Tuesday, November 25, 2014

BOOK: Marco Girolamo Vida, "Christiad"

Marco Girolamo Vida: Christiad. Translated by James Gardner. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 39. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674034082. xxviii + 464 pp.

The story

This is an epic poem of about 6000 lines, about the life of Jesus with an emphasis on his final days. In fact the direct action in the poem only covers the last few days of Jesus's life: he comes to Jerusalem (re-animating Lazarus along the way), has the last supper there, gets arrested during the following night and then executed soon afterwards. However, the poet comes up with all sorts of excuses to include flashbacks that tell us about things that happened earlier.

For example, in book 1 Jesus visits the temple in Jerusalem and admires the sculptures there; they depict the creation of the world and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, so we get a long description of these events (1.591–673).

In book 2, people from all over Israel are coming to Jerusalem for some sort of religious festival, and the poet makes use of this opportunity to include a long catalogue of various towns and regions and their inhabitants (2.332—529). I suppose that the epic poets' union requires them to include at least one catalogue in each epic poem :P

And in book 3, after Jesus gets arrested, his father (or is that stepfather? :P) Joseph goes to see Pontius Pilate to try to explain his son's activities, and so nearly the whole of book 3 is a long flashback in which Joseph tells Pilate about his marriage to Mary and about Jesus' birth and childhood.

Book 4 consists mostly of a flashback by John (the apostle) about Jesus's last few years, how he encountered John the Baptist, assembled a group of disciples, performed various miracles, etc. John even includes the story of the creation of the world and subsequent events up to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise (4.59–110).

The last two books tell the story more straightforwardly; in book 5 we have Jesus's trial and execution (there's an odd scene where a legion of angels gets indignant at his suffering and are just about ready to swoop down and rescue him, so that god has to sternly recall them back in the last moment; 5.534–702, especially ll. 562–573, which is a pleasantly psychedelic description of the appearance of the angels: some have two pairs of wings, some have three “for their feet are winged as well”; some have “brilliant plumage and flaming feet and backs that glow like fire”, others “the color of grass, like emeralds” etc. etc.), and in book 6 we see some of his post-mortem activities: he travels to Hell to liberate various prophets and patriarchs that have been waiting for him in a not-too-uncomfortable sort of limbo; then he returns to Earth (with a spiffy new immortal body), spends a few weeks amongst his followers and then leaves them for good.

Miscellaneous odd things

One thing that I was surprised by was the active involvement of the devils in the early part of the poem. Satan holds a speech among them in hell and then they come up in large numbers to incite hatred of Jesus among the people of Jerusalem. This is the sort of thing that you expect to see in Milton's Paradise Lost, but I didn't expect it here; I wonder if there's any basis for this part of the tale in the bible itself. In any case, Milton apparently held Vida's epic in high regard and was definitely influenced by it (pp. vii, xxiv). In particular, his famous line “Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimaeras dire” closely parallels a passage in the Christiad: “Some transformed their obscene bodies into Gorgons, Sphinxes and Centaurs, others into Hydras and fire-breathing Chimaeras” (1.143–4).

A problem I have with epic poems as well as with religious tales (and after all the two genres have much in common) is that the characters featured there are often so different from normal people that I find it difficult to sympathize with them. They behave in ways that no normal person would, and thus end up seeming more like machines for the advancement of the plot. One of the few situations where I really felt I could sympathize with the characters here in the Christiad occurs in 3.227–53, where Joseph and Mary, neither of whom had the slightest wish to get married, find themselves on their wedding night, wondering what to do with each other and eventually deciding not to do anything. Just two poor fragile mortals, powerless while forces far beyond their control toy with them. That is something I could sympathize with.


I was also surprised by the character of Pilate. He's shown as a much more positive figure than I expected; he's convinced that Jesus is innocent and indeed of divine origin, he listens with great interest to what Joseph and John tell him of Jesus's life, and seems to be keen to acquit him. Nevertheless, since the people of Jerusalem call so strongly for Jesus to be executed, Pilate eventually gives in.

That's an aspect of the story that I never quite understood. He is presented here as some sort of governor, a representative of the Roman empire that was by then already in control of the area; why then does he allow a mob of locals to influence his decision like that? I would imagine that he'd try to enforce his decision out of sheer principle if for no other reason — doesn't it weaken Roman prestige if he caves in under local pressure like that? The closest Vida comes to explaining why Pilate yielded is in 5.326–47: Pilate is partly worried that the populace might rise into a revolt if he doesn't give in, and partly he was worried that Jesus's claims to be some sort of king might eventually turn into a challenge against the Roman rule of the area.

There are one or two other things that bother me about this whole crucifixion business. The poet rails in the strongest terms against people who were involved in getting Jesus arrested, condemned and executed; from Judas who betrayed him, to the people and elders of Jerusalem who called for his execution, to the soldiers etc. involved in carrying it out. And yet all these people were indirectly just carrying out god's plan, as the poet himself often admits. Basically, god decided that Jesus needs to be brutally executed in order to cleanse humankind of original sin, so as far as I'm concerned, everyone who was involved in executing him was really doing him a favor. If they hadn't been willing to execute him, the whole insane plan would have failed spectacularly.

Really, if the devil had really been half as clever as he is sometimes made out to be, he wouldn't have sent his legions of demons to incite the people of Jerusalem against Jesus (as he does in book 1 of this poem); he would have instead inspired them to regard Jesus and his teachings favorably, or perhaps to merely point and laugh at him, so that in the end Jesus would be reduced to standing all confused in a central square somewhere in Jerusalem and wondering ‘why the heck doesn't anybody want to execute me? now what? that wasn't part of the plan!’ :))

For the same reason I found it hard to understand why Jesus's disciples and relatives are so sad about his suffering and death. I mean, if they really and truly believed in the truth of his teachings, wouldn't the reasonable response have been ‘good, everything is going according to plan, plus he's immortal anyway so he'll be back up and running in a couple days' time’?

The other thing that bothers me about the poet's attitude towards crucifixion is that while he happily admits how horrible and painful it is, he doesn't seem to be ready to draw any general conclusions against it. He sympathizes with Jesus's suffering but then mentions the other two people crucified next to him and says that they were condemned justly, since they had actually been criminals. It didn't seem to occur to him that this sort of extremely painful punishment might be morally wrong even for someone that had actually commited some crimes.

Besides, if one truly believed (as I imagine the poet had) that Jesus and god the father are really one and the same person, well then effectively god was dying up there on the cross by his own choice, because he himself had decided that this is necessary, although he could have surely just as well declared the whole original sin business to be bullshit and forgot about it without having to go through all the trouble of getting himself incarnated and executed. So if he dislikes any part of this process, he has only himself to blame — but you can't say that for the two supposed criminals on the neighboring crosses, so I really feel much more sympathy for them than I do for Jesus.

But anyway, I suppose that lots of other people have been pondering such questions when thinking about the story of Jesus and his death, so I can't really add anything new or interesting on this topic.


As is inevitable when religion gets involved, there are a few impressively bizarre passages in this poem. In 4.439–475, John tells the grisly story of a man “born to parents joined in forbidden love [. . .] they went to bed at a time when sacred ritual forbade it [. . .] Amidst their joyous embraces, the adulterer gave up his sacrilegious soul, and that first night of love was also their last. When the mother was already advanced in labor, she was struck down by a heaven-sent fever.” The child survived but grew up into a demon-infested lunatic who lived more like a beast than a human. Jesus eventually cures him in a scene that you would sooner expect from a stone-age tribal shaman — by transferring the demons into some nearby pigs! (4.508–531)

Translator's note to 4.645 (p. 411): “Pliny says that the priests of Cybele use broken pieces of Samian pottery to perform their ritual castrations”. Eeeeeek!

On translations

Unlike most of the other volumes in the ITRL series, this one wasn't translated by an academic — the front flap of the dustjacket says that the translator is a “writer and art critic”. I think that turned out to be a good idea; the introduction talks more about the literary aspects of the poem and less about various academic debates about this or that detail of Renaissance literature and history. It also contains a short overview of Vida's life; it turns out that he had influential patrons: the Christiad was commissioned by pope Leo X, and when it was completed, Clement VII rewarded the poet by appointing him the bishop of Alba (p. ix).

There are some interesting remarks on the conservative nature of neo-Latin poetry and how it was all about imitating the ancient Roman poets as closely as possible: “Vida aspires to write as an Augustan poet, if not Vergil himself, would have written if he had been a Christian” (p. x); and see also pp. xxi–xxii: “Vergil was trying to write the best poetry that he could, whereas Vida was trying to be as Vergilian as he could. [. . .] The predictable result [. . .] is that he [. . .] achieves the greatest possible simulacrum” (p. xxii).

The translation is nice but, of course, like in most ITRL poetry volumes, it's in prose, so I occasionally wished that I had taken up some of the earlier translations: there's one by John Cranwell from 1768 and one by Edward Granan from 1771. Both are in rhyming couplets, which makes everything sound so cheerful, no matter how horrible it is. For example, here's a passage from the aforementioned horror story from book 4, now in Granan's translation: “If fame sings true, a lawless Hymen led/ His guilty parents to the genial bed./ [. . .] But they enjoy'd not long their foul delight;/ The crime commenc'd and ended in one night:/ For 'mid his joys the base adulterer dies,/ And into air his wicked spirit flies,/ When urg'd her throes, from ether shot a flame,/ And lambent round, consum'd the lab'ring Dame,” (4.481–90 in Granan's translation, pp. 148–9).

I was surprised to see that two separate translations were produced just three years apart; I wonder if there's an interesting story behind this. I skimmed through Granan's introduction to his 1771 translation, but he doesn't mention Cranwell's translation at all.

The ITRL edition of the Christiad also has an interesting bibliography of early editions and translations of the poem (pp. 443–5). There's even a Croatian translation, first printed in 1670, and an Armenian one from 1832.


This poem wasn't as boring as I feared it would be, but I can't say that I found it terribly interesting either. Perhaps it's mostly a matter of slightly mismatched expectations. This isn't exactly a heroic epic in the way that the Illiad or the Odyssey are; it's more like taking some bits and pieces of biblical stories and recasting them into hexameters. The pacing is a bit too leisurely for my taste and there isn't much action here; indeed the most exciting scenes are the ones which I suspect are entirely Vida's invention, when the devils rush to influence the people of Jerusalem in book 1, and when the angels almost swoop down to rescue Jesus from the cross in book 5.

There weren't many characters that one could sympathize with; they feel too much like cardboard cutouts that have their assigned roles in the story, roles which they must play, and which they *will* play, so that the poet doesn't feel much of a need to explain their motivation or see things from their perspective. For example, why did the people and the establishment of Jerusalem hate Jesus so fervently? Apart from the suggestion that they were influenced by the demons from book 1, the main explanation seems to be that they are upset by the fact that Jesus has openly announced that he intends to overturn their established ancestral laws, rituals, customs and the like.

And if you think about it, that sounds like a reasonable concern. Some weirdo self-appointed messiah shows up out of nowhere and starts making wild, outrageous proclamations, denigrating old traditions and the like — it's only natural that people react with skepticism and distrust. In fact, from what we know of the overall religious ferment in the Levant during the last few centuries BC and first few centuries AD, I imagine that self-proclaimed prophets were a dime a dozen back then. Surely he, being omnipotent, could have provided explanations and proofs that would convince these doubters, but clearly he refused to do so. I'd say that executing him was an overreaction, but I could hardly blame the people if they had e.g. tried to banish him from their country. And yet the poem never seems to acknowledge that his accusers and haters basically had a point.

In any case, the main problem with the whole story is the underlying premiss, which is completely unfixable: the whole thing is based on the idea of original sin and on the need for Jesus/god to be reincarnated and killed in a kind of expiation for it. That is one of the most absurd, abominable, despicable ideas that anybody has ever come up with, and yet it underlies the whole story; nothing in it makes sense without this. So you can't help constantly being reminded of it as you read, and this ruined the whole poem for me.

I imagine that a more tolerant reader who doesn't share my robust dislike of these underlying ideas from christian theology might be able to relax and enjoy reading this poem better than I did. As for me, reading it mostly just confirmed my pre-existing opinion that christian mythology is far more annoying as the Greek, as it is equally absurd but much less charming.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

BOOK: Jacopo Sannazaro, "Latin Poetry"

Jacopo Sannazaro: Latin Poetry. Translated by Michael J. C. Putnam. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 38. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674034068. xxv + 562 pp.

Sannazaro was a poet from Naples who lived in the late 15th and early 16th century. The translator's introduction includes a short overview of his career as a poet, which I found very interesting. His first work was in Italian, a pastoral book called Arcadia in a mixture of prose and verse; this was very influential and it's what he's best known for nowadays. But after that, all the rest of his work was in Latin; he seems to have regarded this transition as a form of progress, moving from Italian to Latin was a step forward in his development as a poet. It seems somewhat sad that even as late as 1500, after so much good literature had already been written in Italian, authors such as Sannazaro still seemed to regard it as somehow inferior and felt that only work written in Latin will really have enduring value. How mistaken they were in that — nowadays, we mostly remember Renaissance writers for the work they've done in living languages, not in Latin.

The Virgin Birth

This is an epic poem of almost 1500 lines, divided into three books. In book 1, god decides to make Mary pregnant and sends an angel to explain this to her. In book 2, Mary stays for a while at a relative's house and then travels with her husband Joseph to his birth-place, Bethlehem, as required by a census decreed by the emperor Augustus. However, as they can't find a place to stay in the town, she ends up giving birth in a nearby cave. In book 3, god sends various angels, shepherds etc. to celebrate the new-born baby Jesus, and the [tutelary deity of the] river Jordan expounds a long prophecy of his future achievements.

Considering the material, this wasn't as boring as I feared it would be. It was interesting to see this odd mixture of christian and pagan elements; Sannazaro switches very nonchalantly from the christian god and angels to pagan nymphs and back all the time; refers to the christian god as the “Thunderer” and addresses Mary as a “goddess”; there are a few mentions of the underworld, which seems to be a mixture of christian and pagan elements, etc.

It was also somewhat interesting to read this for the sake of the story itself, as I had never read any collections of biblical tales (or indeed the bible itself). On the other hand, Sannazaro probably assumed that his readers would be familiar with this stuff already, and as a result I occasionally found the story a little hard to follow.

Another downside was that, as often seems to be the case in shorter epics, there was less plot and action, but lots more speeches, than I'd ideally prefer. There is of course also the obligatory epic catalogue, namely in 2.125–234: after mentioning that Augustus had ordered a census, Sannazaro enters into a long and detailed list of Roman provinces, going pretty systematically in a counterclockwise direction. The list struck me as somewhat optimistic: apparently, even “the Cilician pirate” (2.134) will submit to the census, and “Anyone discovered in the empty desert is also enrolled” (2.207) :))

Like I suppose many other irreverent non-believers, I was of course greatly intrigued by the concept of a virgin birth, and was curious how Sannazaro would explain its mechanics. These are described in 2.369–76: “His nourishing mother had felt no stirring within her vitals or assaulting blows of a weight in descent. Her innards clung tight with bonds unmoved, much as when panels of glass receive the limpid sun. Indeed the light itself passes through [. . .] The panes remain unscathed, permeable by no blast of wind or storm, but vulnerable only to Phoebus's rays.”

Like many translations of poetry in the ITRL series, this one is also entirely in prose, but this time the prose felt reasonably poetic and wasn't unpleasant to read. I was also extremely impressed by the translator's notes, which point out countless instances where some line or phrase in Sannazaro is an echo of something from the work of some ancient Roman poet. This must have taken a huge effort to gather, and for the right sort of reader it will probably be extremely valuable.

I mostly found it interesting as an indication of the not-so-hidden costs of writing poetry in a dead language such as Latin: when asking themselves questions such as ‘can I start a line with such and such a phrase?’, ‘can I use such and such a metaphor?’ etc., the neo-Latin poets couldn't rely on a native ear for the language nor on an existing community of speakers, because the language was thoroughly dead; so the only way to be sure that you could do something was to check if some ancient Roman poet had already done it before you. They had little choice but to chew through the same limited corpus of authentic ancient Roman poetry again and again in search of elementary building blocks for their own works. I imagine that neither the poets nor their readers could long put up with this level of derivativeness, which I guess explains why writing poetry in Latin quickly fell out of favour after the Renaissance.

Piscatory Eclogues

This is a sequence of five poems, with a fragment of a sixth, that is an interesting variation on the theme of pastoral poetry: as the title suggests, they are set amongst fishermen instead of shepherds. But apart from that, it's fairly typical pastoral poetry and as the translator's notes show, for each of these poems you can find clear parallels in the work of ancient Greek and/or Roman poets.

Some poets liked to use pastoral poetry as a kind of code to comment on real people and events, with the characters in the poem being thinly-veiled versions of some real person etc., but here in Sannazaro's eclogues this mostly doesn't seem to be the case. That suited me just fine as I'm not particularly fond of literature a clef.

I liked the diversity of form in these poems: some are sung by a single narrator, in some there's two characters taking turns and trying to out-do each other, etc. My favorite among these eclogues was the fifth one, in which we see a witch cooking up a love-potion to charm a man who has hitherto been indifferent to her. I always liked scenes of sorcery; it's easy to make them seem exciting, and it makes for a pleasant change from the otherwise somewhat more leisurely tone of pastoral poetry.

A nice line from the fourth eclogue (line 91): “To be at peace in one's fatherland is welcome, but earth is everyone's grave.”

The Willows

This poem is based on one of those just-so stories with which Greek mythology was so fond of explaining the origin of various things, animals, plants and so on. In fact I don't know if Sannazaro actually based his poem on an existing Greek myth, or just invented a story of his own in the same style.

Anyway, a group of satyrs and other such horny goat-like guys invites a group of nymphs to a dance, going out of their way to reassure them that of course they won't try to molest them or anything of that sort. The nymphs' hesitant trust is soon betrayed as the satyrs start chasing them around. In desperation, they flee to a river bank, where apparently the best thing the gods can do to help them is to turn them into willows — which is why willows nowadays lean so towards the water, away from the direction where the satyrs would have been coming from. You might think that a few well-measured lightning bolts directed at the satyrs would have been a better solution, but then Greek gods are not really known for being reasonable and helpful. We can only hope that none of the satyrs was a dendrophiliac.

As is often the case with old myths and fairy-tales and the like, the more you think about it, the more horrible it is. At first it seems like a whimsical tale of the origin of willows, but on second thought it's the story of an attempted rape on a large scale; it continues with a dramatic chase scene; and ends with a grisly bit of supernatural body horror as we see a detailed description of how the nymphs' bodies turn into wood! Brrrrr.

Later he has a similar poem about the origin of the mulberry (Elegies 2.4), and another transformation into a tree occurs in Epigrams 1.48 (this time it's a boy named Cyparissus; the god Apollo sighs: “O woods, why are you expanding at the expense of my sorrow? You have Daphne, you have Cyparissus.”).

By the way, if you want more willow-themed horror, there's an excellent weird tale by Algernon Blackwood called The Willows.


These are shorter poems on miscellaneous subjects; there's plenty of poems in praise of various friends and patrons, some are on mythological subjects, some are occasional pieces, etc. On the whole, this was perhaps my least favorite part of this book, but a few of these elegies were enjoyable anyway:

1.1, on his contentment with being a minor love-poet rather than a great epic one; there are a few very nice romantic lines (55–64): “We wretched lovers are not tormented for gold or for jewels. He who can persuade his mistress will be rich. [. . .] What use a couch remarkable for its down or for its purple, unless a dear girl rests in my lap” etc.

1.3 is a touching poem on love and mortality: the poet hopes to pre-decease his mistress to spare himself the pain of living without her, and urges her not to waste time while they are still both young.

A lovely epitaph for the poet himself, 1.10.23–4: “Here, I, Actius, lie. My hope rests extinguished with me./ Only Love remains after our death.”

2.2, on the poet's birthday, in which he looks forward to his learned friends from the Academy coming to visit him; 2.4, a myth on the origins of the mulberry tree; 2.9, in which the ruins of the famous ancient city of Cumae near Naples lead him to reflect on how some day even Rome and his beloved Naples will fall into ruin; 2.10, which seems to have been written to accompany a gift of pomegranates sent to a friend: the apples sing in the first person and proclaim themselves as superior to gems, for fruit, unlike gems, does not turn the human mind towards greed and violence.

I was amused by the clever doing-it-while-pretending-not-to in 2.1, dedicated to Alfonso of Aragon: to paraphrase, the poem goes ‘if only I had more talent as a poet, how I would praise you — I would say’ and about 100 lines in praise of Alfonso follow at that point :P


This is a large number of even shorter poems, including many very enjoyable ones.

1.6, in which he's asking his mistress for “six hundred kisses” (l. 1), and very passionate ones too: “I yearn to grip your whole tongue, thrust between my wet little lips” (ll. 11–12) etc. There's another poem about kissing later (1.57, inspired by Catullus).

1.20: “When Poggio praises his country, when he excoriates its enemy, he is neither a bad citizen nor a good historian.” According to the Wikipedia, Poggio's history of Florence was a kind of continuation of Bruni's history.

From 1.31, after observing that ink is made from rust and vinegar: “Nile, this is to surpass your Pyramids! Unfortunate fate! So the juice of rust snatches our reputations from the hateful pyre?” (ll. 4–6)

From 1.35, praising Venice more highly than Rome: “If you prefer the Tiber to the sea, cast your eye on both cities. You will say that men built that one, the gods this.” (ll. 5–6)

1.40 is a funny satire of a type of person that is still common nowadays: someone who goes to extremes in scrimping and saving in his everyday life so that he can afford some extravagant bit of conspicuous consumption. In Sannazaro's poem, bonus hilarity comes from the fact that the conspicuous consumption in question is — an extra fancy grave! The project is described in great, sarcastic detail; Vetustino buys a big plot of land, hires architects, constantly changes his mind about the plans for his mausoleum, etc. :))

1.53 is a fine invective against Cesare Borgia: “Cesare, the apple of his father's eye, and his sister's, the charm, the serenity, the pleasure of his brothers, that dear little boy of the Vatican Mount, [. . .] that defiler and adulterer of his sister, the ruin, disease, and doom of his brothers, abominable beast of the Vatican Mount, who, not long ago, tainted with crime and with the evils of pillage, swallowed five hundred cities” (ll. 7–16) etc. etc.

1.56, on his birthday, ends on a bittersweet epicurean note: “Poor wretches, do we foresee what the morrow's light threatens? Let us live. No one can deceive death.” (ll. 11–12)

1.61 is about Angelo Poliziano (the name sounded familiar to me, and I eventually realized that I read an ITRL volume of his oddly pedagogical poems a few years ago; see my post from back then) and his researches into what Catullus's sparrow really stood for. (This seems to have been quite a popular topic; I already heard about it in the ITRL volume of the poems of Pontano, an older friend of Sannazaro's; see my post from back then.)

2.4 is poking fun at some guy who was hoping to win the poet's friendship by some gifts of vegetables, and thus get immortalized in verse: “O Matho, how fortunate you are to have discovered both friend and bard, how fortunate in your vegetable patch and its offerings, if, what so many valorous deeds have scarcely created for the offspring of the gods, lettuce and greens will produce for you.” (ll. 9–13)

2.10 and 2.12 are humorous quatrains featuring characters from classical mythology. On seeing Venus attempting to wield weapons, Priapus shouts “in his wanton voice, “Put them down. This is the equipment that more befits those hands of yours.’ ” :))) (2.12.3–4)

But some are much more sombre: 2.43, in which a mother mourns her only son: “Why, alas, did my parents falsely name me Laetitia [gladness] who ought to have called me Tristitia [sadness]? [. . .] compare me with Niobe whose lot has this better outcome: she was able to turn to stone.”

In 3.6, oracles tell Euno that he “will stand above kings and over dukes” — and sure enough, he did, by getting crucified.

3.8 is a short and sweet epigram against pope Leo X: “If by chance you ask why in his last hour Leo wasn't able to take the sacraments: he had sold them.”


All in all, this was quite an enjoyable book. The poems here have a great variety in terms of length, genre, form, theme etc., and many of them were pleasant to read. The translations, as usually in the ITRL series, are in prose, but by now I've got mostly used to this so it didn't bother me much. I hope I'll some day get to read Sannazaro's Italian pastoral tale, the Arcadia, as well.

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Sunday, November 09, 2014

BOOK: Marsilio Ficino, "Commentaries on Plato" (Vol. 2)

Marsilio Ficino: Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 2: Parmenides, Part I. Edited and translated by Maude Vanhaelen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 51. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674064713. lxii + 286 pp.

Marsilio Ficino: Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 2: Parmenides, Part II. Edited and translated by Maude Vanhaelen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 52. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674064720. v + 408 pp.

A wise man once said that happiness depends on the difference between your expectations and reality. After my recent experiences with reading Ficino's commentary on Plato's Phaedrus, I adjusted my expectations a bit before taking up his commentary on Plato's Parmenides. As a result, this was not nearly as unpleasant to read as I had feared at first.

My suspicions about the Neoplatonists being more like a weird religious cult (which regarded some of Plato's more incoherent ramblings as a sort of holy scripture in need of careful (and highly imaginative) ‘interpretation’) than a bona fide intellectual effort were confirmed by the very interesting translator's introduction in the first volume, which mentions that they “established a tight connection between philosophy, theology, faith, and revelation” (p. viii); “they saw Platonism as a theology, a series of ‘revelations’ made by the gods, rather than as a rational discourse describing the place and role of men in the world”(p. ix). Ficino himself is no different, he “is interested in the mystical nature of the Parmenides, in the path that will enable the soul to ascend toward God” (p. xvii); he was “simply more concerned with mysticism (i.e., achieving union with God) than metaphysics (i.e., establishing a rational system to describe reality)” (p. xx). See also 44.1 for a particularly nice example of this tendency towards mysticism: “the light of the Good (if only we can perceive it) compels us to leave aside the intelligence and its formulae, the intellect, the Ideas and all the intelligible realities [. . .] we receive, or rather worship the light of the Good by closing the eyes of our intelligence”.

As a result of this, I basically resigned myself to the fact that not much of what Ficino writes is likely to make any sense to me. These people, the Neoplatonists, are not interested in understanding and describing anything real, at least not in the way I would understand the word ‘real’. They are, instead, building up an elaborate, rarefied, intellectual edifice, a castle in the sky, something which they claim to be a description of various increasingly abstract ‘higher’ levels of reality, but which is pretty obviously nothing but a messy assemblage of quasi-religious fictions pulled straight out of their asses.

What can you do when faced with a book like that? I suppose that a more assiduous, or patient, or intellectually honest, reader might at this point dedicate a huge amount of time and effort to an earnest study of various areas of philosophy until he perhaps got to the point of actually understanding what Ficino is trying to say and no longer regarding his writings as largely nonsensical verbiage. That would be commendable, and I'm sure that such readers do exist, and they would then no doubt profit greatly from reading Ficino's book.

But I'm not one of those readers, so I took up the other, obvious, easy way out: I simply suspended my disbelief, much like I would do in reading a work of fiction. When you read a fantasy novel, you don't scream internally at the author that he's an idiot because dragons obviously don't exist, and if they did they couldn't fly because their wings are too small, and they couldn't breathe fire because of some law of thermodynamics or another, etc. etc. etc. You simply accept the fire-breathing flying dragon as a fact within the fictional world of that book and keep on reading.

Using the same approach here, Ficino's commentary on Plato becomes a not unpleasant, if somewhat anaemic and plotless, fictional tale exploring a very odd and abstract imaginary world. I almost felt a sort of relief; no longer did I feel the urge to scream, after every other sentence in the book, that this makes no sense, that this isn't real, that this is a lousy argument, that this is wishful thinking, that he's using terms which he hadn't bothered to define, etc., etc., etc. I could simply take note of what he was saying as if it made sense within his imaginary world, and move on with it, much like you can accept a fire-breathing dragon in a fantasy novel and keep reading.

I suppose you might say that there's little point in reading a work of philosophy that way, and I wouldn't dare to disagree; I think of it as a desperate, but not entirely unsuccessful, effort for me to get at least a little something out of the book. You might say that in this case it would have been better for me not to read it at all, and again I wouldn't disagree with that either, but it just so happens that I'm trying to read more or less everything in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, and so I had to find some sort of way to cope with Ficino's platonic commentaries as well. (Indeed the only ITRL books I've really skipped so far were also by Ficino, namely the six volumes of his Platonic Theology. Perhaps I'll take them up some day after all, using a similar approach that I used here for his Parmenides commentary.)


Anyhow, when read in this way, you have to admit that Ficino's Neoplatonic fictional world is not devoid of charm and imagination. It's basically the sort of thing that you can expect a philosopher to come up with if he's trying to design a religion. In a regular real-world religion that has grown more or less organically from hazy, semi-mythical beginnings, you invariably end up with a bizarre mixture of abstract, high-faluting ideas and very concrete (and invariably ridiculous) bronze-age superstitions and rules about things like shrimp consumption, circumcision, stoning of adulterers and the like — horrible rules, with horrible real-life consequences, that seem like a world away from the lofty and high-minded elements of a religion.

In Neoplatonism on the other hand, since it was designed by philosophers, the real-life part of it seems largely absent, at least from books like Ficino's (though the actual ancient Greek Neoplatonists did seem to have a set of real-life religious rituals to go along with their pseudo-philosophical beliefs; see Theurgy). A kind of mathematical sterility reigns here; you can while away a pleasant half-an-hour here and there by immersing yourself in their imaginary world, and all this without anybody trying to use it as an excuse to impose messy real-life religious constraints on you.

Now, I suppose that for those who really want this sort of thing, there are other providers that do an even better job of this than the Neoplatonists do, which is why nowadays in the real world you can see lots of new-age kooks of various descriptions, but no real-world Neoplatonists. Still, for someone like me, who am not really in the market for a new-age cult, reading this book was at least a pleasant glimpse into an imaginary conception of things which was utterly alien and different from anything else I might encounter in my real life.


Perhaps part of the appeal for someone like me is that I'm a sucker for hierarchies in fiction, even though I know how horrible and harmful they are in reality. And Neoplatonists are all about hierarchy; everything here is about how one thing precedes another, is higher or lower than another etc.; they split everything into levels and sublevels and so on. At the top level, they have a very curious ‘principle of unity’, usually called ‘the One’, which is basically like a god designed for people who find ordinary gods too messy to deal with :P

Ficino frequently mentions how ineffable the One is and how it's easier to make assertions about what it isn't like than about what it is like (negative theology, see introduction p. xii; and 33.3: “you should not understand negation as a defect, but rather as an excess”, i.e. when these people say that the One/god is not X, they mean that it's because it's so much more than X). The One “is ineffably super-eminent by virtue of its incomparable simplicity” (68.3)! Of course, that doesn't mean that he objects when Parmenides, in Plato's dialogue, proves all sorts of nonsensical and self-contradictory claims about the One; if anything, this just makes it more inscrutable and thus more impressive. Ficino seems to be quite happy to suggest that the One should mostly just be contemplated in silence (47.10), and says that “in the Letters, Plato forbids inquiry about anything regarding the first principle of all things” (61.3). You might imagine that a philosopher would be uncomfortable with a concept that is so poorly accessible to thought, but their enthusiasm for it just shows that these people were more about religion and mysticism than about anything having to do with rational thought :)

Ficino has some clever arguments about why the One precedes being and thus the true principle of everything is unity rather than being (2.3). Of course I couldn't help wondering why there should even be some sort of single underlying principle of everything — but there I go, breaking out of my suspension of disbelief again when I shouldn't.

There's an impressively incoherent paragraph (57.7) in which he tries to argue that the Neoplatonic principle of the One is not incompatible with the christian concept of the holy trinity. The same problem had of course already been encountered long before that by christian theologians who no doubt found the idea of trinity to be somewhat of an embarassment to their claims that christianity is monotheistic :P So Ficino resorts to theological wharrgarble: “According to the theologians Gregory of Naziance and Nicholas [of Methone], the divine Trinity is exempt from these conditions. [. . .] So the Trinity is the property of unity, without, however, partaking of unity or being united through partaking of it; it is naturally the innermost part of unity” (wahaha! so now unity has parts, all of a sudden?) etc. etc.

Whatever you might say about the One, at least it seems to have a strong presence in Plato's original dialogue. It is less obvious to me where the Neoplatonists got the lower levels of their hierarchy. Parmenides spends much of the latter part of the dialogue discussing the consequences of the existence or nonexistence of the One, both in relation to itself and to other things. Ficino says that these various hypotheses correspond to the various levels of the Neoplatonic hierarchy: intellect, soul, form and matter, though I suspect that the connection between these terms and the ordinary meanings of these words is rather vague and distant at best. Judging by the translator's notes at the end of the book, he picked most of this stuff up from the ancient Neoplatonists like Plotinus and Proclus; the impression I got was that these people may have started out with a few vague references in various works by Plato (not just the Parmenides) but then added a good deal of their own ideas (and managed to market them as commentaries on Plato).

One pleasantly bizarre idea that he borrowed from Proclus are “henads”, which are a mechanism whereby the One conveys unity to other things: “the absolute One generates the excellent and divine unities [or henads], which are also called gods, before creating the unions immanent in things, which are akin to these things and unify them” (52.2).

Occasionally even Ficino admits that the ancient Neoplatonists went a bit overboard in their mania to systematize everything: “If you find it tedious to read the way in which these orders are distinguished in Syrianus and Proclus, as it is certainly tedious for me to relate it [. . .]” (94.2); “I reject this distinction, which they pursue in a manner that is more laborious than useful” (94.3) :))


While reading this book, I couldn't help feeling that a lot of it illustrates the pitfalls of rushing with philosophical speculation into areas about which we have an inadequate knowledge and understanding (although I suppose I shouldn't complain, as that sort of thing is exactly what philosophy is for).

For example, consider the platonic Ideas. Apparently, Plato and his followers insisted that these aren't just convenient mental abstractions, but some sort of things that really existed in a kind of higher world of their own, and which generate the things in our ‘sensible’ world (i.e. the ordinary real world which we perceive with our senses) like some kind of templates (or “paradigms”, to use a word that occurs frequently in this translation of Ficino). Interestingly, Ficino insists that ideas only apply to natural objects, not man-made ones (ch. 9).

And so Ficino talks about the “Idea of man” (4.1) as the template for the entire “human species, which is eternal” (4.1); and you could likewise have the idea of a horse (4.5) and I imagine also of a dog and of any other animal species. But nowadays we know that species are hardly eternal. If you go back a few tens of millions of years, me and Fido the dog probably have a common ancestor somewhere around that time. You could line up this large number of individuals, starting with me and going up my family tree to that common ancestor, and then going down from him all the way to Fido. Each individual in this chain is a parent or child of the previous one, so they will be very similar. And yet the first few individuals in this list are me and my immediate ancestors, based on the idea of man, whereas the last few are Fido and his immediate ancestors, based on the idea of dog. So at some point in this sequence, you must suddenly have an individual who is based on the idea of man but the next individual, who is his child or his parent, isn't based on the idea of man but on something else (perhaps the idea of dog or of something intermediate).

This is the sort of absurdities that you get if you insist that ideas are something more than mere arbitrary mental abstractions. I wouldn't hold this too much against Plato and his followers, of course, since they didn't know about the theory of evolution yet in those days. But I admit that I'm surprised that they didn't think of similar objections that could be observed even without modern science. For example, they could compare domesticated animals and their wild relatives, with whom they could in many cases still interbreed. How would you justify having separate ideas of dogs and wolves, but not separate ideas for each breed of dogs? If you admit the latter, how can you justify not having a separate idea for each individual specimen (which is something that Ficino explicitly rejects, ch. 8)? On the other hand, if you say that dogs and wolves are based on the same idea, why not humans as well? Where do you draw the line, and isn't it obvious how arbitrary these things are?

Similarly, when reading about the various complications about time and motion, I couldn't help feeling that these people would benefit greatly from some of our ‘modern’ (i.e. 19th-century) mathematical ideas about the continuum, real numbers, functions and the like.

Ficino also makes an interesting distinction between reason and intellect: “the intellect at once contemplates through a sort of gaze what reason viewed in multifarious ways through ratiocination, just as sight at once perceives a spherical object as round, while touch does so by touching the object more than once” (32.3). But I think from what we now know about how human vision works, his analogy is on shaky grounds. Our eyes have many cells that react to light coming from various directions, and our brains can process the signals from those cells in parallel. It isn't really any different than if you had a hundred hands and could touch all points on the sphere at the same time.

But what bothers me even more than that is that I suspect that his distinction between reason and intellect comes mostly from wishful thinking. It's so unsatisfying to imagine that plodding old reason, which comes to conclusions slowly and by many small and arduous steps, is actually the best we've got! Or sometimes it doesn't even come to a conclusion at all, but simply gives up when some task turns out to be too complex for our reason to handle. This is a bit depressing. And wouldn't it be wonderful if some other facility existed that, if we're lucky, would just comprehend things suddenly in an instant, brilliant flash of insight! And so he goes and makes up such a facility, calling it ‘intellect’. I can completely sympathize with this point of view, but I'm afraid it's little more than a pleasing fantasy anyway.


Here's a curious passage from 5.5, which could be the basis for a science-fiction story: “under the Ideas of elements the immaterial elements in heaven occur before the material elements in the sublunar world: celestial lion, horse and tree, then elemental ones; under the Idea of man the celestial man comes first, then the aerial and terrestrial ones”. :))

There's an interesting passage on suicide in 46.4, as part of an argument why the Good is a higher principle than being: some people commit suicide “if they have absolutely no hope for good things [. . .] rejecting a life and an essence deprived of good — since they [only] liked them, assuredly, because of what was good in them”.

A refreshingly honest passage from 68.1, after remarking that Parmenides demonstrated that “the One is not other than the others, before showing that it is not the same as itself [139C]. Both propositions, however, cannot be grasped by ordinary people.” How very true :)))


One curious thing about the translation is how often it uses the word “yonder”. In part 2 it occurs on pages 41, 55, 195, 229, 235, 267, 277 and 281; I think it's a bit rarer in part 1, and I didn't bother keeping track of it there. Don't get me wrong, I have a soft spot for quaint, obsolescent words myself, but the frequent use of “yonder” really stuck out like a sore thumb in the otherwise perfectly normal present-day English of this translation. I wonder if this use of “yonder” is a widespread thing in philosophy or just some sort of odd personal quirk by the translator.

Another curious usage occurs in the translator's notes in part 1, p. 241, where she “collated the text by autopsy”. I had never before given the word ‘autopsy’ much thought and never saw it used for anything other than the cutting up of a corpse, but now seeing it used here I realized that it must come from auto + opsy, (examining with) one's own eyes (the second part being the same as in Cyclops, who had one big cirular eye). But anyway, I couldn't resist imagining someone cutting up a manuscript with a scalpel :P


In my post about Ficino's commentary on the Phaedrus I said that I didn't think it was terribly useful as a commentary because I didn't understand the dialogue any better after reading the commentary. Here in the case of the Parmenides, my impression was very different. A great deal of the Parmenides was more or less completely impenetrable to me; while here in Ficino's commentary on it, you can at least see some sort of structure in the whole thing. He makes it seem as if the various hypotheses discussed by Parmenides in the dialogue are parts of a larger system. From reading the Parmenides, I couldn't even see if it was saying anything, much less what exactly it was trying to say; whereas here in Ficino's commentary I can at least see what he's saying, even though much of it seems rather nonsensical to me. “Parmenides frequently makes contradictory statements [. . .] I myself try to the best of my ability to make almost each statement fit and to advance probable interpretations” (98.4), and I can't help thinking he did a pretty damn good job considering the utter incoherence of so much of Plato's Parmenides :)

I particularly liked his discussion of what does it mean to consider the consequences of supposing that something does not exist (36.1): “one does not actually suppose that the intellect or the soul are absolutely not [. . .] but one rather supposes that this thing called ‘intellect’ or ‘soul’ is not properly intellect or soul, but is, or is imagined to be, something else”, and the same is done when supposing that the One does not exist (see the end of the same paragraph).

I can't help wondering to what extent Plato would actually have recognized his own thoughts in these commentaries; the elaborate systems invented by the Neoplatonist ‘commentators’ seem to sometimes have only a very vague relationship to what Plato actually wrote. There's a funny remark in 52.3 where Ficino himself admits that he can't see the connection between a certain passage from Plato and Proclus's ‘interpretation’ of it: “Proclus also invites us to observe (something which, to tell the truth, I myself find extremely difficult to observe) the way in which these divine orders are introduced in the second hypothesis” etc. :)

One of the more tasteless passages in the Parmenides is where Parmenides ‘proves’ that the One both is and isn't becoming older and younger than itself (152e). I was amused by the contortions Ficino went through in order to claim that this stuff makes some sort of sense after all: if e.g. Socrates is older than Plato by some fixed number of years, then as they both grow older, “Socrates' superiority in age in relation to Plato will progressively appear smaller [. . .] one can say that Socrates becomes younger in relation to Plato, and that Plato becomes older in relation to Socrates” (93.1).


Anyway, I'm not sure what to say at the end of this post. I guess my experience demonstrates that with a bit of effort, even a stupid outsider like me can found at least something good in a book like this, even if it comes at the price of completely missing its point. In any case, all of this is thoroughly irrelevant since nearly all the other people that will pick up this book will be better equipped to understand it, and will read it to much better purpose and with much better profit than I have done.

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