Plato’s portrayal of Socrates in the Republic as a sage critical of Greek democracy and devoted to meditation on timeless and immaterial truths lent itself so well to the new social sentiment that it supplanted the Roman statesman as the ideal of human life. Fascinated by the humanist rediscovery of classical ideals Cosimo de’ Medici selected his doctor’s gifted young son, Marsilio Ficino, to become a Greek scholar and Platonic philosopher.
An intellectual giant whose mind comprehended and synthesized complete philosophical systems, Ficino opened his Platonic Academy, not a school in the formal sense, but a salon where he oversaw the scholarly discussions of friends and visitors, at Careggi in 1466.
Two years later he edited the entire corpus of Plato, published by the Aldine Press in Venice, and translated Plato’s Dialogues into Latin. In 1469 Ficino composed his commentary on Plato’s Symposium and translated various treatises of Plotinus, Proclus, Porphyry, and Dionysius the Areopagite.
From 1469 to 1474, he developed his “pious philosophy” or “learned religion,” an elaborate Neoplatonic philosophical edifice, in his masterpiece, the Theologia Platonica. Emphasizing that divine poetry and allegory furnish the veil of true religion, which can only be expressed mystically and not in precise syllogisms, Ficino’s system proved quite congenial to several Renaissance poets, authors, and artists.
Central to Ficino’s system were the twin suppositions that the individual constitutes the center of the universe and that the goal of human life lies in the internal ascent of the soul toward the divine or God. Drawing heavily on Plotinus’s Enneads, Ficino pictured the cosmos and everything within it as a great hierarchy of being and described the “One,” or God, as the absolute universal essence.
God is the coincidentia oppositorum, or the reconciliation of all opposites, in whom all things find unity. Embracing infinity within himself, God brings the lesser orders into being through emanations from his substance, resulting in a ladder of bodies, natural attributes, souls, and angelic minds that delineates the way of ascent to the One.
At the center of this ladder, humanity is bound to the material realm by the body and to the intelligible, or spiritual, realm by the soul, which facilitates its rise to divine reunion through contemplation. For Ficino such philosophical contemplation comprises a spiritual experience in which the soul retreats from the body and from all external things into its own being, learning that it is a product of divine emanation and that God is therefore immanent.
Derivative from this conception is the immortality of the soul, as Ficino insists that no mortal entity can partake of the beatific vision. At this juncture Ficino imports Christian theology into his system: Where Plotinus had envisaged a mediator, or demiurge, between the untainted One and the subdivided intelligible and material realm, Ficino identified this mediator with the divine Logos, or Christ, “the Word who became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14).
As the intermediary between God and humanity, Christ both serves as an archetype of sanctified humanity and leads fallen humanity to love God. Moreover Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross proves God’s unfailing love for humanity and frees all human souls for the ascent to God.
In order for the individual to reach the divine, however, Ficino contended that the soul must make a leap of spiritual love by loving God for his own sake, thereby attaining participation in the One, who is, by nature, love. This notion of “Platonic love” is the nucleus of Ficino’s philosophy, since the universe is formed and ruled by the ideal of love. Accordingly, four spheres of aesthetic values find their center in the good, the moral nature of God, which is immovable and emanates divine majesty throughout the universe.
Ficino maintained that body and soul could only be inseparable, as they will be in the general resurrection, if they are merged into the activity of love. Therefore love originates in God and manifests as spiritual love in the angelic minds and becomes sensual, pleasurable, and erotic love in the corporeal realm.
Since humans possess free will, they can choose between the spiritual love of the intelligible realm and the erotic love of the physical domain. Ficino postulated a “light metaphysic” in which light is the laughter of heaven and expresses the joy of the communion of saints. This cosmology harmonized nicely with prevailing astrological theories already exerting a profound influence on many Renaissance thinkers.
Most brilliant of Ficino’s pupils was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the youngest son of Francesco Pico, count of Mirandola and Concordia, a small principality just west of Ferrara. Although matriculating at the University of Bologna at 14, he longed for international travel and left on a “student wandering” that took him to universities throughout Germany and France.
At Paris he became fascinated by the study of Scholastic theology and linguistics, learning Latin and Greek, but also Hebrew, Arabic, and other Near Eastern languages. He then took up study of the Kabbalah, or Jewish mystical tradition, and the Talmud. Cultivating his interest in mysticism, the Kabbalah enabled Pico to view the world and all states of affairs therein as revelations of the immanent presence of God.
In 1486 Pico journeyed to Rome, where he published 900 Conclusiones, as a thesis for a public disputation he wished to hold. Pope Alexander VI deemed several of Pico’s theses as heretical and blocked distribution of his small book. In his defense Pico drew up an Apology, which convinced Alexander to exonerate Pico from the anathema and confirm his orthodoxy. As a rhetorical preface to the Conclusiones, Pico wrote his famous “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” perhaps the most influential essay of the Renaissance.
Exceeding the anthropological assessment of his teacher Ficino, Pico asserted that humanity is the king of creation and the product of unique divine design rather than merely the middle link in the great chain of being. Such greatness is based on the human ability to renounce the material and direct all attention and energy to the spiritual aspect.
Attempting to reconcile Neoplatonic philosophy with the Jewish scriptures, Pico followed a line of Jewish exegetical tradition ranging from Philo of Alexandria (30 b.c.e.–50 c.e.) to Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) by interpreting its narratives as symbolic of a deeper and hidden meaning. In 1491 Pico composed the Heptaplus, a mystical commentary on the Genesis creation account, and Of Being and Unity, a philosophical treatise on the relationship between God and the world. He was drawn to the preaching of the friar Savonarola.
Savonarola’s accent of human sinfulness and demands for reform in the church provoked Pico to reflect on the darker side of human life. Pico wrote lamentful commentaries on selected Psalms, including the seven penitential ones (Pss. 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143), and on the Lord’s Prayer, where he underscored human dependence on God and the desperate human need for divine grace.
For the next two years Pico devised a new way of interpreting classical myths and themes by combining pagan motifs with Christian symbols. For Pico the only correct reading of ancient myths and stories was allegorical, as their true meaning was only to be understood by thorough analysis.
Such a meaning, when found, would always lie within the domain of Christian theology, thus illustrating the harmony of God’s natural revelation through the Gentiles and special revelation in the Bible. The myth of Mars and Venus, for example, foreshadowed the Christian moral sentiments that love triumphs over violence and that reason should control passion.
This method would greatly influence Florentine humanism and art and is perhaps most clearly seen in the mythological paintings of Sandro Botticelli (1444–1510). In 1494 Pico died of a fever, when King Charles VIII of France went to Florence during his invasion of Italy and Savonarola took over governance of the city.
Based on their uniting of “profane wisdom,” or classical myths, with “sacred wisdom,” or Christian teachings, Ficino, Pico, and their followers devised a Neo platonic theory of symbolism, according to which each symbol not only displays the meaning and effect of what is represented, but also becomes interchangeable with it.
By sharing that which is portrayed, art and literature can move the soul to the transcending appreciation of beauty. The Florentine Neoplatonists substantiated this view through a circular relationship of beauty, love, and happiness, where beauty induces love and love generates voluptas, or pleasure. This circle was explained through both Christian theology and Greek mythology.
In Christian thought love is beauty and divine, the longing God has for the salvation of all souls. This love flows out of God and is carried off into the world, transforming the love of God for the world into the love of a person for God; thus beauty is converted into love.
The person becomes a vehicle for God’s love, loving other people for the sake of God, at which point love becomes felicity. The circle is complete when this felicity returns to its Creator in affective piety. For these reasons, the Florentine Neoplatonists regarded both humanistic learning and religion as paths to spiritual life, both culminating in the apprehension of God.