Authors
Suzanne Stern-Gillet
Victoria University of Manchester
Abstract
The personality and the writings of Marsilio Ficino mark the turning point from the middleages to the Renaissance. In John Marenbon’s apt description, medieval philosophy is ‘the story of a complex tradition founded in Neoplatonism, but not simply as a continuation or development of Neoplatonism itself’. ‘Not simply’ because the Enneads, the first and finest flowering of that tradition, testify to Plotinus’ deep engagement, not only with the thought of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and the Middle Platonists, but also with a variety of theologico-mystical writings of diverse middleeastern provenances, from Egypt to Persia. This complex tradition, Ficino transmitted to the West in the form of translations from Greek into Latin of the dialogues of Plato and the Enneads of Plotinus as well as of several commentaries on those texts by later thinkers. In addition to such exegetical works, Ficino wrote several philosophical treatises of his own. Finally, as an ordained priest, he was also well acquainted with the writings of the Church Fathers, all of which had contributed to his belief that religion should not be separated from philosophy. To the completion of this ambitious scholarly programme and the fulfilment of his commitment to the Church, he brought the resources of his powerfully syncretistic mind. Rather than merely combining various texts and traditions, he made them speak to each other and, in the process, evolved a system that was both sui generis and attuned to the new ways of thinking that were then emerging in quattrocento Florence. His in-depth understanding of all these texts, together with his ability to spot similarities, analogies and correspondences between them, enabled him to fuse into a coherent system various elements which a modern historian of philosophy would regard as dissimilar if not incompatible. His philosophical acumen enabled him, when he thought it appropriate, to improve on the views of those he regarded as his masters and to fill whatever gaps he found in their arguments. The present essay is an attempt to unravel the nature of Ficino’s syncretism, in which three levels of widening scope will be distinguished: authorial, trans-authorial and trans-doctrinal. To achieve a desirable level of both precision and concision, a short text will then be analysed, namely Speech Five of his most widely read treatise, a Latin commentary on Plato’s Symposium, entitled Commentarium in Convivium Platonis De Amore. It will be shown how, through the fictional speech that he put in the mouth of Marsuppini, his chosen spokesperson of the Platonic Agathon, Ficino succeeded, not only in blending Platonic, Plotinian and Christian elements in the reconstruction of an argument that Plato had meant us to regard as flawed to the core, but he also composed an elegant and original speech that continues to intrigue and enchant its readers after a gap of over six centuries.
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