Pico Della Mirandola, Giovanni 1463–1494 Italian Philosopher

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Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni
Italian philosopher

Abold and creative thinker, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola sought to join the best aspects of all schools of philosophy into a single system of thought. Pico also became the first Christian scholar to use the Kabbalah to support Christian thought. The Kabbalah is a mystical* Jewish religious system that involves reading encoded messages in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Pico's Life. Born to a noble family in northern Italy, Pico went to Bologna to study church law at the age of 14. Two years later he moved to Ferrara and then to Padua, where he encountered the teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato. He also exchanged letters with important Italian Renaissance figures such as the statesman Lorenzo de' Medici. After spending time in Paris, Pico returned to Italy, where he caused a scandal by running off with a young woman named Margherita, who had previously been engaged to a member of the powerful Medici family.

At this time Pico began one of his life's major projects: to create a philosophy that found harmony among all schools of thought. At its core, the project aimed to unite the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. He wrote that he meant to include "all teachers of philosophy" and "all writings" in "every school."

Pico planned to hold a large conference in Rome in 1487 to introduce his ideas. To prepare for the meeting, he collected 900 theses (positions to be debated) on different points of philosophy taken from many different schools of thought. He included ancient, medieval*, pagan*, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish writings. Through debates with other scholars he aimed to prove that these diverse texts had similar principles at their cores. Pico had his 900 theses, known as the Conclusions, printed in Rome in 1486. To introduce the Conclusions he wrote his most famous work, now known as the Oration on the Dignity of Man.

However, the Roman Catholic Church blocked Pico's plans. The church objected to some of the theses because they combined Christian and pagan philosophies. When Pico tried to justify his work in an Apology, Pope Innocent VIII responded by condemning all 900 of the theses. Pico left Italy for Paris, where French authorities jailed him briefly. Within a year he returned to Florence and wrote Heptaplus, an account of the six days of creation from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. In it, Pico placed humans, created in the image and likeness of God, at the center of the universe.

In 1493 Pope Alexander VI pardoned Pico for his earlier offenses. By that time, Pico had begun to withdraw from the world. He gave away much of his property to relatives and the church and grew close to the outspoken Italian preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Pico died a year later, at age 31, while working on his last major project, a work opposing astrology*. Some people claimed that poison had helped bring about his death.

Pico's Thought. The idea of human dignity and freedom played a major role in Pico's work. In the Oration on the Dignity of Man, one of the finest examples of Renaissance rhetoric*, Pico developed a new creation myth that presented Adam as a being with unlimited choices. He stressed that although human beings were free to rise or fall as they chose, their freedom came from God. The goal of this human freedom, he claimed, was to die in the body in order to let the mind live in the supreme Mind of God. Later, in the Heptaplus, Pico described humans as miraculous beings made in the image of God. He identified Christ, who was God in human form, as a model for humanity. He urged people to deny the body, as Christ had done, and to raise themselves through learning.

Pico believed that all wisdom came from three sources: ancient learning, the Bible, and the Kabbalah. The Conclusions contained more than 100 theses about the Kabbalah. One of Pico's greatest achievements was the invention of a Christian Kabbalah. He introduced this idea in the Oration, defended it in the Apology, and applied it in the Heptaplus. Aided by his great gift of intellect, especially in languages, and by the help of many learned Jews, Pico uncovered links between Jewish and Christian theology*.

Pico viewed the Hebrew alphabet as the key to the Kabbalah. He read its signs as both letters and numbers and used numerology to find hidden meanings in them. He also viewed the shapes of the letters as symbols. For example, he saw a letter whose shape resembled a cross as a foretelling of the coming of Christ. Pico believed people could read both nature and Scripture as books that revealed God's creation.

However, Pico also believed that every system of philosophy—whether pagan or Christian, ancient, medieval, or modern—contained something of value. Even if the rest of the belief system was false, he claimed, some statements were true, and these true statements reflected a single eternal truth. According to Pico, the basic truths in every philosophy came from God, the ultimate source of truth, understood in different ways by different thinkers.

(See alsoHumanism; Magic and Astrology; Man, Dignity of; Philosophy. )

* mystical

based on a belief in the idea of a direct, personal union with the divine

* 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

* pagan

referring to ancient religions that worshiped many gods, or more generally, to any non-Christian religion

* astrology

study of the supposed influences of the stars and planets on earthly events

* rhetoric

art of speaking or writing effectively

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion