164. Ficino on God and the Soul

The great Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was, among other things, an Italian renaissance scholar, Catholic priest, humanist philosopher, astrologer, doctor, musician, reviver of Platonism, and the first translator of Plato’s complete extant works into Latin. He was also the head of the Florentine Platonic Academy. His magnum opus is a six-volume work called Platonic Theology (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2001). The translator and editor of the whole set of volumes, Michael J. B. Allen, notes that the center of the works is, on the one hand, Ficino’s “spiritual search for reassurance and conviction that an afterlife awaits us and that death is not the termination of consciousness and accordingly of the self” and, on the other hand, “his concern to redefine and thus reconceive the constitution, the figura, of the human entity” (Platonic Theology Volume I, pp. ix-x).

We can approach this two-fold agenda by considering the following claim Ficino puts forth in Book II of Platonic Theology Vol. I: “Unity, truth, and goodness are the same thing, and above them there is nothing.” He elaborates:

“These three are one. For the highest unity is nothing other than the highest simplicity. Because of unity’s simplicity, any one thing is pure and true (a true wine for instance is a pure wine); so the truth of things consists in this simple unity. And because of this same pure and simple unity, various things are good. For something has well being when it is united to itself and to its principle and remains pure and is not mingled with inferior things. But if the inner unity, truth, and goodness in things depends on what is the same, assuredly above things the first one, true, and good itself is the same. That the universal principle dwells in unity, truth, and goodness is proved by the fact that their traces are found in all things, as though everything emanated from them, and that all things desire them, inasmuch as they are seeking their principle again. For individual entities participate in, and hunger for, unity, truth, and goodness. Above unity nothing else exists, for nothing is more powerful than unity, since union gives everything perfection and power. Indeed, if you wanted something to be above unity, two absurdities would instantly follow. If unity were subject to some higher principle, it would surely participate in this higher principle. For inferior things always receive something from superior causes. Thus it would not be unity itself, but something compounded of a unity and force received from on high; it would be a plurality, not [a] unity. Next, what is made to precede unity will not participate in any unity. For a superior principle of its own nature receives nothing from an inferior. Therefore it will be either nothing or a plurality utterly robbed of all union. None of its parts will be one something, nor will the plurality as a whole be one, nor will any communion inhere in the parts with regard either to themselves or to the whole” (93).

He concludes by identifying the identity of goodness, unity, and truth with God: “So the absolute unity, truth, and goodness we find above angel constitutes, as Plato believed, the universal principle. It is the one, true, and good God” (97).

This notion that “individual entities participate in, and hunger for, unity, truth, and goodness” allows us to turn to one of Ficino’s central thoughts on the soul. Consider this passage which shows how our participation and hunger for truth, which we have just seen is identical to goodness, unity, and indeed God, allows Ficino to argue in defense of the soul’s existence and immortality:

“Again, the universal rational principles are unchangeable, for they cannot be other than they are. But all corporeal are changeable. Knowledge, because it deals with such principles, is therefore incorporeal; therefore truth is incorporeal too. Consequently, judgments about the truth of things – what it is, how it comes about and is discovered, what is close to it or far from it – are made not by any of the senses but by reason alone, and particularly when it removes itself from the illusions of the senses and of bodies. So truth is incorporeal. And especially so is the truth and knowledge of things divine which gives the soul special delight and nourishment. So how can soul be corporeal when it rejects bodily food and feeds on the spiritual, and seeing that it draws delight, nourishment, and increase from all truth and especially from the truth of things divine? And how can it be mortal, if it feeds on immortal truth, since a corruptible belly has no appetite or stomach for food that is incorruptible, and incorruptible food does not transform itself into corruptible body? Indeed, if truth is immortal and the rational soul’s perpetual food (as it most surely is), then, whether it transforms itself into the soul or transforms the soul into itself, it makes the soul immortal” (284-285).

Go here for more wisdom from Ficino…

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