Vivat Germania latina, Vivat Latinitas teutonica!

Michael Allen

Ocean Blue

Epistolae teutonicis complatonicis tribus



1492 was the year when Columbus sailed the wine-dark Atlantic and discovered the Caribbean. But it was also the year of Lorenzo the Magnificent's death and of the magnificent publication of the first complete Latin translation of Plotinus' Enneads by the great Florentine Platonist, Marsilio Ficino (1433-99). Several humanists from the German speaking lands, including such important figures as Johannes Reuchlin and Johannes Streler of Ulm, were in correspondence with Ficino, and a study of them would certainly cast an interesting light both on his impact on German humanism and on the formation and dissemination of his own thought. But some 1492 letters to three German figures—Paul of Middelburg, Martin Prenninger, and his employer, Eberhard VI, Count of Württemberg and then Duke when the county became a duchy in 1495—are of more than passing interest. For they bear upon a number of related themes central to this conference, in particular, the notion of a global or universal language and its status with regard to other languages in a Platonically inspired system where language itself is a "rind" (cortex) or "veil" (integumentum), or at best an allegorical envelope that enwraps rather than reveals the truth.

Initially at least we are confronted with a duality: in European politics and culture Latin and its daughters are the languages of the south (and Latin eventually of the ancient past) and German and the other Germanic languages are those of the north (and English eventually of the global present). As with all dualities, it is all too easy to be beguiled by the notion of opposition: German thought versus Latin thought, Latin thought versus German interpretation; or mesmerized by paradox and the coincidence of opposites: German thought in Latin, Latinity in German or Latin-German, thought as interpretation. In either case we are confronted with the perpetually intriguing problems associated with relationship and therefore at the most fundamental level with parent and child and sibling relationships: Is Latin the Lear to the parricidal German Goneril or vice versa? Is German the fratricidal Cain to amicable Roman Abel? or are they confusing-to-others identical Ostrogothic twins? Or at the paradoxical end of the scale, are German and Latin Siamese twins, mistakenly joined by nature, at times very much alive and flourishing, at other times doomed to sacrifice one half of themselves in order for the other half to live? Is Latin the Faustian language that sold its soul to a German Mephistopheles? Or Renaissance German the young Antigone who refused to bow to the tyranny of a Latin Creon? And so on to your fancy's limit, until, like Nero, you have murdered your grammatical mother, or like Byron slept with your syntactical sister, or like George W. Bush fathered the clause cèlèbre "we will not be held hostile by our allies."

Interestingly, as is well known, built in to the Latin sense of Germany, German and being a German is the notion of being or having a full brother or sister. But it is a brother or sister that leaps like Minerva out of the splitting headache of a pun: germanus or germana means of course being germed or born in the same place, from the Latin verb gero/gerere: budded on the same tree, having the same germen and womb for parents, the same germanitas, being perhaps separable or even inseparable twins. This pun is absent in the German word deutsch or teutonisch or the Italian tedesco, and one wonders whether Tacitus would have named a daughter Germana, honouring the cognomen of Nero Claudius Drusus and his son. It was a pun among many, however, that Marsilio Ficino did not hesitate to deploy.

In a letter of 29 April 1491, [1] at the beginning of his eleventh book of Letters, he thanks George Heriuart for the gift of a silver cup and says sweetly: "From my earliest years, dear George, I have had a natural liking for Germans, the good result of causes hidden to me (benevolentia causis occultis conciliata)"; and he goes on to praise the families of Pico and of Cavalcanti as German in origin. "Therefore if all my German companions (Germani comites) are my brothers (germani), what shall I say about the men and the friends well known to you? About Martinus Uranius my uranian friend? And about you my excellent George? For whosoever is most germane to me (mihi plusquam germanus) is undoubtedly my alter ego." Ficino wittily concludes that Martin and George are therefore himself, German and germane, martini and gin. It is a familiar trope of friendship and letter writing but one given especial force both by Ficino's Platonic cult of eros, and by his conviction that puns, particularly those that prompted etymologizing, often pointed to causis occultis, to a genuine if concealed relationship: to the brotherhood, the germanitas, that governed languages and language itself.

In turning to just three of Ficino's German correspondents and to just four 1492 letters, I wish to open up some of the problems that attend the notion of causae occultae, the relationships not so much between words and their meanings—an ancient littered battleground, where Socrates for one strode like a pelican and optima spolia semantica are still to be found by academic scavengers—as between languages themselves when they are seen as having different kinds of authority, different planetary spheres if you will of meaning. The notion of a hierarchy of language structures is very politically incorrect, unless you relegate English to the very bottom of the pile, as Hamlet might put it, a very drab. But it is, nonetheless, an ancient and venerable notion tied to the nostalgia and reverence either for a "classical" language per se, Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew, or more importantly perhaps for a "classical" state of a language as embodied in the canonical texts of that language, usually a sacred text such as the Koran or the Diamond Sutra, or a great poem, the Iliad, the Kalevala, the Commedia. This classical state can be variously defined: philologically in terms of its morphology and syntax; or more expansively or poetically in terms of its sonority, metaphorical richness, oratorical suppleness, and so on. The absence of such a "classical" text is often tied either in radical instances to the subjugation or even death of a language, or to its metamorphosis into a variety of dialectal or regional forms, as is the case, to a certain extent, with the many varieties of non-Mandarin Chinese.

However, the notion of the "classical" stage of a language or of a classical language per se is frequently, some would argue invariably, tied to a certain degree of nostalgia, of a past oriented sense of loss, even as it is usually the nostalgia of an elite user, or rather of a speaker who has a special mastery of the language and a cultural and social investment in the authority of the texts which he or she understands as few others do. Nostalgia is thus tied to a sense of self worth juxtaposed with a sense of self exclusiveness. Understanding a classical language or the classical structures of one's own or indeed someone else's language is difficult to attain, requires intelligence, aptitude, and a good ear, and a considerable degree of scholarly commitment if it involves, as it frequently does, referring back to distant, complex literary and/or sacred texts. Understanding a classical language draws one into the company of other classicizers and eventually to the feet of the classicists themselves. Like many self-empowering activities, this can lead to exercizing power, linguistic and therefore cultural, over others: to becoming a linguistic Pooh Bah, teaching correct grammar to the natives as one rides on a Shakespearian elephant up to Poona and the hill stations. But Foucault, the child of Adler and a descendent of Machiavelli, is often wrong in assigning motivation. The love of a classical language or language state is frequently, I believe, deeply neurotic: it looks back longingly, like Claude Lorraine's gold enfolding canvasses or Jacopo Sannazaro's poetry, into the idyll and the pastoral, the structures of that other time and place when men and women spoke the language of the gods, themselves godlike and god accompanied. At this juncture we confront a paradox: the union of the sophistication even erudition that marks the mature mastery of a language—and every language is a difficult one to master—with the longing for a distant home, for a recollected past, for the parental language both of instruction and of love; in short for the, or for a, linguistic golden age, for the aurea dicta aetatis aureae, the golden talk of the golden-tongued heroes and their fathers. For the golden age is not just a time when men meant what they said, when meaning and word were one without what Hamlet was to call "seeming," but a time when words were more than they are now, had a more central, more profound role to play in the life of the mind because invested with a metaphysical, even cosmological status that made them "living words." At this point obviously we are bordering on theology, and notably Johannine theology, life itself as the Word.

In a famous letter of 13 September 1492 to the first of our three German correspondents, Paul of Middelburg, "distinguished natural philosopher (physicus) and astronomer (astrologer?)," Ficino praises his own century as a golden age created by its "golden wits" (ab ingeniis aureis), what we would now call, too loosely perhaps, its men of genius. [2] Behind the affirmation lie first the poets' four ages, though interestingly they are reversed to begin with the age of lead and to end with the age of gold, and then Plato's appropriation in the Republic 4 of these four ages to describe men's wits as being either "naturally" and "innately" leaden or iron or silvery or golden. Interestingly, Ficino is impressed by the inventa of his time and notably the "leading back into the light" of seven liberal disciplines (though not the trivium and quadrivium subjects per se) that had almost died out: grammar, poesy, oratory, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and "the ancient singing of songs to the Orphic lyre," "and all this in Florence." But more importantly even, he invokes the revival of something venerated by the ancients but "now almost destroyed": namely the union of different skills and disciplines. He specifically adduces the union of eloquence with wisdom, of martial prowess and prudence, in Federico Duke of Urbino (and in his son and brother, the heirs of his "virtue"). The union was the chief marker of Pallas Athene, the warrior goddess of peace and wisdom, of the aegis and the loom, the virgin and motherless protectress of Athens, terque quaterque beata. But her twinning of the roles of philosopher and of ruler was precisely what Plato had addressed in the Republic and Epinomis, the Second Epistle, and elsewhere, and which Ficino time and again addressed in his letters to such signori as Lorenzo de' Medici, Federico, and indeed Eberhard VI. For one of the central Platonic dogmas concerned the necessity of uniting wisdom with power and thus restoring an age of gold, including linguistic gold, when Jupiter, the ruler of gods and men, lived at peace with his father Saturn, the contemplator of disembodied ideas. Indeed, Ficino thinks of Germany itself in Dantean terms as the natural seat of the Holy Roman Emperor, the ultimate signore, who will in an age of gold rule conjunctively with the (Italian) Pope, the ultimate philosopher priest in a kind of Platonic-Christian bi-consulship. The union of the secular and spiritual powers emerges as a central Platonic and Ficinian aspiration as Ficino's rarely studied but important little commentary on the Second Epistle demonstrates, [3] but it had for Ficino a specific embodiment in the ideal relationship of papacy and empire, the twin shepherds ideally of the European flock.

The age had perfected astronomy in Paul himself even as it had recalled the "Platonic discipline" from the darkness into the light. Here Ficino is linking astronomy-astrology with Platonism merely by juxtaposition. Elsewhere, however, he publicly champions the importance of linking the two, and it is probable that the publication of his great Plato edition was delayed until 1484 in order to sally forth at the most auspicious stellar moment, in a year when Jupiter and Saturn were again in conjunction and expectations of something imminent and momentous were everywhere proclaimed. We should recall that the philosopher guardians of Plato's Epinomis, which the age accepted as not only authentic but as the thirteenth book or epilogue of the Laws, are also astronomer-astrologers, and that the nocturnal council is nocturnal precisely because they are then able to consult the stars, as Ficino makes clear in his epitome. [4]

Now the Germans were famous then as astrologers. Indeed, two final inventa that Ficino adduces as twin signs of his own age of gold is the recent discovery in Germany of the printing press, but more importantly still of "tables wherein the entire face of the sky over the course of a century is opened up in a single hour as it were," tables that eclipsed in his mind the machine he had seen in Florence that reproduced the daily motions of the celestial spheres, presumably an Archimedean clock. [5] These "German tables" had been sent to and dedicated to Paul's employer, the Duke of Württemberg (the founder we should recall in 1477 of the University of Tübingen), "a celestial gift worthy a celestial prince and worthy of the approval of Paul, a contemplator of celestial things." The German printing press had suddenly mastered the motions of the heavens, captured a century's unfolding in an hour, in a way united wisdom and power. The Germans became in Ficino's flattering portrait not merely contributors to Florence's age of gold, to the new Platonic age of his own aspirations, but in a way the perfecters of it in that they have captured the evermoving language, the classical language, of a century of stars in a book, writing down as it were the spheres. And "captured" should in fact be "recaptured" because the first symbolic system for writing down a language was Zoroaster's decision to use the stars and constellations as his signs, and the Germans have thus recaptured the first, hieratic, celestial language of the ancient theology. Moreover, the implication is that such tables enable men not only to know but to change or adjust their activities and choices, to make their lives "conform" to the celestial influences, to align their words with the words of Nature. And Zoroaster, as his name suggests, was thought to be the founder of astrology, or at least to share that distinction with Abraham. At all events, the new astronomy, not yet of Copernicus but of the German star tables, had revived the notion of the language of the stars.

This star-language theme attends the second of our teutonici complatonici Eberhard himself, whom Ficino praises in an epistolary proem accompanying a copy of his De Sole, which he is sending him via Johannes Streler, as the Sun among all the princes of Germany. [6] He is therefore the perfect recipient of "the Platonic and the Dionysian Sun," meaning Ficino's comparison of the Sun to God as treated by Plato and by Dionysius the Areopagite and interpreted by himself.

In a subsequent letter to the Duke, "inclyto comiti Wirtembergensi & montis Peligardi seniori," [7] Ficino adopts, with only a few adaptations, the concluding chapter of the De Sole [8] obviously deeming its solar theme particularly suitable as an emissary to a German prince. He begins by invoking Socrates as sun-struck, as someone who on his military service had often stopped motionlessly in his tracks to watch with wonder the rising sun, "his dazzled eyes fixed like those of a statue." His attendant daimon, Ficino's traditional identification of his "warning voice" (to daimonion), was a phoebean one, and Socrates had been used since childhood to venerating Phoebus and was thus accounted by Phoebus' oracle "the wisest of the Greeks"; his final act was to order a sacrificial cock to Apollo's son Aesculapius. Of course Ficino sees this figuratively. The Sun Socrates had admired in his ecstasy (in eo mentis excessu) was not so much the visible as the invisible Sun, called by Plato the son of God, the prime intellect and contemplatable by the intellect alone, since it was, in Socratic terms, entirely beyond the visible heavens. It was this supercelestial son that had moved Socrates to contemplate "the incomprehensible goodness of the father,"who is unchanging and in whom there is no "shadow of change," not even the changing we predicate of the intellectual realm. Thus the human mind first contemplates the visible sun, then the invisible sun of the prime intellect, and finally the Father Himself of lights. [9]

It is a studied, clever letter. For it implicitly links Eberhard, as a prince, to the Sun with all the usual flattering implications, even as it subordinates such an earthly light to the resplendent intellectual light of the angels and beyond them to the refulgent light of the Father of all light. In other words, it underscores both the advantages and the dangers of analogy, praising a prince and yet reminding him of his subordinate if lustrous position in the great scheme of things. [10] Above all, it establishes Socrates the philosopher as the wise soul who can make constant use of the rising of a great celestial prince to venerate the supercelestial Mind; who can translate from the language of the one to the language of the other, because Socrates' mind is itself supercelestial in origin. We have therefore a complex portrait of the art of comparatio looking back to the great guide to analogizing (albeit we are now aware of Socrates' frequent exploitation even abuse of analogizing), and forward to the recipient of an analogy which contains its own critique, its own pointers to its own limitations, since "the Sun is infinitely far from the world's Author" even as it serves in a way as the author of all life. At this point we can see why, in the separate proem to Eberhard, Ficino had stressed that his comparatio was both "Platonic" and "Dionysian." For comparing the Sun to the Good is a famous Platonic analogy, while Dionysius the Areopagite had warned in his Mystical Theology that nothing can be truly analogous to the God beyond all likeness, a God whom we can only approach in "an ecstasy," a standing outside itself of the mind.

Such a philosophical, golden-age critique necessarily undermines the notion of any lead or iron age language being authoritative. For every postlapsarian language, be it Latin or a vernacular, or even the Greek of Plato, and of the Areopagite and Plotinus his great interpreters, becomes the language of comparatio: the best it can do is to point to its own limitations, and to look beyond its own brightness to the supercelestial source of all brightness. One might even hazard the notion that the revival of this kind of Platonic critique of all language played a role, however indirectly, in undermining the authority, philosophical and even to a degree theological, of Latin and Greek, thus permitting the emergence of the vernaculars as being no more nor less tied to the structures and functioning of analogy, modern tongues that shared the same fundamentally provisional nature as the classical languages: stars to Latin's Sol but both pointing to an intellectual light and to a Father to which no sunshine could compare. Ficino's comparatist heliocentrism was pointing in fact to the need for a revolutionary displacement of all the planets as light-bearers, phosphorai, and by implication problematizing all language, even the planetary language of astrological prediction, influence, and magical invocation, and with it the German expertise in establishing star tables.

From the summer of 1488 on Ficino wrote a number of letters to Martinus Uranius (Martin Prenninger) of Constance and almost invariably puns on his Latin name: Uraniae mi coelestis amice, as well as, less often, on his German name: praemia geres. [11] Here, however, I shall briefly dwell on just two letters. The first is a note of 9 June 1492 [12] that accompanies Latin versions of a) the palinode that became in later antiquity the preface to the Orphic Hymns, [13] and b) the Orphic Hymn to Jove with Porphyry's explication of it. [14] Ficino declares that as a youth he had (he doesn't know how!) translated rather literally the Hymns and the Argonautica of Orpheus, the hymns of Homer and Proclus, the Theogony of Hesiod, but all for his own use alone (mihi soli); though Uranius had recently seen them when he was his guest. But Ficino had never wanted to publish them lest he "should appear to be recalling readers to the ancient cult of the gods and the demons which has been the subject of reprobation for a long time, properly so." Like the Pythagoreans he is anxious to avoid the impiety of publication, and the same concern had led him to commit his youthful commentaries on Lucretius to the flames as Plato had done his tragedies and elegies. [15] For noxious views are like poison. Nevertheless, he had promised to send Uranius "some of the safer songs of Orpheus," the palinode and the Hymn to Jove being examples. [16]

Unexpectedly, we see Ficino's profound reservations about texts that he had always admired and attributed to the third in the line of ancient sages which had culminated in Plato, a poet whom Plato himself had often quoted, and whose Hymns were revered by the later Neoplatonists (though we now suppose that the majority of the Hymns, as contrasted to earlier fragmentary quotations, are products of later antiquity). This is the odder in that the palinode is, as its name suggests, a retraction supposedly penned by Orpheus, who was recanting his earlier polytheism and testifying to his belief in the one god, Jove, the "beginning, middle and end of all things" as the penultimate line declares. But such a recantation was hardly necessary for a Neoplatonic exegete who would habitually interpret all polytheistic references monotheistically, since the many must always be referred to the One. And Christian exegetes had continually interpreted classical poetry in this way, though the pitfalls were recognized and the poets were often condemned or chastised for themselves not knowing what they really meant. [17] Ficino's curious acknowledgement of his own youthful folly in commenting on the seductive Epicurean poetry of Lucretius also speaks to the subordination of poetry to graver philosophy, as does his reference to Plato's rejection of his own songs. This anti-poetic stance is not, moreover, for the traditional Platonic reasons: that poets roused tumultuous passions in the young, that poets credited human passions and behaviour to the virtuous gods, that poets posited chaos as the first principle of cosmology. [18] Rather, it is because poetry is closely allied to demonic cult: much of it is "unsafe" though certain bits were "safer." Uranius, being himself uranian, was therefore honoured by passages which had both come from a notable Church Father and long been subject therefore to Christian appropriation. In short, we are confronted by the fear of translation into Latin, particularly the translation of Orphic-Platonic poetic theology, and by a corresponding and requisite concern with interpretation. Hence the affixing of Porphyry's exposition which Ficino obviously feels is in accord with Christian cosmology, the Creator being both "intellect" and "vivific spirit."

In another letter, in Ficino's twelfth and last book, Ficino takes up one of the most venerable of the ancient myths. [19] Given that Martin is a lawyer, Ficino addresses the bond between philosophy and the laws, mythologically the relationship between Saturn and Jupiter the author of laws. Astrologically this was important since it was thought that a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter (which occurs every nineteen years) occasioned the promulgation of new laws, and especially when this occurred in the four cardinal signs of Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn. "Didn't the ancient poets and the old theologians," he writes, "imagine Saturn as a contemplator in the innermost parts of shrines, excogitating laws and judgements after daily contemplation which he then handed on to Jove his son, the leader of actions who would issue mandates to the citizens on all they should obey." Hence King Minos in Homer withdraws for nine years into the cave of Jupiter and there receives the laws from Jove. But "nobody adept in the ancient mysteries would dedicate a cave to Jupiter as his property since he is always in the open." The cave "is obviously nothing other than the inmost shrine (adytum), domicile or chapel of Saturn himself" where Jupiter, united now with Saturn, gives Minos the laws which he subsequently administers to the people. Ficino then proceeds to laud philosophy and philosophers citing Plato, the Stoics, and Daniel to the effect that philosophers blaze forth like the splendour of the firmament, not as Saturn, that is, and not even as the eighth sphere of the fixed stars, but as the entire collective mass of the celestial spheres.

This Saturn-Jupiter governed argument is interesting in that it duplicates elements in the golden age myth. There is a descent from Saturn the contemplator down through Jove the lord of action to the heroic man, King Minos, and on to the people; and an ascent from Saturn in his adytum up to the eighth sphere and thence to the cosmos, Saturn serving as the link between celestial philosophy and human law, the mean between the language of sovereignty and the language of obedience, the language of grace and the language of prescription. For the paradigmatic gift is the gift of laws in classical mythology as in the story of Moses' ascent of Sinai, the Biblical equivalent to Homer's adytum. For Ficino's world certainly, Latin still owed its prestige, not so much to the humanists and poets, for all their yearning to revive the words of antiquity, as to law and theology. But interestingly, although Ficino acknowledges Jupiter's magisterial role as the god of law, he responded to the political divisions of the ancient Greeks and to their own myths of the founders of each of the great city states, the men who had first given them their own peculiar laws, Solon to the Athenians, Lycurgus to the Spartans, Minos to the Cretans, and so on.

One suspects that this Saturn-Jupiter paradigm eventually serves as a model for the relationship between classical Latin and the vernacular with the implication being that Saturnian Latin is the language of contemplation, of the golden age, while the vernacular, Eberhard's German, is the language of the law. If so, the myth also implies an ideal relationship, a cognatio, between father and son, surely one of the enduring metaphors for the link between the classical languages and the vernaculars. This is ironic given the infanticidal impulses apparent in the myths of Zeus's birth, the vomiting up of the Titans, and the jovian revenge that imprisons Cronos not in the cave of contemplation but in a cell. But here too the metaphors map out the often parricidal aspects of a vernacular's relationship to its classical forbear, and certainly to the authority that is claimed for that forbear by its most ardent supporters, those who have most to gain by championing its preeminence and holding other language speakers to its norms. Here too the later confusion of Cronos with Chronos, of Saturn with the figure of old Father Time, speaks to the equating of the classical language, again one's own or another's, with a past age and its excellencies, and with the implication that the new language is a witness to lapse and degeneration, a falling away from the poetic and philosophical heights once occupied by masters of word and song. Ficino's letter to Uranius speaks, by way of contrast, to the legitimate transmission of philosophy and law from the old to the new, a translatio of the Platonic gold. And here surely Ficino's own acute sense that Latin was neither Greek nor Hebrew nor Egyptian nor Chaldaean (Aramaic) nor Persian, the languages of the prisci theologi, but rather the language of interpretation, of commentary, gloss and exposition, must have played a signal role. For all his massive investment in Latin translation and Latin commentary, Ficino was after all an hellenophile, someone who felt perpetually that the language he was speaking was not the language of the gods, even as he hoped that something of that language would be born again as a result in part of his scholarly travails.

To conclude, Ficino's sympathetic attitude towards his own vernacular on the one hand, and his lifelong engagement with Greek on the other meant that he never privileged Latin in his own mind, even though the bulk of his scholarship and of his own theological and philosophical speculation is in the Scholastic Latin of the medieval school tradition (he tried his hand at fashionable Ciceronian ornamentation mainly in his letters). Indeed, his abiding sense that the ultimate mysteries had been unfolded in their most intelligible or accessible form in a foreign language, in Greek, furnishes us with an arresting model for mapping bilingualism in the context of a one-language supremacy (not necessarily conceived on the imperial model since Ficino did toy with the notion of translatio studii). If English is the new Latin, then the philosophical and poetic mysteries, the theologica, of any other language (potentially at least) become like Greek, and specifically Platonic, texts for all but native speakers of that language. They become, accordingly, texts that increasingly require interpretation and mediation by way of English (and one thinks of the near hegemony of English in certain areas of literary criticism and literary theory, even for the native speakers of the language of the texts engaged by or in the criticism). The more authoritative the texts indeed, the more compelling their translation into, and their interpretation by way of, English.

Ficino's 1492 letters to his three German correspondents thus serve, albeit incidentally, as mirrors reflecting our own contemporary engagement with a universal interpretative language, even as interpretation itself (and its accompanying epistemology) is a singularly problematic activity in the life of any Platonist as we noted earlier. I would even hazard the argument that Latin remained for Germany, indeed for Ficino and most of Europe, primarily the language of interpretation, despite the best endeavors of the humanists to inculcate a love of Latin literature; and that this remains indeed the primary reason for its study today. Ficino's revival of Greek Platonism would certainly serve to underscore such a hermeneutical role for what was always in his mind, and despite Vergil, Lucretius, and Boethius, the language of a subordinate philosophical tradition, and a language too that was already being challenged by three very different kinds of enemies: those who were championing the new vernaculars, those who were already recognizing the special nature of the languages of mathematics and astronomy; and those like Ficino who were yearning still for the classical golden language of revelation, the language of Plato's Ideas be it Greek, or Hebrew, or the pre-Babelic language of Enoch who walked with God.

The eclipse of Latin, ironically, is being followed in our own day by the eclipse as world languages not only of all but one of the Romance languages that Latin spawned, but of all the world's other vernaculars, including alas German, one of the premier languages of modern science and the language of Kant and Goethe, Hegel and Hölderlin. But this is generating some fascinating paradoxes. If English is increasingly taking on the role of interpretation in every scientific, and many would argue in virtually every other field of communication, then the other vernaculars, the major ones at least, are to some degree being recategorized as classical languages. Indeed, I would like to formulate a rule: that the more universal English becomes, the greater the classicization in a way of other languages and their requiring translation, interpretation and mediation in English.

One might argue that English will follow Latin and itself break down into a variety of vernaculars, and that one can already see evidence of this in the emergence say of Indian English or rapper English. But to set against this possibility, we have to acknowledge the stabilizing power of the media, not so of much books or even of more ephemeral publications, as of television and cinema. These are and will continue to regularize English and other dominant languages—though accelerating certain changes, particularly lexical, but including in English's case the marginalizing of the adverb ("do it good")—even as the failure to achieve broad access to television and cinema screen will, I believe, doom most minority languages either to oblivion, or to surviving on the margins or in linguistic ghettos. Ficino had hoped that germanitas would govern the relationship between the Latin and German worlds. But the new Latin, English, is on the offensive and German, though philologically germane, is just one of the many languages gradually retreating before its cultural onslaught, supplied as it with the heavy weapons of population numbers, of a sophisticated scientific, commercial, and entertainment technology, and of virtual control of the media (as well as, ironically, an ability to compound Germanic, Greek and Latin etymons indiscriminately and ad infinitum). As Pliny grimly observed leones jugo subdendi sunt and English, for some at least, has become the yoke that was once the Romans' way of humiliating their enemies. As a Shakespearian who would shake the yoke of inauspicious stars—or is it George W. Bush's oilwell of English defiled—I am not entirely happy for two reasons: first, this is not the linguistic golden age Ficino had in mind, and second, a conqueror always has to pay a price; and in this instance it is already the linguistic price of hearing one's own language abused, subverted and (mis)appropriated by one's fellow conquerors even more than by the lexically uprooted or vanquished, the verbal refugees of our ill-educated time. Such are the inexorabilities of change, but merely to deplore them is as naive, I realize, as merely to deplore the consequences for America and for the world of the events of 1492, the year lest we forget of the Enneads' rebirth!



[1] Ficini Opera Omnia (Basel, 1576), p. 924.3.

[2] Opera, p. 944.3—it concludes the eleventh book of Ficino's Letters.

[3] Opera, pp. 1530-32.

[4] Opera, pp. 1525-30.

[5] Cf. Cicero, Tusculanae. 1.25.63; and Ficino's own Platonic Theology 4.1 (ed. Allen and Hankins, 1:278-79). The tables were probably those of Johannes Regiomontanus' Ephemerides (Venice, 1474).

[6] Opera, p. 944.2—immediately preceding the letter to Paul of Middelburg (see n. 2 above).

[7] Opera, p. 946.2-947—the second letter in the twelfth book of Letters: it too dates from 1492. Montbéliard (Mömpelgard) was territory west of the Rhine (on the borders of Alsace and Franche-Comté) which an ancestor, Eberhard IV (1388-1419), had acquired through marriage.

[8] Opera, pp. 974.2-975.

[9] St. James, Epistle 1:17. Earlier in the treatise Ficino had in fact identified the Sun as the locus of the World-Soul, and thus we have the familiar Neoplatonic metaphysical triad of Soul, Mind, and the One. Moreover, the mind transcends the celestial realm of the visible Sun and so must itself derive from the supercelestial realm. The Sun we should never forget, Ficino writes, is not the origin of the cosmos, but rather a shadow or reflection (umbra quaedam ... potiusquam imago). For it is daily in motion and the power of is rays are often weakened or impeded: by the opposition of the Moon, by clouds, by the density of earthly objects, by distance. Indeed it is only a small part of the world, narrowly confined, dragged round by its sphere, subject to the pull of other spheres and to planetary oppositions, weakened especially by the power of the malefic planets, Mars and Saturn. Whereas the Father can effect all things, the Sun does not create the spheres or overpower the cold, the wet or the dense. Nor do the other planets and stars take their origin from the Sun even if they seem to take their measure from it as their ruler. Yet this submission does teach us that all things in, under or above heaven likewise refer to the one universal principle and admonish us to venerate this as the celestial beings venerate the Sun.

[10] It also implies that Eberhard should know the De Sole entire since he now has its conclusion, though there is nothing in the letter to suggest that it is in fact the last chapter of a larger work, a comparatio solis ad Deum that might remind Ficino's friends of the similar Orphica comparatio which is now a letter written in 1479 to Lotterio Neroni in Ficino's sixth book of Letters (Opera, pp. 825.2-826).

[11] Of particular note is Ficino's reply of 11 June 1489 (Opera, p. 899.2) to Martin's request for some guide to Platonism; for it contains a list of Ficino's own Platonic works (Kristeller calls it the second catalogue) and also a list of Platonic authorities available in Latin: works of the Areopagite, Augustine, Boethius, Apuleius, Calcidius, Macrobius, Avicebron, Alpharabi, Henry of Ghent, Avicenna, Scotus, as well as the Elements, the [Platonic] Theology, De Providentia and De Fato of Proclus, the Defensio Platonis of Cardinal Bessarion, and "certain speculations" of Nicolaus Caisius (apparently Cusanus, though this is the sole reference to him in Ficino's writings). Also interesting is Ficino's cataloguing for Uranius of his intellectual friends and pupils (familiarium atque auditorum), those who were joined with him in the cultivation of the "liberal disciplines," because it bears on the way we should think of the familiar but perhaps misleading notion of Ficino's "Platonic Academy" as distinct from his circle of admirers. In a letter of 29 August 1489 (Opera,p. 901.2), he gave a detailed account of his own horoscope and nativity signs and news of his completion of his astrologically keyed, three-book De vita. Moreover, he dedicated the ninth book of his Letters to Uranius referring to him in its dedicatory proem as his guardian angel, what the ancients had referred to as his "good demon" and "genius," and as his alter ego. He also sent him separately as a numerologically appropriate end of the tenth book of his Letters—since love, to which the tenth book is dedicated (consecratus), should end in pleasure—the four pleasure fables that now form part of the appendix to the Philebus Commentary (which Ficino despatched to Uranius in two parts in 1491). And in a letter of 4 August 1492 (Opera, p. 937.2) he sent this amico unico some seven summary extracts of Latin notes he had made on the recently arrived In Rempublicam of Proclus, "little flowers from the most delightful meadows" of the commentary which he had waywardly gathered (pp. 937.3-943.1). In the last, undated, letter to Uranius in the twelfth book (Opera, pp. 949.3-950), Ficino wittily writes that Castor and Pollux are not the only gemini in the night sky, for so are Saturn and his younger brother Mercury (being of the same brightness and both presiding over the intellect), and Jupiter and Venus (his germana alma), and Phoebe the Moon of Phoebus the Sun. Only Mars is solitary, a rival rather than a companion of the Sun. But in fact there are two Suns!

[12] Opera, p. 933.2.-935.2.

[13] The first is known as the Aristobulus version (Kern's frag. 247) and Ficino encountered it in Eusebius' Praeparatio evangelica 13.12.5 though it also appears in part in Clement of Alexandria's Stromata 5.14 (Kern, frag. 248). D. P. Walker, The Ancient Theology (London, 1972), p. 28, argues that this Latin version is by George of Trebizond.

[14] Once again, his source for both the hymn (Kern, frag. 168) and Porphyry's expositio of it is probably Eusebius's Praeparatio evangelica at 3.9; see Walker, pp. 36-37.

[15] "For being older and judging with greater care often leads us to condemn what the levity of youth too rashly embraced or at least did not know to condemn."

[16] Indeed, we only have two other such examples, a hymn to Heaven (Uranus) and a hymn to Nature, both in letters Ficino never published (one to Cosimo of 4 September 1462 and the other to Germain de Ganay, undated but c. 1495). See P. O. Kristeller, Supplementum Ficinianum, 2 vols. (Florence, 1937), 2:87-88; idem, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters (Rome, 1956), pp. 50-54, 96-97

[17] See my Synoptic Art: Marsilio Ficino on the History of Platonic Interpretation (Florence, 1988), ch. 3.

[18] Ibid., pp. 111-114.

[19] Opera, p. 947.2-948.



Autor (author): Michael Allen
Dokument erstellt (document created): 2002-08-13
Dokument geändert (last update): 2002-08-19
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