Gerald A. Press

Renaissance Platonism is important for two reasons: for the rediscovery of Plato’s dialogues and for developing a view of Platonism which values it for its moral teachings and spiritual insight. Since late antiquity, thanks to Christian churchmen like Augustine, Plato had a respectable reputation as the pagan philosopher who came closest to Christian truth. But direct knowledge of Plato’s works was fragmentary in the Middle Ages (q.v. Christian Platonism, early; Christian Platonism, medieval). We owe our knowledge of the corpus of Plato’s writings to the efforts of Italian Renaissance editors and translators, who acquired original manuscripts of Plato’s dialogues from Byzantine Greeks who were the heirs of a tradition of interpretation unbroken since classical times. Since that legacy was soon to be truncated, with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the preservation of Plato’s philosophy was one of the greatest services rendered by Renaissance Humanism to European philosophy. The recovery of Plato’s dialogues established Plato as an important philosopher in the Renaissance setting the mould for interpreting Plato for the next 300 years.

The first fruits of the humanist study of Plato were manuscript translations of individual dialogues into Latin. One of the most important early translators was Leonardo Bruni (1369–1444), who translated several dialogues, including the Phaedo and Republic . Another was George of Trebizond who translated the Laws and Epinomis in 1451, followed in 1459 Parmenides dedicated to Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64). Cusanus is an example of a Renaissance philosopher who was interested in Plato’s philosophy, but unable to read Greek. The most important Plato translator of the Renaissance was the Florentine, Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), who translated into Latin all 36 dialogues of the Thrasyllan canon, which were printed in 1484. Ficino’s Plato translations were part of a larger project, which involved translating a substantial number of Neoplatonist texts (q.v. Neoplatonism), including the Enneads of Plotinus, Iamblichus’ De mysteriis Aegyptiorum and the Corpus Hermeticum . His plans for a Greek edition of Plato had to be abandoned because of the death of his patron, Cosimo de’Medici. The first Greek editions of Plato’s complete works were published in the sixteenth century: the Aldine editio princeps (1513) and the 1578 edition by the French scholar, Henri Estienne (Stephanus), which established the referencing system still in use today. Ficino’s translation is remarkable for its accuracy, and it was not superseded by later Renaissance translations of the complete dialogues by the German humanist, Janus Cornarius (Johann Hainpol 1561), and by the French scholar, Jean de Serres (published with the Stephanus edition).

The historical circumstances of the recovery of Plato in the fifteenth century account in large measure for the character of Renaissance Platonism. Plato was mediated by the Byzantines, notably Manuel Chrysoloras (1350–1414), George Gemisthius Pletho ( c . 1360–1452) and Cardinal Bessarion ( c . 1403–1472) who originally travelled to Italy in the hope of forming political and religious alliances with the beleaguered Byzantine empire. Plato’s dialogues were read through the prism of the philosophical, religious and social conditions of Early Modern Europe, where scholastic Aristotelianism prevailed in the universities. Unlike Aristotle’s philosophy which had been subject to over a century of accommodation to Christian theology within the institutions of higher learning, Platonism lacked a time-honoured tradition of interpretation in the institutions of the Christian West. Platonism never succeeded in breaking the Aristotelian monopoly on university study – notwithstanding the efforts of Francesco Patrizzi da Cherso (1529–97), who sought to replace Aristotelianism with Platonism, on the grounds that Aristotle’s philosophy contradicted Christian teaching (see his Discussionum peripateticorum libri XV , 1571, and Nova de universis philosophia , 1591).

To modern readers, unacquainted with historical Platonism, Renaissance Platonism might appear to be more properly a variety of eclectic Neoplatonism. In fact, the modern habit of reading Plato separately from other philosophers of the Platonic tradition developed only recently. Through most of its history, Platonism has been read in relation the so-called Neoplatonist philosophers. Renaissance Platonism was no exception. Ficino regarded Plotinus as the greatest interpreter and systematizer of Plato. But Ficino was more than a translator of Plato; he was a thinker who, by means of his commentaries, and his philosophical writings, provided a framework for reading and interpreting Plato’s philosophy which combined faithfulness to the text with a Christian understanding of the wisdom to which Plato aspired. Although he acknowledged the diversity of the themes of the dialogues, he regarded Plato’s underlying philosophical outlook as unified. Ficino’s Theologia Platonica de immortalitate animae (1469–74) offers a systematic philosophy of the soul, set out as a Neoplatonic hierarchy of being, and defended in terms of scholastic arguments.

Adapting Plato for Renaissance consumption meant tackling the culturally unacceptable aspects of Plato’s dialogues. This was done in a variety of ways. Paedophilia (q.v. Paederastia) and homoeroticism were reinvented as Platonic love. On the religious side, Platonism had been associated since early Christian times with theologically dangerous positions, especially Trinitarian heresies. Old theological controversies were reignited by the new influx of Plato’s texts, fuelling the attack on Plato by George of Trebizond ( Comparatio Platonis et Aristotelis , 1458), which provoked Bessarion’s defence, In calumniatorem Platonis (1469). Plato’s admirers emphasized religious and philosophical concordism. The most striking instance of this is the concept of a prisca sapientia which was developed by Ficino (adapted from Iamblichus’ idea of perennial philosophy ), which stressed the commonalities between Platonism, Christianity and the best of other philosophies (including Aristotelianism). The mytho-poetic aspects of Plato’s philosophy lent themselves to allegorical interpretation, which Ficino exploited chiefly to elucidate what he regarded as the veiled religious content. His allegorism is relatively restrained by comparison with the Neoplatonists of antiquity.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Platonism was taken up outside the academies, and developed as a philosophy for laymen. The aspects of Plato’s philosophy which gave it a secular and broadly cultural appeal included the Socratic conception of philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom, the dialogic, non academic format of Plato’s philosophy, and its potential for symbolic interpretation. The most striking instance of a Renaissance development of Platonic philosophy was the adaptation of Plato’s philosophy of love in the dialoghi d’amore (dialogues of love), such as Pietro Bembo’s Gli Asolani (1505). These enjoyed wide currency as a genre throughout the Renaissance, the most popular of all being, Baldessare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano (1528). Another secular arena for Plato’s philosophy in the Renaissance was political, especially the idea of the perfect government – the most creative and enduring Renaissance engagement with Plato’s R . being Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). For more information, see Allen (1984), Celenza (2007), Copenhaver (1992) and Hankins (1990).