Ficino and the afterlife

1 07 2010

It is hard to tell sometimes if the Renaissance magus Marsilio Ficino was more Platonist than Catholic, or better yet, if such qualifications make any sense in his case. Having recently finished his commentary on Plato’s Republic, it is evident that he weaves Christian belief and Platonic doctrine unpretentiously into a single philosophical garment. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his idea of the afterlife. Ficino speaks much of purification both in this life and the next. Whether he is pulling this entirely from Plato or from his supposed role as religious gatekeeper as an ordained priest is not clear. One thing that one gets from Ficino is a sense that all metaphysical thought can only obtain certain foreshadowings of what will happen in the next life. The idea of “purgatory” properly speaking does not even appear in these writings.

A relevant quote is the following:

The point is that you should not be surprised that disturbances continue to exist in the soul of a dead person, if the sense impressions and memories of these things persist. But the theologians of old thought it likely that the souls of men who meet sudden death, being unpurified, are troubled by disturbances, and that they also stir up their enemies, not only through human resentment but also through divine retribution and the spirit of foresight.

This idea of the afterlife is familiar to modern Americans, even if only through horror films. But it seems to come more from premonition than reasoning. How it intesects with early modern ideas of Purgatory and the set of doctrines that accompany it would have to be investigated further. If Ficino believed in the “modern” Catholic, Tridentine points of view, he does not hint at it here.

If Ficino is a representative of the elites, it was not only the elites who had less than clear ideas as to what would happen after death. I have outlined that in other parts of Italy, “purgatory” was known as “St. Joachim’s Bridge”: a booby trapped path that sought to keep the soul from its reward in the next life. Even until quite recently in Italy, the custom was to cut a hole in the roof to let the soul out of the house: a custom that Eliade has shown to be shared in many other ancient cultures. Even in the German Alps and in many other places, the dead were thought to ride at night as phantoms. In many Catholic cultures, there was wide spread belief that the souls of the dead did not simply live in well-defined places specified by orthodox theology.

The odd thing, of course, is that Protestantism sought to cut talk of the afterlife completely out of discourse. There is heaven, there is hell, and that is pretty much it. All other ideas of the afterlife were gotten rid of in modern and refined Protestant thought. Perhaps here as well we see that one of the characteristics of modernity is a false victory over death, or rather its exclusion from anything having to do with life. In the Catholicism of the elites and the clergy, the process was substantially the same, even if it was carried out differently. Having to interject such ideas as “purgatory” and “limbo” into the common vocabulary of life after death would rationalize away all talk of ghosts, goblins, holy souls, and other phenomena that continued to be present in the Catholic psyche well after the Counter-Reformation. A rationalization of life in general also entailed a rationalization of the afterlife.



10 responses

6 07 2010
Jared B.

That is worth contemplating. I converted to Catholicism riding the apologetics wave (Shea, Keating, Kreeft, Madrid, Hahn et al.) and my first few years in the Church I was blissfully unaware how unbalanced and ahistorical my understanding of the faith was. Everybody becomes or remains a Catholic because they see Her to be something they need — which means practically everyone joins/stays in the Church for some “wrong” reasons if they’re overanalyzed. “The Church is X. I need X. Therefore I’m in the Church.” whether X is a sense of tradition, how my parents raised me, what I need to do to marry who I want, a moral compass, etc. etc. Yes the Church is that, but I think the problem arises when one guy loves the Church because she is X and another guys loves her because she is Y, and they *think* they’re contradicting each other and the other person’s reason are wrong-headed when really, all of us are slightly wrong-headed, else why the need for supernatural grace at all?

So there’s that Truth Factory view of the Church. Some people are out looking for a kind of certainty in matters of religion, they see that nobody can compete with the RCC in that department, so it’s logical to sign up. It’s true, as far as it goes — the Church does indeed offer more full/developed Gospel than anyone else — but the problem it’s so damned utilitarian, like if hypothetically a truer, more certain-sounding Magisterium showed up, we should drop everything and have a “conversion” that’s really just a trade-up. That’s the cracked foundation that is Absolute Intellectual Certainty: at first it appears like the most solid thing possible, but it’s a solid platform, leaving the mind and will untethered and likely to jump from one such platform to the next indefinitely.

5 07 2010


That new mentality is what’s kept me from converting. I know enough of my history to know it hasn’t always been like this, but I don’t really see it getting any better. The “Institutional Church” has become little more than reactionary.

4 07 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I cite a comment in this Internet thread:

RCC: Hey, did you know that it’s been supernaturally revealed that I am the unique, divinely instituted, infallible interpreter of the authentic sense of supernatural revelation?

Humanity: And how would I come to accept that claim?

RCC: Because I teach it. It’s a claim about supernatural revelation, and that same revelation includes the proposition that I alone can infallibly give you its authentic sense. So can I get you started today on learning the Fullness of Truth?

Humanity: Wait, you’re telling me the reason I must accept that you are a teaching authority is because you teach that you are a teaching authority?

RCC: Precisely.

Humanity: There’s no other way?

RCC: Nope. We used to appeal to people to take the gospels to be history books and then lay out a non-circular approach, using verses like photos and tape of what Jesus did and said, but that’s over.

Humanity: Then why are you special?

RCC: We teach that we are, as you say, special.

Humanity: I’ve gotta go.

I think the problem with this analysis is that it reduces doctrine to a set of syllogisms analogous to mathematical proofs. Of course, metaphysical or philosophical premises cannot be taken in the same sense, let alone theological ones.

What is interesting, and what the cited imaginary dialogue highlights, is that such a faith in “development” ultimately reduces faith from a belief in a set of historical and theological events towards rather a faith in an institutional “truth-producing” mechanism, empty of actual content. I think that is worth contemplating.

3 07 2010
Jared B.

@ KarlH

Well I was fairly careful not to interject an opinion into it 😉 can’t be a contrarian *all* the time.

I put that view forward but I’m not convinced that such a view of history is the real picture; it is a historiography, a sort of way of explaining “how history moves”. And Arturo — no stranger to similar Hegelian or Marxist attempts to show the inevitability of some historical direction — is right, it is very problematic. With regard to whether some action is right or wrong, it just can’t hold, unless one accepts some kind of relativism: if leaving a small dish of food on the porch for the fairies is something wrong or pagan, then it was always wrong even in my great-grandma’s day as it is today. So if we say X wrong, we can’t flinch from saying our ancestors were wrong. And if we don’t say X is wrong, merely against our contemporary tastes, we shouldn’t waste our time thinking we’re better or smarter than our ancestors for doing or believing something that we don’t.

With doctrine, it seems to me more certain that things really have been getting “narrower” since the first post-apostolic Fathers began writing. Things that are open to differing opinions in one era become more formally defined in a later time. There are some important lessons to take from that. One of which is that right now, you or I or any other “orthodox” Catholic undoubtedly believe some things that in some far off century will be declared heretical: and that isn’t our problem.

But I don’t believe that increasing clarity or detail in doctrine is always necessarily “rationalization”; most of what passed for theology in the first thousand years of Christianity (i.e. before Scholasticism) saw “development of doctrine” sure, but it wasn’t rationalistic in a Modern way. So in doctrine too, I don’t think there’s any historical imperative predetermining the direction we take.

3 07 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I think one need not state too much how problematic such an explanation is. Needless to say, I think this is ridiculous.

2 07 2010


Would you view this “development” as positive or negative? I guess I’m not clear where you fall on this matter.

2 07 2010
Jared B.

That’s one explanation of the ‘development of doctrine’ I’ve heard, everything “getting sharper” or “coming to a point.” Things that were fuzzy, more mysterious (in a good or bad sense of the word) and had more wiggle room a few centuries are clearer, sharper, and allow less margin of error today…and so on into the foreseeable future. If history moves that way with doctrine, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were a similar trend with beliefs and practices in things not strictly doctrinal. Or maybe what “isn’t strictly doctrinal” today *will be* tomorrow, until there’s only one right answer to everything, one right way of looking at and doing everything regarding the faith.

2 07 2010
Arturo Vasquez

The key here is exactly *intent* A hegemonic discourse does not *intend* to suppress local manifestations of a phenomenon, nor does it *intend* to homogenize varying world views. It does so without any particular malice and under the pretense that it is “improving” or “reforming” what has come in the past; of “clarifying” things that were not set in stone before.

As I hinted, Catholicism was able to better accommodate such paranormal phenomena than any other belief system in the modern West. But if you were in the highlands of Scotland or Appalachia, it wouldn’t be such a problem either. But the regulation of both life and death has been an irresistible process in the last half millenium, and I still stand by my premise that in this process, some of the “mystery” is flattened for the sake of “clarity”.

1 07 2010
Jared B.

“Having to interject such ideas as “purgatory” and “limbo” into the common vocabulary of life after death would rationalize away all talk of ghosts, goblins, holy souls, and other phenomena that continued to be present in the Catholic psyche well after the Counter-Reformation.”

Setting aside the fact that both beliefs, especially Purgatory, where in vogue long before the counter-reformation, what evidence is there that “rationalizing away” other ideas was the *intent* of theological ideas of the afterlife like Purgatory and Limbo?

I’m reading a recently translated book ( on the Last Things that was written in 1881, and the priest, one of those elites, is very open about what the Church has and has not formally defined, and discusses the phenomena of ghost sightings in connection to Purgatory. So it certainly isn’t effective at making fuzzier aspects of the afterlife go away, and I’m doubtful that it was ever meant to do that.

1 07 2010

Arturo, you’re much more familiar with Catholic tradition and folklore than I am. Has there been any references to reincarnation, or perhaps, the idea that the souls of the dead impress themselves in some way upon newborn souls?

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