The Florentine Academy

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The Neoplatonic Revival

The Neoplatonic Revival

In the year 527, when the Emperor Justinian closed the Neoplatonic School in Athens and banished the last seven great Neoplatonists, the teachings of Plato and the Neoplatonists disappeared from Christian Europe for almost a thousand years. In the fifteenth century a revival of Neoplatonism arose through the efforts of Nicolas de Cusa, a Catholic Cardinal of German birth. Directly opposing the personal God of the Church, Cusa defined Deity as “the absolute Maximum and also the absolute minimum, who comprehends all that is or can be.” This laid him open to the charge of pantheism, which he did not deny. He also declared that Deity can be apprehended only through intuition, an exalted state of consciousness in which all limitations disappear. Cusa’s efforts to revive Neoplatonism were continued in Germany by Reuchlin, Trithemius and Cornelius Agrippa, and in France by Bovillus. The chief stronghold of the Neoplatonic revival, however, was the city of Florence, where Theosophical principles reappeared under the protection of the powerful house of Medici.

In 1438 Cosmo de Medici made the acquaintance of Gemisthus Pletho, an ardent Platonist, who inspired him with the idea of founding a Platonic Academy in Florence. With this end in view, Cosmo selected Marsilio Ficino, the son of his chief physician, and provided for his education in Greek philosophy. Ficino’s natural aptitude was so great that he was able to complete his first work on the Platonic Institutions when he was only twenty-three years old. At the age of thirty, after translating the Theogony of Hesiod, the Hymns of Proclus, Orpheus and Homer, and all of the works of Hermes Trismegistus that could be found, Ficino began his translations of Plato. When that was finished, he turned to the Neoplatonic writers, and left behind him excellent translations of Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus and Synesius as his contribution to the work of the Theosophical Movement.

When Cosmo de Medici’s grandson Lorenzo was eight years old, Ficino became his tutor, and embued him with a deep reverence for the Greeks. After Lorenzo became the head of the house of Medici he brought his grandfather’s plans to completion. He founded a great University in Pisa, established public libraries for his people, and made many valuable additions to the Lorentian Library which by this time contained a collection of ancient manuscripts second to none in Europe. He raised the Platonic Academy to a high standard of excellence and founded an Academy in the gardens of San Marco where the finest examples of ancient art were displayed for the benefit of students. Here Lorenzo spent many happy afternoons, watching the work of Botticelli and Michaelangelo, and listening to the words of Leonardo da Vinci, whose ideas about flying machines interested him as much as his discussions on art.

On the hills of Fiesole, just outside of Florence, Lorenzo had a beautiful villa which was surrounded by a colony of writers and scholars. One day a visitor arrived, a handsome young man of twenty-one who was already a prominent figure in the world of thought. He was Giovanni Pico, a younger son of the Prince of Mirandola. Although, to quote his nephew, Pico was “still a child and beardless,” he had already acquired proficiency in twenty-two languages, had been initiated into the Chaldean, Hebrew and Arabian Mysteries, and had come under the notice of the “Brothers of the Snowy Range” in far-off Tibet. On the day of his arrival in Fiesole, the whole colony gathered around him to hear why he had left Rome so precipitously. He told them that he had become thoroughly disgusted with the ignorance displayed by the heads of the Church. He had published a series of 900 questions addressed to the Church and had invited scholars from all over Europe to be present at the debate. The intellectual leaders of the Church, after carefully examining these questions, decided that thirteen of them contained heretical statements. These were sent to the Pope, who immediately issued a bull against the young nobleman. Pico left for the more congenial atmosphere of Florence.

Lorenzo and Ficino decided that Pico would be a valuable addition to their Academy. Through the united efforts of these three the revival of Neoplatonism made rapid headway. Mirandola, who was a devoted student of Plotinus, persuaded Ficino to translate the Enneads, the influence of which appears in Mirandola’s own description of God:

God is not Being; rather is He the Cause of Being. As the one primal Fountain of Being, He is properly described as the ONE. God is all things, the abstract Universal Unity of all things in their perfection. To even think or speak of God is profanity. (De Auro, Sir Thomas More’s Translation.)

Pico della Mirandola died in his thirty-first year, and Marsilio Ficino followed him six years later. After the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent the Platonic Academy went out of existence. In its place arose a mystical Fraternity, the Fratres Lucis, or Brothers of Light, which was founded in Florence in 1498. In spite of the persecution of the Inquisition, this Order was still alive in the eighteenth century, numbering among its members such men as Paschalis, Cagliostro, Swedenborg and St. Germain.

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THEOSOPHY, Vol. 26, No. 4, February, 1938

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