Continued from part one.


Nicolas Conver, The Hermit, 1760 (detail)

So what was the meaning of the lamp for Ficino? He knew Pythagoras’ « symbols », as he had translated the list Iamblichus had provided. In his translation, lamp, λύχνος, is translated as the Latin word lucerna. Moreover, he provided, in one of his letters, an explanation of the symbol that coincides with that of Iamblichus and also takes up the comparison of lamp light with sunlight:

Pythagoras told his disciples that they should look at themselves in a mirror, not by the light of a lamp but by the light of the sun. What is the light of a lamp if it is not a mind as yet too little instructed by knowledge? What the light of the sun, if not the mind totally under its instruction. When, therefore, anyone wants to know about the state of his mind, he should compare it not with the ignorant, but on the contrary with the wisest; thus he may see more clearly how much he has gained and how much remains [to gain].[1]

Thus, Ficino compares the two lights to two states of the soul. The sunlight corresponds with the soul raised by instruction to the degree of the intelligence that has the ability to compare itself with ideal models. The flame of the lamp represents the soul remaining at the inferior level, which, unable to access the vision of these exempla, must content itself with an opinion on itself. In his commentary on the allegory of the cave, Ficino probably replaced the interior fire with the Pythagorean lamp because it expressed the idea that this light inside the cave allows only the perception of illusory images – sometimes frightening, sometimes seductive – produced by the imagination.

The motif of the lamp is also used by Ficino in another short fable with which he illustrates, in a passage of the Platonic Theology, the mechanism by which the contemplation of the intelligibles – the ideas – can produce effects in the sensible world.[2] It features the philosopher Euclid walking from Megara to Athens, at night, lighting the way with a lamp, to meet his master Socrates. The parallel with the Diogenes anecdote is almost perfect. In both cases, it is the story of: 1) a philosopher; 2) bearing a lamp; 3) who goes to meet a man. The differences themselves, by their opposition, seem to be responding to each other: Diogenes searches in broad daylight, while Euclid does the same by night. The first is a Cynic, the other a Megaric, and both are disciples of Socrates, but with diverging tendencies. Ficino probably composed this story as an assembly of two texts from antiquity. The first is an anecdote, narrated by Aulus Gellius, according to which Euclid was traveling on foot at night from Megara to Athens to listen to Socrates.[3] The second, told by Laërtius in his Lives of Philosophers, is a sophism by the Stoic Chrysippus: “If anyone is in Megara, he is not in Athens; now there is a man in Megara, therefore, there is not a man in Athens.”[4] This sentence should be understood as a critique of the Platonic theory of Ideas. Emphasizing the diversity of human situations and characteristics, it aims to show the impossibility of linking the multiplicity of men to a unique Idea of man. Ficino’s fable, in modifying Chrysippus’ proposition, tries to prove that the simple fact of walking from Megara to Athens implies a  transformation of the “ideal” objective into a succession of concrete acts – every step made on the road – and that these acts must be mentally represented beforehand by the imagination.

An important element in Ficino’s story, the lamp held by Euclid to light his way, appears neither in Aulus Gellius’ story, nor in Chrysippus’ sophism. Thus, in all likelihood, Ficino himself added the lamp to Euclid’s hand, probably to emphasize his resemblance to Diogenes, the seeker of man. Here, Ficino clearly provides us with the meaning he gives to the lamp: It illuminates, in the inferior part of the soul, a particular seed, a potential act among all possible acts, allowing the imagination to represent it and desire it, before eventually forming it and introducing it into the world. In this way, Ficino’s Euclid, having conceived the project of traveling from Megara to Athens, must necessarily use a lamp to visualize each of the steps he will make to attain his objective. The light of the lamp, again, allows for seeing neither natural things, nor intellectual ones, but the representations of the imagination.

Ficino’s text is quite perplexing. We thought we had identified the character of the tarot’s Hermit as a representation of Diogenes the Cynic. We observe, first, that Ficino makes no mention of the anecdote about Diogenes looking for a man. Second, he invents another story featuring a philosopher holding a lamp to travel by night from Megara to Athens. What if the Hermit represented not Diogenes the Cynic, but Euclid of Megara? However, have we not noted (see episode 20) that the character’s attributes in the card — beard, long hair, cloak, and stick — were those of the Cynic philosopher? And yet, Euclid was not a Cynic, but a Megarian. In reality, since antiquity, the Cynic’s attire had become, in the public’s mind, the outfit of  philosophers of all schools of thought. So, does the Hermit represent Diogenes or Euclid? The differences between the two are not insignificant, especially in the eyes of Marsilio Ficino, as the first negates all reality to the Ideas, whereas the second, being a Megarian, acknowledges reality to Ideas only.[5]

To proceed to the correct identification, we must examine another image created by Ficino. In his commentary on the Philebus, Ficino mentions a saying about Plato:

Among the wise men of Greece arose the saying that Plato had three eyes: one with which he looked at human things, another at natural things, another at divine things (which was in his forehead, while the others were under his forehead).[6]

The Ficino scholar Michael J.B. Allen identified two sources from antiquity that might have inspired this strange motif.[7] However, none of them is presented as a saying, and both are much more allusive than Ficino’s description. Only Ficino indicates that the third eye is in the forehead, while the other two are under. It is most likely that, as he often does, Ficino composed his story by aggregating elements from various sources. The proposition that a superior organ of contemplation is placed above the eyes can be found in Apuleius, Alcinous, and Philo of Alexandria. The correspondence of the three eyes with the three worlds — physical, human, and divine — appears in the writings of medieval theologians such as Hugh of St. Victor and Jean Gerson. As for the main theme of the anecdote, the “eye of the soul,” it appears in Book VII of Plato’s Republic as a continuation of the allegory of the cave. There, Plato describes this instrument of true knowledge, by which the Ideas, not the physical bodies, are seen. Taken over by the Platonic commentators and the Church Fathers, and from there nourishing an important stream of Christian thought, it had become, in Ficino’s time, commonplace. However, the image of a philosopher gifted with three eyes, including one in the forehead, really seems to be a Ficino creation.

If we now turn to the Tarot of Marseille’s Hermit, and especially to the upper part of his face, we observe the presence of vaguely concentric wrinkles, which we might be tempted to see as an outline of the famous frontal eye. Or is just our imagination?

Nicolas Conver, The Hermit, 1760 (detail)

To be continued in part three.

[1] Marsilio Ficino, The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, vol. I, transl. by members of the School of Economic Science, London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 1975, p. 61.

[2] Ficino, Platonic Theology, IV, 2, cit., I, p. 304-305.

[3] Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, VII, 10, éd. et trad. R. Marache, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1978/2002, II, p. 96-97.

[4] Laërtius, Lives, VII, 186. English version: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0258%3Abook%3D7%3Achapter%3D7

[5] See Robert Muller, Introduction à la pensée des Mégariques, Paris, Vrin, 1988, p. 87-110.

[6] Ficino, The Philebus Commentary, cit., p. 177.

[7] M. J. B. Allen, Marsilio Ficino on Plato’s Pythagorean Eye, «Modern Language Notes», 97, 1982, pp. 171-182.

To be informed when new episodes are published, subscribe to the ‘Villa Stendhal’ Facebook page  (go to www.facebook.com/VillaStendhal then click on the ‘Follow’ button).