Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Michael J. B. Allen (ed.), Marsilio Ficino: Commentaries on Plato. Volume I, Phaedrus and Ion. The I Tatti Renaissance Library. Cambridge, Mass./London: Harvard University Press, Pp. lix, 269. ISBN 978-0-674-03119-7. $29.95.
Reviewed by A. Ch. F. Weizmann, Abbaye de Latroun Israel

Table of Contents: 1."The Mythical Hymn" of the "Phaedrus". 2. Commentary on the "Phaedrus". 3. Comment on and Chapter Summaries of the "Phaedrus". 4. Introduction to the "Ion". Appendix 1: Heaven and World. Appendix 2: The Prague Manuscript. Appendix 3: Ficino's Notes on MS Riccardianus.

This fine edition of Marsilio Ficino's Commentaries on Plato (Volume I: "Phaedrus" and "Ion") is edited and translated by Michael J.B. Allen, Distinguished Professor of English, University of California, Los Angeles, and published in the excellent collection "The I Tatti Renaissance Library" by Harvard University Press. Prof. Allen has studied over much time the thought and works of Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) particularly with the well remembered scholar and master Paul Oskar Kristeller. Prof Allen has published important studies about Ficino such as The Platonism of Marsilio Ficino (1984). He published also in the "I Tatti Renaissance Library", with critical editions and introductions, some volumes of the"Theologia Platonica" of the same Ficino.

Marsilio Ficino was indeed a fascinating personality of the Renaissance: priest and magus, Hellenist scholar and original Neo-Platonist. His translations from Plato into Latin are essential to research profoundly the history of the Platonic reception in the Florentine Renaissance and in the formation of the Neo-Platonist tradition of thought.

The present edition and annotated translation of "Phaedrus" and "Ion" is an example of outstanding scholarship. Prof. Allen with his high expertise and sympathy for the Neo-Platonist trend and particularly for Ficino widens our understanding of such projects. As it is known, the "Phaedrus" deals with some of the main Platonic issues: theogony, eschatology, purification of the soul, etc. The purification of the soul and the beauty in all its forms are in particular significant in our dialogue. The same Marsilio Ficino avowed, following the purest Platonic tradition, that Phaedrus is Plato's paradigmatic youth on the way to archetypal Beauty.

"The celestial Plato", as Ficino himself loved to declare, exemplified in the "Phaedrus" "Beauty in all its forms". Prof. Allen, in his detailed and erudite Introduction, explains how and in what measure that Beauty pervades the motivation of Ficino's translation and commentary. Marsilio Ficino is thus understood in the context of the Neo-Platonist attempts to comprehend Platonic intuitions and teachings. Prof. Allen considers that Ficino was "unquestionably" the most gifted western philosopher and translator of Platonic concepts and images. Even compared with Cusanus, Bessarion or Pico della Mirandola, the project of Ficino merited approval most, but notwithstanding it remained only in a sketch and we don't know why.1

Prof. Allen's edition and translation is a first-rate work and one of its merits is to introduce the reader in the "Weltanschauung" of Ficino and the other Neo-Platonists as Interpreters of Plato. In fact the actual book is a revised edition of his Marsilio Ficino and the Phaedran Charioteer (Berkeley/Los Angeles 1981).

We know that generally "traduttore traditore" and perhaps it is of universal application without exception, but, in this present edition and translation, the translation flows elegantly from the original Latin to a readable and correct English style, delighting the lovers of such texts.

Coming back to this edition it is interesting to draw attention to one -- perchance the most relevant -- subject matter in our Neo-Platonist texts: the paradigmatic way of the soul (of gods and humans). The mythical Hymn of the "Phaedrus", effectively, is one of the most noteworthy creations of "Plato noster", as Ficino loved to say. "At Phaedrus gratia pulchritudinis disputat de amore" (transl. Allen: " . . . but the "Phaedrus" talks about love for beauty's sake", pp.38-39). The soul is embedded and embroidered in and through Beauty because so the soul experiences liberation and purification. The chariots are the symbol used here. They are "celestia ac sempiterna". The purification of the soul is this process directing toward the consecration to God according to the Platonic and Neo-Platonic intuitions and images. Ficino, in his commentary, analyses with detail the characteristics and division of such dynamic life of the soul: immortality, movement and self-movement, frenzy, inspiration, love. Several references to other Platonic dialogues allows Ficino to offer a overview of the main themes of the book within the most general framework of the Platonic creation.

So the principle of motion and the soul as fountain and principle ("fons et principium . . .", p.62) of the universal motion continually flows "ex ipsa in ipsam et in alia" ("of itself, into itself, and into others . . .", p.61). It is the soul: a central theme particularly concerning the idea of the beautiful and good surrounding the own soul in the way of purification. The Introduction of Marsilio to the "Phaedrus" ended with his remarks as regards the four worlds and the twelve gods. The four worlds are (cf. "Timaeus"): "mundus sive caelum" ("world or heaven is a universe itself of forms", p.93); "qui mundus corporeus appelatur" ("the world's corporeal machine", id.); "anima mundane" ("world-soul", id.) and "qui mundus dicitur animalis" ("animate world . . .", id.) .The third world or heaven is above the animate world: it is the "intellectualis mundus" ("intellectual world", id.) that is the perfection of the intellectual forms "in ascensu" (p.92).

Heaven, as Ficino interprets it (cf. also his references to the "Cratylus" ) "interpretatur visionem superna spectantem" ("the vision that gazes up at supernals", p.103) within the process of conversion through the intellectual to the intelligible.

After the Introduction, Ficino comments on and summarizes the chapters (exactly 53) of the "Phaedrus". In fact, his commentary was based in the mythical hymn of the "Phaedrus" (243E-257A). It is very interesting how Ficino, faithful to Plato, says that the charioteer and the horse in divine souls is the Good (boni). But our ("nostri") charioteer and horses are in midst of difficulties and aloofness from the Good: "Dicitur autem aurigatio nostra difficilis, quoniam motus quidem superioris equi ad intelligibilia, inferioris autem ad sensibilia vergit, ad genitarumque declinat" ("Our charioteering is said to be difficult (246B4), because, while the superior horse's motion turns aside towards the intelligible, the inferior horse's motion turns aside to the sensible and descends to generation", p.121). Here we find, as Prof Allen said, a key pattern in Ficino and the Neo-Platonists: we must wait til the homecoming to our beginning and source, waiting our fully restoration ("et nostra tandem in patriam restituta", p.120).

The summaries and commentaries of each chapter are, generally speaking, tiny but highly intense, filled with metaphors, allegorical significations, mythological references, and particularly with links to other Platonic dialogues and Neo-Platonic concepts. In the last chapter 53 Ficino deals with Socrates, the prayer to the god Pan and principally the main thesis of the text: Beauty and Wisdom, with the meaning that Beauty is Wisdom.

There follows the Introduction to Plato's "Ion": "Argumentum Marsilii Ficini Florentini in Platonis "Ionem" de furore poetico ad Laurentium Medicem" (pp.194-207).

Marsilio speaks firstly and directly to his protector Lorenzo di Medici ("optime Laurenti", p.194) and discusses "mentis alienationem" ("alienation of the mind", p. 195) that is the definition of frenzy. There are different types or expressions of frenzy but Ficino, following the Platonic text, gives special attention to the "ipsum unum" ( "the One itself", id.) which is the principle of all: from the One the soul begins the way of multiplicity and division and finally from the One also the soul ascends from the Time to Eternity.

Four types of frenzy are present in the "Phaedrus" text (cf also the "Symposium" about love or last frenzy): the first frenzy tempers dissonances; the second makes the tempered parts one whole from the parts; the third makes one whole above ("supra") the parts; and the fourth leads the soul to the One (cf. pp.198-199).

In the "Ion" Plato talks about the poetic frenzy that truly guides the soul from death to life, "ex oblivione lethea ad divinorum reminiscentiam revocat, exagitat, stimulat et inflammat ad ea quae contemplatur et praesagit carminibus exprimenda" ("from Lethean oblivion to the remembrance of things divine: it recalls, excites, goads and inflames the soul to express in songs the things it contemplates and foretells", p.201). The reference Ficino makes to the Homeric conception of poetic rhapsodic inspiration and certainly to other Platonic dialogues ("The Laws") widens our appraisal. Poetry is a gift of God and the Muses. Plato says God but he means Apollo, while the Muses are the souls of the world's spheres. The commentary finishes, like an enclosure, also with a gentle reference to Lorenzo ("optime Laurenti", p.206) perhaps full of rhetorical courteousness.

There are three appendices to Mr. Allen's excellent edition of Ficino: "Heaven and World", "The Prague Manuscript" and "Ficino's Note on MS Riccardianus 70". The first is about the ontological ranks in "Phaedrus" and terminological fine distinctions in Ficino; the second concerns the discovery by Paul Oskar Kristeller in the late 1970s of a very relevant manuscript in Prague from Italy (fifteenth century), and of its importance in the textual history of Ficino's works. The last appendix is about the notes written from Ficino in the actual MS. Riccardianus 70 from the Riccardiana Library and the influence of Proclus' commentary on the "Phaedrus" in the interpretation of Ficino. The Appendices and the Final Notes, written with elegant conciseness and great erudition, are witness of the high quality of this edition and the competence of his editor.


1.   See Prof. Allen's more detailed explanation of the "Phaedrus" in his The Platonism of Marsilio Ficino: A Study of His "Phaedrus" Commentary, Its Sources and Genesis (Berkeley/Los Angeles 1984).

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