Giovanni Pico della Mirandola; portrait by Cristofano dell’Altissimo

Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola; portrait by Cristofano dell’Altissimo, 1560s

Learned men in the Renaissance loved oratory as deeply as politicians did in the nineteenth century, and they practiced it with skill and dedication. They wrote speeches to open church councils, to advertise university courses, and to praise everything from ancient disciplines they hoped to revive to great teachers who had just died. Working from scraps of evidence, they composed the lost speeches of historical figures, such as the emperor Heliogabalus’s oration to the prostitutes of Rome. They wrote satirical eulogies of flies and dogs, gout and debt, beer and drunkenness. In the most famous of these, The Praise of Folly, Erasmus brought a personified Folly onstage to praise herself, as she explained why human society could not exist without the illusions she spread. Sometimes, they had the chance to present their creations to an audience: Lorenzo Valla, for example, recited his oration in praise of Thomas Aquinas on the saint’s feast day, at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, one of the churches of the great philosopher’s Dominican order. It was not well received, perhaps because Valla made no secret of his view that the Fathers of the Church were more eloquent and useful than scholastics like Aquinas.

But the most famous speech of the Renaissance, the one that thousands of modern students read every year, was never recited, and the debate that it was intended to open never took place. In 1486 a young philosopher named Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), famed for his memory, his polyglot learning, and his daring, decided to hold a public disputation in Rome. Participants would argue about nine hundred theses that Pico had crafted, derived from dozens of authors in as many disciplines. Before the games began, he planned to deliver a long speech that would lay out his intellectual program.

Pico was not a master of impulse control. Earlier in 1486, his decision to run away with the wife of a local official had ended in capture and humiliation. Fifteenth-century Italian authorities tolerated a wide range of opinion on many touchy subjects, such as the power of the stars to control human life. But several of Pico’s theses went too far. In December 1484 Innocent VIII, the reigning pope, had issued a bull that strongly supported the witch-hunting activities of Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. This text, drafted by Kramer and Sprenger, stated clearly that witches renounced the Christian faith, committing their terrible crimes on behalf of “the Enemy of the Human Race.” It was incorporated in the Malleus Maleficarum, the manual of witch-hunting that the two men compiled, when it appeared in print in 1486–1487.

Innocent’s Curia was not the place to assert that no disciplines could give greater assurance of the divinity of Christ than magic and Kabbalah—as one of Pico’s more contentious theses did. The debate was forbidden. A committee was empaneled to scrutinize the theses. Pico, pressed to defend himself and required to return his borrowed books to the Vatican Library, fled to France early in 1488. After negotiations he wound up in Florence, where Lorenzo de’ Medici protected him.

Though suppressed, Pico’s speech was printed, again and again. It begins with an interlocking set of statements about human nature, as mysterious as they are sonorous:

In Arab memorials, Most Reverend Fathers, I have read about Abdala, a Saracen: when asked what was the most astonishing sight to be seen on this stage of the world—so to speak—he answered that there was nothing to see more astonishing than man. Supporting his opinion is that saying of Mercury: Man is a great miracle, Asclepius.

Pico goes on to describe man as “an interval between fixed eternity and flowing time and (as the Persians say) the bond—no, the wedding-knot—of the world, a little lower than the angels, according to David,” and to evoke man’s power—unique among the creatures of the universe—to admire and love the orderly splendor of God’s creation and to rise above that to union with God.

For generations, as Brian Copenhaver shows in Magic and the Dignity of Man, historians have cited Pico’s speech as Exhibit A when making the case that in the Renaissance, humanity became conscious of its own creative powers. Textbooks on Western civilization and Renaissance history almost always cite it. Their authors refer to it as Pico’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” though he himself did not give it that title and used the term “dignity” only twice in it, neither time in connection with man. These textbooks juxtapose it with other creations of the same period that seem to embody a similar view of the beauty and power of humanity: Donatello’s bronze David, for example, or Brunelleschi’s dome for the Florentine cathedral. Often, a few lines from the speech appear in what Copenhaver nicely calls a “Pico Box”—an inset introduced by a headline that forecloses any question about what the text might mean: “Pico della Mirandola States the Renaissance Image of Man.”


The textbook summaries of what Pico said are highly labile. As edition succeeds edition, “the Renaissance Image of Man” becomes “the Renaissance image of mankind,” and that in turn becomes the image “of humanity.” But no new iteration is more concrete or meaningful than the version it replaces. The speech has “become a meme,” as Copenhaver writes: a pill-sized summary of the meaning of the Renaissance. Formulations of its message mutate not because the author of the textbook in question has rethought Pico’s text but because it must now be summarized in language that better reflects the social and political concerns of the day.

Since 1974 I’ve been teaching courses on the intellectual history of the Renaissance. In them, students read the whole text of Pico’s speech, in English, and their first reaction has usually been bafflement. They come to the work expecting a paean to human creativity, only to encounter something completely different: a detailed argument that humans achieve the true end of their being not by sculpting gorgeous marble nudes or by composing seductive love songs, but by following an ascetic regimen of study and self-discipline that enables them to rise to unity with God. Equally surprising and even less appetizing is Pico’s long enumeration of the many writers whose works he had collected, mastered, and drawn on: ancient Persians, Chaldeans, and Greek Neoplatonists, medieval scholastics and the Jewish sages whose oral revelations were collected, according to Pico, in the Kabbalah.

And even these lists of names, each characterized by an adjective or two that reveal little to students, are not as off-putting as the mysterious kernels of wisdom that Pico draws from them. He quotes Pythagoras, for example, advising young men never to make water while facing the sun, never to cut their nails during a sacrifice, and “to feed the cock.” True, Pico glosses these injunctions: the one about making water, for example, actually tells us that we must void “our eager floods of overflowing pleasure with morality.” But they remain confusing, and no visible line connects such ancient advice to Donatello and Lorenzo de’ Medici. It takes a lot of professorial commentary, starting with the incorrect title and winding up with the Kabbalah, to make clear that his endlessly ramifying vision of the chain of being, the nine orders of angels that occupied places on it, and the possibility that humans could ascend to the levels of the angels and beyond was far too complex to fit in any Pico Box.

Copenhaver has translated a number of volumes of forgotten lore from hard Latin into accurate, readable English, and he has written pioneering studies of premodern philosophy. In this massive, lively, and learned book, he carries out two tasks, one of demolition and one of construction. He explains how and why historians decided to put this Renaissance philosopher and his ideas not only in a box, but in the wrong one. And he reveals the real structure of Pico’s speech—which, he argues, has never been properly understood, chiefly because Pico wrote in a deliberately esoteric way.

The first ten chapters lay out a long and depressing story of scholarly error. Moving deftly across barriers of space and time that would daunt most scholars, Copenhaver shows that many thinkers have found ways to bend, fold, and mutilate Pico’s rhetoric. German Enlightenment philosophers like Christian Thomasius and Jacob Brucker denounced Pico. They held that he had argued, falsely, that philosophers with radically divergent views had actually agreed. Worse still, he had succumbed, credulously, to the delusions of magic and Kabbalah. Voltaire—less erudite than the Germans, though more so than he sometimes pretended—denounced Pico at still greater length. For all his learning, Pico had lost himself in a labyrinth even more monstrous than those of the Kabbalah: the empty intricacies of scholastic philosophy. “The only thing worth the bother in this immense undertaking,” Voltaire concluded, “is a little elementary geometry and astronomy. The rest just shows the spirit of the times.”

But the most destructive of the critics, in principle at least, was Kant. Though Kant didn’t discuss Pico in particular, his denunciations of Schwärmerei (religious enthusiasm) provided the grounds for a devastating critique of Pico’s passion for dubious ancient revelations. Copenhaver analyzes the arguments of Pico’s critics with precision and panache, setting thinkers little-known in the English-speaking world into context and making clear that their ideas, as well as those of Voltaire and Kant, had a real impact.


Kant did much more than state reasons for distrusting Pico. He was one of the two writers who made it possible for a distortion of Pico’s thought to become a centerpiece in interpretations of Renaissance intellectual history and culture. Kant argued, in terms that have echoed down the centuries, that dignity is “an absolute inner value,” possessed only by morality, and by humanity to the extent that it is morally capable. Each human owes it to every other human to consider him or her “not merely as a means to ends…but as an end in itself,” a fellow human who “possesses an inalienable dignity.”

In 1860 Jacob Burckhardt, a historian rather than a philosopher, published The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, a uniquely inspiring cultural history that has shaped research for more than a century and a half. His work was a mosaic: from anecdotes and songs, state institutions and public carnivals, he pieced together a glowing image of the Italians as the “first-born of the modern world,” the first to see both the world around them and their own selves objectively. Italians, he argued, claimed a new freedom, which enabled all of them—peasants as well as lords, women as well as men—to move from one social order or place to another: to plan and make their own way in the world. Burckhardt did not offer a full portrait, much less an analysis, of Pico, but he pulled bright anecdotes from his life and writings to support his vision of the Renaissance. His Pico, who praised human freedom and rejected astrological determinism, was in perfect tune with the world around him.

In the twentieth century, as scholarship on the Renaissance exploded in volume, Burckhardt and others moved Italian philosophers and historians to investigate Pico’s thought. Copenhaver has a deep command of modern Italian intellectual history, which gives this part of his work special value. Again and again Italian thinkers set out to show—as the great intellectual historian Eugenio Garin did in his influential book Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, published just before World War II—that the reassertion of human freedom was at the core of Pico’s philosophy. Meanwhile, German émigrés in the US, above all Ernst Cassirer and Paul Oskar Kristeller, found in Pico a prophet of Kantian critical thinking and belief in the dignity of the individual. Fragments of Burckhardt and Kant, Copenhaver shows, floated between these erudite, precise readers and Pico’s texts.

Even Kristeller, a master philologist and historian, presented Pico in partly anachronistic terms in his introduction to the translation of the oration that generations of English-speaking students have read. The conventional wisdom ruled for generations. New movements in philosophy—such as existentialism—stirred Garin and others not to see more distance between Pico and their own time but to find seeds of these newer forms of modern morality in his thought.

True, some scholars called attention to the elements in Pico’s thought that these interpretations ignored. Eugenio Anagnine teased out the vital importance of the Kabbalah. Avery Dulles, a Harvard undergraduate who would become a Jesuit and a cardinal, revealed in a Phi Beta Kappa–prize essay that Pico had steeped himself in scholastic philosophy. Both contributions were treated as marginal to Pico studies for decades. Only in the 1980s—when a new generation of scholars began to explore the craggy mass of Pico’s texts, some of them written in haste or left unfinished, and to clear away the ivy of secondary literature that had grown over them—did a new picture begin to emerge. Copenhaver has been at the forefront of this movement, and in his account the mighty are brought down from their seats and the revisionists come into their own.

One revisionist in particular plays a central part in this story. Chaim Wirszubski, who emigrated from Vilna to Palestine, joined the group of students around Gershom Scholem in the 1930s, and took part in their exploration of the tradition of Kabbalah. A classicist, Wirszubski devoted his dissertation to the concept of libertas (freedom) in late Republican Rome. He found the key to Pico’s thought, however, not in Ciceronian dignitas but in Pico’s contact with Jewish tradition. Sharing Scholem’s interest in Christians who had studied the Kabbalah, Wirszubski followed a trail to Pico that few others had traveled since the seventeenth century. It had long been known that Pico had received lessons in Hebrew and other languages from a spectacularly colorful figure: Flavius Mithridates, a Sicilian Jew who converted to Christianity and, in the best humanist fashion, gave himself a classical name: that of King Mithridates VI Eupator Dionysus of Pontus, who, according to the Roman polymath Pliny the Elder, could speak all the languages of the twenty-two peoples he governed.

As that period form of self-advertisement suggests, Mithridates was a polyglot. Invited by Pope Sixtus IV to give an oration in the Vatican on Good Friday, he spoke for two hours, charming his audience with his elegant pronunciation of Aramaic and Hebrew. He then traveled north to the Holy Roman Empire, where he earned “a large heap of money” from his lectures on the poetic books of the Hebrew Bible, though he left his audiences completely bewildered. Flavius returned to Italy just when Pico decided he needed access to the mysteries of Jewish and Islamic thought.

It was a match characteristic of its time: not of an abstract Renaissance but of a complex Mediterranean world set into new forms of motion by the rise of Ottoman power and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Iberia and southern Italy. Expert translators were involved in diplomacy and scholarship. Flavius could not only read and interpret the densely allegorical and allusive works of the Kabbalists, but also translate them into Latin. He did this for Pico. Flavius had spiced his Good Friday oration with quotations from a fictional “Old Talmud” that underlined the similarities between Judaism, properly understood, and Christianity. After many years as a Christian, he now translated the Kabbalistic texts in ways that subtly made them compatible with Christianity.

At the same time, Flavius tormented his patron. In notes in the manuscripts he would give Pico useful information: for example, that certain Hebrew marginalia were not by him. He would also brag (“No one but Mithridates could have translated this text from Hebrew, it’s so obscure”), taunt (“A great secret, but you won’t understand without me”), and demand (“This is in Chaldean [Aramaic], which Pico will never know unless that handsome boy [whom, supposedly, Pico had promised to provide] arrives”). He nonetheless provided Pico with hundreds of pages of Kabbalistic material that would otherwise have been totally inaccessible.

Wirszubski died before he could finish his extraordinary book Pico della Mirandola’s Encounter with Jewish Mysticism. Published posthumously, it offers the reader immense rewards, but requires that great effort be made to attain them. Still, he opened the way to seeing Pico’s work not in the grand, ahistorical manner that had been common in the past, but by setting it into the local, short-term conditions in which humans actually live, think, and write. Pico composed the final form of his nine hundred theses and his oration in 1486, in a burst of enthusiasm that would have terrified Kant, while also learning to read and write Hebrew, arguing with Flavius, and ransacking the shelves of the Vatican Library.

Between Pico’s own desire to tease and mystify his audience in the oration and the density and complexity of his sources, working out what he actually thought poses the historian tremendous challenges. Every page of Copenhaver’s reading of the text bristles with detail as he weaves a network of connections between the oration and the theses and between both and their Jewish (and non-Jewish) sources, reconstructing the practices of interpretation and incantation that Pico hoped a few of his listeners might adopt.

When Pico had Job say, in the oration, that God wants peace from the angels, he was actually thinking, as one of his theses shows, of “the Southern Water, the Northern Fire, and their Commanders,” Michael and Gabriel, and their reconciliation on the heights of heaven (“shamayim [heaven] as ’esh [fire] + mayim [water]”), as well as of the angels who appear within the world as “birds of heaven” and give humans wisdom. Here he fused ideas from the sage Gersonides, Rabbi Levi ben Gerson—who was not a Kabbalist—with Kabbalist angel lore. Long tracts of the oration are even more densely allusive, and some are intelligible only when connected to forms of higher magic that manipulate the Hebrew letters, which are also numbers. Copenhaver examines the implications of passage after passage with extraordinary rigor and clarity.

In some ways, both Pico and Mithridates are typical figures of the late-fifteenth-century Roman landscape. In the last decade of that century, prophets of strange revelations stalked the city’s narrow streets. The plague doctor Giovanni Mercurio da Correggio rode a white donkey to St. Peter’s Basilica, wearing a bloody crown of thorns and a silver plate that identified him as Pimander, one of the speakers in the dialogues of the Hermetic Corpus. The Dominican theologian Giovanni Nanni da Viterbo published in 1498 a mass of texts and commentary designed to rewrite the history of the world. He purported to prove that Noah had also been Janus, claiming that after Noah landed at Ararat, he made his way up the Tiber and gave the Janiculum hill its name.

More generally, he argued that the Greeks and Romans had lied about world history, which must be learned from Chaldean and Egyptian historians whom he had rediscovered (in reality, he had forged them). Revelations were a ducat a dozen. And Nanni’s revelations were as novel and striking as Pico’s. He too claimed that he had learned from the Jews: from the boys with whom he had attended Hebrew school in Viterbo, from “Samuel the Talmudist,” the informant who gave him wrong etymologies for Hebrew names, and from the friendly rabbis with whom he spent time every Easter week (none of these figures, in all probability, was real). Yet Nanni genuinely drew material from the Talmud, the great code of Jewish law, and treated it with the respect due a major ancient source, as Pico treated the Kabbalah.

Abraham Abulafia; from a manuscript of his Kabbalist meditation manual The Light of the Intellect

Vatican Library

Abraham Abulafia; from a manuscript of his Kabbalist meditation manual The Light of the Intellect, 1285

Pico’s experience differed from Nanni’s in one vital respect: his informant actually existed. How far Flavius shaped Pico’s understanding of Jewish tradition is gradually becoming clear as his translations are published, translated, and explicated, thanks to a project based at the Free University of Berlin. Flavius introduced Pico to the thought of the thirteenth-century Spanish writer Abraham Abulafia, from whom he learned to divide the tradition of Kabbalah into practical and speculative forms. Starting from this point, Copenhaver toggles back and forth between Pico’s oration, his theses, and the Latin texts that Flavius confected for him. He follows the twists and turns of Pico’s etymologies, numerology, and angelology with admirable precision and as much clarity as any mystagogue could hope for in an interpreter.

Pico, he shows, deliberately bobbed and weaved as he drafted his presentation of his project. He was offering an esoteric message—the Jews themselves, Pico noted, allowed no one under forty to study the Kabbalah—and he introduced it in an esoteric way. The brilliant rhetoric of his opening pages—so often seen and cited as the core of an optimistic message—turns out to have been an invitation, to those with the rare gifts to accept it, to turn away from the desires and sins that so often determined individuals’ fates (a precept that he himself would soon adopt). Humans, Pico held, were free to rise or fall, to climb the universe’s gorgeous hierarchy of things and beings or to descend it. The truly virtuous would use this special opportunity in one way only: to reject the earthly passions of ordinary human nature, to study and debate all philosophies, and—at the end—to master the techniques embedded in the Kabbalah.

Pico’s project—whose pathos Copenhaver brings out elegantly in his conclusion—was as strange as it was magnificent. He hoped to charm and mystify an audience of Christian scholars, so that a few of them might join his effort to create a radically new version of an ancient Jewish enterprise, a philosophy that offered not only truths but also a special way of life to those who followed it. No wonder that when it came time, in the oration, to describe and summarize the Kabbalah, Pico dodged again, and provided instead a history of its creation—a patchwork, like the oration as a whole, of traditions, some transmitted accurately and some torn from their original contexts and misinterpreted, perhaps deliberately. It was a tour de force—but it was also an offer that no listener could have understood in full, much less accepted, even if Pico had been allowed to give his speech.

To the extent that Pico actually believed in the dignity of man, it was in a particular sense, one for which he probably found inspiration in Augustine and other Fathers of the Church. As created, man had no special dignity, no worth at all: a cosmic chameleon, he could become as devoid of thought and emotion as a crustacean or a stone, or burn with the celestial love of an angel, but until he made his decision he was the being without qualities. In one sense, though, man did have a special dignity: the dignity of his potential. Angels and animals could not change position. But man was a shape-shifter, and if the shift was violent and serious enough to take him out of his original self, he could realize a destiny that no other being possessed.

The idea that Pico’s oration has something to do with human dignity is not solely a modern anachronism. The edition of Pico that I use every day is a vellum-bound folio, printed in Reggio Emilia in 1506. Because it is incomplete, I was able to buy it in a book barn, long ago, for $37.50. A corrector—the period term for the poor devils of literature who marked up texts for composition, read proofs, and drew up indexes—equipped the oration with marginal notes in Latin. Many of them simply call attention to the names that Pico dropped, which strew the whole text like autumn leaves in Vallombrosa. But other notes offer summaries. The two on the first page of the speech read “Hominis dignitas” (dignity of man) and “Voluntas libera in homine” (free will in man). This corrector made no claims to originality, and his marginal notes came from an earlier edition—perhaps the Venice 1498 edition of Pico’s works, where they appear in the same form. But in their humble way, he and his colleague, I suspect, were reading the text as I’ve just suggested, as an assertion of human potential, and he may have grasped Pico’s intentions.

Copenhaver has cut through generations of misguided commentary and shown us how to read this complex, baffling text. Yet much remains to be done. Jews were not expelled from central and northern Italy in the fifteenth century. But Bernardino of Siena and others preached against them. Monti di Pietà (savings and loan institutions) were created to stop them from lending money at interest to Christians. And they were forced to wear identifying signs: yellow circles, for example, for men, and earrings for women. A decade before Pico composed his oration, a Christian boy named Simonino was found dead and mutilated, just before Easter, in Trento. The local authorities—including the bishop—blamed the local Jews. Torture made some of them confess that they had killed the boy so that they could use his blood to make matzo for Passover. Executions followed.

The pope opposed these horrors, but his representative arrived too late to prevent them. And from Trento, a borderland city, the ritual murder accusation, long more or less dormant, spread into the Holy Roman Empire. Scurrilous images were printed, more trials were held, more Jews were killed. Eventually a campaign began to confiscate and destroy all Jewish books in the empire. What did Pico’s program, and his collaboration with Mithridates, mean to these two men at a time when Italian Jews were being marked and separated from other Italians and the blood libel was coming back to life?

Pico himself was no milk-and-water philo-Semite. In the oration and in the self-defense that he wrote after it, he made clear that he was trying to use the genuine revelations of pious ancient Hebrews, who had lived before the Savior came, to combat the errors of modern Jews as well as to offer Christians a new path to the one true form of self-realization. The knotted stories of Pico and Flavius, and of Pico and his other Jewish interlocutors, have been elucidated in recent years by scholars like Saverio Campanini and Michela Andreatta, who interpret these encounters with great learning and subtlety. But we will need to know much before we can follow with full understanding these cultural dramas of attraction and repulsion, alliance and opposition, philology and forgery. Brian Copenhaver’s learned and lively book traces the history of scholarship to eradicate widespread errors and plunges the reader into the network of puzzling texts that ensnared and ravished Pico in 1486, and the complex ways in which the philosopher worked them into a system. He will be the best of guides, as learned as Flavius Mithridates and a great deal more dependable, for all who try to go farther.