Pico della Mirándola, Giovanni
(1463-1494)
   Italian philosopher and humanist. Born the younger son of the count of a small independent principality, he studied canon law at Bologna and humanistic subjects and philosophy at Ferrara and Padua. At Padua, he developed special interest in the thought of Aristotle and his major Arabic interpreter, Averroës. He moved to Florence in 1484 and became close to the intellectual circle patronized by Lorenzo de'Medici, especially to the intellectual star of the Medicean circle, the Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino.
   Pico is usually accounted one of the Florentine Platonists, second only to Ficino himself, but his intellectual interests extended far be-yond Platonism. In 1485 he spent a year at the University of Paris, the principal northern center of scholastic philosophy and theology. That same year, he engaged in a literary debate with the Venetian hu-manist Ermolao Barbaro. His open letter De genere dicendi philosophorum / On the Philosophers' Way of Speaking disparages humanism as nothing more than stylistic frills and praises philosophy and the traditional philosophical authority, Aristotle. The central prin-ciple of his own philosophy was concord, and his treatise De ente et uno / On Being and the One aimed to demonstrate that if rightly un-derstood, the two greatest ancient philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, were in fundamental agreement. Pico studied not only Greek but also the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic languages, for another part of his philosophical program of concord was to master every system of phi-losophy and theology and to demonstrate that the teachings of all philosophers were harmonious if properly understood.
   In pursuit of this idea, Pico compiled a list of 900 philosophical and theological theses which he proposed to defend in public debate against any and all challengers. This list was published in 1486, but even before it came out, conservative critics had charged that many of the articles were heretical and that the whole project erred by im-plying that the Jewish and Islamic religions were on a par with Chris-tianity. Pope Innocent VIII prohibited the public disputation, and a papal commission condemned several of the theses, especially those that endorsed the secularist ideas of Averroës or were based on the
   Jewish mystical treatises known as Cabala. Pico published an Apolo-gia defending his opinions but had already agreed to submit to the church's judgment. The pope, after seeing an advance copy of the Apologia, condemned all 900 theses (August 1487). Pico decided to go to France to rally support in Paris but was arrested by papal order on the way. Lorenzo de'Medici persuaded the French king to release him, and he then lived in Florence under Lorenzo's protection. Pope Innocent refused to grant him absolution, but the next pope, Alexan-der VI, granted pardon for his errors and his reluctance to submit to the church's decision. Pico spent the rest of his life in Florence, where after the rise of Girolamo Savonarola to influence, he became a de-voted follower of the great Dominican preacher. At his death, Savonarola was at his side; he was buried in the robe of Savonarola's Dominican order and interred in the Dominican church of San Marco.
   Although Giovanni Pico became very close to the friar, unlike his nephew Gianfrancesco he did not totally renounce his earlier philo-sophical convictions. He continued his study of the Semitic languages and in particular pursued his investigation of the Cabala. He was con-vinced that several ancient religious traditions, not only the Cabala but also the Hermetic treatises, the Greek Orphic poems, the thought of the ancient Pythagoreans, and other ancient (or supposedly ancient) religious writings represented distinct but entirely harmonious acts of divine revelation given to the various nations at the dawn of human civilization. All of these ancient traditions were providentially de-signed to prepare the various nations for the ultimate conversion of all people to Christianity. Pico produced a lengthy commentary on the first 27 verses of the biblical book of Genesis, the Heptaplus (1489), in which he applied cabalistic principles to interpret Genesis in a Christian sense. In 1492 he completed and published his treatise har-monizing the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, De ente et uno, which he dedicated to the Florentine poet and humanist Angelo Poliziano. His cabalistic studies were also related to his interest in magic, since he believed that the occult truths contained in the Cabala could confer power on the enlightened scholar and give him the abil-ity to perform works ordinarily beyond human ability.
   While Pico was interested (like his friend Ficino) in magic, he was unusual for his age in his rejection of the pseudoscience of astrol-ogy. His treatise Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem (1493) attracted much attention as a powerful attack on belief in ju-dicial astrology. Pico argued that belief that the stars controlled hu-man destiny rested on a verbal equivocation, the assumption that the stars were superior ("higher") and the human soul and intellect was inferior and hence subject to astral influence. In terms of physical po-sition (in the Ptolemaic astronomy of the age) the stars were "higher," but what really counted was the fact that according to Neoplatonic principles the spiritual is superior to the material. Thus the human soul or intellect, a spiritual creature, could never be controlled by the material influence of the stars. Indeed, a correct understanding of hi-erarchy demonstrated that the soul, if properly conditioned, could control the stars, a conclusion that was destructive of belief in judi-cial astrology but quite compatible with Pico's belief in magic.
   The most famous of Pico's writings was a short tract that probably had more influence on modern interpretations than on his own con-temporaries. This was the introductory address prefixed to his 900 theses. Though its original title was simply Oratio, a later edition lengthened it to Oratio de hominis dignitate / Oration on the Dignity of Man. In the scholarship of the 19th and early 20th centuries, this oration was often used as support for the interpretation of Renais-sance humanism as a philosophy that glorified human nature and hu-man life in this world. In reality, the main thrust of the oration is to explain and defend Pico's universalist religious conviction that all of the major religions were based on an ancient revelation given to each nation by God. Yet the opening section does present a concept of hu-man nature that was central to Pico's beliefs. As a close but critical reader of Aristotle, he had come to reject the Aristotelian idea of a hu-man nature that is fixed and immutable. In Aristotelian philosophy, the nature of a thing absolutely determines its every action. But in the Oratio, Pico proclaimed that the Creator had not given to His human creature any nature at all, but instead had given him something far more precious, absolute freedom. Humankind had been created as a no-nature, a wide-open potentiality, and each human being poten-tially had the power—and also the responsibility—to shape his own nature by choosing the principles by which he lived. If he chose to pursue spiritual and intellectual goods, he would become spiritual, al-most divine; if he chose to pursue worldly and material goods, he would become no more than an animal and would forfeit his blessed status as the child of God. The Oratio was a glorification of human nature, but in a deeply spiritual sense, not in terms of either medieval or modern rationalism. It defined the human creature as totally free, subject to no external or internal compulsion, and hence potentially able to become divine.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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