Divine Melancholy



Vigil of the Nativity
December 24, 2017

Divine Melancholy is a kind of melancholy that causes one to be subject to divine inspiration.  Though it arises from the same source, bile or choler, it is different than depression in that it causes a kind of inspiration to be received under the influence of Celestial Saturn as well as of God in the approach to things of reason.

causes of divine melancholy

The Platonist philosopher, Fr. Marsilio Ficino, writes about melancholy:  “Black bile [melancholia] vexes us with too much care or much silliness, and disturbs the soul and judgment.  It does this so much that it would not be wrong to say that scholars would be … the happiest and wisest people of all if it were not for black bile trouble, driving them to sadness or to silliness.” 1

Saturn seems to have impressed the seal of melancholy on me from the beginning.
~ Marsilio Ficino

Fr. Ficino gives three reasons why scholars are often melancholics: heaven-caused (celestial), natural, and human.  The celestial reason is that Mercury and Saturn, who influence scholars, are cold and dry.   The natural reason is the contemplative state of the soul that comes to scholars where one is focused inward and to the center giving rise to black bile.  The human reason has to do with our habits and diet.

The ones who suffer the most, according to Fr. Ficino, are those who study philosophy.  The reason being that their minds separate from the corporeal to contemplate the incorporeal, and that “body for these people never returns except as a half-soul and a melancholy one.” He explains:

This is in fact what our dear Plato meant in the Timeaeus, when he said that the soul, in frequent and intense contemplation of the divine, grows on such nourishment and becomes so powerful that it departs the body, and its body, left behind, seems to dissolve.  It is as if it abandoned its bodily nature, fleeing sometimes with great agitation, and sometimes with none at all. 2

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa tells us that this particular type of melancholy humor is actually not the black choler “which is so obstinate, and terrible a thing, that the violence of it is said by Physitians, and Naturall Phylosophers, besides madness, which it doth induce, also to entice evill spirits to seize upon mens bodies.”3  But rather it is a white choler that “when it is stirred up, burns, and stirs up a madness conducing to knowledge, and divination, especially if it be helped by any Celestiall influx, especially of Saturn…” 4   He further reminds us that Saturn is responsible for secret contemplations and calls men’s minds higher.

Effects of divine melancholy

Agrippa writes of a kind of divine melancholy that provides inspiration for everything from poetry to divination.  He cites Aristotle, Democritus, and Plato saying that they attest some melancholy men seemed to be more divine than human, especially when taken on with madness, when they became poets and prophets. He refers to Aristotle’s treatise on divination that men of melancholy more easily receive an impression of the celestials.  Celestial spirits are also drawn into men’s bodies by melancholy, and this causes men to speak out in three different ways depending on which part of the soul is apprehended: Imaginative, Rational, or Mental.

De Occulta Philosophia Libri III

If the humor is carried into the imagination and becomes a place of rest for inferior spirits, this inspires inspires the person in the manual arts so that they become wonderful painters or architects.   Or if they show the future to us, the future they show will concern “disturbing of the Elements, and changes of times, as rain, tempests, innundations, earthquakes, great mortality, famine, slaughter, and the like.” 5

But if the humor affects the rational part, middle spirits can take a seat and the man obtains knowledge of natural things such as Philosophy, or Medicine.  And if the future is foretold it will be about the changes of Kingdoms and the Ages.

And finally if the humor affects understanding, sublime spirits are received and the soul learns secrets of divine things related to eternity and the salvation of souls.  It will foresee things that are pre-determined or prophesied of a divine nature.

Iamblichus, the Neoplatonist philosopher, discerned between two types of divination: inspired and inductive.  Inspired divination comes from divine inspiration which aligns with the method described by Agrippa in that celestial spirits take a seat where the white choler attracts them. 

If then, we have stated these things correctly, the divinatory power of the gods is bounded by nothing divisible, neither by place, nor by a divisible human body, nor by a soul contained in any single form of divisible entities, but being separate by itself and indivisible, it is wholly present everywhere to those able to share in it.
~ Iamblichus, De Mysteriis
Inductive divination is that which is done through an intermediary such as nature where the material are imbued with a property from the Divine that allows them to be used for prognostication.  Man has to make a deduction from these which may or may not be correct.  Iamblichus believed that the mechanism of divination was not the distinguishing feature or primary cause, but rather that it comes from the Divine.

This mechanism is not restricted to a particular location or person, but rather permeates everything with no loss to itself.  This view aligns with those of the other Philosophers in that those who are inspired are done so by outside elements, but the inspiration is made conducive by melancholy.

Examples of divine melancholy

Agrippa offers Virgil as an example of the humor providing this effect via understanding when the poet, divining that Christ was to come, sung out:

Last times are come, Cumæa’s prophesie
Now from high heaven springs a new progenie,
And times great order now again is born,
The Maid returns,
 Saturnian Realms return.

This is an occurrence of divine inspiration much like how the Magi who were non-believers were led to Christ by the stars.   Those who had no basis of knowledge for the coming of Christ still understood it in some way not obtainable through reason alone.

In art, too, we find examples.  We may look at the engraving pictured at the top:  Melencolia I by Albrecht Durer.   This engraving has been scrutinized by many over the years, some offering different meanings.  For example, the title is thought to be either “Melencolia Imaginatio” for the first type offered by Agrippa, or even “Melencolia Ite” with the winged creature chasing away melancholy with the coming of the sun, or perhaps the first of a series that he may have planned.

For my part, I believe the engraving reflects the melancholy that affects Imagination.  For we see the tools of building and architecture and the manual arts.  The creature is carrying the banner over the waters and near a light and perhaps a rainbow indicating prognostication of the elements.  The sphere and the polyhedron are perhaps a reference to the Platonic solids not yet inspired.  All of the Platonic solids can have their vertices lie on the surface of a sphere, so it seems as reasonable a guess as any for a polyhedron that is a work in progress.  There is a ladder the top of which is out of view, but indicating there are higher levels that can be reached (perhaps the realms of reason and understanding).

The face of the angel is the face of melancholy of a white choler.  She is staring off into infinity, hand on the compass at the ready.  It is this far off gaze that indicates the celestial spirits are taking seat and are going to inspire.  It is a trance-like, daydream state where everything is gray, and the muses and the spiritual world are nearby.

In music, too, we find the effects of the melancholic.  Which should come as no surprise since Plato delineated the effects of music in The Republic.  Music can function as all of expressing, causing, and suppressing melancholy.  Mixolydian (Church Mode VII) magnifies the effects of black choler by imparting the power of Saturn.  Hypomixolydian (Church Mode VIII), however, is the mode of happiness, perfection, and bliss. 6

The seasons also play a role.   According to St. John Damascene:

Then when the sun again returns to the middle, autumn takes the place of summer. It has a medium amount of cold and heat, dryness and moisture, and holds a place midway between summer and winter, combining the dryness of summer with the cold of winter. For it is cold and dry, and increases the black bile. This season, again, is equinoctial, both day and night consisting of twelve hours, and it lasts from September 25th till December 25th. 7

Finally in the modern MBTI classifications, David Kieresy assigned the temperament of melancholics to the Idealists (ENFJ, ENFP, INFJ, and INFP). 8  As Plato would argue that the Ideals that men seek are Divine, it makes sense that the Idealists would be melancholics since that is conducive to Divine Inspiration.

Living with Divine Melancholy

All of this being considered, like everything else under Creation, melancholy serves a purpose other than a seemingly negative one.  As in all things, moderation is needed, and we need to avoid the problem of too much of a “good” thing.  If one is Divinely inspired or engaged in the pursuit of scholarly subjects, but as a result of that too depressed to function, a blessing soon becomes a curse.  Balance in life is needed, the scholarly balanced with exercise, a proper diet and way of living, and other things must be considered so that Divine Melancholy can play its proper role in life rather than becoming a hindrance to one’s existence and spiritual life.

Additional Reading

For more about the Four Temperaments (and their relation to Catholic thought) see Fish Eaters: The Four Temperaments

For more about the Sybils and Catholicism see Fish Eaters: The Sybils

For an overview of Durer’s engraving Melencholia I see Wikipedia entry for Melencolia I

A good article (PDF download) on the spiritual considerations of the melancholic temperament from Latin Mass magazine, courtesy of Fish EatersThe Melancholic Temperament and the Catholic Soul


  1. Marsilio Ficino, Liber de Vita, Chapter 4.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, De Occulta Philosophia libri III, Liber I, Caput LX
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Fish Eaters: The Four Temperaments
  7. St. John Damascene, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith via ibid.
  8. Ibid.

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