In the year 527, when the Emperor Justinian closed the Neoplatonic School in Athens and banished the last seven great Neoplatonists, the teachings of Plato and the Neoplatonists disappeared from Christian Europe for almost a thousand years. In the fifteenth century a revival of Neoplatonism arose through the efforts of Nicolas de Cusa, a Catholic Cardinal of German birth. Directly opposing the personal God of the Church, Cusa defined Deity as “the absolute Maximum and also the absolute minimum, who comprehends all that is or can be.” This laid him open to the charge of pantheism, which he did not deny. He also declared that Deity can be apprehended only through intuition, an exalted state of consciousness in which all limitations disappear. Cusa’s efforts to revive Neoplatonism were continued in Germany by Reuchlin, Trithemius and Cornelius Agrippa, and in France by Bovillus. The chief stronghold of the Neoplatonic revival, however, was the city of Florence, where Theosophical principles reappeared under the protection of the powerful house of Medici.
In 1438 Cosmo de Medici made the acquaintance of Gemisthus Pletho, an ardent Platonist, who inspired him with the idea of founding a Platonic Academy in Florence. With this end in view, Cosmo selected Marsilio Ficino, the son of his chief physician, and provided for his education in Greek philosophy. Ficino’s natural aptitude was so great that he was able to complete his first work on the Platonic Institutions when he was only twenty-three years old. At the age of thirty, after translating the Theogony of Hesiod, the Hymns of Proclus, Orpheus and Homer, and all of the works of Hermes Trismegistus that could be found, Ficino began his translations of Plato. When that was finished, he turned to the Neoplatonic writers, and left behind him excellent translations of Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus and Synesius as his contribution to the work of the Theosophical Movement.
When Cosmo de Medici’s grandson Lorenzo was eight years old, Ficino became his tutor, and embued him with a deep reverence for the Greeks. After Lorenzo became the head of the house of Medici he brought his grandfather’s plans to completion. He founded a great University in Pisa, established public libraries for his people, and made many valuable additions to the Lorentian Library which by this time contained a collection of ancient manuscripts second to none in Europe. He raised the Platonic Academy to a high standard of excellence and founded an Academy in the gardens of San Marco where the finest examples of ancient art were displayed for the benefit of students. Here Lorenzo spent many happy afternoons, watching the work of Botticelli and Michaelangelo, and listening to the words of Leonardo da Vinci, whose ideas about flying machines interested him as much as his discussions on art.
On the hills of Fiesole, just outside of Florence, Lorenzo had a beautiful villa which was surrounded by a colony of writers and scholars. One day a visitor arrived, a handsome young man of twenty-one who was already a prominent figure in the world of thought. He was Giovanni Pico, a younger son of the Prince of Mirandola. Although, to quote his nephew, Pico was “still a child and beardless,” he had already acquired proficiency in twenty-two languages, had been initiated into the Chaldean, Hebrew and Arabian Mysteries, and had come under the notice of the “Brothers of the Snowy Range” in far-off Tibet. On the day of his arrival in Fiesole, the whole colony gathered around him to hear why he had left Rome so precipitously. He told them that he had become thoroughly disgusted with the ignorance displayed by the heads of the Church. He had published a series of 900 questions addressed to the Church and had invited scholars from all over Europe to be present at the debate. The intellectual leaders of the Church, after carefully examining these questions, decided that thirteen of them contained heretical statements. These were sent to the Pope, who immediately issued a bull against the young nobleman. Pico left for the more congenial atmosphere of Florence.
Lorenzo and Ficino decided that Pico would be a valuable addition to their Academy. Through the united efforts of these three the revival of Neoplatonism made rapid headway. Mirandola, who was a devoted student of Plotinus, persuaded Ficino to translate the Enneads, the influence of which appears in Mirandola’s own description of God:
God is not Being; rather is He the Cause of Being. As the one primal Fountain of Being, He is properly described as the ONE. God is all things, the abstract Universal Unity of all things in their perfection. To even think or speak of God is profanity. (De Auro, Sir Thomas More’s Translation.)
Pico della Mirandola died in his thirty-first year, and Marsilio Ficino followed him six years later. After the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent the Platonic Academy went out of existence. In its place arose a mystical Fraternity, the Fratres Lucis, or Brothers of Light, which was founded in Florence in 1498. In spite of the persecution of the Inquisition, this Order was still alive in the eighteenth century, numbering among its members such men as Paschalis, Cagliostro, Swedenborg and St. Germain.
One afternoon in the latter part of the fifteenth century the monk Savonarola sat in his gloomy cell in the monastery of San Marco, grieving over the corruption of the world. He thought of the unspeakable moral crimes of Pope Alexandria VI and his son Caesar Borgia and shuddered. He thought of the “pagan heresies” which Lorenzo had introduced to Florence. He thought of the godless painters who tempted holy monks with their vivid portrayals of human flesh. Savonarola arose from his meditation and swore to rid Florence of these abominations. His fervidly ascetic genius soon gained him a large following, and when the French invaders departed from the city he attempted to turn the newly formed republic into a Christian commonwealth. But when Savonarola attacked the corruption of the Holy City, sparing not even the pope himself, he was cited as a heretic. Indignantly refusing the bribe of a cardinal’s hat to change his style of preaching, he continued his denunciations, which led to his excommunication and execution at the stake in 1498. This was merely the prelude to another conflagration which was started by Torquemada, the pitiless Inquisitor-General and confessor to Queen Isabella of Spain. The Spanish bonfire was fed with the bodies of 10,000 Jews, with all the Hebrew Bibles that could be found, and with 6,000 volumes of Oriental literature. Thus, by the end of the fifteenth century, Italy and Spain were once more thoroughly “Christian.”
While these events were taking place in Italy and Spain, another fire of revolt smouldered in Germany. Groups of Theosophists were now scattered throughout the country, studying and assisting one another in their common struggle for esoteric knowledge. Germany was destined to be the scene of a great moral struggle during the sixteenth century, and the opposing forces were assembling. On the side of freedom were numerous agents of the Theosophical Movement, some of whom must have worked with knowledge of the great Plan, while others served an ideal arising from an unknown source in their hearts.
In 1414 a young monk named Basil Valentinus was acting as the Prior of the Benedictine Monastery in Erfurt. According to his own story, Basil determined to devote himself to the occult sciences at an early age. “I resolved to make wings for myself,” he wrote, “so that I might ascend on high.” His first flights into the ether must have been unsuccessful, as he relates that “my feathers were consumed and I fell headlong into the sea.” But just at the moment when all hope had disappeared, “one hastened to my assistance who commanded the waters to be still; and instantly a high mountain appeared upon which I ascended, that I might examine whether there could be any friendship between inferiors and Superiors, and whether indeed these Superiors had produced Themselves upon earth.” Now thoroughly convinced that Masters did exist, Basil determined that “whatever the ancient Masters had so many ages ago committed to writing and delivered to Their disciples was as true as truth itself.” (The Stone of Fire.)
The first truth he discovered was that man’s knowledge must commence within himself. “Only those who have obtained this passport can attain to the Magistery of Life; since they only can enter into the narrow gate [of initiation] as in the Mysteries we have just described.” (Chariot of Antimony.)
The work of Basil Valentinus was continued by Trithemius, Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery of Spanheim, who was an Adept in the Secret Sciences and is said to have been initiated into the mysteries of the Kabala by a pupil of Pico della Mirandola. He taught the seven stages of evolution, mentioned several secret cycles and made some important prophecies. His definition of Magic was purely Theosophical:
The art of Magic consists in the ability to perceive the essence of things in the light of Nature, and by using the soul-powers to produce things from the unseen Universe. In such operations the Microcosm and Macrocosm must be brought together and made to act harmoniously. (Written in 1506.)
His pupils inquired what he meant by Nature. “Nature,” Trithemius replied, “is a Unity, creating and forming everything. Such processes take place according to Law. You will learn this Law if you first learn to know yourselves.”
The fame of Trithemius was perpetuated by his two distinguished pupils, Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa. Agrippa was a statesman and linguist, physician and chemist, philosopher, Kabalist and Neoplatonist. He passed through life alternately patronized and persecuted, courted by the nobility and hunted down as a heretic by the Church. Although knighted by Margaret, Regent of the Netherlands, and honored by the Queen of France, he spent much of his life in dire poverty. Agrippa formed a secret association for the study of the occult sciences and wrote an esoteric interpretation of the New Testament. He taught the three-fold nature of the Universe, the identity of the Macrocosm and the Microcosm, and traced out the lines of correspondence between them. Space, he said, is threaded with invisible lines of magnetic force which unite men’s principles with the occult forces of Nature. Hence–
The human being possesses, from the fact of its being of the same essence as all creation, a wonderful power. Truth can be made ever present to the eye of the soul. Time and space vanish before the eagle eye of the immortal soul. Her power is boundless. (De Occulto Philosophia.)
All of these ideas, so contrary to the teachings of the Church, were gradually preparing the minds of the people for the coming battle. In the middle of the fifteenth century John Reuchlin appeared, the Imperial Councillor of Emperor Frederick III. In spite of his diplomatic duties, Reuchlin found time to study Neoplatonism, to perfect himself in several Oriental languages, and to write an interpretation of the Kabala in which he described the sevenfold constitution of the universe in detail. When he denounced the burning of the Hebrew Bibles he was expelled from Germany and his works were burned. But later, when Melancthon, Erasmus and Martin Luther came to him for instruction, Reuchlin lit the torch which set fire to the Christian world and became in fact the “Father of the Reformation.”
The immediate cause of the Reformation was the revolt in Germany against the enforced sale of indulgences, which promised the shortening of the time spent in purgatory upon the payment of a certain sum to a priest. In the year 1517 Pope Leo X, desiring to rebuild St. Peter’s Cathedral, ordered a special sale of indulgences in Germany in order to collect the needed money. When the Augustinian monk Martin Luther heard the news his soul rose in rebellion. “Why,” he indignantly demanded, “if the Pope releases souls from purgatory for money, does he not do it for charity? Since the Pope is as rich as Croesus, why does he not rebuild St. Peter’s with his own money, instead of extorting it from poor men?” Walking boldly to the Church of Wittenberg, Luther nailed his ninety-seven Theses to the door. The people gasped at his audacity. Some trembled with fear, others rallied to Luther’s support. Erasmus of Rotterdam, then considered to be the most brilliant man in Europe, refused to take sides in the controversy. Although he had already openly declared that “the monarchy of the Roman high priest was the pest of Christendom,” he did not believe that a direct and aggressive attack upon the Church would accomplish the desired result. Erasmus had already voiced his own protest against the sale of indulgences, had already declared that there was no difference between Jesus’ teachings and those of the pagan creeds, and had already tried to unite the world in a league of brotherhood. What, then, could this raw, uncouth monk hope to accomplish? Erasmus expressed his admiration of Luther’s courage, but disapproved of his extreme methods of reform.
Luther raged when Erasmus’ views were brought to him. Origen, Synesius, and Clement of Alexandria had all used moderation, and were simply excommunicated from the Church as a result. And the Albigenses, Waldenses and Knights Templar — they had used moderation and were burned at the stake. Luther felt that something more drastic than moderation was needed in this crisis. He wrote:
We punish thieves with the gallows, bandits with the sword, heretics with fire. Why should not we, with far greater propriety, attack with every kind of weapon these very masters of perdition, the Cardinals and Popes?
The reply to this outburst was a papal bull condemning Martin Luther as a heretic. As soon as the paper arrived, Luther called all his friends together, made a bonfire outside the city walls and cast into it the document itself, a copy of the Church Canon and a volume of scholastic theology which he particularly disliked.
Up to that time the Church had not taken Martin Luther seriously. She thought of him only as a vulgar, quarrelsome monk who could be quickly silenced by the Inquisition. But one morning Pope Leo received a most disturbing communication from his German representative:
These mad dogs are now well-equipped with knowledge and power. They boast that they are no longer ignorant brutes like their predecessors. Nine-tenths of the Germans are shouting “Luther!” and the other tenth goes as far at least as “Death to the Roman Curia!”
The pontiff was badly upset by this news. The matter was not as trivial as he had thought. This stupid monk must be given a lesson which he would not forget. The Edict of Worms was published, in which Luther was condemned as an outlaw and every one warned against giving him food or shelter. It also decreed that “no one shall dare to buy, sell, read or cause to be read any books of the aforesaid Martin Luther, since they are foul, noxious and written by a notorious and stiff-necked heretic.”
As Luther neared Eisenach on his way home from Worms, he was kidnapped by his friends and taken to the Castle of Wartburg, where he spent his time making a German translation of the New Testament. During his retirement, his friends and students tore down the images of the Saints in the Churches and openly opposed the celebration of the Mass. Many celibate monks and nuns, remembering Luther’s story of the 6,000 infant skulls which had been found under a convent in Rome, left their cloisters and went out into the world. When Luther married an ex-nun, they followed his example and started their household lives. Finally the whole of Germany was split up into two opposing factions, southern Germany remaining loyal to the Pope, northern Germany becoming Protestant. In 1555 the Peace of Augsburg was ratified, after which time every ruling Prince was given the opportunity to choose his own brand of Christianity.
It cannot be denied that the Reformation led to conflicts as bloody as the “Holy Wars” of the Catholic Church. Luther was extremely intolerant of anyone who disagreed with his own interpretation of the scripture; Calvin did not scruple to betray Servetus to the Inquisition, which burned him as a heretic. Even the mild Melancthon regarded the latter event with “gratitude.” Why, then, should the Reformation be described as part of the Theosophical Movement?
Whatever may be said of Martin Luther, of his colleagues and successors in reform, the fact remains that these men were animated by the fervor of sincerity, by a hatred of corruption and a longing for freedom from the selfish rule and brazen hypocrisy of Rome. Whatever were Luther’s faults, he thought for himself, elected his own beliefs. This was an example to the world. What he had done, other men could do — and did. Since his day religious thought has grown increasingly free, and in the present, no man need answer to an external authority for his beliefs unless he so choose.