Re-Writing the Creation Story: How Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man Influenced the Renaissance and Man’s Perception of Himself In the time before the Renaissance, there were two commonly accepted stories of the world’s Creation: those expressed in the first chapters of Genesis. These stories captured the work of God as he brought about the universe, the plants, the animals, and the humans, and they chronicled the fall of Adam and Eve, who used the free will that God had given them in such a way that it brought about their downfall.
However, just as the Humanist movement was beginning at the forefront of the Renaissance, a brilliant young writer, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, published his Oration on the Dignity of Man, a work that put forth another version of the creation story. In a time when great thinkers were beginning to speculate on human dignity and rationality, Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man provided a refreshing change from the pessimistic Biblical story of the Creation.
His portrayal of God, his ideas about the Creation of man, and his description of free will come together in a way that empowers mankind, as he paves the way for future humanist thinkers with his comments and style of writing. The creation story presented in Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man is fundamentally different from the creation story of Genesis for many reasons. The first large difference between the two works lies in their portrayal of God.
In Genesis, it is stated that “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them,” (Genesis 1:27). This idea that humans were created in the image and likeness of God is a major part of the Christian faith; however, in his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Mirandola appears to claim the opposite. His word choice paints a picture of God as a man, referring to him as “the supreme Architect,” and the “Supreme Artisan” (Mirandola, 244), placing the Father in occupations created and filled by man.
While contradicting the story of Genesis, by describing the Father in this way, Mirandola begins to elevate man’s status in God’s world. Continuing in Mirandola’s document, the next difference between the Oration on the Dignity of Man and the book of Genesis lies in God’s plan for the universe. In the book of Genesis, the birth of Adam and Eve is a part of God’s plan. God brings them forth on Earth on the same day as the animals, and only rests after man has been created and placed in charge of the Earth.
In the Oration on the Dignity of Man, Mirandola claims that God “had already built this cosmic home…in accordance with the laws of a mysterious wisdom,” (Mirandola, 244) before he created man. The thought of creating man did not occur to the Maker until he sat back to contemplate his work, as though they were just a sudden thought in the Father’s mind. Mirandola’s description of the moment that God decided to create man supports this idea, as he claims, “when everything was completed…He finally took thought of creating man,” (Mirandola, 244).
Mankind was not something planned in advance, or an immediate and important element of God’s plan. Upon reading this, those familiar with the story of Genesis may have felt slighted or diminished by the idea that mankind was an afterthought to God’s creation; however, after reading further into Mirandola’s Oration, it becomes clear that this is, in fact, to their advantage. According to the Oration, unlike the animals created before them, humankind was created with a specific purpose for God. In both the stories of Genesis and the Oration on the Dignity of Man, man is created and blessed by God.
In Genesis, this occurs as part of God’s plan. According to Mirandola’s Oration, however, mankind was not a part of God’s plan, but after God had created the world without man, he still felt that it was lacking something. He wished for “someone who could examine the plan of so great an enterprise, who could love its beauty, who could admire its vastness,” (Mirandola, 244). Instead of being just another creature in God’s divine plan, man was specifically created to serve God, out of God’s own wish and desire for his existence.
This idea that humans were created for their own purpose is the first step that Mirandola takes to elevate humans’ thoughts about themselves, promoting the humanist ideas of individual self-worth and dignity. Because man had been a part of God’s plan in the Genesis story of Creation, the Father knew that he would create man in the image of himself; however, Mirandola’s “Supreme Artisan” (Mirandola, 244) did not have this ease in giving man a form. Because man was not a part of God’s original plan, there had been no provisions made for his creation.
Upon observing the world he had created, God realized that “not a single archetype remained from which he might fashion this new creature, not a single treasure remained which he might bestow upon this new son,” (Mirandola, 244), as the world was complete. But “it was not in the nature of the Father’s power to fail in this final creative effort,” (Mirandola, 244) and thus he created man by allowing him to “share in whatever He had assigned individually to the other creatures,” (Mirandola, 244).
When compared with the story of Genesis, Mirandola’s account may seem degrading in its claim that mankind is nothing more than a composition of animal qualities; however, Mirandola soon makes it clear that God chose to make up for this lack of individual characteristics by bestowing an even greater gift on mankind. Free will, which Adam and Eve had taken advantage of in Genesis, was God’s compensation for man’s lack of individual characteristics. In both the stories of Genesis and Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, free will is a gift from God and unique to human beings.
In Genesis, Adam and Eve misuse their free will to disobey their Creator. By exercising this gift and eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve caused their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the suffering of all future generations. In the Oration on the Dignity of Man, Mirandola makes no mention of this fall or of the negative effects of free will. Instead, Mirandola portrays free will the opportunity to have control of one’s destiny, a gift which humankind can use to “degenerate into the inferior forms of life…[or] to rise to the superior orders of the divine,” (Mirandola, 244).
This unique ability is unlike the free will depicted in Genesis, which is viewed pessimistically as the cause of Adam and Eve’s downfall. Mirandola shows free will to be a blessing from God, meant specifically for mankind. Unlike the constrained and limited existence of animals, humans were given the ability to “independently determine the bounds of [their] own nature,” (Mirandola 244). Humans were placed in the center of the Earth and could “fashion [themselves] in whatever form [they] prefer,” (Mirandola, 244).
While both the story of Genesis and the Oration on the Dignity of Man describe God placing man in a seat of dominion over the animals and plant of the universe, according to Mirandola the addition of free will increases man’s status over the creatures of the Earth. He exclaims that in man, “the Father placed the seeds of all kinds and the germs of every way of life. Whatever seeds each man cultivates will mature and bear their own fruit in him,” (Mirandola 245).
Mirandola writes that “it is not the bark that makes the beast of burden but its irrational and sensitive soul; neither is it the spherical form which makes the heavens, but their undeviating order,” (Mirandola, 245), emphasizing the impact that a man’s choice has on his nature and being. By choosing which ‘seeds’ to cultivate and which to neglect, man is given control over his own destiny. For Mirandola, the negative view of free will that had begun with Genesis had no place in a Renaissance world that valued human dignity and rationality.
But even greater than Mirandola’s concept of free will is what he believed that humans could do with this gift. The power given to man that allows him to mold, fashion and transform himself (Mirandola, 255) is the trait that differentiates mankind from the rest of God’s creatures, and makes them deserving of admiration. It allows humans the freedom to become anything, from a brute to a celestial being. Nothing is left to chance, fate, or God, but humans have complete control of their own individual destinies.
Mirandola espouses the ideas of the Renaissance as he describes the options available to man – he can be vegetative or sensitive, and become brutish and no better than the animals around him, or man can be rational and intellectual, and in doing so become a celestial being, an angel or the son of God (Mirandola, 245). This idea, that rationalism and intellectualism are exalted and dignified, characterizes early humanist thought at the beginning of the Renaissance. Not only does the Oration on the Dignity of Man contain humanistic thought, however.
In his writing, Mirandola employs the Renaissance idea of “going back” to the classic writers, thinkers, and theologians. He quotes Asclepius the Athenian and Mohammed. He refers to the Hebrews and the Pythagoreans, and Mosaic and Christian writings. From these sources, Mirandola takes examples of transformations in those cultures, such as the turning of men into beats or divinities or man’s characterization as Proteus (Mirandola, 245), and explains how these ideas are derived from God’s gift of free will.
This examination of past cultures and documents and the references to ancient thinking put Mirandola at the forefront of humanistic thought and practices. He did not accept the story of Genesis as the absolute truth, and consulted many different sources to try to put together a more complete picture of the truth in his Oration on the Dignity of Man. The Oration on the Dignity of Man contains thoughts radically different to those held by the public at the time of its creation.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola presented man’s free will in way that demonstrated its potential and benefits to humankind, a view that was directly in contrast with the portrayal of free will in the creation story of Genesis. Because Mirandola was intelligent enough to examine this subject in a critical light, learned enough to consult ancient texts and theologies, and brave enough to publish this work, the gift of free will was once again given to man.
With it, man can do as he pleases, creating himself with his ability to “become whatever [he] choose[s],” (Mirandola, 245). Free will was no longer the ugly downfall of the human race, but rather it became man’s liberator and uplifter. By giving humans this perspective on themselves, their lives, and the world around them, Mirandola greatly influenced the humanists of him time, and the Renaissance to follow.