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Pico's "Oration on the Dignity of Man"

Updated on August 3, 2014
Pico della Mirandola
Pico della Mirandola | Source

Pico della Mirandola and the Oration on "the Dignity of Man"

In 1486, Pico della Mirandola delivered a public speech which has been called the "manifesto of the Renaissance." Pico exemplifies the ideal of the Rennaissance scholar who aspires to survey and master the entire available field of human knowledge (an ambition that can no longer be fulfilled regardless of the talents of the scholar, given the proliferation of fields and also of the technical instruments developed in various areas of human learning.) A syncretist - one who draws eclectically from different sources, on the assumption that there is unity across the advances in human learning across cultures and traditions - Pico was working on compiling a compendium of all known teachings in areas ranging from the arcane to the scientific. He died young, after suffering through a bout of a disfiguring condition called "elephantiasis," and his work remained uncompleted. Had he lived longer, he may well have ended burning on the medieval stake because his writings and speech, as evident also in the "Oration," challenged the Catholic dominion over ideas - an imposition that did not end overnight even as the Renaissance was advancing apace.

In the Renaisance we recognize full-blown the fundamental claims and values that inform western modernity. These values have, in certain areas, come under attack in our times. The immediate contrast that offers itself is between the Rennaisance and the historical era that preceded it and was superseded by it, the Middle Ages - also known, critically and derogatorily, as the "Dark Ages." Of course, day-to-day changes may not have been so apparent as the new era of the Rennaissance was unfolding and the renowned institutional and philosophic characteristics of the Medieval period did not vanish so soon as to make a transition immediately dramatic. Yet, the tourist who marvel at the Renaissance masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo may well be invited to juxtapose those works to the artistic output of the Middle Ages. Though not to be denigrated as art, Medieval works are markedly different and, it becomes obvious, they showcase a contrasting historical period. The Medieval artist scorns cultivation of art as such - although he cannot help engaging in artistic production, of course: development of the techniques that make perspective possible, for instance, would be unthinkable in the medieval setting; rather than indulge in promoting art, the medieval artist gives himself the narrow edifying, didactic and moral functions of presenting and ruminating on Biblical episodes. The art of the Renaissance, in contrast, celebrates the human form, under the pretense of casting glances at Biblical narratives it cultivates art in elaborate profusion. This exemplifies what is new in the Renaissance. The period revives the spirit of classical antiquity - hence the chosen term is "Renaissance" which means "rebirth." It is the rebirth of the classical Greco-Roman civilization that transforms the scene. Like the classical period, the Renaissance presents to the student of the period a humanistic aspect: this means that the human being is elevated to the very pinnacle of the totality of things - a posture that sometimes comes under attack today under a chastened realization of our continuity with our primate biological ancestors and given the additional reflection that license to privileged human action may be responsible for institutional abuses and for the ruination our planet.

To understand the Renaissance, one needs to reflect first on what is supposed to be so privileged about humanity. In contrast to this, a sober assessment of the antecedent period, the Middle Ages, is also in oder. In his "Oration on the Dignity of Man," Pico has to navigate through a rhetorical thicket, often rather transparent, as he tries to fit the new, or revived, humanistic values into a medieval language of scriptural interpretation. He casts an interpretation on the Biblical book of Genesis, which purports to show that the humanistic elevation of humanity is consistent with a proper reading of the scriptures. We will turn to the details in what follows.

What is it that makes humanity so special and to be celebrated according to the humanistic worldview? This is something that needs to be explained.

Humanity and the Rest of the Universe...

Are human beings uniquely special within the totality of things?

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Pico's Oration as Scriptural Interpretation

The objective of the "Oration on the Dignity of Man" is to make a case for unhinging the human being from the presumed universal chain of being posited by the Medieval outlook. According to this view. the totality of things is so constructed that everything has its appointed and fixed position in a pyramid-like schema. What we might recognize as "shark-at-the-top" and so on all the way down to the smallest fish captures the notion of top-to-bottom dependence stipulated in the chain of being. Higher things are better in every relevant sense of the word "good" and, as such, exercise rightful dominion and use the entities underneath them. The underlyng assumptions are as follows: there is an all-wise and all-powerful creator of the totality of things who, as such, cannot fail to implement the best possible arrangement as the "cosmos" or structured universe we live in; a system in which elements perform functions that are interrelated is obviously better than one of haphazard associations; moreover, subordination of functions from top to bottom is a better way of structuring than other possible methods; finally, each element in the structure performs specific functions - not being a jack-of-all-trades but being a specialist - and each is fixed in the function it performs. Any change, shift, detachment from the chain and mobility would only result in a deterioration; God being perfect in every sense, the schema as constructed is already perfect and any alteration could only bring about diminution. This is the view Pico has to argue against as his humanistic objective is to elevate the human being - and, so, accordingly, to detach humanity from its presumed appointed place in the chain of being. It is not as straighttforward that this claim to humanity's inherent claims to an unconstrained mobility also apply within the human group itself: in other words, it may not be the case that any one human agent is to be considered capable of rising higher; or that such top "dogs" in the chain as the Pope or the various royals ruling by divine right of kings are to be considered as capable of demotion. Nevertheless, the radicalism of Pico's plan cannot be underestimated because his message unleashes all those other internal possibilities, which are to be drawn out fully by the subsequent period of the Enlightenment.

Pico faces a predicament that perhaps no rhetorical ingenuity can overcome. Either he has to argue that the scripures have been misread and that humanity has been conceived as an open-ended project in the Bible all along; or he has to bypass recourse to the scriptures altogether. The latter course is fraught with supreme danger - and it may well be that Pico, as a syncretist, does have many salient uses for the scriptural works. Pico supplements the Bible with other works of ancient wisdom and this accounts for the proliferation of arcane allusions and erudite references in his oration. Thus, with respect to the second horn of the above dilemma, he retains the Bible but subtly - and not so subtly - proceeds to surround it with a plethora of other works from across various theosophical and philsosophic traditions. With respect to the first horn of the dilemma, Pico tries indeed to show that a proper interpretation of the scriptures will yield the reading he projects. In this regard, an insuperable problem is this: although interpretation of the Bible is not itself outlawed in the old Churches, Pico must show what it is in the text or in the traditional reading of the text that has been missed so far. Moreover, whatever such omission is to be claimed should be of such a character as to yield exactly Pico's intended output: that humanity is free of thye cohnfinement to the chain of creation and capable of mobility, which means capable of self-improvement or perfectible. Reading Pico's Oration, it becomes obvious that he has to go beyond the text of Genesis and add to it - a risky move that, along with a lot more he did in his short but intellectually fecund life, may well have consigned him to the stake to be burned by the Catholic Church for heresy. In the book of Genesis, humans do receive the privilege of special creation - on the very last day before a mandatory rest on the seventh day - but this is still a finished product so generated and no loose ends appear to be left for humans to pick up and develop their own essential destiny. But it gets worse: the one acknowledged attempt by Eve and Adam on behalf of their autonomous development, attributed to temptation by a snake-like entity, is castigated mightily and declared as cause of an unforgiving and damning downfall - which the NewTestament's glad-tidings (evangelical) message reprieves by means of the sacrifice of Christ. Not surprisingly, Pico ignores the narrative about what presumably transpired in the garden of Eden. This omission is even more problematic, from the point of view of religious orthodoxy, because ignoring the lapse into primordial audacity is to pretend that the "felicitous sin" did not happen: this lapse is the necessary condition for Christ's redemptive sacrifice; so, leaving it out as a non-factor arguably undermines the very core of the Christian message. Once again, Pico's oration turns out to be more and more radical upon closer inspection...

Contrast between Medieval and Renaissance Art

The Rhetorical Mechanics of Pico's Oration

As we saw, Pico needs to proceed beyond the text of the scriptures if he is to impose the interpretation he needs to reconcile humanistic values with a religion of Creation. Humanism requires a special status for humanity within the totality of things. The special status must depend on elements of heightened moral significance: in classical antiquity, it is the human mind that merits special moral status. The mind is supposed to be the only way in which Nature can understand itself; moreover, Nature being considered as meaningfully motivated and purpose-oriented, Nature's understanding of itself is the ultimate goal and one that is already implicit in the design of nature. Since humans are the only members of the universe, it is believed, who possess this mental capacity, humans are the carriers of the highest moral excellence and, accordingly, have the highest moral claim among all natural entities. Indeed, the claims of the human mind that has risen to contemplation of the totality of things is as valuable and has as much right (moral claim) as anything else. The route from this is to apotheosis or deification -- enlightened humans may as well be considered to be equals with the divine. Though a divine mind may be able to run into comprehending an infinitely long proof, the way the human mind grasps any one part of any proof is NOT at all different or inferior from the divine mind! This view clashes with monotheistic theology, which rests on the claim that there are truths that are in principle incomprehensible to the human mind and can be only accepted, by faith, if they are revealed by the divine. Hence, these are revealed religions! The so-called Thomistic synthesis (named after the Catholic medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas) posited that scriptural theology can indeed be brought together consistently with Aristotelian philosophy. This rather surprising move - not attempted in Eastern Orthodoxy and, later, scorned by many Protestant sects - also helps Pico's case because, contrary to unflattering stereotypes, the Catholic Middle Ages did not reject the ministrations of Reason in the study of scriptural theology.

There is a question if one can be said to be still interpreting a text if one smuggles into it elements not in the text itself. Clearly, we have no interpretation if what is smuggled is inconsistent with the text that is supposed to be interpreted. It is not obvious that what Pico introduces beyond the Bible is inconsistent with the view of God of the Bible - but, at least on first sight, there is seems to be inconsistency between the concept of the Biblical God and Pico's representations about God's actions. According to Pico, God's creation of humanity (which he does not deny of course) was an afterthought on the part of God, and God conceived this afterthought in response to a predicament He faced after He had finished the project of Creation. This view seems inconsistent with at least one medieval theory of the divine nature, according to which God does not operate within the time-flow but is eternal (not in the sense of omnitemporal but in the sense of 'outside of time.') If eternal in the specified sense, God cannot be revisiting what He has done; nor can gaps emerge in divine projects, which need to be plugged later. Nevertheless, one might venture that this flow - with afterthoughts and such - is itself "frozen" as it were, so that God's actions are sub species eternitatis (comprehended under the aspect of atemporal design which the divine mind conceives instantaneously). Either way, Pico's narrative makes the creation of humanity not the end of the creative project but a subsequent act that solves a problem left open by the creation.

According to Pico, God had indeed completed a project that generated an unalterable, fixed and, indeed, perfect "chain of being." This, however, presented a problem. All creatures were completed and determinate in their natures; this meant that no perfectible creature had been included (no creature whose nature itself remains an open project even after the completion of the creative project.) There are many arguments one can make - and many have made - as to why a world with indeterminate and open-ended creatures that are also perfectible is better than any world without them. Often, free will is associated with it. Pico mentions this but does not press the advantage: Christianity presupposes free will when it comes to voluntarily accepting or rejecting the salvific message of Christ, and duly promises rewards and punishments with heaven and hell, which would seem unfair retributions if the human agents were not free. The Medieval view had not contested free - and Pico does not try to capitalize on the possibility that his retelling of the biblical story is more conducive to making the claim that humans have free will. Another argument is that indeterminate creatures, whose nature remains an open-ended project in some respects, are the only ones capable of education. Notice that we don't educate, we train or discipline, animals but we educate humans in some way.l This view is represented in Pico's oration.

A motive is needed to explain why God would be interested and resolve, as perfect being that he is, to include indeterminate perfectible entities in the creation - even if this meant disrupting the great chain of determinate closure and perfection He had generated to begin with. We may even say that this is not an "afterthought" on God's part (a serious matter since this would indicate imperfection on the part of a God who had "missed" something.) If it is a matter of logic that this price - opening the determinate chain - has to be paid for a more perfect world to be attained, then God acts simply in accordance with rationality by "going back" - which means that God applies the appropriate and required correction to an otherwise perfect world. While the determinate is more perfect than the indeterminate, the determinate-plus-perfectible is more perfect than the determinate. This does seem like a contradiction but there are certain possibilities I cannot get into here... (For instance, the "plus" in the sentence above may not be summation but an operation that is context-sensitive. 2 plus 2 make 4 in every conceivable context but when other things are added we might be getting different results across different contexts. This might hold a key as to why the above claim about how different worlds compare is not absurd.) At any rate, the claim - later repeated in a more sophisticated fashion by the German philosopher Leibniz - is that a world with the kind of indeterminacy that yields possibility of education (making oneself) and improvement is better than any world without it. It is not that God fails to implement determinate solutions but that relaxing of machine-like determinacy is required, given the nature of things, for better world to result.

God's Actions in Pico's Oration

A surprising twist, better understood in the context of Renaissance rhetorical preferences, is that a fundamental motive attributed to God in explaining the unhinging of humanity from the chain of being is this: God "realized" that no one could appreciate the creation project in the right way! The view that God wants appreciation is older than the Renaissance, of course, and seems fundamental for monotheistic religions. The Hebrew God is, indeed, savagely concerned with receiving proper attention and does not hesitate to obliterate vast expanses if denied. Philosophic religion - from Plato to Enlightenment - has no use for such a view. It seems inconsistent with perfection that this zealous behavior would be in evidence. Moral perfection rules against a vice like demanding praises, even if deserved - a characteristic vice, in fact, of Oriental tyrants. Perfection in the sense of omnipotence and self-sufficiency and completeness also rules against depending on others for recognition. Moreover, given the oft-trumpeted limitations of puny humanity, as understood by monotheism, the divine tandrums directed at human lapses also come across as petty and mean-spirited. Later elaborations present God's interest in humanity in a more benign light and the case is to be made that God wants to share the creation with the creatures out of love. Interestingly, Pico's motivated God is not so much into love as He is into grasping the need that a project must be appreciated in the right way. What is the point of a play no one but the playwright watches? What is the point of a painting no one but the painter ever appreciates? Actually, in a certain sense of appreciates, which is key to Pico's argument, the painter himself cannot appreciate his work: to appreciate, in this sense, means that one grows to appreciate the work; the "wow" moment is required for this proper estimation of the worth of a work - and the creator of the work cannot have this moment because, if perfect as God is, he conceived and appreciated the work simultaneously - so, he cannot come to appreciate it. For the same reason, the higher Intelligences, Angels and such, who are also included in the religious ontology (catalogue of what kinds of entities exist in reality) cannot come to appreciate for the same reason: they know it all already... For obvious reasons, animals cannot appreciate - and what is left is below "brutish," it is plant and vegetable and stones...

In this remarkable way, Pico has performed a reductio (showing that a claim is absurd or cannot possibly be true because, if accepted, it leads to a contradiction): Assume that humans, like everything else in the creation, are determinate and "closed"; then, no one can come to appreciate the creation project; yet, God must have the creation project appreciated in the right way; therefore, God cannot will that everything is determinate and closed to improvements; but God wills everything he creates and, hence, he wills the determinate and closed humans he gets in a fullly determinate universe. So, God both wills and does not will the determinate humans of the great chain of being. This is the reductio outcome. It means that we must reject the premise we assumed: that premise was that humans too, like everything else, are part of the fixed and static chain of being. Therefore, this is not true. Humans, uniquely, do not have a fixed place in the great chains of being. Human nature, uniquely, is open-ended, indeterminate in fundamental ways, amenable to growth and to self-appointed decisions that may being about improvements all the way to perfection that is commensurate with humanity's potential. This potential is itself not only untapped but it reaches very high. Limited human nature, even if improvable, would not fit the purpose of "appreciator" of a universe that is so intricately complex (as it befits the work of a perfect creator.) Pico actually utters the blasphemous statement - humans can be as gods, which is not shocking from a pagan point of view, of course, but it is not kosher for monotheistic religion.

There is a catch. Open-endedness entails that humans can also fall low, very low, if they fail to put their inherent capabilities to proper use. The Renaissance has no place for relativistic license. Humans who misuse and abuse their natural capacities drop low in the chain of being: some become brutish (compare our habit of comparing self-indulgence to the actions of pigs); others may even fall lower and reach the flora of the universe (compare our idiomatic phrase "couch potato.") In fact, there is an ancient view, found also in Plato, that, because of the grandiose excellences given to humans by nature, the fall of a human being can bring about a monstrosity that far exceeds the corresponding parts of the flora and fauna in the universe. A self-indulgent "pig" is not only morally repugnant (while the animal pig cannot be blamed morally), but a human "pig" seems in a way to be more of a pig than the actual pig with respect to all those piggish qualities we are to disapprove of. Needless to say, not being given to egalitarian ethos yet, the Renaissance does not posit a global expectation that all human beings can ascend to the top. Nevertheless, a crucial step has been taken, anticipating later modernity: over against the dark atmosphere of the Middle Ages, human perfectibility has been proclaimed and the conceptualization of the human being as a "work in process" has been laid down. Classical antiquity is reborn in the Renaissance with the classical texts flowing back into the West - not only Aristotle anymore, but here come even the comedies of Aristophanes and the life-affirming sculpture of the Greeks.

© 2014 Odysseus Makridis


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