Imagination and Memory in Marsilio Ficino’s Theory of the Vehicles of the Soul 1
Abstract The ancient Neoplatonic doctrine that the rational soul has one or more vehicles—bodies of a semi-material nature which it acquires during its descent through the spheres—plays a crucial part in Marsilio Ficino’s philosophical system, especially in his theory of sense-perception and in his account of the afterlife. Of the soul’s three vehicles, the one made of more or less rarefied air is particularly important, according to Ficino, during the soul’s embodied existence, for he identifies it with the spiritus, the pneumatic substance based in the brain which was believed to serve as an instrument for perception and imagination. He refers to the vehicles in his arguments against the theory of the transmigration of souls into the bodies of animals, claiming that the imaginative suffering experienced after death by souls in their aerial bodies are much more acute than the physical pain they might feel in bodies made of flesh and blood. Since the power of the imagination, for Ficino, is stronger than that of the four senses, the soul’s perceptive activity is more intense after death, when it has lost its earthly body and lives instead in a body made of air. The vehicles, moreover, provided Ficino with evidence for the individual immortality of souls, a doctrine that he was attempting to demonstrate philosophically against the position of Averroes and his followers. In his view, the vehicles ensured the survival after death of two faculties which were intimately connected to personal identity: the imagination and memory. By pointing out the role of the vehicles in transporting the soul’s innermost representations and memories through the universe, Ficino was able to show that the distinguishing traits of our personality are not lost with bodily death, but survive along with the vehicle that carries them.