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ARTICLES - STUDENT PAPERS - LINDA R. BIRCH

Linda R. Birch
Kepler College BA program
Faculty Advisor: Nicholas Campion
Second Paper, January 29, 2001

What were the main features of Marsilio Ficino’s hermetic astrology,
and what did this owe to Hellenistic astrology?

The dawning of the Italian Renaissance saw a priest, physician and astrologer, by the name of Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), rise to distinction as the philosopher who revealed Platonic thought to western Europe once more. The son of a physician to Cosmo de’Medici, he served that family as well and, on request, translated the Corpus Hermeticum and texts of Plato into Latin for de’Medici. Though Ficino translated many classic works from Pythagoras and Plotinus to Porphyry and Iamblichus, Plato and Hermes were his major influences. Assimilating these works within a primarily medical framework tinged with Christian loyalty, Marsilio Ficino designed a profound system for healing both the body and soul through the use of astrology combined with medicine, music and what he called natural magic.

As president of the newly formed Platonic Academy, Ficino had a particular affinity for Plato’s style, which he considered to be "more like that of a divine oracle than any human eloquence…ever encompassing the secrets of heaven…prophetic and divine".(1) He even went so far as to suggest that Plato should be read in Church and that Christianity must be founded on philosophical ground, which only the revival of Plato could provide.(2) Naturally, Ficino then based his astrological philosophy on those influential Neo-Platonic and hermetic ideas of universal animation wherein the world is a harmonious whole and all things have life, have soul.(3) As Ficino explains, the soul is independent of the body but is required to mediate between the body and the intellect. The intellect is linked to the Mind, which is the greater intelligence of the heavens. The soul is attracted to material form and then draws down gifts from the soul to the body at the right moment (birth). The person will draw particular influences from a particular star and daemon; the star being the Sun, Moon or planet and daemon meaning a spirit, guardian or angel.(4). In addition the person undergoes influences through the Soul of the World as our spirits may receive gifts from the World Spirit by ingestion of or contact with plants, animals, metals and gems. (5)

The Corpus Hermeticum became quite important to Ficino because he considered Hermes Trigmegistus to be the first of the ancient theologians but, also because he and his contemporaries saw Egyptian wisdom as the source of Greek philosophy. The Revelation of Hermes, according to Angela Voss, says that Man is created by the supreme Mind or Nous and receives qualities from each of the 7 planets. Created of Mind, Man shares the same essence and freedom of universal Mind and though all are governed by destiny, those that allow themselves to be led by Nous do not suffer as others do.(6) In this philosophy, Hermes had revealed for Ficino ‘metaphysical proof and foundation of astrology and magic".(7)

The method of astrology that Ficino used was the popular version of the time, based on Hellenic Greek structure and rational Aristotelian models of causation.(8) Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos was the source for astrology textbooks and hence the popular cosmological view of the universe showed Earth as a terraqueous globe in the center of the system with the Moon, Sun and planets revolving around it. The stars form the next sphere and firmament the sphere after that.(9) Ficino described the creation of the universe in this way; The World Soul constructed 48 universal figures: 12 in the zodiac and 36 outside it. Also, She placed 36 in the zodiac "according to the number of it’s faces", and arranged 360 more for degrees.(10) Thus he creates a picture of the stars and constellations divided into 12 signs with 36 daemons, or decans as the Egyptians called them, in a circle of 360 degrees around the center, earth. The very important system of planetary Dignities (exaltations and triplicities) used by astrologers of the Middle Ages, as well as the planet’s associations with heat, cold, wet and dry qualities, owed its origins to the Tetrabiblos and Hellenic tradition. The Egyptian method of associating body parts, plants, minerals and gems to the planets was used in Hellenic astrology as well, and came to the west in much the same form as it had been practiced.

The premiere focus of Ficino’s astrology was medicine, which is the major topic of his 1489 treatise De Vita ("On Life"). Influenced as he says by Plato, as already discussed, and by Galen, Ficino writes "both…dedicated Marsilio to a doctor – Galen, doctor of the body, Plato, doctor of the soul".(11) He defends his right as a priest to practice medicine & astrology, since ancient priests were physicians as well as astronomers and he suggests that it is a charitable duty of utmost importance to see that men are sound of mind and body. To accomplish this medicine and the priesthood must be united. In addition, "since medicine is quite often useless and often harmful without the help of the heavens" as Hippocrates and Galen would agree, astronomy pertains to "priestly charity no less than medicine".(12) In other chapters, he states with stronger words; "If you value life you will take medicines approved by the heavens". Ficino says that in his experience, remedies made with and without the use of astrology are "as different as wine and water".(13)

Physicians of the Middle Ages, including Ficino, used the ancient Greek systems of qualities and humors passed down since the time of Hippocrates. The humors were used to describe balances or imbalances in the body by classifications of blood, yellow bile, black bile or phlegm. Equivalent terminologies for behavioral types were associated as sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic respectively. The qualities previously mentioned were descriptions or conditions, which could be associated as well to elements, plants, and planets as popularized by Ptolemy. All things were classified in varying combinations of hot, cold, wet or dry.(14) As was often the practice of doctors of his time, Ficino associated the humors to planetary behaviors and gifts, combining astrology with medical terminology of the day to diagnose and prescribe. For instance in Book I Chapters III & IV Ficino describes Phlegm and Black Bile as the natural enemy and an ongoing problem for learned people in that they are driven by Mercury to be intellectually curious and by Saturn to pursue knowledge without respite. These in turn incline the man to have an inactive body causing phlegm, and an overactive mind causing black bile. The result is melancholia, which must be treated by respecting the need for Saturn to receive air, sun and exercise and by treating Mercury with a proper diet low in fatty foods.

The Three Books on Life (De Vita), written in general for scholars and educated men, for the most part is a compendium on health emphasizing proper diet, exercise, sunlight and appropriate rest. The first two books are filled with remedies and foods to be taken or avoided according to one’s planetary type. There are a few introductory passages into the healing of the soul as in the last chapter of Book II "Care for the Corporeal Spirit" where he makes clear his medical philosophy and Christian associations. "It is wrong to cherish only…the body and to neglect the soul". He then quotes Plato’s Apology 21a: "This is why Apollo, the founder of medicine, decided the wisest man was not Hippocrates…but Socrates, since, while Hippocrates strove to heal the body, Socrates strove to heal the soul. But Christ alone accomplished what those men attempted".(15) Early on Ficino promises health to the reader but warns he can offer it only if they come with love in mind, as resentment cannot share in "life-giving medicine".(16) This theme is seen again when he asks the reader to trust that God will favor him and that things created by Him, especially celestial things, have a marvelous power. "Faith is the life of medicines".(17) In the course of attempting to understand and treat his own lapses into depression, Ficino came to believe that regular practice of music was his best healing agent. Having studied Pythagorean Harmonics, he used this in conjunction with his astrological knowledge to develop "a therapeutic system in which music was played in accordance with an individual’s horoscope".(18) In Three Books on Life Ficino discusses this theory in detail explaining that numbers are of what things are made. Mathematical forms, he says, precede physical ones and have the greatest affinity with ideas of the greater Mind. Using numbers and proportions, harmonious music can be created which calms, moves and influences our spirit, mind and body.(19) But tones chosen by rule of the stars, combined with melody or chord allow celestial power to arise.(20) Ficino cites not only Pythagoras, but also Origen, Al-Kindi, Zoraster and Iamblichus as claimants of the power of songs and sounds.(21)

Ficino’s system of creating personalized celestial music included three rules of composition. First to determine from the horoscope what powers and effects a given star brings or removes and insert these into the meaning of the words. Second, note which star rules the person or place, then observe the tones and songs used by that person or region and supply similar ones. Third, the song must imitate motions and behaviors that please that particular part of the heavens.(22) A song created in this method would ‘connect mans spirit to the soul of the world’.(23) Ficino exclaimed, they "arouse our spirit upward…and the celestial influence downward" and that "song is purer and more similar to the heavens than is the matter of medicine".(24)

Another important element of Ficino’s healing music was the performer’s intention and emotion. In addition to the three rules above, he listed three essential elements for invocation: aligning the solar power of the singer, performing at the propitious moment and lastly, the singer’s intention, heart and imagination.(25) When the singer is properly prepared through ritual with solar things, at the solar hour, he will be aligned with the great solar power needed to convey the celestial song. The propitious moment discovers the time when the called upon planet will be dignified and positively aspected in the heavens. Then when the performer sings at the proper time with power, deeply felt emotion and with the intent to channel goodness, his "spirit naturally attracts the response of the planetary spirit".(26) Ficino likened the interaction, between the spirits of performer and planet, to "a string in a lute trembling to the vibration of another which has been similarly tuned".(27) It is this interaction of sympathetic resonance, which allows mental and physical disease to be dispelled.(28)

Ficino’s work with astrology and ritual led him into a controversial area of study known at the time as magic. Though Ficino wrote extensively on the subject, he always referred to the proper method as Natural Magic, which shunned worship of demons and led the practitioner instead to divine experience. He saw divinatory knowledge as a ‘gift of the soul’ that came from experiencing a mode of perception, which unites Mind & Soul.(29) Calling on the Neo-Platonic view of a cosmos that reflects all things, Ficino agreed that one could use symbolism to extend one’s powers of perception.(30) >From Iamblichus, Ficino adopted the "one correct divination form" whose principle was "to view from the perspective of the gods".(31) Using the word Notio, Ficino defined it as innate knowledge, which can only be intuitively experienced. Because logic and reasoning can never lead to divine realization, one must circumvent the intellect. Herein come to play the tools of ritual: prayer, invocation, images, talismans and the like.(32) Astrology’s part in ritual was very similar to that which Ficino described for medicine, indeed he advises using the same natural magic methods for the creation of medicines for best effectiveness. Aside from balances of the body however, Ficino strove to impart knowledge for healing and balance of the spirit, mind and soul as well. He suggests that to receive power from a specific planet, gather those things associated with the planet. For instance, if seeking assistance from the Sun "seek things which are most Solar among metals, gems, plants and animals". He then says to gather those Leo things to consume or wear, when the Sun resides in the sign of Leo and Moon aspects the Sun.(33) On the planets, Ficino lists seven steps that can lead to celestial power by attracting something on high to lower things. Beginning with the lowest level, the Moon is attracted to harder materials such as stones and metals. Next, Mercury resonates with plants, fruits and animals. Venus in compared with Medicines: powders, vapors, odors for simples and ointments. Apollo (the Sun) in matched with music, sounds and song. Mars relates to imagination, forms, motions and passions while Jupiter is linked to reason, arguments and deliberations. Finally Saturn, the king of planets in Ficino’s view, corresponds to quiet contemplation, understanding and endeavoring to conjoin with the divine.(34)

Though Ficino denies the importance of images and talismans in ritual, he none the less reports them quite thoroughly, giving way to very convincing arguments for them. Similar to his explanations on celestial music theory, Ficino reports that there is power in figures, numbers and rays, and likewise colors as they are particular lights (rays).(35) Talismans with celestial images by their harmonious rays influence our spirits secretly, just as music does. Figures of images are best when made at the right time, made to conform to celestial ones that are dominant at the time; then the celestial power perfects the images made.(36) Ficino also notes that images formed when the moon is in the proper sign (constellation), or has favorable aspects, sometimes form cures.(37) He suggests making the image using characters and representations of signs, constellations or planets and to use gems and metals as they hold celestial influence longer than other materials.(38) Wear gems next to skin, he instructs, set in gold for solar affect or set in silver for lunar.(39) Ficino says the popular talisman shapes of that time were round like the heavens, but that the ancients used the shape of a cross for it imitated the 4 angles (of the horoscope) giving the greatest of strength and forces from the spirit of planets.(40) But then Ficino seems to retract himself, writing that it is better to strike and heat the stones than to engrave them, as he suspects the figures to be useless. The powers of the stones and gems, he says, are already within the material, not the image; hammering and heat bring the powers forth.(41) Turning his focus back to the relative safety of medicine he reiterates that he does not approve of images nor affirms profane magic "as depends upon worship of daemons", but on "natural magic which seeks to obtain services of the celestials for the prosperous health of our bodies". (42) Advising the use of "medicines tempered in accordance with the heavens"(43), Ficino then reveals that for doctors, medicines have a more plausible explanation for the workings of applied celestial power than do gems and such. First that plants receive celestial influence more easily than harder materials. Second that medicine is taken internally or applied to penetrate the skin and third, the variety of materials used for making medicine make them a better candidate.(44) Most important of all to successful ritual, according to Ficino, is bringing to it love, hope and faith. Belief brings help to the healing process and love can transform. In his words, if "the love and faith of the sick person towards the doctor, a lower and external agent, are conducive to health, how much good for achieving help from heaven should we expect from our passion and faith in a celestial influence, already implanted within us?"(45) To be effective in the healing ritual requires alignment with the celestials but also alignment of ourselves through love. It requires divine aid. Prayer, invocations, images and talismans in ritual all contribute to the re-aligning process of the soul. According to Voss, "Devotion, intent and desire help superior powers to perfect the ritual".(46) Once one has aligned with the divine to have become "liberated from identification with limit, passion and fear" (47), one can leave behind tools, images and techniques of ritual. However, since most people have not reached this stage, Ficino presents the beginning steps for cultivating Notio using medical, astrological or musical skill to recognize and contact natural powers of the universe.(48) Consequently, ritual and natural magic are representations of true alchemy which Ficino leads us to understand is in the transformation of Saturn associated frustrations and hardships into the philosopher’s gold of intellectual contemplation of the divine, Saturn’s highest form.(49)

If Ficino had but one recommendation to make to his reader it would be this: obtain knowledge of your horoscope and live your life in harmony with the celestials that favor you. As the spirit of the heavens order all things through motions & tones, so all things and people receive celestial gifts to bring them naturally into harmony with the world. By simple example he mentions the Sabbath day. Traditionally the Sabbath takes place on Saturday, Saturn’s day, and Saturn calls for quiet contemplation of one’s relationship to the divine.(50) If we are to live in harmony, we must approach our life from similar relational viewpoints. Ficino expressly recommends following the natural bent of one’s ruling planets, firstly by seeking the natural profession of one’s desires, leanings, dreams and obsessions. That which you do easily and release under protest, he says, is the key to your destined work. Next, you must study your horoscope to find and then live in the region your star and daemon (angel) designates. Here is where you will find success and acceptance in your efforts. Thirdly, learn from your horoscope your celestial gifts and astrological endowments for they are the keys to right living for you.(51) In addition, astrology "should be our guide in procreation of offspring, in preparation of banquets, in building and clothing."(52) By living in such a way we do not fight our natural inclinations nor try to live an ordinary life to be more like our neighbors. Instead the revelations of our horoscope lead us to the planets and daemons that watch over us, offer us gifts, and lead us to our destiny. Then, if by following Ficino’s instructions we practice natural magic, the process of aligning ourselves with the divine through celestial resonance will take place. In the end, if we are so fortunate as to succeed in some of these methods, we shall have raised ourselves to glimpse past physical limitations of earthly existence, embracing our own divinity. And Marsilio Ficino would be well pleased.

Endnotes

  1. Angela Voss, The Astrology of Marsilio Ficino: Divination or Science?; Culture and Cosmos, Vol. 4 no. 2, Autumn/Winter 2000, p. 33
  2. M. Schumacher, The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. VI - Marsilio Ficino, p. 1
  3. Eugenio Garin, Astrology in the Renaissance – The Zodiac of Life; Arkana, Penguin Group, England 1983, p. 72-73
  4. Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life – A Critical Edition and Translation with Introduction and Notes by Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark,; Medieval & Renaissance Tests & Studies in conjunction with The Renaissance Society of America, New York 1989, p. 245
  5. Ficino, p. 247
  6. Voss, Divination or Science?, p. 35
  7. Garin, p. 65
  8. Voss, Divination or Science?, p. 30
  9. Three Books on Life, illustration and explanation by Edward Sherburne p 234-5, from Manilius, The Sphere. Reproduced with permission from the original in the Huntington Library
  10. Ficino, p. 245
  11. Ficino, Proem p. 103
  12. Ficino, p. 397
  13. Garin, p. 64
  14. Lee Lehman, lecture @ Kepler College Jan 14, 2001
  15. Ficino, p. 161
  16. Ibid., p 239
  17. Ibid., p. 203
  18. Angela Voss, The Music of the Spheres: Marsilio Ficino and Renaissance Harmonia; Culture and Cosmos, Vol. 2 no. 2, Autumn/Winter 1998, p. 25
  19. Ficino, p. 329-31
  20. Ibid., p. 357
  21. Ibid., p. 355
  22. Ibid., p. 307
  23. Voss, Music of the Spheres, p. 26
  24. Ficino, p. 359
  25. Voss, Music of the Spheres, p. 26 And Ficino, p. 357
  26. Voss, Music of the Spheres, p. 27
  27. Ficino, p. 361
  28. Voss, Music of the Spheres, p. 27
  29. Voss, Divination or Science?, p. 30
  30. Ibid., p. 30
  31. Ibid., p. 37
  32. Ibid., p. 37
  33. Ficino, p. 247-49
  34. Ibid., p. 356-7
  35. Ibid., p. 330
  36. Ibid., p. 331
  37. Ibid., p 305
  38. Ibid., p. 335 & 308
  39. Ibid., p. 315
  40. Ibid., p 335
  41. Ibid., p. 343
  42. Ibid., p. 397
  43. Ibid., p. 321
  44. Ibid., p. 307
  45. Ibid., p. 353
  46. Voss, Divination or Science?, p. 38
  47. Ibid., p 38
  48. Ibid., p 38
  49. Voss, Music of the Spheres, p. 27
  50. Ficino, p. 369
  51. Ibid., p. 369-73
  52. Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science Volume IV Fourtheenth and Fifteenth Centuries; Columbia University Press, New York 1934 Vol. IV, Chap LXIII p. 565

Bibliography

Ficino, Marsilio, Three Books on Life – A Critical Edition and Translation with Introduction and Notes by Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark; Medieval & Renaissance Tests & Studies in conjunction with The Renaissance Society of America, New York 1989

Garin, Eugenio, Astrology in the Renaissance – The Zodiac of Life; Arkana, Penguin Group, England 1983

Knight Kevin, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI; Online Edition 1999

Thorndike, Lynn, A History of Magic and Experimental Science Volume IV Fourtheenth and Fifteenth Centuries; Columbia University Press, New York 1934

Voss, Angela, The Astrology of Marsilio Ficino: Divination or Science?; Culture and Cosmos, Vol. 4 no. 2, Autumn/Winter 2000

The Music of the Spheres: Marsilio Ficino and Renaissance Harmonia; Culture and Cosmos, Vol. 2 no. 2, Autumn/Winter 1998



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