The Doctors of Soul: Marsilio Ficino

The Doctors of Soul: Marsilio Ficino

Marsilio Ficino was born October 19, 1433 and died October 1, 1499. It was reported that when Ficino’s father, a physician to the Medicis, brought the young boy along with him one day to court, Cosimo de’ Medici, his father’s patron, prophetically exclaimed that Ficino’s destiny in life would be to heal men’s souls. Due in large part to the patronship of Cosimo, and the fortuitous gift of a prodigious intellect, Ficino became a crucial figure in the success of the early Italian Renaissance. Cosimo commissioned to him tasks that were integral to the revival of Greek classicism and Hermeticism in the Italy of that day. Unlike the wealthy plutocrats of our day, Cosimo used his fortune to influence astounding works of culture and the arts that changed Europe and the world forever. In the realm of philosophy and education, Marsilio Ficino was Cosimo’s right-hand man.

One of the major contributions Ficino made, not only to depth psychology, but to the entire intellectual world, was the translation of the complete works of Plato into Latin. No one in the history of the world had ever achieved such a monumental task. Prior to this, however, he translated the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin, which gave the world the teachings of the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. Cosimo interrupted Ficino’s work on the Platonic translations to make the Corpus Hermeticum his priority. Cosimo believed it contained a great spiritual message. Ficino’s translation of an incomplete manuscript (14 of 15 treatises) brought Hermeticism to Europe and influenced many Renaissance luminaries. Ficino would go on to make many translations of various Hellenistic Greek documents, including The Enneads, written by Plotinus, and works by Porphyry, Iamblichus, and other Neoplatonist writers. These accomplishments were very important in fueling the Western European Renaissance, especially the revival of Platonism and Neoplatonism.

Like our other Doctors, Ficino made soul the hallmark of his life and work. He writes

This (the soul) is the greatest of all miracles in nature. All other things beneath God are always one single being, but the soul is all things together…Therefore it may be rightly called the center of nature, the middle term of all things, the series of the world, the face of all, the bond and juncture of the universe (qtd. in Hillman 155).

In his Commentary On Plato’s Symposium, Ficino makes a
statement that is totally antithetical to the teachings of modern
psychology:

“Man is the soul itself. . .” (Ficino 74). 

For the most part, psychology today refuses to accept any
idea of soul. Man is a material entity, according to current science. There
is no metaphysical element, such as soul, mind, or consciousness (there are those who deny even consciousness!). Man
has only a brain, which responds to external stimuli. What a far cry
from Ficino! How can there even be such a field as psychology (the
study of Soul or psyche) without admitting the soul’s existence?

For Ficino, the world is alive because of soul, for soul
is all things. Even though he seems to be attempting a definition of soul, he’s really not. He is fully aware of Heraclitus’ statement
concerning the unfathomable depths of Soul. In a roundabout sort of
way, I think Ficino is proposing that neither man nor the soul can be
precisely defined.

In the context of Ficino’s statement, I do not possess soul as I would a
coat or tie, I am soul. I cannot experience the world apart from soul.
Behaviorism cannot tell me why my breath is taken away by Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique;
or when I read Poe, Keats, or Goethe; or when I walk in the forest and
relish the green earth. They might try and tell me these are merely
chemical reactions in my brain, but anyone who has experienced these
things will know of a certainty how ridiculous this is. The depth of the
experience tells the story. All that I do and feel is because I am soul.

One of my favorite quotes from Ficino is the following:

Whoever . . . scrutinizes his mind . . . will find his own natural
work, and will find likewise his own star and daemon, and following
their beginnings he will thrive and live happily. Otherwise, he will
find fortune to be adverse, and he will feel that heaven hates him
(Ficino 169).

Ficino, obviously influenced by Greek tales of the daimones, makes some very precise statements concerning the consequences of following or ignoring one’s daimon.
The search for one’s place in the world is often overshadowed by many
things, such as the quest for affluence, worrying about what others
think, or being pushed into a certain vocation by one’s family. Ficino
gives a seemingly simple plan for ensuring a fulfilling life. But if it
is so simple, why do we see so many miserable people in the world?
Surely it isn’t because most people have never heard of Marsilio Ficino.
The truth he brings seems self-evident. Some find their niche
naturally by simply following their heart, even if they have never read
Plato or Ficino or any of the other thinkers who have advised us of
this truth. For these, it is instinctual.

On the subject of melancholia, Ficino writes,

We are all like Tantalus. We are all thirsty for the true goods, but we
all drink dreams. While we absorb the deadly waves of the river of
Lethe through our open throats, we scarcely lick with our lips a
shadowlike bit of nectar and ambrosia. Therefore, a troublesome thirst
continually burns us, oh we poor Tantali (qtd. in Kristeller, 210).

This wonderful quote, which I found in Paul Kristeller’s work on
Marsilio Ficino, is in the context of Ficino’s musings on melancholia,
especially the melancholy of scholars.

Ficino uses the Greek myth of Tantalus to illustrate how we come so
very close to truth at times, only to have it snatched away from us.
Banished to Hades by the gods for serving up his son at a banquet, he
was caused to stand chin-deep in the water with fruit dangling above
him. When he would try to eat or drink, the water would recede or the
fruit would be lifted away, just out of his reach. A horrible
punishment, indeed!

This phrase strikes a deep chord within me: “we all drink dreams.” We
thirst for truth, but instead, we drink dreams. One way I look at this
is to think about my own experiences with dreams. Most of the time, I
cannot remember my dreams. It is utterly frustrating. I know that what I
just dreamed is important, possibly some clue to help me understand
myself better, but the image just slips away. Sometimes I can close my
eyes and think about it a little and a bit of it will return. If I wait
until I am fully awake, it is useless. I have to be in a hypnagogic
state to even come close to remembering. Usually, no effort on my part
will retrieve it. This may be part of what Ficino is talking about. We
desire to drink freely and fully from the waters of life, but instead
we drink only bits and pieces of elusive images.

Ficino says we “absorb the deadly waves of the river of Lethe.” In some
Greek myths, if a newly dead soul drank from the Lethe, he/she would
forget what had happened to them in their previous life. To Ficino,
forgetfulness seems to be a deadly state. Possibly, he is thinking of
Socrates’ doctrine of recollection. Perhaps he feels that forgetfulness
leads us away from truth because we do not remember truth discovered
in previous existences. When we forget truth, we grab at shadows of the
true. We mistake the shadows for the real. In this state, we are
deceived. It is similar to the Hindu concept of maya.

Ficino contributed so much to Western psychology and culture that it would take volumes to tell it all. Because he made soul the most important element of his philosophy, he is to be honored as a Doctor of Soul.

Bibliography

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

Ficino, Marsilio. Commentary On Plato’s Symposium On Love. Dallas: Spring: 1985.

Hillman, James. Loose Ends. Irving: Spring, 1978.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino. New York: Columbia UP,
1943. 

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