Pico’s 900 Theses

14 06 2008

Part II- Banging on the Gates of the Apocalypse

Did Pico believe that his Vatican debate would end with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse crashing through the Roman skies, now that mankind- dressed “in garments of gold like a wedding gown, wrapped in a manifold variety of sciences” – was prepared at last for its marriage to Christ?

-Steven A. Farmer, Syncretism in the West: Pico’s 900 Theses (1486)

When Giovanni Pico della Mirandola composed his 900 theses for debate in the late fifteenth century, what he was proposing far transcended the idea of a basic scholastic exercise. Even in the composition, order, and number of the theses themselves, Pico was employing rather ancient number symbolism to articulate truths higher than what could be achieved through discursive human thought. According to Steven Farmer, even though the content of the theses was also important, their very structure was meant to be something akin to an incantation or magic spell uttered to bring about concord among the peoples, conversion to the Church, and, ultimately perhaps, the very end of the world. Pico saw this as an application of the exitus-reditus model of Platonic thought to the cosmic realm: human ideas leave God and create multiplicity, only to return to Him again in utmost simplicity.

Farmer writes that the 900 theses were meant to be a comprehensive as possible, including propositions on “moral philosophy, logic, metaphysics, astrology, magic, numerology, theology, epistemology, physiology, and a half dozen other fields” (p. 10).  The number 900 was far from an arbitrary one. Farmer cites one of Pico’s letters in which he said:

Before you left, the doctrines to be disputed publicly by me had stopped at seven hundred. After you left, they grew to nine hundred- and unless I had drawn back, would have reached a thousand. But it was proper to halt at this number, since it is mystical. For if my doctrine of numbers is correct, this is the number of the excited soul turning back into itself through the frenzy of the muses… (pg. 40)

According to Farmer, the structure of the “two main parts of the nine hundred these was apparently planned around two types of perfect numbers most commonly  acknowledged in the West – numbers like six and twenty-eight composed of the sum of all their factors, and the Pythagorean decad…” (pg. 31). For example, six nations of thinkers were represented, along with twenty-eight heresiarchs, and his last section, the one that sought to prove that the Jewish Cabala pointed to Jesus being the Messiah and Son of God, had seventy-two propositions, “the number of letters in one of the most secret of the Cabala’s secret names of God” (p.32).  Unlike Ficino, Pico’s use of magic was primarily numerical, and he sought not just to cure people of their illnesses, as the Florentine magus did, but rather to bring about universal harmony through numbers.

The circumstances and the ordering of the theses also carried much weigth and symbolism in Pico’s mind. The debate would take place in Rome under the supervision of the Pope, God’s representative on Earth. The debate would go from the complex and recent (the arguments of contemporary scholastic philosophy) to the simple and primordial (ancient magic and the Cabala, which was believed to have been revealed by God on Mount Sinai). The last section was to be on Jewish wisdom, implying that it was to usher in the conversion of the Jews to Christ, one of the last eschatological events before His second coming. The debate itself was set to take place on the Feast of the Epiphany, when the pagan gentes in the form of the Magi submitted to Christ, and the Church sings, “On this day the Church is joined to her celestial spouse” (pg. 44). In this we see the great level of eschatological uneasiness that plagued the late Renaissance, a sense that a new world was about to be born and that the old was passing away.

This debate of course never took place, and Pico was on the receiving end of various papal condemnations of his theses. His attempt to bring about the universal harmonies among peoples and possibly the second coming of the Son of God was thus definitively rejected by the authorities of his time. Pico would live out the rest of his short life in a more hushed intellectual atmosphere, ultimately supporting Savonarola in Florence and, as scholars now believe, being poisoned by someone closest to him.

At the heart of Pico’s aborted endeavor were principles that the modern world would both use and distort to found itself amidst the ruins of the medieval world. Farmer writes that one of Pico’s foundational premises was that “the ancients stood closer than we do to the truth, since ‘we are flesh and what we know is of the earth’, ‘our heads damned with dizziness by the sudden fall of man from heaven” (pg. 34). For Renaissance Neoplatonists, modern man was not advancing in knowledge, but rather regressing. The development of more complex and complicated forms of knowledge was not a sign of the evolution of human thought, but rather of degeneration, decline, and muddledness. True wisdom was not created by the dialectic and discovery of something new, but rather by the return to the primeval symbols and building blocks of human thought: numbers, deities, sacred words and the like. Here we see again the Neoplatonic principal best articulated by Iamblichus of Chalcis: only the non-rational performance of divine activities can return man from the confusion of human multiplicity to the blissful divine simplicity of the primordial One. This idea is now a counter-intuitive one for modern man, one that he has difficulty in grasping, and this difficulty, I would argue, is the cause of many of his problems.

On the other hand, Pico also showed another tendency that would prove very problematic in the emergence of modernity: the critical reading of texts and an inherent distrust of the immediate past. Pico believed that the age that immediately preceded his own was under a spell of intense ignorance, and that the continuing uncovering of the original ancient texts of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and the like would begin a new period of enlightenment and unbind the ancient principals at the heart of the world. The casual reader does not have to exercise his imagination too much in linking this desire for a return to primordial unity to the musings of a certain German monk as to the possibility of justification by Faith alone and a return to the pristine simplicity of the early Church. This interplay between the new and the old, truth and corruption, and the distrust of authority would in the end help give birth to the Protestant Reformation, and the Reformation would in turn give birth to the world that we now see before us.

It is surprising that so far I have not stated that Pico’s idea of helping to bring about the end times was one of the greatest feats of tragic hubris in the history of Christendom. I do believe this to be the case, and compared to the figure of Marsilio Ficino, I find Pico della Miranadola to be a man full of pride, youthful foolishness, and lacking the tact and gentleness that the old priest had in presenting his thought to others. Here again, however, one cannot help but admire the audacity and intellectual discipline of a man in his early twenties trying to reconcile all the forms of thought know at the time. Even though we are confronted with a much greater corpus of human knowledge to reconcile in our own day and age, such confidence must be our own when we continue to assert that all human knowledge, from the Bushman’s idea of ghosts that haunt the African savanna to Jean-Luc Marion’s remarks on onto-theology, all these come from one source, the Word of God, and they all must return to Him. In the face of greater multiplicity and division, we must have a bold and absolute faith in the simplicity and beauty of the Truth.




4 responses

9 08 2012
Juan Riingen

I’m a novice regarding Pico’s ideas. I may not agree with all of his ideas, but I am glad to know of his prophetic role that led to the protestant movement by Martin Luther, challenging the pope’s infallibility, and also for advocating for freedom of inquiry.

15 06 2008
Agustino Steuco

You would than like (based on your above post) the writings of Hossein Nasr Seyyed (especially his book Knowledge and the Sacred), Rene Guenon, Fricjouf Schouen, and Fr Rama Cooramasaway MD. They are of the Perrenialist school. Many Fransicans also believed in the primordial knowledge before the fall a sort of universal knowledge.

15 06 2008
Arturo Vasquez

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath…”

James 1:17-19

First of all, I am not one of those people who think that all forms of discourse are the same. Balinese gamelan and Bach are not of the same aesthetic order, nor are Bushman fables and Aquinas of the same intellectual order. That is not what Pico is arguing. Just because things have to be synthesized and united doesn’t mean that all the elements are united and synthesized equally. All good things come from the Father of Lights, but it does not mean that all the gifts are of equal value.

Secondly, we would be really suprised by what the ancient founders of our civilization would have considered more advanced forms of discourse. Plato and his followers considered Egyptian hieroglyphics as a superior form of communication than phonetic writing (Derrida had a field day with this stuff). The late Greek Neoplatonists considered Greek myths as expressing higher realities in spite of their often earthy nature. (Just as Origen used allegory to explain the Old Testament.) The idea that a Bushman’s fable is inferior to a series of philosphical syllogisms might be a hasty supposition if our basis is the history of our own thought. If truth in the end is simple, than the more primeval sources might be the simplest and most truthful of all. Of course, this goes against the modern utlilitarian view of truth: what can truth do rather than what it is in itself.

Thirdly, I didn’t know that there were all these modern Christian Platonists running around. Usually the idea of Christian Platonism elicits repulsion like having just told someone you like to drown puppies in buckets. Let’s just say that the difference between the Reformed idea of the cosmos and the Renaissance Neoplatonist view is that the former believes the world is completely fallen, all people were shrouded in ignorance prior to Christ, and that the world is an untrustworthy vessel of God’s glory. The latter believes that man was endowed with a prisca theologia in which primordial truths were passed down from Adam and that man thus has a natural revelation and intuition of the divine that is purified and completed in Jesus Christ. That is an unbreachable chasm, and I will not attempt to breach it here.

Where you seek to divide, we seek to unite. Where you see distances, we see connections. Where you see roadblocks, we see secret passages. Call us naive, but that is how we see things. The ancient reading of texts sought to reconcile opposites, not accentuate them.

14 06 2008
Josh S

Statements such as this always make me curious:

“…such confidence must be our own when we continue to assert that all human knowledge, from the Bushman’s idea of ghosts that haunt the African savanna to Jean-Luc Marion’s remarks on onto-theology, all these come from one source, the Word of God, and they all must return to Him.”

I always wonder why we must assert this to begin with. Modern platonists take it for granted that we will all nod in affirmation that all noetic exercises of humans should be called “knowledge” and must be from God. What he seems to be assuming as obvious (or perhaps, this text is really addressed to an audience that already finds it obvious) is not so to all. I suppose if I were already a platonist, his version of pluralism would be quite amenable to me.

But Plato and I were never pals.

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