Renaissance Understanding of Love

Plato and Ficino

A vital key to the art and poetry of the Renaissance is the conception of love derived from Plato's Symposium. Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) translated this Dialogue and wrote a long commentary on it entitled De Amore. This commentary was undoubtedly one of his most influential works and is foundational to an understanding of Shakespeare's love comedies and Sonnets. It has long been thought that there was no real philosophy in the Renaissance, but the work of modern Ficino scholars have shown this idea to be erroneous. The Renaissance was not merely an arbitrary imitation of Classical styles, but rather the flowering of long philosophical reflection. Nor were the arts considered as vehicles of personal self-expression, but as means to lead the mind to the contemplation of eternal realities, which is its natural inclination. The two quotations given below, the first from the Symposium and the second from De Amore, illustrate this.


Plato says in the Symposium:

Now you will agree, gentlemen, that without Love there could be no such goddess as Aphrodite. If, then, there were only one goddess of that name, we might suppose that there was only one kind of Love; but since in fact there are two such goddesses there must also be two kinds of Love. No one, I think, will deny that there are two goddesses of that name: one, the elder, sprung from no mother’s womb but from the heavens themselves, we call the Uranian, the heavenly Aphrodite; while the younger, daughter of Zeus and Dione, we call Pandermus, the earthly Aphrodite. It follows, then, that Love should be known as earthly or as heavenly according to the goddess in whose company his work is done. And our business, gentlemen - I need hardly say that every god must command our homage - our business at the moment is to define the attributes peculiar to each of these two. (1)


Marsilio Ficino, commenting of this speech of Pausanias, writes:

The first Venus, who is in the Angelic Mind, is born of Heaven: she is said to have no mother, because mother signifies matter to the natural philosophers, and the Angelic Mind has no trace of materiality. the second Venus, who is in the Soul of the World, is called the daughter of Jupiter and Dione. What is meant by Jupiter is the power in the World Soul that moves the visible heavens, and generates all lower forms; and because this is infused into matter, and appears to unite with it, the second Venus is said to have a mother. To sum up, there are two aspects of Venus: the intelligence in the Angelic Mind, and the generating power of the World Soul. They are both accompanied by love. By innate love, the first is compelled to contemplate the beauty of God, and the second, to re-create this beauty in material forms; the one, having embraced the divine splendour, sheds it on the other, who imparts scintillations of its glory to the Body of the World.

Our mind corresponds to the first Venus; and because of the divine provenance of beauty, the mind is moved to a reverential love when the beauty of a human body is presented to the eyes; while the power of generation in us, which is the second Venus, is stimulated to create a similar form. Love acts in both - in the one, as a desire to contemplate, and in the other to propagate the beautiful. In reality, each love is that of the divine image, and each is pure.

What is it, then, that Pausanias condemns? I will tell you. When the generative love becomes obsessive and blots out that of contemplation, or when it is performed in some degrading way, or when the beauty of the body is judged superior to that of the soul - than the true dignity of love is abused.

. . . The object of love is beyond the body, and the beauty of things lies in their resemblance to a spiritual pattern.

If we delight in bodies, in souls, or in angels, it is not their appearances that we love, but the divinity within them - in bodies the shadow, in souls the likeness, and in angels the image of God. Now, therefore, we love God in all things: and finally, we shall love everything in God. (2)

1. Plato, Symposium, translated by B. Jowett.

2. Ficino, Commentary on the Symposium, translated by S. R. Jayne.