Freedom as a prerequisite for dignity – Part 1

Notes on Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's concept

Freedom as a prerequisite for dignity – Part 1

The will of the human being – free, or the will of the animal – captive?

The human being is characterized by having free will and the capacity for reflexivity. This distinguishes human beings from animals and has given them an extra position at the top of the pyramid. It is the pyramid of the food chain. The materialism of the modern age has also carried with it the comparison of human beings with animals and the designation of human beings as homo sapiens. Isn’t a modern man just the smartest ape? An ape who has mastered nature, the external environment. External domination was the way of modern man. What about the inner path?

What do we desire?

Do we long for love? Do we long for connection? Do we long for freedom? Do we long for recognition and dignity? Do we long for justice? Who doesn’t know these desires of the heart?

But how many times does pure desire become stained with the blood of egocentrism? The selfishness does not only apply to my “I” but extends to the family, the clan, the nation, the state, and perhaps the whole country?

Global politics always has some goals. Often good intentions underpin our constructions of paradise on earth. The plurality of the postmodern age allows for equality of all access and the chance for all groups and individuals to exercise their rights. Shards from the shattered single mirror of truth have rolled out to the farthest corners of the world, and the spider web of the Internet gives each individual the opportunity to be seen and to be forgotten. However, the spider with its web keeps us all coiled and shackled, so that freedom is only apparent. The web grows daily, and so does its bite. Will humanity sacrifice itself in the narcotic web’s connection? Who will break free from the captivity of nature’s matrix?

All ideas, even the most impressive and so beautiful, are but a caricature of the true  Idea radiating in the natural world. All philosophies ultimately remain mysterious and misunderstood because we fail to see them in their totality and therefore as they are.

Political ideas as human rights?

Let us look a little at the realities of our historical development of political ideas. The Enlightenment period saw the creation of constitutional documents associated with the emergence of human rights, including a range of civil liberties and equality before the law. Examples include the Declaration of Independence (1776 in the USA) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789 in France, as a result of the revolutionary days). It would already seem that in this era of disenchantment with religious mumbo-jumbo and superstition, political relations were very close to free religio, as evidenced by the existence of numerous Rosicrucian and Masonic societies.

As time passed, let us now stop in post-war Germany, where a new constitution, common to all countries, the so-called Grundgesetz (Basic Law), came into force on 23 May 1949. After the suffering of the war came a wave of Christian humanism that gradually manifested itself throughout the Western world and is still a model for constitutional law throughout the world, especially for many Asian countries (e.g. Japan), and to name a few others throughout the world, Israel, South Africa, the USA and many countries in South America, or some post-communist countries (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland). Article 1 of the Grundgesetz, which states, among other things, “Human dignity is inviolable”, is very attractive and inspiring. The commentaries to Grundgesetz seek to explain the concept of human dignity as set out in Article 1 and to explain its historical and philosophical roots.

Two philosophical conceptions of human dignity are identified as being significantly inspired by the Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Immanuel Kant. Both of their conceptions are autonomous, meaning that one has dignity independently of whether one behaves morally right or wrong, i.e., that dignity is not determined by external conditions. For both, dignity is linked to freedom. For each of them, of course, the context is completely different. Neither intended to write a work exclusively concerned with human dignity and in both, dignity is a marginal term; in fact, we can hardly speak of a concept.

Kant’s conception of the freedom and dignity of the rational being

Immanuel Kant works with the notion of the dignity of the rational man, which applies only to the noumenal man, homo noumenon. In contrast, phenomenal, homo phaenomenon, who is a rational animal, or Tiermensch, has, according to Byrd and Hruschka, no dignity, rights, or duties.

Dignity is an expression of the intrinsic value (immutable) of homo noumenon, who is intelligible, metaphysical, and who is not bound to the senses and empiricism. This man has rationality, using which he voluntarily obeys inner commands to moral action, imperatives. Rationality conquers the will so that the will is autonomous and is not interfered with by external influences or internal non-rational elements. Free space is the space of free will that makes homo noumenon a worthy member of the realm of ends. Autonomy of the will is a prerequisite for dignity and also helps  human beings in mastery over oneself, in mastering oneself. According to Kant, freedom is innate, but we come to know it through the categorical imperative. This is why Kant speaks of moral laws and duties. It can be seen that for Kant dignity and freedom are linked to duties, and are certainly not the usual human arbitrariness that many individuals today attribute to the protection of fundamental rights. To dignity and freedom one must ennoble oneself. In this Kant follows the still traditional conception of dignity found in the Stoics (Cicero: On Duties).

Pico’s conception of freedom and the dignity of man – that admirable chameleon

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s nephew, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, was instrumental in the publication of the collected works of his uncle, only six years his senior. And so it came to pass that in 1496 Giovanni’s Oratio de dignitate hominis (Oration on the Dignity of Man) was published posthumously as part of the complete work Opera Omnia.  Since the publication of Jakob Burckhardt’s laudatory historical study in the 1920s, there has been an over-emphasis on the humanist approach and a general spread of awareness of some of Pico’s conceptions of the dignity of man. However, on reading Pico’s text and examining it more closely, it is easy to see that it does not actually contain the term dignity of man, apart from the title, which was added later after Pico’s death by the publisher of the work, and the introduction of the concept of dignity in a different context.

The following excerpts from Oratio de dignitate hominis are well known: “We have made you neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that you may, as the free and extraordinary shaper of yourself, fashion yourself in whatever form you prefer. It will be in your power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Alternatively, you shall have the power, in accordance with the judgment of your soul, to be reborn into higher orders, those that are divine.”[i]

Usually, this text is understood by the man of today to mean that dignity is determined by freedom. Freedom means to shape oneself, to be what one wants. It is therefore freedom of the will. And we wonder if this freedom has any limits? For some people, the passage is an incentive to finally do what they want. And so humanity has gone on its path of materialization and self-assertion, right up to the liberal concepts of today. But on the other hand, there really is something very strangely powerful about the passage. The image of absolute freedom and dignified humanity flashes before one’s eyes. It is as if trombones with a profound message for man are sounding. It is as if one felt that one had many layers of oneself and that something intimate and nuclear was hidden here, and that one cannot confuse the structure of the layers and sheaths. This message is entrusted to the spiritual soul, that is, not even to the bodily sheath, nor to the soul, the finer bodily sheath of nature. Only the spiritual soul, hidden in the core of man is able to decipher these codes.

This message was given at the moments of the creation of man, i.e., the creation of the first Adam, the Adam of Paradise. A spiritual soul is a soul returned to the qualities of the original Adam because it is restored from water and spirit. We must also try to decipher the code in the service of our inner spiritual soul. The process of creation as described in Genesis must take place in ourselves, day by day to the sixth day man is created, free and dignified, and on the seventh day the Elohim says that it was good. The forces of the Elohim are nowhere in the distances, but they flow like light with force (spinal and astral force) into us.

If you read the entirety of the early book De dignitate hominis, then in the context of the other passages you can see that there is a message hidden here for the spiritual soul about its spiritual freedom and dignity, wisdom and beauty, and the admirability that this piece of the human spirit can admire God.

Pico describes the moments of man’s creation in the realm of the spiritual sphere, in the supra-mundane court, and writes: “At length, the Master Creator decreed that the creature to whom He had been unable to give anything wholly his own should share in common whatever belonged to every other being. He, therefore, took man, this creature of the indeterminate image, set him in the middle of the world, and said to him: ʼWe have given you, Adam, no fixed seat or form of your own, no talent peculiar to you alone. This we have done so that whatever seat, whatever form, whatever talent you may judge desirable, these same may you have and possess according to your desire and judgment. Once defined, the nature of all other beings is constrained within the laws We have prescribed for them. But you, constrained by no limits, may determine your nature for yourself, according to your own free will, in whose hands We have placed you.”[ii]

From this passage, it is seen that freedom and choice are being given to the spiritual Adam within the process of creation. But this is not to be understood as a process that happened sometime and somewhere but as a challenge to ourselves. To reanimate the spiritual Adam within ourselves and so perhaps feel his freedom and dignity, the freedom of the laws of the spirit in unity with the idea of creation. Or, on the contrary, to choose at will to degenerate into the animal, vegetable, or mineral state. This can be understood primarily as crystallized consciousness, a vegetative comfortable life with concern for bare subsistence, or consciousness subject to passions, senses, aggression, and fear, in mass, like the animal kingdom. These are aspects of our consciousness, and it is up to us to give them vent in life. Pico, however, writes of regeneration, and ascension, in the imperfect gender, which we can understand to mean that one can choose to ascend, one can desire it, but further, divine grace comes to meet our desire.

In Heptaplus Pico, for example, says: “[…] from the man we fall into the beast”, “by grace we are exalted again, and from the man we are adopted as sons of God[iii].

Man’s choice depends on his daily activity. Pico describes it with the image of seeds: “The Father infused in man, at his birth, every sort of seed and all sprouts of every kind of life. These seeds will grow and bear fruit in each man who sows them. If he cultivates  his vegetative seeds, he will become a plant. If he cultivates his sensitive seeds, he will become a brute animal. If he cultivates his rational seeds, he will become a heavenly being. If he cultivates his intellectual seeds, he will be an angel and a son of God. And if he – being dissatisfied with the lot assigned to any other creature – gathers himself into the centre of his unity, thus becoming a single spirit with God in the solitary darkness of the Father, he, who had been placed above all things, will become superior to all things.”[iv]

Perhaps in an intellectual age, we would expect intellectualism to lead the spiritual soul to humanity. But Pico replies that you become an angel or a son of God. Intellect gives man wings to take flight. And sonship of God appears as the endpoint in man’s regeneration. However, why would Pico go on in the text? He writes of a state of dissatisfaction with the lot, followed by a retreat into one’s center. What centre? Pico’s concept is cosmological, and man used to be referred to in the Renaissance as a small cosmos, a microcosm. Man is to turn to the centre of his microcosm, that is, to the interior of the spiritual soul. The fact that this is a spiritual character suggests that Pico is writing about becoming a single spirit with God in the solitary darkness of the Father.

The question is, is there anything other than an image of God and sonship at work here? By drawing here also on the Pythagorean, Kabbalah, and Arabic mysticism, Pico is therefore writing about spiritual unity with God, a state of oneness (corresponding to number 1). It is a celebration of spiritual maturity. The spirit that awakens and comes alive in the microcosm is one with God, not just a son as a child, not just an image of God (imago Dei), but a quality of God that is above all, a quality of perfection, most often identified by Pico in the Oratio and Heptaplus as Adam. In Him, there is freedom and dignity and also “solitary lonely darkness” because here the spirit is not subject to the yoke of law solitariness and loneliness but that it is life and consciousness in a qualitatively so different sphere (force field). Perhaps it is the freedom, Libertas of Gospel (libertas evangelii), of which the Fama fraternitatis heralds us when it places among the axioms of the Rosicrucians also the seemingly contradictory yoke of the law (legis jugum).  Darkness, perhaps, because there is seemingly nothing that is ordinary life and nothing that signifies the spiritual path, that is, the process of elevation, of regeneration, as Pico writes. Here it is a more fundamental picture and a completely different quality, which cannot be acquired by mere development, evolution, but rather by an inner revolution and fundamental transformation. It is the darkness of the beginning of creation, where everything is in its embryo stage and where the energy of creation is very active, let us say figuratively the spiritual fire or alchemical gold. That is why Pico writes: “Who will not wonder at this chameleon of ours.”[v]

Therefore, freedom leads to humanity and dignity, but it is freedom of the spirit. It is both freedom and dignity that are part of the domain of hyperphysic, the area of the spirit. If a human being is not fundamentally transformed according to the laws of spirit, then he cannot understand or appropriate any of it, and then there can be no lasting perfection in the realm of soul (metaphysics) and body (physics). Therefore, the most human and cultural endeavor is but a path to true freedom and dignity. Without the path, it would not be possible.

Go to Part 2

[i] Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni: Oratio de dignitate hominis. In:  Borghesi, Francesco, Papio, Michael, Riva, Massimo. Pico della Mirandola. Oration on the Dignity of Man. A new translation and commentary. Cambridge: CUP, 2016, p. 117: 22-23.

[ii] Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni: Oratio de dignitate hominis. pp. 116-117: 17-20. The authors of the commentary here refer to the Greek translation of the word indeterminate, which means undecided and refer to „Genesis 1:26 that man has no image; however the human being has no image precisely becouse he or she is called to become God, Who is beyond all representation.“

[iii] Heptaplus, IV, 7/286 Garin; Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni: Oratio de dignitate hominis. Prague, 2005, p. 57 – footnote.

[iv] Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni: Oratio de dignitate hominis. pp. 121: 27-30.

[v] Ibid. pp. 123: 31.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Share this article

Article info

Date: June 1, 2022
Author: Olga Rosenkranzová (Czech Republic)
Photo: Peter H on Pixabay CCO

Featured image: