26 – THE AMBIGUOUS GOD – PART 4

Continued from part 3.

In Chapter 3 of Book III of his De Vita, published in 1489, Ficino explains the function of the spirit of the world. The physical world being alive, it necessarily possesses a soul to animate it. However, as the immortal soul’s nature is too remote from the perishable nature, the world’s soul must animate the physical world through an intermediary, which is the spirit of the world (spiritus mundi):

Between the world soul and its manifest body is its spirit in whose power are the four elements. […]
Assuredly, the world’s body is living in every part, as is evident from motion and generation. The philosophers of India deduce its life from the fact that it everywhere generates living things out of itself. It lives, therefore, through a soul which everywhere attends it and which is entirely accommodated to it. Therefore, between the tangible and partly transient body of the world and its very soul, whose nature is very far from its body, there exists everywhere a spirit, just as there is between the soul and body in us, assuming that life everywhere is always communicated by a soul to a grosser body. For such a spirit is necessarily required as a medium by which the divine soul may both be present to the grosser body and bestow life throughout it. But every body easily perceivable by you being accommodated to your senses is grosser than and far degenerated from the completely divine soul. Therefore, the aid of a more excellent body – a body not a body, as it were – is needed. We know that just as all living things — plants, as well as animals — live and generate through a spirit like this, so among the elements, those, which are most full of spirit, generate very quickly and move perpetually as if alive. [1]

In the last chapter of the third book of the De Vita, Ficino explains the existence of the spirit of the world. He argues that God, being the Good, has created the best possible world, one that cannot be merely corporeal, as it must participate in life and intelligence. Consequently, the world possesses a spirit whose function is to join the world’s soul to the world’s body:

As Plato teaches, echoing Timaeus the Pythagorean, the world has been produced by the Good itself the best it could possibly have been. It is, therefore, not only corporeal, but participating in life and intelligence as well. Accordingly, besides this body of the world, manifest habitually to our senses, a body that is spirit hides within it, which escapes the capacity of our weak senses. In this spirit flourishes a soul, and in this soul shines an intelligence. And just as in this sublunary realm, air is not mixed with earth except through water, nor fire with water except through air, so in the universe as sort of bait or kindling for linking soul to body is that very thing which we call spirit. Soul, too, is a sort of kindling in both the spirit and the body of the world as that they can attain to a divinely given intellect.[2]

Several years before the De Vita, Ficino already mentioned the spirit of the world in his Compendium in Timaeum, written circa 1483-1484 and published in the first edition of Ficino’s translation of Plato’s complete works.[3] Just as the body of the world is divided into four elements (Fire, Air, Water, and Earth), corresponding to the body’s four humors, likewise, the spirit of the world is divided into four parts: the intellect, corresponding to fire; the soul of the sphere, corresponding to water; the intelligence implanted in the soul, corresponding to air; and nature, i.e., the seminal and vital power, corresponding to earth:

On the spirit of the world, that is, on intellect, soul, intelligence, and nature.
[…]
Wishing, therefore, to create a perfect work, God made a world endowed with life and intellect. […] And moreover, in order that a single creature might more conveniently be produced from a combination of pure spirit and the substance of the world, God differentiated matter, as we have said, in four elements, to be the humors of this creature, and to that end, He had wanted its spirit to be differentiated into four. For four components belong to the spirit of the world. The first is the intellect, which remains motionless within itself, the mover or ruler of the sphere, ordained by the Author of all things to rule the spheres. The second is the soul of the sphere, the mover which itself moves, but moves only through itself. The third is the intelligence divinely implanted in this soul by God and the higher intellect. The fourth is nature, the seed-power, the vital power, infused universally into matter by the soul. Now the intellect and the soul are substances, while intelligence and nature are qualities. Intelligence is a quality of the soul, and nature is a quality of matter. The images of these four are the elements, for fire is related to intellect, earth to nature, air to intelligence, and water to the soul. [4]

The four figures that occupy the corners in the World card correspond rather closely to these divisions of the spirit of the world. At the top left corner is an angel. In his writings, Ficino often associates the angel with intellect. At the top right, the bird probably refers to the soul of the sphere, as the winged creature is standing on a round shape, which evokes the globe. At the bottom right, the lion probably represents the intelligence implanted in the soul, as it has a halo over its head, as do the angel and the bird. At the bottom left, without wings and without halo, most remote from the divine, the bovine is, in all likelihood, the image of nature.[5]

Nicolas Conver, The World, 1760. Four figures highlighted.

Thus, for Ficino, the spirit of the world is divided into four parts corresponding with the four elements.

However, in the last chapter of the third book of his De Vita, Ficino qualifies the spirit of the world as “fifth essence” (quinta essentia), present everywhere in the body of the world:

Always remember, though, that just as the power of our soul is brought to bear on our members through the spirit, so the force of the World-soul is spread under the World-soul through all things through the quintessence, which is active everywhere, as the spirit inside the World’s body. [6]

Nicolas Conver, The World, 1760. Central figure highlighted.

How is this notion related to the division of the spirit of the world into four parts? Two chapters later in the same book, Ficino exposes the relationship between the fifth essence (quintessentia) and the four elements. In contrast with the human being, whose spirit comes from his humors, with the world, it is just the opposite: The spirit gives birth to the four elements, which explains how it qualifies as a fifth essence:

But let us return to the spirit of the world. The world generates everything through it (since, indeed, all things generate through their own spirit); and we can call it both « the heavens » and « quintessence ». It is practically the same thing in the world’s body as in our body, with this primary exception, that the World-soul does not draw this spirit out of the four elements serving as her humors the way our soul does from our humors, but she procreates this spirit in the first instance (to speak Platonically, or rather Plotinically) as if pregnant by her own generative power, and the stars along with it. Immediately through the spirit, the World-soul gives birth to the four elements, as though everything were contained in the power of that spirit. Spirit is a very tenuous body, as if now it were soul and not body, and now body and not soul. In its power, there is very little of the earthy nature, but more of the watery, more likewise of the airy, and again the greatest proportion of the stellar fire. The very quantities of the stars and elements have come into being according to the measures of these degrees. This spirit assuredly lives in all as the proximate cause of all generation and motion, concerning which the poet said: “A spirit nourishes within.” [7]

It appears from these texts that Ficino’s spirit of the world possesses a structure very similar to that of the World of the Tarot of Marseille. Divided into four parts, which are like the four elements, it is, in itself, a fifth essence, as kindling at the heart of the world. Moreover, as we have seen, it is both male and female (see part 3).

The medieval interpretations of the Christian Tetramorph established correspondences between the living creatures and the Gospels, the cardinal points and some astrological signs (see part 2), as well as with the elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air). [8] What is the relationship between Ficino’s spirit of the world and the Tetramorph?

To be continued in part 5.

[1] Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, III, 3, cit., pp. 255-257.

[2] Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, III, 26, cit., p. 385.

[3] Alexandre Étienne, « Entre interprétation chrétienne et interprétation néo-platonicienne du Timée: Marsile Ficin », in A. Neschke-Hentschke (ed.), Le Timée de Platon. Contributions à l’histoire de sa réception, Louvain, Peeters, 2000, pp. 173-200, here p. 178.

[4] Compendium in Timaeum, chap. 26. Translation by Arthur Farndell, All Things Natural. Ficino on Plato’s Timaeus, London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 2010, p. 44.

[5] On the angel/intellect in Marsilio Ficino, see Michael J. B. Allen, « The absent angel in Ficino’s philosophy », Journal of the History of Ideas 36:2 (1975), pp. 219-240 ; reprinted in Idem, Plato’s Third Eye. Studies in Marsilio Ficino’s Metaphysics and Its Sources, Aldershot, Variorum, 1995. See also, Idem, « Ficino’s theory of the five substances and the Neoplatonists’ Parmenides », Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 12 (1982), pp. 19-44; reprinted in Idem, Plato’s Third Eye, cit.

[6] Ficino, Three Books on Life, III, cit., p. 247.

[7] Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, III, 3, cit., p. 257. The final sentence is a quotation from Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 726 : spiritus intus alit.

[8] Olivier Beigbeder, Lexique des symboles, La Pierre-qui-Vire, Zodiaque, 1985, p. 136.

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