Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dame Frances Yates

I was privileged to enjoy a very extended period of graduate education in such major intellectual centers as New York, London, and Rome. This idyll (as it now strikes me) lasted from 1956 to 1969, years of comparative tranquility in the world--certainly in relation to the convulsions that came after.

A lot of what I did was self-education conducted in major libraries. Over the years I had a number of impressive professors, whose high standards still seem to me a beacon of integrity. Sometimes, though, I think that the teachers who influenced me most were people with whom I did not formally study. Two of these figures (to whom I will return later) were Karl Popper and Meyer Schapiro Yet this piece is devoted to a third figure, Frances Yates.

After I went to London in 1963, I found it profitable to spend as much time as possible in the serene setting of the Warburg Institute. The Institute had been founded in Hamburg, Germany in the 1920s by the independent scholar Aby Warburg, who died in 1929. After the rise of the Nazis, Warburg’s successors managed to transfer the Institute, with its precious books, to England, where it was attached to the University of London. The stated purpose of the Warburg Institute was the study of the classical tradition. In practice, this meant an interdisciplinary approach to a whole range of cultural artifacts and survivals. (Because the organization issued a periodical together with the Courtauld Institute in London's West End, it is sometimes thought to have been concerned with art history; yet except for the director Ernst Gombrich, the professors and scholars there were generally not art historians. They were usually concerned with texts.)

How pleasant it was to stroll each morning from my modest digs to leafy Woburn Square where the Institute was ensconced! The building was located just north of the British Museum. Nearby was Dillon’s, then one of the finest bookstores in the world. There were plenty of pleasant spots to have lunch and tea, and other adventurous students to talk to.

Before going to London I knew, by reputation, the names of a number of luminaries at the Warburg Institute. But I had never heard of Frances Yates. In addition, her discipline seemed outlandish. The Hermetic Tradition, what the heck was that?

First, who was Yates? Dame Frances Amelia Yates DBE (1899-1981) was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire. Yates' father, a devout Anglican, was a naval engineer who began working in the shipyards as a teenager and supervised the construction of British warships in the years leading up to World War I. Although one of her older sisters attended Girton College, Cambridge, like many independent women scholars, Frances was educated at home by her mother, yet attended Birkenhead High School for some time.

During her Warburg years, she published frequently. Probably her signature books were the trio of Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Art of Memory (1966), and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972). The first was her breakthrough work. With the publication of her Bruno book she transformed Renaissance historiography. In it Yates revealed the hermeticism with which the Renaissance was, in her view, thoroughly and quintessentially imbued. In its heyday, this trend reinvigorated the strands of mysticism, magic, and gnosticism of late antiquity that survived the Middle Ages. Challenging the conventional wisdom of historians, Yates held that the itinerant Catholic priest Giordano Bruno was executed in Rome in 1600 for espousing hermetic ideas, and not for his affirmation of the heliocentric principle.

Yates’ central insight, if one can sum if up in a few words, is that the Western tradition that emerged in full flower in early modern Europe was characterized by a vital fusion of reason and unreason. Reason provides critical context, allowing us to sort out concepts that seem valid from others that must be set aside. For its part, however, speculative thought offers an indispensable store of stimulus. It is the caffeine of knowledge. This speculative vein took concrete form in the hermetic or occult tradition.

The two trends were often united in a single individual. For example, Sir Isaac Newton, when he was not developing the fundamental principles of modern physics, expended much energy on alchemy and on working out obscure aspects of Biblical chronology.

These findings indicate that the achievement of what we nowadays term knowledge was not reached by a straight-line progress from one (true) discovery to another, but by a complex interplay between the “normal” and the hermetic. Through her studies of the hermetic tradition, Yates uncovered a whole hidden dimension of European intellectual history. (The term “hermetic,” by the way, derives from Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary Egyptian sage of antiquity.)

Somewhat oddly, perhaps, Yates’ achievement has been compared to that of Michel Foucault, who has become portentously famous. Of the two, I prefer Yates.

Some commentators assert that Yates founded a paradigm, or gave out a grand narrative--the so-called Yates paradigm (sometimes termed the Yates Thesis). As such, her work has not gone without challenge. Her ideas are contested freely. One scholar who has addressed these questions is Wouter Hanegraaff,, who is serves as professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and is also president of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). Hanegraaff acknowledges Yates as the first major scholar to treat Renaissance hermeticism, together with its offshoot Rosicrucianism, as a coherent aspect of European culture. He pinpoints a fascinating paradox, that of autonomous esotericism helping give birth to the scientific mentality that was to disown its own parent. There is some support for an intermediary position that holds that there was no unitary esoteric tradition, a notion that is only tenable on a selective reading of the evidence. The arguments surrounding this questioning of Yates include Lodovico Lazzarelli as not included; and the rival views of Antoine Faivre, who has proposed a clearer definition of esotericism.

Hanegraaff has further argued that the reception of the work of Yates was colored by the Zeitgeist. I fact, the 1960s, when her work made its first impact, saw the rise of all sorts of New Age trends. This was the era, to put it in a nutshell, when all sorts of people would ask, on first introduction, “what’s your sign?”

Hanegraaff further argues that essentialist rather than nominalist use of the very term "esotericism" has vitiated succeeding work. In his view, the Yates paradigm flourished in the 1970s but fell by the wayside in the 1980s. This view strikes me as too restrictive, for the influence of Frances Yates lives on.

NOTE. For biographical information, one should consult the monograph entitled Frances Yates and the Hermetic Tradition by Marjorie G. Jones (2008). A good many years ago E. H. Gombrich published a life of Aby Warburg. A kind of latter-day successor to the Warburg Institute, in published form, is Anthony Grafton et al., eds., The Classsical Tradition, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2010.



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