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.