e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

"Gotta Serve Somebody" Part Un

“Larvatus prodeo”
[Click here for Part Deux]

In his biography of Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Corsi claims that up until the age of 42 Ficino had been a Pagan, but at that point he experienced a miraculous conversion to Christianity. “Ex Pagano, Christi miles”: “From a Pagan, a soldier of Christ.” Fortunately Corsi also shares with us a clear indication of what he means by “Pagan” when he tells us further that Ficino “intended” his philosophical writings on Platonism and Orphism to be “almost as a model of the Pagan religion.” However, as Ficino worked on his monumental Platonic Theology (which runs to six volumes in the I Tatti edition), according to Corsi, “a divine miracle directly hindered him” and eventually Ficino “came to fully realize that he was suffering these things through some divine influence because he had strayed too far from the Christian thinkers.”

What were the circumstances under which Ficino’s supposed conversion from Paganism to Christianity took place? By 1475 (the year he turned 42 – although Corsi probably has his dates wrong, for Ficino ordained as a priest in 1473) Ficino had already completed his translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and was fully engaged in translating all of Plato, as well as producing his own commentaries on Plato’s writings. In addition, since 1459 he had been the official scholarch for the Platonic Academy in Florence, under the auspices and patronage of the powerful de Medici family. The Academy was modeled on the last openly functioning Pagan institution of the ancient world (the Academy in Athens, founded by Plato in the early 4th century BC and ordered closed by the Christian Emperor Justinian in 529 AD), and Ficino publicly acknowledged George Gemistos Plethon as the inspiration for this new incarnation of that iconic symbol of stubborn Pagan resistance to Christianization.

On the one hand this time in history has been described as an age of “indirection, concealment and dissembling”, by Perez Zagorin in his biography of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who took as one of his personal mottos: “I had rather know than be known”, and who had more than one reason for a life-long commitment to the practice of discretion. Zagorin is also the author of a book-length study focussing on the phenomenon of hiding one’s true religious identity: Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution and Conformity in Early Modern Europe published in 1990. And Jon R. Snyder has just published a new book on the same subject: Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe, which is described in this way at the publishers site:

Larvatus prodeo,” announced René Descartes at the beginning of the seventeenth century: “I come forward, masked.” Deliberately disguising or silencing their most intimate thoughts and emotions, many early modern Europeans besides Descartes-princes, courtiers, aristocrats and commoners alike-chose to practice the shadowy art of dissimulation. For men and women who could not risk revealing their inner lives to those around them, this art of incommunicativity was crucial, both personally and politically. Many writers and intellectuals sought to explain, expose, justify, or condemn the emergence of this new culture of secrecy, and from Naples to the Netherlands controversy swirled for two centuries around the powers and limits of dissimulation, whether in affairs of state or affairs of the heart. This beautifully written work crisscrosses Europe, with a special focus on Italy, to explore attitudes toward the art of dissimulation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Discussing many canonical and lesser-known works, Jon R. Snyder examines the treatment of dissimulation in early modern treatises and writings on the court, civility, moral philosophy, political theory, and in the visual arts.

On the other hand, Ficino and the other Florentine Pagans seemed to be pushing the envelope in terms of openly challenging Christianity. In fact, the “culture of secrecy” that Zagorin and Snyder write about only comes into clear focus in the decades after Ficino’s miraculous conversion. In essence, Ficino was perhaps an early adopter of what became the commonplace phenomenon of crypto-religiosity as the Renaissance slouched toward the “Early Modern” period. In my opinion Ficino did not need to resort to his Astrological skills to see that a reactionary tide was gathering in response to the luxurient flowering of Paganism in Florence, and that he was among those who were most exposed to the coming danger.

1475 was also the year that Girolamo Savonarola took holy orders with the Dominicans. Savonarola was first dispatched to Florence from 1482-1487, but it was not until he returned in 1490 that he began to make a name for himself for his fire and brimstone preaching. The effect on the intellectual climate of Florence is described in this way by Max Horkheimer:

Under Savonarola a whole system of informants was organized in order to make all kinds of moral transgressions impossible… Savonarola even had ‘police children’ who helped him exercise moral discipline and carried the conflicts right into individual families.
[Between Philosophy and Social Social Science, p. 86]

Many were hypnotized by Savonarola’s savage charisma and violent, demented populism, while others joined his fundamentalist mob simply out of fear. We will never know precisely why the sensitive, impressionable Sandro Botticelli joined the reactionary horde, or how many of his paintings he threw into the flames with his own hands. Also burned in those infamous bonfires were the writings of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Plato, as well as musical instruments, make-up, cards and other games, etc. It seems likely that his “conversion” and his priestly garb served Ficino well during these dangerous times.

Personally I doubt very much that Ficino was ever a sincere Christian, except possibly as a child, if then. In my opinion Corsi was attempting to thread the precarious, indeed, deadly, needle of Renaissance religious identity. Like a character in some Daniel Defoe novel, Ficino is able to save his soul and his neck through timely repentance and conversion. In this way Corsi can openly state the truth in part, and broadly imply the rest, all the while preserving Ficino’s Christian reputation without denying his Paganism.

It is likely that Giovanni Corsi never actually met Marsilio Ficino. However, Corsi wrote his Life of Ficino at the behest of Francesco Cattani da Diacceto, who was “the most faithful disciple of Ficino and his successor in the teaching of Platonic doctrine” according to Eugenio Garin and Giorgio A. Pinton in their History of Italian Philosophy (p. 379). Garin and Pinton try to belittle the importance of Corsi’s biography by emphasizing supposed errors in it and they also make a point of saying that Corsi wrote the biography merely to “please” his teacher, Diacceto. But consider what this implies with respect to the reality of Platonic Paganism in the Renaissance. Six years after his death, the student of Ficino’s hand picked philosophical heir wishes to make a favorable impression … by writing that the great Marsilio Ficino had been a Pagan who had strayed far from Christian thinkers!

Diacceto wrote a Panegyric on Love in the form of a letter to Giovanni Corsi and another one of his students named Palla Rucellai. The letter opens with an exhortation to honor the Gods, and Love/Eros in particular: “It is a grave sin not to have a correct opinion of the Gods; it is an even graver sin to detract anything from their majesty. Therefore, my dearest friends, you must not find fault with Love ….” [p. 157 in CTRPT, see note below] Diacceto’s words closely echo those of Socrates in Plato’s dialogue on Beauty, the Phaedrus [242d-e]. The plural “Gods” occurs several other times in the Diacceto’s letter, including one reference to the “divine honours” that are due to “the statues of the immortal Gods.” [p. 162 in CTRPT] By itself, this overtly polytheistic language could be explained away as a classicizing affectation, which it obviously is to some extent. But is that all it is?

Such nonchalant and even approving references to “Gods” are not to be found, for example, in Cardinal Bessarion’s “defense” of Plato, Against the Slanderer of Plato, which was written in 1469 (the same year that Ficino wrote his hugely influential Commentary on Plato’s Symposium, and four years before Ficino’s miraculous “conversion”). Bessarion was writing in direct response to George of Trebizond’s ferocious attack on Plato which had first appeared in 1458 under the innocuous title Comparison of Plato and Aristotle. In fact, Bessarion feels the need to explicitly state that he does not “approve” of Plato’s belief in a “multiplicity of Gods” [p. 136 in CTRPT]. For some reason, and more than one explanation is possible, Diacceto, writing decades later (the two students being addressed by their teacher had not even been born when Bessarion wrote his “defense” of Plato), felt at ease not only not rejecting Plato’s polytheism, but actually emulating it, at least in words.

The last three paragraphs were added later. Quotes from Diacceto’s Panagyric on Love and Bessarion’s Against the Slanderers of Plato are taken from the translations found in Volume One of Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts (“CTRPT“), edited by Jill Kraye. Kraye did the translation of Diacceto, while Luc Dietz and Jon Monfasani translated Bessarion.

Partial Chronology:
1433 Marsilio Ficino born
1438-1439 Plethon in Florence

1452 Plethon dies, his explicitly Pagan writings discovered and then burned by George of Trebizond
1458 George of Trebizond writes his attack on Plato
1459 Platonic Academy established at Florence (Carregi) with Ficino as head
1469 Ficino writes his Commentary on Plato’s
Symposium and Bessarion writes his reply to Trebizond
1473 Ficino supposedly converts to Christianity
1489 Ficino publishes his masterpiece of Astrological Magic, De Vita Libri Tres
1492 Ficino completes his Latin translation of Plotinus’ Enneads
1494 Charles VIII captures Florence, Savonarola emerges as de facto leader of the city

1497 – 1498 Savonarola excommunicated and then executed
1500 Ficino dies at age 67
1506 Corsi writes his Life of Ficino
1526 Diacetto’s
Panegyric on Love written to Corsi (1472-1547) and Rucellai (1473-1543)

4 responses to “"Gotta Serve Somebody" Part Un

  1. Arturo Vasquez September 2, 2010 at 7:07 am

    >Ficino's paganism (or syncretism, depending on what side of the argument you fall) was far above the comfort level of any other mainstream Catholic figure, and Ficino knew this. He had to walk on egg shells with the Church hierarchy, and was far, far, far more optimistic about the value of pagan religion than even his young colleague, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. If he narrowly escaped condemnation in life, it was because he was far more diplomatic, and less filled with piss and vinegar, than Pico was.

  2. Sam Urfer September 1, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    >I think it also depends on one's viewpoint of what it means to be Christian. If we base it off of Reformed Evangelical Protestantism, then Ficino is pretty sketchy. If we look at the medieval Doctors of the Catholic Church (particularly St. Bernard, St Albert Magnus and St. Bonaventure, but the whole tradition of "Baptized" Neo-Platonism in general really)or the great Eastern Orthodox mystics, then Ficino looks quite Christian indeed, even if ol' Jean Cauvin might frown in disapproval.

  3. Apuleius Platonicus September 1, 2010 at 9:35 am

    >I think there is plenty of room for nuance, although personally I find little of Christianity in Ficino. His attempts to demonstrate that his Platonic spirituality was compatible with Christianity were after the fact and purely defensive. If one removes all references to Jesus and Mary and the Old and New Testaments from Ficino's works it would not change a thing.The comparison with modern Catholics who also practice Afro-Caribbean religions is, I think, a very fruitful direction to go in. First of all it makes clear that even if we agree (if for no other reason than for the sake of argument) that Ficino was a Christian, there is still the question of what else he may have been in addition to being a Christian.There is certainly very strong evidence for the widespread existence of Pagan-Christian syncretism. But whenever we find this in the context where non-Christian religions are actively suppressed, we have to be suspicious of just how much of this is genuine syncretism and how much is dissembling.

  4. arturovasquez September 1, 2010 at 7:46 am

    >From my own readings of Ficino, I think things are a little more nuanced than what is described here. Ficino wrote in one of his letters that he was once cured of an ailment through the intercession of the Virgin Mary. In one of his works, he talks about preliminary attempts to make an idol, but how he stopped since he didn't know if their power was coming from God or the devil. I think his approach to these questions was more pragmatic than doctrinaire.That being said, I think the closest thing we have to Ficino now are those Catholics who syncretize their religion with spiritist or African religions in Haiti and the rest of Latin America. Ficino probably saw the Greek gods like the serviteur or santero sees the lwa or orishas. In other words, I think he was a monotheist who believed in "lesser gods", or that the gods were manifestations of the One God, as in late Neoplatonism. As a Catholic, it is easy to hide all of this under the cult of the saints and angels. Indeed, many Renaissance magi hid their workings under the term "angelic magic". I have no doubt that Ficino had a sincere love for Christ and the Virgin. They would have been like the city's gods on one level, and one needed to show what the Hindus call bhakti towards them. But I would also conjecture that he saw Apollo, Hermes, and Venus as benevolent, real forces in their own right, and worked with them accordingly. When Catholicism works best, it is the last great Western paganism. When it goes into stages of fundamentalist reform, such as in the Counter-Reformation, it can be a real drag.The Catholicism I grew up with was two parts Christian and one part pagan. Especially in the modern period, the Catholicism of the simple folk has always been like that.

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