Pico’s 900 Theses

1 06 2008

Image credit: “Circles within circles” by Nicolas LeFevre illustrating Pico della Mirandola’s cosmology

Part I: Steven Farmer’s Analysis of the Emergence of Religious Complexity

In the introduction to his book, Syncretism in the West: Pico’s 900 Theses (1486), the scholar Steven Farmer analyses the convergence of various written traditions in order to harmonize their ideas into a cohesive whole within religious thought. For Farmer, the emergence of written religious texts coming out of oral traditions forced practitioners to create syncretic systems that could square away the inconsistencies in religious doctrine that occured over time. The best paradigm to analyze this phenomenon came through the aborted fifteenth century debate proposed by the philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to synthesize all of the religious traditions known at that time under 900 individual theses. By this, Mirandola hoped to prove that all known faiths had the same basic defining principles, and that all things were in each other according to their appropriate manner.

For Farmer, syncretism only emerges when religious man begins to write things down, thus allowing the greater highlighting of contradictions in the myths and stories that were told since the primordial origins of man. Farmer writes that oral traditions contained a fluidity that “provided syntheses in flexible and impermanent ways” (p. 74).  A written source forces one to consider contradiction: “it can be inspected in much greater detail…” (p. 93). The classic example cited by modern scholars in the Old Testament is of a God emerging from being just another tribal numen to a supreme and disembodied Being, abstracted from a particular time and place (p.90). For Farmer, this is a process that was going on in many places in the ancient world at the same time. From Greece to China, from Israel to India, people were closely examining their myths and extracting from them highly complex philosophical systems in order to reconcile all of them. Theology for him thus becomes the product of the clashing and harmonizing of texts to discover something more complex and primordial at the heart of all these myths.

Towards the end of his analysis, Farmer writes:

In the far broader commentarial systems that evolved over the next two thousand years, we find correlative models of reality that increasingly reflected not just isolated acts of textual exegesis but the cumulative history of many centuries of such acts-  with the abstract cosmological principles and transcendent gods of Eastern and Western scholastics, born out of repeated syncretic inbreeding, suggesting in a sense the furthest limits of those acts. And one here thinks of Aristotle’s image of God as “thought thinking thought”- but here it was man trapped in this vicious circle, cogitating and recogitating his earliest anthropomorphic projections in texts and in attempting to harmonize those texts building ever more complex hierarchical and correlative models of reality that as traditions grew and further inbred came to reflect nothing more clearly than the nature of his own neurological processes” (p.95).

In this process, then, deities and spirits were combined, classified, and put into hierarchies. They were moved from rivers and groves to the heights of Mount Olympus and the celestial Jerusalem. Where things disagreed, they were explained by allegory or diluted by resorting to the emphasis on the weakness of human words in the face of the Divine mystery. Finally, we have the emergence of monotheism on many fronts, going from many gods to one transcendent God, even if the various systems went about it in different ways. Farmer writes that this process of exegesis even became a cosmic principle, summarizing the idea in the phrase, “whatever exists in all worlds is contained in each one” (p.93).

By the time the young noble Pico della Mirandola proposes a debate of 900 theses in Rome by all of the scholars of the known world, the syncretic process described above had been going on for two thousand years. In these theses, Mirandola was convinced that he had encompassed the full scope of human thought known at the time. In one of his most syncretic theses, he writes:

That which among the Cabalists is called [Metatron] is without a doubt that which is called Pallas by Orpheus, the paternal mind by Zoroaster, the son of God by Mercury, wisdom by Pythagoras, the intelligible sphere by Parmenides.

The goal of Mirandola was to convert all men to Christ by showing them that what they fundamentally believed was the same as what was contained much more clearly in Christian revelation. Indeed, in one of the theses condemned explicitly by the Vatican, Mirandola wrote that:

There is no science that assures us more of the divinity of Christ than magic and Cabala.

Thus, Mirandola felt that he had correlated all texts to the point that he had shown that the truth, Christ, was in all of them in some manner. At the heart of them all was a primordial truth, a prisca theologia, that is was communicated, distorted, and crystallized again in the higher traditions of human thought.

I do not think that as traditional Christians we should be particularily afraid of such speculations provided that we put them in context. The idea that our understanding is getting more profound all the time is a novel one that is based on our modern discourse dominated by the quantitative sciences. In the processes described by Farmer above, the received texts were not discarded or explained away by the tools of higher criticism but rather respected and synthesized into systems that discarded none of the divine treasures but arranged them appropriately according to human reason. In all things, there was a deep reverence for the texts, and if they seemed to disagree even in radical ways, religious people found a way to defer to their divine character and give them the benefit of the doubt. And while these systems could create fairly abstract deities and religious practices, in many places this was balanced out by the “complex interplay between abstract philosophy and folk religion”, such as the emergence of the cult of the saints in the West.

In a later post, I will further develop the aims that Pico della Mirandola had in writing the 900 Theses and the non-rational elements that were at the root of his Neoplatonic system.

 

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6 responses

1 06 2008
Rene

Agustino Steuco also held to these beliefs (the Vatican librarian and linguist)

1 06 2008
Rene

Steuco inherited much of the library of Pico dell Mirandola’s library.
Steuco also believed in a perennial philosophy and original knowledge (gnosis) that predated the fall of man. He certainly believed that all religions and the same inspiration and there was a primordial truth and that all religions sprung form that truth or had some truth. He was a counter-reformation contemporary and a loyal hierarch of Pope Paul III, so it is interesting to note the diversity of opinion even at the time of Trent and a position regarding knowledge and other religions that is not common in Traditionalist circles. Here is his bio from wikipedia:

Agostino Steuco (in Latin Steuchus or Eugubinus) (1497 – 1548), Italian humanist, Old Testament scholar, Counter Reformation polemicist and antiquarian,was born at Gubbio in Umbria.

In 1513 he entered the congregation of the Order of the Augustinian Canons of San Salvatore di Bologna, taking up residence in one of the order’s monasteries in Gubbio. In 1524 he went to the mother cloister in Bologna, from where he briefly attended courses in Hebrew and rhetoric and the University of Bologna. In 1529 he was sent by his congregation to the Monastery of Sant Antonio di Castello in Venice, where, due to his expertise in biblical languages and humanist textual criticism, he was placed in charge of the monastery’s library, donated to the canons by Cardinal Domenico Grimani. Many of the collection’s biblical, Hebrew, and philosophical works had once been owned by Pico della Mirandola.

Over the next several years (1529-33) Steuco wrote a series of polemical works against Luther and Erasmus, the latter of whom he accused of helping to foment the Protestant revolt against the Church. These works show Steuco’s staunch support of the traditions and practices of the church, including a strident defense of papal authority. Part of his output during this period included a major set of annotations on the Pentateuch, titled De recognitio veteris testamenti ad Hebraicam veritatem, in which he used Hebrew and Greek manuscripts from the Grimani Library to correct Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Old Testament text. When explaining the text, he never strayed from the literal and historical meaning. An interesting juxtaposition to this work of humanist biblical exegesis was a syncretic philosophical work that he wrote in this period, to which he gave the title Cosmopoeia.

His polemical and exegetical works attracted the notice of Pope Paul III, and in 1538 the pope made Steuco bishop of Chisamo on the island of Crete, and librarian of the papal collection of manuscripts and printed works in the Vatican. While he never visited his bishopric in Crete, Steuco did actively fulfill his role as Vatican Librarian until his death in 1548.

While in Rome he authored Old Testament annotations on the Psalms and Job, again relying heavily upon Hebrew sources to help annotate and correct the texts. Also from this period dates a major work entitled the De perenni philosophia, dedicated to Paul III, in which he attempted to show that many of the ideas expounded by the sages, poets and philosophers from classical antiquity were in essential harmony with the central tenets of the Catholic faith. This work has a slight polemical edge to it, as Steuco crafted a number of his arguments to lend support to several theological positions that had recently come under question in Italy by reformers and critics of the traditional Catholic faith.

As a Roman humanist, he also took a deep interest in the classical ruins of Rome, and in the urban renewal efforts of Paul III throughout the city. Of particular note in this vein are a series of short orations that he wrote and possibly delivered at the papal court, urging Paul III to refurbish the aqueduct known as the Aqua Virgo, in order to supply Rome with adequate fresh water, and as a major key to the revitalization of the city itself.

In 1547 Steuco was sent by Paul III to attend the Council of Trent, where he could be counted upon to uphold papal prerogatives and authority. He died in 1548 while in Venice on break from the Council. He is now buried in Gubbio.

9 06 2008
Visibilium

I’ve just found my way to your new blog. Congrats. I’m late to the party, but you know how well Orthodox deal with innovations.

Thanks for your series on Pico. I’ve always liked him.

31 08 2008
Coming out of the desert « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[...] Christian than peasants who cross a child with an egg to get rid of the evil eye. That is because, as Steven Farmer wrote in his introduction to the writings of Pico della Mirandola, highly developed religious systems always contain various atavistic elements within themselves [...]

20 02 2009
Ted Hand

thanks for putting this up. I’m always happy to see folks writing about Pico. I’m about to finish my MA thesis on Pico, Thomas, and Dionysius. cheers.

31 07 2010
Edgar Romero Pico

7:7. Just as medicine chiefly moves the spirits that rule the body, so music moves that spirits that serve the soul.

7:8. Medicine heals the soul through the body, but music the body through the soul.

Geovani Pico de la mirandola.

I am glad to know that an ancestor as Geovani family and leave a legacy for humanity. I congratulate you on your space I was very pleased. If you need information contact me on my mail. Greetings.

Edgar Romero Pico.

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