When an intellectual likes of Russell Kirk calls for a rethinking of a great Christian Humanist such as Pico Della Mirandola, we should at least pause and reflect. I can remember as a college student being told about this “liberal” who took Renaissance humanism down the wrong path. I even remember reading Marion Montgomery’s The Truth of Things: Liberal Arts and the Recovery of Reality (a fantastic book!) where Montgomery puts a great deal of blame on the young and misguided Pico.
Despite my undergraduate professor and Dr. Montgomery, I have found myself more in the camp of Dr. Kirk. While I am not saying that Pico got it all right, because that pleasure is not due any mortal, I read Pico as having numerous insights. Here are a few:
- “Nothing greater on earth than man, nothing greater in man than mind and spirit.”
- “Man is the intermediary between creatures, the intimate of the gods, the king of the lower beings, by the acuteness of his senses, by the discernment of his reason, and by the light of his intelligence the interpreter of nature, the interval between fixed eternity and fleeting time.”
- “Whatever seed each man cultivates will grow to maturity and bear him their own fruit.”
- “Although born to a privileged position, we failed to recognize it and became like wild animals and senseless beasts of burden.”
- “Let us bathe in moral philosophy as if in a living river.”
- We shall be made perfect with the felicity of theology…”
Finally, I agree with Russell Kirk’s assessment of Pico and most Renaissance humanists that “A world of wonder and discovery lay before the Renaissance humanist. Yet all this dignity of human nature is the gift of God: the spiritual and rational powers neglected—and through free will man is able to neglect them—man sinks to the level of the brutes. The humanist does not seek to dethrone God: instead through the moral disciplines of humanitas, he aspires to struggle toward the Godhead.“
Kirk’s reading of Pico’s Oration and my own reading detect elements of humility. Pico, as well as most Renaissance humanists imagined human dignity resided in the Biblical truth of humans being as created by God and the creature redeemed by Christ was most dignified indeed.
Kirk concluded his thoughts on Pico by writing that, “A real man, in any age, is dignified and nobly human in proportion as he acknowledges the overlordship of One greater than man.”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published on Musings of a Christian Humanist and appears here with Dr. Woods’ gracious permission.