Sunday, October 12, 2014

BOOK: Marsilio Ficino, "Commentaries on Plato" (Vol. 1)

Marsilio Ficino: Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 1: Phaedrus and Ion. Edited and translated by Michael J. B. Allen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 34. Harvard University Press, 2008. 9780674031197. lix + 269 pp.

Marsilio Ficino was a 15th-century neoplatonist philosopher who is among other things noted for his translation of Plato's complete works into Latin and the numerous commentaries he wrote on the work of Plato and his followers. This book contains Ficino's commentaries on the Phaedrus, one of Plato's dialogues.

In a way, I found this book very interesting, though probably not quite in the way in which I should have :) The thing I found interesting about it was to see how very different the Phaedrus seemed to Ficino than it did to me.

I read Plato's Phaedrus a couple weeks ago, and wrote a suitably irritated post about it, complaining about the poor argumentation, excessive license taken in the meanings of words, the overextended use of metaphors, and the overall muddle-headedness, wishful thinking and the tendency of Socrates to pull things out of his ass.

Ficino's view (unsurprisingly) couldn't be more different. One of the most notable features of the Phaedrus is Socrates' metaphor of the soul as a chariot with a pair of winged horses — a metaphor, incidentally, which Socrates kept dragging on for much longer than he should have, exhibiting an interest in the anatomical details of the horses' wings that would be more fitting for a veterinarian than a philosopher. Anyway, what seemed to me merely a picturesque (and ultimately somewhat belabored) metaphor is here referred to as a “mythical hymn”, and is studied and explicated with the level of devout dedication that you'd normally only expect from a pious believer studying his religion's sacred books.

The book starts with Ficino's translation of the “mythical hymn” part of the Phaedrus, which I think is a useful idea, to refresh the reader's memory. I'm not of course in any way competent to comment on the quality of Ficino's translation, but it seemed reasonable enough, as far as I can compare it with the translation I'd read a couple weeks before. One interesting change done by Ficino is to tone down the various homoerotic passages from the original, see e.g. 249a (p. 17), 255e, 256a (p. 35).

Although the “mythical hymn’ covers only about a quarter of the dialogue, this seems to have been the part that Ficino was the most interested in. His “argument” of the Phaedrus starts with a summary of the entire dialogue, but then 8 out of 11 sections of the argument discuss just the mythical hymn. This is then followed by Ficino's chapter-by-chapter commentary on the Phaedrus, in which again the vast majority of attention is focused on the mythical hymn part. In a few instances, Ficino takes up a page or more to discuss just a few lines of the original; elsewhere, when dealing with other parts of the dialogue, he spends a few lines of commentary to deal with several pages of the original. Overall the commentary is about 60% of the length of the dialogue itself, and around two-thirds of it deals with the “mythical hymn”.

I often wondered how Ficino was able to pull such an extensive, complex and detailed system of interpretation out of some short passage of Plato (his ‘commentary’ occasionally discusses things of which I could not find the slightest trace in the passage supposedly being discussed — e.g. the mentions of Saturn in the commentary of ch. 28, p. 155; and the discussion of Mercury in ch. 49, p. 187), but then, judging by the translator's notes at the end of the book, Ficino was actually building on the work of ancient Greek Neoplatonists such as Plotinus and Proclus.

The impression I got from reading all this is that Neoplatonists such as Ficino treated Plato as almost a kind of religious prophet, every sentence and every word of whose work must be full of importance and meaning, and it's up to his devoted followers to figure out what exactly these things mean. Things which don't make any sense in Plato are taken to have an allegorical meaning, which is then discussed at great length. What had seemed to me as throwaway remarks by Socrates in his poetical description of the soul/chariot's ascent towards heaven are here studied in minute detail and believed to provide valuable hints as to the precise structure of various levels of increasingly abstract ‘worlds’ and the various orders of gods and daemons inhabiting them. (See esp. 247b–c where the souls “reach the summit [. . .] stand firm upon the heaven's back [. . .] gaze afar at the thing which are beyond heaven. The superheavenly place”, a few lines which Ficino then discusses for 3 pages.)

Frankly, I'm somewhat disappointed by all this; it isn't what I had expected. Neoplatonism comes across as more like a sort of religious mysticism than a worthwhile intellectual pursuit. Instead of trying to study the world that we actually live in, they escaped into a hypothetical ‘higher’ world, which they pretended to study but they weren't really doing anything other than making things up out of thin air. Their tendency to invent abstrusely detailed, systematic descriptions of such higher worlds reminded me a lot of theosophists and new-agers. Ficino's inclination to hang on every word of the Phaedrus and insist that it must be part of some larger, carefully thought-out system of higher worlds and beings also struck me as being of an essentially religious character.

Indeed I can't help wondering if Neoplatonism wasn't simply a sort of substitute religion for a certain type of intellectuals, much like in a later time others would use darwinism or objectivism for a similar purpose. For example, some passages in the Phaedrus and in Ficino's commentary (e.g. chs. 19, 28, 30, 35; as well as ¶8 of his Ion commentary; and his argument to Phaedrus, 10.6–7 on pp. 87–9) seem to be (rather strained) efforts to draw parallels between the traditional ancient Greek gods and the various concepts from Plato's home-grown theology. I can easily imagine this sort of thing flourishing during a certain period in ancient Greece, when the traditional religion was increasingly seen as too ridiculous to be taken seriously (at least by educated people), so they welcomed the efforts of Plato and his successors to come up with a more refined and intellectual belief system. I wonder if Ficino was similarly unimpressed by some of the messiness of traditional christianity and its theology, and consequently sought solace in trying to combine it with platonism.

For other typically religious elements in the Phaedrus and Ficino's commentary on it, see e.g. the ideas of how souls get reincarnated into men of a higher or lower station (philosophers being the highest, naturally) depending on how much of the Truth™ they have seen earlier during their ascent towards the platonic heavens (Ficino discusses the resulting nine classes of people at length in ch. 24 of his commentary), and how your soul must earn its place in heaven by several thousands of years of philosophical study (ch. 25). I have already complained about these things in my post about the Phaedrus, and there's no point in repeating myself. But it's interesting to note that the parts of Phaedrus that Ficino is the most interested in are exactly those that reek the most strongly of religion.

Incidentally, there's a very interesting appendix by the translator (pp. 209–12), in which he describes a bit more clearly the system of ‘higher’ worlds as envisioned by Ficino; he even goes so far as to admit: “The situation may seem complicated if not thoroughly confusing” (p. 211). In another appendix, the translator points out that “however arcane and difficult it might appear to us now, Ficino's response to the Phaedrus' mythical hymn was relatively straightforward compared to Proclus' interpretation” (p. 220).

Anyhow, this is the way in which I found this book interesting; it was fascinating to watch how these people were able to construct an elaborate system of quasi-theology out of a few vague passages in Plato. But as an actual commentary on Plato, I'm not sure how useful I found it. There are very few passages of Phaedrus that I understood any better after reading Ficino's commentary — although, of course, he wasn't aiming it at uneducated readers like me. I did think his commentary (ch. 15) made Socrates's argument about the immortality of the souls (245c–246a) a little clearer, although not any more convincing. Many of his interpretations seemed to me to be a bit stretched, such as when he explained Socrates's tale of the cicadas (259b–d) as daimons, who seem to be some kind of intermediaries between humans and gods (ch. 35 of Ficino's commentary, p. 171; in ch. 38, p. 177 he says the cicadas are an allegory for local gods); or when he insisted that, in Socrates's Egyptian tale of the invention of writing (274c–5b), the god Theuth is at best a mere daimon while king Thamus is not in fact a human but the god Ammon or Jupiter himself (thereby explaining why Theuth would bring his invention (i.e. writing) to Thamus for review and approval; ch. 49 of Ficino's commentary, pp. 187–9).

An interesting bit from the translator's introduction, regarding the influence of Ficino's studies of Plato: “throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries references to Plato are often to Ficino's argumenta rather than to the dialogues themselves” (p. xxiv).

On Ion

At the end of the book there's also a short letter by Ficino, in which he discusses another dialogue by Plato, the Ion. In this dialogue, Ion is a rhapsode — a reciter and interpreter of Homer's poems. Ion claims, very bizarrely, that he is only good at talking about Homer's poems and not about those of any other poet; in view of this, Socrates has an easy job arguing that Ion's ability comes from divine inspiration rather than from human skill. This struck me as yet another cheap manipulative trick by Plato; he invents such an unrealistic character as Ion just to facilitate his argument.

The second part of the dialogue is even more preposterous. Socrates gets Ion to admit that a poet like Homer talks about all sorts of topics, without actually being an expert on any of them, and yet gets much of this right: you can't explain this otherwise than by the fact that the poet is also divinely inspired (by the way, Ficino thoroughly agrees with this nonsense in ¶7). I could hardly believe my eyes, even when I first read the Ion many years ago. Could Plato really have believed that we wouldn't notice the obvious explanation: a poet must know well enough about these various subjects to mention them in a way which will seem plausible to his audience; that's all. It helps if he knows more about them than his audience does, although if he doesn't, he can probably (if he has any skill as a writer of fiction) still fake his way well enough that a non-expert reader won't notice anything. And he can also consult with the actual experts if he wants to make absolutely sure. In fact nowadays this is something quite normal — a writer is pretty much supposed to do a bit of research on a topic that he plans to mention prominently in his fiction; and writers are often criticized by experts when they did too sloppy a job of that. I wonder if this practice was really unknown to the ancient Greeks, or was Plato just pretending not to be aware of it? (Maybe Plato was just bad as a fiction writer and that's why he gave up fiction in favor of philosophy early in his career, and then proceeded to write bad fiction in the guise of philosophy? :P)

Anyway, Ficino's letter about Ion of course finds no fault with any part of it, and mostly focuses on the idea of poets being divinely inspired. He points out that this is an example of one of the four “divine frenzies” mentioned in the Phaedrus (244a–245a; the other three being prophecy, poetic inspiration and a priestly frenzy that leads to mystery cults and the like; cf. ¶4), and for him it's yet another proof of the existence of something divine (¶7).

Eh well. I'm afraid I don't have much use for arguments like these. Just because we can't explain the sources of poetic talent and inspiration in some better way, doesn't mean that we have the right to invent a whole bunch of supernatural entities and claim that it comes from them.

Much of Ficino's commentary discusses things that aren't even mentioned in the Ion; thus he tries to draw parallels between the four divine frenzies from Phaedrus and the soul's ascent through four higher worlds of Neoplatonism (¶3–4), and he somehow comes up with pairwise assignments of the nine Muses to the heavenly spheres and many other such allegorical parallels (¶8).

There's a fine passage from ¶8, showing Ficino's approach to interpreting Plato: “When Plato says God, he means Apollo, and when he says the Muses he means the souls of the world's spheres.” (P. 205.) Really, with that kind of freedom of interpretation, he could just as well say that by the Muses Plato actually means Snow White and the seven dwarfs...


In a way, the elaborate castles in the clouds that have been built up by these Platonists are a remarkable creation of the human mind, not entirely unlike poetry or religion or mathematics or art and other such things. But they don't tell us anything about the world, only a little about the human mind and its capacity to make things up. As such, I'm not particularly interested in studying them — if I want to read fiction, I'll just pick up a novel instead — but I can certainly imagine why some people find this stuff fascinating.

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