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Nuptial Arithmetic: Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on the Fatal Number in Book VIII of Plato's Republic.

Michael J.B. Allen. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1994. x + 291 pp. $48.

"For a long time the prodigious enigmas in the preceding chapter [Rep. VIII 546A-D] have terrified us and other Platonists from devoting ourselves to their explication." Thus did Marsilio Ficino, three years before his death, mount a supreme effort by means of a hitherto neglected treatise to elucidate what is surely the most puzzling passage in the entire Platonic corpus, "concerning the Republic's mutatione through the Fatal Number." Unfortunately the resulting treatise suffered subsequent scholarly neglect and the prodigious enigmas of this fearsome passage have continued to spread their bewilderment and intellectual dismay down to this moment, which has brought about the arrival of the present publication, offering an analytical introduction of 145 pages to Ficino's puzzling explication, buttressed by the following annotated, collated texts in the original with facing English translation: Ficino's argumentum or epitome for the eighth book of Plato's Republic, based here upon that in the Venice 1491 Platonis opera omnia; Ficino's Latin text of the cryptic passage, referred to as Textus, and based upon the Commentaria in Platonem, published 2 December, 1496 in Florence; Ficino's seventeen-chapter commentary with a prefatory expositio together referred to here as De Numero Fatali, also based upon the Florence 1496 editio princeps; and finally, as appendix I, Ficino's Greek Exemplar based on Laurenziana's 85.9, fols. 253v.12up-254r.2. That all these texts plus the explanatory preceding study should be the work of Michael J.B. Allen, who has been in the business of elucidating Ficino's commentaries for the past twenty years, assures their scholarly weight and reliability, while making the volume itself, faultlessly executed and most reasonably priced by California, one of the last great bargains of the waning twentieth century.

That Ficino in his unique addressing of Plato's Republic should have turned to this most enigmatic, brief passage rather than to the attractions of the Cave, the Idea of the Good, or the myth of Er best bespeaks the import of the passage and the challenging fixation that it exercised over Renaissance intellectual life and the reception of Plato in the West. Ficino, and not Lefevre, becomes the first thinker since antiquity to address the fateful number and its implications in the light of Platonic mathematics--an undertaking that occurs significantly at the end of his life, thereby missing the editions of 1484 and 1491. At the beginning of the eighth book Socrates speculates on a mysterious fatal or fateful geometric number that might explain why the most perfectly ordered state declines, degenerating into the first of four forms ending in tyranny. The problem quickly brings into focus issues cosmic, astronomic, eugenic, political and ultimately historic, insofar as the "great year" and a reversion to the first condition are concerned. To attempt here to pursue the engendering of numbers by the fatal number and their implications would be futile. Far better to adumbrate the suggestive powers of this remarkable book at least to this reader.

One may ask why such a treatise as Ficino's, both itself obscure and somehow obscurely lost amidst his other publications, serves to cap the intellectual career of perhaps the Renaissance's greatest single philosopher. Or differently posed, what is there in this work, Ficino's De Numero Fatali, that reflects the mind of the Renaissance? Let us hazard four features: 1) proportionality, in Allen's brilliant exposition, eugenically evident not in the mating of equals, but of unequals that are proportionate to each other, and we may speculatively add that rationalizing of ratios begetting a deeply sought harmony, evident from the architecture of Brunelleschi to the astronomy of Kepler, who in his patient playing with numbers would esteem his inscribed polyhedra more than the giving of the Three Laws; 2) a fascination with enigma, the ultimate enigma of existence, and this world itself, reduced, distilled, compressed into a veiled artistic artifact, the hieroglyphs of a late Renaissance reading public; 3) the vast, if enigmatic, smile of the universe, the jesting of the gods, promotive of optimism, free will, experimentation, playfulness, which will allow Allen here to advance a ludic, witty, cheerful Ficino to counterbalance and challenge the melancholic, saturnine brooder of Panofsky / Saxl / Klibansky minting; 4) prophecy resonating through this book and its glittering chains of geometrized numbers, for, as Ficino warns in his argumentum, mathematical knowledge is not enough; one also needs Apollo's prophetic art to interpret Socrates's prophesizing that portends the breakthrough of a new cycle and the onset of a golden progeny. Not surprisingly the De Numero Fatali ends with Vergil's IV Eclogue, 4-7.

Little is done here to situate the work's composition and publication in an historical context transformed by the infelicissimo anno of the French invasion. But for those who love a productive obscurity this is the book; Cicero told us two thousand years ago that the fatal number, so promotive of speculation, had already become proverbial for obscurity. And while few among us will be able to follow its sure-footed, late twentieth-century expositor in his interpretation of the immensely difficult terrain, nevertheless all will be changed, will be transformed by exposure to the enucleated issues of De Numero Fatali as they are spun out. Indeed new ground is plowed for our understanding of Marsilio Ficino and for the general reception of Plato in the West; several ranges of scholarship on Renaissance Platonism will need to be reconsidered and possibly rewritten. We have here less described the substance than hinted at the riches of this extraordinary work of the highest scholarship and disciplined imagination. And as with any reviewer of a detective story one does not spoil the mystery by announcing its resolution beforehand. Better to allow the agony of suspense. Enough to say that the fatal number is neither Cardano's 8128 nor Mersenne's 729. The book beckons.
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Author:Headley, John M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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