Renaissance art experts, intellectual historians, mystical theologians, wizard headmasters, and other cultural missionaries whom Harvard University Press has targeted as likely readers of its six-volume edition of Marsilio Ficino's Platonic Theology may well be surprised to learn from the great Florentine magus that studious training of the mind 'weakens the body and prevents us from living a comfortable life.' It is a warning they will probably not heed. Nor should they. Modern scholars can routinely be seen strengthening their bodies on university-supplied treadmills, the latest models of which, I've noticed, are equipped with convenient book rests. A comfortable life indeed, compared with the rigours of the academic past.
From the third and fourth volumes of the new edition, spanning books 9–14 of the Latin treatise, we can infer that Ficino's original target readers must not have been very fit – at least not if they took to heart his dictum that 'the mind will be most perfect when it has soared completely away from the body.' Poets must have had an especially hard time keeping their bodies in shape because their high-performance souls were frequently shaken by furores, violent Platonic 'frenzies' for which there was no talismanic cure and no rehab centre specializing in Ciceronian prose therapy. So, if you were seeking to maintain a high research profile at the Florentine Academy, you just had to brace yourself for an out-of-body sabbatical. The academic soul aspiring to an eternity of tenure under Ficino's direction was simply expected to 'scorn the body's assistance like someone who is able to live at some point ... who may begin to live even now ... without the body's help.'
To the eyes of the body volumes 3 and 4 will naturally appear as discrete physical entities, but to the eye of the mind – ever the Platonic theologian's preferred mode of vision – their philosophical contents mystically coalesce into a single stream of argument addressing two erroneous doctrines and a doubt. The doctrines are both Epicurean. The first is universal materialism, the belief that the soul is composed of matter like the body and everything else in the world. The second is its psychological corollary, a heresy now known as 'mortalism,' which denies that the soul lives after the body dies. Ficino devotes books 9–11 of his treatise (volume 3) to the refutation of both errors, and though he musters a host [End Page 397] of high-flown arguments from the Platonic and Patristic traditions to eradicate Epicureanism from his belief system, a lowly doubt lingers in his mind, a nagging legacy of the Sceptics. To demonstrate that the soul is essentially matter-free and therefore more itself after the death of the body is, alas, not quite to prove that it is 'an undivided and immortal form.' Who's to say that the soul, even if it should escape the body at death, might not lose its individual unity, its formal wholeness, in the eroding course of time?
To overcome that spirit-sinking doubt, the Platonic theologian channels all his buoyant intellectual energy in books 12–14 (volume 4) against the Sceptics' attack on the anagogic model of higher education. In case the first three volumes in the Platonic Theology should fail to convince you that independence from your body is good for your soul, the fourth provides a multitude of proofs: (a) that despite your vacuous worldly desire for more wealth and power you do in fact have a soul; (b) that despite your insane ambition to live forever your soul is perfectly rational; and (c) that despite your absurdly short life-span your rationality is a miraculous sign of your immortality.
Though contemporary philosophers may find these old arguments and much else...