Monday, May 6, 2013

#126 / Humanism

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, with its famous portrayal of God giving life to Man, is one of the great works of Renaissance Humanism. Man, we note, is equivalent in size to God. Thus humanism begins. 

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), who was one of the early Renaissance humanists, described man's place in the Creation this way, speaking in God's voice as if he were putting words to Michelangelo's picture, which Michelangelo had yet to paint on the Sistine ceiling: 

We have set thee at the world's center that thou mayest from thence more easily observe whatever is in the world. We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul's judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine ...  
Whatever seeds each man cultivates will grow to maturity and bear in him their own fruit. If they be vegetative, he will be like a plant. If sensitive, he will become brutish. If rational, he will grow into a heavenly being. If intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. And if, happy in the lot of no created thing, he withdraws into the center of his own unity, his spirit, made one with God, in the solitary darkness of God, who is set above all things, shall surpass them all.

This quotation well states the primary assertion of the humanists, articulating the idea that it is Man himself who will determine all the aspects and conditions pertaining to his existence. We live in a world that we create.

In our times, it might well be thought that Michelangelo's depiction of The Creation of Adam is actually a picture in which the human figure gives thought, and thus life, to God. The portrayal of God and all his angels as existing within what is indubitably a drawing of a human brain might lead to that interpretation. 

By such a flip, or "swerve," has humanism has been transmogrified since Pico's time. It has become our modern creed. We, humans, are the Creators. We live in a world that we ourselves bring into being. Who can dispute this? Without doubt it is true.

But let us not forget an important thing that Pico said. Set above all things, surpassing them all, is the "solitary darkness of God." The human world that we create is not, in fact, the ultimate reality that sustains our life. Our human world is built upon, and within, and is dependent on, a world that we did not create.

To that world we must also pay attention.

[Source of quote: Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller and John H. Randall, eds., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 223-225.]

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