to impulse which let him down paths of no return, he still hopes to find a solution through compromise. Here again, he sins not through naivete but its opposite, excessive guile, which has the same result. We have cited some of Bruno’s attempts to convert his followers to the use of the Art of Memory. We recall that his Spaccio de La bestia trionfante was a rejection of the signs of the zodiac, replacing them with a veritable cohort of virtues and vices. By such means Bruno meant to give to the system of astrological memory a more abstract and Christian character. Bruno was not the first to have the concept of a “Christian sky.” ‘The Middle Ages wished to replace all the signs of the zodiac by others, borrowed from the Bible-which Hippolytus rejected, warning against astro-theosophists. A Carolingian poet (the priest Opicinus de Canistris, of Santa Maria Capella) proposed replacing the Ram by the Lamb (Christ), and, in 1627, Julius Schiller suggested, in his Coelum stellatum christianum, substituting the apostles for the signs of the zodiac. L’Astroscopium by Wilhelm Schickhardt, in 1665, sees the Ram as the animal of Isaac’s sacrifice, the Twins as Jacob and Esau, and connects the Fishes with the parable of the loaves and fishes. This was only one step removed from an entirely arbitrary interpretation. Opicinus de Canistris breached the gap by assimilation to Capricorn because his own sin was pride and sensuality.”

… It is appropriate to recall here that the Inquisition itself made ample use of the weapon of imagination, only it aimed it against the culture of the phantasmic age. The Christianization of the signs of the zodiac stems from a process of the same kind. However, no attempt of that sort had any chance of success with the English Puritans, who had yielded to the abstract mnemotechnics of Pierre de la Ramee. To the Puritans, who had cast icons out of their churches, an apostle or a beast of the zodiac merely represented idols conceived by the imagination. This is why Bruno speaks to the Puritans in language much better adapted to influencing them than the phantasies of Andreas Cellarius: he replaces the beasts of the zodiac with abstract entities. But, on that account, the concessions he makes to Ramism are so great that the principal characteristics of his own system of artificial memory eventually become blurred.

(v) A Single Reformation

If the Catholic Church did not abandon its cult of images and the celibacy of its priests, there are other fields in which the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic, arrived at the same results. We have only to think of the persecution of witches or the fight against astrology and magic. …Protestants and Catholics do not agree on outward religious observances or on the question of the celibacy of the clergy. But in the seventeenth century they seem to be at one concerning the impious nature of the culture of the phantasmic era and the imaginary in general. Catholics and Lutherans, to be sure, are slightly more tolerant than Calvinists; but they believe just as firmly that the practice of any kind of divination is inspired by demons. Now the site of communication between demon and man is the mechanism of phantasy. That is why the number one enemy which all of Christianity must combat is human phantasy.

(vi) The Change in Ways of Envisaging the World

The censure of the imaginary and the wholesale rejection by strict Christian circles of the culture of the phantasmic age result in a radical change in the human imagination. Here again, the works of some historians of ideas betray an ineradicable prejudice: the belief that this change was caused by the advent of heliocentrism and the concept that the universe is infinite. There are writers to this day who assert seriously that Copernicus (or Bruno, which would be much more accurate) was at the bottom of a “revolution” that was not only scientific but psychological as well. According to them, the finite Thomist cosmos was able to quiet human anxieties, which exploded as soon as the belief in an infinite universe became generally accepted.

That would not be serious if it were only schoolboys that were taught fairy tales of this kind, though they too deserve something better. Unfortunately they circulate even in the most learned tracts and it would be in vain to hope for their immediate cessation. At issue are made-up ideas so convenient and superficial that no one bothers to refute them any more. They continue to circulate, from generation to generation, forming one of the most tenacious traditions of modern culture. Responsible for this is a certain linear concept of the progress of history, which everywhere seeks signs of “change” and “evolution.” Because he advanced a heliocentric image of our solar system, which is closer to scientific truth, Copernicus is identified with a key moment of change, of evolution, in short, of progress.

It is noteworthy that those who still maintain that heliocentrism and the infinity of the universe have had a disastrous effect on the psychic equilibrium of the individual and the masses also share those ideas, since they do not doubt that the “guilty” are men like Copernicus and Bruno. When we subject to more careful analysis the historic framework in which these important changes in perspective on the cosmos took place, we see that the cardinal of Cusa, Copernicus, and Bruno all have a hand in it. First, let us ask ourselves whether the Ptolemaic-Thomist system could have had an equilibratory psychological influence on the individual. Not at all, since it taught that we were located, as it were, in the garbage can of the universe, at its lowest point. In Aristotelian cosmology, the essential idea is not simply that the earth is located at the center of the universe but that it occupies the lowest point of the universe: that it is, so to speak, the negative pole of the whole cosmos and that in this attribute it is characterized not by a superfluity of being but almost by a want of being; it amounts to less than what there is above it.

It is against this concept that Nicholas of Cusa raises his voice in an effort to endow the earth with a dignity equal to that of every other star. In the Ptolemaic cosmos the individual is, in a way-not essentially, of course, but accidentally-refuse in the garbage can of the universe. The individual in the infinite cosmos of Nicholas of Cusa is a precious stone contributing to the beauty of the “piece of jewlry” (kosmos), to the harmony of the whole.

It is impossible to say why the latter hypothesis should have been more “disequilibratory” than the former. The same thing applies to heliocentrism, which the most inspired seventeenth- century theologians accepted willingly. …When we go back to the heart of the dispute over the two systems of the universe, we come across the same arguments that were still being repeated a quarter of a century ago, so that we are amazed that our contemporaries have so little imagination. The first argument that Smitho, a supporter of geocentrism, sets forth against Teofilo, a supporter of heliocentrism, in La Cena de Ie ceneri of Giordano Bruno is the following: “Holy Scripture … almost everywhere assumes the opposite” (Op. it., I, p. 91). Teofilo replies that the Bible is not a philosophic tract (that is to say, scientific) and that, in addressing the masses, it is only concerned with appearances. Smitho grants that he is right but also remarks that to address the masses with speech which contradicts appearances would be sheer folly (p. 92)….

….The idea of the infinitude of the universe is not the only one which, extolled in the Renaissance, strikes terror in succeeding eras. What a difference there is between the justification of human free will in Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on Human Dignity and the agonizing sense of responsibility experienced by the Protestant Kierkegaard! The idea of liberty, which allowed man to belong to the higher beings, ends by becoming a crushing burden, for there are no longer any points of reference. As soon as God withdraws into his complete transcendence, every human attempt to examine his design runs into a ghastly silence. This “silence of God” is, in reality, silence of the world, silence of Nature. To read in the “book of Nature” had been the fundamental experience in the Renaissance. The Reformation was tireless in seeking ways to close that book. Why? Because the Reformation thought of Nature not as a factor for rapprochement but as the main thing responsible for the alienation of God from mankind. By dint of searching, the Reformation at last found the great culprit guilty of all the evils of individual and social existence: sinning Nature.


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