Or, everything I need to know about running my business I learned from the 15th century

Chief executives resign. Another major layoff is announced. You're squeezed to make the same margins that used to come easily. What's more, the world's getting smaller, with international markets beckoning but hard to reach, and the landscape -- Germany unified, Yugoslavia divided, all of Europe reeling with nationalism -- changing constantly. Major banks are failing. A terrifying new disease stalks the planet. And by all accounts we find ourselves poised on the precipice of a post-industrial age. The world as we once knew it has changed dramatically. Just what will all of that mean to us?

We search for answers to problems in our angst-filled lives and in our businesses. Sensing an opportunity, book publishers feed our hunger for universal solutions to daily problems. More than a million of us have learned to swim with the sharks without getting eaten alive. We've cared for our souls enough to land Tom Moore's Care of the Soul (HarperCollins, 1992) on the New York Times best-seller list for 14 weeks and counting. Robert Bly tells us how to be big boys while John Bradshaw would turn us into the weeping child within.

Just where should a business owner turn for advice? One place is the past. The last time society sat perched on such a dramatic transformation from one epoch to another, the same concerns (rampant globalization, pernicious disease) plagued the populace. So isn't it logical to turn to someone who knew those conditions the best, who lived through them and learned? That man is Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499). Ficino counseled Cosimo de Medici, a banking magnate and one of the most prominent entrepreneurs of the Renaissance. A collection of Ficino's advice, The Book of Life, was likely the first self-help book ever published.

For all its brightness the Renaissance could also be haltingly depressing. Consider Ficino's times. By the 1490s feudalism, with its petty restrictiveness on just about everything, was ending. Renaissance explorers from Henry the Navigator to Vasco da Gama were remapping the world, and while a few knights in armor were still clanking around, their caste was on its way out for good. The merchant class was suddenly respectable and rich enough to be on speaking terms with the nobility. In some places merchants were the nobility. The Black Death had killed off a third of the peasants, leaving cheap farm vassalage a thing of the past. Cities were the place to get work and make money.

In Italy, where the Renaissance had begun, even the Medicis, masters of the epoch if anyone was, found it hard to balance their private lives with the draining demands of commerce. The new capitalism was proving a bigger proposition than anyone had imagined, and Germany was on the verge of replacing Italy as the banking capital of the world. But the chief complaint of these elegant bankers and businesspeople (they were major cloth manufacturers) seems to have been psychological. Depression -- they called it by the grander term, melancholy -- was a frequent visitor to their thick-walled palaces.

Cosimo de Medici had hired Ficino to translate ancient texts that had been hidden from the West for centuries. He furnished Ficino with a villa in the hills of Careggi near Florence and then brought family, friends, business associates, government officials, and others to listen to his young oracle read and explain the works of Hermes Trismegistus, Plato, Plotinus, and other vanished writers.

As the first person to put back into circulation those long-buried classics with all their strategies for a vibrant and soulful life, Ficino helped propagate the Renaissance, a rebirth of spirit not only in the world of thought and the arts but in daily life as well. Soul, a tired word by the end of the Middle Ages, took on a fresh meaning, implying theretofore unseen depths to the imagination and a deepening of consciousness and life -- even business life. For businesspeople, Ficino's encouragement not to focus exclusively on work (as people did during the feudal workday) but to see work within a larger context of the self would have impressive consequences.

In 1489 Ficino put the ideas he had learned into a volume called The Book of Life. Intended as a self-help book for his Medici patrons, it became an international sensation. What Ficino saw were answers to the universal questions of a society that was reinventing itself. His chief observations are as apropos 500 years later as they were then, as we find ourselves poised for an equally dramatic transformation. As his words ushered in a new age of ideas at the close of the 15th century, so too may they help us move into a new renaissance at the close of the 20th.

* * *

On the Importance of Fulfilling Work
"Whoever is born of sound mind has been naturally intended by heaven for some honest work and some kind of life."

Ficino's contemporaries had as much trouble deciding what to do with themselves as people do today, perhaps even more. Feudal patterns for "success" no longer worked. The days of medieval fog, in which life seemed pointlessly repetitive, were over. The world was in upheaval.

At a time when imagination counted more than ever, it was important to make the right fit of fantasy to practical life, a sentiment echoed last year by Tom Moore in Care of the Soul: "How you spend your working hours -- what you look at, sit on, and work with -- makes a difference, not only in terms of efficiency but for its effect on your sense of yourself and the direction your imagination takes."

* * *

On Working with Malcontents
"Steer clear of unrestrained, impudent, malign, and unhappy people. . . . they are like lepers, harmful not only if they touch you, but even if they are just near you and in sight."

As for time spent in the workplace itself, the guru of Careggi is wonderfully unequivocal about personnel decisions. Associate with people "whom the Graces accompany," Ficino says. "On this depends the good of your soul, your body, and your fortune." Ficino was originating what was later to become the much harsher advice of the 17th-century Jesuit Baltasar Gracin, who wrote, "Never stumble over fools," in The Art of Worldly Wisdom, a translation of which (Currency/Doubleday, 1992) gained enormous popularity among business and lay readers last year. By the 17th century, the early-Renaissance way of dealing with malcontents had become the Jesuit way. Timeless advice, indeed.

* * *

On the Benefits of Leisure
"The countryside, like a food necessary for life, is a help to the city-dweller. The city certainly takes it out of you, so get a lot of rustication into your life, especially when tediousness begins to bother you and the rush and business of the city begins to grind you down."

Ficino was particularly conscious of the influence of place on the psyche: he and his friends lived in one of the world's most beautiful cities -- they had made it beautiful. But his guide to imagination seems to have been the first to recommend vacations, a sentiment shared by modern observers. In Waiting for the Weekend (Penguin, 1992), Witold Rybczynski reports that in April 1990, the Japanese parliament had to legislate time off on Saturdays, noting: "The weekend has traditionally been considered a reward; this is the first time it will be imposed as a punishment." Like the modern Japanese, the business class of Ficino's day needed to be persuaded to take the time to step back from work and reflect on other aspects of life.

* * *

On the Benefits of Taking Action
"There are two kinds of unfortunate men. One of these is the guy who, having professed nothing, does nothing. The other kind is the type who takes on a profession that is wrong for his mind and contrary to his Genius. Such people languish in idleness, though heaven is always in the meantime trying to drive them to action."

Under feudalism, one worked dutifully but without much passion. There was little more to life than work, whose purpose was, for almost everyone but the great landowners, basic survival. Then suddenly in northern Italy -- quickly spreading elsewhere -- a new humanism suggested to businesspeople a far richer scheme of things.

As it was during the Renaissance, nowadays our world is filled with options. If we took the time to size up all the changes in the business landscape, chances are, we'd become paralyzed by limitless options. Here, Ficino has advice that's as applicable today as it was in 1489: do something. n

* * *

Charles Boer runs a small publishing company in Connecticut. His translation of The Book of Life is available from Spring Publications (214-943-4093), in Dallas.