On Divine Frenzy

 (De divino furore)

Letter of Marsilio Ficino

Marsilio Ficino to Peregrino Agli: greetings.

ON November 29th my father, Ficino the doctor, brought to me at Figline two letters from you, one in verse and the other in prose. Having read these, I heartily congratulate our age for producing a young man whose name and fame may render it illustrious.

Indeed, my dearest Peregrino, when I consider your age and those things which come from you every day, I not only rejoice but much marvel at such great gifts in a friend. I do not know which of the ancients whose memory we respect (quorum memoriam veneramur), not to mention men of our own time, achieved so much at your age. This I ascribe not just to study and technique, but much more to divine frenzy (divino illi furori). Without this, say Democritus and Plato, [1] no man has ever been great. The powerful emotion and burning desire which your writings express prove, as I have said, that you are inspired and inwardly possessed by that frenzy; and this power, which is manifested in external movements, the ancient philosophers maintained was the most potent proof that the divine force dwelt in our souls. But since I have mentioned this frenzy, I shall relate the opinion of our Plato about it in a few words, with that brevity which a letter demands; so that you may easily understand what it is, how many kinds of it there are, and which god is responsible for each. I am sure that this description will not only please you, but also be of the very greatest use to you. Plato considers, as Pythagoras, Empedocles and Heraclitus maintained earlier, that our soul, before it descended into bodies, dwelt in the abodes of heaven where, as Socrates says in the Phaedrus, [2] it was nourished and rejoiced in the contemplation of truth.

Those philosophers I have just mentioned had learnt from Mercurius Trismegistus,[3] the wisest of all the Egyptians, that God is the supreme source and light within whom shine the models of all things, which they call ideas.[4] Thus, they believed, it followed that the soul, in steadfastly contemplating the eternal mind of God, also beholds with greater clarity the natures of all things. So, according to Plato, the soul saw justice itself, wisdom, harmony, and the marvellous beauty of the divine nature.[5] And sometimes he calls all these natures ‘ideas’, sometimes ‘divine essences’, and sometimes ‘first natures which exist in the eternal mind of God’. The minds of men, while they are there, are well nourished with perfect knowledge. But souls are depressed into bodies through thinking about and desiring earthly things. Then those who were previously fed on ambrosia and nectar, that is the perfect knowledge and bliss of God, in their descent are said to drink continuously of the river Lethe, that is forgetfulness of the divine. They do not fly back to heaven, whence they fell by weight of their earthly thoughts, until they begin to contemplate once more those divine natures which they have forgotten. The divine philosopher considers we achieve this through two virtues, one relating to moral conduct and the other to contemplation; one he names with a common term ‘justice’, and the other ‘wisdom’. For this reason, he says, souls fly back to heaven on two wings, meaning, as I understand it, these virtues; and likewise Socrates teaches in Phaedo[6] that we acquire these by the two parts of philosophy; namely the active and the contemplative. Hence, he says again in Phaedrus[7] that only the mind of a philosopher regains wings. On recovery of these wings, the soul is separated from the body by their power. Filled with God, it strives with all its might to reach the heavens, and thither it is drawn. Plato calls this drawing away and striving ‘divine frenzy’, and he divides it into four parts.[8] He thinks that men never remember the divine unless they are stirred by its shadows or images, as they may be described, which are perceived by the bodily senses.

Paul and Dionysius[9], the wisest of the Christian theologians, affirm that the invisible things of God are understood from what has been made and is to be seen here,[10] but Plato says that the wisdom of men is the image of divine wisdom. He thinks that the harmony which we make with musical instruments and voices is the image of divine harmony, and that the symmetry and comeliness that arise from the perfect union of the parts and members of the body are an image of divine beauty.

Since wisdom is present in no man (vero sapientia nullis), or at any rate in very few, and cannot be perceived by bodily sense, it follows that images of divine wisdom are very rare amongst us, hidden from our senses and totally ignored. Because of this, Socrates says in Phaedrus [11] that the image of wisdom may not be seen at all by the eyes, because if it were it would deeply arouse that marvellous love of the divine wisdom of which it is an image (cuius id simulachrum).

But [12] we do indeed perceive the reflection of divine beauty with our eyes and mark the resonance of divine harmony with our ears - those bodily senses which Plato considers the most perceptive of all. Thus when the soul has received through the physical senses (sensus haustis) those images which are within material objects, we remember what we knew before when we existed outside the prison of the body. The soul is fired by this memory (recordatione exardescat animus) and, shaking its wings, by degrees purges itself from contact with the body and its filth (corporis contagione, sordibusque) and becomes wholly possessed by divine frenzy. From the two senses I have just mentioned two kinds of frenzy are aroused. Regaining the memory of the true and divine beauty by the appearance of beauty that the eyes perceive, we desire the former with a secret and unutterable ardour of the mind. This Plato calls ‘divine love’, which he defines as the desire to return again to the contemplation of divine beauty; a desire arising from the sight of its physical likeness. Moreover, it is necessary for him who is so moved not only to desire that supernal beauty but also wholly to delight in its appearance which is revealed to his eyes. For Nature has so ordained that he who seeks anything should also delight in its image; but Plato holds it the mark of a dull mind and corrupt state if a man desires no more than the shadows of that beauty nor looks for anything beyond the form his eyes can see. For he believes that such a man is afflicted with the kind of love that is the companion of wantonness and lust. And he defines as irrational and heedless the love of that pleasure in physical form which is enjoyed by the senses.

Elsewhere he describes this love as the ardent desire of a soul which in a way is dead in its own body, while alive in another. He then says that the soul of a lover leads its life in another body. This the Epicureans follow when they say that love is a union of small particles, which they call atoms, made to penetrate the person from whom the images of beauty have been taken. Plato says that this kind of love is born of human sickness and is full of trouble and anxiety, and that it arises in those men whose mind is so covered over with darkness that it dwells on nothing exalted, nothing outstanding, nothing beyond the weak and transient image (imaginem, nec) of this little body. It does not look up to the heavens, for in its black prison it is shuttered by night.[13] But when those whose spirit (ingenium) is drawn away and freed from the clay of the body first see form and grace in any one, they rejoice, as at the reflection of divine beauty. But those people should at once recall to memory that divine beauty, which they should honour and desire above all; as it is by a burning desire for this beauty that they may be drawn to the heavens. This first attempt at flight Plato calls divine ecstasy and frenzy. I have already written enough about that frenzy which, I have said, arises through the eyes.

But the soul receives the sweetest harmonies and numbers through the ears, and by these echoes is reminded and aroused to the divine music which may be heard by the more subtle and penetrating sense of mind. According to the followers of Plato, divine music is twofold. One kind, they say, exists entirely in the eternal mind of God. The second is in the motions and order of the heavens, by which the heavenly spheres and their orbits make a marvellous harmony. In both of these our soul took part before it was imprisoned in our bodies. But it uses the ears as messengers, as though they were chinks in this darkness. By the ears, as I have already said, the soul receives the echoes of that incomparable music, by which it is led back to the deep and silent memory of the harmony which it previously enjoyed. The whole soul then kindles with desire to fly back to (Fruatur, ad sedes) its rightful home, so that it may enjoy that true music again. It realises that as long as it is enclosed in the dark abode (habitaculo circumseptus est) of the body it can in no way reach (modo posse intelligat) that music. It therefore strives wholeheartedly to imitate it, because it cannot here enjoy its possession. Now with men this imitation is twofold. Some imitate the celestial music by harmony of voice and the sounds of various instruments, and these we call superficial and vulgar musicians. But some, who imitate the divine and heavenly harmony with deeper and sounder judgement, render a sense of its inner reason and knowledge into verse, feet and numbers. It is these who, inspired by the divine spirit, give forth with full voice the most solemn and glorious song. Plato calls this solemn music and poetry the most effective imitation of the celestial harmony. For the more superficial kind which I have just mentioned does no more than soothe with the sweetness of the voice, but poetry does what is also proper to divine harmony. It expresses with fire the most profound and, as a poet would say, prophetic meanings, in the numbers of voice and movement. Thus not only does it delight the ear, but brings to the mind the finest nourishment, most like the food of the gods; and so seems to come very close to God. In Plato’s view, this poetic frenzy springs from the Muses; but he considers both the man and his poetry worthless who approaches the doors of poetry without the call of the Muses, in the hope that he will become a good poet by technique.[14] He thinks that those poets who are possessed by divine inspiration and power often utter such supreme words when inspired by the Muses, that afterwards, when the rapture has left them, they themselves scarcely understand what they have uttered.[15]

And, as I believe, the divine Plato considers that the Muses should be understood as divine songs; thus they say ‘melody’ and ‘muse’ take their name from ‘song’.[16] Hence divine men are inspired by divine beings and song to imitate them by employing the modes and metres of poetry. When Plato deals with the motion of the spheres in the Republic,[17] he says that one siren is established within each orbit (singulis orbibus insidere); meaning, as one Platonist says,[18] that by the movement of the spheres song is offered to the gods. For ‘siren’ rightly means in Greek ‘singing in honour of God’. And the ancient theologians maintained [19] that the nine Muses were the musical songs of the eight spheres, and in addition the one great harmony arising from all the others.

Therefore, poetry springs from divine frenzy, frenzy from the Muses, and the Muses from Jove. The followers of Plato repeatedly call the soul of the whole universe Jove, who inwardly nourishes heaven and earth, the moving seas, the moon’s shining orb, the stars and sun.[20] Permeating every limb, he moves the whole mass and mingles with its vast substance.

It is thus that the heavenly spheres are set in motion and governed by Jove, the spirit and mind of the whole universe, and that from him also arise the musical songs of these spheres, which are called the Muses. As that illustrious Platonist says, ‘Jove is the origin of the Muses;[21] all things are full of Jove, and that spirit which is called Jove is everywhere; he enlivens and fulfils all things.’ And as Alexander Milesius, the Pythagorean, says, ‘touching the heavens as though they were a lyre, he creates this celestial harmony.’ The divine prophet Orpheus [22] says, ‘Jove is first, Jove is last, Jove is the head, Jove is the centre. The universe is born of Jove, Jove is the foundation of the earth and of the star-bearing heavens. Jove appears as man, yet he is the spotless bride. Jove is the breath and form of all things (spiritus omnium), Jove is the source of the ocean, Jove is the movement in the undying fire, Jove is the sun and moon, Jove, the King and Prince of all. Hiding his light, he has shed it afresh from his blissful heart, manifesting his purpose.’ We may understand from this that all bodies are full of Jove; he contains and nourishes them, so that truly it is said that whatever you see and wherever you move is Jove.

After these follow the remaining kinds of divine frenzy, which Plato considers are twofold. One is centred in the mysteries, and the other, which he calls prophecy, concerns future events. The first, he says, is a powerful stirring of the soul, in perfecting what relates to the worship of the gods, religious observance, purification and sacred ceremonies. But the tendency of mind which falsely imitates that frenzy he calls superstition. He considers the last kind of frenzy, in which he includes prophecy, to be nothing other than foreknowledge inspired by the divine spirit, which we properly call divination and prophecy. If the soul (si animus in) is fired in the act of divination he calls it frenzy; that is, when the mind, withdrawn from the body, is moved by divine rapture. But if someone foresees future events by human ingenuity rather than by divine inspiration, he thinks that this should be named foresight or inference. From all this it is now clear that there are four kinds of divine frenzy: love, poetry, the mysteries and prophecy. That common (ille alter vulgaris) and completely insane love is a false copy of divine love; superficial music, of poetry; superstition, of the mysteries; and prediction, of prophecy. According to Plato, Socrates attributes the first kind of frenzy to Venus, the second to the Muses, the third to Dionysius, and the last to Apollo.[23]

I have chosen to describe at greater length the frenzy belonging to divine love and poetry for two reasons: first, because I know you are strongly moved by both of these; and second, so that you will remember that what is written by you comes not from you but from Jove and the Muses, with whose spirit and divinity you are filled. For this reason, my Pellegrino, you will act justly and rightly if you acknowledge, as I believe you do already, that the author and cause of what is best and greatest is not you, nor indeed any other man, but immortal God (potius Deum autorem).

Farewell, and be sure that nothing is dearer to me than you are.

Ist December 1457.




1 Plato, Ion, 533D-536, Phaedrus, 245. For Democritus, see Cicero, De Oratore,

II, xlvi,

194. De Divinatione, I, xxxvii, 80.

2 Phaedrus, 250.

3 Hermes Trismegistus, Pimander, I, 6-8.

4 In the Republic, V, 476 seq., Plato describes ideas as the unchanging forms of justice, goodness, beauty, etc., of which the manifestations we perceive are shadows. They alone are the objects of real knowledge. See also Plato, Timaeus, 28, seq. The substance of this letter is drawn from Plato’s Phaedrus, 244-56, and Phaedo, 81-3, 66-8.

5 Phaedrus, 247.

6 Phaedo, 66-8, 82.

7 Phaedrus, 249.

8 Phaedrus, 244-5.

9 This Dionysius was, in the 15th century, wrongly believed to be St. Paul’s Athenian convert (Acts 17:34). He was in fact a Christian Neoplatonist of the 5th century A.D., whose writings were much studied by Christian theologians.

10 St. Paul, Romans 1:20; Dionysius ‘the Areopagite’, The Divine Names, IV, 4.

11 Phaedrus, 250.

12 For this and the following passage see Phaedrus, 251-6, and Phaedo, 81-3.

13 Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 734: ‘Clausae tenebris et carcere caeco’.

14 Phaedrus, 245.

15 Ion. 534.

16 According to Macrobius the Muses are the song of the universe. The Etruscan name for them, ‘Camenae’, a form of ‘Canenae’, is derived from canere, ‘to sing’. (Macrobius, In Somnium Scipionis, II, iii, 4, ed. and trans. Stahl, New York, 1952, p.194)

17 Republic. X, 617.

18 Macrobius, In Somnium Scipionis, II, iii, 1, ed. Stahl, p. 193.

19 Quoted from Macrobius (supra). See Porphyry, Vita Pythagorae, XXXI; Proclus,

ed. Diehl, 203E; Plutarch, De Procreatione Animi in Timaeo, XXXII, 1029C.

20 Virgil, Aeneid, VI 724-7.

21 Virgil, Eclogues, III, 60.

22 From the Orphic theogony, quoted also by Plato, Laws, IV, 715E - ‘God, as the old tradition declares, holding in his hand the beginning, middle and end of all that is . . .’ see Abel, Orphica, p. 167, verse 46. Quoted also in Eusebius, De Praep. Evang., III, 9.

23 Phaedrus, 265. In De Amore, Ficino describes the four kinds of divine frenzy as means by which God draws the soul back to unity and to Himself (De Amore, Oratio Septima, xiii, 257, xiv, 258, ed. Marcel).