Pico della Mirandola Writes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Oration on the Dignity of Man, considered by many the manifesto of Italian Renaissance Humanism, is the most widely read and quoted text of the era. Pico, like Plato and as in the Bible, considered humans to be the center of the world and, thus, makers of their own destinies.

Summary of Event

In 1486, Italy was subdivided into five major power blocs centered in Naples, Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice, amid several smaller ministates. Under the guidance of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who managed to keep the peace by appeasing the Papacy and warding off a long-threatened French invasion, a sophisticated urban culture flourished, especially in Florence. There was a strong rebirth of classical learning, inspired by the importation from Byzantine Greece of ancient manuscripts, and centered upon humanity’s civic humanism. Oration on the Dignity of Man (Pico della Mirandola) Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni Ficino, Marsilio Innocent VIII Medici, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lorenzo de’ (1449-1492) Innocent VIII Ficino, Marsilio Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was a prodigious and ambitious philosopher Philosophy;Italy who, though only twenty-three years old, planned to defend in public a set of nine hundred theses, known as the Conclusiones Conclusiones (Pico della Mirandola) (1496; English translation, 1998), in January of 1487, in Rome. The theses were based on a vast array of sources, some biblical and Christian, some Platonic, but some of exoteric, magical, and mystical origin as well, which expanded on Pico’s belief that humans are driven to self-elevation through learning and introspection. The first third of De hominis dignitate oratio (wr. 1486-1487; Oration on the Dignity of Man, 1956; better known as Oration) Oration on the Dignity of Man (Pico della Mirandola) was supposed to be the preface to the Conclusiones, which was actually printed before the Oration in December of 1486 and circulated publicly in light of the coming debate in January. Sensing controversy, Pico had introduced pages about universal peace and about a defense of the faith.

Despite Pico’s efforts, Pope Innocent VIII suspended the debate definitively in February because some of its contents were considered unacceptable to the Church. In the spring of 1487, disappointed and furious, Pico wrote a passionate Apologia (defense) Apologia (Pico della Mirandola) to his theses (which makes up the second half of the Oration) but was nevertheless condemned for heresy by a papal commission; while fleeing Italy he was arrested for a short period. He was later pardoned by another pope, Alexander VI, in 1493.

The full text of the Oration became known after his death, in 1496, when his nephew published his complete works. The Oration begins with Pico asserting that, according to different sources—Saracen, Hermetic, Persian, biblical—it is agreed that “there is nothing more wonderful than man.” He then argues that the supreme architect, having created the divine temple that humans inhabit, in His wisdom had adorned the heavens with intelligences, animated the spheres with immortal souls, and quickened with diverse animals the lower world. God had wished that there would be someone to comprehend and appreciate this great work, one who would love its beauty and wonder at its vastness. As told by Moses and Timaeus, He conceived of humans lastly. However, there were no more archetypes upon which to model such a creature, no treasures left to bestow as inheritance, and no seat from which to judge the universe. God thus decided that the creature to whom nothing specific was given should possess what belonged individually to each and every thing. God takes the human being, a “creature of indeterminate nature” or, in different translations, “a work of indeterminate form,” and, having assigned him a place in the middle of the world, says,

Adam, I have not given you a fixed abode or a specific form or a task specific to your kind in order that you may, according to your desire and your judgment, have the seat, form and role you want. The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained by my laws. But you are not confined by any bounds, your nature will be determined by your own free will, under whose power I entrust you. I have made you neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal, so that through freedom of choice, judge of your own self, you can shape yourself into whatever you should like to be. You have the power to degenerate into the brutish lower forms, or you may from your reason elect to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.

Pico believed that at birth all seeds are planted and a person may become what he or she wants according to what he or she cultivates. Thus, humans can change; they are like chameleons, Protean figures. Metamorphosis is a fundamental aspect of existence, and though this may strike some as implying that humans have no set identities, or universal, stable essences, as both the Platonists and the Scholastics held, Pico’s position is that, in the language of later centuries, existence precedes essence and humans fabricate their values. Individual and social values are, therefore, a function of reason completely, of that divine intellect that distinguishes the human radically from other living beings.

Pico found support for his thesis in the diverse writings of varied traditions. From the ancient Hebrews and the Pythagoreans he learned that a person can be changed into a brute or an angel. From Empedocles he learned that a person can be changed into a plant. From the Persian Euanthes he learned, based on his commentary on Chaldean theology, that “man is a being of varied, manifold and inconstant nature.” A strong believer in scholarship, Pico here unfolds a long list of exemplary, authoritative lives, from Saint Paul to Jacob, from Osiris to Job, from the pseudo-Dionysius to Plato. If natural philosophy teaches that struggle is the lot of humans, if the Pythagoreans explain that the end of philosophy is friendship, and if the ancient mysteries hold that God is both philosopher and prophet, then the moral imperative is for humans to attain the wisdom of theology, to seek the ultimate concord, peace, and inner illumination.

Pico’s threefold philosophy is thus: moderation, self-knowledge, and elevation. The first implies learning all positions and meditating as much as possible; the second implies that humans ought to see their own inner selves and make choices on the basis of what they feel is right; and the third is for humans to seek the divine, to improve themselves through striving to be as close to God as possible. The second part of the Oration is more virulent. Pico attacks those who take money for sharing their knowledge and those who merely follow established dogmas. He believes in public debates because knowledge ought to be evaluated by an entire community. He holds that, properly understood, some forms of magic, of astrology, and of numerology can lead to truth and illumination on the ways of humans and God. Pico also introduces the Kabbala as consistent with Christian theology, for he believed that the Kabbala tradition held the secret to a unity of all doctrines, of all the languages of the godhead. For Pico, the will to choose for oneself meant the will to learn how all fits together.

Throughout his life, Pico struggled to prove that Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophies are not reciprocally exclusive. He published, however, the first part of this project only, called De ente et uno (1492; Of Being and Unity, 1943). Of Being and Unity (Pico della Mirandola)

Significance

Pico altered Marsilio Ficino’s basic triad of beauty, love, and appetite after he proposed an ontological triad made up of beauty, intellect, and will. In this way, he broke down the individual’s position from the fixed hierarchy in the chain of being, because will allows the individual to no longer be a prisoner of transcendent essences or of nature. Pico brought Neoplatonism down to earth, for he was pursuing civil, moral, and intellectual values, while his theology was bound to incite purists from all religious persuasions.

The Oration on the Dignity of Man has been made a forerunner of philosophies of self-determination, of love of freedom, and of a critical attitude that seeks to find common ground in theories typically considered incompatible. The Oration also stimulated Renaissance culture to look beyond the Greek and Latin classical traditions—which were the mainstays of Humanism—and also took seriously the relevance of texts from Middle Eastern cultures.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carravetta, Peter. “In Pursuit of the Chameleon: The Interpretations of Pico.” In Italiana, edited by A. Mancini, P. Giordano, and P. R. Baldini. River Forest, Ill.: Rosary College, 1988. A reading of the Oration on the Dignity of Man and Pico’s contemporary work, the Commentary on a Poem of Platonic Love, in a hermeneutic perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Craven, William G. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Symbol of His Age: Modern Interpretations of a Renaissance Philosopher. Geneva, Switzerland: Librairie Droz, 1981. A detailed analysis of all of Pico’s works, which studies the different meanings of the Oration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farmer, S. A. Syncretism in the West: Pico’s Nine Hundred Theses (1486): The Evolution of Traditional, Religious, and Philosophical Systems. Tempe, Ariz.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1998. Presents a translation of Pico’s Oration, with commentary and introductory essays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hankins, James. “Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1998. One of the best short introductions to Pico, which places Oration in the context of his reformation of Neoplatonism; it touches on the various interpretations given to this emblematic text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kibre, Pearl. The Library of Pico della Mirandola. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936. For advanced work on the variety of Pico’s sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. On the Dignity of Man, On Being and the One, and Heptaplus. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965. Contains all three major texts by Pico, with a useful introduction by J. W. Miller.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. Oration on the Dignity of Man. Translated by A. Robert Caponigri. Introduction by Russell Kirk. Chicago: Gateway Editions, 1956. A good translation and introduction, but a work that is difficult to locate.

1462: Founding of the Platonic Academy

1490’s: Aldus Manutius Founds the Aldine Press

1499-1517: Erasmus Advances Humanism in England

c. 1500: Revival of Classical Themes in Art

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