chapter
Renaissance Neoplatonism
Pages 5

Italian philosopher and translator Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) is the key figure of Renaissance Neoplatonism. Ficino’s influence on early-modern theories on love and sexuality is crucial. His commentaries and interpretations on Plato’s dialogues, primarily the Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love (1484) and his Platonic Theology (1482), had an incredible impact in France, Spain, and England, where Ficino’s De amore was known as early as 1500, when a copy of Ficino’s Latin Opera Platonis was found at Cambridge University. In his commentary on Plato’s Symposium, Ficino develops a complex theory concerning the relationship among desire, sexuality, and religious contemplation. Analyzing each speech contained in Plato’s dialogue, Ficino comes to formulate a complex, and apparently contradictory, philosophical discourse. Following Plato, Ficino states that love is desire for beauty. Sight and hearing are our two major senses. By gazing at and listening to the beloved, the subject may ascend to a profound contemplation with the divinity. Desire, brought about by beauty, has thus a strongly religious connotation. However, for Ficino a man is naturally drawn more toward another man than toward a woman. Man “naturally” desires another man because the male other reminds him of the “idea” of his own inner beauty. If divine contemplation is spurred by the other’s beautiful forms, a man cannot help but fall in love with another man. In particular, Ficino strongly defends the so-called Socratic love-the love relationship between a mature man and a young man. In Ficino’s philosophical structure sexuality plays a complex role. As he writes in chapter 14 of the sixth speech of the Commentary, “Since the reproductive drive of the soul, being without cognition, makes no distinction between the sexes, nevertheless, it is naturally aroused for copulation whenever we judge any body to be beautiful; and it often happens that those who associate with males…copulate with them.” In other words, although any physical encounter is inherently negative because it disturbs the subject in his contemplative ascent toward God, sexuality is unavoidable. Therefore, he who feels more interested in a person of his own gender ends up copulating with him. According to Ficino, male friendship is superior to any other form of union. Two male friends come to exchange their own souls and nurture each other’s wisdom. Male friendship is the noblest expression of love.