A Renaissance Account of Human Dignity

A Renaissance Account of Human Dignity

Thanks to the legacy of Bernays and his proteges, our culture continues to be permeated by a broadly existentialist view of human nature, a view in which the universe is valueless apart from human consciousness.[1] Value is instead created, on this picture, by individual human subjects attempting to come to terms with an indifferent cosmos; born of human consciousness, value will also die with it. Après moi, le déluge. This perspective is at once grandiose and abysmal.  Grandiose in that humans are said to be sole source of value in the cosmos. The world would be essentially meaningless apart from our desires and choices. This grounds the Sartrean slogan that “existence precedes essence” for humankind.[2] Unlike natural objects that simply are what they are, we must determine what we will be by creating the values that orient our lives. Though this appears to give humanity a uniquely elevated position in the world, it also proves an abysmal burden since there is no objective ranking of values to appeal to in crafting our lives. Hence, the other Sartrean slogan, “man is condemned to be free”.[3] We are absolutely responsible for the values we create, but there is no standard by which to evaluate those values.

It is interesting to contrast this contemporary form of humanism with the humanism of the Renaissance. Perhaps the best place to turn for a summary of the latter is Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, a work often described as the manifesto of the Renaissance. Pico originally wrote this work as an introduction to nine hundred theses that he wanted to dispute in Rome. The disputation never took place, and the theses were given the dubious honor of being the first printed book to be banned and burned by the papacy. Nonetheless, Pico’s Oration stands as a testament to the intellectual ardor of the age.

At first glance, the argument of the Oration appears to be equivalent to our contemporary view: Man’s dignity consists in his being “an indeterminate form” capable of choosing what he will fashion himself into.[4] Pico, following what he believes to be the cosmology of Genesis and the Timaeus, claims that man was formed only after all other kinds of beings had already been created. Prior to man’s creation, the universe had already been fashioned into a great chain of Being ascending to the highest spiritual orders of angels and descending to the lowest form of material existence. In Pico’s story, God still wanted to create a being capable of contemplating the entirety of the order of the universe, yet had no unique essence left to bestow upon it. As a result, God gave humanity, his last creation, a share in everything. Pico portrays God as speaking thus:

“We have given to thee, Adam, no fixed seat, no form of thy very own, no gift particularly thine, that thou mayest feel as thine own, have as thine own, possess as thine own the seat, the form, the gifts which thou thyself shalt desire. A limited nature in other creatures is confined within the laws written down by us. In conformity with thy free judgment, in whose hands I have placed thee, thou art confined by no bounds; and thou wilt fix limits of nature for thyself. I have placed thee at the center of the world, that from there thou mayest more conveniently look around and see whatsoever is in the world. Neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal have we made thee. Thou, like a judge appointed for being honorable, art the molder and making of thyself; thou mayest sculpt thyself into whatever shape thou dost prefer. Thou canst grow downward into the lower natures which are brutes. Thou canst again grow upward from thy soul’s reason into the higher natures which are divine.”[5]

According to Pico, both brutes and angels possess their natures at the moment of their creation.[6] This is not the case for man, however. Pico explains the human condition by likening it to a garden in which all kinds of seeds have been planted. He claims that God has instilled the seeds of all the different orders of being within us and that it is our choice which of them we will cultivate.

“At man’s birth the Father placed in him every sort of seed and sprouts of every kind of life. The seeds that each man cultivates will grow and bear their fruit in him. If he cultivates vegetable seeds, he will become a plant. If the seeds of sensation, he will grow into brute. If rational, he will come out a heavenly animal. If intellectual, he will be an angel, and a son of God. And if he is not contented with the lot of any creature but takes himself up into the center of his own unity, then, made one spirit with God and settled in the solitary darkness of the Father, who is above all things he will stand ahead of all things.”[7]

This position bears a striking similarity to the conventional Sartrean slogans of our day. Pico can claim that “existence precedes essence” for man because it has not yet been determined what kind of being a man will be. He could, for example, choose to veg out and become a plant, to overindulge his senses and become a brute, to exercise his reason and become a heavenly body, to sharpen his intellect and become an angel, or to pursue a life of mystical contemplation and participate in the divine nature. This then leaves man with a very grave choice. Since every individual human is ultimately responsible for what kind of being he or she will be, one can describe Pico’s account as one in which “man is condemned to be free.”

            Yet there is a significant difference between Pico’s position and the sloganized existentialism of our culture. For, according to Pico, while man is condemned to be free regarding what essence he will cultivate, the essences themselves that man chooses from i) have value in themselves and ii) stand in an objective order of value. Within such a worldview, every kind of being manifests the goodness of God to some degree and is thus valuable on its own right. Likewise, this series of emanations of the divine results in a great chain of being that carries an objective order of value independent of human choice. Pico believes that we have a genuine choice regarding what kind of essence we will cultivate in our lives. We can, for example, choose between being wormlike and being angelic. But Pico also believes that one of these essences is objectively better than the other and that one should, therefore, choose the angelic life over the wormy one. Pico can thus claim that there is a goal to strive for when constructing our lives.

“Let a certain holy ambition invade the mind, so that we may not be content with mean things but may aspire to the highest things and strive with all our forces to attain them: for if we will to, we can. Let us spurn earthly things; let us struggle toward the heavenly. Let us put in last place whatever is of the world; and let us fly beyond the chambers of the world to the chamber nearest the most lofty divinity.”[8]

Sloganized existentialism, by contrast, can make no such pronouncements. Since human consciousness is the source of all value in the universe, no sense can be made of one value being objectively superior to another, and hence no guidance can be offered regarding what kind of life to strive for.

            One might object that this appeal to a rank order of values in the universe will necessarily fall into a narrow dogmatism. Pico can attempt to respond to this objection through his doctrine of perennial philosophy. For Pico denies that the knowledge of the objective order of value is the possession of one historical community to the exclusion of others. Rather, he believes that there is an underlying esoteric tradition from which all historical religions and philosophies flow. Rather than appealing only to the traditions of the church which proscribed his work, Pico was also able to appeal, for example, to Greek philosophy, Zoroastrianism, and the Kabbalah.

            Pico’s commitment to an objective order of value in the universe also allows him to provide a rousing defense of the practice of philosophy. Since we ought to aim to be like the angels, beings of an intellectual order, Pico contends that we must pursue philosophy to develop our intellectual character.[9] I’ll end this post with Pico’s defense that speaks to our own age as it did to his own:

“Already (and this is the misfortune of our age) all this philosophizing makes for contempt and contumely rather than for honor and glory. This destructive and monstrous opinion that no one, or few, should philosophize, has much invaded the minds of almost everybody. As if it were absolutely nothing to have the causes of things, the ways of nature, the reason of the universe, the counsels of God, the mysteries of heaven and earth very certain before our eyes and hands, unless someone could derive some benefit from it or acquire profit for himself. It has already reached the point that now (what sorrow) those only are considered wise who pursue the study of wisdom for the sake of money; so that one may see chaste Pallas, who stays among men by a gift of the gods, chased out, hooted, hissed; who loves and befriends her does not have her unless she, as it were prostituting herself and receiving a pittance for her deflowered virginity, bring back the ill-bought money to her lover’s money-box. I say all these things not without great grief and indignation, not against the princes, but against the philosophers of this age, who believe and preach that there should be no philosophizing because there is no money for philosophers, no prizes awarded them; as if they did not show by this one word that they are not philosophers. Since their whole life is set on money-making or ambition, they do not embrace the knowledge of truth for itself. I shall give myself this credit and shall not blush to praise myself in this respect, that I have never philosophized for any reason other than for the sake of philosophizing, that I have neither hoped nor sought from my studies, from my lucubrations, any other gain or profit than cultivation of soul and knowledge of truth, always so greatly desired by me. I have always been so desirous of this truth and so much in love with it that, abandoning all care of public and private affairs, I gave my whole self over to the leisure of contemplating, from which no disparaging of the envious, no curses from the enemies of wisdom, have been able so far or will be able later to frighten me away. Philosophy herself has taught me to weigh things rather by my own conscience than by the judgments of others, and to consider not so much whether I should be badly spoken of as whether I myself should say or do anything bad.”[10]

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] See the excellent documentary Century of the Self.

[2] Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pico Della Mirandola, On the Dignity of Man (trans. Wallace), (Indianapolis: Hacket, 1998), 4.

[5] Ibid., 4-5.

[6] Ibid., 5.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] Ibid., 7.

[10] Ibid., 17-18.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *