During the renaissance, there was a renewed interest in the arts, and the traditional views of society came into question. People began to explore the power of the human mind. A term often used to describe the increasing interest in the powers of the human mind is humanism. Generally, humanism stresses the individual’s creative, reasoning, and aesthetic powers. However, during the Renaissance, individual ideas about humanism differed.
Writers and philosophers of the Renaissance time period expressed their opinions about human nature and human’s roles in the universe through their writings. Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on the dignity of man”, which glorifies humanity and praises the human ability to reason, offers the opposing view to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Montaigne’s essay “Man’s presumption and Littleness” which both suggest that humans are no higher in the universal order of things than any other of God’s creatures.
Pico begins his essay by informing his readers that he knows where humans stand in the divine order of the world. Pico believes that humans were the last creatures created by God, and that God’s purpose, in creating them, was to fulfill his desire for someone to appreciate the great wonders and beauties of his world:
When the work was finished, the Craftsman kept wishing that there were someone to ponder the plan of so great a work therefore he finally took thought concerning the creation of man. (Mirandola 224)
It is also Pico’s belief that when Humans were created, they were given qualities both divine and earthly, and could become whatever they chose:
We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. (Mirandola 225)
Pico’s conclusion about human ranking among the divine order of things was that while some people were almost celestial, others were no better than animals, and that this great variance of character among the human population only served to increase their importance and uniqueness from all other of God’s creatures. His essay, which praised human greatness and exalted the powers of humanity, was opposed by more negative views of humanity, as expressed in the works of Montaigne and Shakespeare.
Montaigne’s essay “Man’s presumption and Littleness” belittles the greatness of man so much that he becomes no more than another beast among beasts, possibly even lower than some of God’s other creatures. Montaigne cannot imagine why man believes himself so great:
Is it possible to imagine anything so ridiculous as that this miserable and puny creature, who is not even master of himself should call himself master and emperor of the universe, the least part of which is not in his power to understand, much less command? (Montaigne 1808)
With this statement, Montaigne not only communicates his disbelief that man is great, but also his doubt that he can obtain any knowledge of the world around him.
Montaigne goes to length to point out the faults and failures of humanity. Where Pico takes pains to explain the greatness of man, Montaigne does the same to prove his littleness’ “Presumption is our natural and original malady.” (Montaigne 1810) Speaking of animals and humans, he writes:
This defect that hinders communication between them and us, why is it not just as much ours as theirs? We do not understand them any more than they do us. By this same reasoning, they may consider us beasts, as we consider them we must notice the parity there is between us. (Montaigne 1811)
In his writing, Montaigne not only suggests our likeness to other creatures, but goes even further, to suggest the superiority that most creatures have to us.
We recognize easily enough how much superiority animals have over us by making Nature accompany them and guide them while us she abandons to chance and fortune and denies us the natural resourcefulness of the animals; so that their brutish stupidity surpasses all that our divine intelligence can do. (Montaigne 1813)
In the conclusion of his essay, Montaigne sums up his views about the divine order, and the place that humanity might occupy in that order.
If it is true that he alone of all the animals has this freedom of imagination and this unruliness in thought that represents to him what is, what is not, what he wants, the false and the true, it is an advantage that is sold to him very dear for from it springs the principle source of the ills that oppress him: sin, disease, irresolution, confusion, despair. (Montaigne 1817)
While Montaigne implies that it may be true that humans alone have the powers of imagination and logic, these are not really powers at all, bit hindrances, for they create the problems that are unique to humanity.
Like Montaigne, Shakespeare is doubtful of humanity’s greatness. In his drama Hamlet, his tragic hero often brings into question humanity’s purpose in the universe, and suggests that we are no more than part of a continuing cycle in which we are born from and return to the earth, no greater or less than any other creature:
The earth seems to me no more than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me (2.2.280-89)
While at first, Hamlet may seem to praise the qualities of humanity, the final words of his speech lead to a different conclusion. He seems to be saying “so what? Man has wonderful qualities. What’s so great about that? Who cares? The world is no better for it”
Hamlet’s views are expressed further when he speaks of the cyclical nature of the world:
To what bases uses may we return, Horatio? Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust: the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away. (5.1.170-88)
How can human beings be so important, if they are only of the earth, just like all other animals? Through the words of Hamlet, Shakespeare, like Montaigne, questions whether or not humans are really as important as men like Pico insisted.
Montaigne and Shakespeare go through great pains to point out the feeble nature of humans, and to insist on their small role in nature. Their negative view of humanity’s role in the universe opposed the view of the majority of society at the time period, a view represented by writers like Pico, who exalted humanity and praised the unique qualities of it.
Perhaps thinkers like Shakespeare and Montaigne were more influenced by science and the new discoveries of the universe than others. With the suggestion of a heliocentric universe, and the role of the church continuing to be questioned, it would have been easy to take science even farther. If we had been wrong about the earth, and God, couldn’t we be wrong about our role in the universe as well? If the sun is at the center of the earth, if the pope isn’t as important as some had previously thought, are we right about our own importance? Isn’t it possible that we aren’t quite as important as we think we are?
While it may be difficult to understand why Montaigne and Shakespeare went to such great lengths to belittle humanity, it is easier to understand why Pico felt it necessary to prove the wonderfulness’ of human kind. Everyone would like to feel that they are special, and that the role they play in the universe one of importance. During the renaissance, when the virtues of human nature were so praised by most, it was easy to make seemingly logical conclusions about the unique and irreplaceable role that we must play in the divine hierarchy of the universe. The new discoveries that were being made seemed to confirm the power of the human mind and reasoning. If we could make such great discoveries, couldn’t our powers of reasoning help us reach a higher state of divine being as well?
Personally, I would tend to be critical of thinkers like Pico della Mirandola, who found human nature so great, and were convinced that our human powers of reasoning could help us reach a higher state of divine being. Being an atheist in the 1990’s, I don’t deny that humans are indeed unique, and that our powers of reasoning are great, but I am doubtful that they place us any higher in the order of the universe or can bring us a greater state of divine knowledge. We use our powers of logic and reasoning, along with determination, to help us progress in life. Progress means a nicer house, a better paying job, more leisure in life, earning more days off to relax and enjoy ourselves, and a better quality of life. While logic and reasoning are valuable qualities that can lead to progress, a better education, and a better quality of life, rarely, I think, do they take us to a higher, or divine state.
I don’t think that humankind is great or damned, or higher or lower, than any other kind. If I had to describe human kind, I guess I would say it “just is”. Is what? Nothing in particular, it “just is”. Are we earth-bound? Yes. Presumptuous? I don’t think so, maybe some people are, but it wouldn’t be fair to make such a generalization. Human beings live and die. The world continues on. I think that I would agree with a few things that each of the authors mentioned above have to say. Like Shakespeare in Hamlet, I agree that there is a cycle on the earth. People live and die, and become the means by which other people live. Like Montaigne in his essay, I agree that in some ways, animals are superior to humans, and that just as we consider them beasts, they may consider us to be beasts as well. Finally, like Pico, I believe that humans are free to choose the direction that their life takes, whether they do something great or waste their years away.
Pico della Mirandola, Shakespeare, and Montaigne believed firmly in their ideas about human nature and our place among the order of the universe. While Pico argued for the greatness of human kind, Shakespeare and Montaigne argued for our unimportance in the grand scheme of things. Today, I think that many people are still struggling to find the answer to the question that was so controversial during the renaissance; “where do we fit in the order of the universe”? While I think that opinions will always differ on the matter, it is a valuable question to ponder, using those unique human qualities of reason and logic that became so valued during the renaissance.
Mirandola, Pico della. “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Ed.Cassirer, Kristeller, & Randall. 1948. 223-35
Montaigne, Michel de. “Man’s Presumption and Littleness.” The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: W.W. Norton &Company, 1992. 1808-16
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: W.W. Norton &Company, 1992. 2046-97