Oration on the Dignity of Man: Summary, Quotes & Analysis

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  • 0:00 A Renaissance Oration
  • 0:43 A Renaissance Philosopher
  • 2:00 Exalting Mankind In…
  • 4:09 Controversy &…
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Giovanni Pico's ''The Oration on the Dignity of Man'' shook some things up in the intellectual circles of the Renaissance. Read this lesson to learn more about what the ''Oration'' said and why it's so important.

A Renaissance Oration

What's the nature of mankind? Can we transcend our humanity? These questions have been pondered by many thinkers, including the famous Italian Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

Pico (1463-1494) had ambitious philosophical dreams. He wanted to discover the nature of humanity and show people how to become one with God. Pico articulated these thoughts in a famous philosophical work from 1486, the Oration on the Dignity of Man. Pico's thoughts were controversial, but they were an important articulation of the age-old question: What does it mean to be human?

A Renaissance Philosopher

Pico was born to a noble Italian family in 1463, and he traveled Europe studying philosophy, theology, religion, and languages. He was a Christian, but he sought to unite diverse religions, worldviews, and practices into one comprehensive philosophy that explains. . . basically everything. That's quite a task! In pursuit of this goal, he studied everything from Muslim doctrine to Greek mythology to Jewish mysticism and even magic, looking for a way to unite all of those ideas with Christian principles.

In 1486, Pico thought he came up with a unifying theory. He put these ideas into a document called the 900 Conclusions, also known as Pico's 900 theses, with the Oration on the Dignity of Man serving as an introduction to this work. Pico was so excited about his work that he invited scholars from all over the world to come to Rome in 1487 to debate his arguments. This grand debate never happened, though, because the Pope declared some of Pico's work heretical.

Pico was disheartened but not silenced by the Church's criticism of his work. In fact, his trouble with the Church made him one of the most (in)famous thinkers of his time. He continued to write and pursue philosophy until his death in 1494, but the controversy over his ideas meant he would never formally publish the 900 Conclusions or Oration.

Exalting Mankind in the Oration

Let's take a closer look at the Oration on the Dignity of Man to see what was so radical about Pico's views. Pico starts the Oration with the idea that humankind is, well, awesome! Humans are the most exalted of all creatures because they are given a unique ability to comprehend and delight in the glory of God and his creation.

In addition to humans being the last and best creation, we are also given a unique opportunity: to choose our own destiny! Pico praises God's generosity in making humans this way when he says, 'Oh unsurpassed generosity of God the Father, Oh wondrous and unsurpassable felicity of man, to whom it is granted to have what he chooses, to be what he wills to be!'

Since we have the freedom to choose what we want to be, we better choose wisely. Pico says, 'We ought to be sure above all else that it may never be said against us that, born to a high position, we failed to appreciate it, but fell instead to the estate of brutes and uncomprehending beasts of burden.'

So, in order to avoid becoming 'brutes,' what destiny should we pursue? A powerful ruler? A wealthy philanthropist? A righteous priest? No. These achievements are far too small. According to Pico, humanity should try to be nothing less than angels - yes, literally angels. Specifically, we should strive to be Cherubim, angels who attend on God. Once we become Cherubim, we then have more direct access to God and can literally become one with God, which is the final goal for humanity.

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