A Mystery much deeper than Mathematics and than Heavens

A famed platonic Renaissance thinker, Marsilio Ficino, thought that everything, whether body or soul, continuously receives the power to ‘operate’, little by little, but never possesses it entirely.

In particular, the soul, at all times, ‘generates herself’, that is, she continuously draws new strengths from herself, she endlessly unfolds intrinsically different forms, and she unceasingly varies (or adapts) her goals, her desires and her laws.

Our time is almost incapable of understanding and integrating these kinds of ideas, which were, by contrast, commonly accepted by the fine flower of philosophical intelligence of the early Renaissance.

It is a lesson in relativism.

Ironically, relativism is precisely what is at stake, here: the soul possesses an intrinsic, permanent, continuous, capacity of metamorphosis, of auto-transformation, – a permanent impermanence.

The soul has a metamorphic essence, and is made of constant transformation, unceasing mobility.

But our modernity does not really consider (and even less understand) the mobility of the “soul », it only knows the mobility of « matter ».

Matter, it is often said, is intrinsically mobile. Just look at the infinite movement of the quarks, the high pitch of the super-strings. By recognizing this intrinsic mobility, modern thinkers believe they understand the secret of all things, from the infinitely small to the ends of the stars.

‘Matter’ and ‘mobility’ together embody today the ancient role of ‘substance’ and ‘soul’.

Everything is still a « mixture », form and matter, mobility and rest.

Old categories, such as the soul and the body, are now confused, merged. No more discrimination, no more separation. Instead, there is now simply common matter, everywhere there is the ‘same’.

But matter, the ‘same’, the ‘common’, do not exhaust the mystery. The same and the common quickly run out of breath, and the mystery continues to grow everywhere, deeper and deeper.

Take a simple look at Euler’s circle. Nothing ‘modern’, nothing ‘material’ in this abstract circle, this mathematical representation taught in high school. But, who among modern thinkers can say why Euler line connects the orthocenter, the center of gravity, and the two centers of the circumscribed circle and of the Euler circle?

I am not talking about demonstrating this curious (and abstract) mathematical phenomenon.

I am saying that nobody, even today, can explain the essence of Euler line, and the reason of its properties…

The same could be said of all the laws of nature…

Modern people are unable to « see » these sorts of (relatively simple) objects of thought (of wonder) as worthy of metaphysical contemplation. They are unable to “penetrate” their nature, their essence.

For Pythagoras and Plato, it was the opposite. Geometric numbers and figures appeared to them as imaginary powers, and even as divine forcesi.

For Pythagoras or Plato, the power of mathematical forms was the best indication of the existence of an underlying mystery, far beyond matter, and far deeper than whichever heavens we were taught…

i Cf. Plato, Timaeus 31b-32c

The limits of the unlimited, and the unlimitedness of the limits

Plato calls God « the Unlimited » in the Parmenidesi – but he calls him « the Limit » in the Philebusii. Contradiction? No, not really.

He calls God « Unlimited » because He receives no limit from anything, and he calls it « the Limit » because He limits all things according to their form and measure.

Marsilio Ficino notes that matter itself imitates God in this. It can be called « unlimited » because it represents « like a shadow, the infinity of the one God ». And it is « limited » as all things are, in some form.

The infinity of matter and the infinity of things can be described philosophically, using the three Platonic categories of « essence », « other » and « movement ». The world, shadow of God, generates infinitely in matter essences, alterations, transformations and movements.

The limit of matter, like the limit of all things, can also be philosophically described using the Platonic categories of « being », « same » and « rest ».

The Unlimited and the Limit are in the same relationship as the sun and the shadow. This is not an opposition ratio, but a ratio of generation. Through shade, one can probably better « see » (understand) the light of the sun than by looking at it directly.

If the « Unlimited » were a sun, then the innumerable essences, the infinite ‘othernesses’, the incessant movements would be its cast shadows.

And we would find the Limit in ideas, the idea of Being, the idea of the Same, the idea of Rest.

iParmenides 137d

iiPhilebus 16d-23c

The Absurd Reason

The prophet Daniel speaks as a seer: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever. » (Dan. 12,2-3)

This saying refers to the « wise » and to the “righteous”. It is not just a question of knowledge, but of justice, of a wisdom that is less human than divine. How to reach it? How to access these high places?

Many are those who doubt their own divinity, those who have never turned their eyes to the splendour of intelligence, of wisdom. There are even more who prefer the mist of the senses, the thickness of the bodies, to the thin acuity of the soul.

How would they achieve the wisdom and justice that Daniel is talking about?

Plato, who was not a prophet, but no less a seer, advises us to meditate unceasingly on death.

“Either in no way can we ever acquire knowledge, or it is for us only once we have passed away.”i

The way to be as close to divine knowledge as possible is to have as little trade as possible with the body. Going to the limit, we deduce that death only is the kingdom of true knowledge. This is the « immense hope » that Socrates joyfully shares with his afflicted friends, shortly before drinking the hemlock.

What is this hope based on? It is based on an idea as anti-modern as possible: « We are divine beings ». How can such a statement be made? “Because, momentarily deprived of our heavenly abode and homeland, that is, as long as we are on earth God’s substitutes, we are constantly tormented by the desire of this heavenly homeland and no earthly pleasure can console in the present exile the human intelligence desiring a better condition.”ii

This immense hope, without reason, is based – it is a paradox – on the sole activity of reason.

Marsilio Ficino gives this explanation:

“The hope of immortality results from a surge of reason, since the soul hopes not only without the help of the senses, but despite their opposition. That is why I find nothing more admirable than this hope, because, while we live incessantly among ephemeral beings, we do not cease to hope.”iii

These unreasonable ideas have been shared by thinkers as diverse as Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaopheme, Pythagoras, Plato… They have created schools of thought, their disciples have proliferated: Xenocrat, Arcesilas, Carneade, Ammonius, Plotinus, Proclus…

On a philosophical level, Socrates’ argument seems to have a certain scope. Reason says that there are only two hypotheses: either knowledge is not possible at all, or it is only possible after death.

If we decide to ignore the Socratic, resolutely optimistic point of view, absolute horror would therefore resemble this: to see clearly with the eyes of pure reason the absurdity and inanity of a human condition, capable of reason, and capable of drawing from it the most crazy, most absurd hypotheses.

iPhaedo, 66 e

ii Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology Book XVI