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Pico della Mirandola, Count Giovanni (1463–1494)


Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the Renaissance philosopher, was born in Mirandola, near Modena. He was a younger son in a family of feudal lords who ruled the small territory of Mirandola and Concordia in northern Italy. He seems to have received at an early age his first humanistic training in Latin and, perhaps, in Greek. Being destined by his mother for a career in the church, he was named papal protonotary at the age of ten and began to study canon law at Bologna in 1477. Two years later he began the study of philosophy at the University of Ferrara, which he continued at the University of Padua from 1480 to 1482.

After a number of journeys that took him to Paris and repeatedly to Florence, Pico studied Hebrew and Arabic under the guidance of several Jewish teachers and in 1486 composed 900 theses, offering to defend them in Rome the following year in a public disputation to which he invited scholars from all parts of Europe. When some of these theses met with objections from various theologians, Pope Innocent VIII appointed a committee to have them examined. As a result of the investigation 7 theses were condemned as unorthodox, and 6 more were declared to be dubious. When Pico published a defense of these 13 theses, the pope condemned all 900, although Pico had signed an act of submission. Pico fled to France, where he was arrested in 1488 on the request of papal envoys.

Upon the intervention of several Italian princes Pico was released from prison by King Charles VIII. He returned to Italy and was allowed by the pope to settle in Florence, under parole, as it were, and under the personal protection of Lorenzo de' Medici. Except for a few short visits to Ferrara, Pico spent the remainder of his life in Florence and there wrote, or began to write, his most important works, remaining in close touch with the circle of the Medici, with the Platonic Academy of Marsilio Ficino, and with Girolamo Savonarola. In 1493 he was acquitted of all ecclesiastical censures and restrictions by Alexander VI. He died in 1494 on the very day (November 17) on which Charles VIII of France made his entry into Florence after the expulsion of Piero de' Medici.

Pico's numerous writings reflect the wide range of his interests. He composed Italian and Latin poems of which only some have survived. A number of his humanistic letters were published posthumously, as was his famous Oration, originally composed for the projected disputation. To the scholastic aspect of his work we may assign the 900 theses (1486) and especially the Apologia (1487), his defense of the condemned theses. Another early work is his lengthy commentary on the Platonic love poem of his friend Girolamo Benivieni (1486). His mature philosophical works include the Heptaplus (1489), a sevenfold interpretation of the first verses (1:127) of Genesis, and his De Ente et Uno (On Being and Unity), written in 1491 but published posthumously. His most extensive work is his Disputationes Adversus Astrologiam Divinatricem (Disputations against Astrology), in twelve books, published posthumously. To this we may add a few short religious and theological writings and several fragments of a commentary on the Psalms that have been preserved in a number of scattered manuscripts and are still for the most part unpublished.

A characteristic document of Pico's attitude on history and philosophy from his earlier years is his correspondence with Ermolao Barbaro (1485). Barbaro, a distinguished Venetian humanist and student of the Greek texts of Aristotle, had stated in a letter to Pico that the medieval philosophers were uncultured and barbarous and did not deserve to be read or studied. Pico replied in a long letter in which he praises and defends the medieval philosophers and insists with great eloquence that what counts in the writings of philosophers is not their words but their thoughts. Unlike Barbaro and many other humanists who despised the scholastic philosophers for their lack of elegance and classical learning, Pico is willing to recognize the solidity of their thought and to learn from them whatever truth they may have to offer. The line between humanism and Scholasticism, rhetoric and philosophy, is thus clearly drawn, and Pico, although deeply imbued with humanist learning, throws his weight on the side of Scholasticism or, at least, of a synthesis of both sides. Many years after Barbaro and Pico died, Philipp Melanchthon wrote a reply to Pico's letter in defense of Barbaro's position.


Pico's defense of the scholastic philosophers was merely a special instance of a much broader historical and philosophical attitude that has been rightly emphasized as his syncretism. Pico was convinced that all known philosophical and theological schools and thinkers contained certain valid insights that were compatible and hence deserved to be restated and defended. This was the underlying idea of his projected disputation, for the 900 theses relied on the most diverse sourcesHermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster, Orpheus and Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle and all their Greek followers and commentators, Avicenna and Averroes and other Arabic philosophers, Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus and several other medieval Latin thinkers, and the Jewish kabbalists.

In using all these sources, Pico wished to emphasize his basic conviction that all of these thinkers had a genuine share in philosophical truth. His notion of a universal truth in which each of the schools and thinkers participates to some extent constitutes an attempt to deal with the apparent contrasts and contradictions in the history of philosophy. It may be compared with the positions of the ancient eclectics and of G. W. F. Hegel, yet it differs from both of them. For Pico truth consists in a large number of true statements, and the various philosophers participate in truth insofar as their writings contain, besides numerous errors, a number of specific statements that are true. That this was Pico's intent we may gather from the second part of his Oration and from a passage in the Apologia that repeats it almost verbatim. He insists that he is not bound by the doctrines of any master or school but has investigated all of them. Instead of confining himself to one school, he has chosen from all of them what suits his thought, for each has something distinctive to contribute.

Pico's syncretism presupposes that of Ficino, who had proposed a theory of natural religion; had traced the Platonic tradition back to Hermes, Zoroaster, and other early theologians; and had insisted on the basic harmony between Platonism and Christianity. Yet Pico made these notions part of a much wider and more comprehensive synthesis. He explicitly includes Aristotle and all his Greek, Arabic, and Latin followers, and he adds to these previously known sources the Jewish kabbalists, with whom he became acquainted through his Hebrew studies, thus being probably the first Christian scholar to use kabbalistic literature. This attitude toward Aristotelianism and kabbalism clearly distinguished Pico from Ficino and other predecessors; it was to find further development in Pico's own later thought and to exert a strong influence on the philosophy of the sixteenth century. Pico's broad syncretism has been rightly praised by several historians as a steppingstone to later theories of religious and philosophical tolerance.

Pico's use of kabbalism consisted not so much in accepting specific kabbalist theories as in gaining recognition for kabbalism in general. Some of the theories that he seems to have borrowed from kabbalist authors were not necessarily of kabbalistic origin, such as the scheme of the three worldselementary, celestial, and angelicwhich he uses for the first three sections of his Heptaplus. Pico accepted the claim made by the followers of kabbalism that their writings were based on a secret tradition that went back, at least in oral form, to biblical times. Kabbalism thus acquires a kind of authority parallel to that of the Bible and similar to that held by Hermes and Zoroaster in the eyes of Ficino and Pico. Moreover, Pico applied to kabbalism a principle that had been used for the Old Testament by all Christian writers since St. Paul: He tried to show that the kabbalistic tradition, no less than the Hebrew Scripture, was in basic agreement with Christian theology and hence could be taken as a prophecy and confirmation of Christian doctrine. With this argument he laid the foundation for a whole tradition of Christian kabbalism that found its defenders in Johannes Reuchlin, Giles of Viterbo, and many other thinkers in the sixteenth and later centuries.

In Pico's own work the kabbalistic influence is most noticeable, after the time of the 900 theses, in his Heptaplus and in his fragmentary commentary on the Psalms. In a manner that goes far beyond the usual medieval scheme of the four levels of meaning Pico assigns to the text of Scripture a multiple meaning that corresponds to the various parts of the universe. He also uses the kabbalistic method of scriptural interpretation, which assigns numerical values to the Hebrew letters and extracts secret meanings from the text by substituting for its words other words with comparable numerical values.

The other distinctive aspect of Pico's syncretism, his tendency to assume a basic agreement between Plato and Aristotle, also remained one of his major preoccupations during his later life. We know that he planned to write an extensive treatise on the agreement between Plato and Aristotle. The idea that Plato and Aristotle were in basic agreement, although differing in their words and apparent meaning, was not new with Pico. We find it in Cicero, who probably took it from his teacher Antiochus of Ascalon. It is also attributed as a program to Ammonius Saccas, the teacher of Plotinus, and endorsed by Boethius. We may also compare certain trends in recent scholarship that have attempted to bridge the gap between Plato's dialogues and Aristotle's extant later writings by interpolating the oral teaching of Plato and the lost early writings of Aristotle.

Pico's approach is known to us through his De Ente et Uno, a small treatise composed toward the end of his life and the only surviving fragment of his projected larger work on the harmony of Plato and Aristotle. The question he discusses is whether being and unity are coextensive, as Aristotle maintains in the tenth book of the Metaphysics, or whether unity has a broader diffusion and higher status than being, according to the view of Plotinus and other Neoplatonists. Following the scholastic doctrine of the transcendentals, Pico sets out to defend the position of Aristotle. He then tries to prove that Plato did not hold the opposite view, as claimed by the Neoplatonists. In support of his claim Pico cites a passage from Plato's Sophist and dismisses the testimony of the Parmenides, arguing that this dialogue is merely a dialectical exercise.

In the course of his discussion Pico sharply distinguishes between being itself and participated being, and it is thus possible for him to maintain that God is identical with being in the first sense but above being in the second. The harmony between Plato and Aristotle that Pico tries to establish turns out to be Aristotelian, at least in its wording, but in another sense it is neither Platonic nor Aristotelian, and the distinction between being itself and participated being is evidently indebted to the same Neoplatonists whom Pico tries to refute on the major issue of the treatise. As a result Pico's position was criticized, on the one side, by Ficino, who, in his commentary on the Parmenides, defended Plotinus and, on the other, by the Aristotelian Antonio Cittadini, who formulated a series of objections that were answered first by Pico himself and then by his nephew and editor Gianfrancesco Pico.

Another aspect of Pico's syncretism is his treatment of classical mythology. An allegorical interpretation of the myths of the Greek poets had been developed by the ancient Stoics and Neoplatonists, and for them it had been a device for reconciling pagan religion with philosophical truth. When the medieval grammarians continued to interpret the classical poets in this manner, they minimized the pagan religious element and emphasized the implied universal, or even Christian, truth that would justify the study of these authors. The method was taken over and further developed by the humanists and Ficino. Pico tends to be even more elaborate in his discussion and interpretation of ancient myths, especially in his commentary on Benivieni's love poem. Here he repeatedly mentions his plan to write a treatise on poetic theology, a work that probably remained unwritten. Pico apparently intended to construct a detailed system of the theology implicit in the myths of the ancient poets and thus to include them in his universal syncretism.

Dignity of Man

Much more famous than the ideas thus far discussed is Pico's doctrine of the dignity of man and his place in the universe. The Oration, in which this doctrine is developed, is probably the most widely known document of early Renaissance thought. In many editions the work is titled "Oration on the Dignity of Man," but this title properly belongs only to the first part of the oration; the original title was simply Oration. Man and his dignity are often praised by the early humanists, and some of them dedicated entire treatises to the subject. The topic was taken up by Ficino, who assigned to the human soul a privileged place in the center of the universal hierarchy and made it, both through its intermediary attributes and through its universal thought and aspirations, the bond of the universe and the link between the intelligible and the corporeal world. In his Oration Pico went beyond Ficino in several ways. He did not discuss the question merely in passing or in the context of a large work dedicated to other subjects but displayed it prominently in the opening section of a short and elegant speech. Moreover, he lays the accent not so much on man's universality as on his freedom; instead of assigning to him a fixed though privileged place in the universal hierarchy, he puts him entirely apart from this hierarchy and claims that he is capable of occupying, according to his choice, any degree of life from the lowest to the highest. He has God tell Adam:

Neither a fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone, nor any function peculiar to thyself have We given thee, Adam, to the end that according to thy judgment thou mayest have and possess what abode, what form, and what functions thou thyself shalt desire. Constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, thou shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul's judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.

These words have a modern ring, and they are among the few passages in the philosophical literature of the Renaissance that have pleased, almost without reservation, modern and even existentialist ears. It is not absolutely certain that they were meant to be as modern as they sound, and it is hard to believe what has often been saidthat when Pico wrote them, he had denied or forgotten the doctrine of grace. After all, the words are attributed to God and are addressed by him to Adam before the Fall. Yet they do contain an eloquent praise of human excellence and of man's potentialities, and they receive added vigor when we think of what the reformers, and even great humanists like Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, were to say about man's vanity and weakness.

Some scholars have tried to minimize Pico's praise of human dignity and regard it as a piece of mere oratory. This view is refuted by the testimony of the Heptaplus, a work written several years later and for an entirely different purpose. Here again, Pico places man outside the hierarchy of the three worldsthe angelic, celestial, and elementarytreats him as a fourth world by himself, and praises him and his faculties, although within a more obvious theological context.

Pico's insistence on man's dignity and liberty also accounts, at least in part, for his attack on astrology, to which he dedicates his largest extant work, probably composed during the last few years of his life. The Disputationes Adversus Astrologiam Divinatricem is full of detailed astronomical discussions and displays an amazing mastery of the astrological and antiastrological literature of previous centuries. It has often been hailed by historians as a landmark in the struggle of science against superstition. In fact, Pico does state that the stars act upon sublunar things only through their light and heat, not through any other occult qualities that may be attributed to them, and this statement sounds very sober, if not necessarily modern. Moreover, we learn that even a scientist such as Johannes Kepler at least modified his initial belief in astrology under the influence of Pico's treatise.

In Pico's time, however, the belief in astrology was more than a superstition, and the rejection of it was not necessarily scientific. As a general system astrology was closely linked with the scientific cosmology of the age and hence widely accepted not only by quacks but also by serious thinkers. There is no evidence that Pico was especially guided by scientific considerations in his polemics against astrology, and we must face the fact that he accepted natural magic while rejecting astrology. We happen to know that his work against astrology was composed as a part of a larger work he planned to write against the enemies of the church. The basic impulse of his attack was religious and not scientific, and he indicates more than once what his chief objection to astrology wasthe stars are bodies, and our selves are spirits; it cannot be admitted that a corporeal and, hence, lower being should act upon a higher being and restrict its freedom.

Pico's conception of the relation between philosophy and religion is also significant. He became increasingly concerned with religious problems during his later years, a development in which his shock at the papal condemnation of his theses and the influence of Savonarola must have played a part. The fact appears in the religious and theological content of several of his later writings and in the religious motivation of his treatise against astrology. It also finds an unexpected expression in certain passages of the De Ente et Uno, a work that deals fundamentally with a very different problem. Here Pico tells us that God is darkness and that philosophical knowledge can lead us toward God only up to a certain point, beyond which religion must guide us. Unlike Ficino, Pico seems to regard religion as a fulfillment of philosophy; religion helps us to attain that ultimate end for which philosophy can merely prepare us.

Pico did not live long enough to develop his ideas into a coherent system. Fragmentary as his work was, it had wide repercussions for a long time. His universal syncretism came closer to subsequent efforts at formulating a universal religion than that of any of his predecessors, including Ficino. His study of Hebrew and Arabic, although not entirely without precedents, served as a widely known example and gave a powerful impulse to these studies in Christian Europe, leading to a study of the Hebrew Scripture and to many new translations of Jewish and Arabic texts. His study of the kabbalah started a broad and powerful current of Christian kabbalism, which flourished throughout the sixteenth century and included many distinguished scholars and thinkers. In his attempt to harmonize the traditions of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, of Hermetic and kabbalistic theology, and of the various strands of Arabic and scholastic thought with one another and with Christian doctrine, Pico pointed the way toward intellectual freedom and a universal truth that stands above the narrow limits of particular schools and traditions.

See also Antiochus of Ascalon; Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Averroes; Avicenna; Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus; Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Duns Scotus, John; Ficino, Marsilio; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Humanism; Italian Philosophy; Kabbalah; Kepler, Johannes; Melanchthon, Philipp; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Neoplatonism; Pico della Mirandola, Gianfrancesco; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Plotinus; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Renaissance; Stoicism; Thomas Aquinas, St.


works by pico

Three volumes of a critical edition of Pico's works by Eugenio Garin have appeared: De Hominis Dignitate, Heptaplus, De Ente et Uno, e scritti vari (Florence: Vallecchi, 1942) and Disputationes Adversus Astrologiam Divinatricem, 2 vols. (Florence: Vallecchi, 19461952). For the other works (especially the Conclusiones, Apologia, and Letters ) one of the numerous editions of Pico's works must be used. The earliest and best was published in Bologna (1496); the most accessible is the Basel edition of 1572. For additional letters and texts see Léon Dorez, "Lettres inédites de Jean Pic de la Mirandole," Giornale storico della letteratura italiana 25 (1895): 352361, and Eugenio Garin, La cultura filosofica del Rinascimento italiano (Florence: Sansoni, 1961). A few of Pico's letters and short religious works, along with the biography of Pico by his nephew, were translated by Sir Thomas More as Pico, His Life by His Nephew, edited by J. M. Rigg (London, 1890). The commentary on Benivieni was translated by Thomas Stanley in 1651 and later appeared as A Platonick Discourse upon Love, edited by Edmund G. Gardner (Boston: Merrymount Press, 1914).

There is a modern English version of the De Ente et Uno, translated by Victor M. Hamm as Of Being and Unity (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1943), and no less than three versions of the OrationThe Very Elegant Speech on the Dignity of Man, translated by Charles G. Wallis (Annapolis, MD: St. John's Book Store, 1940); Oration on the Dignity of Man, translated by Elizabeth L. Forbes in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, edited by Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John H. Randall Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), and published separately with the Latin text (Lexington, KY, 1953); and Oration on the Dignity of Man, translated by A. Robert Caponigri (Chicago: Gateway, 1956). The correspondence with Ermolao Barbaro was translated by Quirinus Breen as "Giovanni Pico della Mirandola on the Conflict of Philosophy and Rhetoric," Journal of the History of Ideas 13 (1952): 384426.

works on pico

For Pico's thought the chief monograph is Eugenio Garin, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Florence: Le Monnier, 1937). Important is Ernst Cassirer's "Giovanni Pico della Mirandola," Journal of the History of Ideas 3 (1942): 123144, 319346. See also Giovanni Semprini, La filosofia di Pico della Mirandola (Milan, 1936); Eugenio Anagnine, G. Pico della Mirandola (Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1937); Pierre Marie Cordier, Jean Pic de la Mirandole (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Debresse, 1957); E. Monnerjahn, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Wiesbaden, Germany: Steiner, 1960); and Eugenio Garin, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Mirandola, Italy, 1963).

For Pico's sources see Pearl Kibre, The Library of Pico della Mirandola (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936). For the condemnation of his theses see Léon Dorez and Louis Thuasne, Pic de la Mirandole en France (Paris: Leroux, 1897). For his scholastic background see Avery Dulles, Princeps Concordiae: Pico della Mirandola and the Scholastic Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941). For the De Ente et Uno and its background see Raymond Klibansky, "Plato's Parmenides in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance," Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies 1 (19411943): 281330. For his kabbalism see Joseph L. Blau, The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944); F. Secret, Le zôhar chez les kabbalistes chrétiens de la Renaissance (Paris, 1958) and "Pico della Mirandola e gli inizi della Cabala cristiana," Convivium, n.s. 25 (1957): 3147.

For Pico's influence on the iconography of Renaissance art see Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1958).

Several long papers by Eugenio Garin, Robert Weiss, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and Frances A. Yates are included in L'opera e il pensiero di Giovanni Pico della Mirandola nella storia dell'umanesimo. Convegno internazionale, Mirandola, 1518 settembre 1963, 2 vols. (Florence: Nella Sede dell'Istituto, 1965).

See also Brian P. Copenhaver, "The Secret of Pico's Oration: Cabala and Renaissance Philosophy," Midwest Studies in Philosophy (26 [2002]: 5681).

Paul Oskar Kristeller (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

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