Marsilio Ficino and Renaissance Platonism

Domenico Ghirlandaio’s fresco (1490) depicting several Italian humanists: Marsilio Ficino (Neoplatonic philosopher), Cristoforo Landino (humanist, promoted use of the vernacular), Poliziano (poet), and Demetrios Chalkokondyles (Greek scholar)

“This century, like a golden age, has restored to light the liberal arts, which were almost extinct: grammar, poetry, rhetoric, painting, sculpture, architecture, music … this century appears to have perfected astrology.” -Marsilio Ficino, 1492

The works of Plato were largely absent from Western European intellectual circles in the Middle Ages. Almost all had to be reintroduced during the Italian Renaissance. Some 250 manuscripts of Plato’s works survive, constituting one of the largest surviving collections of writings from any ancient person. Apparently, the surviving works constitute the entirety of Plato’s writings. If true, this is likely the only case of an ancient person’s entire oeuvre surviving down the centuries to the present. Knowledge of the Greek language had declined precipitously in Western Europe with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Boethius (c.477–524) was the last major Western intellectual who could read both Greek and Latin. Plato’s Timaeus, translated into Latin by Cicero and later Calcidius, was the only one of Plato’s works available to Western European audiences.

With the decline of the Byzantine Empire, Greek scholars increasingly made an impact on the Italian Peninsula. Among the most important Neo-Platonic philosophers in the early fifteenth century was the humanist Gemistus Pletho (c.1355–1452/1454). Pletho was responsible for popularizing Platonic philosophy in Renaissance Italy around the time of the Council of Florence in 1439. The council was an attempt to reconcile the West-East divide in Christendom.

Pisanelllo’s drawing of the Byzantine Delegation at the Council of Florence

While Pletho was part of the Byzantine emperor’s delegation, he was often not needed. Instead, he spent much time lecturing on Platonic philosophy in Florence. Among those who came to listen to him speak was the banker and statesman Cosimo de’Medici (1389–1464, called ‘il Vecchio’ or ‘the Elder’).

Cosimo de’Medici (center-left with red hat), depicted by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459, Palazzo Medici Riccardi)

Cosimo de’Medici was so inspired by the teachings of Gemistus Pletho that he founded a new Platonic academy in Florence. The Neoplatonic Florentine Academy was a place where Pletho’s students came to discuss and translate works of Platonic philosophy. The members of this new academy included the following:

  • Poliziano (1454–1494) — poet and classical scholar, tutor to the Medici children
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (painting by Cristofano dell’Altissimo)

Marsilio Ficino was the most important Neoplatonic philosopher of the Italian Renaissance. He was tasked with translating the complete works of Plato from Greek into Latin. The influence of Ficino’s translations was magnified by the use of the recently-invented printing press. Ficino led the Neoplatonic Florentine Academy, was tutor to Michelangelo, translated the Corpus Hermeticum (a series of Hellenistic dialogues from late Antiquity, believed at the time to have been written by an ancient Pagan sage Hermes Trismegistus), and coined the term ‘Platonic love.’

Marsilio Ficino (bust by 
Andrea Ferrucci)

Marsilio Ficino’s magnum opus was his Theologia platonica (Platonic Theology, 1482). Ficino sought to push back against Aristotelian philosophy (which had dominated Scholastic intellectual circles for centuries) as well as reconcile Platonism and Christianity. Since I have been using both the terms ‘Platonism; and ‘Neoplatonism,’ I should mention the distinction briefly. Platonism refers to the philosophy found in Plato’s works whereas Neoplatonism emerged in the third century and was heavily influenced by the philosopher Plotinus (c.205–270). Neoplatonism was also influenced by the various philosophic and religious developments around the Mediterranean world of late Antiquity. Early Christian thinkers, such as St. Augustine, were heavily influenced by the works of Plotinus and sought to bring elements of Neoplatonism into Christianity. The Neoplatonic One was identified, by some early Christians (such as Origen (c.184-c.253)) with the Judeo-Christian god. Interest in Platonic thought waned under the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who closed the ancient Platonic academy in 529 because many of the people teaching there were Pagan.

Marsilio Ficino held that the works of Plato were dependent on a particular lineage of wisdom literature which he saw as beginning with the ancient sage Zoroaster/Zarathustra. Zoroaster was also seen as the originator of magic. As a side note, the Magi in the Bible were almost certainly Zoroastrian priests. Ficino held that ancient wisdom was passed down in particular sequence: Zoroaster -> Moses -> Hermes Trismegistus -> Orpheus -> Aglaophemus -> Pythagoras -> Philolaus ->Plato (Ficino’s genealogy of ancient wisdom, Platonic orientalism). Ficino coined the term ‘prisca theologia’ to refer to an ancient true theology which was the foundation of all religious thought. The thought process here being that this ancient and pure theology was garbled and diluted throughout the centuries and had to be restored through careful analysis of the surviving ancient texts. The Renaissance humanists were philologists, people interested in studying language through written historical sources. For the most part, they studied Biblical, ancient Roman, and Greek texts to gain greater insights into the original version of particular texts.

Zoroaster with Globe, from ‘The School of Athens’ painted by Raphael (1509–1511, Apostolic Palace in the Vatican)

In his Theologia platonica, Marsilio Ficino sought to defend the immortality of the soul and inherent dignity of humanity. Ficino argues that the soul rests in the middle of a great chain of being, with the Christian god and angels above and animals below. His great chain of being consists of five basic levels: God, angelic mind, rational soul, quality, and body. Humanity occupies a central position between mortal and immortal — the body being mortal and the soul immortal. Ficino was deeply influenced by arguments for the immortality of the soul presented by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo as well as the works of Plotinus.

“ We would do well to call soul the third and middle essence, as the Platonists do, because it is the mean for all and the third from both directions. If you descend from God, you will find soul at the third level down; or at the third level up, if you ascend from body.” -Marsilio Ficino, Theologia platonica

Marsilio Ficino wrote extensively on Platonic philosophy. After his translations of the Platonic corpus into Latin, he wrote De amore (On Love, 1484) and De vita libri tres (Three Books on Life, 1489). In De amore, Ficino popularizes the term ‘Platonic love,’ a term he coined in the 1470s. Ficino had studied Plato’s Symposium and coined the term Platonic love to refer to non-sexual intimate relationships with the aim of guiding the soul to higher spiritual levels.

“ A man’s appearance, which is often very beautiful to see, on account of an interior goodness fortunately given him by God, can send a ray of its splendor through the eyes of those who see him and into their soul. Drawn by this spark as if by a kind of hook, the soul hastens toward the drawer. Because this drawing, which is love, derives from the beautiful, good, and blessed, and is directed toward the same, we do not hesitate to call it the beautiful, the good, the blessed, and a god.” -Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium

Marsilio Ficino was arguably the most important philosopher of the Italian Renaissance. He was the most significant proponent of Platonic philosophy in the fifteenth century and translated the entire corpus of Plato (as well as works by Plotinus and others) so that they would be available to a wider intellectual audience in Western Europe. He led a new Platonic academy in Florence, shaped the intellectual culture of the city, influenced prominent politicians (such as the Medici) and artists (such as Michelangelo), coined the term ‘Platonic love,’ translated the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin, was interested in music, and studied medicine. He became a priest in 1473 and was a vegetarian. Marsilio Ficino died in October 1499 at the Villa Medici at Careggi, where he led the revived Platonic Academy.

“The intellect is prompted by nature to comprehend the whole breadth of being. … Under the concept of truth it knows all, and under the concept of the good it desires all.” -Marsilio Ficino