Conclusiones, 1486 (Syncretism in the West: Pico’s “900 Theses,” 1998)
Oratio de hominis dignitate, wr. 1486, pb. 1496 (Oration on the Dignity of Man, 1940)
Heptaplus, 1490 (English translation, 1977)
Disputationes adversus astrologos, 1496
De ente et uno, 1496 (Of Being and Unity, 1943)
Giovanni Pico, count of Mirandola and Concordia, or Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (PEE-coh DAYL-lah mee-RAHN-doh-lah), was born February 24, 1463, in the castle of Mirandola, near Ferrara, Italy. He died at the age of thirty-one on November 17, 1494, at Fiesole in Tuscany, Italy. A deeply religious man, yet one who did not want to bow before the authority of the church and its dogma, Pico explored various paths of speculative philosophy. He was a Christian humanist, and as much as anyone he gave to the humanist movement the doctrine that humankind, under God, was at the center of reality. This idea was the burden of his best known work, the Oration on the Dignity of Man, a cornerstone of Renaissance thought.
Pico was a startlingly precocious child with a remarkable memory. At the age of fourteen he was studying canon law at the University of Bologna, and during his youth he mastered Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, and Chaldean. While still a young man he traveled much in Italy and abroad, joining Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Academy in Florence in 1484. In 1485 he was studying in Paris and there conceived a grand plan: a synthesis of all philosophies–Aristotelian and Platonic, Christian and non-Christian. No one system of thought, maintained Pico, was all right or all wrong; the truth in all systems should be sorted out and combined. Only thus could the whole truth (and God) be known.
Back in Italy in 1486, Pico published his Conclusiones (also called the 900 Theses) and prepared to defend them in public debate. His object in this publication and disputation was to demonstrate the unity of truth in all philosophy. His famous Oration on the Dignity of Man was to have been his introduction to the debate. The Church, however, was uneasy about the Conclusiones, and the pope appointed a commission to examine his theses. Pico then wrote and published an Apologia defending the work early in 1487. The Apologia was thought by the Church to be arrogant and wrong-headed; the commission condemned the Conclusiones and forbade the debate.
Pico, in some danger, fled to Paris but was there arrested and imprisoned. Freed by the intervention of the French king, Charles VIII, he accepted an invitation from Lorenzo the Magnificent to live in Florence. For two years he studied and pondered in Florence, spending much time studying the Kabbala. The result of his studies was his Heptaplus, a cabalistic explication of the hidden significance of Genesis that was the beginning of Christian kabbalism. Another important work by Pico, Disputationes adversus astrologos(against astrology), should be noted. In this book Pico denied that human fate was controlled by the stars and suggested the idea of a science of celestial movement based on the assumption that the stars are controlled by natural laws. In 1491-1492 he wrote Of Being and Unity, a work of philosophy reconciling Platonism and Aristotelianism that was published in 1496.
Pico became much concerned with the religious life. After traveling through Italy for some time, he managed in 1493, through the intervention of Pope Alexander VI, to be readmitted to communion with the Church without having to issue a recantation of his 900 Theses. He became an adherent of Savonarola and decided to enter the Dominican order. On his deathbed, in 1494, he was dressed in the Dominican habit. In 1496, two years after his death, a relative published a full edition of Pico’s works, and soon his already considerable fame spread around the European intellectual world.