Ficino On Socrates And Christ

The following is the second of two letters written by Ficino concerning the similarities between the lives of Socrates and Christ. This was a particularly hot topic for the church in the 15th Century. However Ficino was the only one to suggest that Socrates and Christ could be directly related.

“If I did not fear that there would be some who, through the perversity of their nature or through narrowmindedness, would contrive to take everything in a sense other than the one we intend, I would show that Socrates was, so to speak, a forerunner of Christ, the author of salvation. He was not like Job and John the Baptist, yet perhaps in a way he foreshadowed Christ.

Socrates throughout his life put the eternal before the transient, not through a kind of rough simplicity but rather through the matchless excellence of his mind and, as Plato and Xenophon testify, through his divine nature and his innate powers of prophecy. Further, he willingly endured physical hardships, especially hunger and exposure, as well as all the ills of fortune, terrified only of evil in the soul and the soul’s irretrievable loss, and intent only on the single duty of reverence and love (Plato Symposium 200-1, Apology 28-9, Matthew 22:27, Mark 12.30, Luke 10:27, John 15:12). Indeed, neglecting his own comforts and not held back by the danger, he devoted himself, like a doctor of souls, to purifying the minds of men throughout his native lands, while, above all, warding off pride (Apology 28-32, Matthew 4 1-11, Luke 4 1-13). He showed the worth of gentleness, love and religion, beyond anything else. The only pursuit he acknowledged was of true love and compassion (Matt 9:36, 14:14, 20:34, Mark 1:40-41). He rejected all empty claims to knowledge (Apology 21-23). He relied upon proof of the divine at all times and adhered to this with unshakeable faith, being content with a righteous and lawful way of life. What is remarkable is that he expected no human reward for such arduous service; in fact, it was on account of this service that he subjected himself to certain danger and death (Apology 28, Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, 1 Timothy 2:6). Indeed, he repeatedly declared that he had been sent by God for this sole purpose, saying he would rather obey God than man ( Apology 29-30, Luke 22:42).

But let us briefly hear Socrates himself proclaiming these words before his unjust judges:

“I seem to have been given to the State by God (John 12:49, John 17:25) That I am truly such a man you may observe from the fact that it certainly does not seem to be at all human to have completely neglected all my own concerns and to have persisted for so many years with this neglect of family affairs and with this lack of means (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58). I have always been intent upon your welfare, addressing each as a father or an elder brother would and urging all to cultivate virtue. But if I were to receive any reward for my service there would be a human motive” (Plato Apology 30-31)

Such are the words of Socrates.

Thus, when he was rebuking sinners and was struck by a stone, he wished his attacker well, and, when struck on one cheek he turned the other (Seneca De Ira III xi 2-3, Luke 6:27-29). Finally, he received so much ill-will on account of the truth that he was accused of irreligion by those very men to whom he had publicly the duty of practising religion (Apology 24 and 26, Mark 2: 26-27, John 5:1-19).

But what can I say? He could easily have defended himself in court but he did not; nor did he excuse himself, but accused the judges. When he could have escaped from prison he refused, and he most willingly suffered an unjust death, giving to posterity and example of supreme steadfastness and patience (Apology 29-30, Mark 15:30).

For now, I pass over the sum of thirty pieces of silver (Apology 38, Zechariah 11:11-12, Matthew 26:15, 27:3-10) offered for Socrates, as well as the prophecies of Socrates himself and the divine vindication that followed after his death (Apology 39cd “I prophesy to you who are my murderers that immediatly after my departure, punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you” , St Mark 15:38). I pass over the act of bathing undertaken by Socrates in the evening before his death (Phaedo 115-16a , John 13:5), and his exhortation, at the hour of supper (Phaedo 116, Mark 14:22-25, Matthew 26:26-9 , John 13:31-5) to revere the divine (Phaedo 117, John 13:31-5). But what about the wine-cup (Phaedo 117, Matthew 26:27-8) and the blessing at the same hour, and the mention made of the cock at the very time of his death? (Phaedo 118, Matthew 26:74)

Furthermore I pass over the many words and deeds of Socrates which are recorded not by him but chiefly by his four disciples (Plato, Crito, Phaedo, Xenophon. According to Plato Crito and Phaedo were present in prison with Socrates and witnessed these events) and which mightily confirm the Christian faith in opposition to Lucian. But a letter would not hold these things, and perhaps some people would not accept them with  good-will thinking perhpas that Socrates is now being presented as a rival, wheras I am putting him forward as a defender.”

From the “Letters of Marsilio Ficino Vol.7” translated by members of the Language Department of the School of Economic Science London.

Thought provoking stuff indeed. Intended by Ficino, I think, to illustrate the oneness and unity of the divine over and above cultural differences. One of Ficino’s main aims, it seems, was to trace the divine source of all faiths and cling to that . 

It seems (from googling around) that this question of the similarites between Socrates and Christ has been something of a thorn in the side of the church. I found a book devoted to the subject online written in the late 19th century trying to seperate one from the other and if you google the two names you can see controversy still rages.


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