Plato, Platonism, and Neoplatonism

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Plato, Platonism, and Neoplatonism

Plato (ca. 428–348 b.c.) was one of the leading philosophers of ancient Greece. His system of thought, known as Platonism, gained favor with many scholars during the Renaissance. Among those who studied Plato were Nicholas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

At the beginning of the period, Italian scholars knew little of Plato's work. Because Latin was the language of educated people, few could read or translate Greek. During the 1400s, however, many Greek scholars came to Italy. Some of them brought with them Greek texts previously unknown to western Europe. With their arrival, more scholars became aware of Plato's importance and tried to translate his works. Humanists*, who were eager to learn Greek and promote its use, began translating Plato's work for literary, educational, and political purposes. In 1462 Ficino began a project to translate all of Plato's works into Latin for his patron* Cosimo de' Medici. Ficino published the Complete Works of Plato in 1484, and in 1496 he added his Commentary on Plato. These two works helped to spread Platonism.

Neoplatonism. Most Renaissance scholars approached Plato's works through the writings of Plotinus, an ancient philosopher who had lived several centuries after Plato. Plotinus had developed a school of thought called Neoplatonism, which built on the ideas of Plato. Ficino, in particular, relied heavily on the ideas of Plotinus.

A form of Neoplatonism unique to the Renaissance emerged with the work of the Greek educator George Gemistus, who adopted the name Pletho to link himself more closely with Plato and Plotinus. Pletho dreamed of reviving Neoplatonism as a form of theology* and even wrote hymns to Platonic ideas such as light and goodness. His critics accused him of trying to replace Christianity with a pagan* religion based on Plato. Nonetheless, Pletho influenced many Christian thinkers through his writings. His argument that Plato's reasoning was superior to that of Aristotle, another ancient Greek thinker, sparked a lively debate among philosophers.

One of Pletho's most important supporters was the Greek humanist Bessarion. In his four-part defense of Plato, Bessarion tried to show that Plato's thinking was consistent with Christian teachings. He also argued that the ideas of Plato and Aristotle had much in common. This work introduced Italians to the debate about the merits of the two ancient Greeks. It went through many printings and became an important source for scholars.

The Nature of Reality. Renaissance scholars took special interest in Plato's idea of a perfect, eternal reality outside of the physical world. Although Plato had lived in a pagan culture, Renaissance thinkers examined his writings through Christian eyes. Ficino, for example, tried to prove that there was no conflict between Plato's philosophy and the basic ideas of Christianity. Ficino argued that the belief systems of the ancient Greeks and Romans, such as Plato, were similar to those of the ancient Hebrews and had sprung from the same source. Scholars such as Ficino and Pico hoped to use Plato's ideas to mend the long-standing divide between religion and philosophy.

Renaissance thinkers revived the Neoplatonist idea that all of nature has a soul. In exploring this idea, they drew on theories of magic handed down from the Middle Ages and from Arab scholars. However, their goal was not to control nature, as magicians tried to do, but to find a connection between the human soul and a larger "World-Soul." They sought this connection through such different fields as music, number symbolism, and astrology*. Critics of this view claimed that it linked human souls to demons and spirits.

Students of Plato focused on the idea of human beings as the image and likeness of God. They believed that each human soul longed to reunite with the universal soul of nature. Scholars such as Ficino and Pico believed that human beings could, through intellect and will, reach a godlike state and achieve union with God and the universe.

Philosophers also explored Plato's ideas about love, which they saw as the longing or desire for beauty. The Neoplatonists' thoughts about love and desire had a great influence on other fields, such as art and literature. They inspired, among others, the Italian painters Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo Buonarroti, the English poet Edmund Spenser, and the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei.

(See alsoGreek Émigrés; Humanism; Numerology; Philosophy. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* pagan

referring to ancient religions that worshiped many gods, or more generally, to any non-Christian religion

* astrology

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

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Plato, Platonism, and Neoplatonism

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