In the summer of 1460, shortly before the last embers of the Bogomil faith were stamped out by Sultan Mehmed II’s invasion of Bosnia, a Tuscan monk named Leonardo da Pistoia rode into Florence on a donkey. He had been away for several months on a dangerous mission to Macedonia for his learned and immensely wealthy master, Cosimo de’Medici, the Doge of Florence, who employed him to procure rare and ancient writings. Already a vast library of extraordinary scrolls, codices, and books had been built up. Yet Leonardo knew that Cosimo would remain dissatisfied until he had in his hands certain very specific and once widely circulated books suppressed by the Church and lost to the world for close to a thousand years. Cosimo was convinced that these books must still exist somewhere—and had ordered Leonardo to seek them out and buy them no matter what the cost.
Now at last, after returning many times to Florence with lesser prizes, Leonardo took great pride in the fact that he had found the ancient books that his master sought. They were books of knowledge, purported to have come down from Thoth, the wisdom god of the Egyptians, who had been known to the Greeks as Hermes Trismegistus. And though neither Leonardo nor Cosimo were aware of this, these highly mysterious Hermetic texts had been compiled in Alexandria during the first three centuries of the Christian era; i.e., at the same time and in the same place as the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts. The link between the two collections becomes even stronger when we realize that a fragment of one of the Hermetic texts that Leonardo had purchased—a document known as the Asclepius—was also reproduced amongst the Gnostic codices buried at Nag Hammadi in the late fourth century and not recovered until 1945.
The Lost Ancient Knowledge
No one can dispute that the Roman Catholic Church has a long track record of vigorous opposition to all forms of knowledge, scripture, enquiry, wisdom, and religious self-expression that do not accord with its own views. It was mobs of Christians, aroused by Theophilus, the Catholic archbishop of Alexandria, who sacked the Serapeum in Alexandria in AD 391. They killed all the ‘pagans’ and Gnostics who had taken shelter inside it and razed to the ground the wonderful library that had been arranged around its cloisters together with its entire irreplaceable collection of ancient books and scrolls. This atrocity was just one amongst many in the ruthless suppression of Gnosticism and paganism by the Catholic Church and its generally very efficient destruction of their texts and traditions.
A different expression of this same antagonism to knowledge outside the narrow band accepted by orthodoxy was the closure in AD 529 by the Christian Emperor Justinian of Plato’s revered Academy in Athens. Originally established by Plato himself in the 380s BC on a site a mile outside Athens that was already held sacred, the Academy enjoyed more than 900 years of continuous existence until Justinian and Christian bigotry shut it down for spreading ‘pagan’ ideas.
Today we do not know exactly what was taught at the Academy. However, Plato’s own copious surviving writings have led the majority of scholars to infer that the original syllabus was designed to produce a select few wise philosophers, deeply knowledgeable in mathematics (including the theory of harmonics and astronomy), dialectics, natural science, and political theory who would leave the Academy for politics, not as power seekers themselves but to legislate or advise those in power.
It is known that the great Christian Gnostic teacher Valentinus, an Egyptian, studied Platonic philosophy at Alexandria in the early second century AD, so it is perhaps not surprising to find the Catholic apologist Hippolytus (AD 170–236) accusing the Gnostics of being ‘disciples of Plato’ and following the Platonic system in making ‘arithmetical science the fundamental principle of their doctrine’. For our purposes it is also interesting that Plato seems to have been the first to use the term ‘demiurge’—Greek for ‘public craftsman’—to describe the creator of the material world. In exactly the manner later copied by the Gnostics, he meant to imply that the creator was a subordinate power, not the true God, and that the material world was a corrupt, imperfect copy of the ideal world.
The point we wish to make is simply that the suppression of Plato’s Academy in AD 529 was part of a much wider attack on the pursuit of knowledge that also included the virtual destruction of Christian Gnosticism—until, we propose, it resurfaced in Bulgaria in the tenth century as Bogomilism. During the intervening centuries book burning was deemed an act of piety by the Church, and the persecution of scholars who ventured outside strict ecclesiastical boundaries was deemed an act of righteousness and a service to God.
A Philosopher with Fire-Power
The origin of the House of Medici is obscure, but ‘Medici’ means literally ‘medical doctors’ so a background amongst physicians and apothecaries is thought likely.
Since 1239 the Medici had been official gonfaloniere of Florence (standard bearers and custodians of the city banner). By 1389, the year Cosimo was born, the family was already prominent and rich due to the banking activities of Cosimo’s father, Giovanni.
Through political machinations and more especially through his influence on the papacy (he had befriended the popes and practically ran the finances of the Vatican), Cosimo was able to add greatly to the already enormous wealth of the House of Medici. His influence grew accordingly and he was soon the de facto ruler of Florence, a position that he was to maintain for the rest of his life. In 1458, just two years before the lost texts of the Hermetica were delivered to him, Cosimo was described as ‘master of the country’ by Pope Pious II.
A New Platonic Academy
In 1438 Cosimo came up with a brilliant idea that, in a curious and indirect way, was to change the course of Western scholarship. For centuries, the Catholic Church, headed by the pope in Rome, had been in conflict over doctrinal issues with the Eastern Orthodox Church, headed by the patriarch in Constantinople. This great religious ‘West versus East’ schism reached a crisis point in the 1430s when Constantinople was beginning to be seriously threatened by the Muslim Ottoman Turks. Since the dramatic fall of Egypt and Alexandria to the Muslims in AD 642, the ‘Eastern’ empire of Rome, which extended from Turkey through to Egypt, had been slowly gnawed away by the Muslim forces. By 1438, all that remained in Christian hands was its capital, Constantinople, called the ‘Second Rome’. In the famous words of Mehmed II, the Ottoman sultan who would eventually capture the city in 1452 after a siege of six weeks, it was just ‘a monstrous head without a body’.
In 1438 John Paleologus, the Eastern Roman emperor whose seat was Constantinople, appealed to the pope in the name of all Christianity for military help to save the last bastion of Christendom in the East from falling into the hands of the Muslims. In response, Pope Eugenius IV decided to call for a great council to meet somewhere in Italy. Cosimo de’Medici, seeing the enormous prestige such a council would bring, especially if it achieved a reconciliation between the Eastern and Western churches, was determined that the venue should be his own city. Through his friendship with the pope, and by offering to cover all expenses plus a generous loan to the Vatican, Cosimo had his way; and in the winter of 1439, after a night of storms and torrential rains, the Eastern emperor, the Greek Orthodox patriarch, and the pope all made their triumphal entries into Florence.
Months of deliberations and ecumenical debates followed until at last, in July 1439, the Council of Florence reached a compromise that brought the two churches together again. Predictably their reunification was short-lived; indeed the Eastern delegates barely had time to return to Constantinople before repudiating the feeble agreement. But there was an unexpected upside. Florence, all of Italy, and in due course the rest of Western Europe as well, were to benefit incalculably from the exciting intellectual stimulant provided by the large retinue of Byzantine-Greek scholars who had accompanied the Eastern emperor to the council. These scholars were among the prime catalysts in the remarkable Renaissance of classical history, art and philosophy that was soon to follow, and they added new force to the already keen and burning interest of Cosimo de’Medici in Plato’s works. The great Byzantine scholar, Bessarion, who had accompanied the Eastern emperor to Italy, was persuaded to remain behind, as well as his colleague Plethon, a leading authority on Plato.
After attending lectures by Plethon, Cosimo had another inspiration. He would use some of his immense wealth to establish a Platonic Academy in Florence, modeled on Plato’s original. Plethon’s departure, and Cosimo’s involvement with other issues, delayed the project for several years. Nonetheless the idea of the Academy did finally come to maturity. Its first home was the Villa Montevecchio in Florence and Cosimo appointed his adopted son, the brilliant scholar Marsilio Ficino, as its first director.
Cosimo had for many years been an avid collector of rare and important books and made some valuable additional acquisitions from the Byzantine-Greek scholars who had attended the 1439 Council of Florence. His library, regarded as the most extensive collection of classical and religious works in Europe, formed the nucleus of the Medici Academy and was to serve eventually as a model for the Vatican’s own library. Until 1460, however, the ultimate prize—the fabled works of Hermes Trismegistus—had eluded him as well as all other collectors in Europe.
Older than Moses, Greater than Plato
It was well known to European scholars of the Renaissance that the great Greek philosopher Plato, and before him Solon and Pythagoras, had visited the land of Egypt and there had allegedly learned the wisdom of the Egyptian sages. Plato, it was said, had special respect for the Egyptians—who he referred to as a ‘race of philosophers.’ In his Timeus, famous for containing the earliest-surviving direct references to Atlantis, he recounted a story that had supposedly been told by Solon, the celebrated Athenian statesman and poet, after the latter had visited Egypt circa 600 BC. There, at Sais in the Delta area, Egyptian priests at the Temple of Neith apparently recognized Solon’s wisdom and agreed to discuss with him issues related to the origin of the world. After listening to Solon expounding some of the Greek myths, however, one of the priests interrupted him and exclaimed: “O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are all like children, and there is no such thing as an old [wise] Greek … You are all young in mind … you have no belief rooted in ancient tradition and no knowledge hoary with age …”
Solon apparently was told by the Egyptian priests that deluges and fire had periodically ravaged the earth, causing civilizations to collapse and disappear. However, because of the disposition of the Nile Valley, Egypt had miraculously been spared and all her ancient temples and sanctuaries had survived. In them and them alone was preserved a complete memory of the great events of the distant past and of deeds previously accomplished by mankind. They even contained a record of the origins of the world and knowledge of that golden age when mortals had fraternized with the gods.
Classical writers who had visited or lived in Egypt, such as Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and Proclus Diadochus, likewise extolled the immensely old wisdom of the Egyptian priests, and especially their revered knowledge of the heavens and the motion of the stars. Many deemed Egypt a sacred land, a land in which the gods had once dwelt and taught men the divine and sacred science, and where the secrets of immortality had been revealed to those who were fully worthy. However, this wonderful and pristine Egyptian science had thus far remained out of the reach of Renaissance scholars such as Cosimo de’Medici because it was written in the mysterious and impenetrable hieroglyphic language which no one anymore could understand. Ancient and holy Egypt had fallen into a deep coma from which, it seemed, it might never again awake.
One can therefore imagine the intellectual shock wave that passed through the learned circles of Florence in 1460 when Cosimo de’Medici excitedly announced that he had in his possession a collection, translated by some unknown hand into Greek, of the fabled lost books of Hermes Trismegistus.
Within a year Ficino managed to complete a Latin translation of the 14 books or ‘tracts’ of the Hermetica (as the collection that Leonardo da Pistoia had brought back from Macedonia is now known). In 1473, ten years after finishing this work, Ficino was ordained a priest of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually became a high official at the Cathedral of Florence. It is widely accepted by scholars that his translations of the Greek classics and, especially, the works of Plato, were part of the impetus behind the Italian Renaissance. But what is less appreciated is the huge, indeed revolutionary, effect that Ficino’s translation of the Hermetica was also to have on Western culture and on the Catholic Church itself.
The above is an edited excerpt from The Master Game, which has been adapted and expanded from the authors’ earlier, out-of-print book, Talisman, and recently published by Disinformation Books. The article is printed here with the publisher’s permission.