Oration on the Diginity of Man – Giovanni Pico della Mirandola



Giovanni Pico della Mirandola


Count) Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola (1463-94)



This ‘most elegant oration” (oratio elegantissima) as it was called in the first edition of the collected works and as it has been named ever since, of Giovanni Pico, Count of Mirandola (1463-1494) was composed as a prelusion to the disputation which Mirandola proposed to hold shortly after Epiphany, 1487. In this disputation, as he recounts in the course of the “Oration,” Pico proposed to defend nine hun­dred propositions. The disputation did not take place because it was suspended by Pope Innocentius VIII, who also appointed a commission to examine the theses. Some of them were condemned as counter to the accepted teachings. In reply Pico composed an Apology, in the course of which he reproduced the second portion of the “Oratio” practically verbatim. This is, consequently, the first appearance of the “Oratio,” or any part of it in public print. The whole of the “Oratio” was first published in the collection of Pico’s works edited and published by his relative, Gian Francesco Pico, in 1496. The qualifying phrase “on the dignity of man” is a later addition, but has become practically identical with the oration, even though some writers have protested that it has reference only to the first portion. Subsequent editions of the Opera Omnia in which the “Oratio” is included appeared at Venice in 1498; at Strasburg in 1504; at Reggio in 1506; at Paris 1505; again at Venice in 1519 and 1557; and at Basel in 1530, 1537, 1557 and 1572. Numerous editions of the “Oratio” alone have appeared since that time. The present translation is based con­jointly on one of the most recent and best of these individual editions, that of Bruno Cicognani (Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: Dignita del’Tuomo (De hominis dignitate), Testo, Traduzione e Note, Firenze, Le Monnier 3a ed., 1941), and the text of Opera Omnia of 1504. A German translation appeared in a selection of Pico’s writings edited and translated by Arthur Liebert (Arthur Liebert: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: Ausgewaehlte Christen, Jena und Leipzig, 1905); in Italian a translation by Semprini (Giovanni Semprini: La filo sofia di Pico della Mirandola, Milano, 1936 appendice), as well as that by Cicognani already referred to. In English, a translation by Charles G. Wallis was published in the magazine View (fall, 1944 and December, 1944). Several passages were translated and published in the Journal of the History of Ideas in 1942. This translation is by Elizabeth L. Forbes, who subsequently published an excellent complete transla­tion in the volume The Renaissance Philosophy of Man edited by Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oscar Kristeller and John Herman Randell, Chicago, the University of Chicago Press, 1948. While the present trans­lator has consulted all of these, the transla­tion here offered is a fresh one, based directly on a reading of the Latin text as indicated above. Whatever merits or short­comings it may have are consequently to be judged on this basis. His aim has been first, of course, adherence to the ideas; but he has also tried to reproduce something of the stylistic flavor of Pico.




“The enduring value of Pico’s work is due, not to his Quixotic quest of an accord between Pagan, Hebrew, and Christian traditions,” John Addington Symonds writes, “but to the noble spirit of confi­dence and humane sympathy with all great movements of the mind, which pene­trates it.” Out of the bulk of the works of Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who challenged the doctors of the schools to dispute with him on nine hundred grave questions, the only production widely read nowadays is this brief discourse, “The Dig­nity of Man,” delivered by him in i486, at Rome, when he was only twenty-four years old. The oration, which was his glove dashed down before authority, lives as the most succinct expression of the mind of the Renaissance.

Pico, a son of the princely house of Mirandola, one of the most brilliant of the great Renaissance families, studied at Bologna, and wandered through the Italian and French universities for seven years, becoming immensely erudite, proficient in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldee, and Arabic. Mystic, magician, and grand scholar, he combined in his character the Gothic complexity of the Middle Ages with the egoism and enlightenment of the Renaissance. He was the most romantic of all the Humanists. His immense design it was to effect a synthesis and reconciliation of Hebrew, classical, and Christian traditions. No one did more than Pico to restore Plato to dignity in the schools; yet, as Symonds observes, “uncontrolled by critical insight, and paralyzed by the prestige attaching to antiquity, the Florentine school [which Pico and Ficino dominated] produced little better than an unintelligent eclecticism.” Among Pico’s nine hundred ques­tions were some propositions which hung close upon the brink of heresy. He thought that the secrets of the magicians could prove the divinity of Christ, and that the Cabala of the medieval Jews would sustain the Christian mysteries. Thus, haranguing, reading, wandering, preaching, commenc­ing a vast work against the enemies of Christianity, he spent his brief life, dying of a fever before he was thirty—though he already had abjured the world and the flesh, and planned to wander barefoot as an evangelist.

Now this eccentric genius’ “Dignity of Man” is the manifesto of humanism. Man regenerate—“this, visibly,” Egon Freidell says, “is the primary meaning of the Renaissance: the rebirth of man in the likeness of God.” The man of the Middle Ages was humble, conscious almost always of his fallen and sinful nature, feeling himself a miserable foul creature watched by an angry God. Through Pride fell the angels. But Pico and his brother-humanists declared that man was only a little lower than the angels, a being capable of descending to unclean depths, indeed, but also having it within his power to become godlike. How marvellous and splendid a creature is man! This is the theme of Pico’s oration, elaborated with all the pomp and confidence that characterized the rising Humanist teachers. “In this idea/’ continues Freidell, “there lay a colossal hybris unknown to the Middle Ages, but also a tremendous spiritual impulse such as only modem times can show.”

The very Cherubim and Seraphim must endure the equality of man, if Man cultivates his intellectual faculty. It is the spirit, the spark of Godhood, which raises Man above all the rest of creation and makes him distinct in kind from all other living things. For all his glorification of Man, however, Pico has no touch of the modem notion that “man makes himself,” and that an honest God’s the noblest work of man. It is only because Man has been created in the image of God that Man is angelic. God, in his generosity, has said to Man, “We have made thee neither of heaven or of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and moulder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul’s judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.”

This, then, is the essence of humanism, which spread out of Italy unto the whole of Europe, reaching its culmination, per­haps, in Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. (More it was who translated the life of Pico by his nephew Giovanni Francisco into English.) God had given Man great powers, and with those powers, free will. Man might rightfully take pride in his higher nature, and turn his faculties to the praise and improvement of noble human nature. A world of wonder and discovery lay before the Renaissance humanist. Yet all this dignity of human nature was the gift of God: the spiritual and rational pow­ers neglected—and through free will Man is all too able to neglect them—Man sinks to the level of the brutes. The humanist does not seek to dethrone God: instead through the moral disciplines of humanitas, he aspires to struggle upward toward the Godhead.

Thus a degree of humility chastened the pride of even the most arrogant humanist of the Renaissance. But the seed of hubris, overweening self-confidence, was sown; and a time would come when Man would take himself for the be-all and end-all; and then Nemesis would be felt once more, and    The end, however, is not yet. It has remained for us of the twentieth century to look back upon the course of this hubris, diffused over all the world; and to see the oratorical aspirations of the humanists transformed into the technological aspira­tions of the modem sensual man; and to glimpse the beginning of the Catastrophe, perhaps, in a handful of dust over Hiroshima, or in the leaden domination of the Soviets, or in the pornography and hysteria of the corner news-stand. Robert Jungk, in Tomorrow Is Already Here, describes the stage of this progress at which we have arrived: “The stake is the throne of God.

To occupy God’s place, to repeat His deeds, to recreate and organize a man­made cosmos according to man-made laws of reason, foresight, and efficiency”—this is the ambition of the twentieth-century energumen of progress. And to gratify this ambition, we have moved very near to the dehumanization of Man. In our lust for divine power, we have forgotten human dignity.

By “the dignity of man,” Pico della Mirandola meant the high nobility of disciplined reason and imagination, human nature as redeemed by Christ, the uplifting of the truly human person through an exercise of soul and mind. He did not mean a technological or sensate triumph. “The dignity of man” is a phrase on the lips of all sorts of people nowadays, including Communist publicists; and by it, all sorts of people mean merely the gratification of the ego, the egalitarian claim that “one man is as good as another, or maybe a little better.” Pico, however, knew that no being can dignify himself: dignity is a quality with which one is invested; it must be conferred. For human dignity to exist, there must be a Master who can raise Man above the brute creation. If that Master is denied, then dignity for Man is unattainable.

For despite all the cant concerning the dignity of man in our time, the real tend­ency of recent intellectual currents has been to sweep true human dignity down to a morass of mechanistic indignity. Joseph Wood Krutch, a generation ago, in his Modern Temper, described with a sombre resignation this process of degradation. Without God, Man cannot aspire to rank with Cherubim and Seraphim. Freud con­vinced the crowd of intellectuals that Man was nothing better than the slave of ob­scure and arrogant fleshly desires; Alfred Kinsey, unintentionally reducing to ab­surdity this denial of human dignity, ad­vised his fellow-creatures to emulate, if not the ant, at least the snake—for Man, so the modern dogma goes, lives only to lust. In this fashion phrases Unger on in men’s mouths long after the object they describe has been forgot.

Pico della Mirandola, Platonist and Christian and sorcerer and rhetorician and mystic, designed his nine hundred ques­tions as an irrefragable proof of Man’s uniqueness. Emerson echoed him, five centuries after:


There are two laws discrete

Not reconciled,—

Law for man, and law for thing;

The last builds town and fleet,

But it runs wild,

And doth the man unking.


By a discipline of the reason and the will, to make Man kingly, even angelic—this was Pico’s hope, and it has been the hope of all true humanists after him. Thing, nevertheless, has run wild in our time, building town and fleet, bomb and satel­lite; and the Man has been unkinged; and human dignity is at its lowest ebb, now, when Man’s power over nature is at its summit. A real man, in any age, is dignified and nobly human in proportion as he acknowledges the overlordship of One greater than Man. If Things are to be thrust out of the saddle once more, and Man mounted (in Pico’s phrase) to “join battle as to the sound of a trumpet of war” on behalf of Man’s higher nature, then some of us must go barefoot through the world, like Pico, preaching against the vegetative and sensual errors of the time.

Russell Kirk







Most esteemed Fathers, I have read in the ancient writings of the Arabians that Abdala the Saracen1 on being asked what, on this stage, so to say, of the world, seemed to him most evocative of wonder, replied that there was nothing to be seen more marvelous than man. And that celebrated exclamation of Hermes Trismegistus, “What a great miracle is man, Asclepius”2 confirms this opinion.

And still, as I reflected upon the basis assigned for these estimations, I was not fully persuaded by the diverse reasons advanced by a variety of persons for the preeminence of human nature; for example: that man is the intermediary between creatures, that he is the familiar of the gods above him as he is lord of the beings beneath him; that, by the acuteness of his senses, the inquiry of his reason and the light of his intelligence, he is the interpreter of nature, set midway between the timeless unchanging and the flux of time; the living union (as the Persians say), the very marriage hymn of the world, and, by David’s testimony3 but little lower than the angels. These reasons are all, without question, of great weight; nevertheless, they do not touch the principal reasons, those, that is to say, which justify man’s unique right to such unbounded admiration. Why, I asked, should we not admire the angels themselves and the beatific choirs more? At long last, however, I feel that I have come to some understanding of wht man is the most fortunate of living things and, consequently, deserving of all admiration; of what may be the condition in the hierarchy of beings assigned to him, which draws upon him the envy, not of the brutes alone, but of the astral beings and of the very intelligences which dwell beyond the confines of the world. A thing surpassing belief and smiting the soul with wonder. Still, how could it be otherwise? For it is on this ground that man is, with complete justice, considered and called a great mir- acle and a being worthy of all admiration.

Hear then, oh Fathers, precisely what this condition of man is; and in the name of your humanity, grant me your benign audition as I pursue this theme.

God the Father, the Mightest Architect, had already raised, according to the precepts of His hidden wisdom, this world we see, the cosmic dwelling of divinity, a temple most august. He had already adorned the supercelestial region with Intelligences, infused the heavenly globes with the life of immortal souls and set the fermenting dung-heap of the inferior world teeming with every form of animal life. But when this work was done, the Divine Artificer still longed for some creature which might comprehend the meaning of so vast an achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty and smitten with awe at its grandeur. When, consequently, all else had been completed (as both Moses and Timaeus testify),4 in the very last place, He bethought Himself of bringing forth man. Truth was, however, that there remained no archetype according to which He might fashion a new offspring, nor in His treasure-houses the wherewithal to endow a new son with a fitting inheritance, nor any place, among the seats of the universe, where this new creature might dispose himself to contemplate the world. All space was already filled; all things had been distributed in the highest, the middle and the lowest orders. Still, it was not in the nature of the power of the Father to fail in this last creative elan; nor was it in the nature of that supreme Wisdom to hesitate through lack of counsel in so crucial a matter; nor, finally, in the nature of His beneficent love to compel the creature destined to praise the divine generosity in all other things to find it wanting in himself.

At last, the Supreme Maker decreed that this creature, to whom He could give nothing wholly his own, should have a share in the particular endowment of every other creature. Taking man, therefore, this creatine of indeterminate image, He set him in the middle of the world and thus spoke to him:

“We have given you, Oh Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor any endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.”

Oh unsurpassed generosity of God the Father, Oh wondrous and unsurpassable felicity of man, to whom it is granted to have what he chooses, to be what he wills to be! The brutes, from the moment of their birth, bring with them, as Liicilius says,5 “from their mother’s womb” all that they will ever possess. The highest spiritual beings were, from the very moment of creation, or soon thereafter, fixed in the mode of being which would be theirs through measureless eternities. But upon man, at the moment of his creation, God bestowed seeds pregnant with all possibilities, the germs of every form of life. Whichever of these a man shall cultivate, the same will mature and bear fruit in him. If vegetative, he will become a plant; if sensual, he will become brutish; if rational, he will reveal himself a heavenly being; if intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. And if, dissatisfied with the lot of all creatures, he should recollect himself into the center of his own unity, he will there, become one spirit with God, in the solitary darkness of the Father, Who is set above all things, himself transcend all creatures.

Who then will not look with awe upon this our chameleon, or who, at least, will look with greater admiration on any other being? This creature, man, whom Asclepius the Athenian, by reason of this very mutability, this nature capable of transforming itself, quite rightly said was symbolized in the mysteries by the figure of Proteus. This is the source of those metamorphoses, or transformations, so celebrated among the Hebrews and among the Pythagoreans; for even the esoteric theology of the Hebrews at times transforms the holy Enoch into that angel of divinity which is sometimes called “malakh-ha- shekhinah” 6 and at other times transforms other personages into divinities of other names;7 while the Pythagoreans transform men guilty of crimes into brutes or even, if we are to believe Empedocles, into plants; and Mohamet, imitating them, was known frequently to say that the man who deserts the divine law becomes a brute. And he was right; for it is not the bark that makes the tree, but its insensitive and unresponsive nature; nor the hide which makes the beast of burden, but its brute and sensual soul; nor the orbicular form which makes the heavens, but their harmonious order. Finally, it is not freedom from a body, but its spiritual intelligence, which makes the angel. If you see a man dedicated to his stomach, crawling on the ground, you see a plant and not a man; or if you see a man bedazzled by the empty forms of the imagination, as by the wiles of Calypso, and through their alluring solicitations made a slave to his own senses, you see a brute and not a man. If, however, you see a philosopher, judging and distinguishing all things according to the rule of reason, him shall you hold in veneration, for he is a creature of heaven and not of earth; if, finally, a pure contemplator, unmindful of the body, wholly withdrawn into the inner chambers of the mind, here indeed is neither a creature of earth nor a heavenly creature, but some higher divinity, clothed with human flesh.

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