Some thoughts on soul in Ficino’s De Amore



In his posting on the questions from the Summa Theologica Torrance emphasized, as did Aquinas, the intellectual capacity of the human soul, and also the composite nature of the human being as ensouled and embodied.  In the parts of Ficino’s De amore and the letters that we are now reading, there is again this emphasis on the person as a composite of body and soul.  But while the intellect, and its activity of contemplation, remain the ultimate end of our mortal life, Ficino places much weight on the soul’s capacity for desire and its activity — ‘love’.  I want to connect this emphasis on desire with two other features of Ficino’s discussion of the soul: 1) the idea that our souls, our selves, and our relations to other beings are characterized by a kind of doubleness and 2) the conception of the soul as something that might act as a bridge between matter and the divine.

Two preliminary points: (1) The De Amore is a dialogue, and is represented as a kind of recreation of and commentary on Plato’s Symposium.  As a dialogue, we might expect to find the author’s views expressed through one of the characters in particular (this is often true in Renaissance dialogues), but I don’t think that is the case, and so I am going to write as though any of the characters might be voicing Ficino’s opinions. (2) Ficino identifies as a Platonist, and his ontology derives from Plotinus.  So in the De Amore we find a kind of hierarchy of being with God at the top, followed by the Angelic Mind, the World Soul, and the World Body (or “this whole machine which we see” or nature).  Individual souls are somehow derived from the World Soul (118).

First, let me mention some of the characteristics of the human soul as Ficino represents it, most explicitly in Letter 22.  It is a substance, rather than a quality, so although it is joined to a body, it is not a qualification of that body.  It is immaterial and immortal.  The soul is essentially in act (De Amore 74), in contrast to the body, which suffers the actions of the soul; the nature of the soul as active is linked to its incorporeality.  And although it “partakes of reason” it is not reason itself (Letter 22).  This is important for understanding the doubleness of the human soul.

In interpreting the Aristophanes myth in Speech Four, Ficino as Landino says that our souls were originally created by God as wholes, and each soul was provided with two “lights”, one innate (also called “natural”) and the other infused (the theme of vision and light is pervasive) (73).  With the first of these we perceive things that are equal to or inferior to our souls, with the latter we perceive superior things.  Because we have turned away from the infused light, and toward the innate light, we have become partial beings.  We could, however, recover the infused, divine light and once we did that might contemplate God and become whole.  This contrast between the innate and the infused light mirrors the contrast between a Divine Venus and a Vulgar Venus, which Ficino locates in (respectively) the Angelic Mind and the World Soul (53) (but later, on 118 the two Venuses are in the World Soul).  The two Venuses, or two powers, also occur within our souls — the first is an impulse to contemplation, and the second is an impulse to procreation.  What is interesting is that these are contrasted but not divorced.  Both are dispositions to respond to and desire beauty, including the beauty of bodies.  But they manifest in intellectual activity on the one hand, and sexual activity on the other.  The one creates immortal ideas; the other mortal bodies:  the Divine Venus is the power of the soul to understand superior things, the Vulgar Venus is the power of the soul to make inferior things (117).  Ficino’s aim is not so much to dissuade us from the impulse to procreation as it is to ensure that that impulse is kept in check, since if we focus too much on our embodied state, we will forget that the ultimate aim is to see and possess God (the body is identified with the river Lethe, and the senses and lust with coercive and tyrannical powers (76)).

The importance of desire as an activity of the soul is made clear when Landino, representing Aristophanes, says that “what restores us to heaven is not knowledge of God but love,” (79).  Knowledge is not sufficient to gain divine life for our souls, and hence the intellectual faculty is not the only capacity of soul that we need to cultivate.  In fact, cultivating correct desires, moving our attention from the desires associated with the Vulgar Venus and the innate or natural light to those associated with the Divine Venus and the infused light, is what will “restore us to heaven.”

The human soul with its double capacity for desire bridges acts as a bridge between our mortal nature and our immortal possibility.  We are not “entirely mortal” because the two Venuses, which are “daemons” or semi-divine powers, are in our souls (128).  And the substance of a human soul (I think he means its essence) is eternal (138).  But of course we are not entirely immortal, either, since we are embodied and our souls, although eternal in substance, act in time, i.e. the operations of our souls occur over time.  Our souls are derived from the World Soul, and their capacities, for desire and for contemplation, also serve to connect us back to the divine.  At the same time, most of the operations of our soul depend for their execution on the body, and in those respects our souls connect us with other created beings.

One strange and interesting feature of Ficino’s account of the soul is his suggestion that a physical substance, ‘spirit’ (spiritus) serves as a kind of conduit between the soul and the body, allowing each to act on the other: “The soul and the body, which are by nature very different from each other, are joined by means of the spirit, which is a certain very pure and clear vapor produced by the heat of the heart,” (115).  Spirit receives the powers of the soul and conveys them to the body, while also receiving information from the senses.  This does not, of course, solve the problem the interaction between a physical and a non-physical substance, since the spirit must either be a physical substance or not; but it does demonstrate that Ficino sees it as a problem.  It is clear that our souls are supposed to bridge our physical and our non-physical lives, but the mechanism to make that possible remains mysterious.

A second problem that Ficino clearly recognizes is the question of innate knowledge:  if we have it, why don’t we know that we have it, but if we don’t have it, how do we know what we’re looking for?  Ficino adopts a Platonic solution, but it is interesting that he reads it into the account of two forms of pregnancy in the speech of Benci (representing Socrates).  The soul “possesses the seeds [i.e. the Reasons] of all of its own things from the beginning,” and we can know that because of the way in which it desires, seeks, find, judges and compares objects (132).  Ficino makes little of Diotima’s account of those who are pregnant “in body” rather than “in soul” although he has acknowledged that some people are more inclined to a life that is voluptuous rather than contemplative.  He uses the notion of fertility not so much to advance that contrast, which he has elaborated at length, as to assert the necessity of innate knowledge given the nature of human psychological capacities.

The picture of the soul that emerges from the De Amore is then one in which the human capacity for desire — desire for mortal as well as immortal objects — is both central and primary.  It offers us the possibility of a return to the divine, and at the same time it connects us to other created beings.  It is necessary for the contemplation of God, and hence immortal life, and also necessary for procreation, and the kind of second-best immortality available through procreation.