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Marsilio Ficino (Western Esoteric Masters) Paperback – December 19, 2006
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About the Author
Angela Voss has a PhD from City University, London, where her work was on Ficino’s astrological music therapy. Voss is a lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Kent, Canterbury, where she convenes a Masters program in the Cultural Study of Cosmology and Divination.
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Ficino's views on astrology are often difficult to pin down, no doubt because of the intellectual climate of his day. On the one hand, Florence was an important center of Renaissance humanism. On the other hand, the Inquisition and the orthodoxy-mongering of the Church were still very much alive and kicking. Ficino, who was an ordained priest, had to tread carefully when discussing “pagan” astrology and magic. He also came under fire when the aristocratic regime of the Florentine city-state (who had patronized Ficino's circle) was overthrown by the revolutionary friar Savonarola, who despised astrologers. (The puritan friar also banished all homosexuals from Florence. Some suspect that Ficino was gay, but this is never explicitly discussed in this collection.) In short, Ficino had to treat the Western esoteric tradition, well, esoterically! Both Ficino and his disciple Pico della Mirandola often had to condemn “the astrologers”, all the while expositing on the salubrious effects of ancient astrology...
Ficino denied that events where “caused” by stars or planetary alignments, although they could be “indicated” by them. In the same way, Roman augurs could predict events by observing the flight of birds, not because the birds caused future events, but because they in some mysterious fashion indicated them. The virgin birth of Christ was indicated by the constellation of Virgo, which according to Ficino is depicted as a woman with a child in India and Egypt, but obviously the constellation didn't “cause” the virgin birth (a unique event, while the sun enters Virgo every year). The Star of Bethlehem was a comet which showed the Magi the way to Christ's birthplace, but in no way caused the event. Pure determinism is also rejected by Ficino, since it collides with the Christian insistence on free will, but (perhaps) also because it's incompatible with his own orientation towards magic. Ficino wanted to control the stellar and planetary influences by magical means. In one of his letters, Ficino suggests that the stars are really “within us”, something Angela Voss (the author of the lengthy introduction) interprets as a psychological theory of the kind later developed by Jung, Hillman and the New Age. I'm less sure if this is the case – Voss may be projecting modern conceptions onto the Renaissance sage.
Ficino's stated worldview could be seen as a combination of Hermetism, Neo-Platonism and Christianity. There are several intermediary levels between God and the physical world. The most important is the world-soul, which contains imprints of the Platonic Ideas and in turn imparts these onto physical matter. The Ideas seem to be associated with the planets of astrology. Thus, solar energies “create” things such as gold, myrrh, yellow honey, the lion or blond humans. These correspondences can be used in magic, but Ficino is at pains to point out that the solar energies aren't really drawn down by the magician, but exist naturally in the substances used. More controversially, the magician can work with daemons, but once again Ficino emphasizes that these daemons are really drawn to solar energies by their own intrinsic nature, not by the magician. The exact nature of Ficinian magic is difficult to gauge from the texts, but evidently include “images” (idols?) which the cosmic energies are expected to energize. When challenged to these points by hostile critics, Ficino retreated by suggesting that he was simply describing the ideas of Plotinus, not supporting them. This was a double bluff, it seems, since ritual magic is usually associated with Iamblichus, not the lofty Plotinus. In “The Book of the Sun”, Ficino suggests that God influences the world through a spiritual sun, which in turn manifests as a physical sun on our level of existence. He comes close to arguing that the sun is divine – the pagan position – but hides behind the claim that he is speaking “analogically” and “anagogically”.
It's hard for a modern reader to know whether Ficino really was trying to reconcile Christianity with esotericism, or whether he was a full-blooded pagan in Christian vestments. The texts themselves are sometimes hard to read, as well, and I admit that I only skimmed the lengthy expositions on what exact mineral or plant corresponds with what particular planet. Still, if you are seriously interested in Ficino, or the magical aspects of Western esotericism in general, this could be an interesting read. I therefore give it four stars, despite the fact that “Western Esoteric Masters Series: Marsilio Ficino” wasn't entirely my cup of sun-drenched herb tea…