Pythagoras in the Renaissance: The Case of Marsilio Ficino

By Celenza, Christopher S. | Renaissance Quarterly, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

Pythagoras in the Renaissance: The Case of Marsilio Ficino


Celenza, Christopher S., Renaissance Quarterly


Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) is a familiar figure to students of Renaissance philosophy, well known as a transmitter of many aspects of the Platonic heritage.(1) This study will address a small part of the Platonic tradition by focusing on certain features of Ficino's use of Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, with a view toward categorizing and describing Ficino's view of Pythagoreanism.(2) The first step will be an examination of Pythagoreanism, specifically in light of its later Greek, specifically Iamblichean, interpretation. Thereafter, I turn to Ficino's prisca theologia, or ancient theology, in order to come to an understanding of where Pythagoras was situated on Ficino's mental landscape. Finally, I shall discuss the place of Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans for Ficino in various traditional areas of philosophy, including psychology, moral philosophy, and metaphysics and ontology, all of which often overlap, given Ficino's eclecticism.

One question to be addressed throughout is the following: to what extent is Pythagoras just another priscus theologus for Ficino, and to what extent does Ficino separate Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans out from the other "ancient theologians"? That Ficino - as I hope to show - did not see the ancient theologians before Plato as an undifferentiated unity will come as no surprise to historians of philosophy. Aristotle, Cicero, Diogenes Laertius, even Aquinas all saw Pythagoras and the Pythagorean tradition as responsible for certain discretely identifiable contributions to the history of philosophy. But what is unique in Ficino's case is the influence of Iamblichean Neoplatonism. This in turn is connected to larger concerns.

In addition to being a study in the history of philosophy, this article is part of what James Hankins has dubbed a "sources-and-influence" type of intellectual history.(3) On the most basic level this genre of historical writing is legitimate: thinkers in the past revered certain sources, and understanding the texts they privileged - what they were, how they were used - opens a window onto their world. However, one recognizes, as Hankins does, the pitfalls of stopping there. After the crucial and necessary step of identifying sources (without which intellectual history would recede too easily into nihilism), the task, in the case of Ficino as with other early modern thinkers, is to go one step beyond the identification of sources. One must imagine internally coherent modes of thinking into which a thinker could have tapped and sketch social contexts in which he could have functioned and in which he might have imagined himself.(4)

Along these lines, just as Hankins has argued that at times Ficino is closer to a follower of the pedagogically maieutic Socrates rather than of Plato alone,(5) one might suggest that Ficino also saw himself in a vatic way, as a follower of Pythagoras, that is, as a "wise man" (within a broad context of doctrinal orthodoxy- usually).(6) This vatic side of Ficino was heavily influenced by a late ancient mentality which privileged the prophetic side of Pythagoras and his nature as a religious figure. So if there is a larger resonance to this article, it is this: since Renaissance thinkers self-consciously searched for meaning in Greco-Roman antiquity, it is important to understand that antiquity is not monolithic - that there were different antiquities, all of which could at any given time in early modernity strike and affect a given thinker profoundly. Allen has recently uncovered a "patristic" side to Ficino, and Godman an "Alexandrian" turn in Poliziano's work.(7) Here I should like to document and understand a late ancient, Neopythagorean facet in Ficino's mindset.

It will be helpful to begin with a discussion of the Pythagorean tradition. From the earliest reports in Plato, there have always been two dimensions reported about the Pythagorean tradition: the religious and the scientific. The misstep of rationalist historiography has been to polarize these two aspects, to separate facets which were originally intimately linked. …

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