Authors Eric Parker Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Education and the Purification of the Mind: Ficino’s De Christiana Religione (IV)

In the third chapter of De Christiana Religione Ficino discusses the topic of educating adolescents in religion. Most, if not all, theological manuals of this period are devoid of any treatment of childhood education. Why, then, does Ficino devote a whole chapter to it? At least three possible solutions stand out.

Firstly, the fact that adolescents often appear to be irreligious by their very nature stands as an argument against Ficino’s position that religion is natural and essential to human happiness.

Secondly, it was a common practice in late Medieval Europe for youth to enter into the university between ages 13 to 17 and receive their baccalaureate shortly after. Students of the arts or theology would then proceed to receive the title “Magister” and begin teaching between the ages of 21 to 30.1 Ficino, however, follows Plato in promoting a “Pythagorean” education of purification prior to the study of theology. Plato stipulates the age of 30 for those who would advance to the study of dialectic.2 By promoting Plato’s ideal education Ficino may have sought to reform the Medieval standard of admitting adolescents to the theological faculty. On the other hand, Ficino does not establish a specific age in the way that Plato does, and he says that “old age” can come about through education. It is possible that he merely intended to limit the Medieval practice rather than abolish it.

Thirdly, by using Plato’s concept of education as “Pythagorean purification” Ficino most likely hoped to further his project of reform that he discussed in the preface to De Christiana Religione. In the preface Ficino promoted the model of the most ancient religions which brought the political and priestly offices into a close relationship. He advises political rulers to study religion and priests to study philosophy with the anticipated result of a more unified commonwealth. Applying this principle to education, Ficino would revise any strict division between the liberal arts and theology which would restrict the study of theology to the clergy. Rather, all education is for the sake of the purification of the mind and the study of religion, whether one studies for the sake of the priesthood or the political office.

Translation: Chapter 3

Adolescents should beware not to produce an opinion concerning religion without any effort

Although man is religious in each stage of life by nature, nevertheless, there are two stages, as Plato notes, (with the exception of infants and those who are deformed) which are more religious, namely, childhood and old age [senectus]. For religious children are formed and educated and they remain in religion most securely until the time when reason is awakened in adolescence, which searches for the causes and purposes [rationes] of individual things by its own nature. If, in [adolescence], they either eagerly take up these studies or they happen upon those discourses in which the causes of things are diligently examined, they begin as if they will not be serious about anything unless they personally see its purpose. Then at first they cast their religion a great distance behind their back unless they strongly commit themselves to to the rules and advice of their elders. Because the most secret purposes of divine things are ultimately seen after a long time [and then only] with difficulty after the mind has been purged by a most carefully exercised diligence. Adolescents do not yet get these sorts of purposes [rationes] and because they grasp almost nothing because they do not see the purposes [of things], if they confide in the judgment that is characteristic [of the adolescent mind] then they in a certain measure neglect religion. Some of those who are established in this opinion as a result of arrogance and self-indulgence give themselves over to the pleasures of Aristippus, ultimately thinking nothing more of religion than old wives tales.

But others, as a result of custom and modesty, purge the mind of the senses with Pythagorean ritual, utilizing the disciplines of ethics, physics, mathematics, and metaphysics, in order that they might not be forced to become blind by suddenly directing their recently inflamed eyes into the divine Sun, [that is, by going] higher than [the aforementioned disciplines], rather than progressing gradually. First, they look for the divine light in ethics as the light of the Sun upon Earth; secondly in physics as [the sunlight] in water; thirdly, in mathematics as [the sunlight] in the Moon. Fourthly [they look for the sunlight] in metaphysics as if they were looking clearly and wholesomely into the Sun itself, more super-celestial than celestial. These Orpheus calls “the legitimate priests of the muses,” who ultimately think much better about religion in a more mature stage [of life], as we read in Plato’s letter to King Dionysius, in his Phaedrus, in the first book of his Republic, and in the tenth book of his Laws.

Divine Plato advises the youth not to rashly adopt an opinion concerning divine things but to trust in the laws until age itself instructs [them], either by means of those levels of the disciplines which we have explained or by means of experience, or by means of a certain separation of the soul from the body. [This separation] brings about the self-restraint of old age, with the result that the soul, at this age, seeing the things [that are] separated from corporeality as from its dwelling place, discerns more clearly than it did before. Indeed, it is always important to remember that, due to their nature, wisdom cannot exist in youth nor is anything more dangerous, whether in making judgments or in acting, than audacious ignorance and ignorant audacity. Wisdom without audacity is indeed beneficial, though not very magnificent, but it never stands in the way. Audacity without wisdom, on the other hand, is a kind of savage, untamable, and thoroughly unbridled thing. But, because we have extensively covered the common truth of religion, the providence of God, and the divinity of the soul [elsewhere] in our theology, what we have said presently concerning these things shall be enough, for we must hurry on to the mysteries of the Christian religion.3

  1. Stephanie A. Sechler affirms that the average age of a rector at the University of Paris in the 14th century was 28.7 years old, Sechler, Rectors of the 14th Century University of Paris: An Institutional and Prosographical Study, a dissertation submitted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1997, 66.
  2. Republic, VII.
  3. Ficino, Opera, vol. 1, (Basil: 1561), 3.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.