Pico della Mirandola - Humanist and Philosopher

Pico della Mirandola

Pico della Mirandola was born to wealth and nobility in Mirandola, Italy, on February 24, 1463. After receiving a humanistic education at Mirandola, he studied canon law at Bologna. Dissatisfied with his studies, he left Bologna to pursue his lifelong interest, philosophy, at Ferrara, Padua, and Paris.

Pico’s desire to establish concordance among the major philosophies led him to explore Greek, Latin, Averroist, and Hebrew thought, including Kabbalah. His knowledge of Kabbalah, an esoteric and mystical form of Judaism, came largely from his associations with Renaissance Jews and recent converts to Christianity from Judaism.

Pico’s ardent interest in Kabbalah and his casting of it as a harbinger of Christianity have led some scholars to consider him the first Christian Kabbalist of the Italian Renaissance.

He was also versed in the symbolic use of numbers and magic, although he was careful to distinguish between natural magic, which he espoused, and its demonic form.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Pico found aspects of medieval Scholasticism compatible with his philosophical outlook. Pico was a participant in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Platonic Academy, an informal conversation circle in Florence that was led by the Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino.

In his last years he was a convert to the teachings of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, the self-styled messenger of God whose moral fervor held sway over the Florentine populace and its government in the latter part of the 15th century.

Pico’s writings are extensive. Among them are Italian love sonnets, Latin poems, a commentary on Genesis, and a treatise against astrology. Pico wrote a critique of Girolamo Benivieni’s On Heavenly Love in which he distinguished between earthly physical love and heavenly chaste love.

Another treatise deals with the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. His most famous works are his 900 Conclusions and his Oration on the Dignity of Man. The Conclusions were meant to be the centerpiece for a colloquium in Rome.

They consist of 900 theses that embody much of his philosophical and religious thought and include propositions on Kabbalah. The conference was never held. Innocent VIII condemned the propositions and Pico was forced to flee to France, where he was jailed for a short time.

He was freed through the intercession of Lorenzo de’ Medici and later exonerated by Alexander VI. Pico’s Oration was intended to be the introduction to his Conclusions.

The Oration asserts that at the time of creation, God had utilized all the attributes at his command to form the heavens, the earth, and the animals. Having nothing left, God gave to humans the power to create their own nature. They could descend to the level of a beast or ascend to the divine.

The Oration is acclaimed for its affirmation of human potential and is regarded by many scholars as the epitome of Renaissance humanism. Pico was working on a critique of astrology shortly before his death in Florence on November 17, 1494. Pico is buried in the church of San Marco in Florence.