pico & hand


Albrecht Dürer “Pattern from the Series of Six Knots #4” 1505-1507, woodcut.

He [Pico della Mirandola} had sought knowledge, and passed from system to system and hazarded much; but less for the sake of positive knowledge than because he believed there a spirit of order and beauty in knowledge, which would come down and unite what men’s ignorance had divided, and renew what time had made dim. ―Walter Pater, essay on Pico della Mirandola, “The Renaissance”, 1873

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was a man of the Renaissance that followed the Middle Ages that followed antiquity. During the Middle Ages the church did its part to obscure the classical ‘pagan’ thinking to be replaced with Christian theology that un/knowingly retained rational & mystic affinities. The Renaissance is then said to be a ‘re-birth’, a re-examining & falling in love with Classical antiquity, with it’s great minds like Plato & Aristotle. Neoplatonism brought about a religious fusion of Christian & ‘Platonic’ ideals maintained long before the transformations of the Renaissance, then summoned into a new life by scholars like Pico who relied on an abundance of philosophical texts. His vast library included newly translated works of Plato &  the mystic Hermes Trismegistus, along with many books of the Neoplatonists (all of whom had not been translated to Latin till then) by his contemporary Marsilio Ficino. Classical ideals took on fresh vitality for the arts, architecture & philosophy during that transformative time. The specific embrace of Greek philosophy is known as Humanism, which is why Pico is known to us as a Humanist. He was no longer strictly looking to the attitudes of the Medieval afterlife, but also to a disciplined & reasoned life on earth, looking for man’s willful place in the cosmos, trying to outline man’s universal capacities, man’s contemplative relationship with God, the angelic order & himself.

A perfect synthesis of all religions wouldn’t come easily & Pico’s ideas extended far beyond what the Neoplatonists offered. Yes, Pico was a humanist, but he was much more than that. He was a multi-lingual Renaissance-wunderkind, he wrote in many languages, but most of his work is written in Latin. Legend has it that a startling ring-of-fire appeared to his mother when he was born in 1463, this was seen a portent for her child’s life of enlightened brilliance. It must be said too, that Pico’s elaborate complexity ends & starts with Christianity, in fact he ended up in the zealot Savonarola’s company before his death in 1494 in his early thirties, some think he was poisoned. Pico’s thought is Christian, it included the Neoplatonist ideas of Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopogite, Iamblichus, St. Thomas Aquinas, add to these: the Kabbalah, Early Islamic thinkers Avicenna, Averroes, the hermetic Hermes Trismegistus & countless others. Whether or not we can call Pico’s ideas entirely syncretic or ecumenical is controversial, but he was an amazing enigma & even deemed heretical By Pope Innocent VIII in 1486. This charge of heresy was nailed on Pico’s 900 Theses. In this work the audacious blending of all the aforementioned philosophies are in a proposed unity, of course, as all unified under the perfection of God, while centralizing man’s place in the world. Man as a confluence of all wisdom before him. Man as capable of finding a disciplined relationship with his religious/philosophical practice, rigor & intellect.  Connected to the 900 is his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man. It is not clear if this was an written as an introduction,or part of an apologia for the 900.

But upon man, at the moment of his creation, God bestowed seeds pregnant with all possibilities, the germs of every form of life. Whichever of these a man shall cultivate, the same will mature & bear fruit in him.

―Pico Della Mirandola from the Oration.

Only a handful of his books were published during his short lifetime, there is the Heptaplus published in 1489 which Pico set out to carefully elaborate on the Biblical story Of Genesis, done with a mixture of Moses & all the rest of Pico’s trademark inclusions of western theology, Neoplatonic philosophy & Hermetic mysticism, rolled into a seven part allegorical story of creation. This text too, was pronounced heretical. Within Pico’s Heptaplus cosmology we have an emphasis on three categories: man’s corruptible body on earth, the intelligences of the 3-tiered angels (Seraphic, Cherubic & Thrones) & the heavenly celestial bodies. This angelic realm is particular interest & is derived partly from Dionysius the Areopogite’s ‘angelology’.


Albrecht Dürer “Pattern from the Series of Six Knots #3” 1505-1507, woodcut.

From Pico’s fascinating 15th century ‘angelology’ we return to the 21st century to find Ted Hand. In fact, at this moment Hand is applying the finishing touches to his Master’s theses on Pico’s ‘philosophical angelology’. Hand is also the reason why we’re looking at Pico to begin with. Among his many blogs, Live-Journal & Twitter feeds he recently could be found typing/uttering inspired notes on Pico, for example:

Pico’s most original treatment of angels can be seen in Commento, where he does Plotinian Intelligible World as single, simple Angelic Mind. (@t3dy twitter: 8:00pm 1/10/2011)

Pico sees Proclan/PD angels as existing in a henadic manifold, but within Divine Mind–more “Aristotelian” via Aquinas as well as Plotinus. (@t3dy twitter: 7:55pm 1/10/2011)

Hand is a Pico della Mirandola expert as much in spirit, as in scholarship. What Hand offers is a refinement & multitude of ideas to be sorted & explored for anyone who dares to investigate Pico’s rare genius. If we look to his ‘rigid-37-point-outline-post’ found on his Angelology of Pico della Mirandola blog, we see his clarifications conveniently numbered & succinctly illuminating. Here is where an initial question arises about the mystifying term ‘theurgy’ & how it’s related to Pico. Hand has sent this reply (note: B. P. Copenhaver & William G. Craven are modern Pico scholars):

I’m writing my paper the way I am because I noticed that theurgy is a
problem. Before Copenhaver there were two camps. Craven says “no hint of
theurgy” can be found in any of Pico’s Kabbalist conclusions. On the other
hand the “theurgic interpretation” holds that Pico was giving emphasis to
“The theurgic” or implying some kind of angel summoning magic. But nobody
making these claims has done much writing to establish what they mean by
theurgy, they just make the accusation. Far as I’ve read…
Copenhaver has advanced the problem of theurgy, but he uses the term
inconsistently. On the one hand he speaks of theurgy positively as it
applies to Pico by saying Pico recognized some kind of theurgy he was
looking for in Kabbalah and Neoplatonism. But Copenhaver also argues (in
Number, Shape…) that Pico is trying to do an angel talisman “without being
guilty of theurgy.” So is there an “Angel Magic” in Pico that doesn’t
include the kind of conjuring that Pico himself emphatically rejected? Does
the term theurgy help us establish this?
I’m looking at a number of definitions of theurgy in my discussion of the
term as it may apply to Pico. I don’t think he’s doing pagan Neoplatonic
theurgy in the sense of invoking polytheist gods. But on the other hand when
properly understood NP theurgy is a mystical philosophy much like the
Dionysian mystical theology (and we know that now because we understand how
NP theurgy influenced Dionysius)… Dionysian theurgy is the next place to
look. I’ve found in my study of Pico’s use of Dionysius+NP that while Pico
is strongly interested in the metaphysics of angels in Dionysius and
Proclus/Iamblichus but he doesn’t talk about the specifically “Theurgic”
dimensions of pagan or Christian NP. Pico has little interest in ritual or
liturgy, which is where Dionysian theurgy happens. (See Wear/Dillon and Perl
on the relationship of Dionysius to NP), Pico doesn’t mean theurgy by magic.
There’s also the medieval and late renaissance meanings of theurgy as
grimier conjuring magic. Pico rules this out in Oration and Apology.
After Pico we see what some scholars are calling “Christological Theurgy”
in Reuchlin, but I don’t think that’s a good description of what Pico’s doing.
Pico of course, never uses the term theurgy, but he never quotes Dionysius
who used the term dozens of times in various ways. Pico follows Dionysius
on scriptural interpretation, but he doesn’t say we “become theurgic” when
we read scripture, or that we’re finding “theurgic lights” in there. But maybe
this Dionysian notion of “becoming theurgic” can help us understand what
Pico means by “becoming theurgic” — which Dougherty has argued is Pico’s
original solution to the problem of Deification.
My point about philosophy being the model for understanding what Pico is
doing, rather than magic, is that we can learn things about Pico’s motivations
in studying Neoplatonism and Kabbalah by looking at the Thomistic and
Dionysian background to Pico’s angelology. Rather than going to NP+KBL
for magic he’s clearly going there to develop the Christian NP angelology.
Since the influence of Proclus+Iamblichus on Aquinas (via Dionysius) is
so much better understood, I want to show that we can use this new view
of Aquinas+Platonism to work on Pico and solve problems understanding him.
Overall I think using the term theurgy to describe Pico is a bad move b/c
we already have better terms like “mystical ascent” “mystical theology”

With this we’ll observe the problematic nature of Pico’s project & how certain branches of his all-encompassing system have become tangled over centuries with how he’s interpreted, how he’s read. ‘Magic’ has long been attached to the Hermetic/Kabbalistic mystical traditions & whether Pico uses these as out-right magical summoning, Hand questions this view & he urges us to look at Pico’s angelology through Aquinas who had his own advanced take on the intellect of the angels. That the angels represented a higher intellect than man is similar to what Pseudo-Dionysius believed. This ritualistic summoning is also key element in how the Neoplatonists practiced their faith with the contemplation, prayer, the invocation of God’s hierarchies &c.. Facing Pico’s texts we are forced to ask: Was he a magician, did he practice the ‘black arts’? Probably not, Hand assures us.  Could these questions have a part in how his ideas have been obscured due to the ways the church obliterated any such pagan, eccentric & mystical arcana as it related to Pico’s particular form of his eccentric Christianity via the mystics et al? …probably, yes.

…getting back to Pico’s angelology & how Hand is distinguishing the idea from a misguided perception of ‘angel-talisman’. As indicated, Pico makes deliberate use of Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropogite’s angelology along with other Neoplatonists. It is here where we find a ‘theurgic’ quest for the angelic ideal, as it concerns man’s spiritual life, indeed man’s metaphysical discipline forward to perfection for the Neoplatonist. When asked about angelology & how it specifically relates to Pico’s philosophy, Hand writes:

Pico’s Heptaplus contains his original theory of esoteric hermeneutics. In one section, he uses this allegorical reading method to discover the angel metaphysics of Dionysius in Genesis. His version of Dionysius betrays the influence of Aquinas–especially his discussions of active and passive potency, concrete vs. abstract being, and participation metaphysics. Pico discovers many of the scholastic ideas about angels using clever allegorical moves inherited from Proclus and Dionysius (see Crofton Black’s book), but we also see him applying his original approaches from Commento and Oration/900 Conclusions. There may be a mystical-magical Pythagorean significance to Pico’s discussion of the angel as Number, but it also makes sense in terms of the Neoplatonic ontology of Number in Proclus. It seems that rather than some magical-numerological motivation, Pico compares the angel to Number in order to make a metaphysical point about the theological concept of perfection. Heptaplus consistently develops Pico’s theme of “becoming angelic,” but here placing more emphasis on the limitations of man based on his position in the hierarchy. But he ends Heptaplus with a mystical goal beyond that of becoming angelic–the Imitatio Christi.
This is his practice of Poetic Theology. It is not a mere excuse to infuse the cosmos with angelic power for magical purposes aimed at self-aggrandizement.
In Pico’s brilliant little treatise De Ente et Uno or “On Being and the One” he only brings up the angel to contrast it to God’s perfection. Building on his model from Heptaplus and Commento of the angel as the highest and most perfect created thing, Pico proceeds to contrast this perfection to that of God using negative theology. In Chapter 5 Pico explains the negative theology of Dionysius, taking into account the Thomistic developments in Christian medieval scholastic philosophy (but not bringing in his Thomistic criticisms from the 900 Conclusions) in order to shed more light on the difficult doctrines of Dionysius. He ends the De Ente with an explanation of how these metaphysical solutions help us in the project of imitating the divine, but here he has proceeded from angels and Christ to the imitation of God. Here it is clear that he follows the Thomistic caution, in interpreting Dionysius, to make clear that although one is “becoming one with God” in a mystical sense, this does not violate man’s position in the hierarchy.
In the Disputations against Astrology, Pico’s most clearly anti-occult and non-magical text, Pico mentions angels to insist that we should see the Angelic Hierarchy, which is above man, as the source of the important influences, rather than planetary bodies which should not be seen as influencing souls.

This brings to mind a series of predicaments around angelic understanding. Our contemporary view of angels will never match the depth of enlightenment Pico’s angels had. In Pico’s company the angels were a higher perfection for man to emulate, leading to the perfections of god, Pico writes:

An angel from what we have said, has perfectly realized his own nature and intellectual qualities. Nevertheless, he does not have a way to fulfill his functions of understanding and contemplation unless he is first surrounded by God with intelligible forms. Pico della Mirandola from Chapter II – Of the Angelic & Visible World – Heptaplus

It’s already clear that Pico wanted to harmonize the classical wisdom into one coherent version of Christianity as the Neoplatonists tried to do before him, without his many eclectic inclusions. Pico’s contribution had to with his courageous emphasis on the concordance of beliefs from much more than Neoplatonism & Christianity. Although he had Christian motives, the responsibility was on man to place himself in a harmony he himself recognizes amidst his earthly failures, not through a simple magical reckoning, rather through a philosophical life where a purposeful confluence of earthly/intellectual/spiritual ideas can be sought for in unison. The combining term syncretic is often associated with Pico’s overall strategy. Hand helps to examine how the term syncretic is applied & misused, with this closing comment:

(…awaiting Hand’s reply…)

Aurelio Madrid


 Albrecht Dürer “Pattern from the Series of Six Knots #1” 1505-1507, woodcut.