MARSILIO FICINO, ASTROLOGER AND PHYSICIAN OF THE SOUL
Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was a Florentine Christian philosopher, astrologer, priest and physician and one of the leading figures of the Italian Renaissance. Known as the physician of the soul, he used astrology primarily as a means of helping to heal the soul rather than as a tool of prediction. He believed, as Plato taught, that everything above the Moon, including the planets and the stars, were closer to God and to Heaven and were therefore divine, perfect and unchanging and were in fact a reflection of God and His perfection. Further, Renaissance man believed that the planets and stars were a reflection of what was inside of him. Ficino taught that by living an aesthetic, religious and philosophic life and aligning one’s energies with the divine nature of the planets and stars that a person could reconnect with his own higher divinity, with God, this aspiration being the purpose of life and one’s reason for being.
After the discovery that the planets and the heavens were not actually perfect and unchanging, many have viewed Ficino’s concepts of astrology and the soul as outdated, stemming from a mind of antiquity that was not graced with updated scientific knowledge. This paper is a tribute to Ficino and his profound understanding of the soul, taking the liberty to represent him and what he would say to modern man about why the knowledge of the imperfection of the heavens in fact strengthens his work and further clarifies his concept of the soul, explains how celestial bodies are able to influence us here on Earth and ultimately how this knowledge brings us closer to God and our own inherent divinity.
The material of this writing is deep and sometimes complex, requiring concentration and stretching the imagination to grasp the concepts presented. Through this process of using the imagination and intently studying to comprehend the deeper meaning, one comes to understand the depth of soul that Ficino strove to bring. In fact, this very process of philosophical contemplation was one of the many tools in his physician’s bag to lure the soul back to its natural state of perfection.
To understand Ficino’s concepts in a deeper way, it is necessary to understand Renaissance man and his philosophy as well as Ficino’s concepts of the soul which he derived through his studies of Hermes Trismegistus’ Corpus Hermeticum and the works of Plato. The Renaissance (1350-1600 CE) was the transition period from medieval to more modern times. It began in Italy, predominately in Florence, when Greek scholars arrived with their ancient manuscripts after Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. (1) The term renaissance means rebirth and for this period it means the rebirth or revival of the ancient works of Greece and Rome. Ficino was head of the Florentine Platonic Academy, founded and supported by the wealthy Italian banking family, the Medicis. He was responsible for Latin translations of the works of Plato and the Corpus Hermeticum which infused medieval society with a new outlook on life.
Marsilio was the son of Diotifeci Ficino, personal physician to Cosimi de’ Medici. Cosimo recognized Marsilio’s potential as a young boy and counseled his father to carefully nurture his education. By his late twenties, Marsilio had mastered the Greek language and in 1462 Cosimo gave him a place close to his home in Careggi where Marsilio took up his translations work.(2) His monetary needs were taken care of by Cosimo and he was therefore free to do his work. Though it was Ficino who was recognized for the magnificent contribution of the revitalization of the works of Plato and Hermes Trismegistus, let it be remembered that it was the Medici family, and especially Cosimo who was personally motivated and inspired to offer these translations to society as a whole, who generously provided the means for Ficino to do this work.
To Marsilio’s father, Cosimo said, “You, Ficino, have been sent to us to heal bodies, but your Marsilio here has been sent down from heaven to heal souls.”(3) Hence he received his unofficial title as the physician of the soul. Since his youth, Marsilio had a love of Plato and through his studies and translations he came to know and embody the knowledge that Plato taught. It was through this lens of depth, of comprehending man as more than a body but rather penetrating to the soul and understanding the deeper meaning and purpose of man’s existence, that Marsilio Ficino pursued astrology.
Ficino’s views of astrology may have seemed paradoxal to some since in one vein he criticized astrology, mostly judicial or predictive astrology,(4) and on the other he abundantly referred to it. Perhaps he was trying to please the church by criticizing astrology since during his time new ways of thinking and the practice of astrology could be potentially dangerous to the philosopher. However, upon a deeper look, one begins to see that the paradox is not as great as perhaps originally believed. To Ficino and to Renaissance man in general, the planets and the outer world, or the macrocosm, were simply a reflection of what was inside of us.(5) Therefore, even though it would have probably been inevitable that he would practice some judicial astrology as it may be difficult to avoid this practice entirely as an astrologer, it appears that he primarily used the knowledge of the planets to help a person align himself with the positive aspects of his soul. This concept will become more clear as we continue.
To understand Ficino further, it is necessary to understand his philosophy of life and his concept of the soul which were derived from Hermes Trismegistus’ Corpus Hermeticum as well as the works of Plato.
The Renaissance was a time when people were coming out of the medieval ages where the church was the predominant factor and a powerful force in their lives. Christianity taught that man was inherently a sinner and his only hope of salvation was through the church and the sacraments. As we will see, the teachings of Plato and Hermes shed a different light on the inherent nature of man. Then, as today, people were not completely satisfied with the explanations given by the church and wanted to explore and know more about their reason for being and the deeper mysteries of life. With the rebirth of the works of Plato and Hermes, people became inspired with the possibility of man being inherently divine and capable of aspiring back to that divinity. The big difference then, of course, was that it was dangerous to pursue certain philosophies as the threat of punishment from Church authorities loomed large.
Among his work, Ficino translated selected writings of the Corpus Hermeticum, which contained the philosophical teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, and published them under the title Pimander.(6) While translating a portion of the Corpus Hermeticum, Ficino noted the similarities between the works of Hermes and that of the story in the book of Genesis from the Christian bible. Frances Yates points out that in the Mosaic Genesis or Christian version of the Fall of man, man is not created as a divine being. Hence the Christians believe that there is only one Son of God and man cannot rise to the inner divinity as exhibited by Jesus. In the Hermetic version of the Fall of man, also known as the Egyptian Genesis,(7) man is a divine being, a Son of God, one with his creator and capable of returning to that original state of divinity.
Yates clarifies these points for us:
“Nevertheless, it is most obvious that there are, as Ficino significantly fails to point out, radical differences of many kinds between the Mosaic Genesis and the Egyptian Genesis. Particularly do they differ most profoundly in their account of the nature of Man and the character of his Fall.”(8)
Before continuing it should be noted in defense of Ficino that perhaps blatantly pointing out these differences was too dangerous during his time period. Even today, this is a very, very sensitive point with Christian authorities because saying that you are equal to Jesus as a Son of God or that you are able to attain to the level of divinity that Jesus did is blasphemy.
Continuing with Yates:
“It is true that the Mosaic Genesis, like the Egyptian Genesis, says that Man was made in the image of God and was given dominion over all creatures, but it is never said in the Mosaic Genesis that this meant that Adam was created as a divine being, having the divine creative power. Not even when Adam walked with God in the Garden of Eden before the Fall is this said of him. When Adam, tempted by Eve and the serpent, wished to eat of the Tree of Knowledge and become like God, this was the sin of disobedience, punished by the exile from the Garden of Eden. But in the Egyptian Genesis the newly created Man, seeing the newly created Seven Governors (the planets) on whom all things depend, wishes to create, to make something like that. Nor is this treated as a sin of disobedience. He is allowed into the society of the Seven Governors who love him and impart to him their powers. This Egyptian Adam is more than human; he is divine and belongs to the race of the star daemons, the divinely created governors of the lower world. He is even stated to be ‘brother’ to the creative Word-Demiurge–Son of God, the ‘second god’ who moves the stars.
“It is true that he falls, but this fall is in itself an act of his power...It is true that this is a Fall which involves loss, that Man is coming down to Nature and taking on a mortal body puts this mortal body, puts his mortal part, under the dominion of the stars...But man’s immortal part remains divine and creative. He consists not of a human soul and a body, but of a divine, creative, immortal essence and a body.”(9)
This belief in the inherent divinity of man, that he is not a body but rather a soul and inherently divine, is a key concept of the Renaissance philosophy. Pico della Mirandolla, a member of the Platonic Academy and student of Ficino, wrote of man’s potential for divinity in his famous work Oration on the Dignity of Man. Although part of this work was condemned by the church, Pico demonstrates the Renaissance rejection of the medieval Christian concept of man’s weak and sinful nature and taught that man was inherently divine and free to express himself in any way he could. In his book, Pico quotes what he believes God would say to man:
“We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.”(10)
This concept of inner divinity of the soul is also key in understanding Ficino’s use of the planetary energies to help man in his journey back to perfection. To understand Ficino’s concept of the soul, we must understand the logic of his teacher, Plato, and Plato’s concept of the soul. Plato taught that there are three components of the soul which simultaneously work together in the dynamics of human life and personality. These three elements of the soul include the rational, the irrational and passion or spirit.
In The Republic Plato speaks of the irrational and the rational part of the soul:
“Then we may fairly assume that they are two, and that they differ from one another; the one with which a man reasons, we may call the rational principle of the soul, the other, with which he loves and hungers and thirsts and feels the flutterings of any other desire, may be termed the irrational or appetitive, the ally of sundry pleasures and satisfactions.”(11)
The rational part of the soul knows what is right and acts in the best interest of the individual. And the irrational or “appetitive” part of the soul seeks pleasure for its own gain. The third aspect of the soul, called spirit, animates the soul into action for good or ill, depending on whether the rational or irrational part of the soul is acting. In the most ideal situation, man self-corrects, is aware of his irrational nature and still chooses by free will to do the right thing. As the soul is eroded and engages more and more in the irrational part, this task becomes more difficult. The concept of spirit will be further explained later.
Here we see glimpses of the symbology of Chiron as a centaur, a half man, half horse creature. Chiron represents the rational and irrational nature of the soul, the irrational symbolized by the half horse and the rational by the half man. (See the article entitled “Chiron and the Centaurs” for further information on Chiron.) You will recall from this article that Chiron was different from the other centaurs in that he worked at taming his lower nature or the irrational part of his being.
As a point of interest, it may be helpful to point out that what separates man from nature and animals is his higher nature, the faculties of speech, perception and love, the part of his being that makes him look up, to stand erect. Of the erect nature of man, as opposed to the four-legged nature of animal, Ficino says,
“Before we consider what is the astrological property of every one of us as individuals, we ought to consider the property of the human species. And this, the Arab astrologers have agreed, is Solar. I infer this to be true from the stature of man, erect and beautiful, from his subtle humors and the clearness of his spirit, from the perspicuity of his imagination and his pursuit of truth and honor.” (12)
Yates further describes the Hermetic version of the fall of man through his free will when she says, “He can lean down through the armature of the spheres, tear open their envelopes and come down to show himself to Nature” (13) Man’s lower or irrational nature is like that of animals, his sensual “appetitive” nature, the part of him that causes him to “lean down” or lean over, the part that he looks down toward. It is the part that in animals causes them to “lean down” and walk on four legs. It is the same concept and reasoning as to why a man looks up to heaven and down to hell as his higher nature is upward and his lower nature is downward. So when man “leaned down through the armature of the spheres”, he tore open the boundaries and entered into his lower nature and created the irrational part of his soul. Based on the depth of Ficino’s writings, it appears that he understood these concepts in a fairly deep and mystical way. His methods and emphasis of drawing a soul upward fits into the deeper meaning of these concepts.
Ficino also speaks of the connections between body, mind (or intellect) and soul. He says:
“If there were only these two things in the universe–on one side the Intellect, on the other the Body–but no Soul, then neither would the Intellect be attracted to the Body (for Intellect is absolutely motionless, without affect, which is the principle of motion, and very far away from the Body), nor would the Body be drawn to the Intellect (for Body is in itself powerless, unsuited for motion and far removed from the Intellect). But if a Soul which conforms to both were placed between them, an attraction will easily occur to each one on either side.”(14)
So we have a physical body, which by itself cannot move. We also have a mind that also of itself cannot move. But with the animating principle of the soul, the mind perceives what it wants to do and then intelligently causes the body to act by its (the intellect’s) will.
Ficino further explains:
“It is reasonable to conclude then that just as the head of the soul is in the mind, its most excellent part, so at the head of this mind, which belongs not to itself but to the soul, and is not independent but ties to the capacity of the soul, and it not clear but clouded and in a way irresolute–at the head of this mind, I repeat, is a mind which exists in itself, free and translucent. Presumably, this explains the riddle of the Magi: “There is something completely clear, something completely murky, something midway, partly clear and partly murky.”(15) More explanation on this shortly.
Ficino also explains the concept of an acting intermediary between the soul and God, which he calls the angel:
From the chapter of Ficino’s book called Platonic Theology entitled Above angel is God; for just as soul is mobile plurality and angel motionless plurality, so God is motionless unity.
“Platonists believe that angel is entirely without motion in essence, power and activity; for it is always the same, its capacity is constant, it understands everything at the same moment [omnipotent], it wills the same things, and, insofar as it can, it does whatever it does instantaneously....Soul because it is in motion passes from one thing to another. So it contains within itself the one thing and the other. Because it has both, it contains plurality. Soul then is in itself a certain plurality in motion. Angel, which immediately precedes soul, cannot be a motionless unity...Unity of course is the opposite of plurality...But since in every respect these two are the opposite of each other, they cannot come one immediately after the other: they need some connecting link...It remains that angel is motionless plurality. It conforms to soul in that like soul it is a plurality; but it differs from soul in that it is motionless while soul is moved...But since angel is not entirely simple but possesses number...then something else must exist above angel that is not only motionless but entirely one and simple. This is God, the most powerful of all in that he is the simplest of all.”(16)
Putting all of this together, we know from both the Hermetic and Mosaic descriptions that man was created in the image and likeness of God, and in the Hermetic version he was created as the Son of God, his spirit the same as the Spirit of God having been created and born out of that Spirit.(17) Therefore, when God is spoken of as the motionless unity, it also refers to the part of ourselves that is like God, the part of the soul referred to as spirit by Plato, that was created from God in his image and likeness as the Son of God and that is perfect, divine and unchanging.
Motionless does not refer to physical movement as we know it. Motionless means not wavering. This spirit part of our soul, like God, neither goes nor looks to the left nor the right with desire. It, like God, does not experience the polarity of duality of the rational and irrational elements of the soul’s good and evil. Neither does it waver in its desire for goodness and its higher divinity. Hence it is motionless unity. It is the part of us that is our Sun, our star that we look up to and aspire toward. This is God, the part of us that is God, pure spirit that animates our soul and gives us life. It is from this divine Spirit, God’s Spirit, that our soul was born as the Son of God. Because this part of us is God, it can never be corrupted. This spirit is the part of the soul to which Ficino directs us to aspire to become like and reunite with.
Where Ficino says, “Soul because it is in motion passes from one thing to another...and it contains plurality”(18) he means that the individual soul, which descended from spirit and “fell” through its misuse of free will and now contains a rational and irrational part, passes in and out of its rational and irrational nature by its free will. Hence as Ficino says, “it is in motion and passes from one thing to another”.(19) It is plural because it contains both the rational and irrational elements. And because of this, it is in motion, it looks to the left and to the right with its desires and therefore wavers in its choices between good and ill. In this state the soul is “partly clear and partly murky”. The irrational or mortal part of the soul or man’s lower nature is the part that is “only murky”.
The angel, which is the intermediary part of the soul, like the soul’s guardian angel, is what Plato referred to as the “rational” or immortal part of the soul. It is the part that is “clear” and motionless, meaning it does not waiver in its goodness. It does not exist in the world of duality, neither does it waver to the left nor to the right. However, it is plural because it has this other half, the irrational or lower nature. So it is not whole, i.e. it is plural. The internal warring of our members is the battle between good and evil within ourselves, between the rational and irrational parts of our soul. So our soul is in motion and travels back and forth from this level of the angel back to the body where it experiences the changing, decaying nature which is the consequence of its irrational free will choices. Theoretically, once the soul is purified and embodies this angel or rational part, it then merges with spirit as Jesus demonstrated. This spirit is the “Son of God” and our merging with it demonstrates the true meaning of the Christian phrase of being “born again”.
So God, the part of us that is pure spirit, the part also known as the “Son of God”, is motionless unity. It does not have a dual nature of good and evil. It is motionless in that it does not waver in its purity. God or spirit cannot contain plurality or motion, which are the components of the irrational part of our soul. The irrational part of our soul, since it is plural and in motion, cannot contain God. They have nothing in common. Therefore, the angel or the rational part of our soul is the intermediary which contains a little of both–the plurality of the soul and the motionless nature of God--constantly luring the soul back to its rightful place. Ficino encourages people to live an aesthetic life and to tame their appetites and their lower nature so that they can embody the rational part of their soul in preparation for this ultimate reunion.
Here Plato further elaborates his concept of spirit in The Republic:
“Must we not acknowledge, I said, that in each of us there are the same principles and habits which there are in the State; and that from the individual they pass into the State? -- how else can they come there? Take the quality of passion or spirit; -- it would be ridiculous to imagine that this quality, when found in States, is not derived from the individuals who are supposed to possess it.”(20)
In this passage we begin to understand the concept of an inanimate object becoming animate or filled with spirit. For example, a business is an inanimate object, a legal entity and a building. What brings it to life is the spirit of the people who work for the business. Through the combined spirit of its employees and owners, the company takes on a spirit of its own. Inanimate objects or invisible concepts are merely ensouled or alive because of the energy or spirit that, in this case the spirit of man, infuses into them.
In a literal mindset of understanding the concept of the planets being ensouled or as emanating rays that effect us here on earth, it may sound absurd, almost as describing a comic character or the fantasy of an inanimate object coming to life. However, upon truly understanding the meaning of this concept, it starts to make sense. Spirit is the animating force of the soul and its movement creates a certain “spirit”. Since planets are in motion they would naturally have a spirit themselves. Ficino speaks of this in another way:
“...And similarly celestial figures by their own motion dispose themselves for acting; for by their harmonious rays and motions penetrating everything, they daily influence our spirit secretly just as overpowering music generally does openly. Besides, you know how easily a mourning figure moves pity in many people, and how much a figure of a lovable person instantly affects and moves the eyes, imagination, spirit and humors; no less living and efficacious in a celestial figure.”(21)
In a chapter from Ficino’s Three Books on Life titled On the Power of the Heavens. On the Powers of the Rays from Which Images are Thought to Obtain Their Force Ficino says, “Assuredly, as all astronomers confess, the immense size, power and motion of celestial things brings it about that all the rays of all the stars penetrate in a motion the mass of the earth...”(22) Just as the Sun’s rays penetrate the earth and give life, so do the rays of the other planetary spheres, imparting their characteristic rays and influences as well.
Origen taught of the concept of the planets and stars being reflected within us as he said, “Know that you are another world in miniature and have in you Sol and Luna and even the stars.” (23) In the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes teaches that God created the world as a reflection of himself, the Seven Governors or seven planets being a means of expression of His Spirit. He then created man in His image and likeness. Therefore, man has within him his own seven governors which are a reflection of the seven planets.(24) Ficino himself says, “We have an entire sky within us, our fiery strength and heavenly origin: Luna which symbolizes the continuous motion of soul and body, Mars speed and Saturn slowness, the Sun God, Jupiter law, Mercury reason, and Venus humanity.”(25)
Ficino talks about a World Soul of which everything is a part. He says, “This [World Soul] is absorbed by man in particular through his own spirit which is by its own nature similar to it...”(26) The World Soul of which the Seven Governors or seven planets are the means of expression, has the same three components of soul as do our individual souls. That would mean that the World Soul, expressing itself through the movement of the Seven Governors or seven planets, has a rational and irrational element as well as a divine Spirit as we do. The World Spirit, which is God’s Spirit, is filtered through the Sun (27) to animate the World Soul into action through the seven planets or Seven Governors just as our individual spirit is anchored in our hearts (28) and animates our soul as we express ourselves through the seven governors within. (As a side note, in modern day, these seven governors are known as chakras or energy centers.)
Of the World Spirit Yates says:
“Ficino’s magic is based on a theory of spiritus...Ficino bases the theory of how we are to ‘draw down the life of heaven’ upon the spiritus as the channel through which the influence of the stars is diffused. Between the soul of the world and its body there is a spiritus mundi which is infused throughout the universe and through which the stellar influences come down to man, who drinks them in through his own spirit, and to the whole corpus mundi.”(29)
Ficino further describes this process of our spirit taking in that which is like God’s Spirit through “celestial things”, i.e. the planets and stars.
“That the cosmos is animate just like any animate thing, and more effectively so, not only Platonic arguments but also the testimony of Arabic astrologers thoroughly proves. In the same works, the Arabic writers also prove that by an application of our spirit to the spirit of the cosmos, achieved by the physical science and our affect, celestial goods pass to our soul and body. This happens from down here through our spirit within us which is a mediator, strengthened then by the spirit of the cosmos, and from above by way of the rays of the stars acting favorably on our spirit, which not only is similar to the rays by nature but also then makes itself more like celestial things.”(30)
When Ficino taught, as did Plato, that the planets were divine and that by living an aesthetic, religious and philosophic life and aligning one’s energies with the stars and planets that a person could reconnect with his own higher divinity, he was referring to the “Spirit” portion of the planets as part of the World Soul. And of course this Spirit was God, divine, perfect and unchanging “and from above by way of the rays of the stars acting favorably on our spirit”(31) we are able to take in this positive effect to remind our souls of its inherent divinity and draw us closer to God.
So how does this work exactly, given free will and the fact that the planets as part of the World Soul have a divine potential or Spirit as does man’s soul, the part that Plato described as divine, perfect and unchanging, but also a rational and irrational part as well, just as we do. As has been noted, Ficino himself believed, as taught by Plato and also believed by Renaissance man in general, that the planets were perfect, divine and unchanging because they were part of the World Soul, or of God. In this respect, as God’s soul, they could not be corrupt or have an irrational element to them. This was, in fact, the premise upon which Ficino used the planets and stars to effect his natural magic, to bring down that divinity to individual souls so that they would be reminded of that which was within themselves.
We know now, of course, that the planets and the heaven world is not perfect and unchanging. For some, a significant question arises: Since the planets are not divine as Ficino believed, does it mean that we now view his and Plato’s concepts as outdated? The answer is no. This updated knowledge does not change Ficino’s work nor does it detract from his concepts of the soul. In fact, it rather helps explain an apparent paradox in that Ficino believed the planets were perfect and unchanging yet he also knew that they had a nature to them that was less than perfect. In much of his work he chose not to focus on the lower nature of the planets and their malefic influences. This is somewhat apparent from the following quote from Ficino:
“But now if anyone wishes to convict Saturn and Mars of being harmful by nature, which I never would believe, still they are to be used just as doctors sometimes use poisons; Ptolemy endorses this in his Centiloquium.” (32)
During his time, since Ficino’s only reference point was that the planets were perfect, one has to wonder and speculate that he must have struggled to understand why they showed influences that were not divine.
The Corpus Hermeticum gives reference to the planetary spheres having qualities other than those which were divine.
“Trismegistus gives thanks to Pimander for having revealed all things to him, but wishes also to know about the “ascension”. Pimander explains that at death the mortal body dissolves into its corporeal elements but the spiritual man goes up through the armature of the spheres leaving at each sphere a part of his mortal nature and the evil it contains.”(33)
The following interpretation of a portion of the Corpus Hermeticum from Yates also gives reference to the less than perfect nature of the planets and reflects the popular notion that the planets can affect the body but not the soul:
“Man having taken on a mortal body, in order to live with nature is alone of all terrestrial beings of a double nature, mortal through his body, immortal through the essential Man. Although in fact immortal and having power over all things, he has also through his body the condition of mortality, being under the Destiny and the slave of the armature of the spheres.”(34)
Ficino’s student, Pico della Mirandola, wrote a 12-book attack on astrology, claiming among many other things which are beyond the scope of this paper, this very notion that the planets can affect the body but not the soul.(35) His rationale, as was the rationale of Christians in general, was that if the planets affected a man’s soul, it would essentially mean that he does not have free will and that he is destined to the fate dealt him by the stars. In one way, Pico was correct in that the part of our soul that is divine, perfect and unchanging, the part that was created in the image and likeness of God, the part of the soul referred to by Plato as pure spirit, is not affected by astrology except perhaps by a more divine astrology, an astrology that reflects the perfect, motionless and unchanging nature of God in the Spirit of the World Soul as expressed positively through the planets and likewise within our own spirit. It is this very concept of a “divine astrology” that Ficino practiced. Regardless of the fact that the planets had a lower nature, as we do, the Spirit was always perfect, just as God is always perfect and just as our spirit is always perfect.
As an interesting side note, in the modern day wording, this higher part of the soul or “spirit” would be termed one’s Higher Self. Interestingly, the World Soul is like the Father, since it is from where all things come. Our individual souls are born from the Spirit of the World Soul, or from God the Father, and are therefore considered to be the Son of God. The Spirit is like the Holy Spirit or the pure essence of God from which all life comes. This would explain the meaning of the trinity that we hear about in Christianity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And what of the irrational nature of the World Soul which is expressed through the planets? Where does this come from and how does it affect us? Since we are a reflection of and subject to the spirit or rays from the planets, would it not logically follow that the planets are also a reflection of and subject to the spirit of man? And in the same way that man’s spirit is not ultimately corrupted by free will as we have previously demonstrated, neither is God’s Spirit as part of the World Soul and the planets corrupted either by man’s imperfection reflected back to the planets and the cosmos.
Therefore through our own irrational or corrupt nature, we would naturally draw to us or be vulnerable to the irrational part of the World Soul through the planets. As Ficino said, “This [World Soul] is absorbed by man in particular through his own spirit which is by its own nature similar to it...” (36) meaning that whatever we have created as the rational or irrational part of our soul through our free will incline and draw us to these same qualities within the planets. In this regard, though Ficino did not teach this, it is possible for the soul to become more like “nature” or the animal, mortal or “appetitive” part of his being by drawing to him those things which take the soul to that level. It would also follow that our irrational part would be most subject to these “irrational” or malefic influences of the planets. Ficino chose to ignore these elements and used the positive potential of a person’s birth chart and of the planets in general as a guide to help him come into “alignment” with his own inner divinity or that part of the World Soul through the planets that was divine Spirit like his own.
So we come to understand that although man’s soul contains both rational and irrational parts as do the planets, and since man gravitates toward “spirit” that is like his own, there is the capacity through free will for one’s soul to choose to either “lean down” or to aspire upward, depending on where one “aligns” one’s thoughts and actions. Since all actions create spirit and this spirit is expressed through the Seven Governors, this spirit becomes part of the World Spirit or World Soul and is what creates the multi faceted existence we see as life. And that which is like us, we will be drawn to, for good or ill, depending on our free will choices. And as it has also been popularly stated, the planets incline but do not compel us into action. It is up to the free will of the soul as to what action is taken.
Renaissance man understood the concept of surrounding himself with beauty and images that reminded the soul of its divinity. This was reflected, among other ways, in their culture, their architecture, their art and their music. Ficino understood this practice as well and used it in conjunction with his knowledge of astrology to help heal souls.
Ficino taught that the goal of life was to come into alignment with one’s higher divinity. He, like Hermes, recommended living a philosophic and aesthetic lifestyle, thereby numbing the sensual or animal part of his lower nature so that he can experience the divine qualities that are inherent within his soul. And this prepares him for the ascent through the planetary spheres after death and ultimate reunion with God. Ficino himself strove to live a philosophical life, one in which he used music, medicine, astrology, art, natural magic and ritual to achieve a lifestyle more focused on the higher nature of the soul, thereby giving a more happy, peaceful and soul-centered existence.
Ficino teaches that the more pure a soul has become, the more capable it is of absorbing the positive nature of the celestial spirit.(37) He says, “Finally, whenever we say ‘celestial goods descend to us,’ understand: (1) that gifts from the celestial bodies come into our bodies through our rightly-prepared spirit...”(38)
Yates touches upon further translations of the Corpus Hermeticum that resonate with this concept of purifying the soul.
“Tat asks what truth is, and he is told that it is ‘that which is not polluted, which has no limit, no colour, no form, is motionless, naked, shining, which can only be apprehended by itself, the unalterable Good, the Incorporeal.’ It cannot be perceived by the senses and can only be known by the effects of its power and energy, which demands that a person must be capable of understanding birth in God. ‘Am I not capable of this, O Father?’ cries Tat, and the answer is that he must draw it to himself and it will come; wish it and it will be produced; arrest the activity of the bodily senses and the divinity will be born in him; purify himself from the ‘irrational punishments of matter’...”(39)
As Hermes talks of arresting the activity of the bodily senses and purifying himself from the irrational punishments of matter, we can see the relation to Chiron taming his irrational or animal nature and helping others do the same.
The tools in Ficino’s bag included a more integrated approach to healing body, mind and soul in the process of ultimately releasing the soul from its mortal bondage. He understood the complex connection between these three elements, separate yet interdependent upon each other. He used herbal medicines taken from the body of Earth, prepared at astrologically auspicious times, as a way of infusing the divine or positive rays of the planets and stars to the body of man. Diet was important as well.
Ficino explains how we eat certain foods for certain reasons to help our body. He says, “Then too, just as foods we eat in the right way, although not themselves alive, are converted through our spirit to the form of our life, so also our bodies rightly accommodated to the body and spirit of the world drink in as much as possible from the life of the world...If you want your body and spirit to receive power from some member of the cosmos, say from the Sun, seek the things which above all are most Solar among metals and gems, still more among plants...”(40)
For the liver, an organ ruled by Jupiter, Ficino would perhaps use a formula of herbs that are good for the liver, prepared at a time that has favorable astrological portents with Jupiter to enhance their effect. He may also suggest using “Jovial things such as silver, jacinth, topaz, coral (also ruled by Jupiter)....; and entertain thoughts and feelings which are especially Jovial...”(41) “But”, he says, “those things which pertain to any planet should be sought and performed precisely when it has dignities ...in its day and hour if possible, also when it is in its own house or in its exaltation...”(42)
In Three Books on Life Ficino writes about the various attributes of the planets and describes how they rule various body parts. He also says, “It is truly a discipline of special importance to grasp correctly which spirit, which force, which thing these planets especially signify.”(43) And he gives instructions on how to prepare medicines at astrologically auspicious times to enhance their positive effect.
Following is another example from Ficino of the use of a talisman:
“To obtain long life, the ancients used to make an image of Saturn from the stone, Feyrizech, that is, sapphire in the hour of Saturn, when he was ascending and fortunately placed.” (44)
With the understanding that the “Spirit” of the planets are divine and reflect the divine nature of God, we see how preparing herbal tinctures and talismans at times where this divine influence is available through the stars and planets can assist in infusing the soul with the memory of its divine nature.
“No one should doubt that we ourselves and all things which are around us can, by way of certain preparations, lay claim to celestial things. For these lower things were made by the heavens, are ruled continually by them, and were prepared up there for celestial things in the first place...A little additional preparation [i.e. prepared at astrologically auspicious times], therefore, on our part suffices to capture the gifts of the celestials, provided each accommodates himself to that gift in particular to which he is particularly subject.”(45)
As food and herbal preparations are nourishment for the body, philosophical contemplation is nourishment for the mind, leading the soul to a deeper transforming knowledge not understood by the intellect alone. Through study, man could use his imagination to understand things beyond the physical, material world.
Ficino used music, also a form of natural magic, as a powerful tool for soothing the soul. He was known to play his lyre for people as a healing therapy. Of music he says, “But remember that song is a most powerful imitator of all things. It imitates the intentions and passions of the soul as well as words;...By the same power, when it imitates the celestials, it also wonderfully arouses our spirit upwards to the celestial influence and the celestial influence downwards into our spirit.”(46)
When a soul was burdened, he may have chosen a hymn that reflects the sounds of Venusian joy, luring the soul back to its natural state of joy, reminding it of its higher origins. Or he may have chosen to display an image of a beautiful piece of Venusian art because its beauty and soulful image infuses and reminds the soul of that which is also in him, again luring him back to that higher state of perfection. Renaissance art was an outer expression of soulful experiences within, reflecting back to the soul the deeper, non-linear images and experiences that go beyond the flat intellectual understanding of life. Ficino was also known to have performed rituals of exorcism as a priest to help those who were troubled.
Plato taught that when man is born, his soul descends through the planetary spheres and picks up their influences on its way to birth. The birth chart therefore represents the imprint of the stars on the soul of man when he is born. As the planets continue their motion after birth, so does the person who is a living, animated soul moving either in harmony with the planets or if he so chooses, moving with the irrational or inharmonious nature of the planets. One can see where the accumulation of the irrational acts of the soul remain part of him until, by aligning his soul with the divine energies of the planets and “arresting the activity of the bodily senses..”, “divinity will be born in him”. One can see the thread of similarity between the Renaissance and the modern man who both are striving for a more peaceful and happy existence and the soul’s yearning to reconnect with its higher divinity, the place from whence we came and the place where deep down inside we all strive to return.
The purpose of Ficino’s life and work was to help people see beyond the material, flat, two-dimensional existence of man into the deeper meaning of life. And through this journey one would connect with the higher essence of their own soul, bringing them closer to God and closer to finding the happiness and peace that he believed was inherent in everyone. Ficino saw spirit or soul in every aspect of life, and he used this knowledge to help others to reconnect with the inner essence of their own soul. Today, for instance, we may see a book as an inanimate object, lifeless and without soul. However, to Ficino, a book would be filled with the spirit of the message of its author. For Ficino, all matter was infused with the spirit of the soul of life, our life, God’s life. Everything radiates an energy of soul. And it was through this understanding that he practiced his natural magic.
We hear the word magic and wince at its superstitious or evil connotation. However, natural magic is as simple as infusing soul or spirit into an object. When we make an herbal tincture for our liver, prepared at an astrologically auspicious time that emphasizes the positive aspects for the liver, we are infusing the healing qualities of the plant into our body, reminding the organ of its natural healthy state and bringing a form of healing to it. Placing a picture of Jesus to reflect his spirit, playing a beautiful piece of music that moves the soul or giving a prayer would also be considered a form of natural magic. In his practice of natural magic, Ficino used his knowledge of the planets and the stars to enhance the process of reflecting the divine components of the World Spirit, God’s Spirit, into man, whether through the use of herbs, talismans, music or whatever means he chose, drawing him closer to God and therefore closer to the divinity within himself.
Ficino teaches us that we are part of the planets and they are part of us. They, like ourselves, are part of the spiritually animating force of life created by God and altered by our free will as man’s irrational nature is reflected to the planets and then reflected back to him in a constant yet changing dynamic of life. Yet, like man, the World Soul through the planets still contains the divine Spirit of God that is perfect, divine and unchanging and is therefore also constantly reflecting back to the soul its true place in the universe where the soul can choose, through free will, to return. It is this higher aspect of the soul that Ficino has captured and encourages us to aspire toward, that state of perfection from whence we came.
I believe Ficino himself sums it all up very well.
“In summary, consider that those who by prayer, by study, by manner of life, and by conduct imitate the beneficence, action, and order of the celestials, since they are more similar to the gods, receive fuller gifts from them. But consider too that men artificially made alien and discordant to the disposition of the celestials are secretly miserable and in the end become publicly unhappy.”(47)
I can witness to Ficino’s practice of philosophy and contemplation as leading the soul to deeper knowledge. Through researching and writing this paper, I have come to understand the soul and the deeper meanings of the concepts that Ficino teaches in a way I have never understood before. And through this experience, I have been motivated to know more and to experience more of what he teaches. It seems that Ficino’s spirit can still touch us through his written works and that he is still practicing as the physician of the soul.
2. Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology, Volume I, Books I - IV, Translated by Michael J. B. Allen with John Warden (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
3. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, Translated by Carol. V. Kaske and John R. Clark (Arizona: Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University, Second Printing, 1998).
4. Mirandola, Giovanni Pico della, Oration on the Dignity of Man, (South Bend, IN: Gateway/Regnery, 1956).
5. Thomas Moore, The Planets Within: The Astrological Psychology of Marsilio Ficino (Great Barrington, MA: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1982).
6. Marvin Perry, Western Civilization: A Brief History, Volume I: To 1789 (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001).
7. S. J. Tester, A History of Western Astrology (Great Britain: Athenaeum Press Ltd., Gateshead, Tyne & Wear, 1999), p. 207, Footnote 7: Lopez, Robert S., The Three Ages of the Italian Renaissance (Charlottesvile, 1970).
8. Roelof van den Broek and Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Editors, Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).
9. Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1964).
2. Marsilio Ficino, Meditations on the Soul: Selected Letters of Marsilio Ficino, Translated from the Latin by members of the Language Department of the School of Economic Science, London (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1997), from the Introduction, p. xiii.
3. Marsilio Ficino, Meditations on the Soul: Selected Letters of Marsilio Ficino, #76, p. 164 titled A disputation against the pronouncements of the astrologers.
4. Thomas Moore, The Planets Within: The Astrological Psychology of Marsilio Ficino (Great Barrington, MA: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1982), from the Introduction.
5. Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 20.
6. Yates, p. 20.
7. Yates, p. 27.
8. Yates, p. 27.
9. Yates, pp. 27-28.
10. Mirandola, Giovanni Pico della, Oration on the Dignity of Man, (South Bend, IN: Gateway/Regnery, 1956).
11. Plato, The Republic, Jowett Translation, http://plato.evansville.edu.
12. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, Translated by Carol. V. Kaske and John R. Clark (Arizona: Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University, Second Printing, 1998), p. 251.
13. Yates, p. 27-28.
14. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, Translated by Carol. V. Kaske and John R. Clark (Arizona: Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University, Second Printing, 1998), p. 243.
15. Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology, Volume I, Books I - IV, Translated by Michael J. B. Allen with John Warden (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), pp. 66-67.
16. Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology, Volume I, Books I - IV, p. 79.
17. Yates, p. 23.
18. Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology, Volume I, Books I - IV, p. 79.
19. Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology, Volume I, Books I - IV, p. 79.
20. Plato, The Republic.
21. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 331.
22. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 321.
23. Moore, Preface to his book.
24. Yates, p. 23.
25. Moore, Preface to his book taken from a letter to Lorenzo the Magnificent.
26. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 259.
27. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 247.
28. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 247.
29. Yates, p. 68-69.
30. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 255.
31. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 255.
32. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 253.
33. Yates, p. 25.
34. Yates, p. 24.
35. Tester, p. 206. Also see Footnote 6, p. 207: Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem, Edited with an Italian translation and notes by Eugenio garin (2 vols., Florence, 1946, 1952).
36. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 259.
37. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 259.
38. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 369.
39. Yates, p. 29.
40. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 247.
41. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 249.
42. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 252-53.
43. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 265.
44. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 355.
45. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 249-250.
46. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 359.
47. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, p. 369.
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