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By Fr. Kelpius (a.k.a. Greg Leatherman)   


In 1456, Cosimo De Medici, pater patriae of the Florentine Renaissance, finally had the time to devote to an idea that had occurred to him twenty years earlier at the Council of Florence. ?the lectures...of George Gemistus Pletho, the ordento octogenarian Platonist and a semi-pagan, created such an enthusiasm that some years later Cosimo... founded his Platonic Academy.?[1]

Though the Academy wasn't formally established for six years, Cosimo gathered a circle of gifted young men to discuss philosophy with him. Despite the old man's frivolous behavior (he had taken to perfuming his money), the Academy hoped to improve the intellectual and moral standards of Florentine society through open debate and their vernacular commentaries upon primary texts.

Aside from this, there was one pervading influence on the direction of their studies: "Cosimo... was most deeply interested when he could bring the debate around to the question of the immortality of the soul. This puzzle - the puzzle of human destiny - was a perpetual, almost frightening, problem for Cosimo, especially during the time when his illness obliged him to stay at home or retire to Careggi..." [2]

An answer to Cosimo's concerns was not found in these debates. So Cosimo went in search of this answer elsewhere. In the autumn of 1459 he took the 26 year old Marsilio Ficino, son of one of his Physicians, fully under his wing, housing him on a farm near Careggi and giving him some dialogues of Plato to translate. "Cosimo showered on this youth, some fifty years his junior, all the love of a mature old man."[3]

Within three years, Ficino had translated the Orphic Hymns and was nearly finished with his translation of Plato's Philebus. Cosimo asked him to stop translating Plato and move on to Hermes Trismegistos. "It is an extraordinary situation... There are the complete works of Plato, waiting whilst Ficino quickly translates Hermes, probably because Cosimo wants to read him before he dies..."[4] In April 1463, the translation was completed.

Cosimo "was eager to learn all that the ancients had to teach about the great fundamental problems of life and destiny."[5] He poured over the Hermetic texts with Ficino and had Aristotle read aloud. Perhaps he read this passage from Plato's Timaeus, "And into this body, subject to the flow of growth and decay, they fastened their orbits of the immortal soul."[6] Most definitely, Cosimo read from Poimandres that "Man is mortal by reason of his body, he is immortal by reason of the Man of eternal substance. He is immortal, and has all things in his power; yet he suffers from the lot of the mortal, being subject to Destiny."[7] or this one, "For if Cosmos is a second God, a life that cannot die, it cannot be that any part of this immortal life should die. All things in Cosmos are parts of Cosmos, and most of all is man, the rational animal."[8]
Ficino and Cosimo's preoccupation with immortality may have arisen from the individualism of Florentine merchants and the desire that this individual survive death.[9] Under the influence of Aristotle, the church had held that the soul was mortal. Not until the Lateran Council of 1513, was the immortality of the soul adopted as dogma by the Catholic Church. On August 1, 1464, Cosimo De Medici's physical mortality was fully realized, when he died.

The Platonic Academy was not a university or formal college but a circle around the brilliant Ficino, one that revolved around banquets, conversations, public speeches and celebrations of such dates as Plato's birthday. [10]

The major teachings put forth included:

  • Contemplation: In which the soul discovers its own divinity and ascends to God, thus attaining immortality.
  • Platonic Love: A divine form of friendship between two individuals involved in Contemplation. It mimics the love they both have for God.
  • As Above, So Below: Which is expressed by the soul as an intermediary between love, rationality, will and matter, thus designating man outside the hierarchy of the Cosmos, for he is a world within himself and as such is invested with both divinity and free will.
  • An Historical View of Religion: The antiquity of Pagan and Christian writings are witness to their wisdom, and rather than opposing each other, they should be harmonized.
  • Natural Religion: Where all religions meet, those beliefs are natural to man and therefore purer. [11]

Ficino adopted the concept, so often of deep concern to Cosimo De Medici, that implied that the soul had the power "to become all things?[12] and that Man, as Ficino states in a letter to Bernardo Bembo, could "create the heavens and what is in them himself, if he could but obtain the tools and the heavenly material".[13] One of his books is even titled Platonic Theology on the Immortality of the Soul (1474). In Ficino's commentaries on Plato's Phaedrus, he not only identifies two horses pulling the chariot of the soul as one rational and one irrational, but says that the rational soul is better because "the substance of the rational soul is... absolutely self-moving... So every rational soul, human and divine alike... Socrates judges immortal."[14]

Ficino also wrote much about his adoration of Cosimo, in one instance he declares "... a man surpassing others in prudence, dutiful towards God, just and magnanimous towards men, in himself even-tempered, full of care for his family, yet watching even more carefully over the affairs of state; a man who lived not for himself alone but for God and his country. Among men no heart was more humble nor yet more lofty than his... I discussed philosophy fruitfully with him for more than twelve years. He was just as sharp in discussion as he was wise and strong in government. Certainly I owe much to our Plato, but I confess I owe no less to Cosimo. For Plato put before me the concept of the virtues but once; Cosimo put them into practice every day... Lastly he followed the example of the philosopher Solon, putting philosophy into practice excellently throughout his whole life, even in the most critical affairs, yet practicing it best in the period when he moved from this world of shadow to the light. And, as you know, for you were there, shortly after we had finished reading Plato's book on the one origin of things and the highest good, he died, as if now about to drink deeply of that good itself which he had tasted in discussion."[15]

Ficino's relationship with the Medici family did not end with Cosimo. He acted as both a tutor and a physician to Lorenzo who writes in his poem, Altercazione, ovvero Dialogue that Marsilio is one "upon whom Heaven has showered all its grace, making him a perpetual mirror to mortal men; always a lover of the sacred Muses, and no less of true wisdom, so that the one never excludes the other."[16]

It is Ficino's lifelong pursuit of medicine that probably drew him to astrology. No amateur at fortune telling, Marsilio drew the horoscopes of the children of the house, promising little Giovanni, afterwards Leo X, that he would one day be Pope.[17]

Pagel writes "Paracelsus had been foreshadowed by Ficino, who taught the scholar how to overcome the adverse influence of his star... on his body... To both... the work of the physician belongs to the realm of natural magic... this part of Ficino's doctrine has deeply influenced medical theory; for example Fracastor's ideas on the contagium. Ficino had defined infection as an attraction of like by like; a special case of that sympathy which rules throughout the cosmos."[18] These kind of statements would lead us to believe that some of Ficino's ideas, such as like curing like, were of relevance to the development of modern medicine. Certainly, in his attempts to relate music and the harmony of the spheres to medicine and metaphysics in De Rationibus Musicae, the lyre-playing Ficino may have influenced Paracelsus through his discussions about harmony, sympathy and the healing process.[19]


Any discussion of nature magic and religion in the Renaissance needs to take care not to jumble the myriad terms in use. I agree with Copenhaver's opinion that words such as Hermetic, Neoplatonism, magic and occult are often tossed about with a less than perfunctory regard for their actual meanings.[20] I will attempt to make distinctions between them based on the strictest limitations of their definitions, regarding "Hermetic", for instance, as pertaining only to the Corpus Hermeticum and the ideas represented therein.

First printed in 1471, Ficino's Hermetica (or Pimander as it was called after the title of its first section) went through sixteen editions by the end of the sixteenth century. In 1614, Isaac Casaubon showed in his de rebus sacris et ecclesiaticis exercitiones XVI that the Corpus Hermeticum could not possibly have been written by an ancient Egyptian sage. The Greek style was of the period of Plotinus (second and third century) and neither Plato nor Aristotle nor indeed any pre-Christian writer had ever made reference to Hermes Trismegistus. In it, man falls of his own free will, "moved by love of the beautiful Nature, which he himself helped to create and maintain... and Nature recognizes his power..." [21] Furthermore, if man came down through the hierarchy, then the magus can rise up through it, through the means of his diligent craft, and reunite with the supreme deity.

Perhaps more important than the magical references scattered through the Hermetica, is the frequent mention of Hermes in such magical works as the Picatrix (12th century), that gave Trismegistus a reputation as a master Magus, before and beyond what was later revealed in the translated texts.

In actuality, there is very little magic in the Hermetica, and one must instead search for theological validation of magical practices in them. Perhaps the most dangerous ideas in the Hermetica were that it recognized "no inspired and infallible Scripture" [22] and recommended that one "Think things out for yourself... and you will not go astray." [23] Both ideas surely lead to religious skepticism.

Emphasizing Ficino's Hermetic texts, Dame Yates suggested that there was a coherent Renaissance philosophy that was concerned with magic as a discipline of personal spiritual perfection and a path to salvation. This gave magic a religious legitimacy and philosophical dignity, and encouraged experimental magic by directing attention to nature as a source of knowledge and promoting an operative approach to the natural world. The misdating of the Hermetic Corpus, allowed it to be seen as a text of Mosaic antiquity, in which Christian dogma had been anticipated and thus confirmed for men like Bruno, Campanella, and Robert Fludd who's allegiance to Hermeticism continued even after Causaubon had demolished notions of its antiquity.

The texts referred to the supreme deity as the Father and used the expression 'Son of God' for the demiurge. [24] Thus, the whole business of magic as a dark obscure practice was transformed to include the idea of philosophical and spiritual applications of science.

A telling phrase from Libellus I (Poimandres) is "And Nature, when she had got him (man) with whom she was in love, wrapped him in her clasp, and they were mingled in one; for they were in love with one another." [25] In a way, with the legitimizing of natural magic and magical experiments, science too had become respectable. Though "The procedure with which the Magus attempted to operate have nothing to do with genuine science. The question is, did they stimulate the will towards genuine science and its operations?" [26] Ironically enough, it is science that would eventually debunk and supplant the tradition had inspired Copernicus to quote Hermes at crucial moments in his De Revolutionibus.

But Yates has been amended. She spends little time discussing Ficino's translations of neo-Platonist texts such as the Enneads of Plotinus and at times seems less than objective when discussing such things as Pico's role in the Pythagorean tradition. The Hermetica may have exercised a lesser roll in the formation of Ficino's magical systems. They do not contain a sufficient framework for a belief in magic and even condemn magic in some passages.[27]

Ficino was accused of magical practices, but always cleared, apparently due to the powerful allegiances he maintained and perhaps due as well to the sincerity and eloquence of his manner (as evidenced by his letters). Interestingly for a writer of magical treatises, Ficino became a priest at age 40. He admired Savonarola, but eventually rejected him.[28]

According to D.P. Walker, Ficino's system developed into both a natural spirit magic as approved of by Church writers and a supernatural demonic magic that was essentially heretical. In the first, explicitly endorsed by Ficino, magic operated through a fine corporeal substance between body and soul in man and between the material world and the world soul in the cosmos. In the second, demons were used to do the bidding of the magician, but were considered dangerous and unpredictable.[29]

Thus, Ficino had provided the foundation for a variety of magical effects motivated by a desire to extend the practicality of occult phenomena while avoiding any imputation of demonic agents.

The talismanic divinations of men like Agrippa and Ficino imply the manipulation of occult (hidden) qualities and virtues propagated through the spiritus mundi. According to Yates, it is this kind of attention that eventually lead to ideas such as Kepler's planetary forces. Even more striking is the way men like John Dee, Campanella and Giordano Bruno digested the bulk of Ficino's translations from Dante and the Hermetica, to the Pagans Plotinus and Iamblichus.


Through Ficino, Florence would remain the center of humanistic and intellectual movements right up until his death, producing such influential thinkers as Pico Della Mirandola. Like Cosimo before him, Lorenzo spent much time with Ficino, discussing Plato and Hermes Trismegistus, right before his death in 1492. While the decline of Florence's merchant class and the inability of Piero the Unfortunate to reverse this trend doused the sociable, witty, atmosphere of Florence, Ficino's death in 1499 could also be said to have removed much of the inspiration from the philosophical debates he had once led. "To expound the works of Ficino is to write the history of Platonism in Italy... the Academy came into being and died with him" [30]

The debate over what kind of influence Ficino's translations actually had on the Renaissance seems to have been dominated by a handful of scholars, especially P.O.Kristeller who dismisses any direct influence of the Platonic Acadamy on the visual arts. Ficino disseminated a strain of Florentine neo-Platonism derived from a religious reading of Plato through the eyes of the neo-Platonists, the Corpus Hermeticum, the Carmina Aurea, the Orphica, the Oracula Chaldaica, and the Oracula Sibyllina. [31] The traces of Christian belief present in these texts (and the desire for a Prisca Sapientia to back up Christian dogma) delighted Ficino, helping assimilate them into Renaissance thought and legitimize the approach taken by astronomers and alchemists.

Copernicus "is completely free of Hermetism in his mathematics." [32] Though Burtt cites "the simplest and most harmonious geometry of the heavens that will accorde with the facts? as evidence of (Copernicus?) adherence to Florentine mathematical Neoplatonism." [33]

Michel writes, "When Marsilio Ficino says that the Sun reigns in the median region like the king in the middle of the city, he means that the Sun is equidistant from the Earth and the furthermost planets." [34] Ficino's On the Sun and his heliocentric commentary on Julian's Prayer to the Sun were known by Copernicus.[35]

In Summa 23 of Ficino's commentary on Phaedrus, the charioteer halts its progress toward the divine and begins its return toward the mundane. The number 23 is part of a tradition (seen in Dante, Milton, Philo and others) relating to the 23.27 degrees of the sun's deviance from the equinox at the solstice. The Polar Regions extend approximately 23 degrees from each pole because the earth is tipped 23.27 degrees from the plane of the ecliptic, creating four seasons and corresponding to the four periods of human life.[36] Interestingly, 4 x 23.27= 93.08, meaning that the sun's symbolic number for the human lifecycle is 93.

Many of Ficino's ideas; the soul of the universe, a moving Earth, the sexualizing of the world, the unity of nature and emanations;  were pursued by Renaissance alchemists and astronomers alike. The pursuit had begun as a search for the idea of man as a divine being whose soul is immortal, and this is the idea that validates man's search into nature.

It was quite logical then for the pursuit of science to evolve from natural magic once the latter had been stripped of its arcane cloak -- that search for proof of the divine in plants, minerals and animals, along the lines of Bacon's and John Ray's texts on the natural world. As Eamon writes, "The debate over secrecy versus openness in science thus had religious, political, and institutional, as well as scientific dimensions." [37]

In Theolgic Platonia, Ficino writes, "...man's end is to dominate all elements and all animals, and thus he is the natural lord and ruler of nature and man, the astronomer who can understand the motions of the celestial spheres and construct a model of them... is virtually endowed with a mind similar to that of God who constructed the spheres themselves." [38] One need look no farther than Frances Bacon to see these thoughts echoed.

Bacon says, "the mind may exercise over the nature of things the authority which properly belongs to it" [39] and later in criticizing tradition, "For let a man look carefully into all that variety of books with which the arts and sciences abound, he will find everywhere endless repetitions of the same thing, varying in the method of treatment, but not in the substance, insomuch as the whole stock, numerous as it appears at first view, proves on examination to be but scanty."

The call to a true science, away from the syllogistic induction of tradition, is being made, and Bacon is basing it on mans dominion over nature. Combine this with the Baconian ideals of Scientific Progress and the Scientific Societies and suddenly the once secret brotherhoods of arcane pursuits are transformed into the mine from which the tenets of modern science are produced.


[1] J. Gill, The Council of Florence, Cambridge Univ. (London, 1959)
[2] C.S. Gutkind, Cosimo De Medici, Pater Patriae, 1389-1464, Oxford (London, 1938)
[3] Gutkind
[4] F. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Univ. of Chicago. (Chicago, 1964)
[5] L. Collison-Morley, Early Medici, Dutton (New York, 1936)
[6] Plato, Timaeus and Critias, Penguin, transl. D. Lee, Penguin (New York, 1965)
[7] Hermetica, transl. W. Scott, Solon (Bath, 1992)
[8] Hermetica
[9] Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and the Arts, Princeton, (NJ, 1980)
[10] Kristeller
[11] Kristeller
[12] P.O. "Big Daddy" Kristeller, Renaissance Concepts of Man, ch. 2
[13] Letters of Marsilio Ficino, #123
[14] MJB Allen, The Platonism of Marsilio Ficino, Univ of California (Berkeley, 1984)
[15] Letters of Marsilio Ficino, number 86, Shepheard-Walwyn (London, 1975)
[16] L. Collison-Morley
[17] J. Burkhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Morality and Religion, Harper (NY, 1958)
[18] W. Pagel, Religion and Neoplatonism in Renaissance Medicine, Valorium (London, 1985)
[19] Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and the Arts
[20] B. Copenhaver, Natural Magic, Hermetism, and Occultism, in Lindberg and Westman?s Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge (New York, 1990)
[21] Yates
[22] Hermetica
[23] Hermetica
[24] Yates
[25] Hermetica
[26] Yates
[27] Copenhaver
[28] P.O. Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and the Arts, Princeton, (NJ, 1980)
[29] This approach is taken in The Sacred Magic of Abramalen the Mage, works of Eliphas Levi and most twentieth century religions involving sympathetic magic. -- Author
[30] Villari, Machiavelli, (Firenze, 1877)
[31] D.P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella, (1958)
[32] Yates
[33] R. Westman, Proofs, Poetics, and Patronage, from Reappraisals (see Copenhaver)
[34] P.H. Michel, The Comology of Giordano Bruno, Cornell Univ (Paris, 1973)
[35] MJB Allen
[36] K. Frost, John Donne, the Number 23 and the Tradition of the Spiritual Autobiography, from Surles, Medieval Numerology, Garland Pub. (NY, 1993)
[37] W. Eamons, From the Secrets of Nature to Public Knowledge, from Reappraisals (see Copenhaver)
[38] Ficino, De Medici Press, (Florence, 1474)
[39] F. Bacon, The Great Instauration and New Atlantis, A HM. (Arlington Heights, 1980)