ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

428. Principal Platonists. -- Barlaam taught Petrarch some of the Platonic dialogues. Aurispa and Traversari brought from Byzantium, in 1438, the first complete manuscript of Plato. Leonardo Bruni translated the choicest of the dialogues into Latin.

But the first real promoter of Platonism was GEORGIOS GEMISTOS, called afterwards PLETHO (1355-1450). He was a Byzantine savant, delegated by the emperor John Paleologus VIII. to attend the councils of Ferrara and Florence, whither the Holy See had invited the schismatical Greeks with a view to effecting, if at all possible, a reunion of the separated churches. Gemistos Pletho held up to the astonished Florentines the great rival of Aristotle, and induced the court of the Medici to found a Platonic Academy. His bitter diatribe against Aristotle, De Platonicae atque Aristotelicae Philosophiae Differentia, circulated in Florence in 1440, is full of exaggerations. As for his own philosophy, it was much more closely akin to Plotinus than to Plato. It is curious to see the Imperial envoy who was charged with the reunion of the Christian Churches advocating in his Nomoi a universal theism with Plato as its Gospel. Pletho was supported by ARGYROPULUS and MICHAEL APOSTOLIUS; but he was ably opposed by-the patriarch GENNADIUS at Constantinople (361), and by the Aristotelians, THEODORE GAZA and GEORGE OF TREBIZOND.

Above the conflict between Aristotelians and Platonists was heard the conciliating voice of a disciple of Pletho, CARDINAL BESSARION (1403-1426). Of this Italianized Greek it has been justly said that "he was the most Greek of the Latins and the most Latin of the Greeks". In reply to the pamphlets of George of Trebizond (Comparatio Platonis et Aristotelis) and Theodore Gaza (Antirrêtikon), he wrote a treatise In Calumniatorum Platonis, in which he combined an avowed admiration for Plato with a respectful deference towards Aristotle. So far from setting them in opposition to each other as irreconcilable adversaries, he rather sought a means of harmonizing their philosophies, insinuating the opinion that was afterwards to meet with such universal favour: that the two great Grecian sages differed from each other more in the form than in the content of their teachings.

It was in the wealthy city of Florence, under the rule of the famous Medici, Cosmo and Lorenzo, at the head of the aristocratic and exclusive Florentine Academy, that the greatest representative of Italian Platonism, MARSILIO FICINO (1433-1499), won an enduring reputation. At the request of his protector, Cosmo de' Medici, he translated all the works of Plato into Latin (about 1453). The accomplishment of this task assured the success of the movement to popularize Plato. Besides translations of Plotinus, Iamblichus and Proclus, Ficino has left some original works, among which the Theologia Platonica de Animarum Immortalitate and the De Christiana Religione deserve mention. He admits innate ideas and the theory of the world-soul; his principal aim in the Theologia Platonica is to refute the Averroïsts and Alexandrists (§ 4), whom he accuses of heresy, and to defend the immortality of the soul against them by all the arguments of the Phaedo. He takes an evident delight in expounding the Platonic theory of love and of the sovereign good.

Although imbued with Platonism and anxious to be true to Plato throughout (Nolim Marsilianam doctrinam opponere Platonicae), Ficino misunderstands the real import of Plato's philosophy. He realizes neither the important role of the Ideas in the economy of Platonism, nor the true significance of the pantheistic emanation theory in Neo-Platonism. Plotinus, from whom he borrows his poetic mysticism and his description of the hierarchical order of beings, he holds to be the faithful interpreter of Plato. And finally, under pretext of reconstructing the golden chain that links together all the great thinkers with the divine Plato, he welcomes into his hospitable synthesis the ideas of Hermes Trismegistus, Pythagoras, Zoroaster, Pseudo-Denis, and even the teachings of Magic and of the Cabala, which were steadily becoming the fashion of the time in intellectual centres.

The history of the Florentine Academy was as brief as it was brilliant. The death of Lorenzo de' Medici (1492), the political disturbances which centred around the Dominican monk, Savonarola, and especially the dearth of serious workers, led to the rapid decline of the great movement for the glorification of Plato. Amongst his numerous auditors, pompously described by Ficino as Complatonici mei, scarcely a name deserves to be saved from oblivion. The best known is GIOVANNI PICO, count of Mirandola (1463-1494), who compiled a strange medley of Grecian philosophy, magic and cabalistic doctrines.{1}

{1} In no other country of Europe was there such an outburst of enthusiasm for Plato as in Italy. Catholic Spain, which was always the faithful champion of Aristotle, gives Plato a place in its sixteenth-century mysticism. We may mention LEO HEBRARUS (Leo the Hebrew, died about 1460-1463), a Jew of Lisbon, author of Dialogi di Amore. Neither Germany nor England favoured Platonism; its influence is revealed in a secondary and isolated way in such men as REUCHLIN and BLESSED THOMAS MORE. In France, a Platonic current was felt early in the sixteenth century: LE ROY (Regius, 1510-1577) translated some of Plato's dialogues into French; DE SERRES (1540-1597) made a new Latin translation of all Plato.

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