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Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man was intended to represent this learned Renaissance-era figure’s contribution to the ongoing debate regarding humanism and theology. Pico respectfully begins his oration addressing his “Most esteemed fathers,” and then segues into a brilliant convergence of multiple philosophical schools while providing an impassioned defense of humanism. His “Oration” was structured so as to appeal to his fellow scholars and philosophers on a level of mutual admiration and respect and with due deference to those who came before him and who similarly sought to address the most fundamental of dichotomies characteristic of the Renaissance. Unlike many of today’s polarizing figures, who crassly reject views with which they are not in agreement, Pico’s “Oration” provides a thoughtful reflection on the role of man in the universe, and he comes down squarely on the side of those who believed fervently in the rational nature of man and of the importance of explaining nature and events through the prism of scholarship rather than as a result of divine province. He was not, however, an atheist, nor could he have been labeled agnostic. He simply sought, as some continue to do today, to reconcile what could be scientifically rationalized with his underlying belief in God. In the following excerpt from the “Oration,” Pico announces the resolution of his contemplation of the difficulties inherent in reconciling humanism with the dominant theological precepts of the day:
“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 why 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 miracle 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.”
Again, Pico della Mirandola is not rejecting, even a little, the notion of a Divine Being. On the contrary, he is providing a thesis – and his 900 Theses constituted the greatest articulation of the humanist philosophy of the age – that reconciled not only the debate over where God ends and man begins, but the debates prevalent among and between the myriad religious doctrines in existence. While one should always hesitate to categorize any work as “seminal,” the following passage from the “Oration” could qualify as Pico’s most enduring suggestion intended to resolve the debate once and for all:
“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 creature of indeterminate image, He set him in the middle of the world and thus spoke to him:
"We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor 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 judgement 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.''
At the risk of putting words in God’s mouth – a favored pastime of many a divisive figure throughout the ages – Pico was articulating his philosophy, born of years diligently studying the theological underpinnings of myriad religions, on God’s intentions with respect to the creature he put on Earth and to which he gave supreme authority over all other species. Most importantly, Pico has resolutely inscribed in doctrine the notion of determinism as an integral component of humanity.
Pico, as stated above, formatted his “Oration” so that it would fit into the context of a discourse among other learned individuals for whom humanism was a passionate topic of debate. And, it should be remembered, the Catholic Church was an enormously powerful and influential presence in Pico’s world – that of the Italian Renaissance – and was sufficiently concerned regarding Pico’s suggestion that man’s every move was not preordained by the Divine Being that it persecuted and imprisoned this most thoughtful and articulate an individual. By structuring his “Oration” as an oral presentation addressed to those who sat above him in society’s hierarchy -- in effect, the Church -- as well as to his contemporaries, Pico was presenting his views in the most conciliatory and respectful manner possible. That, after all, is the nature of a discourse. His closing comments, understandably, reinforce his deference to the dominant political power of the day, the Church, and reemphasize his devotion to a God the role of which in human affairs pretty much ended with Adam’s decision-making process:
“And now, reverend Fathers, in order that this claim may be vindicated by the fact, and in order that my address may no longer delay the satisfaction of your desire --- for I see, reverend doctors, with the greatest pleasure that you are girded and ready for the contest --- let us now, with the prayer that the outcome may be fortunate and favorable, as to the sound of trumpets, join battle.”
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's "Oration" was a clarion call to action, at least within the context of intellectual debate.
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