Episode 14: Ficino’s Republic of Letters

Dante Aligheri (1265-1321)

Dante Aligheri (1265-1321)

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Throughout most of the Middle Ages, learning had been the domain of the church.  But the appearance in the fourteenth century of poets such as Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, along with rising literacy, helped to create a market for works written in vernacular Italian as well as Latin.   The rediscovery and translation of so many works in Greek from the Roman era and before helped to feed this market, and to bring prestige to those who sponsored them.

Another component which furthered the spread of  ideas in the Renaissance was the printing press.  Italy was an early adopter of the new technology, which allowed Ficino’s translations of Plato to spread quickly throughout Europe, and Ficino went on to write books of his own on Platonic and astrological themes.  Although written in Latin, the language of the educated class, the mere fact of Plato’s works being printed and made widely available throughout Europe constituted a revolution in its own right.

Ficino also maintained relationships with many intellectuals throughout Europe through the exchange of letters, presumably a side benefit of the wide-ranging Medici banking enterprise.  And although most of these letters were intended for publication (Ficino had copies made as they were written) they still reveal a more personal and candid side than do his scholarly works.  They are frequently written to one individual, known personally to Ficino, about one topic of immediate practical interest.  The same sense of being personally addressed by Ficino still comes through in reading them today.  (All the quotes below are taken from the collection of letters published under the title Meditations on the Soul.¹)

I’ve already spoken of the ascendance of humanism; the redefinition of the human being not as a miserable sinner, but as the noblest being in the creation.  This idea was expressed perhaps most thoroughly by Pico, but Ficino also espoused it.

It was not for small things but for great that God² created men, who, knowing the great, are not satisfied with small things.  Indeed, it was for the limitless alone that He created men, who are the only beings on earth to have rediscovered their infinite nature and who are not fully satisfied by anything limited, however great that thing may be.  MOS 12

At the same time, he was all too aware of the tendency of humans to ignore their “infinite nature,” and concentrate on the limited and illusory world of the sensible.

I can only judge it the most foolish act of all, that many people most diligently feed a beast, that is, their body, a wild, cruel, and dangerous animal; but allow themselves, that is, the soul, insofar as they have one, to starve to death.  MOS 19

How many people will you find who value a man as much as money; who cultivate themselves in the same way as they cultivate their fields and other affairs; who bring up their family with as much care as many rear their horses, dogs, and birds; who consider how grave is the waste of time?  In spending money we are very mean, in spending time we are extravagant beyond measure.  How many can you name who recognize the poverty of their soul?  Everyone believes he abounds in wisdom, but is short of money.  MOS 20

But he believed that philosophy had the ability to bring people back to their divine nature.  The following is an excerpt from a letter written to Lorenzo de Medici, whom Ficino had tutored when Lorenzo was a young boy.  (Keep in mind that not only is Lorenzo now Ficino’s patron, but one of the richest and most powerful men in Europe.)

What therefore is to be done, so that we may be of good strength and good vigilance?  Life for us should straightway be turned right round in the opposite direction.  Those things which we have learned from the many should be unlearned; in having to learn which, we have up to now ignored our own selves.  Those things left undone should be learned; the which having been ignored we cannot know ourselves.  What we neglect should be esteemed, what we esteem should be neglected.  What we flee from, should be borne, what we pursue should be fled.  For us the smile of fortune should bring tears; and the tears of fortune should bring a smile.  For by these means, the filth of the multitude will not defile us, nor will carelessness of immortal things harm us, nor desire for knowledge of mortal things torment us.  Weakness will not prostrate us, nor desire undo us.  Neither will prosperous fortune ensnare us, nor adverse fortune slay us.  But, insofar as we shall be cleansed, so shall we be serene; insofar as we shall be serene, so shall we shine.  Then, for the first time, we shall go forth full of true beauty, when for the first time we are devoid of dreams.  MOS 28

Like Plato and Plotinus, Ficino did not believe that philosophy was an abstract study, cut off from daily life.  It requires right living, as well as a large measure of what is usually translated as “leisure.”  This is not leisure in the sense we use it today, but the time and ability to bring the mind to rest from its “busyness,” (which, it may be a surprise to learn, is not a twenty-first century invention).  It’s this activity of the mind, tied to the senses, which keeps it limited and in the thrall of the changeable and transitory.  It is only through the ability to still the mind that we will be able to come into the presence of The One, or unity.

We will not find the goal we seek in toil, but in rest, for we are endlessly busy to enjoy leisure, and wage war to live in peace.  Besides, right conduct is never sought for its own sake but to put to use, like a medicine, for cleansing and calming the mind.  Neither is Epicurean peace the ultimate goal.  For the use of a still mind is the contemplation of truth, as the use of a clear sky is to admit light. MOS 59

Perhaps it would be worthwhile, if we wish to attain what we are seeking, to flee only to that which does not flee anywhere.  But that alone cannot flee anywhere which cannot be moved anywhere, since it fills the universe.  However, is there any need even to be moved to that which is not moved anywhere, which is present everywhere in every single thing?  Then let us not be moved or distracted by many things, but let us remain in unity as much as we are able, since we find eternal unity and the one eternity, not through movement or multiplicity, but through being still and being one.  MOS 67

Ficino’s “good company” was not just in the world of his letters, however.  As Clement Salaman states in his introduction to Meditations on the Soul, “It is clear that Ficino soon gathered around him a group of like-minded men, which he referred to as the Academy.  How this group met and what happened at such meetings is far from clear.”  It is possible though that unwritten teachings, agrapha dogmata, were given of the kind to which Plato alludes in his Seventh Letter: “…after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.”

What is clear is that Ficino believed this search for the Good to be the reason for our being on earth; not, as it has been said, that we are human beings seeking a spiritual experience, but rather that we are spiritual beings having a human experience.  The way for us to remember this he states quite clearly in a letter in which he assumes the voice of God.

It is not difficult to find the place where I am; for in me are all things, out of me come all things and by me are all things sustained forever and everywhere.  And with infinite power I expand through infinite space.  Indeed no place can be found where I am not; this very “where” surely exists through me and is called “everywhere.”  Whatever anyone does anywhere, he does through my guidance and my light.  Whatever anyone seeks anywhere, he seeks through my guidance and my light.  There is no desiring anywhere, except for the good; there is no finding anywhere, except of the truth.  I am all good; I am all truth.  Seek my face and you shall live.  But do not move in order to touch me, for I am stillness itself.  Do not be drawn in many directions in order to take hold of me; I am unity itself.  Stop the movement, unify diversity, and you will surely reach me, who long ago reached you.  MOS  29

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission. 

¹Marsilio Ficino, Meditations on the Soul, translated by members of the Language Department of the School of Economic Science, London, Clement Salaman, ed.  Inner Traditions, 1996.

²As befits someone who wrote, “But truth and wisdom itself, are God alone, so it follows that lawful Philosophy is no different from true religion, and lawful religion exactly the same as true Philosophy,” (MOS 48) Ficino uses the words the One, the Good, Unity, and God interchangeably.  May we not let our limited and stereotyped concepts of this last be an impediment to our understanding of what he is really saying.