In 1462 Cosimo de’ Medici granted Marsilio Ficino a villa at Careggi and put at his disposal a number of precious Greek manuscripts, including a complete manuscript of Plato. Afterwards two or three dialogues became especially dear to Ficino, among them the Philebus. Like the majority of the Platonic dialogues, the Philebus had been unavailable to the Latin west since antiquity, and it was Ficino who translated it from the Greek for the first time. More than this, he deliberately placed it in the climactic final position of the initial decade of dialogues he prepared for Cosimo’s study. Cosimo and his friends discussed the decade culminating in the Philebus and these discussions informally constituted the inaugural meetings of the Florentine Academy. In 1464, as Cosimo lay dying in the last two weeks of July, it was the Philebus that was read to him; and during the reign of his successor, Piero, it was on the Philebus that Ficino first chose to lecture to the city’s patricians, including the young Lorenzo. Since the lectures were composed on the broad problems posed by the dialogue, they were of seminal importance: they contributed an introduction not just to the Philebus but to Platonism itself.
Platonism had never died during the Middle Ages. In the west it flourished under the guise of Augustinianism and mysticism, and even such staunch Aristotelians as St. Albert and St. Thomas Aquinas were imbued with certain Platonic concepts. In the Byzantine east Plato always occupied a premier position and in the last decades of the empire’s existence it was Pletho’s outspoken championship of Plato which initiated a prolonged academic controversy among the Greek exiles in Italy. But the actual face-to-face encounter with Platonic and Neoplatonic texts which took place in the Florentine Academy under the leadership of Ficino was responsible for the European diffusion of Platonism in its distinctively Renaissance form.
The first public articulation of Ficino’s “direct access” to the Plato text was the series of lectures he delivered on the Philebus, a series which later formed the basis of the written commentary. Consequently, the Philebus was in the vanguard of what was both a revival of an ancient academic philosophy, and also a wide-ranging religious, cultural and intellectual movement peculiar to the Renaissance and constituting one of its chief glories, Florentine Platonism. Apart from its historical importance, the commentary had a crucial role to play in the development of Ficino’s own philosophical system; for along with the Symposium commentary (1468-69), the huge Platonic Theology (1469-74) and the treatise On The Christian Religion (1474) it bears witness to the generation of his most profound and luminous ideas.
A critical edition and translation by J.B. Allen.
The Philebus Commentary, Marsilio Ficino, Arizona Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000
Hardback. Octavo. Blue cloth binding. New. 560 pp.