“The Basis for Understanding All Things”

In the previous post, I talked generally about Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and his idea of the prisca theologia (ancient theology) and pia philosophia (pious philosophy). Just now I’m reading through some selections from his major work, Platonic Theology on the Immortality of Souls, so I thought I’d buttress the previous entry’s more general points with direct quotes from Marsilio. Here’s one on the utility of Plato’s writings for understanding Christian truth:

…For this reason everyone who reads Plato’s writings…with the care that they deserve will derive from them every conceivable benefit, but above all these the two most important principles: the pious worship of a known God and the divinity of souls. These form the basis for all understanding of things, for every disposition of one’s life and for all aspects of happiness. This is especially true in view of the fact that Plato’s views on these matters led Augustine to single him out from all other philosophers and to set him up as a model for imitation, maintaining that he had come closest of all to the Christian truth and that the Platonists would be Christians if only they changed a few tiny details of their doctrines.

…My main aim in writing this treatise has been to enable us to explore in the divinity of our own created mind, as if in a mirror placed at the centre of the universe, the works of the creator himself and to contemplate and worship his mind. I believe, and this hope is not a vain one, that divine providence has decreed that the many people who, because of their perverse character, do not easily yield to the authority of the divine law alone should at least give their assent to the Platonic arguments which are brought to the aid of religion; and that those who most impiously separate the study of philosophy from our holy religion should realize at some point that they go astray in the same way as those who would separate the love of wisdom from the honour conferred by wisdom itself, or those who would separate true intelligence from a righteous will. Finally, providence has also decreed that those whose thought revolves only around the corporeal objects of sense-perception and who, to their own disadvantage, prefer the shadows of things to their true reality should in the end be convinced by Plato’s arguments and contemplate the sublime instead of the corporeal and, to their own advantage, give precedence to the things themselves over their shadows. - From the Preface to Platonic Theology, trans. Luc Deitz, in Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts Vol. 1: Moral Philosophy, ed. Jill Kraye (Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 148-149

It should be noted that when Ficino speaks of “the divinity of our own created mind,” what he is talking about is his own concept of the human soul as the vinculum mundi (the link of the world). This means that the human soul and the human mind occupy a middle position between God as the highest reality and Body as the lowest reality. The human soul links these two together, makes them intelligible to one another, and mirrors the divine in the realm of mortality. But note that this quite high notion of the human soul is a created reality, not a vain pretension of ontological “autonomy.” For all the dignity of man that this viewpoint allows, God is still central in this scheme.

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