Transcript: 342. Denis Robichaud on Plato in the Renaissance

An interview with Denis Robichaud on how, and why, Plato was read in the Italian Renaissance.

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps 342–Denis Robichaud on Plato in the Renaissance

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about Plato in the Renaissance, how his texts were received, what they did with his ideas. Plato was also an influential figure in the medieval period. How did the Renaissance readers treat Plato differently than the medieval ones did?

Denis Robichaud: Well, the first thing to consider, which may be obvious but shouldn't go unnoticed, is the texts. So there were some dialogues by Plato available in the Middle Ages: the Phaedo, the Meno, the Timaeus and portions of the Republic, for example. But it's in the 15th century that we really have a rediscovery of the Platonic corpus as a whole. A number of humanists translated various dialogues, but Marsilio Ficino is the one who translated all of Plato's dialogues for the first time and he prints them in 1484. Now this has certain consequences. For one, it means that there's an emphasis in reading Plato not just for doxographical reasons, meaning not just to read the doctrines. So for example, a theory of recollection or immortality of the soul, these things are still very important in the Italian Renaissance. But you also have a new way to start to look at Plato that involves sometimes the dialogic nature of the works, the fragments of pre-Socratics that Plato quotes or pieces of poetry or even looking at Plato for rhetorical or literary purposes as well, too.

Peter Adamson: But still, obviously, the main issue and difference that we should highlight here is that they have access to much more Plato than they did in the medieval period where they mostly just read the Timaeus, right?

Denis Robichaud: That's right. And even if you think about it as well, even though you had some translations of Plato in the Middle Ages, it wouldn't have had a wide audience. I like to remind people that today we only have three complete manuscripts of Plato that survive. Marsilio Ficino had two of those and a third one that has since been lost, and he was in correspondence with Cardinal Bessarion, who had the fourth. So to have access to text is important. So why Ficino is important there, too, is just as a disseminator, right? As he translates Plato into Latin, the complete corpus, he also prints it, and it's just much more widely available. So it's not just the totality of the works, it's the accessibility of having to just being able to read it. So not having to go into a particular library to find a dialogue, but also being able to have the printed versions accessible everywhere.

Peter Adamson: Okay. And the recovery of Plato that we're talking about here is part of the wider project of humanism, which in the first instance, perhaps, could be thought of as a philological enterprise. So they're recovering texts, they're editing them, they're writing comments in the margins, et cetera. What is the relationship between the philological aspect of the recovery of Plato and the philosophical engagement with his works?

Denis Robichaud: That's a very good question. I would say that it falls into the understanding of humanism as first a recovery of antiquity. And to properly understand classical Athens, some humanists think we need to read Plato, it's just that simple, and they're interested more in antiquity than they are in Plato. And they may read Plato as a model for clear Attic prose. So they're interested in, just as they would, for example, look at Lucian, who's not from classical Athens like Plato, but is writing an Atticizing prose. So they're looking at him as a stylistic model. Beyond that, just to properly understand Plato and translate him and disseminate him, there's a number of philological problems that occur. The interesting thing about someone like Poliziano is that when he writes commentaries, his commentaries tend to be very technical in nature and very precise, trying to solve very clear philological problems. This isn't the way in which Ficino would write a commentary on Plato. Ficino's commentaries on Plato are primarily exegetical and hermeneutical. It doesn't mean that he doesn't have a method, a philological method, or a mind that is philological in his approach to the manuscripts. He very much is philologically minded and really an excellent Hellenist. But he tends to keep his philology in the manuscripts as opposed to making it a part of his written commentary. There are a few occurrences where he does point out philological problems that he solves, but these tend to be exceptions to the rule. So when he's correcting, for example, his Plotinus manuscript, and there's a famous Plotinus manuscript of his that's covered with philological annotations that shows that he diligently went through the work. But at one point, he's faced with a corruption in Plotinus's text, and he doesn't have any other manuscript evidence to correct it. So he's put in a position that he has to make a decision on how to read the text and how to reconstruct it. And incidentally, what he does is actually what is largely accepted in later editions, starting with Henry and Schwyzer, the famous editions.

Peter Adamson: So he basically gets it right.

Denis Robichaud: He gets it right, but he doesn't have any manuscript evidence to really get it right. He doesn't have other witnesses to the text. So in his commentary, he makes a point that he has to use a certain form of divinatio, of conjecture, which ends up being a philological term, to correct the text. For the most part, his commentaries tend to be about exegetical material and philosophical material in whether we're talking about the Platonic corpus or other Neoplatonists like Plotinus.

Peter Adamson: So would it be fair to say that someone like Poliziano is engaging in the philology for its own sake, whereas Ficino is doing it as a means to an end, the end being philosophical understanding? Or is that unfair to Poliziano? Is it giving Ficino too much or too little credit?

Denis Robichaud: Yeah, well, they've often been set up as, you could say, paradigms, right? On the one hand, you've got the philosophical interpretation, and the other, you've got the philological interpretation. The reality is that they both worked on texts in the same libraries, sometimes at the same time. Poliziano was a younger colleague of Ficino's in Florence, and they were friends, and sometimes they had a certain competitive relationship, famously over the correct interpretations of the Parmenides, where we find out that Poliziano and Pico seem to think that the Parmenides is largely about logic, whereas Ficino thinks that it's about theology and the superiority of the One over Being. But in terms of Poliziano in particular, it is fair to say that Poliziano sees himself as a grammaticus, which should be, I think, understood something like a philologist, not as a grammatista, a teacher of elementary languages, but someone who can oversee the field of antiquity in a way. And within his purview is philosophy. So if he thinks that a correct philological reading of a text can correct an understanding of a philosophical text, well, then philology can step into the world of philosophy. That would be Poliziano's position.

Peter Adamson: Okay. Let's talk a little bit about how they actually approach Plato. One feature of Plato's works that maybe doesn't come up so much with Aristotle is that they are literary constructions, and of course, they're dialogues. A lot of contemporary, I mean, nowadays, approach to Plato is really concerned with the question of how to take that. So for example, are some of the characters spokespersons for Plato's own views or what? So how did they take the dialogical nature of Plato's works?

Denis Robichaud: Well, they depends who they are. Someone like Cardinal Bessarion, for example, is interested in the dialogic nature, but minimally so, he seems to think that Plato is fundamentally communicating some form of Pythagoreanism. Other humanists are interested in Plato as a kind of Homeric poet, where he's capable of speaking in a low pedestrian language like Socrates, a man on the street, but also able to elevate his style to the rhetorical heights of a Homer when he launches off into myths. Ficino has a slightly more sophisticated understanding insofar as he's looking at the Platonic corpus as a polyphony. He's interested in finding moments where Plato speaks in different rhetorical registers by using different rhetorical personae. So Socrates is a clear example, and for certain purposes, usually to refute sophists or to exhort youth, he'll say Plato employs Socrates. At other moments, he'll say that Plato employs, if not outright Pythagoreans in his mind, Timaeus, the character in the dialogue that goes by his name, or he'll make Socrates speak Pythagorean positions and change his rhetorical register into a Pythagorean position, usually for instruction and to pronounce more dogmatic statements. But in both cases, Ficino seems to think that whether it's Socratic or Pythagorean, Plato is holding back and he's not really communicating his positions. Ficino is original in a way, well, original up until a point. He's working off of a Byzantine scholion that tells him that Plato does speak in his own voice in certain moments, and that is in the Laws, in the Laws and the Epinomis and in the letters. So Ficino cuts up the dialogue in this way, these rhetorical registers, the different personifications, and he tries to make sense of why it is that Plato would change from rhetorical register one to the other.

Peter Adamson: Right, and the characters who don't like mouthpieces for Plato, so not Socrates, but for example, the people Socrates is refuting, what does he think their function is?

Denis Robichaud: Well, I think he would think that it's dialectical in the sense of argumentative, right? So when he's looking at, for example, Socrates' refutation of a Thrasymachus or a Callicles, Thrasymachus and Callicles are putting forward opinions that it is Socrates's job to refute. And I think this has a protreptic role for Ficino. It largely has to do with helping the readers understand what they should turn away from and what they should turn towards in philosophy. It really is about convincing them that a particular way of doing philosophy is the wrong way, and you should rethink your positions, go in another way.

Peter Adamson: Okay. In addition to interpreting Plato, Ficino translated Plato. What are the differences that he introduces by, I mean, obviously, a Latin version of Plato is going to be different from the original Greek. So what are the most salient differences that kind of come in once he does that?

Denis Robichaud: So the one thing I would say about Ficino as a translator, specifically for his Plato, but also his Plotinus, is that he's quite good. He's a quite good translator. And his Plato, I would say, if you want to find moments where, for example, strong Neoplatonic tendencies are constraining the translation, it's actually hard to do. And his Plato translations stand the test of time. I mean, they have a lot of competitors in the 16th century, especially northern humanists. There were predecessors before Ficino who translated Plato, Leonardo Bruni, most famously, among others, and Giorgio of Trebizond. But in the 16th century, there were competitors to Plato's, to Ficino's translation of Plato, but they didn't really survive. If you look at the only editions of Plato that were printed in Germany, for example, in the early modern period, they print after the late 16th century and into the 17th and 18th century, they print Ficino's Latin. The famous Bipontina edition of the late 18th century prints Ficino's Latin, although a corrupt modified version that had been reworked in the 16th century. And when Bekker does his new edition of the Platonic Corpus in the 19th century, he prints along with it Ficino's Latin. So I think Ficino's Latin continued to serve for even for scholars of Greek who wanted to read Plato in Greek, continued to serve as a kind of crib, something you could turn to and read. So that's the first thing I would say about Ficino as a translator.

Peter Adamson: It's just very competent.

Denis Robichaud: He's competent. He's a competent translator. It doesn't mean that he's perfect, as we all know, translations involve compromises at times. Sometimes you have to be exceedingly literal to the point of transliterations, something that humanists critiqued some medieval predecessors like William of Moerbeke for his translations, that it's almost nonsensical at times because it's a transliteration literally not just of the Greek syntax, but of the letters and the words. Bruni, for example, is looking at translating Aristotle or Plato more according to the sense or meaning, not according to the letter. But that might involve a compromise at times in accuracy. Ficino too, it's not to say his translations aren't without fault, but translators always have to make decisions. But on the whole, he's a very good translator.

Peter Adamson: I'm actually a little bit surprised that you say his familiarity with late ancient Platonism doesn't affect his translations because his commentaries are, to put it mildly, influenced by late ancient Platonism. Can you say something about that? How does his approach to Plato as an exegete respond to his awareness of the ideas of figures like Plotinus and Proclus?

Denis Robichaud: That's right. Anybody who's spent time reading Ficino's commentaries know that it's early Neoplatonic. I think one of the reasons for this has to do with Ficino's own training. Before he completed his famous first translations, 10 translations of Platonic dialogues for Cosimo de' Medici, he had already worked at translating Proclus's elements of theology and a very large work by Iamblichus, Pythagorean philosophy, the De Secta Pythagorica. He was already familiar with Plotinus' Enneads. He was reading the Enneads and taking notes on the Enneads. From the beginning, even when he approaches Plato, his approach is one that is highly informed by late ancient Platonism.

Peter Adamson: Maybe we can talk about a specific example. To take a not random example, because this is something you've written about, but it's also just a very central example. There's this passage in the Republic called "the divided line" passage in which Plato somehow is saying something about metaphysics and he compares a metaphysical hierarchy to a line with divided segments. Can you maybe explain this a little bit in more detail and say what Ficino does with it?

Denis Robichaud: The divided line, of course, is one of the key passages in the Republic where, as you say, Plato tells his interlocutors, take a line, divide it into two, and divide each segment into two again according to the same ratio at which you had divided the first time. Then he helps his interlocutors and the readers fill out the blanks of what that means. On the one hand, I would say that for late ancient Neoplatonists, on the one hand, the line has two sides. One speaks to certain ways of knowing and epistemology. On the other hand, it has a metaphysical side, speaking to the objects that correspond to other ways of knowing. At the top for the Neoplatonists, you would speak about objects of intellect and intellect. The second segment, you would think of discursive reasoning and objects of discursive reasoning. Then lower down to objects of imagination, sensation, and belief and images themselves. I think the major difference between how most moderns read the divided line and how the Neoplatonists read the divided line is that for many modern interpreters, meaning contemporary interpreters, they see the divided line as fundamentally broken. The famous Platonic dualism, there's a strong chorismos. Because the upper register of things that are intelligible and the lower register of things that are visible. The two shall not meet. Whereas for the Neoplatonists, on the one hand, the first thing to point out is that they see this line as a continuum, a procession, an emanation from the one down through the intellect, down through the objects of discursive reasoning, in operations of the rational soul, and then all the way down into nature. The line is not broken. Ficino follows them in that regard. Absolutely. To be more precise, he thinks that this is Pythagorean. He, in a couple of his commentaries to the Theaetetus and the Republic, he says that Plato here is following these two Pythagoreans. One Brotinus and another Archytas. Archytas is more famous, more well known, although still quite obscure. Brotinus, not much is known by him except these later fragments of supposed writings by him.

Peter Adamson: I'm actually feeling a little bit bad because I don't think I ever mentioned him, so this is a gap in my history of philosophy. Ficino would be appalled.

Denis Robichaud: There's actually a debate in the sources whether or not this Brotinus is the father or husband of this female philosopher, Theano, but beyond that, it's claimed that he was one of Pythagoras' original disciples. Really what we have are pseudepigraphic fragments of Brotinus that date probably from some period between the first century BC and the first century AD, and Ficino finds these fragments in Iamblichus' text of the De Secta Pythagorica, specifically the third book of it. These texts, in effect, explain Plato's divided line, but they explain it in a Doric style. So when Ficino writes his commentary on the divided line, he says Plato followed Pythagoreans, but he communicated this divided line in a more elegant or eloquent manner because he's commenting on the difference between this artificial, archaic, Doric prose and Plato's Attic prose, which he thinks is more eloquent.

Peter Adamson: Right, okay. But fundamentally, here he's following the Neoplatonic position you described according to which the segments of the line are supposed to express this causal hierarchy of unity and being descending down through ever more multiple and less real levels till we get down to the world of sensation.

Denis Robichaud: That's right. And for Ficino, he thinks that this is to be this contemporary scholars would often say is a Neoplatonic or late ancient platonic understanding of Platonism. He thinks it's there at the very beginning, even before Plato in Pythagoreanism by exactly saying that for the Pythagoreans, and he finds this in fragments of Archytas and Brotinus for them, the One is above Being and Being itself is where we find the first principles of Unlimited and Limited from which all other principles derive and from which all intellect and rational operations of the rational soul are derived. So it's really a question of deriving rationality from first principles that themselves come from an original source, the One. And on the other hand, it really is about deriving the complete order of metaphysics and the cosmos from the One.

Peter Adamson: Let me actually just ask you to elaborate on something that was implicit in what we've just said, which is Plato's role or position maybe in the history of philosophy itself, because that suggests what you just said suggests that Ficino would have seen Plato not as the kind of inaugurating figure of something we would call Platonism, but rather as maybe just the greatest in the line of Pythagoreans. Is that right?

Denis Robichaud: Absolutely. But not just Pythagoreanism. Ficino will not diminish as well too the Socratic elements, but there too, Ficino thinks that Socrates is also educated by Pythagoreans. So the Pythagoreans are important to say the least, but the Pythagoreans, of course, in Ficino's mind were trained in Orphic traditions. So Ficino has this notion, which is often called a Prisca Theologia or an ancient theology construes with the help of, I think primarily Proclus and Iamblichus, but also Church Fathers, that there is a unitary history of philosophy, that it's a history that passes down kind of ur-religious wisdom, starting from, he thinks, these three sources. He points out Zoroaster, the oldest source, and here he's probably drawing off of Pletho's understanding of who the figure of Zoroaster was. So this early Chaldean wisdom, this Orphic material, which is early Greek wisdom, and then the Hermetic material, which is early Egyptian wisdom. So you see how even there, the sources for ancient philosophy in these three traditions of wisdom are universal for Ficino insofar as they can be mapped onto something like a medieval T-map, where you've got an Oriental or Eastern source in the Chaldeans, an Orphic source in Greece and Europe, and a Hermetic source in Africa or Egypt. And Pythagoras' role, and I think he takes this from Iamblichus, is he traveled. He traveled the Mediterranean. He was trained in all of these different schools, and he aimed at arriving at a kind of synthesis or unity in a Neoplatonic mode of making unity out of multiplicity in a form of philosophy, which he then handed down to Plato. And Plato, of course, wrote his dialogues and disseminated this, and the story continues.

Peter Adamson: Right. Okay. I guess one thing that's really striking about all that is that it does not sound very Christian. And you actually just mentioned Pletho or George Gemistos Plethon, who has sometimes even been thought to be a kind of closet pagan, and all of the sources you just mentioned are pagan and some of them are ostentatiously pagan, like Iamblichus, Proclus, for example. So how does Ficino square this idea of an ur-religion, wisdom being handed down from the Pythagorean tradition to Plato, and that being kind of the summit of philosophy? How does he square all that with Christian piety?

Denis Robichaud: I would say that Christian theology for Ficino is a continuity of this tradition. It's a kind of culmination where things that are implicit before are made explicit. That's one thing that's important to see. So they're not in competition. Ficino is very inclusive, though. His Christian theology doesn't seek to exclude, quote unquote, pagan approaches towards the divine. In fact, he looks for bridges. This sometimes gets him into hot water. For instance, he writes probably one of his most famous works is his commentary on Plato's Symposium, which is known as the De Amore, which he writes in a loosely dialogical form, which is an interesting commentary in its own way. This is the first work since antiquity that really tries to reason through the comparison of Socrates to Silenus at the end of the dialogue and Socrates to Eros at the end of the dialogue and to look at what does it mean to say that we can identify Socrates as Eros or love? His approach is essentially to speak about something that I could characterize as the transfiguration of Socrates, and Socrates is understood as a kind of soteriological figure. This I think gained the attention of a few Dominicans who weren't particularly keen on this approach. Ficino writes a famous letter to Servite theologian Paolo Ferobanti in which he says, well, look, I'm not saying that Socrates is Christ's competitor, but there's a way in which what he's doing is completely compatible with the kind of soteriology that we find in Christ. And there too, Ficino is drawing on patristic sources on the parallel lives of Socrates and Christ, but Ficino again, too, it's not when he does the parallel lives, it's not to say, well, if Socrates was able to teach these virtues, well, we also have these Christian virtues that parallel them, so why would we look at Socratic virtues? Ficino is more interested in bringing in the Socratic virtues and seeing it as really a way to arrive at the same ends.

Peter Adamson: And is he worried about philosophical tensions between Christian doctrine and Neoplatonism? For example, something that would come out of what we talked about with the divided line is the Neoplatonic idea that the universe emanates out of God as a kind of necessary consequence. And if you start thinking about that in a Pythagorean way, it's like the generation of the numbers from the monad and the dyad, etc. So that doesn't really sound like the Christian idea of creation ex nihilo.

Denis Robichaud: Especially if you take a hard position towards understanding creation as involving an absolute chasm or gap between creator and creature. Of course, in Christian theology, you've got to take, for example, Augustine, I'm taking Augustine because he's so important to Ficino. The only thing that would bridge this distance, of course, is the scent of Christ, the incarnation of Christ and his grace, the Holy Spirit. But for Ficino, there are all sorts of alternative modes of mediation; truth, beauty, goodness, full stop, mediate between the divine and earthly. So in that case, Ficino is willing to go beyond some of the limits that Augustine would put forward and say that the emanative continuity from the originative source of the One into its manifestation in the world creates all of these opportunities for the points of contact with the divine.

Peter Adamson: So it's actually just another example of his tendency to kind of smush everything together in one big eclectic body of wisdom that's all internally harmonious, in his opinion.

Denis Robichaud: Yes, I would say yes, but with some caveats. Insofar as Ficino isn't reckless when he does so, he's very precise to find moments where he can give evidence for this being the case. I'll give one example, and you brought up earlier the relationship of philology and philosophy. One of the other moments, there are very few moments where Ficino talks about his philology. In one case, it's dealing with the Laws, Plato's Laws, which is a work, as I mentioned, that Ficino thinks Plato wrote in his own voice. There's a passage where Plato says that God is the "measure of all things." Most translators would now say something, I'm paraphrasing from memory, "so much more than man." Most modern readers would say this is a critique of Protagoras, this idea that "man is the measure of all things." There's a Greek variant in Ficino's manuscripts that allows a reading to be either "God is the measure of all things, so much more than man," or "God is the measure of all things, especially if he becomes man." This is at least where Ficino gets to. It's a little more subtle. It actually has to do with a Greek variant between eta for than or epsilon-iota for if, and it's just this clear line. Here it is a moment of technical philology, he was looking at a Greek variant, and in his translation, he takes the more conservative side of things. In his translations, it's "so much more than man." In his commentary, he will say, well, really, there's a way we can read this to say "especially if he becomes man." Here we have an instance in his mind, a philologically demonstrable passage in Plato's Laws, where Plato is actually putting forward a claim that is compatible with the incarnation. It wouldn't be necessarily that Plato is saying "and this person is Jesus Christ" but he is putting forward a theological understanding of the incarnation, perhaps without knowing of the advent of the person of Christ. In which case, this again gives an opportunity for Ficino to, he takes a small variant and he runs with it. It gives him an opportunity to again, create these pathways and openings for finding a compatibility between Christian theology and Platonism, which is his great project. His great project is to reorient the Christian theology towards Platonism, which he thinks is the originative sources of theology.


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