Marsilio Ficino to Peregrino Agli: greetings.
On November 29th my father, Ficino the doctor, brought to me at Figline
from you, one in verse and the other in prose. Having read these, I heartily congratulate
our age for producing a young man whose name and fame may render it illustrious.
Indeed, my dearest Peregrino, when I consider your age and those things which come
from you every day, I not only rejoice but much marvel at such great gifts in a friend.
I do not know which of the ancients whose memory we respect (quorum memoriam
veneramur), not to mention men of our own time, achieved so much at your age. This
I ascribe not just to study and technique, but much more to divine frenzy (divino illi
furori). Without this, say Democritus and Plato,  no man has ever been great. The
powerful emotion and burning desire which 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. But since I have mentioned this
frenzy, I shall relate the opinion of our Plato about it in a few words, with that brevity
which a letter demands; so that you may easily understand what it is, how many kinds of
it there are, and which god is responsible for each. I am sure that this description will not
only please you, but also be of the very greatest use to you. Plato considers, as
Pythagoras, Empedocles and Heraclitus maintained earlier, that our soul, before it
descended into bodies, dwelt in the abodes of heaven where, as Socrates says in the
Phaedrus,  it was nourished and rejoiced in the contemplation of truth.
Those philosophers I have just mentioned had learnt from Mercurius Trismegistus,
wisest of all the Egyptians, that God is the supreme source and light within whom shine the
models of all things, which they call ideas. Thus, they believed, it followed that the soul,
in steadfastly contemplating the eternal mind of God, also beholds with greater clarity the
natures of all things. So, according to Plato, the soul saw justice itself, wisdom, harmony,
and the marvellous beauty of the divine nature. And sometimes he calls all these natures
?ideas?, sometimes ?divine essences?, and sometimes ?first natures which exist in the eternal
mind of God?. The minds of men, while they are there, are well nourished with perfect
knowledge. But souls are depressed into bodies through thinking about and desiring earthly
things. Then those who were previously fed on ambrosia and nectar, that is the perfect
knowledge and bliss of God, in their descent are said to drink continuously of the river
Lethe, that is forgetfulness of the divine. They do not fly back to heaven, whence they fell
by weight of their earthly thoughts, until they begin to contemplate once more those divine
natures which they have forgotten. The divine philosopher considers we achieve this through
two virtues, one relating to moral conduct and the other to contemplation; one he names with
a common term ?justice?, and the other ?wisdom?. For this reason, he says, souls fly back to
heaven on two wings, meaning, as I understand it, these virtues; and likewise Socrates teaches
in Phaedo that we acquire these by the two parts of philosophy; namely the active and the
contemplative. Hence, he says again in Phaedrus that only the mind of a philosopher
regains wings. On recovery of these wings, the soul is separated from the body by their power.
Filled with God, it strives with all its might to reach the heavens, and thither it is drawn. Plato
calls this drawing away and striving ?divine frenzy?, and he divides it into four parts. He
thinks that men never remember the divine unless they are stirred by its shadows or images,
as they may be described, which are perceived by the bodily senses.
Paul and Dionysius, the wisest of the Christian theologians, affirm
that the invisible things
of God are understood from what has been made and is to be seen here, but Plato says
that the wisdom of men is the image of divine wisdom. He thinks that the harmony which we
make with musical instruments and voices is the image of divine harmony, and that the
symmetry and comeliness that arise from the perfect union of the parts and members of the
body are an image of divine beauty.
Since wisdom is present in no man (vero sapientia nullis), or
at any rate in very few, and
cannot be perceived by bodily sense, it follows that images of divine wisdom are very rare
amongst us, hidden from our senses and totally ignored. Because of this, Socrates says in
Phaedrus  that the image of wisdom may not be seen at all by the eyes, because if it were
it would deeply arouse that marvellous love of the divine wisdom of which it is an image
(cuius id simulachrum).
But  we do indeed perceive the reflection of divine beauty with
our eyes and mark the
resonance of divine harmony with our ears - those bodily senses which Plato considers the
most perceptive of all. Thus when the soul has received through the physical senses (sensus
haustis) those images which are within material objects, we remember what we knew before
when we existed outside the prison of the body. The soul is fired by this memory (recordatione
exardescat animus) and, shaking its wings, by degrees purges itself from contact with the body
and its filth (corporis contagione, sordibusque) and becomes wholly possessed by divine
frenzy. From the two senses I have just mentioned two kinds of frenzy are aroused. Regaining
the memory of the true and divine beauty by the appearance of beauty that the eyes perceive,
we desire the former with a secret and unutterable ardour of the mind. This Plato calls ?divine
love?, which he defines as the desire to return again to the contemplation of divine beauty; a
desire arising from the sight of its physical likeness. Moreover, it is necessary for him who is so
moved not only to desire that supernal beauty but also wholly to delight in its appearance which
is revealed to his eyes. For Nature has so ordained that he who seeks anything should also
delight in its image; but Plato holds it the mark of a dull mind and corrupt state if a man desires
no more than the shadows of that beauty nor looks for anything beyond the form his eyes can
see. For he believes that such a man is afflicted with the kind of love that is the companion of
wantonness and lust. And he defines as irrational and heedless the love of that pleasure in
physical form which is enjoyed by the senses.
Elsewhere he describes this love as the ardent desire of a soul which
in a way is dead in its
own body, while alive in another. He then says that the soul of a lover leads its life in another
body. This the Epicureans follow when they say that love is a union of small particles, which
they call atoms, made to penetrate the person from whom the images of beauty have been
taken. Plato says that this kind of love is born of human sickness and is full of trouble and
anxiety, and that it arises in those men whose mind is so covered over with darkness that it
dwells on nothing exalted, nothing outstanding, nothing beyond the weak and transient image
(imaginem, nec) of this little body. It does not look up to the heavens, for in its black prison it
is shuttered by night. But when those whose spirit (ingenium) is drawn away and freed
from the clay of the body first see form and grace in any one, they rejoice, as at the reflection
of divine beauty. But those people should at once recall to memory that divine beauty, which
they should honour and desire above all; as it is by a burning desire for this beauty that they
may be drawn to the heavens. This first attempt at flight Plato calls divine ecstasy and frenzy.
I have already written enough about that frenzy which, I have said, arises through the eyes.
But the soul receives the sweetest harmonies and numbers through the
ears, and by these
echoes is reminded and aroused to the divine music which may be heard by the more subtle
and penetrating sense of mind. According to the followers of Plato, divine music is twofold.
One kind, they say, exists entirely in the eternal mind of God. The second is in the motions
and order of the heavens, by which the heavenly spheres and their orbits make a marvellous
harmony. In both of these our soul took part before it was imprisoned in our bodies. But it
uses the ears as messengers, as though they were chinks in this darkness. By the ears, as I
have already said, the soul receives the echoes of that incomparable music, by which it is led
back to the deep and silent memory of the harmony which it previously enjoyed. The whole
soul then kindles with desire to fly back to (fruatur, ad sedes) its rightful home, so that it may
enjoy that true music again. It realises that as long as it is enclosed in the dark abode
(habitaculo circumseptus est) of the body it can in no way reach (modo posse intelligat) that
music. It therefore strives wholeheartedly to imitate it, because it cannot here enjoy its
possession. Now with men this imitation is twofold. Some imitate the celestial music by
harmony of voice and the sounds of various instruments, and these we call superficial and
vulgar musicians. But some, who imitate the divine and heavenly harmony with deeper and
sounder judgement, render a sense of its inner reason and knowledge into verse, feet and
numbers. It is these who, inspired by the divine spirit, give forth with full voice the most
solemn and glorious song. Plato calls this solemn music and poetry the most effective imitation
of the celestial harmony. For the more superficial kind which I have just mentioned does no
more than soothe with the sweetness of the voice, but poetry does what is also proper to
divine harmony. It expresses with fire the most profound and, as a poet would say, prophetic
meanings, in the numbers of voice and movement. Thus not only does it delight the ear, but
brings to the mind the finest nourishment, most like the food of the gods; and so seems to
come very close to God. In Plato?s view, this poetic frenzy springs from the Muses; but he
considers both the man and his poetry worthless who approaches the doors of poetry without
the call of the Muses, in the hope that he will become a good poet by technique. He thinks
that those poets who are possessed by divine inspiration and power often utter such supreme
words when inspired by the Muses, that afterwards, when the rapture has left them, they
themselves scarcely understand what they have uttered.
And, as I believe, the divine Plato considers that the Muses should
be understood as divine
songs; thus they say ?melody? and ?muse? take their name from ?song?. Hence divine men
are inspired by divine beings and song to imitate them by employing the modes and metres of
poetry. When Plato deals with the motion of the spheres in the Republic, he says that one
siren is established within each orbit (singulis orbibus insidere); meaning, as one Platonist
says, that by the movement of the spheres song is offered to the gods. For ?siren? rightly
means in Greek ?singing in honour of God?. And the ancient theologians maintained  that
the nine Muses were the musical songs of the eight spheres, and in addition the one great
harmony arising from all the others.
Therefore, poetry springs from divine frenzy, frenzy from the Muses,
and the Muses from
Jove. The followers of Plato repeatedly call the soul of the whole universe Jove, who inwardly
nourishes heaven and earth, the moving seas, the moon?s shining orb, the stars and sun.
Permeating every limb, he moves the whole mass and mingles with its vast substance.
It is thus that the heavenly spheres are set in motion and governed
by Jove, the spirit and
mind of the whole universe, and that from him also arise the musical songs of these spheres,
which are called the Muses. As that illustrious Platonist says, ?Jove is the origin of the
Muses; all things are full of Jove, and that spirit which is called Jove is everywhere; he
enlivens and fulfils all things.? And as Alexander Milesius, the Pythagorean, says, ?touching
the heavens as though they were a lyre, he creates this celestial harmony.? The divine
prophet Orpheus  says, ?Jove is first, Jove is last, Jove is the head, Jove is the centre.
The universe is born of Jove, Jove is the foundation of the earth and of the star-bearing
heavens. Jove appears as man, yet he is the spotless bride. Jove is the breath and form of all
things (spiritus omnium), Jove is the source of the ocean, Jove is the movement in the
undying fire, Jove is the sun and moon, Jove, the King and Prince of all. Hiding his light, he
has shed it afresh from his blissful heart, manifesting his purpose.? We may understand from
this that all bodies are full of Jove; he contains and nourishes them, so that truly it is said that
whatever you see and wherever you move is Jove.
After these follow the remaining kinds of divine frenzy, which Plato
considers are twofold.
One is centred in the mysteries, and the other, which he calls prophecy, concerns future
events. The first, he says, is a powerful stirring of the soul, in perfecting what relates to the
worship of the gods, religious observance, purification and sacred ceremonies. But the
tendency of mind which falsely imitates that frenzy he calls superstition. He considers the
last kind of frenzy, in which he includes prophecy, to be nothing other than foreknowledge
inspired by the divine spirit, which we properly call divination and prophecy. If the soul (si
animus in) is fired in the act of divination he calls it frenzy; that is, when the mind,
withdrawn from the body, is moved by divine rapture. But if someone foresees future
events by human ingenuity rather than by divine inspiration, he thinks that this should be
named foresight or inference. From all this it is now clear that there are four kinds of divine
frenzy: love, poetry, the mysteries and prophecy. That common (ille alter vulgaris) and
completely insane love is a false copy of divine love; superficial music, of poetry; superstition,
of the mysteries; and prediction, of prophecy. According to Plato, Socrates attributes the first
kind of frenzy to Venus, the second to the Muses, the third to Dionysius, and the last to
I have chosen to describe at greater length the frenzy belonging to
divine love and poetry for
two reasons: first, because I know you are strongly moved by both of these; and second, so
that you will remember that what is written by you comes not from you but from Jove and
the Muses, with whose spirit and divinity you are filled. For this reason, my Pellegrino, you
will act justly and rightly if you acknowledge, as I believe you do already, that the author and
cause of what is best and greatest is not you, nor indeed any other man, but immortal God
(potius Deum autorem).
Farewell, and be sure that nothing is dearer to me than you are.
1st December 1457.
1 Plato, Ion, 533D-536, Phaedrus, 245. For Democritus, see Cicero, De
Oratore, II, xlvi, 194.
De Divinatione, I, xxxvii, 80.
2 Phaedrus, 250.
3 Hermes Trismegistus, Pimander, I, 6-8.
4 In the Republic, V, 476 seq., Plato describes ideas as the unchanging
forms of justice, goodness,
beauty, etc., of which the manifestations we perceive are shadows. They alone are the objects of
real knowledge. See also Plato, Timaeus, 28, seq. The substance of this letter is drawn from Plato?s
Phaedrus, 244-56, and Phaedo, 81-3, 66-8.
5 Phaedrus, 247.
6 Phaedo, 66-8, 82.
7 Phaedrus, 249.
8 Phaedrus, 244-5.
9 This Dionysius was, in the 15th century, wrongly believed to be St.
Paul?s Athenian convert (Acts
17:34). He was in fact a Christian Neoplatonist of the 5th century A.D., whose writings were much
studied by Christian theologians.
10 St. Paul, Romans 1:20; Dionysius ?the Areopagite?, The Divine Names, IV, 4.
11 Phaedrus, 250.
12 For this and the following passage see Phaedrus, 251-6, and Phaedo, 81-3.
13 Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 734: ?Clausae tenebris et carcere caeco?.
14 Phaedrus, 245.
15 Ion. 534.
16 According to Macrobius the Muses are the song of the universe. The
Etruscan name for them,
?Camenae?, a form of ?Canenae?, is derived from canere, ?to sing?. (Macrobius, In Somnium Scipionis,
II, iii, 4, ed. and trans. Stahl, New York, 1952, p.194)
17 Republic. X, 617.
18 Macrobius, In Somnium Scipionis, II, iii, 1, ed. Stahl, p. 193.
19 Quoted from Macrobius (supra). See Porphyry, Vita Pythagorae, XXXI;
Proclus, ed. Diehl, 203E;
Plutarch, De Procreatione Animi in Timaeo, XXXII, 1029C.
20 Virgil, Aeneid, VI 724-7.
21 Virgil, Eclogues, III, 60.
22 From the Orphic theogony, quoted also by Plato, Laws, IV, 715E -
?God, as the old tradition declares,
holding in his hand the beginning, middle and end of all that is . . .? see Abel, Orphica, p. 167, verse 46.
Quoted also in Eusebius, De Praep. Evang., III, 9.
23 Phaedrus, 265. In De Amore, Ficino describes the four kinds of divine
frenzy as means by which God
draws the soul back to unity and to Himself (De Amore, Oratio Septima, xiii, 257, xiv, 258, ed. Marcel).