Pico della Mirandola’s late fifteenth-century oration On the Dignity of Man is still sometimes awarded laurels for bounding up past the Middle Ages into modernity’s open ground. Paul J. Miller’s 1965 assessment, preserved approvingly in a schoolroom text by Hackett Publishing, speaks of Pico’s “remarkable contribution,” namely, “that the root of man’s excellence and dignity lies in the fact that man is maker of his own nature.” Pico does in fact call man “by nature diverse, multiform, and inconstant,” or, more tautly, a “chameleon,” and it is indeed exciting stuff, though not actually as exciting or remarkable as all that if our excitement requires newness. As I’ll observe soon, Pico’s multiform man, or his politropon man, to recall the Odyssey’s opening line, is not all that different from the freedom loaded on humans in so many other medieval and classical philosophical anthropologies. And while Pico’s title suggests a split with the dourness of medieval pessimistic anthropology, like Innocent III’s twelfth-century De miseria condicionis humanae (On the Misery of the Human Condition), Pico’s Oration acquired its Dignity only some eight years after it first appeared in print, in a 1504 edition out of Strasbourg.
Pico himself had never given the Oration a certain title. Some of the earlier ones do better at capturing its actual first purpose: an Oration in Praise of Philosophy or An Oration in the Roman Assembly, as Pico wrote the work not as an abstract defense or even guide to “human dignity,” but as a preface to his intended defense of 900 theses, statements on matters at once philosophical and theological, such as “in reason the likeness and images of things exist, but in the intellect their very being” – a straightforward distinction between human and divine epistemologies — and “every soul participating in the vulcanic intellect is seminated on the moon,” of somewhat more obscure aims. He had first stopped at 700 theses before expanding to 900, and bragged, or despaired, that he could have gone to 1000, but 900 suited him better, because of its numerological importance, “the symbol of the soul that retreats into itself.” No matter: the Papacy of Pico’s day never let him defend any of them in public, because it found seven of the 900 so irredeemably heretical that it condemned all copies to the pyre. We might be tempted to take their immolation as representing the vibrancy of modern humanity thwarted by medieval superstitious hostility to the freedom of ecumenical philosophical inquiry. That’s what Burkhardt bequeathed to us. But without the framework of its later title, and with the theses themselves and Pico’s numerology, we find Pico worrying not so much about human dignity as about reconciling Plato and Aristotle and a host of lesser-known philosophical traditions, drawing them all together in a program for Christian mystical ascent not unfamiliar to any medievalist acquainted with, for instance, Marguerite Porete.
An Oration on Human Dignity isn’t a complete mistitling, however. That is indeed the subject of the first half of Pico’s oration, though what dignity he offers us is ours for the taking only if we can earn it. Our being of such chameleon nature means we can attend to a truly dignified humanity only by jettisoning the merely vegetable and bestial conditions of our existence:
If you see someone who is a slave to his belly, crawling along the ground, it is not a man you see, but a plant; if you see someone who is enslaved by his own senses, blinded by the empty hallucinations brought on by fantasy (as if by Calypso herself) and entranced by their bedevilling spells, it is a brute animal you see, not a man. (trans from Cambridge collaboration)
However changeable or empty our nature, we still tend in one direction, towards bestiality or even vegetality, which we can avoid only by continually turning away from our corruptibility and the corruptibility of all things. “Human Dignity” means being balanced on the edge of being something else, ideally pointed at the eternity of supersensory existence. Most of us, though, end up on the wrong side of things, down in the muck with the other animals.
There is no hope for dignity without philosophy, and philosophy is in short supply. It matters that Pico was rich, the son of an aristocratic family with an estate ample enough to set his two brothers to mutual war, and it matters too that Pico could hole up in his castle after his first disgrace, a failed abduction of a married woman, and his second, his thwarted philosophical debut in Rome. Richness helps, but philosophy sets its own additional barriers of exclusivity and esotericism. Hayy ibn Yaqzan needs it titular hero to walk us up his logical path towards mystical annihilation in the divine, but it is important too that the handbook also show its hero unable to teach this method to anyone else. For if philosophy could be practiced by all, then where is the glory in learning, where the value of ascesis, where the sanctimoniousness of philosophical consolation? As most humans are of necessity unphilosophical, and of necessity the kind of people who pay rent instead of living off it, must of us are bound to end up as something less than human, or must be there already. The defense of human dignity in general is, in fact, at odds with the praise of philosophy.
What Pico offers to anyone willing to imagine themselves his peer was an apophatic humanism familiar to anyone who knows the rationalist mysticism of his forebears. Boethius and Ibn Tufayl each characterized humans most distinctly by their capacity to choose. We exist most fully as humans as we hesitate between abandoning ourselves to animality or struggling towards the divine. Humans are apophatic, then, because any attempt to define us can never fully grip us, because we can always choose to be something else. What looks like a defense of human freedom, however, is a denial of anything but a provisionally human status to most humans. If true choice requires independence from the merely corporeal – that is, beastly – impulses, and if most people, lacking the clarity of or means for philosophical motivation, are prey to merely material concerns, then even the choice so necessary to humans is no guarantee of humanity. Given the option of becoming philosophical or, say, forming and maintaining a family, most people will choose the latter, and since that choice is rooted in sublunary goals, it is not, in fact, a choice. It’s instead just an abandonment to the forces of this ever-changing world, not much better than being a rock falling helplessly through the empty air. The so-called dignity of human freedom, and the supposedly grand gesture of refusing to define humans as anything but the choice-making creature, means not that we are free to make anything we like or want in, say, political orders, gender, arrangements of the family or the distribution of resources. It means only that there is no recognizable humanity unless the human-under-question uses their capacity for choice correctly. True choice is not freedom, but an obligation. Since most of us fall short, we fall short of dignity too.
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Pico praises humans as “the animal…capable of arousing envy not only in the brutes but also in the stars and minds beyond this world.” We find what looks to be a challenge to Pico in Giovanni Baptista Gelli’s La Circe, in which one brute after another reconsiders the lot of being human and turns back to their own animal existence with equal parts relief and disgust. Born in 1498, four years after Pico’s death at 31, Gelli published his work when he was fifty. Gelli was rewarded for his commitment to learning and writing and for his savviness at keeping the right people happy during dangerous times with elevation from being a cobbler of small means to counsel of the Florentine Academy, supported by Circe’s dedicatee, Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici. Pico’s works were popular (and so too would Gelli’s be), and Gelli would have at least known them from conversation with his fellow Academians, or in their previous, less dignified embodiment as a debating club with the improbable name of L’Accademia degli humidi, “The Academy of the Damp.”
La Circe is an expansion of Plutarch’s Gryllus (c. 100), a philosophical debate between Ulysses and one his sailors, transformed into a pig by the island sorceress Circe, over the preferability of human to animal life. “Grunter,” for that is what Gryllus means, chooses pigkind, and Ulysses must travel on alone. Gelli outdoes Plutarch by having Ulysses lose the argument to ten successive animals, and win against the last, an elephant. Some refuse because of what they had been: the oyster (a fisherman), the mole (a ploughman), and the hind (a woman). The hare, restless as is its nature, refuses because he had never been able to settle into any one profession; the snake, once a physician, because humans sicken themselves with overeating, and physicians are, at any rate, all quacks; and the goat, of uncertain profession, because he no longer wants to anticipate the future. He’s more content now that thoughts of death’s inevitability no longer torment him.
With the animals’ world-weary dismissal of the dubious felicities of human free choice, Gelli seems to have undone Pico’s Oration entirely. What price human dignity when our free choice nets us, as the bullock observes, “laws…like cobwebs, which big animals break with ease, though the flies are caught in them”? (trans from Thomas Brown / Robert Adams, Cornell UP, 1963). The animals had tried being human and wanted nothing more to do with it. Envy, jealousy, private property, fear of death, regret, servility – we might, in theory, be suited for a dignity beyond all other creatures, but for most of us, “when you” – for this is the Bullock again, explaining the general condition of humanity, “go out of this world, you can scarcely tell whether you have been here or not, since you are perfect strangers to yourself and know nothing of the beauty of the universe.” Reason is wasted on most of us; the animals are right, nearly – it’s not so much that most of us would be better off as beasts, but that most of us are living lives as beasts anyway, devoted as we are to sensuality and other merely local pleasures, and many of us do still worse by practicing vices unique to the human animal, like greed, cowardness, and flattery. Where could we find dignity in all that?
As it turns out, in the usual place. Only the elephant, the only animal who had practiced rather than simply overheard philosophy, can be talked in returning to being human, because none but the elephant values knowledge in itself. Ulysses lands his first victory by convincing the elephant that sensory knowledge, which is all that beasts have, can err. The elephant thinks the sun stands still, that it’s about the size of a person, and about the color of an orange. He’s right about the third, but, as Ulysses tells him, the sun in fact moves, for once a day, it circles the earth; furthermore, the sun is actually gigantic, some 165 times as large as our planet (closer to the truth than I expected: the sun is actually about 109 times as large). When Ulysses convinces the elephant of the value and uniqueness of human free will, he agrees to return to his former state as a trunkless philosopher, and proclaims:
Sordid and unhappy wretches, who, for a little sensual pleasure are resolved to live like brutes! I thank you, Ulysses, with all my heart, for showing me the truth, and by the power of your eloquence drawing me to it.
Such human dignity, though, is a rare thing. The closer we are to the need to feed ourselves, or the more we depend on the good will of others for our well-being, or the further we are from just being able to sit and think all day, like Pico in his castle, the more we are “sordid and unhappy wretches.” And in this, despite his animals’ bilious contempt for the hurly burly of human life as it’s actually lived, Gelli and Pico agree, or at least Pico and the politropon — complicated, manifold, various — Ulysses, just as they agree with the whole of the rationalist philosophical tradition.
Here’s Gelli’s Ulysses, but the passage could just as well have come from Boethius, or ibn Tufayl, or from Pico, as it likely in fact did:
If he surrenders altogether to his belly and gazes constantly at the earth, he will quickly become as stupid as a vegetable; and if he indulges too much in sensual pleasures, he soon degenerates into a brute beast. But if he lifts his face up towards the heavens from which he came, and considers like a philosopher the beauty of the celestial bodies and wonderful harmony of nature, he will soon change from an early to a heavenly creature.
The rationalist tradition promises humans the world and more, but for most of us, that’s just enough to make us the beasts that can be blamed for our condition. The implications are obvious enough. We can imagine a call to be kind to animals accompanying a call, just as imperative, to treat most humans with absolute scorn. Because of their irrationality, nonhuman animals are innocent. Being unable to make choices, they can make no bad choices. But the burden of free will, and the obligation of human dignity, means that no human merits such indulgence. Give the wrong answers or want the wrong things, and you will show yourself as someone who can’t be bothered to accept the gift of reason. Although Ulysses complains to Circe repeatedly about the animals’ absolute irrationality, each of his interlocutors mutually entangle the other in syllogisms. What does something like that merit, something that monstrously sounds like a rational being but can offer no answers that would satisfy the high requirements of philosophy? La Circe is therefore less about Ulysses trying to convince animalized humans to become human again that it is a record of humans who have given up on their human dignity and deserve nothing but contempt. I imagine a version where Gelli goes further by having Ulysses, frustrated and hungry, kill and eat each of his opponents in turn.
Except – one last thing – La Circe introduces a sour note into the debate by offering us something new: the hind, the woman who wants to remain an animal, but would have preferred to have kept her power of speech had she not had to become human again to regain it permanently. Her dedication to chatter is Gelli’s misogynist joke. But she’s also a weapon against claims to the universal obligation of dignity. Gelli might have made her once enslaved: there are no such people among his animals, perhaps because household domestic slaves, already rare in Northern Italy by the later Middle Ages, had become quite scarce indeed by Gelli’s day. But she herself speaks of her condition and that of women in general as slavery, at least so long as they’re part of a patriarchal household. Barring the elephant, the other animals want to do without the frustration of being human. Only the Hind, however, asserts that she would be human again if humans, men in particular, would change:
Ulysses: How would you prefer us to treat you?
Deer: Didn’t I just tell you? Make us your companions instead of slaves.
Women in the philosophical tradition are generally just things to be left behind. Ibn Tufayl begins his philosophical journey when he dissects the carcass of his foster mother – also a hind – while trying to restore to her the principle of her life. Boethius is made to count himself fortunate for losing the false consolations of a wife and family. Pico della Mirandola’s Oration is arguably an attempt to salvage his reputation after his failed kidnapping of Margherita, Giuliano de’ Medici’s wife. “Heavenly love,” Pico wrote in a letter, leads to love between men – perhaps he means in friendship – whereas the other kind effeminizes, and “harlots” [meretrice], “like Circe,” transform their lovers into beasts. Here, however, we have a woman with something to say, who meets Ulysses not with sensual allure but with frustration. This is not Parsifal among the Flowermaidens in the castle of the mutilated Klingsor. For what the Hind wants is not sex, not money, nor land, honor, or any of the other fleeting things that philosophy is made to tell us so often have no true value. What she wants is equality, which is to say, dignity. And that Ulysses will not grant her, because devoted as he is to the philosophical tradition, he thinks he has already found the best way to live. So much the worse. For Ulysses, for Pico, for so many others, the purpose of the philosophy has been only to abandon the world and everyone in it; only the Hind offers us the demand to change the world that Marx required of any philosophy worth its profession.