How Were Plato and Aristotle Interpreted During the Renaissance?

Deep dive into how Aristotle and Plato were interpreted in the new century and how they influenced the beginning of modern philosophy.

Dec 11, 2023By Antonio Panovski, BA Philosophy
plato aristotle interpreted renaissance
Aristotle (left) and Plato (right) in Nurenberg Chronicle, 1493. Source: Wikimedia Commons


During the Renaissance, a renewed interest arose in the philosophy of Ancient Greece. There was particular interest in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and developing an interpretation of their work fitting the Renaissance period. This article explores this renewed interest, explaining how and why some were more interested in the philosophy of Plato. In contrast, other Aristotelian doctrines and these allegiances contributed to many new interpretations of both Plato and Aristotle.


Interpretations of Aristotle 

Roman copy (in marble) of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippos, c. 330 BCE, via Museo nazionale romano di palazzo Altemps


One of the most important features of Renaissance philosophy is the growing interest in the basic sources of Greek and Roman thought, which were previously unknown or little known, especially in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. The renewed study of Neoplatonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism eclipsed the universal truth of Aristotle’s philosophy and broadened the philosophical horizon, providing a rich foundation for the development of modern philosophy and science.


The renewed interest in Aristotle was not so much due to the rediscovery of unknown texts as it was due to interest in texts long ago translated into Latin but rarely studied. As early as the fifteenth century, philosophers invested time and effort to make Aristotle’s texts clearer and more precise. In order to discover the meaning of Aristotle’s thought, they improved the scholastic translations of his works, read the originals written in ancient Greek, and analyzed them with philological techniques. The availability of these interpretive tools has played a significant role in philosophical debate. Moreover, in the decades after 1490, Aristotle’s interpretations by Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius, Ammonius, Philoponus, and other Greek commentators added to the views of Arab and medieval commentators, stimulating new solutions to Aristotle’s problems, leading to a wide variety of interpretations of Aristotle in the Renaissance.


Aristotle’s Followers

The School of Athens, fresco by Raphael, 1509, depicting Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), via Apostolic Palace


Many philosophers during the Renaissance read Aristotle for scientific or secular reasons with no direct interest in religious or theological matters. Pietro Pomponazzi, one of Aristotle’s most important and influential philosophers during the Renaissance, developed his views within the framework of the philosophy of nature. In his Treatise on the Immortality of the Soul, Pomponazzi argued that proof of the intellect’s ability to survive the death of the body must be found in the activity of the intellect functioning independently of the body.

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According to him, such an activity does not exist because the highest activity of the intellect, the achievement of universals in knowledge, is always mediated by sensation or impression. Pomponazzi came to the conclusion, based on philosophical and especially Aristotelian principles, that the whole soul dies with the body. The treatise provoked violent opposition, and a series of books were written against it. Another important work of his is Five Books on Fate, Free Will, and Predestination, which is considered one of the most important works that dealt with the problem of freedom and determinism in the Renaissance. He examines the conflicting points of view of philosophical determinism and Christian theology.


Logic and science 

The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo, 1512, via Sistine Chapel


Another philosopher who tried to keep Aristotle’s authority independent of theology and subject to rational criticism is Jacopo Zabarella, who produced extensive work on the nature of logic and the scientific method. His goal was to find Aristotle’s true concepts of science and scientific method, which he understood as indisputable evidence of the nature and constitutive principles of natural beings. He developed the method of regression, a combination of deductive procedures for composition and inductive procedures for resolution, which method would later be seen as the fundamental method of arriving at knowledge in the theoretical sciences.


There was also a form of Aristotle’s philosophy with strong religious involvement, as a branch of Scholasticism, which developed on the Iberian Peninsula in the 16th century. This current of Spanish scholastic philosophy began with the Dominican School, founded in Salamanca by Francisco de Vitoria, and continued with the philosophy of the newly founded Society of Jesus, among whose defining authorities were Pedro de Fonseca, Francisco de Toledo, and Francisco Suarez. Their most important writings are in the field of metaphysics and philosophy of law, and they played a key role in the development of the Law of Nations. In the field of metaphysics, the most important is the work of Suarez – Metaphysical Debates. The work is a systematic presentation of philosophy against the background of Christian principles, which set the standard for philosophical and theological learning for the next two centuries.


Interpretations of Plato

Portrait of Plato, 424/423 – 348/347 BCE, via Wikipedia


Now, let’s take a look at some of the interpretations of Platonism. During the Renaissance, it gradually became possible to take a broader view of philosophy than the traditional Peripatetic framework allowed. No ancient philosophical revival was more influential than the revival of Platonism. The rich doctrinal content and formal elegance made him a credible opponent of the Peripatetic tradition. Renaissance Platonism was a product of humanism and had a sharper border with medieval philosophy. To many Christians, Platonism seemed more attractive and safer than Aristotle’s philosophy. The Neoplatonist conception of philosophy as a way of union with God represented the richest inspiration for many Renaissance philosophers. Platonic dialogues were not seen as profane texts to be understood literally but as sacred mysteries to be deciphered.


Platonism was brought to Italy by the Byzantine Plethon, who, during the Council of Florence in 1439, gave a series of lectures that he later reworked into The Differences Between Plato and Aristotle. This work, which compared the doctrines of the two philosophers (in which Plato had a great advantage), initiated a controversy regarding the relative superiority of Plato over Aristotle. In the treatise Against Plato’s Slanderer (1482), Cardinal Bessarion defended Plato against the charge leveled against his philosophy by Aristotle’s George of Trebizond. In his work Comparison of the Philosophers Aristotle and Plato, he expressed the view that Platonism is non-Christian and actually represents a new religion.


Plato’s Followers

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 1484-1486, via Galleria degli Uffizi


Since we already covered Aristotle’s most prominent followers, now we’ll see who were Plato’s most prominent followers. The most important Renaissance Platonist was Marsilio Ficino, who translated Plato’s works into Latin and wrote commentaries on several of them. He also translated and commented on Plotinus’ Enneads and the works of Porphyry, Iamblichus, Synesius, and other Neoplatonists. Ficino regarded Plato as part of a long tradition of ancient theology that was conceived by Hermes and Zarathustra, culminated in Plato, and continued with Plotinus and the other Neoplatonists. Like the ancient Neoplatonists, Marsilio assimilated Aristotelian physics and metaphysics and adapted them for Platonic needs. In his most famous treatise – Platonic Theology on the Immortality of Souls, he presented his synthesis of Platonism and Christianity, as a new theology and metaphysics, which, unlike many scholastics, explicitly opposed Averroestic secularism.


A Manifesto for the Renaissance?

Marsilio Ficino from a fresco painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence via Cappella Tornabuoni


One of Ficino’s most prominent collaborators was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. He is known as the author of the celebrated Sermon on the Dignity of Man, which is often regarded as a manifesto for the new Renaissance thought. But he also wrote other important works, such as A Debate Against Predictive Astrology, On Being and the One – a brief treatise and attempt to reconcile Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysical views, and Seven Days of Creation, a mystical interpretation of the creation myth. He was not a staunch Neoplatonist like Ficino but was trained in Aristotelian philosophy and was eclectic in conviction. He wanted to combine Greek, Hebrew, Muslim, and Christian thought into a grand synthesis, which he described in nine hundred theses published as Conclusions in 1486. Pico planned to defend them publicly in Rome, but three were seen as heretical, and ten others were suspicious. He defended them in the Apology, which caused the entire work to be condemned by Pope Innocent VIII.


Giovanni’s constant aim in his works was to exalt the power of human nature. To do that, he defended the use of magic, which he described as the noblest part of natural science, and the Kabbalah – a Jewish form of mysticism, which most likely has Neoplatonist origins. One of the biggest obstacles in the reception and adaptation of Platonism in the early 15th century was the theory of Platonic love. Many thinkers could not accept Plato’s explicit treatment of homosexuality. However, in the middle of the 16th century, this doctrine became one of the most popular elements of Plato’s philosophy.


Transforming Platonic Love

Portrait of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, via Galleria degli Uffizi


The transformation of Platonic love from an immoral and abusive obligation into a precious asset represents an important episode in the history of Plato’s re-emergence during the Renaissance as a major influence on Western thought. Bessarion and Ficino did not deny that Platonic love was essentially homosexual in appearance but insisted that it was entirely honest and pure. To reinforce this idea, they connected Plato’s discussions of love with those they found in the Bible. Ficino’s efforts to appeal to a fifteenth-century audience did not involve concealing or denying that Platonic love was homoerotic. He fully accepted the idea that Platonic love involved a pure relationship between men and endorsed the belief that the spiritual ascension of the soul to ultimate beauty was prompted by the love between men.


One of the most famous Renaissance treatises on love, Dialogues on Love, was written by the Jewish philosopher Judah Ben Isaac Abravanel. The work consists of three dialogues about love, which he understands as the animating principle of the universe and the cause of all existence, divine and material. In the first dialogue, he discusses the relationship between love and desire, the second – the universality of love, and the third contains the longest philosophical discussion, the origin of love. It draws on Platonic and Neoplatonic sources, as well as the cosmology and metaphysics of Jewish and Arab thinkers, which are interwoven with Aristotelian sources in order to produce a synthesis of Aristotelian and Platonic views.

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By Antonio PanovskiBA PhilosophyAntonio holds a BA in Philosophy from SS. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, North Macedonia. His main areas of interest are contemporary, as well as analytic philosophy, with a special focus on the epistemological aspect of them, although he’s currently thoroughly examining the philosophy of science. Besides writing, he loves cinema, music, and traveling.