Platonism in Edmund Spenser’s Works: A Fashion of Renaissance Days

Platonism was the fashion of the Renaissance days. Spenser has caught the fashion along with others of the time. He certainly knew some of the Plato’s works at first hand and used them. Technical words of platonic philosophy frequently occur in his works, and the thought of the Greek philosopher, consciously, or unconsciously, moulds his own thoughts. Greek philosopher Plato founds the Academy in Athens. Read More about Elizabethan Literature  Plato, a student of Socrates, greatly influences Western philosophy; he believes that the ideal is more real than anything material. He is the author of the Republic, a dramatic dialogue on the nature of justice. Read More about Criticism  

Italian philosopher and theologian Marsilio Ficino translates the works of Plato into Latin, a language more commonly understood by Europeans. By doing so, he contributes to the rise of Renaissance humanism and the revival of Platonism. Read More about Criticism  

Edmund Spenser
Platonic temperament, the yearning mood, the vague desire for the faraway, or the half imagined beauty, attracted Spenser, as it attracted Spenser, as it attracted many of his contemporaries, Plato’s exaltation of beauty as something divine, as an object of worship and his spiritualization of love, all colour Spenser’s treatment of Love and Beauty.

Plato contributed largely to Spenser’s thought. The Greek philosopher taught him that beautiful is the god: love is the emotion that draws us to the immortal, possesses the beautiful, i e. the god. The highest happiness that the Good aims at is to be like God in whom is perfect hgoodness. The application of this doctrine can easily be traced in the first book of the fairy queen. Una is this beauty and goodness: the Red Cross knight is this love. Read More about Elizabethan Literature  Love seeks to unite himself to beauty and goodness and suffered as long as he is separated from the object of love. The betrothed of the knight to Una is the beginning of happiness, but it fails to reach presence of the perfect good, which is god himself. The cardinal principle of Plato’s teaching is the identification of truth, beauty and goodness, or as Keats states it, “beauty is truth and truth beauty”. It is this very platonic doctrine that Spenser states in the following words;
“For all that fair is, by nature good;
For all that is good, is beautiful and fair.’

Lady Una is beautiful, so she is good and truthful as well. Physical beauty is but the external raiment or vesture of a beautiful soul; there is no real difference between the earthly beauty and the heavenly, between the spiritual and the physical. Beauty may be weak physically, but it is strong spiritually. That is why the very sight of lady Una-the embodiment of beauty, truth and goodness-overpowers the brute force and violence represented by the lion, and the poet moralizes: Read More about Criticism  
“Oh how can beauty master the most strong
And simple truths subdue avenging wrong.”

It was also from Plato that Spenser learned that death is simply a mutation. Only physical from dies, the soul, which is the substance, the reality, does not die. It is immortal; it returns to the immortal soul, the god, which is the only reality at the back of all that is fleeting and temporary. It is on this note that the fairy queen closes:
“What wrong then is it, if that when they die,
They turn to that, whereof they first were made?
All in the power   of their greater maker lie,
All creatures must obey the voice of the most high.”

Now let’s look at the revival of Platonism in History:
  • Plato’s influence throughout the history of Western philosophy has been monumental. When he died, Speusippus became head of the Academy.
  •    The school continued in existence until ad 529.
  •  Plato’s impact on Jewish thought is apparent in the work of the 1st-century Alexandrian philosopher Philo Judaeus. Neoplatonism, founded by the 3rd-century philosopher Plotinus, was an important later development of Platonism.
  •    The theologians Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Saint Augustine were early Christian exponents of a Platonic perspective.
  •  Platonic ideas have had a crucial role in the development of Christian theology and also in medieval Islamic thought. Read More about Elizabethan Literature  
  • The humanists of the Italian Renaissance, in their reaction against the previously dominant rationalistic philosophy of Aristotle, turned to the idealistic metaphysics of Plato, and thence to Neoplatonism.
  •    Notable in this connection was the Italian scholar Marsilio Ficino, who, under the patronage of the wealthy nobleman Cosimo de' Medici, translated and annotated the works of Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus.
  • The Platonic Academy in Florence or The academy, whose leading thinker was Marsilio Ficino, was founded by the 15th-century Florentine statesman and patron of the arts Cosimo de' Medici. Read More about Criticism  
  •     The institution sought to revive Platonism and had particular influence on the literature, painting, and architecture of the times.
  •    In England, the 17th-century Cambridge Platonists exhibited marked affinities with Neoplatonic philosophers. A number of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers and writers have been influenced by Neoplatonism; among them were several of the most important British romantic poets, including William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Ref: Wikipedia, Encarta, Spring in Theology Thoughts (p.124-156) - Dr. Susana Padridge