Oration On The Dignity Of Man Summary
What is the main idea of Pico della Mirandola's "Oration on the Dignity of Man?"
Mirandola states in this essay that man is a glorious creation because of his ability to think and to reason. He writes that humankind is "a great miracle and a being worthy of all admiration."
He writes of humans being "free" and assigns humans to a place in the great chain of being between angels and animals. He writes that God said,
We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.
Because humans are so marvelously endowed with reason, all the traditions of human thought should be studied, not just those written in Latin from the Roman Catholic Church. Mirandola was a syncretist, which meant he tried to reconcile and harmonize different schools of thought. He advocated studying the Greeks, the Hebrew mysteries, and Arabic texts, along with Latin sources. He writes of
my determination to bring to men's attention the opinions of all schools rather than the doctrine of some one or other (as some might have preferred), for it seems to me that by the confrontation of many schools and the discussion of many philosophical systems that "effulgence of truth" of which Plato writes in his letters might illuminate our minds more clearly, like the sun rising from the sea. What should have been our plight had only the philosophical thought of the Latin authors, that is, Albert, Thomas, Scotus, Egidius, Francis and Henry, been discussed, while that of the Greeks and the Arabs was passed over . . .
Finally, Mirandola distinguishes between what he calls two types of "magic." The first is demonic and must be rejected. The second, however, is the "magic" of the natural world, God's creation, which is worthy of study in order to reveal the glory of God. We today would call this second type of "magic" science. Mirandola writes:
For nothing so surely impels us to the worship of God than the assiduous contemplation of His miracles and when, by means of this natural magic, we shall have examined these wonders more deeply, we shall more ardently be moved to love and worship Him in his works, until finally we shall be compelled to burst into song: "The heavens, all of the earth, is filled with the majesty of your glory."
Because of his emphasis on the glory, rather than the sinfulness, of humans; his advocacy of broad and inclusive learning; and his belief in studying science, Mirandola's essay is a classic example of Renaissance humanism and empiricism.
Pico Della Mirandola's "Oration on the Dignity of Man" was a sort of manifesto of Christian Renaissance humanism. Rrteacher accurately pointed out the the primary theme of this manifesto is humanity's free will, not just to choose salvation or damnation, but also to choose his place in the natural order of creation.
This was a radical idea. Throughout the medieval period, there was a strong belief that humanity's place in the universe was fixed and that it was unnatural to strive for something different. Mirandola, however, stated that man was created:
neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.
In other words, man had no permanently fixed place and could, to put it colloquially, choose his own destiny! By his own volition, a person could use philosophy to elevate his nature to something spiritual (following the Platonic notion that the spiritual is greater than the physical). Likewise, he could instead choose to lower his nature by indulging in materialistic and fleshly desires, so much so that he became little more than an animal.
Mirandola argued that mankind ought to be praised and understood as a wonderful aspect of God's creation. The reason for this, he suggested, was that God had given man something that he granted to nothing else in nature: free will. Man could choose to be great or to be debased, they occupied a place between the divine and the worldly. According to Mirandola, God in effect told Man when he was created:
We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.
The way toward intellectual greatness, he argued, was through philosophy. But not just any philosophy, or more accurately, any particular philosophy, would suffice. Rather Miradola suggested that thinkers should turn to all of the great philosophical approaches of antiquity, incorporating varying aspects of each. This required a rigorous program of study, one which formed the foundation for what scholars today recognize as Renaissance humanism.