Ficino, Marsilio 1433–1499 Italian Translator and Philosopher

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Ficino, Marsilio 1433–1499
Italian translator and philosopher

Italian scholar Marsilio Ficino became famous for his translations of the works of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. He was also a prominent philosopher in his own right, known for his attempts to merge Plato's ideas with Christian theology*.

Translator and Author. Ficino's father was the court physician to Cosimo de' Medici, the political leader of Florence. Marsilio received training to prepare him for a medical career, and he wrote about medicine in later life. However, his main interest from an early age was the ideas of Plato. After studying Plato through the writings of medieval* scholars who wrote in Latin, Ficino set out to learn Greek so that he could understand Plato more thoroughly. By the late 1450s he had acquired enough skill to translate several Greek texts. Cosimo, learning of Ficino's abilities, asked him in 1462 to translate some of Plato's works. Cosimo gave Ficino a house in Florence and a small villa* outside the city with some farmland attached to it, which provided him with income.

By 1468 Ficino had finished the first draft of his translation of Plato's complete works, but it took him another 16 years to revise and publish the work. A second edition, which appeared in 1491 and went through many printings, became the most widely accepted Latin version of Plato's works. Ficino also translated the works of other writers. In 1469 he created an Italian translation of On Monarchy, by the medieval writer Dante Alighieri.

At the same time, Ficino wrote several books of his own. His Platonic Theology (1482) was a major work on the religious ideas of Plato and other ancient writers. In other texts, Ficino attacked the use of astrology* to predict the future, proposed ideas on how to control the plague*, and commented on the works of Plato and other thinkers. Along with his writing and translating activity, Ficino served as a priest and held a position in Florence's cathedral.

Thinker and Theologian. Ficino generally based his philosophy on the ideas of Plato. However, he blended these beliefs with other ideas from fields as diverse as medicine and magic. His chief goal as a philosopher was to prove that the basic ideas of Christianity were compatible with Plato's philosophy. Ficino believed that God had given the ancient Greeks and Romans, such as Plato, prophets and belief systems similar to those of the ancient Hebrews, and that the two religious traditions had a common source. He claimed that ancient writings foretold the coming of Jesus and hinted at other Christian concepts, such as the Holy Trinity.

Ficino focused on the religious and metaphysical* ideas in Plato's work and linked them to Christian theology. He developed the concept that God is the source of both the human consciousness, or soul, and the greater Soul of the universe as a whole. This universal Soul, in turn, is the source of all physical reality. He believed that individual human souls could reunite with God through love, prayer, and thought. His idea of the soul's union with God led him to declare the soul is immortal, a concept accepted as official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church at the Fifth Lateran Council of 1512–1517. However, the church showed less support for Ficino's views on magic and on the nature of the universe, which he saw as a living, conscious spirit. His On Life (1489) emphasized the unity and harmony of all creation and described human beings as the link between the physical world and the ideal world of the mind. Ideas such as his emphasis on the power of intellectual love had a great influence on the development of Western thought.

(See alsoCouncils; Humanism; Philosophy. )

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* villa

luxurious country home and the land surrounding it

* astrology

study of the supposed influences of the stars and planets on earthly events

* plague

highly contagious and often fatal disease that wiped out much of Europe's population in the mid-1300s and reappeared periodically over the next three centuries; also known as the Black Death

* metaphysical

concerned with the nature of reality and existence