17 – TWO VENUSES – PART 1

The study of the graphical sources of the Lovers card showed me that this card, as for its theme, resulted from the fusion of two different sources: the amorous couple, derived from the Italian courtly tradition, and the judgment of the goddesses, borrowed from Greek mythology. What is the meaning of this strange association? Knowing that the masculine character on the card is Philebus gave me a starting point (see chapter 15-1). I prolonged my investigation with an attentive examination of Ficino’s commentary on Plato’s Philebus.

In his commentary on Philebus, Ficino notes a passage from this dialogue, in which Socrates, discussing the nature of the Good, affirms that a god made him remember something:

Socrates: […] In addition, some memory has come to my mind that one of the gods seems to have sent me to help us […] It is a doctrine that once upon a time, I heard in a dream – or perhaps I was awake – that I remember now, concerning pleasure and knowledge, that neither of the two is the good, but that there is some third thing which is different from and superior to both. [1]

Ficino compares these words from Socrates to a scene from another dialogue, dedicated to love by Plato: the Symposium. According to Ficino, this “doctrine that once upon a time I heard” is none other than the teachings on love that Socrates himself claimed to have received from the prophetess of Mantinea, Diotima, as Plato writes in the Symposium. Ficino considers that this doctrine allowed Socrates to find out what should be loved, i.e., what beautiful is, what Good is. As for this god, whose name is not mentioned in the Symposium – where he inspires Diotima – nor in the Philebus – where he awakens Socrates’ memory – Ficino affirms that the god is Love himself.[2] He is the one who guides the souls through beautiful sights to the Beautiful itself and, from there, to the Good, which is none other than God. According to that conception, Love is the unifying power, thanks to which the souls, which come from God, return to God. Ficino’s interpretation owes much to Plotinus, a Platonic author of the third century A.D., who endeavored to extract a coherent reading from Plato’s writings.

Bust of Plotinus, Roman art (Musée du Louvre).

In his treatise on love, Plotinus applied himself to harmonize the conceptions of the Phaedrus, the Philebus, and the Symposium. He observes that, as a passion, love generates in the souls the desire to unite with beautiful things.[3] However, he adds that sometimes, this desire convinces temperate people not only to seek out beauty itself, but also to satisfy very ugly urges — sexual acts for the sole purpose of physical pleasure. What is the origin of these two forms of amorous passion? They are both generated by the attraction to beauty, even if, in the second case, this attraction, while ill-conceived and perverted, can lead one down the path toward ugliness.

However, Plotinus considers love to be not only a passion, but also a god, and he affirms that such was the opinion of Plato. He quotes a passage from the Symposium, in which Eros is called “Son of Aphrodite.” Who, then, is Aphrodite? Plotinus answers that this goddess is double: The first Aphrodite is heavenly — intelligence separated from matter, the soul at its divinest.[4] The second Aphrodite, conversely, is turned toward the sensible world. She is the one who “moves the souls of the young.” She presides over reproduction in the physical world, over sexuality.

Ficino was largely inspired by Plotinus, whose complete works he translated. He adopts Plotinus’ idea of a double Aphrodite, explaining it in his commentary on the Symposium:

Therefore, let there be two Venuses in the soul, the first heavenly and the second vulgar. Let both have a love: the heavenly for contemplating divine beauty, the vulgar for procreating the same beauty in the matter of the world. For such beauty as the former sees, the latter wishes to pass on as well as it can to the machine of the world. Or rather, both are moved to procreate beauty, but each in its own way. The heavenly Venus strives, through its intelligence, to reproduce in itself, as exactly as possible, the beauty of the higher things. The vulgar Venus strives, through the fertility of its divine seeds, to reproduce in the matter of the world the beauty which is divinely conceived within itself.[5]

Ficino’s heavenly Venus, as the power of intelligence, is, in reality, identified by him as Minerva, goddess of wisdom and intelligence. The second, vulgar Venus, who “moves the souls of the young” and whose beauty has the function of procreating into matter, is also the one that seduces Philebus, to the detriment of the first. The same idea is probably exposed in the sixth trump card of the Tarot of Marseille. The situation is described very precisely by Ficino in a passage of his commentary on the Symposium, in which he evokes the amorous soul torn between opposite desires:

Love, as we have said, takes its origin from sight. Sight is midway between intellect and touch; hence the soul of the lover is always being pulled in opposite directions, and thrown alternately backwards and forwards. Sometimes a desire for caressing arises, but sometimes a chaste desire for heavenly beauty, and now that and now this conquers and leads him. In those who have been brought up virtuously and are strong in sharpness and intelligence, the latter wins; in others, more often the former.[6]

In the Lovers card, the central character is obviously torn between the two women. The intense glance exchanged between the man and the hat-wearing woman seems to be what causes the appearance of the Cupid hovering over the couple. The young man, struck by the vision of an attractive person, produces in his soul a love, which is the desire of this beauty. The scene of seduction also implies the sense of touch, as the hat-wearing woman puts her hands on the young man’s shoulder and thigh. However, her beauty is fallacious and misleading. The extravagant costume of the lady, exaggerating her shapes, is conceived to attract the man to her, giving him the illusion that these artifices are real beauty. Ficino alludes to such deceptions in his commentary on the Symposium:

For lovers, blinded by the clouds of love, often accept false things for true, while they think that their beloveds are more beautiful, more intelligent, or better than they are […] Also the beautiful are often trapped by the craftiness of lovers, and those who have previously been obstinate become compliant.[7]

Deceit happens independently from the will to mislead because the beauty of the bodies is, in itself, fundamentally illusory. The eyes see only the appearance of things, not the things themselves, as Ficino’s commentary on the Symposium has Diotima say:

If nature had given you the eyes of a lynx, my Socrates, so that you could penetrate with your vision whatever confronted you, that outwardly handsome body of your Alcibiades would seem very ugly to you. How valuable is that which you love, my friend! It is only a surface, or rather a color, that captivates you, or rather it is only a certain reflection of lights, and an insubstantial shadow. Or a vain fantasy is deceiving you so that you love something that you are dreaming rather than something that you are seeing.[8]

Ficino also provides a description of the amorous process, which perfectly reflects, step by step, the Lovers card:

A person’s appearance, which is often very beautiful to see, on account of an interior goodness fortunately given him by God, can send a ray of its splendor through the eyes of those who see him and into their soul. Drawn by this spark as if by a kind of hook, the soul hastens toward the drawer.[9]

Les étapes du processus amoureux dans la carte de l’Amoureux du tarot de Marseille : 1. Regard amoureux ; 2. Rayon de splendeur ; 3. Etincelle amoureuse ; 4. Désir charnel.

In the Lovers card, even if the desired person seems endowed with illusory external beauty that doesn’t reveal internal beauty, the amorous process is marked by the same phenomena: eye contact, rays of splendor, amorous sparks.

To be continued in part two.

[1] Plato, Philebus, 20b (transl. Dorothea Frede).

[2] Ficino, The Philebus Commentary, transl. Michael J. B. Allen, Tempe, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000, p. 286-289.

[3] Plotinus, Enneads, III, 5, 1. Cf. Plato, Phaedrus, 253e-254b.

[4] Plotinus, Enneads, III, 5, 2.

[5] Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, VI, 7, transl. Sears Jane, Dallas, Spring Publications, 1985, p. 118.

[6] Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, VI, 10, cit. p.125 .

[7] Ibidem.

[8] Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, VI, 18, cit. p.142.

[9] Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, VI, 2, cit. p.108.