“A true friend freely, advises justly, assists readily, adventures boldly, takes all patiently, defends courageously, and continues a friend unchangeably” – William Penn
For god’s sakes, don’t go into the light. Not right away, at least. I know those zen-like angels, beloved relatives, and fifty-two virgins are beckoning, but you’ve got all eternity to enjoy the fruits of your earthly labors. We the living, need a final service from you before you hit the celestial yellow brick road. We need proof. And while I usually prefer my proof to be over 40%, aged twelve years, and sort of “oaky” tasting, in this particular instance my concern is with the furtherance of human knowledge about the hypothetical afterlife. The best case scenario would be that you take a few moments, get your haunt on, and provide us mortals with incontrovertible evidence that human consciousness persists after death. It’s a lot to ask, but imagine you are the one to tell us which of our innumerable theologies had it right. You’d never have to buy your own drinks again. Ever. Until the end of the universe, should such an eventually come to pass. If you ask me, it’s a miracle this doesn’t happen every time somebody dies, and the inevitable conclusion is that there is some sort of incorporeal regulatory body (see what I did there) that actively discourages intercourse between the recently dead and presumably living. Now, I don’t want to get anybody in trouble, especially if it jeopardizes their shot at eternal bliss, so our best shot at this is probably hitting up a good friend with a solemn pre-death compact to act as our theological wingman, in exchange for us doing the same should we expire prematurely. Everyone’s got that close friend who will not only help them move, but will help them move a body. That’s your guy.
As it turns out, contrary to skeptical claims that there can’t be an afterlife, since nobody has ever indisputably returned to tell us about it, this is precisely the arrangement that was entered into by two Italian scholars, Marsilio Ficino (also called Ficinus), and his “best friend forever”, quite literally, Michael Mercato (the elder). Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499 A.D.) had a pretty impressive resume. He was a Catholic priest, polymath scholar, tutor of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, reviver of Neoplatonism, and considered one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the innovative and world-changing Italian Renaissance that more or less ushered in the end of the Dark Ages. We know a little bit less about his bosom buddy Michael Mercato (also referred to as Mercatus), but we are told that he was a Platonist and spent many an evening hashing out philosophical fine points with Ficino. In short, he was probably one of the sharper tools in the Italian shed, if he kept up with the agile mind of Marsilio Ficino. In assembling his twelve volume detailed history of the Catholic Church called the Annales Ecclesiastici, ecclesiastical historian and librarian of the Vatican Cardinal Caesar Baronio (1538-1607) interviewed Mercato’s grandson (also an esteemed clergyman) regarding Ficino and Mercato.
But because we are discoursing of such matters reader I entreat thee to suffer me like the good householder in the Gospel who bringeth out of his treasury things new and old to add some things new or later to these of elder date for what I shall briefly say will much delight thee for I will not report unproved things but what I know to be confirmed by the assertion of very many learned men yea and by all religious men oft told the people in their sermons and for my part I will bring forth the author of whom I received it and that is Michael Mercatus Miniatensis Prothonotary of the SR church a man of most entire fidelity and of eminent knowledge and honesty of life He told me of his grandfather of the same name with himself Michael Mercatus senior between whom and Marsilius Ficinus a man of a most noble wit there was an intimate friendship contracted and increased by philosophical studies in which they both were followers of Plato It happened on a time that as they used they were gathering from Plato but not without doubting how much or what of man remained after death which platonic documents where they failed were to be underpropped by the sacraments of the Christian faith for of that argument there is extant a learned epistle of Marsilius to this Michael Mercatus of the immortality of the soul and God and in their discourse when they had long disputed they thus concluded it and giving each other their right bands they covenanted that whichever of them first died if he could do it he should certify the other of the state of the other life and having thus covenanted and sworn to each other they departed (Caes Baronius, Annal. ad An 411).
Essentially, these two Italian Renaissance scholars devised an experiment (albeit a necessarily fatal one) and swore to each other that the first to receive his immaculate passport would return with some sort of that prized verification that cynical doubters of life after death are always demanding. You could not ask for a better pal than one who solemnly swears to give you a thumbs up from the afterlife and assuage your existential fears. Marsilio bit the dust first, and true to his word, stopped by to see his best friend Mercato on his way to the Pearly Gates.
Those illustrious friends, after a long discourse on the nature of the soul, had agreed that, whoever of the two should die first, should, if possible, appear to his surviving friend, and inform him of his condition in the other world. A short time afterwards, says Baronius – it happened, that while Michael Mercato the elder was studying philosophy, early in the morning, he suddenly heard the noise of a horse galloping in the street, which stopped at his door, and the voice of his friend Ficinus was heard, exclaiming, O Michael! O Michael! Those things are true. Astonished at this address, Mercato rose and looked out of the window, where he saw the back of his friend, dressed in white, galloping off, on a white horse. He called after him, and followed him with his eyes, till the appearance vanished. Upon inquiry, he learned that Ficinus had died at Florence, at the very time when this vision was presented to Mercato, at a considerable distance. Many attempts have been made to discredit this story, but I think the evidence has never been shaken. I entertain no doubt, that Mercato had seen what he described; in following the reveries of Plato, the idea of his friend, and of their compact, had been revived, and had produced a spectral impression, during the solitude and awful silence of the early hours of study, Baronius adds, that after this occurrence, Mercato neglected all profane studies, and addicted himself entirely to divinity (Ferriar, 1813, p100-102).
Evidently, we need to establish a buddy system. Everyone should identify that one special friend who can always be relied upon to have your back, and over a beer or two, seal the preternatural deal. Whoever kicks the bucket first needs to give a wink and a nod to the survivor from the other side of existence. If we stick to my plan, we don’t really need religion anymore. Our friends will have us covered.
Baronio, Cesare, 1538-1607. Annales Ecclesiastici. Lucae [Lucca, Italy]: Typis Leonardi Venturini, 1738.
Baxter, Richard, 1615-1691. The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter: With a Life of the Author, And a Critical Examination of His Writings. London: J. Duncan, 1830.
Ferriar, John, 1761-1815. An Essay Towards a Theory of Apparitions. London: Cadell and Davies, 1813.