Seeing the Word : John Dee and Renaissance Occultism
Abstract: This study reassesses the occult philosophy of the British polymath John Dee (1527-1609). Focusing on his treatise Monas hieroglyphica (1564) and his notorious angelic conversations in the 1580s, it describes Dee’s philosophical career as a continuous search for a language which could yield knowledge of both nature and God. Situating Dee’s philosophy in the context of early modern “symbolic exegesis”, a group of discursive practices aimed at uncovering the creative principles of God by means of language, the study is an attempt to show how Dee’s seemingly divergent interests were interrelated. In Monas hieroglyphica he treated such disciplines as grammar, biblical exegesis, kabbalah, astronomy, alchemy, and mathematics as grounded on a common foundation, identical to the Word of God. By conceiving a graphical symbol, expressing God’s Word in visual form, Dee believed that he could bring these sciences to perfection. In the later angelic conversations, Dee’s aim was to recover the language spoken by the prelapsarian Adam. The Adamic language was conceived of as representing accurately God’s creative Word, and Dee’s recovery of this tongue would ultimately result in a complete restitution of both religion and knowledge. Dee’s works provide an example of how metaphoric associations between the Word of God, language, nature and the human soul could be exploited in Renaissance occult thought. Such metaphoric associations had an important role in shaping and legitimizing early modern views of symbolism, mysticism, and magic. Relying on Dee’s own sources, many of which still survive with his annotations, this study tries to reconstruct Dee’s search for the perfect language, while simultaneously stressing the syncretistic character of his views.
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