Pico’s Oration: Not on the Dignity of Man?

The Oratio (later supplemented with de hominis dignitate) is often referred to as “the great Renaissance proclamation of a modern ideal of human dignity and freedom,” and considered to be Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s main contribution to Renaissance philosophy. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, one of the most intriguing figures in fifteenth-century Italian thought, obtained an exceptional fame during his life. His enormous philosophical knowledge and the reputation of a polyglot attracted the attention of his colleagues. His legendary status gave rise to a number of myths. Some of them are still in power. My talk is on one of such examples, the Oratio de hominis dignitate.

The pioneering studies by Ernst Cassirer and Eugenio Garin affected by early twentieth-century debates on “humanism” are largely responsible for the image of Giovanni Pico as a proponent of the dignitas hominis concept. Garin’s vision of the Renaissance humanism arose from a political situation in twentienth-century Italy. First, Garin’s intellectual background was formed by the circle of Giovanni Gentile, the Neo-Hegelian philosopher and one of the most influential Italian thinkers of that period. According to Gentile, the significance of the Renaissance epoch was marked by the turn toward the idea of dignitas hominis and anthropology as the most specific element of Renaissance culture. It is not surprising that the Oratio de hominis dignitate received a special and honourable place in Gentile’s and his followers’ concept of the Renaissance. Gentile influenced another important reading of the Oratio, that by Ernst Cassirer. In his Individuum und Cosmos — a document characteristic of the intellectual and mental situation in twentieth-century Germany — Cassirer tried to re-create a chain of individual concepts from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance to contemporary philosophy. Gentile’s “progressist” vision of the Renaissance found its supporters in Italy, and Garin was among them. In 1947, he published his major work on the Italian humanism, which was later reprinted more than once. It was commissioned before the Second World War by Ernesto Grassi, one of the leading ideologists of the Italian fascism, to glorify Italy as the homeland of modern thought and culture. It is quite interesting that after the fall of Mussolini’s regime Garin became a supporter of the communist doctrine and supported the same idea from a new ideological perspective.

This paper will focus on the Oratio, which was conceived by Pico himself as an introduction to the failed Roman dispute of 1486, and its place in Pico’s legacy. The need to reconsider (or not) scholarly approaches to Pico, his thought at different stages of his itinéraire philosophique, and the concept of dignitas hominis in the Renaissance is the question with which the presentation will primarily deal.