There is consensus among historians on the idea of the 'Italian Renaissance' as a period of cultural history that extends from 1340 to 1550. It was a time when the Middle Ages became modern. The period is characterized by humanism and a flourishing of the arts.
Humanism refers to the intensive study of classical antiquity. This was done by studia humanitatis (research in the humanities) : grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy through classical Latin and Greek texts. It was not a philosophical system but an educational programme that excluded the subjects taught in the universities: logic, philosophy, metaphysics, astronomy, medicine, law and theology.
It was natural for the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula to turn their gaze to the ruins of the Roman civilization that they had in their environment. Furthermore, the study of Roman law at the universities of Padua and Bologna led to a natural interest in the society that produced it. The secularized Christianity of the time, dominated by secular literati, also made the pagan civilization of the classical world attractive.
During the quattrocento (15th century) humanism dominated the intellectual life of the Italic peninsula and promoted history, art, education, lifestyle and the dialect of Florence. The scholars of Florence turned from moral philosophy to metaphysics. Ficino (1433-99) translated all of Plato's writings, some Neoplatonic texts, and the Greek mystical work Corpus Hermeticum.
Pico de la Mirandola (1463-94) followed suit, arguing in an optimistic view of humanity and its place in the universe that we could determine our own salvation by following the natural impulses of love and beauty. The Oration on the Dignity of Man (penned in 1486) is a summary of Renaissance values which are encapsulated in the word humanism. Pico's principal aim was to create a compendium of knowledge drawn from many sources. The practical reason for the Oration was to introduce 900 philosophical theses for discussion. Among other things he affirms his belief in free will and the possibility of communicating with God directly without the mediation of the Church. The text was withheld by the Church for a decade on suspicion of heresy but later published.
An example of one text suspected of heresy reads :
"It should be added that any school which attacks the more established truths and by clever slander ridicules the valid arguments of reason confirms, rather than weakens, the truth itself, which, like embers, is fanned to life, rather than extinguished by stirring. These considerations have motivated me in my determination to bring to men’s attention the opinions of all schools rather than the doctrine of some one or other (as some might have preferred)."
The structure of the Oration on the Dignity of Man is Kabbalistic and organised around the number 7 :
1. Man is the greatest wonder because he can choose to transform himself.
2. In order to choose well, however, he must emulate the angels.
3. In order to emulate the angels, he must learn how to live the angelic life—specifically, the Cherubic life.
4. This lesson, a curriculum, can be learned from the ancient fathers, who are
i Paul and Dionysius
v The ancient theologians (Orpheus, Socrates, Plato, Plotinus)
vii Zoroaster, the Chaldeans, Abraham and Jeremiah
5 Pico proclaims himself a philosopher because it is philosophy that leads to the Cherubic life, .
6. The study of philosophy has also led Pico to other new doctrines, notably magic and Kabbalah.
7. Therefore, despite the complaints of his critics, Pico will undertake his philosophical disputation.
The Middle Ages had taught that humans were fallen creatures of a sinful nature watched over by an angry God. Pico and other humanists in the Renaissance declared that humanity was just below angel status, capable of falling to sinful depths but also of rising to a godlike level.
The humanists did not aim to dethrone God but rather, through the moral disciplines of humanitatis, aspire to struggle up to God. Pico followed the Neoplatonist tradition and his aim in the Oration is to synthesise renaissance and medieval thinking > neoplatonism, humanism, aristotelianism, averroism, christianity, hebrew thought, pagan thinking and mysticism.
In the first sections of the book the author argues for the dignity of mankind in liberal arts. He explains the hierarchy of the angels and insists that humans have the same traits and so equal dignity with angels. These characteristics are charity, complexity and wisdom.
He then compares humanity to God as Creator explaining how we have a natural desire to learn. Humans were created by the Divinity in order to fully appreciate His creative work. In this sense humans are different from all other creatures and were created independently from them.
Towards the end Pico explains his philosophical outlook which is not for profit but in order to distinguish what is right despite arguments to the contrary. His Oration is a call to discuss and reflect on the 900 theses which follows it.
"These philosophers of the past all thought that nothing could profit them more in their search for wisdom than frequent participation in public disputation."
Humanity has a slightly lower status then angels but is superior to all other creatures. This is because humans are more complex than the rest of Creation so that they can admire God's work. He bases these assertions on the Bible, other philosophers and includes examples from other cultures and times.
What allows mankind to rise is his free will. Pico claims that animals act based on instinct but humans can learn. He employs the metaphor of a ladder where God sits at the top, in heavenly peace and perfection. It is human free will which allows humans to learn through reason and discussion that will help them climb the ladder towards heaven. He refers to Empedocles who claimed that humans have two parts to their soul one which lifts them up to heaven and another that drags them down to infernal regions. Free will enables humans to choose their own ascent or descent.
"At last, the Supreme Maker decreed that this creature, to whom He could give nothing wholly his own, should have a share in the particular endowment of every other creature. Taking man, therefore, this creature of indeterminate image, He set him in the middle of the world and thus spoke to him:
'We have given you, Oh Adam; no visage proper to yourself, nor any endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very centre of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine'."
"Let us bathe in moral philosophy as in a living stream, these hands, that is, the whole sensual part in which the lusts of the body have their seat and which, as the saying is, holds the soul by the scruff of the neck, lest we be flung back from that ladder as profane and polluted intruders. Even this, however, will not be enough, if we wish to be the companions of the angels who traverse the ladder of Jacob, unless we are first instructed and rendered able to advance on that ladder duly, step by step, at no point to stray from it and to complete the alternate ascensions and descents. When we shall have been so prepared by the art of discourse or of reason, then, inspired by the spirit of the Cherubim, exercising philosophy through all the rungs of the ladder —that is, of nature—we shall penetrate being from its centre to its surface and from its surface to its centre."