Marsilio Ficino: A Study in Melancholy
July 1, 2006 by admin
Nowadays, when we says someone is melancholy, we mean they are depressed and not enjoying life. In traditional astrology, however, calling someone melancholic had a far more complex and nuanced implication. First, it was directly related to temperament; a unique combination of personality and body type that we all possess. The four classical temperaments are phlegmatic (watery), choleric (fiery), sanguine (airy), and melancholic (earthy). Most people are a mix of two or more of these; if you possess all four in equal measure, you are that rare creature; a well-balanced individual. Melancholics are studious, contemplative, serious, practical, cautious and deliberate in all their words and deeds. They are not given to emotional scenes or histrionics.
In traditional medicine, melancholy is synonymous with the bodily humor of black bile, which is cold and dry, possessing the two qualities most antithetical to life. Aristotle described Bellerophontes as a melancholic, who, having fallen from Pegasus, wandered alone in desert places. Aristotle cites Homer’s description of Bellerophontes: “But when he was hated of all the gods, then he wandered alone on the plain of Aleïum, eating out his heart, and avoiding the track of men.” Here is a description of the coldest melancholy that can exist. Aristotle later makes the distinction between melancholy that is less cold, and thus less harmful, and the very extreme coldness seen in Bellerophontes.
Marsilio Ficino was a Renaissance scholar, priest, musician, poet, philosopher, physician, and astrologer. He was a prolific writer, both of books and of letters, and only recently have we been able to get our hands on decent English translations of his works. Two titles that spring to mind are Three Books on Life, and Meditations on the Soul, a book of some of his letters to well-known personages of his day, such as the Medicis, whom he served as a spiritual advisor.
Ficino struggled all his life with an excess of melancholy, and his Three Books on Life goes into extensive detail on how to cure melancholy, or at least keep it in balance. Many of his suggestions are especially useful because they address the proper lifestyle of scholars who are predisposed to melancholy by their occupation and by their horoscopes, which will tend to have strong melancholic planets, Mercury and/or Saturn. This is very applicable to us today, as many of us work in our sedentary jobs doing mostly cerebral (as opposed to physical) work. This kind of existence aggravates the black bile humor. Ficino’s recommendations stem from the understanding that melancholy is primarily a Saturnian illness. Saturn is best neutralized by Jupiter, and to a lesser degree, Venus and the Sun, so Ficino recommends remedies that are Jupiter-ruled, and therefore hot and moist, to neutralize the melancholic’s inherent cold and dryness.
One great recipe for melancholics, derived from Ficino’s recommendations, is warm almond milk with cinnamon; milk and almonds are naturally moist, while the warm liquid and cinnamon are both heating. This is a very good evening drink, as it is somewhat sedative and soothing. However, the bigger problem for melancholics tends to be the morning, as getting going early is rather against the inherent slowness of black bile. Lots of melancholics guzzle coffee like it’s going out of style to compensate for this, but we have noticed that a strong decoction of ginger-licorice-anise-cinnamon acts like morning rocket fuel for these people. Also, Ficino was a great believer in the power of clear white wine to balance melancholy.
As for non-dietary guidance, Ficino recommended that those predisposed to melancholy rise with the Sun (remember, this was before the days of artificial lighting), meditate and do one’s studies. One was to study no later than noon. The reason for this recommendation was that the Sun is strong right at sunrise, because it is in the Ascendant, and at noon, when it is in the Midheaven, and it weakens significantly thereafter. As melancholics tend to coldness, the goal is to be in tune with the Sun to harness its life-giving warmth. Making music, too, will dispel melancholy, as will the company of young people, who are by their intrinsic nature sanguine (hot and moist). Finally, religious faith is Jupiter-ruled, and though Ficino does not recommend it as such, since it would have been taken for granted in his time that one was religious, it must provide the melancholic with much needed spiritual “warmth.”
Note that Bellerophontes’ loss of Pegasus provides a succinct description of what happens to melancholics when they don’t use their natural gifts for contemplation and spirituality. The black bile becomes even colder and they shun human contact, eating out their hearts. Perhaps this is one reason why today, it seems that everyone is on anti-depressants: our fast-moving lifestyles are not conducive to contemplation or faith, and those with melancholic tendencies have little outlet for their natural tendencies.