Reading Ficino's Letter on History to Dad on His Deathbed
(Kaiser Hospital, Santa Clara, CA, December 13, 2000, 4:32 pm)

Marsilio Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was founder of the Platonic Academy in Florence. His translation of Plato from Greek to Latin initiated the Italian Renaissance. Cosmo de' Medici read Plato to the young Michelangelo in his garden, and one can see the Plato's “from the many to the One” on the Sistine Ceiling. Leonardo, Raphael, Botticelli, and the Medici family were all influenced by Ficino's Neoplatonic philosophy. I recalled that on his deathbed, Cosmo de' Medici requested Ficino to read to him his translations of Plato's Philebus. When I found Ficino's letter on history, I read this to Dad just before he died. After the last word “farewell” I noticed the pulse on Dad's neck had ceased. I called the nurse. She listened to Dad's heart and said, “Your Dad just died, but he looks so peaceful.”

Marsilio Ficino to Jacop Bracciolini, son of the orator Poggio,
and heir to his fathers art: greetings.

Every year the early disciples of Plato used to hold a city festival in honor of Plato's birthday. In our own times the Bracciolini, his modern disciples, have celebrated the occasion both in the city and the surrounding countryside. Our book on love records the country festivities at the home of the splendid Lorenzo de' Medici at Careggi, while in the city of Florence the festival was celebrated at princely expense by the richly gifted and noble-minded Francesco Bandini.

Of the many different things we discussed at that gathering. I often reflect especially on the conclusion we reached before the feast, about the nature of the soul. I will gladly remind you of it now, for nothing befits a man more than discourse on the soul. Thus the Delphic injunction "Know thyself" is fulfilled and we examine everything else, whether above or beneath the soul, with deeper insight. For how can we understand anything else fully unless we understand the soul itself, through which everything must be understood? Does not a man abuse the soul by not devoting himself to its study, when it is by means of the soul and for its sake that he wants to understand everything else?

We all agreed there that the reasonable soul is set on a horizon, that is the line dividing the eternal and temportal, because it has a nature midway between the two. Being in the middle, this nature is not only capable of rational power and action, which lead up to the eternal, but also of energies and activities that descend to the temporal. Since these divergent tendencies spring from opposing natures, we see the soul turning at one moment to the eternal and at another to the temporal and so we understand rightly that it partakes of the nature of both. Our Plato placed the higher part of the soul under the authority of Saturn, that is, in the realm of mind and divine providence, and the lower part under Jupiter, in the realm of life and fate. Because of this, the soul seems to have a double aspect, one of gold and one of silver. The former looks toward the Saturnine and the latter to the Jovial. But this looking carries both desire and judgment. It is better to love eternal things than to judge them, for they are very difficult to judge rightly but they can never be wrongly loved. They can never be loved too much; indeed they cannot be loved enough until they are loved passionately. But it is better to judge temporal things than to desire them. Usually they are judged well enough, but basely loved. A judge takes within himself the form of the object being judged, whereas the lover transports himself into the form of the beloved. It is better to raise to ourselves inferior things by judging them, than to cast ourselves down through loving them. It is better to raise ourselves to higher things through love than to reduce them to our level by judgment. Farewell.

But before I draw to a close I beg you, my Bracciolini, not to lose your enthusiasm for writing history, now that you have begun. For historians praise the style of your prose and the subject itself is very necessary for the life of mankind, not only to make it more agreeable but to found it upon tradition. What is in itself mortal, through history attains immortality; what is absent becomes present, what is ancient becomes new. A young man quickly matches the full development of the old; and if an old man of seventy is considered wise because of his experience of life, much wiser is he who covers a span of a thousand or three thousand years. For each man seems to have lived for as many thousands of years as the span of history he has studied. Once more, farewell.

 — Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), Letter 23
      Meditations on the Soul: Selected Letters of Marsilio Ficino
     Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont, 1996

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