Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

Illustration of PDF document

Download Oration on the Dignity of Man Study Guide

Subscribe Now

[M]an's place in the universe is somewhere between the beasts and the angels, but, because of the divine image planted in him, there are no limits to what man can accomplish.

This is a classic statement of Renaissance humanism. Man may not be perfect, located as he is some way beneath the angels, but he is a remarkable creation, nonetheless. Pico beautifully expresses the immense confidence of Renaissance thinkers in the moral and intellectual perfectibility of man. Placed by the Almighty midway between the beasts and the angels, man is at the center of things and, as such, has the unique position to comprehend the vast cosmos in its entirety.

Let some holy ambition invade our souls, so that, dissatisfied with mediocrity, we shall eagerly desire the highest things and shall toil with all our strength to obtain them, since we may if we wish.

It should always be remembered that Renaissance humanism had a radically different meaning from humanism as we understand it today, which tends to be associated with religious skepticism. Pico, like virtually all the main thinkers of his time, was a devout Christian. He didn't see the new ideas as constituting a threat to religion. On the contrary, man's growing ambition to attain knowledge is a holy one, implanted into our souls by the Almighty. The more we come to know God's creation, about ourselves and the world around us, the more we will learn about God Himself.

We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, Neither mortal or immortal, So that with freedom of choice and with honor, As thought the maker and molder of thyself, Thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have the power out of thy soul's judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.

These are the words of God as spoken to Adam after his creation. As man is in an intermediate position between heaven and earth, he is neither mortal nor immortal; he's a synthesis of both. As with all the animals, he will one day die. But there's a crucial difference; men's souls can be reborn into higher forms. What's more, this can be achieved by man himself, using the power of free will given to him by God.

Yet free will cuts both ways. Just as man can use his free will to cultivate his soul for a higher end, so too can he abuse this divine gift and degenerate into lower forms of life. Caught between two worlds, the celestial and the earthly, man can go one way or the other. He can either ascend to the heights by the fullest cultivation of his moral and intellectual capacities, or he can neglect them and descend to the lower forms of life. Whichever way man goes, it'll be his choice, an expression of the free will graciously bestowed upon him by his maker.

There, as the sacred mysteries tell us, the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones occupy the first places; but, unable to yield to them, and impatient of any second place, let us emulate their dignity and glory. And, if we will it, we shall be inferior to them in nothing.

We are not angels, and can never be completely like them in our mere earthly existence. But we can still emulate them. That means developing our capacity for rational thought. The more we do this, and the more successful we become in this endeavor, the closer we will approach what is truly divine.