Oration on the dignity of the human being
(Oratio de hominis dignitate)
This is the first part of the famous Oration written by the humanist Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). The extract contains the main ideas of Pico concerning human nature. Those ideas undermine any frozen and confined view of human nature and highlight the conviction that the human being is the master of his own life. According to Pico della Mirandola human nature is a repository of instruments by which each individual can shape his/her life. It is this freedom of choice and the responsibilities attached to it that constitute the dignity of the human being.
In agreement with this assertion is the saying of Hermes: «A great miracle, Asclepius, is the human being».
Still, when I weighed the reasons for these statements, the numerous considerations advanced by many people to explain the excellence of human nature did not fully persuade me: that the human being is the intermediary between creatures, the familiar of the higher beings, the king of the things beneath him; by the acuteness of his senses, by the inquiry of his reason and by the light of his intelligence the interpreter of nature; set midway between fixed eternity and fleeting time and, as the Persians say, the bond, or rather the wedding-song of the world, according to David, little lower that angels
These reason are great, nevertheless they are not the main ones, that is, those for which the human being may rightfully claim for himself the privilege of the highest admiration.
Why should we not admire more the angels themselves and the beatific choirs of heaven?
At last, however, it seems to me that I have come to understand why the human being is the most fortunate and consequently worthy of all admiration, and what finally is the condition which is his lot in the universal order, a condition to be envied not only by brutes but even by the stars and by the intelligences dwelling beyond this world.
A thing surpassing belief and a wondrous one.
Still, why should it not be? For it is on this ground that the human being is rightly called and considered a great miracle and a living creature worthy of all admiration.
But hear, Fathers, exactly what this condition is and, in the name of your humanity, grant your benign audition to my work.
The supreme Father, God the Architect, had already built this cosmic home we behold, the most sacred temple of divinity, according to the laws of the mysterious wisdom.
He had already adorned the supercelestial region with intelligences, quickened the heavenly globes with eternal souls and filled the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world with a multitude of animals of every kind.
But when the work was finished, the Craftsman still longed that there were someone to appreciate the meaning of so great a work, to love its beauty, and to wonder at its vastness.
Therefore, when everything was done, as Moses and Timaeus testify, He finally bethought himself of bringing forth the human being.
But there was not among the archetypes that from which he could fashion a new offspring, nor in his treasure-houses anything which he might bestow on his new son as an inheritance, nor among the seats of the universe any place where the latter might sit to contemplate the universe.
All was now complete; all things had been assigned to the highest, the middle, and the lowest orders.
But it was not in the nature of the Father's power to fail in his final creation; it was not in the nature of his wisdom to hesitate through lack of counsel in a needful matter, nor it was in the nature of his beneficent love that he who would praise the divine generosity in all other things should be obliged to condemn it in regard to himself.
At last the best of makers decreed that the creature to whom he had been unable to give anything wholly his own, should have in common whatever belonged to every other being.
He therefore took the human being, this creature of indeterminate image, set him in the middle of the world and thus spoke to him: «We have given you, Adam, no fixed seat nor features proper to yourself nor endowment peculiar to you alone, in order that whatever seat, whatever features, whatever endowment you may responsibly desire, these same you may have and possess according to your desire and judgement.
Once defined, the nature of all other beings, is constrained within the laws prescribed by us.
You, on the contrary, constrained by no limits, may determine it for yourself, according to your own free will, in whose hand we have placed you.
I have placed you at the world's centre so that you may thence more easily look around at whatever is in the world.
We have made you neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that you may, as the free and extraordinary shaper of yourself, fashion yourself in the form you prefer.
It will be in your power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish; you shall have the power, according to your soul's judgement, to be reborn into the higher orders, which are divine».
O supreme liberality of God the Father and wonderful happiness of the human being!
To him is given to be what he desires and what he wills.
As soon as they are born, brutes bring with them, from their mother’s womb, as Lucilius says, all that they are going to possess.
Superior spirits have been, either from the beginning or soon after, that which they are perpetually going to be throughout eternity.
The Father infused in the human being, at birth, every sort of seed and sprouts of every kind of life.
These seeds will grow and bear their fruit in each human being who will cultivate them.
If he cultivates his vegetable seeds, he will become a plant. If he cultivates his sensitive seeds, he will become brutish. If he cultivates his rational seeds, he will become a heavenly animal. If he cultivates his intellectual seeds, he will be an angel and a son of God.
And if he is not contented with the fate of any creature, he will gather himself into the centre of his own unity and, become one spirit with God, will join the solitary darkness of the Father, who is above all things, and will stand ahead of all things.
Who will not wonder at this chameleon?
Or rather, who will admire any other being more?
Not without reasons, Asclepius the Athenian said that in the secret rites the human being was symbolized by Proteus, because of his changing and metamorphous nature.
Hence the metamorphoses celebrated among the Jews and the Pythagoreans.
Indeed, even the most secret Hebrew theology at one time transforms holy Enoch into an angel of divinity, whom they call Metatron, and at other times it reshapes other human beings into other spirits.
According to Pythagoreans, wicked men are deformed into brutes, and if you believe Empedocles, into plants as well.
Imitating them, Mohammed often repeated that he who strays from divine law becomes a brute.
Indeed, it is not the bark which makes the plant, but dull and non-sentient nature; not the hide which makes a horse or other beast of burden, but a brutal and sensual soul; not the circular body which makes the heavens, but right reason; not the separation from the body which makes the angel, but spiritual intelligence.
If you see someone, slave to his belly, crawling on the ground, it is not a human being you see but a plant; if you see someone who is enslaved by his senses, as though blinded by Calipso with empty imaginations, under a seductive spell, it a brute you see, not a human being.
If you see a philosopher discerning things with right reason, worship him; he is a heavenly not an earthly animal.
If you see a pure contemplator, oblivious to his body, absorbed in the recesses of the mind, this is neither an earthly nor a heavenly animal: this is a superior spirit, clothed with human flesh.
Who, then, will not admire the human being?
Not undeservedly, in the Mosaic and Christian Scriptures he is called at times with the name of every flesh, at times of every creature, for he fashions, shapes and transforms his own look into that of every flesh, his own mind into that of every creature.
Accordingly, Evantes the Persian, explaining Chaldaean theology, writes that no inner image belongs to the human being, but many exterior and derived ones.
Hence that saying of the Chaldaens that the human being is animal by nature, diverse, multiform and inconstant.
Yet, what is the reason of all this?
It is in order for us to understand that, because we were born with the option to be what we want to be, we must take most care of this; lest people say of us that, being held in honor, we did not realize that we reduced ourselves to brutes and mindless beasts of burden.
Let us rather remember the saying of Asaph the prophet: “You are all gods and sons of the most high,” unless abusing the most indulgent liberality of the Father, we turn from beneficial to harmful the free choice he bestowed on us.
Let a holy ambition pervade our soul, so that, not satisfied with mediocre things, we strive for the loftiest and apply ourselves with all our strength to pursue them (because we can achieve them, if we want).
Let us spurn earthly things, disregard the celestial, and reject all that is of this world, in order to fly to the otherworldly court near the most eminent divinity.
There, as sacred mysteries reveal, Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones occupy the first places; let us emulate their dignity and glory, unwilling as we are to yield to them and unable to endure second place.
If so we wish, we will not be at all inferior to them.
But in what way, or by doing what?
Let us see what they do, what life they lead.
If we live that life (and indeed we can), we will be equal to their lot.
The Seraph burns with the fire of love; the Cherub shines with the splendour of intelligence; the Throne stands in the steadfastness of judgment.
Therefore if we, being dedicated to an active life, undertake the care of inferior things with proper consideration of their worth, we will be strengthened by the steadfast solidity of the Thrones.
If we, being unburdened by actions, meditate on the Creator in His creation and on creation in the Creator, we will be engaged in the tranquillity of contemplation; we will shine on all sides with Cherubic light.
If we burn for the Creator alone, with charity, with its all-consuming fire, we will burst into flame in the likeness of the Seraphim.
Upon the Throne, that is upon the just judge, sits God, the Judge of all time.
Over the Cherub, that is over the contemplator, He flies and, almost brooding over him, imbues him with warmth.
Indeed, the Spirit of the Lord is carried over the waters, the waters that, it is said, are above the Heavens and that praise God in the pre-dawn hymns in the book of Job.
And the Seraph, that is the lover, is in God and God is in him; and God and he are one.
Great is the power of the Thrones that we may reach by judging; supreme is the height of the Seraphim that we may reach by loving.
And yet in what manner can anyone either judge or love things unknown?
Moses loved the Lord Whom he saw and, as a judge, he administered to the people the things that he earlier saw on the mountain as a contemplator.
Hence the Cherub, located in the middle position, prepares us for the Seraphic fire and likewise illuminates us for the judgment of the Thrones.
This is the bond of the First Minds, the order of Pallas, the guardian of contemplative philosophy. First we must emulate him, thirst after him and to the same degree understand him in order that we may be raised to the heights of love and descend well taught and prepared to the duties of action.
And so it is valuable, if our life is to be modelled on the example of the Cherubs' life, to have before our eyes an idea of what their life is and what it is like, what their actions are and what works are theirs.
Because we, who are flesh and know only earthly things, are not permitted to follow their model of our own accord, let us consult the ancient Fathers for they, to whom these things were common and well known, can provide us with certain and abundant evidence of its nature.
Let us inquire of the apostle Paul, the chosen vessel, about the activities of the Cherubic hosts that he saw when raised up to the third heaven.
He will certainly answer, according to the interpretation of Dionysius, that they are cleansed, then illuminated and afterwards are perfected.
We, emulating the Cherubic life on Earth, curbing the drive of the emotions through moral science, dispersing the darkness of reason through dialectic, as if washing away the squalor of ignorance and vices, therefore purge our souls lest our emotions run amok or our reason imprudently run off course at any time.
Then well we imbue our purified and prepared soul with the light of natural philosophy so that afterwards we may perfect it with the knowledge of divine things.