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14 Augusut 2001

Composing the Present Moment

celebrating the insights of Marsilio Ficino interpreted by Thomas Moore

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In a period when people are struggling with new approaches to sustainable community and alternative patterns of consumption, the name of Marsilio Ficino is not well-known by contemporary standards. And yet half a millennium ago he wrote a treatise on what amounts to the imaginative reframing of everyday life: De Vita Coelitus Comparanda. At that time he was the presiding genius of the influential Florentine Academy whose motto was Laetus in Praesens (Joy in the Present), tutor to Lorenzo di Medici, and a focus for artists of fame.

It has been pointed out by James Hillman (1975) that there is no doubt that Ficino was the formulator of the central idea of the western Renaissance. This point has perhaps even be overemphasized by Eugenio Garin's claim concerning the Renaissance that 'after Ficino, there is no writing, no thought, in which a direct or indirect trace of his activity may not be found'.

Ficino's thinking on creatively living the present moment has been made accessible in a remarkable book by Thomas Moore (The Planets Within: the astrological psychology of Marsilio Ficino, revised edition, 1990). Moore's enterprise is not a translation. It is an interpretative revival transforming Ficino's astro-musicology into a musical therapy relevant to a contemporary society suffering from a surfeit of explanations. It seeks to explore and unveil significance in selected images found in Ficino's work about healthy living in daily life and specifically in De Vita Coelitus Comparanda, namely on 'how life should be arranged according to the heavens'. The concern is with imaginative practice open to everyone as promoted by the Institute for the Study of Imagination co-founded by Moore in 1987. For a contemporary translation of Ficino's original work, Moore refers readers to Charles Boer (1980).

The purpose of the following notes is to glean from Moore's study of Ficino's work insights into recreating the present moment. Hopefully these may be of wider relevance than might be immediately suggested by the more prominent terms used by Ficino (or by Moore in interpreting him), namely 'planets', 'astrology', and 'soul' -- all of which require the careful explanations provided in the light of contemporary insights from depth psychology.

Towards a healthy life in the moment

Ficino asserts that a healthy life is a musical life -- an appealing insight from the past for the miilions of people on the planet whose principal psychological nourishment is from music. As in music the aspects of one's experience must therefore be imaginatively arranged so that they contribute harmoniously to that music. As Moore puts it, from a Jungian psychotherapeutic perspective: 'In Ficinian imagination the psyche is pictured as a round of planets, all simultaneously contributing to the music of the soul' (p. 189). For Ficino, human temperament, musica humana, was the 'proper arrangement of one's life so that all concrete experiences resonate, like overtones, the fundamental octave of possibilities represented by the planet-tones. Psychotherapy would be musical then insofar as one would temper and tune the planetary tonal centers so that each would hum within the surface events of life.' (p. 195) The planets within are to be imagined as deep patterns and focal points of the dynamics of psychological life. They do not have to be considered as metaphysical entities, or as determining factors in human life -- as in the traditional belief in the inescapable influence of the planets in the sky (p. 122).

Although 'person' derives from the notion of a mask, James Wellesley-Wesley points out that it might also be usefully understood as 'per-sonare', namely to the transference of a form of sound through such a mask. The Italian musical notation 'tempo giusto' is a tempo in accorance with the beat of the human heart.

Ficino is concerned with practical techniques for ensuring that speculative insights connect with the realities of daily living -- a psychological daily life. Moore notes that he elaborated 'a remarkable amalgam of music, magic, medicine, astrology, art, and ritual -- all directed toward a release from materialistic shortsightedness and the establishment of a soul-focused lifestyle' (p. 30). Ficino was notably known for his skills in musical therapy.

The Florentine Academy under Ficino was concerned with the cultivation of 'virtù', namely the individual's total development beyond all limits and the shaping of one's life into a work of art (p. 32). This calls for recognition of a timing factor, namely a recognition and appreciation between the artist and the audience (especially within the same person) of the significance of the moment. This relates to the Greek term kairos, namely the situational context of the moment:

Kairos is an ancient Greek word that means "the right moment'" or "the opportune." The two meanings of the word apparently come from two different sources. In archery, it refers to an opening, or "opportunity" or, more precisely, a long tunnel-like aperture through which the archer's arrow has to pass. Successful passage of a kairos requires, therefore, that the archer's arrow be fired not only accurately but with enough power for it to penetrate. The second meaning of kairos traces to the art of weaving. There it is "the critical time" when the weaver must draw the yarn trough a gap that momentarily opens in the warp of the cloth being woven. Putting the two meanings together, one might understand kairos to refer to a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved. (Eric Charles White, 1987)

Ficino addressed the enigmatic challenge of interrelating the external (material) and internal (psychological) worlds. The former serves in the process of mapping the latter in ways that are vital to the coherence of inner experience in the moment. Imbued with such psychological integrity, all objects and processes in the external world take on significance for the coherence of the inner world. Moore argues that Ficino may well have been influenced by Nicholas de Cusa who placed high value on what he termed 'enigmatic metaphors'. In any case this bridge between the inner and outer world is achieved by image-making -- a curious irony to a contemporary civilization dominated by image building and spin doctors (cf Naomi Klein, No Logo, 1999).

Ficino's work is sometimes called poetic theology -- as originally suggested by his pupil Pico della Mirandola (author of one of the earliest articulations of human rights: On the Dignity of Man). Moore suggests that it is effectively poetic psychology or a psychopoetics -- his insights being expressed imagistically rather than discursively, precisely because the purpose was to nourish and educate the imagination to enhance the qualitative experience of the moment.

Moore focuses strongly on Ficino's concern with 'soul' -- as the essential quality of existence -- an approach that is the focus of Moore's own writings. This descriptor appeals to many but is also alienating to many others -- due to its many associations with perspectives that have, for whatever reason, often proven less than helpful to enhancing self-experience in daily life. Young people have alternative terms that point to the experience of its more profound meanings in language without some of these associations. For Moore:

Soul is also depth, a metaphor we use to point to a certain intensity of experience. Having soul we feel a reverberation and resonance carrying through beneath the surface of everyday experience. With soul, events are not merely two-diemnsional; they carry an invisible but clearly felt dimension of depth....Soul, then, involves a dying to the natural world, and indeed imagination is not unlike digestive transformation. To live with soul requires a willingness to descend into the depths of events, to let their literalness and our own literal reactions die in favor of another perspective, to see the world as if from below. (p. 41)

Reimagining the world

In Moore's interpretation: 'What we usually call 'external reality' is seen to have depth and transparency. Nothing is only what it appears to be. The human imagination is always at work, though often below the threshold of awareness, making metaphors of everything...At the very moment that we make use of any object or talk to any person, they are being transformed into metaphors.' (p. 42-3) Therefore grasping things solely through the senses overlooks other dimensions from which powerful syntheses may derive. 'We overlook the wealth of images around us by seeing only physical containers of those images' (p. 48).

Objective experience is transformed through imagination into subjective experience -- effectively cultivating the world to nourish experience in the moment. The external world provides a reservoir of images for this process. 'All our actions, in fact, involve us in deep mysterious themes and plots.' (p. 68).

For Ficino, the essential point is to make connections between everyday experience and the deeper life of the soul. We can nourish the soul -- our quality of life in the moment -- by cultivating the reflection of our psychological life in the heavens, with its polycentric elements. 'By keeping in mind the characters of the various planets, knowing especially the spheres of life they 'rule', and the images associated with them, we may organize life astrological art of memory.' (p. 53) This approach is used to make a cosmos of patterned variety and multiplicity in one's psychological environment -- to make a starry sky of one's consciousness in its changing circumstances (p. 58). A well-tuned soul is one in which archetypal possibilities represented by the planetary deities are carefully distinguished and all represented. It is a soul having distinct, multiple parts, just like the tones of a tempered musical scale. (p. 99)

Imagination must also be applied to oneself -- to provide an imaginative awareness of oneself, one's strengths and one's vulnerabilities, especially restrictive tendencies to a particular mode of awareness limiting expression of other modes. (p. 55-57)

Ficino's approach calls for a cultivation of the external environment as a source of imagery for an ecology of the soul (a point made by Ernst Cassirer). Moore notes Ficino's emphasis on the psychological values inherent in the material world (reminiscent of the points recently made with respect to indigenous cultures by Darrell Posey (Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, 1999). Moore offers examples with respect to the 'efficient' design of cities and university campuses which may effectively be inefficient in a larger sense because of their soullessness as inadequate abodes for psychological living. The culture we build is also a house of images (p. 59-61). The challenge is therefore how to elicit and maintain psychological life. One traditional response is to give design emphasis to the use of the 'golden mean' -- which then ensures a more consonant resonance between the image and the person.

What is essential to maintaining psychological life for Ficino is having an appropriate perspective on life itself: 'the only person truly alive is the one who lives most remote from this false life, at least in attitude' -- life outside life itself (or life within life, depending on metaphorical preferences). The quintessential 'elixir is elusive because it is not a substance but a perspective. It is a panacea in that this perspective can transform everything, and it contains the secret of perceiving the immortal dimension behind all mortal events.' (p. 74).

Ficino distinguishes four mnemonic metaphorical processes through which the external world is reimagined through the creation of psychological perspective:

In order to transcend what Moore terms the 'steady, monotonous hum of the sane adjusted life' (p. 97) that dulls the soul, 'we require inner figures associated with specific kinds of nonrational consciousness' the platonic 'frenzies' or forms of 'madness':

Well-tempered life

For Moore:

The art of music contains some precise forms and structures which reflect the life of the soul with a high degree of differentiation. Furthermore, music inherently expresses the dynamics of life, so that the metaphorical value of music is not something external to it or added on. To participate aurally in the complex patterns of a piece of music is to enter deeply into an image that conveys sensations and perceptible patterns in life itself (p. 193)

Ficino, following a long tradition, focuses his attention on musica humana as the music of the soul, in contrast to musica instrumentalis as is now universally heard. He conceives such 'human music' to be the appropriate arrangement of one's life 'so that all concrete experiences resonate, like overtones, the fundamental octave of possibilities represented by the planet-tones.' (p. 195). The process of tempering to a celestial consonance is here understood not in terms of modern theory of harmony -- implying a lack of conflict and dissonance. He advocates instead the original Pythagorean understanding of harmony as a joining together of distinct elements in a lateral or horizontal arrangement -- in contrast to the later vertical arrangement. Pythagorean harmony depends on proper ratios -- a concept applied in many other areas of design. Tones are arranged and tuned to be distinct from one another -- rather than being lost in a chord. (p. 196). It might be asked why one is preferred above the other, and why one tends to preclude the other in practice -- when presumably both need to be held in some form of elusive creative balance that transcends their respective limitations

Music is then in sympathy with the psychological processes represented by the 'planets':

Moore notes: 'The question remains, how do we get ourselves in tune so that our lives have resonance and harmony of the Pythagorean type?' (p. 198). Through what process is the experience of the plethora of images to be more fruitfully encountered? The clues offered by both Ficino and Moore are necessarily elusive:


Charles Boer. Marsilio Ficino, A Translation By Charles Boer. Dallas, Spring Publications, 1980.

James Hillman. Plotino, Ficino and Vico as precursors of archetypal psychology. In: Loose Ends: Primary Parpers in Archetypal Psychology,. Zurich, Spring Publications, 1975

James Hillman. Re-Visioning Psychology. Harper and Row, 1975

Anthony Judge. Presenting the Future: an alternative to dependence on human sacrifice through global pyramid selling schemes. 2001 [text]

Naomi Klein. No Logo: solutions for a sold planet. Picator, 1999 [text]

Thomas Moore. The Planets Within: the astrological psychology of Marsilio Ficino. Lindisfarne Press, 1990, revised version of 1982 edition

Darrell A. Posey (Editor). Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity: a complementary contribution to Global Biodiversity Assessment, Intermediate Technology, 1999 (for the United Nations Environment Programme)

Eric Charles White. Kaironomia: On the Will-to-Invent. Cornell University Press, 1987.

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