Black Bile and the Soul

Black Bile and the Soul

In his De Vita, Marsilio Ficino writes, “Of all scholars, those devoted to the study of philosophy are most bothered by black bile, because their minds get separated from their bodies and from bodily things.” (Ficino 7). Ficino, of course, is using the framework of Hippocrates’ theory of the four humors to explain the melancholic temperament in scholars. Aristotle also dealt with this problem, as did Plato.

According to Ficino, philosophers have a preponderance of black bile. My approach to this very odd-sounding statement will be one of openness. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt without immediately rejecting this seemingly absurd proposition. I want to know why he sees it this way.

The first impression I have is that the black bile is a powerful symbol for the darkness of melancholia.  Nowadays, biologists would scoff at the mention of the four humors. What most of them do not understand is how important imagination and myth were in the lives of the ancients. I believe the Soul was a very powerful idea for them and imagination is the way the Soul communicates. Being the Doctor of Soul that Ficino was, he picked up on this. I think he understood the symbolic nature of the four humors, especially black bile. He also speaks as though he accepted it as a viable biological theory. If we understand it in a metaphorical fashion, the modern cry of absurdity does not arise. We are free to be imaginative.

The theory of humors is a complex matter. I will but scratch the surface. As the theory goes, everyone has some black bile. The melancholy person, however, has too much. The scholar detaches his mind from external things and directs it internally. The philosopher, perhaps, does this to a greater extent than other scholars, due to the difficulty of the subject matter. According to Ficino, one moves “from the circumference to the center” (Ficino 6). He compares the center to the interior of the earth, “which resembles black bile” (ibid.). Truly, when we look inside ourselves, sometimes it is very dark. Black bile is a good image to represent the acerbic and somber nature of melancholy. It is disgustingly dark and bitter.

I first encountered this bitterness when I began to ask questions about my life and my world. It was the bitter uncertainty that plunged me into darkness. I could not answer my own questions satisfactorily, nor could anyone else. With the realization that “truths” I once embraced were now shattered, I clung to uncertainty as a drowning man would a life-preserver.

I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced detachment from my body, but I am certain there have been times when I despised it. It has greatly hindered me from seeking Truth, or at least I thought it did. I am rather of the opinion now that I am here in this body because this is my destiny. For some reason unbeknownst to me, Fate has led me to the situation I find myself in. I must “grow down” into it as a tree would sink it roots into the earth. Perhaps my desire for detachment is merely a projection of my dislike for the materialistic, literalistic worldview. Still, though, along with all my rationalizations, I have too much black bile.

Work Cited
Ficino, Marsilio. The Book of Life. Irving: Spring, 1980.

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2 thoughts on “Black Bile and the Soul

  1. Zeteticus, My brother…
    Me thinks that you an I have been down this road together before. Never stop!
    This “black bile” of which you speak, is what I would term, “philosopher's doubt”. (my own words…)
    To quote from one of my previous posts,
    “Let my doubts be cleared” –
    Devi to Shiva

    Osho indicates that this is all the result of having a doubting mind. Seekers do just that. They seek: Ask questions. Look for answers. But Osho states that all of our questioning only leads to more questions. There are never any sufficient answers. We just keep on asking questions and our doubting mind is never cleared of the debris of doubt”.
    It would sometimes appear to me that we're trying to fit the whole of the universe on the head of a pin. It can't be done! Hence the “black bile”,
    Now, this is not a criticism. The world needs philosophers, hermits, poets and sages just as it needs postmen,bus drivers and physic teachers. Just as the tool box needs hammers, saws and rulers.
    Just my observation (and a high regard of respect with a deep bow)

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