12 – INSIDE PLATO’S CAVE – PART 2

Continued from part one.

2) The columns. Why did Ficino add columns to the allegory of the cave? As there is no such thing in the Republic, he might have taken them from the Phaedo, where there is a mention in a key passage of the dialogue. In this book, Plato had endeavored to describe a symbolic geography of the universe that featured places dedicated to rewards and punishments for souls after physical death. Before depicting this vast panorama, Plato makes clear that the world known to humans is much more limited:  «I believe that the earth is very large and that we who dwell between the Pillars of Hercules and the river Phasis live in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs about a pond.»[1] Plato also had mentioned the same columns of Hercules in the prologue of the Timaeus, where they mark the border that separates the known world from the mysterious Atlantis. We now identify them with the Strait of Gibraltar, but from Antiquity until the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by Christopher Columbus in 1492, this strait marked the end of the world. However, Proclus, the Platonic philosopher of the fifth century A.D., did not limit himself to a merely geographical reading. In his commentary on the Timaeus, he develops a sophisticated interpretation, according to which the columns define the border between the ocean of dissimilitude – that is, the irregular and turbulent stream of material and perishable things – and the inhabited interior earth, representing the orderly immaterial world, which Proclus compares to the ascent toward intellectual and divine realities.[2]

Ficino knew about Proclus’ commentary on the Timaeus, as he had read it before he wrote his own Compendium on the same dialogue. He therefore might have followed Proclus’ interpretation of the columns as a boundary marker for the border separating the physical world from the eternal and divine realities. If this is the case, he must have tied the prisoners to these columns to show the fate of those who cannot pass through the limit of the physical world, for they are not able to overcome their own corporeal condition. Strangely, however, Marsilio Ficino’s writings do not explicitly mention the reason why he erects columns in Plato’s cave. In the Devil card, there is only the capital of a single column that serves as a pedestal for the main figure. There is reason to believe that this stand represents the terrestrial plane for souls that have fallen prey to material desires.

The Devil’s pedestal

3) The burning torch. Ficino did not care to justify the substitution of fire with a torch in the cave. However, he might have left a clue in the dedication to Piero de’ Medici in his treatise on light, the De Lumine:

For us, indeed, the celestial Father illuminated earth with the torch of Phoebus, in truth not so that, under such a light, we might, so to say, go hunting for flies, but to let us contemplate our homeland and the celestial Father, that is seeing, through such a light, divine things as reflected in a mirror and in enigma; but these we shall see differently some day through a nobler light, face to face.[3]

The expression « torch of Phoebus » appears frequently in Latin literature, as a metaphor for the sun. Its light is that of the physical world, which allows the world to be seen only in the mirror of Creation, enigmatically. Paraphrasing St. Paul, Ficino compares this imperfect clarity of the day with another nobler light that allows for contemplating God face to face. The theme of the double light reappears several times in the works of Ficino. In his treatise on love, the De Amore, he explains that when the human soul was created, it was endowed with a light, an interior fire that turns toward its Creator like a flame rising into the sky. This splendor, being innate to the soul, allows the soul to see itself and the things inferior to it, but not to contemplate the divine. Only when the soul, thanks to this light, has risen closer to God can it receive another clearer light that opens it to the knowledge of the divine. If the human soul could always use both lights, it would always be united with God. However, it often contents itself with the natural light. Disdaining the divine splendor, the soul can only see itself and its own forces aiming at bodily procreation, and desires to procreate. Overwhelmed by this desire, it goes down into the body, where it exerts its faculty of generation, movement, and sensation. The natural light turns on the appetite for corporeal things; the supernatural light entails a love for the divine.[4]

This luminous duality is not reserved for the human soul. It corresponds to a universal principle. Ficino exposes this theory in his De Lumine.[5] Light, being immaterial, can exist without being attached to bodies, but it penetrates everything, even the most opaque matter. He adds that, according to the Platonists, the obscurity is not a total absence of light, but a very weak or obstructed luminosity. The light of the soul, just like the celestial one, is so powerful that no place is ever in total darkness. Ficino cites as evidence the fact that heat is everywhere under the ground. He finds confirmation of this in the ancient theologians and in Plato, who had imagined that in the underworld, rivers of fire and fiery demons circulated throughout. Ficino also observes in nature a correlation between light, heat, and fire. He explains that light within bodies is divinely produced, the spark of life, a manifestation of the reality of things and of their Creator, the grace of the forms, and an incitement to pleasure. The fire of the world is part of the divine fire incorporated in the bodies by a superior impetus.[6] Thus, God provided the world, as the human soul, with two lights: the natural one concentrated under the earth in the form of an internal fire that irradiates heat, and the other a celestial light.

From there, we can understand why Ficino replaced the fire with a torch in Plato’s cave. He alludes to the natural luminous source of the physical world, the sun, while at the same time insisting on its heating power and its being embedded within darkness. When men perceive light only in its physical form, it allows them to see the material things, but not the immaterial, divine realities. It warms them with its heat, while enlightening them only weakly, leaving them blind to celestial beauty and hypnotized by the spectacle of the terrestrial world, which is just a deceptive illusion. That is also the sense of the torch held by the Devil from the Tarot of Marseille. Its light is as misleading as that of Lucifer, which is the Latin word for “he who holds the light.”

The torch of the Devil.

If the captives in the card are none other than the cave’s prisoners, why do they have animal-like ears and tails? Why do their feet look like roots sunk into the ground? In the last chapter of the last book of his Platonic Theology, Ficino deals with the question of the condition of impure souls after their separation from the body, i.e., after physical death. Considering the person’s living habits, he distinguishes four cases, from the best to the worst: the temperate, who succeeded in submitting his sensual desires to reason; the continent, who did the same, but with more difficulty; the incontinent, who let his senses dominate him, even if his reason has not judged erroneously; and the intemperate, whose reason is sleeping or skewed, and in which the desires induced by imagination exerted complete domination. In the souls of the latter reigns supreme what Ficino calls phantasia, or the whole of passions and desires cultivated during a lifetime. Absent a sufficiently strong reasoning power to dominate it, the phantasia alone expresses the life story of the soul. These insatiable desires, burning passions, and irrational fears will thus make up the nightmarish, fictitious universe in which these souls believe to be living — for eternity. Such is Ficino’s imaginary hell, lived in already before physical death and thereafter aggravated. Indeed, as these desires and passions are about material objects, these will no longer be available to the soul deprived of its body, and these appetites will remain forever unquenched. Worse still, the immoderate desires that characterize the intemperate will arouse in the soul the production of the very instrument of their punishment, generating an imaginary body:

In the soul of an intemperate man, however, and during the time he lived a man’s life, his reason slept entirely and completely succumbed to desire, whence it transformed itself into an ineradicable habit inclining naturally as it were towards things corporeal. […] In the seventh book of the Republic Plato says that this soul slumbers deeply in this life; that it dies before it awakens; that after death it is weighed down by an even deeper slumber and troubled by even more frightening dreams; and that this condition is properly designated Tartarus. Plato means that the soul is borne away by too intense a love of the elemental body. When this earthly body has been dissolved, therefore, the soul again weaves another body for itself as soon as possible from the vapors of the elements. […] If one asks what is the shape of that [vaporous] body, our reply will be that, according to the magi, various images of various animals are shaped from such vapors. For the [intemperate] soul imitates the life of any one animal in its manner of living, and whatever that animal’s shape is, such primarily is the shape it fashions for itself. And howsoever its affection and disposition appear as a whole (were it perceived by any sense), such a shape too the soul paints onto its shadowy body (provided this tenuous body can be colored and shaped through the desire and vehement habit of the soul). And just as it had perceived the passions of the flesh in life, so [now] it perceives the passions of the shadowy body, and the purer this body, the more acutely it perceives them. But the senses of that shadowy body are in one genus, those of the flesh in another. And thus perchance we must understand the transformation among the ancients of men into beasts.[7]

This probably explains the animal features of the Devil’s captives in the Tarot of Marseille. In all likelihood, they represent the imaginary bodies created for themselves by the souls of the intemperate, in the likeness of the animal passions to which they gave themselves. What about their root-shaped feet sunk into the ground? Ficino, as translator of Plato, could not ignore the following lines, excerpted from the Phaedo:

The soul most completely put in bondage by the body […] can never depart in purity to the other world, but must always go away contaminated with the body; and so it sinks quickly into another body again and grows into it, like seed that is sown. Therefore, it has no part in the communion with the divine, pure, and absolute.[8]

This image seems to have inspired him in a commentary he wrote in his Latin edition of the Platonic philosopher Plotinus’ Enneads, published in 1492, about his treatise on the descent of the souls in the bodies:

God wanted some intellectual souls to be modelled on his intellect everywhere in the sphere of the world, and in the heaven, and above the heaven. And so that the intellects are not dragged with violence towards the bodies by animal – that is living – nature, grown upon them as a plant, they seem to be united to the bodies that adopt them willingly.[9]

For Ficino, thus, souls have the function to introduce intelligence into the physical world, penetrating it through nature. He compares this nature, playing an intermediary role between intellect and matter, to a plant growing on bodies. It likely reappears in the Devil card in the form of the two rooted prisoners. These two, incapable during their lifetime of rising above the matter in which they were sown, find themselves forever trapped in it.

[1] Phaedo, 109ab. Translation by Harold North Fowler.

[2] Proclus, Commentaire sur le Timée, I, 179.22-180.20, transl. André-Jean Festugière, Paris, Vrin, 1966, p. 235-236. On the ocean of dissimilitude, see Plato, Statesman, 273d.

[3] Ficino, Opera omnia, cit., p. 976. Cf. 1 Corinthiens, 13 12.

[4] Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium. On Love, translation by Sears Jayne, Dallas, 1985, p. 75-76..

[5] Ficino, Opera omnia, cit., p. 979.

[6] Ficino, Opera omnia, cit., p. 983.

[7] Ficino, Platonic Theology, XVIII, 10, cit. vol. 6, p. 192-195. Translation by M. J.B. Allen.

[8] Phaedo, 83de. Translation by Harold North Fowler.

[9] Ficino, Opera omnia, cit., p. 1754.

To be informed when new episodes are published, subscribe to the ‘Villa Stendhal’ Facebook page: