The Platonic Sea: Marsilio Ficino and Mediterranean Philosophy

Cover of Denis J.-J. Robichaud’s recent book, Plato’s Persona

I was recently asked to review Denis J.-J. Robichaud’s recent book, Plato’s Persona: Marsilio Ficino, Renaissance Humanism, and Platonic Traditionswhich was published last year by Pennsylvania University Press. The review will appear in The Sixteenth Century Journala periodical aimed at an academic audience that specializes in the early modern period. While that review is geared toward scholars, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the book here, since some of what it covers piqued my interest as a Mediterraneanist.

Marsilio Ficino, the Renaissance’s interpreter and translator of Plato

Robichaud’s book explores a figure named Marsilio Ficino, who is in some sense the father of Renaissance interpretations of the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Ficino wrote commentaries on all sorts of things related to Plato and was even responsible for many of the translations of Plato’s works into Latin from the original Greek. In other words, without Ficino, Plato would be a quite obscure figure.

Georgios Gemistos

But Ficino wasn’t alone, and this is where the Middle Sea comes into play. Plato had been mostly unknown to Europeans for much of the Middle Ages. Then, when the Ottoman Turks began pressing on the Byzantine Empire centered at Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), many Greek scholars such as Basilios Bessarion and Georgios Gemistos brought a ton of Greek manuscripts with them to Italy. Included in this, especially in Gemistos’s cache of papers, were many of Plato’s famous works that did not exist in Western Europe. This was a boon for figures like Ficino, who quickly got to work on interpreting Plato.

Cardinal Basilios Bessarion

So, Platonism’s revival in the West was the direct result of Mediterranean wars between Christians and Muslims, but it was also the collaborative project of Greeks and Italians who, despite their religious differences, saw a common vision in the words of the ancients.

But it doesn’t stop there. According to Robichaud, Ficino’s attempts to interpret and share his vision of Plato were not just about Plato. Rather, he borrowed from a whole slew of authors from the ancient, late antique, and medieval worlds who thought about and read Plato. These figures came from North Africa, Greece, Syria, and Turkey, demonstrating that Plato’s spread was not solely the product of Renaissance collaborations between Italians and Greeks, but had a much longer history.

A bust of Plato

His dissemination took place as the result of Hellenization, which is what we call the process by which Greek became the dominant cultural model of the Mediterranean following the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth and third centuries before Christ. And then, the Romans had their turn, as figures ranging from the Roman orator, philosopher, and statesman Cicero to the Christian bishop and theologian Augustine all read, interpreted, and wrote about Plato.

Plato, then, is as Mediterranean as it gets. He might have written in one context, but he very quickly resonated with a wide array of people who saw value in what he said. While he may have been lost in Europe for centuries, his revival in the Renaissance—the product of a perfect storm of factors that converged all at once—demonstrates that the layers of the past and their continuity in the present extended even to philosophy.

In conclusion, if you know anything about Plato’s thought, this joke will make sense. If not, you need to read you some Plato: at the end of the day, if there were a Platonic ideal of Sea, it would surely be the Mediterranean.