Pico della Mirandola: A Renaissance Philosophy of Man

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)

Pico della Mirandola is a philosophical contribution to the Mona Lisa module, the prototype for the CCRI Prismatic Perception Humanities Project Web page. The general goal of the Prismatic Perception project is the creation of a learning environment conducive to the discovery and construction of coherent connections across academic disciplines and thematic domains. As such, it represents an educational counterbalance to the insular specialization promoted by traditional disciplinary boundaries.  Moreover, consistent with this alternative educational emphasis on cognitive bridge-building, it is also an interactive process founded on interdisciplinary and faculty-student collaboration.  Accordingly, in addition to establishing an alternative learning medium, it enacts an innovative learning process as well. Finally, on a more general level, the Prismatic Perception project challenges the widespread, yet counterproductive, viewpoint that the Humanities and emerging technologies are mutually exclusive antagonists.  In contrast, we interpret their relationship as a mutually beneficial partnership oriented towards common educational goals.
The prototype for our Humanities page is appropriately named Mona Lisa, after a famous painting by the Renaissance artist and visionary Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). It offers an interdisciplinary, holistic profile of da Vinci's historical context and contemporaries. Da Vinci's painting provides an interpretive reference point which orients our "prismatic perception" of Renaissance culture and society.  Da Vinci himself, generally acknowledged as the exemplary "Renaissance man," symbolizes our intellectual ideals of interdisciplinary  cross-fertilization, integrative rationality, and holistic learning.  While polymaths of da Vinci's stature are highly improbable, if not impossible, in our contemporary information age of increasing specialization, we nevertheless maintain that his synthetic, open, and exploratory approach to learning is valuable and viable today. Consequently, we subscribe to his far-reaching thesis: "Realize that everything connects to everything else."
It is in this context that I propose an interpretive profile of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), a Renaissance philosopher contemporary with da Vinci. Our primary purpose is to elucidate his philosophical orientation, systematic interests, and substantive viewpoints in relation to the historical context of Renaissance intellectual movements and motifs.  Therefore, we will explore and evaluate the degree to which his philosophy represents an exemplary expression of, and original contribution to, the fundamental cultural and intellectual framework of the period.
Accordingly, we will begin in part B with an overview of the Renaissance  as a historical period,  cultural concept, and unifying spirit. This overview will provide a preliminary orientation to our study of Pico by profiling his historical and cultural context. On this basis, in part C we will analyze the general characteristics, central themes, and prominent figures of the Renaissance. Our historical analysis will also distinguish Renaissance philosophy from its medieval predecessors and modern heirs. Having established a philosophical and historical framework of interpretation, we will then focus on Pico's philosophy of man in part D. This interpretive focus is the primary goal of our study and, as such, will make up the main body of our essay. Finally, in part E, we will compare and contrast Pico's and da Vinci's view of man in terms of the microcosm-macrocosm motif in Renaissance thought. In brief, the microcosm-macrocosm analogy interprets man as a miniature cosmos or universe (homo minor mundi). This analogy is a very important theme or structure of Renaissance thought in general (Zwijnenberg:104). For this reason, it naturally suggests itself as a fruitful conceptual framework for discerning intellectual affinities and contrasts. Specifically, we will discover how Pico and da Vinci conceive this analogy in related yet distinct ways.
Understanding philosophy is a difficult task. It is even more difficult when the philosophical period or philosopher studied is temporally distant from our contemporary cultural context. Therefore, the progressive order of our inquiry is designed to promote an accurate historical and philosophical understanding. The successive stages summarized above progress from the most general framework of study to its most particular focus. The movement from one stage to the next is like turning a camera lens in order to bring an object into sharper focus. For example, our portrait of the Renaissance itself provides the general historical and cultural context for an initial interpretive orientation to Renaissance philosophy. The Renaissance represents the "whole" of which Renaissance philosophy is a "part." In turn, our description of the defining characteristics and currents of Renaissance philosophy provides the general framework for understanding Pico's philosophy of man. Finally, our comparison of Pico and da Vinci emerges from these preceding stages as the most specific focus of interpretation. In summary, the whole-part relationship is the ordering principle governing our progressive movement from part B to part E.
The fundamental significance of the whole-part relationship for the dynamic act of interpretation or understanding is traditionally called the "hermeneutic circle." The term
hermeneutic refers to the act of interpretation. Therefore, the concept of the hermeneutic circle "means that in any process of understanding the parts must be understood in relation to the whole, just as the whole can only be understood in relation to its parts (Mueller-Vollmer:16). Therefore, the hermeneutical circle is a basic structure of human understanding in general. For example, the process of understanding a written text, individual life, historical period, foreign language, specific opera, symphony, particular society, work of art, or scientific theory proceeds by means of the interpretive interplay between whole and part. The twentieth-century German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer refers to this interpretive interplay as an "oscillating movement" in which understanding constantly shifts "from the whole to the part and back to the whole" (Gadamer: 191, 291). However, the hermeneutical circle was not originally conceived as a universal structure of human understanding. Rather, it was formulated as a rule, method, or principle of textual interpretation, especially biblical exegesis. It was the modern German hermeneutical tradition (Ast and Schleiermacher) which transferred the hermeneutic circle to the art of understanding (Gadamer: 291). In short, the conception of the hermeneutic circle has historically developed from a methodical rule of interpretation to a universal structure of human understanding.
Accordingly, the progressive order of our study follows the hermeneutical rule that we must understand the whole in terms of the parts and parts in terms of the whole. To the degree that we follow this rule, we will promote the likelihood of our understanding this difficult subject.
Our typical, popular preconception of the Renaissance is rooted in a common education in the history of Western civilization. According to this preconception, the Renaissance is a historical period between the medieval era (or middle ages) and the modern epoch (or modernity). Several standard characteristics of the period are often cited: a rebirth of classical culture and learning, a secular revolt against the rigid religious world of the medieval period, an affirmation of critical reason over traditional authority, the liberation of the senses from the shackles of asceticism, an unprecedented celebration of the dignity and freedom of man, a heroic and creative spirit of discovery and exploration, and a radically new individualism. In addition, Italy would be identified as the geographical center of Renaissance cultural activity. Perhaps many of us would cite the extraordinary intellectual and artistic flourishing of Florence in the fourteenth century as an example of Italy's cultural preeminence. And finally, our common preconception also includes a vague recollection of the chronological scope of the period, perhaps 1300 to 1600 proposed as approximate dates.
Most of us are somewhat familiar with this general portrait of the Renaissance. We may regard this preliminary background conception of the Renaissance as an initial interpretive prejudgment or predisposition. However, a historical "prejudgment" of this kind tends to be uncritically assumed. In other words, it is accepted without explicit examination or critical evaluation. In any given case, after critical scrutiny, we may conclude that a specific preconception is basically correct or at least credible. Or we may recognize the need for substantial revision or even wholesale rejection. However, our interest in proposing a philosophical interpretation of the Renaissance need not take the form of a direct and detailed assessment of our typical preconception. Rather, we will adopt an alternative interpretive method. Having identified the rough outline of our common preconception, we are now in a position to suspend judgment regarding its historical validity or philosophical credibility. This interpretive act, and the attitude it embodies, is methodical insofar as it reconstitutes the task of defining "the Renaissance." As such, the suspension of evaluative judgment with respect to our preconception is the methodical starting point for reinterpreting the Renaissance.
The traditional textbook account of the Renaissance encountered in our history of Western civilization courses, and consequently an additional aspect of the prevalent preconception articulated above, correctly cites the derivation of our English word 'Renaissance' from the French term (renaissance) for rebirth or regeneration. But it should be noted that the concept or symbol of rebirth, regardless of the particular language in which it is expressed, has a long and complex history in Western culture. It plays an important role, in a variety of interrelated meanings, in Western myth, philosophy, science, literature, religion and art. Therefore, the usage of the term 'Renaissance,' despite competing conceptions of its essential meaning and scope of application, should be interpreted as a part of the more general history of the concept of rebirth.  Although we cannot examine the details of this whole-part relationship here, the reader should take note of it.
Regarding our specific interest, the traditional modern definition of the Renaissance may be said to begin with Jules Michelet's History of France in the Sixteenth Century (1855) (Bush:18). For our purposes it is sufficient to note his general interpretation and emphasis, which would influence subsequent scholars. Bush's summary is worth quoting: "The bizarre, monstrous, and prodigiously artificial Middle Ages broke down with the discovery of the world and discovery of man" (Bush:18). Four years later, in 1859, Georg Voigt published The Revival of Classical Antiquity or the First Century of Humanism (Dresden:215). Voigt identified Italy as the creator of Renaissance culture by becoming the bridge between the ancient and Christian world. He interpreted the revival of classical learning as a strong stimulus to an individualism which was suppressed by the medieval church. In his view, this classical impetus to individualism "tended toward literary, frivolous, and immoral neo-paganism" (Bush:19-20). Voigt's primary significance for subsequent Renaissance studies, however, consists in his connecting the revival of ancient classics (Greek and Latin cultural sources) with 'humanism' (Dresden:215). We will elaborate on the subject of Renaissance humanism shortly, but we should note here that Voigt's usage is dependent upon historical precedence. According to the renowned Renaissance scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller, the "term Humanismus was coined in 1808 by the German educator F. J. Niethammer, to express the emphasis on the Greek and Latin classics in secondary education as against the rising demands for a more practical and scientific training" (Kristeller, 1979:21-22).
But by far the most influential interpretation of the Renaissance is the Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). The popular preconception of the Renaissance summarized above basically corresponds with Burckhardt's view. Although Michelet had used the term in a very similar manner, it was really through Burckhardt's monumental work that the Renaissance "comes to denote a particular period with its own peculiar characteristics and grows into a concept" (Dresden: 214). His portrait of the Italian Renaissance presents a simple and coherent interpretation which was commonly accepted as established historical fact for generations of scholars and students (Bush: 20). The historical significance of Burckhardt's study is humorously highlighted by Wallace Ferguson's sarcastic observation that the "Italian Renaissance first emerged...full-grown from the head of Jacob Burckhardt...." (Ferguson: 63). Burckhardt conceived of the Renaissance as a distinctively Italian "cultural phenomenon born of the marriage of Italian genius with the civic freedom of Italian cities...." (Bush: 19). He stressed its radical discontinuity with the medieval period in its celebration of the senses, concern with earthly matters of the here and now, assertion of autonomous reason against authority, and exercise of freedom throughout all cultural spheres (Copenhaver and Schmitt: 19; Bush: 18-21). Accordingly, his portrait depicts the Renaissance as the proximate historical matrix of the modern era insofar as it characterizes the period in terms of a radical rejection of medieval religiosity, other-worldliness, ascetic morality, and ecclesiastical authority. It is therefore not surprising that the concept of individualism is the determining factor in Burckhardt's general interpretation (Ferguson: 63). For secular paganism, sensualism, the free play of creative and heroic personalities, standing up to authority in the name of reason, and affirmation of earthly existence in its own right, all express an unprecedented valuation of the individual.