The Astrology of Marsilio Ficino: Divination or Science?
In 1477 the Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino wrote, but did not publish, a vehement attack on the practices of astrologers; his Disputatio contra iudicium astrologorum.
Yet in the following year Ficino himself wrote to Pope Sixtus IV, as one 'equally devoted to both prophecy and astrology', predicting various misfortunes over the coming two years from specific astrological configurations.
How do we understand this apparent anomaly? Recent scholars have referred to Ficino's 'oscillations', 'inconsistent views', 'self-contradiction', 'somewhat double-faced attitude', 'vacillation on the subject of judicial astrology', 'peculiar adaptations of astrology' and even his 'relapse into superstition' in an attempt to account for it.
We cannot hope to grasp Ficino's position unless we attempt to enter it and ask fundamental questions about the nature of astrology. Do we define it as a magical art, or a natural science? What exactly do we mean by magic and science? It would seem to us that there are two very different modes of perceiving reality, modes which could generally be defined as 'mystical' and 'rational'. One would seem to depend on subjective experience, the other on objective observation. Contemporary astrology is claimed by both camps, yet struggles to find its natural authority in either. But if we look at the various traditions that informed the Renaissance's claim of magic to be the highest form of natural science, we begin to see that such a distinction is superficial. The question of man's relationship to the stars has always been at the heart of his quest for wisdom, whether soothsayer or philosopher, and to approach this with integrity we must ask serious questions about the kind of knowledge to which magical and astrological systems and practices were in service.
By the fifteenth century, the tradition of classical astrology as a rational system of apprehending the workings of the cosmos was fully established in the West, based on the Aristotelian model of celestial causation. Greek and Arabic textbooks on astrology were passed down via Latin translations, definitively illustrated in the Tetrabiblos of Claudius Ptolemy, a late Hellenistic work which provides us with an exposition of the conceptual framework of astrology. This model implies the correlation of effects from the heavens in an 'objective time' with those on earth, unfolding in a predetermined way like the cogs in a great machine of destiny. Ptolemaic astrology firmly upholds a natural process of causation, and introduces the concept of ether, an airy all-pervading substance suffused throughout creation whose quality depends on the heavenly bodies. Ptolemy promised man the ability to understand human temperament and predict events through examination of the ether, and established the primacy of the 'seed' moment or moment of origin, such as birth itself, at which time the heavens stamped an impression which would indelibly mark the individual. Now such a conception of direct, quantifiable astral influence presupposes an omniscient astrologer who observes objectively a fixed pattern; indeed it appears to allow him to give an irrevocable judgement on the 'fate' sealed by the birth moment. It also implies a linear unfolding of time and paves the way for modern 'scientific' astrological research, based on statistical analysis, quantitative measurement and empirical observation of phenomena.
In the medieval period orthodox Christianity found no problem with a natural astrology which understood the correspondences between the heavens and the material world, and used this knowledge in such fields as agriculture and medicine. But for denying human freewill, and for attributing to the astrologer the omnipotence of God, judicial astrology was roundly condemned. We find Thomas Aquinas defining all human attempts to foretell events, whether through dreams, astrology or occult practices as divination, and sinful; for the only legitimate means of foreknowledge must be through Divine Revelation.
From this position, there can never be the possibility that divine knowledge may arise through human effort or activity. The stars cannot be signs in any other way than they are effects of causes; all true insight into the workings of Providence must depend on an act of grace, on the prayerful submission of the individual's will to God's. Now in his Disputatio Ficino clearly sets out to fully endorse this view, condemning the type of astrology which depends solely on human ingenuity and limited judgement. 'I am composing a book on the providence of God and the freedom of human will', he wrote to Bernardo Bembo, in which I refute, to the best of my ability, those pronouncements of the astrologers which remove providence and freedom.'
This would appear to be a definitive statement of allegiance to the orthodox position. The Disputatio, calling on the authority of Aristotelian, Platonic and Christian sources to refute the subjection of human reason to the stars, reiterates the objections of Aquinas with regard to the dangers of demonic intervention and the astrologers' lack of piety. Yet on a closer reading we find something new. It becomes apparent that although Ficino rejects certain claims of astrologers, he does not deny the possibility that divinatory techniques in themselves may work. Indeed, he suggests that there are three kinds of foreseeing; through the infusion of divine knowledge, which may be received through magical means and the 'divining of the spheres'; through natural means, such as a melancholic temperament which more easily allows the soul contact with its own divine nature; and through what he calls the 'observation of heavenly patterns'. This mode of perception is available to anyone, anywhere; it implies the closing of the divide between the human and the divine.
Let us now go back in history, to the earliest astrologers of Mesopotamia long before astrology was 'rationalised' by the Greeks.
As man grew more distant from his gods, so divination lost its sacred dimension and became the domain of earthly prediction of events. In astrology it survived into the early centuries AD, particularly in horary and inceptional techniques, but was losing hold to the influence of Stoic and Aristotelian philosophy, which demanded a reformulation of what had been a participatory experience into a theoretical structure. The great science of astrology was born. But did what we might call the 'divinatory attitude' survive, and if so, how? It can of course be found in the whole domain of magic and so-called 'occult' practices which proliferated in the Hellenistic era, but with the Church's condemnation of any experience of the sacred outside its own portals it could hardly flourish overtly. We have to look elsewhere, to a tradition which would both hold and protect its vulnerable core in an overmantle of philosophical enquiry. Here it was not only preserved; it was reflected upon and articulated in the language of myth, poetry, revelation and metaphysics, for those who could hear it, and this was the tradition revered by Ficino as the Ancient Theology.
From an early age, Ficino tells us, he felt a great affinity with Platonic philosophy, rather than with the followers and teachers of Aristotle, whom he regarded as "wholly destructive of religion". It would seem that, underlying rigorous dialectic, Ficino detected a contact with a spiritual reality which was at once dynamic and creative, and which could lead an individual to begin a process of purification which would eventually lead to knowledge of themselves and of God.
But Plato was not alone in speaking as a 'sacred oracle'; indeed Ficino understood him to be the culmination and perfection of an ancient lineage of wise men whose power of eloquence derived from their calling as philosopher-priests. In 1463, when Ficino had just embarked on his Platonic opus, Cosimo de' Medici presented him with a another manuscript and requested its immediate translation into Latin. This was the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus, who Ficino believed to be the very first of the Ancient Theologians, living in Egypt a few generations after Moses. ; in other words, a combination of intellectual penetration and religious devotion.
In Hermes' revelation his teacher Poimandres tells a creation myth of the Fall of Man as he unites with the powers of Nature. Using the metaphor of a symbolic cosmos, we learn how Man is created by the supreme Mind or nous, and receives the qualities of the seven planets, which govern his destiny on earth. But Man, who shares the essence of Mind, also partakes of its absolute freedom, and he wills to 'break through the circumference of the spheres' and come to know his Maker. Man is a god, he only has to recognise it, and this very recognition can change his relationship with fate. This dangerous but exhilarating message was to be the key to Ficino's transformation of astrology.
So when Ficino talks of divinatory knowledge as 'a gift of the soul' we can see a similarity in Hermes' suggestion that divination itself is a means of participating in nous, of knowing as God knows. Through 'dreams and signs' such as 'birds, entrails, inspiration and the sacred oak' divinatory practices would seem to facilitate a mode of knowing which is at once temporal, in that man is observing an event in time, and eternal, in that his faculty of perception transcends time and space.
I would like to explore further the importance of this mode of perception, which Ficino expressed in terms of a union of Mind and Soul, for it is a mode quite absent, I would suggest, from the conceptual thought processes which govern post-enlightenment rationalism. The ability to see past, present and future as one may now be seen as the result of a convergence of two different realities, each with their own laws. The experience is one of suspension of linear time, whose movement is now more faithfully described as circular. As Hermes tells Asclepius, 'This is eternity, then, which can neither begin to be nor cease being, which turns round and round in everlasting motion under the fixed and unchanging law of its cycle, its parts rising and falling time and again so that as time changes the same parts that had fallen rise anew.'
Now with specific reference to astrology, this mode of perception will not regard stars and planets as causal agents, but as symbols which reflect back to the human soul its inextricable correspondence with the cosmos, as the signification of the astrological insight can in no way be determined by the physical configuration, but will depend on the ability, and desire, of the individual to 'tune in'. Ficino describes it as incorporeal, adding 'if one pays attention to this signification, it is the thought of God who speaks that one comprehends.' He observes that in speaking, signification is a product of soul, that it is direct, unmediated, and cannot be related to sensible things.
In 1484, under a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, the great significators of reason and faith, Ficino chose to publish his translations of Plato. The very day of publication, Ficino tells us, Pico della Mirandola came to Florence, and persuaded him to translate Plotinus. It is typical of Ficino to attribute great importance to the astrological symbolism at play between himself and Pico; 'It would seem to be divinely brought about' he says, 'that whilst Plato was, so to speak, being re-born, Pico was born under Saturn in Aquarius. In fact I too was born thirty years earlier under the same sign. And so, arriving in Florence on the day our Plato was produced, that old wish of the hero Cosimo
Ficino included much of his Disputatio in his Commentaries on Plotinus' Enneads, and it is easy to see why, for Plotinus' analysis of astrological effect is a clear refutation of causal thinking. Here, Ficino found confirmation of astrology as divination. In divining from the heavens, says Plotinus, people can know the nature of the All, because the stars are signs: 'We may think of the stars as letters perpetually being inscribed on the heavens or inscribed once and for all' he says, and 'those who know how to read this sort of writing …can read the future from their patterns, discovering what is signified by the systematic use of analogy.' The Plotinian cosmos is a ballet, all parts interdependent, the hierarchies of being corresponding and mirroring each other in a cosmic energy-field of anima mundi. It is the Soul, as the intermediary between intellect and body, which connects all things, sowing itself as 'bait' in material forms which will naturally attract, by affinity, the soul of the human being. As it emanates from the supreme One, soul disposes the configurations of the stars, so that life experiences are announced, not caused, by their patterns - but whilst Providence rules the entire process for the Good, those who are identified with their lower, material soul will not experience its law as a liberation. Rather, they will remain fate-bound.
This is re-iterated by another, often neglected, spokesman for the practice of divination - the neoplatonist Iamblichus. Ficino paraphrased his De mysteriis shortly before completing the De vita, and was clearly influenced by Iamblichus' philosophical arguments for the ritual practices of theurgy. Iamblichus' treatise on the nature of Egyptian, Chaldaean and Assyrian religion seeks to penetrate to the essence of divination, in the context of answering a critique by Plotinus' follower Porphyry. 'There is one correct definition and principle for all forms of divination', says Iamblichus, 'and it has nothing to do with irresponsibly divining the future with things that lack foreknowledge. Rather, it is to view from the perspective of the gods - who contain in themselves the limits of the entire knowledge of reality ...' Conjecture, opinion and logical reasoning will never lead to a realisation of one's own divinity, rather, 'the perfect efficacy of ineffable works, which are divinely performed in a way surpassing all intelligence, and the power of inexplicable symbols, which are known only to the Gods, impart theurgic union.'
Thus images, prayers, invocations, talismans - in whatever ritual use appropriate for the particular condition of the individual, may all contribute to the process of re-aligning his or her soul. It is important to understand that divination does not originate from the energies used in everyday life, or from human fabrications or ingenuity. Rather, the devotion, intent and desire of the operator will allow a superior power to 'perfect' the ritual and impart its authority to it. In other words, human beings may partake of Divine Revelation through their own efforts. It is pointless, says Iamblichus to his critic Porphyry, to try to understand these things from a human perspective - for even to state 'it must be granted that there are Gods' immediately removes oneself from them.
But most people have not reached this stage, and it would seem that with this in mind Ficino in de vita coelitus comparanda presents us with the first steps in the cultivation of notio - implicit in a fully elaborated system of 'natural' magic. The magus knows how to prepare a material vehicle as a 'bait' for 'tuning in' to the hidden powers of the cosmos, whether this be through engraving an image, mixing a potion, or focussing sound; and, like the diviner, he does this with the express purpose of knowing the part he must play in creation. Like the diviner also, the ritual container must be perfected before the alignment occurs. Thus Ficino's astrological framework is specific and his instructions technical - not only must one study the nature of the planets, but be able to calculate their movements and observe their configurations. But to appropriate the significance, actively, of a planet or star as a symbolic image - that is, to perceive it as a dynamic presence - something else is required, and like Iamblichus, Ficino constantly draws the reader to the means by which he may experience a deepening of his perception: namely, through a deliberate act of choice, followed by the focussing of desire:
'by an application of our spirit to the spirit of the cosmos, achieved
both through physical knowledge (artem physicam) and our emotion
(affectum), celestial goods pass to our soul and body. This happens from
down here through our spirit within us which is a mediator, strengthened
then by the spirit of the cosmos, and from above by way of the rays of the
stars acting favorably on our spirit, which not only is similar to the rays by
nature but also then makes itself more like celestial things.'
There is no area of life which cannot be enriched by not just recognising, but acting upon, its congruence with the continual movements of the heavens, if it is desired, and the very word desire, from the latin de-sidere ('from the star') evokes an inextricable connection between human longing and the cosmos.
It is from this ground that Ficino was able to look at his own horoscope and effectively transform its traditional interpretation. The malefic planet Saturn, positioned on his ascendant, would, he tells us normally indicate a 'brutish' life, bowed down with the extreme of misery.'
I think we can begin to see that what we understand as a 'scientific' approach has very little to do with the unitive vision of Ficino's creative imagination. Scientia, for the pre-modern mind, cannot be divorced from the study of ultimate metaphysical truths, and thus can only be preparatory to mystical union. In this sense, the magus is a scientist, as he investigates the hidden laws of the cosmos, learns of the correspondences between all things, and seeks to understand the world from the perspective of the Creator himself. But he is also a diviner, as he does this through action, perfecting the techniques and rituals which may lead him to the deeper level of insight required to reap divine gifts. Very early in his career, Ficino playfully associated the singing of an Orphic Hymn to the Cosmos with the gift of a benefice from his patron Cosimo, and this is only one of many examples of his natural ability to 'read the signs' and find meaningful significance in the coincidence of events.
Astrology for Ficino could only be justified if it was used in this way, if its framework of techniques and the physical reality of its symbols provided the ritual 'container' for the human soul to free itself from the limitations of a material consciousness, and begin to know itself as an image of God. Astrology is then in service to philosophy, and indeed becomes for Ficino the primary activity of his Platonic Academy. In the innermost sanctum of the Academy, he says, 'philosophers will come to know their Saturn, contemplating the secrets of the heavens'., where the levels of literal and symbolic reality are brought together in a triumphant conjunction of astronomy and astrology, philosophy and poetry, the divine and the human to produce a truly anagogic apprehension of unity. The scientist and the diviner are one.