Synoptic Art: Marsilio Ficino on the History of Platonic Interpretation

Michael J. B. Allen, Florence: Olschki, 1998. Pp. xiv, 236.

Reviewed by Christopher Celenza,
Michigan State University, Department of History

"I have been destined by God to do this work." So wrote Marsilio Ficino in the late 1480s in reply to the charge that his revival of the "ancient theology," the prisca theologia, would not serve providence. He was working, he wrote, "every day on the books of Plotinus," in an effort to present fully and perfectly the ancient theology. "The result will be," Ficino went on, "that when this theology has been led into the light, the poets will cease to recount impiously in their fables the deeds and the mysteries of piety." Ficino saw himself and his mission in late Quattrocento Florence as serving providence, as a part of God's plan. This splendid new volume by Michael J. B. Allen illuminates well a number of different facets of Ficino's conception of both himself and his mission. Allen touches on Ficino's view of the possibility, indeed, the necessity, in the environment in which he found himself, of taking a philosophical approach to religious problems; on Ficino's opinions concerning the relationship of early Christian thought to later Platonism; on the manner in which Ficino cast the always tenuous relationship between poetry and philosophy, given Plato's vigorous critique of the poets' place in society; on Ficino's conception of Socrates's daimonion; and on Ficino's hitherto neglected revival of Platonic dialectic.

If one finds oneself in a city whose members, oneself included, are highly cognizant of its cultural and intellectual prominence; but if at the same time that cultural center is spiritually unhealthy and in dire need of a medicus animarum, a "doctor of souls;" and if one believes that one is that needed doctor of souls and has the proper spiritual medicamenta to heal the city's ills; how then does one go about effecting the desired renovatio? This is the situation in which Ficino saw himself. Allen shows that Ficino adhered throughout his life to the belief that it was important to involve the ingeniosi, the "acute wits," in this spiritual renewal. They could never be expected, it seemed to Marsilio, to accept the deepest mysteries of Christianity without being exposed to arguments that appealed to their reason. For the spiritual renovation to have adequate

force, it must have a rationalistically appealing structure of arguments on which it could lean, to prime, as it were, the hearts of men to accept its deeper, non-rational mysteries. This was the foundation of Ficino's belief that an anti-rational fideism could never be enough to cure the city of Florence. Thus his very principles necessitated that he would be set on a collision course with the zealous Dominican reformer, Girolamo Savonarola.

This too led to Ficino's persistent desire to historicize the ancient religious past. In this, however, he was guided not by the kind of historical and philological sensibility propelling Lorenzo Valla and Ficino's contemporary Angelo Poliziano. Rather, Ficino evolved his approach to the past with a view toward elucidating the prisca theologia and the place within it of the prisci theologi who had in antiquity expounded it. Who came first in the line of ancient theologians? Hermes Trismegistus or Zoroaster? Ficino maintained, eventually, that it was Zoroaster, perhaps identifying the Persian sage with Canaan, the fourth son of Ham, himself son of Noah. For Ficino Zoroaster became the paradigm of the magus, i.e., one of the magi who would accept the coming of a Messiah whom the Jews were to reject. In the end, Ficino's theologia prisca becomes an investigation not only of the Judeo-Christian tradition but of the history of monotheism broadly considered.

Fleshing out the tradition of ancient Platonic interpretation was of crucial importance for Ficino. Plotinus was critical to him, but he believed also that Plotinus needed to be explicated, i.e., "unfolded" in the Latin sense of term. Toward this end, the relationship of early Christianity to the Platonic tradition was understandably important for Ficino. Here it was the soteriological impulse stressed by later Platonists that came to the fore for Ficino. Plato himself was aware, Ficino thought, that some of his precepts were beyond even his own understanding, that they required someone to come later to explicate them. This someone would be sacratior quam homo, "more sacred than man," according to Ficino. Although Allen does not note this we can point out that Savonarola was seen in just this way by the piagnoni who later followed him, with Giovanni Nesi going so far on the opening page of his Oraculum de novo saeculo (Florence: 1496) to describe Savonarola in just those words. This shows that Ficino had a hand in crafting late Quattrocento prophetic sensibilities, as he stressed the soteriological elements in the later Platonic tradition and merged them with Christian concerns.

Ficino believed that the tradition of Platonic interpretation was a

tormented one, and had gone through and survived various catastrophes. The first major catastrophe was the Platonic Academy's turn to skepticism in the Hellenistic age. More: the text of such a great Christian/Platonic thinker as Dionysius the Areopagite was, marvelous to say, suppressed though some unknown catastrophe, so that his doctrine was known only indirectly to later Platonists such as Plotinus, Iamblichus, and others (Ficino thus nicely solves the problem of there being no mention of Dionysius in the work of anyone before the fifth century).

Antiquity is not monolithic, and different facets could at different times deeply affect Renaissance thinkers. Thus, Allen describes brilliantly an "Augustinian" cast to Ficino. Not that Ficino's stance here is Augustinian in a philosophical sense; indeed, Ficino's sense of the ingeniosus does not demand the surrender of the intellect to the will. Rather, it is the sense of an evolving, not moribund Christianity developing interdependently alongside a dynamic Platonic philosophy that makes the "Augustinian" model important to Ficino. As Allen puts it, Ficino was (89) "convinced that anyone wishing to revive Platonism had first to return to the very centuries when Christianity and Platonism had come into closest contact, had indeed nourished each other. His goal, effectively, was to restore the links, not so much with Plato's Athens, as with Plotinus' Rome." Allen goes on (90): "To enter the philosophical world of Ficino is to encounter not only a mind bent on an academic rediscovery of antiquity in its most complex manifestation in the Enneads of Plotinus, but also the speculative mentalité of a fifteenth-century magus with its accompanying world view. For Marsilio's attempt to revive his beloved Plato was also an attempt to revive the paradigm of the Neoplatonic magus and seer, who thought and who believed like Plotinus." So: only by mastering late ancient Platonic exegesis in all its manifestations could one hope to arrive, really, at the penetralia of the ancient theology of the complete meaning of some of which even Plato himself had been unaware.

Yet one of Plato's concerns shone through clearly for Ficino: this was the controversy regarding the place of poets within the city. Inevitably, in a late Quattrocento Florence whose intellectual life was as we now know far from monolithic, this was bound to be an important issue. Philologically oriented humanists, bawdy poets, Aristotelians, Platonists, unification theorists—all of these were around. And it is here, in this context, due to Allen's masterful analysis, that we see Ficino at his most modern and, paradoxically, at his most

pre-modern. Plato (in Resp. 10, 607C3) had described the "ancient enmity" between poets and philosophers. For Ficino the poets' mistake had to do with passion, perturbatio. In Allen's formulation (96): "The poets had attributed human passions to the gods, had introduced passion into the passionless serenity of the heavens; and this attribution of passion undermines our belief in the piety of the Olympians, is indeed the height of impiety." But the role of the true philosopher is redemptive in Ficino's eyes. Granted that there exists poetic furor, in which the gods may have provided supreme poetic (and divine) insight to an otherwise unknowing poet; still, it is inevitably a "veiled" insight. It is the philosopher who must remove the veil and arrive at the unadorned truth. A properly informed philosophical hermeneutics is the only answer. So on the one hand we have Ficino the modern: the burden of creative understanding falls not on the immediate producer of the creative product (the poet, the bard, the rhapsode) but on the critic, on the interpreter, on the hermeneutes. On the other hand we have a decidedly and vociferously pre-Copernican (or rather, pre-Galilean) Ficino, fully in step with the assumptions of his age, reproving poets for suggesting that things familiar to us in the subcelestial realm could be attributed to supercelestial entities.

Sancte Socrates, ora pro nobis " Saint Socrates, pray for us." All are familiar with Erasmus' appreciation of the ancient Athenian sage in his well-known colloquy The Godly Feast (see Erasmus, "Convivium religiosum," in Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami I-3, ed. L.-E. Halkin et al. [Amsterdam, 1972] 231-66, at 254:710). But for Ficino it had been much more serious. Allen argues that in Ficino's view Socrates was an exemplar of all that was good in the philosophical life, that Socrates embodied what Christ would later come to represent. Socrates' daimonion, the subject of ancient, early modern, and modern philosophical speculation, was central. That Socrates was in touch with his inner daemon led Ficino to believe that Socrates embodied (138) "[t]he truly autonomous, truly free man ... who recognizes and accepts his daemon(s), his fate, his particular planetary gifts, the particular cast of his century and decade; and who can mesh his genius with the genius of his time and place and rise above circumstances, however adverse, that he has made his own." Allen goes on (138-9): "Like later Christian saints, Socrates thus spoke to the hallowed theme of human dignity: it was his free acceptance of an unjust judgement and execution which linked him indeed to Christ, to the mortal man who endured his earthly passion and to the immortal, impassible god.

But Socrates was moved to such godlike resolution by his daemon." That Socrates was in touch with his daemon allowed him visions which became the property of a common sense, "Not," as Allen writes (140-1), "the common sense of Aristotelian psychology, it is something closer to the sixth sense of folklore, an intimator of what will happen in the future rather than a communicator of what is actually being seen and heard by the five elemental senses in the present." Finally, that Socrates had so nobly, so impassibly endured an unjust execution made him for Ficino the paradigm of the ars moriendi, the (146) "sublime example of a philosopher who has risen by his own integrity and strength of will into the realm of the higher daemons (and thus of the angels)." Again Ficino's differences from Savonarola could not be more stark. Having helped create late Quattrocento Florence's prophetic sensibilities, Ficino transcended the assumptions of his age, expanding the acceptable canon of texts and eventually of belief too far. Vanitas vanitatum (to echo Ecl. 1, 2, one of Savonarola's favorite scriptural passages): this is how Ficino's theologizing must eventually have seemed to the friar and to many of Ficino's piagnone contemporaries, as they, Pico included, receded into a safer, paleo-Christian, virtue-centered model of Christianity.

If Ficino admired in Socrates the ancient Athenian's ability to control his fate by understanding it, Marsilio sought also a means, practically speaking, to establish control over what all Neoplatonists desire: the ascent up the ontological hierarchy and the attainment of ecstatic union, however brief, with the One. "At the opposite pole," as Allen puts it (191), "from Valla's and Agricola's rhetoricism," Ficino saw Platonic dialectic as the proper means of ascent. Through it we comprehend matters ontological by including meontological concerns, that is, we come to understand the structure and nature of being by understanding not-being. Resolution, i.e., analysis, is as important as demonstration. In Ficino's estimation one of Plato's greatest bequests to Christian theologians was that of negative theology, the art so beloved by the pseudo-Dionysius, Nicholas of Cusa, and others, whose early outlines had been drawn by St. Paul. Of course the Platonic dialectician must know when speak of the vision attained through dialectic and when to keep silent, for to practice dialectic correctly is to go the (191) "way of truth, of recollection, and, as Plotinus had intimated, of love; it is to imitate God, the superlative dialectician." It is dangerous: youth must not be exposed to it too early, lest they fall prey to the destructive temptation of the vacuous contentiousness of eristic. Dialectic

must be kept out of the wrong hands. But in the right hands in the hands, that is, of the informed, ingenious, "Augustinian," autonomous, daemonic philosopher Platonic dialectic is the only real means of spiritual and ontological ascent, a Promethean gift, explosive, perilous, transformative.