A History of Western Philosophy: 3

Renaissance Philosophy



Oxford New York





1 The Historical Context of Renaissance Philosophy



The philosophical heritage of antiquity and
the Middle. Ages



Philosophy in a Renaissance context






Church and state



The Renaissance transformation of philosophy



2 Aristotelianism



Renaissance Aristotelianisms



Unity and diversity in the Aristotelian tradition



Eight Renaissance Aristotelians



3 Platonism



From Aristotle to Plato



Marsilio Ficino



Giovanni Pico and Nicholas of Cusa



Pious, perennial, and Platonic philosophies:
Francesco Patrizi



4 Stoics, Sceptics, Epicureans, and Other Innovators



Humanism, authority, and uncertainty



Lorenzo Valla: language against logic



The simple method of Peter Ramus and
its forerunners



The crisis of doubt



Justus Lipsius on a new moral code



Politics and moral disorder: Erasmus, More, and





5 Nature against Authority: Breaking Away
from the Classics



Books of learning and nature



Giordano Bruno's philosophical passions



New philosophies of nature



6 Renaissance Philosophy and Modern Memory












From Aristotle to Plato

Aristotle remained the dominant force in early modern philo-
sophy before Descartes, and in some respects early modern
thinkers knew Aristotle as the medieval schools had known
him. When Renaissance philosophers recovered Aristotle's
Greek and put it in better Latin, they still preserved much of
the scholastic apparatus for understanding his ideas. One strong
challenge to scholastic Aristotelianism came from the recovery
of other ancient philosophies that could claim equal intellectual
authority, and it was Aristotle's teacher, Plato, for whom such
claims were most credible. The career of Platonic philosophy
in the early modern period differed from the contemporary
development of Aristotelianism in at least two ways: Renais-
sance Platonism, clearly a product of humanism, marked a
sharper break with medieval philosophy; and one person,
Marsilio Ficino, can be called the moving spirit of the Platonic
revival. Despite his extraordinary mastery of Greek and his
extensive knowledge of ancient texts long unread in the West,
Ficino was no humanist in the strict sense of the term; he was
a philosopher, not a philologist. But the enormous success of
his translations and interpretations of the Greek works of
Plato and the Neoplatonists presupposed the humanist revival
of antiquity as the prevailing intention of the high culture of
quattrocento Florence, where Plato was reborn and whence
his fame soon spread all over Europe.

In the earliest period of Italian humanism, in the fourteenth
century, some thinkers who knew little about Plato none the
less preferred him to Aristotle. In 1367, for example, Petrarch
wrote an invective On His Own Ignorance and That of Others
that spared Aristotle himself from the harshest charges brought
against Aristotelian scholastics, but Petrarch still found Plato


'praised by greater people, Aristotle by a larger number . . .
[because] Plato and the Platonists ascended higher in matters
of divinity; although neither could go where he wanted, . . .
Plato came closer.' Explicitly following St Augustine, Petrarch
made Christian dogma the touchstone of philosophical truth,
and on this criterion some important Aristotelian positions-
an eternal world, an improvident God, a human soul with no
clear claim to immortality -- had long since run afoul of credal
obligation and religious conviction. 1 Platonism better accom-
modated these and other Christian doctrines, especially Platon-
ism as modified by Plotinus and his successors and as adapted
by the Church Fathers for various theological purposes. Plato
was especially influential among the theologians and apologists
of the East who wrote in Greek, such as Clement, Origen, and
pseudo-Dionysius, but Latin authors read in the medieval West
also saw the advantage of buttressing their faith with Platonic
wisdom. Platonism seemed so hospitable to Christian teaching
on creation, immortality, and the afterlife that the Church
Fathers paid Plato the dubious compliment of believing him to
have lifted his ideas from Moses and other biblical sages.

The revival of antiquity and the new Greek philology pre-
pared the humanists for a richer debate than the Fathers or the
schoolmen had conducted, not only about Plato's religion but
also about his social, political, and philosophical doctrines: his
élitist educational programme; his abdication from a politics of
the here and now; his elevation of intuition over reason; and
his account of reason's vulnerability to Socratic scepticism. On
these grounds and more, some found Platonism persuasive,
but against such attractions one must set a number of problems
that could only perplex a Christian thinker. Why should an
upwardly mobile scholar or bureaucrat sympathize with. Plato's
élitism? Were humanists not troubled by his scorn for poets
and rhetoricians? Plato's advocacy of communism and adver-
tisement of homosexuality invited political and social com-
plaint. Even his renowned piety seemed out of tune with a
philosophy that made matter eternal, the human soul pre-



Petrarch ( 1975: 1118); Cassirer, Kristeller, and Randall ( 1948: 111).


existent and migratory, and the gods and demons many, power-
ful, and worthy of worship. As the Renaissance came to know
Plato better, discussion of his thought could not have been
other than complex and divided, and the controversy had been
prepared by an anti-Platonic tradition long sustained by pagans
and Christians alike. As early modern thinkers developed new
modes of reading unknown to antiquity and the Middle Ages,
Plato's compatibility with Christianity remained the leading
question. 2

A main channel for Platonic currents in Western medieval
theology was Augustine. When Petrarch cited the City of God
as putting Plato 'nearer the truth than that whole ancient troop
of philosophers', he was repeating a familiar formula. 3 Passages
in Plato's dialogues about homosexual love or the transmigra-
tion of souls might offend Christians, and Augustine himself
was often critical of Platonism, yet the spiritual, other-worldly
motivation of Plato's thought covered a 'multitude of lesser
sins. In many ways Christians found Platonic philosophy safer
and more attractive than Aristotelianism, and this greater com-
patibility raises a question as interesting as it is unanswerable:
how might Western intellectual history have changed if Plato's
dialogues had re-entered Europe along with Aristotle's treatises
in the high Middle Ages? The question can only help us
speculate, but we can recognize the historical complications
and ideological tensions that characterized the actual relations
between Christianity and a more attenuated Platonism. Augus-
tine attributed his movement toward conversion partially to
"some books of the Platonists translated from Greek into Latin
[in which] . . . I read, not of course in these words, "In the
beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the
Word was God"'. Augustine saw a number of Platonic teach-
ings reflected in the language of John's Gospel; but in the end
'that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" I did not
read there', nor did he see several other items indispensable to



Hankins ( 1990a:" i. 5-26).


Petrarch ( 1975: 1104); Cassirer, Kristeller, and Randall ( 1948: 101);
Augustine, City of God 8. 5-11; Kristeller ( 1956: 355-72; 1961a: 55-8; 1964a:
8-13); Wilkins ( 1961: 8-13, 144-51, 197-8); Garin ( 1965a: 24-7).


Christian belief. 4 At best, Platonism for Augustine was an
incomplete inducement to a higher truth, a defect consistently
recognized by Platonizing Christians who caused or called at-
tention to other problems as well.

It was probably in the fifth century but after Augustine's
time that an unknown author influenced by the Neoplatonism
of the period of Proclus wrote four Greek works titled Divine
, Mystical Theology, Celestial Hierarchy, and Ecclesias-
tical Hierarchy
, along with ten surviving letters. Taking the
scriptural pseudonym Dionysius, this writer acquired apostolic
authority when he assumed the identity of the person named
in Acts 17:34 as converted by Paul's speech before the Areo-
pagus in Athens, and in the ninth century the translations of
Hilduin and John Scotus Eriugena gave pseudo-Dionysius a
Latin readership. Taking its main inspiration from Proclus, the
affirmative theology of the Divine Names aims to know God
by analogy with those features of creation deemed compatible
with his perfections, while the negative way of the Mystical
paints a minimalist portrait of God by stripping vis-
ible creaturely imperfections from its abstract picture of trans-
cendent divinity. The Neoplatonism of the Dionysian works
exposed them to charges of heterodoxy, especially on Christo-
logical and trinitarian issues, and as early as the sixth century
challenges to their textual authenticity also arose. The most
convincing criticism came in the 1440s from Lorenzo Valla,
who in his Collation of the New Testament subjected them to
the same philological tests that uncovered the forged Donation
of Constantine. Erasmus and others accepted Valla's doubts
about the Areopagite, but this did not stop figures as well
informed as Lefèvre d'Étaples and John Colet from propa-
gating the fervour for Dionysius that had marked Western
theology from Eriugena to Aquinas and Nicholas of Cusa.
Boethius, who lived through the first quarter of the sixth
century, was another early medieval author whose problematic
credentials as a Christian did not weaken his influence. Often
called the first scholastic, he invented a Latin terminology for



Augustine, Confessions 7. 9. 13-14 ( Chadwick trans.).


medieval philosophers when he applied Aristotelian categories
to the problem of the Trinity and undertook a vast but incom-
plete project of translating Aristotle into Latin. He also wanted
to translate Plato, and in his wish to reconcile Plato with
Aristotle he anticipated an important impulse in Renaissance
thought. He read Porphyry and other Neoplatonists, and the
tenor of his enormously influential Consolation of Philosophy
is Platonic
--as, for example, when he uses the Timaeus to
establish the goodness of creation as God's gift. 5

Valla and other critics of scholasticism distrusted Boethius
as the originator of a misguided philosophy that perverted
language and corrupted its ancient purity; but Petrarch, having
written a book On Remedies for Both Kinds of Fortune whose
motivation recalls that of the Consolation, admired Boethius
as an imitator of Augustine. Petrarch also defended Plato
against his own scholastic enemies who 'claim that Plato wrote
nothing but one or two little books'. His counter was that he
had 'sixteen books by Plato or more at home. . . . Let them
come and see our library, which is not unlettered though it
belongs to an illiterate. . . . They will note not only several in
Greek but also some turned into Latin. . . . What part of
Plato's books is this? I have seen many with my own eyes.'
Petrarch, who campaigned to have himself crowned poet
laureate in Rome on Easter Sunday of 1341, called himself
illiterate only to contrast his attainments ironically with those
of his professedly learned detractors; but in one sense his
failure ever to reach his goal of learning Greek kept him an
unlettered spectator of the most important remains of anti-
quity. He owned a partial Greek codex of Plato and struggled
to read Homer, but he was only a little less isolated from the
genuine texts than his medieval predecessors, as he confessed
in writing his thanks when given a Greek Homer in 1348:



Laistner ( 1966: 85-91, 323-9); Copleston ( 1960-6: ii. 91-135); MinioPaluello
( 1970); Sheldon-Williams ( 1970: 457-72, 518-33); Liebeschütz ( 1970:
538-55, 576-93); Gersh ( 1978; 1986: ii. 647-718); Ebbesen (1982: 101-10,
121-7); Lohr ( 1982: 80-8); Monfasani ( 1987c); Watts ( 1987); Gregory ( 1988:
54-6, 70-80); Wetherbee ( 1988: 24-33, 42-9); Stump ( 1989: 31-66); Chadwick
( 1990).


'Your Homer is dumb to me, or rather I am deaf to him. Yet I
delight in the mere sight of him.' 6

Knowledge of Plato in the West had been confined to a few
fragmentary glimpses since the time of Augustine, who learned
Greek in school but seems not to have read Plato in the
original. The direct Latin tradition available in Augustine's
time included versions of the Protagoras and Timaeus 17-47
by Cicero and the Phaedo by Apuleius, but only a fragment of
Cicero Timaeus circulated after the early sixth century and
then only in a limited Way; even the humanists ignored it until
the late fifteenth century. Calcidius had translated a longer
piece of the Timaeus, probably in the fourth century, and had
added a commentary that brought his work great renown
throughout the medieval period. In the twelfth century, Aris-
tippus of Catania added the Meno and Phaedo in rigidly literal
versions, and a part of the Parmenides appeared with Proclus'
commentary, embedded in the thirteenth-century translation
by William of Moerbeke, who rendered other works of Proclus
as well. Meanwhile Christian and pagan authors had long
supported an indirect Platonic tradition. Augustine's role was
central because of his philosophical depth and his familiarity
with a wide range of materials from late antiquity; but Ambrose,
Lactantius, and other Latin fathers were also valuable, as were
Clement, Origen, Basil, and other Greeks in. Latin translation.
Boethius may have been Christian, but he read Plato from a
point of view that respected pagan conventions. Pagan or
Christian, Calcidius was paramount because of his commen-
tary, more influential than Macrobius or Martianus Capella.
Cicero, Apuleius, Valerius Maximus, Servius, and many other
non-Christian authors known to medieval readers carried their
share of the Platonic legacy, which entered the early medieval
encyclopedia with Cassiodorus and Isidore in the sixth and
seventh centuries and reasserted its philosophical energies with
Eriugena in the ninth. The part of the Timaeus that Calcidius
analyzed stimulated the great revival of Platonism centered on



Petrarch ( 1975: 1118-20); Cassirer, Kisteller, and Randall ( 1948: 112-
13); trans. of 1348 letter in Wilkins ( 1961: 135-6, 171-3, 207-8); Weiss
( 1977: 150-92); Geanakoplos ( 1988: 350-4); below, p. 262, on Martin of


the cathedrals of Chartres and Paris in the twelfth century.
Peter Abelard, Bernardus Silvestris, William of Conches, and
others awakened indirect memories of Neoplatonic schemes of
interpretation, especially the allegorical exegesis that took any
views contrary to its chosen theological line as incentives to
peel away textual surfaces hiding some deeper truth. Compati-
bilities between the biblical story of creation and the cosmology
of the Timaeus alerted Christian readers to listen for other
resonances between Platonic and Mosaic scriptures. Once
issued the licence of Calcidian hermeneutics, medieval Platon-
ists wasted no time in moving beyond the immediate cosmo-
logical content of the Timaeus to compose moral and political
variations on the grand themes of microcosm and macrocosm.

Thus, before absorbing new Aristotelian texts in the thir-
teenth century, medieval philosophy went through a Platonist
phase during the period often called the ' twelfth-century Re-
naissance', and even in its full vigour scholasticism was more
open to Platonic influence than one might think. Some of
Proclus was translated, commentaries followed, and works
actually of Neoplatonic origin were attributed to Aristotle; the
influential Book of Causes, for example, can be traced to
Proclus. Given the quantity of Platonic material transmitted
through Moslem authorities or otherwise in the air in medieval
universities, it is not surprising that parts of Thomist meta-
physics owe more to Augustine, Proclus, or Plotinus than to
Aristotle. 7 But some important features of the Platonic tradi-
tion could not be appreciated until the original texts were
recovered and their historical relations to one another were
clarified. The second pad of this task is still under way, and
the work could start only when Ficino and his successors un-
covered the primary evidence and began to interpret it. In our
time, when most readers of Plato still do not know that Ficino
first made him accessible in Western Europe, we take for
granted the complexity of the Platonic tradition in its historical.
development over a millennium; when Justinian closed the
Platonic school of Athens in 529 and the Platonic inheritance



Dillon ( 1977: 401-8); Klibansky ( 1981); Gersh ( 1986: i. 1-25; ii. 779-
807); Gregory ( 1988: 54-80); Hankins ( 1987b; 1990a: i. 4-5); Kristeller
( 1987); above, Ch. 1, n. 11.


of Alexandria passed to the Muslims in 641, more than ten
centuries had passed since the Athenians killed Socrates.

During these thousand years, Platonism evolved from the
teachings of its founder through the Old Academy of his first
successors, the New Academy of the next sceptical generations,
the newly dogmatic Middle Platonism of the three hundred
years before Plotinus, and the Neoplatonism of the four cen-
turies following. 8 Plato's thought was itself complex enough to
have kept his interpreters busy to this day deciding which was
the real or the mature or the sincere Plato: the sceptic or the
dogmatist, the pragmatic statesman or the abstruse theologian,
the Socratic Plato or the Platonic Plato? As early modern
thinkers sensed their alienation from medieval culture and
their kinship with antiquity, they shaped the contours of a
temporal perspective that allows us to take for granted the
principles of change and development without which so long-
lived a cultural construct as Platonism will always remain opa-
que to historical inquiry. But in Ficino's day the philological
and historical labour had only begun. If we wish to imagine
the Platonic tradition from a Renaissance point of view, we
would do better to think of our own popular conception of the
deep past of ancient Egypt, with its long parade of indistinct
dynasties, than of recent epochs in which historical change is
more visible. As we shall see, Ficino actually diminished the
historicity of Platonism by superimposing a mythic genealogy,
the idea of an ancient theology rooted in Mosaic times, on the
real historical connections that he knew only in bare outline
distorted by chronological error. Since it was Ficino who fash-
ioned the early modern idea of a Platonic tradition more
unitary and more sympathetic to Christianity than we now
know it to have been, we should be wary if friends of Plato
might wish to dismiss early modern Aristotelianism as a pon-
derous monolithic dogma. No early modern Aristotelian rival-
led Ficino in his impact on the history of philosophy; but by
the same token the Aristotelianisms of the Renaissance were
more varied than Platonism as Ficino depicted it.

Renaissance thinkers knew that Plato, Plotinus, and Proclus



Above, Ch. 1, n. 12.


were different philosophers separated by time and doctrinal
difference, but for early modern people historical distance was
less well defined in quantity or quality than it is for us. The
fact that Christianity was closer in time and doctrine to Neo-
platonism than to any other phase of the tradition made it
tempting to turn the varieties of Platonic thought into a har-
monious chorus of pious Platonici. Despite Ficino's impulse to
Christianize Plato himself, problems of trinitarian theology
were resolved better by the Plotinian hypostases of One, Soul,
and Mind than by Plato's less schematic theology, and the
Neoplatonic conception of philosophy as a way toward union
with God supplied Christian mystics with some of their richest
inspiration. Christians and Neoplatonists had so much in com-
mon that it was natural for Ficino and others to view Platonism
from a Neoplatonic perspective as a unified tradition. A Neo-
platonic stance implied less interest in Plato's politics than in
his metaphysics, little notice of the ironically diffident Socrates
but great readiness to construct intricate theological hierar-
chies; it also meant that the Phaedrus, Symposium, Timaeus,
and Parmenides would be more important than the Euthyphro
or Theaetetus. Platonism in its Neoplatonic version produced
theologies that removed God's transcendent reality so far from
the illusory matter of the lower world that elaborately graded
spiritual hierarchies soon arose to fill the ontological vacuum.
Neoplatonists also aimed at clear metaphysical principles -- the
pre-eminence of unity, the priority of cause over effect, the
conception of grades of reality as grades of consciousness -- that
distinguished their systems from Plato's thought not only in
leading to doctrinal differences but also in promoting a dog-
matic programme of philosophy. It is hard to imagine Plato
writing a work as didactic as Proclus' Elements of Theology or
even the more discursive Theology of Plato; Ficino Platonic
has much more in common with the schematic Pro-
clus than with the fluent Plato, even though Ficino appreciated
Plato's literary gifts and admired his playful spirit. 9



Tigertedt ( 1969; 1974: 1977); Lloyd ( 1970; 1990); Merlan ( 1970); Wallis
( 1972: 1-15); Coulter ( 1976); Dillon ( 1977: 43-69); Witt ( 1977); Gersh ( 1978);
Allen ( 1984a; 1986); Lamberton ( 1986).


Ficino and other Renaissance students of Plato were disposed
by their experience of Neoplatonism and their belief in Chris-
tianity to take a syncretist approach to the Platonic tradition,
whose development over a period of centuries when other
philosophies and religions came into their own naturally temp-
ted many thinkers to work eclectically toward an improved
Platonism. In the Hellenistic and imperial periods, Platonists
took advantage of progress in logic and natural philosophy
made by Stoics and Peripatetics. They also heard promises of a
better life in this world or the next made by Neopythagoreans,
Gnostics, initiates of mystery religions, alchemists, astrologers,
and theurgists. Theurgy, a pragmatic magical technique for
attaining the divine union that Plotinus had sought through
philosophy and contemplation, was of great interest to the
later Neoplatonists, who were avid readers of the Chaldaean
, purportedly a collection of wisdom from the world
east of Greece that would supply the diligent seeker with a
road-map to the godhead. The supposition of a mysterious
'oriental' origin for such arcane doctrines, set in the frame-
work of Pythagorean and other philosophical doxographies,
gave the Platonic tradition the aura of a secret society whose
teachings passed from generation to generation' of initiates,
unsullied by outsiders. Much extravagant speculation arose
from this semi-fabulous historiography, much of it far from
Plato's intentions, perhaps, yet of great importance to Renais-
sance Platonists.

Evidence that Plato was heir to an esoteric ancient theology
was available not only in Diogenes Laertius, Apuleius, and
other classical sources but also in the writings of the Church
Fathers; none the less, the prisca theologia became a major
element in Western historiography only in the later fifteenth
century, when Ficino and Giovanni Pico made it famous. 10
Although Pico and Ficino were not professional humanists,
their promotion of the ancient theology took for granted a
broader assumption of humanism: that the place to find wisdom



Walker ( 1972); Schmitt ( 1981: chs. 1, 2); Hankins ( 1990a: ii. 460-4);
above, Ch. 1, n. 1; below, n. 18.



was in the distant past. This principle was the common property
of Platonists like Ficino and Pico and of the many classicizing
scholars of the earlier Renaissance, whose knowledge of Plato
was skimpier and whose interest in philosophy was as a rule
quite limited. During the first half of the century, when
Leonardo Bruni turned away from Plato to Aristotle, human-
ists in the city of Florence paid little attention to philosophy
except as it might answer ethical questions. Bruni himself
concentrated on Aristotle's major works of moral philosophy,
which were also translated by Giannozzo Manetti, best known
for having written a treatise in 1452-3 on the fashionable
'dignity of man' theme, developed earlier by Antonio da Barga
and Bartolomeo Facio. In contrast to the cynicism of the Two
Books on the Misery of the Human Condition
composed in
1455 by Poggio Bracciolini, Manetti's four books On the Dignity
and Excellence of Man
took an optimistic view of humankind
as active and inventive, not pitted against a jealous deity like
the Greek Prometheus but made in the image of a triune God
whose powers of intellect, memory, and will are reflected in
the faculties of the human soul. A remarkable feature of
Manetti's work is its first book in praise of the body, which
shows an unusual grasp of Aristotelian natural philosophy and
Galenic medicine, thus confirming Manetti's reputation as 'a
fine scholar in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, eminent in moral
and natural philosophy, and a theologian equal to any of his
time'. The unusual items in this contemporary encomium are
Hebrew, theology, and especially natural philosophy. More
typical of Florentine humanism before Ficino's time was
Poggio's frank admission to a young scholar in the mid-1450s:
'I am wanting in the art of philosophy.' 11

In 1454 the Peace of Lodi brought a new stability to the
Italian city-state system, but peace and security for the Floren-



Field ( 1988: 42-4); Bracciolini ( 1964-9: iii. 174-5); Vespasiano da Bisticci
( 1963: 372 ( George and Waters trans.)); Kristeller ( 1956: 261-86;
1961a: 120-39; 1972b: 1-21; 1988b: 271-6); Holmes ( 1969: 1-35, 68-167);
Trinkaus ( 1970: i. 210-70); Di Napoli ( 1973: 31-84); below, n. 32. On Poggio
see also Shepherd ( 1837); Walser ( 1914); Rubinstein ( 1958-64); Tateo ( 1961);
Castelli ( 1980); Flores ( 1980); Fubini and Caroti ( 1980); Trinkaus ( 1989b); on
Manetti see also Wittschier ( 1968); Fioravanti ( 1983).


tines briefly spelled trouble for Cosimo de' Medici, the political
boss whose grip on the city's affairs had grown ever tighter
since his return from exile in 1434. The years after 1455 were
difficult for Cosimo and his party, which recovered its control
over Florence's electoral politics only in 1458. Poggio, the
most prominent humanist spokesman for the Medici, lost the
chancellorship in 1456. 12 During this turbulent period, con-
troversy also disturbed the University of Florence. Carlo Marsuppini, another eminent humanist who had been chan-
cellor before Poggio and after Bruni, taught classical literature and moral philosophy in the university, which had been closed intermittently since its foundation in 1321. When Marsuppini died in 1453, Donato Acciaiuoli and other young Florentines from powerful families wanted him replaced by a teacher of equal skill and stature, but the city officials, during this interlude of anti-Medici sentiment, proposed lesser appointments that blocked the ambitions of Acciaiuoli and his friends.
Manetti was unavailable because of tax troubles with the city; Poggio was no teacher and too busy besides; and the Medici disliked another obvious choice, Francesco Filelfo, the great Hellenist and polemicist. In the end, a compromise settled part of the job on Cristoforo Landino, who eventually became famous as a Platonizing moralist and interpreter of Virgil and Dante; the other post in philosophy went to the Byzantine Aristotelian, John Argyropoulos, who accepted his appointment in 1456-7 and lectured on Aristotle for the next fifteen years.

The first Byzantine scholar to influence Italian humanism significantly was Manuel Chrysoloras, whose teaching in
Florence for three years after 1397 formed the earliest generation of Western Hellenists, including Bruni, Roberto Rossi, and Niccolò Niccoli. By 1402 Chrysoloras and Uberto Decembrio had finished their rough rendering of the Republic, which, on the evidence of Decembrio's later Six Books on the Republic (c. 1420), would seem to have appealed to its first Western translator as a defence of the signorial rule that Uberto knew



Field ( 1988: 10-35); Martines ( 1963; 1968); Rubinstein ( 1966); Kent
( 1978); A. Brown ( 1979; 1986).



in the Milan of the Visconti. Uberto's son, Pier Candido,
became secretary to Filippo Maria Visconti in 1419, and he
was still in the agitated duke's employ when he finished his
revised Latin Republic twenty years later. The younger
Decembrio had to face critics who doubted Plato's moral and
theological rectitude as well as his educational usefulness, and
in refuting them he was more aggressive but less skilful than
Bruni had been, using every possible device of suppression
and interpretation to make the Republic an ahistorical ground-
plan for a timeless Christian polity. Meanwhile, Bruni's more
sophisticated misreadings of the dialogues continued until 1435,
by which time Francesco Filelfo and other less famous scholars
had begun to turn more of Plato into Latin. Besides Bruni and
Ficino, a dozen quattrocento humanists translated, wholly or
in part, the Letters, the Epinomis, various pseudonymous
works, and half the dialogues now commonly treated as gen-
uine: the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Charmides, Lysis, Euthy-
, Ion, Gorgias, Phaedrus, Symposium, Republic, Par-
, and Laws. A year after Chrysoloras died in 1415,
George of Trebizond arrived in Venice, and during the middle
years of the century he added three dialogues of Plato to his
long list of Aristotle translations. Theodore Gaza, who dis-
placed George as Aristotle translator for Pope Nicholas but
contributed little to the Latin Plato, came to Italy just after the
Council of Ferrara and Florence in 1438-9, where Plethon had
declared himself Plato's champion against Aristotle. When
Ficino later claimed that the idea of a Platonic Academy came
to Cosimo from Plethon, he may have meant only that Plethon
had given Cosimo a Greek codex of Plato. A greater influence
on Ficino was Plethon's favourite student, Cardinal Bessarion,
who tried to save Plato for Christianity and defend him against
the calumnies of Trapezuntius without defaming Aristotle. As
the controversy between Trapezuntius and Bessarion reached
its height, Argyropoulos began his work in Florence, where
for fifteen years he did little but teach Aristotle and translate
him into Latin. 13



Field ( 1988: 35-126); cf. Burckhardt ( 1990: 145-6); Garin ( 1954: 211-
87; 1958: 155-90; 1976: 89-129); Geanakoplos ( 1989: 91-113); Hankins


Like many other Byzantines, Argyropoulos first came to
Italy because of the Council; then he studied at Padua and
finally returned to Constantinople, only to flee again in 1453
when that ancient city fell to the Turks. Argyropoulos became
Aristotle's most influential translator in the fifteenth century;
unlike Bruni, he moved beyond the ethical works to logic,
metaphysics, and natural philosophy; and, unlike Trapezuntius,
he aimed for a freer and more fluent Latin better suited to an
Italian audience. Although he took Bessarion's side against
Trapezuntius and gave Plato an honourable place in the history
of philosophy, Argyropoulos remained convinced of Aristotle's
primacy and had little sympathy for the 'ancient theologians'
who preceded Socrates and fascinated Ficino and his circle.
What Argyropoulos had to offer Florence, both in his teaching
and in his translating, was the first systematic exposition of the
whole range of Aristotle's works in a setting attractive to
recipients of humanist education. What he had in common
with Ficino was a more serious inquiry into all the require-
ments of philosophical discourse than had been possible within
the constraints of the earlier humanist programme, with its
limited focus on ethics and politics. In other words, Argyro-
poulos presented the full Greek Aristotle to intellectually am-
bitious Florentines at the same time as Ficino revealed all of
Plato to them in Latin. That both philosophies appealed to this
audience is evident in the later career of Donato Acciaiuoli,
who spent five years methodically taking notes on Argyro-
poulos' lectures and then worked some of them into a commen-
tary on the Nicomachean Ethics in 1463-4. While Acciaiuoli's
commentary is not explicitly Ficinian, it treats the question of
friendship in a manner compatible with Ficino's views on love
and also with the interests of the Medici party in a harmonious
political order. 14

Bessarion's attempt in the Calumniator to defend Plato
against charges of homosexual immorality came even closer to



( 1990a: i. 89-95, 105-48, 163-5; ii. 436-40, 819-22; 1990b; 1991); on
Argyropoulos, see also Lampros ( 1910); Garin ( 1937b); Cammelli ( 1941-54:
ii); Vasoli ( 1959); Seigel ( 1969); Verde ( 1974); above, Ch. 2, nn. 24-7, 48.


Field ( 1988: 45-51, 123-33, 202-30).



Ficino's doctrine of Platonic love. This feat of exegetical sub-
limation was but one use of a hermeneutic that Bessarion had
taken from his teacher Plethon. A native of Trebizond, Bes-
sarion became a Basilian monk in 1423 at the age of twenty
and soon rose in the imperial service; he was entrusted with
diplomatic work even before he studied with Plethon in the
early 1430s. 15 He may have helped persuade John VIII Paleo-
logus to agree to the celebrated Council of Union, the event
that first brought him to Venice in 1438 as an 'orator' or
spokesman for the Greeks before the great assembly. The
Council reached its climax in Florence's Duomo in the summer
of 1439 when the Greeks, worried as much by the Turks as by
Christology, agreed to union. In the chief theological dispute,
which contested the credal formula for genetic relations among
the persons of the Trinity, Bessarion began as an ardent ad-
vocate of the Greek view, and he never lost his native distrust
of scholastic dialectic in theology. But by combining the
Dionysian negative theology with the metaphysics of Proclus
and the philology of Byzantine and Latin scholars, he was able
to argue for theological and ecclesiastical accord with the West,
as ultimately expressed in the Council's declaration of 'one
faith in a variety of rites'. To convince himself and his com-
patriots that compromise was possible, he insisted that the
suspect Latin logic could not truly upset Greek belief based on
faculties of intuition and experiences of illumination superior
to discursive reason. Bessarion thus added a genuinely Neo-
platonic dimension to the humanist critique of dialectic as it
had been known since Petrarch's time.

Bessarion became a cardinal in 1439, at the age of thirty-six,
but catastrophe marred the triumphs of his early career when
Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, causing him to re-
double his efforts to save Greek philosophy by finding a West-
ern haven for it in Venice, where his remarkable library became
a treasury of Greek manuscripts preserving the Platonism of
late antiquity. From the perspective of Bessarion's adaptable



For Bessarion, see above, Ch. 2, n. 25; Kristeller ( 1972b: 86-109); see
Hankins ( 1990a: i. 217-63) for what follows here; on the Council, see Geanakoplos
( 1989: 224-54).


Christianity, the ancient Neoplatonists seemed to verify
Plethon's claims for an ancient theology in which Plato was a
precursor of Christ. The Fathers charged that Plato had stolen
his wisdom from Moses; the schoolmen boasted that the Peri-
patetic system was of a higher order than Plato's incoherent
fables; but Plethon's ancient theology allowed Bessarion to
honour Plato as the greatest in a line of holy sages who had
made straight the way of the Lord. Although three of four
books of his Calumniator simply adopt the structure of the
polemic that they answer -- the Comparatio of Trapezuntius --
and look back to the Greek debates incited by Plethon, one of
the four looks ahead to the Platonic Theology of Ficino, whose
Neoplatonic hermeneutics Bessarion inspired.

In Neoplatonism Bessarion found a method that had the
power of ancient auctoritas; it also had the advantage of seeing
Plato as both praiseworthy and often in accord with Aristotle.
Given the enormous Western investment in Aristotelianism, a
Platonism that did not require a complete break with the
Peripatetic tradition would be more expedient than Plethon's
more exclusive position. Bessarion's readings of Plato on any
particular point may excite little philosophical interest, but his
way of reading deserves more attention and had considerable
effect, especially on Ficino. Unlike the scholastics, who were
quicker to make distinctions than to discover agreement,
Bessarion listened for harmony among his authorities -- a con-
sensus that, when taken chronologically, justified the search
for an ancient theology and, when understood doctrinally,
encouraged eirenic and even syncretist approaches to theology
and philosophy. Bessarion also read the ancient texts with the
humanist's philological eye, rescuing Plato with crude histori-
cist apologetic by arguing that his errors on pre-existent and
migratory souls were inevitable in their time if Plato was to
maintain the higher principle of immortality. But the cardinal's
most important contribution to Platonic philosophy was to
revive the Neoplatonic view of the dialogues, seeing them not
as profane texts to be understood literally but as sacred mys-
teries to be deciphered.

This was no work for dialecticians; it needed initiates ac-


quainted with the chains of correspondence that bind an object
low in the order of being to the higher entity that it signifies; it
required masters of mystagogic language who know that human
tongues utter only the mundane facts that imprison bodies and
imperil souls, never speaking the sublime sentences that ad-
dress the Mind and tell the way to union with the One. If a
thought is truly worth thinking, its very loftiness makes it
obscure to embodied mortals -- if discourse of reason measures
obscurity. Critics who call Plato's doctrine of recollection hereti-
cal, for example, or who recoil from his descriptions of
homosexual love are simply incapable of hearing the divine
truths beneath the surfaces of human speech. Pederastic pas-
sages in the Symposium or Phaedrus are lower figures for the
higher metaphysical love wherein God embraces and unifies all
creation. Likewise, Platonic recollection must be understood
not in the order of time but in the order of being; the recol-
lecting soul turns within itself and toward its creator, not
backward to some past store of memory. Such were the
methods and findings of Neoplatonic exegesis that Bessarion
passed on to Marsilio Ficino.

Marsilio Ficino

While Bessarion was preparing the Greek versions of the
Calumniator and Acciaiuoli was writing on Aristotle, Ficino
was beginning to translate Plato. In 1462, two years before he
died, Cosimo gave Ficino a Greek manuscript of Plato, and in
1463 he added the means to study it at leisure -- the proceeds
from a farm near Careggi, where the Medici kept a villa. But
having a space at the Medici's country place did not isolate
Ficino from the life of his city. He continued to live and work
mostly in Florence, though the symbolism of Medici patronage
and the opportunity of withdrawal that it provided were ob-
viously meaningful in their time and place. After recovering
from an unhappy and disorderly decade, the Medici financed
Ficino to work out his philosophy of Platonic love and concord;
it requires no cynicism to see the ideological component of this


arrangement. Ficino's work not only entailed a profounder
commitment, to the whole compass of philosophy than any-
thing attempted in Bruni's generation; it also glorified the
contemplative life and professed an ascetic contempt for the
material world not in keeping with the pragmatic interests of
the civic humanists. But to see the Aristotelian Argyropoulos
as champion of the active life and the Platonist Ficino as
prophet of contemplative quietism is too simple. For one thing,
Argyropoulos seems to have intended no activist propaganda
in his teaching, and, even more important, Ficino's theory of
the contemplative life kept his philosophy attractive to the
politically and economically vigorous Florentines who sup-
ported him. Always urging the ascent of the soul, Ficino pre-
sented the contemplative life as the final step in a hierarchy of
human action that led people to surpass the active life without
utterly denying it; lived well, the active life becomes a step on
the way to escaping matter and uniting with God. It was the
genius of Neoplatonism to open channels between the divine
and the mundane that transcended the world while preserving
it as a platform for ascent to the godhead. Ficino, who knew
this better than anyone, worked out a philosophy of love that
might appeal to the Medici by persuading the Florentines that
the closest communion was among their souls, closer certainly
than any union of bodies or commerce of material things,
closer even than the junction between any one person's soul
and body. Love between embodied individuals is a secondary
but valued effect of the love of each person for God, toward
whom all souls finally converge. Ficino's townsmen could vie
with one another for the welfare of the body or particular
pleasures, as long as material strife and physical enjoyment
were ultimately sublimated in the flight of souls above. 16

Ficino was born in Figline near Florence in 1433. His father,
a physician who treated the Medici, seems to have intended
the same career for his son, who studied logic, natural philo-
sophy, and the humanities at the University of Florence in the



Field ( 1988: 3-5, 45-51, 60-4, 104-61, 176-7, 181-201); Kristeller
( 1988a: 263-88); Nelson ( 1958); Fubini ( 1984); Allen (forthcoming).


1450s. Years before the Medici discovered him, Ficino's bril-
liance attracted other patrons, even some enemies of the
Medici. His first philosophical works of the mid-1450s were
predictably scholastic treatments of logical, metaphysical, and
natural-philosophical topics, but even these early efforts show
him leaning toward Plato. His Institutiones ad Platonicam dis-
of 1456 is lost, but a letter of 1455 on familial love
uses 'pseudo-Dionysius to describe the joining of souls in the
divine oneness. He began Greek in 1456, and in 1457 he was
reading Lucretius and other sources of Epicurean philosophy
that helped him to respect pleasures that rise upward toward
contemplation and to appreciate the concept of a hierarchy of
passions. By the early 1460s he was ready to take up the
monumental task that Cosimo assigned him, and he tells us
that he read ten of the translated dialogues to the dying mag-
nate in the summer of 1464. All the works of Plato that Ficino
translated were ready before the end of the decade, at least in
draft, but they were printed only in 1484, accompanied by
'arguments' or short commentaries, but lacking most of the six
fuller commentaries collected for separate publication in 1496.
About half of what Ficino put into Latin depended to one
degree or another on earlier translators, especially Bruni,
Bessarion, and Trapezuntius, but he outdid all his predeces-
sors in the precision of his renderings, in his respect for Plato's
full texts -- whatever their doctrinal blemishes -- and in his philo-
sophical insight. Ficino's Latin is faithful to Plato's meaning
but a far cry from his elegant Greek, and the intentions of his
translation were of a piece with his Neoplatonic reading of
Plato. We may gauge the impact of the Platonis opera omnia
on the Renaissance from its more than thirty printings (in-
cluding three major revisions) in the sixteenth century. 17



Kristeller ( 1956: 35-97; 1961a: 48-69); Allen ( 1989: 15-17, 31-34);
Hankins ( 1990a: i. 267-78, 300-12, 341-2; ii. 465-72, 499-82). Kristeller
( 1980a) is a comprehensive bibliography on Ficino; with its 11 appendices it
runs to nearly 200 pages. The Latin works are still read in Ficino ( 1959),
which is a reprint of the standard 16th-c. edition, and in Kristeller ( 1937), but
see the editions and translations by Allen, Gentile, Jayne, Kaske and Clark,
Marcel, and others in the bibliography under Ficino; for the letters translated



In 1462 Ficino had already received his first Plato manuscript
from Cosimo when his new patron interrupted him with some-
thing he found more momentous. Cosimo had obtained a
fourteenth-century Greek text of the first fourteen discourses
of the Corpus Hermeticum, an eclectic and incoherent collec-
tion of pious philosophy actually written in the early centuries
of the Christian era but believed by Cosimo, Ficino, and their
contemporaries to be the work of Hermes Trismegistus, a
Greek version of the Egyptian god Thoth, whom they dated
just after the time of Moses. More important, they made
Hermes the author of a pagan tradition of divine knowledge,
an ancient theology which paralleled and confirmed the re-
vealed truth of scripture and whose Egyptian provenance rein-
forced the tales of Plato's travels in Egypt. Ficino went quickly
to work on this treasury of primeval wisdom, soon producing a
Latin version that still holds up under scrutiny if one considers
the defects of the text available to him. Why Ficino and Cosimo
thought it best to turn away from Plato and toward Hermes for
a time becomes clear in Ficino's preface to the work he called



by the London School of Economic Science, see Ficino ( 1975- ), but Ficino
( 1990) begins Gentile's edition of the Latin texts. The fundamental account of
Ficino's philosophy is Kristeller ( 1988a), the most recent Italian version of the
1938 study whose English version is Kristeller ( 1964c). On the philosophy, see
also: Kristeller ( 1939; 1955a; 1959; 1961b; 1964a: 37-53; 1964b; 1965b; 1966;
1968b; 1972b: 8-13, 31-40, 54-8, 103-9; 1974: 29-91; 1979b: 50-65, 151-
63, 169-210; 1983b; 1983d; 1985c; 1990a: 89-110); Garin ( 1939; 1942; 1951;
1965a: 78-128; 1983a; 1983b; 1985; 1986; 1988); Festugière ( 1941); Cassirer
( 1945; 1963; 1974: i. 80-98); Chastel ( 1954; 1961); Saitta ( 1954); Walker
( 1958a: 3-72; 1958b; 1986); Klein ( 1956; 1960); Sicherl ( 1957; 1962); Schiavone
( 1957); Rotondo ( 1958); Seznec ( 1961); Klibansky, Panosfsky, and Saxl ( 1964);
Yates ( 1964: 1-83); Wind ( 1967); Devereux ( 1969; 1975); Trinkaus ( 1970: ii.
461-504; 1986); Sensi ( 1971-2); Tarabochia Canavero ( 1971-2); Gombrich
( 1972); Zambelli ( 1973a; 1973b); Collins ( 1974); Allen ( 1975; 1977; 1980a;
1980b; 1980c; 1981; 1982a; 1982b; 1984a; 1984b; 1986; 1987; 1988; 1989;
forthcoming); Allen and White ( 1981); Pintaudi ( 1977); Purnell ( 1977; 1986);
Zanier ( 1977); Gentile ( 1981; 1983; 1986; 1987); Mahoney ( 1982a; 1982b;
1986; 1987); Kaske ( 1982; 1986); Gentileet al. ( 1984); Castelliet al. ( 1984);
Fubini ( 1984; 1987); Copenhaver ( 1984; 1986; 1987a; 1988a; 1988c; 1990;
1992); Eisenbichler and Pugliese ( 1986); Garfagnini ( 1986); Gilson ( 1986: 89-
101); Hankins (- 1986; 1990a; 1990b; 1991); Klutstein ( 1986; 1987); Couliano
( 1987); Hankins, Monfasani, and Purnell ( 1987); Buhler ( 1990); Bullard
( 1990). The standard biography is Marcel ( 1958).



a Book on the Power and Wisdom of God, Whose Title is

At the time when Moses was born flourished Atlas the astrologer,
brother of the natural philosopher Prometheus and maternal grand-
father of the elder Mercurius, whose grandson was Mercurius Tris-
megistus. . . . They called him Trismegistus or thrice-greatest because
he was the greatest philosopher and the greatest priest and the
greatest king. . . . Among philosophers he first turned from physical
and mathematical topics to contemplation of things divine, and he
was the first to discuss with great wisdom the majesty of God, the
order of demons and the transformations of souls. Thus, he was
called the first author of theology, and Orpheus followed him, taking
second place in the ancient theology. After Aglaophemus, Pythagoras
came next in theological succession, having been initiated into the
rites of Orpheus, and he was followed by Philolaus, teacher of our
divine Plato. In this way, from a wondrous line of six theologians
emerged a single system of ancient theology, harmonious in every
part, which traced its origins to Mercurius and reached absolute
perfection with the divine Plato. Mercurius wrote many books per-
taining to the knowledge of divinity, . . . often speaking not only as
philosopher but as prophet. . . . He foresaw the ruin of the old reli-
gion, the rise of the new faith, the coming of Christ, the judgement to
come, the resurrection of the race, the glory of the blessed, and the
torments of the damned. 18

Ficino later modified the pedigree of the prisca theologia by
heading the list with Zoroaster and dropping Philolaus, but the
idea remained powerful with him and with other European
intellectuals for the next two centuries. He finished the job of.
translating the fourteen discourses of Hermes in 1463; they
were printed, though poorly, in 1471, two years after the first
edition of the Latin Asclepius, the only part of the Corpus
known to the Middle Ages. Much improved in its
next printing of 1472, Ficino Pimander remained the most



Ficino ( 1959: 1836; 1975: 50-1); Kristeller ( 1956: 221-57); Hankins
( 1990: ii. 460-4); on the Hermetica and related topics, see above, n. 10; also
Kiristeller ( 1960); Garin ( 1961a: 143-54; 1988); Yates ( 1964); Perrone Compagni
( 1975; 1978); Purnell ( 1976; 1977; 1987); Westman and McGuire
( 1977); Vickers ( 1979); Allen ( 1980c; 1988); Copenhaver ( 1987a; 1988a; 1990;
1992); Faivre ( 1988); Merkel and Debus ( 1988); Grafton ( 1991: 145-77).


influential presentation of the Hermetica until the nineteenth
century. By the mid-sixteenth century, it had seen two dozen
editions and had stimulated vernacular versions in French,
Dutch, Spanish, and, most important, in the Italian of Tom-
maso Benci
, also completed in 1463 when Ficino was available
to supervise it.

Ficino's ambitions for the ancient theology -- which had at-
tracted him from the mid-1450s, even before he could take
note of Plethon's admiration for Zoroaster -- were more than
doxographic. He thought of the history of philosophy not just
as a linear transmission of ideas but also as a recurring struggle
in which wisdom or faith, philosophy or theology, reason or
eloquence might rise or fall as lights of the human spirit.
Before Christ came, even the biblical prophets and pagan wise
men could not fully grasp the wisdom that God granted only to
the inspired few, but the Christian era opened new resources
of interpretation to mankind, as when -- so Ficino believed --
the ancient Neoplatonists used the Areopagite and other
Christian authorities to penetrate the secrets of their own
Platonic philosophy. Augustine, Origen, and other Fathers of
the church then learned from the Neoplatonists, but the sub-
sequent demise of pious philosophy (pia philosophia) in the
medieval period revealed another jarring rhythm in history.
People sometimes enjoyed religious truth in periods of wisdom
when the advance of piety coincided with the progress of
philosophy, but sometimes the truth was veiled and philosophy
parted from religion. 'O you happy times', exclaimed Ficino,

which have kept sound this divine bond of wisdom and religion, . . .
[but how] unhappy when separation and wretched divorce occurs
. . . between wisdom and decency . . . [and] teaching is left largely to
the profane. . . . I beg you, let. us now free philosophy, God's holy
gift; from impiety . . . [and] do all we can to save holy religion from
detestable ignorance.

Ficino wrote so passionately because he believed that the pro-
vidential mission of pia philosophia was to lead humanity to-
ward a 'learned faith' (docta religio); Platonic education would
help humans recall the Good above and within, thus moving


them to justice in the active life and uniting them through the
contemplative life in the peace and concord of mutual love in
God. 19

Between 1469 and 1474, after finishing his translations of
Plato and seeing his Pimander through two editions, Ficino
composed his longest original work, the eighteen books of
Platonic Theology on the Immortality of Souls, dedicated to
Lorenzo de' Medici. The first chapter of the first book im-
mediately ties the topic of immortality to a central theme of
Ficino's thought, the ascent of the soul. He maintains that,
although man's worship of God puts him closer to divinity
than any other mortal thing, to allow death to thwart the
human yearning for immortality would make mankind the
most wretched of creatures, thus violating the order given
the world by its creator. The 'author of beatitude' would not
so whimsically deny the intentions of his own providence or
frustrate the very nature of his most glorious mortal creation.
With this assurance, Ficino exhorts his readers to 'loose the
chains of these earthly shackles forthwith and fly more freely
to the aethereal region, guided by God and lifted on Platonic
wings, where in happiness we shall immediately contemplate
the excellence of our kind'. Despite the fervent prose and the
reference to the Platonists, the inspiration and content of what
follows in the Platonic Theology is as much patristic and scho-
lastic as classical, depending not only on Plato, Plotinus, and
Proclus but also on Augustine and Aquinas. Some of Ficino's
reasons for making the soul immortal were familiar to medieval
theology, which supplied many chapters of his treatise with
material on the faculties of the soul, the attributes of God, the
order of nature, and the errors of philosophers. Other themes
emerged from Ficino's revision of Neoplatonic categories for
adaptation to Christian theology. Thus, the soul's indissolubility
follows from its central place in the ontological order below
divine and angelic being but above the qualitative and cor-
poreal; if the soul perishes, the whole hierarchy dissolves. 20



Ficino ( 1959: 1); Hankins ( 1990: i. 282 -6).


Ficino ( 1964-70: i. 38-9); Kristeller ( 1964a: 43-7; 1972b: 31-7; 1974:
73-91; 1988a: 23 -5, 265 -82, 350 -96).



An important and distinctly Neoplatonic element in the
Platonic Theology is the hierarchy of reality that guarantees
man's immortality and constitutes the order through which the
soul will rise when it escapes its bodily prison. Rational soul
itself occupies the middle place in the series of five whose two
higher levels Ficino called 'angelic mind' and 'divine sun' in
the first chapter of this long treatise; all three stand above the
two lower kinds of being, the 'active quality' that gives some
form to matter and the 'dull mass of bodies' that lie beneath.
The upper reaches of this hierarchy correspond to the three
hypostases--One, Mind, and Soul--which according to Plo-
tinus are the divine part of reality. Because Plotinus did not
sort his hypostases neatly or consistently, naming four, five, or
six at one time or another, it was left to his successors, chiefly
Iamblichus and Proclus, to fill in the details of their relations
with each other and with things below. Proclus left the clearest
metaphysical blueprints in his Elements of Theology and Pla-
tonic Theology
, whose fivefold schemes influenced Ficino's
sequence of God, angel, soul, quality, and body, in which
soul's centrality gave it a role that weakened the position of
angelic being in the upper part of the hierarchy and of quality
in the lower. Ficino accepted the Neoplatonic axioms govern-
ing accounts of the being that intervenes between the One and
Good above and Evil and Not-being below. The One and
Good transcends being; Not-being and Evil, as mere negations
of the good that exists, have no being. Everything between
these extremes must be good and existent in some degree, but
in some measure must also admit differences of being and not-
being, filling up a hierarchy graded according to such prin-
ciples as the superiority of one to many, of cause to effect, of
rest to motion, and of whole to part. It follows from this last
rule, applied to particular living beings observed in the world,
that the cosmos as a whole must be ensouled, since soul is
higher than the soulless. And from soul's middle place in the
ranks of reality Ficino derived metaphysical reinforcement for
the claims of human dignity so often made by his humanist con-
temporaries on moral, theological, or literary grounds. Ficino's
cosmology generally mirrored the familiar world-picture of


Aristotle and Ptolemy that put the earth in the centre of the
cosmos, a fitting stage for God's noblest work; if man's rational
and immortal soul is central ontologically as well, metaphysics
will enhance man's physical claim to be the focus of creation.
Macrocosm and microcosm, world-soul and human soul, affect
one another through symmetries of psychic correspondence
and mutually sustain an optimistic view of man's ability to
fulfill an immortal destiny in a cosmos divinely ordered for
human ends. 21

Ficino especially emphasized one rule governing the hier-
archy of being. It appears as follows in the Platonic Theology:

The first in any genus is the beginning [principium] of the whole
genus. What is the beginning of other things contains the things that
follow. Therefore, what is first in its genus lacks nothing that belongs
to its genus. If the sun, for example, is first among bodies that give
light, it wants no degree of light, though the rest of the light-giving
bodies beneath it, such as stars and elements, do not receive light in
all its fullness.

Every genus contains one highest member and one only, which
causes all other members of the genus to belong to it -- to
possess the features that characterize the genus. God causes
this first member (primum) of the genus, which in turn causes
the rest of the genus. The primum is the upper bound of the
genus, with respect to whose features the primum is pure,
perfect, and complete. In fact, the primum has no features
except those of its genus, since any other feature would make
it impure with respect to the genus. If the primum is the upper
limit of the genus, the lower limit is the member that least be-
longs to the genus, bearing its features in the smallest degree.
Such a scheme easily suggests the notion of grades between
upper and lower bounds, places ordered like points on a line
connecting two extremes, or elements varying as different mix-
tures of generic perfection and privation. Many partial genera
-- those made of natural species, for example -- occupy some



Kristeller ( 1964a: 42-3; 1988a: 26-123, 204-12, 311-27, 381-96);
Trinkaus ( 1970: ii. 475-87); Wallis ( 1972: 90-3, 110-34, 146-58); Allen
( 1975; 1982a; 1989: 49-82).


finite part of reality, but there are also universal genera, the
true, the beautiful, and so on, that involve some aspect of
being as a whole. Ficino sometimes calls God the primum
whose genus is Being itself, but thus to make God a limit on
the hierarchy gives rise to certain problems. 22

Augustine, Proclus, pseudo-Dionysius, the author of the
Book of Causes, and many other medieval thinkers had de-
veloped a metaphysical scheme in which God at one extreme
and matter or non-being at the other stood as two end-points
against which the location of all other entities in the continuum
of being could be plotted. This spatial metaphor for metaphy-
sical grades was an old idea when Ficino came upon it. Two of
his contemporaries, Cardinal Bessarion and George of Trebi-
zond, had also debated it. In order to bolster his charge that
Plato put a host of redundant middle deities between God and
his human creation, George argued that no entity could be any
closer than another to its infinite creator. Bessarion replied
that the creator's power must bear some proportion to the
creation and that the creative God might thus be considered
perfect and supreme rather than infinite, attributes suitable to
a deity who measures the degrees of being. In answering
Trapezuntius, Bessarion had cited two Christian authorities --
Augustine and Aquinas -- admired by Ficino, who in turn ac-
cepted Bessarion's position and discussed it in several of his
works. In the Platonic Theology, for example, he maintains
that God is supreme in the genus of all Being, arguing that we
can neither rise nor fall through the grades of being without
coming to some limit, which at the upper bound is God. Any
genus lacking a higher limit or primum would have no order or
measure; neither known to mind nor desired by appetite, it
would lie beyond the reach of science and morals alike. In
deciding that an infinite God can measure his creation, Ficino
was especially exercised by the contrary and 'barbaric' views of
Paul of Venice, who confined measurement to the 'zero grade
of being' (non gradus entis). Arguments resembling Ficino's
views or contradicting them continued through the sixteenth



Ficino ( 1964-70: i. 45); Kristeller ( 1988a: 153-79).


century, interesting Peripatetics as well as Platonists, and they
foreshadowed seventeenth- and eighteenth-century concep-
tions of the 'great chain of being'. 23

Ficino's ideas about the 'first in any genus' and divinely
measured grades of being combined concepts familiar to med-
ieval philosophers with newer ideas discovered in Neoplatonic
texts. Ficino also blended his new readings of Plato and the
Neoplatonists with more traditional materials in the catalogue
of fifteen immortality proofs that fill Book V of the Platonic
. The following summary passage from the fourth
proof on soul's superiority to matter shows a stylistic current
that runs through the whole work, and would not be out of
place in a scholastic disputation:

Let us review. Unless it is changed into nothing, matter cannot be
changed from what it is; but nature does not allow anything to be
changed into nothing; therefore, matter does not perish. Much less
will the very natural force that is mistress of nature perish. Its mistress
is the efficient force that forms it. The force that forms it is what first
moves it. The source of movement is the rational soul, whose servants
are the qualities that move matter as instruments.

The Latin is correct but simple and unadorned; the prose
would have left Bruni cold, and the content would not have
surprised Aquinas. However, because Plato's Phaedrus was
unavailable to him, Thomas could not have appreciated the
links between the eighth section of that dialogue and the
analysis of the soul's self-motion that opens Ficino's fifth book.
And because he had no Greek, Thomas lacked any philological
perspective on Plato's claim that 'all soul [psuchê pasa] is
immortal; for that which is ever in motion is immortal'. Did
Plato's term pasa refer here to all soul in general or to every
soul in particular? In his commentary on the Phaedrus, pub-
lished in 1496 but completed a few years earlier, Ficino took
up this point with all the expertise of a pioneering Hellenist



Mahoney ( 1982a: 165-72, 186-94; 1982b: 173-7; 1987: 223-5); cf.
Lovejoy ( 1936) and, for other critiques of his Great Chain of Being, see
Gordon-Bournique ( 1987); Oakley ( 1987); Wilson ( 1987).


and all the experience of a lifetime of Platonic studies, not
least his knowledge of Hermias and other ancient commenta-
tors. He concluded 'that Socrates said, not that every soul is
immortal, but that all soul is immortal: that is, only that soul is
immortal that is all and totally soul. . . . Such is any rational
soul.' Thus, in a characteristically Neoplatonic way, Ficino
established the immortality of each human soul by asserting its
participation in all soul as a kind that excludes any being other
than soul and, hence, any being other than the immortal. 24

Ficino's incomplete commentary on the Phaedrus, written
twenty years after the Platonic Theology, is richer than the
earlier work in the hermeneutic novelties that made Platonic
philosophy so attractive to the broader literary readership of
the Renaissance. To a certain extent, Plato himself guaranteed
strong literary interest by writing a dialogue in which advocates
of philosophy and rhetoric debate the capacity of their dis-
ciplines to give an account of love, a one-sided contest when
philosophy is conceived as 'the culture of the soul' and love as
the soul's desire for its truest end. Plato, as great an ironist as
his teacher, invents a speech for the orator Lysias that makes
the case for rhetoric unpersuasively, while the Socratic argu-
ments for philosophy owe much of their power to literary
forms and figures. Imagery especially -- above all the great
image of the human soul as an unmatched pair of good and evil
horses 'in a team of winged steeds and their winged charioteer'
-- makes Socrates eloquent, as Ficino well understood, for he
wrote that ' Socrates here plays not a philosophical so much as
a poetical role'. Ficino believed that Platonic texts contained
mysteries of Christian doctrine that could be comprehended
and communicated only by special interpreters -- lovers, poets,
priests, and prophets -- rapt in an ecstasy that unites them with
God. Like David, Solomon, and Orpheus, Plato took his in-
spiration from God and the divine ideas, which moved him to
write such poetry as the Phaedrus contains. Although Plato
subordinated poetic to erotic madness in the Phaedrus and



Plato, Phaedrus245C; Ficino ( 1964-70: i. 174-5, 180; 1981: 15 - 21, 91
[ Allen trans.]); Kristeller ( 1974: 73-91); Allen ( 1984b: 69, 77-85, 228-58).


elsewhere, Ficino interpreted the Phaedrus as pre-eminently a
work of poetic philosophy. 25

Ficino's original research in the Neoplatonic philosophers
acquainted him with a tradition reaching back to the fourth
century BCE which regarded Homer and other great poets as
theologians who use their art to teach about the gods in an
obscure manner that needs interpretation. The required her-
meneutic itself came to be seen as a kind of theology. Stoics as
well as Platonists worked at puzzling out the theological hints
in poetry that said one thing yet meant another, but the mytho-
poeic character of the Platonic dialogues was an especially
strong inducement for Plato's school to interest itself in alle-
gorizing, which at first meant almost any interpretation that
looked beyond the bare literal meaning of a text. Porphyry
and Proclus were avid allegorizers; Porphyry Cave of the
, an analysis of eleven lines from the thirteenth book
of the Odyssey, is the longest surviving example of the method
as applied to Homer, but the same technique' permeates all
Neoplatonic exegesis after Plotinus.26 Petrarch, Salutati, and
other early humanists had begun to realize that a Platonic
interpretation of pagan poetry could find a deeper monotheism
beneath the polytheist veils of ancient literature, thereby justi-
fying the prominence of classical letters in humanist education.
With his much deeper knowledge of Neoplatonism, it was
natural for Ficino to try his own hand at interpreting Plato
allegorically, as he does with great effect in the Phaedrus
commentary, for example.

Socrates meets Phaedrus at the opening of the dialogue
outside the city in a sylvan setting near the banks of a river,
where Boreas, god of the north wind, was said to have ravished
a nymph. When Phaedrus asks him about the myth, Socrates
mentions a possible explanation only to dismiss it as a waste of
time for someone who has more important work to do in
knowing himself. Some modern critics have taken even less
interest in such details of Plato's work, which many philoso-



Plato, Phaedrus237D, 246A; Ficino ( 1981: 74 [ Allen trans.]); Guthrie
( 1962-81: iv. 420-1); Hackforth ( 1972: 9, 69); Allen ( 1984b: 41-67).


phers will easily pass over as mere ornament. One modern
commentator writes that 'since' a diversity of meanings was
possible in every case, . . . it was to little purpose to devote
one's energy to excogitating them'. 27 Ficino's attitude, like
that of the ancient Neoplatonists, was more respectful of the
text as Plato left it. Three times in the dialogue, Socrates takes
the trouble to mention the cicadas singing in the hot summer
air as he and Phaedrus talk, and Ficino concluded that 'the
fable of the cicadas demands we treat it as an allegory'. He
noted that these insects, like windy Boreas, are beings of the
air who 'live by song'; they also undergo a kind of regenera-
tion. Thus, they represent music and rebirth, reminding Ficino
of philosophers who quit their earthy bodies for a higher exist-
ence as aerial demons especially attuned to musical sounds in
the airy medium. As aerial demons, the cicadas come low in
the hierarchy of spiritual beings who inhabit various levels of
air, aether, and fire up through the stellar seats of the highest
demons, yet they are good spirits, 'singers and interpreters'
who convey the influence of the Muses. 'Under the good
demons', noted Ficino, 'are bad demons by whose traps and
lures . . . souls are detained in bodily delights and do not turn
back . . . to . . . their celestial home'. Although he emphasized
the beneficence of the demonic hierarchy, Ficino, like any
good Christian, had to acknowledge that evil powers also
lurked in the realm of the spirits. 28

Ficino sacralized Platonism to adapt it to Christianity, but
he did not treat the dialogues with the full reverence due to
scripture, and he sometimes criticized the Neoplatonists for
weaving their allegories through the flimsiest threads of text.
He agreed, however, that in its depths the Platonic philosophy
concealed a theology; that Plato used allegory to hide theo-
logical mysteries; and that an allegorical hermeneutic could
resolve apparent difficulties caused by Plato's esoteric ways.



Trinkaus ( 1970: ii. 683-721); Wallis ( 1972: 22-5, 96-8, 134-7); Witt
( 1977); Lamberton ( 1986); Hankins ( 1990a: i. 29-40); above, n. 9.


Plato, Phaedrus227-30; Hackforth ( 1972: 26), commenting on earlier
views of J. Tate.


Plato, Phaedrus230C, 258E-259D, 262D; Ficino ( 1981: 192-9 [ Allen
trans.]); Allen ( 1984b: 3-31).


Ficino combined his Neoplatonic interpretation with humanist
methods that searched the texts for moral examples, ringing
sentences, and miscellaneous literary data; but he was no more
aware that Plato might be reconstructed by historical criticism
than he was inclined to pass the dialogues through the sieve of
scholastic dialectic. Above all, he needed to make Plato useful
to his faith, and so his Platonism became a species of Christian
apologetic, suited to a century when Savonarola would inherit
the anti-Platonism of George of Trebizond and, a few years
earlier, a lecture that Ficino gave in a Florentine church horri-
fied a powerful clergyman: 'Having entered the house of the
angels, I was amazed to see what is supposed to be God's
house filled with a chorus of seated laity, changing a place of
prayer [oratorium] into a lecture hall [gymnasium], and the
altar-seat kept for the priest alone . . . turned over to a philo-
sopher.' Ficino's apologetic answered the time-honoured com-
plaints against Platonism. As the author of a poetic theology,
Plato could not and should not have written in pedagogic
order with scholastic clarity; he wrote to move his reader
toward a wisdom beyond human comprehension. Critics of
Plato's moral teaching fail to grasp the correspondences be-
tween higher and lower, heavenly and earthly orders of being.
If Plato seems to condone what Christians find illicit -- homo-
sexual love, for instance -- then we may be sure he had in mind
some higher activity and that our pious worries apply only at
lower levels. Those who doubt Plato's religious probity must
remember that true theology lies beyond dialectic, and that his
ability even to approach such mysteries as the Trinity, how-
ever obscurely, should cause us to honour him as a poet and
prophet. 29

Under the influence of Florentine humanism, Ficino naturally
understood Plato's theology as the foremost of many attractions
in the dialogues -- not, however, as their sole value, as Neopla-
tonic commentary implied. Ficino's literary culture disposed
him also to appreciate Plato's gifts of rhetoric, logic, mytho-



Kristeller ( 1937: ii. 234; 1956: 111, n. 45) identifies Ficino as the target
of the churchman's remarks; Allen ( 1984a); Hankins ( 1990a: i. 18-33, 341-


logy, irony, even humour, though these were features of his
language that for the Neoplatonists were at best decorative, if
not distracting. On the other hand, the Neoplatonic quest for a
Platonic theology moved Ficino beyond the humanist hunt for
maxims, morals, and philological data. He saw Plato's works
as a unified body of thought, coherent in purpose and struc-
ture, and inviting lines of interpretation that resolved particular
doctrinal problems by appealing to the meaning of the Corpus
as a whole. In the broadest sense, Plato's aim was educational,
to provide the religious and moral instruction that would con-
vince people to purify themselves and then to choose a higher
life in pursuit of the Good. If the reader fails to discern this
intention in one dialogue or another, Ficino will offer a number
of explanations to show how Plato adapted his message to
various subordinate and more manifest ends. Sometimes he
chose a subject or a method because his audience was more or
less mature in spirit. One text might be more superficial than
another in order to appeal to lower levels of understanding,
perhaps as literary bait to lure readers toward deeper but less
appealing truths. Unlike the Neoplatonists, who considered
each dialogue as devoted to one end or object (skopos, telos),
Ficino looked for some sign of the profoundest truths in every
dialogue, so that the themes of all the texts were related to
one another symphonically or poetically, not dialectically as in
a scholastic summa. 30

Since the Enlightenment, philosophy has taken up the com-
mon burden of secular education, to bring people more and
better knowledge and ways of knowing, often without reference
to moral consequences. Ficino's philosophy, as his contem-
poraries would have expected, had a different purpose, not
just to help people know more but to make them wiser, to
make them better in the moral sense, not just more efficient
intellectually. Since his intentions were moral and religious, it
comes as no surprise that Ficino did not portray Socrates as a
wily proto-sceptic but rather as a heathen saint, whose doubts
about human knowing foretold the negative theology of pseudo-



Hankins ( 1990a: i. 328-41, 364-6).


Dionysius. Ficino's Plato, likewise, was no dyspeptic critic of
the failed Athenian polis that murdered his teacher but rather
a pious guide of souls seeking the heavenly city. More than the
versions of Bruni and his successors, Ficino's translations of
the dialogues respected Plato, preserving even his most troub-
ling passages, almost never bowdlerizing or distorting to hide
doctrinal embarrassment. But Ficino's larger philosophical pur-
pose, as expressed in the commentaries, arguments, and
autonomous works, had more in common with Augustine than
with any modern student of Plato. Ficino fashioned his Plato
to serve the faith, but it was the faith as he understood it, not
entirely in keeping with credal orthodoxy or ecclesiastical juris-
diction. In the most general terms, Ficino propagated a learned
and inward spirituality which could only threaten external
structures 'of creed, worship, and church government on the
eve of their being tested in the furnace of the Reformation.
More specifically, this internalization of religion naturally in-
clined Ficino to dislike official ritual (though he invented some
rites of his own) and vulgar superstition; but his most cele-
brated heterodoxies, real or imputed, had to do with syncre-
tism, astrology and magic, all of them well in touch with
respectable philosophical beliefs, whatever their status in moral
theology. Ficino, an ordained priest, was no pagan, but if by
'syncretism' one means applying pagan mythology to Christian
purposes and finding a place for ancient gods and demons in
one's ontology and cosmology, then Ficino qualifies as a syn-
cretist. That he vigorously advocated astrology and natural
magic is certain, even though he knew that licit natural magic
might lead to sinful demonic magic. 31

The danger presented by evil demons became a major prob-
lem in one of Ficino's most popular works, his Three Books on
Life of 1489
, the third of which, the book On Arranging One's
Life According to the Heavens
, was the most influential Re-
naissance treatment of the theory of magic. That a distinguished
philosopher should write about may strike the modern
reader as perverse, but before and after Ficino's time -- until



Ibid. 274-82, 321-8, 360-6.


the middle of the seventeenth century, in fact -- educated people
wanted to find philosophical reasons for believing in magic,
astrology, demonology, and other varieties of occultism that
were normal features of intellectual life in early modern Europe.
Ficino's main interest in the third book On Life was in natural
magic, ways of using plants, stones, musical sounds, and other
natural objects as sources of unusual power without any appeal
to personal, supernatural agents such as demons or angels. He
found good philosophical support for natural magic not only in
Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, which had long been
used for this purpose by authorities as orthodox as Aquinas,
but also in his new Neoplatonic sources, especially Plotinus,
Iamblichus, Proclus, Synesius, and the Chaldaean Oracles.
Scholastic thinkers had found a relatively clear way of drawing
the line between innocent natural magic and damnable de-
monic magic: as long as magical recipes recommended no signs
or messages that could be addressed only to intelligent spiritual
agents, the magus avoided the sin of demonolatry. But the
metaphysics that underlay the magic of the Neoplatonists blur-
red this critical distinction. Iamblichus described natural ob-
jects as so tightly connected with personal beings higher in the
ontological hierarchy that the latter were involved automatically
in any magical operation that began with the former. Ficino
admitted this problem by ending De vita ambiguously, with a
chapter that leaves one wondering what he really thought of
the theurgy described in the 'god-making' sections of the
Hermetic Asclepius. Although magic is not a major topic of
the Greek Hermetica translated by Ficino in 1463, the Latin
Asclepius devotes two sections to statues designed to receive
demons attracted by magical art. Because Iamblichus asso-
ciated theurgy with other techniques for the ascent of the soul
that was always Ficino's aim, and because the Asclepius hal-
lowed this practice with the authority of Hermes Trismegistus,
Ficino faced real conflicts with Christian prohibitions of de-
monic magic. No wonder his work on the theory of magic ends.
indecisively. 32



Asclepius23-4, 37-8; Ficino ( 1989: 385-93, with Kaske's introd.);
Walker ( 1958a: 45-53; 1958b; 1985; 1986); Copenhaver ( 1984: 549-54; 1986;


The popular Three Books on Life, which had seen more
than thirty editions by the middle of the seventeenth century,
was a relatively late work, published ten years before Ficino
died in 1499, though there was much to follow in his last
decade. His translation of Plotinus and commentary on the
Enneads appeared only in 1492, followed in 1497 by an impor-
tant collection of translations of Iamblichus, Proclus, Porphyry,
and other Neoplatonists. Six of his seven larger commentaries
on the Timaeus, Symposium, Philebus, Phaedrus, Parmenides,
Sophist, and Republic VIII were published together in 1496,
though some of them had been written three decades earlier
and two were printed with the Platonis opera omnia of 1484.
His translations and commentaries alone would have assured
Ficino a distinguished place in the history of philosophy; their
influence continued through the nineteenth century, a remark-
able run that kept Ficino's Plato the most important Plato for
several centuries. But besides his translations and commen-
taries and books of letters, many of which are really brief
philosophical essays, Ficino left other original works in addition
to the Platonic Theology and the Three Books on Life. After
he took holy orders in 1473, for example, he published an
apologetic work On the Christian Religion in 1474 that upheld
his faith against Judaism and Islam while maintaining a kind of
religious universalism on the basis of the concord between
Platonic philosophy and Christian revelation. His other works
addressed various topics in moral philosophy, natural philo-
sophy, medicine, and other fields; most were in Latin, though
a few appeared in Italian. 33

His writings were the most enduring part of Ficino's achieve-
ment, but there was more to him than his books; his personal
influence in Florence and among a European range of corres-



1987a; 1988a;. 1988c: 274-85; 1990); Allen ( 1988; 1989: 108-16, 168-204). On
magic, astrology, and occultism more broadly, see also Garin ( 1954: 150-91;
1960; 1961a: 155-65; 1983a); Castelli ( 1960); Tateo ( 1960); Müller-Jahncke
( 1973; 1985); Zambelli ( 1973a; 1973b; 1975; 1976; 1977; 1978; 1986; 1988);
Magia, astrologia ( 1974); Zanier ( 1975b; 1977; 1983a); Vickers ( 1979; 1984);
Webster ( 1982); Garfagnini ( 1983); North ( 1986); above, n. 18.


For a list of Ficino's works see Kristeller ( 1937: vol. i, pp. lxxvii-clxvii),
supplemented by Kristeller ( 1986a: 20, 136-58); Hankins ( 1990a: ii. 483-5).


pondents was also enormous. More celebrated than well
founded was his reputation for reviving a Platonic Academy of
Florence, whose precise nature remains unclear. Lorenzo the
statesman, the philosophers Giovanni Pico and Francesco da
Diacceto, the humanist poets Angelo Poliziano and Cristoforo
Landino, and other celebrated politicians and intellectuals were
certainly well known to Ficino, but their connection to the
great Platonist seems not to have been institutionalized in any
regular way outside the religious confraternities and other
loose gatherings long active in Florence. Ficino thought that
the original Academy was not a formally organized school,
and his own version was probably an informal assembly of his
students, some of whom would also have been attending the
Florentine Studio. We know little of what went on in their
discussions, which seem to have had no firm institutional set-
ting or regular schedule. In some sense, no doubt, Ficino
wished to revive the glories of Plato's Academy. Plotinus had
honoured the custom of celebrating 7 November as the anniver-
sary of Plato's.birth and death, and Ficino and his complatonici
may have met once or twice on this grand occasion; he immor-
talized such a celebration for the year 1468 in the setting of his
commentary on the Symposium, but his description of the
event may have been less historical than ideological. 34 In any
case, there were other public or semi-public events that some-
times engaged Ficino as Plato's paraclete in the rich cultural
life of his city; but most of his work, collected in two massive
folio volumes published in 1561 and again in 1576 and 1641,
was the solitary labour of scholarship and contemplation. For-
tunately, because his publishing career corresponded with the
first, incunabular decades of the new print technology, he was
the first major European philosopher whose works could spread
widely and swiftly in his own lifetime. In this and other res-
pects, Ficino's philosophical career was very much a product
of the Renaissance, as he himself suggested in a frequently



Ficino ( 1959: 1320-1); Marcel ( 1958: 335-40); Kristeller ( 1956: 99-122,
287-336; 1965a: 89-101); Field ( 1988: 3-18, 56-8, 107-9, 120-4, 171-4,
195-201); Hankins ( 1990a: i. 208, 296-300, ii. 436; 1990b; 1991).


cited letter of 1492 where he mentioned the invention of print-
ing as one reason why

one who cares to consider the brilliant discoveries of this age will
scarcely doubt that ours is an age [of gold], for . . . it brought
back into the light the liberal disciplines that had nearly been extin-
guished -- grammar, poetry, oratory, painting, sculpture, architecture,
music. . . . And it happened in Florence . . . [where] Platonic learning
was recalled from darkness into light. 35

If Florence enjoyed an age of gold in the quattrocento, it
minted no coin brighter than the refined spirituality of Ficino's
refurbished Platonism.

Giovanni Pico and Nicholas of Cusa

Since the time of Burckhardt and Walter Pater, students of the
Renaissance have seen Giovanni Pico della Mirandola as the
most brilliant of the torch-bearers who lit the passage of
modern culture 'from darkness into light'. Writing in 1873,
Pater scandalized the Oxford dons by inspiring their students
with a collection of essays, mostly art-historical, on The Re-
, wherein he concluded that 'the service of philo-
sophy . . . towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to
a life of constant and eager observation. . . . Not the fruit of
experience, but experience itself, is the end. . . . To burn al-
ways with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is
success in life.' Although Pater ended his book with this philo-
sophical manifesto, mocked by his critics and suppressed in a
later edition, only one philosopher rated a full essay in his
collection -- Giovanni Pico. Ill at ease with earnest Victorian
Christianity, Pater admired Pico as 'one of the last who seri-
ously and sincerely entertained the claim on men's faith of the
pagan religions', and in Pico famous Oration on the Dignity
of Man
he rejoiced to see that

this high dignity of man . . . was supposed to belong to him, not as
renewed by a religious system, but by his own natural right. The



Ficino ( 1959: 944); Kristeller ( 1986a: 26; 1988a: 13).


proclamation of it was a counterpoise to the increasing tendency of
medieval religion to depreciate man's nature, . . . to make it ashamed
of itself. . . . It helped man onward to that reassertion of himself, that
rehabilitation of human nature, the body, the senses, the heart, the
intelligence, which the Renaissance fulfills.

In Pater's eyes Pico was a neo-pagan aesthete and therefore 'a
true humanist. For the essence of humanism is . . . that nothing
which has ever interested living men and women can wholly
lose its vitality, . . . nothing about which they have ever been
passionate. . . .' 36 In 1926, writing from the different moral
perspective of neo-Kantian thought, Ernst Cassirer dedicated
The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy to
Aby Warburg, founder of the Institute that bears his name and
still acts as a focus of Renaissance studies. The first chapter of
this influential book deals with Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus),
the German canon lawyer, theologian, bishop, and cardinal of
the Roman church whom Cassirer called 'the first modern
thinker' because he recognized the epistemological problem
implicit in the duty of finite human creatures to know an
infinite creator. Cassirer believed that Cusanus approached
this puzzle in a spirit of 'religious humanism and religious
optimism' which, transposed from a neo-pagan frame of refer-
ence, sounds much like Pater on Pico:

human culture has found its true theodicy. Culture confirms the
freedom of the human spirit, which is the seal of its divinity. The
spirit of asceticism is overcome; mistrust of the world disappears. . . .
Even sensible nature and sense-knowledge are no longer merely base
things, because . . . they provide the first impulse and stimulus for all
intellectual activity.

Unsurprisingly, Cassirer heard echoes of Cusanus in Pico
Oration, in which he discovered 'the whole intent of the
Renaissance and its entire concept of knowledge, . . . the polar-
ity . . . [that requires] of man's will and knowledge . . . that
they be completely turned towards the world and yet completely
distinguish themselves from it.' Cassirer found the themes of



Burckhardt ( 1990: 135, 145-7, 228-9, 302-3, 327-9, 350-1); Pater
( 1910: 41-3, 49, 236); cf. above, pp. 154 -9; Ch. 1, n. 16.


Pico Oration of 1486 in Cusanus' work On Conjectures, writ-
ten around 1443, and in both he saw the 'basic propositions'
needed 'whenever humanism sought to be more than just a
scholarly movement, whenever it sought to give itself a philo-
sophical form'. 37

Debate on these two Renaissance thinkers -- Pico especially --
continues today. Pico knew about Cusanus and wanted to
see his library, but there is no textual evidence of the direct
influence that Cassirer claimed. 38 Still less would any current
student of Pico sustain Pater's verdict of neo-paganism. Pico's
theological adventures may have been imprudent and provo-
cative, but there was no insincerity in his wanting to die in a
friar's habit nor any inconsistency in the friendship with Fra
Savonarola that guided his final years. Most important, the
meaning of Pico Oration still evades the learned consensus
which has settled these other points; it may be that the form,
content, and history of this best-known of all Renaissance
philosophical texts have doomed it to ambiguity. 39 Not yet
twenty-four years old, Pico wrote the Oration in the autumn of
1486 to introduce his most audacious project, the nine hundred
Conclusiones or theses that he planned to defend publicly in
Rome early in the next year. Worried about the heterodoxy of
a few of Pico's theses and perhaps about the sheer daring of
his plan, Pope Innocent VIII forestalled the public disputation
by appointing a commission to investigate the Conclusions, but
not before Pico had them printed. When the commission found



Cassirer ( 1963: 10, 44, 84-88); see also Cassirer ( 1968).


Kristeller ( 1905a: 66); Watts ( 1982: 11-12).


For the collected works see Pico ( 1572); editions and translations of
separate works have been prepared by Garin, Kieszkowski, and Jayne; see
Pico ( 1942; 1946-52; 1973; 1984). English translations of the most important
works are available in Cassirer, Kristeller, and Randall ( 1948); Breen ( 1952);
and Pico ( 1965). Garin ( 1937a) remains the standard work, and Craven ( 1981)
discusses more recent interpretations, adding views of his own. See also Dorez
and Thuasne ( 1897); Baron ( 1927); Kibre ( 1936); Anagnine ( 1937); Garin
( 1942; 1950; 1961a: 231-89; 1905a: 101-13; 1965b; 1967a: 1185-217); Nardi
( 1958); Walker ( 1958a: 54-9; 1972); Monnerjahn ( 1960); Secret ( 1964: 1-43;
1965; 1976); Kristeller ( 1964a: 54-71; 1965a; 1975); Yates ( 1964: 84-116;
1965); Dell' Acqua and Münster ( 1965); Di Napoli ( 1965); L'Opera ( 1965);
Marcel ( 1965); Raith ( 1967); Waddington ( 1973); Lubac ( 1974); Crouzel
( 1977); Zanier ( 1981); Wirszubski ( 1989).


three theses heretical and ten others suspect, Pico hastily drafted
an Apologia that was no apology and published it as well,
provoking the pope to condemn the whole set of Conclusions.
Although the Apology repeated a large portion of the Oration,
the complete text was published only in 1496, two years after
Pico died, and it acquired the title On the Dignity of Man only
in 1557.

To Pico it was simply the Oration that introduced the Con-
. If the latter were related to the quodlibetal disputa-
tions that permitted medieval scholars to debate any topic of
their choice, the former was in the tradition of the academic
inaugural speech, whose first part customarily praised the
speaker's discipline -- in Pico's case, philosophy -- and whose
second part defended the speaker's approach to that discipline.
The genre and occasion of the Oration provide clues to its.
meaning. It was a work of oratory meant to persuade an
audience on first hearing, not a technical philosophical treatise
meant to demonstrate a position through close reading. Its
rhetorical impact explains such reactions as Pater's, who found
it so convincing that he read his own attitudes into it; but
Pico's oratorical genius did not make his Oration mere rhetoric.
The question of man's worth was a large one in quattrocento
Italy; it had moved Gianozzo Manetti and other humanists to
take a brighter view of mankind than that expressed in the
twelfth-century work On the Misery of the Human Condition
by Lotario dei Segni, who became pope as Innocent III but
never added a promised companion-treatise On the Excellence
of Man
. 40 Having worked hard at philosophy for six years
before he wrote the Oration, Pico must have understood that
eventually his speech would be read as a serious philosophical
statement on a controversial issue.

However, the topic of human dignity occupies only the first
third of the first half of the Oration. Unlike Ficino, who had
added a metaphysical dimension to man's cosmological cen-
trality as lord of earthly creation, Pico argued that God had
empowered humanity to transcend its central position. Spinning



Trinkaus ( 1970: i. 173-78; ii. 505-26); above, n. 11.


his own fable of genesis, he pictured God telling Adam before
the Fall that, unlike all other creatures, he had no fixed place
or form or function. 'To him is it given', wrote Pico, 'to have
what he wishes, to be what he wants.' 41 Exercising his free
will, the sinless Adam could elect either a lower bestial exis-
tence or a higher life of divinity. Whether Pico had in mind
man's ontological freedom to shape his own nature or his
moral freedom to choose a higher path is debatable. In any
case, Pico's advice was to emulate the. Cherubim, the second
highest rank of angels. Stationed below the Seraphim, who
burn in the hot love of God, the Cherubim are angels of
contemplation, as the Thrones below them are angels of judge-
ment. Philosophy teaches humans to live like these intellectual
angels, who can rise up to divine peace or descend to the
world of activity. Pico's philosophy was a graded way of life,
not simply a technique or a discipline; its goal was death, the
soul's union with all other souls joined in the highest mind.
The soul rises to harmony through preliminary steps that Pico
described on a Stoic pattern, reaching back to Chrysippus by
way of Plutarch: moral philosophy tames the passions; dialectic
calms the storms of discursive reason; then natural philosophy
addresses differences of opinion about the worlds of mankind
and nature. 42 At the end of this progression comes the peace
of theology, described by Pico as an epopteia or mystic initia-
tion following the expiations of dialectic and moral philosophy.
Extolling this fourfold Cherubic life, a procession of biblical,
Greek, and Eastern sages moves through the latter half of the.
first part of the Oration--Moses, Plato, Pythagoras, and other
ancient theologians.

In the second part of the Oration, Pico defended his decision
to take up the contemplative life of philosophy and to declare
his intentions in a public presentation of theses selected from
as many sources as he could find. 'Pledged to no one's words,'
he proclaimed, 'I have decided to let myself roam through all
the masters of philosophy, to look at every scrap of opinion



Pico ( 1942: 106); Cassirer, Kristeller, and Randall ( 1948: 225).


Craven ( 1981: 36); Long and Sedley ( 1987: i. 26).


and to know all the schools', and in each of them he found
some piece of the larger truth he wished to construct. Pico's
eclecticism was another, methodological aspect of the onto-
logical or moral freedom announced earlier in the Oration,
and he meant its chief product to be a work on the 'concord of
Plato and Aristotle' such as many philosophers had desired
since late antiquity. 43 He wanted to harmonize not only Plato
and Aristotle but also other thinkers generally supposed to be
at odds, such as Aquinas and Scotus or Averroes and Avicenna,
and this concordism was to be one of several contributions to
philosophy which Pico regarded as his most original and adver-
tised as such in closing the Oration. Others were Pythagorean
numerology, Orphic and Chaldaean teachings, a theory of
natural and demonic magic, and Cabala in the service of Chris-
tianity. Pico's wish to build philosophy from so wide a range of
materials presupposed Ficino's vision of Platonism as the pro-
duct of an ancient Egyptian theology and as compatible with
Christianity; but Pico's syncretism was more ambitious than
Ficino's in several respects. While Ficino knew little about
Cabala, a system of Jewish mysticism and hermeneutics that
developed in the Middle Ages, Pico studied Cabala as exten-
sively as his linguistic skills permitted and treated it as another
channel of esoteric wisdom parallel to the prisca theologia.
Pico was also less devoted to Plato than Ficino was and much
friendlier to Aristotle and his commentators, both ancient and
medieval, in this respect echoing Bessarion's concordism rather
than the anti-Platonism of Trapezuntius.

Pico's Aristotelianism is evident in the nine hundred Con-
, which fall into six groups, only the last two labelled
as representing his own opinion. The number (almost five
hundred) and variety of these theses secundum opinionem
make it hard to know exactly what Pico meant by
giving them that name. He dedicated three of the previous
four sets to ancient and medieval Peripatetics, most of all to



Pico ( 1942: 138-40, 144); Cassirer, Kristeller, and Randall ( 1948: 242,


Pico ( 1973: 50, with comments on sources in Kieszkowski introd. 9-
26); Kristeller ( 1965a: 54-75).


Averroes, Albertus, Aquinas, and Scotus. Along with the
Hermetica, the Chaldaean Oracles, and the Pythagoreans, Pico
listed Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus as authorities for his
fourth, Platonic group of theses, but his favorite Platonist was
Proclus, from whom he took fifty-five theses, adding another
forty-seven 'according to the teaching of the wise Hebrew
Cabalists'.44 The thirteen theses that troubled the church
covered a variety of issues: whether Origen is saved, how the
cross is venerated, how the eucharist works, whether faith is
free, whether God can assume an irrational nature--this last a
favourite conundrum of the via moderna. The three items called
heretical also involved typical philosophical questions. By pro-
posing that Christ was not really present when he descended
into Hell, Pico raised the problem of location for incorporeal
entities, and in denying that mortal sins were punished forever
his concern was the disproportion between finite causes and
infinite effects. His most troublesome claim, however, was that
'there is no science that gives us more certainty of Christ's
divinity than magic and Cabala'. Perhaps Pico meant to clarify
the authority of the divine miracles that Christ worked by
contrasting them with the lesser wonders of magic and Cabala,
but his judges naturally took this gnomic statement as a threat
to the divine science of theology, which Pico seemingly de-
based by comparing it to the dark arts of wizards and Jews. To
protect himself he distinguished in the Apology and Conclu-
between 'practical' Cabala as a way of doing magic by
manipulating divine names and 'speculative' Cabala as a path
to metaphysical and theological contemplation through medi-
tation on the emanated divine attributes or Sephirȯth (see
below). 45

The Oration, the Conclusions, and the Apology were the
climactic products of Pico's early career, forcing him finally to
flee from Italy and ending in his arrest in France in 1488, after
which he was allowed to return to Florence, where he spent.
the last few years of his life. In all likelihood, he visited
Florence and met Ficino as early as 1479, just two years after



Pico ( 1973: 79); Craven ( 1981: 47-75).


he began galloping through several Italian universities. First he
tried law at Bologna, then humanities at Ferrara, and in 1480
he came to rest in the Padua of Nicoletto Vernia, though it
was another Averroist Aristotelian, Elia Del Medigo, who
most strongly influenced Pico's absorption of Peripatetic philo-
sophy. Del Medigo was a Jew who translated Averroes from
Hebrew for Pico. A philosopher in his own right in the medi-
eval Jewish tradition, Del Medigo disliked Cabala but still
introduced it to Pico, finding some Cabalist works for him and
providing lists of other texts. But Averroism was Del Medigo's
most important gift to Pico, who never forgot it: the second of
his forty-one 'conclusions according to Averroes' maintains
that 'the intellective soul in all people is one'.46

The culmination of Pico's scholastic period was his stay at
the University of Paris in 1485-6, but even before this trip he
declared his sympathy for medieval philosophy in a letter to
the Venetian humanist, Ermolao Barbaro. Barbaro, a humanist
Aristotelian who did important work on the Greek commenta-
tors, wrote to Pico in April of 1485 to stress the importance of
good Latin style in philosophy, and in passing he criticized the
northern scholastics as 'dull, rude, uncultured barbarians'. In
June Pico shot back an elegant defence of the inelegant school-
men, reminding Barbaro that he had 'spent six years on those
barbarians . . . [and had] lost in Thomas, John Scotus, Albert,
and Averroes the best years of my life'. Pico stressed the
conflict between oratory and philosophy and criticized rhetoric
as superficial and deceptive. Philosophy requires a specialized
terminology that cannot always be beautiful. Its speech must
be brief, clear, thorough, accurate, and serious; philosophy
has as much right to its linguistic conventions as the ancient
Romans had to theirs. Rhetoric may work for political or
moral issues that arise in the public arena, but ornamental
language will obscure the deeper truths of physics and meta-
physics. For Barbaro, writing in the Petrarchan tradition, lan-
guage was an end in itself, but for Pico language was merely



Pico (1973: 34); Garin ( 1937a: 3-29, 65-8); cf. Kristeller ( 1965a: 63-4);
Sirat ( 1985: 405-7); Ruderman ( 1988: 305-7, 401).


the philosopher's tool, and a blunt instrument to boot. Pico
recalled the ideal of Pythagorean silence, claiming that the
ancient sage would have used no speech at all if he could have
communicated in a way less impeded by the senses and more
suited to philosophy's immaterial objects. Like the Stoics, he
regarded the phonetic vehicle of language as corporeal, its
semantic content as incorporeal; thus, the philosopher's con-
cern should be inward immaterial reason (ratio), not sensible
embodied speech (oratio). Against Barbaro, Pico took a posi-
tion resembling Alfonso of Cartagena's against Bruni or George
of Trebizond's against Gaza, but, ironically, he dressed it in
the best classical style. The studied Latinity of his prose and
the careful structure of his rhetoric are the best proofs that
Pico understood and, within certain limits, appreciated the
classicism that he attacked in Barbaro; and the best evidence
that his esteem for scholasticism was real is the prominence of
medieval Aristotelianism in the Conclusions. One side of Pico's
universalism was his openness to scholastic thinkers typically
rejected by humanists as barbarians; another side was his curi-
osity about other systems of thought all but unknown to
European Christians. 47

As early as 1480 Pico began to learn a little about Cabala
from Elia Del Medigo in Padua, but he met his Hebrew
teacher years later in Florence--Samuel ben Nissim Abulfaraj,
a Sicilian rabbi known after his conversion as Guglielmo
Raimondo Moncada or Flavius Mithridates. Flavius, who had
worked earlier in the curia of Pope Sixtus IV, translated thou-
sands of pages of Cabala for Pico, who displayed his new
learning in one hundred and eighteen Cabalist theses arranged
in two groups and published with the other Conclusions in
1486. The sources to which Flavius gave Pico access include
the twelfth-century Book of Splendour, Abraham Abulafia's
thirteenth century commentaries on Maimonides, and Menahem
Recanati's fourteenth-century interpretation of the Torah. Since
Pico had the benefit of this material only for a few months



Translation in Breen ( 1952: 393, 395); Gray ( 1968: 209-13); Long ( 1986:
131-9); Vickers ( 1988a: 184-96).


before he wrote the. Conclusions, it is unsurprising that the
Cabalist theses are no more coherent than the others; yet they
develop themes that were to fascinate Christian Cabalists for
centuries to come. In the first set of theses on Cabala, Recanati
was the main inspiration for Pico's speculations on the Sephi-
, the ten powers that emanate from the hidden God and
reveal the divine attributes. Abulafia was the chief source of
his analysis--more visible in the second set of theses--of sacred
names, especially the names of God which, in Pico's view,
prove that Jesus is the Messiah and disclose the trinitarian
God of Christianity in the Hebrew Bible. Cabala taught Pico
that every feature of the Torah is meaningful and that special
hermeneutic devices (such as gematria, a way of interpreting
Hebrew words according to the numerical value of their letters)
can penetrate its secrets. But when he wrote his conclusions on
Cabala, Pico's grasp of Hebrew cannot have been strong
enough to free him from dependence on the translations made
by Flavius, who changed the meanings of the texts that he
rendered and sometimes augmented the originals in ways that
would have dismayed their authors. Flavius convinced Pico
that the Aristotelian Maimonides was a Cabalist, that Abulafia
anticipated Cusanus on the coincidence of opposites (see below),
and, above all, that Recanati read trinitarian and Christological
meanings into the Pentateuch. Pico's greatest innovation in
Cabala was to derive the name of Jesus from the holiest
Hebrew name of God as if it encoded a Christian secret, but
he owed such insights to his tampering translator. 48

Pico took Cabalist hermeneutics seriously, and he made
Cabala an important component of his syncretist philosophy.
He was one of very few Christian thinkers since the Patristic
period who saw real value in Jewish thought of post-biblical
times. But his use of Cabala shared the hostile, proselytising
intentions of the apologetic literature written mainly in Spain
by converts after the twelfth century. Petrus Alfonsus, Ray-
mond Martini, Abner of Burgos, and many others through



Secret ( 1964: 24-37; 1965); Ruderman ( 1988: 401-3); Wirszubski ( 1989);
on Cabala and Judaica in general, see Blau ( 1944); Cassuto ( 1965); Scholem
( 1954; 1974; 1987); Zika ( 1976); Kristeller ( 1985b); Idel ( 1988).


Pico's time applied their knowledge of Jewish exegesis and
philosophy to Christian ends. That Pico was complicit in such
motives is clear from remarks in his Heptaplus, a commentary
on Genesis 1:1-27 written in 1489, in which he assures his
'Christian brothers' of the usefulness of Cabala: 'You will be
equipped with the most powerful weapons against the Hebrews'
stony hearts, and they will be drawn from their own armones.' 49
The Christianization of Cabalist ideas was well known in the
converso literature long before Pico, but--thanks to Flavius--
he pioneered in using Cabalist methods to find new ways of
certifying Christian belief. In the year before he finished the
Heptaplus and after his troubles with the church, Pico had met
another important Jewish figure, Yohanan Alemanno, who
himself had been influenced by the oratorical humanist specu-
lations of Judah Messer Leon. Alemanno had thus been pre-
pared to receive Greek philosophical ideas from Pico, as Pico
continued to explore Jewish thought with him, especially from
Alemanno's interpretation of the Song of Songs. The Heptaplus
is a brief but intricate work. It.uses a Cabalist and Neoplatonic
scheme of three worlds--ultramundane, celestial, and sub-
lunary, with the human world added as a fourth--to justify a
sevenfold system of cosmology corresponding to the six days
of creation and the seventh of rest. Biblical motifs such as the
three-part design of the tabernacle and the structure of the
seven-branched candlestick illuminate Pico's scheme through-
out, and the work ends with an appendix showing how gematria
can decode the first word of the Hebrew text of Genesis to
discover a Christian message. 50

In the fourth and fifth 'expositions' of the Heptaplus, Pico
discusses the human condition in a way that some expositors
find less daring than the Oration, suggesting that Pico had
perhaps been chastened by the church's punitive stroke. Pico
makes man's body and soul correspond to earth and heaven,
and to join these two extremes he puts a spiritual substance



Pico ( 1942: 346-60; 1965: 158-65); Secret ( 1964: 8-21); Ruderman
( 1988: 395-6).


Sirat ( 1985: 402-4, 410-12); Ruderman ( 1988: 391, 394-5, 403-7);
Wirszubski ( 1989: 161-7).


between them. In the intellective and sensitive faculties of the
soul he finds analogies for the biblical waters above and below
heaven. 'Mankind is not so much a fourth world, like some
new creature', he argues, 'as the bond and union of the three
already described.' These words seem to recall the anthro-
pology of the Oration, in which humanity lacks a proper nature
and must find it by ranging through the rest of creation. But
Pico also says that 'mankind contains all things in itself as their
centre'. Did he thereby revert to binding Adam's children to
the axle of the world? Perhaps this question pushes Pico's
language, with its high oratorical charge, too far in the direc-
tion of consistency and terminological precision. In any case,
there is no doubt that the Heptaplus expresses an optimistic
view of human dignity. Its key chapter on human excellence
begins with the words of the creator--'Let us make mankind
in our own image'--and closes with the same Hermetic maxim
that had opened the Oration--'A great miracle, Asclepius, is
mankind!' 51

Even if the Heptaplus is a tamer work than the Oration,
Conclusions, and Apology, it was still imprudent of Pico to
flaunt his Christian Cabala so soon after his encounter with the
church. Ficino and other Florentines had good cause to worry
that their brilliant young colleague would go too far. Since the
early 1480s, Pico had hoped to meld Ficino's thought with a
unified philosophy that would overcome sectarian discord, and
he had urged Ficino to press on with his Platonic researches,
especially the long, exacting labour of translating and interpre-
ting Plotinus. Neither in his views on particular Platonic texts
nor in his more ambitious syncretism did Pico hesitate to differ
with Ficino, who was his elder and his friend but not his
teacher in any strong sense. In his Commento ( 1486) on the
love poem of Girolamo Benivieni, for example, Pico took an
independent line on the Symposium, the object of one of
Ficino's most influential Plato commentaries. But Pico's most
prominent dispute with the older philosopher began when



Asclepius6; Pico ( 1942: 300-4; 1965: 134-5); Cassirer, Kristeller, and
Randall ( 1948: 223); Craven ( 1981: 29-36).


Lorenzo de' Medici disagreed with Angelo Poliziano on the
relation between Plato and Aristotle. Poliziano, an eminent
humanist poet who taught in the Florentine Studio for fourteen
years before his death in 1494, was also an influential expositor
of Aristotle. His discussion of the Nicomachean Ethics had
moved Lorenzo to correct Aristotle from a Platonist--in other
words, a Ficinian--point of view, and in 1491 Pico replied in a
short tract De ente et uno, the only surviving part of a projected
treatise on the Concord of Plato and Aristotle.

The topic of this little work is evident in its title, On Being
and the One
. While Ficino maintained with Plotinus that the
One is above being, Aristotelians denied the distinction, and
Pico tried to show that the argument for equivalence between
being and unity taken from Aristotle Metaphysics was truer
to Plato than the contrary Neoplatonic view. 'Those who be-
lieve that Aristotle disagrees with Plato disagree with me,' he
wrote, 'for I make a concord of both philosophies.' To prove
his case, he had first to dispose of several passages in the
Parmenides that seemed to uphold Ficino's Plotinian position;
he did so by denying any serious doctrinal value to the dia-
logue, dismissing it as 'nothing but a dialectical exercise of
some sort'. Then he turned to the Sophist for positive evidence
that unity and being are the same. Ficino rebuked Pico, though
quietly and obliquely, in his Parmenides commentary of 1492-
4, wishing that the 'wondrous [mirandus] young man' had paid
better attention to him and to Plato before parting so rashly
with sound Platonic teaching. Oddly enough, Ficino found the
best proof that the Parmenides expressed a profound theology
setting unity above being in Dionysius the Areopagite, whom
Pico cited for the opposite purpose in De ente. Pico's fondness
for Neoplatonic sources and his wish to befriend Aristotle not
by defending him against the Platonists but by blurring his
distinctiveness could not please rigidly Peripatetic critics, one
of whom, Antonio Cittadini of Faenza, attacked the De ente
more openly than Ficino had done. 52



Pico ( 1942: 386-90; 1965: 37-9); Ficino ( 1959: 1164); Garin ( 1937a: 34-
42); Allen ( 1986).




In the last years of his life, Pico worked on a refutation of
predictive astrology, which even in its unfinished form is his
largest work by far; some critics have seen the defence of
human freedom against astral determinism as its main philo-
sophical point, but one must recall that Ficino, Pomponazzi,
and many other leading philosophers shared a broader interest
in magic and astrology, whose final status in Pico's mind re-
mains an unsettled question. Amid rumours of poisoning, Pico
died on 17 November 1494, two months after Poliziano and on
the very day when the invading French army of Charles VIII
entered Florence, already deserted by Piero de' Medici and
soon to endure four years of cathartic theocracy under
Savonarola, who had vested the young prince in the habit of
the Dominican tertiaries on the eve of his death. 53 Although
Ficino survived Pico 'by five years, the coincidence of the
latter's death with the departure of the Medici has come to
symbolize the end of the 'golden age' that Ficino saw in Flor-
ence. Pico's birth in 1463, around the time when Ficino began
to translate Plato, established another conjunction that has
served to fix the two thinkers in the historical imagination as
jointly raising Renaissance philosophy to its apex. By now,
however, it will be clear that the genius of Ficino's Platonism
was far from coextensive with the spirit of early modern philo-
sophy, a much broader and more complex body of thought
whose commonest concerns were Peripatetic and whose do-
minant texture was eclectic. By the same token, it will be
obvious that Pico was not a Platonist in the same way that
Ficino was. Platonism was a major source, but only one source
among many, of Pico's hopes for a universal philosophical
peace, and there was more room in his system than in Ficino's
for distinctly Aristotelian and Averroist ingredients, as for
many others as well.

Nicholas of Cusa, often linked with Pico and likewise called a



Baron ( 1927); Garin ( 1937a: 42-8, 169-193; 1960: 34-7); Walker ( 1958a:
54-9); Cassirer ( 1963: 114-22; 1974: i. 153-71); Kristeller ( 1964a: 68); Yates
( 1964: 84-116; 1965); Copenhaver ( 1988c: 267-74); cf. Craven ( 1981: 131-


Platonist, is another figure who strains the usual categories. 54
Cusanus died in 1464, the year after Pico was born, at the age
of sixty-three. Born Nicholas Krebs in the town of Cues near
Trier in the western part of Germany, he was educated in
philosophy, law, and theology at Heidelberg, Padua, and
Cologne, an excellent preparation for his rapid rise as a church-
man. After 1431, he came to prominence at the Council of
Basle as a conciliarist but eventually changed his views as
opinion shifted in favour of papal authority. He was ordained
priest after 1436 and became bishop and cardinal in time for
the jubilee year of 1450, working tirelessly in the cause of
church reform. At Basle he met Italian humanists who worked
for the papacy, and in 1437 he went to Byzantium as one of
the delegation assigned to invite the Greeks to the Council of
Ferrara and Florence in 1438-9. Greek manuscripts formed
part of the large and famous library that he collected, but he
made his most celebrated find in 1429, when he recovered
twelve comedies of Plautus forgotten in the Middle Ages.
Near the age of forty, when he completed his best known
book, On Learned Ignorance (De docta ignorantia), Cusanus
added a second career of philosophical and theological writing
to his busy life in ecclesiastical politics. In addition to letters
and sermons, he finished about forty works on various subjects
ranging from church government to mathematics; more than
half are of philosophical interest.

Like Pico and Ficino, Cusanus left the university after his
student days; freedom from professorial duties doubtless helped
him develop as an eclectic and original thinker. His familiarity
with early Christian literature extended to the Greek Fathers,



Much of Cusanus is still untranslated; for the Latin texts see Cusanus
( 1967); translations by Heron, Dolan, Hopkins, Fuhrer, and Watts appear in
Cusanus ( 1954; 1962; 1986; 1989); and Hopkins ( 1979; 1980; 1981a; 1981b;
1983b). A good recent treatment of the philosophy, followed here, is Watts
( 1982); see also Vansteenberghe ( 1920); Bett ( 1932); Gandillac ( 1942; 1982);
Copleston ( 1960-6: iii. 231-47); Cranz ( 1953; 1974); McTighe ( 1958; 1970);
Colomer ( 1961); Garin ( 1961b); Nicolò Cusano ( 1961); Sigmund ( 1963);
Watanabe ( 1963); Lübke ( 1968); NicolF2 Cusano ( 1970); Santinello ( 1970);
Senger ( 1971); Schnauer ( 1972); Flasch ( 1973); Cassirer ( 1974: i. 21-72);
Biechler ( 1975); Hopkins ( 1983a); Stadler ( 1983); Lohr ( 1988).


and he had extensive knowledge of scholastic law, theology
and philosophy, particularly the tradition known to his con-
temporaries as the 'old way' (via antiqua) in the version
traceable to Albertus Magnus. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas
Bradwardine, and. Ramon Lull were also favourite authorities,
as were the Scotist Franciscans. Although nominalism is evi-
dent at many points in his work, Cusanus does not seem to
have followed the more recent scholastic controversies of the
generations after Ockham. He read Aristotle in humanist as
well as medieval versions, and he covered the whole Platonic
tradition as it was known before Ficino. Pseudo-Dionysius was
his great inspiration, but he also depended on Augustine,
Proclus, Calcidius, Eriugena, Anselm, Thierry of Chartres,
and others. The mystical theologies of Meister Eckhardt,
Hildegard of Bingen, Hugh of St Victor, and Bonaventura
reinforced his Dionysian Platonism. He confined Aristotle's
usefulness to questions of ethics and physics, and worked to
find a replacement for Peripatetic metaphysics as the basis of
theology. Cusanus fits the broad context of European intel-
lectual history better than the immediate situation of his own
time, where it has been easier to locate analogies with his
ideas than to identify precise influences, in either direction. In
some general sense, and after recognizing his strongly anti-
Platonic views on some issues, one must acknowledge Cusanus
as a major figure in the Platonic tradition who found a new
voice for Lullian and Dionysian ideas and kept them alive for
Bruno and later German thinkers.

He finished his first and most famous philosophical work in
1440, On Learned Ignorance, a brilliant reformulation of the
Dionysian negative theology whose three books show that
man's intellectual distance from God and the universe can be
bridged only in the transcendent mystery of Christ's incarna-
tion. People spontaneously express their need to know by
comparing the more known with the less known, but even the
most abstract and precise reflections on counting and measuring
end in a crisis of incommensurability. Like a polygon approach-
ing the circle as limit, each approximation of truth will always
fall short of the next; divine and cosmic infinities remain out of


alignment with man's finite conceptions. Only a Socratic con-
viction of ignorance can halt the vertigo of epistemic dispro-
portion. Like the Petrarchan humanists, Cusanus prayed to be
freed from the chattering logic of the schools, the rambling
noise of discursive reasoning, but like Pico he looked for
rescue in a deeper silence, not in more elegant language:
'mystical theology leads to respite and silence, where we are
granted a vision of an invisible God, while the knowledge that
trains us for conflict . . . [and] hopes for victory in words . . . is
far from that which hurries us on to God, who is our peace.' 55
Since God is incomprehensible, humanity knows divinity in-
comprehensibly through symbols, metaphors, and enigmas;
but even the best of them, derived from mathematics and
geometry, are mere likenesses that bear no true proportion to
their divine model. Thus, even the claim that God is the
coincidentia oppositorum, the meeting of opposites in an abyss
that swallows up all minima, maxima, and contradictions, even
this statement of the divine paradox fails just because it is a
finite, human assertion about an infinite God.

Estranged from the creator, mankind is also strange to other
creatures because objects in the world lack the common pro-
portion that would make them knowable. Cusanus equated
knowing with comparing or measuring, and he could find no
true measure either between humans and God or between
humanity and the rest of the universe. Only Christ, the un-
dying God who became man and died, gives mankind hope in
the quest to know the divine. Like Christ, who resolved the
disjunction between humanity and divinity in his own person,
the human creature is a juncture of higher and lower natures,
a microcosm or little world who recapitulates the infinities of
the great world. But by depending on merely human capacities
of mind, mankind will remain exiled from God and the cosmos.
Only faith in Christ will bring the prodigal home.

Understanding begins with faith, . . . [which] enfolds every intelligible
thing in itself. . . . Since God is unrecognizable in this world, where



Cusanus ( 1967: i. 104-5 [ Apologia7-81); Watts ( 1982: 41); above,
pp. 28 - 30, 129 -32, 170 -1.


reason, opinion or learning lead us from the more known through
symbols to the less known, only where arguments stop and faith starts
do we grasp him. Faith carries us in simplicity beyond all reason and
intelligence up to the third heaven of simplest intellectuality . . . so
that in the body we may contemplate him incorporeally . . . in a
heavenly and incomprehensible way, and we see that he cannot be
comprehended because of the immensity of his. excellence. And this is
that same learned ignorance. . . . 56

Ignorance becomes learned when people confess it forthrightly
and accept its implications, the clearest of which is that a
mystical faith must displace reasoned discourse as the path to

Within four years of completing De docta ignorantia, Cusa-
nus finished its companion piece, De conjecturis, which turns
the seemingly sceptical view that all human claims are conjec-
tures, approximations of truth at best, into a more optimistic
vision of man's intellectual status. Cusanus interpreted the
biblical story of creation, particularly the description of the
human creature as made in God's image and likeness, to mean
that mankind stands in the same relation to the rational pro-
ducts of his mind as God stands to real objects in the world.
God created real things; humans create conjectures. On this
basis, Cusanus proposes a conjectural art, a system of mathe-
matical metaphors, to bring man's understanding closer to the
structure of divinely created realities, of which his own rational
constructs are conjectural likenesses. In order to illustrate the
mental exercises that he prescribed, Cusanus provided one of
his characteristic diagrams (see Fig. 2). 57

The scheme derives from Pythagorean, Neoplatonic, and
Christian numerological speculations on the quaternary, or
first four integers, whose sum is ten. One hundred is the sum
of each of these integers multiplied by ten, one thousand the
sum of each multiplied by one hundred. From these patterns
Cusanus derived further relationships ( Fig. 3 ) meant to show
how lower orders of being and thought (below the line) unfold



Cusanus ( 1967: i. 92-3 [ De docta ignorantia 3. 11]; 1962: 87-8); Watts
( 1982: 83-4).


Cusanus ( 1967: i. 120-35 [ De conjecturis]); Watts ( 1982: 93-101).



FIG. 2.

from divine unity (above the line). The conjectural art itself
exemplifies human creativity, weakened by its divorce from
infinity yet wielding great power within a finite domain. The
fact that a person can keep thinking anything at all shows that
the thinker is immortal; thought, a function of soul, replicates
itself perpetually and requires a perpetual faculty. This medi-
tation on mankind's creativity leads Cusanus to orate on human

Man is God, then, but not in an absolute sense, for he is man; thus,
he is a human God. Man is also a world, but he is not all things
through contraction, for he is man; therefore, man is a microcosm--a
human world, at any rate. . . . Man can be a human God, then, and as
God in a human manner he can be a human angel, a human beast . . .
or whatever else. Within man's potency all things exist in their way.



divine mind












distinction, judgement






FIG. 3.


The language is as strong as Pico's and anticipates him by
almost half a century. 58

In 1450 Cusanus produced three dialogues known collectively
as the Idiota from their protagonist, a simple Artisan who gets
the better of an Orator and a Philosopher in conversations on
the Christian standing of worldly wisdom. The biblical account
(in the book of Wisdom) of creation as an act of numbering
and ordering sanctifies the profane counting and weighing of
the market-place, where the layman's banal but immediate
experience makes a better way to wisdom than the mediated
knowledge of the learned. The Idiot's work of shaping a crude
wooden spoon shows the relation of human to divine crafts-
manship, of copy to paradigm, while also suggesting that human
art transcends created nature in forming objects without
natural models. The divine artist made real things; the human
makes notional artefacts; but within its bounds man's work is
active and creative. Awareness of his mental failings, directed
inwardly as the religious experience of humility, makes the
Idiot's ignorance not only learned but also holy. The image of
the carved spoon, which perfectly expresses the Idiot's oxy-
moronic mundane creativity, is one of a number of poetic
devices that Cusanus uses to ease the tension between mystical
and philosophical discourse.

Perhaps the most striking case is a work of 1453 On the
Vision of God
, which explores ancient themes of light and
vision as metaphors for reciprocal knowledge between God
and humanity. Stimulated by queries from monks about mys-
tical theology, Cusanus chose an icon of Christ as his key.
metaphor. Referring to well-known images and sending the
monks an example of the picture he had in mind, he compared
God's omniscient concern for each person with the gaze of a
painted Christ whose eyes seem to follow the movements of all
observers. Like the Idiot's spoon, the monks' icon is an arti-
ficial object of common experience, but it makes an even more
powerful metaphor because its image embodies the divine love



Cusanus ( 1967: i. 173 [ De conjecturis]); Watts ( 1982: 101-16); above,
nn. 41, 42, 51.


that keeps mankind restless, seeking rest in a remote God.
The creative and provident motions of an unmoved God are
the antinomies presented in a dialogue, De possest, of 1460. 'I
take an example known to us all from common practice,'
wrote Cusanus,

the top that boys play with. . . . The stronger the boy's arm, the
quicker the top spins, so that it seems to stand and rest while it moves
the more. . . . Now you understand better how to harmonize the
theologians, of whom one says that the wisdom which is God is more
movable than any mobile thing, . . . while another says that a fixed
first principle stands at rest, immobile, though it allows everything to
be moved.

In one of his last works, On a Game of Ball, written in 1463,
Cusanus returned to the same family of metaphors. Comparing
a ball's movement to the soul's animation of the body, he
likened the soul's capacity for free invention to the game itself,
making play a distinctly human activity and a sign of cultural
creativity. 59

Another late work, the De beryllo of 1458, uses the 'beryl' --
actually a kind of refracting device -- to show how divine unity
produces diversity, just as a lens bends a straight ray of light
through different angles. Pursuing his fascination with the geo-
metry of light and vision, Cusanus made a point in this work of
challenging Plato on the metaphysics of mathematical forms,
taking the strong anti-realist position that numbers and geo-
metrical figures are not extramental realities. They are rational
constructs whose analytical power confirms 'the saying of Pro-
tagoras that man is the measure of things', as well as the
Hermetic claim that man is another god. 60 In general, Cusanus
moved in his later thought toward a brighter view of the
human condition than that implied by the epistemological dark-
ness of the early De docta ignorantia, where universals are
granted a limited sort of existence outside the mind. In some



Cusanus ( 1967: ii. 650-2 [ Trialogus de possest]); Hopkins ( 1980: 82-7);
Watts ( 1982: 25-30, 153-63, 189-97).


Aristotle, Metaphysics 1053a35; Cusanus ( 1967: ii. 710, 734 [ De beryllo]);
Watts ( 1982: 171-88); Trinkaus ( 1983: 169-91).


very loose way, Platonist ontology and optimist anthropology
seem to have been inversely related for Cusanus; as his vision
of mankind became more active and creative, the human mind
took up a greater burden of responsibility for the reality of its
contents. Throughout his life, Cusanus voiced his disagree-
ments with Plato not only on universals but on other issues as
well, such as the power of fate, the creation of the world, the
existence of a world-soul, and the designation and definition of
the first principle. He was as far from being a doctrinaire
Platonist as Pico was, though the Dionysian strain of Platonism
colours his whole outlook more than any single influence de-
tectable in Pico's writings. 61 Both, in some sense, were Platon-
ists, in whom the flames of poetry or oratory sometimes burned
hotter than the pale fire of philosophy, and both were warmed
by an ardent faith to praise humans as. God's most creative
creatures. Cusanus was definitely more pious than Giordano
Bruno, the cinquecento thinker whom he most deeply influ-
enced, and his unconventional theology was certainly more
orthodox than the views of Baruch Spinoza, another great
philosopher of a later day whom he also anticipated in some

Pious, perennial, and Platonic philosophies: Francesco Patrizi

Once Pico and Ficino had established the prisca theologia as a
leading motif in Renaissance conceptions of the past, later
thinkers became interested in the larger implications of the
ancient theology, both political and historical. Christian Europe
had never been a tolerant society, and for a long time the
religious frenzies sparked by the Reformation made people
even less forgiving of each other's heterodoxies. In this climate,
to have welcomed new and alien elements within one's belief-
system must count as a step, however halting or unwitting,
toward religious and intellectual toleration. When Pico har-
monized Plato and Aristotle, he earned the nickname 'Prince



Copleston ( 1960-6: iii. 244-7); Watts ( 1982: 68-71, 76, 134-7, 147,
177-9, 184-203).


of Concord' (Princeps Concordiae), a pun on the name of a
small territory owned by his family. Later, in 1525, a Venetian
Franciscan named Francesco Giorgio or Zorzi published his
speculations On the Harmony of the World, which tried to
uncover a unity within the cosmos beneath its apparent multi-
plicity. Zorzi's Hermetic pieties were a long way from the
philosophical elegance of Leibniz's metaphysics, but there was
a community of motivation and a (complicated) line of in-
fluence between the two. 62 One of the intervening high points
was a work published in 1540, whose title, On Perennial Philo-
, gave later advocates of syncretism their favourite slogan.

Its author was Agostino Steuco, an Italian Augustinian and
polyglot biblical scholar. While a young man he worked as
librarian for Cardinal Domenico Grimani, who had acquired
Pico's books; he became bishop and Vatican librarian in 1538
and represented Pope Paul III at the Council of Trent. At the
beginning of De perenni philosophia, Steuco extended the
meaning of the ancient theology by claiming that there is 'one
principle of all things, of which there has always been one and
the same knowledge among all peoples'. A comprehensive
unity of thought linking all peoples together is what Steuco
meant by 'perennial philosophy, [which] reaches back even to
the origin of the human race'. 63 Since Ficino's ancient theology
was Steuco's point of departure, his atemporal history of
thought naturally took on a Platonic colouration. He saw no
real historical change, only intellectual continuities binding all
cultures in a Christian matrix, and he admitted no clear dis-
tinction between philosophy and theology, blending them in
the manner of the later Neoplatonists. Steuco thus formulated
one of the defining statements of Renaissance Christian Pla-
tonism, but his wish to listen for a deeper unison beneath
cultural and intellectual discord was out of tune with an age of
doctrinal combat and religious war.



Vicentini ( 1954); Walker ( 1958a: 112-19); Secret ( 1964: 126-39);
Maillard ( 1971); Vasoli ( 1974: 131-403; 1986; 1988a); Yates ( 1969; 1979: 29-
36); Schmitt ( 1981: chs. 1, 2); Perrone Compagni ( 1982).


Steuco ( 1972, with Schmitt introd. pp. v-xiv); Ebert ( 1929-30); Freudenberger
( 1935); Di Napoli ( 1973: 245-77); Schmitt ( 1981: chs. 1, 2); Crociata
( 1987).



Dogmatists on both sides of the confessional trenches could
shelter in a university curriculum as unitary as that of the
sixteenth century. Within its limits, the Peripatetic tradition
had become eclectic, and Aristotelians often disagreed among
themselves, but the institutionalization of Aristotelian philo-
sophy in the universities could only inhibit the growth of rival
systems. Moreover, since Plato wrote dramatically rather than
systematically, his dialogues made poor pedagogic fodder, and
the medical students of Italian universities were used to a
richer diet of logic and natural philosophy than he provided.
Ficino, Pico, and Steuco all attended universities, but only
Ficino actually taught in one, and then only briefly; when they
were students, it was all but impossible to learn Platonism in
any of Europe's centers of higher education. In time the situa-
tion improved, but the universities kept Aristotle paramount
and seldom opened their doors to Platonic teaching. On the
few occasions when Plato was admitted, it was usually a teacher
of Greek, not a philosopher, who expounded his dialogues.
Because Greek literature was not part of the venerable medi-
eval curriculum, its professors could be more hospitable to
new texts -- as with the Poetics, an Aristotelian novelty. After
the late fifteenth century, a few professors at Leipzig, Padua,
Pavia and Paris taught one or more Platonic dialogues. Plato
lasted longer at Paris, whose influence extended throughout
Europe, and from the early sixteenth century one hears echoes
of this new philosophical voice in such quarters as the poetry
of the Pléiade and the prolific popularizations of Symphorien
Champier. Jerome Aleander taught Plato in Paris as early as
1508, and Adrien Turnebus lectured in the Collège Royal on
the Phaedo and Timaeus after 1547, around the time when his
colleagues Peter Ramus and Omer Talon took up the sceptical
Platonism of the New Academy. By mid-century, Parisian
professors were teaching Plato -- as they did Aristotle -- from
Greek texts.

Italy gave Platonism its first full billing as a university sub-
ject. Francesco da Diacetto compared Plato to Aristotle early
in the sixteenth century at Pisa. Ferrara and Pisa established
separate posts for the teaching of Plato in the 1570s, and


Rome followed suit before the end of the century. Among
those who taught the subject were two of the foremost Platon-
ists of the day, Francesco Patrizi and Jacopo Mazzoni. Mazzoni
was a man of many parts. He succeeded Francesco Verino as
lecturer on Plato at Pisa in 1588, continuing a tradition that
survived through 1620. His own death prevented him from
following Patrizi at Rome when the latter died shortly before
him in 1597. As a Platonist Mazzoni followed the concordist
tradition of Steuco and his predecessors. His major philoso-
phical works try to bring Plato and Aristotle into agreement,
but he also wrote on literary topics, including Dante. What
Mazzoni actually taught his students in Pisa and Rome about
Plato is unclear, but we do know that at Pisa he became
friendly with Galileo and kept in touch with him later. The
connection may be an important one for those who detect a
Platonic strain in Galileo's mathematical physics. Mazzoni's
status as 'official' Platonist was significant in its own right, but
his influence in a Peripatetic world was quite limited. In the
latter half of the sixteenth century, however, a number of
syncretist Aristotelians were smuggling Platonic contraband
into their courses. Zabarella berated one such miscreant,
Francesco Piccolomini, for interpreting logic too Platonically.
Several Italian Aristotelians went so far as to write commen-
taries on Plato's Republic or Timaeus, and some university
mathematicians were more pleased by Plato's praise of mathe-
matics than by Aristotle's hasty denial of that subject's efficacy
in natural philosophy. 64

After Ficino, Cusanus, and Pico, the most imposing Platonist
of the Renaissance was Francesco Patrizi. 65 Born in the far
north-east of Italy at Cherso in 1529, almost a century after
Ficino, Patrizi could read Plato more easily because in the
mean time a great deal of philological work had been done by



Kristeller ( 1956: 287-336; 1961a: 60-4); Purnell ( 1971; 1972); Schmitt
( 1981: ch. 3).


Donazzolo ( 1912); Arcari ( 1935); Brickman ( 1941); Menapace Brisca
( 1952); Onoranze a . . . Patrizi ( 1957); Kristeller ( 1964a: 110-26); Muccillo
( 1975; 1981; 1986); Purnell ( 1976); Maechling ( 1977); Henry ( 1979); Bolzoni
( 1980); Vasoli ( 1980; 1983b: 559-83; 1988a); Antonaci ( 1984); Wilmott ( 1984;
1985); Kraye ( 1986). For the main Latin works, see Patrizi ( 1581; 1591).


humanist scholars. When Ficino translated Plato, he had to
compile his own dictionary and work from manuscript; the first
printed Greek text of Plato appeared only in 1514. By Patrizi's
time, not only Plato but also most extant Greek literature had
been published, permitting sophisticated comparison of texts
and giving access to various sources of historical information.
Patrizi lived a fuller life than most philosophers, and in his
travels to Cyprus, Spain, and elsewhere he accumulated a
large library. Well-educated in Italy and Germany, he also
perfected his Greek in journeys to the eastern Mediterranean.
Like many of his contemporaries, he approached philosophy
from a humanist perspective; indeed, history and philology
dominate much of his work, whose pedantry Bruno found
repulsive. His first philosophical education at Padua around
the middle of the century was, inevitably, Aristotelian, but in
an autobiographical sketch he recalled his conversion to Plato
in this Peripatetic stronghold. Disappointed in his search for a
good teacher and happier with medicine than with philosophy,
he followed a friar's suggestion and read Ficino's Platonic
, which put him irrevocably on a Platonic path. Since
the friar was a Franciscan, another Franciscan of the Veneto --
Zorzi -- may lurk in the background of Patrizi's inspiration.
Giulio Camillo, an expert on the art of memory, was a kindred
spirit certainly known to Patrizi in this period. 66 In any event,
his discovery of Plato made Patrizi a zealot; his passions were
quite foreign to the generous spirit of Ficino and Pico, and his
guiding motive was an aversion to everything Aristotelian.

In 1571, Patrizi published the first instalment of his Discus-
siones peripateticae
, whose seemingly innocent title masks its
destructive intent; the root of the word discussio in classical
Latin suggests 'shaking apart', not 'conversation'. 67 While
tutoring the nephew of a powerful Venetian churchman, he
decided to give his young student a truer picture of the life,



Walker ( 1958a: 141-2); Yates ( 1966: 129-72); Vasoli ( 1983b: 561-6;
1986; 1988a: 129-34).


All of the first volume of, Antonaci ( 1994- ) is devoted to the Discus-
siones and their background.


works, and influence of Aristotle than could be found in the
hagiographic summaries read in the schools. In the latter part
of the decade he added three more books on Aristotle's sources,
on the discord between Aristotle and Plato, and on the defects
of particular Aristotelian doctrines, and he published the en-
larged work in 1581. Patrizi claimed to be a disinterested
scholar, guided only by facts, innocent of any prejudice against
Aristotle; but the Discussiones have the glint of hard-edged
polemic. He saw Aristotelian thought as a threat to Christian-
ity, an impious philosophy to be discarded in favour of Platonic
piety. He also regarded the Peripatetic tradition as servile,
inimical to philosophical freedom. Aristotle's first disciples --
Theophrastus, Strato, Galen, and others -- had independent
views, but after Alexander of Aphrodisias the tradition degen-
erated into slavishness. Patrizi's opinion of medieval Aristotel-
ianism was generally low, although he made some distinctions,
preferring Avicenna to Averroes, for example, as a more
autonomous thinker.

In the first book of the Discussiones, Patrizi disposed of
Aristotle's good name by finding him dissolute in his life,
disloyal to Plato, and even hostile to Alexander, in whose
untimely death he may have conspired. As for Aristotle's
works, only four of six hundred and forty-six titles that Patrizi
found attributed to him were incontestably genuine, and none
of these was a standard university text. In deciding questions
of authenticity, Patrizi developed clear criteria that show a
strong critical sense well-informed by history and philology.
He was especially energetic in covering the whole range of
relevant ancient literature in Greek, and he had no patience
with those who read Aristotle in fragments, focusing on a few
parts of a few works and forgetting the Corpus as a whole, not
to speak of its larger literary context. After studying the vexed
question of Aristotle's exoteric and esoteric works, he identi-
fied the former as those that Aristotle gave to the public, the
latter as texts meant for private teaching purposes in the Ly-
ceum. In grouping the works, he was less interested in chronol-
ogy than in doctrine, arranging them in eight sets according to
the greater or lesser generality of their contents. This new


placement of texts created patterns and juxtapositions unlike
anything known to the Peripatetic tradition.

The second and third books of the Discussiones include
Patrizi's version of the mythic ancient theology as well as his
original interpretation of the more historical pre-Socratic think-
ers. In both cases his intention was polemical, to destroy
Aristotle's authority as historian of ancient philosophy and to
exclude him from the mainstream of pia philosophia, the Pla-
tonic piety that Patrizi found better suited than Aristotelianism
to Christianity. The same motives are visible in the dedication
to Pope Gregory XIV of Patrizi's other major work of philo-
sophy, the Nova de universis philosophia, first published in
1591 and revised in 1593, four years before he died. 68 He told
Gregory that there were four pious philosophies, those of
Zoroaster, Hermes, and Plato in addition to his own, and he
urged the pope to use his system instead of Aristotle's in all
Catholic schools and universities, especially those run by the
Jesuits. 'It has become fixed in the minds of common people,'
he complained,

and many of the learned as well, that most of those who do philo-
sophy have neither good nor pious feelings about the Catholic faith or
else believe incorrectly or not at all, and philosophers have become
the butt of a joke common everywhere: 'He's a philosopher; he
doesn't believe in God.' For they see in all the schools of Europe, in
all the monasteries, that Aristotelian philosophy alone is highly valued
and taught with great interest. But they learn and they know that only
this philosophy . . . takes away God's omnipotence and providence. 69

Applying his knowledge of Philo, Josephus, and other Greek
sources ignored by the Peripatetics, Patrizi reaffirmed the his-
toriography proposed by Ficino in the previous century. Zoro-
aster, taken to be a son of Noah, and the Chaldaean Abraham
passed on a holier wisdom to Hermes Trismegistus and the
Egyptians, from whom Orpheus took it to Greece. Orpheus



Antonaci's first volume ( 1984) does not cover the Nova de universis
philosophia, but there is a summary in Brickman ( 1941) and in Kristeller
( 1064a).


Vasoli ( 1983b: 575-6) quotes from the preface to the Nova de universis


was the first Greek theologian, followed by Thales in mathe-
matics, Democritus in natural philosophy, and Pythagoras in
moral philosophy. From Orpheus and the others the Eleatics
learned their theology, which was not at all the materialism
that Aristotle attributed to Xenophanes, Parmenides, Melissus,
and Zeno. What little Aristotle got right in his own philosophy
also came from Orpheus, and he was certainly wrong to mater-
ialize the soul of Empedocles or the fire of Anaxagoras, which
Patrizi interpreted allegorically as spiritual principles.

Patrizi found the evidence for his reconstruction of the ori-
gins of philosophy in Diogenes Laertius, in the Neoplatonic
commentaries of Simplicius and Philoponus, and also in various
texts now regarded as pseudo-Aristotelian. Of the last, the
most important for Patrizi was the pseudo-Aristotelian Theol-
, which he rejected as spurious in the Discussiones but
then published as genuine in an appendix to his New Philo-
along with the Chaldaean Oracles and Hermetica, even
though the authenticity of the latter had been challenged by
other critics. The Theology is a collection of excerpts from
Plotinus in a ninth-century Arabic version discovered earlier in
the sixteenth century, but Patrizi concluded that it contained
Aristotle's record of Plato's private talks on Egyptian wisdom.
His final evaluation of the Theology had two important results:
it uncovered a channel for the transmission of Plato's secret
teaching to Plotinus; and it reconnected at least one work by
Aristotle with the ancient theology, from which the Discus-
had cut him off entirely. 70 To appreciate the scope and
flavour of the work in which Patrizi filled this critical gap
between the Peripatetic tradition and pia philosophia, one
need only read its long and immodest title:

A New Philosophy of Universes contained in fifty books, in which one
rises to the first cause by the Aristotelian method, not through motion
but through light [lux] and brightness [lumen]; then, by a certain new
and special method, all of divinity comes into view; finally, the universe
is derived from God, its creator, by the Platonic method. . . . To these
books are added the Oracles of Zoroaster . . ., the treatises and frag-



Kraye ( 1986).


ments of Hermes Trismegistus . . . [and] Asclepius . . . [and] the mystic
philosophy of the Egyptians dictated by Plato and taken down by
Aristotle. . . .

Despite Patrizi's dedication to Pope Gregory and a subsequent
invitation from Clement VIII to take up a chair of Platonic
philosophy at the Sapienza in Rome, the Congregation of the
Index condemned the work, worried, no doubt, by its religious
universalism and also by its undermining of the Peripatetic
basis of Catholic dogma.

Patrizi's style in all his books, whether Latin or Italian, is
dense and learned, strewn with quotations from classical
sources. Brevity and clarity meant little to him in works not
meant for the faint-hearted or uninformed. His New Philo-
was some time in preparation; the final printing appeared
in 1593, by which time the Roman watchdogs had begun to
bark and troubles with the censors left his project somewhat
short of what he intended. The New Philosophy has four parts,
each glorified by a Greek name: Panaugia, Panarchia, Pam-
, and Pancosmia; or All-Splendour, All-Principle, All-
Soul, and All-World. The subject of. Panaugia is light, long
treated as a metaphysical principle by Platonists. God, the first
light (prima lux), produces the illumination (lumen) that ter-
minates in lucent, transparent, and, finally, opaque bodies.
The original divine lux is incorporeal, as suggested by its
power to penetrate instantaneously, but the lumen diffused
through the world is both incorporeal and corporeal, extended
yet unresisting. Optics describes the activity of light, whose
types are graded hierarchically, like those of darkness, under-
stood as a real entity rather than a privation of light. Another
hierarchy is that of the principles set forth in Panarchia.
Un'omnia, the One-All, is the ultimate source that produces
three levels of nine principles in all. The four that remain
within the One -- unity, essence, life, and mind -- are insensible,
incorporeal and indestructible, but contrary properties weaken
the condition of the four that lie below, outside the One --
nature, quality, form and body. Soul lies between in fifth place
as intermediary. Patrizi's system is more complicated than its


sources, of which Plotinus, Proclus, and Ficino were the most
important; his command of Platonic texts surpassed any West-
ern effort since antiquity, except Ficino's.

Pampsychia, the third and briefest of the four sections, is an
extrapolation from Panarchia, which also deals with soul, anima
and animus, particular souls and soul as such. If light is a
corporeal incorporeal, soul is an incorporeal corporeal, and
hence well suited to mediate between material and immaterial
being. Soul is both one and many, and the world itself is
ensouled. The fourth part of the work, Pancosmia, is the most
original. In it Patrizi criticized a number of Aristotelian doc-
trines and proposed a novel philosophy of nature that links
him with such sixteenth-century naturalists as Telesio and
Bruno and also looks forward to Gassendi and other seven-
teenth-century figures. As with Pico and Cusanus, Patrizi's
originality makes it hard to find the right pigeon-hole for him;
though he was a fervent Platonist, his curiosity about nature
made him an unusual one. Rejecting the Aristotelian elements,
he suggested his own set of four: spatium (space), lumen (light),
calor (heat), and fluor (fluid or flux), simple substances that
combine in different proportions to form a hierarchy of mixed
bodies: heaven, ether, air, stars, water, and earth. When light
radiates through space, it encounters fluor as a principle of
resistance and finally produces bodily objects. The original
difference between embodied objects and the incorporeal space
that contains them is that the former possess resistance (the
Epicurean antitupia), while the latter offers no resistance to
things moving through it.

Space comes first in the order of time and being. It is prior
to all other things and a condition of their existence; therefore,
the mathematical properties of space are more basic than the
physical properties of the bodies that it contains. Although he
produced more numerology than quantitative analysis, Patrizi
raised mathematics to a higher theoretical status than Peri-
patetics commonly granted it. In particular, his distinction
between mathematical space and physical body would surface
later in objections made by Newton, Leibniz, and others to the
Cartesian concept of extension. Patrizi also used empirical


arguments against Aristotle, though his examples are not ori-
ginal or based on firsthand experience. At the least, when he
contradicted Aristotelian doctrine on the vacuum with the
common experience of a bellows, he helped make a place in
natural philosophy for empirical reference. Most important,
his concept of space, which allowed for vacua and physical
infinity, was a real advance on the Aristotelian notion of topos
or 'place' and influenced later developments in cosmology.
The word that Patrizi used, spatium, is the same term that
appeared in Latin translations of Philoponus which criticized
the Aristotelian doctrine and which were certainly known to
Patrizi. It was also the word that Newton used a century later.
Patrizi's concept of a light-filled cosmic space had more in
common with Proclus than with Newton, but it is worth noting
that his richly speculative system had its effect on the seven-
teenth-century reform of natural philosophy. 71

In the Renaissance, no ancient revival had more impact on
the history of philosophy than the recovery of Platonism, once
granted that the Peripatetic tradition needed no such rebirth.
No other renewal of an ancient school had a textual base large
enough to support the growth of a coherent, wide-reaching,
and independent philosophical system -- a system like Patrizi's,
in other words. For at least three reasons, the new Platonism
of Ficino and his successors must be seen as central to any
discussion of European intellectual history during the period in
question. First, the rich doctrinal content and formal elegance
of Neoplatonic Platonism made it at least a plausible competi-
tor with Peripateticism. What the Neoplatonists lacked in sys-
tematic logic and natural philosophy, they made up for with a
stronger appeal to creativity. They gave more latitude to all
kinds of speculation, from aesthetics and mythology to cos-
mology and theology. After Ficino, anyone who disliked Aris-
totle could turn to Plato. Few took the opportunity, but some
of those who did -- Zorzi, Steuco, Mazzoni, Patrizi -- made their
mark. The second strength of Platonism was its extra-philoso-
phical influence. Despite his harsh words for poetry, Plato



Henry ( 1979); Schmitt ( 1981: ch. 7); Long and Sedley ( 1987: i. 34-5).


initiated a tradition that poets admired, from Petrarch, Landino,
and. Benivieni to Michelangelo, Ronsard, and Spencer. The
same is true of his treatment of music, which played a key role
in Ficino's magic and eventually inspired the Orphic narratives
of early opera. Finally, certain attitudes and methods of the
new science were more Platonic than Aristotelian. The habit
of idealizing physics, which was fundamental to the new science
of the seventeenth century, came more easily to the Platonic
mentality than to the Peripatetic. Even more important was
Platonic praise of mathematics. For Aristotle, physics and
mathematics did not really mix, while Plato gave good grounds
for a mathematical analysis of nature. Platonism never van-
quished Aristotelianism in the Renaissance, but it acquired
great cultural strength.



Rambler's Top100
Hosted by uCoz