- Marsilio Ficino’s Critique of the Lucretian Alternative
Marsilio Ficino is perhaps most widely remembered by historians of philosophy today as a fifteenth-century Platonist and Hermeticist who advocated the soul’s flight from the sordid world of matter and body. Ficino’s major contributions to philosophy include his Latin translations of Plato and Plotinus, as well as his voluminous and encyclopedic Platonic Theology, where he argues that the immortal soul occupies a privileged midpoint between God and inchoate prime matter. It therefore comes as a surprise to learn that Ficino, for a time in his early twenties, was drawn to the Roman poet Lucretius, who believed that most people are plagued by the superstitions of religiously-minded fable mongers. During this time Ficino composed a short commentary on Lucretius’ didactic Epicurean poem, On the Nature of Things. In 1417 one of the last surviving manuscript copies of this poem was found in a German monastery by the humanist Poggio Bracciolini after several centuries of dormancy.1 Also, in an early treatise on pleasure, Ficino [End Page 165] argues that the Epicurean emphasis on pleasure as the removal of pain is superior to the crass and vulgar hedonism of Aristippus.2 In time, however, Ficino developed into the Platonist that historians of philosophy are more familiar with today. He turned his back on Lucretius, destroyed his commentary on him, and he became a rigid opponent of those philosophers who, as Plato describes them in his Sophist, “insist that only what offers tangible contact is, since they define being as the same as body.”3
Despite the fact that Ficino ultimately rejected Lucretius, and in a letter to the poet Angelo Poliziano claimed to have “followed the divine Plato from my youth,” it appears that he was never able to successfully put the Epicurean poet completely out of his mind.4 The specter of Lucretius—that is, the specter of a potent and fully-articulated materialism and what it entails—casts a long shadow across the eighteen books of Ficino’s Platonic Theology. This work, which was printed in 1482 and remains his most extensive philosophical treatise, gives the impression that Ficino considered Lucretius a relevant and un-eliminated alternative to his own mature philosophical vision. The Lucretian alternative, as it will here be called, aspires to show that anything that exists is a composite of matter and void alone, and that there is no need to countenance the existence of some ghostly third constituent, such as soul, in order to explain adequately the phenomena of nature or consciousness.5 Ficino’s Platonic Theology argues for a profoundly different metaphysical picture of the nature of things. There Ficino wanted to demonstrate the essential immortality of the soul, and to further clarify the best way that it can, as he puts it, “cast off the bonds of our terrestrial chains” so that it may “fly unhindered to the ethereal abode.”6 However, in order for Ficino to accomplish this, he first had to show that the Lucretian alternative is not a living hypothesis, but a dead one. Refuting Lucretius, therefore, is central to the polemical aims and aspirations of this [End Page 166] work, and it is to this end that Ficino addresses several chapters to refuting the materialism of the “vulgar” and “impious” Epicurean poet and philosopher. The Lucretian alternative also explains in part why Ficino discusses, sometimes at great length, the nature of matter and body, especially in the early books of his Platonic Theology. The core argument that Ficino brings against the Lucretian alternative is that its materialist ontology is at best incomplete, and that something else—some ghostly incorporeal principle— is in fact necessary in order to adequately explain the nature of things.
Both the Renaissance recovery of On the Nature of Things, and the subsequent role that it played in the advancement of early modern philosophy and science, are familiar to historians of philosophy today.7 Ficino’s fifteenth-century critique of Lucretius, however, is not. Nearly half a century ago Paul Oskar Kristeller noted that in the 1450s Ficino came under the influence of Lucretius, and he further speculated that “a trace...