Themes

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

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A primary theme of Oration on the Dignity of Man is that humans are blessed among all beings. It is wonderful to be a human. As Pico states:

Man is the most fortunate of living things and, consequently, deserving of all admiration.

This humanist philosophy upended the idea that humankind was fallen and humans nothing but miserable sinners. Instead, Pico boldly declared humans "but little lower than the angels."

However, this is not the end: humans are not only the most fortunate of living creatures, they are in some ways more fortunate even than celestial beings, such as angels, for celestial beings are fixed and "unchanging," while man is a "chameleon," capable of transformation. As Pico puts it:

The highest spiritual beings were, from the very moment of creation, or soon thereafter, fixed in the mode of being which would be theirs through measureless eternities. But upon man, at the moment of his creation, God bestowed seeds pregnant with all possibilities, the germs of every form of life. Whichever of these a man shall cultivate, the same will mature and bear fruit in him.

However, Pico never loses sight of the idea that humans have the capability of transforming in two directions—toward the angelic or toward the brutal. Pico privileges people who overcome their physical appetites and, instead, cultivate their reason:

If, however, you see a philosopher, judging and distinguishing all things according to the rule of reason, him shall you hold in veneration, for he is a creature of heaven and not of earth.

From this comes another central theme: humans are exalted primarily by the use of their reason.

This idea of direction, of up and down, leads to the theme of hierarchy: Pico envisions the universe entirely in hierarchical terms. His is not a world of equality: animals are not equal to humans, nor are humans equal to angels. God is above all creation, at the pinnacle. Everything in the universe is arranged in a careful order, ascending or descending. Pico repeatedly uses the image of a ladder, evoking Jacob's ladder from the Bible, to describe this. Humans, depending on how they use the gifts God has given them, can ascend or descend the ladder.

Further, reason is not a faculty divorced from God in Pico's universe. The highest form of reason, that which brings humans closest to the angels, is to embrace Christianity.

Finally, Pico does not dismiss other religions or creeds as worthless, despite seeing Christianity as the most exalted. There is a deeply universalist strain to his thinking. He frequently evokes the authority of the ancients, such as Pythogoras, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as Mohammed, to validate his ideas, such as the concept that following "divine law," or a moral order, exalts a person. He states, for example, that

The Pythagoreans transform men guilty of crimes into brutes or even, if we are to believe Empedocles, into plants; and Mohamet, imitating them, was known frequently to say that the man who deserts the divine law becomes a brute.

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