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The philosophy of Marsilio Ficino

by Paul Oskar Kristeller

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A landmark of 20th century history of philosophy   (2012-04-13)


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by vleighton

This book is not a light read. It is a lengthy study of systematic philosophy. But it is well-written, and for the student of philosophy and the renaissance, it is an important book. Ficino did not write out his philosophical worldview in a systematic way, so many other scholars thought that his philosophical views did not add up to a complete worldview that could be laid out systematically, but Kristeller, trained by Jaspers and Heidigger, dug through Ficino's scattered writings and laid out his worldview systematically in this volume. For a book on philosophy, it is very clear and enjoyable.


Who was Marsilio Ficino? He began as a physician in Italy in the 1400s (1433-1499). He was a student of Plato and the Neo-Platonic schools of Plotinus, Proclus and others. He sought to synthesize Christianity and Neo-Platonic philosophy. He wrote on philosophy, theology, astrology, and medicine. He was also a humanist in the classical literary tradition. He exerted a strong influence on the Italian Renaissance. He and his father were close to Cosimo and Lorenzo de' Medici. Ficino's ideas on beauty and love strongly influenced the outlook of courtiers and poets in Renaissance circles. He also argued that the planetary god Saturn influenced and touched with melancholy those who through inner contemplation approached a knowledge of God. Because all people who were geniuses undertook this inner contemplation, all true geniuses suffered from melancholy and were under the influence of Saturn.


Who was Kristeller? He grew up in Germany in the 1910s and 1920s, raised in a well-educated jewish family. He had had a desire to be a philosopher and studied the early Neo-Platonists for his doctorate. During the 1930s, he fled Germany to Italy, where he managed to be employed, basically, as a librarian cataloging old Renassiance manuscripts. He discovered many manuscripts of Ficino and his circle that were unknown to modern scholars. These newly discovered texts showed a very different context for Renaissance philosophy than the reigning paradigm. As Italy made stronger ties to Nazi Germany, Kristeller, by this time a respected authority on the history of Italian Renaissance philosophy, fled to the United States where he obtained a position at Columbia University. He spent the following decades energetically applying his great knowledge of original texts to overturning the reigning paradigm of modern philosophical humanism through research, publications, and hundreds of public lectures.


First written in German in the early 1930s, this book was then rewritten and translated into Italian in the late 1930s. Kristeller had to leave Italy just before it was published there, so it was translated again into English and published in 1942. The paradigm of philosophical humanism in the early 20th century held that the philosophy of the Renaissance was a sharp break from the Scholastic philosophy of the medieval era, and that it began the western concept of a radical autonomy of the individual human. Kristeller was able to show in this book that there was no sharp break between the philosophy of Scholasticism and the philosophy of the Renaissance. By cherry-picking quotes from selected Renaissance texts, earlier historians had characterised the general tenor of Renaissance philosophy incorrectly. Ironically, Kristeller's triumph made the study of Renaissance philosophy much less attractive to modern philosophical humanists.


Critics have pointed out that, in this book, Kristeller applies his understanding of Kierkegaardian existentialism, learned from Jaspers, to make Ficino look more like a contemplative universalist than he really was. Later scholars, such as Michael J. B. Allen, have shown that Ficino was much more into magic and the occult than this book lets on. They have also shown that many of the ideas Kristeller thought were original to Ficino had their origins in the writings of Proclus, about whom Kristeller was less knowledgable.



I have written in a recent article that the writer John Kennedy Toole was likely influenced by Kristeller, and that there are many aspects of this book that are burlesqued in Toole's novel "A Confederacy of Dunces."

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