The Wisdom of Marcilio Ficino: Part Two
A Sample

Tom Morris

This continues some excerpts from a volume of writings by the Renaissance philosopher Marcilio Ficino (Pronounced "Ficheeno") that I began last week. Email me any reactions you have, and any thoughts they spark in you as you read them. These passages are taken from Meditations on the Soul: Selected Letters of Marcilio Ficino, edited by Clement Salaman. Numbers are page references. I hope you enjoy them. And I'm sorry this was put on the site a day late. I had the flu. Sniff.

The Power of Music

It will also help to remember one thing which I have particularly noticed: one is always finding gifted people who by nature are hardly affected by the pleasures and pursuits of the other senses, but we have never found any gifted person who is not moved by the power of music. Furthermore, we have never known anyone who is not moved by music to have much penetration or judgment. (59)

Thus sound and song easily arouse the fantasy, affect the heart, and reach the inmost recesses of the mind; they still, and also set in motion, the humors and the limbs of the body. (62)

All things are directed from goodness to goodness. Rejoice in the present; set no value on property, seek no honors. Avoid excess; avoid activity. Rejoice in the present. (64)

Inner Power

The powerful emotion and burning desire that your writings express prove, as I have said, that you are inspired and inwardly possessed by that frenzy; and this power, which is manifested in external movements, the ancient philosophers maintained was the most potent proof that the divine force dwelt in our souls. (64)

Plato adds that some very unskilled men are thus possessed by the Muses, because divine providence wants to show mankind that the great poems are not the invention of men but gifts from Heaven. He indicates this in Phaedrus when he says that no one, however diligent and learned in all the arts, has ever excelled in poetry unless to these other qualities has been added a fiery quickening of the soul. We experience this when we are inflamed by God's presence working in us. Such force carries the seed of the divine mind. (70)


My friend, there are a number of writers, both Latin and Greek, who compare to bees men who are totally devoted to study, For, like bees that gather here and there form many authors, as from flowers, and store what they have gathered in the capacious hives of their memory. They then let it ripen by reflection, to bring forth the mellifluous liquid of learning and eloquence. (72)

You must have heard, my friend, that when bees suck from too many wormwood flowers they very often produce honey that, tasted on the lips, seems quite sweet but immediately afterward, when swallowed, proves to be not sweet at all but bitter, almost like gall. We know full well that something very similar often happens to gluttons for study and devourers of books, who have neither measure nor discrimination. Indeed, the more greedily they seem to drain the sweet liquor of the Muses, the more bitterly do they take into their heart I know not what! Perhaps this is what the Latin authors call bile, the Greeks melancholy; a disease as Aristotle shows, a peculiar to men absorbed by study, For this reason Solomon calls study a most onerous occupation; and he adds that the companion of knowledge is sorrow. (72)

Ignorant little men do not attain knowledge when they grasp unwisely at wisdom herself. (72-73)

One who believes that he will perceive the sun's light without the sun's aid deservedly falls into darkness; he is not raised onto light. So one who pursues this truth and that truth, separated from the highest truth, without doubt does not light upon truth but upon falsehood. No wonder that whoever searches for the nectar of heaven in the Stygian marsh deservedly drinks the genuine gall of opinion beneath the illusory honey of knowledge. (73)

All antiquity, indeed, teaches us to combine poetry with philosophy. (74)

The tree of knowledge, even if it seems to have rather bitter roots, brings forth the sweetest possible fruit. Let them remember too that there will never be too much of this fruit because there is never enough. (77)

When, therefore, anyone wants to know about the state of his mind, he should compare it not with the ignorant, but on the contrary with the wisest; thus he may see more clearly how much he has gained and how much remains. In feeding the mind we ought to imitate gluttons and the covetous, who always fix their attention on what is still left. What is there further?

"Honor thyself" (78)

Alas most ignorant minds! Alas blind hearts! I beseech you. For if you come to yourselves you will live happily. (78)


Finally, to be brief, since she is a gift from heaven, philosophy drives earthly vices far away; firmly subdues fortune; marvelously softens fate; uses mortal gifts most rightly; and bestows immortal gifts according to desire. O treasure, of all things most precious, in no way produced from the bowels of Earth and Pluto, but descending from the topmost point of heaven and from the head of Jove! Without possession of this treasure we cannot make right use of other treasures nor possess anything fruitfully. (81-82)

May what Plato said be justified: that there was once a golden age when wisdom reigned, and that if ever philosophy reigns again the Golden Age will return. (82)

Those, however, who give moderate service to philosophy will without doubt go forth as men fit to teach the learned and rule the rulers. (82)

Nothing can be conceived as more enslaving, giving rise to more agitation and anxiety, than the worried life of the man who serves the senses as though they were many mad masters. And while he is in bondage to foolish tyrants, he is professing allegiance to wisdom as well. (84-85)

In truth, once the mind of a man practicing philosophy has contemplated the good itself, and thence judges what things in human affairs are good, what bad, what dishonorable or honorable, harmful or useful, he organizes human affairs as a model of the good itself. He leads them away from evil, directs them to the good, and by this wise governance he manages personal, family and public affairs, and he teaches the laws and principles of good management. (88)


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