The frontispiece of Ficino’s translation of the complete works of Plato (second edition, published in 1491).

How are we to explain the similarities between Plato’s chariot of the soul, as interpreted by Ficino, and the card of the Chariot? I thought the writings of Ficino, a prolific author, might hold additional clues. I first concentrated on his Commentaries on Plato. What I discovered opened up my research to new horizons, the scope of which I would never have suspected.

The thick volume of Ficino’s Latin translation of Plato’s Complete Works, published in 1484, opens with the title Divine Plato, followed by a preface addressed to Lorenzo de’ Medici in which Ficino expounds on the meaning and ambition of his work. At the same time, he hands over the keys that unlock part of the Tarot of Marseille mysteries. In this text, Ficino focuses on the formal aspects of Plato’s dialogues. Endeavoring to define the Platonic style, he first notes that the elegance of Plato’s words is the essence of their efficiency. Giving readers pleasure is the best way to capture their attention and get them to understand the message. Plato’s dialogues — blended with poetry, myth, and images — attract the public to their serious contents, thanks to their entertaining nature. For Ficino, however, this language should not be understood merely as some rational teachings. Calling it a “divine oracle” superior to the human language, he compares it to that of the biblical prophets, who had expressed the deepest mysteries of religion under the guise of visions, dreams, and images:

Plato often imagines fables in a prophetical way, so that his style seems to be not so much philosophical as prophetical. For he sometimes rages and rambles like a seer, and in so doing, he does not follow a human oratory disposition, but one that is oracular and divine, and he plays the part not so much of a teacher as of a priest and a seer. Indeed, he sometimes raves, sometimes purifies others and carries them off in the same divine frenzy. However, he seems to use fables mostly so that anyone can experience pleasure amid the varied flowers of the Academy, but only those who have been purified may gather its fruits, eat them with delight, digest them easily and feed on them perfectly.[1]

According to these ideas, the Platonic text holds several layers of meaning. The most obvious one, which attracts the reader to the content, is the seductive literary expression. At deeper levels, however, lie the mysteries, which only purified minds can grasp. Getting into the depths of Plato’s works thus requires some initiation. Imitating the Platonic style himself, Ficino likewise wanted to keep the deepest mysteries veiled under a coating of fables and images. He expresses this choice in a letter addressed to his patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici. After assuring that he never exposed the Apollonian – i.e. esoteric – sense of Plato to the crowds, he adds:

I have not spoken openly of that about which men are not permitted to speak; I have not given what is holy to dogs and pigs, for it to be torn into shreds. On the other hand, it certainly seems to me that I have revealed to men like Oedipus as many secrets as I myself have seen; however, to all the ignorant, I have given them completely veiled.[2]

Only to men like Oedipus, the famous solver of enigmas, did Ficino disclose the secrets of Plato. To the eyes of the ignorant, on the contrary, they remained impenetrable. What was Ficino’s way of revealing his secrets to the enlightened only? The Florentine might be hinting at his technique when he evokes some Platonic “serious games” in his preface to Plato’s works:

However, while our Plato often deals with the true duty of humankind in a veiled manner, at the same times he seems to be playing and joking. In truth, the Platonic games and amusements are much more serious than the serious matters of the Stoics. For he does not scorn to touch upon what is lowly in any place, provided that, by captivating his more lowly hearers just perceptively, he may lead them the more easily to the heights. With weighty intent, he often mixes the useful with the sweet, so that by the gentle charm of persuasive words, through the very bait of pleasure, he may entice to wholesome foods those minds, which by nature are rather inclined to pleasure.[3]

For Ficino, as for Plato before him, playing is one of the best ways of learning. It does not seem that Ficino had directed a proper school of his own, but he had gathered a group of friends and students, of various origins, with whom he cultivated his love of Plato. He called that circle the “Academy,” reminiscent of the school of the same name created by Plato in the suburbs of Athens. In his preface to Plato’s works, Ficino describes the activities of his own Academy:

That is why, united with you, o Platonic Lorenzo, Philosophy delights in encouraging all who want to learn and live well to enter the Platonic Academy. For this is where young people cheerfully and easily will learn good principles of living while they jest and dialectics while they play. […] Finally, within the innermost place of the Academy, philosophers will recognize their Saturn as he contemplates the secrets of heavens, and there, in truth, priests and guardians of what is sacred will create the weapons with which to defend vigorously piety against the attacks of the impious.[4]

Ficino does not indicate what these educational games and weapons were. What if our tarot cards figured among them? Indeed, they do correspond in all points to the program exposed by Ficino in his preface: They use myths and images to arouse the desire of the user, they take the form of enigmas, they cannot be understood but by the enlightened, and their entertaining nature seduces the players to better convey their messages.

With that conjecture in mind, we can proceed with the analysis of the Chariot’s meaning.


The site of Ficino’s house in Careggi, near Florence.

[1] For the Latin text, see Marsilio Ficino, Divus Plato, Venice, Bernardino de Choris and Simone da Lovere, 1491, f. [a]1v. The English translation is that of Arthur Farndell, Gardens of Philosophy. Ficino on Plato, London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 2006, p. 5, slightly modified

[2] For the Latin text, see Marsilio Ficino, Opera omnia, Basel, Henricpetri, 1576 ; repr. Paris, Phénix, 2000, p. 755-756. English translation: The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, vol. 3, translations by the School of Economic Science, London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 1981, p. 15, slightly modified.

[3] Ficino, Divus Plato, cit., f. [a]1v. English translation: Farndell, Gardens of Philosophy, cit., p. 5, slightly modified.

[4] Ficino, Divus Plato, cit., f. a2r. English translation: Farndell, Gardens of Philosophy, cit., p. 6, slightly modified.

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