Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"More than one source of valid religious knowledge." Moshe Idel on Ficino (and Plethon) on Prisci Theologi (and Kabbalah)

Moshe Idel, a modern scholar of Jewish philosophy, has proposed a fascinating typology for Renaissance theories of prisca theologia. According to one type of theory, all valid religious knowledge has a single source, a single historical revelation of Truth. But according to a very different theory, valid religious knowledge has been revealed to different human beings at different times and places.

It is highly significant, and quite possibly not for the reasons that Idel perhaps has in mind, that Marsilio Ficino was the leading proponent of the multilinear approach to the transmission of prisca theologia. Idel further proposes that George Gemistos Plethon was the primary influence on Ficino in this regard.

Below is Idel in his own words, from his essay "Prisca Theologia in Marsilio Ficino", in the volume Marsilio Ficino, His Theology, His Philosophy, His legacy edited by Michael J. B. Allen, Valery Rees, and Martin Davies, and published by Brill in 2002.
Those aspects of Renaissance thought which constitute 'occult philosophy' operated with two basic forms of religious lore both claiming, or at least attributed to, hoary antiquity: the Greek and Hellenistic corpora translated by Marsilio Ficino into Latin, and the Kabbalistic literature, studied in Hebrew or in Latin translation. This double, coincident and sudden encounter invited the emergence of strategies of validation and legitimation to appropriate them in an intellectual and religious atmosphere dominated by Christian dogmatics. Indeed, Christian intellectual in the West encountered, for the first time, fully-fledged treatises which included doctrines that proposed Platonism and the various versions of Neoplatonism not only as authoritative philosophical sources but also as transmitters of religious doctrines, which were expounded in an esoteric manner. This theory is known as prisca theologia. In the last generation scholarship has paid due attention to this theory in the Christian Renaissance, contributing seminal studies to the topic.

Ficino's contribution to this theological strategy was decisive, and much of what happened after his translations and commentaries was the reiteration of his ideas about chains of transmission of the ancient lore. In the following essay, an attempt will be made to accentuate some aspects of Ficino's historiography of knowledge which have not yet been highlighted. The brief discussion of the Jewish material will not only add points of comparison but, in the case of Ficino, may throw light on nunaces in his fluctuating views of prisca theologia, which was also shaped by his debate with Judaism. In any case, it is clear from some of the discussions below, as well as some that cannot be addressed in this framework, that Kabbalistic contents, some of which are not to be found in other forms of Judaism, helped in the adoption and adaptation by some Jewish intellectuals of themes that permeate the corpus translated by Ficino. I would say that the privileged status enjoyed by Kabbalah, conceived of as an ancient Jewish mystical theology, in Ficino's circle should be taken into consideration when dealing with his views of prisca theologia, as is the case with other Renaissance instances, most remarkably Leone Ebreo's Dialoghi d'amore.

There were two main theories that allowed the adoption of those doctrines into a Christian monotheistic framework: the first contends that they agree with Christian theology because they were influenced by a primeval tradition which included or at least adumbrated the tenets of Christianity; the alternative argues that the affinity between these two bodies of thought has no historical explanation but is the result of a series of revelations imparted separately to both pagan and monotheistic spiritual leaders. The two solutions represent different approaches to the historiography of religion, and their underlying assumptions are worth more detailed analysis.

The first theory implies that there was on single revelation of religious truth, though more than one single line of transmitting the valid religious doctrines may be assumed. The source is the Mosaic tradition--sometimes related to an Adamic or Abrahamic tradition--which was handed down to pagan philosophers such as Plato and Pythagoras. Sometimes Hermes, the focal figure of some lists of prisci theologi, was even appropriated by Jewish writers in the Renaissance, such as Yohanan Alemanno and Isaac Abravanel, as being identical to the biblical Enoch. This approach will be designated in what follows as the unilinear theory. It was espoused by what can be called "orthodox syncretism" in late antiquity, among Jewish Alexandrian authors, such as Flavius Josephus, in some Father of the Church, by some figures during the Middle Ages, and also by some scholars in the Renaissance. A major example of the assumption that the prisca theologia consists of a unilinear theory can be found in the statement of Charles Schmitt, an eminent scholar and major investigator of this topic:
At the root of Ficino's concept [of the prisca theologia] lie several writings attributed to pre-Greek authors, especially Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, and Orpheus, which according to his interpretation were transmitted to Plato by Pythagoras and Aglaophemus. These writings were also considered to be connected at the root with Hebrew Scriptures, thus making Greek philosophy have a very close relation indeed with Judaeo-Christian tradition.
The unilinear theory draws its inspiration from Jewish and patristic sources of late antiquity. The most important names are Arta[anus, Alexander Polyhistor, Flavius Josephus, Lactantius, Eusebius, Augustine, and Clement of Alexandria. The unilinear theory was developed also in the Renaissance, mostly by Jewish authors. The most famous pagan figure who was described as learning from the ancient Jews was Plato, mentioned in a variety of Jewish and Christian sources as having been the student of a prophet, sometimes identified as Jeremiah, in Egypt. Let me mention two more of several Renaissance examples which portray the high status of Plato and the consonance of his teaching with Judaism. The first is R. Yohanan Alemanno, a contemporary of Ficino and a companion of Pico who lived for several years in Florence. He regarded Plato as having been in alignment with Jewish culture. In his commentary on the Song of Songs he distinguishes between two ancient types of philosophers. The first is:
the sect of the ancient ones, from venerable antiquity up to the generation when prophecy disappeared. They are their sons and disciples thirstily drank their [the prophets'] words up to Plato who was in their [the prophets'] days and in their times. The second sect commenced when prophecy ceased and the days of evil came, from the time of Aristotle and later, up to our days.
Clearly Platonic lore is described as being the result of the influence of the Hebrew prophets. In fact, valid philosophy is considered to be contemporary with ancient Israelite prophecy and as having ceased together with it.

A similar approach is found in the work of a seventeenth-century Kabbalistic figure, R. Joseph Shelomo Delmedigo. In his Matzref le-Hokhmah he says
The ancient philosophers spoke more virtuously than Aristotle, to those who understood them correctly, not as Aristotle interpreted them, for his intentions were solely to reproach them so he himself would be praised. This becomes clear to anyone who reads what has been written on the wisdom of Democritus and its foundations, especially by Plato, the master of Aristotle. Plato's opinions are similar to the opinions of the Sages of Israel and in a few instances it appears that he spoke as a Kabbalist. No fault can be found in his words, and why should we not accept them, for they belong to us, and were inherited by the Greeks from our ancient fathers? Even until this day many of the great sages accept Plato's ideas, and there are large circles of students who have continued in his footsteps.
However, while those two authors belong to what can be described as a more universalistic approach to Kabbalah, which saw pagan philosophy in positive terms, there were also other, less positive descriptios of the same type of affinities. In more extreme and general terms, R. Elijah Hayyim ben Benjamin of Benazzano, a late fifteenth-century Italian Kabbalist, explicitly refers to philosophers as thieves of the ancient Jewish wisdom, Kabbalah. It is from the tradition stemming from Abraham the patriarch, the alleged author of the cosmological treatise Sefer Yetzirah, that philosophers adopted the idea of the ten supernal entities, known as the 'ten separate intellects'. These entities are no more than a misunderstanding of the Kabbalistic interpretation of the ten Sefirot, a key notion in the ancient Jewish treatise. Incapable of comprehending the secret of the dynamic unity of hte ten divine powers, the philosophers, ' who are in any case the thieves of wisdom', introduced division into the divine realm.

The Christian Renaissance thinkers seem, however, to have been fascinated more by another theory, which I should like to designate 'multinlinear'. This latter theory seems to have been influenced in part by the views of a mid fifteenth-century Byzantine author who had strong pagan proclivities, George Gemistos Plethon. It was he who was instrumental in introducing into western Renaissance thought the name of Zoroaster as a reliable religious source and it seems very plausible that it was also Plethon who inspired those of Ficino's genealogies in which Zoroaster has a place of honour. Ficino embraced some views of Plethon, and apparently of Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch, which contributed to the turning away in the West from the earlier traditions concerning a unilinear theory to embrace the hypothesis of two or more lines of transmission. The multilinear version of prisca theologia assume the possibility of more than one source of valid religious knowledge and more than one line of transmission. Though the contents of this knowledge are identical in the two or more lines of transmission, their literary or terminological expressions differ from one case to another. It is this second theory that deserves more attention in the framework of the specificity of Chrisitan Renaissance thought, because it is more problematic from a strictly monotheistic point of view; equally it is more innovative in comparison to the late ancient and medieval endeavors to point out the concordance between Greek thought and monotheistic religion. Le me quote one expression of this view, as formulated by Pico della Mirandola:
Iamblichus of Chalci writes that Pythagoras followed the Orphic theology as the model on which he fashioned and built his own philosophy. Nay furthermore, they say that the maxims of Pythagoras are alone called holy, because he proceeded from the principles of Orpheus; and that the secret doctrine of numbers and whatever Greek philosophy has of the great or sublime has flowed thence as its first fount.
From our point of view the occurrence of the term 'first fount' should be highlighted. Orpheus is regarded as the source of the most sublime facets of Greek philosophy and I see no way of contending that Pico linked this mythical figure, or others mentioned in this quotation, with a Mosaic tradition. His views, as he mentions several times, can be interpreted in accordance with the Kabbalistic tradition, but it is the mythical poet and theologian who is responsible for the formulation of the concepts which will pater by expounded by Pythagoras too.
[pp. 137-142]

Related posts and series from this blog:

George Gemistos Plethon: Sources May 27, 2009
Which Plato, and which Platonism? July 11, 2009
Seek, and ye shall find July 12, 2009
"Gotta Serve Somebody" (on the religious identity of Marsilio Ficino) July 24, 2009
C.M. Woodhouse: scholar-soldier and philhellene August 31, 2009
Ficinus. Paganus? More on the religious identity of Marsilio Ficino. Juy 13, 2010
"A Different World"? (more on Ficino) March 6, 2011
An Inconvenient Pagan: The Story of George Gemistos Plethon March 7, 2011
"George Gemistos Plethon was a crypto-Pagan." March 16, 2011
Hanegraaff on Plethon: "The Pagan cat was out of the box." March 16, 2011
"The Christian appropriation of Platonic philosophy and the Hellenic intellectual resistance" April 27, 2011
How To Look for Crypto-Pagans, 2.0 May 6, 2011

The Heathen-Minded Humanists: On The Revolutionary Pagan Conspiracy of 1468
Part One provides the background of the struggle between Pope Paul II and the Roman Academy
Part Two describes the crisis of 1468
Part Three (which I haven't posted yet) presents the denouement, in which all charges are dropped and the Heathen Academy survives intact
Part Four tells the tale of the surprising evidence discovered four centuries later of the literally underground Paganism that existed in Rome in the 15th century
Part Five looks at the other Roman Academy and its head, Cardinal Bessarion.

Forsaking Christ to Follow Plato (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)
  • Part One: Mostly Basil Tatakis' Byzantine Philosophy, with a little help from Jaroslav Pelikan, Katerina Ierandiokonou, John Myendorff, and even C.M. Woodhouse
  • Part Two: N.G. Wilson's Scholars of Byzantium
  • Part Three: Anthony Kaldellis' The Argument of Psellos' Chronographia
  • Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles
  • Part Five: Michael Psellos and "Ho Ellênikos Logos" (this is the post you are reading right now)