Continued from part two.

The pilgrim’s journey through the ages continues after William of Digulleville. He reappears strikingly more than a century later. Jean Gerson (1363-1429) was one of the most famous theologians of his time. Chancellor of the University of Paris, he left an important body of writings in Latin and French, in prose and verse. Born Jean Charlier, he changed his patronym and took the name of his birthplace, Gerson, in the French Ardennes. Gerson gave this choice an emblematic meaning, as he refers to the name Gershom, which Moses bestowed on his son who was born during his exile because, as he said, “I am just a sojourner in a foreign land.” By choosing this name, Jean Gerson declares himself a traveler in a foreign land, always in exile, longing for the heavenly homeland. In his poem, titled Josephina, dated circa 1410, he delineates his own portrait as a pilgrim:

It was in the evening, when shadows extend, and the stranger was lying happy near the pleasant murmur of some running water […] It seemed to him he heard a voice speaking, and this voice said: “The pilgrim life that keeps you in foreign land wants you to look for freedom in the heavenly homeland. That is what Moses meant […] when he gave his firstborn the name of Gerson […][1]

Gerson’s works were circulated widely throughout Europe, abundantly copied and printed during the 15th century. In several editions of his Complete Works, published around 1490, the author was represented on the frontispiece, dressed as a pilgrim, and the image was not a mere personal emblem for Gerson, either. In 1418, political troubles in the French kingdom forced him into exile. Having left Paris to participate in the Council of Constance, the events in France kept him from returning to Paris. At that time, he wrote his Consolation of Theology, a treatise inspired by Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, a famous Latin text to which he borrowed the complex structure, alternating prose and verse.[2]

Gerson as a pilgrim, frontispiece of the 1488 Strasburg edition of Gerson’s Complete Works.

In this work, Gerson tries to make sense of the situation he is experiencing. Rather than lamenting his uncomfortable condition as an exile, he considers it a perfect image of the human condition in the earthly world. The passages in prose are written as dialogues between two characters, Volucer and Monicus, talking about a third person, Peregrinus, who it appears is none other than Gerson himself. The starting point, in Book I, is the question of understanding how Peregrinus (the Latin word for traveler or pilgrim), in exile, away from home, his parents, his friends, and acquaintances, does not feel oppressed in his heart or troubled in his soul. Gerson then aims to show that Peregrinus’ situation is, in fact, emblematic of the human condition in this world. The exile he is living represents the exile experienced by all humans. All things, explains Gerson, point toward an end: Heavy things go down, while light ones go up. Likewise, man gravitates toward his place of choice: God. However, in his present situation, he can get near his objective only through Hope, Faith and Charity, the theological virtues that are a gift from God. As Plato already affirmed in the Phaedo, only divine grace can reveal to man the aim of his existence. In this way, the image of Gerson’s pilgrim seems to reflect that of Plato’s shipwrecked sailor (see Part 1).

Couldn’t man directly access the knowledge of God using his reason? Here, Gerson raises an objection related to a common conception in his time, according to which intelligence, to function properly, needs the images produced by the imagination, which he calls fantasms. To allow for elucidation of the intelligible species, these fantasms should be ordered, pure, and lucid. If such were always the case, man’s judgment always would express itself in a perfect, unchanging, and pure manner. Often, however, this harmonious state of the soul is troubled. Gerson lists a series of examples, noting disharmony in babies, fools, drunkards, and insane people, as well as in children, with instability in women and all who are affected by passions. Gerson adds to that all the melancholic fantasies related to the corruption of humors, alluding to the medical theory of temperaments, common in his time, according to which man’s health depends on a proper balance of humors circulating in the body. In this way, Gerson demonstrates that the reliability of human reason is far from perfect and requires fragile balances that humans do not master:

And we have not yet dealt with melancholic fantasies, of which the doctors estimate that they are produced in infinite numbers by the various corruptions of humors. Thus, the imagination forms, for example, when it is darkened by thick smokes, fantasms of terror and horror.[3]

 In this treatise, the figure of the pilgrim, an image of the vicissitudes of human existence, is related to the theme of melancholic madness. However, Gerson does not provide a specific value for this comparison, as it is mentioned among a list of various other cases of partial or total obstruction of reason, e.g., the aforementioned babies, women, and children.

Ficino most likely read Gerson’s works attentively.[4] Indeed, the Florentine appears to have used some images typical of Gerson, reshaping them to serve his purposes, without crediting the author. The theme of human exile on earth is an important thread in Ficino’s Theologia Platonica, his treatise on the immortality of the human soul, written between 1469 and 1474. In the first lines of the first chapter, he exclaims:

Since man’s mind is never at rest, his body is frail and he is totally without resources, the life he leads on earth is harsher than that of the beasts […] But I pray that as heavenly souls longing with desire for our heavenly home, we may cast off the bonds of our terrestrial chains; cast them off as swiftly as possible, so that, uplifted on Platonic wings and with God as our guide, we may fly unhindered to our ethereal abode, where we will straightaway look with joy on the excellence of our human nature. [5]

 Eighteen books further, he concludes his work:

Inasmuch as God has not given us the same goal in life as He has given the rest of living beings […] we must exert the greatest diligence, I think, lest we prefer this uncertain moment of fleeting life to the infinity of ages. […] But we will arrive, led by God, at this, the highest degree of nature, only if we summon up the strength to separate our rational soul’s desire from matter itself (which is the lowest degree of nature), so that, to the extent we depart from matter, we may thereby approach God, and, having set aside the moment of this deceptive life and living now for Him as best we can, we may at last live His life for eternity. [6]

Gerson’s influence is particularly obvious in Book 14, Chapter 7. There, Ficino goes back over the line of arguments proposed by the Parisian Theologian in his Consolation of Theology to condense it in a few paragraphs.[7] There is no rest in this life, be it for the wise or the fool, because although everything tends toward its proper place, the place of man is not in this world. He is just a pilgrim in this earth and never finds rest in his travels, because he is longing for the celestial homeland. Is it not granted us in our present life? Justly not, answers Ficino. The good desired by man should be pure, perfect, and unchanging. These three adjectives obviously were borrowed from Gerson’s demonstration that human intelligence alone is not reliable enough to access the knowledge of God. But whereas Gerson, at this point of his argumentation, had enumerated a series of states of the soul that are incompatible with such a contemplation, Ficino focuses on two particular states: sleep and mental troubles. He describes these states as mental obfuscations caused by exhalations of bodily vapors from the humors, particularly from black bile, which the Greeks called melancholy. The terms used by Ficino are the same as Gerson’s.

Thus, for Ficino, as for Gerson before him, the human pilgrim is overcome by folly because his understanding of reality relies on corporeal fluids whose subtle balance escapes him. Such is probably the process that gave birth to the image of the pilgrim fool used by Ficino in the Theologia Platonica, in his letter to Landino, and which manifests itself in the figure of the Tarot of Marseille’s Mat card. The character walking, leaning on his stick, is the pilgrim looking for his heavenly fatherland, but his fool’s attire reveals his unstable mental state, subject to disorders that deny him the pure, perfect, and unchanging access to the contemplation of divine realities.

He bears the name Mat because of the mental disturbances that afflict him, according to the first acceptation of this word. In the other acceptation, it is because he is more dead than alive, not having accessed physical death to begin real life next to God. This idea, common in Platonists’ writings, is clearly expressed by Ficino, notably in a letter dated December 3, 1480:

They are foolish enough to allow themselves to be deceived into thinking that this anxious sojourn of the heavenly and immortal soul in the earthly realm of death is real life, although they clearly see it beginning right at the start with the omens of screams and tears and ending in perpetual complaint and final misery. But on the other hand, when the immortal soul, freed from the mortal body, returns to life, they believe death is occurring. This they believe quite wrongly, for only when recurrent death is dead does real eternal life arise.[8]

A few lines further, as a conclusion to the same letter, the pilgrim’s shadow reappears:

[Humans] foolishly believe that this pilgrimage, with all its anxieties and toils, is their own homeland, or at best, having learned that they are pilgrims, they still hope to find some peace now and then on the journey itself, although from the whirling movement of the heaven that carries everything with it, they should be more than sufficiently alerted already to the fact that they cannot rest even for a moment beneath its rapid course, since the very fabric of the universe, by its nature, never has a moment’s rest.[9]

In all likelihood, the tarot of Marseille’s Mat is the image of Ficino’s pilgrim fool in his restless journey towards heaven, as we shall see in episode 25.

[1] Jean Gerson, Œuvres complètes IV. L’œuvre poétique, edited by Polémon Glorieux, Paris, Desclée & Cie, 1962, p. 32.

[2] Jean Gerson, De Consolatione Theologiae, in Idem, Opera omnia, ed. Louis Ellies Du Pin, Antwerp, 1706, col. 129-184 (anastatic reprint, Hildesheim, Georg Olms, 1987).

[3] Ibidem, col. 152.

[4] As shown by Stéphane Toussaint, « Zoroaster and The Flying Egg. New Sources in Ficino’s De Vita and Theologia Platonica: Gerson and Psellos », in Stephen Clucas, Peter J. Forshaw, Valery Rees (eds.), Laus Platonici Philosophi: Marsilio Ficino and his Influence, Leyde, Brill, 2011, pp. 105-115. See also S. Toussaint, « Gerson et Ficin », Accademia, 7 (2005), pp. 7-9. See also my « L’image du char dans le commentaire de Marsile Ficin au Phèdre de Platon : le véhicule de l’âme comme instrument du retour à Dieu », Revue des Sciences philosophiques et théologiques, 94 (2010), pp. 249-285, here 264-265.

[5] Ficino, Theologia Platonica, I, 1, ed. and transl. M. J. B. Allen, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 15.

[6] Ficino, Theologia Platonica, XVIII, 12, ed. and transl M. J. B. Allen, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2006, pp. 216-218

[7] Ficino, Theologia Platonica, XIV, 7, ed. and transl. M. J. B. Allen, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2004, pp. 270-273.

[8] Marsilio Ficino, Letters, vol. 5, translated by members of the School of Economic Science, London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 1994, pp. 77-78.

[9] Ibidem, p. 78.

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