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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Strictly construed, Platonism means the teachings of
Plato. While not constituting a formal system of phi-
losophy, Plato's dialogues evince certain recurring
themes, characterized by a fundamental dualism of
intelligible and sensible objects. Forms or ideas, which
are transcendent universals, alone constitute reality as
against the shadowy existence of particular material
objects; chief among these Forms or ideas is the idea
of the Good, supreme both as the goal of knowledge
and as the guide to morality. Reason should prevail
against sense: the well-ordered soul is a tripartite
amalgam of appetite and spirit, represented as two
horses, governed by reason, the charioteer. Similarly,
the ideal republic is a state in which each class—
workers, soldiers, and ruling philosophers—performs
its function harmoniously. Knowledge of ideas—the
only real knowledge—is pictured mythically as a sort
of reminiscence of the transmigrated soul's earlier
existence. Plato's spokesman in his dialogues, Socrates,
proclaims paradoxically that virtue is knowledge, but
that no teachers of virtue are to be found. Love is
depicted in the Phaedrus as a “divine madness”; in the
Symposium as a process of ascent from sensual cogni-
tion of earthly beauty to the apprehension of the im-
mortal idea of beauty itself.

The nature of Platonism evolved a great deal even
during classical antiquity as it was continued by the
Academy, the Alexandrian School, by Plotinus, Proclus,
and their successors. The alterations and the systema-
tization of Platonism by these thinkers constituted
Neo-Platonism. The most complete of these and prob-
ably of all philosophical systems is that of the pagan


Plotinus. Its essential concept is that of a hierarchy
of being emanating from the godhead. Plotinus' su-
preme triad consists of (1) the One, morally identified
with the Good, transcendent and ultimately un-
knowable, approachable if at all through negative
theology; (2) the ideas or essences, emanating from the
ultimate source of all, the One; and (3) the world soul
which expresses the divine creative power in the world
of natural objects. The material world itself is a
shadowy reflection of the celestial world; pure matter
itself is next to nonbeing. Corresponding conversely
to this downward path of creation is the upward thrust
of cognition. Even higher than man's rational, discur-
sive knowledge stands the intuitive knowledge of the
intelligences (or minds); the One is above knowledge.

Unfortunately for Renaissance Platonism, both Greek
and Italian scholars of the fifteenth century accepted
uncritically Plotinus' declaration that in all his writings
he was simply a repeater and interpreter of Plato. The
adulteration of authentic Platonism by Neo-Platonism
colored the history of Platonism throughout the
Renaissance. As Plotinus and other Neo-Platonists
sought to systematize Plato's dialogues and imbue them
with their own ideas, they not only distorted them,
but robbed them of their poetic fire. To reduce Plato
to dry doctrine is to lose his very essence. Renaissance
scholars were not prepared to see in Plato the drama
of men's minds; the historical perspective which would
have allowed them to do so was achieved much later.
They could not believe that some of Plato's imaginative
myths were merely suggestive or even playful. Jehudah
Abarbanel, known in Italy as Leone Ebreo, writes in
his Dialoghi d'amore (ca. 1502) of the character of
Aristophanes' fable of the halving of primeval man in
Plato's Symposium: “The fable is beautiful and ornate;
and it is not to be doubted that it signifies some fine

Platonism continued to influence Western thought
not only through the philosophic schools—Aristotle
himself was strongly influenced by his teacher Plato—
but through Christianity as well. The writings of Saint
Paul and the Church Fathers are imbued with the basic
Platonic dualism of matter and spirit. Combined with
Augustinian asceticism and the sacramental system of
salvation, this dualism contributed to the medieval
ideal of morality and immortality.

Plato himself saw the spiritual glory of the intelligible in
the whole world of life and art that was Athens, but his
Orientalized successors turned more and more away from
the setting of human life to the higher realm. Even Plato
at times was touched by this asceticism, and in the beautiful
dialogue of Phaedo called the entire aim of man the seeking
of death—death to the body and immortal being for the soul

(Randall, p. 47).

Saint Augustine asserted that Neo-Platonism pos-
sessed all spiritual truths except that of the Incarnation.

Typical Platonist doctrines, such as the eternal presence
of the universal forms in the mind of God, the immediate
comprehension of these ideas by human reason, and the
incorporeal nature and the immortality of the human soul,
are persistently asserted in his earlier philosophical as well
as in his later theological writings...

(Kristeller, Renais-
sance Thought,
p. 55).

“... it has been well said that the Middle Ages were
full of a spontaneous Platonism, inspired by a mind
naturaliter Platonica” (Randall, p. 46). Certain struc-
tures and recurrent metaphors of Dante's Divine Com-
are Neo-Platonic. The angels of the Paradiso are
analogous in rank and function to the second hypostasis
of the Plotinian triad; this canticle is permeated by
Neo-Platonic metaphors of light. Some of Dante's no-
tions of hierarchy may have reached him through the
anonymous Neo-Platonic Liber de causis, which he
mentions repeatedly in his Convivio, as well as through
Christian theologians.

Plato's writings have been preserved in their
entirety; yet the only dialogue by Plato available to
early medieval readers was the Timaeus, in the incom-
plete version and commentary of Chalcidius. In the
twelfth century, the Meno and the Phaedo were also
translated into Latin. But a lively interest in Plato
reappeared in Francesco Petrarca (anglicized as
Petrarch), who more rightly than any other man may
be called the founder of humanism and the inaugurator
of the Renaissance. The references to Plato which he
found in Cicero and Saint Augustine led him to pro-
claim, on faith, Plato's superiority to Aristotle and to
declare (De ignorantia) to four Venetian critics that
he possessed a manuscript of “sixteen or more” dia-
logues by the ancient master. Unfortunately, Western
Europe in the fourteenth century could claim few
masters of Greek language. Petrarch's dream of a
Platonic revival had to await Leonardo Bruni's transla-
tion of several of Plato's dialogues in the first half of
the fifteenth century and the far more extensive work
of Marsilio Ficino a century after Petrarch. The
Christianizing tendency of Renaissance Platonists and
its emotional raison d'être are foreshadowed in
Petrarch: “Of Plato, Augustine does not in the least
doubt that he would have become a Christian if he
had come to life again in Augustine's time or had
foreseen the future while he lived. Augustine relates
also that in his time most of the Platonists had become
Christians and he himself can be supposed to belong
to their number” (ibid.). Augustinian Platonism
pervades Petrarch's Canzoniere, the most influential
lyric poetry of all time. Throughout the Renaissance,


Platonism and Petrarchism were to walk hand-
in-hand—Italian Platonic love theorists of the sixteenth
century illustrate their works by quoting Petrarch's
poetry even more frequently than they quote Plato.
Ficino's chief work was his Theologia Platonica, whose
very title implies an essential agreement between
Platonic philosophy and Christian theology (Kristeller,
Ficino, p. 322).

Pietro Bembo and his followers in the sixteenth
century take Petrarch's Laura as their model for the
woman whose “celestial” beauty leads the poet or
philosopher upward to divine beauty. Yet paradox-
ically, Petrarch himself saw his sensual love of Laura
as conflicting with his love of God. Ultimately he
rejected sensual love as unworthy: Laura appears in
the final poem of the Canzoniere as the fearsome

During the Middle Ages Neo-Platonism continued
in the Byzantine East in more readily identifiable fash-
ion than in the West. Its impact was felt in Italy in
1438 with the visit of George Gemisthus Pletho to
Florence. From him Ficino inherited the tradition that
Plato was the continuer of an ancient pagan theology
—later shown to be apocryphal—handed down by
Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster, Orpheus, and Pythag-

The Renaissance generally was a less creative age
in philosophy than in the arts. Yet Platonism, far from
being a sterile repetition of ancient doctrine, played
a dynamic role throughout the Renaissance from the
time of its introduction by Petrarch as a countervailing
force against traditional Aristotelian learning—often
repeated almost by rote—to the abandonment of
Aristotelian physics at the end of the Renaissance by
Platonically influenced innovators such as Telesio,
Bruno, and Campanella, to whose animistic, God-
reflecting cosmos there corresponded the microcosm
of the human spirit. They and their predecessors,
Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola,
transcend the primarily scholarly and literary objec-
tives of Renaissance humanism. All three, and particu-
larly Bruno, extend Ficino's anthropocentrism into
cosmic dimensions, as they unfold a universe to be
explored and understood through the unfettered inter-
rogation of nature rather than by a perusal of tradi-
tional authors—an ideal consecrated by Bruno's
martyrdom. “In other words,” writes Giovanni Gentile
(Rinascimento, p. 293), “the new philosophy and the
new science are distinguished from faith not by putting
the latter above themselves and attributing to it the
privilege of truth unattainable by them, although they
too aim at it; but rather by denying it any value in
regard to the ends sought by philosophy and science.”
In this broad sense only, Telesio, Bruno, and Cam
panella were predecessors of Galileo and Bacon. The
Renaissance was preeminently an age of transition.

Plato throughout the Renaissance was seen as a
newly-discovered, ancient, pre-Christian sage whose
exciting doctrines, wrapped in esoteric myth, chal-
lenged the cut-and-dried teachings of a more mundane,
less imaginative Aristotle.

North of the Alps an early reviver of Neo-Platonism
was Nicholas of Cusa. Following his education at
Deventer, Heidelberg, Padua, Rome, and Cologne, he
became a leading philosopher and theologian. Com-
bining Neo-Platonic sources with the Christian Fathers
and others, he may have exerted some influence on
Ficino; he surely influenced Bruno in such doctrines
as the coincidence of contraries, the respectively
differing infinities of God and the universe, the
plurality of worlds, and the motion of the earth. His
De docta ignorantia Socratically praises wisdom as the
awareness of one's own ignorance. However, Italian
Platonists generally ignored him in favor of Ficino and
Leone Ebreo.

Marsilio Ficino's influence upon Platonism in the
Renaissance and later is pervasive and multiple. A
translator of Plato and Plotinus as well as several other
Neo-Platonists, he was also their interpreter and a
Platonic philosopher in his own right.

In his Platonic Theology he gave to his contemporaries an
authoritative summary of Platonist philosophy, in which the
immortality of the soul is emphasized, reasserting to some
extent the Thomist position against the Averroists. His
Platonic Academy with its courses and discussions provided
for some decades an institutional center whose influence
was spread all over Europe through his letters and other
writings. Assigning to the human soul the central place in
the hierarchy of the universe, he gave a metaphysical
expression to a notion dear to his humanist predecessors;
whereas his doctrine of spiritual love in Plato's sense, for
which he coined the term Platonic love, became one of
the most popular concepts of later Renaissance literature

(Kristeller, Classics, p. 59).

Ficino's love doctrine, expounded in his Commen-
tarium in convivium Platonis de amore
(1469; Com-
mentary on Plato's “Symposium” about Love
), gave rise
to more than a score of Platonic love treatises—a new
genre, often more literary than philosophical, which
lasted well into the seventeenth century. This com-
mentary in dialogue form is based upon a commemo-
ration of Plato's traditional birthday and date of death,
November 7, held under Lorenzo de' Medici's auspices.
Ficino's seven orators tend generally to Christianize
the Symposium. Greek gods and demons are trans-
formed into Christian angels; Socrates' instructress in
the meaning of love, Diotima, is said to be inspired
by the Holy Spirit. At the basis of Ficino's cosmology


is the emanative system of Plotinus. Love is “desire
to enjoy beauty”; and nourished by the spiritual senses
of sight and hearing alone, it is temperate, ascensive,
morally beneficient. “Love is in all things and toward
all, creator of all, and master of all.” Ficino's threefold
classification of love was widely repeated: (1) divine
love, the expression of a contemplative life, whose goal
is divine knowledge; (2) human love and the active
life, which delight in seeing and conversing with the
loved person—identified by Pietro Bembo and others
as the idealized golden-haired lady of Petrarch; and
(3) bestial love and the voluptuous life which deserts
the spiritual senses for the “concupiscence of touch.”
Beauty is “the splendor of divine goodness,” present
everywhere; personal beauty expresses an interior
moral goodness.

While not identical, Ficino's Neo-Platonic love the-
ory is strikingly similar to that of the dolce stil nuovo
and Dante's Divine Comedy. Since Petrarch's poetry
was strongly influenced by the stil nuovo, it is not
always possible to separate Renaissance Platonism from
the heritage of medieval Platonizing in poets such as
Lorenzo de' Medici, Angelo Poliziano, Girolamo
Benivieni, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and a host of
others. Both Dante and Ficino believe in a Neo-
Platonic hierarchy of being which includes God, intel-
ligences, souls, and bodies. Love, for both, is a process
of ascent culminating in union with and knowledge
of God. For Petrarch also the central human and divine
experience is love; yet he was unable to reconcile the
human and divine elements as were Dante, who in-
vested his Beatrice with theological symbolism, and
Ficino, who followed Plato to the stars. In both Dante
and Ficino human love becomes a scala coeli (“ladder
to heaven”) in which the senses are abandoned for a
higher life. However, in Ficino male friendship rather
than love of an angel-lady is the basis of the ethereal
flight; hence there is no troubadour theme of serving
and praising one's lady as in Dante and Petrarch.
Ficino ultimately abandons any particular love object;
for all of his desire to reconcile Platonism with
Christianity, his concept of love is basically Platonic,
Dante's Christian and chivalric.

A number of Ficino's tenets, interspersed with mo-
tives from Dante and the stil nuovo, reappear in the
verse and prose of his patron, Lorenzo de' Medici.
Lorenzo's genuine attitude toward love, however, lacks
the asceticism which generally characterized Christian
Neo-Platonism—a fact occasionally masked by the
Ficinian terminology employed by Lorenzo in the
prose commentary which he wrote to accompany some
of his poems. Human love, if not the highest good,
nevertheless “occupies the place of good” so long as
it is true and enduring. Gentilezza, defined by Lorenzo
as the perfect and graceful performance of one's func-
tion, is engendered by supernal beauty, identified
Platonically with the good and the true. Ultimately,
Lorenzo's sensuality reverses the Platonic ladder:
“Presupposing that Love motivates all the actions of
my Lady that we have named, that is, seeing, singing,
talking, laughing, sighing, and ultimately touching;
seeing shows less affection than singing, singing less
than talking, and so I say of all the others up to touch-
ing” (Comento sopra alcuni de' suoi sonetti, in Opere,
Bari [1913], I, 120).

In the Stanze per la giostra (1478; Stanzas for the
) of Angelo Poliziano, who is like Ficino
a protégé of Lorenzo, there is a similar coupling of
delicate sensuality with Platonizing conceptions. Love
is celebrated in a scheme reminiscent of Petrarch's
Trionfi, as Love, in the form of fair Simonetta, triumphs
over Iulio (Giuliano de' Medici). The exquisite descrip-
tion of the timeless realm of Venus, repeating and
eternalizing the idyllic moment of earthly Spring, em-
bodies the Platonic notion that transient, earthly
beauty has its origin in a remote celestial world. Iulio
in his approach to Simonetta expresses the hope that
a divine being may be hidden in her lovely form. The
two “Platonic” senses find expression in a preponder-
ance of the verbs of seeing and hearing. The handling
of color and light follows Ficino's Neo-Platonic guide-
lines: most brilliant at their source, both in the worldly
scene and in its celestial exemplar.

Poliziano's description in the Stanze of the birth of
Venus in turn influenced Botticelli's famous painting
of that subject. The model for both works is the same
Simonetta Cattaneo who inspired verses by Lorenzo
and portraits by Pollaiuolo and Ghirlandaio. While
Botticelli's Birth of Venus has been variously inter-
preted, its Neo-Platonism appears to be clearly dis-
cernible in several features: the luminescence and
weightlessness of Venus; the reduction of volume and
mass to relatively immaterial line; a pervasive spiritu-
ality; and the suggestion, perhaps, of the mantle await-
ing Venus that love and beauty are experienced on
earth only through a veil.

In 1486 Girolamo Benivieni (1453-1542), a member
of the Platonic Academy in Florence which Ficino
headed under Medicean sponsorship, wrote a Canzone
an epitome in verse of Ficino's love theory
and other elements of Neo-Platonic doctrine. Concise
and somewhat obscure, it evoked a learned and ex-
haustive commentary from Ficino's fellow philosopher
and sometime Platonist disciple, Giovanni Pico della
Mirandola. A fundamental ambiguity in Renaissance
Platonism appears in Benivieni's doubt regarding pub-
lication: “There were born in our minds some shadows
of doubt as to whether it were proper for a professor


of Christ's law, wishing to treat of love, especially
heavenly and divine, to treat of it as Platonic and not
as Christian” (Benivieni, Introduction to Canzone
in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Opera
Basel, 1572). Pico sees even the structure of
Benivieni's poem as reflecting the Plotinian scheme of
universal emanation and return. Love originates in “the
divine fount of uncreated good”; when the “divine sun”
descends into the angelic mind, the angels, as in Dante's
circle, desire and contemplate God. The human soul
must die in itself in order to partake of angelic love.

Renaissance Platonists tried to combine the classical
ideal of beauty and Platonic morality with the Chris-
tian ideal of religious and moral perfection. The
difficulty of this fusion is shown by Benivieni's ex-
pressed doubts and his eventual composition, under
Savonarolan influence, of a “Canzone of celestial and
divine love according to Christian and Catholic truth.”
The Platonic intuition of love and life, while far from
naturalistic, is not yet Christian. Hence for Ficino,
Pico, Benivieni, and later Patrizi, divergences between
Platonism and Christianity are recognized as demand-
ing reconciliation.

While Marsilio Ficino is the single most important
Renaissance source of Platonism, he was not unrivaled
in his influence. The Dialoghi d'amore of Leone Ebreo,
written almost contemporaneously with Bembo's
Asolani, are praised by several later writers as an
unsurpassed book of love doctrine. Not merely a
treatise on love, they are also a detailed restatement
of Neo-Platonic philosophy. Though broader than any
commentary on Plato's Symposium, Leone's book has
many themes in common with Ficino's Commentary.
The upper and lower worlds join in man's soul, a
microcosm of the world soul. By knowing beauty man
purifies himself, rising in both knowledge and virtue.
Bad desires, as for the Platonic Socrates if not for
Ficino, derive from erroneous judgment rather than
from corrupted will. Man's intellect, like the soul for
Pico in his famous Oration on the dignity of man, is
potentially all things. The ultimate wisdom is to know
God—a goal not fully attainable in this life, where
intimations of intuitive knowledge are achieved only
briefly in a Platonic raptus or ecstasy, which Leone
calls “copulation with highest God.” Like Ficino, he
attributes to Plato the Plotinian doctrines of the One,
and of emanation. Leone links Plato's cosmology to
that of Moses, and Aristophanes' myth in the Sympo-
of the halving of man to the Hebrew story of
man's creation in Genesis. Plato's superiority to Aris-
totle is credited to the influence of Mosaic theology!
Leone's formulation of Platonic love theory may have
influenced Spinoza's concept of the intellectual love
of God; it is certain that his influence on many minor
sixteenth-century authors was profound.

Pietro Bembo and Baldassare Castiglione employ a
Christianized Platonism as an antidote for the courtier's
excessively mundane preoccupations. Their respective
treatises, the Asolani (1505) and Il libro del cortigiano
(1528; The Book of the Courtier), are largely void of
serious philosophic concerns. They were to have many
imitators in the sixteenth century who followed
Bembo's lead in making of the Platonic love treatise
a vehicle for topical discussions, couched in the
fashionable literary style of lively dialogue interspersed
with quotations or imitations of Petrarch's love poetry.
Castiglione wishes his ideal courtier “to love apart
from the custom of the profane crowd”: snob appeal
helps to explain the popularity of literary expressions
of Platonism in the high Renaissance. Both Bembo and
Castiglione envelop their Platonism with an air of
Christian sanctity. Bembo's penchant for Petrarch,
whom he canonized as the model for lyric poetry,
encouraged the predominance of literary as against
philosophical motives in most subsequent Platonic love
treatises. The Asolani is gallant, courtly, mundane; yet
it manages to repeat a great deal of Ficino's doctrine,
in combination with motives from Petrarch, Dante,
and Boccaccio.

The goal of Castiglione's book, which also takes the
popular dialogue form inherited from Plato and Cicero,
is the Platonistic attempt “to form with words a perfect
courtier.” The exposition of Platonic love in the fourth
book by the interlocutor Bembo is a literary restate-
ment without significant philosophical accretions of
Ficino's love theory, derived directly from the Floren-
tine alter Plato rather than from the historical Bembo.
There is no longer, however, any pretense that male
friendship or love should provide the starting point for
the ascent of Diotima's ladder; the beloved must be
a lady. Renaissance Platonists are unanimous in their
condemnation of the homosexuality reflected in Plato's
Symposium and Phaedrus. Like Ficino, they either
limit male love to the moral and intellectual realms,
or, increasingly after Bembo, replace the lover's young
male friend with the Laura figure familiar in Renais-
sance poetry and painting.

Francesco Cattani da Diacceto, Ficino's chief dis-
ciple, was active in the Medici Academy, which called
itself a revival of the Platonic Academy. His Tre libri
with its insistence upon the superessentiality
and unknowability of God and its comprehensive
ontological scale ranging from supra-being to non-
being, denotes a stronger influence of Plotinus than in
Ficino. The human soul from its intermediate position
between matter and spirit can achieve happiness


through the combined effort of will and intellect to
possess God. The universe itself is animated. The
angelic nature is completely lucid; man's soul, partly
so; the body, altogether dark. Bodily beauty can be
either a scala dei or the soul's ruination.

The influence of Platonism on Renaissance art is
generally acknowledged. As Panofsky writes (p. 180),
“With an Italian artist of the sixteenth century the
presence of Neo-Platonic influences is easier to account
for than would be their absence.” Foremost among
Platonizing artists was Michelangelo himself, “who
adopted Neo-Platonism not in certain aspects but in
its entirety”—witness the conception of Julius II's
apotheosis not as an orthodox Christian resurrection,
“but as an ascension in the sense of the Neo-Platonic
philosophy”; and in the Medici Chapel the figures of
Dawn, Day, Evening, and Night, demonstrating “the
destructive power of time,” and the four River-Gods
depicting “matter as a source of potential evil.”

While flashes of Dante and Francesco Berni appear
throughout Michelangelo's poems, it comes as no sur-
prise to find in the majority of them a mixture of
Petrarchan and Platonic motives. Among the latter are
the soul's desire to return to its parent star, retracing
in the upward path of knowledge, as in Plato, Plotinus,
and Ficino, the downward thrust of divine creation.
The sight of a beautiful human face or form is sufficient,
as for Plato, to start the soul on its restless upward
journey, which is made possible by the rejection of
whatever is vicious or merely material. The origins of
Michelangelo's Platonism are as easy to explain in a
general way as they are difficult to pinpoint in detail.
As a young protégé of Lorenzo he early came under
the influence of Ficino and his circle. Add to this his
innate spirituality and it is no surprise that his poetry
is replete with Platonism—not mere lip service to
current literary and artistic fashion, but the expression
of his inner nature and beliefs.

The prestige enjoyed by Platonism in the arts if not
in philosophy is shown by its curious hold over
Torquato Tasso. No reader of his pastoral Aminta
(1573) or epic Gerusalemme liberata (1575; Jerusalem
) can fail to appreciate the sensual splendor
of the amorous passages. Both in his poetry and in his
life he evinces a strain of hedonism uneasily held in
check by religious restraints. Yet such was the authority
of Platonism in the sixteenth century that when he
turned to theoretical writing on love (Conclusioni
1570; La Molza, 1583, etc.), he followed the
Platonic precepts which his mimetic works contradict.
Written over a span of at least fifteen years, his several
works on love and related topics combine some
Aristotelian motives with a predominant, but gradually
diminishing Platonism. The Allegory which he wrote
in 1576 in defense of his Jerusalem is based upon an
analogy between Plato's tripartite soul in the Phaedrus
and the roles of the leading characters in his epic.

In some ways the tradition of Platonic love treatises
culminates in the Eroici furori (1585) of Giordano
Bruno. The poetic-religious zeal for divine beauty and
goodness harks back to Plato himself, surpassing in its
intensity and sincerity the commonplaces of earlier
Platonizing literati. Philosophical problems, such as the
relation of intellect and will, are given greater atten-
tion than in the more conventional love treatises; per-
sonal allusion and allegory in the work's final dialogue
differentiate it from the category of commentary and
elaboration upon the classical Platonic writings. Nev-
ertheless, the Eroici furori is replete with motives com-
mon to most Renaissance Platonists: the Neo-Platonic
ontological hierarchy, Diotima's ladder, metaphors of
light and fire, man the microcosm, the flesh as a prison,
the overwhelming effects of love—to name but a few.

Yet surprisingly Bruno does not call himself a
Platonist. He identifies himself with the pristine energy
of pre-Socratic natural philosophers, whose opposition
and “superiority” to Aristotle he emphasizes. While
Platonizing in certain works—the De umbris idearum
(1582), De gli eroici furori, and the Summa terminorum
(1595)—Bruno does in other works
repudiate certain Platonic doctrines: the separate
realm of ideas in the De immenso et innumerabilibus;
negative theology and Socratic ignorance in the Cabala
del cavallo pegaseo,
in which, however, the real object
of attack is the Christian church and priesthood. Matter
in the De la causa, principio e uno is not subordinated
to forms as it is in the Eroici furori. We frequently
find in Bruno's writings not a development of system-
atic philosophy but an enthusiastic amalgam of doc-
trines some of which are in mutual contradiction. A
personal echo of Plato's Phaedo is discernible in Bruno's
execution at the stake: his heroic defiance of Church
authority is inevitably reminiscent of Socrates' death.
In the Eroici furori (I, iii, 369) there is an unconscious
presage of his refusal to retract the heresies with which
he was charged: “Certainly a worthy and heroic death
is better than an unworthy and cowardly triumph.”

Unlike Bruno, his rival anti-Aristotelian, Francesco
Patrizi of Cherso openly espoused Platonism as true
philosophy and was able to occupy a special chair of
Platonic philosophy first at Ferrara, and later, through
his friendship with Clement VIII, in Rome. It is an
irony of history that the pope who later condemned
Bruno should have invited Patrizi to Rome as a teacher
of Platonism, despite the belief of Bruno's judge, Car-
dinal Bellarmino, that such teaching was inimical to


Catholic orthodoxy. The condemnation of Patrizi's
Nova de universis philosophia in the Index of 1595 and
the hostility of the Curia to philosophies subversive
of Thomistic Aristotelianism apparently did not pre-
vent his continued teaching in Rome. However, during
the centuries following the Church's condemnation and
their deaths the works of both men became scarce and
almost unknown.

Patrizi's Nova de universis philosophia is replete
with Platonism. In dedicating it to Pope Gregory XIV,
Patrizi defends his teaching of Platonic philosophy as
a way of promoting the Catholic religion. The Church
Fathers, he avers, were Platonists and anti-Aristo-
telians. He expresses the hope that his teaching of
Platonic philosophy at Ferrara will become by papal
fiat the pattern for all schools and suggests that should
the practice spread to Germany, one result of such
teaching would be the return of the Protestants to the
Mother Church. Nevertheless, his chief love treatise,
L'amorosa filosofia, offers a surprisingly un-Platonic
analysis of love based on the concept of uncompromis-
ing philautia, or self-love, deriving ultimately from
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (IX, 8).

Petrarch and Ficino were quite influential beyond
Italy. Symphorien Champier (ca. 1472-1539), physi-
cian and scholar, imported Italian humanism and
Platonism to Lyons. His Nef des dames vertueuses
(1503) “contains in its fourth book the first... ex-
pression in French of Ficinian Neo-Platonism” (Wads-
worth, p. 13), including a discussion of Platonic love
and the soul's step-by-step ascent to God.

Petrarchism accompanied Platonism into France in
the poetry of Maurice Scève, whose Délie (1544) “rests
on a foundation of Petrarchism to which are added
certain Platonic elements” (McFarlane, p. 28). In the
poet's elaboration of his spiritual union with Délie and
her divine perfection and beneficent influence on the
poet and other mortals, the Italian Platonist tradition
finds expression. The influence of Sperone Speroni in
the latter stanzas is extensive; that of Bembo, Leone
Ebreo, and Equicola is also identifiable.

In the sixteenth century in the circle of Marguerite
of Navarre, Plato's dialogues were studied and trans-
lated into French. Antoine Héroet is strongly influ-
enced by Ficino's version of the Symposium in
L'androgyne (1542) and other works. Louis Le Roy
translated and commented upon the Symposium and
other dialogues. Du Bellay's sonnet, si nostre vie est
moins qu'une journée,
deals Platonically with ideal
goodness and beauty. Petrarchism and Italian Plato-
nism are frequently combined in Du Bellay's and
Ronsard's poetry.

John Colet (ca. 1466-1519) brought back to England
from his studies in Italy and France an enthusiasm for
humanistic learning which he shared with such collab-
orators as Erasmus and Thomas More. His commentary
on the Hierarchies of pseudo-Dionysius and his other
writings reveal the influence of Ficino and Pico.

Platonic influence is not lacking in Sir Thomas
More's combination of humanistic and theological
learning, notably in his Utopia. Erasmus compared
More's household to a Christianized version of Plato's
Academy. More's martyrdom, while inspired by that
of Christ, repeated Socrates' respect for human law
and exaltation of eternal law.

The exposition of love theory in Edmund Spenser's
Four Hymnes, though attributing greater goodness to
earthly love than do many of his Italian counterparts,
is strongly influenced by Ficino's commentary on the

The teaching of Plato came to the poet and his contem-
poraries along a tangle of paths: from the philosopher him-
self and from his followers Porphyry and Plotinus; from
Greek and Latin moralists like Plutarch, Vergil, Cicero,
Macrobius and Boethius; from St. Augustine and other
fathers of the Christian church; from philosophers and poets
of the Italian Renaissance

(William Nelson, The Poetry of
Edmund Spenser,
New York [1963], pp. 108-09).

The Renaissance witnessed a continuation of rivalry
between Plato and Aristotle, with the latter generally
triumphant in the universities and the Church. The
Platonistic aesthetics of Patrizi and others made little
headway in the face of the sixteenth century's redis-
covery and normative application of Aristotle's Poetics.
Though Torquato Tasso sought to defend the hedonistic
liberties of a few passages in his Gerusalemme liberata
by referring them to Platonic allegory, his Neo-
Aristotelian critics eventually forced him to delete the
passages in his revision, the Gerusalemme conquistata.

There were also instances of anti-Platonism which
did not derive from Aristotle or the Church. Ariosto's
narrative of the love of Orlando for Angelica in the
Orlando furioso (1516) carries some vaguely anti-
Platonic overtones. Francesco Sansovino's Ragiona-
(1545) on “the fine art of love” dismissed “the
Platonists... since their actions are suspect”—an
allusion to charges of homosexuality, universally denied
by Renaissance Platonists. Machiavelli in affirming the
novelty of his political science must surely have had
Plato, among others, in mind when he wrote (The
XV): “Many have imagined republics and
principalities that have never been seen or known
actually to exist; because there is such a difference
between how men live and how they should live that
he who abandons that which is done for that which
should be done experiences his own destruction rather
than his preservation.”


The influence of Platonism, of course, did not die
with the Renaissance. The Platonism of Benjamin
Whichcote and the Cambridge school derives largely
from Renaissance Platonism. Among modern philoso-
phers, as among those of classical antiquity and the
Middle Ages, Plato has been so strong an influence that
Whitehead (Process and Reality, p. 63) could call the
history of Western philosophy a series of footnotes to
Plato. In the luxuriant flowering of Renaissance culture
that centered in Florence—inevitably reminiscent, for
all its differences, of ancient Athens—the Platonic
rootstock proved amazingly fertile.


Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renais-
sance Philosophy
(Oxford, 1963). Eugenio Garin, La cultura
filosofica del Rinascimento italiano
(Florence, 1961).
Giovanni Gentile, Il pensiero italiano del Rinascimento
(Florence, 1940). E. H. Gombrich, “Botticelli's Mythologies:
A Study in the Neo-Platonic Symbolism of his Circle,”
Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 8 (1945),
7-60. Sears Jayne, “Ficino and the Platonism of the English
Renaissance,” Comparative Literature, 4 (1952), 214-38. Paul
Oskar Kristeller, The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino (New
York, 1943); idem, The Classics and Renaissance Thought
(Cambridge, Mass., 1955). Paolo Lorenzetti, La bellezza e
l'amore nei trattati del Cinquecento
(Pisa, 1917). Robert V.
Merrill with Robert J. Clements, Platonism in French
Renaissance Poetry
(New York, 1957). John Charles Nelson,
Renaissance Theory of Love (New York, 1958). Erwin
Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (New York, 1939). John
Herman Randall, Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind (New
York, 1940). Nesca A. Robb, Neoplatonism of the Italian
(London, 1935). John Addington Symonds,
Renaissance in Italy, 7 vols. (London, 1875-86). Luigi
Tonelli, L'amore nella poesia e nel pensiero del Rinascimento
(Florence, 1933). James B. Wadsworth, ed., Symphorien
Champier, Le livre de vraye amour
('s-Gravenhage, 1962).
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York,
1941; various reprints).

The translations of Lorenzo de' Medici and Girolamo
Benivieni are by the author of this article.


[See also Dualism; Hermeticism; Hierarchy; Love; Macro-
cosm and Microcosm; Neo-Platonism; Renaissance Human-