12 – INSIDE PLATO’S CAVE – PART 1

In 2003, I started reading the 18 books of Marsilio Ficino’s treatise on the immortality of the soul, the Platonic Theology. Although Ficino had completed it as early as 1474, it wasn’t published until 1482. In this work, Ficino dedicates himself to showing that man’s fulfilment requires that he free himself from the material world to allow for his return to God, his Creator. It is a long and often complex text, full of references to Christian and pagan authors, especially to Plato’s dialogues. On Nov. 13, 2003, reading the sixth book, I came across a passage that left me bewildered. There, Ficino was giving a very peculiar interpretation of the famous allegory of the cave.

The allegory of the cave, quoted by Ficino in book VI of his Platonic Theology (Here: the second edition, published in 1491).

In chapter two of the sixth book of the Platonic Theology, Ficino aims to expose the mistake of philosophers who contend that the soul is corporeal.[1] He says they are mistaken because they are used to relying on their five senses rather than their intelligence to judge whether something really exists. Judging the soul only by its physical manifestations, they find themselves incapable of perceiving its incorporeal nature. To go beyond that limitation, the philosopher should make himself incorporeal, freeing his own intelligence from the movement of the senses, as well as from corporeal desire and imagination. Through such a work of asceticism and education, the soul becomes able to recognize its divine nature and perceive the light of truth. To illustrate this idea, Ficino announces that he is going to quote the famous Platonic allegory of the cave:

Imagine a cave beneath the earth. Inside this cave, men are brought up from childhood, tied to pillars, by the necks, by the hands from behind and by the feet, so that they cannot ever move or see anything else except what appears on the wall of the cave in front of them. But high up behind them, a torch has been lit, and between the torch and the bound men are lots of other people walking up and down and talking to each other, and carrying in their hands various effigies of trees and animals. Those in chains, therefore, will never truly see either themselves or anything else of the things we have described, but only their own shadows or those of others projected before their eyes onto the cave’s opposite wall by the fire lit behind them. So they will suppose that they are nothing else but their own shadows; or they will opine that light itself is nothing else but that dim light which appears reflected there.[2]

I cannot help but have this shadow theater in mind every time I settle down in a red velvet seat and watch a movie projected in the dark room of a cinema. For the philosopher of Athens, this image showed men prevented from accessing the world’s reality except through the tweaked, thus illusory, perception of their senses. Ficino’s quotation of this passage had left me perplexed because it is not faithful to Plato’s original text. The Florentine adds three details of his own invention. 1) He says that the prisoners’ hands were bound, whereas Plato had mentioned only their heads and feet. 2) He evokes columns, which are absent from the original text. 3) He specifies that the light source behind the prisoners was a torch, but Plato had just used the Greek word πῦρ, meaning “fire.” Why did Ficino alter Plato’s allegory? It is all the more bewildering that when Ficino writes his Platonic Theology, between 1469 and 1474, he already has translated the complete works of Plato, and his translation of the allegory of the cave passage is strictly faithful to the original Greek. One might consider it a careless mistake, but he quotes the same lines in one of his letters, dated 1480, presenting them as Plato’s own words, and there again are the same three invented details: hands bound, columns, and a torch. The letter, titled How impure this world is, how illusory and how deceptive, begins with a short fable emphasizing the illusory nature of the physical world. Ficino compares it to an apple, alluding to the forbidden fruit, but also to the cause of evil, the Latin term malum having the double meaning of “apple” and “evil”:

How can anything in the world, and apparently belonging to the world, be true since the world itself is unreal, being impure? Perhaps when God had created a sort of round mass, rather like the round fruit we call an apple, and He saw that it was very impure inasmuch as it had been produced from the most impure chaos, as one of the poets said,[3] He immediately began to clean it and remove impurities from the surface of the universe as from a blemished apple. However, by their own weight, the peelings have fallen down upon us wretches in the center. Therefore, if there is anything pure in the universe, it has been granted only to heavenly beings. But upon us, as is fitting, has fallen not what is pure, but what could be called droppings and peelings. Hence, the Christian text: « Woe to land and sea, for Satan, seething with rage, has fallen upon you. »[4]

With this fable, Ficino points to the center of the earth – the place where the weight of evil accumulates, and the most distant place from God – as the residence of men and of the devil. In the second part of the letter, he focuses on the human body to show to what extent man can be deceived by his reason as much as his senses because of the dense, opaque, and heavy nature of his carnal envelope. He also evokes the somber prison of the terrestrial and mortal body that drowns the soul into shapeless matter. He appeals to the authority of the Pythagoreans and Platonists, according to whom our sublime soul lurks in the depths of the body as a sick spirit, tossed about all over and without respite. He also quotes Euripides, Homer, and several texts of the Old Testament that all denounce the terrestrial vanities: the world perceived by the senses is a deceit that disturbs souls. He then goes on with the Gospels: “My kingdom is not of this world”, then affirms that Christ never wished to reign over a world of dreams and frenzy, and imagines him exhorting man not to worship material goods, or fear imaginary evils:

O mad minds of mortals, O blind hearts, where are you rushing? What are you so terrified of here, frantic minds? What are you pursuing with such anguish over there? Do you not see, wretched minds? A mad frenzy is driving you everywhere. Here the unreal shadows of evil things frighten you, there the empty shadows of good things carry you off, and you are tossed back and forth between childish terrors and toys. And the vain desire for good things stirs the inflamed minds with passion and exhausts them just as much as the dread of unreal evils. The only remedy for so many and such various diseases – trust the divine physician – is to wake up at once and remain ever vigilant; or at least to recognize as sleeping those who are asleep. So rise now from your deep sleep, wretched men. Rise, I say, from your unhappy sleep and be happy. Breathe again, my sons. Keep watch with me, my sons. Return to your reason now, and be wise with me. Thus may you come to enjoy as fully as you can that same blessed light and truth which I enjoy. Or at least, until you wake, say to yourselves sometimes in your sleep: “Perhaps what is happening to us is not true; perhaps we are dreaming!” For then those dreams which seem to be good will deceive, excite and exhaust you less, and those which appear evil will certainly frighten you less.[5]

Thus, Ficino considers life before physical death as parentheses for the immortal soul, during which the body is an obstacle to the comprehension of eternal truths. During that period, one should free himself from that screen. Those who cannot are damned souls in the making, still alive, but already in hell, endlessly desiring illusory goods and fearing imaginary punishments for eternity. To describe these evils that should not be feared, Ficino quotes a series of Christian and pagan sources that all allude to the infernal places, to their master, to the underworld. He evokes the halls of Hades in Euripides’ Medea and in Homer’s Odyssey, the Old Testament’s afterlife, the prophecies of Jeremiah on the exhumation of the bones from the tombs of Jerusalem, and the lifeless halls and phantom realms of Dis in the Virgilian infernos. Then he quotes Orpheus, saying that “in the underworld, Pluto holds sway over a people made of dreams” and notes that the Pythagoreans consider the “underworld” all of the regions under the moon. For Ficino, thus, these evils that man should not fear are images of the inferno conceived as a physical place of punishment for the sinners. For his part, he considers that hell is an imaginary state before physical death, which explains why he calls on man to wake up. Sin consists of turning away from God to give oneself to the misleading seductions of the material world. The illusion of terrestrial goods creates a deceptive world in which insatiable desires act as punishments. In the Ficinian conception of hell, thus, the penalty is in the act of sinning itself, as produced by the imagination.

At this point in his argumentation, Ficino relates the allegory of the cavern. For him, it serves as an additional example of the idea he is exposing, according to which man already lives in hell before physical death from the moment he gives in to the irrational requests of his senses and lets himself be imprisoned by these treacherous seductions.

The image resulting from this interpretation of the allegory, with the three details added by Ficino, appears graphically in the Devil card from the Tarot of Marseille. Indeed, this figure presents the fettered prisoners, with their hands bound in the back, a column to which they are tied, and the torch, held behind them and high up in the left hand of the devil itself. The presence of this character is natural in this place if we consider that Ficino assimilated the Platonic cave with hell. What role do the three details added by him play in this representation? The analysis of his writings provides answers, thus allowing for a better understanding of the 15th trump of the Tarot of Marseille.

1) Bound hands. Plato had told the allegory of the cave at the beginning of the seventh book of the Republic. In his commentary on this text, Ficino proposes the following interpretation: “You should understand that the cave is this visible world when compared to the invisible world; the chains represent the human body, or rather the passion that binds the soul to the body.”[6] Such ideas are not explicitly expressed in Plato’s text, but Ficino followed a tradition according to which the Platonic writings formed a coherent corpus. He thus allowed himself to read any of Plato’s dialogues in the light of any other. Here, consequently, the Phaedo provides him with the interpretation of the prisoners’ fetters. In this book, Plato had compared the human body to a prison of the soul.[7] Ficino amalgamates the two visions: In the corporeal cave of the Republic, the prisoners’ fetters are those of a carnal nature mentioned in the Phaedo. In the Devil card, the ropes tied around the captives’ necks are flesh-colored, as if these links were extensions of their carnal bodies.

Ficino thus sees the cave as an image of the physical world; the prisoners stand for the human souls while their fetters represent the corporeal attachments that keep the souls in this world. Why does he specify that the captives have their hands bound behind their backs? He takes this detail from another Platonic infernal vision, which he aggregates to the image of the cave. In a passage of the 10th book of the Republic, Plato tells the mythological story of the warrior Er, who was killed in battle, resuscitated just before his cremation, and had given a description of the underworld. He notably had evoked the abyss of Tartarus and his vision of Ardiaeus, the tyrant, trying to escape this inferno, but restrained by fiery demons:

And there were savage men, all fiery to look at, who were standing by, and when they heard the roar, they grabbed some of these criminals and led them away, but they bound the feet, hands and heads of Ardiaeus and the others, threw them down, and flayed them. Then they dragged them out of the way, lacerating them on thorn bushes, and telling every passer-by that they were to be thrown into Tartarus, and explaining why they were being treated that way.[8]

Here, the prisoners sent back to the inferno have not only their feet and heads bound, but also their hands. Obviously, Ficino considered this detail an important one, as he mentions it in his preamble to the 10th book of the Republic:

Moreover, if you consider the words of Plato, you will recognize the verse in the Gospels that says, “Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness.”[9] But Plato also speaks of the head being bound. Now the bond about the head signifies obstruction to reason and the loss of sight, while the bonds on the hands indicate the loss of action and progress, and the bound feet cannot convey or move forward and attain but are paralyzed by the removal of their power.[10]

In the Gospel verse quoted here, which is the conclusion of the parable of the Wedding Banquet, the “outer darkness” is traditionally interpreted as Christian hell. Therefore, the addition of the bound hands to Plato’s allegory of the cave reveals that for Ficino, the Platonic abysses of the Phaedo and of Books 7 and 10 of the Republic were images of hell. The binds represent the forces that prevent the souls’ escape from hell, forces induced by passion, as Ficino says in his commentary to Plato’s Cratylus, in a passage where he evokes the name of Pluto, the god of the underworld:

Plato shows that the souls in thrall to Pluto are fettered so tightly and inescapably because they are held by a feeling of love. In the Symposium, the Laws, and in so many other places, Plato confirms this view that the knot tied with love and willingness is more binding than all others, and he is right to do so, for the person who attracts another through desire, seizing him from within rather than from without, exerts a more powerful pull upon him and holds him with a stronger grasp than does the person who seeks to attract another through any other force. Moreover, any who have been seized in this way, far from striving to be released, support themselves on the one who is binding them and entangle themselves even more tightly in the same chain.[11]

Thus, for Ficino, amorous desire, when it applies to physical bodies, forms an almost irresistible bind that keeps the human soul willingly fettered in the bodily prison. In the Devil card, the two captives form a couple, with the one standing on the right of the devil having a rather feminine morphology, while the other exhibits a rather masculine build. However, both seem deprived of sexual organs, while the devil exhibits both male genitalia and feminine breasts, seemingly an incarnation of the very idea of sexuality.

The captives in the Devil card

To be continued in part two.

[1] Ficino, Platonic Theology, cit., vol. 2, p. 126-155.

[2] Ficino, Platonic Theology, cit., vol. 2, p. 142-145. Translation by Michael J. B. Allen, slightly modified.

[3] Ovid, Metamorphoses, I, 5-30; Fasti, I, 103-112.

[4] Ficino, The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, vol. 5, Oxford, Shepheard-Walwyn, 1994, p. 72. Translation by the School of Economic Science. The quoted Christian text is Revelation, 12:12.

[5] Ibidem, p. 75.

[6] Arthur Farndell, When Philosophers Rule. Ficino on Plato’s Republic, Laws, and Epinomis, Oxford, Shepheard-Walwyn, 2009, p. 33. Translation by Arthur Farndell, slightly modified.

[7] Phaedo, 82d-83d.

[8] Republic, 615e-616a.

[9] Matthew, 22:13.

[10] Arthur Farndell, When Philosophers Rule., cit., p. 57-58.

[11] Arthur Farndell, Gardens of Philosophy. Ficino on Plato, Oxford, Shepheard-Walwyn, 2006, p. 103-104. Translation by Arthur Farndell, slightly modified.

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