Marsilio Ficino on Divine Accommodation

Ficino Epitaph in Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy
Ficino Epitaph in Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

Marsilio Ficino inherited many philosophical principles both from the Medievals and from the ancient Platonists that he wished to emulate. One of these principles is quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur, that is, “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” In application to theology this means that divine knowledge is received by the angelic intellect in a specific angelic mode (i.e., by pure intellection) and by humans in a specifically human mode (i.e., through concepts abstracted from sensible qualities). In his commentary on Dionysius’s Divine Names, Ficino explains this principle as a necessary outcome of the human duality of body and soul. Because the intellect must first gain sensible images from the senses in order to know immaterial realities, so it was necessary for God to accommodate the heavenly light to the human sensation of vision in his revelation of himself to man. He did this, argues Ficino, in the Holy Scriptures.

Ficino comments on the first book of the Divine Names, where Dionysius explains divine illumination which reveals a hidden tradition “at one with scripture.” I offer his comment in Latin with an English translation below. This passage, to my knowledge, has never been translated into English:

Facilius tutiusque divina videmus si mentis aciem ad eloquia sacra convertimus, quam si in ipsum Deum audentius dirigamus:

Quod lucet in Deo tanquam Solis mundani Sole, super essentiae & intelligentiæ limites, non tam perscrutari quam venerari debemus. Mentisque oculos immensam hanc lucem minime sustinentes, hinc ad sacras literas tanquam ad cœlos flectere. In quibus nomina sunt cognomentaque divina tradita divinitus, velut stellæ oculis nostris accomodatæ, ex quibus sane stellis nobis emicant propriæ Dei vires & appellationes laudesque divinæ, tanquam Solis, virtutes in stellis. Ex hoc denique sedulo pioque studio duo quædam potissima reportamus. Primum quidem, quod divinos radios hinc haurimus nostro ingenio congruentes. Secundum, quod divinum Solem radiorum eiusmodi sacrum fontem, ut Deo placet, rite laudamus. In nominibus appellationibusque divinis divinitus videlicet traditis, mirabiles latere virtutes, tum ad divina mysteria declaranda, tum ad mirabilia perpetranda Hebræi omnes existimant, & Zoroaster Iamblichusque confirmant.

~ Ficino, Opera II:1027-1028

Translation:

We will more simply and safely view divine things if we turn the vision of the mind to the Holy Scriptures, than if we more presumptuously steer into God himself.

We ought not so much investigate as worship the light which shines in God, just as the light of the sun of this world, beyond the limits of essence and intelligence, and we ought to turn the eyes of the mind (by no means holding this immense light) to the Holy Scriptures as to the heavens. In [the Scriptures] are the divine names and characteristics handed down by divine influence like stars accommodated to our eyes, because of which the particular divine powers, titles, and merits of God truly shine forth to us just as the powers of the Sun [shine forth] in the stars. From this we relay, in short, two most powerful [principles] to the one diligent and pious in devotion. First, we take in the divine rays from here in a manner suitable to our nature. Secondly, that we solemnly praise the divine sunlight, the sacred font of these rays, that it might please God. All of the Jews believe, and Zoroaster and Iamblichus confirm that wonderful powers lie hidden in the divine names and titles which were clearly and divinely handed down, whether for the sake of declaring divine mysteries or for accomplishing wonderful things.

Many modern interpreters of Ficino have labeled him as a philosopher to the exclusion of his theological writings. Others have recognized his devotion to “religion” and argued that Ficino promoted a purely naturalistic religion while excluding from the discussion his explicitly Christian theology most clearly propounded in his lengthy confession De Religione Christiana, which Amos Edelheit refers to as the “manual” of humanist theology. In his commentary on the Divine Names, Ficino shows his orthodoxy, which is partly why his commentary on the Corpus Dionysiacum was included in manuals of piety alongside the comments of other authorities such as Maximus and Eck.

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The Afterlife: A Potential Problem in Aquinas’s Psychology

Thomas Aquinas’s attempted solution to the problem of substance dualism (i.e., the mind/body connection) involved his use of Aristotelian language to define the intellectual soul as the “form” of the body. Yet, in order to account for the separated state of the soul after death Thomas was forced to stretch Aristotle’s concept of “formal substance” to explain the Christian teaching on the soul’s disembodied afterlife. He maintains that the soul is the intellectual form of the body but is also per se subsistens (existing on its own) and that the agent intellect does not make use of any bodily organ in the act of intellection. Krista Hyde, in a master’s thesis submitted to the University of Missouri at Saint Louis, makes note of Aquinas’s attempt to connect the mind and body in one substantial form but also points out the metaphysical problem that this causes:

In this way, Aquinas reframes the mind-body connection and escapes the interaction problem, but this opens him up to another, potentially fatal, flaw. The weakness of his argument is that it is not clear how such a soul could separate from the body and survive its death, despite his protestations that this act of the body is also substantial. Aquinas maintains that the human soul is an abstract form and a concrete particular thing. He has accounted for the soul as the form of the body. It is intuitive, however, that such forms would have to be Platonic (that is, an incorporeal, abstract idea, having the highest level of reality and to which humans have access only through the world of perception and sensation) if they can be said to depart from the body and remain in existence with some function until the time of the resurrection and judgment, as required by Christian doctrine. Aquinas, of course, would never accept his philosophy as Platonic, especially on this account, because he insists that matter is for the edification of the soul. Plato maintains that the soul simply “uses” matter, but that matter is unnecessary.

If the soul is a state, it must be one that can exist apart from that which bears it. Though the concept of the free radical is helpful as an illustration of the soul as form, it fails to exemplify this aspect; the free radical is not immaterial. The soul as organizing force of the body may be fatal to Aquinas’s psychology. If the soul is seen as a sort of genetic code or as software to the body’s hardware, however, it may be possible to imagine its survival in an immaterial state, to be employed (later, during the afterlife) in organizing prime matter once more.

A counter-objection might suggest that the soul survives between death and resurrection, but is “activated” again upon the resurrection. It does not seem likely that Aquinas would be willing to accept that the soul is totally incapacitated until Judgment, since he insists that the soul retains its proper operations: will, intellectual memory, and understanding.

~ Hyde, Thomas Aquinas: Soul-Body Connection and the Afterlife, pp. 29-30.)

An interesting note to add to this is that many of Aquinas’s followers did move in a more Platonic direction after his death. Fast-forward to the 15th century and one can see with Marsilio Ficino a student of Aquinas’s thought who turns to the original sources of the Platonic tradition to explain this very problem. He argues that the soul uses various vehicles (pace Proclus) and thus maintains its formal functionality even when separated from the body. Ficino’s solution is no less problematic, however, (it does not fully explain the necessity of the soul’s embodiment) and begs the question of whether the immortality of the soul can be proven philosophically without at the same time directly appealing to such doctrines as the hypostatic union of Christ’s natures as found in the Chalcedonean definition. Whether Hyde’s proposed solution with regard to the soul as “software” or “genetic code” of the body is helpful is, of course, up to the reader to decide.

Ficino vs. Vincenzo on Man’s Ultimate End: Intellect or Will?

Vincenzo Bandello's letter to Lorenzo de' Medici
Vincenzo Bandello’s treatise addressed to Lorenzo de’ Medici

In the mid-1960s the late Renaissance scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller uncovered a manuscript by the Dominican Vicar General Vincenzo Bandello (†1507) addressed to Lorenzo de’ Medici concerning the teaching of Lorenzo’s close confidant, the famous Renaissance Platonist Marsilio Ficino (†1499) on the subject of human beatitude – the full title of the text is, Opusculum fratris Vincentii de Castro Novo Ordinis Predicatorum ad magnificum ac generosum virum Laurentium Medicem quod beatitudo hominis in actu intellectus et non voluntatis essentialiter consistit. This text is interesting for various reasons but primarily that it provides an example of the contrast between Late Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, specifically with respect to the debate between Thomists and Scotists over whether man’s ultimate end consists in an act of the intellect or of the will and how the terms of this debate changed during the Renaissance.  The title betrays the fact that according to Fra Vincenzo, the ultimate end of man consist essentially in an act of the intellect and not an act of the will. Though Vincenzo and Ficino are indebted to Thomas Aquinas’s philosophical synthesis in crucial aspects, both however, sought to justify their positions with reference to the classical sources, Vincenzo to Aristotle, Ficino to Plato. Kristeller explains in more detail:

For both of them, the ultimate happiness of man consists in a conjunction of the soul with God that is permanently attained, on the part of the blessed, in the future life. Both of them also take it for granted that the intellect and will are involved in the attainment of this ultimate happiness which includes the vision and fruition of God on the part of the soul and presupposes the love and desire of the soul for its ultimate end […] [One] basic difference [between the two] concerns the theory of pleasure. Fra Vincenzo stands firm on the Aristotelian theory presented in the last book of the Nicomachean Ethics that pleasure is the accompanying perfection of an activity, and hence should not be coonsidered as a primary good or end of desire. Ficino, on the other hand, was at one time deeply influenced by the hedonism of Epicurus and Lucretius, and actually refers in his letter to his early treatise De voluptate, in which his views on this subject are developed. Moreover, he was influenced by the Neoplatonic view that the good, and the appetite directed towards it, have both a higher and broader metaphysical significance than the order of truth and intellect. [For Ficino] the intellect grasps its object through images or species … and when its object is God, the intellect lowers and narrows it to conform with its own capacity. Love, on the other hand, moves the soul towards its object as it is in itself, and when this object is God, love will lift and enlarge the soul to the infinity of God. Fra Vincenzo’s reply to this important argument is characteristic: the distinction between the acts of the will and of the intellect as given by Ficino is true for the present life. In the future life, the knowledge of God will be aided by the lumen gloriae, the soul will know God immediately in His essence, and thus be enlarged to His infinity through the vision of God, rather than through fruition.

(Kristeller, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, vol. 3, 154-155)

Kristeller notes also that Ficino does not place such a radical division between the present and the future life as does Vincenzo. Rather, the present is a “genuine foretaste of the future life” and so the metaphysical pleasure or enjoyment of God that one enjoys in the present corresponds in a fundamental way to that of the future life. This would recall to any Presbyterian ears the words of the first question of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession, that the “chief end” of man is to “glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” Vincenzo rejects dilectio and fruitio as forming an essential (essentialiter) part of human beatitude because, as Aristotle argues, this sort of desire aims at a particular good for the sake of pleasure and not for its own sake. According to Tamara Albertini this division between desire (or pleasure, enjoyment, or love – Vincenzo refutes all of them as essential to beatitude) and ultimate beatitude – and the way of dividing the intellect from the will so that one contributes more to beatitude than the other – was considered by Ficino, at least in his later years, to be a false dichotomy (see Albertini, “Intellect and Will in Marsilio Ficino: Two Correlatives of a Renaissance Concept of Mind” in Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy).

Though Kristeller published some of the Latin text of Vincenzo’s treatise, he was only able to transcribe about half of it. For those who may be interested, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana of Florence still has the original copy and has digitized it – click here to read it. The treatise is appended to Vincenzo’s interesting refutation of the doctrine of the “immaculate conception.” The Quod beatitudo… begins on Carta 157r.