Pico Della Mirandola
Islam spread swiftly, in the East from Arabia through Egypt and the Levant to the gates of Constantinople, in the West across Africa and Spain to Tours. The security of the Church was threatened, mocking its pretence to universal rule, physically by the seizure of the Holy Land, and metaphysically through the introduction of invigorating ideas into the very heart of Christendom. Great Arabic philosophers preserved and taught portions of the Platonic tradition; scientists developed astronomy, alchemy and astrology; Jewish esotericism flourished under the protection of the Koran and the influence of Sufi theosophy; Islamic political expansion into India renewed interest in mathematics and imported the Hindu numerals into the West, providing a system of notation suitable for advanced mathematical investigation.
Dissension within the Church, including the removal of the papal court to Avignon in 1309 and the simultaneous election of two 'Supreme Pontiffs' upon its return to Rome in 1377, weakened the credibility of any claim to universal authority. Brave voices like that of John Wycliffe (1320-1384) questioned superstitious dogmas – the forgiveness of sins, the power of excommunication and transubstantiation – and paved the way for rational reconsideration of the concepts of man, nature and deity.
The Second Impulsion found its richest expression in the jewel of the Italian Renaissance, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), younger son of the Count of La Mirandola and Concordia. He studied at the universities of Bologna, Ferrara, Padua and Paris, mastering Italian, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew. Pico's reverence for prisca theologia, ancient wisdom, drew him to the Florentine Platonic Academy established by Marsilio Ficino under the aegis and encouragement of Cosimo dei Medici. His awareness of the universality of truth led him to reject such humanist tendencies as the emphasis upon oratorical style over philosophical reason and the exclusive dependence on ancient Greece for inspiration. Pico studied Zoroaster and Moses, Orpheus and Pythagoras, Christian theology, Islamic philosophy and the Hebrew Qabbalah. Ficino translated Plato into Latin and Pico studied his works avidly. When agents of the Medicis brought the Hermetic writings to Florence, Pico urged Ficino to translate them, holding that they contained the root of wisdom and the synthesis of philosophy, science and religion. Pico himself single-handedly brought the Qabbalah into the heart of the Renaissance.
In 1486, at the age of 23, Pico published nine hundred theses which were to be freely debated by scholars and theologians all over Europe. Seven were condemned by Rome as heretical, and six others as 'dubious.' Included among the heresies were the propositions that (1) Origen, the Christian co-disciple of Plotinus under Ammonius Saccas and head of the Alexandrine Catechistic School, having been excommunicated for teaching reincarnation, should be thought to lie in heaven rather than hell, and (2) the science of magic and the Qabbalah prove the divinity of the Christos. He prepared an opening address, Oratio de Hominis Dignitate, "On the Dignity of Man," but abandoned the project in the face of papal censure.
Pico's Oratio struck the keynote of the fifteenth century cycle. Teaching that dialectic alone could harmonize disparate philosophies, synthesize science and religion, and unveil the secret wisdom at the core of all systems, he introduced the concept of freedom of choice into the Renaissance.
In the Oration, Pico has 'the master-builder' say to Adam, the archetypal man:
This was, Pico said, part of the meaning behind symbolizing man by Prometheus in the Athenian mysteries. Freedom did not deny a universe of law, but rather depends upon it. The seeds of every kind of life and being in the cosmos are also innate in man. If the seeds of sensation are allowed to grow, man becomes a brute; if rational seeds germinate, he becomes a heavenly animal; but if the seeds of intuitive intellect flourish, man becomes angelic. "And if he is not content with the lot of any creature but takes himself up into his own unity, then, made one spirit with God and settled in the solitary darkness," man becomes Kutastha, "above all things," and "ahead of all things." For, "as Asaph the prophet says: 'Ye are all gods, and sons of the most high,'" and "we may be what we will be."
Pico blended metaphysics and ethics by rooting freedom, the essential dignity of man, in the structure of the cosmos. The method for realizing this divine possibility was a meditation which lit the fires of discrimination, intuitive intelligence and compassion – the Higher Triad. One who activates these three in himself, by confining affections through moral science, shaking off the mists of reason by dialectic and purifying the soul becomes a seraph, a lover who "is in God, and more, God is in him, and God and he are one."
Knowing well that he dare not speak openly of his vast conception of deity, he used the word 'God' to refer to the Absolute Darkness which is beyond the light of finite consciousness as well as to the triple Logos and the master-builder of the cosmos. The casual eye will see only the many references to God, but the intuitive mind will recognize many kinds of gods in the Oratio. Despite the papal search for heresy, this fundamental teaching went unnoticed by those who sought to prevent a resurgence of thought.
Man's freedom is due to the fact that man contains all the gods within his incarnate form, and yet has the power "to have that which he chooses and be that which he wills." In will, man is most like the creative impulse behind and within manifestation, for it is without quality and has no seat in the human constitution. Man is "neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal," but becomes so in and through consciousness.
Meditation and magic are the keys to self-transformation. We have a double nature which draws us upwards toward divine, homogeneous realms of being and also pulls us into the lower, differentiated spheres of strife. "Driven by strife and discord like a madman and banished from the gods, man is tossed upon the deep." But moral philosophy, love of wisdom within a context of the detached performance of duty will bring peace. Then only can we begin to climb the Jacob's ladder "stretching from the lowness of earth to the heights of heaven and divided by the succession of many steps." For "who can touch the ladder of the Lord with dirty feet or unwashed hands? As the mysteries put it, it is sacrilegious for the impure to touch that which is pure." But once done, we can cultivate a universal love for all beings, and if successful, "we shall suddenly burst into flame in the likeness of a seraph." Manas will fully awake and will unite with Buddhi, the principle of spiritual discrimination which, like a "throne, stands in steadfastness of judgment." The "cherub shines with the radiance of intelligence" and Manas Taijasi is manifest in the individual.
With the peace bestowed by dialectic, which transcends both rhetoric and logical debate, and allows the lower principles of man to form a friendship with the Higher Triad through Manas, meditation is possible.
until the contemplator achieves
Natural philosophy, which leads to magic, is imparted first by study and later, when the whole man is purified and prepared, by initiation.
Pico taught that the demonology of the Middle Ages constituted a degradation of the Holy of Holies and a fascination with inferior potencies, a magic which leads to sorcery. But there is a higher natural magic based upon SYMPATHEION, sympathetic or resonant harmonies which link the spiritus of the earth, celestial images and truly spiritual potencies. Material objects have no power in themselves, yet they contain astral and akasic figures and characters which are potent. These invisible matrices can be brought into alignment and be attuned to the divine light which radiates through them diffusely, but can shine in its pristine splendor focussed through the heart of the Magus. "So the Magus marries earth to heaven, that is to say the forces of inferior things to the gifts and properties of supernal things." The natural magic, used by the sorcerer, is purified and transformed by reaching beyond the astral realm to the supercelestial plenum. The process requires, besides moral and spiritual perfection and will, a deep understanding of color, number and sound as creative potencies and relationships. Through this knowledge and practice, man becomes personally invulnerable in the world and immortal in consciousness, an Adept-Magus, and when the whole ladder of being is ascended, a Mahatma, a divine man. Hence the higher magic "does not so much make wonders as carefully serve Nature which makes them."
Three 'Delphic precepts' must be fulfilled, if one is to enter the "august temple of the true, not the invented Apollo, who illuminates every soul coming into this world." The first is nothing too much, for the principle of moderation in all things harmonizes the mind and body of him who aspires to spiritual knowledge. The second is know thyself, for obedience "arouses us and urges us toward the knowledge of all Nature, of which man's nature is the medium and, as it were, the union." The third is Thou art, with which "we shall address the true Apollo," Atma overbrooding every being.
Pico wrote a lengthy Apologia in which he defended his views, but he was forced to flee Rome under threat of persecution from Pope Innocent VIII. Though arrested in France by Charles VIII at the request of papal envoys, Pico returned to Florence under the personal protection of Lorenzo dei Medici and spent the last few years of his life writing and spreading the teachings which were the pivot of the Renaissance.
Taking up Origen's doctrine that scripture has three keys to interpretation – literal, allegorical and celestial or occult – Pico wrote the Heptaplus, an account of the Genesis creation story, in the form of a sevenfold understanding of evolution and Nature, from the elemental kingdoms through the supramundane worlds.
In 1491 Pico renounced his title and wealth and confided that he wished to become a homeless ascetic and teacher as soon as his literary work was completed. He was completely exonerated in 1493 of any taint by Pope Alexander VI, who was deeply interested in magic himself, but before he could take up the life of a wanderer, he succumbed to a fever. He died on November 17, 1494, the day Charles VIII entered Florence after expelling Piero dei Medici.
The spirit of his work has left a permanent impress on the mind of the race, and he deserved in its most occult meaning the simple title he gave himself: Explorator.
Although his works have never been fully translated into any modern language, his pivotal position in the rebirth of the West is clear. In the words of Frances Yates,
Pico's science is a science of Nature, rooted in the love of wisdom, and a science of Spirit, a true religion which draws us back to the Ancient Source.
Copyright 2000 Theosophy Library Online (rescued from oblivion, for Eclectic Theosophical History, June 2006)