Oration on the Dignity of Man

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Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Read this brief essay about the significance of Pico’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man” @1996 Richard K. Hines, Department of History Washington State University: http://faculty.uml.edu/CulturalStudies/Italian_Renaissance/pdf/Pico.pdf

If there is such a thing as a "manifesto" of the Italian Renaissance, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's "Oration on the Dignity of Man" is it; no other work more forcefully, eloquently, or thoroughly remaps the human landscape to center all attention on human capacity and the human perspective. Pico himself had a massive intellect and literally studied everything there was to be studied in the university curriculum of the Renaissance; the "Oration" in part is meant to be a preface to a massive compendium of all the intellectual achievements of humanity, a compendium that never appeared because of Pico's early death.

Pico was a both a Neoplatonist and a humanist; in fact, Pico is one of the most read of the Renaissance philosophers because his work synthesizes all the strains of Renaissance and late medieval thinking: Neoplatonism, humanism, Aristoteleanism, Averroism (a form of Aristoteleanism), and mysticism.

Italian Renaissance/ Humanism

"Humanism" is not anti-Christian as it has come to mean in some quarters of modern discourse; in fact, late medieval and early modern humanism is just the opposite. Late medieval and Renaissance humanism was a response to the standard educational program that focused on logic and linguistics and that animated the other great late medieval Christian philosophy, Scholasticism. The Humanists, rather than focusing on what they considered futile questions of logic, semantics and proposition analysis, focused on the relation of the human to the divine, seeing in human beings the summit and purpose of God's creation. Their concern was to define the human place in God's plan and the relation of the human to the divine; therefore, they centered all their thought on the "human" relation to the divine, and hence called themselves "humanists." At no point do they ignore their religion; humanism is first and foremost a religious and educational movement, not a secular one (what we call "secular humanism" in modern political discourse is a world view that arises in part from "humanism" but is, nevertheless, initially conceived in opposition to "humanism"). Humanists were, as Pico demonstrates, syncretists; part of the philosophy of humanism was that religious truth was in part revealed to all, both Christian and non-Christian, so that part of their project was to conform non-Christian thinking, especially the thought of Plato and his followers, to Christian thinking, and to point out, through exhaustive textual scholarship, the similarities between non-Christian philosophies and religions and Christian philosophies and religion. The importance of Plato for Renaissance humanism cannot be understressed; among other things, it gives rise to a particular species of Renaissance magic which will, in turn, form the basis of what we call "science" as it is invented in the early Enlightenment (late seventeenth century).

Such is humanism in its philosophical definition; this was not, however, what humanism really was in essence. The later humanists, of course, sought to couch their project in the philosophical terms described above; hence, our tendency to read humanism as a philosophical movement above everything else. In the simplest possible terms, all the term "humanist" refers to is the revival of classical learning in the high middle ages and Renaissance. Defined this way, "humanism" begins in the twelfth century in the institution of studia humanitatis, or "the studies of human things" in the newly formed universities. These "human studies" included music, grammar, poetry, rhetoric, etc., and were based on reading texts from classical antiquity. "Classical" humanism, as we call it, begins in the middle of the fourteenth century, when the great Florentine poet, Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, begins to do systematic scholarship on the ancient writers, especially Cicero. As a result of this scholarly interest in the classics, the early humanists recovered the study of Greek and Hebrew, and also began to rethink their world views and their social organization by drawing on principles extracted from the writers of antiquity. This was more than scholarship; the "classical" humanists were engaged in the syncretistic project of mixing their present society and world view with that of the works and thoughts of the ancient world.

Pico brought to this project an immense mind, insatiable curiosity, infallible memory, and a confidence in his intellectual capabilities that few if any have ever matched before or since. His larger project was the synthesis of all human knowledge into a single whole; while humanists sought to reconcile classical philosophy with Christianity, Pico sought out nothing less than the reconciliation of every human philosophy and every human religion with Christianity.

The One and the Many

To understand Pico, his project, and his theory of humanity, it helps to review the central philosophical problem in the Western tradition and Christianity: the problem of the relation of the one to the many. This is an old problem and spills from the very source of Western philosophy in Greece in the seventh century BC. Simply put, the problem of the one and the many is this: if the universe can be understood as a single thing, let's say God, how do all the manifold parts of the universe relate to this single thing? The standard Christian position was that the many of the universe were created out of nothing by God; this is called "creation ex nihilo .", or "creation out of nothing." From a philosophical point of view, this means that there is no real, eternal order to creation. Since it is arbitrarily created, it can be arbitrarily interfered with. The Neoplatonists, on the other hand, believed that the many things of the universe were "emanations" from God. As a result, rather than the universe being an arbitrary act of God, the creation of the universe is necessarily part of the nature of God. There is an underlying logic to the created universe that is always infallibly true. Finally, in Averroism, which was the version of Aristoteleanism that the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance inherited, the question of creation is simply laid aside as irrelevant to physical inquiry. Averroism tries to explain physical events by looking at their immediate and determinate causes.

This is what Pico faced in trying to understand the universe; these three completely opposed ways of understanding the universe in relation to God were unreconcilable. Pico's basic approach to the problem of the one and the many was to argue that the many things of the universe, rather than being created by God or emanating from God or being unrelated to God, argued that they are all symbols of God. Everything in creation, every object, every human, every thought, every speech, every religion, every philosophy, is an image of God and an expression of God as the One. What unites all of creation is this symbolic relation to God. This is contrary to the medieval understanding of creation--;the medieval world view, following Augustine's assertion that the world was a "region of unlikeness," believed that all of creation was a negative symbol of God. For the medievals, humans could never understand God because nothing on earth resembled God in any way; the best that humans could do is understand God in a negative sense--;God is not like the things in the world. The Neoplatonists starting with Nicholas Cusanus also adopted this view; Cusanus said that human beings could only understand God negative through "conjectures in otherness" (in alteritate conjecturali in Latin). Pico reverses this situation; not only is the world similar to God, but everything that human beings can think, imagine, and create are expressions of divinity. I cannot tell you in words strong enough in their emphasis how important this concept was for the development of art and literature in the High Renaissance; the later artists of the Renaissance, including Michelangelo, were convinced that through the operation of their own intellect and creativity that they were giving expression to the divine or at least expressing its likeness.

In this view, the individual human being with her thoughts, intelligence, and imagination becomes a "small universe," or parvus mundus. The individual human being is the microcosm, that is, the individual human being can express the whole of creation and can express the whole of the divine. If you want to find God then look into your own soul for you perfectly express the whole of divinity. For this reason, Pico argues that human beings can become any aspect of the universe whatsoever. In traditional, Platonic Christianity, humanity occupied a middle position in the hierarchy of the universe: as both physical and spiritual, humanity sat dead center between the spiritual and physical worlds. Pico unhinged humanity from that position, exalted as it might be, and claimed that human beings could occupy any position whatsoever in the chain of being. A human being could become as low as an animal or, though intellect and imagination, become equivalent to God, at least in understanding.

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