Don Marsilio el Curandero

19 05 2008

Or… The Fifteenth Century Translator of Plato Confronts Modernity with Christianized Shamanism

From Leonard George:

Dawn light spills into a large room decorated lavishly in early Italian Renaissance style. Through a window we glimpse the silhouette of Brunelleschi’s famous dome. We are in Florence, in 1464. In the room, a sumptuous four-poster bed frames a dying old man – Cosimo de Medici, Prince of Florence. Huddled nearby, worried courtiers and relatives. When will the Doctor come? Is it already too late? A page enters, followed by a striking gentleman, early thirties, in a white gown. He carries a lyre. “Hail, Doctor Ficino. The Prince is waning fast.” “We haven’t much time. I will need some instruments of medical practice.” “Sir, what do you require? We will fetch it immediately!” Ficino peers intently at Cosimo’s grey face. “Bring me – a statue of Apollo. A gold mirror. Sunflowers in a vase. And a live cockerel. Quickly!” Off scurry the courtiers as the Doctor intones, “Hear me, great Prince! You suffer from a deficiency of solar spirits. A transfusion is needed to save your life. Visualize the sun. I have ordered symbols of solar power with which to surround you; imagine golden spirits flowing into your body with each breath.” Strumming his lyre, Ficino begins to sing the ancient Orphic Hymn to the Sun God. This was holistic healing, Renaissance style

Hear golden Titan, whose eternal eye
With broad survey, illumines all the sky.
Self-born, unwearied in diffusing light,
And to all eyes the mirrour of delight:
Lord of the seasons, with thy fiery car
And leaping coursers, beaming light from far…

-from the Orphic Hymn to the Sun as translated by Thomas Taylor

Such is the way that one person imagines Marsilio Ficino’s medicinal practice in Renaissance Florence. While there may be a few stretches of the imagination involved in this fictional account,  the reader can find most of the things referred to here in the writings of the Renaissance magus himself. Though quite diplomatic when revealing his practice of sympathetic magic to outsiders, there is no doubt that he insinuates at least knowledge of the things described above.

Belief and practice of any sort of magic in our present day and age is something that we have left the the superstitious, the pagans, and the unsophisticated. Indeed, for the closest example of these type of magical acts, the American reader would need to travel a little south of the border to see the Mexican curandero, or faith healer, at work. While his method might be different from that of the Italian philosopher, the metaphysical premises behind both practices are the same: there is a world that is unseen that affects our well-being and behavior, and only a certain gifted person can interact with it and use it for the good.

But how can one of the greatest intellects of the Renaissance, the translator of Plato, Plotinus, Proclus and other ancient texts from Greek into Latin, and the inspiration for sublime works of art and culture, give himself over to such quackery? How can he be writing about the dignity and rational nature of man and the soul on the one hand, and be practicing the most silly forms of magic and astrology on the other?

For Ficino, these two aspects of his life were very much integrated. His philosophy, like the philosophy of Plato and others, would best be described as an incantation that leads men up to the higher forms of beauty and truth, transcending the aide of human reason and leading them up into union with the ineffable One. His magic and astrological practices had their basis in the sympathy of all things for each other. Its primary aim was not merely practical but also demonstrative: by studying the stars, we are gazing deeply into our own souls since our souls are made from the same substance as the heavens. By using sympathetic magic, we come to realize how man is the microcosm who brings about the harmonious union of all things to each other. His philosophy then, was deeply magical, and his magic was deeply symbolic and philosophical.

Did Ficino see this as a remedy for the crisis that was to come a few generations later in the form of the Protestant Reformation and the rise of modernity? Did Ficino sense that the traditional world was about to tear itself apart, causing the dis-integration of knowledge, religion, art, and culture? In her introduction to a volume of selections from Ficino’s works, the modern scholar Angela Voss writes that:

Ficino lived at a time ripe for upheaval and re-orientation , and saw his vocation as that of renewing the outworn scholasticism of dry theological debate with a living, dynamic connection of the human soul to its source. The medieval subjection of the human will to Divine Law was about to give way to the triumph of human reason in the Enlightenment, and in many ways the strength of the Renaissance movement lies in the tension created by its straddling-  and holding together- two worlds which were about to break asunder. Thus a dominant motif of the “new” religious sensibility was the union of opposites- tradition and innovation, Christianity and paganism, theology and poetry, and, most critically, philosophy and religion- whose divorce Ficino saw as being at the root of human ignorance and impiety: [citing Ficino]

For learning has been largely handed over to the profane, whence it becomes the greatest instrument of iniquity and moral license, and it is rather to be called malicious cunning than religious learning. Meanwhile the most precious pearls of religion are often pawed by ignoramuses who trample them underfoot like swine… Thus the former know not truth in its purity which, being divine, enlightens only the eyes of the pious, while the latter fail even to worship God rightly to the fulness of their ability, with the result that they regulate sacred things in ignorance of things human and divine. How long can we bear the miserable lot of this iron age? O ye citizens of your celestial fatherland, o ye inhabitants of the earth, let us finally, I beg you, liberate philosophy, the divine gift of God, from impiety, if we can- and we can if we will-,  and let us redeem holy religions, as far as strength permits, from abominable ignorance. I therefore exhort and implore all philosophers to reach out and embrace religion firmly, and all priests to devote themselves diligently to the study of legitimate philosophy.

We can plainly see that such warnings of Ficino were left unheeded. Luther some generations later would condemn philosophy as harmful to Christian thought and consign it to a life outside the Church’s walls. Philosophy would also go its own way in the form of cutting itself off definitively from revelation to begin to construct reality again in the mind like a ship in a bottle. The arts, detached from their sacred roots, would veer off on their own course towards the chatoic state that they are in today. And in all things, secularism would consign the sacred first to the hearth and personal preference, then to the oblivion of agnostic indifferentism.

I of course cannot totally absolve the Renaissance Neoplatonists from fault in this process. In attempting to revive various aspects of the old pagan cult and being pioneers of the historical critical method, they were perhaps akin to doctors whose cure only made the disease worse. However, I do believe that out of all those who have analyzed the malaise of modernity, they are the most perceptive. In spite of the Florentine priest-magus’ eccentricities, his entire life was devoted to binding together again the sacred and everyday realms into a coherent, harmonious whole. I am convinced that, five centuries later, this remains the task at hand.



4 responses

20 05 2008


Yeah, I want what you want, but to the likes of Jack Chick, it doesn’t matter if it’s a statue of the Virgin or a statue of Apollo; it’s all the same.

20 05 2008
The Shepherd

I always felt that once you accept that a Jewish carpenter rose from the dead everything else is kind of up in the air

19 05 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Let us remember that Ficino was a physician first and foremost, aside from being a philosopher, musician, magus and priest. If he used these remedies of catching cosmic energies, it is because he believed that they worked. We are talking about fifteenth century Florence here, and even there, as in many parts of the world today, there was no penicillin, x-rays, or any other modern medical tools that we have available. More often than not, even what we would consider “mainstream” medicine wasn’t that far removed from what we would consider today “witchcraft”. Ficino just has a more elaborate philosophy behind his specific practices.

Let us also remember that the statue of Apollo was more a symbol of the energies of the sun, but I will get back to that in a later post.

In rural Mexico and other such countries, the order of who you go to when you get sick is the reverse of where we go in this country. If you get sick, first you try to cure it yourself. If that doesn’t work, you go to the curandera. If that doesn’t work, then you try your luck at the dirty, prison-like hospital where you are at risk of dying of infection due to the unsanitary conditions. And if that doesn’t work, and death knocks at your door, you call a priest. I am sure the ruler of Florence got his last rites. What is described above is the “curandero” stage. In this country, you go to the doctor first, then if that fails, you try the “quacks”. Don’t call people pagan just because they’re poor.

19 05 2008

Somehow this does not seem Christian to me.

Jack Chick would have a field day on this website.

When I am on my deathbed, I want a crucifix, holy water, a priest and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Maybe a statue of the Blessed Mother but certainly not a statue of apollo or any other pagan items.

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