In The Essay On The Dignity Of Man Pico Della Mirandola

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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Oration On The Dignity Of Man Summary

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Written as a speech that Pico never actually delivered, “Oration on the Dignity of Man” is often referred to as the “manifesto of the renaissance.” Considered controversial, and even heretical, at the time of its composition, the piece draws on multiple religious and philosophical traditions to create a challenging treaty on human nature and free will. It opens with a celebration of humanity as the greatest, most remarkable of all of God’s creations. Although this is a traditional position that was widely accepted at the time, Pico’s reasoning differs from the established doctrine of the period. Many traditional arguments suggest that humanity is special because humans are the focal point of God’s divine plan, or because they are relatively near to God in “the great chain of being,” or simply because they are conscious and have the capacity to reason.However, Pico argues that many of these things are at least as applicable to angels too, so humanity is not uniquely remarkable or special in this respect.

Pico suggests that what truly makes humanity remarkable is that, unlike all else in God’s creation, humans are not fixed in state or form,nor tied to a particular course or destiny, but rather have both the potential and the free will to choose what they do and in what condition they end up. That is, if they are concerned with the base and the bodily, then humans can become like animals, concerned only with low matters and physical, sensual drives. However, unlike animals,which cannot ascend above this state, humans have the potential to rise beyond the base and bodily if they choose to pursue rational and intellectual matters.By doing so, they can become holy and heavenly, even divine. They can even raise themselves higher than angels, as angels hold a fixed state or condition and cannot aspire to rise above it.

For Pico, this is not the only respect in which humans are more remarkable than angels. He also suggests that, because they hold a fixed state or condition, angels cannot descend to the level of base and bodily animals as humans can. They do not have the freewill to decide whether they will ascend or descend, whereas humans do have this freewill and capacity to change their own conditions and better themselves. This is the heart of humanity’s greatness and strength: despite the temptation of the base, humans have the potential to rise to the divine if they choose to do so, and they have a responsibility or a duty to make this choice to concern themselves with higher matters and become higher beings. In a sense, this reverses traditional Christian views, which understood humanity’s unfixed condition as a troubling matter or a source of weakness, while Pico frames it as a matter of humanity having the strength to choose wisely and seek the divine. Conceived of in this manner, humanity’s free will becomes its greatest asset: a gift from God, a blessing rather than a burden, and the thing which makes humanity and human nature wonderful and remarkable.

Pico presents philosophy as the key to humanity’s ascent up the chain of being and even suggests that, through their inquiries and explorations, philosophers make themselves the height of humanity, most capable of reaching the divine.To this end, he wrote a text titled 900 Conclusions, comprising nine hundred propositions that he believed covered every aspect of knowledge and philosophical enquiry, and so would work to illuminate how humanity could rise up the chain of being towards the divine. Importantly, “Oration on the Dignity of Man” was intended to serve as an introduction to this longer work, and its second section reflects this. It gives an overview of the nine hundred proposals along with discussion of their origins and the philosophers who generated or inspired them.

The second section also offers an explanation for why so many propositions are necessary. Pico writes that, rather than following a single, discreet philosophy, he draws upon many different positions from many different traditions. Considering the many sources that he employed, Pico argues that there is no single truth or single true philosophy. Rather, he suggests that all different philosophical traditions contain both accurate deductions and mistaken speculation. For Pico, the “truth” is found by gathering together the true aspects of these multiple philosophies.

This is a significant departure from traditional understandings which argued that the wide range of “truths” presented in different philosophies mean that there is no final or absolute truth. It is also a significant departure from accepted Church doctrine of the period because Pico did not limit himself to Christian sources but drew heavily on numerous traditions, including Jewish and Muslim teachings, secular philosophies, and even ancient magic and mysticism. This approach proved highly controversial and, predicting this, Pico ends “Oration on the Dignity of Man” with an open call for philosophers to join him in invigorating and stimulating debate.

Pico never managed to publish his 900 Conclusions, stage a great debate over his philosophies, or deliver “Oration on the Dignity of Man” as a speech. The Church deemed his work so controversial and so far removed from Church doctrine in its appreciation of non-Christian sources and its understanding of human nature and free will, that it branded Pico a heretic. He was forced to flee his native Italy for France, but was arrested there on orders from the Church and was only released when Lorenzo de’ Medici, a powerful Italian statesman, intervened on his behalf. Despite its controversial elements and Pico’s failure to perform or publish it before his death,“Oration on the Dignity of Man” is now recognized as one of the key texts of Renaissance humanism.

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