The highest father, God the Architect, according to the laws of His secret wisdom, built this house of the world, this world which we see, the most sacred temple of His divinity.”

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola,
Oration on the Dignity of Man, 1486.


Pico’s words as quoted above truly resonate with the idea of Renaissance humanism. The Renaissance was a time of re-birth, as it literally means so, starting in Italy as a cultural movement before spreading through Europe. Giorgio Vasari, the painter and architect, coined the term ‘La Rinascita’ in 1550 to describe the developments from 14th to 16th century Italy in visual arts that brought together art and nature. Jules Michelet in 1855 gave this concept its French translation- Renaissance- and described it as “the discovery of the world, the discovery of man.” The period was characterised by a revival of the Classical (Greek and Roman) texts as well as a focus on man and the achievements of man, placing him at the centre of the universe. Following from the Christian idea that god created man in his own image, the Renaissance, and humanism in particular, was like a celebration of man, a superior being. This thinking was a response to the utilitarian approach and what came to be depicted as the “narrow pedantry” associated with medieval scholasticism. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1490) shows the correlations of ideal human proportions with geometry described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, who described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion.

Although humanism as a term was conceived only in the nineteenth century, the concept was very much prevalent in Renaissance society. It involved ‘studia humanitatis’ or a shift in studies towards the arts and holistic development of children, including subjects like grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy in the curriculum. The stress on a study of humanities led man to a deeper understanding of life and human behaviour; a spirit of questioning, which characterised this era, stems from this. Pico della Mirandola defends philosophy (and through it, the area of humanities as a whole) in this context, of a world learning to accept the arts, and explains why he chose to become a philosopher. He explains in paragraph 24 of his Oration on the Dignity of Man,

“I should not have undertaken to expound them, except to reply to those who are wont to condemn the study of philosophy, especially among men of high rank, but also among those of modest station. For the whole study of philosophy (such is the unhappy plight of our time) is occasion for contempt and contumely, rather than honour and glory. The deadly and monstrous persuasion has invaded practically all minds, that philosophy ought not to be studied at all or by very few people; as though it were a thing of little worth to have before our eyes and at our finger-tips, as matters we have searched out with greatest care, the causes of things, the ways of nature and the plan of the universe, God’s counsels and the mysteries of heaven and of earth, unless by such knowledge one might procure some profit or favour for oneself.”

He elaborated on this, claiming that he had never philosophised except for the sake of philosophy, and had been able to lose himself in philosophy without being influenced by others who try to pull him away from it. Philosophy taught him to rely on his own convictions rather than on the judgments of others and to concern himself less with whether he is well thought of than with whether what he does or says is evil. In this way, his outlook is different from that of Niccolo Machiavelli, another Renaissance thinker, who stressed the importance for a leader of appearances and public image over actual values (such as generosity or truthfulness) in his book The Prince (1532).

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo.
The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo.

Thus Pico becomes an important figure in this regard, having written what is often considered the manifesto of the Renaissance, ‘The Oration on the Dignity of Man,’ (which also served as an introduction to Pico’s 900 theses). He is representative of the policy and aims of the Renaissance, particularly in Italy (where the Renaissance was at its height). In this public discourse, he dealt with ideas of humanism, among which were concepts such as the great chain of being, according to which every existing thing in the universe had its “place” in a divinely planned hierarchical order, which was pictured as a chain vertically extended. God, and beneath him the angels, sit at the top of this chain. Humanity (man) is next in the chains, followed by beasts, plants and minerals. The concept was revived during the Renaissance and is derived from Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus. Through the divine order of being, man is exposed to be in a significant position compared to others that he shares the earth with and thus holds a significant role. It is also suggested that man may ascend in the chain of being in order to attain a higher position (or, consequently, fall by performing immoral acts to a lower position).

Through man’s rationality and ability to think, humanists including Pico believed, he holds a respectful position in the divine order. Through questioning, it was postulated, he may procure an even higher one (by means of the transmigration of the soul, to a being of a higher order). Education was therefore highly valued during the Renaissance as it was perceived to be the key to success in life, as were the Classical texts which were constantly revisited. The idea of the Classical world as a model reference, popular in the Renaissance, is taken on unflinchingly by Pico. This is seen in his text through the reference to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, who cannot heal Prometheus, the Greek figure who created mankind and stole fire from the gods to gift to them. Pico references Prometheus’s eternal punishment of being chained to a rock at the Mountain of Khvamli and having his liver eaten every day by an eagle. (He was set free by Hercules, who slayed the eagle as one of his twelve labours.) He also discusses the idea of transmigration of the soul into another body after death, a concept that is extracted from the Greek idea, known as ‘metempsychosis’ or ‘palingenesis.’

The humanists believed that it is essential to transcend to the afterlife with a perfect mind and body. This transcending belief can be done with education. The purpose of humanism was to create a universal man whose person combined intellectual and physical excellence and who was capable of functioning honourably in virtually any situation. This ideology was referred to as the uomo universale, an ancient Greco-Roman ideal. In addition to references to these Classical concepts, however, Pico included instances from many other cultures in his Oration of the Dignity of Man as well, such as Abdala the Saracen. He also mentions Persians when talking of the “nuptial bond of the world,” and therefore manages to draw examples from the Islamic world. Further, he draws from his own faith: Christian ideas from both the Old and New Testaments. Using images of Moses leading the Egyptians through the parted sea to the promised land, and of the fall of man through Adam and Eve’s succumbing to temptation and eating the apple in the Garden of Eden (thus giving up immortality), Pico presents allusions from a wide array of sources.

In the words of Walter Pater, in his introduction to ‘The Life of Pico della Mirandola’ (1504), “For the essence of humanism is that belief of which he seems never to have doubted, that nothing which has ever interested living men and women can wholly lose its vitality–no language they have spoken, nor oracle beside which they have hushed their voices, no dream which has once been entertained by actual human minds, nothing about which they have ever been passionate, or expended time and zeal.” This encapsulates the Renaissance humanist sentiment, and thus that of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola as well.