The starting point, then, for the soul’s ascent is the Platonic anamnesis or remembering its divine origins, and the knowledge that unfolds from this cannot be compared with the human activity of logical reasoning or comparison. It is uncovered through invocation and divination using all elements of the natural world — including stars and planets — as ‘uspeakable’ symbols to attract the presence of the Gods. Here is yet another dimension to the Platonic quest, a philosophical magic which intrigued and impressed Ficino and yet inevitably unsettled his orthodox contemporaries.
[Angela Voss, Marsilio Ficino, p. 15]
There are four competing views concerning the religious identity of Marsilio Ficino. Below are very brief descriptions of each view, followed by the name of a representative proponent:
(1) Christianus: That he was purely and unambiguously Christian. (P.O. Kristeller)
(2) Syncretismus: That his religious beliefs and practices amounted to a syncretic blend of Christianity and Paganism. (Angela Voss)
(3) Paganus: That he was a crypto-Pagan who only pretended to be a Christian. (Yours Truly)
(4) “Ex Pagano, Christi miles.”: That he was for much of his life a Pagan, but then (around the age 40 or soon thereafter) had a conversion experience which transformed him into a Christian. (Giovanni Corsi)
Kristeller’s argument is really no argument at all. He merely insists that at the time of the Renaissance there only existed variations on the theme of Christianity or a lack thereof. Kristeller’s assertion that, in essence, Paganism was somehow impossible has been conclusively demonstrated to be false by one of Kristeller’s own students, John Monfasani, in his paper “Platonic Paganism in the Fifteenth Century.”
In her 2006 book Marsilio Ficino, Angela Voss clearly describes Ficino as a Pagan/Christian syncretist without, however, ever labeling him as such (which would require her to openly challenge the Kristellerian position). According to her, Ficino sought to “‘sanctify’ the pagan philosophy whilst confirming the supremacy of the established religion.” Also, she writes of Ficino’s “determination to reconcile Christianity and pagan philosophy,” and she describes how this attempted reconciliation was strongly opposed by the Church. Voss often sounds like Kristeller, even going so far as to insist that for Ficino, “Christianity could never be other than primary and infallible,” but she is nevertheless forced to admit that Ficino elevated Platonic philosophy from being a mere preparation for the Gospel (as Eusebius has fantasized) to being on a level “almost equal that of the established religion.” And immediately after that Voss nonchalantly declares that “Plato was always Ficino’s supreme authority”!!
My own position is that Ficino was a Pagan for whom Christianity was a necessary and uncomfortable disguise. Christendom had never willingly harbored Pagans, and the 15th century was very (!) far from being a time of Christian glasnost. Indeed, the Inquisition was gathering strength, and in Florence itself Ficino witnessed with horror the rise of the world’s first fully fledged modern Christian fundamentalist, Girolamo Savonarola (Ficino managed to live just long enough to write his Contra Savonarolum on the happy ocassion of Savonarola’s death). Crypto-religiosity is a well-established and, after a fashion, well-documented historical phenomenon of medieval and early modern Christendom, and no one had more reason to hide their true religious identity than Pagans!
Finally we reach the charming compromise struck by Giovanni Corsi, who wrote his biography just six years after the death of Ficino (the complete text of which is here):
Marsilio intended at this time to develop fully the book of Platonic Theology almost as a model of the Pagan religion, and also to publish the Orphic Hymns and Sacrifices; but a divine miracle directly hindered him more and more every day, so that he daily accomplished less, being distracted, as he said, by a certain bitterness of spirit. St. Jerome has recorded that the same befell him over the writings of Cicero.
Indeed, it was to lighten his anguish of spirit, if at all possible, that at that time Ficino wrote the Commentary on Love [about 1469]. He was persuaded to write this book by Giovanni Cavalcanti, a nobleman especially dear to Marsilio, with the aim of countering his anguish and at the same time calling the lovers of empty beauty back to immortal beauty. He attempted, moreover, to refresh his mind in many other ways, but all to no purpose.
At length he came fully to realize that he was suffering these things through some divine influence because he had strayed too far from the Christian thinkers. For this reason, with a change of heart, he interpreted the Platonic Theology itself according to the Christian tradition, producing eighteen books on this subject [“Platonic Theology”, written between 1469 and 1474]. Besides this, he wrote his book “On the Christian Religion” [in 1474] and undoubtedly obtained peace and consolation through these studies, completely dispelling all that bitterness of spirit. But now, whilst he was still in his forty-second year from being a Pagan he became a soldier of Christ. He left the whole of his patrimony to his brothers, for he received an adequate living from the two parishes whose care he had assumed through Lorenzo de’ Medici.
An outline of my own views, along with the gist of my critique of the other three positions can all be found in the following posts:
On How To Look For Medieval Pagans (Assuming You Actually Want To Find Them)
“Gotta Serve Somebody” Part Deux
“Gotta Serve Somebody” Part Un
Contra Atheos, Part Deux
I have also taken a stab or three at writing down some of my thoughts more generally on the subject of syncretism:
Lady GaGa Prayer Candles (Because We Can, Part Three)
“When you enter a village, swear by its Gods.” (Because We Can, Part Two)
Because We Can: Syncretism from a Pagan perspective
I hope in the near future to write more on the Paganism of Ficino, with special reference to
two four recent popular works that are very relevant to this subject:
‡ Nicholas Campion’s History of Western Astrology: The Medieval and Modern Worlds (2009)
‡ Colin Wells’ Sailing From Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World (2007)
‡ Joscelyn Godwin’s The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions (2007)
‡ Angela Voss’ already mentioned Marsilio Ficino (2006).