Ficino, Marsilio (1433–1499)

views updated May 23 2018


Marsilio Ficino, the founder of the Florentine Academy, was born the eldest son of a physician in Figline, near Florence. He studied the humanities, philosophy, and medicine in Florence but apparently did not obtain an academic degree. About 1456 he began to study Greek. In 1462 he received from Cosimo de' Medici a house in Careggi, near Florence, and several Greek manuscripts; this is regarded as the date the Platonic Academy of Florence was founded. Having earlier taken minor orders, Ficino was ordained in 1473; he held several ecclesiastic benefices and became a canon of Florence Cathedral in 1487. After the expulsion of the Medicis from Florence in 1494, Ficino, who had been closely associated with several generations of the family, apparently retired to the country. He was honored after his death in a funeral oration delivered by a chancellor of the republic of Florence.

Ficino became interested in Platonist philosophy at an early age, presumably through studying Augustine. His earliest extant writings also show familiarity with Aristotle and his commentators and with Lucretius. Among Ficino's Latin translations from the Greek, the first that attained a wide circulation was his version (1463) of the works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Ficino's translation of Plato, the first complete rendering of all his dialogues in any Western language, was begun in 1463, probably completed in 1469, subsequently revised, and first printed in 1484. His influential commentary on Plato's Symposium was written in 1469; the other Platonic commentaries, some of them extensive, belong to different periods of Ficino's life. The translation of and commentary on Plotinus was begun in 1484 and printed in 1492. Translations of Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, and other philosophers appeared in 1497. Ficino's chief philosophical work, Theologica Platonica de Immortalitate Animarum (Platonic theologyon the immortality of the souls) was written between 1469 and 1474 and was printed in 1482. Aside from this work and his commentaries, the most important source for Ficino's philosophy is his letters, which he began to collect around 1473 and finally published in 1495. Important also are his apologetic treatise De Christiana Religione (1474) and his work on medicine and astrology, De Vita Libri Tres (1489), which is often wrongly referred to as De Vita Triplici.

Ficino's work as a translator of and commentator on Plato and the Neoplatonists, and his avowed intention of reviving Platonism, led many older historians to treat his doctrine merely as a repetition of ancient Neoplatonism. More recently, however, a closer study of his known and unpublished works has shown that in restating the doctrines of Plato and his ancient followers, Ficino showed a good deal of originality. In addition, his writings show the influence of medieval and Byzantine Platonism, early Italian humanism, and also the tradition of scholastic Aristotelianism, which had a strong impact upon his terminology and method. He was familiar with Dante Alighieri and other Italian poets and wrote or rewrote several of his own works in the Tuscan vernacular.

Ficino was the founder and for many years the head and guiding spirit of the Platonic Academy of Florence, which has remained famous as a symbol and institutional center of Renaissance Platonism. The academy was not a firmly established institution in the manner of later academies but a rather loosely organized spiritual community of friends. We hear of informal discussions between the older members of the circle and of philosophical banquets celebrated on Plato's birthday. There were recitals of edifying orations before a small audience, private readings of Plato and other texts given by one or a few younger disciples, and public lectures on Plato and Plotinus delivered in a church or auditorium. Distinguished visitors from other Italian cities and abroad called upon Ficino or participated in the meetings, and Ficino's correspondence served as a vehicle both for maintaining contact with the members of the academy and for arousing the interest of strangers in the academy's activities. The catalog of his pupils, which he gives in one of his letters, and the list of the persons with whom he was in correspondence, whom he mentions, or who owned the manuscripts and printed editions of his writings are ample evidence of the wide influence he exerted during his lifetime.

Ficino's writings present a highly complex system of ideas, embroidered with similes, allegories, and lengthy quotations from his favorite authors. We can mention but a few of his more important and influential doctrines.


In his description of the universe, Ficino took from Neoplatonic and medieval sources the conception of a great hierarchy in which each being occupies its place and has its degree of perfection, beginning with God at the top and descending through the orders of the angels and souls, the celestial and elementary spheres, the various species of animals, plants, and minerals, down to qualityless prime matter. In spite of Ficino's indebtedness to earlier schemes, it appears on closer examination that his hierarchy differs in significant details from those of his predecessors. It is arranged in a final scheme of five basic substances: God, the angelic mind, the rational soul, quality, and body. This scheme comes fairly close to that of Plotinus but differs from it in various ways. Above all, quality did not constitute a separate level of being for Plotinus, who instead assigned separate places to the sensitive and vegetative faculties of the soul. It can be shown that Ficino intentionally revised the Plotinian scheme, partly to make it more symmetrical and partly to assign the privileged place in its center to the human soul, thus giving a kind of metaphysical setting and sanction to the doctrine of the dignity of man, which he had inherited from his humanist predecessors. The soul is truly the mean of all things created by God, Ficino tells us. It is in the middle between higher and lower beings, sharing some of its attributes with the former and some with the latter.

Ficino was not satisfied with a static hierarchy in which each degree merely stands beside the others and in which the relationship of degrees consists only in a continuous gradation of attributes. He was also convinced that the universe must have a dynamic unity and that its various parts and degrees are held together by active forces and affinities. For this reason, he revived the Neoplatonic doctrine of the world soul and made astrology part of a natural system of mutual influences. Since thought for Ficino has an active influence upon its objects, since love is an active force that binds all things together (as in Plato's Symposium ), and since the human soul extends its thought and love to all things, from the highest to the lowest, in Ficino's writing the soul becomes once more and in a new sense the center of the universe. The soul is the greatest of all miracles in nature because it combines all things, it is the center of all things, and possesses the forces of all things. Therefore the soul may rightly be called the center of nature, the middle term of all things, the bond and juncture of the universe.


Ficino's cosmology, which was very influential during the sixteenth century, offers some points of intrinsic interest; however, it constitutes only one side of his thought. The other and even more profound component is his analysis, based on direct inner experience, of the spiritual or contemplative life, and analysis that links him with some of the medieval mystics and, again, with Neoplatonism. In the face of ordinary daily experiences, the mind finds itself in a state of continuous unrest and dissatisfaction, but it is capable of turning away from the body and the external world and of concentrating upon its own inner substance. Thus purifying itself of things external, the soul enters the contemplative life and attains a higher knowledge, discovering the incorporeal world that is closed to it while it is engaged in ordinary experience and in the troubles of the external life. Ficino interpreted this contemplative life as a gradual ascent of the soul toward always higher degrees of truth and being, an ascent that finally culminates in the immediate knowledge and vision of God. This knowledge of God represents the ultimate goal of human life and existencein it alone the unrest of our mind is satisfiedand all other modes and degrees of human life and knowledge must be understood as more or less direct and conscious preparations for this end. In accordance with Plotinus, Ficino was convinced that this highest experience could be attained during the present life, at least by a few privileged persons and for a short while, although he never explicitly claimed to have attained this state himself.

In describing the various states and the ultimate goal of inner experience, Ficino used a twofold terminology, and in this he was influenced by St. Augustine and by the medieval philosophers. The ascent of the soul toward God is accomplished with the help of two wings, the intellect and the will; accordingly, the knowledge of God is accompanied and paralleled on each level by the love of God; and the ultimate vision, by an act of enjoyment. Ficino also considered the question of whether intellect and knowledge or will and love are more important in this process, and although he seemed to come to different conclusions in different parts of his writings, in general he leaned toward the superiority of will and love over intellect and knowledge. Yet the question was not so important for him as might be expected, since he regarded the knowledge of God and the love of God as merely two different aspects or interpretations of the same basic experiencenamely, the contemplative ascent of the soul toward its ultimate goal.

This experience and the manner in which it is interpreted hold the key to both Ficino's metaphysics and his ethics. It is the inner ascent of contemplation, through which the reality of incorporeal thingsof the ideas and of God himselfis discovered and verified. Since this inner ascent constitutes the basic task of human existence, Ficino was not interested in specific moral precepts or in casuistry, but only in the general identification of the human good and man's moral excellence with the inner life. His whole moral doctrine, as expressed in his letters, may be said to be a reduction of all specific moral rules to a praise of the contemplative life. He who has attained this life is exempt from the blows of fortune; and, animated by his inner certainty and insight, he will know and do the right thing under any given circumstance.

Intimately related to the doctrine of the contemplative life are two other theories of Ficino's, both of great historical importance: his theory of the immortality of the soul and his theory of Platonic love.


Ficino's main work, Theologia Platonica de Immortalitate Animarum, consists for the most part of a series of arguments in support of the soul's immortality. It appears from a famous passage twice repeated in Ficino's writings that, in direct contrast with the teachings of the Aristotelian philosophers of his time, he considered this doctrine the central tenet of his Platonism. It is true that the immortality of the soul had been defended by Plato and Plotinus, by Augustine and many other Christian writers, and that Ficino borrowed many specific arguments from them. It may also be granted that Averroes's doctrine of the unity of the intellect in all people, which had been widely discussed and often accepted by Aristotelian philosophers from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, made a defense of individual immortality imperative. In addition, the humanists had attached great importance to the individual human being, his experiences, and his opinions; and the belief in personal immortality was, as it were, a metaphysical counterpart of this individualism and an extension of it into another dimension.

Yet it seems evident that for Ficino the doctrine of immortality was a necessary complement and consequence of his interpretation of human existence and of the goal of human life. If it is our basic task to ascend, through a series of degrees, to the immediate vision and enjoyment of God, we must postulate that this ultimate goal will be attained, not merely by a few persons and for a short while but by a great number of human beings and forever. Otherwise, man's effort to attain this ultimate end would be in vain, and the very end for which he had been destined would remain without fulfillment. Thus, man would be unhappier than the animals, which do attain their natural ends, and this would be inconsistent with the dignity of the place man occupies in the universe. Moreover, if a natural end corresponding to a natural desire implanted in all men could not be attained, this would contradict the perfection of the order of nature and the wisdom of God, who created that order. In his "Platonic Theology," and in other parts of his writings, Ficino never tired of repeating these and similar arguments. It seems obvious that they reflect the real intent and motivation of his thought, for his whole interpretation of human life as a contemplative ascent toward God would lose its meaning unless this ascent were to find its permanent fulfillment in the eternal afterlife of the immortal soul. This alone would explain why the doctrine of immortality assumed such a central place for him. All other arguments are merely auxiliary to this central one.

Ficino's doctrine of immortality, and his arguments for it, made a profound impression on many thinkers of the sixteenth century; and it may very well be due to his indirect influence that the immortality of the soul was formally pronounced a dogma of the Catholic Church at the Lateran Council of 1512.

Theory of Love

Of equal historical importance, although different in character, is Ficino's doctrine of human love. In this doctrine, as in many of his others, Ficino combined elements from several different sources and traditions. He took over and reinterpreted Plato's theory of love as expressed in the Symposium and Phaedrus, and combined it with other ancient theories of friendship that were known to him primarily through Aristotle and Cicero; he also tried to identify it with the Christian love (caritas ) praised by St. Paul. He even added some touches from the tradition of medieval courtly love as it was known to him through Guido Cavalcanti, Dante, and other early Tuscan poets. This doctrine of love, which exercised a tremendous influence during the sixteenth century, and for which Ficino himself coined the terms Platonic love and Socratic love, was first expressed by him in his commentary on Plato's Symposium and further developed in many of his letters and other writings. The term Platonic love means love as described by Plato, according to Ficino's interpretation; more frequently, he spoke of it as divine love. The basic point is that he regarded love for another human being as merely a preparation, more or less conscious, for the love of God, which constitutes the real goal and true content of human desire and which is turned toward persons and things by virtue of the reflected splendor of divine goodness and beauty that may appear in them. Ficino insisted that true love or friendship is always mutual. A genuine relationship between two people is a communion founded on what is essential in man, that is, it is based in each of them on his original love for God. There can never be only two friends; there must always be threetwo human beings and one God. God alone is the indissoluble bond and perpetual guardian of any true friendship for a true lover loves the other person solely for the sake of God. True love and friendship between several persons is derived from the love of the individual for God; it is thus reduced to the basic phenomenon of the inner ascent, which constitutes the core of Ficino's philosophy.

It appears from Ficino's letters that he considered true friendship in this sense to be the bond that united the members of his academy with each other and with himself, their common master, and that he liked to think of the academy not merely as a school but as a community of friends. This conception of Platonic love was to exercise a strong influence on Italian and European literature throughout the sixteenth century. Many lyric poets spoke of their love in terms that reflected the influence of Ficino, as well as that of the old Tuscan poets and Petrarch; and there was a large body of treatises and lectures on love that derived much of their inspiration, directly or indirectly, from Ficino's commentary on the Symposium. In this literature the concept of Platonic love was separated from the philosophical context in which it had originated with Ficino, and so it became more and more diluted and trivial. For this reason, the notion of Platonic love has acquired a slightly ridiculous connotation for the modern reader. Yet we should try to recapture its original meaning, remembering that the true meaning of an idea is best understood in the context of the thought in which it originated and which, in a sense, made its formulation necessary. If we trace Platonic love back to its origin in Ficinoback to the context of an individual's love of Godit may still seem a strange and remote concept, but we shall at least understand that it had a serious content and that it was related to the central ideas of his philosophy.

A further aspect of Ficino's thought that requires mention is his conception of religion and of its relationship to philosophy. Ficino was a priest and a canon of Florence Cathedral; he had an adequate knowledge of Christian theology; and he even wrote an apologetic treatise on the Christian religion as well as several other theological works. There is not the slightest doubt that he intended to be orthodox, although some of his doctrines may seem to have dubious implications and although he was in danger of an ecclesiastical condemnation for the views on astrology and magic expressed in his work De Vita (1489). He insisted on his Christian faith and submitted to the judgment of the church. He was even willing to abandon the opinions of his favorite Platonist philosophers when they seemed to contradict Christian doctrine. Thus, we are not surprised to find that he regarded Christianity as the most perfect of all religions.

At the same time, he saw some merit in the variety of religions and insisted that any religion, however primitive, is related indirectly to the one true God. In his implicit tolerance toward other religions, Ficino came very close to a concept of natural religion, a position that made him a forerunner of Herbert of Cherbury, the deists, and other advocates of a universal religion. Divine worship, he said, is almost as natural for men as neighing is for horses or barking is for dogs. A common religion of all nations, having one God for its object, is natural to the human species. This religion, which is again based on man's primary knowledge and love of God, is not shared by the animals but is peculiar to man, a part of his dignity and excellence and a compensation for the many defects and weaknesses of his nature.

As to the relation between religion and philosophy, Ficino was convinced that true religion (that is, Christianity) and true philosophy (that is, Platonism) are in basic harmony with each other; and he was inclined to treat them as sisters instead of trying to make one subservient to the other. He believed that it is the task of Platonic reason to confirm and support Christian faith and authority, and he even considered it his own mission, assigned to him by divine providence, to revive true philosophy for the benefit of true religion. He believed that those who will not be guided by faith alone can be guided toward truth only through reason and the most perfect philosophy.

In the light of this relationship, the continuity of the Platonic tradition assumed a new significance for Ficino. Since this tradition was thought by him to go back to Hermes and Zoroaster, whose apocryphal writings Ficino treated as venerable witnesses of early pagan theology and philosophy, he considered the tradition to be as old as the religious tradition of the Hebrews. Thus, the religious tradition of the Hebrews and Christians, and the philosophical tradition of the Hermetics and Platonists, seemed to run a parallel course in human history from the early beginnings through antiquity and the Middle Ages down to the modern period. It is in accordance with this view of Ficino's that Augustinus Steuchus, a Catholic theologian of the sixteenth century, wrote his De Philosophia Perenni (On the perennial philosophy; 1542).


Ficino's influence was considerable, both during his lifetime and for a long time afterward. As a metaphysician in the proper sense of the word, Ficino added an element to Florentine culture that had been largely absent from it before and left a new imprint on that culture that was to last for several generations. Among his associates and pupils we find Cristoforo Landino, author of the Camaldulensian Disputations and of an influential commentary on Dante's Commedia, and Lorenzo de' Medici, famous not only as a statesman but also as one of the best Italian poets of his century. Whereas Giovanni Pico della Mirandola developed an independent position, another pupil, Francesco da Diacceto, carried the Platonic tradition of Ficino into the first decades of the sixteenth century; and later in that century, Platonic philosophy was cultivated both at the new Florentine Academy of 1540 and at the University of Pisa. This Platonist climate of opinion in Florence and Pisa accounts for some of the opinions and preconceptions of Galileo Galilei. In the rest of Italy, poets and prose writers drew on Ficino's theory of love, and theologians and philosophers upon his doctrine of immortality as well as some of his other ideas. His influence appears in the works of such leading philosophers as Francesco Patrizi and Giordano Bruno: Even thinkers who opposed his views, such as Pietro Pomponazzi, were impressed with his learning and acumen.

During his lifetime, Ficino's influence was already growing, through his correspondence and through the circulation of his writings, in most European countries. His admirers included Johannes Reuchlin and John Colet, Gaguin and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples. During the sixteenth century his writings were reprinted, collected, read, and quoted all over Europe. His medical and astrological treatises were especially popular in Germany. In France, he was repeatedly quoted and plagiarized by Symphorien Champier, and admired in the circles of Queen Marguerite of Navarre and of the Pléïade. There, some of his writings and his Latin translations of Plato were translated into French. Elements of his Platonism appear in Carolus Bovillus and Postel, and not so much in Peter Ramus as in his mortal enemy Jacques Charpentier. Even in René Descartes there are strong elements of Platonism. Outside of France, Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More, Sebastian Fox Morcillo, Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, and finally Johannes Kepler exemplify the importance of Platonism in sixteenth-century thought, an importance that is closely linked with the writings, translations, and commentaries of Ficino.

In the seventeenth century, after Galileo and Descartes, the speculative cosmology of the Renaissance was no longer possible within the framework of a natural science based on experiments and mathematical formulas. The influence of Platonism persisted, however, in the metaphysics and epistemology of Benedict de Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Nicolas Malebranche and George Berkeley; and it gained a new life in the school of Cambridge Platonists. And, since the authority of Plato himself remained a powerful force with many thinkers, we find even in Immanuel Kant and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe several theories associated with the name and prestige of Plato (and Plotinus) that actually belong to his Florentine translator and commentator. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in his autobiography that as a youth he read Plato and Plotinus, together with the commentaries and the Theologia Platonica of the illustrious Florentine. It was only in the nineteenth century that Ficino lost even this anonymous or pseudonymous influence, after a new school of philological and historical criticism had begun to make a rigorous distinction between the genuine thought of Plato and that of his successors and commentators in late antiquity and during the Renaissance. On the basis of this distinction, it has become possible again to understand Ficino's thought in its own rightto appreciate its indebtedness to sources other than Plato, its close connection with the thought and scholarship, art and literature of its time, and its own peculiar style and originality.

See also Florentine Academy.


Of Ficino's main works, only the commentary on Plato's Symposium has been reprinted in modern editions. See Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium, translated and edited by Sears R. Jayne, Vol. XIX, No. 1, in The University of Missouri Studies (Columbia, MO, 1944), and Commentaire sur le Banquet de Platon, edited by Raymond Marcel (Paris, 1956). For the others, the Basel editions of his collected works, Opera Omnia, 2 vols. (1561 and 1576), are still the only source; the second edition is slightly more complete and has been reprinted more recently (Turin, 1959). Also see Supplementum Ficinianum, edited by Paul Oskar Kristeller, 2 vols. (Florence, 1937), with lists of manuscripts and editions and a chronology of Ficino's works, and P. O. Kristeller, Studies in Ficino's Thought and Letters (Rome, 1956), with a number of papers discussing Ficino's life, sources, influence, and thought. Aside from the commentary on the Symposium, only the short Five Questions concerning the Mind (from Ficino's Letters ) has been translated into English, by Josephine L. Burroughs, in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, edited by Ernst Cassirer and others (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 193212.

For Ficino's life and the history of the Platonic Academy, see Arnaldo Della Torre, Storia dell'Accademia platonica di Firenze (Florence, 1902), which is still indispensable, and Raymond Marcel, Marsile Ficin (Paris, 1958).

For discussions of Ficino's philosophy, see Giuseppe Saitta, La filosofia di Marsilio Ficino (Messina: Principato, 1923; 3rd ed., Bologna: Fiammenghi and Nanni, 1954); Sears R. Jayne, John Colet and Marsilio Ficino (London: Oxford University Press, 1963); Paul O. Kristeller, II pensiero filosofico di Marsilio Ficino (Florence: Sansoni, 1953), translated by Virginia Conant as The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943)the Italian edition is superior because of its additional indexes and original text quotations.

Also see Michele Schiavone, Problemi filosofici in Marsilio Ficino (Milan, 1957), and Ernst Cassirer, Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance (Berlin and Leipzig: Teubner, 1927; reprinted Darmstadt, 1962), translated by Mario Domandi as The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, 1963).

Ficino's influence on the theory and iconography of Renaissance art has been discussed by Erwin PanofskyIdea (Leipzig and Berlin: Teubner, 1924; 2nd ed., Berlin: Hessling, 1960) and Studies in Iconology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939; reprinted, New York: Harper and Row, 1962)and by E. H. Gombrich and others; see especially André Chastel, Marsile Ficin et l'art (Geneva: Droz, 1954). For a discussion of Ficino and magic, see D. P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella (London: Warburg Institute, University of London, 1958).

Literature on the influence of Ficino's theory of love includes A. M. J. Festugière, La philosophie de l'amour de Marsile Ficin et son influence sur la littérature française du XVIe siècle (Paris: Vrin, 1941); John C. Nelson, Renaissance Theory of Love (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958). See also Nesca A. Robb, Neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance (London: Allen and Unwin, 1935), and Raymond Klibansky, The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition during the Middle Ages (London: Warburg Institute, 1939 and 1950).

other recommended titles

Allen, Michael J. B. "The Absent Angel in Ficino's Philosophy." Journal of the History of Ideas 36 (1975): 219240.

Allen, Michael J. B. "The Ficinian Timaeus and Renaissance Science." In Plato's Timaeus as Cultural Icon, edited by Gretchen Reydams-Schils. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.

Allen, Michael J. B. "Marsilio Ficino on Significatio." Midwest Studies in Philosophy 26 (2002): 3043.

Allen, Michael J. B. The Platonism of Marsilio Ficino: A Study of His Phaedrus Commentary, Its Sources and Genesis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Collins, Ardis B. "Love and Natural Desire in Ficino's Platonic Theology." Journal of the History of Philosophy 9 (1971): 435442.

Collins, Ardis B. "The Secular Is Sacred: Platonism and Thomism in Marsilio Ficino's Platonic Theology. " The Hague: Nijhoff, 1974.

Devereux, James A. "The Object of Love in the Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino." Journal of the History of Ideas 30 (1969): 161170.

Fogarty, Anne. "Mystical Modernism: Yeats, Ficino and Neoplatonic Philosophy." Accademia 3 (2001): 131147.

Gandillac, Maurice de. "Neoplatonism and Christian Thought in the Fifteenth Century." In Neoplatonism and Christian Thought, edited by Dominic J. O'Meara. Norfolk, VA: International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, 1981.

Hendrix, John. Platonic Architectonic: Platonic Philosophies and the Visual Arts. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Jacob, Alexander. "Henry More's 'Psychodia Platonica' and Its Relationship to Marsilio Ficino's 'Theologia Platonica.'" Journal of the History of Ideas 46 (1985): 503522.

Kuczyanska, Alicja. "The Third World of Marsilio Ficino." Dialectics and Humanism 15 (1988): 157171.

Mojsisch, Burkhard. "The Epistemology of Humanism." Bochumer Philosophisches Jahrbuch 1 (1996): 127152.

O'Rourke Boyle, Marjorie. "Pure of Heart: From Ancient Rites to Renaissance Plato." Journal of the History of Ideas 63 (1) (2002): 4162.

Paul Oskar Kristeller (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

Ficino, Marsilio

views updated May 17 2018

Marsilio Ficino



Early Life.

Marsilio Ficino was born at the time when the revival of knowledge of the classics was expanding greatly in Renaissance Florence. His father was the Medici family's physician, and Ficino was to follow in his footsteps. Ficino did pursue a career as a physician, but he also mastered a number of other fields. By the time he was thirty he had come to the attention of Cosimo de' Medici, who began to support his scholarly endeavors. Cosimo had recently acquired collections of Plato's manuscripts as well as of the Corpus Hermeticum that he asked Ficino to translate from Greek into Latin. The Corpus Hermeticum was a collection of mystical and magical texts that had long been attributed to the ancient Egyptian figure Hermes Trismegisthus (meaning literally "Thrice Great Hermes"). During the 1460s Ficino involved himself in these projects, and he continued to win rich patronage from the Medici family. Eventually, the family set Ficino up in a townhouse and also gave him one of their country villas so that he could pursue his work without interruption. By 1469, Ficino had largely completed his Platonic translation, and he began an ambitious new project. He would write a theological summa or summation that would harmonize Christianity with the new insights he had acquired from his study of Plato and other ancient works. He completed this Platonic Theology in 1474, but along the way he gave lectures in Florence and discussed his ideas with many of the city's intellectuals, helping to popularize his Platonism among them. His ideas helped to seal the shift of the town's humanists away from the "civic humanism" that had been popular in the first half of the fifteenth century. That movement had discussed issues of good government and public involvement. Ficino's philosophy, by contrast, stressed inwardness, quiet contemplation, and the cultivation of the arts.


Metaphysics, the study of the underlying and unseen properties of matter, was also an important dimension of Ficino's ideas. Ficino had trained as a physician and he was as interested in astrology, alchemy (the science of transforming matter), and the other "occult sciences" as he was in philosophy. In his Platonic Theology he joined these interests to his philosophical concerns, creating a difficult and often mysterious intellectual broth. Many ascribed to his ideas, but few understood them in all their complexity. They are only now coming to be completely studied by scholars, and they have also recently received attention from some "New Age" philosophers. But in the Renaissance, Ficino was responsible for fostering the dissemination of several ideas that became important in the sixteenth-century intellectual world. First, he promoted the notion of a prisca theologica or ancient wisdom. From his enormous range of reading, Ficino realized that there were certain underlying similarities among the ancient religions. He identified a wisdom that began with the ancient Egyptians, Persians, and other Near Eastern religions and which culminated in the ideas of the Greek and Roman philosophers. This knowledge, he argued, had been divinely inspired and was a second path of illumination God had granted to the human race alongside the revelations of the Jewish and Christian traditions. In pointing to an underlying similarity in their religious ideas, Ficino gave a great stimulus to the study of ancient philosophies and religious cultures. One of his more important disciples was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who collected an enormous number of ancient texts and in his 900 Theses tried to summarize the teachings of the prisca theologica. A second idea Ficino help popularize was the notion of Platonic love, the belief that in an intellectual, non-erotic relationship human beings can commune with one another on a higher celestial plane. Much of his writing focused on how the human soul could be liberated from the body and ascend to its true home in heaven. Some of the techniques for cultivating the divine nature of the soul Ficino stressed were celibacy, poetry, ascetic self-denial, and contemplation. Platonic love, a relationship that could be engaged in by those striving for illumination, gave the usually intensely private Neoplatonism a social dimension. In addition to these ideas, Ficino's Platonism stressed the notion of an infinite, many-storied universe controlled by celestial intelligences, spheres, and planets. To identify the underlying proportions that existed in this infinite world, the Platonists who followed Ficino devoted themselves to the study of mathematics and music, believing that these could reveal the spatial and harmonic relationships that governed creation. Although these ideas were metaphysical rather than scientific, scholars have long debated the extent to which they shaped the insights of the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution.

Spread of His Ideas.

Ficino's interpretation of Plato and his attempts to fashion a new Christian theology that made use of ancient wisdom grew to be tremendously popular in Florence at the end of the fifteenth century. It soon spread throughout Europe, sparking an intensified concern among philosophers with metaphysics and the occult sciences. Traces of Ficino's influence can be seen in the works of Desiderius Erasmus, Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, John Colet, and Thomas More, and this tradition persisted into the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Neoplatonism also influenced the artistic culture of the High Renaissance. The artist Michelangelo came to be admitted into the Platonic circle that surrounded the Medici family and which included Angelo Poliziano and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola as well as Ficino. Michelangelo promoted the use of certain shapes, numerical proportions, and the personification of ideas in his works that were drawn from his knowledge of Platonism. The Sistine Chapel frescoes, for example, make use of Neoplatonic ideas about the ancient wisdom, showing as they do Cumaean sibyls and other antique figures alongside the Old Testament biblical history. Others resisted the movement. In his Notebooks Leonardo da Vinci was frequently critical of the Florentine Platonists, often attacking the group for their difficult, unintelligible ideas that lacked empirical evidence. In Padua, a group of humanist scholars began to promote Aristotle as an alternative to the popularity of Plato. The most prominent of these figures was Pietro Pomponazzi (1462–1525), who in 1516 shocked the Platonists and the church with a work denying the immortality of the soul. Pomponazzi relied on a penetrating logic to show that philosophy could not prove the existence of the soul as an eternal spark of the divine flame.


A. Field, The Origins of the Platonic Academy of Florence (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).

P. O. Kristeller, The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino. Trans. Virginia Conant (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).

A. Moyer, Musica Scientia: Musical Scholarship in the Italian Renaissance (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992).

D. P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella (London, England: Warburg Institute, 1958).

Ficino, Marsilio

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FICINO, MARSILIO (14331499), was the most eminent philosopher of the Renaissance. Ficino employed Neoplatonism, the characteristic form of Renaissance philosophy, as a support for Christianity. Cosimo de' Medici, impressed with Ficino's precosity, gave him the opportunity to learn Greek and presented him with his country house at Florence, the Villa Careggi, where Ficino presided over his "Platonic academy."

Ficino edited the complete works of Plato, translated Plato's Dialogues, wrote a commentary on the Symposium, and edited and translated various works of Neoplatonists such as Plotinus (the Enneads ), Proclus, Iamblichus, Porphyry, and Dionysius the Areopagite. He also translated from Greek to Latin various second- and third-century mystical and gnostic texts (Poimandres ) ascribed to Hermes Trismegistos.

In 1473, after an extended period of melancholy, Ficino became a priest. His own best-known works are On the Christian Religion and Platonic Theology, the latter an elaborate statement of his Christianized Neoplatonic philosophy. Ficino's "pious philosophy" or "learned religion" presupposed an epistemology of poesy and faith. Divine poetry and allegory serve as a veil for true religion, for the rhapsodic and the mystical express religious truth, which cannot be expressed by simple intellectual formulas. A religious syncretist and universalist, Ficino believed that truth has been transmitted through a long tradition from the ancient philosophers and that wisdom has been revealed in many forms. Plato and the Neoplatonists, he believed, encompassed in their thought all the elements of the "ancient philosophy of the gentiles." Ficino envisioned everything within the cosmos as a great hierarchy of being. The One (God) is the absolute and uncontradicted original essence prior to the plurality of finite things, the ultimate unity of all things. The lesser orders are brought into being by emanations proceeding from the One. The way of ascent to the eternal One moves from bodies, through qualities, souls, and heavenly intelligences, with humanity at the center of this great chain of being, for humans are bound to the world of matter by their bodies and linked to the realm of the spirit by their souls. Humanity is assured of its own divinity, since God is immanent in humans through emanation. Ficino added a Christian patina to this Neoplatonic theodicy by identifying the demiurge, or intermediary, between the One and the subdivided spiritual and material world with the divine Logos, Christ, through whom the world was made and who "became flesh and dwelt among us." The church through dogma and sacrament keeps its people in touch with the spiritual world. Someday the immortal human soul, freed from the prison house of the body, will enjoy the beatific vision of God without mediation.

All parts of the universe, Ficino taught in his treatise On Light, are held together by bonds of sympathetic love. The highest form of love, Platonic love, moves the true lover to love another for the sake of God. This love guides humanity in its choice of good over evil and of the beautiful over the unlovely. Ficino's close association of goodness and truth with beauty appealed to the aesthetic sense of the Renaissance and influenced literature and art as well as philosophy and theology.


Ficino's works have been published as Opera omnia (1576), 2 vols. (Turin, 1959), and Supplementum Ficinianum, 2 vols., edited by Paul O. Kristeller (Florence, 1937). See also The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, 3 vols. (London, 19751981). On his thought, the most comprehensive study available in English is Kristeller's The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino (1943; reprint, Gloucester, Mass., 1964). For a brief introduction to his thought, one may turn to Kristeller's Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance (Stanford, Calif., 1964), pp. 3753, and The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, edited by Ernst Cassirer et al. (Chicago, 1948), pp. 185212. For the larger picture of Neoplatonism and its influence, see Nesca A. Robb's Neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance (1935; reprint, New York, 1968).

Lewis W. Spitz (1987)

Ficino, Marsilio

views updated Jun 08 2018


Italian philosopher and leader of the Platonic Academy of Florence; b. Figline, Oct. 19, 1433; d. Florence, Oct. 1, 1499. Little is known of his youth and education, but he probably studied Latin, philosophy, medicine, and theology. His earliest writings date from about 1454 and show strong scholastic influences. He began studying Greek in 1456, and ultimately translated the complete writings of Plato (146373; printed Florence, 1484), Plotinus (148492; printed Florence, 1492), and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (1492; printed Florence, 1496). In 1462, Cosimo de'Medici granted Ficino the use of a number of Greek manuscripts and a villa at Careggi, where he devoted himself to the study of Platonic philosophy. There he was instrumental in founding the Platonic Academy, which became one of the foremost intellectual centers of Europe. At Careggi, Ficino wrote his major philosophical work, Theologia platonica (146974; printed Florence, 1482), and his Commentary on Plato's Symposium or De amore (1469; printed Florence, 1484). Ficino was ordained in 1473 and a year later wrote De christiana religione (printed Florence, 1476). With the expulsion the Medici from Florence in 1494, Ficino retired to the country.

As leader of the Platonic Academy, Ficino assumed the task of reviving platonism, translating many works of the tradition into Latin. He was first led to an interest in Plato through the works of Augustine, who played a major role in the formation of Ficino's religious thought. He considered Aristotelian scholasticism to have degenerated into a series of antireligious philosophies, and envisioned the revived Platonism as a safeguard against this tendency.

Ficino saw religion as the identifying mark of man, distinguishing him from the lower animals. Philosophy and religion were considered parallel paths to truth: true religion (Christianity) and true philosophy (Platonism) ultimately must agree, for they stem from the same source, the contemplation of God. As the title of one of his letters indicates, "Philosophy and Religion are Sisters."

The hierarchical structure of Ficino's universe, derived in large measure from Neoplatonic sources, shows some originality. Ficino's universe is fivefold: God, angelic mind, rational soul, quality, and body. Rational soul, or man, has a place of preeminence as the connecting link between the immortal and the mortal. Man thus has a mobility wherein he can rise to God or fall to baseness, an idea further developed by Giovanni pico della mirandola.

According to Ficino's theory of natural appetite, the world demands that all things move toward their natural end. Man's end is the contemplation of, and union with, God; since this can rarely be achieved in life, personal immortality must be postulated. Much of the Theologia platonica is devoted to rational arguments for the immortality of the soul, drawn from Plato's Phaedo, Plotinus, and other sources.

In De amore, which animates Plato's Symposium with the Christian charity of Paul and Augustine, Ficino developed his notion of "Platonic (or Socratic) love," as contrasted to "vulgar love." The former concept, original with Ficino, is essentially a communion between friends based ultimately on the soul's love for God.

Ficino's influence, direct and indirect, was enormous. His translations and commentaries on the works of Plato and Plotinus were standard throughout Europe for several centuries. Traces of his thought are discernible in thinkers as diverse, geographically and intellectually, as J. colet, the cambridge platonists, herbert of cherbury, and later deists in England; lefÈvre d'etaples in France; and F. S. patrizi, G. bruno, and T. campanella in Italy. His love theory is a basic ingredient in Renaissance literature, traces of it being found in Lorenzo de'Medici, Michelangelo, and Pietro Bembo in Italy; the Pléiade group and Scève in France; and E. Spenser in England.

Bibliography: Opera (Basel 1561; repr. 2 v. Paris 1641; rev. ed. Basel 1576; photo. repr. 2 v. in 4, Turin 1959); Supplementum Ficinianum, ed. p. o. kristeller, 2 v. (Florence 1937), works not in 1576 ed.; Marsile Ficin: Commentaire sur le "Banquet" de Platon, ed. and tr. r. marcel (Paris 1956); "Five Questions Concerning the Mind," The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, ed. e. cassirer et al. (Chicago 1948) 193212; Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on Plato's "Symposium," tr. and ed. s. r. jayne (University of Missouri Studies 19.1; Columbia 1944). p. o. kristeller, The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, tr. v. conant (New York 1943); Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters (Rome 1956). r. marcel, Marsile Ficin (14331499) (Paris 1958), fullest bibliog.

[c. b. schmitt]

Marsilio Ficino

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Marsilio Ficino


Philosopher and translator


Platonic Academy. As the son of the physician of Cosimo de Medici, Marsilio Ficino was also intended for a medical career, and he received an excellent education at Florence and Bologna. He was distracted from medicine by developing a strong interest in Plato, and in 1456, Cosimo provided him support to learn Greek. Previously the city of Florence had hosted a meeting of leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in hopes of bringing about church reunion, and it stimulated Greek studies in the city. After the fall of Constantinople (1453) many Greek scholars fled to Florence, and Cosimo was eager to enhance his city's reputation as the center of Greek learning in Italy. By 1462 Ficino had become fluent enough in Greek that Cosimo commissioned him to translate all of Plato's works into Latin, working from a complete manuscript of the ancient scholar's writings that Cosimo had received from the Byzantine emperor in 1439. Cosimo also gave him a villa in which to do his work. A group of like-minded scholars began to meet at Ficino's villa, and it became known as the Platonic Academy of Florence. Ficino served as its leader and carried on an enormous correspondence across all of Europe that helped spark interest in Plato and other Greek philosophers.

Ancient Mysteries. Ficino had barely started translating Plato's dialogues, when Cosimo asked him to turn to translating a Greek manuscript that one of his agents had acquired in Greece. It supposedly was written by Hermes Trismegistus, who was believed to be Moses' contemporary and credited with being the source of eloquence and reason and the inventor of language and writing. (Two centuries later the text was shown to have been written about 400 C.E.). The Corpus Hermeticum, as the work became known, was seen as the link between the Bible and the learning of the ancient world. It appeared to show that Greek philosophy and Christianity had a common source, and for Ficino it explained why Plato seemed so often to have foreseen Christian doctrine. Much of the Corpus Hermeticum was devoted to examining the forces of the universe and unveiling the secrets of controlling those forces, that is, magic. It gave a powerful boost to the occult sciences such as alchemy, and although Ficino believed in these disciplines, he was not a practicing astrologer or alchemist.

Major Works. Ficino finished translating the Corpus Hermeticum in 1464 and returned to Plato's works, completing them in 1470 although they were not printed until 1484. By then Ficino had been ordained a priest (1473) and received a position in the cathedral of Florence. While he continued to translate other Greek philosophers into Latin, he also turned his attention to writing his own works. In 1474 he finished his major work, the Theologica Platonica (Platonic Theology), which was printed in 1482. Its purpose was to provide a synthesis of Platonic philosophy and Christian theology. He called it the prisca theologia, which predated the coming of Christ. Also in 1474 after a serious illness, Ficino published a smaller but similar book, Liber de Christiana religione (The Christian Religion), to show the relationship between Plato's philosophy, Christianity, and the other religions of the world. Ficino of course believed that Christianity was the best religion, but he found ideas of value in the others. A major concern for Ficino was the immortality of the individual human soul, which Aristotle had denied and on which not all the scholastic theologians had agreed. It was only at the Fifth Lat-eran Council (1512–1517) that the Catholic Church proclaimed it an official doctrine, in part because of Ficino's influence. His commentary on Plato's On Love can be seen as almost an original work since it went well beyond simply commenting on Plato's work. It became one of the best-known works on the theme of love and is largely responsible for the concept of Platonic love.

Synthesis. Ficino's last significant work was De vita libri tres (On Life, 1489). It was intended to bring together all the themes that had appeared in his earlier writings and the works that he had translated. It shows his interest in astronomy and mathematics, largely for their value for astrology and natural magic. The forces of nature for which they provide knowledge are benevolent, not evil. His vision of humanity was that of the great chain of being in which humans stand halfway between the physical world and the spiritual, capable of understanding and being influenced by both.

Fall from Grace. Ficino led a busy life outside of his scholarship. He served as tutor to Cosimo's grandson Lorenzo, who continued to give him patronage when he became head of the Medici family. When there was an outbreak of plague in Florence in 1478, Ficino wrote a guide to its treatment. Written in Italian to be of use to his fellow citizens, the treatise remained a standard medical work for several centuries. When the Medici fell from power in Florence in 1494, Ficino also lost his posts. At the time of his death, he was working on a commentary to St Paul's Epistle to the Romans.

Significance. Ficino was one of the first scholars to have his works printed on the newly developed printing press, and large numbers of printed copies of his books were distributed across Europe, helping to spread his ideas and his reputation. He can be described as the first intellectual with European-wide readership, despite having never traveled outside of Italy. The influence of his translations, works, and correspondence permeated the sixteenth century.


Michael Allen, The Platonism of Marsilio Ficino (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

James Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance, 2 volumes (Leiden, Netherlands & New York: E. J. Brill, 1990).

Paul Oskar Kristeller, The Philosophy ofMarsilio Ficino, translated by Virginia Conant (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943).

Marsilio Ficino

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Marsilio Ficino

The Italian philosopher and humanist Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) influenced Renaissance thought through his translation and explication of the works of Plato.

Marsilio Ficino was born at Figline near Florence on Oct. 19, 1433, the son of a prominent physician. He received a traditional education in humane letters at the universities of Florence and Pisa and studied medicine briefly at Bologna. Although his teacher of philosophy at Florence was the celebrated Aristotelian Nicolo di Tignosi da Foligno, Ficino soon turned to Platonism. At the behest and with the support of Cosimo de' Medici he rapidly mastered Greek and began an ambitious program of translation: Homer, Hesiod, Proclus, the Corpus Hermeticum, Plotinus, and Plato. Begun in 1463, completed about 1470, and printed in 1484, Ficino's was the earliest complete translation of Plato into a Western tongue and was used for several centuries. The informal circle of friends who gathered about Ficino at the Medici villa in Careggi to discuss the teachings of the ancient philosophers has been called, somewhat misleadingly, the Platonic Academy.

The overriding concern in Ficino's literary labors among the classics of Greek thought was clearly religious. His spiritual bent had been demonstrated from an early age by such writings as the Dio et anima (1457) and the De furore divino (1457), and on Dec. 18, 1473, he was admitted to holy orders. In his most important original writing, the Theologia Platonica (1469-1474), Ficino stressed the perfect compatibility of philosophy and religion, the harmony between Platonic philosophy and Christian revelation. It is essentially a theological commentary on the doctrine of Plato and a demonstration of the existence and immortality of the soul. In Ficino's view, ancient philosophy was part of the process of divine revelation and had prepared for the coming of Christ. By his explication of Platonic doctrines he hoped to persuade Jews, rationalists, and skeptics (among the last principally the Aristotelians, who rejected the immortality of the soul) to approach the true faith of Christianity. Ficino argued that in Platonic doctrine he found the rational philosophical arguments to buttress Christian theology.

Ficino's last years were troubled by the fall from power of his patrons, the Medici, and the narrow fanaticism of the followers of Savonarola. Ficino died at Careggi on Oct. 1, 1499. By disassociating antiquity from paganism he contributed to the reestablishment of harmony between Christian aspirations and the passion for the recovery of classical culture, which was one of the distinctive features of his age.

Further Reading

Selections from Ficino's Epistolae are translated as "Concerning the Mind" in Ernst Cassirer and others, eds., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (1948). The most important study of Ficino is Paul Oskar Kristeller, The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino (trans. 1943). Ficino's religious concerns are emphasized by Charles Edward Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought (2 vols., 1970). □

Ficino, Marsilio (1433–1499)

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Ficino, Marsilio (14331499)

A philosopher, astrologer, and translator of the works of Plato, Ficino was best known for advancing the cause of classical education and humanism in Florence. The son of a physician, he showed great ability and was taken under the guidance of Cosimo de' Medici. He studied the classics and was appointed by Cosimo to tutor his grandson Lorenzo de' Medici, to translate the works of Plato into Latin, and to found a new Florentine academy, modeled on the famous academy of ancient Greece. His translation of unknown Greek works into Latin played a major role in spreading classical learning and philosophy throughout Renaissance Italy. Ficino was a leading thinker of the Neoplatonic school, and believed in reconciling the ideas of Plato and the classical pagan world's concept of the soul with the teachings of Christianity. He outlined his beliefs in his best-known work, Plato's Theology of the Immortal Spirit. Seeing no contradiction in classical science and Christian doctrine, he also advanced the cause of talismans and astrology, which he describes in Three Books on Life. For these ideas he was condemned by the church, which accused him of magic and nearly brought him to trial on a charge of heresy.

See Also: academies; Medici, Cosimo de'; Neoplatonism

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