Human Dignity in Renaissance Philosophy
The “dignity of man” concerns the human condition and what sets humans apart from other creatures on earth and in the heavens. The idea had origins in ancient Greek and Roman literature and later added the biblical story of creation from the Old Testament, which became central to the concept in the Renaissance. A number of literary motifs characterize the “dignity of man” such as the idea that man is a microcosm of the universe, the praise of the human body and its parts including the erect posture of humans with the face looking towards the heavens, and the lists of accomplishments or feats of exemplary men and women. The free will or choice that humans have to “shape” or “determine” their nature becomes the most important aspect of the Renaissance dignity of man and woman for humanists in the 1500s and for later generations of scholars especially after the 1800s.
Heritage and Rupture with Tradition
The idea of human dignity has become associated with the Renaissance through the Oration on the Dignity of Man of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (b. 1463–d. 1494), probably the most famous speech that was never actually delivered before an audience. Written to introduce a public debate, but abandoned and only published after the author’s death, this “most elegant oration” acquired the subtitle de hominis dignitate (on human dignity) in a 1504 Strasbourg edition of Pico’s works. (Pico della Mirandola 2012, 8, 33). Pico was not the first Renaissance thinker to consider human dignity, nor the last, but his Oration has come to represent a turning point for its Renaissance optimism in human potential.
The tradition of the “dignity of man” stemmed from Greek and Roman origins in classical pagan sources such as Plato (c. 425–347 BC), Aristotle (b. 384–322 BC) in the De anima (On the Soul) (Aristotle 1907, II, 2–3: 413a–414b) pondering the qualities of each state of being within the world and Cicero (106–43 BC) who emphasized the immortality of the soul. In late antiquity after the spread of Christianity both Greek and Latin Church fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa (335–c. 395) and Lactantius (240–320) integrated these classical writings on the relationship between the earth and its creatures, humans, the soul, and the universe into their Christian works. In the medieval era human “dignity” stemmed from the creation of man in God’s image and likeness, a notion that circulated in Latin commentaries in the ninth century, the 1200s to 1300s, and was later translated into English in the 1400s. (Lebech and McEvoy 2009, 4–6, 31–2). Human dignity as a theme resurfaced in the writings of Italian humanists such as Bartolomeo Fazio’s De excellentia ac praestantia hominis (On the Excellence and Superiority of Man) (1448), Giannozzo Manetti De dignitate et excellentia hominis (On the Dignity and Excellence of Man) (c. 1452), and Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) in his Platonic Theology (c. 1474) Ficino (2001–2006). In the fifteenth-century formulations of the “dignity of man,” humans occupied a fixed place in the hierarchy of beings in the universe with God and angels above and the animals, fish, plants, and stones below. Humans were connected to the material world through the body and the spiritual world of the heavens through the soul and their unique situation at the center of the hierarchy of God’s creation conferred dignity.
In Pico’s late fifteenth-century Oration, the Creator speaks to Adam in the Garden of Eden to explain the place of humans in the greater world. The Creator explains to Adam that creatures on land in the sea and air were assigned a fixed nature, whereas humans, in God’s words, “were neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal” and could “shape” or “determine” their “form” (Pico della Mirandola 2012,117; Pico Project). It is this choice – because humans are “constrained by no limits” – that caught the imagination of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars who considered the oration as “one of the noblest bequests” of the Renaissance (Burckhardt 1958, 351–2).
Emerging in the mid- to late-1400s and continuing throughout the 1500s was a parallel literature on the dignity of woman, which argued the case for the excellence of the feminine sex and demonstrated how men and women shaped human dignity. In Renaissance versions of the “dignity of man” and “dignity of woman” traditions, the creation story offered a number of shared literary motifs and interpretations of man and woman’s place in the world and the heavens beyond. Commonplaces recur in dignity of man and woman literature such as the erect posture of humans looking up towards the heavens, the praise of the human body and all its parts, the idea of man as a microcosm or “little world,” and the examples of the achievements of the illustrious men and women of history compiled from biblical, classical, and contemporary accounts (Warner 2011, 51–70).
In its Greek origins the idea of the mikros kosmos, microcosm or “little world” meant that humans comprised all the elements in the universe. Eugene Rice stresses the impact of the Greek patristic fathers Gregory of Nyssa, Nemesius of Emesa (late fourth century), and Origen (c. 185–c. 254) who encouraged this classical theme of man as a microcosm and added a Christian veneer that man connected the “physical and intellectual worlds.” Acting as a link or vinculum mundi between the heavenly world or macrocosm and the earthly world granted further dignity to humans (Rice 1988, 24; Kraye 1988, 311–12). By the Renaissance, writers supporting human dignity combined the microcosm motif with the biblical creation story. In The Week or Creation of the World first published in 1578, Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas (1544–1590) remarks: “Within us can be seen fire, air, earth and the waves of the sea / In brief, man is nothing but an abridgement of the world” (Du Bartas 1578, 178). The Lyonnais humanist, Maurice Scève (c. 1501–c. 1560), entitled his 1562 poem on the creation of Adam and Eve, the Microcosm. This dignity extended to and included woman because as “the last one created of all other creatures” woman was “the final and most perfect accomplishment of all of God’s works and the perfection of the universe” and she “contains all the world” (Lefranc 1530, lxxixv, xciiir; Agrippa 1535, B vv).
The creation story of Adam and Eve allowed an author to exalt human dignity and praise God’s work by dwelling on the perfection of each human body part. In the Brief Discourse of the Excellence and Dignity of Man, published in Paris in 1558, Pierre Boaistuau glorifies the body with “Praise of the excellence of the eyes,” eyebrows, nose, tongue, teeth, beard, ears, and so on. (Boaistuau 1982, 51), but he borrowed these commonplaces from a sixteenth-century French translation of the Church father Lactantius’s Divine Institutes, dating to the early fourth century.
Whereas other animals hang their heads and look at the ground,
he made man stand erect,
bidding him to look up to heaven,
and lift his head to the stars. (Ovid 1986, I, 84–6).
The erect posture allowed contemplation of the heavens and also established humans as rulers over God’s creatures on earth (Patrides 1982, 85, n. 5, 6; Kraye 1988, 311, n. 55; Sozzi 1970, 186–7, Sozzi 1982). Adam walking “with his head held high” like the “Lord” instilled amazement and fear in the “humble” animals as he became “their master here on earth” (Scève 1976, 151). Dignity stems from this role as a “terrestrial Emperor,” a “second God” or “Lord of this lower world” (Du Bartas 1578, 180–81). This motif emphasizes the idea that God created the world as a dominion available for human exploitation in each of its domains. Man becomes the “sovereign admiral” of the sea or the “great captain” and “great chief general” of the earth and air (Parmentier 1971, 99–100). Again, some writers promoted the dignity of woman with the parallel motif of God introducing Eve as the “the queen of a kingdom already prepared for her,” with “every creature (to) submit to and obey her” (Agrippa 1996, 48).
Another commonplace of the dignity of man and dignity of woman traditions traces the lives of exemplary men and women who achieved greatness or excellence. Writing in Latin in the mid-fifteenth century, Giannozzo Manetti (b. 1396–d. 1459) was typical of humanists in compiling biographies of the accomplished men of antiquity such as Seneca or Socrates as well as praising the men of his own era such as the Chancellor of Florence Coluccio Salutati in On Famous Men of Great Age, 1439 and his later writing on human dignity (Manetti 2003, 2018). Well into the sixteenth century, Renaissance writers continued this tradition to praise the achievements of Alexander the Great, Lycurgus the Spartan lawgiver, Julius and Augustus Caesar, David and Solomon who “by their virtue attained honor and triumph” (Champier 1502, xxvv). Scholars celebrated the new inventions that demonstrated “the dignity and wit of man” such as the printing press and Leonardo da Vinci’s invention of flying (Boaistuau 1982, 55–62, 65). Similarly, Renaissance writers drew upon the women in the Scriptures such as Judith, or the female exempla in the histories of ancient Greece and Rome such as Aspasia, Lucretia, or Cornelia, and fifteenth- and sixteenth-century learned or royal women such as Christine de Pisan and Marguerite de Navarre to demonstrate the excellence of women in different fields of endeavor (Berriot-Salvadore 1990, 355; Helisenne de Crenne 1986, 100–101; Agrippa 1996, 79–89; Warner 2011, 74–83).
Innovative and Original Aspects
In the mid-fifteenth century, Manetti’s On the Dignity and Excellence of Man reflected a common belief that each creature or being possessed specific talents as gifts granted by God: “our human fruits are to be deemed the many operations of intelligence and will. It is these to which man is born by nature just as the tree is born to produce fruit” (Manetti 1966, 92–3). For Manetti or Ficino humans occupied a place of dignity through their place at the center of the hierarchy of creation whereas for Pico della Mirandola and later Renaissance thinkers, such as the French humanist Charles de Bovelles (b. 1479–d. 1553) or the German humanist Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (b. 1486–d. 1535), dignity was a potential within humans to be aimed for and earned through force of will.
In Pico’s notion of the human as spoken by the Creator to His creation, this free will is precisely what distinguishes the human from the other creatures. Each human, like Adam, faced a choice “to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish” or to ascend using the “power, in accordance with the judgment of your soul, to be reborn into the higher orders, those that are divine” (Pico della Mirandola 2012, 117; Pico Project).
Charles de Bovelles’ De Sapientia (Of Wisdom), published in Paris in 1511, explains how Nature provides every human (homines) with the capacity to exist, live, feel, and understand or reason (substantia, vita, sensus, ratio), but some humans never achieve their potential and remain at a lower level of being (Bovelles 1982). In this understanding of the human condition – a development on the thinking of Aristotle, Ramon Lull, Cusa – humans encompass all the lesser states of being – mineral, vegetable, animal but need to apply their reason and intelligence to attain the states of being shared with the divine, the angels, the heavens (Bovelles 1982, 57, 160–61, 165; Ferrari 2011, 262–3, 287, 323). Bovelles, like Pico della Mirandola, adopted the idea of striving for human dignity – that dignity was the potential of humans and equal to all, but not achieved by all (Magnard, 1995).
Similarly, the German humanist Agrippa acknowledges that human accomplishment occurs “according to our capacity” or secundum capacitatem (Agrippa 1992, 520; Agrippa 1982, III: 142–3). For Agrippa a wise man seizes his dignity to attain great power and virtue – “et ipsa est dignificatio homini ad hanc tam sublimem virtutem ac potestatem” (Agrippa 1992, 407; Agrippa 1982, III: 24–5). This accent on the capacity of the soul resurfaces in Agrippa’s discussion of woman. He emphasizes that the soul – not the body – mirrors the image of God. He insists that man and woman share the divine spiritual image and asserts that women share the same potential as men. The Lord “gave to woman as to man the same form of soul, utterly without difference. Between these souls could not be found any difference of sex. Woman received equal (capacities of) understanding, reason, speech and language as man.” Agrippa concludes “in both (sexes) is a same liberty of judgment and will and equal dignity” (Agrippa 1535, Br; Warner 2011, 77).
Impact and Legacy
One of the values we hold as most fundamental in modern life is the dignity of the human condition. The preamble to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights refers to the “inherent dignity” of all humans; its first article states that “(a)ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Dignity as shared by all humans equally, in this twentieth-century definition then, is closer to fifteenth-century Renaissance formulations of inherent dignity because the formulation carries an assumption that “no other species is equal to humanity” in the way that early Renaissance humans drew dignity from their place at the center of the world as beings encompassing all aspects of the universe (Kateb 2011, 6; Niederberger 2015, 513–14).
Over the course of the Renaissance writers such as Pico, Bovelles, or Agrippa outlined how dignity was a quality to be achieved – to be acquired through striving for excellence – a value that perhaps is most in evidence in a humanist education. Pico’s Oration has more resonance with current ideas about the “choice” or “liberty” to act and to “make,” “fashion,” or “determine” one’s self.
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