Marsilio Ficino

The Italian philosopher and humanist Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) influenced Renaissance thought through his translation and explication of the works of Plato.

Marsilio Ficino was born at Figline near Florence on Oct. 19, 1433, the son of a prominent physician. He received a traditional education in humane letters at the universities of Florence and Pisa and studied medicine briefly at Bologna. Although his teacher of philosophy at Florence was the celebrated Aristotelian Nicolo di Tignosi da Foligno, Ficino soon turned to Platonism. At the behest and with the support of Cosimo de' Medici he rapidly mastered Greek and began an ambitious program of translation: Homer, Hesiod, Proclus, the Corpus Hermeticum, Plotinus, and Plato. Begun in 1463, completed about 1470, and printed in 1484, Ficino's was the earliest complete translation of Plato into a Western tongue and was used for several centuries. The informal circle of friends who gathered about Ficino at the Medici villa in Careggi to discuss the teachings of the ancient philosophers has been called, somewhat misleadingly, the Platonic Academy.

The overriding concern in Ficino's literary labors among the classics of Greek thought was clearly religious. His spiritual bent had been demonstrated from an early age by such writings as the Dio et anima (1457) and the De furore divino (1457), and on Dec. 18, 1473, he was admitted to holy orders. In his most important original writing, the Theologia Platonica (1469-1474), Ficino stressed the perfect compatibility of philosophy and religion, the harmony between Platonic philosophy and Christian revelation. It is essentially a theological commentary on the doctrine of Plato and a demonstration of the existence and immortality of the soul. In Ficino's view, ancient philosophy was part of the process of divine revelation and had prepared for the coming of Christ. By his explication of Platonic doctrines he hoped to persuade Jews, rationalists, and skeptics (among the last principally the Aristotelians, who rejected the immortality of the soul) to approach the true faith of Christianity. Ficino argued that in Platonic doctrine he found the rational philosophical arguments to buttress Christian theology.

Ficino's last years were troubled by the fall from power of his patrons, the Medici, and the narrow fanaticism of the followers of Savonarola. Ficino died at Careggi on Oct. 1, 1499. By disassociating antiquity from paganism he contributed to the reestablishment of harmony between Christian aspirations and the passion for the recovery of classical culture, which was one of the distinctive features of his age.


Further Reading on Marsilio Ficino

Selections from Ficino's Epistolae are translated as "Concerning the Mind" in Ernst Cassirer and others, eds., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (1948). The most important study of Ficino is Paul Oskar Kristeller, The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino (trans. 1943). Ficino's religious concerns are emphasized by Charles Edward Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought (2 vols., 1970).