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The Italian Renaissance - documents

Document # 22

Pico Della Mirandola: Oration On the Dignity Of Man (15th C. CE)

I once read that Abdala the Muslim, when asked what was most worthy of awe and wonder in this theater of the world, answered, "There is nothing to see more wonderful than man!" Hermes Trismegistus (1) concurs with this opinion: "A great miracle, Asclepius, is man!" However, when I began to consider the reasons for these opinions, all these reasons given for the magnificence of human nature failed to convince me: that man is the intermediary between creatures, close to the gods, master of all the lower creatures, with the sharpness of his senses, the acuity of his reason, and the brilliance of his intelligence the interpreter of nature, the nodal point between eternity and time, and, as the Persians say, the intimate bond or marriage song of the world, just a little lower than angels as David tells us. (2) I concede these are magnificent reasons, but they do not seem to go to the heart of the matter, that is, those reasons which truly claim admiration. For, if these are all the reasons we can come up with, why should we not admire angels more than we do ourselves? After thinking a long time, I have figured out why man is the most fortunate of all creatures and as a result worthy of the highest admiration and earning his rank on the chain of being, a rank to be envied not merely by the beasts but by the stars themselves and by the spiritual natures beyond and above this world. This miracle goes past faith and wonder. And why not? It is for this reason that man is rightfully named a magnificent miracle and a wondrous creation.

What is this rank on the chain of being? God the Father, Supreme Architect of the Universe, built this home, this universe we see all around us, a venerable temple of his godhead, through the sublime laws of his ineffable Mind. The expanse above the heavens he decorated with Intelligences, the spheres of heaven with living, eternal souls. The scabrous and dirty lower worlds he filled with animals of every kind. However, when the work was finished, the Great Artisan desired that there be some creature to think on the plan of his great work, and love its infinite beauty, and stand in awe at its immenseness. Therefore, when all was finished, as Moses and Timaeus tell us, He began to think about the creation of man. But he had no Archetype from which to fashion some new child, nor could he find in his vast treasure-houses anything which He might give to His new son, nor did the universe contain a single place from which the whole of creation might be surveyed. All was perfected, all created things stood in their proper place, the highest things in the highest places, the midmost things in the midmost places, and the lowest things in the lowest places. But God the Father would not fail, exhausted and defeated, in this last creative act. God's wisdom would not falter for lack of counsel in this need. God's love would not permit that he whose duty it was to praise God's creation should be forced to condemn himself as a creation of God.

Finally, the Great Artisan mandated that this creature who would receive nothing proper to himself shall have joint possession of whatever nature had been given to any other creature. He made man a creature of indeterminate and indifferent nature, and, placing him in the middle of the world, said to him "Adam, we give you no fixed place to live, no form that is peculiar to you, nor any function that is yours alone. According to your desires and judgment, you will have and possess whatever place to live, whatever form, and whatever functions you yourself choose. All other things have a limited and fixed nature prescribed and bounded by our laws. You, with no limit or no bound, may choose for yourself the limits and bounds of your nature. We have placed you at the world's center so that you may survey everything else in the world. We have made you neither of heavenly nor of earthly stuff, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with free choice and dignity, you may fashion yourself into whatever form you choose. To you is granted the power of degrading yourself into the lower forms of life, the beasts, and to you is granted the power, contained in your intellect and judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, the divine."

Imagine! The great generosity of God! The happiness of man! To man it is allowed to be whatever he chooses to be! As soon as an animal is born, it brings out of its mother's womb all that it will ever possess. Spiritual beings from the beginning become what they are to be for all eternity. Man, when he entered life, the Father gave the seeds of every kind and every way of life possible. Whatever seeds each man sows and cultivates will grow and bear him their proper fruit. If these seeds are vegetative, he will be like a plant. If these seeds are sensitive, he will be like an animal. If these seeds are intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. And if, satisfied with no created thing, he removes himself to the center of his own unity, his spiritual soul, united with God, alone in the darkness of God, who is above all things, he will surpass every created thing. Who could not help but admire this great shape-shifter? In fact, how could one admire anything else? . . .

For the mystic philosophy of the Hebrews transforms Enoch into an angel called "Mal'akh Adonay Shebaoth," and sometimes transforms other humans into different sorts of divine beings. The Pythagoreans abuse villainous men by having them reborn as animals and, according to Empedocles, even plants. Muhammed also said frequently, "Those who deviate from the heavenly law become animals." Bark does not make a plant a plant, rather its senseless and mindless nature does. The hide does not make an animal an animal, but rather its irrational but sensitive soul. The spherical form does not make the heavens the heavens, rather their unchanging order. It is not a lack of body that makes an angel an angel, rather it is his spiritual intelligence. If you see a person totally subject to his appetites, crawling miserably on the ground, you are looking at a plant, not a man. If you see a person blinded by empty illusions and images, and made soft by their tender beguilements, completely subject to his senses, you are looking at an animal, not a man. If you see a philosopher judging things through his reason, admire and follow him: he is from heaven, not the earth. If you see a person living in deep contemplation, unaware of his body and dwelling in the inmost reaches of his mind, he is neither from heaven nor earth, he is divinity clothed in flesh.

Who would not admire man, who is called by Moses (3) and the Gospels "all flesh" and "every creature," because he fashions and transforms himself into any fleshly form and assumes the character of any creature whatsoever? For this reason, Euanthes the Persian in his description of Chaldaean theology, writes that man has no inborn, proper form, but that many things that humans resemble are outside and foreign to them, from which arises the Chaldaean saying: "Hanorish tharah sharinas": "Man is multitudinous, varied, and ever changing." Why do I emphasize this? Considering that we are born with this condition, that is, that we can become whatever we choose to become, we need to understand that we must take earnest care about this, so that it will never be said to our disadvantage that we were born to a privileged position but failed to realize it and became animals and senseless beasts. Instead, the saying of Asaph the prophet should be said of us, "You are all angels of the Most High." Above all, we should not make that freedom of choice God gave us into something harmful, for it was intended to be to our advantage. Let a holy ambition enter into our souls; let us not be content with mediocrity, but rather strive after the highest and expend all our strength in achieving it.

Let us disdain earthly things, and despise the things of heaven, and, judging little of what is in the world, fly to the court beyond the world and next to God. In that court, as the mystic writings tell us, are the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones (4) in the foremost places; let us not even yield place to them, the highest of the angelic orders, and not be content with a lower place, imitate them in all their glory and dignity. If we choose to, we will not be second to them in anything.

Translated by Richard Hooker

(1) This mystical Egyptian writer, much quoted by Renaissance alchemists, probably lived in the 2nd-3rd century.

(2) Psalms 8:5.

(3) Moses was reputed to have written the first five books of the Bible.

(4) These are the three highest orders of angels in the medieval and Renaissance theory of angelic hierarchy which is, in descending order, Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Powers, Angels, Archangels.


Document # 23

Extract from Marsilius of Padua, Defensor Pacis, 1324.

Now we declare according to the truth and on the authority of Aristotle that the law-making power or the first and real effective source of law is the people or the body of citizens or the prevailing part of the people according to its election or its will expressed in general convention by vote, commanding or deciding that something be done or omitted in regard to human civil acts under penalty or temporal punishment; by the prevailing part of the people I mean that part of the community by whom the law is made, whether the whole body of citizens or the main part do this or commit it to some person or persons to be done; these last are not nor can be the real law-making power, but can only act according to instructions as to subject-matter and time, and by the authority of the primal law-making power.

On the authority of Aristotle by a citizen I mean him who has a part in the civil community, either in the government, or the council, or the judiciary, according to his position. By this definition boys, slaves, foreigners, and women are excluded, though according to different limitations. Having thus defined citizen and the prevailing section of the citizens, let us return to the object proposed, namely to demonstrate that the human authority of making laws belongs only to the whole body of citizens as the prevailing part of it…

For the primal human authority of making laws belongs to that body by whom the best laws can be made. This, however, is the whole body of citizens or its better part which represents the whole. I now prove the second proposition, namely that the best law will result from the deliberation and decision of the whole body… That this can be done best by the citizens as a whole or the better part of them, I demonstrate thus, since the truth of anything will be judged more accurately, and its common advantage be studied more diligently, if the whole body of citizens discuss it with intelligence and feeling… So the reality of a general law will be best attended to by the whole people, because no one consciously injures himself.

On the other side we desire to adduce in witness the truths of the holy Scripture, teaching and counselling expressly, both in the literal sense and in the mystical according to the interpretation of the saints and the exposition of other authorized teachers of the Christian faith, that neither the Roman bishop, called the pope, nor any other bishop, presbyter, or deacon, ought to have the ruling or judgment or coercive jurisdiction of any priest, prince, community, society or single person of any rank whatsoever… For the present purposes, it suffices to show, and I will first show, that Christ Himself did not come into the world to rule men, or to judge them by civil judgment, nor to govern in a temporal sense, but rather to subject Himself to the state and condition of this world; that indeed from such judgment and rule He wished to exclude and did exclude Himself and His apostles and disciples, and that He excluded their successors, the bishops and presbyters, by His example, and word and counsel and command from all governing and worldly, that is, coercive rule. I will also show that the apostles were true imitators of Christ in this, and that they taught their successors to be so. I will further demonstrate that Christ and His apostles desired to be subject and were subject continually to the coercive jurisdiction of the princes of the world in reality and in person, and that they taught and commanded all others to whom they gave the law of truth by word or letter, to do the same thing, under penalty of eternal condemnation. Then I will give a section to considering the power or authority of the keys, given by Christ to the apostles and to their successors in offices, the bishops and presbyters, in order that we may see the real character of that power, both of the Roman bishop and of the others…

We wish, therefore, first to demonstrate that Christ wished to exclude and did exclude both Himself and His apostles from the office of ruler. This appears in John, 18. For when Christ was accused before Pontius Pilate, vicar of the Roman emperor in Judea, for saying that he was king of the Jews, and Pilate asked Him if He had said that, or if He had called Himself a king, He replied to the question of Pilate: "My kingdom is not of this world"; that is, I am come not to reign by temporal rule and dominion, as the kings of the world reign. It remains to show that Christ not only refused the rule of this world and coercive jurisdiction on earth, whereby He gave an example for action to His apostles and disciples and their successors, but that He also taught by word and showed by example that all, whether priests or not, should be subject in reality and in person to the coercive judgment of the princes of this world. By His word and example Christ demonstrated this first in physical things, in the incident contained in Matthew 22, when to the Jews asking Him: "Tell us, therefore, what thinkest Thou; is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not?" looking at the penny and its superscription, he replied: "Render, therefore, unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things which are God's."

Source: Taken from Oliver J. Thatcher (ed.), The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee, 1907), vol. 5, pp. 423-30.

Document # 24

Leonardo da Vinci - Excerpt from 'The Painter'

Because I can find no useful or pleasant subject to discourse on, since the men who came before me have taken all the useful and pleasant subjects and discoursed on them at length, I find I must behave like a pauper who comes to the fair last, and can provide for himself in no other way than to take those things of trivial value that have been rejected by other buyers. I, then, will fill my shopping bag with all these despised and rejected wares, trash passed over by previous buyers, and take them and distribute them, not in the great cities, but in the poorest villages, taking whatever money might be offered.

I realize many will call my little work useless; these people, as far as I'm concerned, are like those whom Demetrius was talking about when he said that he cared no more for the wind that issued from their mouths than the wind the issued from their lower extremities. These men desire only material wealth and are utterly lacking in wisdom, which is the only true food and wealth for the mind. The soul is so much greater than the body, its possessions so much nobler than those of the body. So, whenever a person of this sort picks up any of my works to read, I half expect him to put it to his nose the way a monkey does, or ask me if its good to eat.

I also realize that I am not a literary man, and that certain people who know too much that is good for them will blame me, saying that I'm not a man of letters. Fools! Dolts! I may refute them the way Marius did to the Roman patricians when he said that some who adorn themselves with other people's labor won't allow me to do my own labor. These folks will say that since I have no skill at literature, I will not be able to decorously express what I'm talking about. What they don't know is that the subjects I am dealing with are to be dealt with by experience rather than by words, and experience is the muse of all who write well. And so, as my muse, I will cite her in every case.

Although, unlike my critics, I am not able to facilely quote other writers, I will rely on an authority much greater and much more noble: on Experience, the Mistress of their Masters. These fellows waddle about puffed up and pretentious, all dressed up in the fruits, not of their own labors, but of other people's labors; these fellows will not allow me my own labors. They will scorn me as an inventor and a discoverer, but they should be blamed more, since they have invented and discovered nothing but rather go about holding forth and declaiming the ideas and works of others.

There are men who are discoverers and intermediaries and interpreters between Nature and Man, rather than boasters and declaimers of other people's work, and these must be admired and esteemed as the object in front of a mirror in comparison to the image seen in the mirror. The first is a real object in and of itself, the second is nothing. These people owe nothing to Nature; it is only good fortune that they wear a human form and if it weren't for this good fortune I'd classify them with the cattle and the animals.

There are many who would, with reason, blame me by pointing out that my proofs are contrary to established authority which is, after all, held in great reverence by their inexperienced minds. They do not realize that my works arise from unadulterated and simple experience, which is the one true mistress, the one true muse. The rules of experience are all that is needed to discern the true from the false; experience is what helps all men to look temperately for the possible, rather than cloaking oneself in ignorance, which can result in no good thing, so that, in the end, one abandons oneself to despair and melancholy. …

Source: Translated from the Italian by Richard Hooker