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Platonism, Renaissance

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-C032-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

Though it never successfully challenged the dominance of Aristotelian school philosophy, the revival of Plato and Platonism was an important phenomenon in the philosophical life of the Renaissance and contributed much to the new, more pluralistic philosophical climate of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Medieval philosophers had had access only to a few works by Plato himself, and, while the indirect influence of the Platonic tradition was pervasive, few if any Western medieval philosophers identified themselves as Platonists. In the Renaissance, by contrast, Western thinkers had access to the complete corpus of Plato’s works as well as to the works of Plotinus and many late ancient Platonists; there was also a small but influential group of thinkers who identified themselves as Christian Platonists. In the fifteenth century, the most important of these were to be found in the circles of Cardinal Bessarion (1403–72) in Rome and of Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) in Florence. Platonic themes were also central to the philosophies of Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–94), the two most powerful and original thinkers of the Quattrocento. While the dominant interpretation of the Platonic dialogues throughout the Renaissance remained Neoplatonic, there was also a minority tradition that revived the sceptical interpretation of the dialogues that had been characteristic of the early Hellenistic Academy.

In the sixteenth century Platonism became a kind of ‘countercultural’ phenomenon, and Plato came to be an important authority for scientists and cosmologists who wished to challenge the Aristotelian mainstream: men like Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Francesco Patrizi and Galileo. Nevertheless, the Platonic dialogues were rarely taught in the humanistic schools of fifteenth-century Italy. Plato was first established as an important school author in the sixteenth century, first at the University of Paris and later in German universities. In Italy chairs of Platonic philosophy began to be established for the first time in the 1570s. Though the hegemony of Aristotelianism was in the end broken by the new philosophy of the seventeenth century, Plato’s authority did much to loosen the grip of Aristotle on the teaching of natural philosophy in the universities of late Renaissance Europe.

Citing this article:
Hankins, James. Platonism, Renaissance, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-C032-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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