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Meditations on the Soul: Selected Letters of…

Meditations on the Soul: Selected Letters of Marsilio Ficino

by Clement Salaman

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Poquette has written an excellent review of this book which appears on the book page and so I am just adding my thoughts.

“Painting and sculpture, and that magnificence of public life which characterized the fifteenth century, contributed to the substitution of aesthetic for moral or religious standards. Actions were estimated by the effect which they produced; and to sin against the laws of culture was of more moment than to transgress the code of |Christianity. Still, the men of the Renaissance could not forget the creed which they had drawn in with their mothers milk, but which the Church had not adjusted to the new conditions of the growing age. The result was a wild phantasmagoric chaos of confused and clashing influences.” (from Renaissance in Italy by John Addington Symonds)

Marsilio Ficino was one of these clashing influences, but seems to have remained aloof from much of the hurly burly of Renaissance life. He had the ear of the Medici family that ruled Florence in his lifetime and felt strong enough to hand out advice on morals and religion, sometimes in quite a patronising way. Ficino was engaged in translating the Greek philosopher Plato into Latin and from many of the letters in this collection he was intent on reconciling the pagan philosopher’s views with Christianity. He gathered round him a group of like minded people and they wrote to each other in Latin about their thoughts on humanism and Christianity. The important point here is that they kept to the old Latin rather than writing in the newly emergent Italian language. The Italian language of Dante, Boccaccio and Plutarch was consciously avoided by the group. It is clear that Ficino wished his letters to be preserved and much of their content seems to be with one eye on publication. In a letter to his fellow philosophers in the group he referred to as the Academy he says:

“Let us climb into the high watchtower of the mind, leaving the dust of the body below; then we will gaze more closely at the divine and view the mortal from a distance”

This strikes me as being real “ivory tower” stuff and I could imagine Ficino and his cronies getting increasingly lost in their academic studies and having little relevance to renaissance life. Machiavelli writing twenty years later would prove to be much more in tune with the political will of the tyrants in power.

Ficino was ordained a priest and his continual struggle in attempting to reconcile the pagan with the Christian is evident in many of the letters. He was careful not to be taken for a heretic especially when addressing men of the cloth, however so many of his letters are steeped in pagan imagery that his struggle is self evident.

There are some fine and beautiful letters in this collection which have been translated by members of the Language Department of the School of Economic Science. Here is one that shows his humanist stance and is worth quoting in full:

“Why are boys more cruel than old men, madmen more cruel than the sane , stupid men more cruel than the clever? Because the former are, so to speak, less human than the others. Hence those that are more cruel are called inhuman and brutish. For those who fall far short of the full nature of Man, through lack of years, mental defect, physical disease, or an unfavourable position of the stars, mostly hate or ignore the human race as if it were something alien and unconnected to them. Nero was not a man, I would say but a monster in a man’s skin. For if he had really been a man, he would have loved all other men as members of the same body.

Individual men, formed by one idea in the same image, are one man. It is for this reason I think, that of all the virtues, wise men named only one after man himself: that is humanity, which loves and cares for all men as though they were brothers, born in a long succession of one father.

Therefore, most humane man, persevere in the service of humanity. Nothing is dearer to God than love. There is no surer sign of madness and of future misery than cruelty.

Remain a friend to Carlo Valguli of Brescia; for he is a man of outstanding humanity, as well as excelling in the humanities through his studies of Greek and Latin”

This book will not appeal to everybody and readers will gain more from it if they are familiar with the philosophy of Plato and the Neo-Platonists. ( )
  baswood | Jun 27, 2012 |
If we transport ourselves back about six hundred years and try to grasp the world view that prevailed in those times, when there were seven heavens governed by the planetary spheres and the New World was about to be discovered, we step into a world that was filled with the intrigues of the Medicis, the artistry of Botticelli and Michaelangelo, the literary output of Chaucer and the philosophy of Marsilio Ficino.

Ficino was at the same time avuncular and didactic: He reminds one of a favorite uncle who delights in writing long letters filled with advice regarding good behavior and virtuous living. His main message is that by forming good habits of thought and action while young, it will be easier to direct one's life along the right path.

Marsilio Ficino was apparently an ordained priest although he was not attached to any congregation. Instead, he devoted his life to learning and teaching and translating the "new" Greek texts that were coming into Italy from the crumbling Byzantine Empire. Constantinople had been conquered by the Turks in 1453 when Ficino was twenty years old. He mastered Greek during his twenties and embarked on the project of translating the works of Plato from Greek to Latin. It was in the midst of this effort that Cosimo de Medici, his sponsor, asked him to drop everything and translate the Corpus Hermeticum attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (titled Poimander by Ficino), and these documents influenced Renaissance religious philosophy for the next two hundred years although they have been languishing in the dustbin of history ever since. His establishment of a new Platonic Academy outside of Florence allowed him to gather about him many like-minded men who shared his desire to reconcile Plato with Christianity.

Ficino was an exceptionally warm-hearted and emotionally generous friend, if his letters are any indication. His language seems flowery and somewhat over the top when compared with social exchanges today, but they seem heartfelt. Here is a typical salutation:

Good health to you always, heavenly and divine friend. Of my other friends, some were presented by chance and the rest were of my own choosing; but the heavens joined Bernardo Bembo to me from the beginning, and then divine providence confirmed this in a wonderful way. I say "heavens" because we were born in the same year, on the same day, under the same star.

A number of Ficino's letters are worth mentioning here briefly. One of his most remarkable letters (no. 5 in this collection) is addressed to a very young Cardinal Riario who had just received his elevation at the tender age of sixteen! Ficino does not mince words in advising him while adopting the persona of "Truth":

To Cardinal Riario, her most beloved, son, Truth gives many greetings and promises true salvation. . . . Most people think that I [Truth] abide in the high palaces of princes. On the contrary, I am more often compelled to seek out cottages and to dwell in humble homes. . . . I am driven back from the thick roofs and walls of rich houses; and if these doors are ever opened, a tumult of countless falsehoods immediately streams out to meet me. Not thinking to stay among enemies, I instantly take flight. I leave that house that is full of gold and lies but impoverished and empty of truth. Today, however, I come to you willingly, fortunate cardinal, to dwell with you always, if you but wish it. I have come in haste at the very outset of your appointment before your hearth is beset by my enemies, the pernicious lies of flatterers and slanderers. . . .

You should attribute your high rank of office to your ancestry and not to your own merits which, to speak truly, could not have achieved so much in your few tender years. You should not attribute it to fate and fortune either, for sacred mysteries and holy orders do not arise from the caprice of fortune but from the eternal wisdom of God.

Letter 29 is a dialogue between The Soul and God and amounts to a religious ecstasy put to paper. I kept thinking of Michaelangelo's St. Theresa. Letter 69 contains an example of a prayer that Ficino claims to say every day. Letter 38 describes the distinction between the celestial Venus and the common Venus. This underscores the insights found in Thomas Moore's The Planets Within which distinguishes between the planetary influences and the common Greek and Roman myths. Letter 84 is about true friendship. Letter 47 is the longest letter in this collection and is a life of Plato. Letter 95 is addressed to Pope Sixtus IV, dripping with irony and castigating him for making war on part of his flock, namely Florence:

Whoever uses arms against your sheep undoubtedly harms you before anyone else. For there is no shepherd without a flock, and he who disowns or loses any part of the flock at once ceases to be shepherd of the whole.

Ficino speaks always in favor of virtue and he equates the good with God, or vice-versa. For those readers with a religious aversion, if they think "good" whenever he says "God," the message is striking and worth thinking about.

Several features of the book that are really useful. In addition to an introduction there is a biographical section at the end which identifies and places Ficino's correspondents in their historical context. The end notes interestingly identify the sources of certain ideas from ancient writers such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil and many more. One begins to see how Ficino and probably others were trying to assimilate those ancient ideas into their own thought processes.

I dare say this book will not appeal to many readers because it is heavily steeped in a religious world view that seems to be quite out of fashion today. But for those readers who are interested at all in the Renaissance, this collection of letters is quite delightful and revealing in wholly unexpected ways.

These letters are always philosophical, frequently informative, and sometimes amusing in terms of the quaint Renaissance view of scientific and technical matters. Except when they become lost in an excess of logic and syllogism, they are always charming and full of good will. ( )
6 vote Poquette | May 7, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0892816589, Paperback)

The problems that taxed the minds of people during the Renaissance were much the same as those confronting us today. In their perplexity many deep-thinking people sought the advice of Marsilio Ficino, the leader of the Platonic Academy in Florence, and through his letters he advised them, encouraged them, and sometimes reproved them. Ficino was utterly fearless in expressing what he knew to be true. His letters cover the widest range of topics, mixing philosophy and humor, compassion and advice, and offering a profound glimpse into the soul of the Renaissance.

This is the only accessible collection of Ficino's writings available in English. 

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:28 -0400)

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