Every once in a while, a history book comes along that really humbles me, that leaves me speechless not from its erudition, brilliance or sophistry, but from a certain hard-to-pin-down historical “X Factor”: a kind of connectedness in the thinking that yields rounded arguments but with a human dimension.
Some brief examples? Though critics may say he overreached his evidence, I found Carlo Ginzburg’s “Ecstasies” an amazing piece of work: Evelyn Welch’s “Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan” I found inspirational too. The first half of Rolf Willach’s “The Long Route to the Invention of the Telescope” was electrifying: and so forth.
And now to add to this list, here’s “The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus” by Florian Ebeling (translated from the German by David Lorton), a book whose very subtitle flashes up a subject that you might well think obscure in extremis: “Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times“.
The book delivers everything you’d expect of it: it is patient, academic, marginal, cross-referencing, liminal, with a broad intertextuality to its reading, yet still managing to cover everything from Herodotus all the way through to Umberto Eco. In fact, the list of interesting / influential people somehow ensnared by the Hermetic ‘project’ seems to go on forever: Roger Bacon, Nicholas of Cusa, Sebastian Franck, Pico della Mirandola & Marsilio Ficino (of course), Paracelsus, Casaubon, Kircher, Newton…
Was there ever a “golden book” hidden in a monastery wall by Antiochus I, that told what Aristotle secretly taught Alexander the Great? No, not a hope: and, much as Casaubon pointed out, the whole Hermes Trismegistus thing doesn’t really stand up to close philological scrutiny – basically, it’s a crock (and I don’t mean a crock of gold).
However, I do think that the strange Hermetic-alchemical-mystical-revelatory dance helps to capture a lot of the edges of our cultural knowledge over the centuries – that its mixture of high claims and dodgy details is rather like a shiny (but non-shewing) shewstone, reflecting back people’s preoccupations and obsessions far more strongly than anything it reveals. And Ebeling’s book captures these brilliantly!