Marsilio Ficino

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Plato asserted that in all things there is one truth, that is the light of the One itself, the light of Deity, which is poured into all minds and forms, presenting the forms to the minds and joining the minds to the forms. Whoever wishes to profess the study of Plato should therefore honour the one truth, which is the single ray of the one Deity. This ray passes through angels, souls, the heavens and other bodies ... its splendour shines in every individual thing according to its nature and is called grace and beauty; and where it shines more clearly, it especially attracts the man who is watching, stimulates him who thinks, and catches and possesses him who draws near to it. This ray compels him to revere its splendour more than all else, as if it were a divine spirit, and, once his former nature has been cast aside, to strive for nothing else but to become this splendour.


The Florentine Renaissance, like a flaming torch held out in the darkness preceding dawn, blazoned forth in the great trading centres of the Italian peninsula. It rapidly spread out its rays northward and westward until European nations were stirred by scintillating suggestions which matured in the prismatic and cool brilliance of Elizabethan England. Nature works in a continuous if gradual fashion. Even if the bud bursts into flower in a single night, the entire life of the plant has inexorably led to the flashing moment of triumph. So also in human history: the mighty manifestations of ideas and epochs were gestated long before their birth. The Renaissance was revolutionary in its uninhibited return to the values, canons and concerns of the classical world, and evolutionary in its distillation of ideas and insights rescued from the Dark Ages. It was daring in its attitudes, especially in its adoration of nature and its apotheosis of humanity as that vital portion of nature which can transcend it through the awakening of consciousness to its divine source. The interdependence of human activities is clearly seen in the diversity of this epoch. Knights from the Crusades brought home exotic tales of Islamic splendour and Eastern wisdom. Princes sought precious manuscripts and scholars translated them. Traders aided the flow of thought and art amid the transport of goods westward, while explorers sailed into uncharted regions. So adventurous were the times that cities and states would halt commerce and nearly risk revolutionary outbursts whilst the restive populace struggled with philosophical issues and aesthetic problems. The iron grip of the dogmatic church upon a decadent Christendom was first loosened, then removed altogether through the release of creative energy that encouraged many people to rethink freely their own place in the grand scheme of collective awareness.

The noble and gentle Pico della Mirandola set forth in his Oration on the Dignity of Man and exemplified in the sweetness and courage of his short life the potent essence of the Renaissance spirit. Through his vast vision he intuited the living lineaments of the Seven Century Plan, which sought to restore the Mysteries, sedulously preserved in the East, on a permanent footing in the Western world. The elder colleague who survived Pico and provided the broad context for his work was Marsilio Ficino. His vivid intensity and deep dedication of purpose could not be surpassed. Marsilio Ficino was born on October 19, 1433, at Figline, a small town in the upper Arno Valley. His father was a prominent physician, and when the family settled in Florence, he joined the court of Cosimo dei Medici. His mother was gifted with second sight, a trait she passed on in some measure to her son. Marsilio grew up within the cultured atmosphere of Florence and received the humanistic education of the day in a studio pubblico. In 1439, when Marsilio was six years old, Florence welcomed a general council of the church in a belated attempt to reunite Eastern and Western Christendom. There Cosimo dei Medici met the Byzantine philosopher Gemistos Plethon of Mistra, whose legendary love of Platonic philosophy was contagious. Even as the representatives of the divided church laboured towards an agreement that would be repudiated almost as soon as the council ended, Gemistos saw in Florence the possibility of refounding the Platonic Academy and fulfilling his dream of superseding divergent forms of Christianity with the integrative theosophy of the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition. He fired Cosimo's imagination, and the esteemed Florentine kept the idea alive in his heart until time and circumstance ripened. As Marsilio grew in stature and learning, Cosimo noticed his avid interest in Plato, all the more remarkable in that Marsilio did not know Greek and Plato had not been much translated into Latin. Marsilio's modesty and generous warmth so impressed Cosimo that he offered to supply the means for a complete education, including the study of Greek, if Marsilio in turn would translate Plato into Latin and become his courageous spokesman in the West. Marsilio readily agreed and eventually translated all of the dialogues, which were printed by the newly developed press in 1491. Just as Plato destroyed what he had written prior to meeting Socrates, Marsilio consigned his youthful writings to the flames and turned to the Greek manuscripts of the master. Marsilio trained himself for seven years before undertaking the translation of Plato.

The Florentine Academy grew, without constitution or officers, based solely upon mutual dedication to learning and to the teachings of Plato and the neo-Platonists. In what has been called the Age of Academies, this school became the touchstone of Renaissance thought, influencing the whole of Italy and spreading by intensive correspondence throughout Europe. A philosophical school with a deep spiritual aspiration, the Academy was not political. Nevertheless, its fortunes were tied to the Medicis. In 1462 Cosimo gave Marsilio a modest villa on the slopes of Montevecchio near the Medici estate at Careggi, not far from Florence, to be used for meetings of the Academy. There Marsilio had his study in which he placed a mural of the globe flanked by Heraclitus in a pose of sadness and by laughing Demosthenes. Tradition adds that Marsilio kept in his study a lamp burning before a bust of Plato. In addition, Cosimo bestowed on Marsilio a private house in Florence so that he might be near by at all times. Marsilio worked and wrote, composing translations and commentaries and delivering lectures to friends and the general public. His first major work, a detailed commentary on the Philebus, was read to Cosimo to his great pleasure just twelve days before he died. Piero, Cosimo 's son and successor, showed little personal interest in the affairs of the school, but continued his father's support and made Marsilio the chief tutor of his brilliant son Lorenzo. Second only to Marsilio in the love of Plato, Lorenzo proved to be a devoted student, an able thinker and generous benefactor.

In 1473 Marsilio was ordained in minor orders and made canon of the Florentine church of San Lorenzo. He saw in the Platonic tradition the true roots and philosophical foundations of Christianity, and he strove to expunge the dead weight of Aristotelian scholasticism from the spiritual heart of the message of Christ. Though always delicate in health, he carried out his duties energetically, teaching, preaching, composing his Platonic Theology on the immortality of souls and On the Christian Religion, and translating Dante's De Monarchia into Italian. When his parents grew too old to care for themselves, he moved in with them and cared for them until they died. He inundated his friends with warm, philosophical letters, urging them to renounce the excesses of the corrupt church and to live the Christian life as illuminated by Plato. His own life remained simple and with few needs. Unlike scholars who had grown rich on patronage gained through intimidation and flattery, Marsilio never hesitated to commend the ethical life to the Medicis and asked for nothing in return, preferring to cultivate a refined taste without extravagance. His gratitude to his benefactors was great and unceasing, but he personally remained so poor that his works would never have been published save for the private assistance of friends. When Pico della Mirandola and Angelo Poliziano both died in 1494, Marsilio considered his work finished. The Medicis were expelled from Florence in the same year, and Marsilio was content to return to the country and restrict himself to occasional private instruction. When he died in 1499, a chancellor of the Florentine Republic gave the funeral oration.

For Marsilio, the dignity of man is the central fact of human existence, the lens through which all human endeavour must be seen and the touchstone of all values and standards of judgement and discrimination. This primordial feature of the human condition has a dual foundation: the immortality of the soul and its inherent divinity. So neglected were these ideas that neither formed part of church dogma, and so Marsilio humorously claimed to have discovered them. Largely because of his prodding, the doctrine of the soul's immortality was eventually recognized by the Lateran Council in 1512, but the doctrine of the soul's divinity, standing in opposition to the concept of original sin, was not accepted. Given this foundation, the dignity of man implies that there is a universal human community of evolving souls in which each individual is responsible for himself. Marsilio perceived that only one expression of human dignity is sufficient to embrace its full significance. Love alone can draw all individuals together, underwrite every institution, fuel every creative advance and link each human being to Deity. Marsilio found two dialogues that most completely expressed the ageless doctrines of the prisci theologi, the ancient theologians. The Symposium furnishes a complete philosophy and psychology of love, and Philebus, according to Marsilio, offers an understanding of the highest good through a dialectical discussion of pleasure and the vision of eternal, ineffable Good itself.

The universe, for Marsilio, is a grand, harmonious hierarchy of five distinct substances, each more specialized and particularized than its ontological predecessor. Beginning with boundless Deity, the descending order encompasses the angelic mind, the rational soul, quality and body. By distinguishing quality, which involves perception, from body, Marsilio placed man in the centre of the ladder of being on which every entity has its place. Man is the mean between absolute spirit and primordial matter, an ontological platform from which man can understand the world external to himself and aspire to knowledge of the divine orders from which he descends. All nature is thus bound by occult affinities, perhaps most clearly revealed in astrological correspondences, and the soul is that centre in which they all meet, the middle term of all things. The human soul is mysteriously linked to Anima Mundi, the World Soul, a microcosmic matrix of the intelligent forces of the macrocosm. If the universe is hierarchical and dynamic, the soul can understand it only through meditation. By its inward experience of itself, it is ready to recognize that of which it is the pristine reflection. The soul's contemplative flight to the Divine is made possible by two wings working together: intellect and will. In a letter to his close friend Michele Mercati, Marsilio portrayed Deity in a creative dialogue with the soul.

You ascend by understanding and love beyond any kind of intellect, to life itself, pure existence, absolute being. Understanding is not sufficient for you unless you not only understand well, but understand Good itself. Without doubt only the Good itself is sufficient for you, for the only reason you seek anything is because it is good.
Therefore, O soul, Good is your creator; not the good body, not the good mind, not the good intellect, but Good itself. . . . Do you desire to look on the face of Good? Then look around at the whole universe, full of the light of the sun. Look at the light of the material world, full of all forms in constant movement; take away the matter, leave the rest. You have the soul, an incorporeal light that takes all shapes and is full of change. Once again, take from this the changeability, and now you have reached the intelligence of the angels, the incorporeal light, taking all shapes but unchanging. Take away from this that diversity by which any form differs from the light, and which is infused into the light from elsewhere, and then the essence of the light and of each form is the same; the light gives form to itself and through its own forms gives form to everything. That light lights without limit, because it lights by its own nature and is not stained by mixture with something else. Nor can it diminish; belonging to nothing, it shines equally through all. Its life is self-dependent, and it confers life on all, seeing that its very shadow is the light of this sun.

By successive subtraction from consciousness of the lower levels of being, one reaches the Good itself. This stairway of knowledge is not climbed without an intense and incessant effort of will energized and sustained by love.

What then is the light of the sun? It is the shadow of God. So what is God? God is the sun of the sun; the light of the sun is Deity in the physical world, and Deity is the light of the sun above the intelligences of the angels. My shadow is such, O soul, that it is the most beautiful of all physical things. What do you suppose is the nature of my light? . . . Do you love the light everywhere above all else? Indeed, do you love the light alone? Love only me, O soul, alone the infinite light; love me, the light, boundlessly, I say; then you will shine and be infinitely delighted.

Unconditional love of the divine light alone brings the soul to its goal, permanent, conscious union with Deity. All lesser loves are put aside, and everything the individual might have thought himself to be outside this luminous conjunction of human and divine, perishes. Thus the soul says:

Who would think it? How full of life is that death by which I die in myself but live in Deity, by which I die to the dead but live for life, and live by life and rejoice in joy.

Transcending the rational mind and the imaginative intellect, the immortal soul expands its pure awareness in every direction which, paradoxically, draws it to its essence which is lit at the flame of the Divine. Marsilio's affirmation of the immortality of the soul is not an argument for the post mortem continuation of some personal and particularized human entity, but rather the emergence of the true self of every creature from its own source. Since divine illumination is the goal of the human being, immortality is a prerequisite for rescuing the soul from its bondage to illusions. Marsilio invoked every ancient argument to convince individuals of their immortality as the fulfilment and impetus to spiritual striving. Michele Mercati confided to his grandson that, in fulfilment of mutually exchanged vows, Marsilio had appeared to him in a luminous form after death to demonstrate the truth of immortality.

Marsilio's doctrine of love was derived from the Symposium. From the time of Plutarch, November 7 had been set aside in honour of Plato's birthday, a custom revived by Marsilio for the Florentine Academy. On that day in 1474, Marsilio gathered together the intimate members of the Academy to re-enact the Symposium, and he recorded the outcome as a short treatise, On Love. Love is the vital principle which calls forth the universe out of pregenetic chaos. It is also the binding force that unifies cosmos and holds together harmoniously all the levels within it. Further, love itself tends in the human soul to abolish its lesser forms for more universal expressions of it. If God is love, love is equally the active power in man and nature. In this sense man is the image of Deity. In The Christian Religion Marsilio wrote:

Let man revere himself as an image of the divine Deity. Let him hope to ascend again to God, even as the divine Majesty deigns in a mysterious way to descend to him. Let him love the Divine with all his heart, so as to transform himself into the Divine, who through singular love wonderfully transformed himself into man.

Christ represents the descent of divine love into the human realm and the possibility of man's ascent into the divine plenum. However vast the gulf between the two, love assures man that it may be bridged by contemplative effort, and even transcended entirely. Man can become God. True philosophy, the love of wisdom and the wisdom of love, is one with true religion, the love that binds humanity back to its divine source and origin. Plato and Christ taught the same message, which does not differ from the original and fundamental teaching of every religion and spiritual tradition.

Marsilio invented the term 'Platonic love', by which he meant friendship as the humane expression of divine love. Only because all human beings naturally love the Good itself can they cherish the virtues in one another. Authentic relationships and true friendships are rooted in and sustained by what is at the core of human life – the original love of the Divine. Thus every elevating relationship between any two individuals is in reality triadic, embracing the two friends and Deity. Just as the Socratic dialogue is the reflection of the preparatory dialectical process that occurs within each thinking human being, so too friendship aids the inward ascent of the soul towards the Spiritual Sun. Love itself is the attracting power of the Good, the preparation for the mystical life.

Since love unifies the universe and draws humanity towards its original state, it integrates the individual at each stage of the divine ascent. The Good is reflected on every level of being as the greatest unity possible on that plane and as pleasing to the consciousness abiding there. Happiness is the inward satisfaction and calm contentment which come from the increasing degrees of wholeness achieved through the conscious ascent of the soul. The ethical and intellectual joys of the philosophic mind are merely a prelude to the mystical bliss of meditation. Even the angelic mind must pass beyond all shadows to be lost in the ineffable light of the Good, the Agathon, Brahma Vach. This philosophical and mystical vision, though attenuated over time, left a profound impress which influenced the generations that followed Marsilio. Augustinus Steuchus was so touched by the mystical teaching of Marsilio that he wrote a volume entitled De Philosophia Perenni, proclaiming to Christendom the ancient tradition that there is a perennial wisdom that stands outside all cultures and epochs, inspiring what is authentic in every teaching and tradition, a haunting voice calling humanity back to itself and intimating the pure possibility of self-regeneration leading to rebirth in the Divine.