The Inferno of the Soul

The Inferno of the Soul

 

Marsilio Ficino writes in his Opera Omnia:

The ardor of the mind is never extinguished, whether it looks at human or at divine things. If it desires human things, what mass of wealth, what fullness of empire ends that ardor? If it desires divine things, it is not satisfied with any knowledge of finite or created things.

Like the fervor of an inferno, the mind, for Ficino, is never at rest. It is never content with its discoveries or its accomplishments. There is a fiery grief underlying human existence that can grip the mind like a vise. One is sometimes thrown into a pit of despair where the beasts of the underworld gnaw fiercely at the Soul until all strength is depleted. It doesn’t matter if one possesses the material riches of this world, the Soul is not satisfied; it doesn’t matter if one discovers the truths which philosophers seek, the Soul is still filled with an unrest that defies reason.

This conflagration is no transitory state. It lies hidden beneath the usual placidity of the mind, ready to blaze out of control at any given moment. Ficino makes the astute observation that many times a fire can be unleashed when we are at leisure, when our minds are unburdened by the mundane cares of everyday living: “whenever we are at leisure, we fall into grief like exiles” (ibid. 208). He says we try to expel our grief by socializing and pleasures, but when the party’s over, we are more sorrowful than we were before.

I can’t count the number of times this has happened in my own life. I suppose I have always sensed the underlying grief of my peculiar existence. I can’t remember when it wasn’t there, lurking in the shadows. Since I began studying philosophy about twenty years ago, it has nearly overwhelmed me at times. Sometimes it happens when boredom sets in. Boredom appears to be a great enemy of Soul. Schopenhauer once said, “The two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom.” But pain and boredom are just ingredients in the alchemical recipe. Soul descends, then ascends, then down again, then back up, ad infinitum. It is as Heraclitus taught, a constant, circular flux. Boredom, pain, and grief are just as important to the health of Soul as are joy and happiness. The attempt of modern clinical psychology to totally rid the mind of depression is misguided. Soul must move in its own natural way.

Referring to Soul Ficino says, “after a short and false bitterness, a true and lasting sweetness overflows it” (ibid. 209). Many spiritual paths teach that the road to God, enlightenment, etc. is an ascent. We hear about “spiritual development,” “spiritual growth,” or a much older version, the Scala Paradisi. Ficino recognizes, not an exclusive ascent, but a continual rising and falling of the moods of Soul, indicating an ongoing process of change. The unrest seems to be a cathartic process, where old things are continually discarded and new things are continually acquired. Soul strips itself at times of dead things, and gives birth to new things. If this didn’t occur, Soul would be lost.

The fire of Soul is not extinguished, no matter how hard we try. Its ways are its own. Its course is set and it must not deviate. The path of Soul is our destiny.

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