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Miracles Without & Within: Ficino’s De Christiana Religione (IX)

The tenth chapter of Ficino’s De Christiana Religione is one of the lengthiest. I have skipped over chapter nine, which is entitled, “The authority of Christ is not from the stars but from God.” In that chapter Ficino argues against certain extreme forms of astrology which are not very relevant to the modern reader. In the following chapter he attempts to demonstrate the authority of Christ, not by recounting the various miracles recorded in the Gospels, but by displaying evidence in support of those miracles in extra-canonical sources. Some of Ficino’s evidence is quite specious and at times he even seems to recognize the weakness of his speculative conclusions. His main point, however, remains couched in the philosophical principles that he established in his other chapters. Whatever is above nature is not persuasive in the normal manner of persuasion but persuades by entering into natural events in extraordinary ways.

Genuine miracles are persuasive, Ficino assures us, and they are not coercive because man is free by nature. Also, man is only free to accept that which is beyond nature because he is part earthly (body) and part heavenly (soul). Thus, the convergence of seemingly opposite principles in man makes him the greatest of all miracles. Christ is also the greatest miracle because of the unity of his two natures. We experience these miracles as we attend to the word of God recorded in holy writ. Thus, Ficino argues, in a manner that almost seems to anticipate Martin Luther, “Be enraptured by prophecies [portentis] to the height of [your] mind [in altum vultis], not by scaling [upward] upon the steps of the virtues.” Witnessing the work of God in one’s own soul, therefore, is a sort of prophecy that leads one to true virtue, since, “What is more miraculous, what more divine in the earth than the soul, the lord of every part of its body? … When this happens we will not only discern a miracle but we will be perfected by it.” In concluding this way Ficino is most likely borrowing a phrase from Hermes Tristmegistus which he quotes elsewhere, “A great miracle, Asclepius, is man!”

Translation: Chapter 10

CHAPTER X

The authority of Christ was in no way devoid of miracles.

I think, magnanimous Laurenzo, that those who daily conclude (both obstinately and unwittingly) with a new miracle for confirming the Faith of Christ argue more unpleasantly [acriter]. For if they are rare, then they are wonders [prodigia], but if they occur very frequently, they appear either artificial or natural. It shall be enough for us to know that the world [was] once not without clear miracles, [but it] so miraculously received and endured the arrangement [of] such a miraculous construction and work. How is it that the pagans, Jews, and Muhamedans agree with us that Christ performed miracles? The disciples of Christ wrote and publically preached every day, both in Judea and in other [places], that miracles concerning the star in the East, solar eclipses, earthquakes, the tearing of the temple [veil], and many others were seen by many thousands of people. And indeed, at that time [there was] a multitude of those remaining who [had] lived since the death of Christ and had by now become strong, [who] could have easily proven those beggarly disciples guilty of every [deceit], unless they had spoken the truth. Why did Herod perpetrate such an abominable and considerably perilous crime (that is, when he killed so many children of his own progeny), unless he was extremely frightened by a certain new and astonishing wonder [prodigio]? Indeed, as soon as [Herod] accomplished that [crime], it was communicated to Octavius. Hear [what] Macrobius [says]: “When Augustus learned that even the son of Herod, King of Judaea, was killed along with the two year-old children in Syria that [Herod] commanded to be killed, he said, ‘It is clear that Herod is more pig than man [filium].’”

The very same emperor Octavian writes in his fourth letter that, when the games that were brought about for Caesar were restored a comet [crinitam stellam] appeared at noonday, which either is or was believed to be the soul of Caesar. To what extent, however, was it outside the bounds of nature? What do we conclude from this [evidence] was seen at noonday? How great a thing was it if it was believed to be the soul of some man? One should not believe that the soul of this murderer of [his own] relatives [parricidae] who lived and died [egit et … exegit] wickedly was so wonderfully honored by the heavens. Therefore, whatever is of Caesar is Caesar’s, that is, an earthly kingdom and dwelling place. Whatever is of God is God’s, that is, a heavenly [kingdom and dwelling place].For this reason it may be that this was the comet [stella] that led the magi from the east to the newborn Christ during Octavian’s reign.

It is worth while, first of all, to hear Pliny concerning the earthquake, for he says, “The greatest Earthquake in human memory happened during the imperial reign of Tiberius Cæsar when twelve cities of Asia were laid flat [in one night].”1 It is possible that this was the earthquake that occurred when Christ was crucified both because [the Gospels] say that it was so great that nothing of that sort had ever occurred [before] and because [it occurred] in Asia during the imperial rule of Tiberius, [which is] where and when Christ suffered. Eusebius writes that he read in a pagan commentary that:

In the 18th year of Tiberius there was a solar eclipse [solis defectio], Bithynia was shaken by an earthquake, and in the city of Nicæa many temples collapsed. All of these [events] coincide with the [events] that occurred when Christ was crucified [in passione salvatoris]. Phlegon [of Tralles], whose Olympiadum is an excellent [historical] anthology [supputator], also writes about these things in the thirteenth book saying, ‘But in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympic games there was a solar eclipse greater and more excellent than any [solar eclipse] that had ever occurred. At the sixth hour the day turned so dark that the stars in the sky were visible, and an earthquake in Bithynia destroyed many temples in the city of Nicæa.’ So [says] Phlegon. The Gospel of Luke provides proof of this point, that [our] savior suffered in this year, in which it is written that our Lord preached for three years “during the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” [Luke 3:1]. Also, Josephus (writing in the Jewish language) testifies that at this time around the day of Pentecost the priests of [that] region first heard a particular sound then suddenly and unexpectedly a voice erupted from the holiest place of the temple of a [multitude] saying, “Let us remove [ourselves] from this dwelling place!”

These [are the things] that Eusebius [recounts]. Luke the evangelist also declares that Christ suffered in the 18th year of Tiberius, [and Luke] says that Christ was baptized in the 15th year of Tiberius when he was nearly 30 years old. Eusebius, moreover, calculates that Christ was born in the 42nd year of Augustus’s imperial reign, but he began to preach the Gospel in the 15th year of Tiberius. Dionysius the Areopagite, the most renowned of the Athenian philosophers, and Apollophanes, a distinguished sophist, [both] excelling in natural science were at Heliopolis on the day that Jesus was killed. At that time they saw the sphere of the Moon amazingly falling in with the Sun from the east outside of the season when [heavenly bodies] align [conjunctionis]. [They] also [saw] the Moon amazingly blocking out the diameter of the Sun from the ninth hour until evening, and they examined this sort of occurrence until the Sun reached the end [of its course] and at last [the Moon] leapt back to the opposite diameter. Indeed, when they realized that this event reached beyond any order of nature Dionysius was completely astounded and Apollophanes having turned to Dionysius exclaimed: “It is quite clear, Dionysius, that these interchanges are indeed of divine origin.” These events Dionysius the Areopagite records [in a letter] to the wise man Polycarp and asked him whether Apollophanes himself was still alive and had not yet become a Christian, who would neither deny that those events happened beyond the bounds of nature, nor would he reject the higher truth of Christianity, but would humbly accept it.

Lactantius affirms that Christ was crucified on the 20th day of March. Furthermore, Esculus, a kind of astrologer, although not at all religious he nevertheless asserts that it is certain by astrological computation that on the day that Christ was affixed to the cross the Sun was at the first stage of Aries and the Moon was at the beginning of Libra [where] an eclipse cannot occur by natural means, whether because there was a full Moon (it is necessary, in fact, for a solar eclipse to occur during a new Moon) or because that eclipse commenced from the east when a natural eclipse normally begins from the west. Others demand that the Sun was at Pisces and the Moon at Virgo. Nevertheless, these conclude the same thing as Esculus regarding the eclipse. The Jews demonstrate the same, who (as they are commanded by law) always celebrate Pascha on the fourteenth Moon and Jesus was sacrificed on Pascha, when [this] eclipse occurred. For one was not at liberty at that time to deny an event [that was] so clearly visible. For it was predicted and written within and in front of the same generation in which and in the presence of which miracles of this sort were reported to have happened. Only by the grace of Christ, however, was that miracle performed in the heavens. For what has been done either under heaven or above the heavens, either at that time or other [times], that is more miraculous than Christ? Concerning which, [hear] Paul, his herald: “God exalted him and gave him a name which is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, either in heaven, on earth, or under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father,” [Phil. 2:9-11]. And he confessed at that time by a human tongue what exceeds wonder [admirationem], that “afterwards he emptied himself in the form of a servant, made humble and obedient even to death, that is rather, death on a cross,” [Phil. 2:7a-8b].

If man, established in this sort of condition and fate without miracles, confessed that the world is the highest God, then this alone destroys the wonder of all miracles. Unless he saw many miracles I cannot be persuaded that John the evangelist, a writer [who was] honest and sober minded in the highest regard [maxime omnium], dared to exclaim with such a miraculous voice that, “These and many other things which Jesus did, if each one were written down, I do not think the world could contain the books that would be written,” [Jn. 21:25]. I shall pass over what the Gospels often say, that Jesus astonishingly healed thousands of sick people at once. The great Paul teaches us that the Apostles’ preaching was of such a kind that many people were converted [by it]. For he says to the Corinthians, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in the persuasive words [persuasibilibus] of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. Yet among the mature [perfectos] we do impart wisdom,” [1 Cor. 2:1-6]. […]2 Let us also hear what he says to the Thessalonians: “[O]ur gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction,” [1 Thess. 1:5]. Surely Paul, the wisest of men, had not forgotten his own [people]? Or did he believe that the people to whom he was writing were even so oblivious that he should remind them that he had performed wonders [prodigia] in their presence, unless he [really] did [those things]? The contradiction and falsehood would have been apparent if perchance he had lied. […] We conclude from these and similar events that miracles were not wanting in that generation, by whose power the house of God was built to be an exemplar and light, or I should rather say, our dwelling place, which as Paul says, “is the Church of the living God; a pillar and foundation of truth. Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: ‘He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory,’” [1 Tim. 3:15-16].

What, therefore, should be said to this? Are we chattering nonsense? What, then? Are we urgently insisting upon something bizarre [and] ungrounded? Is the Great God on trial with us every day at court [sub iudice]? Does God force those who are inquiring to believe [redimere] in his authority at every moment by means of miracles, now at once to us, then to future generations? Or, does he compel everyone’s agreement [nutum] like some juggler for hire appearing in the theater? Certainly, it is not natural or fitting to compel man, a free animal by nature, by certain threats [signis] of violence, but to attract [him] by inspiration and erudition [doctrinis]. To the one who is willing, virtue and blessedness are promised, not by coercion. The authority of the one who advises [us] is to be believed, not interrogated.

What are we saying, that there are only a few people who [ever] see a miracle and almost no one considers [it] worthy of accepting? As often as wonders occur, God works them harmoniously among men as if by means of instruments, through the souls of men [which are] greatly separated from bodies [in essence] but united [to bodies] by God. Therefore, plunge yourselves into the filth of the body [you] miserable souls, so that you might perceive heavenly miracles! Oh, how stupidly do you long to see what is above [sublimia] with a head sunk down into the ground. Be enraptured by prophecies [portentis] to the height of [your] mind [in altum vultis], not by scaling [upward] upon the steps of the virtues. What is more miraculous, what more divine in the earth than the soul, the lord of every part of its body? We shall experience its lordship [imperium] if we are able, but we are able, if we are willing. When this happens we will not only discern a miracle but we will be perfected by it.

I think that it is certain that wonders [mirabilia], indeed signs inspired by God, frequently occur in various places even for us who are unworthy, but they do not always appear to everyone. Also, many events are not recorded, or once recorded they are not even considered trustworthy. The ambiguities of these [records], it is true, appear to give occasion to some very detestable men who introduce false omens [prodigia] by imitation of what is true. An imitation and a plausible forgery [verisimilitudo] necessarily accompany the real thing, which anyone may imitate or copy. There would be no counterfeit money in existence unless there was legitimate money at the same time. There would be no counterfeit miracles if men were not enticed away from a true miracle to an imitation of, or if you will, “faith” in their own [miracle]. The miracles that Aurelius Augustine witnessed for himself, and [which] Gregory recounts, were so powerful that faith accompanies [them] by necessity. I have even heard for myself that some wonders as well as incredible things have happened in our age, yes, even in our city of Florence but these events [were] more obscure. […]3 Do not be surprised, Lorenzo, that Marsilio Ficino the studious brings miracles into philosophy. For, what we write is true, and it is the duty of the philosopher to confirm individual [events] by means of the proper causes [rationibus]. Moreover, the proper causes of natural things are those which are in accordance with nature, but the [proper causes] of divine things [are] those which [are] above nature, of which sort are both the conclusions of metaphysics and (or rather most properly) miracles. God proves his own mysteries and confirms his precepts not only with words but also by miraculous works. As [he says], “if you do not want to believe in words, believe in [my] works,” [Jn. 10:38].4

  1. This is a reference to Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, Lib. II.LXXXVI., maximus terrae memoria mortalium exstitit motus Tiberii Caesaris principatu, XII urbibus Asiae una nocte prostratis. Ficino omits “una nocte.”
  2. For the sake of brevity I have omitted some of Ficino’s extensive quotations of the New Testament.
  3. For convenience sake I have omitted Ficino’s recounting of various miracles that had occurred in Florence during his lifetime, none of which he considers very extraordinary.
  4. Ficino, Opera, vol. 1, (Basil: 1561), 13-15.

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.