Ficino’s Five Questions: A Christian Platonist Response to Aristotle’s Problem of Happiness

By Aaron David

Aristotle is known for his philosophy and for his being Plato’s most prized student and intellectual companion. Perhaps Aristotle’s most influential and widely read work is his Nicomachean Ethics, which was, and still is, considered a seminal argument for the value of moral and intellectual virtue. The Ethics does more than argue for virtue; it also discusses human nature and the human condition. This paper will show that Aristotle argues that humankind most deeply desires a “perfect” happiness: one that that is complete, lasting the whole of one’s life, and sufficient in itself to render each day worth living – and that such a happiness is unattainable. I will argue that Aristotle believes that humanity’s chances for such a happiness are necessarily frustrated by our mortality (and our awareness of it) and our being subject to chance and misfortune, with its accompanying uncertainty and anxiety. How might other students of Plato respond to this? This paper will consider how a Platonic Christian thinker, Marsilio Ficino of the Italian renaissance, might respond by understanding his “Five Questions Concerning the Mind” as a direct reply to Aristotle’s Ethics. I will demonstrate that Ficino borrows Aristotelian notions of: teleological activity, the unsatisfying nature of human life on earth, a perfect happiness, and more. However, for the purposes of his argument, he changes an Aristotelian principle, and supplants others in favor of his own. In so doing, he renders the immortality of the human soul a necessary reality, thus positing the possibility for us to achieve in the afterlife the perfect happiness we so deeply desire. I will proceed by examining Aristotle’s Ethics and critically considering Ficino’s “Five Questions Concerning the Mind” as a Christian, Platonic response.

Aristotle begins his Ethics with a statement about human nature: all our actions are aimed at some good. In Book I of the Ethics, he addresses the question of the greatest good. After warning his readers of the necessarily imprecise character of his account, he explores the nature of the greatest good, one that all humans value and strive toward: happiness (I.4, p.315). To answer the question of what happiness is, Aristotle posits two qualities unique to the greatest good: completeness and self-sufficiency, achieved over the whole of one’s life (I.7, p.321-3).

In the first chapter of Book I Aristotle gives a sort of hierarchy of goods, showing that most actions or goods are instrumentally valuable. He explains that there must be “some object of activities that we want for its own sake, this must be the good, the highest good (I.2, p.314).” If there were no such end we would always be grasping for more and never satisfied, rendering life empty and frustrating (I.2, p.314). Happiness is the final, complete end towards which we all strive, as it has unqualified intrinsic value: “by absolutely final, we mean that which is sought for its own sake, and never as a means to something else. Happiness seems to be something of that sort (I.7, p.321).”

In addition to its completeness, happiness is perfectly self-sufficient, not only for oneself, but also for those dearest to one, as well as one’s fellow-citizens, “since man is naturally a social animal (I.7, p.321).” The self-sufficient is “that which by itself makes life worth choosing, and lacking in nothing (I.7, p.321).” Final happiness is not ephemeral: “one swallow does not make a spring, nor does a single fine day. Similarly, one day or a short time does not make a man blessed or happy (I.7, p.323).” Happiness lasts over a complete life.

By “outlin[ing]” these qualities of happiness, Aristotle gives a working account of what human beings intensely desire and strive toward (I.7, p.323). The next question is: how do we achieve this happiness? What actions should we take to become happy? Or, broadly, how should we live? In answering these questions, Aristotle states, explores, and debunks prevalent opinions of the constituents of the happy life, those related to pleasure and honor (I.4-5, p.315-17). He likens the “uneducated” life in pursuit of pleasure to the “kind of life lived by cattle (.I4-5, p. 316-7).” As for the “clever” life of honor, he argues that because honor is a simply a recognition of virtue, it must be that the “excellence [in virtue] is higher than honor (I.5, p.317).”

After disposing of these means to achieving happiness, in chapter seven Aristotle offers a possible solution to the question of how we, as human beings, ought to live – with an eye toward final happiness. He does this by posing a question: what is the work of the human being? It cannot be growth and sustained life, as this is “shared by man even with plants (I.7, p.322).” The human work must be something “specific [to human beings]” (I.7, p.322). Reason emerges as the uniquely human quality central to our work. Aristotle asserts that “we are left with a life concerned with action, belonging to the rational part of the mind (I.7, p.322 [emphasis added]).” Those who take this work most seriously receive the greatest reward (i.e. happiness). The work of a serious man is to do these “activit[ies] of soul” well and nobly, bringing each thing or action “to completion well in accord with the [virtue proper to it]” (I.7, p.322). After this conclusion, he restates the work of the human being, the fulfillment of which may ensure man’s happiness, to include virtue: “the good for man proves to be activity of soul in accord with excellence [of virtue]” (I.7, p.322). This active or applied virtue, rather than a dormant virtuous character or disposition, is “operative” and accomplishes good things (I.7, p.322 and I.8, p.324).

However, there is the problem of chance and misfortune. Aristotle concludes chapter eight, an argument for active virtue yielding happiness all the way through, with an important qualification. Immediately after quoting the inscription at Delphi, he states that virtuous activities comprise all of the qualities mentioned in the inscription, concluding that they constitute happiness (I.8, p.325). The debilitating qualification comes in the succeeding sentence: “However, it seems also to require external goods” (I.8, p.325). He explains that ugly people, people of poor birth, and the like cannot really be characterized as happy (I.8, p.325). This is so because such people have limited opportunities to flourish as virtuous agents. Thus, he restates in conclusion that happiness “does seem to require this external bounty [chance and fortune]” (I.8, p.325-6).

In chapter nine, Aristotle mentions, but does not assent to, the notion that happiness is god-given. He also brings up the argument that some hold that it is a result of chance, but rejects this on the grounds that “it is too unfitting to hand over the most important and finest thing to chance” (I.9, p.326). He continues, “what is needed [for happiness] is complete virute [in a] complete lifetime” (I.9, p.327). It is critically important to note that he says these conditions are “needed”: this suggests that they are necessary, but not sufficient to achieving happiness (I.9, p.327).

As a possible solution to the problem of chance and misfortune in this life, Aristotle entertains the notion of an afterlife, and the possibility that one might be rightly called “happy” only after one is dead and “out of reach of evils and misfortunes” (I.10, p.327). He explores different elements of this argument, including the welfare of the deceased’s loved ones and whether they can affect the deceased’s happiness. He introduces the notion of happiness after death so as to present a resolution to the problem of the misfortunes a good man might “wrongly” encounter in life by having recourse to providential gods and an afterlife that resolves earthly injustice. However, he consistently describes this discussion of afterlife as “absurd,” using the word three times in a short span (I.10, p.327-8). This suggests his intellectual uneasiness with this reassuring, yet unlikely postulate. He does not, at any point, assent to the notion of an afterlife. Perhaps he brings up these notions of divine providence and afterlife as a formality, paying respect to custom and endoxa. Or perhaps he brings these notions up to hint that of all the actions man takes in his striving, the suspension of his reason that goes so far as to posit a transcendental reality is the best, strangest, and most telling example of his deepest desire for a final happiness. With human hopefulness in mind, he discusses a perfectly blessed man who “is active in conformity with complete virtue, and adequately supplied with external goods, not just for any length of time but for a complete lifetime” – can we rightly call this man happy (I.1p, p.329)?

Aristotle’s subtle answer is that we cannot. He insinuates that in order to fulfill the criterion of completeness over the whole of one’s life, and thereby to rightly posit his happiness, we must posit further that he lived this way and that he “died accordingly” (I.10, p.329). Still, this blessed man could never have been certain that he would have fortune till the end of his days, and upon his death. This uncertainty must in some way taint the completeness of his happiness at any given moment in his life. What is more, even if he did somehow know that he would die peacefully and that all of his friends and family would fare well in the future, he would still have to live with the unsettling, frustrating knowledge that he will someday die. Hence, the inevitability of our mortality renders a sustained, final, self-sufficient happiness unrealizable. This ideal happiness is something “most divine” indeed, because even the most complete, blessed man is still only “blessed as [a] human being” (I.10, p.329).

One could argue that Aristotle believes that suffering, or at least frustration, is a permanent condition of life. After all, man longs for something more than what he can have. However, we find in Book X that the contemplative way of life assuages man’s innate frustration and suffering more than any other. Since contemplation is a pleasant, continuous end in itself, the philosopher, through continuously engaging in it, overcome man’s proclivity to grasp for more, to overreach and grasp nothing, and then to reach out again (pleasant: X.6-7, p.413-4; leisurely and continuous: X.7, p.415.; end in itself: X.7, p.415; life of grasping: I.7, p.321). Since his activity is self-sufficient, the philosopher need not worry (as much) about the external world around him, over which he has no control. Social living, which is still necessary to him, can, at times, prove to be an impediment to his contemplation and happiness (X.8, p.417). He seeks neither honor nor external reward. For him, pleasure is internal and self-perpetuating, as it lies in a single activity. The philosopher enjoys one, simple activity: contemplation, just as “the god always enjoys a pleasure that is one and simple” (VII.14, p.400). Aristotle believes that insofar as the philosopher engages in contemplation, and thereby limits to the greatest possible degree the suffering of human life itself, he “[resembles]” a god among mere desirous men, children, and fatted cattle (X.9, p.418).

Before we analyze Marsilio Ficino’s “Five Questions Concerning the Mind,” it is important to consider his intellectual background and his hopes for philosophy and religion. This may shed light on why he makes the arguments he does. Ficino undertook the task of revitalizing a form of Platonist thinking in Italy. Ficino’s Platonism is different than the philosophy of the early Platonists. He seeks to present Italian Humanism within a Platonic framework, which he synthesizes or “combines” with the Christian faith, creating a “[harmonious] philosophical system” (Ficino 185-6). Accordingly, Ficino believes “in the universal ability of man to envision and attain the highest good” (187). The obvious answer might be that the highest good would be resurrection, as evidenced by Christ in a moment of divine revelation. Ficino, as a philosopher, is not content with this; nor does he argue simply for faith and religiosity. Instead, he contends that the truth of man’s abilities for attaining the greatest good “can be demonstrated” (187). He sets for himself a great task: to demonstrate philosophically that man can envision and achieve the greatest good, that is, Godliness. He does so by working from an Aristotelian framework of teleology, which he extends or enhances by the presence of God. He goes on to deny Aristotle’s argument for the pleasure of activity (particularly earthly activity), making a state of perpetual rest the soul’s end. All of this works within his metaphysical account of a rational order, necessitating an afterlife wherein man’s hopes can be realized. In so doing, he provides a religious and philosophical response to Aristotle’s Ethics.

The opening line of Aristotle’s Ethics reads as follows: “Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly, every action and choice of action, is thought to have some good as its object” (I.1, p.313). To begin his “Five Questions Concerning the Mind,” Ficino proceeds as follows: “The motion of each of all the natural species proceeds according to a certain principle” (Ficino 194). Essentially a paraphrase, Ficino’s “principle” relates to desire and the hopeful satisfaction of that desire (i.e. “from some definite origin to some certain end” (194)). He builds on this principle, explaining that a being’s motion “is directed from a certain and orderly state [its origin] to a certain and orderly state [its end], harmonizing with that origin” (195). He briefly explains that each species has a particular end for itself (195). Ficino then extends this principle from individual motions of objects and beings to “the universal motion of the cosmos itself,” asserting that the cosmos as a whole “certainly cannot be lacking in perfect order” (195). He goes on to say that the diverse objects that make up the cosmos, as well as the cosmos itself, form a “common order of the whole,” in which all things “are brought back to unity [that is; their origin] according to a single determined harmony and rational plan” (Ficino 195). This is the critical point where he broadens Aristotle’s relatively simple, organic teleology to the cosmos as a whole, and fixes the notion of some larger “rational plan” or determined course. This broadening enables him to establish the existence of a “supremely rational orderer” that prescribes a “common end to the whole”; thus determining “single ends” to the diverse objects and beings that comprise the whole (Ficino 195).

Having determined that all objects and beings have prescribed ends assigned to them by a supreme mind, Ficino very briefly accounts for the simple, nutritive and reproductive ends of “elements, plants, and brutes” (196). He then poses his five questions of the human being, a much more complex entity. In examining the questions, one could come to the conclusion that the second (regarding the end as motion or rest), fourth (whether the mind can attain its end), and fifth (whether the end is lasting or ephemeral), are presented so that Ficino can respond to the arguments of the Ethics, wherein, as I have demonstrated, Aristotle provides secular, melancholic answers to each. Ficino goes on to give a short account of the mind’s “peculiar and appropriate” end, explaining that it does not merely serve to direct the parts of the body, but also that it has its own “relation to one thing” (197). Whereas the individual parts of the body have their own particular, singular ends, “the whole life [of man] looks to the universal and good” (Ficino 197).

Ficino later deals with intellect and the object of its contemplation, as well as the will and the object of its desire. First, he responds to Aristotle (and a variety of Platonists) who contend that humanity’s end is in activity. He states “I believe … that the mind, because it knows rest and judges rest itself to be more excellent than change, and because it naturally desires rest beyond motion, desires and finally attains its end and good in a certain condition of rest rather than of motion … so life itself reaches beyond any temporal change to its end and good in eternity” (198-9). It is critical to note that Ficino refers to activity as “change” here, and soon after says “motion is always incomplete and strives toward something else” and thus cannot be an end of any kind, never mind the highest end (198-9). This is important because it indicates that Ficino believes that activity is always directed at some end, which is likely some condition or state of mind. This means that there is no activity that is good in itself and thus worth engaging in continuously. This stands in direct contrast to Aristotle’s assertion that man’s qualified happiness consists in active contemplation that is both pleasant and continuous (or “leisurely”). In fact, Aristotle believes that rest is only valuable instrumentally, and its value lies in its relation to superior and preferable activity: “Rest is not the end, since it takes place only for the sake of activity because [men] are unable to exercise their activities all the time [unlike the Gods]” (X.6, p.413). For Aristotle, rest, akin to mere amusement, allows men to temporarily suspend their activities, so that they may return to their work reinvigorated. Ficino, in declaring humanity’s end a condition of rest, is able to place the soul out of the world of activity and “change” or “striving” (i.e. mortal existence), which is necessarily limited in its temporality, and instead places it within eternity, rendering it immortal (198-9). Ficino expands upon the soul and its aims, to further substantiate his argument for the immortal soul and man’s chance for happiness.

Ficino contends that man’s soul is of a dual nature, containing the will and the intellect (201). Each living thing characteristically feels a “very strong desire” that is natural to that entity. This desire impels the creature to live toward some end wherein it may finally “rest completely” (Ficino 201). As for humans, our intellect seeks to know the cause of each thing, “and, in turn, the cause of causes. For this reason the inquiry of the intellect never ceases until it finds the cause of which nothing is the cause but which itself is the cause of cause” (Ficino 201). As Ficino says, “This cause is none other than the boundless God” (201). As for our will, it desires the very best good, so “what could this good be except the boundless God” (201)? We spend our lives on earth constantly inquiring into the cause of causes, and desiring the greatest good, but “nowhere can [we] rest except in boundless truth and goodness, nor find an end except in the infinite” (201).

One may now ask: how do these statements about our intellect and will necessitate the immortal existence needed to achieve their satisfaction? The answer lies in Ficino’s foundational notion of a rational order emanating from the supreme source: “the soul would never naturally follow a certain end [boundless truth and goodness] unless it were able to attain it, for by what other power is it moved to it except by which it can attain it [immortality]. The mind, like the element [a part of the larger, ordered whole], does not forever proceed in vain from one point to another without end” (Ficino 202-3 [emphasis added]).

Ficino works to illustrate our frustration with mortal existence. Perhaps in this sense he is similar to Aristotle. He explains that we have a natural desire for the eternal (202). He uses the story of Prometheus to illustrate that “inquiry torments” man (208). He labels human life one of suffering, as we are weighed down by our “troublesome body” (Ficino 209 and 211). (In book VII Aristotle asserts that humans are “toiling creatures”; in other texts he describes consciousness as burdensome.) Like Aristotle, he believes that uncertainty causes us much distress, rendering our reason anxious, causing it to constantly vacillate and worry (208 and 211). Instead of this miserable mortal existence, we yearn for our “natural condition,” which is when our everlasting soul “should continue to live in its own body made everlasting” – a Christian ideal (211). The Christian Platonist fittingly concludes with the following: “Therefore, it is concluded by necessary reasoning [not faith or revelation] that the immortality and brightness of the soul can and must shine forth into its own body and that, in this condition alone, the highest blessedness of man is indeed perfected. This doctrine of the prophets and theologian is confirmed by the Platonic philosophers” (211-2).

So what can we make of Ficino’s mortal life? It seems to be an unjust, miserable existence. Ficino explains that mortal life, in a way, prepares us for the afterlife (211). Seemingly drawing upon Aristotle, Ficino explains that through engaging in contemplation, we are “more similar to celestial beings” and therefore “may be, in like manner, more similar to them in happiness of life [beyond the mortal life]” (211). Hence, our mortal existence allows us to make ourselves more like God, so that we are better disposed toward our continued journey towards becoming God (finalizing in resurrection). From this perspective, mortal life for Ficino is not only miserable, but also it is merely instrumentally valuable so far as we can position ourselves to achieve our perfection in our “natural condition”. On the other hand, Aristotle believes that while our existence may be burdensome, we can, to some degree, overcome the worst aspects of our condition to achieve a qualified happiness in the contemplative life.

Works Cited

 

Aristotle. The Philosophy of Aristotle. Trans. J.L. Creed and A.E.     Wardman. New York, NY: New American Library (Penguin Group), 2003. Print.

 

Cassirer, Ernst, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall. “Ficino “Five Questions Concerning the Mind.” The Renaissance Philosophy of Man.: Selections in Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948. 185-212. Print.

 

 

Aristotle. The Philosophy of Aristotle. Trans. J.L. Creed and A.E.     Wardman. New York, NY:      New American Library (Penguin Group), 2003. Print.

Cassirer, Ernst, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall. “Ficino “Five Questions Concerning the Mind.” The Renaissance Philosophy of Man.: Selections in Translation.       Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948. 185-212. Print.

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