23 – THE TRIUMPH OF LIFE – PART 3

Continued from part two.

Plato developed his ideas on the physical world in his Timaeus dialogue, especially regarding the organic functioning of the human body and its relationship to the soul. Ficino, who was trained as a physician, wrote a long commentary on the Timaeus. In Chapter 103, which deals with reproductive organs and the transmigration of the soul, he mentions the system composed of the semen and genitals, which seems to him “like a living creature inserted into us, a creature that has, as it were, its own life” and “possesses an abundance of life and sensation, so that through it, another living being may be generated.”[1] For Ficino, however, this reproductive system is not limited to the genital organs:

But, most importantly, it is to this member that the spirit flows from the very marrow of the spine, whence there trickles, at the same time, a marrowy drop, most living ferment of the seed of the universe.[2]

Thus, Ficino considers that the male organ is directly linked to the spinal cord, through which it receives the semen it is meant to funnel. In another text, his commentary on Plotinus’ treatise “Concerning the daemon allotted to us,” Ficino further extends this system’s architecture, asserting that the reproductive power transmitted by the marrow comes from intelligence:

Much great is the rational faculty that constitutes our soul. Therefore, as it is much great, it persists as much as it can, being natural. Finally, you should notice that the genital nature is a particular extremity of the intelligence. In this way, what, in its greater extremity, is intellectual, is genital in its smaller extremity […] The genital nature is also like this: springing inside from the intellectual substance; gushing outside. [3]

According to this theory, the male reproductive organs are directly linked to the brain by the marrow. Such ideas do not appear so clearly in Plato’s Timaeus itself, but they had been expressed quite explicitly in the Platonic treatise On the Nature of the World and the Soul, erroneously attributed to Timaeus of Locri, the character who gives his name to Plato’s Timaeus.[4] In this treatise, the head-marrow-genital parts circuit is clearly outlined:

The principal part of the body and the root of the spinal cord is the brain, in which is found the ruling power. And what is left over from the brain, like something poured out, flows through the spinal column and is given out to semen and generation.[5]

The same circuit can be observed in Arcana 13.

Nicolas Conver, Arcana 13, 1760 (internal plant highlighted).

It starts from the neck at the base of the head, runs down along the spinal cord in the marrow, then joins the red bulb whose roots push into the pelvis, which is linked to a pointed shape at groin level, most likely a stylized penis. The fact that this internal structure looks like a plant is perfectly consistent with Ficino’s words describing the reproductive system as a living being inserted into us, as the Latin word insero used here should be understood in its horticultural sense (the action of grafting a plant). This image is derived from Plotinus, who had written that man is in some ways a plant because he has a body that grows and engenders.[6] Ficino gives this idea a very concrete meaning. According to him, inside the human body lies a vegetative system whose functions are body growth and reproduction. This system appears to have been highlighted in blue and red in the back of the skeleton in Arcana 13 in the Tarot of Marseille.

Thus, the card perfectly reflects the thoughts of Ficino, who believed that in the world, man is composed of an immortal soul linked to a corruptible body.[7] After physical death, with the links between body and soul severed, matter does not return to nothingness, but is recycled, thanks to the life-giving power of nature and to love, “which makes eternal life available to mortal things.”[8] Arcana 13, in all likelihood, is a representation of this perpetual recycling of matter, which, in itself, is eternal. What this card shows is not so much the triumph of death, but the triumph of life.

[1] Ficino, Opera omnia, cit., p. 1484. English translation: Arthur Farndell, All things natural. Ficino on Plato’s Timaeus, London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 2010, p. 166.

[2] Ibidem, translation A. Farndell slightly modified.

[3] Plotinus, Opera omnia. Cum latina Marsilii Ficini interpretatione et commentatione, Basel, Pietro Perna, 1580, p. 281 (facsimile edition by Stéphane Toussaint, Paris, Phénix, 2005).

[4] See Timaeus of Locri, On the Nature of the World and the Soul, edition and translation Thomas H. Tobin, Chico, Scholars Press, 1985. Translation slightly modified.

[5] Timaeus of Locri, On the Nature of the World and the Soul, 100a, cit., p. 54-56.

[6] Plotinus, Enneads, III, 4, 2.

[7] Ficino, Platonic Theology, IX, 7, cit. (Allen), III, p. 103.

[8] Ficino, De amore, VI, 11 (trad. Sears Jayne, p. 130). See also Idem, Platonic Theology, V, 4.

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