Antonio Zanchi (1631-1722), Diogenes with his lamp.

“He lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, ‘I am looking for a man.’”[1]

When the words are scarce, each one needs to be considered. The famous anecdote about Diogenes and the lamp stands as a sole short sentence. It was recently reinterpreted in the light of the debate between Cynics and Platonists about the vision of Ideas.[2] According to the common opinion, Diogenes, when he said he was looking for a man, wanted to show that he couldn’t find, in the whole city of Athens, any man deserving to be called a man. It would have been a way for him to denounce the moral weakness of his fellow citizens. However, this reading explains neither why Diogenes used a lamp, nor why he was searching in broad daylight. Usually, such short philosophical stories were conceived as mind games in which every detail is meaningful and plays its part in the explanation. In a 1989 article, Jean-Pierre Dumont proposed an explanation for the anecdote in the context of the controversy about the Ideas: Diogenes would not be looking for a man in the light of the lamp, but for the Idea of man. His strange behavior would be a way of refuting Plato’s thoughts about Ideas: If Ideas cannot be seen, be they lighted by the sun’s light or that of a lamp, then they must not exist. The lead opened by Jean-Pierre Dumont seemed promising. I decided to follow it with a search for possible insights in Ficino’s writings. I could not find a single mention of the Diogenes-and-the-lamp anecdote. However, the lamp appears on several occasions, and quite meaningfully.

In his commentary on the seventh book of Plato’s Republic, Ficino provides his interpretation of the final part of the allegory of the cave, when Plato explains how some prisoners free themselves from their fetters and gradually manage to climb out of the cave, toward the outside world, and emerge in the light of the sun. For Ficino, this story shows figuratively how philosophy allows human intelligence to gain access to the knowledge of God. He sees it as an ascension through the five degrees of reality, from matter to God, naturally, via the Ideas:

[…] so in relation to the intellect philosophy provides two things only, by cleansing it of disturbances and of false opinions and by turning it, through principles and exhortations away from perceptible forms (1) and towards the intellectual forms which are implanted within us (2); next, by means of these intellectual forms, towards the intelligible forms, the Ideas (3);  and then, by means of Ideas, towards the divine mind (4) by which the Ideas are embraced;  and finally, from the divine mind to the divine Good (5), the principle and the light of Ideas. [3]

Immediately afterward, Ficino adds this strange remark:

Thus when he [Plato] says that the soul is raised from the lamp to the Moon, and from the Moon to the Sun, he means that it is raised from the natural forms to the mathematical forms, and finally from the mathematical forms to the divine forms.[4]

This ascending progression follows the steps of the liberation of the prisoners described in Plato’s story: First imprisoned in the cave, they can only see thanks to an artificial light. When they later emerge outside, they must content themselves with the dim lunar light to avoid being blinded by full daylight. After their eyes adjust, they finally can see the sun in all its splendor. The strange point in Ficino’s remark is his identifying the first luminary as a lamp. In reality, Plato does not mention such an object in this dialogue. A fire does appear in the cave, but the Greek word used by Plato, πῦρ, generally means “open flame,” not “lamp.” What’s more, in his own translation of Book VII of the Republic, Ficino correctly uses the Latin term ignis, meaning “fire.” So, why does he replace this word with lucerna, “the lamp,” in his commentary? In Episode 12, we saw that in other texts, Ficino substituted “torch” for “fire” in the cave – a torch that we recognized in the Devil’s hand. Why does he want to describe it as a lamp this time? Since antiquity, it has been noted that the Platonic doctrine on the Ideas had been influenced not only by Socrates’ thought, but also by that of Pythagoras. Among the symbolic sayings attributed to Pythagoras, one of the most famous irresistibly evokes the Diogenes anecdote: “Behold not yourself in a mirror by the light of a lamp.”[5] Iamblichus, the third century B.C. Platonist, provided an interpretation of it:

“Behold not yourself in a mirror by the light of a lamp”. This Symbol advises us in a more Pythagorean manner to philosophize, not betaking ourselves to the imaginations belonging to the senses, which produce indeed a certain light about our apprehensions of things; but this light resembles that of a lamp, and is neither natural nor true. It admonishes us, therefore, rather to betake ourselves to scientific conceptions about intellectual objects, from which a most splendid and stable purity is produced about the eye of the soul.[6]

In this passage, three different lights are distinguished. The light of the lamp is neither natural, like that of the sun, nor real, like that of the intellect. It represents the human light of the imagination that projects only simulacra. Using a lamp in broad daylight to look for a man, the Diogenes of the anecdote probably wanted to show that the Idea of man proposed by Plato could not be seen as a physical object, in the light of the sun, but only in the light of the lamp of the imagination, like a rambling by Plato. By his behavior alone, Diogenes intended to refute the reality of this Idea.

What is the Tarot of Marseille’s Hermit looking for in the light of his lamp? Could this light be the light of imagination?

To be continued in part two.

[1] Laërtius, Lives, VI, 41. English translation: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0258%3Abook%3D6%3Achapter%3D2

[2] J.-P. Dumont, « Des paradoxes à la philodoxie », L’Âne, XXXVII (1989), pp. 44-45.

[3] Ficino, Opera omnia, cit., p. 1411. English translation: Arthur Farndell, When Philosophers Rule. Ficino on Plato’s Republic, Laws and Epinomis, London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 2009, p. 37.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] Iamblichus, Protrepticus, 21, ed. and transl. É. des Places, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1989/2003, p. 134.

[6] Ibidem, p.146, 8-20. English translation Nicholas Rowe, slightly modified (http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/gvp/gvp11.htm)

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