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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

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The two main characters in Oration on the Dignity of Man are God and man. In addition, Pico introduces a number of lesser characters—thinkers, writers, astrologists and holy men—to emphasize certain key points he wishes to make. God has created the universe and has placed man at the center of it; it is the midpoint between heaven and earth, between the angels and the brutes. This puts man in a privileged position from where he can gain a unique perspective of the cosmos and his place in it. Man is, in the words of the ancient astrologer Hermes Trismegistus, "a great miracle."

God is presented by Pico as a benevolent creator; His creation of man is an act of love. God loves His most unique creation, and He graciously bestows upon him something He gives to nothing else: the gift of free will. Man has been given the opportunity to become a prototype Renaissance man. He can use his gift of free will to develop his rational and intellectual faculties to their fullest extent. If he chooses to do so, he will be emulating the angels in their dignity and glory. In this regard, Pico cites with approval the words of Asaph the Prophet to remind man of what he really and truly is:

You are all Gods and sons of the Most High.

However, man could just as easily go the other way and abuse his gift. He could fail to make the best of his God-given abilities and descend to the level of the beasts. If man does not cultivate what Pico calls his spiritual intelligence—which is what makes angels—then he is nothing more than a brute. Interestingly, especially in a Christian work, Pico quotes the Prophet Mohammed in saying that he who deserts the divine law turns himself into a beast.

Our power for reason must never fall into disuse through laziness and inaction. As the great Greek mathematician Pythagoras once said,

Never sit on a bushel.

Pythagoras also enjoined us to "feed the cockerel," that is, to nourish the divine part of our soul with the knowledge of divine things. As well as figures from antiquity, Pico also uses Biblical characters to drive home his message. In this approach, we can observe the synthesis of classical and Christian thought that formed the basis of Renaissance thought. Pico frankly acknowledges the difficulty of rising to the challenge he sets for us. But he reminds us of the wise words of Job:

But there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding. (Job 32:8; KJV).

Though he lives upon the earth, man must always have his eyes fixed upon the heavens. Once more, Pico refers to Scripture to back up his argument, citing the great Patriarch Jacob, who dreamed of a ladder set upon the ground that reached to the very heights of heaven.

Living purely in the body, without cultivating our minds, is likened by Pico to the Israelites' captivity. Just as Moses led the people of Israel out of the wilderness, we also must free our souls from the baseness and corruption of the body. Pico owes a considerable debt to the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus for this insight. In turn, Plotinus owed a debt of his own to Plato for his contention that the soul is effectively imprisoned within the body.