Giovanni Pico della Mirandola on Genesis

11 08 2008

Like many great religious thinkers, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola saw the end of all things in the beginning. Having retired to a villa near Fiesole in Italy around 1489, Pico della Mirandola began to write about many controversial topics that were on his mind. Here he wrote works that among other things refuted the use of astrology and tried to reconcile the differences between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. Here as well he wrote a re-conciliatory meditation on the account of creation told in the Book of Genesis known as the Heptaplus. As in all works, it was Pico’s ambition to reconcile various seemingly divergent strands of human thought to harmonize them in a Neoplatonic synthesis. In Pico’s reading, as in many ancient authors, symbolism and the spiritual senses of Scripture are used to draw out the metaphysical richness of the Hebrew text. For Pico as with many Christian authors, Genesis does not just re-tell the beginning of history, but reveals its meaning and its end as well.

For Pico della Mirandola, the text of Genesis is not just historical, but also profoundly metaphysical. The order of Creation reveals the fundamental structure of the cosmos. The division of male and female, for example, represents, “two powers in the same substance, one of which is engaged in contemplation while the other rules the body”. For the phrase, “Let there be light”, Pico explains that:

…light was made in the angel, the light of intelligible forms; and the evening and the morning were one day since, as Averroes shows, from the intellect and the intelligible is made a greater unity than from matter and form, because… truth is grasped far better by angels than by men. 

Dry land in Pico’s text does not just represent the earth, but matter itself. Pico’s reading then is not one of modern logical progression, but rather the pealing of various layers of meaning within the divine text.

Perhaps the most revealing symbol in Pico’s philosophy of Genesis is that of water. The various waters are given a spiritual meaning in Pico’s work and represent the various activities of angelic nature: the “lower waters” irrigate and purify the earth, the waters of heaven illuminate it when purified, and the waters above the heavens perfect it with life-giving dew, so that Christ Himself is formed in us. In another place, Pico says that the waters above the heavens represent the Jews, who alone among the ancient peoples had no belief in astrology, while the waters below the heavens represent the Gentiles, who were enslaved to the omens of the stars and planets. Christ is said to be a shepherd since He tends to the lost sheep of the flock of Israel, the beasts of the land, while the Apostles are fisherman, since they go after the Gentiles who are fish lost in the sea of idolatry. The five Mediterranean seas represent as well the five senses since water represents sensual nature. Finally, the waters under the heavens also represent the seven planets whose virtue is gathered in one place alone, the sun. For Pico, then, “water” represents a number of things according to context, but overall is a symbol of chaos, error, and potentiality going into act.

Man of course has a central role in Pico’s interpretation of Genesis.  Pico says that the Gospel refers to man as “every creature” and that man contains all in himself. This is how the Gospel is preached to every creature. Man also contains beasts within himself in the passions which he must tame and dominate. More importantly, however, Pico equates man with the statue that God put in the middle of His creation as His likeness, proclaiming His lordship over all things. Indeed, Pico says that all things, even the incorporeal powers and the stars, serve the needs of man. Man is both microcosm and image of God, or rather, he is an image of God because he is microcosm; he contains all things in himself.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is crown of the philosopher’s interpretation of the first book of Scripture . The sun is created on the fourth day to complete the firmament of heaven. Pico says that there is nothing more fitting than the sun to represent Christ, who is the “true light illuminating all minds”. Christ comes forth from the tribe of Judah, whose symbol is the lion, the “solar animal”. When Christ died on the cross, Pico explains, the moon eclipsed the sun, since the true supercelestial Sun, Christ, was eclipsed. Throughout the work, the Renaissance philosopher is eager to prove to the Jews especially that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. At every turn, he endeavors to prove that Christ is the end of history and the fulfillment of the Law. Not only does he go into some elaborate calculations proving that Christ arrived at the time the Messiah was predicted to come, but he also tries to interpret the Talmud itself to try to demonstrate that even it says that Jesus is the Christ. Such preoccupations were far from accidental since Pico was very much an eschatological thinker: the conversion of the Jews would signal the end of the world. Thus, his interpretation of Genesis had as much to do with the end of history as it did with the beginning.

Note should also be made of Pico’s use of sources. As I mentioned, Pico was eager to use Jewish sources in the original Hebrew, and as a lover of Plato, he also used various texts from Aristotle, Plotinus, Iamblichus, Julian the Apostate, the Fathers of the Church, and various Arabic philosophers, just to state a few. Nevertheless, for Pico, in contrast with Marsilio Ficino, it was very important to accentuate the hierarchy of sources: Christian ones were obviously to be given more credence. Compared to modern ideas of Christian authors, however, Pico is much more syncretic than anyone who came after the period of the Reformation. For him, all fountains of human knowledge flowed from the same source and towards the same end: Jesus Christ.

Pico della Mirandola’s reading of Genesis has much to teach us today about reading sacred texts as philosophical hymns revealing the complexity of created existence. As I have written before, when reading Genesis, we can get too bogged down in trying to uphold its historicity that we fail to harvest its richer, more sacred meaning. In the simple, “mythical” text, Pico della Mirandola sees simultaneously the creation of the incorporeal and corporeal worlds, the fall and redemption of man, and the destruction and final glorification of all things in Christ. The last chapter of his work bears the name, “Of the felicity which is eternal life”, exalting Christ as the end and Lord of the history that begins in Genesis. The key to it all for Pico is the Neoplatonic idea that all things are in all according to their particular manner, and that things above determine how things will be below. The world created in Pico’s Genesis is a wholly integrated world in which all things relate to each other and sing the praises of the same Lord. In other words, it is different from our own logical, atomized world since it is a Christian world; a world to which the Heptaplus can help us return.


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2 responses

17 08 2008
Nasr

You should read Agustino Steuco.

12 08 2008
Alice C. Linsley

Very interesting! I’m posting the opening of this at Just Genesis with a link to your blog, Arturo. It will appear tomorrow.

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