After my first year studying Classics at university I found that the life seemed to have gone out of it because it had all become a mere intellectual exercise. Luckily I was able to spend time that summer studying Plato on a philosophy retreat with a group of teachers and it all came back to life again. Moreover, I was inspired to become a teacher myself.
This letter explains what I found that summer and has reminded me ever since not to get carried away by the intellectual side of studying and teaching, but to enjoy that which brings ‘serenity to the soul’. Ficino must also have had many occasions during his impressive academic career when he needed to take his own advice and remember the real goal of his studies.
Marsilio Ficino Letters Liber I, No. 109 (paragraphs 2 and 3)
Studeant magis ut boni sint, quam ut docti, scientia invidia gignit, bonitas occidit invidam, bonitas et hominibus utilior et Deo gratior, quam scientia, est etiam stabilior, citius enim obliviscimus rei alicuius, quam brevi didicimus, quam mores amittimus quos laboriosa, et diuturna consuetudine comparavimus. Doctrina per se ad breve tempus parumve confert, bonitas in aeternum, et ad consequendum Deum. Consule igitur discipulis tuis in more Socratico doctrinis humanis utantur ad expellendas sensuum nebulas, et animum ferenandum. Tunc enim a divino sole menti veritatis radius illucescet, aliter vero nunquam. Hoc unicum utile studium est. Qui aliter agit frustra misereque laborat.
Marsilio Ficino to Lorenzo Lippi, the rhetorician: greetings.
Let them (your pupils) study to be good rather than learned, for learning begets envy which goodness destroys. Goodness is both more useful to men and more pleasing to God than learning. It is also more enduring. We forget more quickly some fact which was quickly learned than we lose principles of conduct which we have attained by arduous daily practice. Learning in itself brings little of value, and that for only a short time, while goodness is eternal and leads to the realisation of God. Therefore, following the example of Socrates, advise your pupils to use human learning to dispel the clouds of the senses, and to bring serenity to the soul. Then will the ray of truth from the divine sun illumine the mind, and never in any other way. That is the only useful study. A man who acts otherwise labours vainly and miserably.