Ficino, Marsilio(märsē`lyō fēchē`nō), 1433–99, Italian philosopher. Under the patronage of Cosimo de' Medici, Ficino became the most influential exponent of Platonism in Italy in the 15th cent. He translated many of the Greek classics into Latin, among them Plato's dialogues and the writings of Plotinus. Chosen by Cosimo to head a new Platonic academy at Florence, he was important in the development of Renaissance humanism. His chief original work was Theologica Platonica (1482), in which he combined Christian theology and Neoplatonic elements.
See studies by M. J. Allen (1989) and K. Eisenbichler and O. Pugliese, ed. (1989).
Ficino, Marsilio(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
The Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) is chiefly remembered for his revival of Platonic philosophy into the Christian West, but has been generally less recognized for his radical revisioning of the very premises of traditional astrology. This revisioning, far from being on the periphery of his philosophical project, partook of its very essence.
In 1477 Ficino wrote, but did not publish, Disputatio contra iudicium astrologorum, a vehement attack on the practices of astrologers. Anyone reading this text would assume that the author found the foundations of traditional astrology fit for demolition by the power of reason and the authority of God’s providence. “All this is poetic metaphor,” exclaimed Ficino, surveying the absurdity of astrological terminology, “not reason or knowledge.” Astrologers, he asserted, use “silly similitudes,” fabricate rules—often inconsistently—attribute imaginary powers to the stars, and claim to predict concrete events. But how, asked Ficino, can they know what will happen in ten years’ time, when they do not know what they themselves will be doing today?
Yet in the following year Ficino himself wrote to Pope Sixtus IV, as one “equally devoted to both prophecy and astrology,” predicting various misfortunes over the coming two years from specific astrological configurations (Letters). Indeed, there is hardly a single letter among his vast correspondence in which he does not refer to the influence of planets on his own and his friends’ natal charts, on past, present and future events. His deep familiarity with the traditional language of astrology springs from every page, yet in 1494 Ficino wrote to his friend Poliziano in firm support of Pico della Mirandola’s attack on astrology, emphasising that “on no occasion” does he affirm astrological portents, and that, like Pico, he despises the “superstitious vanity” of the astrologers (Opera omnia).
To begin to understand this apparent anomaly, one must look briefly at the tradition of classical astrology as a rational system of apprehending the workings of the cosmos which by the fifteenth century was fully established in the West, based on the Aristotelian model of celestial causation. Greek and Arabic textbooks on astrology were passed down via Latin translations, definitively illustrated in the Tetrabiblos of Claudius Ptolemy, a late Hellenistic work that includes an exposition of the conceptual framework of astrology. This model implies the correlation of effects from the heavens in an “objective time” with those on earth, unfolding in a predetermined way like the cogs in a great machine of destiny. Ptolemaic astrology firmly upholds a natural process of causation, and introduces the concept of ether, an airy all-pervading substance suffused throughout creation whose quality depends on the heavenly bodies. Ptolemy promised man the ability to understand human temperament and predict events through examination of the ether, and established the primacy of the “seed moment” or moment of origin, such as birth itself, at which time the heavens stamped an impression that would indelibly mark the individual. Such a conception of direct, quantifiable astral influence presupposes an omniscient astrologer who observes objectively a fixed pattern; it appears to allow him to give an irrevocable judgment on the “fate” sealed by the birth moment. It also implies a linear unfolding of time and paves the way for modern “scientific” astrological research, based on statistical analysis, quantitative measurement, and empirical observation.
In the medieval period, orthodox Christianity found no problem with a natural astrology that understood the correspondences between the heavens and the material world, and used this knowledge in such fields as agriculture and medicine. But for denying human free will, and for attributing to the astrologer the omnipotence of God, judicial astrology was roundly condemned by theologians such as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, for whom the only legitimate means of foreknowledge could be through Divine Revelation, as noted in his Summa theologiae.
From this position, there can never be the possibility that divine knowledge may arise through human effort or activity. The stars cannot be signs in any other way than they are effects of causes; all true insight into the workings of providence must depend on an act of grace, on the prayerful submission of the individual’s will to God’s. In his Disputatio, Ficino clearly set out to fully endorse this view, condemning the type of astrology that depends solely on human ingenuity and judgment. In his Letters, he urged the philosophers to gather forces against the “petty ogres” who deny the sovereignty of God, the justice of the angels, and the freewill of men, “that we may triumph over the diviners, albeit not divine but mightily profane, who have for so long been shackling us to their illusions.”
This would appear to be a definitive statement of allegiance to the orthodox position. Yet a closer reading shows something new. Although Ficino rejected certain claims of astrologers, he did not deny the possibility that divinatory techniques in themselves may work. He suggested that there were three kinds of foreseeing: through the infusion of divine knowledge, which may be received through magical means and the “divining of the spheres”; through natural means, such as a melancholic temperament that more easily allows the soul contact with its own divine nature; and through what he called the “observation of heavenly patterns.” In all these, he said, judgment was very difficult. But it was not illicit. Just as the physician may form a prognosis through the observation of an illness, so the augurs, said Ficino, “are led to penetrate all appearances of things to be apprehended here and there in single moments.” Perhaps, he speculated, these things were grasped “more completely out of a certain quality of the soul than through judgement” (Opera omnia). This crucial observation lead some to question whether the problem is not the astrology, but the astrologers’ lack of insight. Ficino was clearly talking about an understanding more akin to revelation than human reason, yet this was not a revelation directly from God to a passive recipient—it demanded the active participation of the individual through the particular way he perceives patterns and signs in nature.
The earliest astrologers of Mesopotamia were omen readers, looking to the heavens for indications of the gods’ will, in the same spirit as they looked at entrails and made sacrifices. The omen appeared, either bidden or unbidden, and its significance depended on the ability of the individual to interpret the will of the god in respect to his current concerns. In other words, it was only significant if it was recognized as such, not through a theory or technique, but through the intuitive perception of a sign. As man grew more distant from his gods, so divination lost its sacred dimension and became the domain of earthly prediction of events. In astrology, it survived into the early centuries c.e., particularly in horary and inceptional techniques, but was losing hold to the influence of Stoic and Aristotelian philosophy, which demanded a reformulation of what had been a participatory experience into a theoretical structure. The great science of astrology was born. But did the “divinatory attitude” survive, and if so, how? With the condemnation of the Christian church it could hardly flourish overtly. One has to look elsewhere, to a tradition that would both hold and protect its vulnerable core in an overmantle of philosophical enquiry. Here it was not only preserved; it was reflected upon and articulated in the language of myth, poetry, revelation, and metaphysics. This was the tradition revered by Ficino as the ancient theology.
The very first of the ancient theologians, of whom Plato was the “divine” culmination, was the Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus, supposed author of the Corpus Hermeticum, Ficino’s first translation from Greek. The Hermetic corpus is about spiritual initiation, through the individual’s realization of his own immortality. In Book One, Hermes’s teacher Poimandres tells a creation myth of the fall of man as he unites with the powers of nature (Corpus Hermeticum I). Using the metaphor of a symbolic cosmos, readers learn how man is created by the supreme mind or nous, and receives the qualities of the seven planets, which govern his destiny on earth. But man, who shares the essence of mind, also partakes of its absolute freedom, and he wills to “break through the circumference of the spheres” and come to know his maker. In other words, as soon as he desires to overcome fate, he can, by realizing and acting from the immortal part of his soul. All men are governed by destiny, says Poimandres, but those who are led by nous do not suffer as others do (Corpus Hermeticum I). Man is a god, he only has to recognize it, and this very recognition can change his relationship with fate. This dangerous but exhilarating message was to be the key to Ficino’s transformation of astrology.
Ficino’s reference to divinatory knowledge as “a gift of the soul” shows a similarity in Hermes’s suggestion that divination itself is a means of participating in nous, the divine Mind who knows all. Through “dreams and signs,” such as “birds, entrails, inspiration and the sacred oak,” divinatory practices would seem to facilitate a mode of knowing that is at once temporal, in that man is observing an event in time, and eternal, in that his “faculty of perception” transcends time and space (Corpus Hermeticum XII). In the divinatory moment, these two orders would seem to be aligned as the “objective” physical event coincides with a “subjective” insight that is of another order. With specific reference to astrology, this mode of perception will not regard the stars as causal agents, but as symbols that reflect back to the human soul in its intrinsic connection with the cosmos. The signification of the astrological insight will in no way be determined by the physical configuration, but will depend on the ability, and desire, of the individual to “tune in,” Ficino said. “If one pays attention to this signification, it is the thought of God who speaks that one comprehends” (Opera omnia).
In 1484, under a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, the great significators of reason and faith, Ficino published his translations of Plato. The same day, according to Ficino, Pico della Mirandola came to Florence, and persuaded him to translate Plotinus. Ficino attributed great importance to the astrological symbolism at play between himself and Pico: “It would seem to be divinely brought about that whilst Plato was, so to speak, being re-born, Pico was born under Saturn in Aquarius. In fact I too was born thirty years earlier under the same sign. And so, arriving in Florence on the day our Plato was produced, that old wish of the hero Cosimo [to translate Plotinus] which had previously been hidden from me, was divinely inspired in Pico, and through Pico in me” (Opera omnia). In the writings of the neoplatonists, Ficino found a philosophical justification for both symbolic astrology and practical magic.
Ficino included much of his Disputatio in his commentaries on Plotinus’s Enneads, and it is easy to see why, for Plotinus’s analysis of astrological effect was a clear refutation of causal thinking. Here, Ficino found confirmation of astrology as divination. In divining from the heavens, said Plotinus, people can know the nature of the all, because the stars are signs: “We may think of the stars as letters perpetually being inscribed on the heavens or inscribed once and for all,” he said, and “those who know how to read this sort of writing … can read the future from their patterns, discovering what is signified by the systematic use of analogy” (Enneads II). What one sees conveys the unseen, and this is the mystery at the heart of Platonism. For Plotinus, the wise man is the self-directed man, who, aligned with the higher part of his soul, has developed “another way of seeing, that all have but few use” (Enneads I). The Plotinian cosmos is a ballet, all parts interdependent, the hierarchies of being corresponding and mirroring each other in a cosmic energy field. It is soul, as the intermediary between intellect and body, that connects all things, sowing itself as “bait” in material forms that will naturally attract, by affinity, the soul of the human being. As it emanates from the supreme one, soul disposes the configurations of the stars, so that life experiences are announced, not caused, by their patterns. The whole process is ruled by providence, but those who are identified with their lower, material soul will not experience its law as a liberation. Rather, they will remain fate-bound.
This is reiterated by another, often neglected, spokesman for the practice of divination, the neoplatonist Iamblichus. His treatise De mysteriis, on the nature of Egyptian, Chaldean, and Assyrian religion, sought to penetrate to the essence of divination. “There is one correct definition and principle for all forms of divination,” said Iamblichus, “and it has nothing to do with irresponsibly divining the future with things that lack foreknowledge. Rather, it is to view from the perspective of the gods—who contain in themselves the limits of the entire knowledge of reality” (De mysteriis).
All aspects of the material and immaterial cosmos could be used ritually and symbolically to enable the human soul to “lift” itself back to the all-knowing, divine condition it once enjoyed, but unlike Plotinus, for whom the soul was already at one with the gods, Iamblichus recognized the need for the embodied soul to use its very conditions of embodiment to begin a reascent. For this, it needed the help of the gods, which would only become available once the magus began to actively engage in a process of stripping off his habitual ways of conceptual thinking to come into contact with “an innate knowledge of the gods co-existent with our very essence” (De mysteriis). This “divine” work is theurgy, and Ficino dwelled at length on its implications in his epitome of De mysteriis (Opera omnia). He saw it as a preeminent, intuitive, experiential contact with the profoundest level of being, quite distinct from any conceptual mental activity. Conjecture, opinion, and logical reasoning will never lead to a realization of one’s own divinity, rather; “the perfect efficacy of ineffable works, which are divinely performed in a way surpassing all intelligence, and the power of inexplicable symbols, which are known only to the Gods, impart theurgic union” (De mysteriis). Thus, images, prayers, invocations, and talismans may all contribute to the process of realigning the soul. It is important to understand that divination does not originate from the energies used in everyday life, or from human fabrications or ingenuity. Rather, the devotion, intent, and desire of the operator will allow a superior power to “perfect” the ritual and impart its authority to it. In other words, human beings may partake of divine revelation through their own efforts, and astrology, for Iamblichus, becomes an act of creative participation, an act of becoming conscious of the cosmic forces at work on the lower, “fate-bound” levels of being.
In the third part of his Book of Life of 1489, entited “How to fit your life to the heavens,” Ficino presented the first steps in theurgy: implicit in a fully elaborated system of “natural” magic. Using Plotinus’s ensouled cosmos as a philosophical framework, and drawing on Hermetic, Pythagorean, Platonic, Arabic, and Christian sources, Ficino affirmed that there was a way of achieving physical and psychological equilibrium through recognizing and contacting the hidden, but natural, powers of the universe, primarily through music and image. The magician, said Ficino, was one who used his knowledge of astrological correspondence to fashion a remedy or, image, or sing an invocation at a particular time when the cosmos is aligned with the activity; indeed, he said, “a material action, motion, or event does not obtain full or perfect efficacy except when the celestial harmony conduces to it from all sides” (Liber de vita III). Through appropriate ritual, the human spirit becomes aligned with the planetary spirit and will then automatically and naturally receive the gifts of that planet as it vibrates in sympathy, like two strings of a lute that are “similarly tuned.” As in all divinatory acts, the ritual container must be perfected before the alignment occurs, and mastery of traditional astrological procedures is essential. But for psychological transformation to happen in an active sense, something else is required, and Ficino emphasized the focusing of intent, desire, and the opening of the imagination. The very word desire, from the Latin de-sidere (“from the star”) evokes an inextricable connection between human longing and the cosmos.
It is from this ground that Ficino looked anew at his own horoscope. The malefic planet Saturn, on his ascendant, would, he said, normally indicate a “brutish” life, bowed down with the extreme of misery (Liber de vita III). But the god Saturn, reaching to the intelligible realm of divine knowledge, would promise something quite different. He has “taken over the things which transcend the physical” and is propitious to those who have laid aside an ordinary, worldly life in preference for a contemplative recollection of divine matters (Liber de vita III). In other words, the experience of Saturn—or any other planet—would depend on the ability of the individual to be freed from the literal or material levels of perception. Paradoxically, Ficino discovered that through entering into the depths of his melancholy, it began to transform into something else. It had to, because human freedom of will and initiative, for the Platonist, meant following one’s destiny willingly. As Ficino wrote to Giovanni Cavalcanti, “What shall I do? I shall seek a shift; either I shall say that a nature of this kind does not issue from Saturn; or, if it should be necessary that it does issue from Saturn, I shall … say that this nature itself is a unique and divine gift” (Letters).
Astrology for Ficino could be justified only if it was used in this way, if its framework of techniques and the physical reality of its symbols provided the ritual “container” for the human soul to free itself from the limitations of a material consciousness, and begin to know itself as an image of God. Astrology is then in service to philosophy, and became for Ficino the primary activity of his Platonic academy. In the innermost sanctum, “philosophers will come to know their Saturn, contemplating the secrets of the heavens” (Opera omnia). Astrology is now indeed a poetic metaphor, but it has been transformed from the ignorant “word-mongering” of the “petty ogres” to a vehicle for the deepening of human consciousness. In one of his last works, the Book of the Sun, Ficino’s astrological vision culminated in a triumphant conjunction of astronomy and astrology, philosophy and poetry, the divine and the human, the literal and symbolic, to produce a truly anagogic apprehension of unity.
Born Oct. 19, 1433, in Figline, near Florence; died Oct. 1, 1499, in Careggi, near Florence. Italian humanist and Neoplatonic philosopher; founder of the Platonic Academy of Florence.
Ficino translated into Latin works of Plato (published 1484), Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus, Porphyry, and Psellus, as well as some of the Areopagite’s works and treatises from the hermetic literature. In his commentaries on these works and in other works, such as Platonic Theology—On the Immortality of the Souls (1469–74, published 1482; latest edition, vols. 1–2, 1965) and On the Christian Religion (1476), he developed a philosophical system that constituted an original interpretation of Neoplatonism (including the concept of emanation) and the mystical teachings of late antiquity in a spirit of concordance with the major doctrines of Christianity. The true worth of man, endowed with the capacity for cognition and with free will, is in his divine origin, the immortality of the soul, and the ability for uniting with god at the highest level of contemplation (“divine madness”). Characteristic of Ficino is the importance given to earthly beauty, the contemplation of which he regarded as a step toward the highest mystical contemplation. Ficino considered the historically existing religions and religious philosophical doctrines as stages in the development of a universal religion.
Ficino furthered the revival of Platonism and the struggle against scholastic Aristotelianism and had a significant influence on the development of the philosophy of the Renaissance and the 17th and 18th centuries.
WORKSOpera, vols. 1–2. Basel, 1561.
Supplementum Ficinianum, vols. 1–2. Florence, 1937.
Commentaire sur le Banquet de Platon. Paris, 1955.
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Gukovskii, M. A. “Novye raboty po istorii platonizma ital’ianskogo Vozrozhdeniia.” Voprosy filosofii, 1958, no. 10. Pages 169–73.
Kristeller, P. O. Il pensiero filosofico di M. Ficino. Florence, 1953.
Saitta, G. Marsilio Ficino e la filosofia dell’ Umanesimo, 3rd ed. Bologna, 1954.
Marcel, R. Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499). Paris, 1958.
A. KH. GORFUNKEL