The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993

By Graham Caie; Roderick J. Lyall et al. | Go to book overview

STEVEN R. McKENNA


21. Robert Henryson, Pico della Mirandola, and
Late Fifteenth-Century Heroic Humanism

The humanistic idealism put forth by Pico della Mirandola (1463–94) regarding human self-determination, as articulated especially in his Oration On the Dignity of Man, was in the European intellectual environs in the latter half of the fifteenth century, though the Oration itself was not published until 1496, being composed probably ten years prior in 1486.1 Pico’s fundamental humanistic idealism contains as its essence a human dignity which rests in the human capacity for self-determination. In effect, Pico forwards the notion that we become what we will to be – particularly in the realm of moral freedom. In rewriting the Genesis myth, Pico has God tell Adam that humanity and the soul are godlike and limited only by the individual, that the earthly and mortal confines must be and can be transcended. In recasting the Genesis myth, Pico has God say to Adam,

‘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…
Thou, like a judge appointed for being honorable, art the molder and maker 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
grow upward from thy soul’s reason into the higher natures which are divine.’2

Pico then proclaims,

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. There, as the sacred mysteries reveal, the seraphim,
cherubim, and thrones occupy the first places. Ignorant of how to yield to
them and unable to endure the second places, let us compete with the angels in
dignity and glory. When we have willed it, we shall not at all be below them.3

1 On the dating of Pico’s Oration and other works, see Charles Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought (Chicago, 1970), p. 507.

2 Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, On the Dignity of Man, On Being and the One, Heptaplus, trans. Charles Wallis, Paul Miller, and Douglas Carmichael (Indianapolis, 1965), p. 5.

3 Pico, p. 7.

-232-

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