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...

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Cassirer, Ernst. “Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.” Journal of the History of Ideas 3 (1942): 123-144. The second part of this article analyzes Pico’s philosophy as it is outlined specifically in the Oration on the Dignity of Man. Remains an important source on the work that is frequently cited in other studies.

Copenhaver, Brian P. “The Secret of Pico’s Oration: Cabala and Renaissance Philosophy.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 26, no. 1 (2002): 56-81. Discusses why Pico wrote Oration on the Dignity of Man. Argues that the work is not about human dignity and freedom in the sense that a modern reader understands these topics; maintains instead that most of the oration deals with magic and the Kabbala.

Dougherty, M. V., ed. Pico della Mirandola: New Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Includes a detailed analysis of the genre and contents of the oration, focusing on Pico’s defense of humans as unique beings in the order of creation.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. “Introduction to Oration on the Dignity of Man.” In Renaissance Philosophy of Man, edited by Ernst Cassirer et al. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948. An excellent survey of the treatise, written by a preeminent scholar of Renaissance philosophy who places it within its historical and intellectual context.

Trinkaus, Charles Edward. In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought. 2 vols. London: Constable, 1970. Chapter 10 of this important study focuses on Pico and the Oration on the Dignity of Man, relating them to other Renaissance humanists’ conceptions of the essence of human existence.

Vasoli, Cesare. “The Renaissance Concept of Philosophy.” In The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, edited by Quentin Skinner and Eckhard Kessler. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Places the Oration on the Dignity of Man in its philosophical context. Other articles in this volume provide information on the intellectual heritage upon which the Oration on the Dignity of Man drew.