Reminder For A Modern Man: Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration On The Dignity Of A Man

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The Renaissance was one of the most magnificent chapters in human history. It gave birth to and nurtured many sciences, and brought to us some pretty extraordinary art; it brought forward many intellects of genius and was unique in the sense of altering the perception of the human being.

The ideal to be reached was Uomo Universale, universal man, a person who would be versatile, genuinely interesting, and successful in many fields. This person would try to obtain various types of knowledge, strive towards greatness, and become capable of understanding mathematics, philosophy, literature, art, but also medicine, astronomy, etc. His knowledge would be deep, not superficial. Pico della Mirandola was a renaissance philosopher who in 1486 wrote The Oration on the Dignity of Man, the work that is considered to be the manifesto of the Renaissance. It could serve as a reminder to us, as modern people, in the sense that it could inspire us to see how much we have become estranged from others, and also from ourselves and our human nature. You can read it online.

There are several theories about history and epochs. One of them speaks about how every epoch tends to deny the previous one, in a certain way. With that key to interpretation, we may perceive the Renaissance as liberation from the strict church dogmas of the Middle Ages, given the fact that it was a time of new doubts and new ideas about what a man is, and what is his position in the world. Pico della Mirandola steps away from the former ideas of creationism, saying that a man has free will. This does not deny the existence of God, it rather changes the context of it. Mirandola draws these conclusions as a very well educated man, as a true erudite. He studied different religions and philosophies and showed what their overlapping points were, what they had in common, and why it was important. Although Mirandola was a Christian, he found it all very fascinating: Jewish and Muslim thought, as well as Classical reasoning (both Greek and Roman), had intersected in many ways, they weren’t isolated from one another. In that sense, we could use this as a reminder that religions are peaceful by default, and are subject to man’s interpretation, but also – that all of them share similar or even the same values, especially when it comes to the notion of love. The contexts may be different, but the directions of thought in the cited religions or philosophies unite in a way, or at least they intersect.

According to Mirandola, humans have great potential, so the word impossible should be erased from the dictionary. They just have to acknowledge their greatness and use their powers in the right way. That will bring them closer to divinity. So, what is a man? Mirandola says:

Man’s place in the universe is somewhere between the beasts and the angels, but, because of the divine image planted in him, there are no limits to what man can accomplish.

Humans have free will, they have potential, they have power, they just need to decide where they want to invest it, do they want to do good or bad, and how great they wish to be.

Mirandola also argues the concept of a man as a microcosmos. A man is perceived as the most miraculous being among all that exist. A human being can therefore be seen as a reflection of everything that has been created. It is a small world within a world of nature. Given the fact that a man is what he is, a creature who holds the world inside and a being that communicates with everything in a complex way, he should have a wired-in need to create and to be extraordinary:

Let some holy ambition invade our souls, so that, dissatisfied with mediocrity, we shall eagerly desire the highest things and shall toil with all our strength to obtain them, since we may if we wish.

Humans have the freedom to be whatever they want to, because of the power of motivation that is inside of them. This may remind you of many modern versions of self-motivation theory, mostly gathered in what we call self-help literature. Basically, people tend to shut themselves down, to restrain themselves from achieving any possible positive outcome. What is life without taking risks? We could say it’s just a safe path towards dying. That sounds a bit absurd, doesn’t it? Mirandola reminds us:

We do not need to think of stepping back, of being satisfied with the second rank. Let us strive for dignity and glory, to attain the highest.

You will notice that most of the people who are saying something is impossible are the ones who haven’t even tried. The limitations of what can or cannot be done are positioned in one’s own mind.

Why were humans created in the first place? According to Mirandola, human beings were divine beings, created so that they could admire God’s creation and continue his work in a unique way, by finding their own purpose and doing the best they could. A man is the only creature that has been gifted with higher intellect and free will:

But, when the work was finished, the Craftsman kept wishing that there were someone to ponder the plan of so great a work, to love its beauty, and to wonder at its vastness.

What is Mirandola’s main message? As a human being, you are here to be the best or at least always to strive towards greatness. It’s not about competing with others; it’s about competing with yourself. We could all use a reminder of how extraordinary each and every one of us is. And wow, if you just stop and think what our planet could be, if we used all this greatness and did good, for us and others? Now, that’s something to think about. Mirandola reminds us of that.

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