26 April 2012

Emulating the Seraphim According to Pico della Mirandola

I am pleased to announce that, incredibly, I have a legitimate reason for not having posted in the last two weeks. My old computer began to experience difficulties, and I only just got a replacement (a gift from a Catholic priest friend) which is not yet internet-ready. I did, however, very much hope to get in one more post before the end of April, but I'm afraid it will be rather disappointing.

I would like to post a passage from Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, which I read some years ago but am currently re-reading with my students. I have two different translations: one by A. Robert Caponigri, with an introduction by, surprisingly, Russell Kirk, [1] and one by Elizabeth Livermore Forbes and published in the fascinating anthology, The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, edited by Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall, Jr. [2] I neglected to really compare the translations, and as I had to photocopy the oration for my students, I chose Forbes's because the type was smaller and I would save paper. It also features helpfully numbered paragraphs.

Anyway, I offer a passage which clearly reflects the influence upon Pico of St Dionysius the Areopagite, as well as leaves aside much of the--to many Christian eyes--syncretism that marks Pico's thinking throughout. It is a startling reminder that while the 18th century may have fostered a largely secular view of the 'Renaissance philosophy of man', perhaps the most characteristic statement of that view is quite obviously anything but.

8. ...The Seraph burns with the fire of love. The Cherub glows with the splendor of intelligence. The Throne stands by the steadfastness of jdgment. Therefore if, in giving ourselves over to the active life, we have after due consideration undertaken the care of the lower beings, we shall be strengthened with the firm stability of Thrones. If, unoccupied by deeds, we pass our time in the leisure of contemplation, considering the Creator in the creature and the creature in the Creator, we shall be all ablaze with Cherubic light. If we long with love for the Creator himself alone, we shall speedily flame up with His consuming fire into a Seraphic likeness. Above the Throne, that is, above the just judge, God sits as Judge of the ages. Above the Cherub, that is, above him who contemplates, God flies, and cherishes him, as it were, in watching over him. For the spirit of the Lord moves upon the waters, the waters, I say which are above the firmament (Gen. 1:2) and which in Job praise the Lord with hymns before dawn. Whoso is a Seraph, that is, a lover, is in God and God in him, nay, rather, God and himself are one. Great is the power of Thrones, which we attain in using judgment, and most high the exaltation of Seraphs, which we attain in loving. [3]

[1] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, tr. A. Robert Caponigri (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1956).

[2] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, 'Oration on the Dignity of Man', tr. Elizabeth Livermore Forbes, The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, ed. Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, & John Herman Randall, Jr. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1956).

[3] Ibid., pp. 227-8.

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