Pico della Mirandola

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Portrait from the Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–94) is one of the best-known philosophers of the Renaissance: his Oration on the Dignity of Man is better known than any other philosophical text of the fifteenth century. Pico was also remarkably original—indeed, idiosyncratic. [1] Pico’s reverence for ancient wisdom drew him to the Florentine Platonic Academy established by Marsilio Ficino. His awareness of the universality of truth led him to reject such humanist tendencies as the emphasis upon oratorical style over philosophical reason and the exclusive dependence on ancient Greece for inspiration. Pico studied the mystical writings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster and Moses, Orpheus and Pythagoras, Christian theology, Islamic philosophy, and the Hebrew Qabalah. [2][3]


Life

Pico was born on February 24, 1463, to a noble Italian family, the counts of Mirandola and Concordia near Modena in the Emilia-Romagna north of Tuscany. [4] His father, Giovanni Francesco Pico, prince of the small territory of Mirandola, provided for his precocious son a thorough humanistic education at home. Pico then studied canon law at Bologna, leaving home at the age of fourteen, and Aristotelian philosophy at Padua and visited Florence and Paris, where he learned Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. [5] [6] Pico's reverence for prisca theologia, ancient wisdom, drew him to the Florentine Platonic Academy established by Marsilio Ficino under the aegis and encouragement of Cosimo dei Medici. Pico studied Zoroaster and Moses, Orpheus and Pythagoras, Christian theology, Islamic philosophy, and the Hebrew Qabalah. Ficino translated Plato into Latin and Pico studied his works avidly. When agents of the Medicis brought the Hermetic writings to Florence, Pico urged Ficino to translate them, holding that they contained the root of wisdom and the synthesis of philosophy, science, and religion. Pico himself single-handedly brought the Qabalah into the heart of the Renaissance. [7]

Except for short trips to Ferrara, Pico spent the rest of his life in Florence. Toward the end of his life he came under the influence of the strictly orthodox Girolamo Savonarola, martyr, and enemy of Lorenzo dei Medici. [8]

Pico della Mirandola died in the autumn of 1494 at the age of just thirty-one under mysterious circumstances and it took almost two weeks for him to die. In 2007, his remains, together with those of the man who may have been his lover, the scholar-poet Angelo Poliziano, were disinterred from the Dominican Convent of San Marco, in Florence. Both contained toxic levels of arsenic and this result confirmed the suspicions of the doctors who examined the bodies in 1494. [9]

Works and Reputation

Innocent VIII, 15th century

In 1486, at the age of 23, Pico published nine hundred theses, or Conclusions. He became the first Christian scholar to use Kabbalistic doctrine in support of Christian theology. [10] He planned to defend these theses that he had drawn from diverse Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin writers and invited scholars from all of Europe to Rome for a public disputation. For the occasion he composed his celebrated opening address, "Oratio de Hominis Dignitate", On the Dignity of Man,. A papal commission, however, denounced thirteen of the theses as heretical, and the assembly was prohibited by Pope Innocent VIII. Included among the heresies were the propositions that

(1) Origen, the Christian co-disciple of Plotinus under Ammonius Saccas and head of the Alexandrine Catechistic School, having been excommunicated for teaching reincarnation, should be thought to lie in heaven rather than hell,

(2) the science of magic and the Qabalah prove the divinity of the Christos.

In the Oratio he praises man and explains that his dignity is not based on common places, such as the idea of man endowed of speech and reason, and not even of a man as microcosm, ruler of the universe, but rather on the fact that man, having no fixed attributes, enjoys the free capacity of sharing in the properties of all other beings.[11]He blended metaphysics and ethics by rooting freedom, the essential dignity of man, in the structure of the cosmos. The method for realizing this divine possibility was a meditation which lit the fires of discrimination, intuitive intelligence, and compassion – the Higher Triad. One who activates these three in himself, by confining affections through moral science, shaking off the mists of reason by dialectic and purifying the soul becomes a seraph, a lover who "is in God, and more, God is in him, and God and he are one.”

In the Oratio, Pico has 'the master-builder' say to Adam, the archetypal man:
I have placed thee at the center of the world . . . Neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal have We made thee. Thou, like a judge appointed for being honorable, art the molder and maker of thyself; thou mayest sculpt thyself into whatever shape thou dost prefer. Thou canst grow downward into the lower natures which are brutes. Thou canst again grow upward from the soul's reason into the higher natures which are divine. . . . It is given to man to have that which he chooses and to be that which he wills. [12].

Pico wrote a lengthy Apologia in which he defended his views, but he was forced to flee Rome under threat of persecution from the pope. Though arrested in France by Charles VIII at the request of papal envoys, Pico returned to Florence under the personal protection of Lorenzo dei Medici and spent the last few years of his life writing and spreading the teachings which were the pivot of the Renaissance.[13]

Because he died so young, Pico finished very little and published less: the vernacular Commento was neither completed nor published in his lifetime; the Conclusions are just bare statements of theses; half of the preface to the rushed Apologia was lifted from the unpublished Oratio. On Being and the One is a small piece of a larger effort to harmonize Plato and Aristotle; and Gianfrancesco found the unfinished Disputations Against Astrology bundled with his dead uncle’s papers. Pico had only three works printed in his lifetime: the Conclusions, the Apologia and the Heptaplus.[14]

In the Heptaplus, Pico took up Origen's doctrine that scripture has three keys to interpretation – literal, allegorical, and celestial or occult. The Heptaplus is an account of the Genesis creation story, in the form of a sevenfold understanding of evolution and Nature, from the elemental kingdoms through the supramundane worlds. [15]

Pico della Mirandola and the Jewish Kabbalah

Sefirot

Pico della Mirandola became the first Christian scholar to use Kabbalistic doctrine in support of Christian theology. [16] In 1486 he moved to Perugia, where he studied Hebrew and Arabic under the guidance of several Jewish teachers, including the mysterious Flavius Mithridates, and this period marked the beginning of his interest in the Jewish mystical and magical system, the Jewish Kabbalah. This medieval Jewish Kabbalah was based on the ten sephiroth and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and interpreted the sephiroth as powers of God arranged in a specific structure.

Pico discerned a wonderful symmetry between the Kabbalah and Hermeticism. The Egyptian lawgiver Hermes Trismegistus had revealed mystical teachings, including an account of Creation which hinted at his knowledge of Moses’ wisdom. In Pico’s view, the Kabbalah offered a further body of mystical doctrine, supposedly derived from the Hebrew lawgiver, and a parallel view on cosmology. Having greater knowledge of Hebrew than any other non-Jewish scholar and with his interest in the Kabbalah, Pico set down a new synthesis of Hermetic-Cabalistic magic in twenty-six “Magical Conclusions.” He praised “natural magic” as a legitimate establishment of links between heaven and earth by the proper use of natural substances as recommended by the principles of sympathetic magic and recommend Orphic incantations for magical purposes. He further argued that whereas natural magic aims no higher than the terrestrial world and the stars, Cabala can be used to operate beyond in the supercelestial spheres of the angels, archangels, the sephiroth, and God. [17]

Pico della Mirandola and Astrology

The development of the astrological ideas of Pico dell Mirandola remains one of the most intriguing aspects of his legacy. Even though he analyzed astrology in depth only in the last treatise, the Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem (1493-94), his views on the subject can be found in many of his texts and there are apparent paradoxes in his writings about it. He seems to endorse astrology in some of his writings and condemns them in others. [18]

At first, Pico was fascinated with the Jewish Kabbalah, Plato, and Neoplatonic writings and therefore he relied on them interpreting astrological symbols, though without admitting the dependance of one’s life on the position of celestial bodies. In Pico’s system, the Kabbalah occupies the supreme position among magical practices. Considered almost as worthy as the Kabbalah, astrology for its part becomes one of the most respected elements in the hierarchy of occult sciences. In the seventy-second conclusion (theses), Pico summarizes its importance by saying,
“According to my own opinion, just as true astrology teaches us to read in the book of God, so the Kabbalah teaches us to read in the book of the Law.” [19]
In fact, Pico not only established a close link between astrology and Jewish mysticism but also justified some Christian dogmas using Kabbalistic astrology. Moreover, he found evidence of the divinity of Christ in astrological elements:
“Because of the eclipse of the sun that occurred at the death of Christ, as can be known following the principles of the Kabbalah, it is clear that the Son of God and the true Messiah suffered.”

Eventually though, his attachment switched to “natural science” mainly understood in Aristotelian and scholastic terms. The culmination of his Kabbalistic interpretation was the Heptaplus, published in 1489. In this work he faced an important problem when trying to reconcile the Neoplatonic doctrine of light with Aristotelian physics. The two were ultimately irreconcilable. This caused him to radically transform his natural philosophical views, as expressed in the Disputationes. [20]In this work Pico argued that Christian teaching could not in any way benefit from astrology and his antagonism to astrology seems to derive from astrology's conflict with the Christian notions of free will. [21]He further argued that no philosopher or theologian had ever supported the idea of predictions and that astrological prognostications are incompatible with physical reality. [22] However, the manuscript was edited for publication after Pico's death by his nephew Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola, and possibly amended more critically, [23] and thus, problematic in its textual history.[24]

This view of Pico against the practice of astrology have had enormous resonance for centuries, up to our own time.

Pico della Mirandola and H.P. Blavatsky

Just as Mme. Blavatsky collected and diffused a knowledge of the laws which govern the Universe incorporating Eastern and Western philosophy, and writing about the harmony between and synthesis of science, philosophy, and mysticism and religion, Pico attempted to establish a universal religion and system of knowledge based on a synthesis of Christianity, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Averroism, Stoicism, Hebrew thought, Jewish Kabbala, and many other fields of knowledge, all incorporated into a single all-embracing religious and philosophical system, and publishing his 900 theses on all possible subjects, "Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalasticae et theologicae". [25]

According to Mme. Blavatsky he was a chela of the Masters:

For centuries the selection of Chelas — outside the hereditary group within the gon-pa (temple) — has been made by the Himalayan Mahatmas themselves from among the class — in Tibet, a considerable one as to number — of natural mystics. The only exceptions have been in the cases of Western men like Fludd, Thomas Vaughan, Paracelsus, Pico della Mirandola, Count de Saint-Germain, etc., whose temperamental affinity to this celestial science more or less forced the distant Adepts to come into personal relations with them, and enabled them to get such small (or large) proportion of the whole truth as was possible under their social surroundings.[26]

Assessment

According to Frances Yates, the profound significance of Pico della Mirandola in the history of humanity can hardly be overestimated. He was the first who boldly formulated a new position for European man, man as Magus using both Magia and Cabala to act upon the world, to control his destiny by science. [27] Thus, he became formative for the cultural development of the Occident by placing man at the center of the world. [28] Pico's science is a science of Nature, rooted in the love of wisdom, and a science of Spirit, a true religion which draws us back to the Ancient Source. [29]


Online resources

Articles

Notes

  1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Jun 3, 2008; revised May 15, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pico-della-mirandola/ Accessed on 3/25/22
  2. Hesselink, Katinka. Pico della Mirandola http://www.katinkahesselink.net/his/PicoDellaMirandola.htm Accessed on 3/25/22
  3. Encyclopedia.com. Pico della Mirandolla, Giovannihttps://www.encyclopedia.com/people/philosophy-and-religion/philosophy-biographies/giovanni-pico-della-mirandola Accessed on 3/25/22
  4. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Jun 3, 2008; revised May 15, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pico-della-mirandola/ Accessed on 3/25/22
  5. Britannica. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, count di Concordia https://www.britannica.com/biography/Giovanni-Pico-della-Mirandola-conte-di-Concordia Accessed on 6/14/22
  6. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Jun 3, 2008; revised May 15, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pico-della-mirandola/ Accessed on 3/25/22
  7. Hesselink, Katinka. Pico della Mirandola. http://www.katinkahesselink.net/his/PicoDellaMirandola.htm# Accessed on 6/14/22
  8. Britannica. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, count di Concordia https://www.britannica.com/biography/Giovanni-Pico-della-Mirandola-conte-di-Concordia Accessed on 6/14/22
  9. Slattery, Luke. A Renaissance Murder Mystery. July 22, 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-renaissance-murder-mystery Accessed on 6/14/22
  10. Britannica. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, count di Concordia https://www.britannica.com/biography/Giovanni-Pico-della-Mirandola-conte-di-Concordia Accessed on 6/14/22
  11. Bori, Pier Cesari. The Italian Renaissance: An Unfinished Dawn? – Pico della Mirandola https://web.archive.org/web/20071229231307/http://didattica.spbo.unibo.it/pais/bori/articolo010.html. Accessed on 8/27/22.
  12. Hesselink, Katinka. Pico della Mirandola. http://www.katinkahesselink.net/his/PicoDellaMirandola.htm# Accessed on 6/14/22
  13. Hesselink, Katinka. Pico della Mirandola. http://www.katinkahesselink.net/his/PicoDellaMirandola.htm# Accessed on 6/14/22
  14. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Jun 3, 2008; revised May 15, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pico-della-mirandola/ Accessed on 8/26/22.
  15. Hesselink, Katinka. Pico della Mirandola http://www.katinkahesselink.net/his/PicoDellaMirandola.htm Accessed on 8/27/22
  16. Britannica. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, count di Concordia https://www.britannica.com/biography/Giovanni-Pico-della-Mirandola-conte-di-Concordia Accessed on 6/14/22.
  17. Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. Pico della Mirandola and the CabalaFrom pp. 41 - 46 of The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction, “Italian Renaissance Magic and Cabala” by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, 2008. Reprinted with permission of Oxford University Press (www.oup.com). https://f151aef42a498ae456d4-1ef8579ca901739d2f09804e4c534da2.ssl.cf5.rackcdn.com/07_g-clarke.pdf Accessed on 8/26/22.
  18. Akopyan, Ovanes. Debating the Stars in the Italian Renaissance: Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s Disputationes Adversus Astrologiam Divinatrisem and the Reception. Brill Publisher, 2020-10-08 and Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance. The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance StudiesSpring 2018. Membership required. Page 47.
  19. Akopyan, Ovanes. Debating the Stars in the Italian Renaissance: Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s Disputationes Adversus Astrologiam Divinatrisem and the Reception. Brill Publisher, 2020-10-08 and Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance. The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. Spring 2018. Membership required. Page 57.
  20. Akopyan, Ovanes. Debating the Stars in the Italian Renaissance: Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s Disputationes Adversus Astrologiam Divinatrisem and the Reception. Brill Publisher, 2020-10-08 and Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance. The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. Spring 2018. Membership required. Page 65
  21. Johnson, Philip; Payne, Simeon Evangelical Countercult Apolotigsts versus Astrology: An Unresolved Conundrum Presbyterian Theological Centre (Sydney) and University of Western Sydney. Volume 17, Number 2. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.905.3728&rep=rep1&type=pdf Accessed on 8/28/22
  22. Akopyan, Ovanes. Debating the Stars in the Italian Renaissance: Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s Disputationes Adversus Astrologiam Divinatrisem and the Reception. Brill Publisher, 2020-10-08 and Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance. The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance StudiesSpring 2018. Membership required. Pages 65-66
  23. ENZYKLOPÄDIE. Pico della Mirandola https://wiki.edu.vn/wiki29/2021/10/29/giovanni-pico-della-mirandola-wikipedia/ Accessed on 8/27/22
  24. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Jun 3, 2008; revised May 15, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pico-della-mirandola/ Accessed on 8/27/22.
  25. Ken Wilber.Pico della Mirandola, and H.P. Blavatsky http://malankazlev.com/kheper/topics/Wilber/historical_parallels.html Accessed on 6/14/22
  26. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings Vol. IV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 607.
  27. Hesselink, Katinka. Pico della Mirandola http://www.katinkahesselink.net/his/PicoDellaMirandola.htm Accessed on 8/27/22
  28. Grün, Clemens. Giovanni Pica della Mirandola Seminar Paper, 1998. https://www.grin.com/document/107580 Accessed on 8/27/22
  29. Hesselink, Katinka. Pico della Mirandola http://www.katinkahesselink.net/his/PicoDellaMirandola.htm Accessed on 8/27/22