Benedetto Varchi on the Soul: Vernacular Aristotelianism between Reason and Faith

By Sgarbi, Marco | Journal of the History of Ideas, January 2015 | Go to article overview

Benedetto Varchi on the Soul: Vernacular Aristotelianism between Reason and Faith


Sgarbi, Marco, Journal of the History of Ideas


I. INTRODUCTION

Benedetto Varchi (1503-65) was one of the most important and complex figures in the Italian intellectual landscape of the sixteenth century. His interests ranged from history to literary criticism, from science to poetry; yet, until recently, his reputation has been based solely upon his interpretation of Dante and Petrarch, his discussion of the "question of the language," and his activity generally as a man of letters and pedagogue at the Accademia Fiorentina.1 Very few studies have sought to reconstruct Varchi's profile as a philosopher, and most that do-by Bruno Nardi, Eugenio Garin, Cesare Vasoli, and others-have focused on his alleged Averroism.2 Furthermore, such studies are based for the greater part on the philosophical fragments published in the nineteenth-century editions of Varchi's works, the reliability of which has been questioned by the latest philological investigations.3 None of them consider the mountain of unedited manuscript material which is to be found in the Filze Rinuccini of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale (hereafter BNC) in Florence. This oversight has led to a misleading image of Varchi as an amateur philosopher. Yet much of Varchi's life was spent poring over philosophical texts, in particular those of logic, ethics, and natural philosophy, and discussing complex philosophical problems such as the immortality of the soul, animal generation, and the structure of the universe. The secrets of philosophy were revealed to Varchi at an early age in the school of the Neoplatonist Francesco Verino the Elder (1474-1541). His knowledge of Aristotelian psychology was then fostered by the philosophical debates at the University of Padua and at the Accademia degli Infiammati. He then moved to Bologna where he followed the lectures of his beloved teacher Ludovico Boccadiferro (1482-1545), before becoming in 1543 one of the leading figures of the Accademia Fiorentina under the patronage of Duke Cosimo I.

A reassessment of Varchi's impact must rest upon a solid understanding of his thought within a context of intellectuals that included the likes of Cardinal Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542), Sperone Speroni (1500-1588) and Ludovico Beccadelli (1501-72), whose purpose, in the age of the Counter-Reformation, was to popularize Aristotle's doctrines and reconcile them with Christian religion. Above all, this new appraisal is possible only by means of a full-fledged investigation of Varchi's manuscript writings on psychology, which I shall begin here. Varchi's manuscripts reveal the depth of his familiarity with philosophy and his originality as a thinker, especially with regard to his personal reinterpretation of the ancient Greek commentators of Aristotle. In particular, I wish to show that Varchi was not an Averroist, as is often claimed on the basis of his Dante lectures, if by Averroism one means, to cite a recent formulation, "the attribution to Aristotle of Averroes's doctrine of the unity of the agent and possible intellects for all men and therefore the denial of the immortality of the individual human soul."4 This is particularly important in contexts such as Padua and Bologna, Italy's two main centers of scholarly philosophical study where Varchi spent a number of his formative years. In both places it seemed to many that no one could be truly Aristotelian or even a philosopher if he did not first embrace Averroes's doctrines.* * 5

In these manuscript writings, Varchi rejects Averroistic doctrines and seeks to reconcile Aristotelian psychology with the truth of religion. In so doing, Varchi appropriates the interpretation of Aristotle offered by Themistius (fourth century ce) through the filter of the writings of Marcantonio Zimara (ca. 1460-1532), an exegesis that allows him to defend the immortality of the human soul while safeguarding the doctrines of Christian faith. Zimara, along with Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525), was one of the foremost Aristotelians of the time owing to his comprehensive knowledge of Aristotle and Averroes. …

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