Marsilio Ficino is perhaps the paragon of Renaissance philosophical humanism – Renaissance “humanism,” as Kristeller thoroughly demonstrated, properly refers to the promotion of the “humanities” or liberal arts. 1 He was the first in the West to translate the entire works of Plato and it was these translations, which included Ficino’s Neo-Platonic commentaries on Plato, that were read by humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples and Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. He also was the first to translate the complete works of Plotinus and numerous works by other Neo-Platonists into Latin. Ficino, like Eusebius and Augustine, believed that Platonism occupied a sort of middle ground between Christianity and paganism and even functioned as a preparatory philosophy for the Gospel of Christ. Ficino, like many of the church fathers, discovered what appear to be many of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith in the writings of Plato and his followers – a single immaterial God, a form of Trinitarianism, God as the creator of the universe, the immortality of the soul, etc.
Ficino, like many other Renaissance humanists, sought to reform both the church and society by returning to the original sources of both theology and philosophy as guides for that task. In this case, the primary “source” for steering society back to its ultimate end is the tradition of Platonism. “I believe – and it is no empty belief”, says Ficino, “that divine providence has decreed that many who are wrong-headed and unwilling to yield to the authority of divine law alone will at least accept those arguments of the Platonists which fully reinforce the claims of religion.” 2 Ficino was a priest and a scholar and used the pulpit as one of the means to deliver his message of reform. He also established a gathering of Christian Platonists in imitation of Plato’s Academy. The “Platonic Academy” of Florence, scholars now believe, was not an official program of Platonic education but rather a gathering, a convivium Platonicorum if you will, of both clergymen (Ficino et alia), professional scholars (esp. Agnolo Poliziano and Pico della Mirandola), and possibly their students, who devoted themselves to meeting at Lorenzo de’ Medici’s estate (the Villa medicea di Careggi) to discuss the teachings of Plato and his Neo-Platonic interpreters from a Christian perspective.
Marsilio Ficino was not merely a philosopher but also a priest and a theologian, and contrary to much of the 20th century literature on Ficino’s philosophy, his goal was not to subordinate Christian doctrine to Platonic philosophy in order to promote a more philosophical religion. Rather, as Amos Edelheit argues, Ficino promoted a humanist theology, which promised to wed theology and morality as the ancient Platonists had done by returning to the very texts that attempted such a union. 3 One may achieve this goal, Ficino believed, not only by returning to the texts of the Platonists, but also by returning to the original Greek text of the New Testament, and also by setting aside the Medieval textual “authorities” such as the Glossa ordinaria, Peter Lombard’s sentences and the individual texts of the church fathers. Like Pico della Mirandola, Ficino believed that true wisdom is more pure the closer one approximates its source. The seeming endlessness of the Medieval commentaries only act to obscure rather than unveil the true source of wisdom. By means of this humanist theology, Ficino aimed to alleviate the current crisis of ignorance and immorality in both the church and state. By wedding theology to philosophy in the Platonic way, Ficino also proposed to bring the secular political leaders into closer connection with religion and church authorities so that the whole commonwealth might work together to promote the full range of the virtues, theological and political, for the sake of both civility and piety.
Ficino not only spearheaded the project for a revitalized Platonic Christianity in his multi-volume argument for the immortality of the soul – the Platonic Theology (1469-1474) – but he also wrote what Edelheit refers to as the “manifesto” for the new humanist theology, his De Christiana Religione written between 1473 and 1474. In this text Ficino returns to the Greek text of the New Testament and sets it along side of the texts of the “prisca theologia,” that is the religious texts of ancient theologians such as Hermes Trismegistus, the Orphean Hymns, the Chaldean and Sybelline Oracles, and Plato himself. Ficino drew from the religious texts of the ancient pagans in order to give evidence for his assertion that the immortality of the soul is and always has been a doctrine that is fundamental to human society and that this doctrine, as it is found in prisca theologia, finds its culmination in Christ, since he is the true and complete “realization of the notion of divinity in human beings.” 4 The following is my translation of Ficino’s “proem” to his De Christiana Religione, which has never been translated into English perhaps due to the bias in scholarship toward Ficino’s philosophy.
A note of caution to the reader: Ficino’s knowledge of history, though on the cutting edge for his day, is not always accurate. One may appreciate the following text more for its principles, which are not obscured by Ficino’s occasional historical inaccuracy. Further texts will be uploaded when the translations are completed.
On the Christian Religion
Laurenzo de’ Medici, protector of our native land
Between wisdom and religion exists the greatest relationship
The Eternal Wisdom of God has established that divine mysteries are to be explained strictly by those who are genuine lovers of true wisdom, even in their introductions to religion. It is for this reason that they investigate the works of the first causes of things and that they diligently administer sacrifices to the highest causes of things and [for this reason lovers of wisdom] exist among all of the heathen philosophers and priests. The [investigating and worshiping of Wisdom] is not inappropriate, for the soul (as our Plato agrees) can fly back to the heavenly father and its native land with its two great wings (that is the intellect and the will), and since the philosopher depends chiefly upon the intellect and the priest depends upon the will, and [conversely], since the intellect illuminates the will and the will fans the fire of the intellect, it is appropriate that those who by means of the intellect either discover the first divine causes outside of themselves or approach them by divine illumination most honestly worship the first divine causes by means of the will and pass down to others the appropriate manner of and reason for worshiping them.
For this reason, the prophets of the Hebrews and Essenes favored both wisdom and the priesthood. The philosophers from Persia were called “magi” (that is “priests”) because they were in charge of the sacred rites. The Brahman of India were advisors in both natural things and in the purification of the soul. In Egypt mathematicians and philosophers engaged in both the priesthood and kingship. In Ethiopia the gymnosophist philosophers were both magistrates and high priests of religion. The custom was the same in Greece under Linus, Orpheus, Musus, Eumolpus, Melampus, Trophimus, Aglaophemus, and Pythagorus. It was also the same in Gall under the government of the Druids. Who does not know how much the Romans Numen Pompilius, Velerius Soranus, Marcus Varro and many others were devoted to both wisdom and sacred rites? And finally, is anyone unaware of the teachings, so great and so true, of the early Christian bishops and presbyters?
O happy age! How you have preserved intact this divine link between wisdom and religion, especially among Jews and Christians. Oh very unhappy age, when at last the miserable separation and divorce of Palladis and Themidis (that is wisdom and virtue) befalls it. Their monstrous children, without delay, have been given to the sacred dogs to be torn to pieces. For a great education has been taken from its place and transferred to the profane, from whom malicious things must now be taught rather than knowledge, resulting in a multitude of iniquity and a means to lasciviousness. Furthermore, the most precious pearls of religion are frequently dragged about by the ignorant and trampled under foot by them as if they were their own property. For it frequently appears under the name of “a superstitious, incompetent, ignorant, and lazy administration.” So little do [these administrators] understand the truth unmixed [with error] which shines upon the eyes of the pious as a deity and so wrongly do they worship God with what strength is in them that they govern the sacred office while being absolutely ignorant of both divine and human things. How long shall we prop up this wretched and unbending fortune of the iron age? Oh people of our celestial homeland and citizens and inhabitants of earth I beg you, if we can then let us liberate philosophy, the sacred gift of God, from impiety whenever we can.
Furthermore, if we are willing, let us redeem our holy religion from this detestable ignorance for the sake of mankind. I exhort everyone and I entreat philosophers specifically, therefore, to either thoroughly take up [the subject of] religion or to touch upon it [in their writings]. Priests, however, [I exhort] to apply themselves diligently to the study of legitimate wisdom. How much I have accomplished or will have accomplished in this matter, I do not know. I have proved, nevertheless, and I shall not cease to prove that I have not confided in my own abilities but in the mercies of both God and men. Your grandfather, generous Laurenzo, that is the great Cosimo and then Peter, your father, nourished me by their labors from the first moment that I was able to philosophize. Recently you have ordained, so far as you are able, to combine in me the study of philosophy with the pious office, as has been your custom with several others. In fact, you have also embellished Marsilio Ficino your priest with honor. Would that I never were nor am found wanting, seeing that the favor and help of God himself and of the Medici has never been found wanting. Moreover, in order that I might better consult divine favor for myself, that it might not be found lacking in me when I was first initiated into the sacred priesthood, and in order that I might give thanks to you, I have composed the book “de Christiana religione,” which I have decided to dedicate, in truth, to you the supporter of this confession of mine and particularly to the disciples of wisdom and to the caretakers of piety. 5
Eric Parker is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montréal, where he is writing his dissertation on the Cambridge Platonist, Peter Sterry. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children.
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