3 – PLATO

The two volumes of Plato’s complete works in my bookcase.

The two volumes of Plato’s Complete Works in my bookcase.

In the beginning of the 2000s, I became passionate about Plato, whose works I read with great fascination. Progressing through his dialogues, I was struck, on several occasions, by passages that seemed to describe trump figures from the Tarot of Marseille. Intrigued by these similarities, I bookmarked the pages as I went along, and once I had completed my reading, my two volumes of Plato’s Complete Works were literally festooned with paper strips and filled with annotations. No less than 12 trump cards from the Tarot of Marseille seemed to be reflecting some of Plato’s writings. More than half! Without a doubt, there was some Platonic inspiration in this deck. How could the writings of a Greek philosopher of the fourth century B.C. have snuck into Italian cards from the Renaissance? Indeed, 19 centuries separate Plato from the Tarot of Marseille.

In the Phaedrus, Plato compared the idea of the soul to a chariot drawn by two horses, and steered by a charioteer.[1] However, in the human soul, he added, one of the animals tends to pull upward, while the other weighs downward, which makes the task of the driver quite difficult.

Since Antiquity, the charioteer has been interpreted as reason and the two horses as the antagonistic desires in man, with one elevating us toward the realm of superior realities and the other attracting us to the world’s materiality. Plato paints a contrasting portrait of the horses:

One of the horses, we said, is good, the other not; […] The horse that is on the right, or nobler, side is upright in frame and well-joined, with a high neck and a regal nose, his coat is bright, his eyes are black, […] he needs no whip, and is guided by verbal commands alone. The other horse is a crooked great jumble of limbs with a short bull-neck, a pug nose, dark skin, and bloodshot eyes, companion to wild boasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears – deaf as a post – and just barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined.[2]

The same contrast also appears, rather dramatically, in the Chariot of the Tarot of Marseille. The horse standing on the driver’s right-hand side holds its head upright, looking in the direction of its motion. It is well-proportioned, with its ears standing straight up. The other horse, on the contrary, is looking in the opposite direction of its motion, as a recalcitrant animal. Its right eye is closed while the left one is bulging. Its ears are flopped down and back, indicating a rather angry mood, possibly like he is about to kick something.

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The better horse and the worse one.

Thus, the Chariot card displays all of the elements that constitute Plato’s chariot of the soul: the vehicle, the driver, and the two antagonistic horses, as if the creator of this image had tried to transpose into the card the description of the Athenian philosopher. At first sight, it might seem anachronistic to see this philosophical image from Antiquity spring up in Italy in the last quarter of the 15th century. In reality, the chariot of the soul was revealed to the West precisely at that time. During the Middle Ages, Plato was little known in that part of the world. Most of his dialogues had not been translated and remained unfathomable, even to scholars, as the Greek language was no longer taught in the West. This situation changed only at the beginning of the 15th century. In 1439, the ecumenical council in Florence that united the Eastern and Western Churches had been the occasion of intellectual exchanges between the Greeks and  Latins, which allowed for the transmission of Platonic thought. Cosimo de’ Medici, the lord of Florence, was impressed by these ideas. Two decades later, he entrusted the son of his personal physician with the mission to translate from Greek to Latin the complete works of Plato. The young man, named Marsilio Ficino, fulfilled this task with talent and fervor. The achievement of this great enterprise, circa 1470; the progressive diffusion of the translations; and the publication of the complete dialogues in 1484 brought about the rediscovery of Platonic thought in the West.[3] With the disclosure of the Phaedrus, the theme of the chariot of the soul became popular in Florence. Several works of art from this time are a testament to this trend, including a bas-relief in the church of San Miniato al Monte and the medallion worn around the neck of a young man’s bust attributed to Donatello.

Donatello (attr.), Bust of a Young Man (detail), c. 1460.

Donatello (attr.), Bust of a Young Man (detail), c. 1460.

All of my paths now seemed to converge on a single place in the same time period. In Florence, circa 1470, Maso Finiguerra engraved the niello that graphically inspired the Chariot card. In Florence, circa 1470, Marsilio Ficino completed his translation of the Phaedrus, which provided the theme of the figure represented on the Chariot card. I imagined that there could be a link between the translator of Plato and this card. To explore that hypothesis, I took a closer look at Marsilio Ficino and his writings.

Before Ficino, due to a lack of reliable translations of Plato’s writings, the Greek philosopher was known only through quotations and secondhand commentaries. The philosopher of Athens disturbed as much as he fascinated. The Catholic Church was wary of him, partly because of the homoerotic allusions in some of his dialogues and partly because some aspects of his writings were considered incompatible with Christian dogma. Marsilio Ficino, on the contrary, wanted to reconcile Plato’s philosophy with Christian theology. However, his translations, irreproachably faithful, never altered the essence of Platonic thought. Ficino sought this concord with Christianity through his own writings. In the prefaces and commentaries that go along with his translations, Ficino strived to provide a Christian reading of Plato. Among his commentaries, the one dedicated to the Phaedrus ranks among the longest, and, obviously, the passage dedicated to the chariot of the soul received his full attention.[4] Strangely, however, while providing his interpretation of the famous image, Ficino attributed to it some features that do not belong to Plato’s text. Ficino adds three details to the description:

1) Horses united for eternity. In his introduction to his translation of the Phaedrus, published in 1484, Ficino provided a first outline of his interpretation of the chariot image. Curiously, he expressed the idea that the horses were twins. There is nothing of the kind in the Phaedrus. Ficino specified his vision in a more developed commentary published in 1496. Evoking the horses, he wrote:

The forces of both horses were born at the same time, for both were generated together by the Creator of the world and for eternity. For that reason, they are said to be united and so to say yoked or rather, as I said, they are considered as making up a two-horsed chariot, that I interpreted by the term of union. [5]

Where Plato simply mentioned a “two-horsed chariot,” Ficino insists on the almost indissoluble nature of the relation between the animals. For that purpose, he uses four different terms: “united,” “yoked,” “two-horsed chariot,” and “union.” What is more, Ficino claims (“as I said” and “that I interpreted”) the originality of this specific vision. Therefore, he consciously introduced the idea of an unbreakable union of the team of horses.

2) A two-wheeled chariot. A little further in his commentary, Ficino explains his vision of the vehicle:

We can also call the soul a chariot because of motion: the two wheels are the soul’s turning back to itself and its conversion again to higher things.[6]

However, Plato had not felt the need, in the Phaedrus dialogue, to indicate the number of wheels of his chariot of the soul.

3) A simultaneously unique and double driver’s head. Still in the same commentary, Ficino provides two successive descriptions of the charioteer’s head, just a few lines apart, which seem contradictory. He first writes:

The charioteer’s head is the power that unites him to the universe’s principle, that rules over the intellect, and coincides with the unity.[7]

Further, he adds:

But I think we should return to that head of the charioteer for a short while; for it is double. […] The charioteer’s two heads are like two poles of a sphere.[8]

At this point, the reader is facing an enigma, as Ficino just split into two the charioteer’s head. Unique in the first sentence (“The charioteer’s head…”), it suddenly appears to be double (“…for it is double…”), before it clearly becomes two distinct heads (“The charioteer’s two heads…”). According to such a description, this simultaneously unique and double head seems rather difficult to imagine.

The image resulting from Ficino’s elaborate interpretation, peculiar to him, thus possesses three specific characteristics that distinguish it from Plato’s original vision. These features can also be identified in the seventh trump of the Tarot of Marseille, the Chariot:

1) The chariot has two wheels, in concordance with Ficino’s commentary.

2) The horses appear to be Siamese twins. On the card, the two animals, joined at the hips, are fused from this point, neither of them having hindquarters. Is there a better way to indicate the indivisibility of a union between twins than to present them as conjoined?

The Siamese horses.

The Siamese horses.

3) The charioteer’s head is at the same time unique and double. As extraordinary as it might seem, the designer of the Tarot of Marseille achieves the feat of producing an image that corresponds in all points to the paradox set by Ficino’s text. Indeed, the charioteer does have a unique head above a unique neck. Nevertheless, from this unique head stem two faces, one on each side, materialized by the shoulder pieces of the charioteer’s armor. This graphic solution does cleverly resolve the paradox of a head simultaneously one and double.

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The simultaneously one and double head of the charioteer.

The Chariot card is therefore not only consistent with the chariot of the soul as it is described in Plato’s Phaedrus, but it also presents the features Ficino had added to the image in his own commentary. What do these additions mean? What is the exact relationship between Ficino’s writings and the Tarot of Marseille?

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The volume of Plato’s complete works held in Marsilio Ficino’s hands (detail of the bust of Marsilio Ficino by Andrea Ferrucci in the cathedral of Florence).

 

[1] Plato, Phaedrus, 246a-256e.

[2] Ibidem, 253de (translation: Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, slightly modified)

[3] It should be noted that other Italian scholars translated a few of Plato’s dialogues during the same period. See James Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance, Leiden, Brill, 1990. Ficino’s complete translation, however, remained authoritative until the 19th century.

[4] See my « L’image du char dans le commentaire de Marsile Ficin au Phèdre de Platon », Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques, 94/2, 2010, p. 249‑285.

[5] For the Latin text, see Marsilio Ficino, Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 1. Phaedrus and Ion, ed. and transl. Michael J. B. Allen, Cambridge, Mass, The I Tatti Renaissance Library, 2008, p. 68.

[6] Ibidem, p. 69.

[7] Ibid., p. 67.

[8] Ibid., p. 69-71.

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