Category: Philosophical theories

Humanism and the interpretations of Plato

Humanism is one of the most distinctive aspects of the Renaissance. The humanists turned to classical letters, paying particular deference to the Platonic tradition. In the context of humanism, Platonism was not always uniformly understood, nor interpreted cohesively throughout the Renaissance.

Humanism and humanists in the Renaissance

By the 15th century already, the word “humanist” (humanista, umanista) denoted a university professor who taught ancient literature. The individuals we would today describe as humanists, i.e. those studying the ancient traditions and promoting a new culture informed by the ways and values of Greco-Roman antiquity, were called literati, poetae, and oratores. This new culture whose inception is traced to 14th century Italy, the so-called studia humanitatis, or studia humaniora (=humanities), sought to promote human progress to allow people to fulfill the requirements of private and public life as best as possible.

A pioneer of humanism was Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch (1304-1374), for he succeeded in articulating the constitutive principles of nascent humanism. Petrarch harshly criticized the practices prevalent in the studying and teaching of Aristotelian philosophy, practices that had crystallized in the medieval universities. According to Petrarch, Aristotle was a wise man, but not divine. The medievals, ignorant of the most important part of ancient philosophy and the Church Fathers, had failed to comprehend Plato’s far superior importance. Platonic philosophy proved that logic can efficiently support Christian dogma, without engendering direct challenges to its fundamental assumptions. Petrarch argued that Plato was not infallible either, just like any other philosopher for that matter. Only Divine Grace is capable of guiding the human mind towards the truth. Petrarch and the humanists of the early Renaissance sought in Plato’s philosophy, and Classical Antiquity at large, the values and the principles through which people can attain happiness in their earthly life.

In conclusion, humanism viewed philosophy as a part of ancient literature, whose most interesting aspect was ethics. The dialectical mode of presentation and the exquisiteness of Plato’s prose were perfectly attuned to the needs of the Renaissance, when people aspired to novel truths and beauty in their everyday lives, and demanded greater participation in policy making decision. Platonic philosophy as promoted by the humanists was addressed to men of action, citizens and statesmen alike, and not exclusively to elite scholarly circles.

The dissemination of Platonic literature and tradition

In the Middle Ages, a small portion of Platonic texts was known in Western Europe, and interest in the Platonic tradition was rather limited. The intense interaction between Western and Byzantine learned men in the 14th century contributed to a change of course. Manuel Chrysoloras’ (1350-1415) teaching activity in Florence led to the emergence of a generation of people who endeavored to become acquainted with Plato’s dialogues. Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) and Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) were mesmerized by Plato. Interest in Platonic philosophy was also amplified following the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1437-1439). The presence of Byzantine delegates, especially of Gemistus Pletho, caused considerable awe. They were greatly admired for their wide erudition and intimate knowledge of Platonic philosophy. In the first half of the 15th century, several Byzantine scholars attempted to compose Latin translations and commentaries of Plato works and other texts in the Platonic tradition. Along with manuscripts and their Platonic education, Byzantine scholars, especially Bessarion (1403-1472) and George of Trebizond (1395-1472/3), brought to Italy the ancient feud over the compatibility of Platonic with Aristotelian philosophy and the concomitant debate over who of the two should be considered supreme. Although interesting, this feud apparently did not have any particular impact on Latin-speaking readers. Equally limited was the resonance of a work Pletho composed during his stay in Florence (De Differentiis or On the Differences Between Aristotle and Plato). Engagement with Plato, however, and the presence of Byzantine scholars studying Plato's works in Italy disposed Florence’s political and intellectual leadership to provide patronage for Platonism.

The Platonism of mature Renaissance

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1439) undertook to produce and promoted new Latin translations and commentaries of almost all of Plato’s dialogues, the most important works of Neoplatonism, and some emblematic texts of ancient mysticism. Ficino arrived at the notion that a prisca theologia, i.e. an ancient cohesive theology, existed in distant antiquity; this theology comprises the works of Plato and the Neoplatonists, the Old Testament -especially the books by Moses-, the works of the Pseudo-Dionysian tradition, but also the Corpus Hermeticum, the Orphic hymns, and the Chaldaean Oracles – that is to say the most celebrated texts of ancient mysticism. All these texts were said to convey, in their diverse modes and languages, the one and unitary truth that had been revealed to men in the days of yore. Plato formed an important link in that chain of knowledge, being the one who succeeded in rendering this tradition philosophical. This prisca theologia was deemed to be totally consistent with Christianity and allowed for a deeper and more substantial understanding of dogma through a Christian-Platonic metaphysical hierarchy. Man occupies a central position in this hierarchy: located at its middle, he connects the material level with the transcendent. Furthermore, Ficino was a leading figure of the so-called Platonic Academy of Florence; this was not an official institution, but rather a circle of individuals sharing humanistic interests. Ficino’s synthesis, as expressed in his opus magnum Platonic Theology exerted defining influence, leaving its imprint on Italian Renaissance Platonism.

This syncretic path was also followed by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), who added the Kabbalah, the most representative text of Judaic mysticism. Pico passionately supported the esoteric agreement between all the major philosophical currents of antiquity. In the 16th century, Agostino Steuco (1496-1549) in his De perenni philosophia libri X summarized and convincingly articulated the notion, fashioned by the Florentine Platonists, of the existence of a unitary ancient theology, which had been variously expressed in all important philosophical and religious currents.

In the 16th century, Platonism was remodeled as a new philosophy of nature that sought to dislodge the Aristotelian medieval worldview. Franceso Patrizi (1529-1597) proposed a new metaphysics, predicated on light. Patrizi was one of the most ardent champions of Platonic philosophy. Around the same time, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) put forth an ontological monism, founded on Neoplatonism, the work of Lucretius and Cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus (1401-1464). Bruno’s philosophy supported Copernicus’ novel cosmology and was coupled, furthermore, by the principle that the universe is infinite and governed sympathetic bonds that connect all beings. Platonism, interpreted as faith in the primacy of mathematics as a means for understanding and decoding nature and as the metaphysics of light, had a decisive impact on the theories of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who completed this new cosmology.

Ανάμεσα στους φιλοσόφους (ο Ερμής Τρισμέγιστος) πρώτος στράφηκε από τα φυσικά και μαθηματικά ζητήματα στον θαυμασμό των θείων και υπήρξε ο πρώτος που πραγματεύθηκε με άφατη σοφία το μεγαλείο του Θεού, τις τάξεις των δαιμόνων και τους μετασχηματισμούς της ψυχής. Συνεπώς, αποκλήθηκε ο πρώτος συγγραφέας της θεολογίας και τον ακολούθησε ο Ορφέας, λαμβάνοντας τη δεύτερη θέση στην αρχαία θεολογία. Ύστερα ο Αγλαόφημος, κατόπιν ο Πυθαγόρας ακολούθησε στη θεολογική διαδοχή, αφού είχε μυηθεί στα μυστήρια του Ορφέα. Ακολούθησε ο Φιλόλαος, ο δάσκαλος του θεϊκού μας Πλάτωνα. Με τον τρόπο αυτό, από μια αξιοθαύμαστη ακολουθία έξι θεολόγων, προέκυψε ένα κοινό σύστημα αρχαίας θεολογίας, αρμονικό σε κάθε του μέρος. (M. Ficino, Εισαγωγή στη μετάφραση του Corpus Hermeticum)

H λογική, όσο και τεκμήρια από πολλές φυλές και πολλές λογοτεχνίες, αποδεικνύουν ότι υπάρχει μια αρχή όλων των πραγμάτων και ότι υπήρξε μία και ίδια γνώση γι’ αυτή ανάμεσα σε όλους τους ανθρώπους. (A. Steuco, De perenni philosophia, Prefatio)
Author: Goergios Steiris
  • Yates, F.A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London, 1964.
  • Rees, V., Allen, M.J.B. eds. Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, his Philosophy, his Legacy . Leiden, 2002.
  • Schmitt, C.B. ed. The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy. Cambridge, 1988.
  • Hankins, J. Plato in the Italian Renaissance. Leiden, 1990.
  • Dougherty, M.V. ed. Pico della Mirandola: New Essays. Cambridge, 2008.
  • Hankins, J. Humanism and Platonism in the Italian Renaissance, 2 τόμοι. Rome, 2003-4.
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