What is the medieval Wheel of Fortune? Who was Marsilio Ficino?
I shall attempt to answer both of these questions, unrelated as they are, in a single essay. For the record, the latter question was asked by a student who should have known who Ficino was.
While there are several important medieval figures who are little known today, the two whose reputations have diminished the most are Boethius (who wrote very early in the middle ages – the sixth century), and Ficino (who wrote late in the middle ages, and helped inspire the Renaissance). Both of these philosophers were quite famous in their times, but today few people could tell you who they are.
Boethius was an important member of the court of Theoderic the Great, the Ostrogothic ruler of Italy. Boethius was a Nicene (Trinitarian) Christian, while Theoderic was an Arian – meaning he was a member of a branch of Christianity who believed in a type of Trinity, but in which the Father was superior to the Son. Even though the time in which Boethius lived was characterized by conflict between Nicene Christianity and Arianism, Boethius and Theoderic were very close until Boethius stood up for another member of Theoderic's court who was accused of treason for corresponding with the Byzantine Emperor Justin I. This resulted in Boethius himself being accused. He was imprisoned and eventually executed.
While he was in prison, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, which is written in the form of a dialogue between Boethius and Sophia (“wisdom”). The Consolation starts with Boethius complaining of the injustice of his situation. Sophia tells him that he should not despair because nobody knows the will of God. As long as people are subject to fate, they will undergo injustice. It is useless to rail against the ways of the world; trust in God and live a life of virtue, and you will know true consolation.
In order to illustrate the unexpected whims of fate, Boethius reintroduced the ancient concept of the Wheel of Fortune (Fortuna). Fortuna was a Roman goddess of fate. She was shown turning a wheel with people moving up and down in a circle. As people move up in the wheel, they encounter unexpected luck and happiness, but they inevitably will start to go down after they reach the pinnacle. Boethius makes it clear that all people – rich and poor, virtuous and wicked – are subject to these turns of fate. Since there is nothing a person could do to change one's own fate, the correct attitude to have to misfortunes and inequalities is tranquil acceptance. Even though the Wheel of Fortune was known before Boethius wrote about it, it seems that the widespread appearance of the wheel in medieval art is due to the influence of the Consolation of Philosophy.
Boethius' writing was well-known in the middle ages, and his doctrine of stoic resignation was widely accepted in those times. The striking inequalities and injustices of the middle ages were largely placidly accepted throughout much of the middle ages. Peasant uprisings were quite rare until the Black Death led people to question the propriety of the status quo.
The philosophy of Marsilio Ficino was quite different than that of Boethius, although both drew heavily on Plato. During most of the middle ages, art and music were mostly commissioned by the Church, and the purpose was to communicate religious lessons. While the notion that medieval artists did not think art should be beautiful is an exaggeration, beauty was not the prime objective of art. Ficino revived the classical notion that beauty was the true objective of poetry, painting, music, and other arts. While Ficino was a Christian who believed that sublime experiences brought about by experience of beauty would bring one closer to God, his writings renewed interest in the philosophies of pre-Christian thinkers – particularly Plato.
Ficino's influence is clearly seen in the art of the Renaissance. Beauty – particularly the beauty of the human figure – again became the object of art. Artists became the most well-known figures of the age, and churches, cities, and wealthy individuals competed to commission the most striking works of art.
The theme that ties these two philosophers together is that we can see the influence their philosophies had on their respective eras even though they, as individuals, are mostly forgotten.