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Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition [Paperback]

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Book Description

26 Feb 1991
Placing Bruno—both advanced philosopher and magician burned at the stake—in the Hermetic tradition, Yates's acclaimed study gives an overview not only of Renaissance humanism but of its interplay—and conflict—with magic and occult practices.

"Among those who have explored the intellectual world of the sixteenth century no one in England can rival Miss Yates. Wherever she looks, she illuminates. Now she has looked on Bruno. This brilliant book takes time to digest, but it is an intellectual adventure to read it. Historians of ideas, of religion, and of science will study it. Some of them, after reading it, will have to think again. . . . For Miss Yates has put Bruno, for the first time, in his tradition, and has shown what that tradition was."—Hugh Trevor-Roper, New Statesman

"A decisive contribution to the understanding of Giordano Bruno, this book will probably remove a great number of misrepresentations that still plague the tormented figure of the Nolan prophet."—Giorgio de Santillana, American Historical Review

"Yates's book is an important addition to our knowledge of Giordano Bruno. But it is even more important, I think, as a step toward understanding the unity of the sixteenth century."—J. Bronowski, New York Review of Books

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Product details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; New edition edition (26 Feb 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226950077
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226950075
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 128,448 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'This brilliant book takes time to digest, but it is an intellectual adventure to read it.' – Hugh Trevor-Roper, The New Statesman

'Explodes the idea that the intellectual foundations of the Renaissance were exclusively logical and coherent, and lets back the mysterious into history' – BBC History Magazine

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Dame Frances Yates (1899-1981). Brought about the revival of interest in the historical role of the occult sciences. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
64 of 65 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This is Yates's masterpiece, a brilliant and lucid survey of a wide range of magical traditions in the Renaissance. Yates argues that magic lay at the heart of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, and places the extraordinary misfit Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) at the center of that development. In later works, Yates often let her insight run wild, but this book rightly revolutionized thinking about magic and occultism in the Renaissance. It will be a difficult read for those not used to academic writing, but it is extremely clear, and well worth the effort.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Hermetic contribution to the Renaissance 28 Feb 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This excellent book shows the enormous contribution that the Hermetic tradition made to the Renaissance, and the important role of Giordano Bruno. Yates wrote in an era when Egyptology was less advanced than now, and so takes the view that prevailed at that time, which was that Hermetism was Greek and not Egyptian. Many scholars now believe that the Hermetic tradition was truly following Egyptian practice. For more information on this I recommend The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohsand Egyptian Cosmology: The ABSOLUTE Harmony: The Animated Universe. It should be noted that Hermetic practice depends on a transcendental ecstatic experience. In order to appreciate what drove Bruno on, and get closer to the higher practice, plus to understand the underlying doctrine, I recommend Divine Magic: HH Classics - Pythagoras: The Seven Sacred Secrets of Manifestation (Hay House Classics)
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must Read 27 Dec 2012
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Frances Yates, like an archeologist, has rediscovered and brought to light the real Giordano Bruno (well one of the them at least, he is perhaps too complex for only one interpretation). In any event, at the suggestion of Terence McKenna himself, I got it and read it and re-read it.

If you like hermeticism or the western esoteric tradition, you want to learn about as "first hand account" as you are going to get from the 15th century. Get this classic. Can't recommend it enough.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magical! 23 Jun 2014
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I can't remember the last time I enjoyed reading an academic book so much. Francis Yates writes clearly, and her interest in this fascinating subject is catching. She provides a history not just of Giordano Bruno, but of the developments in thought that preceded and influenced him. Anyone interested in the relationship between magic and religion should read this book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  22 reviews
219 of 225 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ian Myles Slater on: Re-thinking the Past 23 Jun 2004
By Ian M. Slater - Published on
I'm going to begin this review by explaining what the book is NOT about, since a number of reviewers seem to have been disappointed by what it contains. I will also include where to find information on some these topics.

"Giordano Bruno and The Hermetic Tradition" is NOT a biography of Bruno (1548-1600), who, according to the common view was burned at the stake for teaching Copernican astronomy (this was one of the charges, but was a side issue). There is a need for a modern biography, but this volume, first published in 1964 -- not, as the listing suggests, 1991 -- was a contribution to understanding Bruno, and not intended as a full account.

(Amazon gives the date of the current University of Chicago trade paperback; there was also a similar Midway Paperback edition in 1979, and a 1968 mass-market paperback edition, as well.)

It is NOT a study of the traditions surrounding Hermes Trismegistus ("thrice-great Hermes"), a Greco-Roman version of the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek Hermes, among other things, who has had a long history in Western (and Islamic) tradition; it discusses some of them, in the context of Renaissance and Reformation Europe. Collected papers by Antoine Faivre, "The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus," translated by Joscelyn Godwin, now approximate such a full account (paperback, 1995).

It is also NOT an historical account of the Greek and Latin (and Arabic, and some other) mystical / philosophical, magical, and alchemical texts purporting to be the works of Hermes and his disciples. For that, the historically-minded can turn to Garth Fowden's difficult, but rewarding, "The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind" (1986; with new Preface and corrections, as a MYTHOS paperback, 1993). The curious may also look to David Frankfurter's "Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance" (also a MYTHOS paperback, 1998) for a fuller context in popular religion. Those who want to adopt Hermeticism as part of their personal religious experience may need to go elsewhere.

It is NOT a translation of those ancient texts, some of which it summarizes for the reader unfamiliar with this rather obscure literature. For those important in Yates' account, see Brian Copenhaver's "Hermetica: The Greek 'Corpus Hermeticum' and the Latin 'Asclepius' in a new English translation, with notes and introduction" (1992; in paperback since 1995). The testimonies (references in other writers) and fragments (mainly excerpts preserved in a Byzantine anthology) are in the four-volume "Hermetica: The Ancient Greek and Latin Writings ..." (1924), edited and translated by Walter Scott (not the novelist). Yates warns against his high-handed editorial treatment of the main texts, but the testimonies, and most of the fragments, are given in more conservative forms; this too is (or was) available in paperback.

It is NOT an account of the Western Occult tradition in the Renaissance, with or without instructions for the would-be practitioner. For an account of the main texts and issues, the curious can begin with Yates' main authority in this matter, D.P. Walker's "Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella" (1958; there is a recent paperback). Walker and others are critically reviewed, with new hypotheses, in Ioan P. Couliano's "Eros and Magic in the Renaissance" (1987); a different perspective, and some important corrections to Couliano's data, are found in Noel P. Brann's "Trithemius and Magical Theology: A Chapter in the Controversy over Occult Studies in Early Modern Europe" (1999; both in paperback).

That being the case, what IS "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition," and is it worth reading?

Yates claimed that the book began as a translation of Bruno's Italian dialogue, "La Cena de le Ceneri," set in Elizabethan London, and grew. (The dialogue has since been translated, with useful notes, as "The Ash Wednesday Supper," by Edward A. Gosselin and Lawrence A. Lerner (1977; a Renaissance Society of America Reprint Texts paperback, 1995).

The book is an attempt to restore a missing, or at least neglected, chapter, in Western intellectual history. The "Hermetic Tradition" in the title is the set of beliefs about the supposed Hermes Trismegistus which Renaissance Europe inherited from the Church Fathers. They variously saw him as an ancient Prophet, and the real source of Plato's philosophy, and perhaps the disciple of Abraham or Moses, maybe even their teacher; or as a wicked tool of Satan. When Greek manuscripts of supposed Hermetic texts became available in Florence, the Medici put a priority on translating them, instead of Plato or Plotinus, and Marsilio Ficino obliged, launching a wave of excitement among some European thinkers.

What these thinkers, including, but not limited to, Bruno, did with, and to, the material they were given is the burden of the book. The enthusiasm eventually went underground, especially as it came to be realized that the wonderful Hermetic texts were not only post-Platonic, but post-Christian. This view took centuries to permeate European thought, however, and true believers in the Hermetic texts are still around. ("The Magic Flute" is just one example of originally Hermetic ideas about Egypt surviving into the Enlightenment.)

Bruno himself knocked about Europe, promoting plans for reconciling Catholics and Protestants, spending time -- not very happily -- in Elizabethan England. The Holy Office of the Inquisition eventually became aware that his plan seemed to involve the restoration of Egyptian Sun-worship -- the True, Original Religion of Mankind, as revealed by the Divine Hermes -- in a Christian cloak. There was also more than a hint of plans to use magic, and astrally empowered images, to achieve this and other goals. The heliocentric theory was for Bruno, it seems, just one more proof of the divine nature of the Sun. One can understand their indignation.

It is this Bruno, the Hermetic, the Magus, and the very amateur scientist, which is Yates' centerpiece. She continues the story with some latter-day Renaissance Hermetics, including Campanella (whose utopian "City of the Sun" seems to have revived, perhaps independently, some of Bruno's pet projects).

As someone who was a college student in the early 1970s, I can recall the impact in several areas of this book (then in its 1968 Vintage Books mass-market paperback), and its 1966 follow-up on another neglected area of European history, "The Art of Memory." Although in later writings Yates tended to leap from bold insights to unsupported conclusions, these two volumes helped rewrite the way a generation of historians would look at the European past. Some of the volumes I have mentioned would not have appeared, or would have been very different, without Yates' contribution. And yes, although not a complete portrait of either Bruno or Hermeticism, the book is still worth the reader's time and attention.

[Note, August 2005; a complaint by a more recent reviewer sent me back to take a close look at my copy of the 10th printing (1999), which is, as I remembered it, cleanly printed, with the plates as well reproduced as in earlier versions (some were made from not-very-good period originals!). Anything less, especially smudged or bleeding print, missing text, etc., as described, should be treated as a manufacturing defect, and the copy, if purchased new, should be returnable for this reason. (Or so I would think.) The University of Chicago Press certainly can do better, and usually does.]
66 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, scholarly introduction to Renaisssance magic 6 Oct 1998
By Christopher I. Lehrich - Published on
This is Yates's masterpiece, a brilliant and lucid survey of a wide range of magical traditions in the Renaissance. Yates argues that magic lay at the heart of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, and places the extraordinary misfit Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) at the center of that development. In later works, Yates often let her insight run wild, but this book rightly revolutionized thinking about magic and occultism in the Renaissance. It will be a difficult read for those not used to academic writing, but it is extremely clear, and well worth the effort.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing 13 Mar 2011
By C Hill - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is quite disappointing given how renowned it is. While someone at U. of Chicago Press labeled this as a philosophy book on the back cover, note that this is not a book in philosophy nor about philosophy, but as the author herself states, a historical study of the Hermetic tradition. Less than half of this book deals with Bruno, the rest with Hermetism, before and after Bruno. It is arranged in chronological order starting with the character of Hermes and the Hermetic writings and going to the end of Hermetism with the beginning of modern science. While most chapters are labeled by topic, once we come to Bruno, the chapter titles, unhelpfully, become biographical (Bruno in...Paris, Germany, etc.)

The author covers at length the representatives of Hermetism during the Renaissance: Ficino, della Mirandola, Agrippa, Bruno, Campanella, and others. However, she does not discuss them in depth. Most of the discussion is fairly superficial and repetitive. What it boils down to is that these different Hermetists combined in one way or other the different strands of philosophy, religion, and magic known at the time- Egyptianism, Platonism, Christianity, Cabala, Copernicanism. What is termed Egyptianism doesn't really refer to the religious beliefs of the Egyptians but rather the preponderance they gave to images and the idea of a priestly political religious leader. Speaking of images, all Hermetists the author discusses adopt this "Egyptianism," that is to say, the belief in the power of images and the possibility of doing magic through images. And yet, there are only 16 pages of pictures in this book usually placed contrary to where you would expect to find them, pictures mentioned early in the book are found somewhere near the end. The author is at pains to describe at length some of these magical images, but provides no picture. For a book where images matter so much it's bizarre that there are so few pictures.

After reading nearly two-hundred pages about Bruno, one comes away knowing very little about Bruno, his life or his thought. The author focuses on what seem to be rather insignificant events in his life and then tries to make them key for explaining Bruno's life. From the bit one gathers about him, he appears to be far more interesting than portrayed.

A terrible flaw of this books is the large number of quotations in foreign languages that are left untranslated and unparaphrased. Especially since Yates' strategy is to start with quotations to make a point, as opposed to make a point and support it with quotations. For example, Yates says the following in discussing Kepler "The passage is so important that it must be quoted in full." What follows is nearly a page of Latin. Apparently it's not important for the reader to understand what the important passage says. Not only does the author expect he reader to be fluent in Latin but also in French and Italian, which I suspect is too much to ask, even of Englishmen in the 60s. It is particular unnerving since elsewhere in this book Yates will translate some sentences. Where she does translate Bruno, one gets the impression that he is a very powerful thinker and skilled writer. A shame we didn't get more of his texts in English.

I join the other reviewer in pointing out the lousy quality of this book. Nearly in every other page some text is missing, letters of words are eaten or not printed. A book this admired and still well sold deserves more care. In fact, I would say that this text needs to be entirely re-edited and reset in type. It needs to be re-edited to include translations wherever quotations in foreign languages appear and to include more pictures, especially of images that Yates discusses.

This book is a decent introduction to the history of Hermetism. It is far too long, long-winding, slow to get to important matters, and superficial. It starts fairly strong with an overview of Hermetism, and ends equally strong with an analysis of how Hermetism came to an end. But the 400 pages in between are rather dull, light on interpretation, analysis, and scholarship; repetitive, and completely lacking in even basic attempts at philosophical, esoteric, or religious depth. Time and money can be better spend looking elsewhere for information on Bruno and Hermetism.
37 of 46 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Truth about Bruno 19 Sep 2002
By Hendrik Obsieger - Published on
Actually, this book can not be evaluated at once. Rather, you should concede four stars to the greater part of the book and not any star to the rest. For this is widely an excellent book. Yates does not only prove that Bruno is not the pioneer of modern science he is often stated to be, but convincingly exposes the background against which his works have to be understood. To that purpose, she shows the impact of the Hermetic writings, an ancient source written in the second and third centuries A.D., but by some Christian Renaissance writers such as Ficino or Pico della Mirandola held to be of an authority greater and older than even Moses, on Renaissance thought. Thus it is demonstrated in chronological order how the corpus Hermeticum was received by Renaissance writers, focussing on magic that was derived from some passages of the corpus Hermeticum. Bruno is placed within this tradition. Congeniously, Yates acknowledges the significance of Casaubon's exact dating of what had been held a prophecy of Christianism for more than two centuries and discusses the following dispute which finally made the type of the Renaissance magus disappear, although this tradition of thinking never completely vanished. So this is, without any doubt, the fundamental book about Giordano Bruno and the impact of Hermetism on Renaissance thought. It provides information clear and dear also on magic in general and thus illuminates even some passages of Shakespeare and (unconsciously) Goethe's Faust.Thus the book inspires to study Renaissance authors such as Pico or Ficino or more literature on Renaissance Thought ( I recommend the overwhelming collection „Renaissance Thought and the Arts" by Paul Oskar Kristeller).
All the more it is a pity that Yates, writing with transigating passion, is lead astray to some statements about science and antique thought in general that cannot be left uncommented upon. Ancient philosophy in the time when the corpus Hermeticum was written did NOT necessarily, not even realy, stagnate (p.4, p. 449). On the contrary, Plotinus, writing about 250 A.D., renewed philosophical thought in a way that he is now often considered to be one of the greatest metaphysicians that ever lived. Furthermore, the reason for this presumed stagnation is, according to Yates, that the ancient philosophers did not know the principle of experimentation. But this principle is completely alien to philosophy, be it ancient or modern (this is quite evident, but if someone still doubts, he should read e.g. Wenisch's „Die Philosophie und ihre Methode"). The exhausting prize of modern science at the end of the book (p. 447-55) is not to the point and ignores that ancient thought must not be treated as a failing attempt at Galileo's achievements (as the German scholar Jörg Kube emphasized). Her sideswipe against Descartes (p. 454-55), finally, seems to me completely out of place. So I recommend this book to anyone who wants to know the truth about Giordano Bruno and the essence of magic, but you should not believe what is said about ancient philosophy and philosophy in general.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Harsh, but Good 30 Jun 2012
By Filler Joe - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This text is essential for those interested in Hermetic writings. If you're a student of esotericism, you really need to understand the history of what you're dealing with. This book is a good start.

I do feel a need to warn readers, however, that this book doesn't see Hermetic writings as legitimate Mystery School teachings. Recent archeological discoveries offered new evidence that the writings of Hermes might actually be as old as originally claimed. These discoveries, however, were made AFTER this book was published and during a time when many "serious" writers saw things like the Corpus Hermeticum as a more-or-less recent construction.

Overall, this is a good bit of history any student of Western esotericism should read, but understand that it's not written by an adept of the teachings. There won't be any insight here; it's all academic and--as a result--very skeptical of anything outside the sphere of objective approaches.
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