Book Review: Commentaries on Plato
Marsilio Ficino, translated by Maude Vanhaelen
The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Harvard University Press, 2012
The great Florentine scholar Marsilio Ficino was born in 1433, educated in the close orbit of the Medici family (he served at one point as tutor to Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’), and raised to fame as one of the greatest of a new breed of classicists intent on grappling in fresh and very personal ways with the works of antiquity then coming back to light. Ficino’s focus was on the writings of Plato, which were the subject of his study, his translation, and his extensive commentary. One of the most extensive of those commentaries – on Plato’s Parmenides – is now one of the most recent additions to Harvard’s superb ongoing I Tatti Renaissance Library. In a two-volume accomplishment all the more astounding for being conducted so unassumingly, Maude Vanhaelen has taken Ficino’s 1496 edition of the commentary on Parmenides, regularized its usages, combed out its typos, modernized its spellings, and thereby produced the single finest scholarly version of this long and problematic work yet made.
It can’t save things, alas, but only because the whole subject matter was doomed from the start. Ficino was a raving Neoplatonist, and his commentaries on Plato’s Parmenides are in very large part based not on Plato’s Parmenides but on the commentaries on Plato’s Parmenides by the fifth-century scholar Proclus, who was if anything an even more rabid Neoplatonist than Ficino would be (Ficino refers to him as saepe noster, sigh). Plato’s original Parmenides is a big enough mess on its own. The basic dramatic kernel, the Socrates-character as a young student being put through his paces by the venerable old philosopher Parmenides, is botched even more badly than Plato botches most of his premises; in place of the stimulating back-and-forth that enlivens the best Platonic writings, we get vague, dreary droning about categories, hierarchies of being, and, at the pinnacle of it all, ‘the One’ presiding in untouched perfection over the world of matter and the world of ideas. It’s a deeply unpleasant exercise in tail-chasing to read it in Greek, it’s never had a translation that wasn’t a quagmire (most certainly including Ficino’s own, and he was about as smart as anybody who’s ever attempted it), and people in very short order began misinterpreting it with carnival abandon.
Hence, Neoplatonism, as grave and elaborate a perversion of one set of ideas by another set of ideas as human intellectual history can claim. The Neoplatonists (Plotinus, Proclus, and the like), leaned on the much-abused notion of the priscia theologia, the ancient mysticism allegedly threading its way through Persia, Egypt, and Greece, espoused by such figures as Zoroaster and Hermes Trismegistus. Armed with such nonsense, Neoplatonists decided that Plato’s writings – and especially the invitingly vague Parmenides – were ultimately religious in nature. Ficino himself puts it succinctly enough:
It was the custom of Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato to conceal divine mysteries everywhere beneath figures and veils, to modestly dissimulate their wisdom, in contrast to the sophists’ arrogance, to jest in seriousness and to joke in greatest earnest. For this reason, at many points in the Parmenides Plato alludes to a number of theological issues in the guise of a dialectical and almost logical game, in order to exercise the mind continuously in the apprehension of divine dogmas.
It wasn’t the custom of Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato to do anything of the kind, but long before Ficino’s time, the matter was already settled – Neoplatonism enjoyed a roughly analogous relationship with Platonism as Neoconservatism does in our own day with conservatism: in both cases, a generally consistent and thoroughly secular ideology is twisted into a shrill and exclusive cult, something that has acolytes instead of adherents. As Vanhaelen puts it in her able Introduction, Ficino’s Neoplatonism is “more concerned with mysticism (i.e. achieving union with God) than metaphysics (i.e. establishing a rational system to describe reality).”
It wasn’t a philosophy (let alone a philology) that was universally accepted even in Ficino’s own day – one of his foremost critics was one of his star pupils, Gionanni Pico della Mirandola – but it’s the approach that entirely animates these commentaries on Parmenides, and it’s the chief mark of Ficino’s brilliance that he manages to make it as attractive as he does (hugely aided in this by Vanhaelen’s clear, definitive English translation). Behind all the business of “thing-ness” and “divine-ness,” there’s a writer and a thinker any reader would want to know better:
If someone states that God does not know sense objects on the grounds that there are many ugly and evil things in our world, and that the intellect might be contaminated by considering them, one must know that God does not look upon these things to see them from the outside, but He looks upon Himself to see them from the inside – and within Him all things are most beautiful.
And in the coda he adds to this, we can see the whole of the Renaissance, writ small:
Moreover, there is nothing simply evil in our world, but a thing is evil or ugly in relation to this or that thing, yet good and beautiful in relation to other things, and from the point of view of the universe.
Vanhaelen perceives this writer with graceful accuracy when she writes:
Ficino considers the spiritual awakening of the soul as the only and ultimate goal of his interpretation of the Parmenides‘ secret mysteries. In other words, he is not a professor of philosophy or a theologian but a visionary – a man in search of the path that will lead him to God.
It’s the single best summary of the man, and it points the way to the most important sense in which the whole craze of Neoplatonism was not a colossal waste of humanity’s time. For in all that incessant categorizing and sub-categorizing in service to the One (which is, among other things, the True), in all that yearning for the truths of the past to somehow fold into the truths of the present, in all that inconsistent but earnest striving to separate the evil and ugly from their most reductive connotations and actually think about them, we can glimpse the future standing in the wings. This is the scientific method, waiting impatiently to be born.
It didn’t need to wait too much longer, and luckily today we can study Neoplatonism as it should be studied, neutered, dead, pinned under glass, peeled apart with forceps – it’s no longer necessary to cant this murk in order to get a university job (the canting of entirely different murks being instead required). And thanks to Maude Vanhaelen and the I Tatti Library, we can now study Ficino’s epic Parmenides commentary as it should be studied: with a clear, nailed-down text, a fine English translation, and some wide-ranging, hard-working notes. Renaissance scholars – that tiny, hard-drinking enclave – will rightly rejoice.