Marsilio Ficino’s idea of Soul includes this thought from his commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus:
The soul is self-moving; so it is the principle of motion; so it is always being moved; so it is immortal.
Thus begins his commentary on Socrates’ argument of the immortality of the soul in the Phaedrus 245c-246a. The syllogism is easily understood and works fine if the basic premise is accepted. That is not, however, what I want to deal with.
I want to examine this passage more deeply, as pointing toward a curious idea which first arose in the Middle Ages and was later pursued by hundreds of people for centuries afterward, including some of the greatest minds in history. I am referring to the dream of building a perpetual motion machine.
Just as we “moderns” chuckle at the idea of alchemists trying to transform lead and other base metals into gold, the thought of a perpetual motion machine has been equally ridiculed by those who insist that a literal mode of thinking is best. However, this viewpoint does not always see what is really going on. When I first read the passage from Ficino on the motion of the soul, I thought, “Why is he using the language of physics to express an idea of the soul?” I was entrapped by literalism. After some thought, I began to see that he was really speaking metaphorically. This is the only way we can speak of Soul.
The passage reminded me of stories I read as a child of the attempts to invent a perpetual motion machine. I began to understand why these men had such a passion to discover the secret of such a device. I realized the alchemists had the same passion and were on the same quest as the would-be inventors. What they were actually doing was projecting their passion for Soul into ideas for a perpetual motion machine, just as the alchemists had projected their passion for Soul into the recipe for the lapis philosophorum. The same energy, I suspect, has been thrown into other such intense pursuits, both good and bad.
The first known attempt to create a perpetual motion machine was in eighth-century Bavaria. It was a wheel spinning on its axle, powered by lodestones. It was called a magic wheel (Wikipedia). The name is not surprising at all, since Soul is the most magical of wheels. One of my favorite symbols of Soul is the Ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail. A magic wheel, indeed! Wheels are very significant in ancient mythology. We all know how much Dr. Jung discussed the mandala.
There seems to be something within us that knows the nature of the soul and tries to communicate it to us metaphorically through various ideas, and through dreams. Our egos can’t grasp the deep meaning of these. We build, we write, we paint, etc. to try and bring these ideas into physical manifestation. The exercise of doing so is not detrimental, but helpful to our souls. It is an exercise which brings understanding, even if we have no rational idea why we are doing it. It is probably akin to ritual.
I doubt if most of the would-be inventors realized they were on a Soul-quest, just as many of the alchemists did not know. I think some of them did. There were a few, the very perceptive ones who probably got the hint what was going on.
Could it be that Leonardo da Vinci picked up on Ficino’s interest in Plato’s teaching of the self-moving soul? Was he influenced by Ficino the way Michaelangelo was? I would say so, seeing they were contemporaries in Florence. Leonardo made several drawings of perpetual motion machines. He never tried to build one, as far as I know, but I think he probably knew a little about what was happening within him.
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