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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Mirandola states in this essay that man is a glorious creation because of his ability to think and to reason. He writes that humankind is "a great miracle and a being worthy of all admiration."
He writes of humans being "free" and assigns humans to a place in the great chain of being between angels and animals. He writes that God said,
We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.
Because humans are so marvelously endowed with reason, all the traditions of human thought should be studied, not just those written in Latin from the Roman Catholic Church. Mirandola was a syncretist, which meant he tried to reconcile and harmonize different schools of thought. He advocated studying the Greeks, the Hebrew mysteries, and Arabic texts, along with Latin sources. He writes of
my determination to bring to men's attention the opinions of all schools rather than the doctrine of some one or other (as some might have preferred), for it seems to me that by the confrontation of many schools and the discussion of many philosophical systems that "effulgence of truth" of which Plato writes in his letters might illuminate our minds more clearly, like the sun rising from the sea. What should have been our plight had only the philosophical thought of the Latin authors, that is, Albert, Thomas, Scotus, Egidius, Francis and Henry, been discussed, while that of the Greeks and the Arabs was passed over . . .
Finally, Mirandola distinguishes between what he calls two types of "magic." The first is demonic and must be rejected. The second, however, is the "magic" of the natural world, God's creation, which is worthy of study in order to reveal the glory of God. We today would call this second type of "magic" science. Mirandola writes:
For nothing so surely impels us to the worship of God than the assiduous contemplation of His miracles and when, by means of this natural magic, we shall have examined these wonders more deeply, we shall more ardently be moved to love and worship Him in his works, until finally we shall be compelled to burst into song: "The heavens, all of the earth, is filled with the majesty of your glory."
Because of his emphasis on the glory, rather than the sinfulness, of humans; his advocacy of broad and inclusive learning; and his belief in studying science, Mirandola's essay is a classic example of Renaissance humanism and empiricism.