The material below is excerpted from the introduction to my modern-spelling edition of Sir Philip Sidney's sixteenth-century sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella. Although this material is meant as background to a Renaissance poem, most of what it says about the contexts of Platonic thought is relevant to medieval culture as well.

Philosophical Traditions: Renaissance Platonism



Many important intellectual historians have tried to distinguish through precise terminological distinctions the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427-347 BC); the thought of his immediate successors ("Platonists"); the notions of second and third century figures such as Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Proclus ("Neoplatonists"); and an assortment of later thinkers influenced by these figures ("Medieval Platonists," "Christian Platonists," "Chartrian Neoplatonists," "Florentine Platonists," "Civic Platonists," "Renaissance Neoplatonists," "Cambridge Platonists," and so forth). The exactitude and clear delineation that would, to my mind, justify such proliferation of terms have, however, proven elusive, and so in this introduction and in my notes I use Platonism and Neoplatonism interchangeably and in a very broad sense to denote the ideas of thinkers who see themselves as having been influenced by Plato or who claim in some way the authority of Platonic tradition. Used so broadly, the term includes much that Plato himself would probably have considered a misconstruction of his work and plenty that certainly would have downright horrified him. One further point that I cannot stress enough is that Platonism is not at all a consistent, unified, homogeneous set of ideas. A great variety of thought is included, and controversy among different kinds of self-avowed Platonists is as frequent, as profound, and as vehemently expressed as that among, for instance, the different kinds of nineteenth-century socialists, or twentieth-century Marxists, or, for that matter, the many species of American Baptists. This energetically contentious diversity needs to be remembered as one is introduced to Platonism by the kind of generic description, geared to Platonism as it appears in Astrophil and Stella, that I present below. For ease of reference, I've divided the description into short sections, each headed by a catch-phrase suggesting the key notion for the section. With due caution, realizing that one is indulging in simplification, one can regard the catch-phrases as indicating the central components of an admittedly essentialized Platonism.

Philosophical Realism. The conceptual world of Platonism is dramatically different from anything that one is likely to encounter very often today. One of the key characteristics underscoring the difference is the philosophical realism of Platonism. Realism, as used here, is a technical term that has nothing to do with what is meant in ordinary conversation by realism of thought or action, either in life or in artistic representation. Rather, the term refers to the notion that all words denote objects that have independent existence apart from the mind that creates language. If a word exists, then something denoted by that word also exists. Abstractions therefore have reality outside of language and beyond their function as conveniences of human thought. What we are inclined to dismiss as the fallacy of conceptual reification--treating conceptual tools as though they were objectified things--is commonplace in Platonism, indeed, essential to its whole approach to thinking. Therefore, for example, just as there are things--chairs--that correspond to the word chair, so there is a thing--redness.--that corresponds to the word red. Likewise, there is a very important thing--The Good--corresponding to the word good. And so on for all words. This philosophical realism lies behind the notion of Universals discussed below.

Reality as a Matter of Degree and Participation. A second essential and, to ways of thinking familiar to us, extremely odd characteristic of a Platonist conceptual framework is the notion that there are degrees of reality. For us, either something is real or it is not. If something exists, it's real; otherwise, it isn't. But in Platonism, things possess different degrees of reality. All that exists possesses some degree of reality, a degree that can range from almost complete nonbeing to full being, from the very minimum degree of reality that can be present for something to be able to exist at all to complete reality. Different things occupy different positions in an hierarchy of reality, different rungs on a ladder of reality. Stranger still, what we would be inclined to think of as the best candidates for the highest positions in the hierarchy of realities in fact occupy the lower positions in Platonism. We tend usually to think of concrete objects as the most unquestionably real entities we confront; abstractions and invisible entities are problematical. In Platonism, the presuppositions are reversed: disembodied abstractions possess the highest degree of reality; concrete, tangible objects have considerably less. Chairness is more real than any particular chair that we might place in a room and sit upon. Redness is more real than any particular sense experience involving the seeing of red objects. Indeed, the particular chair or the particular experience of red is real only to the extent that it "participates" in chairness or redness. The concept of "participation," a cloudy one at its most lucid, is probably most accessible through a spatial analogy of up and down, with up being the direction of increasing degrees of reality. The most real realities are "up there" right next to Reality Itself. Everything else possesses a degree of reality corresponding to how high up and therefore how close to Reality Itself it is. Participation and its explicatory spatial analogy are bound up in still another salient characteristic of Platonism--its insistent dualism.

Dualism: The Phenomenal and Noumenal Realms. Platonist frames of thought draw a dividing line between two realms. One realm, the inferior of the two, is the material, physical world of sense experience. It is the "phenomenal" world, the world of objects, of the body, of immediate perception. The other, superior realm is the world of the immaterial, the spiritual, the world of realities not accessible to the body's senses, the world known by intellect or spiritual sense, the "noumenal" world. Scholarship written in English variously refers to this world as the realm of ideas, of ideals, or of forms, with the terms, particularly the last, often stimulating considerable debate (which I shall shun ).1 The phenomenal world is the world of entities possessing lesser degrees of reality. The noumenal world is the world of the higher realities, including the Highest Reality and its various manifesting aspects, usually referred to in English as the Universals or, less often, the Transcendentals. Particular assessments of the phenomenal world and of the relationship between the two realms vary greatly. It is helpful to distinguish between "pessimistic" and "optimistic" Platonisms on these points. 2 Pessimistic Platonisms define the material world as not simply less real than the noumenal world but as morally inferior, indeed, in the most extreme varieties of pessimism, as thoroughly evil. The only response of the illuminated human spirit to such a material world is to reject it, condemn it, and try to escape from it morally, spiritually, intellectually, and, sometimes, through philosophically motivated suicide, physically. Optimistic Platonisms admit that the material world is greatly inferior to the noumenal world in its moral value as in all other ways (the principle of the unity of Universals, discussed below, makes this admission inescapable), but by one means or another the material world has received within itself a portion of the noumenal and this noumenal presence manifests itself behind or within material phenomena. Material phenomena, therefore, because they offer an opportunity for revelation, become fit objects for human contemplation and even for appropriately calibrated human love. There is good in the world, and this good mediates between the separate realms of the phenomenal and the noumenal, between the material world and the world of ideas. In some optimistic Platonisms, especially those influenced by Christian notions of divine incarnation and immanence, the noumenal presence in the material world is a power by which the material is not only overcome but in fact transformed and redeemed. Whether or not a particular form of optimistic Platonism goes as far as that, it does see the dualistic breech between realms as capable of being bridged, whereas pessimistic Platonism sees that breech as permanent. Whether a particular version of Platonism is in this sense optimistic, pessimistic, or a mixture of the two has great influence on its assessment of eros, and, of course, in particular, its judgment concerning the physical dimensions of eros. Later in this overview, I develop this topic somewhat more fully.

Monism: The Unity of Universals. Dualistic in its vision of two realms, Platonism is paradoxically monistic in its notions of the relationships among the highest entities existing in the noumenal realm of ideas. How many these entities are, what they should be called, and in what rank, if any, they should be listed are matters of great dispute. A typical list for Renaissance times, a list that seems relevant, in particular, for Astrophil and Stella, runs as follows. The Universals are The Good, The Real, The True, and The Beautiful. And there is a further complication, for to speak of the Universals as separate entities with individual names is ultimately inaccurate. The separation is, indeed, made only for the sake of the limited intellect and limited perceptual faculties of ordinary human beings. Strictly speaking, the separate Universals resolve into One Unified Universal. The names are names only for different, partial aspects of this Universal, aspects experienced and conceptualized by most human beings as separate but in fact not so. The Good is The Real, which is The True, which is The Beautiful. If human beings see conflict between good things, real things, true things, and beautiful things--conflict, that is, between things that participate in The Good, The Real, The True, and The Beautiful--they do so either because of some failure in perception leading them to mistake the false appearance of goodness, reality, truth, or beauty for the genuine thing, or because the conflicting material things participate only imperfectly in the Universals. Whichever the case, the genuinely good, real, true, and beautiful can never be in conflict because the Universals, being in fact one and the same, cannot be in conflict. A further implication of the Unity of Universals is that if something is truly good, it must also be real, true, and beautiful; if something is truly real, it must also be good, true, and beautiful; if something is truly true, it must also be good, real, and beautiful; and if something is truly beautiful, it must also be good, real, and true--all because the Universals in which something that is good, real, true, or beautiful participates are all one and the same--to participate in one Universal is to participate in them all. The name given to the one encompassing Universal varies greatly. Sometimes it is called The One, sometimes The Absolute. Often, the expression The Good denotes both the partial, moral aspect of The One and The One Itself. In other words, all of the principal Universals resolve into The Good. In the Platonisms of monotheistic religions, of course, The One is wholly identified with God.

The Duality of Human Nature. Human nature combines a material element--the body and its senses--and a noumenal element--the mind and spirit. Mind in Platonism is far more inclusive an entity than merely what today we conceive of as the rational or intellectual component. It includes much of what we think of vaguely as intuitional. Mind includes all that enables us to make contact with invisible realities, both within ourselves and outside ourselves. 3 The material aspect of human nature is constructed out of phenomenal matter and is therefore subject to all of the limitations and liabilities of the phenomenal world. How extreme these liabilities are and what their precise nature is depends, of course, on whether one is dealing with a "pessimistic" or "optimistic" Platonism, but all Platonisms agree that the liabilities are real and that they are considerable. The noumenal aspect of human nature originates, of course, in the noumenal world and participates in its power and excellence. But because this noumenal aspect is entrapped in a material container and located within the phenomenal world at some distance from the noumenal -- "exiled in a distant country" is a common metaphor--its power and excellence are obscured and impaired. The degree of hiddenness and debility ascribed to the noumenal aspect depends, again, on whether the Platonism is pessimistic or optimistic. In the most extreme pessimism, not only the body and its senses, but also the lowest level of the mind--immediate consciousness and discursive reason -- are ignorant even of the existence of the noumenal aspect, which nonetheless yearns in tortured inarticulateness for escape from bondage in the phenomenal, for reunion with the purely noumenal. In more optimistic perspectives, the noumenal makes its presence known, in a confused way at first, to the phenomenal. Then through a long moral, spiritual, and intellectual discipline, the discursive reason makes contact with the noumenal powers of the soul, empowering them to play an increasingly conscious role in the progress towards total knowledge of the noumenal self and reunion with the noumenal world.

The consummation of this discipline, of this "homeward journey out of exile," is conceived of in rather different ways depending, once again, on the pessimism or optimism of the Platonism involved. A complete sloughing off of the material and escape into the unadulterated realm of the noumenal is the goal of the most pessimistic forms. A transformation of the phenomenal world--a fusion of the phenomenal and noumenal world, certainly within the soul of the human being if not also in the external world--is the resting-point of the most optimistic forms. A rich array of composite perspectives occupies the ground between the two extremes of pessimism and optimism.

Most Platonisms agree, though, that the soul is naturally inclined to love the noumenal--The Good, The True, The Real, and The Beautiful, both in themselves and in their partial presence within whatever partakes of them--particular things that are good, true, real, and beautiful. And most Platonisms agree that the soul is hampered and confused by the body and its material world, often misdirecting the energies of its innate love of the noumenal, directing love to the wrong objects or in the wrong degree. The degree of general pessimism or optimism determines whether this misdirection of spiritual energies represents a fatal error that inevitably leads to the soul's progressive debasement in matter; or merely a dangerous mistake the consequences of which are exceptionally and progressively difficult to extricate oneself from; or a first, half-blind, faltering step towards a progressively enlightened course, towards transformation of misdirected energies into rightly directed ones. Within this general framework, perspectives concerning the energies of erotic desire follow the broad pattern. The radical origin of erotic desire is the soul's love of the noumenal, but the soul, entangled in a material body located in a phenomenal world, is almost certain to misdefine the proper object of erotic desire, to mistake false desire for true. Pursuing this false desire may drag the soul down to ignominy or, after considerable stumbling about, lead to a correct redirection, progressively ennobling both body and soul in the long-run.

Sometimes these ideas are taken even further. There is, for example, a widely-held notion that the bodily senses and the mind "conform to"--assume the shape and character of--the object of their sight, perception, contemplation, and love. If one looks at, perceives, contemplates, and loves something evil, false, ugly, or otherwise partaking in unreality (remember the principle of the unity of universals), one's senses, one's mind, one's heart, and one's soul become evil, false, ugly and unreal, at least to the extent to which the object of attention partakes of these qualities. Likewise, to look at, perceive, contemplate, and love something good, true, beautiful, or otherwise partaking of reality is to transform, at least to a degree, one's senses, mind, heart, and soul to the shape of the corresponding noumenal realities. You become inwardly the likeness of what you love. The character of the object of one's love therefore becomes crucial, as does the problem of correctly understanding what the true nature of the object of one's love is. The implications for love poetry are, of course, complex and fertile. A dynamic model of erotic desire is established, one that integrates body, mind, heart, and soul; feeling, sense perception, and thought; emotion and morality; inner and outer reality--imparting to all a sense of conflict and urgency: the notion that issues of enormous importance underlie what might have seemed to be no more than light diversion, trivial social ritual, or self-indulgent sentiment. The philosophical traditions, far from working only to intellectualize, sublimate, or vitiate the energies of erotic literature, on the contrary, reinforced whatever in the poetic tradition was passionate and dynamic, at the same time discouraging the merely pretty, the merely precious.

Platonisms and Gender Construction. Nearly all types of Platonism accept a more general cultural association of the phenomenal with the feminine and the noumenal with the masculine. There, however, the agreement ends, as one might expect from the discussions above concerning the diverse assessments of the body and its desires in optimistic or pessimistic Platonisms. Plato himself, for instance, often imagines all human souls as androgynous or hermaphroditic -- a union of feminine and masculine -- in their perfected nature. To become gendered, whether masculine or feminine, is to fall into a "lower" state of imperfection. (Not surprisingly, the masculine gender is seen as the lesser imperfection.) Some later Platonists (one thinks in particular of some of the "Chartreans" and of early Renaissance figures such as the prolific Florentine, Marsiglio Ficino) elaborate considerably on the implications of Plato's images of androgyny and gendering. Others ignore them for a simpler, culturally predictable misogyny. Often the contradictions in the Platonic framework result in discursively inconsistent and experientially unresolvable configurations of thought. Since beauty as perceived by the senses is typically imagined from a heterosexual male perspective that makes the beauty of the female body the quintessential example of material participation in noumenal beauty, contemplation of the beauty of that body is simply an expression of the soul's thirst for the Transcendent and the Universal. Desire for erotic union with the female body, however, is a more complicated matter. On the one hand, such desire merely expresses the soul's desire, expressed in a material idiom, to recover its perfected, ungendered, hermaphroditic state. On the other hand, the very effort to use a material idiom to express an immaterial aspiration is full of problems and confusions for a Platonically structured imagination. What results is often a battle between celebration and revulsion, apostheosis and demonization of the female body as supposed source of masculine desire with its seemingly intractable problematics.

Suggestions for revisions? Email me at dmycoff@warren-wilson.edu

NOTES

1 Other terms frequently used in English language scholarship, particularly the older scholarship, for the noumenal/phenomenal distinction are intelligible/experiential or intelligible/sensible ("sensible" meaning capable of being perceived through the physical senses). return to text

2 I've adapted the notions of pessimistic and optimistic Platonist dualism from Frances Yates' discussion of two corresponding forms of gnostic dualism. See Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. (Chicago and London: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 22. Yates cites A.-J. Festugiere, La Revelation d'Hermes Trismegiste. 4 vols. (Paris, 1950-4), I, 84; II, x-xi. return to text

3 Here, as always when using modern English translations of works originally written in ancient Greek or Latin, readers must remember that terms translated into modern languages by such words as mind, reason, intellect, and intelligence have a much wider and more complex semantic field (range of meaning) in past historical periods than they have in late-twentieth-century common usage and are certainly not limited to discursive or analytical rationality. return to text