The occult philosophy in the Elizabethan age

by Frances Amelia Yates

Book, 1979



Call number


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London ; Boston : Routledge & K. Paul, 1979.

Original publication date


Physical description

x, 217 p.; 23 cm

Local notes

It is hard to overestimate the importance of the contribution made by Dame Frances Yates to the serious study of esotericism and the occult sciences. To her work can be attributed the contemporary understanding of the occult origins of much of Western scientific thinking, indeed of Western civilization itself. The Occult Philosophy of the Elizabethan Age was her last book, and in it she condensed many aspects of her wide learning to present a clear, penetrating, and, above all, accessible survey of the occult movements of the Renaissance, highlighting the work of John Dee, Giordano Bruno, and other key esoteric figures. The book is invaluable in illuminating the relationship between occultism and Renaissance thought, which in turn had a profound impact on the rise of science in the seventeenth century. Stunningly written and highly engaging, Yates' masterpiece is a must-read for anyone interested in the occult tradition.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Poquette
Much, much more than an introduction to Elizabethan Age philosophy, The Occult Philosophy is divided into three parts. The first part lays the medieval philosophical groundwork going back as far as Ramond Lull in the 13th century, the second part deals with philosophy in the Elizabethan Age itself, and the third part is a kind of coda which briefly covers the aftermath, including the philosophy underlying John Milton's work.

One reason this book is so intriguing to me is that it delves into subjects of which I have been only dimly aware. Esoteric subjects such as Cabala (as Yates spells it) or Kabbalah, Hermeticism and Alchemy are way off the beaten path for me mostly because I have believed them to be somehow outside the mainstream. But this just goes to show you how a little bit of ignorance goes a long way. There was a time in the Middle Ages when these were at the very center of religious and philosophical inquiry. The word "occult" which means hidden, has come to be associated with astrology and fortune telling and the paranormal in our time, or "knowledge that is meant to be kept hidden." In the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, esoteric subjects were excavated for hidden truths and deep meanings and not for the deterministic purposes associated with, for example, astrology today.

Renaissance philosophers in Italy, in addition to their "discovery" of the lost works of Plato and Aristotle, were deeply engrossed in the philosophical aspects of Hermeticism, Christian Cabala and alchemy. These esoteric ideas were written about and adopted more for their mystical God-seeking aspects than the so-called black magic. Christianity might have taken a more mystical turn had the authorities not misunderstood the high minded spiritual intent of the writings of such Renaissance luminaries as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Miranda, Giordano Bruno and others.

As the Renaissance was waning in Italy, it was just getting started in England. In Italy those who pursued the arcane and occult philosophies were persecuted at the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, but were becoming very much a part of the intellectual climate in England, which was pretty much isolated from the scourge of the Counter-Reformation. Poets such as Spenser, Raleigh and even Shakespeare used a great deal of esoteric symbolism in their works, which Yates explains using examples from their writings. And John Dee, who was important in establishing the public image and cult of Queen Elizabeth, was very much a part of this esoteric philosophical school of thought. It fell out of favor during the reign of James I, but after the Restoration it experienced a resurgence in the person and poetry of John Milton.

This is the barest oversimplified sketch of the material covered in The Occult Philosophy and doesn't begin to elucidate what really is going on between the covers. I highly recommend this amazing book to readers who are interested in the foundations of Renaissance philosophy and literature.
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LibraryThing member slickdpdx
Wide-ranging and chatty. A little sketchy, but that may be Yates presuming a level of familiarity with the subject matter that approaches her own. (Mine doesn't.) She shows occult philosophy to be a substantial element in the fabric of the art and thought of the Renaissance and Elizabethan eras, like Marxism or Darwinism have been in more recent eras. An interesting read.… (more)
LibraryThing member PaulBaldowski
Interesting treatment of religion, society, and the occult, marred by Yates' flights of fantasy and tenuous connections in the second part of the book.
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