Gábor Zemplén[1]


An English magus visiting Hungary


Szőnyi György Endre: “Exaltatio és hatalom” Keresztény mágia és okkult szimbolizmus egy angol mágus műveiben Szeged:JATEPress, 1998



It is not easy to find a scholarly book on Hermeticism, Christian magic, or John Dee in Hungary. Though interest has increased considerably in recent years and the number of books on related topics is mushrooming, academic interest has been very scant until very recently.

Most works concerned with this controversial area appear to be strongly biased for or against, either singing laudatory hymns of alternative Vorstellungsarten, accepting the Hermetic teachings and the New-Age ideology at face value, or condemning the magical world-view as a stubbornly persisting weed, a prescientific surrogate of thinking still poisoning our culture.

Some of the key texts have not been translated for centuries, and most of the translations are not from the original languages[2].

This is why it is very good news that Szőnyi György Endre’s thesis[3] for the (now nonexistent) title ‘Candidate of Science’ written in 1992 appeared as a book in 1998, under a new title and with modified content[4].



The chapters are somewhat diverging[5], but they are all centered around John Dee (1527-1608), ‘one of the ornaments of his Age’[6] a most colourful figure of the otherwise not-so-dull Elizabethan England. For some, primarily a philosopher, for others, a mathematician, a great librarian, an influential court astrologer, or simply a conjurer and magician[7], Dee influenced many, and was one of the most learned men of his time. He selected the most propitious day for Elizabeth’s coronation, improved the Julian calendar (but his much admired improvements were rejected by the bishops), had visitors in his house in Mortlake like Sir Philip Sidney, the Secretary Walsingham, and Queen Elizabeth. His life was not without difficulties, he was imprisoned in 1555 and first accused of enchanting the Queen, later tried on ecclesiastical charges, but released; his life-long quest for patronage was never fully successful, and after a life of much admiration and scorn he died poor and neglected.

Many interesting anecdotes survived from this exceptionally well-documented life,[8] and, as Dee recorded the purchasing of his books meticulously, his intellectual development can be studied relatively easily.



After outlining the task of the book, Szőnyi gives a detailed description on how he tackles the occult and magic tradition and world-view in the first part of the book.

The second part is a biography of John Dee, with special emphasis on the years 1583-89, which Dee spent in Central Europe. It describes in detail Dee’s journey to Pozsony (present day Bratislava) in 1563, where he took part in the coronation-ceremony of Maximilian of Habsburg (to whom he later dedicated the famous Monas hieroglyphica) The biography contains many amusing details, and gives a large-scale overview of Dee’s life from his early days and laborious University years at Cambridge, St John’s, through his peregrination in Europe to his mature years in Mortlake. It sketches the continuously changing focus of his interest: ‘first excellency in mathematics and enthusiasm towards  natural scientific questions, followed by an increasingly historical – ideological interest, and ending in the most esoteric, occult philosophy, which meant a gradual turning away from empirical sciences’[9].

 Szőnyi believes that in Dee’s life the ‘esoteric tradition of European humanism was undoubtedly united with the subconscious processes of a psychologically hypersensitive person.’[10]

The third part of the book is a historical Rückblick, giving an overview of the 20th century developments in the Hermeticism-research, with special emphasis on Frances Yates’ work. It also introduces and discusses some of the Renaissance writers read and influenced by Dee. A substantial part of the chapter is dedicated to the rediscovery, translation, and early interpretation of the Hermetic writings, focusing on the Pimander and the Asclepius of the Corpus hermeticum, and to the analysis of two influential medieval works on magic: the Picatrix (first translated from the original Arabic to Spanish in 1256, later to Latin), a short book on talisman-magic, and the Liber secretorum (for a long time mistakenly attributed to Albertus Magnus).

Throughout the whole book Szőnyi’s method is to characterize an age through the analyses of selected works from carefully picked authors, thus he describes the christianization of magic through the works of Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)[11].

Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s (1486-1535) and Paracelsus’ (app. 1493-1541) works illustrate the emergence and aims of ‘naturall magick’, mainly evolving from theoretical speculations by the 16th century, when it encountered a crisis. Both writers influenced Dee profoundly, in fact, he pioneered in studying the Paracelsian writings in detail in England.

Agrippa von Nettesheim was the most eminent pupil of Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516, engaged mostly in applied magic), and became known all over Europe with his De occulta philosophia, uniting medieval magia naturalis concepts with Neoplatonic ones. Szőnyi, however, investigates not only this work, but also Agrippa’s much more sceptical De incertitudine,  a work that rejects the possibility of certain knowledge, and deeply questions the usefulness of sciences. In spite of this seeming contradiction one can presume a single, unified world-view behind the two, seemingly contradictory works, as in the 1533 edition of De occulta philosophia Agrippa incorporated those chapters of De incertitudine, that reject magic and Hermeticism most openly. Thus, Szőnyi claims, with Agrippa we find for the first time the recognition of a paradox inherently present in the magic world-view.

The chapter ends with a close reading of the scientist-magician Paracelsus’ two books, showing how ‘magic was scientized’ in his Paragranum, and the hermetic natural philosophy through his Astronomia magna.

The fourth and last part of the book returns to Dee, closely investigating his natural philosophy and occult symbolism[12]. After the historiographical introduction the reader can follow the development of Dee’s occult philosophy in his three major works.

In the Propedeumata aphoristica (1577) Dee developed a method for measuring the distances of heavenly bodies, so that the astrological constellations can be computed with more precision. The improved method, however, instead of the usual 120, required the calculation of 25 341 constellations, which was practically impossible in Dee’s time, and shifted his attention to other areas.

After portraying the main thesis of Dee’s Monas hieroglyphica (1564) and the Mathematicall Preface (1570), Szőnyi investigates probably the most curious area of Dee’s life: his long preoccupation with cabalist angel-magic followed by a short summary of the magic tradition, Renaissance symbolism, the development of the Faust motive, and the changing attitude toward magic. The book ends with an evaluation of Dee’s life and work.



Although from the four chapters of the book two are not concerned with Dee directly, this is to be applauded not scorned, knowing the scarcity of valuable scholarly studies on this topic in Hungarian.

If we are looking for an organizing principle in this multi-faceted tableau, we might say that it attempts to concentrate on elements that were incorporated from the Judeo-Christian culture into the European high culture, and also influenced Dee.

He treats the texts analyzed in the book ‘works containing some kind of cultural-historical truths’, his aim is to give a creditable, but not necessarily objective analysis, one that incorporates and takes into account the peculiar paradoxes inherent to magic. He rightly does not aim at judging or deciding whether Dee’s last years were those of enlightenment or madness.

Magic is treated as an independent disciple in its own right, not as a primitive phase[13] in mankind’s cultural history. Magic is a kind of act, which ‘with the help of occult knowledge unites the human spirit with the supernatural’, enabling him to exercise his power in the spiritual world, and, finally raises him to a level of divinity, so that he enters the world of ideas in earthly life. This concept, reappearing throughout the book is called exaltatio by Szőnyi, and seems to be a higher organizing principle present in the works of all studied Renaissance thinkers.



It is impossible today to write about the Renaissance hermetic tradition without mentioning Frances Yates, and without a critique of the Yates-thesis, and Szőnyi devotes a whole chapter to this topic. He, at several places, criticizes the Yates thesis, but the structure of the  whole book and the investigated works show that he is much indebted to Dame Frances.

Much of his criticism is directed against the too strong claims of Yates, and the coarseness of the picture she depicts. To give just one example, when discussing the origins of Ficino’s magic, Szőnyi gives a more detailed and subtle interpretation than Yates. The latter, though described medieval magic extensively in her books, claimed that Ficino turned away from this crude and primitive tradition. She believed that the Neoplatonism in Florence originates nearly exclusively from the Hermetic tradition. Szőnyi, on the other hand, holds that the medieval roots were important to understand Ficino’s magic, and as, for example, the Picatrix is an Arabic treatise based on the antique tradition, there is little reason to call it ‘primitive’. He claims that it is very important ‘and pointing forward that there was a need to unveil the hidden truths, stress the central importance of man and of the scientific understanding. The magic preserved by the Arabic culture thus is a connecting link not only with the philosophical theology of the Florentine Neoplatonists, but also with the late renaissance acceptance of the experimental natural sciences’.

Whether we take this latter comment to be true or not, it shows no major revision of the original Yates-thesis, picturing the Hermetist as the immediate ancestor of the seventeenth century scientist.



While in the 15th century magic was usually accompanying artistic work, by the 16th century the magus became an increasingly scientific figure. One of the most memorable scientist-magicians is the not always polite Paracelsus[14]. Szőnyi, when discussing his work concentrates on his philosophical views, based on quotations from the Paragranum and the Astrologia magna. Unfortunately he devotes scant attention to Paracelsus the ‘scientist’, and does not aim to summarize his scientific work in the context of the magical world-view.

This is even more regrettable, as for example the only recent and detailed book available for the Hungarian reader on the History of Chemistry[15], only treats Paracelsus as a ‘proto-chemist’, giving a painfully one-sided picture about him, neglecting all other aspects relevant for our understanding of Thephrastus Bombastus[16]. Although Szőnyi consciously attempts to evade the usual mistakes of writing history, is reflexive towards both his source and his own story, the reader is left unsatisfied, as the chapter titled ‘Occult history and natural science’, apart from some very general remarks, has very little to say about natural science, and seemingly evades the question. This means that though both recent works deal with the complex figure of Paracelsus, they both fall short of giving a balanced picture. Instead of summarizing the natural scientific side of Paracelsus’ work (which the title of the chapter suggests[17]), Szőnyi only gives a – surprisingly - detailed account of Jung’s reading of Paracelsus.

We can only agree with Szőnyi that it is very difficult to employ the language of the rationalistic, positivistic science when the very topic is an alternative view of the world, aimed at providing an alternative to discursive thinking.

Szőnyi painstakingly shows how large-scale histories and master narratives aimed at giving an overview from a scientific or religious viewpoint deform Dee’s figure by stressing only one side of his endeavors. Of course all history-writing necessarily implies the acceptance of a master narrative. It is impossible, however one may try, to escape this trap, as already picking the topic and the relevant connections worthy of discussion presupposes a large-scale narrative, “the historian’s choice of subject matter and way of framing the questions to be asked of it are themselves always determined by reference to an existing historiographical picture”[18]. He, however, at the same time introduces his own organizing principle: the framework of exaltatio[19].

The book is demythologizing, as the reader has to give up some fancy conceptions about Dee: he had no major impact on either the development of European science, or the cultural heritage of Central Europe and Hungary. These misconceptions result from distorting, one-sided master-narratives, which ‘inevitably lead to the homogenizing of magic, the taming of controversies, the separation of black and white magic’, and greatly hinder our understanding of the dynamism and power of the magical world-view around the turn of the seventeenth century.


[1] PhD student, Dept. of Philosophy, BME.

[2] Just on example: the Hungarian translation of the Corpus Hermeticum is based on the pioneering but old four-volume translation of W. Scott though it has been retranslated many times before Copenhaver’s  new translation in 1992.

[3] The original title: Keresztény mágia, John Dee és az európai humanizmus,

[4] And with a very modest price, we may add. The changes are not fundamental: the structure of the original thesis was retained, and the three parts were used as part 2-4 in the book. The over 300 page book contains an index, a detailed bibliography, some illustrations (of mediocre quality). Some remarks: The footnotes and references are precise, the large number of quotations is very useful, but is not systematic: sometimes a Latin original is given, but often not; the most curious is when only the last sentence of a longer quotation is reproduced in Latin, even if it has no key importance or great complexity hindering a precise translation. The asterisks in the footnotes mark works that I have not found in Szőnyi’ bibliography, but are connected to the topic.

[5] Knowing the scarcity of similar books in Hungarian, it is very understandable, that not a small fragment of Dee scholarship is chosen as the topic . This means, however, that the book is mostly aimed at the ‘lay’ reader (Szőnyi, p.11): but for an introductory book, the meticulous details are somewhat superfluous. If, on the other hand,  one takes the book to be a highly academic work, than it is not able to compete with the much more detailed and focused works appearing in English. This situation is not unique, most Hungarian scholars face the paradoxical situation: they have to choose either substantial depth or substantial number of readers for a book; to achieve both is usually impossible. To my belief, Szőnyi aimed at both, but his work is more of a good (probably too good) introduction.

[6] As John Aubrey described him in 1718. in: French, Peter J. 1972. John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus, p.4 London: RKP (Ark Paperbacks)

[7] A lot has changed when in 1659 Meric Casaubon (the son of Isaac Casubon, who eventually proved that the Hermetic writings, so influential in the Renaissance were post-Christian) excepts form Dee’s diaries on ‘what passed for many Years Between Dr: John Dee…and Some Spirits’. The book known as “A True & Faithful Relation” established Dee as a fanatic deluded by devils.

[8] See for moments of their private life: *Harkness, Deborah, E. 1997. Managing an Experimental Household – the Dees of Mortlake and the Practice of Natural Philosophy. ISIS 88 247-263. Apart from some harsh sentences (like “today psychologists would be tempted to label John Dee a clinical narcissist or an anal retentive for his exhaustive documentation of everything from his astrological consultations to his wife’s menstrual cycles…), Harkness describes a strange agreement in April, 1587 between Dee and his medium, Kelly on the “common and indifferent using of Matrimonial Acts amongst any couple of us four”, to which the wives agreed after “weeping and trembling for a quarter of an hour”. After consummation of the ‘pactum factum’ the angelic revelations increased, and new information was available for Dee on the Apocalypse.

[9] Szőnyi p. 42

[10] ibid. p. 46. Inverted commas are usually Szőnyi’s words paraphrased, often no direct reference is given.

[11] Surprisingly little of the works of Ficino and Pico is translated to Hungarian, and even these are smaller essays like *Ficino, Marsilio. 1992. 'Kratülosz, vagy A nevek valódi értelme- A Platón dialógus argumentuma'. (trans. Pajorin Klára) in: HELIKON - Világirodalmi figyelő 1992 3-4, pp. 338-347.

[12] For a short study on the importance and interpretation of visual symbols see for example *Szulakowska, Urszula. 1995. 'Geometry and Optics in Renaissance Alchemical Illustrations: John Dee, Robert Fludd and Michael Maier'  in:CAUDA PAVONIS Studies in Hermeticism, 1995, 14, No.1

[13] See for example works of Walter Pagel: Vindication of Rubbish (1945), Paracelsus (1958), etc.

[14] See for example: Paracelsus: Credo in: Pál József (ed.) Hermetika, mágia - ezoterikus látásmód és művészi megismerés. Szöveggyűjtemény Ikonológia és műértelmezés 5. Szeged: JATEPress, or any of the detailed monogaphies.

[15] Balázs Lóránt. 1996. A kémia története I-II. Nemzeti Tankönyvkiadó

[16] The ‘presentist bias’ is still very common in Hungarian works on the History of Science. There are exceptions, but as most writers are originally scientists, and not historians, they prefer internalist and ‘modern-minded’ accounts.

[17] The chapter title “Occult philosophy and natural science” is thus somewhat misleading. From the 80’s many good summaries are given, like *Hutchison, Keith. 1982. What happened to the Occult Qualities in the Scientific Revolution? ISIS, 1982, 73 (267) or Vickers, Brian (ed.) 1984. Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance. Cambridge Uni. Press, with a good introduction and an article on Dee by N. H. Clulee. Also of interest is the article: Fehér Márta. 1995. 'The 17th century crossroads of the mathematizaton of nature' in Changing Tools - Case Studies in the History of Scientific Methodology. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, pp.1-26, which outlines an alternative to the Yates-thesis following the footsteps of Mary Hesse.

[18] *Dear, P. (ed.) 1997. The Scientific Enterprise in Early Modern Europe. Readings from ISIS. p.2 Chicago: University of Chicago Press

[19] This serves well as an approximate organizing principle, but, to my belief, is not able to replace the (rightly criticized) master-narratives of the History of Science