Per Aspera ad Fontes 7

December 16, 2011 was an important day for the study of Hermeticism and related currents. After a year of disaster, in which the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica came close to extinction, the library re-opened its doors to the public and celebrated that event with a new exhibition, Infinite Fire. It was an honour for me to be elected for giving the opening speech at this occasion, and it was a profoundly moving experience to be back in the BPH, surrounded by a large crowd of colleagues, students, and friends of Hermetic studies, who all clearly shared the same sense of relief and excitement. I had titled my address Per Aspera ad Fontes, and what follows is an English translation.

Since we are living in a period when the humanities find themselves under attack, in the Netherlands as in Europe as a whole, I found it important to begin by reminding my audience what a library essentially is: a memory bank. Only thanks to the existence of libraries are we able, as a culture and as a society, to keep remembering our own past.

But libraries do much more than just looking back, in nostalgia or otherwise, at things that no longer exist. It is only by keeping the memory of our past alive that we are able to know who we are: just as our personal identity is based on our memories about the life we have lived – so that losing our memory means that we literally no longer know who we are – likewise our collective identity is based upon shared memories of how we have become who we are now, how we reached the place where we presently find ourselves. And it is only on that foundation – on the basis of a solid awareness of our own identity and its historical roots – that we are able to make responsible decisions in view of our future. This is true not only for individuals, but for societies as well. The preservation of libraries is therefore a matter of eminent cultural, social, and even political importance.

Seen from the perspective of memory preservation, the role of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica is a particularly special and rare one. This collection is focused specifically on dimensions of our collective past that, until quite recently, had fallen into generally oblivion and ran the risk of vanishing from our collective memory altogether. One sign of this is the simple fact that relatively few people today have very clear ideas of what “hermetic philosophy” is all about (“do you perhaps mean hermeneutic philosophy?” I have heard from the mouth of countless well-meaning colleagues over the years); another example is the fact that in the media, terms like  “rosicrucianism” or “theosophy” are still associated primarily with marginal, sectarian, or otherwise suspect fringe phenomena that may be fun in bestsellers of the genre “Dan Brown,” but should hardly be a concern of serious people. Such popular perceptions of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica’s subject domain rest upon little more than ignorance. More precisely, they are the symptom of a serious collective loss of memory, since the eighteenth century, concerning the very foundations of our own culture and society. The good news is that this perception is in the process of becoming a thing of the past, because for several decennia now, academic specialists on the cutting edge of the humanities have been busy correcting this widespread amnesia. The relevant research typically ranges across the boundaries of all the existing disciplines: it includes the study of religion, philosophy, science, and the arts, and forces us to look at those different disciplines as one interrelated whole. Of course it takes time for the results of fundamental research to filter through to the awareness of the broader society; but the fact is that on an international scale, a “slow revolution” is taking place that will eventually have far-reaching implications for how we look at the grand narratives of Western society and modernity.

Time for a concrete example: what kind of revolution do I have in mind?
In 1912, the Belgian chemist and historian George Sarton founded the journal Isis. Published by the History of Science Society, it still exists today, and is considered the most prestigious scholarly journal in its domain – what Nature is for the natural sciences, Isis is for their history. George Sarton (sometimes referred to as the “father of history of science”) was a typical representative of the positivist mentality that was dominant in his time, and found it obvious that topics such as astrology, alchemy, and natural magic were nothing but despicable “pseudosciences”: real science had only managed to develop during the seventeenth century because it had liberated itself from these superstitions. Sarton described the Scientific Revolution in very dramatic terms as “a growing light eating up the darkness,”1 and obviously meant the “darkness” of superstition and magic: “Science is essentially progressive, while magic is essentially conservative,” he proclaimed, and “therefore there can be no compromise between them; they cannot possibly walk together – for one is walking forwards, and the other backwards.”2 Among the general population and in academic contexts, such convictions remain common even today. For instance, not long ago I heard a prominent Dutch physicist declare, with perfect innocence, that Isaac Newton must have been temporarily insane during the time he was investigating alchemy. That state of insanity must have lasted quite long then, if one considers the fact that Newton has left more manuscripts about alchemy than about physics and optics, and has devoted more than a million words to them.

In fact, George Sarton committed what should be a mortal sin for scholars: he believed he could pronounce his opinion about “magic” ex cathedra, without have to bother studying it first. And he was explicit about this: “The historian of science cannot devote much attention to the study of superstition and magic, that is, of unreason … Human folly being at once unprogressive, unchangeable, and unlimited, its study is a hopeless undertaking.”3 One of Sarton’s contemporaries, the American historian Lynn Thorndike, was not so convinced of this, and for good reasons: research should come first, judgments afterwards. Thorndike devoted his life to incredibly extensive and detailed researches in the European and American archives about precisely these topics, and from 1923 to 1958 published an eight-volume standard work4 which demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that, at least until the eighteenth century, the boundaries between “magic” and “science” had been so fluid that it is simply impossible to practice history of science without also studying topics such as natural magic, astrology, and alchemy. Although Thorndike himself still had much of the positivist about him, his work opened the doors for a much more differentiated and far more correct perspective on how the history of science has been interwoven with “hermetic” topics and traditions.

It is fair to say that, in the discipline of history of science, the battle between Sarton and Thorndike has long been decided in the latter’s favour. Particularly under the influence of the English pioneer Frances A. Yates and her enormously popular books, more and more historians since the 1960s have begun to study the “Hermetic Tradition,”5 with much attention to such puzzling things as the role of alchemy in Newton’s oeuvre. Not that this happened without resistance though. The great historian of science Richard Westfall, author of the extremely impressive standard biography of Newton,6 presented his research of Newton’s numerous alchemical manuscripts on a large academic conference in the 1970s. The historian Margaret Jacob was in the audience, and remembers what happened: “There were audible gasps, and under a barrage of hostile questioning, Westfall retorted in exasperation, ‘I did not write these manuscripts’, or words to that effect.”7

The great thing about science and scholarship is that, in the end, rational arguments and empirical proof almost always prevail over prejudice. The sources do not lie, and therefore any serious historian of science today will acknowledge that Newton did indeed concern himself intensely with the study of alchemy; and moreover, it has become clear that, in the scientific context of his own time, he had perfectly good reasons for doing so. In this manner, we have become attentive to important dimensions of the history of science to which earlier generations remained blind. And the case of Newton is only the sensational tip of a very large iceberg. For example, it was long assumed that the “father of chemistry,” Robert Boyle, turned away from an early interest in alchemy during his later career; but in actual fact, he maintained a vivid interest in alchemy throughout his life, and it even grew stronger during his last decades. Of course such findings go straight against traditional understandings of progress “from magic to science,” but it just so happens that this is what the sources tell us. Newton and Boyle were by no means exceptional cases either: on the contrary, we now know that the study of alchemy was an integral part of “normal science” in the period of the Scientific Revolution.

It may take some time, but eventually such new insights filter through and become normalized. The journal Isis, with which I began, is a good example. It publishes an authoritative “Current Bibliography of the History of Science” each year, which, even ten years ago, still contained a standard category (introduced by Sarton himself) called “Pseudosciences.” But in 2002, the editors decided that such a category was no longer in line with current scholarship. It was therefore replaced by separate categories for “Occult Sciences and Magic,” “Astrology,” and “Alchemy,” without any pejorative addition. Sarton would have been surprised – and undoubtedly horrified – to see that historians of science now find it quite normal to be historians of these “hermetic” traditions as well.

At least three conclusions can be drawn from this example. First: fields such as alchemy or magic may still be often associated with “unscientific” or fringe pursuits among outsiders, but specialists have long come to consider them as perfectly legitimate and important topics of research. Second: careful study of the relevant sources has led to radically new insights about how the foundations of modern science (and hence, of our own culture and society) have been created. And third: this revolution began only a few decennia ago and is in full swing at present. This means that the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica is situated right at the center, or the avant garde, of some of the most exciting and innovative developments that are going on in international research right now. It does not just preserve memories of the past, but points towards the future.

I have used the history of science as an example, but similar developments are taking place in all the disciplines of the humanities, with respect to early modernity as well as the modern and contemporary period. It is becoming ever more evident that the “grand narratives” of traditional historiography have been far too selective and restrictive, because an established ideology was allowed to decide a priori what should and should not be made into an object of serious investigation. Think, for instance, of a philosopher such as Marsilio Ficino, the first translator of the Corpus Hermeticum and Plato’s complete dialogues. The Platonism that pervades the Italian Renaissance, from art and literature to philosophy and religion, is unthinkable without his work – and yet, Ficino used to appear in traditional histories of philosophy as little more than a footnote in the margins, because he was too different from what had come to be considered as “real” philosophy since Descartes. Again, it is only since a few decennia that Ficino, and the many greater or smaller Renaissance philosophers who followed in his tradition, have begun to be taken seriously again. And although there is still some resistance among historians of philosophy, this trend is leading to new insights about how the history of philosophy should be written and how it relates to parallel disciplines such as history of theology or of the natural sciences.

Something similar is true, to give one more example, for a figure such as Giordano Bruno: among the first defenders of the Copernican system and the infinity of the universe, he was burned as a heretic in Rome in 1600 but is recognized today as one of the most original thinkers of his time. Like so many of the thinkers whose writings have been collected in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, Bruno is too big to fit within one single discipline, for one cannot understand his work unless one gives equal attention to all its dimensions: religion, philosophy, science, and even poetry and the visual arts. The examples could be multiplied at will. In short, the cumulative effect of new research in all fields that have a bearing on history of Hermetic philosophy and related currents is that we are beginning to perceive the outlines of a new understanding of the historical developments from which our culture and society have emerged. As I emphasized at the beginning of this talk, this means that eventually we will have to reconsider the nature of our own identity.

What particle accelerators are to physicists, libraries are to scholars in the humanities. Scientific revolutions that change the world have their origin in the difficult, careful, and often very technical work of scientists in white labcoats who are busying themselves with precise measurements, observations, and calculations that can only be understood by other specialists. In the humanities, the situation is no different. New insights that surprise the world are almost always based upon the work of trained specialists who are busy with careful and sometimes extremely detailed research of written and printed sources (the equivalent in the humanities of fundamental particles in physics). The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica’s motto, ad fontes, is therefore perfectly appropriate.

In this domain as in other fields of research, the saying “Der liebe Gott lebt im Detail” (dear God lives in the details) is entirely relevant. Thus, for example, about ten years ago I was busy, here in the library, with studying a sadly neglected Hermetic philosopher from the fifteenth century, Lodovico Lazzarelli. Great scholars such as Paul Oskar Kristeller, Daniel P. Walker, and Moshe Idel, had been trying to “crack the code” of Lazzarelli’s mysterious masterpiece, the Crater Hermetis. For anybody who has never done such work, it is perhaps hard to imagine, but the key to the riddle appeared to be hidden in only a few words in Latin. Having come to the culminating point of his discourse, Lazzarelli quoted a famous (or notorious) passage from the Hermetic Asclepius, which has already been a source of worry to St. Augustine – but Lazzarelli made a few apparently minor changes in that text. If one studies those variations in detail, and tries to find a reason for them, there comes a moment when all the panels begin to move and shift in front of one’s eyes, and it suddenly becomes crystal clear what Lazzarelli’s text is really all about.9 In this short lecture I cannot go into the details, but the implications go much further than the case of Lazzarelli alone: they force us to revise traditional understandings of Renaissance Hermetism as a whole.10 For example, they lead to an entirely new perspective on one of the most influential Hermetic authors of the Renaissance, Cornelius Agrippa, who was still an important reference as late as Goethe’s Faust.11 Such changes in our perception of Renaissance Hermetism, in turn, have considerable implications for questions of a more general nature about the sources of modernity.

For detailed research of this kind, it is often crucial to study a large number of sources together; and the only place where that is possible is in a specialized library like the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, that tries to bring all the primary sources and the relevant secondary literature together in one physical location. For example, a few years ago I was busy, here in the library, with an exact comparison between as many fifteenth- and sixteenth-century editions and translations of the Corpus Hermeticum as possible, focusing on the microlevel of single words: a type of research that would have been literally impossible anywhere in the world except here in Amsterdam, because only here could I put all the sources and editions on the table next to one another, and walk towards the shelves to consult the relevant literature whenever needed. Such a textual comparison is yet another example of the kind of detailed technical research that may perhaps strike outsiders as dry and tedious (similar to the work of those physicists in white labcoats in their particle accelerator). The truth is, however, that such research is the necessary starting point for any conclusions with a much larger impact. All the important scientific revolutions have started this manner: with somebody sitting in a laboratory or a library, racking his brain over some puzzling details of which others fail to see the importance. Such a quest for explanations may finally lead to new insights that even the scholar in question did not see coming. This is how research works – and by the way, this is also why the current obsession with “valorisation” in the humanities will prove to be a dead end: the profit or “usefulness” of research often does not become apparent until after the research has been done.

For many years, the Netherlands have been a source of envy for the international scholarly community in these fields of study, because of the unique facilities that were offered by the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, combined since 1999 with a unique academic chair and teaching program for History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents. Such a combination exists nowhere else in the world – not even remotely. Countless scholars have therefore traveled to Amsterdam to work in the library, and every year I received letters from international students who mentioned its presence as a major reason for them to come study in this city.

Sadly, since last year I had to read countless letters and emails that tried to express a sense of amazement, outrage, and utter incomprehension about the fact that a library of this quality and importance (recognized by the Dutch state for its unique cultural and scholarly value) suddenly had to close its doors and saw itself threatened with annihilation. Students who had planned to come to Amsterdam sometimes decided to apply elsewhere, and the Dutch and international students in our program felt homeless, not to mention my colleagues and myself. The year 2011 was a year of disaster, in which the nightmare scenario of a complete annihilation of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica sometimes seemed to come so close as to seem inevitable. Fortunately it has not come to that. It is true that the library has suffered very heavy and painful blows – think of the loss of the excellent library staff members, who were so devoted to the BPH and knew it so well, the loss of an extremely valuable collection of manuscripts and incunables, and the unnecessary and counterproductive split between one part (owned by the state of The Netherlands) that is now in the Royal Library in The Hague and the other part that has remained in Amsterdam. But in spite of all this, and against the expectations of many, we find ourselves back in the Bloemstraat, surrounded by books, to celebrate the rebirth of the BPH. Per aspera … ad fontes: after a period of heavy trials and tribulations, the way to the sources lies open again.

I began this talk by referring to the library as a memory bank that preserves our collective past and reminds us of who we are and where we have come from, but it is appropriate to end with a gaze towards the future. I hope to have made clear that while the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica is unique in its kind, it is anything but an isolated phenomenon. It plays a very special role in a much broader trend of innovation in international academic research that is currently visible in many places worldwide. Of course there are many other libraries with strong collections of hermetic and related materials, but what makes the BPH special is the unifying concept from which it has been built up – the same concept that is also at the basis of my chair at the University of Amsterdam. This is why a close collaboration between these two institutes in our city is so important: 1 + 1 = 3.  The key to a bright future lies in the further development of “Hermetic Amsterdam” as a central nodal point within an open and dynamic international network of scholars, universities, libraries, and so on, with optimal use of all the advanced technical means that are available today. The period of closed institutes that kept everything in their own hands is over, and a modern library is no longer just a building that holds a lot of books: it must be a meeting place and a dynamic center from which lines of collaboration and exchange are drawn to many places elsewhere in the world. The new motto of the BPH, “Hermetically open,” is therefore particularly well-chosen.

In short, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica stands at the beginning of a new phase in its existence, and finds itself confronted with new challenges. The future will not be easy, for the library has suffered heavy blows and much will have to be built up almost from scratch. But as can be seen from the exhibition that is being opened today: the fire has kept burning and has no intention of ever going out. Fortunately, the Hermetic philosophy has a lot of experience with what is known as “philosophy through fire.” The Great Work of alchemical transmutation is not possible without first going through the dark and difficult phase that is known as the nigredo: the original matter must first be broken down and destroyed until only nothing remains but the fundamental essence, for only on that basis is it possible for something new and even better to be born out of it – like the phoenix that rises from its own ashes. On behalf of my colleagues at the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, of our students, and of the many colleagues all over the world who are devoted to this amazing and endlessly fascinating field of research, I wish to express the fiery hope that the dark and terrible phase of nigredo is now behind us for good, and 2012 will prove to be the year of transmutation and rebirth for the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica.


  1. George Sarton, Review of Lynn Thorndike, Isis 6:1 (1924), 83.
  2. Ibid., 84.
  3. George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, vol. I, Krieger: New York 1975, 19.
  4. Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 vols., Columbia State University Press: New York 1923-1958.
  5. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture, Cambridge University Press 2012, 322-334.
  6. Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, Cambridge University Press 1980.
  7. Margaret Jacob, “Introduction,” in: James E. Force & Sarah Hutton (eds.), Newton and Newtonianism: New Studies, Kluwer: Dordrecht / Boston / London 2004, x.
  8. Lawrence M. Principe, The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest. Including Boyle’s “Lost” Dialogue on the Transmutation of Metals, Princeton University Press 1998.
  9. Wouter J. Hanegraaff & Ruud M. Bouthoorn, Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447-1500): The Hermetic Writings and Related Documents, Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies 2005.
  10. Brian P. Copenhaver, “ A Grand End for a Grand Narrative: Lodovico Lazzarelli, Giovanni Mercurio da Correggio and Renaissance Hermetica,” Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft 4.2 (2009), 207-223.
  11. Hanegraaff, “Better than Magic: Cornelius Agrippa and Lazzarellian Hermetism,” Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft 4:1 (2009), 1-25.

Leave a comment

7 thoughts on “Per Aspera ad Fontes

  • Iván Elvira


    I’d like to express my gratitude for such great efforts to keep “our” library alive. I think is even more important in these dark times to maintain intact our principles and tenets in regards to our collective memory and educational institutions.

    In short, I encourage you to go ahead with this wonderful and matchless undertaking.

    Best regards from Spain.

  • Bart

    This feels like Theodosius has been banished for a time, and the library of the Serapeum was saved from the mob …. one more time. Gratias tibi ago and my compliments to the Ritmans. This is good news indeed.

  • Joe Walsh

    It is good to read the words of Professor Hanegraaff whose understanding inspires hope for a future which validates and cherishes our checkered yet luminous past.
    It is good to know that the heritage of the Ritman family will continue to be shared with the next generations. Thanks and appreciation to all who have worked to make this so.