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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Anonymous Sam N. said...

Thank you for your well thought-out post. I came to Ficino through Peter Sloterdijk and haven't found much other commentary on him.

It does seem to me that you are coming to Ficino from a rather foreign viewpoint (scientific, empiricist). On the other hand, at least you seem to realize this. I would caution you against being so quick to suspect that modern scientific knowledge resolves ancient philosophical difficulties. In particular, I don't think modern biology and neuroanatomy of the visual system is relevant to Ficino's analogy re: intellect vs. reason. And I think that distinction is still very much defensible. The way scientific research seems to proceed in practice, for example, is very much via intellect or intuition, although it is written down in a way that suggests it was done according to orderly logical progressions.

Your point about set theory and the continuum is interesting but again, I think you are making a leap when you think that it immediately resolves very deep philosophical problems about time, space, and change. It only seems that way to you because you most likely take Descartes and Newton very much for granted. In fact, that point of view is a choice which opens some possibilities but closes others.

Moreover, you have to be careful about anachronism when distinguishing between "a weird cult" and "bona fide intellectual endeavour". The lines are not so clear in the earliest Greek thought and even in Plato. Read Parmenides himself, if you haven't.

Interesting to hear your perspective on the appeal of the Neoplatonists for a modern reader. For me, the appeal is that you occasionally come across a really interesting concept or schema. It may or may not be part of a valid logical argument, but that's immaterial since you are free to appropriate it for your own use. In this case, I actually think the idea of "henads" can be salvaged, although that is not original with Ficino.

Thanks again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015 8:39:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Thanks for your comment :) You're right about me coming at this from a foreign and empiricist viewpoint, as I know almost nothing at all about philosophy. About intellect or intuiton, the way I see it those are just vague terms that we have to use because we don't really understand very well how our brains really work. And the reason why I'm not as keen on intuition as Ficino seems to be is that my impression is that the flashes of "insight" it generates can just as well be horribly wrong as brilliantly right.

Good point about the cults, although I still can't help feeling that the Neoplatonists were worse (i.e. more cultish) in this respect than many others.

Thursday, October 15, 2015 11:50:00 PM  

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