Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pico's Dignity

Pico della Mirandola was born on this day in 1463 near Ferrara.

A precocious child, Pico was sent to Bologna to study canon law at the age of 14. Canon law began to sicken him, however, and he moved to Ferrara to study philosophy and theology, soon afterward meeting the philosopher Marsilio Ficino. At Padua, he gained a reputation as a public lecturer on scholarly topics, acquired a deep knowledge of Greek and the Semitic languages, and encountered ancient Greek texts by Plato and Aristotle as well as the literature of medieval Judaism. By 1484, under Ficino's influence, he was an avowed Neo-Platonist, employing Plato's methods of inquiry to a critique of the Church.

He studied in France briefly, and upon his return to Florence in 1486, he published his "900 theses" (or, Conclusiones Nongentae in Omni Genere Scientarum), a mélange of dialectics, metaphysics, theology and magic, and brashly announced that he was prepared to defend them in public debate against all the great scholars of Europe. For the impending occasion, he wrote what would become his most famous piece, the Oration on the Dignity of Man, one of the principal statements of Renaissance humanism -- stressing a return to the centrality of man in the universe.

Within a year, 13 of his theses were declared to be heresy by Innocent VIII, who forbade public discussion of the work. Pico recanted, but came back two months later with a a retort addressed to Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Apologia. In the Apologia, Pico took the extraordinary position that the Hebrew Kabbala, the Jewish mystical tradition which provided a means for approaching God directly, was the best logical basis for the belief in a divine Christ.

With Innocent still hot on his trail, Pico fled to France and was arrested there. Innocent died in 1492, and was succeeded by Alexander VI, who absolved Pico of the charge of heresy. With Alexander's blessings Pico returned to his roots in his work the Heptaplus, a mystical interpretation of the Creation. He fell away from Ficino and Lorenzo near the end of his life, when he submitted to the influence of the monk Savonarola and began a period of meditation.

He died young, on November 17, 1494 in Florence, without leaving a synthesized philosophy, but his critiques were influential: they encouraged scholars to penetrate long-ignored Hebrew texts and enriched theological discussions with an approach to mysticism derived from classical literature. His critique of astrology influenced the work of astronomer Johannes Kepler.

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