Concordia Discors Introduction

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WEEK 5 Concordia Discors


With the reception of ancient texts, Christians are confronted with an important fact: they cannot read these texts in the same way the ancients did, because of fundamental differences of context. One of the most important differences is the fact that they now live according to the moral and religious principles of Christianity. A first aspect is the doctrine of the transmigration of the souls. Another important example is that of homosexuality. As you know, homosexuality was permitted and even celebrated in Antiquity. Love had been described by Plato as something that could ultimately lead the soul to the contemplation of God. As they are confronted to this, Renaissance thinkers make multiple attempts to accommodate this Platonic doctrine with the contemporary stigma on homosexuality. Thus at the beginning of one of Plato’s dialogues called the Charmides, Socrates is represented as being struck by the beauty of a young boy called Charmides, and as having burst into flame when he catches a sight of the boy’s torso and has having been consumed by animal lust. Not only does the translator of this dialogue omit to translate the passage, but elsewhere he translates any word alluding to Charmides’ physical beauty (kallos, kalos, kallistos) as ‘honest’, i.e. beautiful from a spiritual or moral point of view. Ficino gives us the following explanation for his censorship of the text: “Although everything in this dialogue has a marvelous allegory, most of all in the love passages (just like the Song of Songs) I have nevertheless changed a few things and even omitted some. For the things that once sounded harmonious to the pure ears of the Attic Greeks will perhaps sound less harmonious to cruder ears. Thus a certain Aristarchus used to say that whatever things seem less than harmonious should be set down not to Plato but to Time”. Thus Ficino is here presenting an extremely important argument: that there is an irreducible distance between himself and the ancients, a distance in time that makes his contemporaries misinterpret Plato’s intention. This is a position that is quite new and that shows how different humanists and medieval philosophers were.

In fact, what is also striking in this attitude is the absence of criticism towards ancient homosexuality, there is an openness in Ficino’s attitude that distinguishes him strongly from his predecessors.

Patristic Literature:

Union of Studia Humanitatis and Studia Divinitatis; grammar, rhetoric, moral philosophy and history should be applied to Christian texts, even though faith does not need education to be expressed. In the Renaissance, the Bible ceased to be seen solely the revealed word; it was also seen as a work of literature that could be analysed from the point of view of style. As you know the style of the Bible is quite popular, not very sophisticated, very simple. So the humanists were confronted with a problem: how to explain the fact that the Bible was a sacred text and yet inferior in style to the works of ancients? Coluccio Salutati establishes a distinction between the content and the style of the Bible. Valla is the first to apply textual criticism to the Bible, cf. Adnotationes in Novum Testamentum (1449-1450) where he compares the Vulgate and the Greek text. He is the first to realize the theological implications of textual criticism, of choosing a word rather than another, and how this can be used or abused in theological debates. Other humanists, such as Manetti, go even further by advocating a return to Hebrew, whilst recognizing that Jews, although they knew Hebrew, had no access to Christian truths. So the discovery of new skills to read texts, and the return to original languages had important implications for religion. Cf. Erasmus and Luther.

Poetic Theology and Prisca Theologia

Special status of poetry as ‘religious’, prophetic, magic; divine madness (Plato’s Phaedrus)

Prisca Theologia (ancient theology): tradition of Christian apologetic theology which rests on misdated texts. Early Church Fathers show that ancient pagan texts contained vestiges of the true religion (deriving from Moses), which were stolen by Plato. This is the topos according to which whatever Christian Truth seemed to have been anticipated by the pagans had in fact been stolen by them through access to this ‘ancient theology’. When this ancient theology was revived by Ficino and others, the attitude towards ancient theology changed. The context was no longer apologetic, but of awe. The ambivalence remained. However, Ficino, as we have seen, was no longer trying to demonstrate that Plato had stolen, but rather than both Plato and the first Christians had access to the same truth, and, since that truth had been obliterated by Time (and the impiety of the Aristotelians), it was time to return to philosophy to unveil this truth.


Bessarion was, as we have seen before, a Greek émigré (1400-1472) who came to Italy for the first time in 1438-9 for the Council of Florence. He is a key figure in the transmission of ancient Greek culture between Byzantium and Italy, and between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. He was educated as an orthodox monk, but he was also taught by George Gemistos Pletho, a philosopher who promoted a return to paganism to purify the Church. This return to paganism was strongly based upon a return to Platonism.

In 1438 he was part of the delegation that sought to negotiate the union between the orthodox and Catholic churches at Ferrara-Florence; he was persuaded to stay in Italy and became a catholic cardinal; he was several times named as a potential successor to the Pope. His ambition was mainly to combat the rise of the Ottoman Empire by ‘saving’ Greek culture through the precservation of manuscripts and by traveling to Germany, France and England to build an anti-Turkish alliance.

Bessarion lived mostly in Rome. Regarding the preservation of Greek culture, Bessarion supported the purchase and copying of Greek manuscripts, and found a library in Rome, which aimed to include all the Greek books that were available in Byzantium. Bessarion bequeathed his library to Venice, which now houses one of the best collection of Greek mss in the world in the Biblioteca Marciana. Bessarion also used his philological skills to establish the most correct text possible, leading to the development in the West of philology. Some of Bessarion’s manuscripts constitute the most important or the only textual witnesses of ancient authors.

Bessarion’s most important contribution is the revival of Platonic studies in Italy through the introduction of Plato manuscripts and a work entitled ‘Against the Slanderer of Plato’, where he defended the superiority of Plato over Aristotle. Remember that Bessarion was a pupil of a Greek philosopher called George Gemistos Pletho, who believed in the return to paganism through the revival of Platonism and Neoplatonism. Although Bessarion never advocated the same return to paganism, he was strongly influenced by his master in that he considered that Platonism was the best philosophy. His work ‘Angainst the Slanderer of Plato’ was a robust reply to another Greek philosopher, George Trebizond, who had stated that Aristotle was better than Plato, and that Plato was a thief, a perderast and generally immoral. Bessarion’s text was initially written in Greek in 1459 and was translated into Latin the years later for publication. It quickly won a very wide readership; copies reached Paris, England, Germany. Bessarion’s contention that Plato was better than Aristotle was a very bold statement to make in Italy, since, as we have seen, the most important philosopher in the Universities was still considered to be Aristotle. Now both Pletho and Bessarion had publicly defended the superiority of Plato over Aristotle. This position was challenged by several opponents. The first part of the controversy, which happened in Greece and in Greek between Pletho and Scholarios (in 1444), had little impact on the West. However, the second phase of the controversy, which occurred in Italy and in Latin between Bessarion and another Greek émigré George of Trebizond, was extremely influential in the Latin West (Raphael’s School of Athens). By that time the controversy had become much more than a learned squabble between émigrés. For Trebizond published a text entitled “Comparison Between Plato and Aristotle’ where he presents Plato as an ignorant, antichristian, immoral and dangerous philosopher (he quotes homosexuality, transmigration of the soul etc.). Bessarion is in fact personally attacked by Trebizond, and he retaliates by publishing a text entitled “Against the Slanderer of Plato”, which is a clear allusion to Trebizond. In this text Bessarion refutes point by point the accusations that Trebizond formulates against Plato, and he develops a formidable argument to prove the superiority of Plato: Platonism is closer to Christianity than Aristotle.

[Analysis of the Text]

Marsilio Ficino, Florentine humanist (1433-1499), son of Cosimo de’ Medici personal physician, destined to a medical career, became the most important humanist of the end of the 15th century. He is largerly responsible for the revival of the Platonic corpus by offering to the West the first complete Latin translation of all Plato’s dialogues and a coherent, unifying interpretation of these dialogues that could be accessible to the Western reader. This interpretation was filtered through the Neoplatonic tradition, which means that Plato’s work was seen as a religious rather than a philsophical work, which gave you a description of the divine world. Ficino pursued, in other words, the work initiated by Bessarion. However, whislt Bessarion was a Greek émigré whose revival of Plato was at least in part motivated by a need to preserve the Greeh heritage and combat the rise of the Ottomans, Ficino’s motivation was religious. He was seeing to explore pagan texts that had described the same religious experiences that Christians talked about: prayer, miracles, mystic union with god, prophetic powers, divine inspiration.

In 1463 Cosimo de’ Medici asked Ficino to render into Latin some Greek texts that were not previously available in the West: 1. The Corpus Hermeticum; 2. Plato; 3. Plotinus. In the preface to the Plotinus commentary, he explicitly links the revival of Platonism to the Council of Florence, George Gemistos Plethon and Cosimo de’ Medici.

[Analysis of Ficino’s Texts]: Ficino establishes an equivalence between Platonism and Christianity; Christianity was be reached though philosophy; the renewal of the Church is achieved through philosophy which purifies against the impiety of the Aristotelians. In sum, there is an evolution from Bessarion to Ficino, from a view where Christianity is superior to philosophy to a view where Platonism and Christianity can, at least in some part, be placed at the same level.

Why is problematic to talk about ‘orthodoxy’ in the 15th century

Post-Tridentine notion (1545-1563)

Slippery and fluid concept

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