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Style and Substance


in the Early Writings of
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
W. G. CRAVEN

he fifth centenary of the death of the philosopher Giovanni Pico della


Mirandola was commemorated in 1994 by an exhibition in Florence and an
international congress in Mirandola. Pico had been the subject of an active
and extensive scholarly literature over the previous sixty years, and the centenary
observances and the publications issuing from them could be seen as an appropriate
occasion to take note of recent work and to consider where significant advances
might have been achieved.1
Pico has conventionally been taken as a symbol of his times and an embodiment
of the interests and enthusiasms of the Italian Renaissance. In his short lifetime
(146394) he produced a wide variety of writings. He composed a list of nine
hundred propositions for debate and an oration that was to have opened the
proceedings, then an apologia defending thirteen of the propositions which had been
condemned by a papal commission. In the last five years of his life he wrote the
Heptaplus, a seven-fold commentary on the first twenty-seven verses of Genesis, a
1

Pico, Poliziano e lUmanesimo di fine Quattrocento, Bibliotheca Medicea Laurenziana 4


novembre31 dicembre 1994, ed. by Paolo Viti, Studi Pichiani, 2 (Florence: Olschki, 1994);
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: Convegno internazionale di studi nel cinquecentesimo
anniversario della morte (14941994), ed. by Gian Carlo Garfagnini, Studi Pichiani, 5, 2 vols
(Florence: Olschki, 1997). For bibliographies of works on Pico, see Fernand Roulier, Jean Pic
de la Mirandole (14631494), humaniste, philosophe et thologien (Geneva: Slatkine, 1989),
pp. 1936; Antonio Raspanti, Filosofia, teologia, religione: Lunit della visione in G. Pico
della Mirandola (Palermo: Edi Oftes, 1991), pp. 32327; Louis Valcke and Roland Gallibois,
Le priple intellectuel de Jean Pic de la Mirandole (Sainte-Foy: Les presses de lUniversit
Laval-Sherbrooke, 1994), pp. 32935.

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brief treatise on Being and the One, and an encyclopaedic polemic against astrology
in twelve books. In addition he composed a short, early work on the Platonic
doctrine of love, in the form of a commentary on a poem by his friend Girolamo
Benivieni, poems in Latin and the vernacular, letters, commentaries on several
psalms and brief spiritual writings.
Centenary celebrations are not, perhaps, where one should expect to find the
keenest edge of critical scholarship. Nevertheless, it is somewhat disappointing to
note in the conference proceedings the resilience of traditional formulae and
expectations, still accepted without question or comment. While several papers
showed evidence of significant progress in particular areas, such as Picos
knowledge and use of Kabbalistic sources, there were also numerous uncritical
general statements about his doctrine of protean man and his pursuit of the single
truth underlying all philosophies and faiths. The address by Charles Trinkaus was
perhaps symptomatic of the occasion. Making no reference to his own earlier, more
incisive views, he affirmed that the Heptaplus was a central work, one which
revealed Picos vision of the universe and man within the parameters of his Christian
faith, as well as his basic hypotheses and method. It exemplified his vision of
concordia, and of the single truth that he believed had been disseminated by God in
a great variety of philosophies. Trinkaus also emphasized the similarity and
complementarity of the views of man in the Heptaplus and the Oratio. A quarter of a
century earlier he had admitted that he found it difficult to regard the Heptaplus as
genuinely philosophical, and had acknowledged the contrast between the dynamic
view of man in the Oratio and the surprisingly non-operative, extraordinarily
passive, almost statuesque view in the Heptaplus.2
Rather than attempting to review the whole range of contributions, let alone the
wider field of Pico scholarship, my intention in this paper is to examine the work of
two scholars who participated in the centenary observances but whose approaches, I
will suggest, do open the way to new understandings of Picos intellectual
development. Louis Valcke delivered a paper at Mirandola in 1994, while Francesco
Bausi contributed to the catalogue of the exhibition in Florence. Valckes
interpretation of the course of Picos intellectual and philosophical development had
been elaborated in a series of articles and in a long introductory essay which
complements the French translations by Roland Gallibois of two of Picos works.3
2
Charles Trinkaus, LHeptaplus di Pico della Mirandola: Compendio tematico e
concordanza del suo pensiero, Convegno internazionale, I, 10525 (esp. pp. 105, 116, 122);
and In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought, 2 vols
(London: Constable, 1970), II, 51920.
3

Louis Valcke, Des Conclusiones aux Disputationes: Numrologie et mathematiques chez


Jean Pic de la Mirandole, Laval thologique et philosophique, 41 (1985), 4356; and by the
same author see: Magie et miracle chez Jean Pic de la Mirandole, in Ficino and Renaissance
Neoplatonism, ed. by Konrad Eisenbichler and Olga Zorzi Pugliese (Ottawa: Dovehouse,
1986), pp. 15573; Entre raison et foi: Le Noplatonisme de Pic de la Mirandole,

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Bausi published a study of the language, style and sources used in Picos early works
in 1996, and has since produced editions with exhaustive notes of two of Picos
important early letters.4 Their interests converge on the question of Picos different
stylistic registers and their possible significance for the interpretation of his works.
Style and its significance was a subject of explicit interest to Giovanni Pico, and was
the theme of one of his early letters. The variety of styles he employed is something
that forces itself on the attention of readers. Most obvious is the contrast in style
between the Conclusiones, the nine hundred propositions he proposed to defend in
Rome in 1487, and the Oratio, the speech intended to introduce the disputation. In
an introductory note to the Conclusiones Pico warned that they were written in the
terse, unpolished style of the disputations conducted at the University of Paris, the
style used by nearly all the philosophers of the time. The Oratio, in striking contrast,
is an elaborate and florid rhetorical tour de force.
I propose to show why I believe that the work of these two scholars is particularly
valuable, but also to suggest that their approaches are complementary in quite
specific ways. By examining their publications in detail, I hope to promote the kind
of intensive scholarly interaction most likely to lead to fuller understanding. At the
same time, the encounter between the two approaches may serve to exemplify a
wider issue: the delicate interplay between style and substance in Renaissance texts,
and the sensitivity required to recover their meanings.

Louis Valcke and the Significance of Neoplatonism


At the heart of Valckes interpretation is his conviction that for a brief but significant
period Picos thought was under the spell of Neoplatonism. He let himself succumb

Recherches de thologie ancienne et mdivale, 54 (1987), 186237; Humanisme et


scolastique : Le conflit des deux cultures chez Jean Pic de la Mirandole, Recherches de
thologie ancienne et mdivale, 56 (1989), pp. 16499; Jean Pic et le retour au style de
Paris : Porte dune critique littraire, Rinascimento, 2 s. 32 (1992), 25373; Jean Pic de la
Mirandole et le chant noplatonicien, Laval thologique et philosophique, 49 (1993), 487
504; Giovanni Pico della Mirandola e il ritorno ad Aristotele, Convegno internazionale, I,
32749. Valcke and Gallibois, Le priple.
4
Francesco Bausi, Nec rhetor neque philosophus: Fonti, lingua e stile nelle prime opere
latine di Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Studi Pichiani, 3 (Florence: Olschki, 1996),
subsuming the authors two earlier studies: Il dissidio del Giovanni Pico tra umanesimo e
filosofia (14841487), in Pico, Poliziano e lUmanesimo di fine Quattrocento, ed. by Paulo
Viti (Florence: Olschki, 1994), pp, 3158; and Per Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: Tre
schede filologico-linguistiche, Interpres, 14 (1994), 27289. His works on Picos letters are:
Lepistola di Giovanni Pico della Mirandola a Lorenzo deMedici: Testo, traduzione e
commento, Interpres, 17 (1998), 757; Ermolao Barbaro and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola,
Filosofia o eloquenza?, ed. by Francesco Bausi (Naples: Ligouri, 1998).

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to its fascination while living in Florence in 1486. It was not simply the diffused,
domesticated Neoplatonism which had long since been absorbed into the scholastic
tradition, nor was his enthusiasm due merely to the influence of Marsilio Ficino. The
ideas he found so intoxicating came from his own direct knowledge of the Enneads
of Plotinus. In the Oratio the precision of his quotations and allusions showed that
he had assimilated the thought of Plotinus to the point where he adhered to it totally
and had made it his own. He took up the idea of the cathartic function of philosophy,
serving as the preamble for holy theology, purifying the soul for mystic union with
God. Neoplatonic propositions occupied a crucial place in his lists of topics for
disputation, located at the interface between familiar and esoteric material.
Neoplatonism was undoubtedly the hidden bond which Pico claimed as existing
between his propositions. His own Conclusiones paradoxae clearly showed the
dominance of Plotinus, especially his defence of a higher knowledge which the soul
attains preceding mystical ecstasy. His account of natural magic was also based on
Plotinus. The Heptaplus, the seven-fold commentary on Genesis which he published
in 1489, was still heavily dependent on Neoplatonic doctrines. It invoked as its basic
framework the affinities between the worlds, the real foundation of analogical
language and of that mystic participation which was presupposed by the vision of
man the microcosm. Pico was, however, becoming increasingly uneasy about the
incompatibilities between Neoplatonism and Christian theology, and De ente et uno
marked the end of his fascination with it. His return to Aristotelianism was given
unequivocal expression in the Disputationes, his attack on astrology. There he
rejected the Orphic vision of the universe along with its magical and astrological
concomitants. Whereas the monism of Plotinus had blurred or obliterated the
distinction between the first cause and secondary causes, Pico now drew a clear line
between what belonged directly to the first cause and what pertained to the order of
secondary causes, whose autonomy, relative though it was, Pico vindicated. His
intellectual development was characterized, therefore, not by one decisive turning
point or conversion, but by two.5
The question of Picos different styles intersected with Valckes account of his
intellectual development. One of Valckes articles discussed the disputes between
exponents of humanism and scholasticism that constituted the background and
context of Picos writing. In relation to this issue too Pico changed his alignment
twice. In a letter to him, the humanist Ermolao Barbaro had written slightingly of the
scholastic philosophers, those barbarous Germans and Teutons whose crude,
unpolished style condemned them to oblivion or ignominy. He urged Pico not to
waste his time and energy on them. Picos reply was, according to Valcke, a
passionate speech in their defence, addressed, through Barbaro, to the whole
5

Valcke and Gallibois, Le priple, pp. 5253; Valcke, Raison et foi, pp. 20108, 22123;
Numrologie et mathematiques, pp. 5056; Le chant, p. 502; Il ritorno, esp. pp. 34049. I
have adopted the convention of using the past tense when describing the views of other
historians, and the present tense when proposing my own.

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humanist tradition. He affirmed that the only important consideration in philosophy


was the quality of the thought, and that the philosophers approach was quite
incompatible with that of the rhetorician. While Valcke acknowledged the use of the
literary artifice of a fictional speaker, he interpreted the letter as an expression of
Picos own convictions at the time. It was, furthermore, a blanket rejection of all the
humanistic pursuits. Pico ridiculed their preoccupation with details of the myths of
Niobe and Andromache, and concluded with an apparently frank expression of
disgust with grammarians. He was silent about the prophetic role of poetic language,
an idea with which he must have been familiar. His letter to Lorenzo de Medici,
dated the previous year, seemed by implication to reduce poetry to a mere diversion.
Valckes conclusion was that Pico was expressing a well-considered opinion, and
was deliberately taking the side of the scholastic philosophers against the humanists.6
The Oratio represented a radically different position; so, paradoxically, did the
Conclusiones. Pico the orator allowed himself liberties that as a philosopher he had
denounced. Poets were treated as authorities, mythological figures were invested
with profound significance, and the reasoning of the philosopher was subordinated to
the intuition of the poet. In the Conclusiones, ostensibly so austere in style, Pico
used the resources of scholasticism to exalt poetic theology and esoteric forms of
knowledge. This reversal of alignment in the debate between humanism and
scholasticism coincided with Picos conversion to Neoplatonism.7
Valcke used the expression alternation of styles to describe the changes. In
introducing the Conclusiones Pico noted that he had adopted the style of Paris
disputants, the language used by nearly all philosophers of the time. Deliberately and
with full awareness he decided to substitute scholastic for humanist style. There
would be a later parallel in the dedicatory epistle for the De ente et uno, where he
explained his choice of a simple style in terms of the need for clarity and precision.
Pico alternated between what he himself called the splendour of Roman language
and the plain style used by philosophers of his time. The alternation was further
corroboration of the influence of Plotinus on him. Far from scorning rhetoric,
Plotinus stated explicitly that a writer must change styles to match his purpose. The
style appropriate for exposition was different from the style employed to persuade.
The dominant influence of Plotinus at this period of Picos life largely explained
why he indulged in classic oratorical style in the Oratio so soon after his virulent
attack on all forms of rhetoric, and then changed back to the bare Paris style in his
Conclusiones, Apologia and De ente. In those works he wanted to expound ideas
with all possible clarity and rigour, whereas in the Oratio he wanted to win over his
hearers.8

Valcke, Humanisme, pp. 164, 16874, 17980.

Valcke, Humanisme, pp. 18182.

Valcke, Humanisme, pp. 18789.

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Valcke reiterated the point and developed it further in a subsequent article. The
letter to Barbaro had argued for a radical dichotomy between philosophical and
rhetorical speech. That dividing line ran right through Picos work. All his properly
doctrinal treatises were written in scholastic style, whereas his letters and the
introductions to his treatises sparkled with stylistic brilliance. He often made explicit
the transition from one style to the other. He practised a systematic alternation
between styles. It did not match exactly the boundaries of his enthusiasm for
Neoplatonism. He enlisted the plain Paris style in the service of Neoplatonic
propositions in the Conclusiones, and the Heptaplus treated Neoplatonic themes in a
sober style, closer to that of the Paris philosophers than to that of the humanists. On
the other hand, the De ente, which announced the end of his Neoplatonic enthusiasm,
was also written in the style of the philosophers. The same was true of the
Disputationes, with its explicit rejection of correspondences and the whole
Neoplatonic cosmology.9

Francesco Bausi: Philosophy and Eloquence


The approach of Francesco Bausi has been in some respects complementary,
although he has arrived at different conclusions. He set out explicitly to analyse
Picos style, while immediately acknowledging that it could only be studied in
relation to the development of his ideas. The great merit of his intensive analysis is
that it demonstrates clearly the complexity of the texts and the dense web of
references and assumptions that Pico shared with different groups of readers. His
vocabulary, in the letters to Barbaro and to Lorenzo de Medici as well as in the
Oratio, drew heavily on Silver Age authors such as Gellius, Pliny and Apuleius, and
the reader was assumed to be thoroughly familiar with texts such as Ciceros De
oratore, the Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius and Senecas epistles.
Bausi rejected Valckes theory of alternation of styles as too schematic and too
synchronic. Instead he proposed a development in style which paralleled the
generally acknowledged evolution in the content and sources of Picos thought.
Several historians had pointed out that Pico progressively abandoned esoteric
branches of knowledge, such as prisca theologia, as well as magic and astrology.10
They had been characteristic of his thought up to the Roman incident of 1487,
whereas by the Disputationes his attitude towards them had cooled to the point of
hostility. His style, Bausi believed, could be shown to have followed a similar line of
evolution, from the ornate, contrived style of the early letters to the stylistic severity
of the Disputationes.
9

Valcke, Le retour, pp. 26062, 26472.

10

For example, Giovanni Di Napoli, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola e la problematica


dottrinale del suo tempo (Rome: Descle, 1965), pp. 27879.

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The two letters to Barbaro and to Lorenzo were written in an elaborate, Apuleian
style, with a vocabulary drawn from Silver Age authors and a profusion of rhetorical
figures. The texts in fact consisted of a mosaic of quotations and allusions. The style
of the later writings was certainly different, but they could not simply be lumped
together as exemplifying Picos other style, his severe, philosophical style. The
Heptaplus dispensed almost completely with poetic and literary references, and its
quotations were overwhelmingly from Scripture. On the other hand, there were few
technical scholastic terms, it avoided the stylistic characteristics of medieval Latin
and it used expressions from Picos preferred Silver Age authors. The language of
the De ente was more strongly technical in character, but had little in common with
the Conclusiones and Apologia. Moreover, the passage in the dedicatory letter to
Poliziano where Pico excused himself for a lack of elegance and for using terms
which were not authentic Latin revived the ambiguity characteristic of the early
letters. It echoed a well-known text of Manlius which had been used by Poliziano
not long before. In terms of style, the De ente went further in the direction set by the
Heptaplus. The Disputationes went further still, allowing no deviation from sober,
abstract language other than rare invectives and a final exhortation.11
For Bausi, Picos position in his early letters was not a rejection of eloquence or
humanistic studies but an oscillation between philosophy and eloquence. The
sentiments of the fictional barbarian philosopher could not be attributed to Pico. He
denied that he agreed with them, and claimed to be acting like Glaucon, in Platos
Republic, who spoke against justice only in order to provoke Socrates to speak in its
defence. Furthermore, the speech itself was deliberately and flagrantly incongruous.
The vocabulary was drawn from Silver Age authors, there were words and
expressions from poetic usage, and a barrage of rhetorical figures. Pico deliberately
laid himself open to Ciceros paradox concerning Socrates in Platos Gorgias. In a
well-known passage in De oratore, Cicero remarked that if the arguments of
Socrates against oratory carried the day, it was because he was the better orator.12 In
what must have been a conscious parallel, Pico composed a deliberately self-refuting
speech, showing the necessity of eloquence even to reject eloquence. Barbaro and
Poliziano were quite justified in taking up and exploiting the reference to De oratore
in their responses. As if to increase the vulnerability of his fictional speaker, Pico
misrepresented well-known texts, reversing their point, and signalling their source
for good measure. Yet despite all the layers of paradox and ambiguity, at least part of
the speakers case corresponded to Picos own convictions. His statement of
exasperation, Some grammarians make me sick, occurred13 outside the rhetorical

11

Bausi, Nec rhetor, pp. 18790.

12

Cicero, De oratore, III.32.129; Bausi, Nec rhetor, pp. 1819.

13

Bausi, Nec rhetor, pp. 1419, 3035, 5862; Commento, in De hominis dignitate,
Heptaplus, De ente et uno, ed. by Eugenio Garin (Florence: Vallecchi, 1942), p. 548.

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framework of the letter, and the speakers earlier reference to true and false gold was
repeated in another of Picos writings from the same period.
From this vantage point, Bausi reassessed the letter to Lorenzo de Medici in
which Pico compared Lorenzos poetry with that of Dante and Petrarch. The point of
the letter was not much different from the arguments of the fictional barbarian in
the letter to Barbaro. Bausi made the point that the names of the two poets
represented two types rather than the two historical figures. Dante stood for content
at the expense of style: his content was profound but his style was rough. Petrarch
stood for the opposite. His content was trivial, though under an elegant exterior.
Lorenzo miraculously combined wisdom and eloquence, and was therefore superior
to both. Of the two types, however, Pico clearly preferred Dante, who was
comparable with the barbarous philosophers of the letter to Barbaro. (In the
Heptaplus Moses would be identified as another such figure.) The terms of the
comparison were taken from De oratore. Petrarch was made to exemplify the
Asian style, using excessive refinement to mask poverty of ideas. Lorenzos poetry
was praised in the terms used by Cicero and Quintilian to characterize the Attic
style, distinguished by its sobriety. There was ambiguity here too, however. Pico
praised Lorenzos Attic sobriety in the same contrived, far-fetched Apuleian style as
he used in the letter to Barbaro. Ornate praise of Lorenzos stylistic restraint
paralleled the incongruously rhetorical defence of the barbarous style of the
philosophers. The two letters, which Pico sent together to Beroaldo in 1491, could be
considered as two panels of a diptych about the relationship between philosophy and
eloquence.14
On the basis of his analysis of the letters, Bausi formulated a hypothesis. Their
ambiguity was the expression of an ambivalence characteristic of Picos first
period. He was devoting himself to a demanding programme of philosophical
studies. At the same time, he was applying himself to humanistic and literary studies,
composing Latin and vernacular poetry, and employing a prose style marked by
extreme linguistic and stylistic refinement. The philosopher and the humanist
coexisted in him, though not without discomfort. His undated letter to Poliziano, in
which he described himself as trying to sit on two stools at once and missing both in
the attempt, expressed the tension between the two. From the end of the 1480s, he
made philosophy his definitive option. His increasingly severe style reflected this
choice.15
From the perspective of Bausis evolutionary interpretation, the Conclusiones and
Apologia constituted an anomaly. They did not fit into the line of evolutionary
14
Bausi, Nec rhetor, pp. 6784. Pico sent the two letters together to Beroaldo, see Opera
Omnia (Basel: Henricpetri, 1557), p. 347. More recently, Bausi has argued convincingly that
the letter to Lorenzo was composed after, not before, the letter to Barbaro: Lepistola, pp.
1421.
15

Bausi, Nec rhetor, pp. 9192.

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development. Their exceptional character could be explained, he believed, in terms


of the particular circumstances and demands of the Roman disputation. The nature of
the exercise required that the propositions be formulated in the Latin of university
philosophers, and, equally, that the same style be used in defending them before the
papal commission. The topics to be argued demanded a language and style that had
been developed over centuries to treat just such material. Pico incorporated sections
of the Oratio in the Apologia because his defence of disputation in general and of his
own specific project was relevant, and because time was short. When he came to
defend the theses singled out by the commission, he bridged the gap between
rhetorical and scholastic styles not with an explanation or an apology, but with an
insult, as if the change had been imposed on him by the linguistic deficiencies of the
commission members. This kind of consideration might seem to have been leading
back to something like Valckes theory of alternating styles. Certainly, every genre
demanded particular stylistic characteristics, and Pico wrote in many different
genres. Nevertheless, Bausi argued, the pattern of linear development was there to
see.16
There was a comparable problem for Valckes interpretation. At what should have
been the height of his Neoplatonic fervour, Pico was composing what was to become
his Commento on the canzone of Girolamo Benivieni. Although in an earlier article
Valcke insisted that it was a critique of Marsilio Ficinos approach and
methodology, not of Neoplatonism as such, he acknowledged that it did involve a
rigorous analysis of fundamental concepts of Neoplatonism. Picos demand for
rigour was reflected in his rejection of facile concordism and his refusal to
acquiesce in glossing over incompatibilities between philosophical ideas and
Christian doctrine. It was this clear-sightedness which always prevented him from
giving himself unreservedly to philosophy. Valcke regularly qualified his statements
about Picos enthusiasm for Neoplatonism, acknowledging that there were always
reservations.17 He saw this reserve reflected in the hypothetical character of several
of the propositions. The primacy of Picos religious quest was one of Valckes
themes, and the Commento showed his consciousness of fundamental
incompatibilities between Christian faith and Neoplatonism.18
It would not only be presumptuous but premature as well to hazard a verdict
between the two interpretations. Bausi has certainly demonstrated that there are far
greater complexities in the texts than scholars had hitherto considered, and he has
shown the intense scrutiny which is required before confident pronouncements can
16

Bausi, Nec rhetor, pp. 19598.

17

Valcke, Il ritorno, pp. 334 (Convinto, o quasi convinto); and 340 (Quel fascino,
per, non fu mai radicale e sotto un entusiasmo letterario apparentemente senza limiti, Pico
nutriva le pi serie riserve nei confronti del neoplatonismo). See also Valcke, Le chant, pp.
491, 498; Valcke and Gallibois, Le priple, pp. 142, 150.
18

Valcke, Raison et foi, p. 198; Valcke and Gallibois, Le priple, p. 144.

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be made. His work on the early letters sets a challenging standard for future
scholarship. One would hope that the same kind of analysis would now be applied to
the Heptaplus and the later, minor works, especially the ascetical letters and the
commentaries on the psalms. Valcke, in emphasizing the important place of Plotinus
in Picos thinking in the 1480s, has cast welcome light on some of the more
mysterious Conclusiones paradoxae, and on Picos attitude to magic. He has
produced a plausible and satisfying theory to explain why Pico turned away from
magic and astrology, making it an intellectual recognition rather than a religious or
moral conversion. More generally, he has freed himself almost completely from the
myths and stereotypes which have so persistently misdirected Pico scholarship. At
the same time, however, he appears to have exaggerated the intensity of Picos
commitment to Neoplatonism in the late 1480s, and in doing so to have created
problems of inconsistency if not incoherence in the early writings. While his theory
of alternation of styles is vulnerable to Bausis objections, it has the virtue of
highlighting the different genres and different intentions that characterize Picos
works.
As a contribution towards an assessment of the respective strengths of the two
interpretations, it may be helpful to compare how each contributes to the
understanding of Picos most famous work, the Oratio. Again, the views of each
scholar will first be described and then assessed. Suggestions will also be offered as
to how their divergences might be reconciled.

Continuity and Liberty: Valckes Interpretation of the Oratio


Valckes approach to the Oratio reveals a significant ambivalence. His position was
that considering both Picos letter to Barbaro and his later practice, the Oratio stood
apart. It was exceptional, even marginal. According to Valckes theory of the
alternation of styles, it should not have been a doctrinal work. He affirmed that the
fissure between philosophy and eloquence ran right through Picos output. All his
properly doctrinal treatises were written in scholastic style. Valcke followed through
the logic of his position, declaring that the Oratio was not properly doctrinal. It was
not a treatise or an essay in conceptual elaboration. It was a preamble, giving scope
for oratorical flights; it was a literary text, allowing him liberties which, as a
scholastic philosopher, he had reproved. Its literary character meant that he could
develop themes dear to him, without always having to employ the rigour and
precision which philosophical discourse would have required. He did not try to
provide justification or arguments in a strict sense. Valcke insisted that Pico was not
abandoning the separation between philosophy and rhetoric. Even though
Neoplatonic doctrine offered him the opportunity to integrate philosophy and

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eloquence, he did not take it up. In the Oratio he was aligning himself with humanist
theses, and seemingly adopting a humanist point of view.19
Nevertheless, Valcke still wanted the content of the Oratio to be accorded
recognition at a philosophical level. He wanted it to be acknowledged as something
more than a rhetorical flight. In his view, it was significant evidence of Picos
commitment to Neoplatonism. Twice, in one of his earlier writings and in his latest
on the subject, he remarked that Pico was writing as a humanist, and humanists
tended to identify rhetoric and philosophy.20 The implication seems to be that the
Oratio was philosophy by humanist standards, even if not by those of philosophers.
This would be a position not unlike the notorious doctrine of Double Truth. What
might be more to the point is Valckes reflection that Pico was a philosopher not in
the Aristotelian sense of a seeker after causes, but in the Plotinian sense of a seeker
after salvation. This was certainly the kind of philosophy that Valcke found in the
Oratio: philosophy as catharsis, an ascetical process purifying the soul and yielding
knowledge that is a means to salvation in mystical union.21
Even at this first stage of his intellectual development, Valcke believed, Picos
pursuit of knowledge was always a means, not an end in itself. His goal was spiritual
salvation. At this time he believed that philosophy was the means by which he could
attain it. It was a preparation, even if a necessary one, for holy theology. In the
Oratio, moral philosophy, dialectic, and natural philosophy were presented as the
stages of a catharsis leading to mystical union. In all these respects, he showed the
imprint of the Enneads of Plotinus on his thinking. Plotinus had taught that
philosophy was not to be pursued for its own sake, but as a means to salvation. It
was an ascetical process that purified the soul, and the knowledge to which it gave
access was a means towards mystical union. Valcke pointed out parallels in the
Oratio. For example, there was the theme of flight from the world, the idea of
mystical drunkenness, and the description of mystical absorption in God that is
nevertheless not an annihilation of the souls identity. While conceding that Pico was
drawing on recurrent themes of mystical literature, he insisted that the philosophical
basis of that literature was in Neoplatonic doctrine. He also believed that Picos
formulations were close enough to Plotinus to show that he had assimilated the
doctrine from its source, to the point where at this time he adhered to it totally and
had made it his own.22
19

Valcke and Gallibois, Le priple, p. 86; Valcke, Le retour, pp. 264, 269; Humanisme,
pp. 181, 183, 199.
20

Valcke, Raison et foi, p. 201; Valcke and Gallibois, Le priple, p. 86.

21

Valcke, Raison et foi, pp. 20203.

22

Par la prcision des reprises et des rappels de Plotin, Pic montre sufficance quil a
longuement frquent et quil a vritablement assimil la pense plotinienne, au point qu
cette poque il y adhrait totalement et lavait faite sienne: Valcke, Raison et foi, p. 204; see
also pp. 194, 20204.

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Valcke found particular significance in Picos use of the symbol of Jacobs


Ladder. It was, he believed, the central symbol of the Oratio, giving unity and
meaning to each of its developments. The intermediaries of Plotinus had not
succeeded in establishing a true continuity between the One and matter, because
each hypostasis was homogeneous in itself and ontologically distinct from any other.
Ficino, however, with his theory of primum in aliquo genere, did succeed in
describing a continuity without hiatus. Pico interpreted the allegory of Jacobs
Ladder as a faithful depiction of that continuity: of procession from, and conversion
to, the One, uniting our multiple, variable world to the immutable unity of its
Principle. It was the unifying intuition of the Oratio.23
The other theme that Valcke chose to emphasize was the traditional one of human
liberty. Under the hyperbole and the rhetorical layers the fundamental theme of the
Oratio was undoubtedly human liberty, understood as liberty to reach out towards a
salvation which is not of this world. It would constitute banalization to reduce it to
the affirmation that man is free, for better or for worse, to choose his level of moral
existence. To appreciate the significance of Picos ideas, it was only necessary to
reread the first few pages of the text about mans unique privilege. Taken literally,
the words would even suggest that Pico placed a higher value on the freedom of
choice than on the ultimate end whose attainment it allowed, an implication that he
would certainly not have intended. The wording was an example of the greater
freedom permitted in a literary work, as distinct from a philosophical treatise.
Another traditional idea that Valcke defended was that the Oratio attributes to man a
cosmic role or mission. In Picos story about the creation of man, God wanted
someone to appreciate the plan of his work, to admire its beauty, and to wonder at its
greatness. Moreover, the idea of man the microcosm, underlying the whole Oratio
and expressing mans cosmic participation, became the basis for human dignity.24
Valckes discussion of human liberty and the value Pico placed on it again brings
out the ambivalence of his position. He wanted to find substantial philosophical
content in a text which was admittedly not properly doctrinal, the work of a
philosopher who was writing as a humanist, not to be taken literally though certainly
to be taken seriously.
There is no question that Valcke has made a useful and enlightening contribution
to the process of understanding the Oratio. He has drawn attention to the very
particular regard in which Pico held Plotinus, and to ideas, themes and images that
appear to derive from his reading of the Enneads. His treatment of the idea of
philosophy as catharsis, or as a kind of asceticism, brings back into focus what is

23

Valcke and Gallibois, Le priple, pp. 9799. On Ficino, see Paul Oskar Kristeller, The
Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, trans. by V. Conant (New York: Columbia University Press,
1943, repr. Gloucester, MA: Smith, 1964), pp. 13558.
24

Valcke, Raison et foi, pp. 23135; Humanisme, p. 194.

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certainly the main theme of the central core of the work. At the same time, it could
be suggested that he has overstated his case.
His analysis of the passage about Jacobs Ladder is a good example. Valcke
declared it the central, unifying symbol of the Oratio, and he emphasized its
Neoplatonic credentials. Pico explicitly invokes the authority of Dionysius for his
interpretation of the angelic orders and their functions. Valcke, however, saw the
symbolism of the Ladder as being founded in the doctrine of Plotinus, further
modified by Ficino.25 Pico first describes the figura of a ladder with many steps
extending from the lowest earth to the highest heavens. The Lord is seated at the top,
and angels engaged in contemplation are alternately ascending and descending. Pico
has just exhorted his listeners to aspire to the angelic way of life, imitating in turn
the Thrones, the Cherubim and the Seraphim. According to Dionysius the three
ranks of angelic beings correspond to the three ways, and it is these three stages, of
purification, illumination, and perfection, in which we are to be exercised. This same
exhortation is then reiterated through a procession of figures, symbols and allegories.
The meaning is first established with the authority of Saint Paul, as interpreted by
Dionysius, then reinforced by Old Testament and gentile sources. The same threefold pattern is found in each case. In each case it yields the same message.
Jacobs Ladder is the first of the Old Testament references, and it presents an
immediate challenge to Picos ingenuity. The Ladder has many rungs. How can it
serve as a symbol for three stages? His third Old Testament symbol, the tabernacle
of Moses, is more tractable: the three stages are outside the tabernacle, inside the
Sanctuary and, finally, the inner part of the temple. Picos solution in the case of
Jacobs Ladder is to make the whole Ladder correspond to the second stage, with the
ground as the first, and above the Ladder as the third. Valcke concentrated his
attention on the Ladder and its rungs, which he saw as representing the unbroken
continuity of procession and conversion between the world and its Principle. As Pico
uses it, however, it could represent continuity only within the second stage. His
scheme reproduces the three distinct ways of the Pseudo-Dionysian Celestial
Hierarchy, and the Ladder stands for only the second of those ways. Certainly the
antecedents of the scheme were Neoplatonic, but what Pico is invoking is the
domesticated Neoplatonism of the Christian mystical tradition rather than something
drawn directly from Plotinus. At the same time, despite Valckes opinion to the
contrary, it does appear to be closer to the doctrine of Plotinus, with his ontologically
distinct hypostases, than it is to Ficinos version, where differences were not of kind
but only of degree.

25

Valcke, Le chant, pp. 49192; Valcke and Gallibois, Le priple, pp. 9799. Oratio, in
De hominis dignitate, pp. 11416; Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. by Elizabeth
Livermore Forbes, in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, ed. by Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar
Kristeller and John Herman Randall (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1948), pp. 22354
(pp. 22930).

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Another idea to which Valcke attached crucial significance was the possibility of
attaining the contemplation of God in this life. Pico was so drawn to Plotinus,
Valcke believed, because there he found a method, an intellectual and ascetical
technique for achieving this goal. The evidence is a sentence in the Oratio which
takes the form of a rhetorical question: Who would not desire [...] to become the
guest of the gods while yet living on earth, and, made drunk by the nectar of eternity,
to be endowed with the gifts of immortality though still a mortal being?.26 Valcke
interpreted these words as expressing the distinctively Plotinian promise that the
soul, purified by an intellectual asceticism, could rise from the sensible to the
intelligible and be united with its Principle.27 Again, however, this passage is only
one in the series of descriptions of the highest, theological stage, in this instance
the first of the testimonies drawn from pagan sources. After the apostle Paul and the
Old Testament references, Pico turns to the gentiles and the theology of the ancients.
First the mysteries of the Greeks are invoked to show the advantages for us and the
dignity of these liberal arts about which I have come to dispute. The degrees of
initiation into the mysteries are again made to correspond to the three stages with
their respective disciplines. The third stage affords a vision of divine things by
means of the light of theology, and this is the prospect which prompts the rhapsodic
rhetorical questions which follow. The passage does not occupy a climactic location
in the text, as one might expect if it represented a claim or promise more specific or
more significant than the other descriptions of the third stage. The imagery of pagan
mythology is employed, so there is less reason to suppose that the prospect being
held out is to be taken as a literal possibility in this life. Furthermore, there is
specific evidence against a literal interpretation. As Valcke explicitly acknowledges,
Pico flatly denies the possibility of attaining the highest state in this life in the
Commento, the text he was composing at the same time as the Oratio.28

26

The full sentence reads: Quis humana omnia posthabitens, fortunae contemnens bona,
corporis negligens, deorum convivia adhuc degens in terris fieri non cupiat, et aeternitatis
nectare madidus mortale animal immortalitatis munere donari?: Oratio, in De hominis
dignitate, p. 122; trans. by Forbes, p. 233.
27
Valcke, Le chant, pp. 494, 496, 502; see also Raison et foi, p. 194. The idea of being
drunk on the nectar of the gods occurs in Plotinus, Enneads, VI.7.35; trans. by A. Hilary
Armstrong, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann; Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1966), VII, (1988), 197. Valcke repeatedly draws a parallel with the
youthful Augustine, who also found in Neoplatonism the hope of attaining beatitude in this
life through the perfect knowledge of God: e.g., Raison et foi, p. 192.
28

Termina el suo cammino, n gli licito nel settimo, quasi sabbato del celeste amore,
muoversi pi oltre: Commento, in De hominis dignitate, p. 569. The translation given above
is from the Commentary on a Canzone of Benivieni, trans. by Sears Jayne (New York: Lang,
1984), p. 160. The conflict is acknowledged in Valcke, Il ritorno, p. 341; and Valcke and
Gallibois, Le Priple, p. 146.

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Pico argues that progress through the first two stages is achieved through an
ascetical programme consisting of philosophical disciplines. As Valcke noted,
philosophy as purification or asceticism was a central theme in the doctrine of
Plotinus. It is also a central theme, even the central theme, of the first part of the
Oratio. For all that, the resemblance is not a close one. Plotinus deals at length with
the theme in the third tractate of the first Ennead. There, however, he refers only to
dialectic, even though he does so in a wide-ranging fashion, considering its essential
role in other branches of philosophy.29 In Picos programme, moral philosophy and
dialectic are proper to the first stage, while natural philosophy belongs to the second.
In the case of Jacobs Ladder, those who would climb it must be purified by moral
philosophy and instructed in how to climb by dialectic before they may set foot on it.
Once purified and instructed, they go up and down the rungs of the Ladder, which
represents nature.
Eventually they may hope for the consummation of theological bliss, in the
bosom of the Father who is above the Ladder. Valcke believed that Picos
characterization of this highest stage, mystic union, contained echoes of Plotinus. He
spoke, in fact, of a faithful paraphrase. Again, however, the similarities are not as
close as he seems to suggest. He referred specifically to the passage already
examined, where the experience of epopteia is described as being made drunk by
the nectar of eternity. The comparison with a drunken state occurs again in the next
allegory, when Bacchus, as leader of the Muses, will make us drunk with the
abundance of the house of God. Plotinus in the sixth Ennead compares the
experience of union to being made drunk with nectar, and uses the analogy of
entering the house of a god.30 Valcke also saw a similarity between Picos
description of union, We shall now be not ourselves, but Himself who made us,
and that of Plotinus, There were not two, but the seer himself was one with the
seen.31
Similarities are there, understandably, but they are less than conclusive. One
notable difference between the two descriptions of the highest state is that whereas
for Plotinus there is not even any reason or thought, Picos highest state is
somehow identified with holy theology.32 Just as philosophical disciplines are
matched with the first two stages, theology characterizes the third, and the exercise
29

Enneads, I.3; trans. by Armstrong, I, 15761.

30

Aeternitatis nectare madidus: Oratio, in De hominis dignitate, p. 122; trans. by Forbes,


pp. 23334; Enneads, VI.7.35, trans. by Armstrong, VII, 19597.
31

[...] iam non ipsi nos, sed ille erimus ipse qui fecit nos. Oratio, in De hominis dignitate,
p. 124; trans. by Forbes, p. 234; Enneads, VI.9.11; trans. by Armstrong, VII, 341. See also,
however: It comes to Intellect and accords itself to it, and by that accord is united to it
without being destroyed, but both of them are one and also two: Enneads IV.4.2; trans. by
Armstrong, IV, 143.
32

Enneads, VI.9.11; trans. by Armstrong, VII, 34143.

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of reason continues, however rapturous the union. In the sense in which Picos
audience would have understood it, theology meant the exercise of reason on the
materials of biblical revelation.33 In the Oratio, theology is the culmination of a
series, all three members of which demand the exercise of reason. One can only
conclude that for all the ecstatic language of mystical union, what Pico is describing
is something other than the experience Plotinus strove to elucidate.
The Oratio, it must be said again, was intended to introduce a disputation to be
conducted in the style of the University of Paris. The participants would have been
professional, academic philosophers and theologians. The theses that Pico defended
in the Apologia give us some idea of the severely rational style of discussion and
argument. In one particularly interesting passage Valcke raised the question of
whether Pico should really be called a philosopher, and concluded that he was a
philosopher in the Plotinian sense rather than the Aristotelian or Thomistic sense of
one who seeks causes and explanation. For Pico, philosophy was always a means to
an end, and the end was salvation.34 Whatever may be said about his other works,
however, the Conclusiones include a great many propositions which are philosophy
in the scholastic sense, and others for which, even if their subject-matter is esoteric,
the mode of discussion is scholastic. When Pico is defending his intention to debate
so many theses, he says of the teaching of the Platonists, Now for the first time, as
far as I know, [...] it has after many centuries been brought by me to the test of
public disputation.35 Material both familiar and unfamiliar was being put into
propositional form and subjected to the ordeal of disputation. Valcke saw it as using
the weapons of scholasticism in the service of the Neoplatonic vision of the world.
As Pico describes it, however, it is more a case of Neoplatonism and the esoteric
doctrines being subjected to scholastic method and put through the scholastic sieve.
When Pico spoke of theology as the pursuit appropriate to the third and highest
stage, the word would have conveyed to his hearers an activity with which they were
professionally very familiar. The best evidence we have of how the disputation
might have proceeded is Picos defence of his propositions in the Apologia. It is not
the kind of activity associated with the attainment and enjoyment of mystical union.
On the contrary, it seems barely compatible with any kind of mysticism. To
associate scholastic theology and disputation with mystical heights was a
paradoxical proposal. Interpreting the claim solemnly misses the point and blunts its
rhetorical impact. Equally, scholastic philosophy, conducted in the manner of the
disputants of Paris, was a very different pursuit from the philosophy of salvation
33

It is difficult to see any basis for the assertion of Raspanti that, unless specified as
Christian theology, theology in the Oratio meant all inquiry de rebus divinis, including the
ancient Egyptians, Aristotle and Plato, and the Platonists (p. 186, n. 37).
34

Valcke, Raison et foi, p. 202.

35

Sub disputandi examen est in publicum allata: Oratio, in De hominis dignitate, p. 142;
trans. by Forbes, p. 244.

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taught by Plotinus. The association becomes more understandable if we are prepared


to consider that Pico might have been using the familiar Pseudo-Dionysian language
of the three ways, Neoplatonic in origin, certainly, but familiar none the less to his
hearers, to make extravagant claims for the practice of philosophy and theology.36
In itself, the Oratio does not provide persuasive evidence for a strictly
Neoplatonic interpretation. Valcke has buttressed it, however, with evidence from
other works from the same period in Picos life, notably the Conclusiones and the
Apologia. He has singled out and analysed some distinctively Neoplatonic
propositions, notably from the category identified as paradoxical conclusions in
accordance with Picos own opinion. They include propositions concerning a higher
form of knowledge, non-Aristotelian in character, and how contradictories are
resolved in intellectual nature and in the One. There are also propositions concerning
Pythagorean numerology, one of them specifically criticizing Aristotle in a way
which suggests that his doctrine was to be subordinated to Platos in Picos
reconciliation of the two.37 Furthermore, there are the propositions concerning
magic, along with Picos introduction to them in the Oratio and his defence of them
in the Apologia. In Valckes judgement, Picos ideas about magic presupposed the
cosmology of Plotinus and an Orphic vision of the universe.38 More generally,
Valcke has argued that in each of the two series of propositions making up the
Conclusiones, the strategic placement of the Neoplatonic propositions was of great
significance. In both series, those according to the opinion of others and those
according to his own opinion, they were placed to serve as the bridge or interface
between conventional and esoteric philosophy. Each of the series was arranged so as
to constitute an ordered progression, a scheme that was itself Neoplatonic in
inspiration. The progression began with traditional and familiar sources and themes,
then ascended through Arab philosophers and Greek Aristotelians to Neoplatonists.
They were the gateway to the esoteric doctrines of Pythagoreanism, Orphism,
Zoroastrianism, Hermetism and magic, culminating in Kabbalah. Each series
reproduced the ascent of the soul, according to the doctrine of Plotinus, to union with
the Principle, losing itself in ecstasy beyond comprehension. In this progressive
36

It must be acknowledged that Pico repeated these ideas in a very different (though still
hortatory) context in his commentary on Psalm 17. There, the three ways are enumerated,
and the moral fruits of philosophy are emphasized, including those of natural philosophy,
while theology impels and exhorts us ut integram retineamus humanam dignitatem. See
Garin, La cultura filosofica del Rinascimento italiano (Florence: Sansoni, 1961), p. 248. Garin
saw it as another case where Pico reused material from the unpublished Oratio. See also
Roulier, p. 446 and n. 83; Raspanti, pp. 24445.
37
Conclusiones nongentae: Le novocento Tesi dellanno 1486, ed. by Albano Biondi
(Florence: Olschki, 1995), pp. 78, 80, 106; Valcke, Numrologie et mathematiques, pp. 45
49; Raison et foi, p. 206; Le chant, pp. 49395; Il ritorno, pp. 32935.
38

Valcke, Magie et miracle, pp. 15758; Raison et foi, pp. 21011; Il ritorno, pp.
33537.

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intellectual asceticism, Neoplatonic doctrines occupied the key position between


natural human knowledge and hidden teachings.39
Again, however, the interpretation is questionable. We do not know whether the
esoteric propositions, or how many of them, were part of the original scheme. Picos
letter to Benivieni mentions that there had been seven hundred propositions before
his friends visit. The letters of the previous months are brimming with enthusiasm
for esoteric languages and knowledge.40 The impression from the letters is that these
sources were at the forefront of his mind towards the end of 1486, and were most
likely to have provided the additional theses. If this was the case, the plan of the two
series of theses, those in accordance with the opinions of others and those in
accordance with his own opinion, must have changed as further groups of theses
were added. In the earlier version of the Oratio, he asserts the need to go back to the
Hebrew, Chaldaic and Arabic sources from which the Latins derived their
knowledge. When he lists the distinctive attributes of individual philosophers and
schools, however, he mentions only scholastics, the Arabs, the Greek Aristotelians,
and the Platonists.41 It seems quite possible that the two series of theses were
arranged so that they began from the more familiar and proceeded to the less
familiar, without any suggestion that they represented the Neoplatonic ascetical
progression. Furthermore, there is no evident correlation between the arrangement of
the series and the three-stage scheme of the Oratio. The theological propositions are
the fourth group, while the magical conclusions, which Pico insists are part of
natural philosophy, are the ninth of the eleven groups. Valckes theory is interesting
but not conclusive.
A more general issue that must be confronted is the status of these topics for
disputation. Valcke mentioned the hypothetical character of several of the theses.42
For him it could have been a symptom of possible conflicts between philosophy and
Christian doctrine. Some, certainly, are quite explicitly hypothetical, including
several of those to which the commission objected. In a broader sense, however, they
were all provisional, precisely because they were propositions for debate. In the
Apologia, Pico appeals to the conventions followed at such occasions. Cryptic
propositions, he protests, are customary in disputations. Setting up topics for debate
is not the same thing as composing a treatise. The propositions are brief, ambiguous
and bristling with difficulties. The ambiguities will be distinguished and the
difficulties explained and resolved in the course of the exercise. As he says in the
Oratio when introducing his Platonic theses, the doctrine is being brought to the test
39

Valcke, Raison et foi, pp. 20408, 20814; Valcke and Gallibois, Le priple, pp. 71

73.
40
See the letters to Ficino, 8 September, to Andrea Corneo, 15 October, and to an
unknown friend, 10 November, in Opera omnia, pp. 36768, 378, 385.
41

Garin, La cultura filosofica, pp. 23839.

42

Valcke, Raison et foi, p. 197.

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of public disputation.43 In this sense, all the theses had a provisional character,
pending the outcome of the debate. Before attributing particular views to disputants,
we need to keep in mind that public disputations were performances with
conventions of their own.
Valckes remark about the hypothetical character of some of the theses followed
his consideration of what was to become the Commento. Without retracing the
complex editorial history of this work,44 it should be remembered that at the time
when he was compiling his topics for disputation and composing the Oratio, Pico
was also writing the components of what was, in effect, an incisive critique of
Marsilio Ficinos interpretation of Platonic doctrine and of his philosophical method.
In an early article, Valcke discussed the Commento briefly under the heading
Respect for the Integrity of Doctrines. He insisted that it was not a critique of
Neoplatonism as such. It showed that Pico clearly distinguished philosophical and
theological orders, and that he rejected Ficinos glossing over the doctrinal
incompatibilities between Neoplatonism and Christian doctrine.45 His complaint was
not that Ficino expounded Neoplatonic doctrine, but that he was insufficiently
rigorous in doing so. In his more recent articles Valcke allowed that the Commento
showed the beginnings of that critique of Neoplatonic doctrine which was to
culminate in the De ente. In this latter work Pico argued, contrary to the Neoplatonic
position, that Plato had not espoused the priority of the One over being in the
Parmenides. It marked his return to Aristotle. In the Commento he had taken a more
Aristotelian position on the way beauty is perceived, and, as noted earlier, he denied
that the human soul can attain the contemplation of God in this life. Instead of
drawing a veil over the differences between Neoplatonism and Christianity, as
Ficino had done, Pico pointed out that on several essential questions the authentic
Plotinian tradition was incompatible with Christianity.46 For one as committed to
Christian religion as Pico was, a commitment on which Valcke has insisted, such
incompatibilities must have imposed severe limitations on his adherence to
Neoplatonism.
The Commento is, therefore, a major stumbling block for Valckes interpretation.
In the paper he delivered at Mirandola he did little more than restate the problem.
Feverish exaltation supposedly masked Picos profound reservations and recurrent
43

Apologia, in Opera omnia, p. 148; Oratio, in De hominis dignitate, p. 143; trans. by


Forbes, p. 244.
44
See the introduction by Sears Jayne to his English translation of the Commento, pp.
220.
45
Valcke, Raison et foi, pp. 19697, 199. Also: Cest quen effet aucun texte de Pic
antrieur au De ente ne contient de critique a lgard de la doctrine de Plotin ou de
noplatonisme en general, bien au contraire (p. 223).
46

Valcke and Gallibois, Le priple, pp. 14748; Valcke, Il ritorno, p. 340 and Le chant,
p. 497. See also Jayne, Introduction, pp. 30, 31, 39.

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doubts, yet it was in a mood of profound mistrust towards philosophical thought in


general and Neoplatonism in particular that he wrote his Commento. But the other
Pico, the Pico of the Oratio, of the Florentine Academy, not yet distanced from
Ficino, had hoped that the doctrine of Plotinus could bring about reconciliation
between philosophy and theology, between revelation and reason.47 How did the two
Picos coexist? How would he have been able to clear his mind and assume another
outlook whenever he turned from one project to the other? Valcke even toyed
repeatedly with the idea that Pico might have made use of the doctrine of Double
Truth.48 The problem remains, nevertheless, that at the height of his supposed
Neoplatonic fervour, he demonstrated a clear-headed awareness of the radical
incompatibilities between Neoplatonism and Christianity. However much he may
have admired Plotinus, he could not have been a committed disciple. There is
enough evidence to call into question Valckes repeated assertion that at this stage of
his intellectual development he was a committed adherent of the philosophy of
Plotinus.49
If, on the other hand, the Oratio is not as distinctively Plotinian as Valcke argued,
the problems diminish. If in fact its Neoplatonism belongs rather to that
domesticated, assimilated variety from which Valcke wanted to set it apart,50 then it
need no longer be seen as such an anomaly. It would no longer be necessary to
regard it as exceptional or marginal. The impulse to classify it as in some sense a
doctrinal treatise would abate, and the separation between philosophy and eloquence
that Pico had proclaimed would not be infringed. The theory of alternation of styles
could come into play quite naturally. The themes of the Oratio, especially
philosophy as asceticism, would still be indebted to the Neoplatonic, and Platonic,
tradition, but their presence would be for rhetorical impact rather than as a literal,
programmatic statement.
The other substantial doctrine that Valcke found in the Oratio was the one
traditionally seen in its opening pages. Its fundamental theme, he believed, was
human liberty. In this respect he did accept what I have characterized as the myths
and stereotypes which have dominated so much scholarship about Pico. Valcke
readily agreed that Pico had no intention of working out a metaphysic of liberty, and
that any Promethean interpretation would be groundless. At the same time, he
ridiculed the idea that the celebration of the range of human possibilities was simply
the basis for a moral exhortation, where Pico exalted human liberty only to urge his
listeners to strive for the heights. For Pico, he asserted, it was liberty that set
47

Valcke, Il ritorno, pp. 341, 346.

48

Valcke, Raison et foi, pp. 19697; Le chant, p. 497 ; Il ritorno, p. 344; Valcke and
Gallibois, Le priple, p. 148. The idea was originally suggested by Eugenio Garin in his
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: Vita e dottrina (Florence: Le Monnier, 1937), p. 28.
49

Valcke, Raison et foi, p. 204.

50

Valcke, Raison et foi, p. 198.

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humankind in the centre of the cosmic ladder. For confirmation, it was enough to reread the opening pages of the Oratio.51
The lines about mans ability to rise or to fall in his level of existence according
to his free choice are, in fact, one of the places where Pico may have been echoing
Plotinus. In the third Ennead Plotinus explained why we must strive for the heights:
In man, however, the inferior parts are not dominant but they are also present; and in
fact the better part does not always dominate; the other parts exist and have a certain
place. [...] Therefore one must escape to the upper world, that we may not sink to the
level of sense-perception by pursuing the images of sense, or to the level of the
growth-principle by following the urge for generation and the gluttonous love of good
eating, but may rise to the intelligible and intellect and God. Those, then, who
guarded the man in them, become men again. Those who lived by sense alone become
animals [...]. But if they did not even live by sense along with their desires but coupled
them with dullness of perception, they even turn into plants; for it was this, the
growth-principle which worked in them, alone or predominantly, and they were taking
care to turn themselves into trees. [] Who, then, becomes a spirit? He who was one
here too. And who a god? Certainly he who was one here.52

It would be difficult to establish direct dependence, however, because the idea,


already a commonplace in antiquity, had been taken up by so many Fathers of the
Church and transmitted through them to the Middle Ages.53
While agreeing that there is no basis for the more extravagantly Promethean
readings of the Oratio, Valcke sought to retain a cosmic function for man in Picos
thought. He drew attention to the reason given for the creation of Adam in Picos
story: that the Creator wanted someone to ponder the plan of so great a work, to
love its beauty, to wonder at its vastness. It was, as Valcke remarks, a cosmic role in
complete accord with Christian and biblical doctrine.54 It is also the role of a
contemplative observer, at the opposite pole to Eugenio Garins lord of the world of
forms with power to hurl everything into the darkness of chaos or to transform and
remake it.55 Another, more active role for man was in the exercise of magic, though
Valcke was careful to point out that it was as minister of nature, not creator.56
He also perceived an essential cosmic function for man as microcosm in the
Heptaplus, and went so far as to say that the concept of the microcosm, although a
commonplace, underlay the whole Oratio, where it expressed mans cosmic
51

Valcke, Raison et foi, pp. 23133.

52

Enneads, III.4.2; trans. by Armstrong,


have gone unremarked by Valcke.
53

III,

14547. This particular resemblance seems to

See Henri de Lubac, Pic de la Mirandole (Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1974), pp. 184204.

54

Oratio, in De hominis dignitate, p. 104; trans. by Forbes, p. 225; Valcke, Raison et foi,
p. 235.
55

Garin, Medioevo e Rinascimento, 2nd edn (Bari: Laterza, 1961), pp. 100, 156.

56

Valcke, Raison et foi, p. 236.

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participation, becoming the foundation of the dignitas hominis.57 This is a puzzling


statement. The idea of man the microcosm is integral to the scheme of the
Heptaplus, but Pico explicitly sets it aside at the beginning of the Oratio as
insufficient for his purpose. One of the reasons traditionally given for the preeminence of human nature that he mentions specifically is that man is the bond tying
the world together. This idea could be taken as equivalent to the microcosm. Pico
says about it, and about others he mentions, that it is a weighty reason, but not the
principal one.58 There is a significant tension between the idea of man free to choose
his own nature and man whose nature collects and unites all the natures of the world.
In the one case, man can become all natures; in the other, he is all natures. They are
two different perspectives on human nature: a dynamic or diachronic view of man
who is potentially all, and a static or synchronic view of man who is actually all.59
That man is a microcosm is certainly not the reason why he is a great miracle in the
Oratio, even though that is precisely what it is in the Heptaplus. The difference
reflects the contrasting themes and purposes of the two works. In the Heptaplus Pico
uses the commonplace idea about man the microcosm so that what Moses said about
man could be applied to the universe, and what he said about the universe would
apply to man. In the Oratio he wants to dramatize the disparate possibilities open to
man depending on his choices. In no sense is the microcosm the foundation of the
dignitas hominis in the Oratio, nor even, more accurately, the reason why man is
dignum admirationis, worthy of wonder.

Indeterminacy and Concord: Bausi on Ideas and Language in the


Oratio
In Valckes view, there was a dramatic shift between the two early letters and the
Oratio. Bausi, instead, found continuity. His scrutiny of the style of the three
documents revealed that they were closely related. All three were characterized by
an ornate style, a Silver Age Latinity with a particular affinity with Apuleius, a
profusion of rhetorical figures, words and expressions from poetic usage and literary
citations and allusions. The Oratio displayed these same attributes of Picos first

57

Valcke, Humanisme, p. 194; Heptaplus, in De hominis dignitate, p. 192.

58

Oratio, in De hominis dignitate, p. 102. He invokes the idea of the microcosm later in
the Oratio (p. 124) to validate his eccentric interpretation of Know thyself as an exhortation
to investigate nature.
59

Di Napoli noted the contrast: Nella Oratio la peculiare grandezza delluomo vista
nella sua libert, mentre nello Heptaplus essa vista nella struttura delluomo come sintesi
riassuntrice di tutti i momenti o stadi del creato (p. 375). See also De Lubac, who was
convinced that Pico achieved a synthesis of the two, though how it was done remained unclear
(p. 89).

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style as the letters, the only difference being that they were further accentuated. This
stylistic continuity was reinforced by Bausis interpretation of the two letters. Picos
own highly elaborate rhetorical style showed that he was not rejecting eloquence
outright, while no disparagement of poetry was implied in his praise of Lorenzos
ability to combine it with public life.60 It was not necessary, therefore, to propose a
hypothetical conversion.
From an examination of the earlier version of the Oratio discovered by Garin,
Bausi proposed three phases of composition, involving prolonged editorial labour.
The third phase included the addition of the whole second part, in which Pico
defended his project of a public disputation against his critics. Bausi suggested that it
was added when criticisms were voiced following the publication of the nine
hundred Conclusiones in December 1486. He emphasized the contrast between the
two parts of the final document, including stylistic changes. The second part would
have been composed in a fairly short time, probably in the month between
publication of the Conclusiones and the time when the Oratio might have been
delivered. A sign of haste was the re-use of a page already composed for the
Commento. The addition of the second part would have altered the literary coherence
of the earlier text, with its tight organization and careful structure. Bausi drew
attention to the articulation of the text, built on the number three, a number rich in
symbolism.61
While the stylistic elegance of the Oratio had always been emphasized by
scholars, it had led some to underestimate the philosophical value of the work. They
saw it as a purely, or at least predominantly, literary, humanistic piece. It belonged to
the genre of introductory discourses or academic prolusions, allowing Pico to
present a less closely technical and more brilliantly poetic exposition of his thought.
There were two key ideas in the Oratio: the indeterminacy of man, which was the
basis of his uniqueness and privileged position within creation, and the concord of
philosophies, or, better, the capacity of each one to reveal a different aspect of truth,
contributing to more perfect knowledge. Bausi accepted these ideas from the existing
literature without further demonstration or justification, although he added that the
second, the concord of philosophies, was more strongly stated in the earlier version
of the text.62 He then went on to develop what can only be described as a very
60

Bausi, Nec rhetor, pp. 15657. Valcke had found an implication that poetry was merely
a diversion, and that the poet was not to be taken seriously: Humanisme, pp. 17980 and n.
57. But Bausi disagreed (p. 69, n. 88, p. 81).
61

Bausi, Nec rhetor, pp. 11316. The concluding section of the Commento is repeated in
the Oratio, in De hominis dignitate, pp. 156, 58081; Commento, trans. by Jayne, pp. 16970.
62

Nec rhetor, pp 15556, 15859. Bausi quoted Di Napoli (p. 400) on the indeterminatio
of man; and for the concord of philosophies, see Garin, Le interpretazioni del pensiero di
Giovanni Pico, in Lopera e il pensiero di Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Florence: Istituto
Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento, 1965), I, 18. The idea was reiterated by Jeder Jacobelli,
Pico della Mirandola, 3rd edn (Milan: Longanesi, 1986), ch. 13, Alla ricerca della

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elegant theory about the correspondence between the two ideas and the language in
which Pico proclaimed them. As has been noted, Bausi showed that the language of
the Oratio shared its composite character with the two letters, including rare Silver
Age words and poetic expressions. To these were now added a larger admixture of
late, Christian and medieval components. The result was an extremely variegated
language, a confluence of archaisms from Plautus and Christian medieval terms,
poetic allusions and philosophical technicalities, Apuleian hapax and neologisms.
This language, and the whole complex literary texture of the document, matched
and mirrored the ideas Pico was presenting. Just as the language and expression of
the letter to Barbaro communicated a message of its own, so here Picos language
was chameleon-like and protean, in continuous transformation. The same adjectives
which Pico used about the nature of man could be applied to the language in which
he characterized it: indiscreta, desultoria, versipellis, se ipsum transformans; varied,
manifold and inconstant, with no inborn image of its own but many assumed from
outside itself. Furthermore, this language also reflected, embodied and represented
the idea of the concord of philosophies and religions, cooperating in the quest for
Truth. In pursuing that quest Pico invoked the most diverse authorities: Chaldeans
and Greeks, Pythagorean and patristic sources, the prophets and Mohammed,
Delphic sayings and medieval philosophers. The language mirrored this very
diversity. Moreover, just as the concord of differing points of view consisted not in
reducing them to a common denominator, but in a reciprocal integration, each
retaining its own character like the pieces in a mosaic, so the language of the Oratio
did not aspire to a fluid uniformity but flaunted its composite character.63
Bausi also found particular significance in the concepts of participation and
analogy. Di Napoli had invoked them in explaining how Pico could marshal such an
array of authorities. It was not simply a rhetorical association. Participation and
analogy made it possible to express a concept under diverse figures and in diverse
terms. On this point there was a convergence, noted by Bausi himself, with Valckes
approach. The Heptaplus was to be the work most clearly inspired by the principles
of analogy and participation, with man the microcosm as its pivotal idea. The work
itself was also a microcosm, whose structure reflected that of creation. Bausi then
concordia, esp. pp. 12832; and by Jacques Queron, Pic de la Mirandole (Aix-en-Provence:
Universit de Provence, 1986), pp. 4, 50, 10708. It was mentioned repeatedly at the
Mirandola Convegno in 1994. See, for example: the introductory address by Ezio Raimondi
(pp. xxxi, xxxiii); the papers by August Buck (pp. 1012) Charles Trinkaus (pp. 106, 116),
and Gian Carlo Garfagnini (p. 247); and the Conclusioni by Cesare Vasoli (pp. 650, 658, 663,
672). Fernand Roulier attempted to find a textual basis for the idea of the concord of all
doctrines in his Jean Pic de la Mirandole, pp. 9899. He claimed over a hundred instances of
accorde. In contrast, the limited nature and extent of Picos comparisons was emphasized in
W. G. Craven, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: Symbol of His Age (Geneva: Droz, 1981), pp.
94107; and noted by Raspanti, p. 193.
63

Bausi, Nec rhetor, pp. 15961; n. 64 explores the parallel with Apuleius.

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transferred this idea back to the Oratio. As in the Heptaplus, there was
correspondence between form and content. The language and style, and the
fundamentally ternary conformation, corresponded to Picos conception of the
world, of man and of knowledge. The work of the philosopher was of the same
nature as the work of God, not by literary contrivance but by virtue of the analogical
link between all the levels of the universe.64
Bausis theory is very appealing. He shows an impressive ability to draw themes
together and connect them in satisfying patterns. He links his stylistic studies of the
letters and the Oratio with ideas which have long been held to be the Oratios
significant content, as well as finding close analogies between it and the Heptaplus.
The whole pattern constitutes an impressive synthesis. It is unfortunate, however,
that the scholarly tradition set up for him ideas which were so invitingly congruent
with the characteristics he found in the language and style. In reality, neither the
indeterminacy of man nor the concord of philosophies is incontestably central to the
Oratio, and the apparent congruence may well be an illusion. On the other hand, the
ternary configuration, on which Bausi touched only in passing, dominates that
section of the Oratio that he identifies as the original text. The subject-matter of the
repeated triadic figures is barely mentioned in his account. He considered it
sufficient to quote Di Napoli, passing on without further comment to the next topic.65
The result is a serious dislocation of what is central to the Oratio.
Di Napoli, in the passage quoted, recapitulated the three ascetical stages of
Pseudo-Dionysius. He related them first to the passage about peace, then to the
tabernacle of Moses and the Delphic oracles. He identified the triadic pattern, and
the ascetical programme of philosophical disciplines and theology that constitutes its
substance. The passage quoted gave no idea, however, of the rhetorical impact of the
insistent repetition of that pattern, ten times in all, with its corresponding
variations.66 The series begins by establishing the three stages with the authority of
Saint Paul, as interpreted by Pseudo-Dionysius. The same three stages are then
discovered in, or extracted from, three Old Testament figures (Jacobs Ladder, Job as
interpreted by Empedocles, and the tabernacle of Moses), and four examples from
the theology of the ancients (the Greek Mysteries, Delphic precepts, Pythagoras and
Zoroaster). The stages are then recapitulated in the personages of the archangels
Raphael, Gabriel and Michael. This triad is the structural message of the Oratio,
and it is exactly congruent with the verbal message. Moral philosophy and dialectic,
natural philosophy and finally theology are disciplines corresponding to the three
stages of this ascent to the heights. The range of possibilities open to man, his
indeterminacy, occupies only the opening pages. Its function is to launch the

64

Bausi, Nec rhetor, pp. 16163, and p. 158, n. 61; Valcke, Le retour, pp. 26768.

65

Bausi, Nec rhetor, pp. 11516; Di Napoli, p. 406.

66

Oratio, in De hominis dignitate, pp. 11030; trans. by Forbes, pp. 22737.

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rhetorical celebration of the programme by which man can achieve the highest of
those possibilities.
The idea of the concord of philosophies is another traditional one that appears to
rest on a misunderstanding. In the second part of the Oratio, Pico defends his
proposing so many topics for disputation. He affirms that he has resolved to pledge
his allegiance to the doctrines of no man, but instead to range through all the masters
of philosophy, to investigate all writings, to come to know every school. He does not
claim that all of them are true, even in part. He does make the far more modest and
quite plausible claim that there is in each school something distinctive that is not
common to the others. He then goes through the litany of philosophers names and
their distinctive attributes. He asserts that if any school attacks truer doctrines, it will
serve only to strengthen truth. In other words, he is allowing for the possibility that
not all will make a direct, positive contribution. His intention in bringing forward
every sort of doctrine is to ensure that through the comparison of several sects and
the discussion of many philosophies, the light of truth may dawn more brightly in
our minds like the sun rising from the deep.67 What he is proposing is a bringingtogether and discussion, in the context of the public disputation. There is no theory
of universal truth, nor even a programme for universal reconciliation. His emphasis
is on the characteristics that are distinctive to each, not on what they might have in
common. The only doctrines between which he promises to show concord are those
of Plato and Aristotle, Thomas and Scotus, and Averroes and Avicenna. This
promise was, one might think, a challenging enough task as it was.
Bausi recognized analogy and participation as key concepts, especially the
analogy between multiform human nature and the composite and multiple character
of knowledge. It may be that he regarded the long series of parallels as a
demonstration of that composite and multiple character, concordant by virtue of
analogy and participation. It must be emphasized, however, that the series of
authorities is used not to show some kind of concord of philosophies but to extract
what was, precisely, a common denominator: three stages corresponding to
purification, illumination and union. This is the hidden doctrine in which all his
authorities agree. The common triadic pattern is then used to celebrate not a concord
of philosophies or a mosaic of contributions to truth, but a programme of
philosophical studies, culminating in theology.
Picos extravagant encomium of philosophy and theology makes better sense
when it is seen in terms of the occasion for which the Oratio was written. It belongs,
as Bausi acknowledged, to the genre of academic prolusions, speeches delivered at
the beginning of an academic year or to introduce a particular course. He did not,
however, regard the genre and the occasion as a sufficient explanation for the style

67

Hac complurimum sectarum collatione ac multifariae discussione philosophiae: Oratio,


in De hominis dignitate, p. 142; trans. by Forbes, p. 244.

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Pico adopted.68 As an explanation, it would be scarcely distinguishable from


Valckes alternation of styles, with the undesirable consequences of that theory
which Bausi had already identified. What he objected to in the theory was that it was
too mechanical and too synchronic. Certainly, the word alternation would suggest
that Pico had two styles, or two sets of styles, whereas Bausi has shown that his
stylistic registers were both more complex and more varied. Nevertheless, the idea
that Pico matched his style to each particular genre and work would not necessarily
lead to a synchronic account. His style would have evolved along with his interests,
as the kinds of subject-matter and the genres which he employed required a more
restrained, more technical or more severe style.
The genre and the occasion do help to explain much that would otherwise remain
puzzling. Prolusions generally consisted of two parts, the first general and the second
referring particularly to the course that was to follow.69 If the Oratio follows this
pattern, it helps to explain not only the differences between the two parts but also the
linkage between them. More importantly, it was customary in introductory speeches
for the speaker to praise the discipline that was about to be exercised. It would not be
surprising, then, that the first part of the Oratio should be devoted to exalting the
disciplines of philosophy and theology, the disciplines Pico was about to exercise in
his disputation.
Recognizing that the main theme of the Oratio is the praise of philosophy also
makes it possible to locate it in another perspective. Bausi convincingly delineated a
first phase or period of Picos intellectual development, during which he devoted
himself both to philosophy and to humanistic and literary pursuits. Philosopher and
humanist, rhetor and poet coexisted in him. Bausi saw the two allegiances as
alternating in a sometimes surprising and, so to speak, schizophrenic fashion.70 It
was not a comfortable situation, and Pico expressed his unease in an undated letter to
Poliziano. It was from this letter that Bausi took the title of his study, Nec rhetor
neque philosophus. In the letter Pico complains that neither poets nor philosophers
accept him as one of themselves. He refers to Polizianos artifice of excusing himself
as a Latinist among Greek scholars and as a student of Greek among Latinists. Pico
says that he attempts a similar manoeuvre, but whereas Poliziano succeeds in
carrying it off, Pico does not.
I employ a similar subterfuge, using my reputation for philosophizing to excuse myself
among poets and rhetoricians, and among philosophers, the fact that I indulge in
rhetoric and cultivate the Muses. The result, however, is far different in my case.

68

Bausi, Nec rhetor, p. 156.

69

Kristeller in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, p. 217.

70

Bausi, Nec rhetor, p. 91.

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While, as they say, I am trying to sit on two stools at once, I miss both of them, and so
it is that I am neither poet nor orator, nor yet a philosopher.71

In this letter Pico expresses the frustration he feels as a consequence of trying to


keep a foot in both camps. According to Bausi, the letters to Lorenzo and Barbaro
and the Oratio all belonged to this first phase of Picos cultural development, and the
tension was not resolved until the end of the 1480s, after the Roman incident.
There is an alternative hypothesis, however. Garin proposed 1483 as the date of
the letter to Poliziano.72 On the supposition that Pico resolved his dilemma shortly
afterwards by making a definite choice, the letters and the Oratio can be read as
announcing that choice. They are testimony to his chosen identity as a philosopher.
Bausi has convincingly shown that the distinction between matter and form,
substance and style, is pivotal to Picos first two letters. Ambiguous as they are, both
of them raise this issue. Once the distinction was made, however, and a choice
between the two was required, substance had to take priority: Dante over Petrarch,
Scotus over Lucretius. In an aside in the letter to Lorenzo, Pico is careful to make his
own position clear. He reads Lorenzos verses not so much for pleasure as for the
philosophy they contain. He goes to some lengths to show how much philosophy he
had found in them.73 Whereas his letters of 1482 and 1483 had contained a number
of references to verses of his own and to common literary interests, the references in
his later letters are quite dismissive. In a letter to Filippo Beroaldo, apparently
written in 1485, he is offhanded about his verses. Beroaldo had referred to him as
humanitatis professor. He should bear in mind, however, as he reads the verses,
that they are the products of Picos few lighter moments. The philosophers are his
primary concern. May I make as much progress with them, Pico says rather primly,
as you among the orators and poets.74 Pico did not abandon poetry, any more than
he abandoned rhetoric, but his priorities were now clearly established and firmly
stated. Whatever he did in his moments of leisure, he was a philosopher first of all.
On his way to Rome in 1486, Pico wrote to Andrea Corneo. It appears that
Corneo had issued what amounted to a literary challenge, analogous to the one
Barbaro had issued the previous year. This time the challenge was not about style
and substance in philosophy but about the subsidiary theme of the letter to Lorenzo:
71

Opera omnia, p. 364.

72

Garin, La cultura filosofica, p. 258.

73

Non tam ad delectationem quam ad doctrinam: Opera omnia, p. 350; ed. by Bausi, p.
30 and n. 50.
74

Tu haec ita leges, ut memineris in humanioribus his studiis me tumultuaria cura, et


subcisivis esse temporibus, ut qui philosophis operam primariam, et ut ita dicar, seriosas
addiderim lucernas. Apud quos ut id profecerim quod tu apud rhetores et poetas: Opera
omnia, p. 447. For the date, see Garin, La cultura filosofica, p. 260. Beroaldos letter to Pico,
Opera omnia, pp. 36163.

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the active and contemplative life. Corneo had exhorted him to leave his chosen
seclusion and his life of study to play an active part in public life as counsellor to
one of Italys great princes. He must have expected to provoke a defence of the
contemplative life, and he did so. Pico rejects the suggestion indignantly. He extols
the dedicated and disinterested pursuit of wisdom, the self-sufficiency of the
philosopher and the values that underpin the philosophers way of life.75 He takes the
opportunity to portray himself as a philosopher in terms recognized in antiquity:
withdrawal from ordinary life, independence of the demands and the accepted
standards of civil society, dedication to the pursuit of wisdom without thought for
mere utility, reward or recognition. This letter has much in common with the lament
over the state of contemporary philosophy that Pico inserted in the Oratio at about
the same time. There he decries the low esteem in which philosophy is held and the
mercenary motives of those who claim the title of philosophers. He contrasts their
self-interest with his own disinterestedness and dedication, and his refusal to be
deterred by the slurs of those who are personally ill-disposed towards him or who are
enemies of wisdom.76
These letters provide an illuminating perspective on the Oratio. For three years he
had been working to establish his identity as a philosopher. Abandoning his
frustrating attempt to be both a humanist and a philosopher, he chose to be known as
a philosopher, and set about making his preference known. The proposed public
disputation in Rome, with participants from the universities of Italy, would be the
culmination. It would establish that he was to be taken seriously as a philosopher. By
convention, the first part of the prolusion that was to introduce his disputation
provided an opportunity to extol his chosen discipline. He took the opportunity with
enthusiasm, setting out to persuade his listeners that it was through philosophy that
human beings could attain the dizzying heights of which they were capable. It would
lead them through the stages of purification and illumination to the ultimate
contemplative union in theological bliss. He revived the idea of philosophy as an
asceticism, an idea proposed by Plotinus and by Plato before him, and applied it to
the kind of philosophy he was about to debate.
Valcke believed that in the Conclusiones Pico used the resources of scholasticism
in the service of an essentially poetic, Orphic vision. What is clearer is that in the
Oratio he used the resources provided by his humanistic education in the service of
the rival educational programme, philosophy. In the letter to Barbaro, one of his
more outrageous tricks had been to appropriate an incident recounted by Aulus
Gellius and turn it from criticism of philosophers into praise for them at the expense
of grammarians. Now he is asserting that philosophy, conducted according to the
methods of the scholastics, could lead men to the highest destiny of which they were
capable. Since Petrarch, humanists had been complaining, as did the grammarian in
75

Opera omnia, pp. 37679.

76

Oratio, in De hominis dignitate, pp. 13032; trans. by Forbes, pp. 23738.

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Noctes Atticae, that academic philosophy was remote from human, moral concerns,
wasting time on obscure questions and futile intellectual exercises, while humanistic
studies dealt with human, moral concerns. Now Pico was reasserting the claim of
philosophy to guide men to their highest goal. Moral philosophy and dialectic
purified them, natural philosophy illuminated them, and theology brought them to
perfection and mystical union with God.
As has been suggested earlier in this paper, these exalted claims need to be put in
perspective. Inaugural orations were occasions for grandiloquence and exaggeration.
The kind of philosophy encapsulated in many of Picos topics for disputation was
known neither as uplifting nor as pacifying. Its irrelevance to human interests and
concerns is exemplified in several of Picos condemned theses discussed in the
Apologia. Its capacity to arouse enmity rather than to pacify was demonstrated by
the hostile reactions his theses aroused. The whole method of disputation was
adversarial. Picos assertions in the Oratio were, if not outrageous, then at least
paradoxical.

Complementary Approaches?
The researches of Valcke and Bausi have, in different ways, contributed significantly
to the understanding of Picos writings. Each body of work deserves careful
consideration in its own right. Furthermore, their approaches can be seen as
complementary. Even if, as I have argued, Pico did not embrace Plotinian
Neoplatonism with the commitment Valcke attributed to him, and even if the Oratio
is not a radically Neoplatonic manifesto, there remain issues concerning the
paradoxical, mathematical and magical Conclusiones to which Valcke has rightly
drawn attention. He has brought to light a whole series of fault lines and shifts in
Picos philosophical development. As a result of his work, it will be less defensible
than ever to present Picos thought schematically or synchronically. Within the early
years, encompassing what Valcke saw as the period of his Neoplatonic fervour, there
are bewildering crosscurrents. There is his ambivalent, even paradoxical stance with
regard to humanistic rhetoric; there are propositions for debate that seem to
presuppose the metaphysics of Plotinus, despite the contemporaneous warnings in
the Commento about the incompatibility between Greek philosophy and Christian
doctrine. By Valckes account, Picos early development was riven by
inconsistencies, conversions and alternation of styles. Even if his diagnosis of
extreme Neoplatonism was an exaggeration, the inconsistencies demand some
explanation.
It is at this point that Bausis approach may prove particularly helpful. His
sensitivity to the pitch and tone of particular texts, based on meticulous analysis of
their style and textual allusions, reminds scholars that it is no easy matter to discern
the focus or the level of an authors commitment, or the point of a literary or
philosophical performance. Bausi demonstrates how essential it is to remain

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constantly alert to the conventions of different genres, conventions on which a writer


may very well play. He reconstructs, with the delicacy of a textual archaeologist, the
complex tissue of cultural assumptions that Pico shared with his readers. One
consequence of his analysis has been the revelation of Picos playfulness in the early
letters, a playfulness that extends, I believe, through the first part of the Oratio. In
analogous ways, scholars need to deepen their awareness of the kinds of easily
missed assumptions and undercurrents in the later works. Each of Picos disparate
works needs to be subjected to its own distinctive kind of stylistic analysis. Only on
this basis can investigations of the substance of these works proceed with any
security. In this endeavour, the complementary approaches of Valcke and Bausi have
much to offer. Both deserve the tribute of an attentive and critical reading.

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