Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man is a remarkable document, but not for the reason that is sometimes thought. Even though it is an important statement by an influential early Renaissance humanist, the Oration on the Dignity of Man is neither a proclamation of the worth and glory of worldly life and achievement nor an attack on the medieval worldview as such. Pico was a man of his time, and he was willing to defend the medieval theologians and philosophers from the attacks of his humanist friends. However, in his statement he does go beyond what was then the traditional view of human nature.
Pico was a scholar whose erudition included a familiarity not only with Italian, Latin, and Greek but also with Hebrew, Chaldean, and Arabic. He had read widely in several non-Christian traditions of philosophy, and he had concluded that all philosophy, whether written by Christians, Jews, or pagans, was in basic agreement.
In Rome, in December, 1486, Pico published nine hundred theses and invited all interested scholars to dispute them with him the following month. The Oration on the Dignity of Man was to have been the introduction to his defense. Pope Innocent VIII forbade the disputation, however, and appointed a papal commission to investigate the theses; the commission found some of them heretical. Pico tried to defend himself in a published Apologia, but this made matters worse, and for several years he remained in conflict with the Catholic Church. Pico had not expected this state of affairs and, being no conscious rebel, he was very much disturbed by it. As a result he became increasingly religious and finally joined the Dominican order. The Oration on the Dignity of Man was never published in Pico’s lifetime, though part of it was used in his Apologia to the papal commission.
In form, the Oration on the Dignity of Man follows the then-standard academic, humanistic, rhetorical pattern. The piece is divided into two parts. The first part presents and deals with the philosophical basis of the speaker; the second part announces and justifies the topics to be disputed. The philosophical first part of the Oration on the Dignity of Man begins by praising human beings; this, as Pico points out, is a common topic. However, he immediately rejects the traditional bases for praise, that is, the medieval view that the distinction of human beings is a function of their unique place at the center of creation, in other words, that each individual is a microcosm.
Pico accepted the premise that human beings are the most wonderful of all creations, but he inquired into the reasons why this should be so. Some, he said, believed that human beings are wonderful because they can reason and are close to God, yet the same qualities, he pointed out, may be found among the angels. Pico’s view...
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“O sublime generosity of God the Father! O highest and most wonderful felicity of man! To him it was granted to have what he chooses, to be what he wills.”
– Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, 1486
Pico’s words capture the crux of the Renaissance philosophy of humanism; its focal subject being the dignity of human nature, the greatness of man.
The term ‘La Rinascita’ or ‘rebirth’ was coined by painter and architect Giorgio Vasari in 1550 to describe developments from 14th to 16th century Italy in the visual arts that brought art closer to nature. Later in 1855, Jules Michelet gave the word its French translation – Renaissance – the period which he characterised as one of “the discovery of the world, the discovery of man.” Michelet explained that in the Middle Ages, man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation. And then during the Italian Renaissance, this veil was lifted into thin air and man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such. Renaissance humanism can thus be understood as a spirit of learning that emphasised humanity with all its capabilities, talents, weaknesses and problems. Man (human form) became the centre of the universe. It brought into the foreground, the ability of human beings to determine truth and false, and to determine their destiny. It also highlighted the belief that human freedom, conscience and sense of rationality are intrinsic to humanity. The main concern of the Renaissance was to define the human place in God’s plan, seeing in human beings the summit and purpose of God’s creation. Therefore, the philosophers, artists and logicians of the age centred all their thought on the “human” relation to the divine, and hence called themselves “humanists.”
If we are to consider a “manifesto” of Renaissance humanism, then Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’ (1486) is it. No other work more meticulously and eloquently enforces the Hellenic ideas of human accomplishment and supremacy in the universe. Pico bases his understanding of, and regard for the greatness of human beings on philosophical texts of different cultures, including those of the Greeks, Arabs, Egyptians, and European Catholics. In his oration, he says, “I have read in the ancient writings of the Arabians that Abdala the Saracen on being asked what, on this stage, so to say, of the world, seemed to him most evocative of wonder, replied that there was nothing to be seen more marvelous than man.” According to Pico, man’s greatness does not lie in the fact that he is the “intermediary between creatures”, having intimate connections with Angels and presiding like a king over the beasts, plants and lower creatures. Man’s place in the Great Chain of Being does claim high admiration, but it cannot be said to be his highest dignity. Rather, it is his knowledge, free will, and power to choose his way of life that makes him the most magnificent creature.
Pico posits that after the omniscient and omnipotent God had created the universe, adorned the heavens with angels, populated the Earth with beasts, filled the nether world with infernal creatures, and animated the celestial spheres, he longed for someone with the intelligence and expertise to appreciate his grand work. It was then that he began considering the creation of Man. God created Man by endowing him with the elements of all other creatures, since he had no other archetype to model him upon. Man, the microcosm having a body mixed of elements, united all three spheres. He had a vegetal soul, the senses of a brute, and the reason, spirit and intellect of angels. He was thus, the very image and essence of God.
Pico’s claim was that man could think for himself and choose his own fate – a liberty granted to no other being. He could choose to descend to the level of beasts by performing bad deeds and transgressing his limits, or he could choose to ascend toward the heavens and thrive among angelic beings by being righteous and moral. All other creatures had natures predefined by God. Animals’ natures were purely instinctive, and their intelligence was only limited to an understanding of their basic needs for survival. Angels were predestined to be principled, moral and sinless. Man on the other hand was born not knowing what he’ll become. When God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, he gave them the ability to think for themselves. Their act of consuming the Forbidden Fruit was a deliberate transgression of limit which damned all of mankind to mortality and a postlapsarian world. According to Pico, what God said to Man at the time of creation was this – “Neither an established place, nor a form belonging to you alone, nor any special function have We given to you, O Adam, and for this reason, that you may have and possess, according to your desire and judgement, whatever place, whatever form, and whatever functions you shall desire. You, who are confined by no limits, shall determine for yourself your own nature, in accordance with your own free will, in whose hand I have placed you.” For Pico the Earth is the centre of the universe: and around it, as a fixed and motionless point, the sun and moon and stars revolve, like diligent servants or ministers. And in the midst of all is placed man, nodus et vinculum mundi, the bond or copula of the world, and the “interpreter of nature”: that famous expression of Bacon’s really belongs to Pico.
As aforementioned, Pico drew inspiration from the beliefs of other cultures, particularly those of the Ancient Greeks, and interweaved them with Christianity to arrive at his own statements. This attempt to find a true method of effecting a scientific reconciliation of Christian sentiment with the imagery, the legends, the theories about the world, of pagan poetry and philosophy was typical of the Renaissance. It could only result from the efforts of artists, trained in Christian schools, to handle pagan subjects. Pico, in the full tide of the Renaissance, grappled with the gigantic task of reconciling Catholic doctrine with Aristotle, Plato, the Neo-Platonists, Neo-Pythagoreans, the pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the Orphic and Hermetic theosophies, and other theologies that the Pagan world had given birth to. According to Plato, man is not an animal though he is born in the same manner. Man had a soul which is a part of the Divine Soul. This helped him to know the eternal laws and the secrets of the universe. He said that man’s body or matter tries to subjugate his divine soul and attracts him towards itself. Man should seek to control it and rise above matter or body to reason. Plato’s disciple Aristotle further said that man is an animal but one who speaks and understands and is also perceptive and intelligent. This is the real difference between man and other creatures. The more significant of his sayings is that man is blessed with a divine spark and this very spark is the soul of buoyancy in man. Pico incorporated both these teachings in his oration and thus lent his efforts to the initiation of secular thought in the Renaissance.
Pico’s work booms of humanist ideals and the secular teachings of the Renaissance age. And so, a new sort of mythology, with a tone and qualities of its own was created. As literary critic Walter Pater writes in his essay ‘Pico Della Mirandola’, “When the ship-load of sacred earth from the soil of Jerusalem was mingled with the common clay in the Campo Santo at Pisa, a new flower grew up from it, unlike any flower men had seen before, the anemone with its concentric rings of strangely blended colour, still to be found by those who search long enough for it, in the long grass of the Maremma. Just such a strange flower was that mythology of the Italian Renaissance, which grew up from the mixture of two traditions, two sentiments, the sacred and the profane.” In conclusion, we can assert that Pico has a true place in that group of great Italians who fill the end of the fifteenth century with their names. He was a true HUMANIST.