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Dr. Matthew Gaetano On The Renaissance And The Oration On The Dignity Of Man By Pico

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HH: I’ve got to explain to my audience of Montanans what we do in the last hour of each radio week. We do something very different from the rest of radio you’ll hear anywhere else in the world. I actually give it over to my friends at Hillsdale College,, and we engage in a conversation usually with the president of the university, Dr. Larry Arnn, or with one of his wonderful faculty members, today Dr. Matthew Gaetano, about why we call the West the West. Not the Mountain West, not the cowboy and Indians West, but the Western civilization, where it came from, because Hillsdale, and I do this with my new audience in mind, there might be some people up there who have not heard of Hillsdale, and they ought to know about Hillsdale, is a different place that aims very high to reeducate, actually, America and prepare a new generation of leaders. And Dr. Gaetano, with that in mind, I’ve got four new affiliates across the country that has never heard a Hillsdale hour before. Would you tell them what Hillsdale does and why it’s unique? You’re a graduate of there.

MG: Sure.

HH: You got your PhD at Penn, but talk a little bit about Hillsdale.

MG: Well, Hillsdale College talks about itself being a trustee of this Western heritage that you were just talking about, which is this effort to engage Greco-Roman civilization, the Greeks and the Romans, the great achievements of Ancient Athens, the great Greek philosophers, Plato, Aristotle and others, and Roman culture, Roman law, the way in which the Romans were able to spread that Greek cultural and philosophical and poetic achievement throughout the then-known world, to create certain forms of order that have lasted into our own da, and then this Judeo-Christian faith that, the belief that there is one God who reveals Himself to human beings, and then the Christian conviction that God became flesh and dwelt among us, and how especially in Western Europe these kind of two ways of thinking about things were attempted to be brought into synthesis by great figures in the Middle Ages like Thomas Aquinas, and the Renaissance like Petrarch and Pico, who we might be talking about a bit today, and then later on, as expressed in this American experiment of liberty under law, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence that drew so deeply from the wells of that Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian civilization that the West represents.

HH: And I want to stress to our friends up in Montana, we’re so glad to have you. And mostly, I do the news of the day as I’ve been doing all day today, and we do breaking news, and even once in a while, we don’t do the Hillsdale Hour in the last hour of the radio week, which is in the East, it’s from 8-9 in the East, and in the West where I broadcast from, it’s from 5-6. Once in a while, if breaking news intrudes, we don’t do the Hillsdale Hour. But we committed to this project, and Hillsdale joined in and began to sponsor it a year and a half ago, because of Dr. Arnn’s believe, vision, understanding, that all Americans actually are interested in this. They just never get offered it. And Dr. Gaetano, I’m sure you teach freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors at Hillsdale’s Michigan campus. And they all self-select, but what do you think about their parents and their families, and their extended families, and the people that you know? Is there in fact in America a hunger to understand where we came from and how we got into this predicament?

MG: Our Hillsdale students do come from great families. I think one of the real unique features of Hillsdale is how we conceive of a partnership between the faculty, the professor, the administration and the parents, and of course, with the students, because we’re all pursuing the same thing, which is that which is true and that which is good. And this is a place that is known to be conservative, but in so many ways, we’re conservative in a very deep and broad sense, that we take ideas, you know, from the works of Aristotle and Cicero seriously. You know, this is not just the conservatism of the last 30, 40 years, but a vision of the human being that is millennia old. And I think that’s a really inspiring vision. And whenever we have parents come sit in on classes, or donors, or other sorts of people who are from the outside, if you will, to a certain extent, I always hear over and over again, you know, I wish I could go to a college like this and read these kinds of beautiful things with a community all devoted to a common enterprise, but one filled with debate and controversy, but one that’s kind of anchored in something quite real and quite true.

HH: And at the beginning of every semester when I teach Con Law, and again, for the benefit of my new audience up in Montana, I teach Constitutional Law at Chapman. I always give a one day lecture which borrows from Bill Bryson’s book by the same title, A Brief History Of Nearly Everything. And the bottom line is if you’re going to understand how we arrived at the Constitutional moment we’re living in, which is one of crisis, you have to understand the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, the English, and the Americans.

MG: Right.

HH: And you just have to do that. And I actually compressed that into one lecture just to give them something to stand on when we get to 1789. I assume, Dr. Gaetano, you take years to form your Hillsdale student to be able to understand how we got to this day.

MG: That’s right, but we start right from the very beginning. This Western Heritage course where we begin with the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, and with Plato and Aristotle, that’s at the very beginning of their freshman year, and then all the way into their senior year as they deepen into their majors, we’re constantly asking these questions. And that Western Heritage course, the literature course where they’re reading Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, this provides the framework for them to inquire more deeply into specific areas of academic study and so on and so forth.

HH: And if you’re piqued by this, listener, whether in Montana or a new listener anywhere across the United States that’s tune into, you know, even my oldest affiliate, L.A. AM870 the Answer, or one of my newest up in Montana, now covering the Big Sky State, here’s what you do. You got to, because Hillsdale has made available for free the 70-plus hours that we have done this, beginning with, indeed, the Iliad. That’s where we began, and the Odyssey by Homer. And we have now marched in a year and a half all the way up to what I thought was going to be, but thanks to Dr. Gaetano, is not the most difficult period of time. I mean, we’ve got from 500 years before the birth of Christ all the way up to Thomas Aquinas. We finished Thomas Aquinas, went four weeks on the great Medieval theologian, and Dante, we spent a couple of weeks. And last week, we tiptoed gingerly into what is really a 150 year period known as the Renaissance. And we did so through the individual, the person by the name of Petrarch, about whom, by the way, if you don’t know anything about this stuff, you’re like me. I knew nothing about Petrarch. So sit down there, and the guys at Hillsdale and the gals at Hillsdale break it down for us, and they lay it all out for us. And this is a hard, Larry Arnn bolted on you.

MG: Yes, he did.

HH: President Arnn left you high and dry, Dr. Gaetano, when it came time to do 150 year march through the Renaissance. He absolutely ran for the hills. And so I want that noted for the record. And it is difficult, isn’t it, because as I was doing my notes and summary, and you guys sent me a wonderful summary, I said I have to somehow persuade people that in 140 years between the death of Aquinas, who most people will know as the guy who wrote the Summa and the really smart Catholic monk, and the writing of Machiavelli’s Prince, a lot happened. There are lots of names – Dante, Petrarch, Chaucer, everyone had to read Chaucer in high school in the old days, Bruni, they know Michelangelo, they know the da Vinci Code because of the da Vinci Code, right? They know about da Vinci. They may not know Pico, who we’re going to talk about. But it’s an amazing period of time, but not many American high school students, and almost no college students, spend any time on this. Why is that?

MG: That’s an interesting question. I think that a lot of students today are neglecting much of what came before 1800, let alone what came before 1500. And so a kind of general neglect of a kind of deep grasp of the history of our own culture and our own civilization. And I think that part of why the Renaissance is something that’s so complicated is that it has a really interesting press, that the Renaissance literally means a rebirth, right? The Enlightenment, this later period in the 18th Century, is a period of light. You know, how could you, clearly, we have this idea of these things as good things – birth, life, light, and to oppose these things is to somehow be in favor of death and darkness or something like that. So I mean, the Renaissance as a rebirth, you know, gives this image of what came before it as a period of darkness or where there wasn’t this kind of life. And as we’ve gone through these Hillsdale Dialogues, you’ve seen just how rich that Medieval period is. It wasn’t just in the middle. It was something where you have figures like Aquinas and Dante with great intellectual, poetic achievements. So what is this Renaissance period? It seems to me that one of the most important features of it is this idea of humanism. Now the word humanism today, I think, is often misunderstood because of its associations with secular humanism, right?

HH: Right.

MG: …this idea that well, human beings are the center of the world, and there’s really nothing to worship outside of that human being. And I want to make it extremely clear that in the Renaissance, there’s almost no one, if anyone, who really held that kind of secular humanist perspective. And so when we really think about humanism, we have to see it as something rooted in a Christian vision of the world, but one that privileged lay experience – the life of a city, the life of a family, ordinary life of non-clergymen.

— – – –

HH: And I want to begin by talking about what it’s not. And this takes us to a very obscure name, Jacob Burckhardt. And Jacob Burckhardt, like many so people, they write one essay, and it screws everything up for 150 years. So, well tell people, if you will, Dr. Gaetano, what Burckhardt’s defamation of the Middle Ages was, and the result that it worked.

MG: Jacob Burckhardt is a complicated figure. Part of the problem for Renaissance historians today is he’s a brilliant writer. He has this rhetorical that we know can have some dangerous side effects when they’re saying something that’s not quite right. But it continues to be said over and over again because of how powerfully it’s put. But for Burckhardt, the Renaissance was the rediscovery of man and the world. And he talks about medieval people as living in shadows, living kind of under a veil, not understanding themselves, and it’s only in the Renaissance where people really grasp that they were individuals for really the first time at least since antiquity. And yeah, this is an extremely problematic notion of both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, that…

HH: Because it undervalues the Middle Ages, and it overstates the Renaissance as separate from.

MG: Exactly. That’s exactly right that there are discontinuities. There are ways that we could say yeah, the Medieval period even of Aquinas and Dante, the high Middle Ages, and a period of Petrarch and Pico in the Renaissance, that there are differences, but that they’re not as radical as this Swiss historian of the 19th Century said that it really was. And you know, he was influenced and influencing Nietzsche and these other figures of that period, who are looking at both the abilities of the individual, but also some of the dangerous aspects of it. So it’s a complicated work, but the Middle Ages is really kind of left out to dry in his reading.

HH: And it also, by extension, works to discredit Aquinas and Dante and their very God-centered universe, doesn’t it?

MG: That’s exactly right, and I think that they would say well, either you are theocentric, you know, God-centered, or anthropocentric, man-centered, and that’s the movement from the Middle Ages, which is theocentric, to the Renaissance, which is anthropocentric. But this is extremely problematic. I mean, Thomas Aquinas talks about the human being as the boundary and limit between immaterial Divine being and material being, that Aquinas says that when, at the end of Matthew, is says go into the world and preach to all of creation, he says well, are we preaching to every single creature – the animals, the rocks, and so on? No. But the human being, in a way, because he is both immaterial with his soul and material his body, can stand in for all of creation. Aquinas says that the salvation of one human being, talk about individualism, the salvation of one human being is greater than the creation of the entire universe, because it’s in a supernatural order. That’s a pretty high view of the human being, it seems to me.

HH: It is, and now I want to put this period in proper perspective for Americans as well listening right now. This country is 238 years old if we date it to the Declaration of Independence. And some people will quibble you ought to date it to the Constitution, but I always go to the Declaration. Do you agree with me, by the way, Dr. Gaetano, that we go to the Declaration for this purpose?

MG: This is a very interesting, controversial question at Hillsdale, but well, as long as we acknowledge the important achievement of the Colonial Americans and how they established the institutions of liberty in America even before the Declaration of Independence, yeah, 1776, declaring independence from Great Britain, that’s a pretty natural place to start, I would say.

HH: So that’s, so we’re 238 years into the project, and that is your measurement against what the timeline I want to walk through with you. Rome collapses in 476, and this is really the dark ages from 476-800, really, when Charlemagne arrives. There’s just disorder and chaos. But slowly, led by the Roman Catholic Church and a variety of rulers like William the Conqueror, some order reemerges. In fact, universities are founded, right, Dr. Gaetano? This is a big deal.

MG: Exactly. Yeah, and scholars actually talk about partly, you know, bringing back what we think of as the Renaissance in the 14th and 15th Centuries. We talk about the Carolingian Renaissance, or the Renaissance of Charlemagne in the early 9th Century, and then this 12th Century Renaissance, in the 1100s when things are stabilizing, population is growing, things are economically much better, and yes, universities are being founded. There’s schools being established in monasteries and cathedrals. This is a serious, serious effort to re-appropriate the great cultural and intellectual achievements of antiquity long before Petrarch, Pico and these figures that, you know, da Vinci that we associate with the Italian Renaissance.

HH: And so Aquinas comes along, and he dominates the age, and he dies in 1274, and then Dante comes along and he dies 40 years later, or roughly that. And he’s written, he’s revitalized and extraordinarily redefined poetry through the Divine Comedy which we talked about. And then we have a hundred year war going on. We talked about Petrarch last week. And then we enter a period of sort of wild innovation, and lots of names. And so how would you summarize what matters most in those hundred years between sort of that Dante period and Machiavelli’s The Prince?

MG: Right, so there’s a lot of difficulties and what you might call dark features of the 14th and 15th Centuries, that at the end of the 1340s, you have the Black Death, where at least a third of Europeans die of the Plague. You have the Avignon Papacy, which isn’t as bad as people often say it is, but it’s the time when the papacy moved from Rome or Central Italy up to Avignon, and what is today Southern France, and the papacy was seen as being a tool of the French monarchy. And again, however true that is, Italians especially who wanted the papacy back in Central Italy where it belongs, in Rome, called it the Babylonian captivity of the Church. At the end of the 14th Century, you have the great schism, where you have a pope in Avignon, and a pope in Rome. And this is not the kind of situation that really anyone wants at this particular time.

HH: And there are extraordinary events as well coming up. Joan of Arc is a real person. Churchill in The History Of The English-Speaking Peoples says had she not existed, we would have had to create here, she’s just so wonderful a figure. And of course, she heard the voice of God and led the French armies to defeat the English armies. But she’s a real person. These are real events swirling and interconnected, Dr. Gaetano, with the artists and the thinkers of their time.

MG: That’s right. Yeah, and the Hundred Years War, of which Joan of Arc was a part, I mean, that’s another real challenging moment in this 14th, early 15th Century period. But at the same time, you have this revival of interest in poetry. You know, Aquinas and Dante already had the ancients, at least some of them, like Aristotle, and what Petrarch is doing, as we talked about a little bit last week, is really looking to walk in the footsteps of the ancients, to speak and write and think much more, not only drawing from the ancients, but actually living very much like they did. And so that revival of poetry is something you don’t see in Aquinas as much, but that becomes a central part of this Italian cultural leadership of the 14th-15th Century that we think of as the Renaissance.

— – – – –

HH: I’m going to save the next segment, Dr. Gaetano, for Pico and his oration on the dignity of man. And we’ll focus on one work and why it matters and defined it. But just for a moment, there’s this extraordinary period. 1498, da Vinci paints The Last Supper. Two years later, Michelangelo sculpts the Pieta. A few years after that, David, which I think is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

MG: Beautiful.

HH: da Vinci comes back with the Mona Lisa. Michelangelo answers with the Sistine Chapel. And so I think in many popular understandings of the Renaissance, this is the Renaissance, these five years. They don’t get it. You know, this is like the explosion of the popular symbols of that period.

MG: That’s right.

HH: Why did it happen then, did you think?

MG: That’s a very difficult question. But you know, to take a stab at it, that we do think, when we think of the Renaissance, I think we do think of art. I don’t think we think immediately of the sonnet or of Petrarch’s poetry.

HH: Right.

MG: You’re absolutely right. And you know, this great fluorescence of art in this high renaissance of the late 15th, early 16th Centuries is very much in the middle of all that political difficulty that we were just discussing, that in 1494, the French come down across the Alps, and it’s a period called the Italian wars, where Europeans start to fight over these Italian cities, and the cities are all ganging up against one another. And it’s in a different period where a lot of artists and poets and humanists go to Rome, and you know, this is the period where the papacy is really trying to say well, yeah, fine, we shouldn’t have been in Avignon, perhaps. Now we’re going to be in Rome. We’re going to make this city of Rome work in a way that it really hasn’t for a thousand years. And so we’re going to engage in all these great building projects, and all this gorgeous decoration of those building projects that we see being produced by these brilliant, brilliant Renaissance artists.

HH: so my one question is how could they pull it off, but if you gave it to the United States Government to try to produce works of great art, you’ll get horrible stuff? So how come the papacy could do it, but it could not be done today?

MG: Right, well, I’m a good Republican, you know, a virtuous republic, worried about monarchy and all that sort of thing, but you know, we have to give some credit to this aristocratic culture, that the nobles who were patronizing these artists, what were they asking for? They were asking for works of fine beauty. And this continues in the 17th and 18th Centuries. And you know, is a nobleman who is living in a fine house that’s 200 years old, trying to decorate it for his great-great-great grandchildren going to have a different vision of what is beautiful art than a bureaucrat or someone like that who might be funding art today? And so it’s not as much a problem of patronage. It’s a problem of who’s doing the patronizing, and of course, who’s doing, who’s actually producing the art.

HH: Whose judgment and whose talent are respectively being employed.

MG: Exactly.

HH: That’s a great answer. Now my last question before we move onto the next segment is in the middle of all this comes one technological device, one invention – Guttenberg.

MG: That’s right.

HH: And of course, that is a hemorrhage in the world, isn’t it?

MG: The printing press was something, there were intellectuals at the time who worried about the printing press in much the way that you could say Plato and Socrates in one of the dialogues talks about how the art of writing is going to make people not as capable of memorizing great things, and they think they know something when in fact it’s just written down. And this was something that the printing press only heightened, and you know, of course today with the internet only exacerbates this problem, but just like the internet, the printing press made available all sorts of texts, would allow at least over the course of time to have text be standardized, that you’re not having to hunt down manuscripts that you find and then are lost again, that once you print it, a thousand, two thousand copies of something, that at least gives it a kind of stability that was important for some of these intellectual achievements of this period.

HH: And so I’m just curious, and we’ve got a minute left to the break, we are in one of those technological revolutions right now where a vast disbursing of information is occurring that has never happened before. And we see dynamic change coming soon after that in the way the world is ordered. Do you expect the same thing, Dr. Gaetano?

MG: I really think that, I tend towards the view of, you know, there’s nothing new under the Sun, but you know, this explosion of information, I think, really asks us to think more deeply about what it is to be an educated human being. And I think about this as a teacher, that is it just my job to transmit information? You know, it seems to me that if that’s all I’m doing, I’m going to be easily replaced rather, and I think this is a general vision at Hillsdale, to be part of a conversation to engage deeply in certain profound questions about the nature of truth and goodness, that it’s not just a bunch of facts and data that you can get on Wikipedia or something, however unreliable that is, but a kind of conversation between human beings seeking learning, and who have some learning already.

— – – – –

HH: I’m telling you, we are working real hard here. Kyle Murnen at the college, and Dr. Gaetano and Dr. Arnn have figured out how to go from Aquinas to Machiavelli, and we decided we would sprint. But we would sprint, and rather than rush at the end, we would slow down for one segment and focus on one man, Pico, and one of his works, the Oration On The Dignity Of Man, which was written in 1486, for a reason, which I will let Dr. Matthew Gaetano from Hillsdale College,, explain.

MG: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola is this remarkable figure who even in his own day was called the phoenix, the great genius, this great figure in his own time. Thomas More, just a few years later, a few decades later, is writing, translating a biography of Pico, who died as a very, very young man. And here, this Oration On The Dignity Of Man, was composed when he was in his early 20s. And this fellow, Pico…

HH: Doesn’t that humble you, Professor?

MG: Absolutely.

HH: Aren’t you in your early 20s?

MG: Well, I’ve finally headed into my early 30s, but…

HH: Okay, so you’re ten years behind Pico now, yeah.

MG: Even though I’m ten years older, I’m still, I couldn’t defend, as he does, well, attempts to do, wants to do, defend 900 contested theses drawn from, and this is a very Renaissance kind of thing, not only the Greeks, not only Scripture, but from later rabbis, from Persians, from the Arabs, from this kind of syncretic drawing together of learning and culture from all across the then-known world.

HH: I’m going to guess that…

MG: And as I said, in his early 20s.

HH: 99.9% of the people listening have never heard of Pico, unless they’re in L.A. and driving on Pico Blvd. And then, it’s not the same Pico. So why isn’t that he known in the way that da Vinci and Erasmus, and these are different periods, and Joan of Arc and Chaucer and Thomas Aquinas, how come Pico doesn’t get his due?

MG: In his own day, Pico was, as I said, a very famous man. But this, our study of Renaissance humanism is, you know, it’s largely ignored, even though so many of the texts, so many of the ways in which we have access to ancient culture and thought was, to a certain extent at least, an achievement of these very figures. But, and perhaps it’s also because they’re writing in Latin. And these languages are not available to us, even though most of a lot of Pico is translated, but you know, not as much as needs to be. But you know, this figure, Pico, even though as I said he died young and he was writing this in his early 20s, gives this oration on the dignity of man, which for someone like Burckhardt, right, who’s saying that the Renaissance is anthropocentric, is centered on the human being, that would have really caught his ear. And what Pico argues in this oration, which was setting up these 900 theses that he wanted to defend, is that, is to ask well, why is man so great? And he wants to say why is man greater than the angels? And he knew that people like Thomas Aquinas and medieval figures and ancient figures had said man has a great dignity in this world, because he is a rational animal, not merely an animal. But Pico wants to say there’s a way in which man is greater even than the angels, and that’s because, and this is a little bit strange, man doesn’t really have a fixed nature. Pico wants to say that there’s a great chain of being down from the plants, animals, to the heavenly bodies, to the angels and up to God, and that he says man doesn’t really fit, that the human being can go down and live, and truly in a certain sense become a beast through vicious actions, but could also ascend through being connected with his intellect to the life of the angels, the life of the angelic beings. And even at the very end, he says, “And if happy in the lot of no created thing, man 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. He shall surpass them all.” And so this view of the human being, and that kind of centrality of the human, is something that Pico, this oration, has become symbolic for that anthropocentrism of the Italian Renaissance.

HH: Is it easily read? Is it easily accessible by people?

MG: I think the Oration On The Dignity Of Man is reasonably accessible, and it’s relatively short. So even if you have to work through it, it’s something that it wouldn’t take you too much time to go line by line, word by word.

HH: And does it surprise your students when they come to it?

MG: You know, they’re a bit disturbed by it, because you know, they’re worried about, as I said earlier, this secular humanism, that hasn’t it been the case that in the modern world, man has in a certain sense, in his own mind, displaced God? And they see in Pico, perhaps, seeds of that. Now I would say that you know, I don’t think, really, Pico’s really guilty of that. He’s saying some strange things, that you know, man can become an angel, and really, some odd views drawn from these rabbis and from the Arabs and from other different cultures. But he’s not displacing God. He’s saying we need to live not like a beast, but like an angel by cultivating our intellect, by cultivating virtue. And this is where, you know, we’ve been talking about Machiavelli, and I know you’ll give a whole session to him, that Machiavelli, you know, he makes man central in a certain way, and he really ignores the Divine in his Prince, and even in his discourses on Livy. But he has a very low view of the human being, right? Pico is saying don’t act like a beast. Machiavelli’s saying look, we’re going to act like beasts, and a realistic politics is to recognize that if we’re going to rule beasts, we sometimes need to act like a beast. He talks about the Prince being a fox or a lion, deceptive or forcefully violent. Pico would never say something like that. Petrarch would say nothing like that. Of course, Aquinas would say nothing like that.

HH: But this gets Pico a very modern result. He gets declared a heretic. That’s a very modern result, right? That means you’ve crossed over the boundary of acceptable, and that becomes, when boundaries are acceptable and unacceptable, you’re really entering into the modern age of ruthlessness, aren’t you?

MG: You make an interesting point, Hugh. You know, Pico does give this oration, and it does disturb us, because we’re worried, right, about God somehow being displaced by man in our modern way of thinking. But what’s really striking is that when the Church saw Pico’s oration, and the 900 theses, they don’t condemn him for this oration celebrating man’s dignity. I think that’s pretty familiar. You know, they’re condemning him, and they do condemn him, for other views that, about Hell, about the incarnation, much more narrow theological perspectives that you know, an early, a guy in his early 20s might have been a bit rash. But I’m not sure he’s condemning everything he had to say.

HH: Dr. Matthew Gaetano, you have done your force march through 150 years very, very well indeed. Thank you, my friend. Next week? The Prince – Machiavelli.

End of interview.


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