On the Dignity of Man – Summary

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man‘ from where ‘On the Dignity of Man’ is drawn, suggests that man is free to shape himself using his free will, magic and intellect; an idea that went against the orthodox views of the dominant Roman Catholic Church.

The dignity of man was a popular philosophical theme, especially among Renaissance humanists, who differed on philosophical or theological issues, but were concerned with the educational objectives of humanism. The glorification of man was also a point of dispute among them. was the first to differ from his predecessors in attributing a special and changeable nature to man in the universal chain, which enhanced the liberty and ability of humans in the true spirit of Renaissance humanism.

Summary

In Christianity and Renaissance humanism, man is often represented as the supreme creation of God. In Dignity of Man, Pico begins his argument by quoting his predecessors from the Middle Ages, namely the Arabs or the Saracens, and Hermes Trismegistus from Greek mythology, to say that man is the most wonderful of all creatures and is a great miracle. Though Pico agrees with his predecessors about the greatness of man, he is dissatisfied with the arguments presented by them to support this statement. Pico says their arguments are premised on the belief that man is an intermediary between higher and lower beings, and interprets the world through his senses, curiosity, reason, and intelligence. The Persians have argued that man is the “nuptial bond” of the world. He also borrows from David (described as the king of the United Monarchy of Israel and Judah with references in both Old and New Testament) to say that man is just a “little lower than the angels.”

As a Renaissance humanist, Pico believes in the greatness of man but challenges the above argument by saying that if angels are the best, then why should one appreciate man? He affirms that man has a special place in the universal chain, which is to be envied both by the beasts and the higher beings (angels). This is precisely why he is the greatest miracle.

Pico elaborates on man’s special place in the universal chain. He says that God made the world as “the most sacred temple of his divinity.” He describes the place of God’s other creations; the heavens that are occupied by the intelligences, the celestial sphere with the immortals/ eternal soul, and the lowest part of the world, inhabited by all kinds of animals. When God finished housing all these worlds, then God, as the artisan, wanted to create someone to admire the beauty and the magnitude of the world. Hence, God began considering the creation of man.

From among the places that He had already created, God could not find an appropriate space for man, who was to be the “contemplator of the universe,” as all the highest, middle, and lowest orders were full by this time. Not willing to place man in an undeserving place, owing to his eternal creative power and beneficent love, and as the last act of creation, God created man and accorded a special place in the universal chain to him.

God decided that man could not have anything solely to himself. He would have to share the attributes and qualities of all other creatures. Hence, God placed man in the middle of the universe and Pico now quotes God, in dialogue with Adam, and advances his argument by saying that He has reserved nothing specifically or exclusively for man. So, man is free to possess whatever form and function he might desire, based on his own wishes and judgment.

The nature of all other creatures has been carefully specified and restricted to specific domains and qualities, but man possesses the free will to take on any form and quality that he chooses. As the contemplator, man is placed at the center of the world, to make it easy for him to survey and look, explore and choose for himself, from whatever exists in the world. Man, Pico says, is neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal. Therefore, man is the maker and molder of himself and can fashion himself to either descend to the lower world and be like the lower beings or use his own judgment to become like the higher divine beings. The ability to shape his destiny, self-fashioning, and man’s free will were the major concerns of Renaissance humanism. These ideas stood in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, which was under constant criticism during Renaissance.

According to Pico, God has reserved a special place for man, where he is free to exercise his will, as he is not confined in his nature, unlike other forms or creatures. This is what makes man the greatest miracle, by the generosity of God, the Father. Both the lower and higher beings are confined to one nature only, for all eternity. However, when man came into existence God gave him the seeds or germs of all ways of life; allowing him the freedom to choose whatever seeds he chooses to grow in himself.

Pico says that if seeds for sedentary and vegetative qualities are sown, then, man will become like a plant. If he develops his rational faculty, he will become like a heavenly creature, and if he develops his intellect, he will become like the angels and the son of God (Christ). If man is not content with any of these qualities, he can choose to unite his spirit with God, becoming like Him in the process. In fact, Craig Truglia in the essay, “Al-Ghazali and Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola on the Question of Human Freedom and the Chain of Being,” differentiating Pico from his early predecessors, says that;

[Pico] positively emphasizes the changing nature of man/ instead of merely making an allegorical and theological point concerning eschatology or the brutishness of humanity… he extols human beings as worthy of worship, based on their divine qualities in the present life. (p.12)

Discussing the nature and attributes of other creations, Pico endorses the established hierarchy where the faculties of reason and judgment are the higher ideals, taking man closer to the divine beings whereas baser passions are accorded to the lower beings, who inhabit the lower orders. Pico, like other Renaissance humanists, believes that qualities of reason, judgment, and intellect should be man’s aspirational ideals. However, man’s ultimate goal should be “oneness with God.”

Lastly, Pico says that it is because of this unspecified, unconfined, and changeable nature that man becomes the greatest miracle of God’s creation. The section ends with a reference to Prometheus, to symbolize man’s ability to change.

Conclusion

Although, the Oration was written as a defensive speech in response to a trial, the work has remained central to Renaissance philosophy. Most scholars believe that “even if his stance on human freedom was not modern, Pico’s doctrine of man was significant as the systematic and speculative development of a vague idea which had dominated humanist thought for generations.” Pico’s aim was the unification of man with God. The emphasis on free will, and man as ‘the moulder and maker” of his self, proves Pico is a true Renaissance humanist. In fact, free will in “The Oration” is necessary to aspire for divinity. The “Oration on the Dignity of Man” is not a mere work of learned rhetoric or a defensive attempt. It is, in the humanist tradition, a systematic attempt to provide a “positive method” to acquire human dignity.

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