Thursday, August 30, 2018

Two Kinds of Infinity: Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno


Two Kinds of Infinity: Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno
Paul Richard Blum (Loyola University Maryland, Baltimore)
Presented at

Giordano Bruno: Will, Power, and Being 

(Festival Bruniano, 3rd Edition: Tours, 26-27 April 2018 – Wittenberg, 17-18 May 2018)

It is a commonplace that Giordano Bruno learned from Nicholas of Cusa. He quotes extensively the De beryllo and other texts of Cusanus in order to make his philosophy of the infinity of the world philosophically acceptable. Already in the 19th century, when the Bruno fad among the would-be atheists morphed into the discovery of the ‘forgotten’ initiator of modern thought, it has been discovered, that Cusanus even had entertained the centrality of the sun (instead of the earth) antedating Copernicus by a century. Philosophically speaking, those are matters of dogmatics. The serious problem in the familiarity and difference between the early and the late Renaissance thinker is the notion of the infinite, its constructive function in the philosophical system, its epistemological and metaphysical status. Whereas Cusanus postulates the infinite as the unavoidable condition for the correlation between reality, origin, and understanding, Bruno harvested the fruits of such daring approach to what used to be the domain of Aristotelian ontology and turns the transcendence of the infinite into the immanence of truth in reality.[1]
To propose to speak about two kinds of infinity must appear to be a joke. As we all know, infinity cannot be added to, or subtracted from, infinity; and the reason is that infinity has no comparison. Hence there cannot be two different kinds of infinity, unless both were species of an infinite genus, in which case they were at the same time impossible for their being limited and for there being subordinate kinds of what by definition is devoid of subdivision. However, this calculation raises the question: why should one speculate about infinity at all? In Cusanus and in Bruno we can observe how and why infinity enters the philosophical discourse. We can also see what “comes out” of infinity. And for this pursuit we may paradoxically speak about two kinds of infinity in the sense of different ways to direct philosophical considerations to the infinite and the argumentative result of such considerations. Do we, in the end, have to judge and confer the palm to one of the two ways? Probably not, provided both philosophers philosophize seriously and, as a result, leave us equally puzzled about the quandaries of the infinite. The major thesis I want to convey is this: both Cusanus and Bruno speculate about the infinite for converse reasons or purposes. Cusanus aims at understanding God, Bruno aims at understanding the world. Out of the vast body of available texts I dare to choose just one instance, but I am confident, I could make the case with any number of parallel evidence.
As is well known, in the fifth dialogue of De la Causa Bruno stated: “chi vuol sapere massimi secreti di natura, riguardi e contemple circa gli minimi e massimi de gli contrarii e opposti. Profonda magia è saper trar il contrario dopo aver trovato il punto de l’unione.” (… There is a profound magic in knowing how to extract the contrary …, after having discovered their point of union.) [2] Friedrich W. J. Schelling’s interpretation of this passage is helpful:
But concerning the shape of philosophical science, and the challenge to cultivate the sturdy seed of this principle of indifference to its fullest flower, the ultimate goal is to achieve a perfect harmony with the very framework of the universe. To this end, both for ourselves and for others, we can prescribe no maxim more excellent to constantly keep before our eyes than that contained in these words, handed down to us by an earlier philosopher: To penetrate into the deepest secrets of nature ...[3]
 The somewhat wordy paraphrase by Schelling contains a number of fundamental insights into the philosophy of the infinite.
First of all we need to understand that the One, the punto de l’unione, is indeed the infinite, as both Cusanus and Bruno are keen on arguing. This is also the presupposition for the fact that there cannot be two kinds of infinity. Then, Schelling suggests that indifference is the endpoint of universal harmony. Bruno’s observation about the magic of finding diversity after unity amounts to outlining harmony, but harmony is always of the diverse; and such harmony is not the end but the “maxim” of proper philosophy and its guiding rule. From the idealist point of view, Bruno discovered the principle of true philosophy by way of setting the goal. However, the surprising fact for Schelling is that not the One is the goal but the multitude. Plurality, diversity, and difference is the object of philosophical research based on the understanding that every distinction needs to be grounded in indifference, that is, union, that is ideally the One. In other words, philosophy is not about unity but diversity, not about the infinite but the finite. The finite, however, is grounded in the infinite. Therefore, Teofilo explains a few lines later:
Quella unità è tutto la quale non è esplicata, non è sotto distribuzione e distinzione di numero, e tal singularità che tu intendereste forse; ma che è complicante e comprendente. (That unity is all, which is not unfolded, not distributed and distinguished by way of number, and such singularity as you might intend; rather, such that is enclosing and encompassing.)[4]
Unity is all, but it is not a thing; not a one thing that is singular but a one that contains the diverse. Unity is not a thing but the singularity of things. Teofilo gives the examples of decade and centenary numbers that contain and enclose the lower numbers. The decade is that singularity that comprehends the then digits.
Now in a first approach we may be content with recognizing the well known pattern of unity and diversity and their functions in ordering our comprehension of the finite world; at the same time we are happy to see that everything is capped in some way under a canopy of higher order. But since we do not expect Bruno (or any philosopher) to state the obvious, we need to see why does it matter to him. Therefore we should look at where he was coming from, namely, Nicolaus Cusanus.
Bruno adopted some of Cusanus’ geometrical examples; so the question is, what did these examples stand for? He introduces them with the suggestion that “all things are one in the same way as every number, even or odd, finite or infinite, goes back to unity, which posits number if reiterated with the finite and with the infinite negates number.”[5] All is one – that appears to be plausible. (Of course it is not at all! Otherwise, philosophers from Heraclitus to Hegel had not struggled with it.) All numbers go back to unity – fine. There are four classes of numbers: pair and odd, finite and infinite. So infinite numbers are numbers; and they equally go back to unity? The qualification that follows immediately suspends that understanding: it is unity that confirms or even produces number when repeated with the finite; but it negates number if unity is associated with the infinite. Let us assume that actually does not make sense.
The fact that both odd and even numbers can be reduced to unity appears to be plausible, but only if we consider that either class of numbers is a repetition of the counting of one. Whatever the arithmetic properties of even and uneven digits, they are nothing but units. But Teofilo’s additional remark states that such digits arise from the iteration of one “with the finite.” The only plausible explanation appears to be that ‘finite’ is not a property but a principle such that unity can join the finite or not join it. If it does, then we have number. Number is unity in the realm of the finite. The second alternative (“con l’infinito”) annihilates number. There is no infinite number. Which is implied in the statement that number is by definition finite. Consequently, the infinite considered as a realm, which negates the finite, negates number. But infinity does not negate unity. Unity and infinity go well together.
Bruno illustrates this claim with geometrical examples taken from Cusanus’ De mathematica perfectione.[6] Straight line and curve converge on the level of the maximum and minimum.
Ecco dumque come non solamente il massimo et il minimo convegnono in uno essere …, ma ancora nel massimo e nel minimo vegnono ad essere uno et indifferente gli contrari. (Here, then, is how not only the maximum and the minimum come together into one being … , but also how, in the maximum and the minimum, contraries come to be one and indistinct.[7]
The extremes share identical being and, consequently, opposites are one and indifferent on that level. That may be read as saying that they are not annihilated ontologically but rather they have their foundation in the infinite indifference. In the same way as numbers are grounded in the infinite, insofar as they are finite in terms of numbers, so is any finite geometrical figure as being distinct from other geometrical figures grounded in the extreme that does not know the distinctions but founds them. Apologies for a lame pun: the Infinite is indistinct from, but not indifferent to, the finite.
The second geometrical simile, borrowed from Cusanus, is that of triangles of varied sizes. The principle stated from the outset is: “Just as in all genera, the analogous predicates draw their degree and order from the first and loftiest of the genus.”[8]  Obviously, the author is invoking the principle primum in aliquo genere, which contemplates the prime instantiation of a genus to be also the foundation of that genus and thus establishing the ontological status and the gnoseological validity of any member of that class.[9] His way to apply it here is to remind us that this prime is the foundation of analogy and order. Analogy, here, does not mean a weak epistemological approximation to something beyond truth and falsehood. (For instance: the predicate ‘good’ can be said about God only analogically because God remains unknown.) In this context, analogy is the relationship of belonging to the same genus for things that on the finite level of reality are distinct and yet of the same kind – triangles, for instance. Therefore, the ‘first and greatest’ of the class of analogues establishes that class and all of its members. The triangle is convenient as an example, Bruno says, because among the plane figures with angles it is the most elementary that cannot be dissolved into other figures. However, it can be of different sizes. But in terms of triangle there is no distinction between them. This insight is measured against the infinite:
Però se poni un triangulo infinito (…) , quello non arà angolo maggiore che il triangolo minimo finito, non solo che mezzani et altro massimo. (However, if you posit an infinite triangle (…) , it will not have an angle greater than that of the smallest finite triangle, and likewise for that of any intermediate triangle and of another, maximum triangle.)
Inserted in this osservation is the qualifier:
(non dico realmente et assolutamente, perché l'infinito non ha figura: ma infinito dico per supposizione, e per quanto angolo dà luogo a quello che vogliamo dimostrare) [(I do not mean really and absolutely, since the infinite has no figure; I mean infinite hypothetically, insofar as its angle is useful for our demonstration.)][10]
Bruno avers us that a real infinite triangle does not exist, as infinite numbers don’t. A triangle by definition is finite. However we may conceive of the infinite hypothetically in order to show on the example of the angle the fact that angles remain angles; and that can mean that the infinite triangle, if it were real, is the first of any angle and makes it gnoseologically and geometrically possible. But the overarching argumentative goal is this:
Quindi per similitudine molto espressa si vede come la una infinita sustanza può essere in tutte le cose tutta, benché in altri finita, in altri infinitamente; in questi con minore, in quelli con maggior misura. (Through this very elaborate simile one sees in which way one infinite substance can be whole in all things, although in some in a finite way in others in an infinite way and in some to a minor and in others to a greater degree.)[11]
God, who else could be meant by this “infinite substance”? But is pantheism or panentheism Bruno’s philosophical intention? I don't’ think so. On a first level he is arguing that oneness is the foundation of the many. It is not said that God is actually and essentially present in all things. What he says is that the mode of ‘being in’ of the one is finite and infinite in various and specific degrees. God’s presence in things is analogical. And, as we saw, analogy is not identity but the condition of being the same and yet individual. Therefore, if we search again for the philosophical import of Bruno’s maxim, we see clearly that he is seeking for the foundation of the reality that is by definition finite. There is no multitude without oneness; there is no singularity without the singularity of the One.
Now let us have a look at how Cusanus explained how he employed geometrical examples. In
Amplius, non satiabilis noster intellectus cum maxima suavitate vigilanter per praemissa incitatus inquirit, quomodo hanc participationem unius maximi possit clarius intueri. (Furthermore, our insatiable intellect, stimulated by the aforesaid, carefully and with very great delight inquires into how it can behold more clearly this participation in the one Maximum.)[12]
Initially, his is an epistemological enterprise: how can the human intellect understand that things participate in the maximum One? Bruno will transform the notion of participation into that of analogy and harmony. Also, he is not skeptical about the human understanding but more concerned with the ontological status of finite beings. About the curved and the straight line Cusanus explains:
Et sicut finita recta in hoc quod recta – in quod quidem rectum curvitas minima resolvitur – secundum simpliciorem participationem participat infinitam, et curvum non ita simplicem et immediatam sed potius mediatam et distantem, quoniam per medium rectitudinis quam participat: ita aliqua sunt entia immediatius entitatem maximam in seipso subsistentem participantia, ut sunt simplices finitae substantiae, et sunt alia entia non per se, sed per medium substantiarum entitatem participantia, ut accidentia. (A finite straight line,  insofar  as  it  is  straight  (minimal  curvature is a reduction to that which is straight) participates in the infinite line according to a more simple participation, and a curve [participates in the infinite line] not [according to] a simple and immediate participation  but  rather  [according  to]  a  mediate  and  remote  participation;  for [it participates] through the medium of the straightness in which it participates. Similarly, some beings—viz., simple finite substances—participate more immediately in Maximum Being, which exists in itself. And other beings—viz.,  accidents—participate  in  [Maximum]  Being not  through  themselves  but  through  the  medium  of  substances.)[13]
It is critical that the curved and the straight line participate in the maximum in various degrees and that the curved, in terms of participation, depends on the straight. The thrust of the argument goes towards establishing such maximum on which the particulars depend. The maximum is not ‘the largest thing around’, it is the only true thing; it is the measure of what there is and it is the reality of what appears to be there. A particular thing is not more thing than any other; but in terms of derivative from the one and only true reality (the maximum) it is a closer or weaker approximation to that.
Et in hoc aperitur intellectus illius, quod dicitur substantiam non capere magis nec minus. Nam hoc est ita verum, sicut linea recta finita in eo, quod recta, non suscipit magis et minus; sed quia finita, tunc per diversam participationem infinitae una respectu alterius maior aut minor est, nec umquam duae reperiuntur aequales. Curvum vero, quoad participationem rectitudinis, recipit magis et minus; et consequenter per ipsam participatam rectitudinem sicut rectum recipit magis et minus. (In this is disclosed an understanding of the statement that substance does not admit of more or less. This statement is as true as a finite straight line, insofar as it is straight, does not admit of more and less; but  because  it  is  finite,   — through  a  difference  of  participation  in  the  infinite line— one line is longer or shorter in relation to another; and no two lines are ever found to be equal. But a curve admits of more and less as it participates in straightness; and consequently, due to this participated straightness it admits of more or less as the straight line does.)[14]
The maximum does not entail comparison but is the canon of comparability.
Substantiae igitur et accidentis una est adaequatissima mensura, quae est ipsum maximum simplicissimum; quod licet neque sit substantia neque accidens, tamen ex praemissis manifeste patet ipsum potius sortiri nomen immediate ipsum participantium, scilicet substantiarum, quam accidentium. (There  is,  then,  one  most  congruent  measure  of  substance  and of accident—viz.,  the  most  simple  Maximum.  Although  the  Maximum is neither substance nor accident, nevertheless from the foregoing we see clearly that it receives the name of those things which participate in it immediately, viz., substances, rather than [the name] of accidents.[15]
The maximum, that is, the infinite that is God, is the ontological measure of things while not being one of the things. In this way the human mind may fathom epistemologically that the finite reality refers to an ontological foundation. Therefore we may say that Cusanus, as any medieval theologian, takes the existence of the Creator-God as a given and labors to make this plausible to the human mind. On the other hand, Bruno accepts Cusanus’ lead, but he now focuses on how this God can possibly help understand the creation. In Cusanus, the epistemological challenge is to understand God through things; in Bruno the challenge is to understand things with the invocation of God.
The geometrical example of the triangle clearly deviates from Cusanus. The author of Learned Ignorance had argued that “patet lineam esse infinitam triangulum maximum.” If we extend a triangle to the maximum by stretching the angles, we arrive at a straight line, and an infinite one.
Quare si per positionem angulus valeret duos rectos, resolveretur in lineam simplicem totus triangulus. Unde cum hac positione, quae in quantis impossibilis est, iuvare te potes ad non-quanta ascendendo; in quibus, quod in quantis est impossibile, vides per omnia necessarium. (Therefore, if, by hypothesis, an  angle  could  be  two  right  angles,  the  whole  triangle  would  be  resolved  into  a  simple  line. Hence,  by  means  of  this  hypothesis,  which is impossible in quantitative things, you can be helped in ascending to non-quantitative things; that which is impossible for quantitative things, you see for  non-quantitative things to  be  altogether  necessary .)[16] 
The entire exercise is intended to show that by extending the empirical and geometrical knowledge to the infinite, we may come to an understanding of what it is like to be infinite.
So, do we have two kinds or two versions of the infinite? Cusanus’ infinite was
-       exemplary
-       epistemologically challenging but accessible by way of similes
-       the notion of God that may be gained from His creation.
Bruno’s infinite was
-       the ontological foundation of finite things
-       epistemological tool of understanding reality
-       a useful hypothesis.
Bruno accepts Cusanus’ speculation that yields an intellectually acceptable notion of the infinite and he turns this infinite into a scientifically inevitable hypothesis that establishes harmony in the finite world.



[1] This study is a result of research funded by the Czech Science Foundation as the project GA ČR 14-37038G “Between Renaissance and Baroque: Philosophy and Knowledge in the Czech Lands within the Wider European Context”.
[2] Giordano Bruno, Dialoghi italiani, ed. Giovanni Gentile and Giovanni Aquilecchia (Firenze, Sansoni, 1958), 340. I quote this edition as the most accessible through http://bibliotecaideale.filosofia.sns.it. Giordano Bruno, Cause, Principle, and Unity and Essays on Magic, trans. Robert De Lucca and Richard J. Blackwell (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 100: “There is a profound magic in knowing how to extract the contrary from the contrary, after having discovered their point of union.” The words “from the contrary” are not in the text and inconsistent, for the idea is to derive opposites from the very One. The translator of Schelling's quotation of this passage has it right: "To discover their point of union is not the greatest task, but to do this and then develop its opposite elements out of their point of union, this is the genuine and deepest secret of art." Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Bruno, or On the Natural and Divine Principle of Things [1802], trans. Michael G. Vater (Albany: SUNY Press, 1984), 222.
[3] Schelling, Bruno, 222.
[4] Bruno, Dialoghi italiani, 341. My translation.
[5] Bruno, 335: “che le cose tutte sono uno: come ogni numero tanto pare quanto ímpare, tanto finito quanto infinito, se riduce all'unità, la quale iterata con il finito pone il numero, e con l'infinito nega il numero.” My translation.
[6] Nicholas of Cusa, Opera (Basel: Petri, 1565), vol. 3, p. 1120; Nicolaus de Cusa, Opera omnia. Vol. 11.1: De beryllo, ed. Carolus Bormann and Iohannes Gerhard Senger (Hamburgi: Meiner, 1988) n. 41, p. 47. Cusanus is quoted from http://cusanus-portal.de.
[7] Bruno, Dialoghi italiani, 336; Bruno, Cause, 97 (modified).
[8] Bruno, Cause, 97; Bruno, Dialoghi italiani, 337: “come in tutti geni li predicati analogi tutti prendeno il grado et ordine dal primo e massimo di quel geno.”
[9] Plotinus, Opera omnia: Cum latina Marsilii Ficini interpretatione et commentatione, ed. Stéphane Toussaint, [Basel: Perna, 1580] (Villiers-sur-Marne: Phénix, 2005), 3.5, chapt. 5, p. 289: “Quo vero sublimius simpliciusque corpus est, eo tardius videtur ab anima deferendum, caeleste vero nunquam. In omni siquidem genere quod primo fit particeps, semper est particeps.” The argument is this: the first participation founds the lower ranking participations.
[10] Bruno, Dialoghi italiani, 336f.; Bruno, Cause, 98 (modified).
[11] Bruno, Dialoghi italiani, 337; Bruno, Cause, 98 (modified).
[12] Nicolaus de Cusa, Opera omnia. Vol. 1. De docta ignorantia, ed. Ernestus Hoffmann and Raymundus Klibanksy (Lipsiae: Meiner, 1932), book 1, chapt. 18, n. 52, p. 35; Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance: A Translation and an Appraisal of De Docta Ignorantia, trans. Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: Benning Press, 1981), 29, http://jasper-hopkins.info/DI-I-12-2000.pdf.
[13] Nicolaus de Cusa, Opera 1, book 1, chapt. 18, n. 52, p. 36; Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance, 29.
[14] Nicolaus de Cusa, Opera 1, book 1, chapt. 18, n. 53, p. 36; Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance, 29f. (modified).
[15] Nicolaus de Cusa, Opera 1, book 1, chapt. 18, n. 54, p. 36f. Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance, 30.
[16] Nicolaus de Cusa, Opera 1, book 1, chapt. 14, n. 39, p. 28f. Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance, 23 (modified).

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Nicholas of Cusa on Peace and Religion

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The Divisive and the Unifying Power of Faith: Nicholas of Cusa in the Presence of Islamic Military Victory
Paul Richard Blum, Loyola University Maryland
Delivered at the KU Leuven Institute of Philosophy on December 2, 2015 as part of the Leuven Newman Society's "Faith & Reason" series. 
Abstract:
In 1453, when Byzantium fell to the Turkish powers, Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64) wrote a treatise, De pace fidei, in which he pondered the reasons why religion can lead to war and set peoples against each others. He was convinced that there is a “heaven of reason” (coelum rationis), in which understanding the truth of religion spreads peace. His philosophical starting point was that the notion of God entails bliss, love, and union, whereas everything remote from God is transitory, discordant, and fragile. Hence he postulated that the variety of religions cannot be the essence of faith, but rather the gateway to unity and peace. In order to show that he scrutinized all religious groups known to him, including the Bohemians and the Muslims and emphasized that they all imply the same veneration of truth. As a result he concluded that religion cannot possibly be divisive, which is contrary to the truth, but ultimately unifying for – in Christian language – it must have been God’s will to be sought from all sides of the world. Plurality, hence, is not a curse but a blessing.
Now part of my book

Nicholas of Cusa on Peace, Religion, and Wisdom in Renaissance Context

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Giovanni Pico della Mirandola  (1463-1494)
and Renaissance Philosophy

Paul Richard Blum

[Presented at Istituto Italiano di Cultura, New York, 11 November 2014]


 
A presentation on Giovanni Pico della Mirandola should have at least nine hundred chapters – but I will reduce it to four or five.[1]

1. Pico contributed to the discovery of the human being as the center of the world.

Let me start with a quotation about philosophy:
“Philosophy is man's knowledge of himself. … Man, if he acquires a true knowledge of himself, viz. of his own spirituality and corporeality, comprises the knowledge of everything ....”[2]
If I had let you guess the author, you certainly would have come up with Pico or some other Renaissance thinker. For it makes philosophizing a feature of humanity that expands on everything there is. However, it is from Isaac Israeli in the early Middle Ages. Closer to   that matches our expectations of medieval pessimism is this famous saying of Pope Innocent III:
“Indeed man is shaped like an upside down tree. His hair forms the roots; his head and neck the trunk; the breast and stomach the stock; the arms and legs the branches. Man is a plant tossed to and fro by the wind and, like straw, dried out by the sun.”[3]
It was the humanist Giannozzo Manetti who opposed this view by saying:
“…the fruits proper to man are not those shameful and incidental kinds of filthiness … mentioned above; rather our human fruits are to be deemed the many operations of intelligence and will.”
To the humanists, man is man in action. And Pico will elaborate on that and drive it to near exhaustion. In order to show that, I simply quote one of his most famous statements in his Oration on the Dignity of Man:
“[God] … took man, … set him in the middle of the world, and said to him: ‘We have given you, Adam, no fixed seat or form of your own, no talent peculiar to you alone. … Once defined, the nature of all other beings is constrained within the laws We have prescribed for them. But you, constrained by no limits, may determine your nature for yourself, according to your own free will ... We have set you at the centre of the world so that from there you may … easily gaze upon whatever it contains. … you may, as the free and extraordinary shaper of yourself, fashion yourself in whatever form you prefer. It will be in your power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Alternatively, you shall have the power … to be reborn into the higher orders, those that are divine.’ …”[4]
Here we see the specific humanist take on humanity: after the medieval thinkers and theologians had realized that the essence of human beings and of being human consists in reflecting upon oneself and thus experience life as misery, the humanists say: to be miserable does not exclude thinking about it, and human awareness of filthiness is the mother of invention. Now in a giant leap, Pico concludes that the status of being human utterly depends on the spiritual powers of the individual. He clothes it in this speech of God to Adam saying that humans have no predetermined position in the hierarchy of things. A human being can ascend to the level angels or degrade to the baseness of beasts, depending on how one uses one’s mind.
The progress from the image of man as an uprooted tree to that of the individual intellect as the center of the world was life-changing. Giordano Bruno, about 100 years later, would extend it to the theory of the cosmos, claiming that the center  of the world is, wherever one happens to stand. And yet, when Descartes would say, another 50 years after that, the “I think” is the only thing that is certain, he is still banking on Pico’s discovery: Man is man in action, and the world is the place where man is at the center.

2. Pico was probably the first encyclopedist, that is, he believed it is impossible to know too much, and all there is to know is worth knowing.

The quotation from the Oration on the Dignity of Man is the most popular. But in this speech that apparently elevated the appreciation of humanity there followed a second part, in which Pico calls for a universal system of knowledge that includes all disciplines and traditions. Since no place in the chain of being is assigned to him, man is a Divine afterthought after the completion of the universe, a being meant to oversee, and thus to appreciate, the perfection of God’s masterwork; and that requires appropriate skills. Therefore he called upon the world of learning to embrace all intellectual achievements of the ancients and of his contemporaries. Truth is contained in all sciences, and it is the call for humanity to find and unfold it. Pico’s syncretism is condensed in the formula: “I am not sworn into the words of any one.”
I should now mention that this famous Oration was intended as the opening speech of a mammoth disputation to be held in 1487 in Rome.[5] Pico invited the entire world of learning and even promised to pay the expenses for those who attended. For this disputation Pico had prepared no less than nine hundred theses, which he promised to be able to defend.
Within parentheses, it should be stated that such publication of theses for public discussion was academic practice and as an event nothing out of the ordinary. We might also remember the famous 95 theses that Martin Luther nailed at the church gate in Wittenberg, merely 30 years later in 1517. Again, he did not intend to start a religious war, but just posted his program inviting everyone to challenge his ideas.
Still, the number 900 sounds somewhat exaggerated. Even more, Pico said, he could easily have expanded the number by elaborating even more on details. Those 900 theses are grouped by schools of thought, including scholasticism, Platonism, Cabala, and many others. The message is this: human thought is one for all and it evolves and diversifies indefinitely. If man is at the center of the world, the world is worth knowing as far as possible.
Pico was in agreement with the Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa who discovered the coincidence of contraries in the power of the human mind.[6] Nicholas died one year after Pico was born. Indeed, Pico planned to pay a visit to the Cardinal’s legendary library in Germany. But more importantly, Pico’s project of an all-encompassing debate triggered the projects of producing an encyclopedia of all that can be known. Most of these projects were pursued in the 17th and 18th centuries and came to a completion with the Encyclopedia Britannica and present day’s Wikipedia.

3. As a syncretist (that is one who combines virtually all schools of thinking), Pico was against dogmatism, including that of the Renaissance Platonists.

To pay every branch of learning its due comes with a price: Does it mean that everyone has his or her own mind and everyone is right? In a way yes, but also no. First of all, not to be sworn into any one’s school is the necessary condition for intellectual curiosity. On the flip side, it means that understanding a school of knowledge does not entail endorsing it. Therefore, Pico was able to present theses of some scholastics that he did not endorse; and to ‘defend’ them in the great disputation would have meant explaining their validity without endorsing them.
Most importantly, intellectual curiosity – to be a polymath or an intellectual omnivore, as Anthony Grafton had it – is the opposite of dogmatism. Pico wanted to know all dogmas of the world without being dogmatic. And here was his enemy: the meanwhile popular Platonism of the Renaissance.
Frequently, Giovanni Pico was associated with Marsilio Ficino[7] as one of the Florentine Platonists. But the story is more complicated.
In 1438-39 a council was held in Florence, sponsored by the Medici trust, that was to reconcile the Byzantine and the Roman Christian Churches. For some obscure reason, a neo-pagan scholar, who called himself Plethon, so as to sound like “Platon”, was part of the Greek delegation.[8] And during his stay in Florence he published a book in which he attacked the Western Christians for being Aristotelians. He advocated a return to Platonism. Of course Platonism had dominated Christian thought from St. Paul on; but lately, thanks to the rediscovery of Aristotle, theology was basically Aristotelian. Plethon now blamed Aristotelianism to be heretic and – shrewdly – suggested returning to Platonism, which in his own agenda, was paramount to ancient wisdom. This idea was picked up by the banker and ruler of Florence, Cosimo de’Medici, who appointed Ficino to translate works by Plato and the Neo-Platonists from Greek into Latin. Ficino also commented on all those works, among others on Plato’s Symposium.[9] In doing so, Ficino denounced Aristotelian scholasticism as un-Christian and created his own system that should reconcile dogmatics with ancient wisdom.
This Renaissance Platonism vexed the young friend Pico. He got interested in Plato while he stayed with Ficino in Florence, but he saw in Plato only the advocate of the reconciliation of all philosophies rather than a dogmatic system. For Pico, the major danger, in very few words, is this:
First: every interpretation of Christian thought in terms of pagan Greek philosophy runs the risk of making Christian revelation superfluous.
Second: Ficino aligned Plato’s theory of Forms or Ideas with the notion of God; and this interpretation disturbs the balance between rational philosophy and revelation. One important example is the notion of God as the one that transcends every being. Ficino elevated God to a level that detached God from His Creation. Against this theory Pico protested fiercely in his De ente et uno.[10] He did the same in a comment on a love poem written by a friend in the footsteps of Ficino’s Commentary on Plato’s Symposion.[11] On the same occasion he criticized the Byzantine scholar Plethon for his misinterpretation of Greek mythology.  

4. On his search for unity of knowledge, Pico explored new methods of interpreting the Bible.

One anecdote from his life needs to be told. Pico as a man of action worked simultaneously on his 900 Theses and the introduction, the Oration on the Dignity of Man, and on this commentary on the love poem. On his way to Rome in early May 1486, he found time and energy to kidnap Margherita, the wife of Giuliano Mariotto dei Medici. However, after a fight and his humiliating arrest that ensued, he seems to have had a conversion and concentrated all his vigor on studies of Hebrew, the Qur’an, and other reading. While preparing his great event in Rome, he met for further briefings with his teacher of Averroist Aristotelianism, Elia del Medigo. From their exchange of letters we learn that Pico paid Elia with a horse, but also infected him with scabies. More importantly, Elia was one of the sources for Pico to learn about Cabala.[12]
Here is, how Elia del Medigo explained this system of Jewish mysticism:
“[The cabalists] believe that in this world there are beings of a lower degree than the degree of the glorious God, who is called the Infinite, and these flow – that is: they are not made nor produced – from Him, who is named the Infinite. … The order in which the produced beings are produced and maintained within the order is this, namely by the [ten] Sephiroth, i.e. numberings. Thus they call these 'flowed from the Infinite'. … According to [the cabalists], the order we find in the world is that of the Sephiroth.”[13]
We should notice that Elia does not endorse this theory, being an Aristotelian. But Pico kept learning and had texts of Jewish mysticism translated for him.
Now, following his idea that as a human being one is invited, if not urged and obliged, to get to know as much of the world as possible, and in doing so to elevate oneself above the realm of the beasts, Pico understood, as Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida in the 20th century did, that being human means interpreting the world, reading the world like a book. We all know that famous adage of Galileo Galilei that the book of the world is written in the language of mathematics. On hearing that we see Einstein writing formulas on the blackboard. This notion, that the world can be read in the language of numbers, was actually an old idea. In Greece it was formulated by Pythagoras. And among the Jews of the Middle Ages it was expressed in their reading of the Holy Writ. As in other languages, in Hebrew every letter represents also a numerical value. Therefore it offered itself to wise people that God’s creation is achieved through that flow, mentioned by Elia del Medigo, that proceeds in 10 Sephirot and from there structures the world according to occult numbers. Now, as for the Christians, so even more for the Jews, the Bible is the primary text that helps reading the book of the world. Consequently, Jewish sages started discovering numerical hidden messages in the word of God.
This was what interested the young scholar. For Pico, Cabala gives access to the secret of divine creation through the alphabet. The letters of the Bible are nothing but a numerical reconfiguration of God's word and work. This he elaborated in his commentary on Genesis, by the title Heptaplus - Sevenfold.[14]
His method of interpretation of the Creation story in the Bible is as follows. First Pico establishes these two assumptions:
(1) Moses must have spoken adequately and in a learned manner, even though he addressed an uneducated audience;
 (2) Moses cannot have said anything "alien to the nature of things" since the Holy Spirit speaks through him.
Therefore, the nature of things as created by God must necessarily be the very message of the story of Genesis.  For all those whom we now term literalists: it is not so that the Bible is a source of a scientific interpretation of the world; rather, the other way round: for Pico, the world is the expression of God’s power and plans; therefore the structure of the world is necessary for an understanding of the Word of God. Both have the language and their hidden meaning in common.
As an example we may see Pico’s cabalistic interpretation of the first word of the Bible, “In the beginning” (in Hebrew bresit or bereshit): After describing a series of dissections and re-compositions of its letters, Pico discloses the meaning that was implied in this single word:
“The Father, in the Son and through the Son, the beginning and end or rest, created the head, the fire, and the foundation of the great man with a good pact.”
If that sounds mysterious – it is. The point is that by way of numerical relations, the name of Jesus is implied in the very beginning of the world.

5. Pico reconciled the humanist, theological, and philosophical trends of Renaissance philosophy.

In searching for new methods of interpreting texts, and specifically the Bible, Pico continued the efforts of humanists like Giovanni Boccaccio and Giannozzo Manetti; and he bestowed on the history of ideas what can be called Christian Cabala; a reconciliation of Jewish and Christian piety. That attempt at reconciliation did not remain uncontested: Giordano Bruno ridiculed it,[15] others mixed it up with magic and astrology; eventually, a version of it appeared in Baruch Spinoza in the 17th century, who then was accused of atheism.
But reconciliation was Pico’s long term project. By his family estate, he had the title Prince of Concordia, and he planned to write a book on the concord of Plato and Aristotle from a higher point of view. His aim was syncretism, as we heard, that is, the freedom to apply various methods depending on the matter at hand. Therefore he defended the scholastic style of argumentation after having studied not only with Ficino but also in Paris, the most important scholastic university.[16]
This came handy in his most ambitious project, that great disputation in Rome. The great event was cancelled, because censors had found 13 out of the 900 propositions to be suspicious of heresy. Pico defended himself with a long Apology, in which he argued like a scholastic theologian. However he points out that there are various schools, and he refers to the history of theology, which is a typical humanist move. Another humanist argument Pico applied was to say that all dogmas are expressed in language, and language is always open for interpretation – even the words of God, as we saw.
In conclusion we may observe that Pico absorbed all trends of humanism and philosophy. Some people think that humanism has nothing to do with philosophy and that in the Renaissance philosophy took shape only with Ficino’s new Platonism. Pico, who was 30 years younger than Ficino but died 5 years earlier, Pico proves to the contrary: Renaissance philosophy was as much indebted to Aristotle as to Plato and all their medieval Christian interpretations; and the new turn was made possible through the humanist emphasis on the central perspective of man on the world and the role of language in it. Pico achieved much less, personally, than his ambition pursued, but he handed over to the following generations the insight that knowledge is hard to come by but worth having.



[1] Only references to primary sources are given. For Pico’s biography and philosophy see, among others,  Dougherty, M. V., ed. Pico Della Mirandola: New Essays. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008., 2008. Stéphane Toussaint, “Giovanni Pico” in Paul Richard Blum, ed., Philosophers of the Renaissance, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010, 69-81.
[2] Isaac Israeli (ca. 832-ca. 932), Book of definitions, in: Alexander Altmann and S. M. Stern, Isaac Israeli a Neoplatonic Philosopher of the Early Tenth Century: His Works Translated with Comments and an Outline of His Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 27.
[3] Bernard Murchland (ed.). Two Views of Man: Pope Innocent III [1161-1216] On the Misery of Man. Giannozzo Manetti [1396-1459] On the Dignity of Man. New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co, 1966.
[4] Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. Oration on the Dignity of Man: A New Translation and Commentary. Ed. Francesco Borghesi, Michael Papio, and Massimo Riva. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
[5] Farmer, S. A. Syncretism in the West: Pico’s 900 Theses (1486); Conclusiones Nongentae; English & Latin., Tempe, Ariz.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1998.
[6] Nicholas of Cusa [1401-1464]. On Learned Ignorance: A Translation and an Appraisal of De Docta Ignorantia, trans. Jasper Hopkins, Minneapolis: A.J. Benning Press, 1981, http://jasper-hopkins.info/DI-I-12-2000.pdf.
[7] Marsilio Ficino [1433-1499]. Platonic Theology, ed. James Hankins, trans. Michael J.B. Allen et al., I Tatti Renaissance Library 2, 4, 7, 13, 17, 23, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001-2006.
[8] C. M. Woodhouse. George Gemistos Plethon [c. 1355 – 1452/1454]: The Last of the Hellenes Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.
[9] Ficino, Marsilio. Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love. Translated by Sears R. Jayne. Dallas, Tex.: Spring Publications, 1985.
[10] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Of Being and Unity; (De Ente et Uno), trans. Victor M. Hamm. Milwaukee, Marquette University Press, 1943.
[11] Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. Commentary on a Canzone of Benivieni. Translated by Sears R. Jayne. New York: P. Lang, 1984.
[12] On Cabala [Kabbalah] see Busi, Giulio, and Ebgi, Raphael. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: mito, magia, qabbalah. Torino: Einaudi, 2014.
[13] Elia's [1458-ca. 1493] letter to Pico in: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. De hominis dignitate; De ente et uno; e scritti vari. Edited by Eugenio Garin. Edizione nazionale dei classici del pensiero italiano. Firenze: Vallecchi, 1942, pp. 68-71.
[14] Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. Heptaplus: Or, Discourse on the Seven Days of Creation. Translated by Jessie Brewer McGaw. New York: Philosophical Library, 1977.
[15] Bruno, Giordano. The Cabala of Pegasus. Translated by Sidney L. Sondergard and Madison U. Sowell. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
[16] Breen, Quirinus. “Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola on the Conflict of Philosophy and Rhetoric.” Journal of the History of Ideas 13, no. 3 (June 1, 1952): 384–412. doi:10.2307/2707604. Barbaro, Ermolao, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Filosofia o eloquenza? Edited by Francesco Bausi. Sileni 2. Napoli: Liguori, 1998.