Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
Oration on the Dignity of Man

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at Cosma's Home Page.

Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) was an ambitious young philosopher who attended a variety of universities, seeking to learn from the best scholars of Europe. At the age of twenty, he sought to unite and integrate the philosophical wisdom of all ages into nine hundred theses and then invited the scholars of Christendom to challenge him in a public disputation in Rome. His essay, Oration on the Dignity of Man, was written as an introduction to his nine hundred theses. It provides a nice summary of his conception of human beings, their nature and potential. Characteristic of Neoplatonic philosophers, Pico makes frequent reference to a hierarchical cosmos and the "Great Chain of Being," the graded order of all of God's creation, from the most to the least perfect, from angelic creatures to inanimate matter.

1. Why does Pico use the setting of the Creation to frame his definition of human nature?
2. According to Pico, why are humans the most dignified creatures in all of God's creation?
3. What does Pico mean when he characterizes humans as having an "indeterminate image" (par. 3)?
4. What does he mean by "middle of the world" (par. 3)?

[1] Hear then, oh Fathers, precisely what this condition of man is; and in the name of your humanity, grant me your benign audition as I pursue this theme.

[2] God the Father, the Mightiest Architect, had already raised, according to the precepts of His hidden wisdom, this world we see, the cosmic dwelling of divinity, a temple most august. He had already adorned the supercelestial region with Intelligences, infused the heavenly globes with the life of immortal souls and set the fermenting dung-heap of the inferior world teeming with every form of animal life. But when this work was done, the Divine Artificer still longed for some creature which might comprehend the meaning of so vast an achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty and smitten with awe at its grandeur. When, consequently, all else had been completed (as both Moses and Timaeus testify),1 in the very last place, He bethought Himself of bringing forth man. Truth was, however, that there remained no archetype according to which He might fashion a new offspring, nor in His treasure-houses the wherewithal to endow a new son with a fitting inheritance, nor any place, among the seats of the universe, where this new creature might dispose himself to contemplate the world. All space was already filled; all things had been distributed in the highest, the middle and the lowest orders. Still, it was not in the nature of the power of the Father to fail in this last creative élan; nor was it in the nature of that supreme Wisdom to hesitate through lack of counsel in so crucial a matter; nor, finally, in the nature of His beneficent love to compel the creature destined to praise the divine generosity in all other things to find it wanting in himself.

[3] At last, the Supreme Maker decreed that this creature, to whom He could give nothing wholly his own, should have a share in the particular endowment of every other creature. Taking man, therefore, this creature of indeterminate image, He set him in the middle of the world and thus spoke to him:

[4] "We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgement and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.''

[5] Oh unsurpassed generosity of God the Father, Oh wondrous and unsurpassable felicity of man, to whom it is granted to have what he chooses, to be what he wills to be! The brutes, from the moment of their birth, bring with them, as Lucilius2 says, ``from their mother's womb'' all that they will ever possess. The highest spiritual beings were, from the very moment of creation, or soon thereafter, fixed in the mode of being which would be theirs through measureless eternities. But upon man, at the moment of his creation, God bestowed seeds pregnant with all possibilities, the germs of every form of life. Whichever of these a man shall cultivate, the same will mature and bear fruit in him. If vegetative, he will become a plant; if sensual, he will become brutish; if rational, he will reveal himself a heavenly being; if intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. And if, dissatisfied with the lot of all creatures, he should recollect himself into the center of his own unity, he will there become one spirit with God, in the solitary darkness of the Father, Who is set above all things, himself transcend all creatures.3


1. During the Renaissance, it was assumed that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Timaeus is the title of Plato's famous dialogue dealing with cosmological issues.
2. An ancient Roman poet.
3. Pico's language recalls the various "faculties" or "powers" of the soul in classical faculty psychology. It was thought that the "vegitative" faculty controlled the functions of the body such as nutrition and digestion and was roughly parallel to the plant realm on the Great Chain of Being. The "sensitive" faculty controlled the animal-like functions of the body, including motion, instincts, and passions. The "rational" faculty was thought to be a distinguishing feature of human beings. Through reason, humans could both control potentially unruly bestial passions and apprehend God's creation. Neoplatonists tended to add another faculty, the "intellectual" faculty, by which they could apprehend pure eternal "forms" or ideas. Pico's reference to "the center of his own unity" suggests a mystical union with God.

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