Dr. Leonard George on Cosmic Psychology of the Renaissance
// McKenzie Rainey

Many people are familiar with the Monday morning haze, stumbling to an 8:30am class, not fully awake without a dose of caffeine. What if this isn’t merely a Monday morning, running-low-on-caffeine problem, and we are never truly awake at all? In the words of Dr. Leonard George, “What if our ordinary waking state is a form of sleep?” he asks. “Can we wake up to a fuller consciousness?”

In his presentation, “The Cosmic Psychology of the Renaissance”, which took place at Lynn Valley Library on Jan. 17, Dr. George explained the theories of Marsilio Ficino, a fifteenth- century philosopher, physician, priest, and writer. Ficino suggests (among other things) that a part of our soul is asleep from birth to death, and that music can help us become fully awake.

Florence, Ficino’s home city, is considered the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. In Ficino’s time, it was also a center for philosophy. Part of this was a was due to luck: as Dr. George explained, with the attack on Constantinople by the Turks, ancient treasures were spirited west to Italy. These included texts on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle which dated back thousands of years.

Many of these texts were secured by one man: Cosimo de’ Medici. Medici was the leader of Florence’s most powerful banking family, with an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes political power. He was also the wealthiest man of his time – not only in Florence, but in all of Europe. The texts Medici obtained were translated from the original Greek into Latin by Ficino, who was trained for just this purpose on Medici’s orders. Ficino was the first “Westerner” to read these texts, and he wasn’t just a translator: he built on the ancient philosophies to develop his own theories about connections between the cosmos, music, and the soul.

According to Dr. George, the idea that the movements of planets is “musical” is an ancient concept, but “no practical theory linking soul and cosmos via music developed in antiquity.” Long before Ficino, Pythagoras put forth the idea that the structure of the world was based on harmonic ratios – the fourths, fifths, and octaves familiar to music students; Plato also postulates on the idea that the soul of the universe is musical.

Ficino theorizes that each of the seven planets that were known at the time, along with the sun and moon, issue unique “planetary rays”. Objects and organisms on earth would be classified by which ray they absorb and are governed by. If they shared common characteristics, they would be under the same ray. Dr. George gave the example of the sunflower and the lion, which were linked to the sun (think of a lion’s mane, spreading out in all directions like sunlight). According to Ficino, these ray-infused objects then exert their influence on the human soul.

Dr. George explained Ficino’s ideas on the soul with the term “microcosm”, elaborating that Ficino talks about the “planets within”, the idea of a balance of emotional forces within the soul which are governed by the various planets. Influences from the (physical) planets could contribute to harmony or disharmony among the inner planets.

The concept of illness from an imbalance of externally influenced factors wasn’t new – medieval doctors were long influenced by the (now discredited) medical practice of “humorism”, the idea that the influence and balance of fire, earth, air, and water affected one’s health.

Ficino had personal reasons for theorizing about balance in the soul, too; he was said to suffer from depression. As a physician, he had different remedies for problems of the soul, but the most potent remedy was music. If you think about it, this is used today as well – nothing cures a bad mood like a favourite song.

Music was considered powerful by Renaissance thinkers because it is constantly in motion in the form of vibrations. As Dr. George explained, Ficino believes that “the vibrating pattern of air [temporarily] [brings] that air to life.”

Ficino sang and played musical remedies for himself and others. Different types of music were related to different planets, and thus different problems. One treatment for his depression was meditation on images and music related to Venus and Jupiter.

According to Ficino, music wasn’t just a remedy for disorders of the soul – it could awaken a consciousness that most people go through life without. His thinking on this was again based on ancient philosophy, on a concept called “Plato’s third eye”. The concept of three eyes wasn’t literal; opening the third eye meant truly awakening the soul. Ficino’s angle was that the highest part of the soul (the “mens”) is asleep from birth to death. Dr. George explained that the sleeping “mens” is the closed eye of the soul, and “our mission is to wake [it] up.”

Dr. George suggested that part of waking could be as simple as becoming more aware of our surroundings. Ficino hypothesized four kinds of “divine madnesses”, again building on Plato’s theories. These were stages of awakening, creating a different state of mind, unrelated to pathological madness. Music plays a role in “poetic madness”, which constitutes for the first stirrings of “awakening”.

Ideas like prescribing cosmos-related music for depression or using music to reawaken the higher soul may seem absurd by today’s standards; however, Dr. George explained that we should not necessarily scoff at these ideas or dismiss them as superstition. Ficino’s aim is not to explain physical causes, but rather to evoke changes in the soul, and it is up to the individual to test and decide if such remedies actually work. We need not take his ideas too literally; in the words of Dr. George, “It's very unlikely that the hot, dry sphere that scientists call Venus or the ball of gas that scientists call Jupiter care about your feelings.”

//McKenzie Rainey, writer

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com