Pico della Mirandola

Renaissance Reader
Oration on the Dignity of Man
   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" 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 focussed on logic and linguistics and that animated the other great late medieval Christian philosophy, Scholasticism. The Humanists, rather than focussing on what they considered futile questions of logic, semantics and proposition analysis, focussed 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.

World Cultures Glossary
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 "emanaations" 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.

A Study of Human Proportion
Study of Human Proportion,
from the Notebooks

   The picture above, from Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, is a justly famous study of human proportion. However, in Renaissance terms it expresses much of what Pico is arguing about the capability of humanity to encompass the whole of creation. In Renaissance mathematics and in Neoplatonism, the square in geometry represents the terrestrial world and the circle represents the celestial world, while the triangle represents the divine world. The circle and square in da Vinci's drawing represents more than the mathematics of drawing a human figure, they represent how the human being encompasses in its reach the whole of the terrestrial and celestial worlds.

   When Pico confronts the classic humanist question about what the dignity of humanity is, he locates this dignity precisely in the human capability and freedome to be whatever it wants to be. If you view the whole of human history, according to Pico, you'll find that nothing remains stable. No faith, no philosophy, no world view ever remains static; the only eternal thing is the human ability and freedom to change and express themselves in different ways. The greatest dignity of humanity is the boundless power of self-transformation. The "truth" about humanity, then, can only be found in the sum total of the works, thoughts, and faiths of humanity. Above everything else, the greatest human capacity is to be able to express or understand the whole of the human experience; in this light, the principle freedom granted to humanity by God is freedom of inquiry.

   This is a radical and nearly heretical departure from tradition. In the Christian tradition, it is accepted and well-worn dogma that human beings were created free by God and intended to be free and independent. However, in early Christian, medieval and Renaissance thought, this freedom was lost when Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God. Pico, however, is arguing that the principle virtue of humanity is that they are always and ever will be free to be whatever they want and express the divine in whatever way they can. Through a torturous couple centuries, these ideas about the nature of humanity and free inquiry would become the basis of the modern world view.

   Pico is one of the first European thinkers to consider the hallmark of being human this capacity of "freedom." This term will have a long and troubled history throughout the modern period. What did Pico mean by it? For Pico, nature and spiritual things were not free for they could never change themselves. If something changes in nature, it's because something else forced that change on that object. Sometimes this is true of humans, as, for instance, when we age. However, humanity is the only part of creation that has the freedom to will its own changes, that is, human beings are the only part of creation that can change themselves of their own free will. This point of view will become the starting point of all modern philosophies, including that of Nietzsche, Marx, Kierkegaard, and the existentialists. Because of this freedom to change, Pico did not accept the Christian view of eternal punishment or reward; if the singular characteristic of humanity is that it can change itself, it's impossible that it would lose that ability in the afterlife. Eternal damnation, then, is illogical, for it argues that the human soul doesn't have the power to reform itself even after death.

   This, too, had a shattering influence on the arts. Not only can the arts express the divine, they can also express this capacity of human beings to create and transform themselves. In the later logic of the High Renaissance, art and literature becomes and expression of the individual's free creative power and, by extension, the free creative power of all humanity. It's more or less at this point that writers, painters, sculptors and others cease to be artisans, which is what they were considered up until and through the High Renaissance, and start to become artists in the modern sense of the term. In this sense, an artist is an artisan (painter, sculptor, etc) whose art is a function primarily of her creativity and freedom rather than a function of her ability.

Richard Hooker

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Niccolo Machiavelli

World Cultures

1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999