As I delve further into Marsilio Ficino’s writings on soul, I am beginning to see that it is not a small task. To understand him properly, I think, one must have a firm grasp of Plato’s idea of soul, since Ficino borrows so heavily from him.
Plato states in the Phaedrus, “Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure” [246a]. We humans cannot perfectly understand soul. All we can do is speak “in a figure.” Figures are ideas and ideas are the best we can do. Ficino writes, “The soul as divine is known only to divine beings. But we use comparisons at least to think about it” (Marsilio Ficino and the Phaedrian Charioteer, Michael J.B. Allen, page 98).
Comparisons are also ideas. Metaphorical language uses ideas to try and express the depth of human experience.
I keep returning to the importance of Ficino’s (and Plato’s) insistence that we remember soul is an idea. This is something which must be thought about slowly, more as a meditative exercise.
An idea is a path of seeing, a way to better understanding. An idea is characterized by an image in the mind. When I think of the idea of a horse, I see a typical horse in my mind, perhaps running in a race. When I think of soul, it is quite different. Again, I see images, but not of literal things. I suppose I would think of the Ouroboros, since that image means so much to me and is so illustrative of the nature of soul. I have seen horses with my physical eyes, but I have never seen Soul. The idea of soul is akin to the ideas I have of God, Mind, Justice, Being, Courage, etc. I think about the ideas of these “things” to get a better understanding of them. The ideas are perspectives that paint images in me which I can grasp, albeit in a limited way. Since these images are limited and fragmentary, they will always be subject to change.
Our word, “idea,” comes from the Greek word, eidos, which includes the notion of “that which one sees,” and “that by means of which one sees.” We see ideas as shapes and appearances, and we also see by means of ideas. We see with ideas, as well as seeing ideas themselves. By means of ideas, our vision is opened. It is implied here that “the deeper the ideas we have, the deeper we see.” Thus, as our ideas of soul deepen, we understand soul more clearly.
Our perception of reality is even molded by our ideas. For example, Westerners once perceived the Sun to be revolving around the Earth. That perception was a product of the cosmological ideas held at the time. We had the idea that the Sun was in motion around our planet. Soon, our idea changed. Now we believe the Earth is in motion around the Sun. What we see with our eyes didn’t change. We still see the Sun rise in the morning, climb to the middle of the sky at noon, and set in the evening. What changed was our idea. If our ideas do not deepen, our understanding will not grow.
The soul seems to reveal itself in its ideas. Since it is in constant motion, our ideas are also in motion. As our ideas deepen, our vision of soul is elucidated.
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