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Commenter et philosopher à la Renaissance

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Laurence Boulègue

Deuxième partie – La redécouverte de Platon et l’exégèse néoplatonicienne

Plato’s Gorgias, Ficino and the Poets

Michael J. B. Allen

Texte intégral

  • 1 See my Synoptic Art: Marsilio Ficino on the History of Platonic Interpretation, Florence, 1998, ch. (...)

1The ideas of the great Florentine Neoplatonist, Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), as a commentator on poetry and the role of poets are worth revisiting1, given Plato’s expulsion in the Republic of the poets from the ideal body politic, and given for Ficino the prominence of Vergil and of Dante in the poetic firmament. For they had the status of being “divine poets”, though they had not been born obviously at the time of Plato’s attack, and therefore would seem to have escaped, in part at least, the censure Plato had accorded Homer and Hesiod. In addition, there is the complex issue of the authority that comes with correct interpretation, meaning for a Platonist a Platonic interpretation. For the philosopher in his role as Platonic commentator is ultimately the arbiter of good poetry even as he may participate, by virtue of being a guardian of the state, in passing the sentence of exile on the very poets who had served to educate, in terms of literacy and oratory at least, the citizens of that state.

  • 2 Ficini Opera Omnia, Basel, 1576, p. 1399-1402, 1427-1438.

2Ironically, little help is provided by Ficino’s three argumenta where one might have anticipated his fullest treatment, namely those for books 2, 3 and 10 of the Republic itself2. In the argumentum for book two, Ficino emphasizes the role of the poet in inspiring the military virtues in the young, virtues which would seem to call upon courage rather than temperance. Even so, temperance will become the dominant virtue for Ficino in his analysis of the Republic because it is the personal counterpart to the justice that rules the ideal Platonic state. In particular Ficino sees Plato expressing his abhorrence of poetical impiety, that is, of the poets’ traditional role in fabricating disgraceful stories of what they depicted falsely as the intemperate gods.

3In the argumentum for book three Ficino sees Plato as exhorting the guardians to avoid both tragedy and comedy: tragedy because the tragic poets’ description of the underworld might be a source of fear and apprehension; and comedy because it provokes excessive laughter and thus softens us and renders us intemperate. Above all, the poets are to be shunned because their compositions imagine a world of lust, violence and injustice and attribute such a world to the gods and heroes. And Ficino goes on to add that these harrowing portrayals have the power to trouble our souls and disturb our inner temperance just as they have the power to disrupt the outer temperance, the justice, of the state.

4Finally, in the long argumentum for the tenth book focusing as it does on the myth of Er, Ficino strikingly suggests that, since Plato’s upbringing was especially poetical, he had therefore to struggle against his own nature when he prescribed exiling the poets for inducing anguish and perturbation of all kinds; and for provoking anger, lust, laughter and grief in the young and thereby “undermining the rule of reason”. For the sake of the public good, therefore, and “for the love of truth”, Plato banished this “poison”, the very men, that is, and above all his beloved Homer, who had most inspired him as a youthful poet. But Ficino’s focus on Homer concerns his extraordinary “poisonous” skill as the chief of the “imitators”; for imitation prevents us understanding things in themselves even as it follows after “the forms of things as they appear to the senses”. Even so, he acknowledges that Plato lauds those poets who do incite us to virtue and holiness “through the honorable praise of heroes and through divine hymns”.

5While some of these observations are apropos and especially that of a poetical Plato in repressive conflict with himself, none takes us into the mystery which is at the heart of Ficino’s encounter with the theme of the banishment of the poets in Plato; nor does any suggest yet the subtle reinterpretation that Ficino negotiated by way of focusing on the interpreter of poetry rather than its author, on the Platonic commentator rather than the Homeric poet.

  • 3 R Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Trad (...)

6In his arresting book entitled Homer the Theologian, Robert Lamberton has argued that poetry, at least Homeric poetry, and its interpretation are, from the viewpoint of Neoplatonism, almost one and the same3. For the Platonists’ “secret doctrine” is in, or potentially in, the text, though “in practice it has to be articulated” from outside the text by someone with the experience and insight to explain the text “according to the secret doctrine” (p. 173n).

7Let us turn then to another Ficinian argumentum, that for the Gorgias; for it offers us a richer set of ideas on the subject of the poets’ expulsion from the Platonic polis. Ficino is glossing the section at 501E-502D on the dithyrambic and tragic poets who do not concern themselves with the moral improvement of their hearers, but aim rather merely to please like orators who are in turn linked at 520A with the sophists:

  • 4 Platonis Opera Omnia, Venice, 1491, fol. 118r (in Ficino’s own Opera, p. 1315). Note that I am cons (...)

Cum duo quaedam in animo potissima sint, cognitio & affectus, cognitionem quidem sophistae sub veritatis specie ad falsa detorquent, affectum vero populares poetae sub concinnae voluptatis [Platonis Op. voluntatis] esca in dissonas perturbationes saepe praecipitant, oratores denique populares tum cognitionem falsis decipiunt coniecturis tum affectum [Platonis Op. affectu] in motus varios concitant. Quapropter ne [Ficini Op. cum] horum opera mentes hominum tum falsis opinionibus tum perniciosis affectibus aegrotare cogantur, Plato humanorum medicus animorum nos a sophistis quidem omnino, ab oratoribus quoque atque poetis quodammodo procul abducit, profecto sophistas & undique et omnes exterminat, poetas autem neque omnes, sed illos qui vel turpia [Ficini Op. turpias] de diis & fingunt vel perturbatos [Ficini Op. perturbationes] animos acrius imitantur & referunt, neque undique sed ex urbe, id est, ex iuvenum ignorantiumque [Platonis Op. ignorantumque] turba, qui in perturbationes admodum sunt proclives & allegoricum poetarum non penetrant sensum. Quamobrem in libris de republica poetas iubet vel expelli vel cogi de Deo honeste loqui, neque perturbationibus audientes assuefacere sed & divinos hymnos canere & leges patrias magnorumque gesta virorum graviter recensere4.

Since the soul has two principal faculties, knowing and feeling, the sophists under the guise of truth turn our knowing aside to knowing things false, and the popular poets under the bait of beautiful pleasure often drag down our feeling into ugly passions. The popular orators finally both deceive our knowing with mere conjectures and propel our feeling into various emotions. Wherefore, lest the works of these three groups compel the minds of men to sicken with false opinions and pernicious feelings, the doctor of human souls, Plato, separates us utterly from the sophists and from the orators too – indeed he banishes every one of the sophists. But he does not banish all the poets, only those who feign wicked deeds also of the gods, or those who imitate impassioned souls too intensely and attribute such souls to the gods. Furthermore, Plato does not banish the poets from every place, but only from the city; that is, from the throng of young and ignorant men who are most prone to succumbing to disruptive passions and who do not penetrate to the poets’ allegorical meaning. Therefore, in the books of his Republic [in books 2, 3 and 10], Plato orders us either to banish the poets or to compel them to speak honourably of God. They must not habituate their listeners to disturbing passions, but rather sing divine hymns and gravely consider their fathers’ laws and the deeds of mighty men.

8We can see that the poets are not banished en masse from the ideal city: expelled are those who imagine that the gods are afflicted with divisive passions and who are expert at either imitating or evoking the same passions in the young and the ignorant. Even these “bad” poets, however, are extended the opportunity to reform, following the Republic 10, 607A ff. If they speak “honourably” of God and abandon the more passionate poetic modes for those of the divine hymn, then they are welcome to remain as citizens, and to sing of the city’s foundation in law and its establishment and defense by the deeds of patriots. Notice the subtle shift from the notion of “feigning” dishonourable deeds of the gods to speaking “honourably” of God, a shift from a passion-driven polytheism to a grave monotheism. Ficino almost certainly has in mind the substitution of divine hymns to the one God for what are narrative accounts—albeit in a variety of forms but preeminently in tragedy and epic, or conceivably in parodies of them—of the misdeeds of the crowded Olympian pantheon as told by the poets, the poets as the actual mythmakers (mythoplastai) and not merely as the transmitters of, or alluders to, a body of inherited myths. Ficino is assuming that classical mythology with its rampant polytheism is, for the most part at least, the creation of the arch poets Homer and Hesiod, and dwells at the heart of their “bad” narrative and genealogical poetry. Here he was acceding to Plato’s arguments in the Republic 2 and 3 (see above), and, less directly, in the Laws 10, while ignoring Plato’s own frequent recourse to myth as well as Socrates’s ironic judgement in the Protagoras 347E that he found it impossible to verify what poets meant.

  • 5 See D. P. Walker, The Ancient Theology: Studies in Christian Platonism from the Fifteenth to the Ei (...)
  • 6 The Uranius (Prenninger) letter can be found in Ficino’s own Opera, p. 933.2-935.2, with a free ver (...)

9At this point we should consider for a moment the Republic’s antithetical notion of the divine hymn, “that other and nobler strain” (3, 387C), a mode Ficino associated with Socrates’s hymn to Apollo (alluded to in the Phaedo 60D), with Orpheus and Musaeus, and with other later Platonic poets and philosophers such as Julian, Proclus and Synesius. Plato does not banish the poets of such hymns from his ideal city, but accords them rather a place of honour (10, 607A). The hymns consist of listing the various attributes and powers of the gods, and of singing of men’s indebtedness to them in the manner of Orpheus. However, even such aretalogies could be dangerous in Ficino’s estimation. Unless they were understood monotheistically—that is, in light of the famous prefatory palinode in which Orpheus was held to have recanted his earlier polytheism and to have reinterpreted the various gods, their attributes and powers, as attributes and powers of the one supreme God5—then they too could mislead. More especially, they could be used to invoke the ministrants of their various dedicatory gods, the daemons. This is why, apparently, Ficino refused to publish his translations of the Orphic hymns, although he did include innocuous paraphrases of the palinode and the “Hymn to Jove” in his June 1492 letter to Martinus Uranius, a version of the “Hymn to Heaven” in a September 1462 letter to Cosimo de’ Medici, and a paraphrase of the “Hymn to Nature” in a letter to Germain de Ganay written sometime between 1494 and 14986. Obviously he felt they were safe enough not to arouse any suspicion that he was advocating or expediting the worship of the old daemons. This is a revealing reticence or caution, given his own and the Platonists’ many references to Orpheus, given too the prominence of Orpheus in the Proclian tradition, and given Ficino’s sense of the signal role he played in the transmission of the ancient theology as the third link in the golden chain of the six sages beginning with Zoroaster and Hermes and culminating with Plato.

  • 7 See his epitome for Laws 1 (Opera, p. 1488.2), with the comments in my “Marsilio Ficino on Plato’s (...)
  • 8 Ficino has several letters on law and jurists, see, for example, in his first book of Epistolae, no (...)
  • 9 See the penetrating discussions of W. Trimpi, Muses of One Mind: The Literary Analysis of Experienc (...)

10However, the divine hymn is not the only poetic genre Ficino sees Plato countenancing here. There is room still for some kind of narrative poetry in that the unbanished poets are expected to sing of the laws with which their ancestors founded the city-republic, and to sing of the deeds, the gesta, of its great men. That the laws should be especially privileged is important, for they are part and parcel of the originary myths of a city or nation, and therefore of the story of the founding relationship between the polis and a tutelary god or gods who preside over its fate, its people, and its ethos. We should bear in mind the importance the Neoplatonists attached to Socrates’s refusal to escape the laws of his polis even though he was the victim of his enemies’ unjust and purblind interpretation of those laws. For Ficino, moreover, it was no coincidence that Plato’s last work, the one in which he had elected at last to speak in his own person, was the Laws, where the subject is king Minos’s legacy to the Cretans before he descended to the underworld to take up his golden sceptre as the most august of its three judges7. The hymns of the Cretan state would therefore have concerned themselves with the justice of Minos’s laws and with the deeds of Cretan heroes in defending a people governed and inspired by such laws8. In accordance with ancient affective and imitative doctrine9, Ficino holds that the poets’ ability to excite destructive or disturbing passions derives from their ability to imitate such passions “with exceeding intensity” (acrius), such intensity being the determinant of the badness—in the sense now of the dangerous effectiveness, even the pleasureableness, or what the Republic 10, 608A-B calls the seductiveness—of a poet. Though the poets are at three removes from the truth in their imitation of things, if we follow the famous set of arguments in the Republic 10, 596E-597E about the couch, nevertheless they are accorded the ability to imitate passions with compelling accuracy and intensity. And it is from such “passionate intensity” (to recall Yeats’s famous phrase) that Plato, “our souls’ doctor”, wishes to protect or inure us, intensity here being the same as what the Gorgias 464D calls “the false bait” of pleasure that smooths the path to vice. In short, the imitative poets are essentially hedonists.

11For Ficino, the arousal of passion takes place, as the Republic itself asserts at 10, 605A ff., in the irrational parts of the soul. As he makes clear at the beginning of the passage just quoted from the Gorgias epitome, the goal of “the popular poets” is to use “the bait of beautiful or pleasing pleasure” to propel the soul to passion; just as the seductive sophists use “the appearance of truth”, meaning verisimilitude, to mislead their auditors with false opinions; and just as the “popular orators” deceive our understanding (cognitio) with false conjectures and excite our feelings (affectus) with violent emotions, thus serving the cause of popular poet and base sophist alike. As Plato suggests in the Gorgias and elsewhere, the three form a dangerous triumvirate as the promoters of pleasure and thus of irrationality. They are the three heads of the Cerberus of hedonism.

  • 10 Cf. Apology 22B-C: “I learnt that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and (...)
  • 11 R. Lamberton, op. cit., 1986, p. 173n, writes: “The ‘secret doctrine’ is, then, potentially within (...)

12The young are not only prone to pleasures and passions and therefore vulnerable to the bad poets’ ability to arouse and manipulate them, they are, Ficino suggests, incapable of penetrating to the “allegorical meaning” of narrative fictions. Here he is surely recalling the Republic’s claim at 2, 378D that the young “cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal”. This notion is fraught with problems of Plato’s own making10. Although Ficino is focusing on popular poets—meaning presumably the dithyrambic and tragic poets adduced by Socrates in the Republic, the Laws, and the Gorgias—the poets’ intentions are not what he has in mind. Concerned as they are with arousing violent passions and feigning impious deeds (turpia) of the virtuous gods, their primary aim is not to establish an allegorical mask, to construct a rind that must later be diligently peeled away by the old and the wise. For the postulation of an allegorical sense is linked with non-affective and non-imitative ends antithetical to those of excitatory song and of ecphrastic and impassioned verse. The same is true of a listener’s essentially sympathetic rather than intellectual response. One can, arguably, conceive of an intellectual component in the impious or salacious pleasure titillating a “forward wit” when he perceives or imagines an obscene allegorical meaning under a veil of verse that did not appear at first glance to be obscene. But this special case of pruriency is not at issue here. Rather, Ficino is confronting both the outward trappings of passionate bad poetry, where the obscenities and impieties are obvious and inflammatory, and the possibility, for the Platonist who already knows what he is looking for, of uncovering a hidden allegorical meaning that the young cannot discover without interpretative guidance11.

13One might suppose that the mere possibility of uncovering, rather than discovering, such a meaning would redeem the seeming badness of passionate poetry. But the situation is not so straightforward. We recall that the “good” hymn is preeminently a listing and lauding of a divinity’s prowess (aristeia) and attributes, and of his or her excellences (apetai), not a narrative. In the Republic 2, 377D ff., however, Plato argues that, even if false and impious narratives — the greatest of which were the accounts by “misguided Hesiod” of Uranus’s deeds and Cronus’s retaliation and the sufferings Cronus in turn endured at the hands of his son — were “true”, they “certainly ought not to be told to young and thoughtless persons”, but rather “buried in silence if possible”. If they had to be mentioned, they should be recounted to a chosen few in a religious ceremony, “in a mystery”. Plato left others, that is, to delve into the epistemological status of any inherent or attributed allegorical meaning.

14The postulation of such a meaning might seem to imply for Ficino the presence initially of a different kind of “feigning” from that which attributes impious deeds and violent passions to the gods, since the feigning of allegory should serve to protect the truths of pagan theology from the vulgar and profane, and notably from the youths who are distracted by the siren spell of bad, passion-arousing poetry. For what provokes us to the labours of correct interpretation is what compels us to become intellectually — and Ficino would claim also morally — engaged at the highest levels, since interpretation only becomes possible when we have overridden and tempered our passions. Even the search for allegorical meaning at the level of sustained double-entendre requires mental acuity and application, a temporary reining in of the stallions of wrath and desire, though they might be given their heads subsequently. Under the pressure of the unaccommodatable notion of allegory, is Ficino moving away then from Plato’s position in the Republic and postulating something other than the mutually exclusive opposites of bad affective tragic or epic or dithyrambic poetry and the good divine hymn?

  • 12 Ibid., p. 141, 204-208, 245. In speaking of symbolic as opposed to mimetic representations of reali (...)

15For the Neoplatonists, some of the most hideous and obscene stories sung about the gods — the castration of Uranus and the infanticidal cannibalism of Saturn already alluded to, Jupiter’s repeated rapes of mortal women often in the form of a beast or bird, the theomachies, the various incestuous unions between parent and child and between siblings — were centred around the preeminent theological mysteries, those concerned with the pivotal moments in the emanative descent down the ontological hierarchy and in the subsequent re-ascent; concerned, that is, with theogony, cosmogony and anthropogony and their accompanying eschatologies. Correctly interpreted, the details of these superficially objectionable, passion-filled tales will emerge as the rind, the integumentum, involucrum or cortex, concealing the sweetest of theological fruits, turpia veiling mysteria. The more repugnant such tales are, maintains the Neoplatonic tradition, the more effectively will they work to repel or mislead the ignorant and profane and to allure the wise and virtuous to consider them, as Plato himself had suggested, “in a mystery”12.

16None of this requires or implies an intention, however, on the part of the narrative poet whose passionate lines are subjected to the virtuous and tranquil interpretation he may never have foreseen or may even have repudiated with his conscious mind. Ficino is shifting our attention away from the poet and his youthful prey towards the sagacity and intent of the Platonic allegorist and hermeneut.

  • 13 He is so described in a letter in the first book of Epistolae dated 4 March 1473 (Florentine style) (...)
  • 14 The verb theologeô and its cognates could refer by the fourth century either to composing or to int (...)

17Hesiod rather than Homer provides him with the critical forum. Pythagoras and Plato had banished Hesiod from the ideal city, Ficino argues, because of the impieties that bedizen his Theogony. Yet throughout his career Ficino thought of him as a high if unlettered (rudior) poet13, who occupied an honoured position in the succession of ancient poets and philosophers, the prisci theologi, while not being one of the symbolic hexad of sages culminating in Plato. In other words, Hesiod is both a banished and an honoured, a bad and a good poet. His status depends, however, not on the veracity of his own poetic dicta, but on his auditor’s state of mental and spiritual preparedness, since his impieties are flagrant enough at a superficial level even as they can be held to convey certain theological truths at the level of allegory. He is thus a poet from whom the old and the wise can duly profit, since they can avoid being led astray by the narrative impieties, and since they can pierce beneath the veil of the Theogony’s account of incestuous copulations and parricidal dismemberments to discern the metaphysical unions and divisions postulated by Platonic metaphysics. The hexameters may have been “riddles” to Hesiod himself, “since poetry is inclined by nature to riddling” says Socrates in the Second Alcibiades 147B-C; but the answers to such riddling are the precious possession of the true philosophers. Hence, for Ficino as for the ancients, there are two disparate kinds of theologian: first and foremost are the inspired philosopher-interpreters and then, entirely subordinate to them, are the poets they interpret14.

  • 15 Cf. Meno 99C-D. In the Pelotti-Ugolini letter, Ficino describes Ion and Tynnichus as men “qui praet (...)

18Hesiod, Plato’s “misguided poet”, opens up the possibility, nevertheless, that other “bad” poets who did not occupy his privileged position in the history of Greek poetry could likewise be profitably allegorized, and allegorized quite independently of their conscious intentions. One might argue that a poet can be good despite himself, malgré soi-même, as the Laws for instance declares at 4, 719B-C. Plato’s likeably egregious rhapsode, Ion, had similarly claimed to have had access to truths outside his comprehension for which he served as a mouthpiece, a trumpet for a music not his own15. One might even argue that if the feigning of good deeds is justified—imagining good deeds, in other words, that might have, but have not in fact, taken place—then the feigning of anything is potentially divine in that the burden of so interpreting it depends on the interpreter’s exalted intention and not in a way, perhaps in any way, upon the poet’s. For whatever the poet’s express intentions, be they good or bad or indifferent, and whatever the affective or imitative success of his poetry, the allegorical meaning is both postulated and possessed by the theologizing interpreter. It is his aims and inspiration, not the poet’s, which redeem or damn his interpretation; and the re-reading or theologizing of poetic fables, however impious or passionate they might first seem, is the consequence of the moral and metaphysical insights and enthusiasms that he brings to bear on them. The interpreter must therefore know what he is doing, regardless of whether the poet thinks he knows, or knows that he does not know, since ignorance may serve the poet, or indeed the rhapsodic performer of that poetry, but not his reader-interpreter, the search for truth being the goal, if not of the poet’s feigning, then of his reader’s interpretation of that feigning. Thus the same bad poetry that may mislead and inflame the young and thoughtless can serve as the catalyst for an ardent and righteous pursuit of the truth on the part of the old and the wise. Having been banished from the city, Hesiod is allowed to return, but only under the patronage and protection of Hermes and his devotees. For the enlightened interpreter, the philosopher reader, will always speak to the “secret doctrine” in himself, regardless of any potentiality in, or not in, the poetic text he is interpreting. In a way he is prior to and sovereign over the poetic text, over indeed any text, however hallowed or unhallowed, however yielding or recalcitrant.

  • 16 R. Lamberton, op. cit., 1986, p. 133, remarks of the Neoplatonists’ Odyssey: “The allegories it con (...)

19In short, bad poets and their bad passionate poetry would be admissible in the Platonic city if all its citizens were philosophers and could interpret any poetry in the light of Platonic theology and the soul’s ascent to the true and the good. In which event, “bad” poetry would itself become a problematic notion, since it could not be bad if none were there to put it to bad use. Its impieties would be ground away in the mill of interpretation and its power to enflame the feelings would recoil before philosophers’ tempered souls. The trouble is that even in a well-ordered republic the poets speak to the young as well as to the old, to the thoughtless as well as to the thoughtful. A generation gap exists, that is, in the acquisition of hermeneutical wisdom: on one side we find poetry heard literally and emotionally in and of itself; on the other we find it transformed by philosophical allegorizing and moral correction into theology. The “ancient quarrel” between philosophy and poetry indeed can be resolved only by the triumph of the theologizing over the poetic surface; by the philosopher’s act of interpretation, of religious and not just of moral rereading, redeeming the poet’s narration and figuration16. Hermeneutics thus determines the status of any poetics, even a Platonic poetics, and the hermeneut’s god-filled enthusiasm takes priority over the enthusiasm of the bard, unless he is himself a virtuous hermeneut.

20The Gorgias epitome adduces one further point. Rather intriguingly, Ficino sees Plato as legislating the banishment of the poets, not from everywhere (undique), but only from the confines of the city, and thus from the thronging crowds of the city’s youth. This may seem at first glance to be a narrow definition of what Plato means by the term polis, and yet it implies that, even though they have to be banished, the poets should none the less be permitted to sing “elsewhere”—outside if not inside the city. He sees this point reinforced by Plato’s ambiguous injunction in the Republic 10, 607C ff.—stemming, Plato himself suggests, from our “childish love” of poetry—that the poets should not be banished if they can reform themselves. In other words, “elsewhere” they may continue to sing without reforming themselves, since, far from the throng, they can do no harm, except presumably to themselves (though Ficino does not broach the interesting issue of whether writing poetry is mentally or psychologically beneficial or harmful for an author). “Elsewhere” the impieties they attribute to the gods are not a pressing public matter. Moreover the philosopher, who is always in a way “elsewhere”, that is, in a solitude apart from the city’s throng, will hear them and piously reinterpret them, in other words make the hexameters speak to the eternal truths that he is contemplating within. Indeed, what are impieties, even scabrous impieties, inside the city become for the philosopher outside its walls the veils that must necessarily envelop all truly divine mysteries. For the wise interpreter does not dwell in the same city as its callow youth, as Plato had intimated in the Republic 9, 591E ff. and the Theaetetus 173E. In the latter he dedares that “the outer form alone of the philosopher is in the city”, whereas his mind soars beyond its confining walls until it is everywhere beneath the earth and above the sky. For the philosopher’s city is the cosmos of divine order, goodness, and justice, of the justice that is the Republic’s resonant theme.

  • 17 Opera, p. 1400.1: Detestatur mox poeticam impietatem turpia de diis fingentem; and p. 1400.2: Ideo (...)
  • 18 E. Wind, op. cit., 1968, p. 132-134, 174-175; see Ficino’s Opera, p. 1737.2; 1758.2.

21Even so, we often hear Ficino denouncing the poets’ defamatory myths and blasphemous legends. In his commentary on the second book of the Republic, he writes, as we might expect, that “Plato holds in contempt the poetical impiety that feigns vicious things (turpia) of the gods”; and in his commentary on book three he notes that “Plato forbids us to listen to the poets’ songs for they imagine lusts, rapes and iniquities of the gods, of the heroes, and of great men”17. He is denouncing in other words the all too human pantheon of Homer, even as he is aware that some of Homer’s most offensive and extravagant fables—Hephaestus’s netting of his wife with Ares, Hera’s deception of Zeus, Zeus’s seduction of Leda and Europa—could at the same time serve the enlightened interpreter as the repositories of highest truth, as tales to be recounted in a mystery. We might note with Edgar Wind, incidentally, that Ficino seems less drawn to expatiating on these offensive myths than his fellow Platonist, Pico della Mirandola18; for his commentaries treat them only in passing and without dwelling on their intricacies, even though he accepted the Plotinian position that for a philosopher they signified the “theological” mysteries of emanation from, and return to, the One. The De amore 5.12 on the castration of Uranus and the binding of Saturn, and the Commentary on Plotinus’s Enneads 5.1.7 on Saturn’s devouring of his children are three cases in point.

  • 19 For a survey of Homer’s place in the Byzantine tradition, see R. Browning, “Homer in Byzantium”, Vi (...)
  • 20 Plotinus, Enneads 4.3.27; Porphyry, De antro nympharum; Hermias, In Phaedrum, ed. Couvreur, p. 214. (...)
  • 21 We might note the Judaeo-Christian valorisation of exile: in Egypt, in Babylon, in this vale of tea (...)

22Behind this ambivalent attitude to the badness of pagan poetry and its impious myths looms the old problem of the power and educational authority of Homer’s mousikê. Like Plato, Ficino was reluctant to dismiss the sovereign of the Greek poets, the father of the ancient paideia, out of hand, or to deny him a place among the prisci theologi, given the Neoplatonic tradition and given the Christian allegorization of his epics by Byzantine scholars19. Though Homer seemed to be a bad poet in the sense we have been discussing and had to be banished from the ideal city-state, it was inconceivable to Ficino that Plato had meant to banish him entirely from the company of the philosophers. Hadn’t Socrates himself in the Ion 530B lauded him as “the best and most divine” of all poets, and in the Second Alcibiades 147C as “the most divine and most wise” (despite the bard’s not knowing that to know ill was impossible)? At the Apology’s close at 41A, hadn’t he imagined talking after death with Hesiod and Homer? Hadn’t some of the Platonici themselves unlocked various episodes in the two great Homeric epics: Plotinus, Odysseus’s encounter with the shade of Hercules; Porphyry, his visit to the cave of the nymphs; Hermias and Proclus, his liberation from Calypso and Circe; Macrobius, the golden chain of Zeus in the Iliad; and Proclus, Agamemnon’s dream, the cruelty of Achilles, and so forth20? And weren’t there admirable quotations from Homer throughout Plato’s work and in the treatises of his commentators, even occasionally in those of the austere Plotinus? If Homer was the chief of the poets to be banished from the city’s jostling streets, yet outside the city he was the “divine” poet, the “great captain and teacher of the whole of the noble tragic company of poets”—the Republic’s description of him at 10, 595B-C. For outside the city he is in the company of the philosophers, where he can be heard so to speak in exile21. In short, Ficino felt compelled, ambivalently, both to praise and to condemn Homer, to treat him as a theologus and as a profane liar, as Plato’s true friend and as the ideal republic’s false enemy, as a great poet awaiting correction.

 

23At this juncture the whole notion of banishing poets and of reading poetry in banishment comes full circle or rather returns us to the starting point of the maze. To be banished from the misinterpreting city of the young ironically entails a popular poet’s being interpreted outside the city, and thus in the company of the philosophers, as if he had composed an anti-popular, a theological text. He is interpreted, moreover, by the very philosophers who have voluntarily banished themselves from the passions, preoccupations, and levities of the corporeal world because they are citizens of a city within, citizens of the incorporeal polis of the Ideas—to invoke again the haunting passage at the end of the Republic 9, 591E-F. Indeed, the banishment of the “popular” poets is mysteriously complementary to the banishment of the philosophers from the business of the ordinary world, a banishment which is itself a returning home, a nostos, to the city which is authentically ours. The true philosopher, living as he does in a divine banishment from the affairs of this world, is the just and perfect lawgiver of this world. Indeed he is the judge who banishes the bad emotion-rousing poets from the ideal city, but who then revokes that banishment when the city is impregnably fortified by the sweeping powers of Platonic commentary and of its divine interpretation. In effect, the philosopher is a virtuous Minos whose interpretation exiles the poets from their exile in this world.

  • 22 For a brilliant analysis of Proclus’s reconciliation of Homer and Plato, see A. D. R Sheppard, Stud (...)
  • 23 In Rempublicam 6 (ed. Kroll, I, p. 69-205).
  • 24 For details see S. Gentile in Marsilio Ficino e il ritorno di Platone, ed. S. Gentile, S. Niccoli, (...)
  • 25 Opera, p. 937.2- 943.1. See R. Marcel, Marsile Ficin(1433-1499), Paris, 1958, p. 524 ff.
  • 26 A reference to the “idol” or “reflection” of Heracles in the Odyssey 11.601-604 as interpreted by P (...)

24Ficino is envisaging much more, in short, than simply admitting into the ideal republic only those poets who compose divine hymns. One is left to speculate what might have happened had he been able earlier on in his career to engage Proclus’s magisterial defense of Homer in the In Rempublicam 622. But this came into his hands only on the seventh of July 149223, when he borrowed the manuscript containing it—now the Laurenziana’s 80. 9—from Lorenzo’s library, almost immediately, it would seem, after Lascaris had brought it from Greece, probably from Crete24. As early as the third of August he “had gathered some flowers from the commentary’s delightful meadows” which he sent as a letter to his German friend Martinus Uranius (Prenninger)25. Even so, he gives no sign of having done much more than skipped through the immense work, and, with regard to Homer, noting his interpretations of the mythic figure of Proteus and the rivers of Hades and that he had distinguished the soul from its idolum26. In particular Ficino’s “flowers” show no evidence of any engagement up to that point with Proclus’s defense of Homer. But such an engagement was not to be, since after 1492 he became preoccupied with finishing his six long Plato commentaries for the 1496 Commentaria volume, and with his exacting work on the Areopagite’s two treatises, On the Divine Names and On Mystical Theology, and on St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. In the last decade of his life and as the great Platonic commentator of his age, he had other obsessions in short than the poets and their poetry.

Notes

1 See my Synoptic Art: Marsilio Ficino on the History of Platonic Interpretation, Florence, 1998, ch. 3. This essay reworks some of the material in that chapter in light of a different thesis.

2 Ficini Opera Omnia, Basel, 1576, p. 1399-1402, 1427-1438.

3 R Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1986.

4 Platonis Opera Omnia, Venice, 1491, fol. 118r (in Ficino’s own Opera, p. 1315). Note that I am consulting both the 1491 and 1576 versions.

5 See D. P. Walker, The Ancient Theology: Studies in Christian Platonism from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century, London, 1972, chap. I, esp. p. 26-29. For the Eusebian version of the palinode, derived from Aristobulus and the one Ficino first encountered, and for the other versions in Pseudo-Justin, Clement of Alexandria, and Cyril, see Otto Kern’s, Orphicorum fragmenta, frags. 245-247.

6 The Uranius (Prenninger) letter can be found in Ficino’s own Opera, p. 933.2-935.2, with a free version of the palinode appearing on p. 934.1, and a version of “The Hymn to Jove” on p. 934.2-935 (respectively Kern’s £rags. 247 and 168)—they were taken from Eusebius’ Praeparatio evangelica 13.12.5 and 3.9.2 (ed. Des Places). The Cosimo letter survives in only one MS, the Laurenziana’s 54.10, fo1. 81r-v, and has been edited by P. O. Kristeller, Supplementum Ficinianum, 2 vols (Florence, 1937), II, p. 87-88. Kristeller has also edited and commented on the de Ganay letter in his “Scholastic Background”, in his Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters [I], Rome, 1956, p. 50-54, 96-97. For Ficino and de Ganay, see S. Gentile, “Giano Lascaris, Germain de Ganay e la Prisca Theologia in Francia”, Rinascimento, II s., XXVI (1986), p. 51-76. See Walker, op. cit., 1972, p. 24-25, 27-29, 36-37; and my “Summoning Plotinus” now in Plato’s Third Eye: Studies in Marsilio Ficino’s Metaphysics and its Sources, Aldershot, 1995, as no. XIV : p. 73-84, with further refs.

7 See his epitome for Laws 1 (Opera, p. 1488.2), with the comments in my “Marsilio Ficino on Plato’s Pythagorean Eye”, in Plato’s Third Eye, as no. VII, p. 174-175. See also J. Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance, 2 vols, Leiden, 1990, I, p. 353-354.

8 Ficino has several letters on law and jurists, see, for example, in his first book of Epistolae, no. 5 to Ottone Niccolini and others, no. 45 to Giovanni Cavalcanti, no. 95 to Lorenzo de’ Medici, and no. 98 to Pier Filippo Perugino (éd. S. Gentile, Lettere I, p. 17-18, 88-89, 166-168, 174).

9 See the penetrating discussions of W. Trimpi, Muses of One Mind: The Literary Analysis of Experience and its Continuity, Princeton, 1983, Parts I and II ; and, for the Neoplatonists, of J. A. Coulter, The Literary Microcosm: Theories of Interpretation of the Later Neoplatonists, Leiden, 1976.

10 Cf. Apology 22B-C: “I learnt that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them”. See J. Tate, “Plato and Allegorical Interpretation”, Classical Quarterly, XXIII (1929), p. 142-154; idem, “On the History of Allegorism”, Classical Quarterly, XXVIII (1934), p. 105-115.

11 R. Lamberton, op. cit., 1986, p. 173n, writes: “The ‘secret doctrine’ is, then, potentially within the text, but must in practice be articulated outside, by someone with the experience and insight to explain the text ‘according to’ it”. This arresting comment, however, does not go far enough; for the enlightened interpreter will always speak to the “secret doctrine” in himself, regardless of any potentiality in, or not in, the text. See below.

12 Ibid., p. 141, 204-208, 245. In speaking of symbolic as opposed to mimetic representations of reality, Lamberton acutely observes: “the processions of the divine tend to produce effects in the material world that are diametrically opposed to their true natures [and] may take the form of obscenities” (p. 207-208); they “represent ‘through the dissimilar’ (dia ta anomoia)” (p. 245, citing the Pseudo Areopagite’sCelestial Hierarchy 2.3). See E. Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, rev. ed., New York, 1968, p. 133-138.

13 He is so described in a letter in the first book of Epistolae dated 4 March 1473 (Florentine style) and addressed to Antonio Pelotti and Baccio Ugolini (éd. Gentile, p. 103-104; in Opera, p. 634.2-635). It reappeared as a section in Ficino’s Platonic Theology 13.2.5 entitled De poetis (éds Allen - Hankins, 4:126-127). Linked with him are Ion and Tynnichus of Chalcis (see Plato’s Ion and for Tynnichus specifically 534D).

14 The verb theologeô and its cognates could refer by the fourth century either to composing or to interpreting poetry; see L. Ziehen’s entry “Theologos”, in the Real-Encyclopädie, II s., V, 1934, cols. 2031-33; also R. Lamberton, op. cit., 1986, p. 24, 27-28, 31, 181, 195. Given the importance of Hermias in forming Ficino’s conceptions, we should take note of Lamberton’s observation (p. 31) that Hermias, like Proclus, refers to the “theologians and the inspired (enthous) poets and Homer” (In Phaedrum, ed. P. Couvreur, Paris 1901, p. 77.10-11) and that his other refs. “make it clear the group includes Orpheus, the Orphics, Hesiod, and Plato” (ibid., p. 154.15; 147.20 ; 148.18 ; 142.10, 14 ; 193.6).

15 Cf. Meno 99C-D. In the Pelotti-Ugolini letter, Ficino describes Ion and Tynnichus as men “qui praeter artem subito in rebus poeticis mirandi prodierint”. See my “Soul as Rhapsode: Marsilio Ficino’s Interpretation of Plato’s Ion” in Plato’s Third Eye, as no. XV; and, more generally, F. Tronchelli, “Musarum sacerdos: it poeta vate, modello critico dei rapporti tra letteratura ed ermetismo”, in II mago, it cosmo, it teatro degli astri, Rome, 1985, p. 11-33.

16 R. Lamberton, op. cit., 1986, p. 133, remarks of the Neoplatonists’ Odyssey: “The allegories it contained were placed in it not by the poets of the tradition that produced it but by a vigorous and obtrusive interpretive tradition that had corrected their oversight, an interpretive tradition that was as much a part of Platonism in late antiquity as the poems themselves.”

17 Opera, p. 1400.1: Detestatur mox poeticam impietatem turpia de diis fingentem; and p. 1400.2: Ideo rursus audiri vetat carmina poetarum, quibus vel deorum vel heroum magnorumque virorum libidines, rapinae, iniquitatesque finguntur.

18 E. Wind, op. cit., 1968, p. 132-134, 174-175; see Ficino’s Opera, p. 1737.2; 1758.2.

19 For a survey of Homer’s place in the Byzantine tradition, see R. Browning, “Homer in Byzantium”, Viator, VI (1975), p. 15-33.

20 Plotinus, Enneads 4.3.27; Porphyry, De antro nympharum; Hermias, In Phaedrum, ed. Couvreur, p. 214.19-24, and Proclus, In Euclidem, ed. G. Friedlein, Leipzig 1873, p. 55.18-23, In Parmenidem, ed. V. Cousin in Procli Opera inedita, 2nd ed., Paris 1864, col. 1025a.29-37; Macrobius, In somnium Scipionis 1. 12. 2-3, ed. Willis; Proclus, In Rempublicam 6.9 and 6.18, ed. Kroll, I, p. 115.1-126.4; 150.1-154.11. We might note, however, that Plotinus never mentions the name of Homer in the Enneads and rarely echoes him, and that Iamblichus and the Areopagite barely mention him either. Similarly, among the Latin Platonists, Macrobius invokes Homer only occasionally while accepting that his and Plato’s teachings are compatible; Calcidius sees Homer as authoritative but not infallible; and Boethius in the Consolation assumes that Homer espouses true, i.e. Platonic, doctrines without providing any detailed exegesis. See Lamberton, op. cit., p. 83-107 (on Plotinus); 108-133 (on Porphyry); 134 (on Iamblichus), 162-232 (on Proclus), 244-249 (on the Areopagite), 250-256 (on Calcidius), 270-272 (on Macrobius), 274-279 (on Boethius). The two arch proponents of the theme of Homer as theologus are still Porphyry and Proclus. However, Ficino never treats of Porphyry’s analysis of the cave of the nymphs and he did not know Proclus’s In Rempublicam until the summer of 1492; see note 24 below. Though he was familiar, certainly, with other works of Proclus, his principal introduction to the Neoplatonic Homer was therefore by way of Hermias whom he had certainly read and translated by the 1470s, if not earlier. We cannot assume that he had anything like our modern understanding of the Neoplatonists’ Homerus theologus, indebted as it is to the work of Buffière, Coulter, Lamberton, Pépin, Sheppard and others.

21 We might note the Judaeo-Christian valorisation of exile: in Egypt, in Babylon, in this vale of tears. Ficino could also look to the dramatic example of his fellow Florentine, Dante, who, though he knew neither of the Homeric epics, has Virgil describe Homer in Inferno 4, 80-96 as “1’altissimo poeta”, “il poeta sovrano” over Horace, Ovid and Lucan, “the four great shadows” being “the lords of highest song”. See G. Martellotti’s entry “Omero”, in the Encyclopedia Dantesca, 6 vols., Rome 1970-1978, IV, p. 145-148. The Commedia, incidentally, mentions Homer just seven times.

22 For a brilliant analysis of Proclus’s reconciliation of Homer and Plato, see A. D. R Sheppard, Studies in the 5th and 6th Essays of Proclus’ Commentary on the ‘Republic’, Göttingen, 1980.

23 In Rempublicam 6 (ed. Kroll, I, p. 69-205).

24 For details see S. Gentile in Marsilio Ficino e il ritorno di Platone, ed. S. Gentile, S. Niccoli, and P. Viti, Florence, 1984, p. 151-152; Viti ibid., p. 189 ; P. O. Kristeller, Marsilio Ficino and His Work After Five Hundred Years, Florence, 1987, p. 73, 125-126; and Kroll’s introduction to his edition of Proclus’s In Rempublicam, I, p. 1- VII.

25 Opera, p. 937.2- 943.1. See R. Marcel, Marsile Ficin(1433-1499), Paris, 1958, p. 524 ff.

26 A reference to the “idol” or “reflection” of Heracles in the Odyssey 11.601-604 as interpreted by Plotinus in Enneads 4.3.27.14-24, 4.3.32.13, and 6.4.16.

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