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Man, Dignity of

Man, Dignity of

The concept of the dignity of man (meaning humans in general) played a major role in Renaissance philosophy and religiousthought. Scholars contrasted the misery that people often experience in their daily lives with the glory of their role in the universe. Some writers discussed the dignity of man in terms of human abilities and achievements. Others focused on religious concepts, such as the idea that man had been created in the image of God.


Humanist Writings. Humanists* began to write about the dignity of man in the mid-1300s. The Italian poet and scholar Petrarch addressed the subject in Remedies for Both Kinds of Fortune (1366), in which he described the powers of the soul and the beauty and gifts of the body. Petrarch argued that the functions of the human mind, such as memory and speech, reflected the image of God. He also noted that the Christian belief in salvation offered man the promise of great glory.

Other humanist writers of the late 1300s and early 1400s discussed the condition of man in their works on other subjects, such as law and medicine. These writers explored both the theme of human misery and the idea of human majesty, joy, and power. Many of them drew ideas from theology* and referred to Bible verses on the creation of men and women.

In the mid-1400s, works on the dignity of man became a distinct genre* of humanist writing. Antonio da Barga, an Italian monk and friend of several prominent humanists, played a role in encouraging this trend. In the 1440s Giannozzo Manetti, a leading Florentine humanist and public official, dedicated a work on the dignity of man to Barga. Although this work has not survived, Barga wrote an outline of it, which he gave to another writer, Bartolomeo Facio, to complete. Facio's work emphasized man's creation in God's image and the fact that God had chosen man to rule over the animals and the natural world.

In the 1450s Manetti wrote The Dignity and Excellence of Man (first published in 1532). This four-part work drew on the writings of ancient and medieval* thinkers, such as Cicero, Aristotle, and St. Augustine.The first three sections focused on the wonders of the human body, the human soul, and human beauty and cleverness. In the fourth book, Manetti attempted to counter the idea of human misery found in many ancient and Renaissance sources. Various other Italian humanists also explored the idea of human misery. Some argued that the world held no joy for mankind and that the only true happiness lay in religion. Others believed that men and women could combat misery and improve their lives through reason and intellectual ability.


Philosophical Works. The theme of human dignity found its fullest expression in the works of two Italian thinkers—Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Trained in ancient and medieval philosophy, they were also familiar with humanist writings on the human experience. In his Platonic Theology (1474), Ficino expanded on the humanist idea of human dignity. This work discussed the powers of man over the natural world, including all living things. Ficino described the glory of human achievements in such areas as government, language, mathematics, the arts, and industry. He also stressed the freedom with which humans used their talents, noting that "men are the inventors of innumerable arts which they practice according to their own decision." Ficino's ideas strongly reflected the culture of Florence in the 1400s.

Pico's writings combined concepts from the works of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, as well as medieval Arabic and Jewish scholars. In 1486 he completed Oration on the Dignity of Man, which explored the theme of human dignity. Pico pointed out that, at creation, God had given humans the freedom to act according to their own will. In Pico's view, man's dignity sprang from his ability to choose his own destiny.

In another work, Heptaplus (1488–1489), Pico placed man at the center of the universe. Because man was created in the image of God, Pico argued, he symbolically contained everything in nature and united all parts of the world. Pico summed up his deep admiration for human nature by quoting the ancient writer Hermes Trismegistus, who had called man "a great miracle."

(See alsoClassical Scholarship; Humanism; Individualism. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* genre

literary form

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

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