“Oration on the Dignity of Man,” by Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, was a controversial speech that is often referred to as the “manifesto of the renaissance.” It glorifies God, and it glorifies human beings as the most wondrous of God’s creations, created for the purpose of loving God and appreciating all that he created. The speech conveyed traditional ideals expressed by other writers of the period, but it was considered heretical at the time it was written because Pico claimed that human destiny was not predetermined and thus part of God’s plan, but rather subject to free will. In Pico’s view, it was this free will that made human beings the most wondrous of all creations. He sets humans apart from animals in that they have the ability to reason and make choices; This ability, he claimed, made humans not only superior to animals, however, but to angels as well. Angels, like animals, do not have the ability to engage in intellectual thought and elevate their position, but instead, remain in a fixed state. Therefore, it is through free will and intellectual thought that humans can achieve godliness.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man is a remarkable document, but not for the reason that is sometimes thought. Even though it is an important statement by an influential early Renaissance humanist, the Oration on the Dignity of Man is neither a proclamation of the worth and glory of worldly life and achievement nor an attack on the medieval worldview as such. Pico was a man of his time, and he was willing to defend the medieval theologians and philosophers from the attacks of his humanist friends. However, in his statement he does go beyond what was then the traditional view of human nature.
Pico was a scholar whose erudition included a familiarity not only with Italian, Latin, and Greek but also with Hebrew, Chaldean, and Arabic. He had read widely in several non-Christian traditions of philosophy, and he had concluded that all philosophy, whether written by Christians, Jews, or pagans, was in basic agreement.
In Rome, in December, 1486, Pico published nine hundred theses and invited all interested scholars to dispute them with him the following month. The Oration on the Dignity of Man was to have been the introduction to his defense. Pope Innocent VIII forbade the disputation, however, and appointed a papal commission to investigate the theses; the commission found some of them heretical. Pico tried to defend himself in a published Apologia, but this made matters worse, and for several years he remained in conflict with the Catholic Church. Pico had not expected this state of affairs and, being no conscious rebel, he was very much disturbed by it. As a result he became increasingly religious and finally joined the Dominican order. The Oration on the Dignity of Man was never published in Pico’s lifetime, though part of it was used in his Apologia to the papal commission.
In form, the Oration on the Dignity of Man follows the then-standard academic, humanistic, rhetorical pattern. The piece is divided into two parts. The first part presents and deals with the philosophical basis of the speaker; the second part announces and justifies the topics to be disputed. The philosophical first part of the Oration on the Dignity of Man begins by praising human beings; this, as Pico points out, is a common topic. However, he immediately rejects the traditional bases for praise, that is, the medieval view that the distinction of human beings is a function of their unique place at the center of creation, in other words, that each individual is a microcosm.
Pico accepted the premise that human beings are the most wonderful of all creations, but he inquired into the reasons why this should be so. Some, he said, believed that human beings are wonderful because they can reason and are close to God, yet the same qualities, he pointed out, may be found among the angels. Pico’s view was that God was ready to create human...
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