The theme of Soul is the thread that weaves together the tapestry of Ficino’s thinking. I would like to focus on a passage from Ficino’s commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus:
You must understand that in approaching the task of depicting the idea of the soul. . . (Marsilio Ficino and the Phaedrian Charioteer, Michael J.B. Allen, page 96).
He goes on to describe six conceptions of the soul, which I may deal with in later essays. For now, however, my aim is to dissect what Ficino means by an idea of the soul.
Years ago, when I was taught about the soul as a Christian, the language used suggested an objective entity living inside my body that is the real me, the me which will ascend to Heaven when this body is no longer functional. I was under the impression that my soul and spirit were one in the same and that I somehow possessed them in the same way I possessed clothing or a pair of shoes. Why did they speak of my soul as if I owned it? All of this was frustrating and perplexing to me.
When I began trying to break free from the influence of Christianity, (which is a very difficult thing to do, by the way) I tried to understand myself in various ways, most of which brought me no closer to understanding my human nature. I could not accept the viewpoint of materialism, so I delved into depth psychology. I have always been convinced that my epiphanous experiences of music, literature, philosophy, and art have a deeper explanation than simply brain chemistry. Actually, there is probably no explanation at all, for “You could never arrive at the limits of soul, no matter how many roads you traveled, so deep is its mystery” (Heraclitus). I am now of the opinion that Ficino’s idea of soul, which is of course heavily influenced by thinkers like Heraclitus, Plato, and Plotinus could be of great value to me in my understanding.
What I like most about Ficino’s idea of soul is that it is just that, an idea. He doesn’t claim that his idea of soul is the definitive explanation, as we are accustomed to hearing in dogmatic theology. I think he is letting us know that soul is something very deep and mysterious, which we will never fully understand. The best we can do is use metaphorical language (ideas) to help us scratch the surface. Furthermore, I don’t think he is coming to us from the point of view of religion, even though he was an ordained priest. From what I have read so far, he is telling us that Soul is the foundation for all aspects of our lives. It is the very bedrock of our existence here in this world. Perhaps Soul is akin to Heidegger’s Dasein?
Ficino doesn’t seem to compartmentalize our experience of the world, as we see today. For example, a university has different colleges, which are totally set apart, to study liberal arts, engineering, mathematics, etc. The spirit of the Renaissance, which Ficino was so attuned to, examined human experience as a holistic endeavor. Engineering was as much an aspect of Soul as the liberal arts. I think it is sad we have lost touch with this viewpoint. I recall Heidegger’s discussion of tools and how they interact with Dasein. I would venture to say that a similar discussion could be made using the idea of Soul.
The main point in this essay, then, is that Soul, in Ficino’s writings, is an idea, a perspective, a way of seeing something that is unfathomable and mysterious.
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