Renaissance Syncretism: Plato, Christ, Hermes & Aristotle

The habit of describing the Renaissance in terms of Platonic progression and the Middle-Ages as Aristotelian status quo should be avoided. The eminent scholar James Hankins illustrated that there is no doubt Plato’s contribution is both seminal and evident, even more so with Marsilio Ficino’s (1433-1499) efforts, but Aristotelian thinking was ever present throughout the entire Renaissance. In the following, we will discuss the importance of this assertion as we explore the proper historical context of Renaissance Neoplatonic philosophy.

Platonism is, of course,  just one historical factor among many that define the intellectual climate of the Renaissance. Indeed, the importance of Hermetic philosophy cannot be underestimated. Francis Yates went as far as to say the whole of Ficino’s De vita coelitus comparanda is ‘a commentary only secondarily on Plotinus and primarily on Trismegistus’. Hankins’ argument represents an informed appreciation of the contemporary intellectual milieu, and it highlights the marginality of Plato even within the Humanist circles of the time. Hankins pays particular attention to the work of Charles B. Schmitt. Although, what scholar Arthur Versluis would call somewhat ‘reductionist’ in his approach, Schmitt presents statistical records of Renaissance printing pertaining to the production of Aristotelian literature with comparisons to Plato. According to his findings, Renaissance commentaries on Aristotle outnumbered Plato ten to one. Schmitt’s work helps expand on the dense intellectual climate of the Renaissance by clearly emphasising the evidence of differing types of Aristotelian thought practised.

Comparing the later work of Jacopo Zabarella (1533-1589) and Cesare Cremonini (1552- 1631), both distinguished Aristotelians of their time, Schmitt illustrates that we must not think of Renaissance Aristotelianism as one cohesive body of thought, but rather a grouping of various forms of Aristotelianisms. This is of course, no less so for Platonism, Neoplatonism or any assertions made of the Renaissance’s rejection of Aristotelian thought as such. Subsequently, the Renaissance as a term itself should be perceived as deeply syncretic in nature.

Hay states, ‘I accept as fact that there was a Renaissance in the period […] between 1350 and 1700’. If contrasted with the renaissance of the twelfth century and its emphasis on classical texts of mainly scientific, philosophical, and mathematical concern, the fifteenth century had a greater emphasis placed on the recovery of philosophical and literary works, of which Plato was eminent. With the growth of the Italian vernacular, learning becomes more widespread in the fifteenth century, at least among the already educated classes. It might be suggested that this gave rise to a context of importance towards the humanities and liberal arts, unseen in the Middle-Ages and possibly bestowing the period with a particular receptiveness for a particular brand of Neoplatonism. When again we contrast the science of the twelfth-century with that of the fifteenth there is a marked difference. This is something Allen G. Debus recognises in his Man and Nature in the Renaissance, although his dates are limited to 1450 to 1650. Debus concentrates on the science of the Renaissance and highlights its receptiveness towards the spiritualism and mysticism, something again not indicative of the Middle-Ages;

But Renaissance humanism cannot simply be reduced to a recovery of a pure Aristotle, Ptolemy or Galen. No less influential on the development of modern science – and certainly part of the same humanistic movement – was the revival of the Neo-Platonic, cabalistic and Hermetic texts of late antiquity.  

We shall find that controversies over natural magic and the truth of the macrocosm-microcosm analogy were then as important as the better- remembered debates over the acceptance of the heliocentric system or the circulation of the blood.   

It would follow then, that in regards to a historical context and how scholars have sought to define it, we can start by saying that Renaissance philosophy is a dynamic response to a time when such aspirations as promised by Neoplatonism were eagerly received. Byzantine migration and medieval scholasticism had culminated to such an extent during the fifteenth century, that the continuous influx of Greek learning that followed the fall of Constantinople (1453) enjoyed a revolutionary level of patronage in the Latin West that would rival antiquity. Encouraged by both the mercantile wealth of the medieval Italian city-states and the particular receptiveness of the Florentine state with its fertile Humanist tendencies, this revelatory Greek influx generated a great deal of interest in classical literature. Culminating with Ficino in 1484, this literary increase is believed to create something of a Platonic revival and increased dissemination of Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy, thus rendering the intellectual pursuits of the early Italian Renaissance with a distinctly Platonic, rather than Aristotelian character.

In art, literature and science, the medieval conventions were poised in nostalgic anticipation for these treasures of antiquity that the steady dissemination of Greek learning had promised. The historical context appears to suggest that Ficino’s particular brand of Neoplatonism, with its emphasis on the uniqueness and immortality of the soul and the individual, had a detectable pre-eminence at this time and that the environment in which it was received was both receptive and reverential.

Yet, strangely, for all his veneration, very little direct Platonic literature was actually available in Latin before Ficino’s translations. With the exception of the only Platonic text available in Latin, Timaeus, Hankins states the Middle-Ages added only three dialogues to the Platonic corpus – some inferior twelfth century translations of the Phaedo and the Meno by Henricus Alistippus in Scilly and then in the later thirteenth century a limited version of the Parmendies, translated by William of Moerbeke. Clearly, it is only through the new translations from the original Greek in Florence by Ficino, that the other works of Plato and any of the works of the Neoplatonist Plotinus became available in the West. St Augustine, Macrobius’ Commentarius in somnium scipionis, Boethius’ Consolatio philosophiae; Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis philologiae et mercurii, John Scottus Eriugena and the School of Chartres all stand as indicative of the very thin dissemination of Platonism and Neoplatonism from Late Antiquity.

When Justian closed the Athenian Academy in 529AD, the writings of the early Church Fathers and Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite passed Platonic philosophy down to the Middle- Ages. As with Plotinus, Dionysus’ philosophy is that God is ‘beyond being’, unknowable and ineffable; God is ‘beyond negation and affirmation’. Dionysus describes God as ‘Cause’ in a Neoplatonic manner to avoid making God into another being besides his creatures. He employs Plato’s notion of the good God in a notably Christian sense. Platonism becomes, due also to the efforts of St Augustine and Boethius, representative of a syncretic blend of pagan philosophy and Christianity. As Cees Leijenhorst states, ‘the most conspicuous characteristic of the reception of Plato was the fusion between the cosmology and natural philosophy of the Timaeus and the Christian theology’.

Arguably one of his most influential works, Plato’s Timaeus presents an elaborate creation story of the universe and the origins of its apparent beauty and order. Plato suggests the universe was created by a rational being, who is both beneficent and purposeful. This being is presented as a divine Craftsman (Demiurge) or Great Architect, who brings mathematical order to the chaos of the universe. This is, of course, a significant element, not just of Ficino as a Catholic priest, but for most in their veneration of Platonic philosophy and is endemic of the inherited Platonic legacy and the continued endeavour to synchronise Platonic philosophy and Christian theology of the time. The Platonic tradition from Antiquity onwards is deeply syncretic and complex. Indeed, a large part of Platonic literature was even presented under the name of Aristotle as secret teachings of Plato. This is no less so during the Renaissance. Thus being composed of Hermeticism, Christianity, Neoplatonism and Aristotelian ideas, this perpetuated the view that Ficino and his contemporaries had of Plato – as being that of prisca theologia or as an ancient theology. This theology was viewed as a great chain of initiates including Moses, Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Plato and Orpheus and was venerated as such.  This, in turn, facilitates a related transmission of methods of hermeneutical interpretation and hence the allegorical aspects of Plato were considered as integumenta and involucre, meaning as Leijenhorst explains ‘words that concealed a deeper, hidden meaning that had to be dug up by the philosopher’. Accordingly, Platonic cosmology continued to be debated and reinterpreted, the lack of any direct Platonic literature helped facilitate medieval examples of Platonic thought becoming essentially corruptions of what we would later describe as Middle and Neoplatonism. The Medieval and Renaissance mind made no such distinction. Ficino translated Plato and other writers with Platonic themes, with deeply Neoplatonic tendencies and often writes Neoplatonic ideas back into his translations of Plato.35 Never the less, as Ficino comes to represent the pinnacle of important but slow dissemination of Greek learning, it is his translations alone that truly open up, first Plato and then later; Neoplatonism. Hankins states ‘the period from Petrarch to Ficino was, in fact, a time when the philosophy of Plato was valued and studied more than any other time’.

The late Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke explained that this slow dissemination of Renaissance Neoplatonism and it’s Hermetic and Cabalistic interpretations first entered Northern Europe with the work of Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522). It was as a young jurist for the Duke of Eberhand of Wurttemberg that Reuchlin first visits Florence and encounters Marsilio Ficino and his distinctly spiritual approach to the microcosm-macrocosm model. In 1490 Reuchlin met Ficino’s assistant Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). Pico is often referred to as the first Christian Cabbalist, and his importance to the dissemination of cabbalistic ideas is without doubt seminal. Influenced by Pico’s Cabalistic Conclusions and the tradition of prisca theologia, Reuchlin becomes interested in Kabbalah as a means of ‘vindicating Christianity as the true religion based on an esoteric interpretation of Hebrew mystical lore’. Praising the influence of Pico, Reuchlin in his first cabalistic study De verdo mirifico (1494) becomes, as Goodrick-Clarke states, ‘a towering figure of German Humanist circles’. He influences Johann Trithemius (1462-1516) and his brand of angel magic. Trithemius’ treatise Steganographia (1606) written around 1500 was dedicated to numerology and astrology.  Interested in gaining power and knowledge over angelic entities, Trithemius himself, influenced by Reuchlin, Pico and Ficino, becomes part of an ever-expanding intellectual legacy that had started to develop. Inspiring the famous Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Netteshem (1486-1539), Paracelsus (1493- 1541) and Paulus Ricius; a Jew who converted to Christianity and translated Sha’are Orah (Portae lucis) (1515) of Joseph Gikatilla; the first work of Kabbalistic philosophy in any European language. Evidently, this Germanic grounding is fertilised further with the Reformation. The seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries see a sharp increase in Christian theosophy (Christian Platonism) and Pietism in reaction to Lutheran Orthodoxy. Jacob Boehme (1575- 1624) becomes ‘the leading Protestant mystic’ and the intellectual heritage of which Coudert speaks seems to take shape. Frances Yates states ‘the increase of Cabalist studies seems to me to be a feature of the Hermetic-Cabalist tradition in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries’.

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