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Celebrating the Sacred in Ordinary Life

James Joyce and the Renaissance Magus


Tom Absher

This book is an introductory examination of the Hermetic tradition in the Renaissance and how James Joyce made use of certain of its salient features in his four works of fiction: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. This book makes a useful contribution to literary studies of Joyce’s work as well as introductory cultural studies of the Hermetic tradition, its philosophy and important figures, like Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno.

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Chapter 2. Background




When Joyce left the Church and Ireland by way of elements and assumptions in the Renaissance Hermetic world view and philosophers like Giordano Bruno, he began to transform his thinking about the world, and we need to understand some of the details of this transformation if we are to grasp what Joyce the writer and magus is about. In the following sections I hope to acquaint the reader with some of those philosophers and concepts. Marsilio Ficino was central to this process and especially to the persona of the magus, and so we begin with him.

Marsilio Ficino: Founder of the Hermetic Tradition

Florence was one of the major centers of the Renaissance’s great passion for syncretism, the attempt to combine or reconcile differing beliefs within philosophy or religion. In the late fifteenth century in particular the focus was on finding universal truths between Platonism, Neoplatonism, Christianity, Judaism, the Kabbalah, and the Egyptian mysticism in the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, the reputed author of the Corpus Hermeticum. At the center of this syncretic energy was Marsilio Ficino, the Medici appointed head of the newly formed Platonic Academy. Ficino was a favorite of Cosimo de’ Medici as he was the son of Cosimo’s physician and was becoming a great Greek scholar and translator of the Hermetic texts. Cosimo was eager to read the←9 | 10→ works of Plato and Hermes Trismegistus, and Ficino was the man of the hour so to...

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