A Ficinian Response to Love in the Nineties: A Dialogue between an Astrologer and a Student
by DARBY COSTELLO
Originally Published in Sphinx, Journal for Archetypal Psychology and the Arts London, 1993, Volume 6
SYLVIE: Vita, hello! How unexpected to see you here in this café in the middle of a rainy Friday afternoon. I didn’t know you lived in this area. But I won’t intrude as I see you are working on something.
VITA: Not so much working as musing. Please sit down and join me for a coffee. How have you been? We last met at Erica’s dinner, I think. You were with that interesting Russian man.
S: Yes. I was. No longer, I might add. This business of falling in love. I wish I could stop it happening. I begin to think it is some kind of trick. I fear that there is something I must figure out or I’ll keep getting tricked forever. Somewhere I hear the gods laughing -it’s as if I keep missing the point; I don’t know the secret. If only I could find the secret of this trick I’m sure I would be able to laugh with them.
V: Yes, wouldn’t that be delicious! But what happens?
S: I seem to be caught in a loop and I have no idea how to break out. After the end of this last affair, in which I invested more of myself than even I imagined possible, I wanted to die. Day after day I thought of suicide, how I would do it, what it would mean to the various people I knew. For months I was numb with pain. I kept telling myself I was already dead, so what was the point of killing myself? There had to be another solution. Actually I remembered something you said once about the secret of love being only given to those who had faced death in some way. It keeps coming into my mind, so isn’t it a fine coincidence that I’ve met you here, and today?
V: It is. Tell me more about this feeling of death.
S: I don’t know quite what to say. I’m so numb. This seems to always happen after the end of my love affairs. I’ve come to recognize it. But this time it’s more profound, more prolonged. And I’ve resisted coming out of it because suddenly I found it had its own landscape – grey, dark, cold, but not featureless. I wouldn’t want to stay here forever, but I am still watching it, and I keep remembering what you said about the secret of love.
V: Ah, that secret!
S: Because I cannot go on falling into the madness called love and out of it into the hell called disillusionment. I do not want to be enchanted again, for that is what it feels like. I don’t know what I do want but I don’t want that. It makes me too unhappy and it seems a terrible waste to suffer it again and again. I’ve begun to realize there’s something else I want, only I don’t know exactly what it is. Peace. Joy. Beauty. Somehow. I seem to be falling in love with a dream each time and after a short while my dreams turn to nightmares. There must be something bigger to discover – there must be something more than this endless round of ecstasy and torment which seems to have no meaning and teaches me nothing. I want to love and to be loved, but I think I would even give that up now if I could find the ‘something’ I can sense in all this turmoil but cannot identify. Maybe it’s hidden in this secret you spoke of – can you tell me about it?
V: There is an old tradition -. Have you ever come across the concept of Platonic love?
S: Platonic love. You can’t be serious! That’s love without sex, and I can’t believe you are offering that as a solution to heartbreak! I don’t understand.
V: That’s because there’s rather more to it. You may be surprised when say that Platonic love, in fact, is erotic love.
S: I certainly am. I thought that Platonic love was sexless love and that erotic love was sexual love.
V: Yes that’s what I thought too for a long time, until I discovered the writings of the man who coined the phrase “Platonic love”. And then I found his astrological chart and worked on it with a friend, Angela Voss. She was writing her PhD on certain aspects of this man’s life and work. Working with his chart was very exciting. We began to see, as we explored it over the months, how he must have come to this sense of a love he called ‘Platonic’. We followed his experiences of life through his letters and writings. We correlated them with transiting planets as they moved through his birthchart and came to some interesting conclusions. In fact that’s what I was reflecting on when you came in. Several people have been speaking to me recently about their unhappiness in love. This man’s experience of love and its pain led him to a profound transformation. His coining of the term “Platonic love” was part of it. Shall I tell you his story?
S: Yes I’d like that. And, after all, today is Friday and Friday is “Venus Day”. And, it’s pleasant sitting here in this café looking out at the rain. If you have the time, I do. My astrology may be a bit rusty, but I’d love to get that part of my mind working again. And I have a feeling that in telling me about this man you’ll be telling me something I might need to know at this point in my life. So, do carry on. But start at the beginning. Who was he?
V: His name was Marsilio Ficino and he was born near Florence in 1433, the son of Cosimo de’ Medici’s physician. Marsilio was a clever young man who had discovered Plato quite young, and as he was serious and dedicated and fluent in both Latin and Greek, he was commissioned by Cosimo to translate all of Plato’s works from Greek into Latin. These books had just come into Cosimo’s hands along with many of the neoPlatonic texts which Ficino later translated as well. Ficino became a doctor, like his father. But he was also an astrologer, eventually a priest, and always a philosopher. Besides translating numerous Platonic and neoPlatonic texts, he wrote commentaries on them and a prolific quantity of letters. He was passionate about astrology which he struggled to fit into his Catholicism – in fact his life seems to have been a struggle to reconcile irreconcilables: Plato and neoPlatonic thought and Christianity; pagan polytheism and Judeo-Christian monotheism. And personally: his intensely sexual nature and celibacy.
S: He was intensely sexual?
V: That comes primarily from the information given by his astrological chart, supported by some of the things he wrote. Of course we could look at his chart from many points of view, but for our purpose here let’s concentrate on it from the point of view of his struggle with love and desire.
Here is a copy of his chart. We can see he took his passionate nature from his father’s side – he had Sun and Mercury in Scorpio, and Mars in Capricorn. From his mother’s side he had a strong instinct to repress his own natural desire for love and intimacy – his Moon was in Capricorn and Venus was in Virgo.
S: Yes I see… The Sun in Capricorn and Mars in Scorpio – ‘powerful’, ‘hungry’ and ‘unrelenting’ in seeking satisfaction from life, and highly ‘sexual’. The feminine planets, Moon and Venus, both in earth, but in the two more ‘self-controlling’ signs of Capricorn and Virgo. So he inherited his mother’s controlled and controlling emotional nature through the Moon in Capricorn, and her desire to be valued for her service and her goodness through her Venus in Virgo. All of this together could have indicated a harsh and demanding nature, intensely controlled, naturally inclined to self-repression and self-control and, of course, sexual abstinence. Isn’t it true that Scorpios are known for transforming or rechannelling their basic human instincts into talents which win them power on one plane or another?
V: Yes, and these traits are deepened through the aspects and house positions. His Scorpio Sun is in the ninth house square Saturn on the ascendent in Aquarius. His Venus in Virgo was just entering his eighth house, trine to Mars in the 12th.
S: Yes, I noticed that Saturn: on the ascendent in Aquarius – his idealistic approach to life, and his need to embody his ideals. I remember you prefer to use the old rulerships when looking at the personal character in the chart. That Saturn placement must also indicate an awkward relationship to his body, a deep self-consciousness in the most uncomfortable sense, as well as in the most self-developing sense. The struggling, square aspect to his Sun suggests he had to work very hard to achieve his goals. As his Sun was in the ninth house, could you say it was a struggle to achieve his own philosophy?
V: Yes – to achieve the mountain-top awareness of the philosopher from living his passionate Scorpio life. If you remember, the higher goal of the ninth house journeys, whether they be of the body or the mind and imagination, is the goal of philosophy – to find eternal truths and meaning in the constantly shifting patterns that we see in time and space. And so the Saturnian ascendent squaring his ninth-house Sun indicates a great struggle to achieve this goal. He had to embody his high ideal of Saturn in Aquarius, standing as an example to others, and he had to transform his own, given passionate nature into wisdom. His Sun was also strengthened by the trine to Pluto in Cancer, which was opposite his Moon in Capricorn in the eleventh house. So in driving towards his goal of achieving his aim of transformation into true philosopher and educator, he came into intense encounters with various groups and their aims too. Even though Pluto had not been discovered yet, this Lord of Death and Rebirth was secretly facilitating his urge to break through his own nature – to die to his own nature in order to achieve something profound. Of course, the opposition of Pluto to his Moon shows us how easily he could feel suffocated by too close an emotional contact, and yet his personal intensity created situations with people which must have been in themselves claustrophobic. His Venus on the cusp of the eighth house repeats that theme – intense desire to be loved, to be mirrored in the beloved’s eyes. This is enflamed further by the earthy Mars in Capricorn, hidden away in the sacrificial twelfth house.
S: Sacrifice. Is that the key to his story? If his Mars was, as you say, hidden away in the twelfth house, was he inclined then, to sacrifice his desires? Perhaps he never let himself fall in love at all! Perhaps celibacy was easy for him.
V: Remember, he was a Scorpio Sun. I like Dane Rudhyar’s description of Scorpio: he says that their essential character is “the urge in the individual to merge in absolute union with other individuals in order to constitute together a greater organic whole.” 1. That is one way of saying that Scorpio is about sex first, no matter what it later transforms itself into. He also says it’s not simply that Scorpio is about procreative sex but about “mystical sex… which is a yearning for self-forgetfulness and union through another with a greater whole, and even with ‘God’”.2 This is not a simple or straightforward nature. But there’s one other factor in this chart that you must know – and that is…
S: It must be Jupiter! We’ve not mentioned Jupiter. Everything is so difficult and dark and struggling in his nature so far. Where was his Jupiter? Where was relief?
V: You have the key. His Jupiter was in Leo, in the seventh house – the house of ‘the other’ – the house where we give away parts of ourselves and look for them in others. And his Jupiter in Leo was in opposition to Saturn.
S: And so he gave away the shining, royal Apollonian part of himself and kept the harsh taskmaster, Saturn.
V: Precisely. He saw in others the best and happiest part of himself and identified with Saturn. In fact, he said in a letter to his friend, the Archbishop of Amalfi:
You have divined, I think, how much I have wanted to live my life with someone of a Jovial nature, so that something of a bitter, and as I might say, Saturnine element, which either my natal star has bestowed on me or which philosophy has added, might eventually be alleviated by the sweet fellowship of someone born under Jove.’3
S: I see that Neptune is conjunct his Jupiter in Leo. He must have fallen in a big way for those he saw as ‘noble’. He must have seen them as gods. How painful it must have been for him – a passionate Scorpio with an earthy sexual nature longing for mystical union with another. What did he do with all of this? And how did it get him to Platonic Love?
V: The phrase itself first appears in a letter he wrote to his friend, Alamanno Donati, with whom he shared a passion for Plato:
What kind of friendship will ours be called, oh Alamanno? since it began from nothing else than from Platonic love, we must call it nothing less than Platonic.. .4
In a later letter to this same friend he wrote that ‘such a divine love kindled by the flames of the virtues and growing strong from celestial rays, seeks to return to the sublime heights of heaven which no fear of earthly ills can ever trouble.’5
S: I understand. They must have both loved reading Plato and must have come to love the man that they perceived behind the philosophy. He took his conception of ‘Platonic Love’ from Plato’s own notions of the best and highest forms of love and then applied it to his feelings for his friend.. But was this man his lover, in any sense?
V: He never tells us in what sense they were ‘lovers’, but everything points to his own life of chastity. He seems to have been searching for ways to express the deep feelings he had for this Alamanno – and this was his way. Perhaps there was sexual feeling in it, but he was seeking another route through which his feelings could express themselves.
Another man was even more central to his struggle and transformation. His name was Giovanni Cavalcanti, and Ficino met him around 1468, five or six years after he was given the Villa in Careggi by Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo de’ Medici. We know how much he felt for this man by many of the things he wrote to him. Listen to this:
The care of my own sick body and that of my father is one burden for me. Your absence is another. Both must be borne with equanimity, lest they become more burdensome through impatience.’6
Even though he was doing work that he loved in a place that was beautiful, he was still tormented during these years, and I think it was because of this terrible longing, his passionate nature, which seemed to have no resolution. He was a spiritual man of his times, and Christianity has always rejected the body’s urges, other than procreation. Its higher aim had to do with the release of the spirit, and this tradition he found very compatible with his own complex nature. In his De Amore, for example, he writes:
Venereal madness leads to intemperance, and therefore to disharmony. Therefore it likewise seems to lead to ugliness, whereas love leads to beauty. Ugliness and beauty are opposites; therefore any motions which carry us to them seem to be opposite to each other. Therefore the desire for coitus (that is, for copulation) and love are shown to be not only the same motions but opposites.”7
And again, but here we begin to hear Plato’s mind:
a man [must] be considered mad as well as miserable, who whilst called to the sublime through vision, plunges himself into the mire through touch. Although he could become God instead of man by contemplating the divine through human beauty, from man he returns to beast by preferring the physical shadow of form to true spiritual beauty.8
This last passage was actually written to Cavalcanti. From the year he moved into the villa and began translating Plato – and this was the year of his Saturn Return – until seven years later (the time of the waxing square) – his letters, and his chart, show that he was struggling mightily with his own nature.
S: You once described the Saturn Return as the time in which we are asked, or told, to take responsibility for the work we have to do in this life. The following seven years must be the opening up of that work.
V: Yes. And at the end of those seven years something happened. In 1469 he was 35 and Saturn was in Taurus; Venus ruled of course. While it was sitting opposite his Scorpio Sun and square to his awkward, idealistic embodied Saturn-in-Aquarius-on-the-ascendent and also square his romantic Jupiter (and Neptune) in the house of relationship – something changed. Saturn in Taurus tells us of the work he had to accomplish on his love nature. Whenever Saturn is in Taurus there is work to be done on one’s love nature, and as he was sensitive to the higher notes of each planet’s field of meaning, he really worked to simplify his love nature. Of course, Saturn was trine his Moon and Venus, during this time and so through grace as well as work – he found his way through. And De Amore, his commentary of Plato’s Symposium, was the result.
He wrote to his beloved Cavalcanti:
A long time ago, dear Giovanni, I learned from Orpheus that love existed and that it held the keys to the whole world: then from Plato I learned the definition of love and its nature. But what power and influence this God has, had lain hidden from me until I was thirty-four years old, when a certain divine hero, glancing at me with heavenly eyes, showed me, by a certain wonderful nod how great the power of love is. Being in that way fully informed, as it seems to me, about amatory things, I have composed a book On Love. This book, written in my own hand, I have decided to dedicate exclusively to you, so that I may return to you what belongs to you.’9
S: He calls this Cavalcanti “divine hero”. What a perfect description of Jupiter conjunct Neptune in Leo in the seventh house!Though of course he wasn’t conscious of Neptune as it hadn’t been discovered yet. It is interesting that each of the modern planets, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, seem to simply deepen the picture of Ficino shown by the ‘seven planet chart’ – none of them reveal contradictory stories. He knew he had Jupiter in his seventh house and that it indicated his desire for the “sweet fellowship of someone born under Jove”. Our knowledge that Neptune is there adds the note of longing for mystical union and of idealisation of the loved one and also disillusionment too.
V: Yes, and he had much cause for disillusionment in those he idolised during his life, but he didn’t seem to blame others or the world much – he sounds like he took responsibility for what happened to him as he went along, though he does complain about and ‘blame’ Saturn for some of his struggles!
S: And now I’m becoming interested in Plato as I begin to see that his immersion in Plato must have been part of the process of trans-formation for him. I don’t know much about Orpheus, whom he mentions, and I’m still not sure about this Platonic Love. I wonder if vou mean that he substituted his love for Plato for the real love he would have wished for. If so, it doesn’t sound very satisfying.
V: Let me tell you what he learned from Plato about Eros and love.
S: Ah, Eros. Come to think of it I don’t know much, about Eros – I know that it is the name of a Greek God and that it is also the Greek word for love, and that it is the root of the word “erotic”, and erotic means sex! Rather simplistic, I imagine?
V: It is a Greek word, yes, and it is the basis of “erotic” but in Plato it meant that which seeks thesomething within sex, the thing that makes sex sex, so to speak. And Plato, sort of isolated it, brought it out for view, extracted it, we might say, for it appears to have been misunderstood in his time just as it has been in ours. I think Plato was trying to clarify something for his friends and students whom he felt had lost their way; mistaking sex for the thing they were seeking, missing the fact that it was this something else they were seeking through sex.
As far as I know, Plato took the idea of Eros from the Mystery Religions that flourished before him. These regions accounted for the dual nature of man – earthly and divine – by mythologems like that of Zagreus or Dionysus, son of Zeus, who was killed and devoured by the Titans when he was a child. Zeus, in his towering rage, killed the Titans with his thunderbolts, and out of the ashes of their bodies he formed the human race. The myth says that our natures are therefore titanic and earthly, but also divine, through Zagreus, whom they had eaten. The Orphic tradition apparently sought to free the divine element from the earthly sensual part through purification and ecstasy, so that it could be re-united with the Divine. Other religions have had, and still do have, this idea of the dual nature, earthly and divine, and they all work through rituals of one kind or another to find the way to free the divine from the sensual part, so the divine part may find its rightful heavenly home. This longing, from the divine part of ourselves, for the Divine itself, is Eros. Even in Christianity there is a long tradition which addresses this yearning for God. St. Paul, who really constellated the idea of Agape – the notion of the Judeo-Christian God’s love for us – also expressed his own longing for his God. St. Augustine, and even the great medieval scholar, St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote about God in such a way that one can feel the longing he felt for this divine Other. And so, even in the Christian tradition Ficino had a precedent for longing for the Divine. But as far as I know this was not the place where he found the ideas that brought him to his resolution. It must have been when he was translating the Symposium; his whole book, De Amore, is a close commentary on this work.
Now in the Symposium Diotima, the prophetess of Mantinea and his respected teacher, tells Socrates of Eros. However she does not call Eros a god, she calls him a daimon, or as we might say, a spirit. Like all daimons his function is to convey messages back and forth between Gods and men, or to be the bridge between the temporal and the eternal. She says that he was born at a feast that was being celebrated by the Gods on the day of Aphrodite’s birth. In the garden where Resourcefulness was sleeping, Poverty came in and got herself with child by him. That child was Eros. Diotima says that Eros or Love is poor, like his mother and is always in want and longing for something. But he is also resourceful and wise like his father so he can get exactly what he wants from life, and what he wants is to be happy by possessing that which he considers good and beautiful.
S: I remember Plato says that in the realm of Ideas it is the True, the Beautiful and the Good which are the highest, and that which the higher part of the soul is ultimately seeking.
V: Yes, that’s right. Diotima says that when a man falls in love, it is the beauty of the beloved which attracts him. And if he behaves with propriety and self-restraint with the beloved, then the beauty he sees will give him a glimpse of the divine beauty his soul is really seeking. Seeing beauty in one person will lead him to see beauty in another. You know how the state of falling in love seems to cast a sort of spell on you in which everything takes on a glow. Diotima says:
This is the right way of approaching or being initiated into the mysteries of love, to begin with examples of beauty in this world, and using them as steps to ascend continually with that absolute beauty as one’s aim, from one instance of physical beauty to two and from two to all, then from physical beauty to moral beauty, and from moral beauty to the beauty of knowledge, until from knowledge to that absolute beauty.10
Diotima says you can only do this by nurturing true goodness in yourself and in the beloved and that it is the only goal that can ever make love fulfill its promise.
S: So, what she is saying is that when I fall in love, it is eternal beauty that I am seeking, even if I don’t know it. And then, because I don’t know it, I become disillusioned when the person turns out not to behave beautifully at all – and to be honest, when I see myself behave in a most unbeautiful fashion, the disillusionment gets worse. I had not seen that the person I fell in love with was carrying the spark of something divine. In order to remain in the state I’ve achieved through falling in love, I must maintain “right conduct” and must nurture the good in myself and in the other.
V: Something like that. And the death you are feeling…?
S: .. is the death of the illusion that I might find someone who will remain eternally beautiful.
We sat for a time as the café began to fill. The rain had stopped. After a while, she said, ‘I feel strangely quiet. I think I almost look forward to love again – at least I have the beginning of a glimmer of what it’s all about. And I begin to have some idea of this man, Marsilio Ficino, who read Plato and coined the term Platonic Love. That Jupiter-Neptune in Leo in the seventh house! He was looking for the divine spark in those whom he loved – he must have seen them as gods. And then as time did its darkening work, he too became disillusioned. When Saturn entered Taurus he was put to the test and somehow came through. And then he understood Plato!
V: That’s right. And at some point he wrote this to his beloved Cavalcanti:
Certainly love (as all philosophers define it) is the longing for beauty. The beauty of the body lies not in the shadow of matter, but in the light and grace of form; not in the dark mass. but in clear proportion; not in sluggish and senseless weight, but in harmonious number and measure. But we come to that light. that grace. proportion, number and measure only through thinking, seeing and hearing. It is thus far that the true passion of a true lover extends. However, it is not love when the appetite of the other senses drives us rather towards matter, mass weightand the deformity that is the opposite of beauty or love, but a stupid, gross and ugly lust.”11
Plato does acknowledge the sensual or “Vulgar” Eros, the desire for sensual or sexual satisfaction, but he seems to place more value on the “Celestial’ Eros which is the higher aspect of the soul. This he considers to be the desire for oneness with the Forms – the real world behind our brief, time-bound, decaying one, and our love of the beautiful here is our love for Pure Forms. In the Symposium he has Diotima discuss both aspects of Eros as the desire for immortality. The Earthly Eros leads men to sexual union with women for the purpose of procreation. This leads to physical immortality. The Heavenly Eros leads men to love men for the purpose of great achievements of mind and spirit, which give another kind of immortality. However, she says that if that kind of love is manifested in sexual acts then we have lost our way and are trapped and drawn downward into decay.
As a modern woman I do not agree with Plato’s ideas about sexual love being about procreation between men and women only. I think that love can be expressed in sexual acts between two people and not only for the purposes of procreation. But I do agree that unless both people cherish their own and the other person’s soul-longing for the immortal realm, whether it be for the Good, the True and the Beautiful, the Divine, the Eternal, or simply God, then their love has little chance of surviving the destruction of time. In these strange, unholy times where the knowledge of the heart – the reality reached by imagination – has been lost, we have forgotten that this hidden, eternal reality exists.We want to believe that all we have to do is to find someone who can gratify us completely and we will be happy/saved/redeemed. Or, all we have to do is change ourself enough so that we will be worthy for someone else to make us happy.
S: Well, this has certainly been interesting. From now on, I shall always remember that Friday is Venus’s day. I notice that in my chart Venus and Mercury are close to Ficino’s Sun – do you think Hermes guided me into this café so that I could begin Love’s journey again? One thing puzzles me, though. You said, at the beginning of our conversation, that his experience of love and its pain led him to a profound transformation. Were you saying that this transformation freed him of all the pain that love can bring? That this “Platonic-Erotic” love he experienced resolved all love’s pain?
V: Ah, well from everything we know, he did achieve a profound peace at the end of his life. But by then – he was 65 when he died -it seems he had burned through to this peace…
S: Burned through…what do you mean?
V: I think perhaps this is the beginning of another conversation.
S: Yes, you are right, it is time to stop. The longer I sit here the more questions begin to arise. The Good and the True might not be so easily perceived when one is on the high sea of erotic love, and yet this is what Ficino worked with to facilitate his own transformation. “Burned through”, you said… I sense, but cannot imagine, the worlds beneath the waters I have been immersed in for so long.
For now I shall think about this man, Marsilio Ficino, and the next time I fail in love with beauty I shall try to keep my eye on the divine spark that I see in the one who becomes my Beloved. At this moment my desire is to navigate by the idea of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. I begin to realize I might not know how to do this at all. I suddenly wonder have I just stepped through the door here, into a very long apprenticeship? Look, it’s cleared outside – I can even see a star or two!
1. Dane Rudhyar, The Pulse of Life (Philadelphia, David McKay Co. 1943),
3. Ficino, Letter,. Translated by members of the language department of the School of Economic Science. 4 volumes. (London, Shepherd-Walwyn 1988) Vol.4, No.45
4. M. Ficino, Opera Omnia (Basil, 1576) ~6
5. M. Ficino, Letter’, op. cit. Vol. 4, No.15
6. M. Ficino, Letter,’, op. cit. Vol.1. (1975) No.35
7. M. Ficino, De Amore. Commentary on Plato~ Symposium on Love (Dallas, Spring Publications, Inc. 19851, 41
8. M. Ficino, Letter’ op. cit. Vol.1. No.42
9. M. Ficino, De Amore Op. cit. Appendix. No. I. This letter prefaced the holograph copy of De Amore
10. Plato. The Symposium ,(Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1951), 94
11. M Ficino, Letters” Vol.). No.47