(Sophia Howlett, Marsilio Ficino and his world, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
If you are new in the field, or simply not up to date with the new trends in Ficinian studies, this is the place to begin. Sophia Howlett offers a clearly written and daring revisionist story of Renaissance; one set to deconstruct most of our cherished myths. Based on a wide survey of the recent (and less recent) scholarship, Marsilio Ficino and his world tells an alternative story to the celebrated fairy tale of the Platonic Academy of Florence and the recovery of Plato’s works in Western Europe.
Howlett is quite good at making a snappy and convincing case for the following claims: Ficino belongs to the second, or perhaps even the third generation of Platonic scholars; he was not (strictly speaking) a humanist; and he interpreted Plato with the help of a wide and quite eclectic array of sources. Ficino’s Platonism was a weird mixture of Neo-Platonism, Aristotelianism, Augustinism and Eastern theology. As a translator, he rendered Plato’s dialogues in a language reminiscent of the Aristotelianism of the Schools (very much unlike the previous generation of translators who rendered Plato in the language of Cicero and Quintilian). Ficino was not the head of an academy; and, in fact, the Platonic Academy is a fiction. None of these claims is new, strictly speaking. But Marsilio Ficino and his world leads the reader through a fascinating investigation of their pre-history, showing that most of them were the results of a consciously built and carefully prepared political program.
Howlett invites the reader to reconsider the Platonic revival’s political dimensions; and to see Ficino engaged in a life-long mission of intense efforts of translating, interpreting, setting in context, publishing and “selling” the end-product. What Ficino wanted to ‘sell’ on the European market of ideas was not so much the Platonic philosophy, but the ideal of the Platonic philosopher, agent of a philosophical and political renovatio. In Howlett’s words,
Ficino’s mission, the original aim of the Platonic revival, was not simply to create a fusion of the Platonic and Christian traditions. It is also to transfigure us, and then, through our agency, achieve a renovatio of our world. The Phaedran Charioteer drives his chariot back towards the arch of the heavens. There our soul will see the world of Forms spread out before it. It will catch a glimpse of Beauty, Truth and Justice. With that knowledge, we are transformed. With that knowledge, we can transform the world around us. The person best suited to perform the transformation is the Platonic philosopher. But this philosopher is not just a scholar sitting in a study. The Platonic philosopher is a figure amalgamated out of the prisca theologia: a priest, a poet, a `lover` of things divine, a magician and a scholar. She or he is also the leader of a community in a special place, the academy space, apart from the world, but connected to it. The academy space is an ‘alternative’ location where a programme for the new can be worked out and then applied. In this sense, the Platonic philosopher is also an activist, who engages in the political life of the times, just like Socrates.(p. 135)
Ficino translated Plato – all the dialogues we have today, plus a few of the apocryphal texts. He made use of the new invention, the printing press, to make them available to a wide European public. The project of publication was a success: Platonis Opera omnia (first edition 1484) was published no less than 24 times until the end of the sixteenth century. And Ficino’s Plato became ‘our’ Plato not only during the Renaissance but also during a good part of the European modernity. Ficino’s commentaries were equally popular; his interpretation of the Syposium fashioned courtly love, erotic poetry and good manners for more than two hundred years. His ideal of a Platonic philosopher, magus-philosopher-priest-doctor of the souls became widely popular (think of Shakespeare’s Prospero) and terribly influential (one can find its traces in natural philosophy, in Francis Bacon’s writings, but also in the tradition of natural magic, of Cornelius Agrippa and Gianbattista Della Porta). Equally popular –although sometimes in different circles – were his beliefs in astrology and magic, his presentation of the Platonic philosopher as last in line of the revealed prisca sapientia or prisca theologia a corpus of divine knowledge descending from Moses and the ‘Egyptian priest’ Hermes Trismegistus. For modernity, these are rather disparate elements of Ficino’s program. Interesting is how they were packaged together, tightly interrelated and intrinsic to Ficino’s general mission of renovatio. How Ficino interrupted his work of translating Plato to translate the Corpus Hermeticum (wrongly dated as preceding Plato, Pythagoras and other later descendants of the tradition); but also how he postponed the publication of Plato’s works with a decade, and finally published an unfinished Opera omnia in the year of the ‘great conjunction’, 1484. Ficino attributed a great significance to this astrological configuration, the conjunction of planets Jupiter and Saturn (on this you can find more details re-reading a classic book: Ioan Petru Culianu, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Chicago University Press, 1986). Ficino hoped that under this astrological union of wisdom (Saturn) and power (Jupiter) his political project of renovatio will take off, creating a ‘Golden Age’ in Europe. And he also took action: his network of correspondence extended far beyond Italy, and he was always in search of kings willing to become philosophers (and philosophers daring to seize the political power). Not entirely successful with the Medici, he had a greater success in persuading king Mathias of Hungary; but his European network of correspondents extended much farther. Ficino published eight volumes of correspondence during his lifetime; and no less than 13 volumes of a massive Platonic theology, a sophisticated, dense and systematic exposition of his eclectic reconstruction of (neo)-Platonism. Together with his translations, these works outline the contours of a remarkably daring, philosophically sophisticated and politically engaging project of renovatio which begins not with the princes, but with each of Ficino’s readers. The first step of this general reform is (self)-education. Ficino’s vision is optimistic – overly optimistic, one is tempted to say. Again, in Howlett’s words
Ficino’s new human is full of possibilities. We can be a great genius, a soul inspired by love; we can also be Icarus falling into the sea of matter to disappear forever. We can become whatever we desire. The person who is most especially placed to explore these possibilities is the Platonic philosopher. Those who expect most, and climb most high, experience both the elation of divine frenzy, and also at times, especially when the climb is so steep, the depression or ennui of melancholy. This is particularly true of the Platonic philosopher, ruled by the planet Saturn. The Platonic philosopher aims to climb high and experiences both inspiration and melancholy in her or his ascent. Out of the dualism in Saturn’s influence comes a new intellectual pattern, a reflection of this tragic and heroic disunity, that of ‘modern genius.’ Saturn gives us the enthusiasm to reach upwards, leading to frenzy or inspiration, and is only one step away from the Angelic Mind. But he is also a malign influence if we are not careful. The Platonic philosopher is aut eno aut demon. He sits near the arch of the celestial world with Saturn and contemplates the divine. Further, if the Platonic philosopher is the archetypal genius, then we can suspect that the poet or singer who pours forth inspired poetry might also be ideally the Platonic philosopher (Sophia Howlett, Marsilio Ficino and his world, 149).
Ficino’s immediate target for this political and anthropological renovatio was the young nobility and intelligentsia of his time, in Florence and elsewhere. In this respect, his project was not entirely successful. One can say that Ficino’s works did not lead to a Golden Age of Florence (although, retrospectively, it did create the legend of one). They certainly did not bring peace in Europe and did not reform Christianity (although the Reformation would begin less than two decades from Ficino’s death). However, if we see things in a broader perspective, as Howlett’s book invites us to do, Ficino’s project was not a failure.
[Ficino’s world] is very close. Ficino reaches across to us, all unawares, whether we are studying the history of science, reading the Metaphysical poets, considering the immanence of the divine in a Romantic poet, thinking about the nature of our perception of the real or on a more mundane level dabbling in esoterica in a local ‘spirituality’ store. This is because Ficino is part of a tradition that lives on. His contribution is that he brought together a series of separated but related strands to create a cohesive vision of the world, than relaunched that vision as the Platonic revival. He did so because he believed that the Platonic tradition could change our world. This belief is what provides the structure of his vision. It is also what makes his vision so very strong, ready to withstand the next centuries. As the revival moves away from him, the strands gradually separate once again, but in so doing, the tradition lives on in multiple ways. (p. 192)
There are many good things to say about Sophia Howlett’s book. It is informative, easy to read and up to date; it makes a convincing case for most of its claims. Moreover, it sends you to explore further, as an informed reader, this time, the fascinating world of Ficinian studies.