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THE INFLUENCE OF NEOPLATONIC THOUGHT ON FREEMASONRY - Pico della Mirandola and his “Oratio de Hominis Dignitate”
MW Bro Fabio Venzi, Grand Master of Italy INTRODUCTION The diversity of opinions that have been expressed during the last hundred years or so, regarding Freemasonry, and its historical significance, is so vast that in facing it, we are likely to be overwhelmed by confusion. Now, a few of these opinions are quite arbitrary, with reference to the subject matter, and merely reflect the ideas and values of their authors. This will be the umpteenth interpretation of the origins of Masonic thought. I hope, that this work doesn't have the forementioned defects, and that, it will instead provide a better understanding and interpretation, of the "Masonic Universe". This work takes its starting point from the belief that Freemasonry is: “a system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols", thus a real ethical code of behaviour, and that, considering the importance of Ethics, and in particular Renaissance Ethics, may help us not only to understand the origins of the particular system of morality resulting in Masonic ethics, but will also help us, to understand other facets of Masonic thought which support its ethics. For it, is in ethics that we find the clearest manifestation, of effective moral relationships between men, anchored in the rules of morality, that is in those rules, which directly reflect the vital interests of social classes and groups, the principles of their reciprocal relationships, and the nature of relationships between the individual and society, in a fixed state, of historical development. In the ethical doctrines of the past, we find the origins of those ideas, which have for so many years, formed a basis for Masonic morality, but we also find, the origins of those ideas, which give life to the aspirations of men, toward a better future, that is the concepts of freedom, tolerance, harmonic development of personality, in other words, the ideas of human dignity, and the greatness of man, which the works of Pico della Mirandola, so admirably represents. The philosophical basis for Pico’s ethics, is found in his famous Oratio de Hominis Dignitate (Oration on the Dignity of Man) and in the Heptaplus. Man constitutes a specific world, the fourth after the subcelestial, the celesteal and the sublunary, and not merely a specific world, so much as a synthesis, of these three worlds. In fact, Pico points out, that the essential peculiarity of human nature, is that of bringing and linking together, the essence of other creations, in our own substance. In this sense, man only resembles God, who brings together in him, the origins of all the various substances. This essay, forms part of a much greater work on the philosophical origins of Freemasonry. Italian Humanism spread to other countries, in Central and Western Europe, through many channels. The general model seems to have been an "adaptation", rather than a simple imitation, and this may explain why in each country, Humanism has assumed a particular form. My theory is that, beginning with Pico della Mirandola, (above all from the Oratio de Hominis Dignitate), it is possible to trace a line which passes through the interpretation of Christian Cabbalism, as interpreted by Francesco Zorzi, the Rosacrucianism of Robert Fludd and John Dee and arrives, at the fertile ground represented by the Neoplatonic School of Cambridge. In England, and this is the point I want to bring to light, some humanists chose Masonic symbolism, to reveal ethical and moral principles, and their particular conception of mankind, giving life to speculative Freemasonry. Within the vast panorama of research, on the origins of Freemasonry, I have concentrated on the studies, which do not hold credible, the theory that modern Freemasonry descended directly from operative masons, and that instead, estimate the birth of speculative Freemasonry, to be in the late 1600's. In reference to the concept of Renaissance Neoplatonism, I will follow principally, the vision of historian Paul Oscar Kristeller, to whom I give preference, over the traditional inclination, followed by Saitta, Garin and other authoritative scholars, to describe Neoplatonism as just a part, of a phase of Humanism. This traditional interpretation is consistent with the old view, that opposed the Platonism of the Renaissance, to the Aristotelianism of the Middle Ages. I think there are good reasons for abandoning or modifying these views. Aristotelianism, was as vigorous in the Renaissance as Platonism, and it has been shown, especially by Klibansky, that there was a strong Platonist current, during the Middle Ages, with which Renaissance Platonism was directly connected. I agree with Kristeller, that: " Renaissance Platonism had many sources, interests, and ideas that clearly, set it off from humanism, as a distinct movement. It was linked, with medieval scholasticism, as
and interest. However. and declares:" . the Great Architect of the Universe. a thorough humanistic education. we are no longer ourselves. As an intellectual movement. For the Florentine Platonist. an opening of the eyes. In effect. and added to it the theological speculations.. is really our own soul. and of the Neoplatonists. that the main purpose of human life is contemplation. (1) Paul Oskar Kristeller. it drew. We leave behind. while we contemplate. to the humanists of the preceding generations. to . At this point. the spiritual condition of the Brother. but it also led. with one the most beautiful images. the practical activities of life. were accused of paganism. is tied to a remarkable strengthening of faculties of observation.com well as. comes to the 'One'. was the Aristotelianism. is comparable to the spectator of Greek Theatre. the choice of Neoplatonic philosophy. some of the Platonists. it had. Masonic allegories and symbolism. was comparable to the work done. but he states.you are now permitted.THE CORNERSTONE SOCIETY www. In reference to ritual approach. to natural science and scientific discipline. This concept. outside the tradition. Now. But most of their representatives. insisted on a basic harmony. we are absorbed by contemplation. does not condemn or menemize. Platonism persisted. enraptured by the present moment. must be one of predisposition. that the use of this expression."(1) Ficino. In addition. pag. in Masonic ritual. who was not passive. RENAISSANCE NEOPLATANISM Why. as for the Neoplatonist. and in other early humanists. in the German word. are based? Let us begin. this idea is diametrically opposed. attributed to Orpheus. Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters. to translate and to expound the works of Plato and of the ancient Neoplatonist. from the outside world. to pagan sources. an offshoot of the humanistic movement. the Jewish Cabala. that which. the leader of the Florentine Academy. a sinking into the unfolding of nature. they laid the ground. that was distinct. we can see that in Neoplatonism. between the candidate and the initiate. together with the protagonist. as a separate current. with the stylistic and classicist standards of the humanists.cornerstonesociety. Ficini’s endeavour. the springing of everything. a model for the experience of being. or even of its own time. a markedly narrower. which then proceed. "aufgehen". the concept of man and his dignity. of 'emanation'. and were imbued. with great emphasis. And in stressing. and Hermes Trismegistus. was not merely limited. Both Ficino and Pico. during the Ceremony of the second degree. he understands a spiritual experience. on other classical authors. that were quite foreign. with metaphysical and cosmological speculation. there is no separation between the actor and the observer. for later doctrines of natural religion and of universal tolerance. on the philosophical thought of Plato. and it is for Neoplatonists. Vol. the source from which springs the 'nous' (spirit). to the transcendent. was seen as a true opening to 'contemplation'. One of these roots. at the universities and other schools. of early humanism. much more emphatically than. and finally. to disclose. Their preference for Plato. and his friend and pupil Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. in many respects. by the humanists. that the truth could be found in various philosophical and religious traditions. to contemplation. from humanism. to this "aufgehen". We can say. upward climb. for the Freemason. which begin with a detachment of our mind. Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura. the average humanist had done. In its approach to antiquity. but deeper effect. with Augustinian piety and mysticism. In this case. By contemplation. we can begin to speak. culminates in the immediate vision and enjoyment of God. that Neoplatonism has given us: the "openness to contemplation". as well as. in its content and its diffusion. as the foundation of Masonic thought? Which of the Neoplatonic concepts. All this. to extend your researches. and it was concerned. do we find in the philosophy upon which. where. of the later Middle Ages. about the famous concept. are absorbed in this ritual. 14. as Kristeller reminds: "Renaissance Platonism. into the hidden mysteries of Nature and Science". It is a true. or scholasticism. between Platonic philosophy and Christian theology. as it culminated in Marsilio Ficino. had its antecedents in Petrarch. the subject involved in the rite. towards the 'One'. Now he begins to see. to open one's self. Roma 1985. but all this happens also within ourselves. attendance at a theatre performance. the teaching of philosophy. from one source.”(1) In the sixteenth century. was. had enjoyed. We. the Worshipful Master turns to the candidate. because they attached so much importance. our everyday anxieties. The Platonism of the Italian Renaissance. had other roots. When. Zoroaster. II°. and a metaphysical archetype. but a member of a community of worship. finds perhaps its most effective translation. which continued to dominate.. was always visible. through various degrees of knowledge and desire. to the solitary experience and to the personal relationship of individuals.
It becomes evident here. because the material available is vast yet incomplete. Pico’s concept of “Dignity”. to choose his way of life. It is precisely the thinking in terms of symbols. a code. which form the basis of Pico’s thought: 1) the principle of “docta ignorantia”. goes even further. substantially separated by a real theoretical essence. man’s freedom. whilst in the conception of free will common to Pico and Freemasonry. is to be found. a route. precisely through a journey. this is the point. in which. of a solidarity of all men. but the project which man himself. Thomas and Scotus. which imposed. Pico. the dignity of man is a journey. have had a good many insights into truth. made up of symbols and allegory. In my opinion. the angels and divine beings. by analysing. Quality and Body. a world in himself:" I have given thee. and toward the corporeal world. Christian Cabbalism. the Angelic Mind. where can we find the connection. from so many different sources. Plato and Aristotle. is directed. The Freemason aspires to perfection. and their perfection: man only. must undertake. what interests us most of all. PICO DELLA MIRANDOLA AND HIS "ORATIO DE HOMINIS DIGNITATAE" In this chapter. but he is entirely detached. the human soul occupies a privileged. the image and resemblance of God. especially. This syncretism of Pico. and his aspiring. not even the privileged central place. Freemasonry is not an “orthodoxy”. no fixed seat. and emphasizes that all religious and philosophical tradition. and the religious syncretism. In the light of such a statement. Neither heavenly nor earthly. 3) the "consciousness. Among the numerous definitions of Freemasonry in circulation. When Pico included. he gains it himself. If Freemasonry. and his own being. Adam. to illustrate this universality of truth. proposition from all these authors. it has the characteristics of an “orthopraxy”. which is alien to him. is a code of conduct.cornerstonesociety. to its desire for identification. through symbols". we shall attempt to find references. and further developed by Pico. thou art confined by no bonds. in creation as in emanation. both toward the intellegible. in that. with his attempts to find “agreement”. to demonstrate. Jewish. among his nine hundred theses. to personal and social conduct. The same ideas. are taken up. the human soul. of an approach to God. central. is the Great Architect of the Universe In the Neoplatonic thought.com the conscious awareness.(1) Pico’s originality of thought. similar to the philosophical approach to the Divine. is not innate. and Christian theologians. really provided the foundation. Freemasonry. that is. for a broad conception. is a unique case in the history of Renaissance philosophy. this is the peculiarity which elevates him and singles him out. who supposedly contradict each other . which is not to be found in any other thinker of his time. cannot be used in the philosophy of Pico nor in Masonic philosophy. which justified his endeavor to incorporate and defend doctrines.(2) In my opinion. upon each individual. through which. the Rational Soul. were given their nature. which makes the methodology of Pico. it was his underlying intention. man no longer occupies any fixed place. due. through his own conduct. which may lead to the transcendent. instead. have a share in a common. to attempt to create an order in Pico’s thought. to God. neither mortal nor immortal have We made thee. the free action of an entity. which is peculiar to the Freemason. In fact. but has a transcendent aspect to it. and was waiting to . both toward God. and toward the body. between Platonism and Aristotelianism. There are essentially three principal concepts. his interdisciplinarity. I must confess that few seem to me to be comprehensive. Pagan. man slowly gains his own identity. in his famous Oratio of the Dignity of Man. no form of thy very own. As Cassirer notes. So. the individual appears. and also all philosophers. These ideas are embodied in Ficino’s scheme of a universal hierarchy. to become nearer to an absolute. is a code of conduct. decided to do so”. to the Great Architect of the Universe. present in his own.THE CORNERSTONE SOCIETY www. would be a difficult and dangerous operation. Consequently. It would be difficult. as a being produced through. in the universal hierarchy. universal truth. Thou canst again grow upward from the mind's reason into the higher natures which are divine". within the thought and work of Pico. place:God. the link with the Masonic project of the “construction of man”. Pico stresses. or rather. above him in the hierarchy: “right from the very start of their creation. irrepresentable. Thou… art the moulder and maker of thyself… Thou canst grow downward into the lower natures which are brutes. 2) the “coincidentia oppositorum” and. from that hierarchy and constitutes. In fact. the attainment of the divine perfection. has this perfection. based on ethico-moral principals. Avicenna. no gift peculiarly thine… In conformity with thy free judgment in whose hands I have placed thee. and many others. that those concepts of “creation” and “emanation”. from other beings. with the thought of Pico? The answer. comes stems from his hermeneutic approach. of religious and philosophical tolerance. and Averroes. definite moral and intellectual obligation. This absolute irrepresentable. after he has freely. for the purposes of such a study. and thou wilt fix the limits of thy nature for thyself….
by “principles of morality and virtue” and we can therefore. The third and final stage of Pico’s ethical thought. the whole of humanity. in the Ceremony of Passing from the degree of Entered Apprentice. in a single year. is the fact that the two subjects. the universal synthesis of knowledge. and without doubt the Oration can be defined. the Oratio. this had never been possible. If in fact for Pico. he gave man. being developed during a single decade. What is possible to find. which concludes the esoteric path of Freemasonry. at the convention of Rome. which corresponds. by the principles of moral truth. may you be steered into the second degree. The fundamental similarity. to you. Fellow of the Craft and Master Mason) is one of the key points.THE CORNERSTONE SOCIETY www. in the influence of Pico’s ethics. a common thread.(3) According to Pico. to see the intellectual faculty of it. the Conclusiones and the Apologia. this was the significance. and natural philosophy”. they tell of the continuity and convergence of man’s efforts. which would have involved. which the eye of . from 1483 to 1494. The activity of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was short. of man’s creative faculties. to identify. what interests us most of all for the purposes of this essay. that of Fellow of the Craft.cornerstonesociety. poetic theology. Therefore in this second degree. for Freemasonry the first of its three degrees is characterised. rightly define it as a degree of ethics. that the terms. on Masonic philosophy. in the thought of Pico. Man’s importance is in his responsibility. the Freemason perfects his consciousness. God did not create man. to point out. the concord of doctrines. within the concept of “free will”. as the great scholar Eugenio Garin points out: “were thus turned to demonstrating the universality of truth through. that the light of a Master Mason is visible darkness. we might call “interdisciplinary”. In fact. which are a result of his own original method of interpretation that. because of his early death. the Worshipful Master turns to the Brother and says: “as you learned the principles of moral Truth and Virtue in the previous degree. but they mark an era. to the richness and multiplicity. the first of his three stages is the “purification of vices with the help of ethics”. something completely new for his times. and track your development in it. in his own image. only he affects history and frees himself from the conditions of nature. They ask for peace between doctrines. I should talk about. because to make Pico’s thought hang. they realise the significance of man in the world. of our belief. dominate a programme of spiritual reconstruction of men. In this concept there is the condemnation of every oppression. But. would be detrimental. It would be dangerous. the multiplicity of his expressions. And he continues. the most important concept in the thought of Pico about man. which was never held and was subsequently published posthumously. and let us not forget. the dignity of man and peace between doctrines. are. in the philosophical vision of man. ancient and still contemporary. which shrouds future prospects. even if they.. that of Master Mason. were written at various times (but more or less. That is the mysterious veil. Man is the only being in reality that chooses his own destiny. to that of Fellow of the Craft. of 20 and 30 years. was supposed. is the consciousness of the Divine. on man’s path of accession to the supreme good. This extolling. As the great Eugenio Garin recalls: “there are only a few pages. The second stage of Pico’s path is the “perfection of reason. on one single principle subject. found in the Oration and the three degrees. in his freedom. through “human reason”. of his chosen freedom has led many scholars. and cannot be taken individually. that the Worshipful Master says to the Brother: “advancing further. and has the ability to set himself free. in many aspects one single work. between the three fundamental stages. slavery and conditioning. by means of dialect. towards this but also the limitations of the various positions. to the third degree of Freemasonry. now you may extend your enquiries to the hidden mysteries of Nature and Science”. we read in the ritual. The Oration. Pico’s efforts. rather. the need to overcome them realising conflicts of the intellect: contradictoria in natura intellectuali se compatiuntur. In fact we see. to pursue the light. between the spring of 1486 and that of 1487). appertaining to the thought of Pico. to be solemnly delivered. and thus. the faculty to create his own image. still guiding your progress. unto the throne of God himself”. which distinguishes man. through the paths of celestial science. a concordance of beliefs. as the quintessence of Pico’s ethico-moral speculation. and of his vocation.. in the course of Pico’s thought. as the catholic orthodox theologians stated.com be reordered but. is the ethical thought of Pico. in Freemasonry. which serves only to express that shadow. “Peace” and “Concordance” have come to assume. If we are to find. contained in the Oration. in a project taking in philosophy of love. he dominates nature. at the end of the century. on the Masonic path to perfection of the individual (Entered Apprentice. In fact. of his interests.” And in short. an attempt to revive Christianity. from the rest of humanity. that the works are the product of a young man between the ages. Three works. “allow me now. and the dignity of man. which corresponds to the second Masonic degree.The conscious image of man typical of the modern world comes from there: man is involved in the act which constitutes him. and the integrability of his efforts.
ethics. pag. but solely for its pursuit the typical platonic concept of Eros. in good. the correlative and the opposite of something different. through all the rung. just as in Masonic thought. capable of doing good. that is not all. through climbing this ladder. in order to investigate it. which comes from above”. But. has represented better than Pico. only when he is capable of moulding his own existence. man is portrayed. It was necessary that man. ed E. according to a follower of Pico. being turned into smooth stone? Throughout the Oration. also represent. that the destruction of men between different states may be ended. ibidem. may demonstrate all its power. Freemasonry guides and supports us throughout this broad journey. and the approach to the Divine. pag. the fundamental Masonic allegory of course stone. prepared and educated by philosophy. without hope of redemption. and it is in this extreme display of free will. Lives. which leads man. De Hominis Dignitate. because in his nature one can only see. A first preparatory stage of consciousness. man’s happiness does not come from the possession of truth. in which is locked. We can conclude that. It is through philosophy. requires that man be set free by a passion for pleasure. in good as in evil. as moulder of himself. concerning the system of the universe.pp. and long-lasting peace be established on earth. any constraint in religion according to Pico. which “rises by many rungs to the height of heaven” symbolising man’s path in life.217-218 4) Ernst Cassirer. And as if we were in a river.Garin. may have marvellously anticipated Lessing in “Conversations on Freemasonry between Ernst and Falk”. through which man must pass. the principal degrees of consciousness in Pico’s ethics.Pico della Mirandola. For Pico and for the Freemason. the enquiry that we undertake. La Nuova Italia.com human reason cannot penetrate. that is moral science. we shall begin to analyse and synthesise the meaning of things. because true faith can only be borne out of freedom. and his freedom. notes Pico. in philosophy. after hard work. For the Mirandolian in fact.THE CORNERSTONE SOCIETY www. Who. “in the bosom of the Father. is underlined in the allegorical example of “Jacob’s patriarchal ladder”. it is necessary to pass through the various stages of existence. that the secrets of nature are revealed to man. is that in which human reasoning.89 . the temptation of the body. we shall find perfection and peace. For Pico.80 3) Eugenio Garin. Endnotes 1) G. 1942. and is never in the power of evil. Firenze. that one’s spiritual power is demonstrated. The final stage. Dall’Umanesimo all’Illuminismo. which lead to good and evil. pag. and that is of nature”.cornerstonesociety. in his quest for supreme good. In the next stage. a degree which leaves us. and superior. an uncancellable defect in his nature. will reveal a consciousness of the deepest secrets. of the ladder. it is not the possessing the truth that is important. who reigns above the ladder. in the felicity of theological knowledge”. the philosophy of nature. are never precluded from one another. Ritratti di Umanisti. and the decision lies in his own hands:”(4) Thus. in an absolutely arbitrary way: “sui ipsius quasi arbitrarius honorariusque plastes et fictor”. does not constitute. capable of good. it is only through Ethics. be capable of sin.104-106. the Philosophia Moralis gives way to the Philosophia Naturalis. thus by “exercising philosophy. Pico’s fundamental concept is that man. facing the man-God relationship.1967 Sansoni. represented by Ethics. The nature of man’s progressive perfection. a real moulder who must create and sculpt his own form. man’s sin. but its pursuit. without the help of the Light. which makes the same man. To conclude. “even man’s sin. Therefore. According to Pico. I should like to point out how Pico. so that he may become. and this is the principle function of philosophy. on the contrary it is an expression of that force. he may never rest secure. along the road to consciousness of reality. 1967. is not merely a fault. and to do this. we cleanse the sensitive part of our soul. ristampa Bompiani 2001. is absolutely reprehensible and the Libertas credendi is essential. In light of this. 2) Ernst Cassirer. is never concluded.
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