Ficino, Marsilio

   Florentine translator and Neo-platonic philosopher, associated with the Medici family, who became his patrons. The son of a personal physician to Cosimo de'Medici, he received a medical rather than a humanistic education. Thus although the great philosophical influence on his intellectual development was the works of Plato and the Hellenistic Neo-platonists, he also had a firm grounding in the philosophy of Aristotle. His studies of late classical Platonists and of Christian Platonists aroused his interest in the works of Plato himself, few of which had been translated into Latin. In order to study Plato and his disciples, Ficino took up the study of the Greek language and by the end of the 1450s and the early 1460s was able to make Latin translations for his own use. Cosimo de'Medici, who was interested in philosophy and literature, heard of Ficino's reputation and in 1462 asked him to translate all of the works of Plato. Cosimo soon also asked him to translate a collection of short philosophical treatises attributed to a fictitious Greek sage known as Hermes Trismegistus, the so-called Hermetic literature. Ficino rapidly completed the translation of these brief texts, now known as the Corpus hermeticum. He also continued working on the arduous task of translating all of Plato into Latin. By 1468 he had completed rough drafts of all of the texts. In 1484 a revised text was printed, the first edition of Plato's works ever to be printed in any language. This translation remained the standard text of Plato used by readers of Latin until the 18th century.
   As he struggled with the translation of Plato, Ficino also struggled to reconcile his growing enthusiasm for the philosophy of this pagan philosopher with his Christian faith. His ultimate resolution of this problem was a conviction that Plato, with his emphasis on spiritual things and his belittling of the material world, was not only compatible with Christian faith but had been sent by divine providence to bring philosophers closer to the essential beliefs of Christian faith.
   The symbolic act marking resolution of his own spiritual conflict was his decision to be ordained as a priest in 1473. Ficino made his conviction of the harmony between Platonism and Christianity the foundation of his own philosophical works. His Theologia Platónica de immortalitate animae (1474; published 1482) followed the structure of a medieval scholastic treatise but drew heavily on those whom he called "the ancient theologians." Its principal goal was to set forth convincing proofs of the immortality of the human soul. In 1474 he published concurrent Italian and Latin versions of another work dealing with his faith, De Christiana religione /On the Christian Religion. Other important works, all based on Platonic philosophy, were his commentary on the Symposium of Plato, called De amore / On Love (circulated in manuscript from 1469); De triplici vita / On Threefold Life (1489), which contained his attempt to reconstruct the dangerous subject of magic in a way that banished evil spirits and relied on spiritual preparation to release the powers of the human soul; and a large collection of Latin letters (1495) in which he applied his Platonic principles to various issues. Ficino continued his work as a translator of late Platonic (Neoplatonic) works, including the Enneades of Plotinus (1492), the most influential ancient Neoplatonic philosopher; a volume of translations from other representatives of ancient Neoplatonism such as Porphyry, Iamblichus, Synesius, Proclus, and Psellus (1497); and a new translation (1496) of the works of the Christian Neoplatonist known as Dionysius the Areopagite (now called pseudo-Dionysius). Ficino lectured on the works of these authors and on Plato himself to a select group of admirers, the "Platonic Academy of Florence" (which was not a formal educational institution), and his commentaries on Plato, cast in a dialogue form borrowed from the philosopher himself, were published in 1496.
   Finally, though he is always remembered solely as a philosopher, Ficino was also a physician and published one influential medical treatise in Italian, Consiglio contro la pestilenza / Advice against the Plague (1479; published in 1481). His emphasis on the importance of spiritual rather than material reality made him as a physician especially interested in the relations between medicine and religion, and his philosophical works (especially De vita, with its potentially dangerous discussion of "spiritual magic") had implications for the treatment of depression and other psychological disorders. He was critical of the conventional and materialistic implications of the influential science of astrology and published an attack on judicial astrology, yet his own medical and philosophical doctrines take for granted the influence of the celestial world on earthly affairs.
   Ficino believed in the concept of prisca theologia, the idea that God had made direct revelations of religious truth to all the ancient peoples, not just the Jews, and that the writings attributed to such shadowy ancient sages as the Persian Zoroaster, the Egyptian Hermes, and the Greek Pythagoras represented this "ancient theology" which extended back before the beginnings of recorded time. In his opinion, much of this ancient wisdom had culminated in the philosophy of Plato. Ficino's interpretation of Plato was heavily influenced by his study of the so-called Hermes Trismegistus and by the genuine works of the Alexandrian Neoplatonist Plotinus. His brand of Neo-platonism is very different from the Platonism of Plato himself. Nevertheless, his achievement in translating not only Plato but also the principal ancient Neoplatonist philosophers into Latin, the universal language of scholars, was a major contribution to the assimilation of ancient culture into Renaissance culture.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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