19 – THE BEASTS WITHIN – PART 2

Continued from part one.

For what reason does Ficino complicate the image of Plato’s chimera, adding to it some features from the Macrobian god Serapis? What relationship does he see between the two figures? First, we should observe the fact that both images possess similar qualities: 1) The upper part, which dominates the whole, is, in both cases, a human form: a man for Plato, a god of human appearance for Macrobius; 2) The inferior part is, in both cases, a swarm of animal heads and bodies (snake, dog, and wolf for Macrobius; peaceful and ferocious beasts for Plato; 3) In both cases, the middle part is a lion.[1]

More importantly, what gave Ficino the idea of merging the two figures is probably the fact that Plato and Macrobius had provided similar meanings for their human and animal constructions. In Plato’s Republic, the general schema of the soul consists of three parts: 1) Intelligence/reason (the inner man); 2) The ardor of feeling/courage (the lion); 3) The desiring power (the multi-headed monster). The first two parts seem to find their reflections in the Macrobian Serapis: 1) Macrobius saw the solar divinity as an image of intelligence. He expresses this idea clearly in the passage dedicated to the Sun in Book I of Saturnalia, saying that the sun is the intelligence of the sky, the original intelligence. [2] 2) Macrobius also presents the lion as an acting force: “The lion’s head, then, points to the present time, poised for action, powerful and urgent, between the past and the future.”[3]

The interpretation of the multi-headed beast by Macrobius, however, appears to diverge from that of Plato. Rather than being an image of the soul’s desiring powers, he sees in it a figure of time passing: “The lion’s head, then, points to the present time […] while the wolf’s head signifies time past […] Similarly, the image of the fawning dog represents future events, which hope – uncertain though it is – presents to us with winning aspect.”[4] As we shall see, Ficino seems to have retained both ideas.

In a letter dated 16 September 1489, Ficino alludes one more time to the solar chimera. Calling three of his friends in defense of his De Vita, which was threatened by Church authorities, he asks them to report, if they face danger, to a man named Giorgio Benigno Salviati:

Furthermore, the Florentine Academy has its dogs[5]. Hither, then, do I call you, the keen-nosed dogs of the Academy and the swiftest runners. There are three of you. Now, therefore, I pray you, defend my three children/books who are still young and are, I fear, just about to go forth among wolves. Run quickly, I say, for now I am enjoining upon you tasks you desire, not cares. You know my friend Georgio Benigno Salviati, who has long keenly pursued that truth on the tracks of which you are now running here and there in your hunt, and who, being elder, illuminates his younger brothers like the Sun. Report to him, therefore, if you should hear any howling of wolves. The brave George, who once pierced a huge dragon, will easily put to flight all the wolves. It is he, then, who will at one and the same time relieve me of worry and you of cares..[6]

Here, the much-respected figure of Salviati, is compared to the Sun (he « illuminates his younger brothers like the Sun »). Following a habit he has of playing with his friends’ names, Ficino identifies him as St. George, an emblem, as Hercules, of strength and courage, and a dragon hunter as Hercules. Besides, Ficino’s solar George reigns over multiple animals: the dragon, the hostile wolves, and the letter’s three addressees, which Ficino playfully calls “dogs.” Solar George thus seems to be another occurrence of Ficino’s version of Plato’s chimera. Unsurprisingly, Ficino’s letter continues with the theme of time, in a long passage that is worth quoting because it contains a true lesson about life.

For one among you is accustomed to say, and indeed rather often, that he has found nothing more salutary for life than to “swallow down” time with extreme carelessness, moreover the rest straightaway smile on the speaker. But tell me now, Canacci, what is this which you have so often repeated, to “devour” time? What finally do you mean? “Not to eat”, you say, “but rather to drink”. Not to chew or grind, but to guzzle liberally, since indeed time itself has a nature that is liquid, so to speak, and fleeting. Now the condition of liquids is such that if you confine them narrowly you will immediately loose them, for, having been compressed, they flow away and quickly disperse. If by chance you squeeze the water contained in a sponge, you will squeeze it out and immediately disperse it; if you hold it with a more open hand, you will retain it – much more so with air, fire and ether. Hence those characters portrayed by the poets struggle in vain who try to hold in their arms the expanded apparitions of gods or departed spirits. The widest things must be received quite widely; things which are liquid and very expanded must be more expansively possessed. Certain confinements then oppresses us, when we have reduced to a narrow space the mind itself and its naturally expansive motion. Whoever ponders his pursuits and work precisely and threshes everything out right down to its smallest part, secretly wretched all the while, wears out his life, alas, his life! Pythagoras, then, seems to have rightly taught: beware lest you ever chance to be narrowly confined. Nothing is more expansive than the heavens, nothing more vital. Conversely, the earth is very small and it has the least life of anything in the cosmos. Finally, since we live by heaven and in time, the more widely we absorb these, the more and the longer do we live. Live, therefore, O friends, uninhibitedly, far from confinement. Live joyfully. Heaven’s joy has created you, which it expresses by its smile, that is, by its expansion, its motion, and its splendor, as if it were exulting. By your joy, heaven will preserve you. Therefore, live joyfully in the present, day by day. For worry about present circumstances both snatches the present from you and takes away your future. Anxious inquiry about the future quickly transforms you yourself in the past. Therefore I beseech you again and again, live joyfully, for the Fates indeed allow it when you live without care. But in order that you may truly live without care, do not even take this one care by which, nervously, you are mostly concerned with the diligence to escape every care. This one care, indeed, burns the heart of wretched mortals, poor things, with every care. Therefore neglect diligence, but love negligence, and love it negligently, as long as you can and is fitting. These things, however, my friends, I enjoin upon you less as a priest than as a doctor. For without this one item that is the life of all medicines, all medicines used to prolong life perish.[7]

In exhorting his friends and disciples to live in the present, guided by the light of intelligence, Ficino wants to encourage them not to submit to vain desires, but also not to live a purely contemplative life devoid of any action in the world: Act in the present time as the Sun, without illusions or fears regarding the future, without regrets regarding the past — that is the heart of Ficino’s moral philosophy.

Undoubtedly, for Ficino, Plato’s chimera and Macrobius’ Serapis were complementary and somehow related. The Strength card in the Tarot of Marseille appears as a complete and spectacular illustration of this.

What’s more, the card holds a secret. Hidden in the inferior left part of the card, the secret can be observed more easily with the card turned upside down.

Nicolas Conver, Strength, 1760, detail of the beast turned upside down.

At first sight, there seems to be, right in the angle, the left foreleg of the animal. However, the shape is more like a long animal ear. Beside it, we can see the beginning of a ribbed cone, looking like the base of a horn. In the animal kingdom, ears and horns generally tend to come in pairs. Where, then, are the missing organs? In the cartouche bearing the card’s name, we can observe a series of fine lines. What if it were an invitation to isolate the part of the card it underlines? If we duplicate it symmetrically along a vertical axis, an animal figure appears with two ears and two horns, a tuft of thorny hair on the head, two spiral eyes, a gaping orifice in the nose area, and a distorted, grimacing mouth.

Nicolas Conver, Strength, 1760, detail of the beast turned upside down with mirrored duplication.

One might argue that seeing the hidden beast would require making an inverted copy of the image along the vertical axis using a computer and photo-editing software — technology that didn’t exist during the 15th century. However, producing such a result requires only the card and a mirror. Put the card face down on the mirror, then lift the card’s edge without revealing the figure beyond the series of fine lines. Look from the side, near the surface of the mirror. Suddenly, the monster appears.

Nicolas Conver, Strength, 1760, detail of the beast turned upside down and observed in a mirror.

This presence inside the card echoes another passage of Ficino’s Platonic Theology:

In most people, moreover, the reason loves this inferior part of the soul too fervently, and so it grieves in a way over its loss. Plotinus does not call this part a part of the soul, properly speaking, but rather a shadowy reflection of the substantial soul. For he proves that man is the rational soul itself, which, remaining steadfast in itself, generates beneath itself a living being, not from itself and from the body, but rather from the body and a certain vital image of itself diffused through the [body’s] members. In this living creature are those senses that perceive external bodies with a certain passion, and also the phantasy that is altogether confused and disturbed.[8]

Either man succumbs to this inner reflection of his soul, or he defeats it with reason and intelligence, thus becoming, like Hercules and Saint Georges, a solar hero.

[1] We saw that Macrobius indicates that the god Serapis has the three-headed beast under his right hand. He points out that “Its middle head – the largest – has the appearance of a lion.” Likewise, in his description of the chimera, Plato had first mentioned the multifarious beast, then the lion, and finally the man. The lion, thus, occupies the intermediate place.

[2] Macrobius, Saturnalia I.18.17.

[3] Macrobius, Saturnalia, I.20.15.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] On Ficino’s Academy, see Episode 4.

[6] Ficino, De Vita, III, 18, ed. and transl. C. V. Kaske, J. R. Clark, Tempe, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002, p. 402-405.

[7] Ibidem. Translation slightly modified.

[8] Ficino, Platonic Theology, XVI, 8, cit., v, p. 315.

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