Category: Persons

Pico della Mirandola

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) is the second best known philosopher after Marsilio Ficino. He broadened the scope of Renaissance philosophy as to include almost every philosophical and mystical tradition of the ancient and medieval world.

Life and Work

Pico della Mirandola was born in Emilia-Romagna north of Tuscany. He enrolled in the well-known universities of Bologna, Ferrara and Padua, where he was instructed into medieval scholasticism. His philosophical orientation changed when he met the Jewish philosopher, from Heraklion of Crete, Elia del Medigo, who inducted him into Averroes' Aristotelianism, and Jewish philosophical and mystical tradition.

Around the same time, Pico della Mirandola came under the influence of Ficino's Platonism. Already, his works Commento (1485), and especially Conclusiones (1486) illustrated his endeavour to present the platonic and the Aristotelian philosophies as ultimately consistent. Thus, he was trying to resolve the friction between Platonists and Aristotelians, which had revived in Renaissance Italy. Additionally, he arrayed all other philosophical traditions, ancient and medieval, as parts of a unified, coherent whole. He composed the most renowned work of Renaissance philosophy, Oration on the Dignity of Man (Oratio de hominis dignitate) as an introduction to his Conclusiones.

Pico's plan to defend publicly his philosophical programme never came to pass due to his banishment as an originator and defender of heresy. He fled to Paris where he was jailed.

Despite the tremor that the Conclusiones caused, Pico did not hold back. He wrote the Apology as a defence of his theses, and Heptaplus, a cabalistic exegesis of the Genesis. Following that, he composed De ente et uno (1492), which put him back on the track of harmonizing platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics. Death came on him in 1494 before finishing his Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem, where he was supporting the freedom of human will in the context of the problem of astrological predestination.

Pico della Mirandola's philosophy

A palpable syncretism is at work throughout Pico's philosophy. He picked up the task of Florentine Platonism, whose basic feature was the platonic appropriation of a wide range of philosophical traditions of antiquity and Middle Ages.

On top of that, Pico ushered the Cabala, the most characteristic version of medieval Jewish mysticism. He deemed that, because of its connection with Moses, the Cabala was better suited for the interpretation of Christianity and philosophy than the Chaldean Oracles and the Corpus Hermeticum, that Marsilio Ficino had already suggested as hermeneutic tools for Platonism. Concerning the mystical union with the divine, the Cabala offered Pico more advanced techniques of theurgy than the ones introduced by the Neoplatonists.

In addition, Pico employed the philosophy of the Presocratics to a greater extent than his contemporaries. The Conclusiones bear evidence to his basic ambition: to reveal the single truth that is formulateddifferently in every philosophy, by disclosing the latent affinities between all traditions.

Pico's erudition and his acute knowledge of ancient languages allowed for an inventive interpretation of the original sources. In the Oratio, he gives a vivid account of the course that philosophy took since antiquity, and lays bare the latent threads that bind together all the divergent traditions. In the face of the claim that the Oratio is just a cabalistic commentary on philosophy, the Kantians saw in it the most emblematic text of the Renaissance. Therein humanity is exalted by reason of the position man receives in the centre of the universe; he is the link that unites everything together. Pico emphasizes that man -like a Proteus- has the ability to become everything.

Therefore He took up man, a work of indeterminate form; and, placing him at the midpoint of the world, He spoke to him as follows: "We have given to thee, Adam, no fixed seat, no form of thy very own, no gift peculiarly thine, that thou mayest feel as thine own, have as thine own, possess as thine own the seat, the form, the gifts which thou thyself shalt desire. […] thou art confined by no bounds; and thou wilt fix limits of nature for thyself. I have placed thee at the center of the world, that from there thou mayest more conveniently look around and see whatsoever is in this world. Neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal have We made thee'" (Pico della Mirandola, Oratio de hominis dignitate; trans. Wallis, 1965).
Author: Georgios Steiris
  • Black, C. Pico's Heptaplus and Biblical Hermeneutics. Leiden, 2006.
  • Dougherty, M.V. ed. Pico della Mirandola: New Essays. Cambridge, 2008.
  • Garin, E. ed. De hominis dignitate, Heptaplus, De ente et uno e scritti vari. Florence, 1942.
  • Wallis, Charles G. Pico della Mirandola, On The Dignity of Man. Indianapolis/Cambridge 1965, 1965.
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