From Plato to Neoplatonism:
Love, Beauty, and Women in the Symposium and Three Neoplatonic Texts
by Stefania Patinella
The Italian Renaissance was an era whose focus was man, his self and his talents. The cultivation of one's mind and body became one's most important goal. A cultured man- or woman- strove not only to be well read and knowledgeable across many disciplines, but also to be him or herself proficient in not one, but various, art forms such as oration or reciting, painting, sculpting, singing or playing an instrument, dancing, and, of course, in writing both verse and prose. Nesca A. Robb, whose book Neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance provides a comprehensive study of the arts of this time period, asserts that it was a time when "intellectual gifts were valued quite as highly as nobility of birth."1 (Of course, as he notes, this is true within an already established, higher tier of society). The emphasis on one's appearance, dress and manners was of no less importance in determining one's nobility and worth. In short, achieving beauty in the arts as well as in the person became every cultured man and woman's primary goal.
This increasing concentration on man and on the worldly came into direct conflict however, with the beliefs of the Middle Ages and the doctrines of Christianity. Unlike the man of the Renaissance, whose interest lies distinctly "in the world of human experience," the man of the Middle Ages "believes his true life to be in another world," or in other words, in the afterlife, when reunited with God.2 Focus in the Italian Middle Ages was a renunciation of all that is material or worldly and concentration was on God, not man. In the years between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, therefore, men were torn between the seemingly mutually exclusive ideas of the two eras. The humanists of the earlier half of the fifteenth century were the first to "aspire towards the fusion of the two ideals hitherto irreconcilable; the classic ideal of beauty and the Christian ideal of moral perfection."3 Through this attempted "fusion" slowly emerged the philosophy that dominated the Italian Renaissance, Neoplatonism.
In 1438, the Greeks came to Italy to attend the council of Ferrara and Florence. Here, two notable events occured which helped plant the seeds for the subsequent popularity of Neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance. First, one Greek philosopher, Pletho, befriended Cosimo de' Medici, provoking him to establish Florence as the center of the new Platonic school. Bessarion, another Greek man who came to Italy and was "reconciled to the Roman Church and raised to the cardinalate,"4 also had a tremendous influence in Italy. He wrote In Calumniatorem Platonis, printed in Rome in 1469, in which he soundly delineated the links and similarities in Platonism and Christianity, asserting that they are not mutually exclusive philosophies. Therefore, at the time when Italy's social climate was most conducive and most open to the emergence of Neoplatonism, the Greeks handed the Italians the tools they needed in order to realize their search for the fusion of pagan beauty and Christian morality.
Though Neoplatonism undoubtedly has Platonist philosophy at its core, it is not by any means a faithful or exact revival of Platonist doctrines. Rather, it is a mutation; a mutation with both Christian ideals and the social conventions of Renaissance Italy as its transforming agents. In this subsequent study of this philosophy in Renaissance Italy, and particularly in Florence which was the capital of the movement, I will trace the various mutations of Neoplatonism, beginning with Plato himself to its philosophical beginnings in Italy with Marsilio Ficino, to its manifestations in later trattati d'amore, or love treatise, which were increasingly pragmatic and "secularized" in nature. The discussion of Neoplatonism will center particularly around the central themes of love, beauty, and women.
II. Plato's Symposium
Plato's Symposium is the Platonic work on which Neoplatonic philosophy is primarily based, both in terms of structure and content. It takes place at a banquet held by Agathon in which six characters deliver a series of speeches in praise of love. The first five men to speak, Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Agathon, each hold speeches whose content concerns either a particularly benevolent effect of love, how love was born, different types of love, or how love works. Each of these speeches builds upon the last, and together, they serve to lay the foundation for the climactic, final speech in praise of love in which Socrates offers the true meaning and goal of love, as explained to him by Diotima; in other words, it is the speech in which the Platonic account of love is offered. In his introduction to the Symposium, John A. Brentlinger notes that "the earlier speeches...all motivated by a type of love, become the data of this (the Socratic) discourse, the concrete material which gives meaning and relevance to its compressed and abstract statement."1 The content of each of these speeches will be individually discussed herein, concluding, as Plato does, with an analysis of Socratic/Platonic love.
Phaedrus begins with a short speech on the benefits of love on the lover. A pair of lovers are repeatedly described as the lover and "his young friend,"2 the beloved. Though he asserts that both benefit greatly from their relationship, the "lover is more divine than the youth he loves" because "he is inspired." He is inspired to do noble deeds both to please his beloved and to prove himself deserving of the merit and love awarded to him by his beloved. He provides an example of an ideal, though hypothetical, situation: if there were some way in which a state or army could be turned into "a colony of lovers," these men, as lovers, would seek to "emulate the noble" deeds and to positively shun the "shameful" ones. With this example, Phaedrus shows that the great benefit of love is a social one. Men who are lovers are, as a rule, better people than those who are not. This can serve to elevate the caliber of men, and therefore, of society.
The next to speak is Pausanias who begins by saying that there exists not one, but two, types of love, the common and the celestial. These two loves stem from the two Aphrodites. The younger one, whom he calls "common" has both a mother, Dione and a father, Zeus; however, the older, "celestial" Aphrodite is a motherless daughter of Uranos. Common love is called such because it afflicts "your average man."3 "Such men," he writes, "love women no less than boys."4 Furthermore, they love their bodies rather than their souls and "have no concern for the beauty of the thing or its lack."5 On the other hand, there is the celestial love, which absolutely does not "partake of the female." Men who love celestially, can love only other men (or boys who are at the age when they have begun thinking, "just about the same time the beard is starting to grow"6), for their superior souls and minds. In this type of love, Pausanias points out that "there is a nobility in the beloved youth's acquiescing to his lover."7 The word "acquiescence" here denotes sexual acquiescence. Therefore, the distinction between common and celestial love is not between the corporeal or sexual and the non-corporeal or non-sexual. On the contrary, according to Pausanias, happiness and honorable, or "celestial," love are achieved through the combination of mental pleasure and bodily stimulation. The ultimate goal of love should be to achieve the mental and physical simultaneously. Women, who are incapable of offering men the intellectual stimulation needed in love are, again, declared incapable of partaking in celestial love. The conclusion is that heterosexual relationships can never be elevated past the level of common love, whereas celestial love can exist in none other than a homoerotic relationship. Furthermore, he says that homoerotic relationships must be regulated to ensure that they live up to this potential. According to Pausanius, the perfect lovers consist of a wise, old man and a sexually attractive, young boy. The old man provides the mental stimulation in the relationship whereas the young boy provides the physical. He argues that not only is this arrangement beneficial to both the lover and the beloved, but it is also advantageous to society because one of its goals is the education of one of its young men. In this way, Pausanias builds on Phaedrus' stipulation that love is beneficial insofar as it has a socially productive end. So, in conclusion, Pausanias asserts that not all love is inherently beneficial and good; it is only good if involves certain members of society, namely men (preferably one young and the other old), and if it is regulated by strict conditions, specifically, it must include the exchange of both sexual and intellectual activities.
Eryximachus, who is the next character to speak, delivers a short speech in which he claims to speak from what he calls the "medical (or scientific) point of view."8 This scientific point of view basically asserts that harmony is achieved in the balance of opposites- opposites such as wet and dry, or hot and cold. Attraction not only between people but "in the bodies of all things living, even things that grow in the earth, and, in a word, in everything that exists"9 is based on a sort of magnetic pull between opposites. With this "opposites attract" logic, Eryximachus is giving added support to Pausanias' theory of love between old men and young boys.
Aristophanes, who is the next speaker, is said by Brentlinger to be "second only to Socrates in his grasp of the mysteries of love."10 Aristophanes bases his speech around an explanation of the beginnings of the human species.
People were shaped like complete spheres. Their backs and sides made a circle.
They had four hands with the same number of legs and two faces- completely the
same- on top of a circular neck....And there were two sexual parts, and whatever
else one imagines goes along with this arrangement.11
There were, furthermore, three sexes, the male, the female and the androgyne, which was half male and half female. This story dictates that this race of people had great power and arrogance and consequently, they eventually assaulted the gods. Zeus therefore devised a plan whereby he would split them all in half so that they would be slower and less threatening to the gods. He turned their heads to face forward, sewed up their stomachs, and most importantly, set their genitals in front. This last thing he did as an act of mercy because he saw that each half forever longed to be reunited with his other. Therefore, he arranged it so that when one half rediscovered his or her missing counterpart, they could be joined together again temporarily through sexual intercourse. Accordingly, men who were split from the androgyne search for women, women split from women seek their own sex, and "those who have been cut from the whole male befriend men, and lying with them, and performing acts of love, yield themselves to men. This sort make for the noblest kinds of young men and boys."12 Aristophanes speech clearly establishes the natural and crucial role of sex in love. Love is the desire to return to one's original condition, or his initial wholeness. Aristophanes explains that "to the longing for wholeness the name 'love' has been attached."13 Again, this rejoining with one's other half takes place through sexual intercourse. Of course, Aristophanes asserts that this union is not only sexual but also concerns "something else that the soul of each desires,"14 a sentiment more abstract in nature but no less powerful. This is, again, why homosexual relationships between men are praised above the heterosexual or lesbian ones. The widely held premise in the Symposium of the superiority of men's souls and minds over those of women logically leads to this conclusion. In sum, the main goal of Aristophanes is to restore and emphasize the role of sexual desire in love as inevitable, natural and good.
Agathon, the next speaker, delivers a speech which seems to serve more a dramatic purpose than an informative one. He is located crucially between the two most important speakers, perhaps to put in relief the intelligence or the relevance of the surrounding speeches (particularly Socrates'), or perhaps as a dramatic pause in the ascent to the climax of the treatise. Agathon speaks in his time vaguely about the actual god of love and his youth and beauty. It is a pompous and self- glorifying type of speech, and one with little or no relevance or substance. Socrates notes this and the two men engage in a brief, witty dialogue in which Socrates exposes the emptiness of Agathon's praises and sets the stage for his own upcoming discourse, in which he will offer the correct and honest praise of love.
Finally, we have reached the last speech in praise of love delivered by Socrates. Two things- its placement at the end of the treatise as well as its difference in form (he delivers his speech in the form of a dialogue that took place between himself and Diotima in which Diotima teaches him about love)- serve to show the importance of this speech with respect to the others. First, Diotima tells Socrates about the birth of Love, who is actually a daemon, not, as everyone thinks, a god. The mother of Love is Poverty; his father is Resource. Therefore, love finds himself perpetually stuck between need and fulfillment, between ignorance and wisdom, and, as it were, between mortality and immortality. In himself, therefore, love is neither good nor beautiful as Aragon claimed with his empty praises. Instead, Socrates asserts that "Love is the love of what is beautiful."15 Then he- or, more precisely, Diotima- goes on to say that "wisdom is certainly one of the most beautiful things" and therefore, "by necessity, Love is a lover of wisdom, a philosopher, and as a philosopher, is intermediate between the wise and the ignorant."16 With this definition of love, Socrates is offering us an interpretation unique from the others. Love, because he was born of a resourceless and needy mother, will always have the desire to achieve what his mother failed to instill in him, specifically, beauty, wisdom and goodness. Again, Socrates is demonstrating that love is neither beauty, nor wisdom, nor goodness in itself, but that, through love, "the intermediate," humans have both the capacity and will to achieve these things. Love is, therefore, the desire for these attributes.
Once Socrates understands this, he asks Diotima the question which Socrates' audience, consisting both of the guests at the Symposium and we, the readers, is indeed left with: "But if Love is of such a nature, what function does he serve for men?"17 The answer to this question- what is the purpose of love?- is the very core of the Platonic account of love. To begin, "love is for the good to always belong to oneself."18 By this, Diotima means that not only is love a desire for the good (and the beautiful or wise), but it is a desire for this good to be one's forever; in other words, love is the desire to achieve a certain "immortality."19 This immortality is achieved through procreation, specifically, through "the procreation in a beautiful thing, of the body and of the soul."20 Men who "are prolific in body"21 naturally seek women, with whom, through sexual intercourse, they can achieve immortality of body through children. However, those more noble men who are pregnant with "thought and other virtue,"22 seek other men to achieve the greater immortality, which is that of the soul. Once again, the superiority of men's "souls" over those of women, their capacity for intellect and thought, and women's lack thereof, is unequivocally asserted. In this case, however, the distinction between immortality of body and that of soul is, in fact, equivalent to the distinction between sexual intercourse and non-sexual, i.e., intellectual or conversational intercourse. Diotima says,
So, being pregnant with these things, he welcomes beautiful bodies rather than
ugly ones, and if he should chance on a soul who has beauty of nature and body,
he delights greatly in both together, and immediately indulges in talk with this
man about virtue, and about the sort of person that a good man must be....He is
taking his education in hand. For I believe that when he fastens onto this
beautiful person and has intercourse with him, he gives birth to the things he has
been carrying up to then, and brings them to life when, present or absent, he
thinks about him.... Such men share an intimacy with one another which is far
deeper than one coming with children and enjoy a surer affection, because they
have taken part in the creation of more beautiful and immortal progeny.23
A man can achieve immortality of soul, then, by instilling his beloved, another, beautiful man, with his own wisdom and knowledge (this is what he means by "taking his education in hand") through intellectual "intercourse." In this way, he is gaining immortality in two ways. First, he is insuring that his ideas live on in another. Second, and more importantly, in loving his beloved, he is taking the first steps needed to reach, for his own benefit, the true understanding of Beauty.
This second event occurs through a specific process of five steps delineated by Diotima, which have come to be known metaphorically as the Platonic ladder. The steps are as follows:
1. A young man discovers the physical beauty of another man's body, and the "fruit of his love to be beautiful conversation."24
2. This young man then moves from loving one beautiful body to understanding "the same beauty which exists in all bodies."25
3. Next, "he will find that the beauty that exists in souls (is) more valuable than that in the body."26
4. After this, he comes to a what I will call a multiplicity of knowledge. He understands many things and "brings forth many beautiful and magnificent theories and thoughts in a fruitful philosophy."27
5. And lastly, this man moves from this multiplicity of knowledge to a "certain single knowledge," which is the beholding of Beauty itself. At this point, one is able to "see the Beautiful itself, pure, clear, unmixed- not infected with human flesh and color and a lot of other mortal nonsense."28
The attainment of this abstract concept of Beauty, then, is the "ultimate end"29 of love. It is the highest form of knowledge and, because it exists in a completely separate realm than that which humans occupy, and it can only be achieved by freeing the soul of all bonds it has to the human body- all desires of the flesh, including, of course, sexual desire. Diotima brings it all together in her conclusion in which she says that in beholding Beauty, "one is able to bring forth true virtue, and to nourish it, and hence to be a favorite of the gods, so that if any man can be immortal, it will be he."30 Once again, this immortality through Beauty is the ultimate end of love.
As Diotima concludes her lesson, Socrates concludes his speech. However, this is not the end of the treatise. The actual ending is an attempt by Plato to give a more concrete example of the abstract philosophy which Socrates has just relayed to us. This example is that of the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades. Alcibiades, who is a very beautiful, young man, tells the story of the time he tried to seduce Socrates, or persuade him to make love to him, and failed. Though Alcibiades "lay down under his worn cloak" with his arms around Socrates all night, Socrates made no move to make love to him."31 He could not be moved purely by Alcibiades physical beauty because, as he tells us, real beauty is inward. Beauty, as defined by Socrates, is not how "good-looking" an individual is but how beautiful, that is, how good or intelligent, that person is inside, within his soul. Plato shows us how Socrates forfeits physical beauty for the higher, intangible, ethereal Beauty, and in this last example, Platonic love is defined: stated simply, it is the desire for Beauty (not beauty).
III. Platonism Translated: Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium on Love
Marsilio Ficino (1433- 1499) was the son of Cosimo de' Medici's physician. Beginning from Ficino's youth, Cosimo established himself as Ficino's patron, allowing him to study, write, and live quite comfortably in Florence all throughout his life. He became the tutor, and later, the trusted advisor, of Lorenzo de' Medici, and more importantly, he was appointed the head of the Platonic Academy of Florence, which was founded in 1462. This Platonic school was not a formal organization, but an informal gathering of friends of Cosimo's court, scholars, artists, patrons, and the like, who got together for discussions in which the primarily focus was Platonic philosophy. In 1469, he wrote his Commentary on Plato's Symposium on Love, which was the first trattato d'amore, or treatise on love, written during the Italian Renaissance, among many to ensue. After Ficino, the trattato d'amore, whose purpose it was to praise love, became a popular genre of literature in Renaissance Italy. As a genre, the trattato d'amore straddles the border between fiction and non-fiction. The trattato usually consist of a dialogue which is claimed to have occured in reality between two or more actual people in society. The author/narrator often claims either to have been told of the event by someone who witnessed it (as is the case in the Symposium), or to have been himself present at the discussion. In either case, however, the story is recounted to us in retrospect, and it is therefore understood that the author has by no means recorded the discourse word for word. In short, the author often employs his poetic license very liberally, essentially using a semi-real dialogue as a means by which to express his own views on love. For example, Ficino's trattato, which is especially reminiscent of the Symposium, takes place on the seventh of November, which is, according to Ficino, both Plato's birthday and his day of death, at which time nine Platonist friends get together to read the Symposium out loud; subsequently, seven of them make a speech expounding on one of the speeches therein. However, though it is its main purpose, this treatise should not solely be looked at as a commentary, but also, as Sears Jayne notes in his introduction to the text, as a "compilation of (Ficino's own) ideas about love."1 Although Ficino's own theory of love has its foundation in Platonic thought, it is nonetheless infused with two external influences, and ultimately takes on a form quite distinct and independent from Platonism. Marsilio Ficino therefore warrants the title of father of Florentine Neoplatonism, a philosophy whose influence can be traced, in some form or another, throughout so many of the great works of art and literature put forth by the masters of Renaissance Europe.
The two great external influences mentioned above respectively illustrate the two primary differences between Platonism and Neoplatonism. First, there is that of Christianity. Paul Oskar Kristeller, in his book, Eight Philosophers, comments that "as a priest, (Ficino) was imbued not only with the somewhat diluted scholastic theology characteristic of his time, but also with the popular religious literature."2 The infusion of Christianity into Platonism did nothing less than alter the very definition of Beauty. Recall that the "ultimate end" of love according to Plato is to achieve an understanding of Beauty. Recall also that the notion or definition of this Beauty remains an abstract concept. One may assume that it is not a feeling that can be explained, but rather a divine something which one may attain and understand only after a long, rigorous process, i.e. after climbing the Platonic "ladder." This Beauty, however, in Neoplatonism is given a name. That name is God. The ultimate Beauty for which man is supposed to strive to attain is, in fact, God. Therefore, the goal of love, which is maintained by Plato to be the procreation in the beautiful in order to achieve Beauty, is transformed into man's ascension to God.
The second influence, that of the social customs and conventions of Ficino's time, also affects a definition of beauty; in this case, however, it concerns physical beauty. As has been shown, all throughout Plato's Symposium, the speakers assert that honorable love is restricted to love between men. The beloved is most often a young boy, and through the contemplation of the beauty of this boy, the lover takes his first step on the metaphoric ladder to understanding Beauty. In Ficino's Commentary, however, a man's beloved object is not always another man, but sometimes, a woman. In later Neoplatonist treatise, such as Bembo's and Castiglione's, which will be discussed in the next section, homosexual relations are completely replaced by heterosexual ones, and by extension, the beautiful object is no longer man, but woman. However, in the Commentary, one sees only the beginnings or roots of this transformation, not its total embodiment. At times, Ficino defines the ideal relationship as homosexual, whearas at other points, the reader can see him swaying toward heterosexuality. Therefore, although he does not himself reject homosexuality, he does lay the foundation for its rejection, upon which the later Neoplatonists build. This tendency away from homosexulaity is also due, undoubtedly, to Christianity, or specifically, to the church's strict policies against homosexual relationships as violations of "natural order" prescribed by God. This mentality was so diffused in society by this time that one can argue that the influence to replace the beloved object with a woman was a secular one, one that stemmed from social conventions of Renaissance Italy. Ficino's apparent fluctuation between man and woman as beloved object exemplifies his struggle between philosophical integrity,or faithfulness to the Symposium, and the powerful influences of church and society. One may also consider this as the conflict between the two aims of Ficino's work: the first is as a commentary on Plato's text, or an explanation of Platonism, and the second is as a text embodying Ficino's own ideas and understanding of love (recall Sears Jayne's comment that the Commentary is a "compilation of [Ficino's own] ideas about love"). It is precisely within this conflict that Neoplatonism emerges as an independant philosophy. Furthermore, beginning with Ficino's trattato d'amore, the concept of beauty begins to take on a more concrete definition- for both men and women. In Speech V, chapters six, Ficino asks the question "what is the beauty of the body?" His answer begins with a seemingly very concrete definition. It consists of three elements: Arrangement, which is the distance between parts, Proportion, which is quantity, and Aspect, which is shape and color.3 He goes on for a relatively lengthy paragraph to speak in a very precise manner of the parts of the body in their "natural positions." For example, he writes, "three noses placed end to end will fill the length of one face, the semi-circles of both ears joined together will make the circle of an open mouth, and the joining of the eyebrows will also amount to the same."4 However, though he speaks very concretely in this paragraph about the criteria for physical beauty, he goes on to say that these elements are merely important in that they "prepare" the body for the "infusion" of Beauty. His final definition of Beauty in this section is "a certain lively and spiritual grace infused by the shining rays of God, first in the Angel, and thence in the souls of men, the shapes of bodies."5 Therefore, though Ficino toys with the notion of a tangible criteria of corporeal beauty, he ultimately asserts that the attributes of the body itself are nothing without the infusion of the grace of God. Again, however, subsequent Neoplatonists took this passage, and other similar mentions of physical beauty in the Commentary, and expanded upon it in their own treatise in order to assert the great importance of corporeal beauty- particularly that of women- in Neoplatonic philosophy (this notion will be elaborated upon in the next section of this study). In short, despite the infusion of some influences of the church and of society, Ficino's trattato d'amore remains both the most philosophical in nature, and the most faithful to Platonic doctrine as demonstrated in the Symposium. Ficino's principle theories, and their connection and/or distinction from Platonic philosophy, will be discussed individually below.
First and foremost, it is important to note that Ficino's trattato is unequivocably a work in support and in praise of love. He writes, "So, my friends, I encourage and entreat you to embrace love with all your strength, as a thing which is undoubtedly divine."6 Ficino recognizes, as Plato does, that there are two different types of love (Cupids or Eros) which correspond to the two Venuses; however, unlike Plato, he asserts that both are good (well, he asserts this only some of the time, but I will discuss this contradiction later). Let us examine these two kinds of loves in a chart:
Divine Love Earthly Love Venus Heavenly Vulgar Parents Father: Uranus;
Resides in: Angelic Mind World Soul Percieved by: Intellect Sight and sound Man under its
Divine Beauty Corporeal Beauty (in a man or woman) Ultimate desire or goal Procreation of one's soul
(contemplation of divine Beauty/
propogation of knowledge)
Procreation of one's body
(children and/or the propogation of knowledge)
Sometimes, Ficino calls our attention a third kind of love, "vulgar love," which, in fact, isn't love at all, but a disease, "enchantment," or "infection."7 In Speech II, chapter seven, he delineates the conditions which are unacceptable in human love: "If anyone, through being more desirous of procreation, neglects the contemplation or attends to procreation beyond measures with women...or prefers the form of the body to the beauty of the soul, he certainly abuses the dignity of love."8 The two conditions, or, as it were, symptoms, of this disease are the preferance of the physical body which leads one to neglect the contemplation of the beauty of the soul, and sex "beyond measures," or in excess, with women. In asserting that this is a disease and not, as some may claim, love, Ficino grounds sexual intercourse with women in a purpose, that is, to propagate oneself through children. In this way, Ficino attempts to resolve the contradiction between the notion of ideal Platonic love and the need to sustain human life. Again, due to both Christianity and social conventions, there is a greater emphasis during this time on the importance of child-bearing. Therefore, though Ficino tries to remain philosophical, praising the "beauty of the soul" over "the form of the body," he ultimately recognizes the importance of the reproduction of the human race, and thus, unlike Plato, he both condones and praises sexual intercourse with women (only, of course, "as much as the natural order and the civil laws laid down by the prudent prescribe"9). In the end, therefore, Ficino successfully finds a way to declare both loves to be "praiseworthy" and "virtuous."
This, however, as was mentioned above, is Ficino's conclusion only some of the time. When he is not praising both loves, he is asserting the clear superiority of heavenly love over earthly love. Like Plato, Ficino says that this heavenly love is suited only for mature men, because, "in them, the sharpness of intellect flourishes more completely,"10 whereas women and boys are not suited for this love, both because of their inferior intellect (notice how women are filed intellectually into the same category as children), and because they are primarily "motivated by the pleasures of sexual intercourse and the achievement of corporeal reproduction."11 To understand fully Ficino's concept of heavenly love, let us first examine his model(s) of the cosmos. Though there are numerous models of the cosmos found in the Commentary,- for example, some are vertical while others are circular- they mostly follow the same basic principle. God, or unity, is in the center (or at the top), and around Him (or below him) are successively lower levels until one reaches the physical world, or multiplicity, which is the last ring (or bottom level). For my purposes here, I will use one such model found in Speech II, chapter four, as the archetype for this discussion:
The single face of God shines successively in three mirrors, placed in order: the Angel, the Soul, and the Body of the World. In the former, as nearer to God, the image shines most brightly. In the second, more remote, more dimly. In the latter, most remote, if you compare it to the others, most dimly...The splendor and grace of this face- to repeat the same thing very often- whether in the Angel or in the Soul, or in the Matter of the World, is to be called universal beauty. And the impulse toward that is to be called universal love.12
Each successive level, the Angelic Mind, the World Soul, and the World Body are a step down from the last, and each level is forever desirous to return back up. [Again note the infusion of Christianity in the religious concepts and language, e.g., "God" and "Angel."] God, therefore, is both the beginning and the end. First, he creates or instills beauty in humans. Oftentimes, Ficino uses the metaphor of a sun's rays to illustrate the infusion of beauty in humans. For example, in Speech II, chapter five, he writes, "just as a single ray of the sun lights up the four bodies, fire, air, water and earth, so a single ray of God illuminates the Mind, the Soul, Nature, and Matter."13 Then, through the contemplation of that earthly beauty, man turns back to God; he is "led to behold the face of God which shines within itself."14 In sum, Ficino writes that "in this way, Mind, Soul, Nature, and Matter, proceeding from God, strive to return to the same, and in every direction, they revolve in toward him as best they can."15
Platonic philosophy states (although this is not found explicitly in the Symposium) that every physical object found on our earth, animate or inanimate, is but a shadow of its true reality, which is found in another, higher realm. As has been shown, the highest realm in Neoplatonism is God. Beauty, as Ficino understands it, also works in this way: earthly beauty, is a mere shadow, or a reflection to follow along Ficino's mirror metaphor, of the ultimate Beauty, which is God. Therefore, though the admiration of earthly beauty, which oftentimes in Neoplatonism simply refers to a woman's corporeal beauty, is good, it is only truly commendable if it is understood as a mere stepping stone to the ultimate Beauty. This brings us to Ficino's interpretation of Plato's metaphorical ladder:
1. A man perceives and contemplates physical beauty. The only two senses that are acceptable for this perception are sight and sound. The other three, touch, taste, and smell are lower, vulgar (sensual) senses, and one can therefore not appreciate beauty through them.
2. Next, man internalizes that beauty, i.e., he projects that image of his beloved onto his own soul. So, "in the course of time, (lovers) do not see the beloved in the real image received through the senses, but in an image already reformed by the lover's soul, in the likeness of its own innate idea, an image which is more beautiful than the body itself."16
3. Then, the lover contemplates that internalized image of beauty, and thereby turns away from all that is material, and is finally prepared to contemplate and receive the divine Beauty of God.
This is how man "is elevated by the sight of bodily beauty to the contemplation of spiritual and divine beauty."17 The outward- inward- upward structure of this model is very different from that of the cosmos; however, there is a clear conceptual correspondence between the rungs of the ladder and the circles of the cosmos. A lover starts by contemplating the beauty in the World Body, then the beauty of the World Soul, and finally, the beauty in the realm of the Angelic Mind, and lastly, the divine Beauty of God.
Together, these two models help us to understand Ficino's overarching philosophy on the human condition, and specifically, the roles of beauty and love within it. As he understands it, the Soul of man, wrapped in the earthly cloak of its body, is trapped in Matter. The soul, which is a divine entity, is constantly being distracted by the worldly desires tempting the flesh. Man, in his time on earth, therefore, is presented with two options. Ficino explains these two choices through the language of senses. First, as we know, a lover perceives physical beauty through his eyes and ears. If he should fall from these two senses to that of touch, he is degraded, or compromising his own soul's potential. If he rises from sight and sound to intellect, which he often refers to as a sixth sense, his soul transcends its physical binding and ascends. So, in sum, if a man "is so captivated by the charms of corporeal beauty that it neglects its own beauty, and forgetting itself, runs after the beauty of the body, which is a mere shadow of itself,"18 his soul descends to the realm of Matter. This, Ficino tells us, is the "pitiable calamity of men."19 On the other hand, man can surpass his need for the physical through contemplation and, he can thereby rise to the realm of the Angelic Mind, and finally, to God.
In the Commentary, Ficino seems to present to his reader two contradictory ideas of love. On the one hand, he says both loves, the earthly and the divine, are good. On the other hand, he tells us that moving from sight to touch is a veritable degradation of a man's soul. Furthermore, as I have tried to show, he gives us at least two different definitions of beauty: one explains beauty in a concrete definition of the placement, size, color, etc., of one's physical features, while the other simply says it is the "ray" of God. Sears Jayne accurately points out in his introduction to this text that Ficino "presents different views of human love (and, I would argue, of beauty) without trying to argue out their relative merits or to resolve the obvious contradictions among them."20 Jayne ultimately concludes however, as I do, that the Commentary is most certainly a "defense of human love."21 Whether love is the force that propels man to reproduce more like himself, leads him to conceive great philosophical theories, or binds our entire cosmos together, the unequivocal conclusion is that love is good. Echoing a similar quote that was cited at the beginning of this essay, Ficino says, "So my friends, I urge and beg you to give yourselves to love without reservation, for it is not base but divine."22 So, instead of asserting one true definition of "human love," Ficino simply presents his readers with the choices, and ultimately lets them choose for themselves. Indeed, one of the possible reasons for the great success and popularity of Ficino's text may be precisely this ambiguity. Ficino's Commentary left an opening for interpretation upon which, as I will attempt to illustrate in the next few sections, many writers of Renaissance Italy did not hesitate to seize.
IV. Neoplatonism Applied to the Italian Renaissance World: The Trattati D’amore of Bembo and Castiglione
Two of the most popular Neoplatonic treatise which followed Ficino’s Commentary are Pietro Bembo’s Gli Asolani and Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortigiano, or translated, The Book of the Courtier. These two texts exemplify the next mutation of Neoplatonism, one which signified the subsequent step in the secularization of the philosophy. In this discussion, I will not use the word "secularization" to mean a movement away from religious doctrine. Rather, it will signify the movement away from pure, theoretical Platonic doctrines and the propensity toward an examination of pragmatic applications of Neoplatonism in the society of the Italian Renaissance. I other words, I will examine the revisionism which Neoplatonism underwent, under the pens of Bembo and Castiglione, which ultimately inclined the philosophy toward more worldly matters. The goal herein will be to illustrate how both of these texts more clearly delineated those contradictions of Neoplatonism which Ficino first presented, to specifically show how both texts provided strong, logical challenges to the viability of the concept of Neoplatonic divine love, and to examine the implications of Neoplatonism for women.
If Ficino is considered the father of Neoplatonism, then Pietro Bembo is surely the man who popularized the philosophy with his own treatise of love, Gli Asolani, published in 1505. Gli Asolani takes place at the wedding of one of the Queen’s maids. Six characters, three women, Sabinetta, Lisa, and Madame Bernice, and three men, Perottino, Gismondo and Lavinello, begin a discussion in the gardens of the palace on the favorite of Renaissance topics, love. The treatise is organized into three Books, in which each of the men gives a speech on his understanding of love. The first is by Perottino, whose speech is essentially a moving tirade on the misery of love and the grief it causes. Gismondo, who speaks next, presents a strong, logical argument asserting the very opposite. Love is always good; it causes only happiness and joy. The final speech is delivered by Lavinello who tells us two things. First, love has the potential to be both grief and joy. Secondly, he tells the story of an encounter he has with a wise, old hermit who teaches him about true, i.e., Neoplatonic, love. To begin, it is important to note that the content of the first two speeches is not in praise of Neoplatonism. They are both, unquestionably, discourses on earthly or human love. Also, one can see that, although traditionally, as in the Symposium, the speech whose content is most important is dramatically located at the end of the treatise, the content of Lavinello’s final speech is not, in fact, given precedence over the other two. There are a number of reasons supporting this conclusion. First, one will note that Lavinello’s speech is the shortest of the three. Furthermore, each of the speakers recites his own poetry in support of his position. However, whereas the poetry of the first two clearly defends his conclusion, that of Lavinello "is only distantly Platonic (the lady for example, remains an individual throughout the poems)."1 Lastly, the reader will see that Lavinello’s speech lacks both the conviction and passion of the other two, and most importantly for our purposes here, the cogent logic of Gismondo’s argument. Below, I will concentrate on these arguments of Gismondo in Book Three to illustrate Bembo’s challenge to the Neoplatonic notion of divine love.
The first part of Gismondo’s attack on Neoplatonism is literary: it exposes the "myth" of Neoplatonism by questioning the truthfulness of its metaphorical language. He talks for many pages about the rhetoric of lovers, how they use language to embellish or worse, to downright invent, supposed "miracles" of love which are, in reality, only "lies."2 He says, "Lovers, no less than poets have a special license to feign things which are often far from any resemblance of the truth."3 To support this argument, he uses his own poem as evidence, sarcastically calling it "this miracle of mine."4 The first two halves of the poem tell of an incident in which he sees his beloved and his heart, "like a voyager,"5 leaves his own body to travel to hers, where finally, it rests. In the last part, he describes how the same phenomenon befalls the heart of his beloved:
But then your heart, swayed by some brave desire…
Went blithely where my own had made its start.
Thus they exchanged abodes, and from that day
Your heart with me and mine with you delay.6
This concept of transferring one’s heart or oneself to the body of his beloved, and vice versa, is an integral concept of Neoplatonic philosophy. Ficino tells us in the Commentary that "anyone who loves, dies"7 because his soul leaves his own body and goes to live in the body of the beloved. He can only live through reciprocal love, in which the souls of each of the lovers lives in the other’s body.8 Gismondo’s poem is recalling this very same process, (though Ficino’s "soul" is Gismondo’s heart), and thereby making specific reference to Neoplatonic philosophy. When Gismondo is finished reciting his poem, he says, "Does not this miracle surpass all others? That two loving hearts should each forsake its proper bosom and occupy the other’s, not merely without discomfort but by divine intervention."9 With the biting sarcasm of this last sentence, the reader is made to look back specifically at the absurdity and impossibility of the poem’s metaphors, and more broadly, at the ultimate nonsense of the Neoplatonic doctrine to which he alludes. In commenting that the lover is able to transfer his heart remarkably "without discomfort," Gismondo is making a point, in a particularly witty way, about how Neoplatonic philosophy is removed from reality and the natural world. To this regard, he also says, very astutely, "How foolish of you to believe that lovers were allowed to do what nature cannot do, as if they were not men by birth and like the others subject to her laws."10 Bembo’s character, Gismondo, is very logically arguing that lovers are men like all others, still subject to the "laws" of nature and of the world. Linked to this assertion is the correlation that lovers are not able to transcend their own bodies and mortality through love to reach the level of divinity spoken of by Plato and Ficino. This insistence on basing the concept of love firmly in the natural world is one that reoccurs in many of Gismondo’s subsequent arguments, as will be shown below.
Gismondo’s next reference to Neoplatonism is his analysis of the myth that we first examined in the Symposium which tells us that originally, one human being was two human bodies as we know them today, joined together, until Zeus, (or Jove, in Neoplatonic philosophy), split them apart. In recalling this story, however, he makes it a point to tell us that it is not a "mere picture" or "invention"11 as are the other metaphors of Neoplatonism. He says,
Nature herself, and not some man, declares all that I have told you (à propos this story). We are incomplete and lack part of ourselves if we are only male and female; for this which cannot exist by itself is not the whole, but only half and nothing more, as you ladies cannot do without us men nor we without you ladies.12
Recall the role of sex as an integral part of love. In his own speech, Gismondo essentially agrees with this argument, only he takes it a couple of steps further. So, this time, instead of showing us the blatant absurdity of Neoplatonism, he cleverly expands upon one of the philosophy’s own arguments in order to subvert its larger doctrine of divine love. First, one must note that he builds on Ficino’s revision which turns the focus away from homosexual relationships and towards heterosexual ones. Then, he states that the myth of Jove is based on nature, as is illustrated in the above passage, for two, explicit reasons. The first reason is biological, the second, social. Gismondo explains:
The truth of this is immediately evident if we consider that one sex by itself could hardly bring us into existence; and even were one sex sufficient for reproduction, when born we could not continue to live without the other. Our life, if well examined, is packed with endless labors which neither one nor the other sex could wholly bear alone.13
He goes on to explain that "Nature foresaw this" and so she divided the sexes, assigning the "tasks" such as pregnancy and nursing to women, and those such as making laws and fighting wars to men. At the end of his explanation, the reader is left with a concept of love that is very different from that of divine love taught by Plato and Ficino. With Gismondo’s words, the concept of a relationship between the sexes as a goal, or natural extension, of love first takes shape. The conception and rearing of children and the dividing of social duties, both inside and outside the home, depict for the reader a portrait of marriage in Renaissance Italy. Certainly, neither Plato’s nor Ficino’s notions of divine love (or Ficino’s "human" love, for that matter) include the ideas of mutual love and responsibility which are found in marriage. This is Bembo’s unique addition to, or one might say, revision of, Neoplatonist philosophy.
The last strong argument Gismondo makes against Neoplatonism involves the five senses. Recall that both Platonism and Neoplatonism state that sight and sound are the only two human senses which can be used to detect physical beauty; the others, they teach, are base. However, Gismondo firmly disagrees. He is of the opinion that all "five senses.. are the instruments of the mind as well as of the body."14 At first, although he asserts the equal worth of all five senses, he describes only sight and sound in detail. It is important to note that when he talks of these two senses, his language does not conform to the language of Platonism or Neoplatonism, which is laden with heavenly and divine references. For example, when examining the benefits of sight, he speaks in explicitly physical terms: the lover is able to see his beloved’s "large black eyes" and "tender cheeks" and "to scan the little mouth below, the sweetness of whose ruddy lips might tempt the coldest and least amorous to kiss," and "furthermore, while he commends that portion of her snowy bosom which he sees, the unseen part wins even warmer praise."15 One can see that Gismondo moves freely between the senses, thereby putting them all on an equal level: sight leads the lover to want to kiss the lips of his beloved (sight- touch), while the covering of the beloved’s dress leads him to use his mind (recall that thought is said to be a sixth sense in Neoplatonism) to ponder what is underneath. Later, after Gismondo has described sight, sound and thought in detail, he says of the other senses:
But let us pass over the other pleasures, dear and numerous as they may be, of which we need only say that since our lives are such as nature fashioned them when we came here, surely our sweetest course is to accept her will and govern them by the same law which the ancients made for feasts: drink or depart.16
Again, Gismondo uses "nature" here as his main defense. "Nature" gave man the five senses, not so that he should resist them, but so that he would "accept her will" and use them as he was intended to. Gismondo very cleverly creates a metaphor to a feast, in which the three sense he wishes to defend, touch, taste and smell, all play integral roles. He does this in another part of his defense as well, this time, making specific reference to taste: "let us, when we meet the others (the other senses), taste them and bid them Godspeed."17 Gismondo’s message is clear: he is urging man to delight, without reservation, in all of the pleasures of love which are offered to him through his senses.
The last point I will discuss in which nature is Gismondo’s defense against Neoplatonic divine love is that in which he asserts that love is the driving force of our world. Recall that Ficino asserts this as well; for justification, he presents us with the model of the cosmos, the explanation of which is highly theoretical and abstract. On the other hand, Gismondo looks to the earth’s own mechanisms for his answer. He explains to his audience:
So look around you, my fair young women, and consider how fruitful is the world, how many and how various are the kinds of living things in it; yet there is none among them which has not been derived from love….For unless love joined two separate bodies formed to generate their like, nothing would ever be conceived or born.18
He goes on to enumerate examples of reproduction found in nature, e.g., between the fish, the birds, the trees and flowers, and finally, he draws a parallel to human reproduction: "surely, if our parents had not loved one another, we would not now be here."19 Once again, Bembo establishes the role of sexual desire and intercourse in love as both natural and good. He employs a logic whose premises and conclusions are based firmly in our natural world. Through the character of Gismondo, Bembo launches a strong defense against the Neoplatonic ideal of chaste, divine love.
This process of the secularization of Neoplatonism had very interesting implications for women. As we have seen, the Platonism of the Symposium excludes women from true love altogether, whereas Ficino’s slightly revised view allows them to participate in love, though still not in the highest form, divine love. In strict Neoplatonism, women are to thought of as the lowest rung on the ladder; their physical beauty is to be used by men as a mere first step to an exaltation to God. Therefore, if a man truly seeks divine love, he must discard all women to reach the second step. However, in rejecting the notion of divine love in Gismondo’s speech, Bembo frees himself from the misogyny that is so closely linked with Ficino’s Neoplatonism. When Gismondo is telling us of the aforementioned metaphors, or "lies," of Neoplatonism, he makes specific reference to the ease in which a lover can strip a woman from her individuality, and turn her into an allegory. He says,
Who cannot in a moment convert his ladylove into an archeress who wounds men with pointed arrows of her eyes?… And these days, who is not wont to compare his lady in a thousand other metaphors more recent still?20
If there is any doubt that what Gismondo, the character, says about women and relationships, is what Bembo, the author, believes, this doubt may be wiped away at the beginning of Book Three. Here, Bembo speaks in the first person about his own opinion on many topics, including his view of women. He says,
Though I believe many will blame me for asking women to take part in these inquiries, since it is more suitable for them to be occupied with womanish affairs than to rummage in such matters, I shall not accept the criticism. For unless it is denied that women as well as men have minds, I do not know why they any more than we should be refused the right to seek knowledge….If women do not occupy all their free time with those duties which are said to be proper to them, but devote their whole leisure to literary studies and these pursuits, it makes little difference what some men say about it, for sooner or later, the world will praise the women for it.21
This clear defense of women, their intellectual equality, and furthermore, their right to study and pursue literary interests, is an essential part of Bembo’s account. His discussion on the falsity of Neoplatonic metaphors, the mutual and collaborative relationship he describes between men and women as an extension of the Jove myth, and the emphasis he puts on reproduction as both necessary and natural, are all arguments that lend themselves to the assertion of the equality, not the inferiority, of women. Indeed, we see here that not only does he verbally defend women throughout Gismondo’s speech, but he also creates three women characters who, although they do not have their own speeches, have integral parts in the treatise. They have the freedom to speak, raise questions, and challenge each of the men at their own free will, and indeed, they do seize upon this opportunity periodically. In short, Bembo shows his readers that women are not merely tools to be used by men for the purposes of their personal exaltation; instead, they are thoughtful individuals who play equal and active roles in society.
In the Book of the Courtier, Castiglione similarly challenges the notion of divine love and the role of women. The setting for this treatise is the house of Duke Giudobaldo of Urbino and Duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga. In a preamble to The Courtier, Castiglione offers this book to his reader as a "portrait of the court of Urbino…without adorning the truth with pretty colors or making…that which is not seem to be."22 Thus, from the very beginning, it is clear that one of Castiglione’s main objectives in writing The Courtier is to capture the realties of court life in Renaissance Italy. The more secular nature of the text, therefore, is largely due to the fact that Castiglione wishes to capture reality in both action, i.e., the plot presented and the characters speaking, and dialogue, i.e., the subject matter at hand and thoughts expressed. For example, in addition to the more pragmatic and less philosophical subject matter, the structure of the dialogue is looser and more flexible than the other treatise we’ve examined, which, in itself, creates a mood of realism. Though subject matters are allotted to specific characters upon which they must expound, there are frequent interruptions of questions, challenges, and tangential discussions within the individual discourses in which all characters are able to participate- much like the way in which one would imagine regular conversation to carry on. In examining the two issues of the view of women in this text and Castiglione’s challenge to Neoplatonism, these two criteria, action and dialogue, will shape my argument.
First of all, one must examine the basic structure of The Courtier. Like Gli Asolani, it is split up into two basic sections, the first relatively more, and the second relatively less, secular. Books One to Three speak of matters pertaining to daily court life. The subject concerns the behavior, manners, and knowledge which are necessary and proper in courtiers and court ladies. Love, in this discussion, is treated as one of the many matters in which he or she must be proficient in order to participate in the cultured world. Book Four, on the other hand, is specifically about the idea of Neoplatonic love. Therefore, whereas the more "secular" discussion in Books One and Two of Gli Asolani is still mainly about love, this is not the case in Castiglione’s book. In fact, The Courtier falls not so much under the genre of the treatise of love as it does that of a court hand-book. In other words, for the majority of this book, the question of love, though undoubtedly a central issue, is secondary to the larger issue of general behavior. Because of the rather strict separation between the two parts of the text, the two issues for discussion here, women and Neoplatonism, fall under separate spheres. Unlike Bembo, Castiglione’s discussion of women is not an examination of their roles in Neoplatonism, but rather, a commentary on their roles in the society as a whole. It is important for the reader to keep in mind, however, that Neoplatonism, being the dominant philosophy of the Renaissance, was greatly infused into the minds of the people and the culture of Italy by the time this book was being written. Its emphasis on learning, intellectuality, and the self (mostly for men, as we have seen, but also to a lesser extent, for women, as we saw in Gli Asolani and are about to see in The Courtier), and its emphasis on beauty, both in art and in people (in this case, particularly for women, but also, to a lesser extent for men) was highly attractive to the people, particularly the aristocracy and peoples of the court. The environment of the Italian Renaissance, therefore, was both fostered by Neoplatonism, and perpetuated because of it. The society gladly accepted Neoplatonism, and Neoplatonism encouraged the continuation of the society’s structure and ideals, such that a circular model may be set up to illustrate the relationship between the two. Therefore, returning to my main point, though the discussion of women does not seem to be explicitly tied to that of Neoplatonism, one may say that because of the widespread infusion of the philosophy’s doctrines in the culture, the tie is stronger than initially apparent.
In any case, it is clear that The Courtier is a text which documents the social climate of Renaissance Italy, and that an integral part of this documentation is the commentary on women. First, let us examine the role of women in the action of the book. The two main female characters, the Duchess Elisabetta and Signora Emilia Pia, are elected as the heads of the discussion. They reside over the other characters, determining in which direction the discussion should proceed, who should speak, and for how long. Castiglione, then, even more so than Bembo, comments on the integral place of women in court life and conversation. In many cases, their participation, level of intelligence, and ability to carry on thoughtful and witty conversation was expected to be equal, or at least close, to that of men. This leads us to the subject matter of the dialogue pertaining to women. Book One, and to a lesser extent, Book Two, is about the ideal Courtier; correspondingly, Book Three is about the creation of the perfect Court Lady. Messer Magnifico is chosen to extrapolate on the subject. In short, he fashions a Court lady who has many of the same "qualities of mind and body"23 envisioned for the ideal Courtier. This includes "knowledge of letter, of music, of painting,…(and) dance"24 among a list of many other characteristics. However, he adds two traits he feels are absolutely imperative for women:
And I do think that beauty is more necessary to her than to the Courtier, for truly that woman lacks much who lacks beauty. Also, she must be more circumspect, and more careful not to give occasion of evil being said of her, and conduct herself so that she may not only escape being sullied by guilt but even by the suspicion of it.25
The latter trait of which Magnifico speaks is, in short, the preservation of chastity, or at least, the semblance of the preservation of chastity. Magnifico’s emphasis on a woman’s beauty and her chastity, two of the main doctrines of Neoplatonic philosophy, attest both to the influence and popularity of Neoplatonism. Certainly, these emphasis on these two characteristics-I would argue, especially chastity, due to Christianity- are not concepts conceived in the Renaissance. They are prevalent ideas in the previous history of Western culture. However, the adoption of Neoplatonism during the Renaissance in Italy presented people with the opportunity to attach philosophical justification to their beliefs on the importance of these two characteristics, particularly beauty, for women. Being that, as has been discussed, The Courtier is a text whose purpose is to represent its time, there is not much objection raised to this tenet. Indeed, it is accepted by both the men and women characters alike. Though it has been shown how the dogma of Neoplatonism often strips women from their individuality, Sears Jayne notes that "its doctrine that the love of the body is a step toward a higher kind of love was especially welcomed by women."26 Due to the unquestionably crucial role of their beauty in the philosophy, women were exalted, raised on a pedestal, as it were, for their physical assets. A majority of women accepted this as sincere flattery and praise for their gender, whereas a few, with a woman named Laura Cereta who was, I would say, at the helm of this small group, recognized it as one of the trickiest forms of repression and misogyny.27 However, whereas there might not be challenge to the fact that beauty is a most important attribute for women in The Courtier, there is some conversation on the hypocrisy of the emphasis on a woman’s chastity. In his discussion, Messer Magnifico does make a distinction between the actual preservation of virginity in women and a woman’s need to portray herself as a "chaste" and "prudent" person to her surrounding society.28 Indeed, he comments that it is a sort of balancing act she must perform, one which is both "difficult to achieve and, as it were, composed of contraries."29 Later, when signor Gasparo, who is considered the misogynist of the group (he is frequently called by the company the "enemy of women"), tells us that it is important that women stay chaste so that certainty of the heredity of children may be unquestionably established, Magnifico retorts in defense of women that, if one were going to argue this point logically, men are equally responsible for fidelity or chastity.30 Again, when signor Gasparo declares that women are imperfect creatures (an Aristotelian view), and that they therefore perpetually desire to be men, the Magnifico retorts:
The poor creatures do not desire to be men in order to become more perfect, but in order to gain freedom and to escape that rule over them which man has arrogated to himself by his own authority.31
Furthermore, the Magnifico ultimately takes a firm stand of the equality of the intellectual capabilities of men and women. He says, "Women can understand all the things men can understand and...the intellect of a woman can penetrate wherever a man’s can."32 In conclusion, one may say that it is hard to ascertain precisely where Castiglione’s own sentiments lie with respect to women. He defends some prevalent misogynist views, while condemning others. However, in the exchange between signor Gasparo and Messer Magnifico, it is clear that Magnifico represents the side of the good, and signor Gasparo, the evil. The women and guests present for the discussion strongly side with Magnifico throughout, and indeed, it is abundantly clear that Castiglione does as well. It is also clear that Castiglione meant to use the discussion of the perfect Court Lady as a means by which to stage a "defense of women"33 against Gasparo, whose character he creates to represent the misogynists of Italy. In fact, that precise phrase, "defense of women" is reiterated several times at the end of the Second Book and throughout the Third. However, in the end, Castiglione does not, unlike Bembo, bring to light the fact that the philosophy of Neoplatonism lends itself to the perpetuation of misogyny, especially with its doctrines on the importance of a woman’s physical beauty.
There is evidence in The Courtier, on the other hand, that Castiglione questioned the viability of its doctrine of divine love. In Book Four, Castiglione introduces none other than Bembo himself to give a speech on the Neoplatonic vision of love. Bembo covers all the major aspects of Neoplatonism, including the good versus the base senses, the concept of the Neoplatonic ladder to Beauty, or God, and of course, the crucial distinction between earthly or "vulgar" love and divine love. It is particularly on this last point that Castiglione raises objections. This is accomplished through a series of interruptions during Bembo’s speech by other characters. First, signor Morello says:
It is Messer Bembo who is plotting evil against old men, since he wishes them to love in a certain way which, I, for one, do not understand; and it seems to me that to possess this beauty which he so much praises, without the body, is a fantasy.34
Here, Castiglione seems to be making an argument that the idea of divine love is something of a "fantasy." Much like Bembo, whose character Gismondo talks of the difficulty, and indeed, the lack of necessity, in refraining from "love’s banquet,"35 Castiglione questions the feasibility of divine love. Later, another character, Cesare Gonzaga comments that "the path that leads to this happiness seems to me so steep that I think one can hardly travel it"36 attesting to the same problem. In another part of Bembo’s speech, a different objection is raised. Signor Morello says:
The begetting of a beautiful child in a beautiful woman would be an engendering of beauty in beauty effectively; and pleasing him in this would appear to me a much clearer sign that she loved her lover than treating him with the affability of which you speak.37
This comment does nothing less than expose one of the greatest incongruity of Neoplatonism. Although "vulgar" love is not totally condemned in Neoplatonism, it is still considered to fall far short of divine love. The man who engages in vulgar love does so because he is weak; his soul is unable to resist the temptations of his flesh. Therefore, the procreation of children, and the continuation of the human species, is only achieved due to man’s weakness, or his inability to reach perfection. This is a dismal view of mankind, and indeed, one which goes against nature and man’s instinct. Instead of rejoicing over a child, one must think of him or her as the product of one’s own imperfection. Perhaps Castiglione agreed with this, or perhaps not. Either way, he did not shy away from exposing the inconsistency. Lastly, Castiglione critiques Neoplatonism through an action at the end of Bembo’s speech. Castiglione writes:
Having spoken thus far with such vehemence that he seemed almost transported and beside himself, Bembo remained silent and still, keeping his eyes turned toward heaven, as if in a daze; when Signora Emilia, who with the others had been listening to his discourse most attentively, plucked him by the hem of his robe and, shaking him a little, said ‘Take care, Messer Pietro, that with these thoughts your soul, too, does not forsake your body.38
Bembo’s soul seems to be on the verge of being "transported" outside his body, thereby realizing the notion of divine love and actually fulfilling the ultimate goal of Neoplatonism. But in that very moment, Castiglione chooses to pull him back to earth. What does he mean to say in doing this? There are a number of possible answers. It is possible that he is criticizing Bembo and Neoplatonism, illustrating, along with his other objections, that earthly love is better than divine love. On the other hand, perhaps he is commenting on the inability of the other characters, and thus, the people and society at large, to truly understand the philosophy. This, too, may be a critique of Neoplatonism, however, and not the people. He may feel, like Cesare Gonzaga, that the path to grasping divine love is just too "steep" for people to travel. Or, then again, perhaps Castiglione was cleverly reflecting on his own writing, that is, drawing an analogy to the way in which he secularized Neoplatonism, or figuratively speaking, brought it down to earth, in The Courtier. Whatever his specific intentions were, it is clear that both the verbal objections raised in the Fourth Book and this last action by Signora Emilia reflect Castiglione’s own skepticism with respects to the Neoplatonic idea of divine love.
From its origin in Plato’s Symposium centuries before, to this metaphoric last action by Signora Emilia in Castiglione’s The Courtier, and beyond in subsequent trattati, Neoplatonism underwent many transformation throughout the history of its existence. Despite the skepticism and criticism that was brought to it by certain authors, it unequivocally remained the dominant philosophy of the Italian Renaissance, inspiring great works of art and enlightened pieces of literature. As I have tried to show, its implications for women are varied; though, on the whole, it was philosophically repressive to women’s individuality. There were many great authors, however- both men and women alike- who, following in the tradition of Bembo and Castiglione, either placed Neoplatonism’s doctrines in their own unique light, or subverted them altogether, to prove the equality of women in society. Among my favorites are Agnolo Firenzuola in his On the Beauty of Women, Moderata Fonte in her The Worth of Women, Tullia D’Aragona in her Dialogue on the Infinity of Love and Laura Cereta, whose compilated writings can be found in various books, including Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist. Like Ficino, Bembo, and Castiglione, each of these authors brings to Neoplatonism his or her own spark of individuality.
1 Nesca Robb, Neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance, 179
2 Ibid., 24
3 Ibid., 33
4 Ibid., 50
1 John A. Brentlinger, introduction to Symposium by Plato (Massachussets: University of Massachessets Press, 1970)
2 All quotes in this paragraph from Plato, Symposium, ed. John A. Brentlinger and trans. Suzy Q. Groden. (Massachusetts: The University of Massachusetts Press,1970), 45
3 Ibid, 48
4 Ibid, 48
5 Ibid, 48
6 Ibid, 48
7 Ibid, 53
8 Ibid, 56
9 Ibid, 55
10 Ibid, 12
11 Ibid, 61
12 Ibid, 64
13 Ibid, 67
14 Ibid, 65
15 Ibid, 82
16 Ibid, 82
17 Ibid, 82
18 Ibid, 85
19 Ibid, 86
20 Ibid, 85
21 Ibid, 88
22 Ibid, 88
23 Ibid, 89
24 Ibid, 91
25 Ibid, 91
26 Ibid, 91
27 Ibid, 92
28 Ibid, 93
29 Ibid, 93
30 Ibid, 93-94
31 Ibid, 104
1 Sears Jayne, introduction to Commentary on Plato's Symposium on Love by Marsilio Ficino (Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc., 1985), 4
2 Paul Oskar Kristeller, Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), 40
3 Marsilio Ficino, Commentrary on Plato's Symposium on Love, ed. and trans. Sears Jayne. (Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc, 1985), 93
4 Ibid, 93
5 Ibid, 95
6 Ibid, 54
7 Ibid, 159
8 Ibid, 54
9 Ibid, 54
10 Ibid, 135
11 Ibid, 135
12 Ibid, 90
13 Ibid, 51
14 Ibid, 90
15 Ibid, 48
16 Ibid, 114
17 Ibid, 119
18 Ibid, 140
19 Ibid, 140
20 Ibid, 16
21 Ibid, 11
22 Ibid, 54
1Rudolf B. Gottfried, introduction to Gli Asolani by Pietro Bembo (Indiana: Indiana University Press,1954), xvii
2 Pietro Bembo, Gli Asolani, trans.Rudolf B. Gottfried (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1954), 86
3 Ibid., 86
4 Ibid., 88
5 Ibid., 88
6 Ibid., 89
7 Marsilio Ficino, Commentrary on Plato's Symposium on Love, ed. and trans. Sears Jayne. (Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc, 1985), 55
8 Ibid., Speech II, Chapter 8
9 Gli Asolani, 89
10 Ibid., 86
11 Ibid., 93
12 Ibid., 93
13 Ibid., 93-94
14 Ibid., 125
15 Ibid., 117
16 Ibid., 139
17 Ibid., 135
18 Ibid., 110
19 Ibid., 111
20 Ibid., 87-88
21 Ibid., 148
22 Baldassare Castiglione, Book of the Courtier, trans. Charles S. Singleton. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1959), 3
23 Ibid., 209
24 Ibid., 211
25 Ibid., 206
26 Sears Jayne, introduction to Commentary on Plato's Symposium on Love by Marsilio Ficino (Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc., 1985), 19
27 Laura Cereta, Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist. ed. and trans. Diana Robin (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997)
28 Book of the Courtier, 207
29 Ibid., 207
30 Ibid., Book Three, section 38
31 Ibid., 217
32 Ibid., 214
33 Ibid., 193
34 Ibid., 340
35 Gli Asolani, 135
36 Book of the Courtier, 358
37 Ibid., 348
38 Ibid., 357
Bembo, Pietro. Gli Asolani. Translated by Rudolf B. Gottfried. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1954
Castiglione, Baldessare. The Book of the Courtier. Translated by Charles S. Singleton. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1959
Ficino, Marsilio. Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love. Edited and translated by Sears Jayne. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc, 1985
Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964
Plato. Symposium. Edited by John A. Brentlinger and translated by Suzy Q. Groden. Massachusetts: The University of Massachusetts Press,1970
Robb, Nesca. The Neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance.
Aragona d’, Tullia. Dialogue on the Infinity of Love. Edited and translated by Rinalda Russell and Bruce Merry. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1997
Cereta, Laura. Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist. Edited and translated by Diana Robin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997
Firenzuola, Agnolo. On the Beauty of Women. Edited and translated by Konrad Eisenbichler and Jaqueline Murray. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992
Fonte, Moderata. The Worth of Women. Edited and translated by Virginia Cox. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1997
Panofosky, Erwin. Studies in Iconology. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962