Oration on the Dignity of Man – Pico Project

The Discourse on the Dignity of Man (1486) by Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) is considered the “Manifesto of the Renaissance.” Indeed, it exalts the human creature for his/her freedom and capacity to know and to dominate reality as a whole. Far from being simply that, however, the Discourse deals with the vocation of the human creature who, possessing no determinate image, is urged to pursue its own perfection. Such a pursuit begins with moral self-discipline, passes through the familiar, multifarious world of images and fields of knowledge, and strives toward that most lofty goal which defies representation. Pico believes that this paradigm, by virtue of the fact that it is to be found in every tradition, is universal.

The Discourse merits attention today precisely on account of its affirmation that human nature, which is in itself indeterminate and weak, comes alive and obtains its identity through the plurality of human cultures, each representing customs that, though distinct, are (in their essence, structure and function) essentially identical. Hence the possibility of harmony and grounds for “peace” among cultures.

From the ‘Oration on the Diginity of Man’, 1487

(Count) Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola (1463-94)


  1. § 1. Preamble1

    1. I have read, most esteemed Fathers,2 in the records of the Arabians,3 that Abdallah the Saracen4 when questioned as to what, on this stage, so to say, of the world, could be seen most worthy of wonder, replied that there is nothing to be seen more wonderful that man.

    2.In agreement with this opinion is the saying of Hermes: «A great miracle, Asclepius, is man».5

    § 2.The current reasons for human pre-eminence are not satisfying

    3. Still, when I weighed the reasons for these sayings, the numerous considerations advanced by many men to explain the excellence of human nature6 did not fully persuade me: that man is the intermediary between creatures, the familiar of the higher beings, the king of the things beneath him; by the acuteness of his senses, by the inquiry of his reason and by the light of his intelligence the interpreter of nature;7 set midway between fixed eternity and fleeting time and, (as the Persians say)8 the bond, or rather the wedding-song of the world, on David’s testimony,9 but little lower that angels.

    § 3.The final discovery

    4. These reason are great, nevertheless they are not the principal grounds, that is, those for which man may rightfully claim for himself the privilege of the highest admiration.

    5. Why should we not admire more the angels themselves and the beatific choirs of heaven?

    6. At last, however, it seems to me that I have come to understand why man is the most fortunate of beings and consequently worthy of all admiration, and what finally is the condition which is his lot in the universal order, a condition to be envied not only by brutes but even by the stars and by the intelligences dwelling beyond this world.10

    7. A thing surpassing belief and a wondrous one.

    8. Still, why should it not be? For it is on this ground that man is rightly called and considered a great miracle and a living creature worthy of all admiration.

    9. But hear, Fathers, exactly what this condition is and, in the name of your humanity, grant your benign audition to my work.

    § 4.The history of the creation

    10.The supreme Father, God the Architect, had already built this cosmic home we behold, the most sacred temple of divinity, according to the laws of the mysterious wisdom.

    11. He had already adorned the supercelestial region with intelligences, quickened the heavely globes with eternal souls and filled the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world with a multitude of animals of every kind.

    12. But when the work was finished, the Craftsman still longed that there were someone to ponder the meaning of so great a work, to love its beauty, and to wonder at its vastness.11

    13.Therefore, when everything was done (as Moses and Timaeus testify), He finally bethought himself of bringing forth man.12

    14. But there was not among the archetypes that from which he could fashion a new offspring, nor in his treasure-houses anything which he might bestow on his new son as an inheritance, nor among the seats of the universe any place where the latter might sit to contemplate the universe.

    15.All was now complete; all things had heen assigned to the highest, the middle, and the lowest orders.

    16. But it was not in the nature of the Father’s power to fail in his final creation; it was not in the nature of his wisdom to hesitate through lack of counsel in a needful matter, nor it was in the nature of his beneficient love that he who would praise the divine generosity in all other things should be obliged to condemn it in regard to himself.

    § 4.God’s address to man

    17. At last the best of makers decreed that the creature to whom he had been anable to give anything wholly his own, should have in common whatever belonged to every other being.13

    18.He therefore took man, this creature of indeterminate image,14 set him in the middle of the world15 and thus spoke to him: «We have given you, Adam, no fixed seat nor features proper to yourself nor endowment peculiar to you alone, in order that whatever seat, whatever features, whatever endowment you may responsibly desire, these same you may have and possess according to your desire and judgement.

    19. Once defined, the nature of all other beings, is constrained within the laws prescribed by us.

    20. Constrained by no limits, you may determine it for yourself, according to your own free will, in whose hand we have placed you.

    21.I have placed you at the world’s center so that you may thence more easily look around atwhatever is in the world.

    22. We have made you neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal,16 so that you may, as the free and extraordinary17 shaper of yourself, fashion yourself in the form you will prefer.

    23.It will be in your power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish; you shall have the power, according to your soul’s judgement, to be reborn into the higher orders, which are divine».

1 These titles do not belong to the original.

2 Pico is thinking of a future conference in Rome, in which his 900 theses will be discussed. He speaks of it as a senate, or a council (see ¶ 164).

3 Pico was studying Arabic, guided by Flavius Mithridates, see his letter to Corneus (see Latin text).

4 Various hypotheses have been formulated about the identity of this Abdallah, see Bori 1997 and Pluralità delle vie, Milano 2000, 43f.

5 «A great miracle….» see Asclepius VI, 1-2. The hermetic writings are ascribed to the Egyptian God Thot, in Greek Hermes Trismegistos, the inventor of writing, who was made to correspond to the Latin Mercurius. They are in Greek and in Latin, are dated between the 1st and the 3rd century AD and were highly appreciated during the Humanism and the Renaissance, thanks to Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the most important among those writings, the Poimandres. Among those works there is the Asclepius (Asclepius, Lat. Esculapius, god of medicine and of prophecy).

6 Pico is here critically referring to the rich literature about the dignity of man (e.g. Bartolomeo Fazio or Giannozzo Manetti, who had ancient Christian authors at their background, see Garin 1938, and De Lubac 1974). Pico accepts the idea of man as a microcosmos, gathering in himself all the elements, mediator and interpreter of the universe (see below 17 and 28; Heptaplus V, 6, Picatrix III, 5, 1 ). This is also the central thesis of Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology, in which the soul is placed between matter and angelic intelligences (see Kristeller, 1988, 118-123); but Pico thinks that human vocation Pico does not consist in enjoying in a static way this central position, but in the dynamism by which the human creature in called to transcend the world of images and to become finally one with the Absolute which is beyond representation.

7 Remark the sequence: sense, reason, intellect, which will re-appear in the three stage ascension, according to the model of the angelic orders: Thrones, Cherubims, Seraphims. The same sequence is in ¶ 30f. (and then in ¶ 39-42), where man is meant to transcend even the angelic orders and to become one with God.

8 «Persians»: Pico is possibly thinking of a «chaldaic» source: the Chaldean oracles (a mystic writing probably of the 2nd century, very important for Proclus) had been attributed to Zoroaster by Gemistus Plethon, Ficino’s source. See below 283 and Conclusiones, 114-116, Biondi. But we do not know exactly the Chaldaic texts Pico is referring to, see ¶ 135.

9 See Psalm 8: 5-8.

10 Remark the order: angels, stars, lower creatures, repeated below 11, in the opposite direction.

11 Remark the threefold structure (to ponder, to love, to wonder), repeated in ¶ 14 (archetypes, treasure-houses, seats), ¶ 15 (higher, middle, lower orders), 16 (power, wisdom, love, with a reference to the Trinity), and once more in 18 (seat, features, endowment). Underlining this structures, Bausi 1996, 115 thinks of the original redaction of the Oration, starting from three «anaphoric series».

12 This account of the creation depends on both the Biblical and the Platonic source (Bori, 1997 and Bori, Pluralità delle vie, Milano 2000, 35ff). a) Belonging to the Bible is the sequence of creative acts that place Adam at the centre of a creation already completed, even if the way the creative proceedings take place is different from Gen 1. The creation here occurs in a movement from up on high downwards: the area above the heavens, the animated heavenly bodies, the animals on the earth, and man, with a sort of ontologic degradation; b) the idea of God speaking to his new creature is biblical, but the contents are quite different: instead of prohibiting accession to the tree of knowledge, there is the invitation to direct desire, knowledge and one’s whole being towards the highest possible aim. It is in this that the human vocation consists, and not in respect for the prohibition; c) the theme of the image is Biblical, although Pico’s man has not been created in the image of God, but is opus indiscretae imaginis, he does not have a pre-defined image. d) the idea of sovereignty over things, which in Gen. 2, is also expressed with the faculty of naming, is also biblical.
As for the Platonic source, attention must be drawn to Timaeus 41b (man is created as the last of beings, as a mixture of mortality and immortality), Protagoras 321c-d (the myth of the creation of Epimetheus, created in condition of imperfection and need) and especially Symposion (interpreted by Ficino in his De Amore, as well as by Pico himself in his Commento, also in 1486). The account is well-known, according to which Eros was conceived by Poros (resource) and Penia (poverty) the day Aphrodite was born, in the garden of Zeus. Eros gets his imperfect nature from this intermediate position between ignorance and knowledge, and his always seeking the latter (Symp. 203 d-204c). Both in the Oration and in the Symposion: a) we find praise of someone – Eros, and the human creature, respectively – not for his real dignity, based only on stereotypes and clichés, but for his potential capacity to reach the highest of ends; b) we find someone who is in an intermediate condition, neither mortal nor immortal, neither of the earth nor of the heavens, Symp. 203e; c) we find someone placed in the midst (mediummetaxù in the Symposion), capable of reaching, through the love of knowledge, the supreme reality, Symp. 202d; d)we find the priority of love, of desire, of the will as the final essence of the human being, while the intellectual element is not against but inside the spiritual development, supported by the dynamic of desire (and here there is again a parallel between the ascent described at the end of Diotima’s intervention and the exit from the cave described in theRepublic VII).

13 The idea of microcosmos is accepted by Pico, but in a dynamic funtion: the presence in the human creature of the principles of every being allows him/her, so to say, ascend through all beings.

14 Lat «indiscretus», gr. adiàkritos see Latin text. Gen. 1, 26 seems to be contradicted here (the human creature has no image): however, the human creature has no image precisely because he/she is called to become God, who is beyond any representation see 31, «caligo Patris».

15 Human centrality (see also ¶ 21) is statically affirmed, but in the perspective of the dynamic of freedom.

16This comes from the Symposion, see above 13.

17God is the «ordinary» creator, see Latin text.


  1. § 6.

      1. O supreme liberality1 of God the Father and wonderful happiness2 of man!


      1. To him is given to be what he desires and what he wills.3


      1. As soon as they are born, brutes bring with them “from their mother’s womb,”4 as Lucilius says, all that they are going to possess.


      1. Superior spirits have been, either from the beginning or soon after, that which they are perpetually going to be throughout eternity.


      1. The Father infused in man, at birth, every sort of seed and sprouts of every kind of life.5


      1. These seeds will grow and bear their fruit in each man who will cultivate them.


      1. If he cultivates his vegetable seeds, he will become a plant. If he cultivates his sensitive seeds, he will become brutish. If he cultivates his rational seeds, he will become a heavenly animal. If he cultivates his intellectual seeds, he will be an angel and a son of God.6


      1. And if he is not contented with the fate of any creature, he will gather himself into the center of his own unity and, become one spirit with God, will join the solitary darkness7 of the Father, who is above all things, and will stand ahead of all things.


    § 7.

      1. Who will not wonder at this chameleon?8


      1. Or rather, who will admire any other being more?


      1. Not without reasons, Asclepius the Athenian9 said that in the secret rites he [man] was symbolized by Proteus, because of his changing and metamorphous nature.10


      1. Hence the metamorphoses celebrated among the Jews11 and the Pythagoreans.12


    § 8.

      1. Indeed, even the most secret Hebrew theology at one time transforms holy Enoch into an angel of divinity, whom they call metatron, and at other times it reshapes other men into other spirits.13


      1. According to Pythagoreans, wicked men are deformed into brutes, and if you believe Empedocles, into plants as well.14


      1. Imitating them, Mohammed often repeated that he who strays from divine law becomes a brute.


      1. Indeed, it is not the bark which makes the plant, but dull and non-sentient nature; not the hide which makes a horse or other beast of burden, but a brutal and sensual soul; not the circular body which makes the heaven(s), but right reason; not the separation from the body which makes the angel, but spiritual intelligence.


      1. If you see someone, a slave to his belly, crawling on the ground, it is not a man you see but a plant; if you see someone who, as though blinded by Calipso with empty imaginations, under a seductive spell, is enslaved by his senses, it a brute you see, not a man.


      1. If you see a philosopher discerning things with right reason, worship him; he is a heavenly not an earthly animal.


      1. If you see a pure contemplator, oblivious to his body, absorbed in the recesses of the mind, this is neither an earthly nor a heavenly animal: this is a superior spirit, clothed with human flesh.


    § 9.

      1. Who, then, will not admire man?


      1. Not undeservedly, in the Mosaic and Christian Scriptures he is called at times with the name of every flesh, at times of every creature, for he fashions, shapes and transforms15 his own look into that of every flesh, his own mind into that of every creature.16


      1. Accordingly, Evantes the Persian, explaining Chaldaean theology, writes that no inner image belongs to man, but many exterior and derived ones.17


      1. Hence that saying of the Chaldaens that man is animal by nature, diverse, multiform and inconstant.


    § 10.

      1. Yet, what is the reason of all this?


      1. It is in order for us to understand that, because we were born with the option to be what we want to be, we must take most care of this; lest people say of us that, being held in honor, we did not realize that we reduced ourselves to brutes and mindless beasts of burden.


      1. Let us rather remember the saying of Asaph the prophet: “You are all gods and sons of the most high,”18 unless abusing the most indulgent liberality of the Father, we turn from beneficial to harmful the free choice he bestowed on us.


      1. Let a holy ambition pervade our soul, so that, not satisfied with mediocre things, we strive for the loftiest and apply ourselves with all our strength to pursue them (because we can achieve them, if we want).


      1. Let us spurn earthly things, disregard the celestial,19 and reject all that is of this world, in order to fly to the otherwordly court near the most eminent divinity.


      1. There, as sacred mysteries reveal, Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones occupy the first places; let us emulate their dignity and glory, unwilling as we are to yield to them and unable to endure second place.


    1. If so we wish, we will not be at all inferior to them.

1 liberality : In the 14 th- and 15 th-century, this word (coupled with humanitas) has two meanings, based on classical sources (Cicero in particular, On Duties, §§52-85): a. “inclination to spend and give profusely with munificence or even in a prodigal way;” b. “loftiness and nobility of character and soul, generosity, magnanimity, benevolence, courtesy” (see entry “liberalità” in Battaglia, Dictionary of the Italian Language). Together with magnanimity (which it precedes), liberality is one of the Aristotelian virtues (Nichomachean Ethics, Book IV, ch. 1) celebrated in the Tenth Day of Boccaccio’s Decameron, as a sort of aristocratic sublimation of the utilitarian mercantile logic which pervades 14 th- and 15 th-century Florentine civic culture. In the Oratio Pico, the scion of an old aristocratic dynasty, clearly goes beyond the earthly meaning of “liberality” in order to embrace its loftier, spiritual meaning. For a thorough understanding of the use of this term in Latin humanistic literature and Pico’s work in particular, one must also refer to Patristic sources (see E. Garin, La Dignitas Hominis e la lettaratura patristica, Torino: Giappichelli, 1972). In this passage of the Oratio, Pico establishes a “double bind” between liberalitas dei and liberalitas hominis (-um). The latter is conceived as a reflection of the first.

2 happiness : another key term in 14 th- and 15 th-century humanistic thought, which goes beyond its Aristotelian-Scholastic roots (see Dante, Conv. IV, 17, 8, <>” – “happines is activity according to virtue in perfect life”) toward a dynamic redefinition, in Platonic or Neo-Platonic terms. Here too, the influence of Cicero (according to whom happiness is a function of the will) is clearly detectable. Giannozzo Manetti (1396-1459) in book IV of his De dignitate et eccellentia hominis, effectively confutes (following Lattantius, see Garin 1972, 23-ff.) the opinions of those, Ancients or Moderns, Pagans or Christians, who emphasize the misery of human life. Also Manetti considers happiness as the result of a “virtuous life,” that is, a Christian life “…all those who accurately observe heavenly commandments will without a doubt be destined to be fortunate from birth, and always happy and blessed for ever” (quoted by Garin, Prosatori Latini del Quattrocento, Milano-Napoli: Ricciardi, 1952, 485, my translation). Pico adds a gnoseological dimension for which it may not be out of place to recall here also Virgil, Georg. II, 490: “Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causam.”

3 The emphasis on “appetite,” desire and (free) will is fundamental for Pico, who moves beyond the Ciceronian tradition of “gubernare terrena,” (the governing of earthly affairs) toward a gnoseological and theological-metaphysical horizon. The following sentence by Lorenzo de’ Medici seems to echo the dynamic (and proto-Modern) meaning of “happiness” mentioned above: “All Men are born with a natural appetite for happiness, and all human actions aim at it, as their true goal” (quoted in Battaglia, V, 795, my translation).

4 bulga , Latin term, of Celtic origin, translated as “womb” by analogy (from Lucilius, Satyres).

5 In the second Proem of Pico’s Heptaplus (a commentary on Genesis), we read: “It is a common expression in the Schools to say that man is a microcosm, whose body is a mixture of elements, including the heavenly spirit, the vegetating soul, the senses of brutes, reason, the angelic mind and the image of God” (Garin 1942, 193, my translation).

6 This passage must be read against the backdrop of Medieval Patristic sources such as John of Salisbury (cfr. TL, gl. 33) and Alain de L’Isle. In the latter’s Liber de Planctu Naturae “the possibility for man to degenerate into a brute and regenerate himself in God are expressed in terms very similar to those used by Pico” (Garin, 1972, 37 e cfr. TL, gl. 33). Tognon suggests as a reference for this entire section of the Oratio John Scotus Eriugena’s De divisione naturae (lib. III, c. 37, PL 122, 732 B-C e lib. IV, c. 5, 754 A-B). According to De Lubac “ l’Oratio ne fait que redire en propres termes, pour exprimer exactement la même idée, ce qui avait été dit plus de vingt fois auparavant…” (De Lubac, 198-99). However, the reference to Patristic sources should not overshadow the different emphasis of the Oratio, its substantially new rhetorical thrust. The Fathers of the Church and Monastic authors (perhaps with the exception of such mystic authors as Saint Bernard) generally emphasize the element of the fall and provide a true (allegorical and theological) “menagerie” of human degradation into a variety of brutes and animals, according to the various sins, also including as a corollary the demonic corruption of the imaginative and rational faculties of man (Saint Thomas of Aquinas). Pico, instead, is focused on extolling the transcendent possibilities of the Chameleon-like human nature (see below).

7 Caligine . This word is used in at least two different meanings, both fundamentally linked to each other: a. as an original divine attribute, beyond representation (similitudes of night, abyss etc.) and b. as a paradoxical hermeneutical term (the obfuscation of the mind and reason as a mystical pre-condition for penetrating into God’s mystery, see also De Ente, V — Garin, 412). In this second meaning, Pico’s fundamental source (recurring also in other works of his, see TL, gl. 36) is Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita (read through Marsilio Ficino): Dionysius best describes the condition of he who is sine interprete, without intermediary between himself and divinity (Garin 239). We find the same imagery (darkness as an attribute of divine inscrutability and blindness as the necessary paradoxical medium of human knowledge of the divine) in Pico’s Italian sonnets XVI, IV “di caligine opaca dianci pieno”; XXX, 6: “di caligine operto è ‘l vivo ragio (sic)” (Dilemmi, 33 e 61).

8 Aristotle introduces the simile of the Chameleon in Et. Nic. (I, 1100 a, 5-sgg.) speaking of happiness – which, as we have seen, is the product of perfect virtue and an accomplished life – measuring it against the instability of man’s “fortunes:” ” For clearly if we were to keep pace with his fortunes, we should often call the same man happy and again wretched, making the happy man out to be a chameleon and insecurely based…” (trans. by W.D. Ross). While Aristotle uses the term in a negative sense, pointing to the instability of the human condition, Pico positively emphasizes the changing nature of man. One could also recognize here the great Renaissance theme of Fortune as chance, opportunity, occasio, etc. According to Garin, the most important reference for Pico’s use of this word remains Ficino’s mention of that passage of Priscianus’s commentary on Theophrastus where the adjectives Chameleontean and Protean are attributed to human imagination. See Garin, “Phantasia e Imaginatio fra Marsilio Ficino e Pietro Pomponazzi”, «Giornale critico della filosofia italiana», III, 1985. It is worth mentioning here also Brian Copenhaver’s suggestion that behind Pico’s use of the term there is a reference to Pliny and the magic tradition (Natural History, 8, 120-22), a thesis argued in a recent essay (The Secret of Pico’s Oration. Cabala and Renaissance Philosophy, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XXVI, 2002, 60).

9 Asclepius. Lat. Aesculapius. Legendary Greek physician, son of Apollo and Coronis and god of healing (also related to the Egyptian Imothep). His first teacher was the wise centaur Chiron (on the cult of Asclepius in ancient Greece, see the work of the late S. B. Aleshire, The Athenian Asklepieion, Amsterdam 1989 and Asklepios at Athens, Amsterdam 1991 ). Pico, however, seems to refer again to that composite collection of texts known as the Corpus Hermeticum (already quoted in the opening paragraph of the Oratio) that Marsilio Ficino started to translate from Greek into Latin in 1463; namely, to the so-called Latin Asclepius (Ficino’s edition of the Asclepius was printed in 1469). Pico’s text clearly echoes the Hermetic Asclepius (the interlocutor and disciple of Hermes Trismegistus, also understood to be a descendant of the great Asclepius, just as Hermes is a grandson of of the great Egyptian god Toth). At page 69 of a recent English translation (Hermetica, ed. by Brian Copenhaver, Cambridge Un. Press, 1992) we read the following passage (paragraphs 5-6): “ [5…] The form of humankind is multiform and various…Human are they who remain content with the middle status of their kind, and the remaining forms of people will be like those kinds to whose forms they adjoin themselves. [6] Because of this, Asclepius, a human being is a great wonder…”

10 Proteus: In Pico’s Conclusions on the ways of interpreting Orpheus’s Hymns according to Magic, we find the following aphorism (n. 28): “Frustra adit naturam et Protheum, qui Pana non attraxerit” (“He who cannot attract Pan, in vain approaches Proteus” – see TL, gl. 37). Edgar Wind explains this obscure passage as follows (Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, New York, W.W. Norton, 1968, p. 241): “Mutability, according to Pico, is the secret door through which the universal invades the particular. Hence Proteus transforms himself continuously because Pan [All] is within him.” This enigma seems to describe the unique situation of the human being in relation to the divine. According to Pico, the human being is like a Chameleon and a Proteus, capable of changing shape (effingere, see below) as well as contemplating all forms and “names.” The human being is thus effectively an agent of God but its “demiurgic” abilities also reflect a degree of free will and free choice. Commenting on this passage, Wind seems to qualify Pico’s radical mysticism (267): “This doctrine provides a convincing mystical justification for an eminently rational mental state.”

11 Jews : the specific reference seems to be to the “Hebrew Cabalist Wisemen Whose Memory Should Always be Honored” to whom are dedicated 47 cabalistic Conclusiones (see Farmer, 344-45, and note for a discussion of Pico’s Cabalistic sources, all drawn from late Medieval texts, and more specifically, according to Wirszubski, from Flavius Mithridates’ Latin translation of Menahem Recanati’s Commentary on the Pentateuch, a thesis strongly criticized by Farmer).

12 Pythagoreans : Cabalistic and Pythagorean doctrines and calculations are a significant component of the Conclusiones (both according to opinions of others and his own opinion). For references to the Mathematics of Pythagora, namely the quaternarius, see in particular 25. 1-14. According to Farmer, Pico draws his references to Pythagorean doctrines from late Greek sources, primarily Proclus’s Theologia Platonica (Farmer, 334). A numerical (and mystical) ratio underlies the metamorphic nature of the cosmos .

13 Enoch : Book of E., 40:8. Both Garin and Tognon refer to the Ethiopian Book of Enoch (1 st- or 2 nd- century C.E., Tertullian considered it part of the Holy Scriptures) a source of apocalyptic literature (to be distinguished from a Book of the Secrets of Enoch, of which there exist Medieval manuscripts in slavic languages, ca. 1200). Second- and Third-Century “Church Fathers” like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen and Clement of Alexandria also make use of the Book of Enoch. The reference could also be to the so-called Third Book of Enoch, presumably compiled in Babylon around the 6 th-century C.E. (Dictionary of the Bible, I, 704, sgg.). This is a late apocalyptic text harking back to the mysticism of the Merkava and circulating in Medieval mss. (Pico’s library was rich in Kabbalistic texts in Hebrew, sine titulo, see Kibre). In the Jewish tradition, many legends collect around the figure of Enoch (son of Jared, father of Methuselah, the 7 th in the Adamitic genealogy, along the line of Seth) who “walked with God for three hundred years,” was taken to heaven without abandoning the human form and transfigured. In this tradition, Enoch is also represented as the inventor of letters, arithmetic and geometry and called “first author.” In the Third Book of Enoch (or Book of Enoch of the Merkava mystics, on which see G. Scholem, ” Merkava mysticism and Jewish Gnosis”, in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism), the elevation of Enoch has two versions, in the second of which E. is “taken with the Shekhinà” and “transfigured” as Metatron (according to the prevailing etimology: “Methathronius= he who is next to the throne of God – see Scholem). A reference to Metatron can be found in Pico’s Commentary on the Love Song of Hieronymo Benivieni (written in the same year of the Oratio and the Conclusiones, 1486) almost in the exact terms of the Oratio, as a synonym of transfiguration: “…thus one must understand the saying of the Kabbalists, when they say that Enoch is transformed into Matatron [sic], angel of divinity, or universally any other man [is transformed] into an angel” (see Garin, 1942, 554). After a devout life on earth, E. was elevated to the rank of the first of angels and Sar ha-panìm (literally: prince of the divine visage, or divine presence). This intricate constellation of possible references, not precisely identifiable with a direct quotation of the Ethiopian (Third?) Book of E., hints at the complexity of Pico’s angelology, as articulated in the Oratio and elsewhere.

14 “…I was born a male and female child, a plant, a bird and a dumb fish of the sea…” (Empedocles of Akragas, fr. 117, see K. Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Oxford, 1952, 65). Pico’s thought is pervaded by this idea of trasmigration (man as a microcosm, containing in himself the seeds and stages of the entire creation) which can be found in the many traditions he quotes but certainly acquires a new intonation in his writing. For his interpretation of Empedocles, see Conclusiones (according to his own opinion), 3>71, in which Empedocles’s teaching is related to the sefirot, 5>5 and, in particular, 8>4, in which Empedocles is connected to Zoroaster’s saying and his Chaldean commentators: “In the same place [the so called Chaldean Oracles], by the roots of the earth they can only mean vegetative life, which comforms to the words of Empedocles, who points transanimation even into plants” (Farmer, 489 and Biondi, 114). See also Pico, Heptaplus, lib. IV, cap. 5: “Following Plato in the Republic we say different species of animals are within us, hence it is not difficult to believe that paradox of the Pythagoreans, if we rightly understand it, that inept men can easily change into brutes. Inside us, in our viscera so to speak, there are brutes, thus often we are led astray and simply become them.” (see Garin, 1942, 280; Plato, Resp. 588d).

15 Particularly effective is Pico’s iterative and emphatic use of three almost synonymous terms in order to articulate man’s specific and unique capability. The most interesting of these terms is effingere, from et fingere , which has two meanings: a) to form, to procreate with artifice (Tac., Plin., Tert., Arnob. et al.) and b) to imitate (Rhet. Her. ); to imagine (TLL).

16 See for example King James Gen 6:12 (“ And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for allflesh had corrupted his way upon the earth); Numbers 27:16 (“Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of allflesh, set a man over the congregation…); Deut. 5:26 (For who is there of allflesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived?”; Luke 3:6 (“Andall flesh shall see the salvation of God”); John 3:6 (“That which is born of theflesh isflesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”) and 17:2 (As thou hast given him power over allflesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him”). See also, 1 Cor. 15:39 (“All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds…”); 1 Peter 24 (“Forall flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away…”).

17 Evantes . Difficult to ascertain to what “Persian” source Pico is referring here. Pico claims he possessed the Chaldean Horacles (i.e. books containing the horacles of “Ezre, Zoroastris and the Melchiar of the Magi”) in a letter to Ficino (fall 1486, Supplementum Ficinianum , pp. 272-3). According to Farmer (see footnote at page 486-87), this became the source of a conviction, among Renaissance editors of the Oracles such as, for example, Francesco Patrizi, that Pico indeed possessed the original, integral texts from which the extant and incomplete Greek collections made by Psellus (11 th-century) and Pletho (15 th-century) were drawn (fragments from Plotinus, Proclus, etc.). Ficino himself had translated and commented Pletho’s collection. The strange text that follows here, restored from the manuscript, the Chaldean saying that “no inner image belongs to man…”  absent from the Editio Princeps, but legible in P, is a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, in Ethiopian character: according to Farmer, taken by Pico from a version of the Oracles provided to him by Flavius Mithridates and most likely a forgery. It may be interesting to note that this quote reimphasizes one of the central tenets of Pico’s argument, in the Oratio, a definition of human being retraced at the core of all religious-philosophical traditions (prisca theologia), all confirming the biblical narrative of Genesis. There’s no trace of it (attributed to Chaldean sources) in the Conclusiones. More about the Oracles below, ¶¶136-143.

18 The reference is to Psalms 49:10-21; 82: “I have declared: you are all gods,/and sons of the Most High,/ Yet you shall die as men die,/ And you shall fall as one of the princes.” These are words spoken by God to the angels, condemned for their sins. Pico applies them to men, in order to incite them to ascend from their intermediate (and shapeless) station toward a higher, angelic form, the theme of the next section of the Oratio.

19 Wallis, Miller and Carmichael mistakenly translate “ caelestia contemnamus” as “let us struggle toward the heavenly.” I prefer to be consistent with the letter of the text, sticking to the classical meaning of the verb contemnare (used by Cicero etc.) and translating caelestia as “celestial,” rather than “heavenly.” Pico’s reference might be to astronomical-astrological knowledge of the heavens. In any case, it is consistent with what he writes in ¶42 (see above), where he suggests a higher stage of contemplation, beyond the eartlhy and the heavenly.


§ 11 The Nature of the Highest Angels

54. But in what way, or by doing what?

55. Let us see what they do, what life they lead.

56. If we live that life (and indeed we can), we will be equal to their lot.

57. The Seraph burns with the fire of love; the Cherub shines with the splendor of intelligence; the Throne stands in the steadfastness of judgment.

58. Therefore if we, being dedicated to an active life, undertake the care of inferior things with proper consideration of their worth, we will be strengthened by the steadfast solidity of the Thrones.

59. If we, being unburdened by actions, meditate on the Creator in His creation and on creation in the Creator, we will be engaged in the tranquillity of contemplation; we will shine on all sides with Cherubic light.

60. If we burn for the Creator alone, with charity, with its all-consuming fire, we will burst into flame in the likeness of the Seraphim1.

61. Upon the Throne, that is upon the just judge, sits God, the Judge of all time.

62. Over the Cherub, that is over the contemplator, He flies and, almost brooding over him2, imbues him with warmth.

63. Indeed, the Spirit of the Lord is carried over the waters, the waters that, it is said, are above the Heavens and that praise God in the pre-dawn hymns in the book of Job3.

64. And the Seraph, that is the lover, is in God and God is in him; and God and he are one.

65. Great is the power of the Thrones that we may reach by judging; supreme is the height of the Seraphim that we may reach by loving.

§ 12 The Angels As Inspiration to Man

66. And yet in what manner can anyone either judge or love things unknown?

67. Moses loved the Lord Whom he saw and, as a judge, he administered to the people the things that he earlier saw on the mountain as a contemplator.

68. Hence the Cherub, located in the middle position, prepares us for the Seraphic fire and likewise illuminates us for the judgment of the Thrones.

69. This is the bond of the First Minds, the order of Pallas, the guardian of contemplative philosophy. First we must emulate him, thirst after him and to the same degree understand him in order that we may be raised to the heights of love and descend well taught and prepared to the duties of action.

70. And so it is valuable, if our life is to be modeled on the example of the Cherubs’ life, to have before our eyes an idea of what their life is and what it is like, what their actions are and what works are theirs.

71. Because we, who are flesh and know only earthly things, are not permitted to follow their model of our own accord, let us consult the ancient Fathers for they, to whom these things were common and well known, can provide us with certain and abundant evidence of its nature.

72. Let us inquire of the apostle Paul, the chosen vessel, about the activities of the Cherubic hosts that he saw when raised up to the third heaven.

73. He will certainly answer, according to the interpretation of Dionysius, that they are cleansed, then illuminated and afterwards are perfected.

§ 13 The Preparation of the Soul

74. We, emulating the Cherubic life on Earth, curbing the drive of the emotions through moral science, dispersing the darkness of reason through dialectic (as if washing away the squalor of ignorance and vices), therefore purge our souls lest our emotions run amok or our reason imprudently run off course at any time.

75. Then well we imbue our purified and prepared soul with the light of natural philosophy so that afterwards we may perfect it with the knowledge of divine things.

§ 14 Jacob’s Ladder

76. And lest our Fathers be enough for us, let us consult Jacob the patriarch whose image shines, chiseled in the dwelling place of glory.

77. The most wise father, asleep in the lower world and awake in the higher, will illumine us4.

78. But he will teach us through a figure (in this way all things were known to them) that there is a ladder which stretches from the lowest earth to the highest Heavens and that is marked by a series of many rungs. God is at its height and the contemplative angels move up and down it in turns.

§ 15 Our Approach to Jacob’s Ladder

79. So, if we are to carry out these things in our efforts to imitate the angelic life, who, I ask, will dare to touch the Ladder of God, either with an unclean foot or with unwashed hands?

80. As the mysteries have it, it is unlawful to touch the clean with the unclean.

81. But what feet are these?

82. What hands?

83. To be sure, the foot of the soul is that part which is most despicable, that which leans upon matter as if on earthly soil; it is the faculty, I say, that feeds and nourishes, I say, the kindling wood of lust and the teacher of sensual weakness5.

84. And why not call the hands of the soul its irascible part, that which fights on behalf of desire, battles for it and like a plunderer takes away in broad daylight and the public arena the things that desire, resting in the shade, then devours?

85. These hands, these feet, are the entire sensual part of the body in which resides the attraction that holds the soul back, as they say, obtorto collo. Let us wash them in moral philosophy like in a flowing river lest we be held back from the ladder as wicked and unclean.

86. And yet not even this will be enough if we wish to be companions to the angels who hasten up and down Jacob’s ladder unless we are first well prepared and instructed to be promoted from step to step, to wheel away nowhere from the course of the ladder, and to encounter the reciprocal movements.

87. Once we, inspired by the Cherubic spirit, have reached this point through the art of speaking or of reasoning, that is, philosophizing according to the grades of Nature, penetrating the whole from the center to the center, we will then descend, dashing the one into many with Titanic force like Osiris, and ascend, drawing together with Apollonian force the many into one like Osiris’ limbs6 until at last, resting in the bosom of the Father Who is at the top of the ladder, we will be made perfect in theological bliss.

§ 16 Peace and the Dual Nature of the Soul

88. And let us inquire with just Job, who entered into a pact of life with the God of life before he was brought into being7, as to what God the Highest desires among those tens of hundreds of thousands who are there present before Him: he will certainly answer peace, in accordance with that which is written in Job: «He who makes peace in the heavens».

89. And since the middle order interprets the precepts of the highest order for the lower ones, let now Empedocles the philosopher interpret for us the words of Job the theologian.

90. Empedocles, as his songs attest, presents to us through the symbols of conflict and friendship, or of war and peace, the dual nature that is set in our souls: one of them lifts us upwards to the heavens and the other drags us down into the depths.

91. In these songs he deplores being tossed into the depths, driven by conflict and discord like a madman and banished from the gods8.

§ 17 Theology As Succor for the Soul Fraught with Strife

92. Manifold indeed, Oh Fathers, is the discord in us; we grave internal, more than civil, wars in our home.

93. They are such that, if we desire them not, if we yearn after that peace which will lift us up and set us among God’s most exalted ones, only moral philosophy will be able to still the troubles within us and bring us calm. If in our inner self we greatly desire above all else a truce from our enemies, we will beat down the unbridled stampede of the manifold beast, the aggression, ire and arrogance of the lion9.

94. Then, if thinking rightly, we yearn for the safety of perpetual peace for ourselves, it will come and liberally satisfy our desires; indeed, both beasts having been sacrificed like a stuck sow10, it will ratify an everlasting pact of the most holy peace between the flesh and the spirit.

95. Dialectic will calm the tumults of reason agitated and tossed about between the contradictions of speech and the captiousness of syllogism.

96. Natural philosophy will allay the differences of opinion and disagreements which from all sides vex, perplex and afflict our restless soul.

97. But it will bring harmony in such a way as to remind us that nature is the offspring of war, as Heraclitus said, and for this reason it is called by Homer «contention».

98. For this reason it is said that in philosophy true rest and stable peace cannot reveal themselves to us alone, that this is the duty and privilege of its mistress, that is, of the most holy theology.

99. She will show us the way to this peace and like a companion will lead us. Seeing us hurrying along from afar, she will call out, «Come to me, you who exert yourselves in vain; come and I will restore you; come to me and I will give you that peace which the world and nature cannot give to you».

§ 18 The Soul’s Search for Peace and Its Union with God

100. So gently called, so kindly invited, we will then fly away into the embrace of the most blessed Mother like terrestrial Mercuries with winged feet; thoroughly will we enjoy the longed-for peace. This is that most holy peace, the indissoluble bond, the harmonious friendship in which all souls, in one mind, a Mind that is above all minds, are not only in agreement but indeed, in a certain ineffable way, inwardly become one11.

101. This is that friendship which the Pythagoreans call the end of all philosophy, that peace which God makes in His heavens, which the angels who came down to earth announced to men of good will so that these men would, ascending to heaven, be transformed by it into angels.

102. Let us desire this peace for our friends, for our times; let us desire it for whatever home we enter. Let us desire it for our soul so that in it may be made a house of the Lord, so that, after casting off its impurities through moral philosophy and dialectic, our soul may adorn itself with multi-faceted philosophy, as if with royal magnificence, may crown the heights of her doors with the garlands of theology, and finally so that the King of Glory may descend, together with the Father, to make a home in it.

103. If our soul shows herself to be worthy of such a Guest (for immense is His Clemency) clad in gold, like a wedding toga, surrounded by a diverse variety of sciences, she will receive Him not as a Guest but as a Bridegroom. She will wish to be separated from her people so as not to be separated from Him. Having forgotten her own father’s home, indeed, having forgotten herself, she will wish to die in herself that she may live in her Spouse in Whose sight the death of His saints is truly precious. This is the death, I say, if one must call that plenitude of life death, whose contemplation is, according to the sages, the study of philosophy12.

§ 19 Moses’ Allegory of the Tabernacle

104. Let us take as an example Moses, himself just a bit inferior to the fountainlike fullness of sacrosanct and ineffable intelligence whose nectar inebriates the angels13.

105. We will hear the venerable Judge thus declare His laws to us who live in the empty solitude of this body: «Let those who are unclean and as yet in need of moral philosophy dwell with the masses outside the tabernacle in the open air while they purify themselves like the priests of Thessaly.

106. Let those who have already put their behavior in order and have been received into the sanctuary not let lay hands upon the sacred things but first, in the service of dialectic, let them serve the holy things of philosophy like diligent Levites.

107. Once they are allowed access to the holy things in the priesthood of philosophy, let them contemplate the multicolored aspect of the higher kingdom of God, that is, the divine, princely decoration, as well as the celestial candelabra adorned with seven lights. Let them behold the skins so that they, permitted at last into the recesses of the temple through the merits of theological sublimity, may rejoice in the glory of the Divinity without any veil of a likeness coming in between» 14.

108. These things Moses truly commands of us and in commanding instructs, incites and encourages so that through philosophy we may prepare for ourselves, while we are able, the path to the future celestial glory.


1 In accordance with the scheme laid out by Pseudo-Dionysius (cf. ¶ 73 of the Oratio) and confirmed by St. Thomas (Summa I, q. 108, art. 6) and St. Gregory (In evang. II hom. 34), Pico represents here the three divisions of the highest order of angels: the Seraphim, the Cherubim and the Thrones. These should not be confused, however, with the three types discussed in Heptaplus 3.3 since the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones are all members of the highest division, that which enjoys the leisure of contemplation and which is distinguished by a superabundance of goodness. The fact that Pico specifically calls the Cherubim contemplators does not mean that the Seraphim and Thrones are not. See St. Thomas, Summa I, q. 108, art. 5, rep. 5. Man’s task is the emulation of the highest angels (action, contemplation, communion with God) and dialectic is the necessary intermediate stage in this mystic process (Bori 1996, 557). Cf. Conclusiones 111, 132, 220, 357, 640, 710, 711. It has been suggested (Farmer 1998, 346-351) that Pico consciously overlaid the Cabalistic sefirot upon the celestial hierarchy elucidated by Pseudo-Dionysius. In this arrangement, as it applies here, each of these three types of angels is associated with a specific sefirah: The Seraphim with Hesed; the Thrones with Din; the Cherubs with Binah.

2 This unusual phrase, in which God «broods», is glossed by Pico himself in Heptaplus 2.3: «Super hunc (i.e. the crystalline heaven of the upper waters) ferebatur, aut ut veritas habet hebraica, et Syrus Effren transtulit, incubabat huic Spiritus Domini, idest proxime adhaerens spiritalis Olympus, sedes Spirituum Domini, fovebat eum sua luce vivifica, et recte est factum, ut qui attinens est principio lucis toto corpore et tota mole lucem combiberet, propterea nobis invisibilem quia corpulentia solidiore non terminatur». (See also Pico’s Commentary on a Canzone of Benivieni, book 1, ch. 10.) The Hebrew term mentioned here is  (merefeth). Interestingly, the gloss of St. Ephrem here in question (Commentary on Genesis, 1.7) explicitly states that it was the wind and not the Spirit of the Lord that hovered or brooded above the waters. On this, see T. Kronholm, Motifs from Genesis I-II in the Genuine Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, Coniectanea Biblica, vol. 11 (Lund: Gleerup, 1978) pp. 43-44. Pico, however, may have had another text in mind when he wrote the passage mentioned above from the Heptaplus: Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram, 1.18.36 in which the generative interpretation is held to be valid: «Nam et illud quod per graecam et latinam linguam dictum est de Spiritu Dei, quod superferebatur super aquas, secundum syrae linguae intellectum, quae vicina est hebraeae, (nam hoc a quodam docto christiano syro fertur expositum) non superferebatur, sed fovebat potius intelligi perhibetur. Nec sicut foventur tumores aut vulnera in corpore aquis vel frigidis vel calore congruo temperatis; sed sicut ova foventur ab alitibus, ubi calor ille materni corporis etiam formandis pullis quodammodo adminiculatur, per quemdam in suo genere dilectionis affectum». Cf. also Basil, Homilia II in Hexaëron. Later in the Heptaplus (6.5), Pico returns to this same image («Nam et docet nos prima dies tunc primum aquis, depulsa nocte, obtortam lucem cum Spiritus Domini eis incubit»), citing James 1:17.

3 Pico here alludes, as he elaborates in the Heptaplus, to the «separation of the waters» in the Book of Genesis (1:7-9) into the upper and the lower waters (cf. Ex. 20:4 and Ps. 148:4). The upper, as he explains in the Heptaplus (see esp. 7.3), are associated with the Cherubim (Proem II), the Seraphim and the Thrones (3.3). In the Old Testament (cf. Jer. 10:2) they are compared to the Jews (7.2) whereas the lower come to represent the gentiles (7.2) and more generally the earthy world from which Christians are freed, as if from a yoke (7.3). Furthermore, Pico attributes to Moses the notion that the firmament, i.e. the sphere of the fixed stars, was placed by God between the two waters (2.3). The waters under the firmament were originally the seven planets which were collected together and generated the seas and the ocean whence, as the Chaldeans held, in turn came the nutritive elements that give rise to growth and regeneration in plant and animal life (2.3, 3.4 et al.). Metaphorically, they also come to stand for the sensual and sensory characteristics of man (4.3). The waters over which the «Spirit of the Lord» flies here are the upper. This «Spiritus Domini» is in the Heptaplus synonymous with the Spirit of Love (3.2) and with God’s illumination of our intellect (4.2, 5.1 and 6.2) as well as creator of form (1.2). In the Commentary on a Canzone of Benivieni (2.17a), Pico mentions that the upper waters are the living fountain which slakes man’s thirst forever. Cf. John 4:13-15. When considered in the light of Cabalistic teaching, the upper waters may be likened to the fifth serifah (God’s judgment) and the lower to the fourth (love, according to Pico’s interpretation). Cf. Conclusiones 379, 872, 895; Farmer (1998, 549 et passim). On early morning prayer, see Concl. 392.

4 Jacob saw God here on Earth only during a dream (Gen. 28:11-17); in Heaven, however, the vision of God is attainable in a waking state.

5 The conception here of aspects of the soul as a hindrance to the attainment of spiritual and philosophical purity (paragraphs 83-85) owes much to Plato’s Phaedo (64c-67b) in which mastery of physical appetite is the cornerstone of moral rectitude.

6 A probable source for these similes is Plutarch’s On Isis and Osiris, 18. After Osiris dies, Typhon (who is identified as being akin to the Titans in 49) comes upon his corpse and cuts it into pieces. Isis afterwards collects almost all of the body parts and, with the help of her son Horus (first identified with Apollo in Herodotus 2.144), conquers Typhon. As a result of this conflict, Osiris comes to be regarded as the god of the dead but also of renewed life through Horus (who is, like Apollo, associated with the sun). Interestingly, there is a very similar sort of expression in Macrobius’ In somnium Scipionis (1.12.12) in which it is Bacchus, not Osiris, who is dismembered by the Titans and afterwards regains his corporeal form. It is quite possible that Pico had both these passages in mind when he composed this section of the Oratio and that he formed a sort of synthesis of the two myths here. See also Pico’s Commentary on a Canzone of Benivieni, book 2, ch. 8.

7 Actually it was not Job but Jeremiah who entered into a pact with God before his birth (see Jer. 1:5).

8 We may recognize in these lines an allusion too to Aeneas who, «fato profugus», was «iactatus … in alto» (cf. Aeneid, 1.2-3).

9 Pico elaborates on the metaphor of man’s interior «manifold beast» in Heptaplus 4.5-7, citing Plato’s statement in the Republic (588d) that our secret desires can be compared to various beasts which dwell within us. (Cf. Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 12.46.) Pico writes: «Sic etenim a natura institutus homo, ut ratio sensibus dominaretur, frenareturque illius lege omnis tum irae tum libidinis furor et appetentia».

10 To understand this simile of the «icta porca», we must look to Vergil who, in the eighth book of the Aeneid, recounts the peace made between Romulus and Tatius over the sacrificed sow (8.639-641): «post idem inter se posito certamine reges / armati Iovis ante aram paterasque tenentes / stabant et caesa iungebant foedera porca». This passage is incorporated by Pico in Christian terms and brought in here as the symbol of a ratified peace.

11 «Friendship» in this context should be understood both as a form of charitas and as the general force of attraction, much discussed by Empedocles and analyzed by Aristotle (Met. 985a20-30), which, in Pico, translates into that energy which encourages the soul toward its union with God. The soul, which has a natural faculty for friendship (I Sam. 18:1), is always drawn upwards toward the highest good.

12 That «plenitude of life» known as death is explained a good deal more clearly by Pico in his De ente et uno (chapter 5). Citing the Bible (I Cor. 15:31; Rom. 7:24) and Seneca (Ep. 102 and 120), Pico casts our worldly life as death itself inasmuch as it is simply the soul’s temporary vivification of the body, not a state of existence that is characteristic of the essence of the soul. The soul’s «life» is being and, given that the study of philosophy is also the contemplation of being, can in this way be seen to exemplify the object of the philosopher’s endeavor. Cf. the last sentence of De ente et uno. See also Phaedo 82b-84b. Cf. Commentary on a Canzone of Benivieni, notes to stanza 4.

13 The image of heavenly nectar in this context goes back to Plato’s discussion of the angelic charioteer who, after guiding the soul to heaven, refreshes his horses with ambrosia and nectar (Phaedrus 243e-257a). Ficino was especially intrigued by this mythical «hymn» of which he wrote several times and which, indeed, occupies nearly all of his commentary on the Phaedrus. In a letter sent to Giovanni Cavalcanti (known as the De raptu Pauli ad tertium coelum [Opera Omnia, vol. 1, pp. 697ff.]), Ficino uses Plato’s charioteer as a stylistic model for Paul’s vision of heaven (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2-4 and ¶ 72 above). The motif is revisited, complete with mention of the divine foods, in two other works: in the De voluptate, he explains that ambrosia represents contemplation and nectar the joy of being near to God; in the De amore (7.14), ambrosia and nectar are symbolic of the wondrous vision of heaven: «Obicit illis ambrosiam et super ipsam nectar potandum, id est, visionem pulchritudinis et ex visione letitiam». These two interpretations come together in a third passage, his commentary on the Philebus (chap. 34): «Levitas enim ignem sursum traxit, et ignem in superioribus detinet et obicit intellectui ambrosiam, id est, visionem, voluntati nectar, id est, gaudium». The food and drink of the gods are glossed once more by Ficino in such a way as to clarify Pico’s words here. In the Theologia Platonica (18.8), published in 1474, Ficino considers Plato’s idea of souls: «Addit eisdem una cum superis illic alimentis, scilicet ambrosia et nectare vesci. Ambrosiam quidem esse censet perspicuum suavemque veritatis intuitum, nectar vero excellentem facillimamque providentiam». These various ideas on the meaning of heavenly nectar appear frequently in many of Ficino’s letters. Pico probably begins with this Platonic notion for the presence of nectar in heaven but then, relying on Plotinus’ interpretation (Enneads 3.5.9) of a passage in Plato’s Symposium (203b-c), adds the reference to intoxication, an allusion in the case of Plotinus to the way in which knowledge is passed down from higher levels to lower. See also Pico’s Commentary on a Canzone of Benivieni (2, 14a, notes to stanza 3 and notes to stanza 4 in which he refers to Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, 2.12). Note that this type is to be distinguished from the decidedly less beneficial «nectar philosophiae» mentioned in Boethius’ De disciplina scholarium 5 (PL vol. 64, cols. 1233C-D).

14 The meaning of paragraphs 105-107 relies upon several Old Testament passages related to temples and the duties of priests. Most scholars attribute the wondrous images of paragraph 107 to the descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25-26). To be sure, the phrase «pellicea elementa» is difficult to understand if not in reference to the furs placed over the ark’s exterior (cf. Ex. 26:14, 36:19 and 39:33; see Cassirer, Kristeller and Randall, 233). The skins could be Christological symbols and/or representative of the Fall and Redemption (cf. Conclusiones 764-765 and Farmer [1998, 489-490]). Similarly, the seven-part candelabra could well be inspired by the «septem lucernas» of Ex. 25:37-39 and the multicolored decorations to the various blues, scarlets, purples and golds of the tabernacle’s curtains (Ex. 26:1-6). The most important aspect of this section is Pico’s allegorical division of the place of worship into three stages, each corresponding to a level of philosophical enlightenment. This is an interesting twist to the physical hierarchy of holy places that is presented in the Bible. The outermost area of the temple is that of the unclean or the common people. The Levites are responsible for the sanctuary (see Num. 1:47-53; 3:5-10; 18:1-7; Ez. 44:15-17, etc.). At the centermost area of the temple, that part administered by the descendants of Aaron, is located the «velum» («nullo imaginis intercedente velo») behind which one finds himself in God’s direct presence. In the first proem to the Heptaplus, Pico explains that Moses was entirely illuminated by the Divine Light but revealed to men the truths according to their ability to comprehend them (cf. Ps. 118:11, I Cor. 5:11). This idea is represented in these paragraphs. Similarly, in the second proem, Pico expounds upon a tripartite configuration of the world structured according to levels of attainable comprehension: the highest level is that which theologians call «angelic» and philosophers call «intelligible»; the middle level is the celestial world; the lower is the sublunary which we inhabit. These three worlds are symbolized by Moses’ instructions regarding the construction of the tabernacle. Pico insists upon this series of similes, as he himself tells us, because through them man is able to recognize his path to a union with God. It was with the sight of the spirit, that is, through intellectual or intuitive cognition, that Moses and Paul saw God without any veil of a likeness coming in between. See also Pico’s Commentary on a Canzone of Benivieni, book 2, ch. 9.


§ 20.

109. In fact, however, not only the Mosaic and Christian mysteries,1 but also the theology of the ancients2 show us the dignity and value of the liberal arts which I am about to discuss.

110. For at what else was the observance of the different degrees of initiation in Greek mysteries aimed? Only after having been purified through the arts which we might call expiatory, moral philosophy and dialectic,3 the initiates could gain entrance to the mysteries.4

111. And what else can such admission possibly signify if not an interpretation by means of philosophy of the most hidden nature?

112. At this point they were finally prepared for the coming of epopteia,5 that is the intimate vision of divine things by the light of theology.

113. Who would not long to be initiated into such sacred rites?

114. Who would not desire, putting aside all human concerns, despising the goods of fortune and neglecting the body, to become a guest at the table of the gods while still living on earth, and, soaked in the nectar of eternity, to receive, though still a mortal animal, the gift of immortality?

115. Who would not wish to be so inspired by the Socratic frenzies that Plato celebrates in the Phaedrus, that he is transferred after a quick course, fleeing readily with oarlike strokes of wings and feet, from here (that is, from this world set on evil) to the heavenly Jerusalem?

116. We shall be led away, Fathers, we shall be led away by the Socratic frenzies,6 which will so lift us out of our mind as to put our mind and ourselves in God.

117. We shall be led away by them, however, only if we ourselves first complete that which is ours to do; for, if through moral philosophy the forces of our passions have been correctly attuned, in the correct proportions, based on harmonic measure, so as to be tuned one to the other in lasting consonance; and if, through dialectic, our reason has progressed by measured advance, only then, stirred by the frenzy of the Muses, we shall drink the heavenly harmony with our inmost hearing.

118. Then Bacchus, the leader of the Muses,7 through his mysteries (that is, through the visible signs of nature) will show us, who philosophize, the invisible things of God, and will make us drunk with the abundance of God’s house, in which, if we prove entirely faithful, like Moses, most sacred theology shall draw close to us, animating us with redoubled frenzy.

119. For we, raised to her most eminent height, thence comparing to indivisible eternity all things that are and shall be and have been and admiring their primeval beauty, shall be the Phoebean seers; of this beauty we shall become the winged lovers. And at last, roused by ineffable love as if by a sting, and borne outside ourselves like burning Seraphim, filled with the godhead, we shall be no longer ourselves, but He Himself Who made us.

§ 21.

120. The sacred names of Apollo, if anyone investigates their meanings and hidden mysteries, sufficiently show that that God is, no less than a seer, a philosopher.

121. But since Ammonius8 has amply examined this matter, there is no reason for me to treat it further; but, Fathers, let us recall the three Delphic precepts,9 which are absolutely necessary to those who are to enter the most holy and august temple, not of the false, but of the true Apollo who lighteth every soul that cometh into this world; you will realize that they exhort us to nothing else but to embrace with all our strength the tripartite philosophy that we now discuss.

122. For the famous maxim, meden agan (that is: «Nothing too much»), rightly prescribes as rule and norm for every virtue the criterion of the “mean”, of which moral philosophy speaks.

123. Then the maxim, gnothi seauton (that is: «Know thyself»), urges and exhorts us to the knowledge of all nature, of which the nature of man is the intermediate and, so to speak, the mixture.

124. For he who knows himself, in himself knows all things, as first Zoroaster wrote, and later Plato in the Alcibiades.

125. Finally, once natural philosophy has enlightened us with this knowledge, and we, being very close to God and saying ei (that is: «You are»), we shall address by a theological salutation the true Apollo on intimate and likewise blissful terms.

§ 22.

126. But let us also consult Pythagoras,10 the wisest of men, and wise precisely because he never deemed himself worthy of that name.11

127. He will firstly advise us «not to sit on a bushel», that is, not to lose, abandoning it to sloth and inaction, that rational part by which the soul measures, judges and considers all things; but rather, by the exercise and the rule of dialectic, to direct and to stimulate it unremittingly.

128. Then he will point out to us two things to be avoided above all: that is, making water facing the sun and cutting our nails while offering sacrifice.

129. But after we have evacuated the lax appetites of our too-abundant pleasures through moral philosophy, and pared away, like nails, the sharp points of wrath and the claws of animosity, only then shall we finally begin to take part in the sacred rites, that is, in the above mentioned mysteries of Bacchus, and to dedicate ourselves to that contemplation of which the sun is rightly named the father and the guide.

130. Finally Pythagoras will exhort us «to feed the cock», that is, to nourish the divine part of the soul with the knowledge of divine things, as if with substantial food and heavenly ambrosia.

131. This is the cock whose glance the lion, that is, all earthly power, holds in fear and awe.

132. This the cock to whom, we read in Job, intelligence was given.

133. When this cock crows, erring man comes to his senses.

134. This cock in the morning twilight joins his voice every day to the lauds that morning stars raise to God.

135. This is the cock which Socrates, at the hour of his death, when he hoped to join the divine of his soul to the divinity of a greater world, said that he owed to Aesculapius, that is, to the physician of souls, now that he was beyond danger of any bodily illness.

§ 23.

136. But let us review also the records of the Chaldeans,12 and we shall see (if they are to be trusted) that the arts that open for mortals the road to happiness are the same.

137. The Chaldean interpreters write that it was a saying of Zoroaster’s that the soul is winged and that, when the wings fall from her, she is plunged into the body; but she flies back to heaven when the wings grow again.

138. When his disciples asked him in what manner they could obtain souls with well-plumed wings and able to fly, he replied: «Wet them well in the waters of life».

139. And when they asked him again where they might obtain these waters, he answered them by a parable (as was his custom): «God’s paradise is purified and watered by four rivers.

140. From these you may draw the waters that will save you.

141. The name of the river which flows from the north is [q-s-t], which means the right; that which flows from the west is named [k-?-r-n], which means expiation; that which comes from the east is named [n-h-r] , that is light, while that from the south is [r-h-m-n-t], which may be translated as piety».

142. Now consider carefully and with full attention, Fathers, what these doctrines of Zoroaster aim at: surely at nothing else than inducing us to wash away, by moral science, as by Iberian ways, the uncleanness from our eyes; and to rectify our gaze by dialectic, as if by the northern line.

143. Then we should become accustomed, in the contemplation of nature, to endure the still feeble light of truth, as if it were the first rays of the rising sun, so that through theological piety and the most holy worship of God, we become able finally to endure, like the eagles of heaven, the dazzling splendor of the meridian sun.

144. These are, perhaps, those celebrated morning, midday and evening thoughts first sung by David and then given a larger explanation by Augustine.

145. This is the noonday light that directly inflames the Seraphim and equally illuminates the Cherubim.

146. This is the country towards which our ancient father Abraham was ever advancing.

147. This is the region where, according to the doctrines of the Cabalists and the Arabs, there is no place for unclean spirits.

148. And, if it may be permitted, even in the form of a riddle, to bring anything at all of the most hidden mysteries into the open,13 since the sudden fall from heaven has condemned the head of man to dizziness and, according to Jeremiah, death has come in through the windows to smite our livers and breasts, let us call upon Raphael,14 the heavenly physician, that he may release us by moral philosophy and dialectic, as though by healing drugs.

149. Then, when we are restored to health, Gabriel, the strength of God, will abide in us and, leading us through the marvels of nature and showing us the merit and the power of God everywhere, he will finally deliver us to the high priest Michael, who in turn will adorn us, who have completed our service to philosophy, with the insignia of theological priesthood, as with a crown of precious stones.


1 Pico was not the only one to use the term «mystery» as applied to Moses’ teachings: cf. for example M. Ficino, In Phaedrum, in Opera, Basilea 1576, p. 1363: «Tum vero interea mirabile nota mysterium mosayco mysterio simile».

2 On the prisca theologia (a notion that was perhaps taken from Gemistus Pletho), see M. Ficino’s Argumentum set before his translation of the Pimander, in Opera, Basilea 1576, p. 1836: «There is therefore a theology of the ancients (prisca theologia) … which has its origins in Mercury and culminates in the divine Plato». For an alternative thread, which begins with Zoroaster, see Theol. plat. 17, 1, in Opera, Basilea 1576, p. 386. For the different genealogies see D. P. Walker, The Prisca Theologia in France, in «J.W.C.I.» 17 (1956) 204-59. For an overview see Walker 1972. Pico’s trust in the prisca theologia will turn into disillusionment, and finally disappear in his Disputationes (cf. Valcke 1989, 192, cit. in Bausi 1996, 110 n. 19).

3 On dialectic seen as an expiatory art see Plato, Sophist 230c-d.

4 Creating an analogy between the path of philosophy and that of the mysteries – the first steps of which consist in purification and initiation – is typical of Neoplatonism, but is already present in Plato, Phaedo, 69b-d: «but truth is in fact a purification from all these things, and self-restraint and justice and courage and wisdom itself are a kind of purification. And I fancy that these men who established the mysteries were not unenlightened, but in reality had a hidden meaning when they said long ago that whoever goes uninitiated and unsanctified to the other world will lie in the mire, but he who arrives there initiated and purified will dwell with the gods. For as they say in the mysteries, ‘the thyrsus-bearers are many, but the mystics are few’; and these mystics are, I believe, those who have been true philosophers» (trans. by H.N. Fowler, in the Loeb Classical Library). A.-J. Festugière has suggested that the mystères cultuels have been replaced through the mystères littéraires (cf. A. Diès, Autour de Platon, Paris 1927). Regarding the issue of the “language of mysteries” in a Platonic context, refer to the introduction to Wind 1968.

5 Cf. Plato, Symposium 210a and Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 77 (382d).

6 In ¶¶ 115-119 Pico adapts Plato’s doctrine of the four divine “maníai” (divini furores, following Ficino’s and Pico’s terminology) to his tripartita philosophia. Plato’s most significant passage may be found in Phaedrus 265b: «And we made four divisions of the divine madness, ascribing them to four gods, saying that prophecy was inspired by Apollo, the mystic madness by Dionysos, the poetic by the Muses, and the madness of love […] by Aphrodite and Eros» (trans. by H.N. Fowler, in the Loeb Classical Library). This passage is amply treated by Ficino in the final pages of his Commentarium in Convivium Platonis, VII, 14 (Marcel p. 259): «Furor autem divinus est qui ad supera tollit, ut in eius definitione consistit. Quatuor ergo divini furoris sunt speties. Primus quidem poeticus furor, alter mysterialis, tertius vaticinium, amatorius affectus est quartus. Est autem poesis a Musis, mysterium a Dionysio, vaticinium ab Apolline, amor a Venere». On the divinus furor, see also Ficino’s letter to Pellegrino Agli, in Opera (Basilea 1576), pp. 613f. The translation of the Greek manía into the Latin furor appears in Cicero (see the footnote to the Latin text).

7 On the relation between Dionysos and Apollo (to whom the appellation Musagetes normally refers) cf. Plutarch, On the E at Delphi, 389b-c.

8 This philosopher, who was Plutarch’s teacher, belonged to the Platonic Academy; he is one of the main characters of Plutarch’s On the E at Delphi.

9 In ¶¶ 121-125 Pico recognizes his tripartite scheme in the series of the three Delphic maxims; the whole passage is clearly dependent on Plutarch’s On the E at Delphi (see notes to the Latin text).

10 In ¶¶ 126-129 Pico points to the Pythagorean “symbols” as further evidence for his tripartita philosophia. On the reception of Pythagoras during the Renaissance, see P. Casini, L’antica sapienza italica, Bologna 1998, chap. 2.

11 Cf. Iamblicus, De vita Pythagorica 8, 44.

12 In ¶¶ 136-143 Pico attempts to recognize his tripartita philosophia in the Chaldean writings as well. Unfortunately, the nature of Pico’s sources is not clear. Some texts had been brought to his attention by Flavius Mithridates (cf. Pico’s letter to Ficino written in Autumn 1486, in Supplementum Ficinianum, pp. 272-273: «Chaldaici hi libri sunt, si libri sunt et non thesauri: In primis Ezre, Zoroastris et Melchiar Magorum oracula, in quibus et illa quoque, que apud Graecos mendosa et mutila circumferuntur, leguntur integra et absoluta. Tum est in illa Chaldeorum sapientum brevis quidem et salebrosa, sed plena misteriis interpretatio. Est itidem et libellus de dogmatis Chaldaice theologie cum Persarum, Grecorum et Chaldeorum in illa divina et locupletissima enarratione»). Pico certainly had some texts or fragments written in a language which C. Wirszubski, on the basis of the extant fragments preserved in the Palatino manuscript (for example the names of the Paradisiacal rivers listed below, ¶ 141), considered to be a mixture of Aramaic, Syrian and Hebrew, written in Ethiopic characters. These “texts”, however, obviously might have been fabricated, perhaps by Flavius Mithridates himself (Farmer 1998, p. 13 and pp. 486-487). Pico considered them, as in the above quotation, as being genuine versions (perhaps the originals) of the Chaldean Oracles; according to him they were better and richer than the compilation of scattered Greek fragments that circulated under that title (on the fortune of the Greek Chaldean Oracles during the Renaissance see Dannenfeld 1960). Gemistus Pletho might have been the first to believe that the Chaldean Oracles embodied sentences by Zoroaster (see Masai 1956, 136f; see also T. Bidez – F. Cumont, Les Mages hellénisés, Paris 1938; J. Duchesne-Guillemin, The Western Response to Zoroaster, Oxford 1958, p. 4). He was followed by Ficino in the Theologia platonica.

13 On the prohibition against disclosing the contents of the mysteries, cf. for example Plotinus, Enneads VI, 9, 11: «This is the intention of the command given in the mysteries here below not to disclose to the initiated» (trans. by A.H. Armstrong, in the Loeb Classical Library).

14 In ¶¶ 148-9 Pico uses the names of the most eminent archangels of traditional angelology in order to expound his tripartite scheme once again: Raphael («God heals»), Gabriel («God is strong»), Michael («who is like God?»). For a possible source (Gregory the Great), see the footnotes to the Latin text. The names of the angels are connected to the doctrine of the Sefirot (a connection which might be alluded to through the words «the most hidden mysteries»); see F. Yates, The Occult Philosophy of the Elizabethan Age, London 1979, chap. 2. For Raphael as healer see for example The Book of Tobit 3, 25; 6 and 11, 8ff.


§24. On the way the contemporary conception of philosophy differs from mine

¶150. These are the reasons, most reverend fathers, which have not only encouraged1 me but even invested me with the duty of studying philosophy2.

¶151. And I was certainly not going to expound them, except to answer those who are accustomed to condemning the study of philosophy, especially among men of high rank, or more generally, in men of a certain fortune3.

¶152. For this whole philosophizing is now (and this is the misfortune of our age) considered with contempt and insulted4, rather than being occasion for honor and glory.

¶153. Thus this deadly and monstrous persuasion has much invaded the minds of almost everybody – so that either no one or few persons must philosophize5.

¶154. As if it were a thing of very little worth to have before our eyes and at our hands, with the evidence resulting from the most accurate research6, the causes of things, the ways of nature, the reason of the universe, the plans of God, the mysteries of heaven and earth, unless by it one may avidly seek after some favor or procure a profit for oneself.

¶155. Rather, we lowered ourselves to the point (and it’s such a sorrow) that now those only are considered wise who reduce philosophy7 to a merchandise8. This would be like seeing9 the chaste Pallas, who dwells among men by a gift of the gods, rejected, chased out, whistled at in scorn, and with no one to love her, no one to protect10 her unless she, as a prostitute who has accepted11 a pittance for her deflowered virginity12, pays back into the pocket13 of her love the ill-procured money.

§25. Personal statement on the value and the meaning of philosophy

¶156. And I say all these things (not without the deepest grief and indignation) not against the princes, but against the philosophers of this age, who are convinced and openly declare that no one should pursue philosophy for the reason that there is no recompense for philosophers, no prizes awarded them. And they say so, although they show evidently by this one word that they are not true philosophers.

¶157. Therefore, since their whole life has been dedicated to money-making and ambition, they are unable to embrace the knowledge of truth for its own sake.

¶158. This much shall I grant to myself (and I shall not blush at all for praising myself in this respect) that I have never philosophized for any other reason than for the sake of being a philosopher, nor have I ever hoped or sought from my studies, from my watches, any reward or fruit other than the nourishment of my mind and the knowledge of the truth, always so greatly desired by me14.

¶159. And I have always been so avid for it and so enamored of it that, setting aside all private and public concerns, I devoted my whole self to the leisure of contemplation15, from which no calumny of the envious persons, no slander of the enemies of wisdom have been able to divert me so far, nor will it be able in the future.

¶160. Philosophy herself has taught me to rely on my own conscience rather than on the judgments of others, and always to consider not so much how to avoid with my behavior that people speak badly of me, as, rather, how not to say or do myself anything evil.

§26. On the list of the accusations and the attitude of defense without resentment

¶161. In fact, most reverend fathers, I was not unaware that this disputation proposal of mine16, would reveal itself as grateful and enjoyable to all you, who favor the good arts and have been willing to honor this discussion with your very authoritative presence, as it would be, on the contrary, troublesome and unpleasant to many others. I am also aware that there is no lack of those who criticize my undertaking; that they have done so previously and continue to do so for various reasons.

¶162. Sincere and holy actions aimed at the attainment of virtue have been known to have at least as many, if not more critics17, as those wicked and unjust actions perpetrated in the interest of perversion.

¶163. There are, undeniably, those who disapprove of this field of discussion as well as this particular use of public debate, maintaining that they serve more as an ostentatious form of displaying intelligence than an attempt to increase one’s own knowledge.

¶164. There are also those who in truth do not scorn this kind of exercise; neither do they approve of it in me, however, since at a mere age of twenty-three years, I have dared to propose a discussion on the sublime mysteries of Christian theology, the most grueling questions of philosophy and of unexplored fields of knowledge, in a famous city, before a vast assembly of learned men, in the presence of the apostolic senate.

¶165. Still others, although they allow me the right to debate, do not wish to grant me the permission to dispute nine hundred theses, deeming the task and my desire to participate in it as superfluous and unnecessary as beyond my intellectual powers.

¶166. I would surrender readily to their reproach, had I been so taught by the philosophy which I profess; nor should I attempt to respond to it, as my philosophy also teaches, if I believed that this discussion had been initiated with the purpose of litigation.

¶167. Therefore, we shall set aside any intention of hostile provocation18, ridding our own souls of that resentment and spite which Plato assures us to be nonexistent in the rank of the Gods. Let us then amiably decide whether I am to begin this discussion, and whether I should entertain so large a number of theses.

§27. Response to the first order of accusations

¶168. Firstly, I shall say very little by way of response to those who maliciously criticize this use of public disputation. It is a crime, if we must call it so, that has been committed on numerous occasions not only by me and by all of you, eminent doctors, who have partaken quite often in it and not without high honor and praise, but also by Plato, Aristotle, and all the most revered philosophers of every age.

¶169. And these men were certain that, in order to arrive at the knowledge for which they searched, wholehearted engagement in rigorous public debate was imperative.

¶170. In fact, just as the body’s muscles become robust through gymnastics, so undoubtedly, in this literary gymnasium of sorts, the forces of the soul and the mind become firm and vigorous.

¶171. I have come to believe that the message of the poets, in their singing of the arms of Pallas, and of the Hebrews in calling 19, or the sword the symbol of wise men, cannot be other than that this honorable pursuit of public debate is absolutely necessary in the attainment of wisdom.

¶172. Perhaps it is this principle that influenced the Chaldeans’ hope that, in the horoscope20 of one who was to become a philosopher, Mars would behold Mercury from three separate angles21; it is almost as if philosophy, in the absence of all these contests and encounters, would become sluggish and dormant.

§28. Reply to the second accusation

¶173. It is more difficult for me, though, to defend myself against those who pronounce me unequal to this undertaking; in fact, it seems that in pronouncing myself equal to it, I shall be branded with judgments of immodesty and an excessively high opinion of myself. If, instead, I admit that I am unequal to it, I shall be charged with recklessness and imprudence.

¶174. So you see the difficulties into which I have run22, the situation in which I am placed23, since I cannot without blame promise about myself that which I must then fulfill without blame.

¶175. I can refer, perhaps, to Job’s famous saying24, that the spirit exists in all men; and find comfort in what Timothy was told: “Let no man despise thy young age.”

¶176. To speak, though, from my own conscience, I could say25 with all sincerity that there is nothing great or singular in me. While I strongly uphold my own eager commitment to the good sciences, I do not attribute myself nor expect the title of scholar.

¶177. To he who may ask how and why I have encumbered myself with so heavy a burden, I shall respond that it was most certainly not because I am unaware of my weakness; rather, I recognize that in this kind26 of intellectual battle, true profit lies in defeat.

¶178. It follows, then, that even–and especially–the weak should not only take refuge in such battles, but should literally seek them out.

¶179. He who has been defeated receives not an injury, but an advantage, in that he returns home richer than when he had set out: well educated and better equipped for future contests.

¶180. Though I am but a weak soldier, I am nonetheless enlivened by this hope, and I have no fear of combat in so difficult a battle against the strongest and most vigorous adversaries.

¶181. As to whether this investigation is judged reckless or otherwise, it is my hope that such decisions will be reached with less regard to my age than to the ultimate outcome of the contest.


1 inspired (Livermore Forbes, 237; Glenn Wallis, 17).

2 compelled me to the study of philosophy (Livermore Forbes, 237; Glenn Wallis, 17).

3 Literally those who live a life of mediocre fortune. Cf. of a mediocre station in life (Livermore Forbes, 237) and of ordinary fortune (Glenn Wallis, 17). As an example of analogous use of the term fortuna, see Pico, Letter to Andrea Corneus, October 15th 1486: «Everybody must act this way, and even more those with whom fortune has been so benevolent that they can live not merely magnificently and comfortably, but also splendidly. These big fortunes take people up at the highest levels and induce therefore some ostentation, but often, like an indomitable and jibbing horse, they behave badly and torment those people instead of carrying them.»

4 More literally makes… for contempt and contumely (Glenn Wallis, 17).

5 Cf. Pico, Letter to Andrea Corneus (quoted): «All the minds have been invaded by a destructive and monstrous conviction that noblemen ought not to touch philosophical studies. At the most they should taste them only with the tip of the lips in order to show their talent, rather than putting them into practice in order to cultivate their soul, in peace. They consider the Neoptolemus’ saying as an axiom: do not philosophize at all, or just take these notions for fun as few, simple, fairy tales.»

6 Literally as deeply investigated things. More essential translation is proposed by Glenn Wallis, 17: (to have)… very certain (before our eyes and hands).

7 I am translating in this way studium sapientiae, which is to be regarded as an etymological reflection of the Greek . In this case like in many others, the humanistic Latin of Pico clearly refers to a long classical and patristic tradition.

8 Cf. Pico, Letter to Andrea Corneus (quoted): «.Would it be therefore illiberal, or not proper at all, that a noble man pursued wisdom for free? Who could listen to or tolerate such a thing without getting angry? Whoever has philosophized so that he might be able, or even wanted, not to philosophize, never philosophized. This person has sold a product, but didn’t do any philosophy.»

9 Literally so that one may see (Glenn Wallis, 17).

10 befriend (Livermore Forbes, 238).

11 Here, the past participle accepta is used by Pico with an active value.

12 Cf. Glenn Wallis, 17.

13 Literally box or money-box (Glenn Wallis, 17), or strongbox, but see also treasury (Livermore-Forbes, 238).

14 Cf. Glenn Wallis, 18; but see also the truth I have ever longed for above all things (Livermore-Forbes, 238).

15 This translation is justified by the comparison with a passage of the already quoted Letter to Andrea Corneus, in which Pico reveals his idea on the opposition between active and contemplative life: «But you might say: I want you to embrace Martha without abandoning Mary in the meanwhile. I do not refuse this point of view, neither condemn it nor accuse the person who upholds it. But stating that it is not a mistake to switch from contemplative to public life is a very different thing from regarding the person, who does not want to change from the first one to the second, as affected by a form of laziness; or even as guilty or responsible for a crime.»

16 this disputation of mine (Glenn Wallis, 18); this very disputation of mine (Livermore Forbes, 239).

17 Literally vocal opponents. Oblatrator: «the voice (“denigrator”) is only in Sidon. Epist. I, 3, 2 and IV, 22, 6.» [Bausi 1996, 136]

18 Literally to denigrate and mistrust.

19 The term barzel occurs 76 times in the Old Testament and appears for the first time in Gen 4, 22: all of the occurrences refer, either literally or metaphorically, to the significance of iron. The metaphorical aspect that interests us here is one that alludes to the ideas of physical force, harshness, difficulty, and resistance. Grinding iron against iron symbolizes the way in which a sage tempers the presence of another person’s spirit in such a way that, as a result, the latter’s ability to react will become razor sharp. Cf. for example, Prov. 27, 17: «Ferrum ferro exacuitur,/Et homo exacuit faciem amici sui» («Iron sharpens itself with iron/and man sharpens the intelligence of his companion.») Cf. Cicognani 1963, 119 (in my translation): «In the Talmud the wise are likened to iron, which is grinded and sharpened by beating two pieces against each other. See the Babylonian Talmud. Discussed Tá ‘anith, p. 7 a. “Rab Hammah observes: what is the significance of the text of Prov. XXVII, 17: “iron and iron together?” As it occurs among instruments of iron, where one sharpens the other, so it is also the case among two wise men that sharpen themselves against one another.»

20 «Triquetrus aspectus (the 120° angle formed by the position of the two planets in question) is […] a technical term of astrology: cf. Pliny the Elder, Nat. II, 77» [Bausi 1996, 132]. Cf. Carena 1994, 75 (in my translation): «Triquetrus, said of a celestial body at a distance of one third of the zodiac from another body, or rather that forms with that body one side of an equilateral triangle in the zodiac.» Cf. also Cicognani 1963, 119 (in my translation): «The astrological viewpoint spoken of here is called “in triangular aspect,” which means that the two visuals construct a 120° angle, namely one of the most favorable aspects; and the desired philosopher will have to the highest degree the conjunction of hermetic intelligence (Mercury) and belligerent power of Mars.»

21 Literally they desire…that Mars face Mercury directly from a horizontal trine.

22 quas incidi angustias. Note the transitive use of incidere with the simple accusative, stated in poetry (cf. Lucretius, IV, 568), in post-classic Latin (Solinus, Tacitus, and above all Apuleius, with four examples in Metamorphoses) and in the Christian authors. [Bausi 1996, 140]

23 Literally to what post I have been assigned. The middle-passive tone it acquires here also seems implicit in Garin-Tognon’s free translation, 35: in che posizione mi trovo (in what position I find myself).

24 Cf. Job, 32, 8. In reality, the Vulgate states that the spirit is present in men. Cf. Chaim Wirszubski, 1969, 171-179 and 1989, 29 et al., on the peculiarity of the interpretation of the book of Job put forth by Pico and, consequently, of the translation proposed by him. Pico was heavily influenced by Kabalistic literature as well as by Jewish mysticism, philosophy and theology, namely the Medieval texts of Moses ben Maimon (alias Maimonides: 1135-1204) and of Levi ben Gershom (1288-1344). Gershom’s Comment on the Book of Job had been translated by Flavius Mithridates, and it was this version that Pico read. More specifically, for the passage that interests us, it seems important to mention the mediation of the Comment to the Pentateuch by Menahem of Recanati, otherwise known as Menachem rekanatensis vel de Recineto, translated, though sometimes inappropriately, by Flavius Mithridates.

25 Literally I will have said.

26 The construction peculiare quod is of classical background and is stated, for example, in Pliny the Elder (Nat. XVII, 129). [Bausi 1996, 140]


§ 29


182. It remains in the third place for me to answer those who take offence by the large number of my propositions, as if this burden lay on their shoulders and it were not rather I alone who have to endure this toil, as great as it may be.

183. It is surely unbecoming and excessively captious to wish to set limits to another’s efforts and, as Cicero says, to desire mediocrity in a matter where the greater is the better.

184. In undertaking so great a venture it was necessary for me either to fail or to succeed. If I should succeed, I do not see why what is praiseworthy to do over ten theses should be deemed blameworthy to do over nine hundred.

185. If I should fail, they will have grounds for accusing me, if they hate me and for excusing me, if they love me.

186. For a young man who has failed through weakness of talent or want of learning in so serious and great an undertaking will be more deserving of pardon than of blame.

187. Indeed, according to the poet: “If strength fails, audacity will surely be praised; and in great undertaking to have willed is enough.”

188. And if many in our age, imitating Gorgias of Leontini, have been accustomed, not without praise, to propose a disputation not merely on nine hundred questions but on all questions about all arts, why should I not be allowed to dispute without blame on many questions indeed, but at least fixed and determined?

§ 30

189. But they say this is needless and ambitious.

190. Yet I contend that I did this not needlessly, but of necessity; and if they should consider with me my reasons for philosophizing, they must even reluctantly admit that it is clearly of necessity.

191. For those who have devoted themselves to anyone of the schools of philosophy, siding for instance with Thomas or with Scotus, who are now most followed, can surely make trial of their doctrines in the discussion of but a few questions.

192. But not to swear by anyone’s word, I have resolved myself to range through all masters of philosophy, to examine all books, and to become acquainted with all schools.

193. Therefore, since I had to speak of all philosophers, lest I might seem committed to a particular doctrine, should I have, as its defender, neglected the others, there could not fail to be very many questions concerning all of them together, even if only a few about each one were severally proposed.

194. Nor should anyone condemn me for it, that “wherever the circumstances bear me, there I am brought as a guest.”

195. For it was a rule observed by all the ancients in studying every kind of writers never to pass over any commentaries they were able to read, and especially by Aristotle, who for this reason was called by Plato , that is, “the reader”; and it certainly shows narrowness of mind to confine oneself within one Porch or Academy.

196. Nor can anyone rightly choose his own doctrine from all, unless he has first made himself familiar with all of them.

197. Moreover, there is in each school something distinctive, which it has not in common with any other.

§ 31

198. And now, to begin with the men of our own faith to whom philosophy came last, we find in John [Duns] Scotus a vigorous dialectic, in Thomas [Aquinas] a balanced solidity, in Giles [of Rome] a neat precision, in Francis [of Meyronnes] a penetrating acuteness, in Albert [the Great] an ancient and grand amplitude, in Henry [of Ghent], as it has seemed to me, a constant and venerable solemnity.

199. Among the Arabs, we find in Averroes an unshaken firmness, in Avempace, as in Al-Farabi a thoughtful seriousness, in Avicenna a divine Platonic sublimity.

200. Among the Greeks philosophy is certainly terse in general and chaste in particular; in Simplicius it is rich and copious, in Themistius elegant and compendious, in Alexander [of Aphrodisias] learned and self-consistent, in Theophrastus seriously worked out, in Ammonius smooth and agreeable.

201. And if you turn to the Platonists, to mention but a few, in Porphyry you will be pleased by the wealth of his topics and the complexity of his religion; in Iamblichus you will be awed by an occult philosophy and the mysteries of the barbarians; in Plotinus there is no one thing in particular for you to admire, for he offers himself to admiration in every part, as the Platonists themselves take pains even in understanding his wisely allusive discourse, when he speaks divinely of things divine and far aloof humanity of human things.

202. I pass over the more recent ones, Proclus, abunding in Asian fertility, and those who stem from him, Hermias, Damascius, Olympiodorus, and many others, in all of whom that , that is, that divine something which is the distinctive mark of the Platonists, always shines out.

§ 32

203. It should be added that, if there is a school which attacks the more established truths and ridicules with calumny the valid arguments of reason, it strengthens rather than weakens the truth and, like a flame stirred by agitation, it excites rather than extinguishes it.

204. This is the reason which has moved me in wishing to call to the attention the opinions not only of a single doctrine (as some would have liked), but of every sort of doctrine, so that through the comparison of many schools and the discussion of several philosophies that “effulgence of truth” which Plato mentions in his letters might shine more intensely to our minds, like a sun rising from the high.

205. What would have been the point of dealing only with the philosophy of the Latins, that is, of Albert, Thomas, Scotus, Giles, Francis and Henry, leaving /137r/ the Greek and Arab philosophers aside?

206. For all wisdom has flowed from the barbarians to the Greeks and from the Greeks to us.

207. So our authors have always thought it enough for them, in matters of philosophy, to rest on foreign discoveries and to cultivate the doctrines of others.

208. What would have been the point of dealing with natural things with the Peripatetics, without summoning the Academy of the Platonists, whose doctrine on divine things, as Augustine witnesses, has always been held the most sacred of all philosophies and now, as far as I now, has been brought forward by me for the first time after many centuries (may there be no envy in my words) to be submitted to public disputation?

209. And what would have been the point of dealing with the opinions of others, as many as they were, if like the one who comes to the banquet of the wise without contributing anything, I should bring nothing of mine, nothing produced and worked out by my own mind?

210. It is certainly undignifying, as Seneca says, to know only through the books and, as though the discoveries of our ancestors had closed the way to our own industry and the power of nature were exhausted in us, to bring about nothing from ourselves which, if it could not demonstrate the truth, might at least hint to it even from afar.

211. For if a farmer hates sterility in his field and a husband in his wife, certaily the divine mind the more will hate the barren soul which is joined and associated with itself, the more it expects from it a far nobler offspring.

§ 33

212. Hence I have not been content to add, beside the common doctrines, many principles taken from the ancient theology of Hermes Trismegistus, many more drawn from the teachings of the Chaldeans and of Pythagoras, and many others deriving from the more secret mysteries of the Jews, and I have also proposed for disputation a good many discoveries and reflections of my own both on things natural and divine.

§ 34 213. In the first place I have proposed the concord of Plato and Aristotle, believed by many before me, but adequately proved by no one. Among the Latins, Boethius promised to do it, but there is no evidence that he has ever done what he always wished to do.

214. Among the Greeks, Simplicius made the same declaration, but would that he had fulfilled his promise. 215. Agustine too writes that there were not a few Achademics who tried with their most subtle arguments to prove the same thing, namely, that the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle was the same.

216. John [Philoponos] the Grammarian likewise, although he says that Plato differs from Aristotle only for those who do not understand what Plato says, nevertheless left it to posterity to prove it.

217. I have also added many theses where I maintain that several statements by Thomas and Scotus which are thought to be discordant are in agreement, and many others where I maintain the same about statements by Averroes and Avicenna.

§ 35

218. In the second place, whoever holds not only the theses which I have discovered both in the Aritotelian and in the Platonic philosophy, but also the seventy-two new theses which I have proposed both in physics and in metaphysics (if I am not wrong, as will soon be clear to me) will be able to solve any question proposed about things natural and divine on a principle quite other than we are taught by that philosophy which is read in the schools and cultivated by the doctors of this age.

219. Nor it ought to induce so much to amazement that in my early years, at a tender age at which, as some contend, one is hardly permitted to read the works of others, I should wish to introduce a new philosophy, as much as it ought to induce either to praise if it is defensible, or to condemnation, if it is refutable, those who in the end, when they will judge of my discoveries and my learning, should reckon up not the years of their author, but rather their own merits or demerits.

§ 36

220. There is, beside this, still another way of philosophizing by means of numbers, which I have presented as new, but which is in fact old, and was observed by the ancient theologians, by Pythagoras in particular, by Aglaophamos, Philolaus and Plato, and by the earlier Platonists.

221. But in this age, this doctrine, like other famous ones, has so passed out of use by the carelessness of posterity, that hardly any traces of it are to be found.

222. Plato writes in the Epinomis that, among all liberal arts and contemplative sciences the science of number /137v/ is the chief and most divine.

223. And again, asking why man is the wisest of animals, he answers, “Because he knows how to number”.

224. Aristotle also mentions this opinion in his Problems.

225. Abumasar writes that it was a saying of Avenzoar of Babylon that he who knows how to number knows all things.

226. These things could not possibly be true if they had understood by the art of number that art at which now the merchants are especially skilful. Also Plato witnesses this, when he openly warns us not to believe that this divine arithmetic be the arithmetic of the merchants.

227. Since it seemed to me, after long nights of study, that I had thoroughly examined that arithmetic which is so praised, in order to put these matters to a test, I promised that I would answer in public through the art of number to seventy-four questions which are considered among the most important in physics and divinity.

§ 37

228. I have also proposed some theses about magic, in which I have shown that there are two forms of magic, one of which depends entirely on the work and powers of demons and is, in my faith, an execrable and monstrous thing.

229. The other is, when keenly examined, nothing but the absolute perfection of natural philosophy.

230. The Greeks mentioned both of them, but they call the former * * * , by no means honouring it by the name of magic, wheres they call the latter by the proper and exclusive name of * * * , the perfect and highest wisdom, as it were.

231. As a matter fact, as Porphyry says, in the Persian language magus means the same as expert and interpreter of divine things with us.

232. So there is a great or even, Fathers, the greatest difference and disparity between these two arts.

233. The former is condemned and abhorred not only by the Christian religion, but by all laws and every well-constituted state.

234. The latter is approved and embraced by all wise men and all peoples devoted to heavenly and divine things.

235. The former is the most deceitful of arts, the latter is the highest and most holy philosophy. The former is sterile and vain, the latter is sure, reliable and firm.

236. The former has always been concealed by whoever has practised it, because it would have been shameful and ignominious to its author, whereas since antiquity the highest renown and glory of letters has almost always been expected from the latter.

237. No philosopher nor man eager to learn good arts has ever been studious the former, but to learn the latter Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato and Democritus crossed the seas, taught it when they returned and held it chief among the arcane doctrines.

238. The former is not based on any principles nor approved by any reliable author; the latter, ennobled as it were by most celebrated parents, has two authors above all: Zalmolxis, who was imitated by Abbaris the Hyperborean, and Zoroaster, not the one of whom perhaps you are thinking, but the son of Oromasius.

239. If we ask Plato what is the magic of both these men, he will answer in the Alcibiades that the magic of Zoroaster is nothing else than that science of divine things in which the kings of the Persians educated their sons, so that they might learn to rule their state on the example of the order of the universe.

240. And in the Charmides he will answer that the magic of Zamolxis is the medicine of the soul, or that medicine by which temperance is obtained for the soul, as by the other one health is obtained for the body.

§ 38

241. Afterwards Charondas, Damigeron, Apollonius, Osthanes and Dardanus persevered in their footsteps.

242. And so did Homer, who concealed this wisdom too, in the manner he concealed all the other ones, under the wanderings of his Ulysses, as I shall sometime prove in my Poetic Theology.

243. Eudoxus and Hermippus persevered.

244. And almost all who have examined closely the Pythagorean and Platonic mysteries have persevered.

245. Among the later philosophers, then, I find three who have scented it, the Arabian Al-Kindi, Roger Bacon and William of Paris.

246. Plotinus also mentions it, where he shows that a magus is the minister and not the maker of nature. That most wise man approves /138r/ and justifies this kind of magic, so abhorring the other that, invited to the rites of evil demons, he said that it was more fitting for them to come to him than for him to go to them, and rightly so.

247. For just as the former makes man a slave and pawn of wicked powers, the latter makes him their lord and master.

248. The former, in the end, cannot claim for itself the name of euther art or science, whereas the latter, full as it is of the loftiest mysteries, comprises the deepest contemplation of the most secret things and ultimately the knowledge of all nature.

249. The latter, in calling out, as it were, from their hiding places into the light the good powers scattered and sown in the world by the benevolent care of God, does not so much make miracles, as sedulously serve nature which makes them.

250. Having looked with deeper insight into that harmony of the universe, which the Greeks more expressively call , and having observed the mutual cognition that natures have of each other, this latter, by addressing to each thing its innate charms, which are called called the of the magicians, brings out into the open, as if it were itself the maker, the miracles lying hidden in the recesses of the world, in the womb of nature, in the mysterious storerooms of God, and, as the farmer marries elm to vine, so does the magus marry earth to heaven, that is, the lower things to the endowments and powers of the higher.

251. Hence it comes about that the former appears as monstrous and harmful, as the latter divine and salutary.

252. And chiefly because the former, in subjecting man to the enemies of God, drives him away from Him, whereas the latter prompts him to admire the works of God, so that most surely follow such charity, faith and hope that lean on Him.

253. For nothing induces us more to religion and the worship of God than the assiduous contemplation of His wonders, so that, should we have aptly examined them by means of this natural magic I am discussing, more ardently aroused to the worship and love of their maker, we would be forced to sing: “The heavens are full, all of the earth is full of the majesty of Thy glory.”

254. But this is enough about magic and I have said this much about it because I know that there are many who, just as dogs always bark at strangers, so they hate too what they do not understand.


In progress……………