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Arts and Letters

No Angel

Life of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola


Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
ed., trans. Brian P. Copenhaver
Harvard University Press
pp. 432, $35.00

Pic de La Mirandole: Études et Discussions
Henri de Lubac
Éditions du Cerf
pp. 526, $42.50

Magic and the Dignity of Man: Pico della Mirandola and His “Oration” in Modern Memory
Brian P. Copenhaver
Harvard University Press
pp. 704, $61.00

Pico della Mirandola on Trial: Heresy, Freedom, and Philosophy
Brian P. Copenhaver
Oxford University Press
pp. 288, $80.00


Giovanni Pico della Mirandola became a legend in his lifetime: even if it is not true that he mastered twenty-two languages by the age of eighteen, Pico remains regarded as one of the most pivotal philosophers of the Renaissance, despite the fact that he wrote relatively little, published even less, and died under mysterious circumstances at the age of thirty-one, before he could fulfill his promise. Yet his fame endured; around World War II he gained a new reputation as a fearless pioneer of “humanism,” in the twentieth-century sense of a philosophy that does not rely on God to guarantee the innate dignity of mankind.

Until recently, reliable editions of Pico’s work were surprisingly difficult to find, at least for casual readers in the English-speaking world. Harvard University Press, whose I Tatti Renaissance Library has made attractive, affordable, high-quality editions of important neo-Latin texts available to a wider audience since 2001, has recently published Pico’s most famous single work, along with an influential biography that was put together by his nephew Gianfrancesco as a preface to the 1496 edition of Pico’s collected Latin writings. Some of us have been waiting for Harvard to publish this for twenty years; for most others, a little background may be necessary to understand just how important this publication really is.

If you have ever seriously tried to study any aspect of the Renaissance, you might have found yourself overwhelmed, frustrated, or even demoralized by your introductory texts. The best ones all appear impossibly, forbiddingly learned; even worse, they seem to assume that you already know everything, or at least have enough knowledge of Greek and Roman art, and Latin and Italian literature, and fifteenth-century painting and architecture, to be able to form an opinion on these things. This turns out to be a false impression, of course. But it rarely feels like one to the anxious beginner.

My own initiation into these studies was Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance by Edgar Wind, who was one of the pioneering interdisciplinary researchers of the Warburg Institute, and served as Oxford’s first-ever professor of art history. Wind was not trying to scare away readers with his learning: he was trying to flatter and seduce them by affecting to believe that they surely did not need to be told the basics of their subject and were already worthy of joining in an advanced discussion. Really he was covertly provoking his listeners to go off to the library and study, and make themselves worthy of his lectures; he was so charming that he often succeeded in this.

In Pagan Mysteries, Wind treats Pico with such archly skeptical irony that you come to suspect him of using Pico as a stand-in for a professorial colleague, particularly when he discusses Pico’s provocative, evasive language; his contrived, eccentric prose style; his cultivation of mystery and obscurity as a source of authority; and the vicarious, quasi-poetic thrill he seems to get from reading occult authors. Pico, as depicted by Wind, thought it frivolous and illogical to discuss mysteries in plain language: an air of secrecy contributed to the respect that they inspired. Might this be a cunning character sketch in disguise?

Pagan Mysteries reveals something about the sort of scholar who might have dreamt of following in Pico’s footsteps and dabbling in astrology, magic, and other such curiosities out of more than idle curiosity. Wind’s erstwhile colleague at the Warburg Institute, Dame Frances Yates, continues to be celebrated for her engrossing, profoundly imaginative historical studies such as Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, which has influenced perceptions of Pico for over half a century, despite the fact that he is not really the central figure in this volume.

Yates emphasizes Pico’s peculiar brand of erudite syncretism, which combined elements of late-antique commentary techniques; medieval scholasticism; a symbolic approach to Greco-Roman myth; a highly idiosyncratic reading of the Bible; and the Jewish mystical tradition known as the Cabala. He does not really sound like a Christian figure, at least in Yates’s account. Yet Pico believed, at one point in his life, that magic and Cabala provided the best proofs of Christ’s divinity: he wanted people to use magic and Cabala to transform themselves into angels.

His views developed into something closer to recognizable orthodoxy; he ended his life as a disciple of Girolamo Savonarola, the controversial Dominican friar who called for a reform of the Church, led an austere political-religious movement, is sometimes thought of as a sort of proto-Protestant, and remains best remembered for the “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Savonarola and his followers celebrated Shrove Tuesday in 1497 by gathering thousands of lewd books, lascivious works of art, mirrors, cosmetics, playing cards, dice, gambling instruments, musical instruments, and other such inducements to vice and sin (or distractions from worship and devotion), piled them into a heap, and burned them in the main square in Florence, where he was burned at the stake the following year, after being excommunicated and convicted of heresy, schism, and sedition.

Evidently Pico lived in a very different world. The best introductions to his intellectual background are Nigel Wilson’s three books Scribes and Scholars, Scholars of Byzantium, and From Byzantium to Italy. Wilson’s elegantly readable studies should be supplemented by the essays in Jill Kraye’s Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, and in the Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy, edited by James Hankins. These are not dry handbooks: Kraye and Hankins have taken care to maintain high literary standards. On the other hand, these are not quite bedtime reading, unless you are in the habit of sitting up in bed taking thorough notes.

We tend to think of the Italian Renaissance in terms of art and architecture: this is what first attracts us to the subject, until we see how much more there is to it. The Renaissance began as a literary and intellectual movement; to understand how it began, you should look at the peculiar qualities of medieval Latin.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin never disappeared or fell into disuse; but by the time of the Emperor Charlemagne it was a “dead language,” in the sense that nobody grew up speaking it at home. Of course it was still alive in the liturgy, and as a bureaucratic, administrative, and legal language, as well as a means of communication between learned men. There is even an extensive literature: not just hymns, but drinking songs, satires, love poems, and would-be epics. You can explore some of these texts in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, whose volumes of Venantius Fortunatus and the Carmina Burana are particularly enjoyable. But something is missing.

To read medieval Latin well, you should have a solid command of Caesar, Sallust, and Terence, near-total recall of Virgil, and at least a few hundred lines of Ovid rattling around inside your head. It helps to know Saint Augustine’s Confessions, and the poetical books of the Bible in Saint Jerome’s translation, as well as the entire New Testament. Between these you have most of the grammar, syntax, vocabulary, rhetoric, and literary devices that the medieval Latinists had at their disposal. But then there is scholastic terminology, along with local variations in dialect and vocabulary, and bureaucratic bad habits, and all the slips, errors, and miscommunications that are introduced when people try to communicate in a language that nobody quite speaks perfectly or has learnt in the same way as others.

There is authentically great literature in medieval Latin, of course: the writings within this tradition of Dante and Saint Thomas Aquinas in particular are not merely of scholarly interest. But to use medieval Latin effectively you had to be a literary genius. The common standard was generally low, as you know if you have tried to read legal or other archival documents, or study medieval philosophy and theology beyond Aquinas, Peter Abelard, and a handful of others. The Renaissance began as a movement to restore Latin to the full expressive range that was possible in Cicero’s lifetime.

The Renaissance was not merely about language or rhetoric, of course: the recovery of ancient knowledge in general was important, and the great poet Petrarch was renowned not merely for his poetry or command of Latin but for his unflagging devotion to rediscovering old manuscripts, having them copied, and putting them back into general circulation. In the fifteenth century, scholars increasingly began paying attention to classical Greek, which almost nobody in Western Europe had been able to read since the fall of Rome. After Constantinople fell in 1453, scores of Byzantine scholars entered Italy as refugees. Luckily, they brought their learning with them. To them more than anyone else we owe the survival of ancient Greek literature.

Renaissance architecture began with Roman ruins: architects studied what remained of ancient buildings in the hope not of reconstructing them but of surpassing their example, just as Christian civilization surpassed classical culture. On the other hand, Renaissance painting was a restorationist project—or even a reactionary one.

The only real evidence that remained for what Greek and Roman paintings might have looked like were descriptions of pictures in Pliny’s Natural History and other such Latin texts. Of course there were Roman sculptures as well, notably Republican-era portrait busts, copies of Greek bronzes, and those magnificent sarcophagi that were produced throughout the empire from the mid-second to the late third century A.D. Renaissance artists copied all of these as part of their gloriously insane dream of recreating the lost paintings of antiquity. A few even succeeded, not least Sandro Botticelli, whose Calumny of Apelles brings to life an ancient description of a long-lost painting by Apelles, who is thought to have painted Alexander the Great.

It might be a mistake to think too much about art where Pico della Mirandola was concerned. He collected Greek and Latin manuscripts, not pictures, and was a patron of scholars and teachers, not artists. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no authenticated portrait of him. The alleged depiction of Pico in the Uffizi Gallery by Cristofano dell’Altissimo is a late-sixteenth-century copy of a lost original that was painted around half a century after Pico’s death. According to contemporary descriptions, Pico was tall, unusually graceful, and angelic-looking; the Uffizi “portrait” is of a greasy-haired middle-aged man with a penchant for junk food.

The only full-length biography of Pico in English to date is a series of articles in Philosophia Reformata by the Calvinist-leaning New Testament scholar Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, whereas there is a succinct yet admirably thorough 1967 monograph on Pico’s nephew and biographer by Charles Schmitt, who studied chemical engineering in Louisville, Kentucky, before deciding to devote his life to the study of Aristotelianism in the Italian Renaissance. Schmitt’s Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola (1469–1533) and His Critique of Aristotle is one of the finest intellectual biographies in existence of any Renaissance intellectual. If only all such monographs were as lucid, simple, and fair-minded as this. And if only someone would write an English-language book on Pico of at least this quality.

Pico was born on February 24, 1463, the sixth and youngest child of a minor warlord. His mother thought he was too intelligent and delicate to become a warrior, and decided he should train to become a priest. In August 1480, while he was studying canon law at Bologna, his mother died. From then on, he became less and less interested in joining the clergy and more attracted to the life of the mind for its own sake.

He moved to Ferrara, began learning Greek, and met Savonarola for the first time. Then he studied Aristotelian philosophy at Padua for two years or so. In May 1483, he was invited to Florence by Politian, the mercurial, rebarbative, thin-skinned genius who was the greatest poet of the era, as well as one of the most brilliant classical philologists of all time. Politian was close to Lorenzo the Magnificent, whose court was the center of the Renaissance throughout the 1470s and 1480s.

At the age of twenty, Pico became one of the wealthiest men in Italy; unlike Lorenzo, he had no ambition to glorify his name or his city as a patron of the arts; he was more interested in buying manuscripts and acquiring knowledge of ancient languages.

Pico turned out to be less shrewd at collecting courtiers than Lorenzo was. For a time his entourage included the colorful savant Flavius Mithridates, who knew Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, introduced Pico to the mysteries of the Cabala, and had no scruples about making extensive editorial additions to texts that he was supposed to be translating into Latin. Thanks to these interpolations, we know more about his life than is strictly necessary.

Unlike Politian, Pico was a philosopher at heart, or so he thought. But there was nobody who could teach him to do what he really wanted to do, which was to achieve a grand synthesis between all schools of thought that would reconcile Plato and Aristotle, paganism and Christianity, scholasticism with the Cabala, and essentially everything he had so far read with everything else he wanted to read. He spent a half a year or so in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and learning the French manner of philosophical dispute, while he meditated on how best to attain this intellectual harmony.

In March 1486, Pico returned to Florence, believing that he had hit upon a solution. He decided to invite philosophers from all over the known world to come to Rome at his expense and debate him on his political, philosophical, and theological positions. There would eventually be nine hundred of these.

On his way to Rome, Pico took a little detour to Arezzo, where he and twenty armed men tried to carry off his mistress, a rich young widow who was married to one of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s cousins. The abduction did not succeed: In the resulting mêlée, Pico was seriously wounded, eighteen out of twenty men were killed, and he and his secretary were imprisoned by authorities. Lorenzo was forced to intervene.

Pico made productive use of his captivity. He soon had enough Hebrew to write a letter and enough Arabic to read the Koran. Of course he was embarrassed about the scandal; his mistress thought she was pregnant. As part of his penance, Pico read a page of the Gospels a day (whether in Greek or Latin is not securely known). This penance may have been self-imposed. Pico’s spiritual life is in general something of a mystery; for all his intellectual interest in theology, he does not seem to have been particularly contrite about having been responsible for the deaths of eighteen followers. If he did indeed father a bastard, we know nothing about the child. His surviving letters concentrate almost exclusively on “higher things.”

After Pico was freed, he was compelled to spend more time indoors on account of an outbreak of plague. He made it to Rome in December and had his Nine Hundred Theses printed to make them available to anyone and everyone who wished to debate him. A convenient text, commentary, and translation (Syncretism in the West, edited by Stephen Alan Farmer) was first published in 1998 and has been available since 2016 in a paperback reprint from the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Tempe. This is the first printed book to have been universally banned by the Church. Reading Farmer’s edition, you can see why.

Pico’s stated aims were to persuade Christians to become Cabalists, in order to annihilate themselves in God, and convince philosophers that their path to salvation and saving wisdom was through concord and harmony, not argument or dispute. He aimed to prove this through a series of adversarial debates. In addition, he wanted to force everyone within earshot to accept that the methods, disciplines, and practice of Cabala inevitably led towards the Holy Trinity, the Nicene Creed, and the truths of the Catholic Church. It seems that Pico, in the heat of enthusiasm, did not really think any of this through.

As a writer, Pico is impossibly learned, eloquent, and sophisticated; it takes great intelligence to write something this colossally incoherent. Farmer’s edition of the Nine Hundred Theses rewards close study on this account, as a cautionary tale for twenty-three-year-olds who have come to believe in their own originality. The debates Pico wanted might have been memorable indeed, as humiliating comedy; but, alas, Pope Innocent VIII called them off.

In August 1487, the pope issued a bull condemning thirteen of these theses, and Pico’s confused esotericism generally, and ordered all copies of the printed book to be burned within three days, with excommunication for anyone presuming to read, print, copy, or have read, or have printed, or have copied, or even have heard someone read out, Pico’s theses. This was the first such condemnation issued by the Holy See.

Pico’s Nine Hundred Theses are much less well known than the text that introduces them, the so-called Oration on the Dignity of Man, which Pico himself appears to have referred to as the Oratio ad laudes philosophiae (Oration in Praise of Philosophy). Twentieth-century intellectual historians have claimed this text as the “manifesto of the Renaissance” or a humanist “Charter of Dignity” on account of Pico’s claim that man is the greatest of all wonders because we can choose to transform ourselves. We can choose to be what we want to be, Pico tells us; twentieth-century writers cheered so loudly at this that they were unable to hear the full statement: we can choose to be what we want to be, as long as we want to be sexless, bodiless, selfless angels.

The right choice for men, Pico asserts, involves learning how to live the angelic life, or specifically the cherubic life of studied contemplation, which they can learn to live through reading a curriculum of study based on various texts that Pico had been looking at over the past little while. Some of his statements are simply heretical: not only does he put words into God’s mouth, he makes God tell Adam not that man is made in God’s image, but that man is of indeterminate image, neither mortal nor immortal. But there is so much of this sort of thing throughout the Oration that the eyes glaze over, and the reader becomes desensitized.

The Oration is not really philosophy, but eloquently flashy rhetoric. There is no real need to take it seriously, except as a stirring piece of Latin. It remained little read for around four and a half centuries, as did its follow-up, Pico’s Apologia, which was published in May 1487 as a defense of the thirteen theses that were condemned by the pope. The Apologia too was swiftly condemned; in June, Innocent VIII summoned Pico to appear before the Inquisition. He was not personally condemned; instead he was asked to grant permission for all copies of the Apologia to be burned. He ended up fleeing Rome, and was arrested in France in 1488.

Eventually Pico returned to Florence; the last five years of his life proved highly productive. His views evolved rapidly. A few of his letters are translated in the I Tatti Renaissance Library volume of Politian’s letters (2006; edited by Shane Butler, who still has three further volumes of this correspondence to finish editing and translating). For readers with Latin and Italian, there is an attractive 2018 critical edition of Pico’s correspondence (edited by Francesco Borghesi); unfortunately it only includes Pico’s side of exchanges, which makes Pico’s personality harder to discern. Yet his charm shines through.

For centuries, Pico’s letters were treated as a model for neo-Latin correspondence. Perhaps he lacks the polish and literary flamboyance of his friend Politian. Yet his gentler example is easier to follow. Perhaps his best-known letters will be found in Eugenio Garin’s wonderful 1952 anthology Prosatori latini del quattrocento (Latin Prose Writers of the Fourteen-Hundreds), which includes his exchange on style with Ermolao Barbaro, who managed to accomplish important philological work in his spare time whilst serving variously as a diplomat, professor of philosophy and bishop.

Barbaro wrote Pico a friendly letter in which he interrupted himself by complaining about the unreadable Latin of certain philosophers whose work he had been reading. Pico’s reply is a master class in good manners as well as stylish rhetoric: he asserts that wisdom is the pursuit of philosophers, and on these grounds he excuses those whose style seems uncouth by the standards of polite humanists. Nobody will be blown away by the contents of this exchange, but the sheer artistry of Pico’s style is enough to make you want to read more of his work.

Francesco Borghesi’s edition of the correspondence begins with a letter dated May 15, 1492: Pico sent this to his nephew and biographer, who also edited the first collection of Pico’s writings, and was careful to put this letter first in the collection. Evidently Pico abandoned his project of seeking philosophical concord on a grand scale: here he implies that Reason can be identified with God and the Natural Law, and asserts that the path to Heaven must be sought not in philosophy or theology but almsgiving and prayer. At the end he exhorts his nephew to read Scripture and waste no time on frivolous poetry.

In the eyes of twentieth-century academics, this is all shockingly Christian. From 1490 onwards, Pico and his nephew grew close to Savonarola; after Pico died, on November 17, 1494, Savonarola gave a rather harsh eulogy in which he urged the congregation to pray for Pico’s soul, since he was suffering in Purgatory. The end of Pico’s life was not a happy one: his best friend Politian predeceased him by eight weeks; they were buried together in a tomb at the Church of San Marco in Florence. In summer 2007, the bodies were exhumed, and by February 2008 it was confirmed: both men had been murdered by arsenic poisoning. Pico’s secretary killed them on the orders of Piero de’ Medici, who had once been Politian’s pupil.

Pico’s nephew Gianfrancesco was a philosopher in his own right, as well as a warlord. He somehow found the time, amid an unusually turbulent life, to compose anti-Aristotelian treatises and a biography of Savonarola before he was murdered in his castle in October 1533 by his own nephew Galeotto II Pico della Mirandola, who was an ancestor of François VI de La Rochefoucauld, Peer of France, soldier, and author of an immortal volume of maxims.

Charles Schmitt has convincingly demonstrated the intellectual value of Gianfrancesco’s work, even if he exaggerates its importance somewhat. In methodological terms, Gianfrancesco is often clumsy and impatient, but the ideas he attempts to develop are sometimes worth pursuing, with a little caution. Modern scholars tend to be hostile to Gianfrancesco for allegedly distorting his uncle’s work and life. He seems easy to scoff at; and of course his uncle was an authentic genius. But how much did that genius really achieve, despite his prodigious gifts and awesome potential?

Gianfrancesco’s biography ensured that Pico was not forgotten. Saint Thomas More translated it freely into English in 1504, as a gift for Joyce Leigh, who was about to enter the Poor Clares at Aldgate. There are a few tactful deletions and alterations; even so, for readers without Latin this translation might provide some idea of how artfully convoluted Gianfrancesco’s style can be. More’s translation had an unusual afterlife: it became the basis for an 1871 essay on Pico that is one of the landmarks of English poetic prose.

Walter Pater, who seems fated to be remembered mainly as Oscar Wilde’s tutor at Oxford, was not a genuinely great writer; all the same his Studies in the History of the Renaissance has an undeniable beauty. Its weakness might be that it has too much. Pater’s aesthetic ideals tended towards the ethereal, enervated, and androgynous; his vision of the Renaissance seems suspiciously like the art of his contemporaries in the Aesthetic Movement who were the successors to the Pre-Raphaelites. His Pico essay is a lovely prose poem that, alas, tells the reader next to nothing about Pico himself; at least it inspires a sort of pleasant dream, like a painting by Edward Burne-Jones.

Pater’s vision is arguably preferable to the more philistine one that came to dominate discussions of Pico and his work in the twentieth century. Brian Copenhaver, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and History at U.C.L.A., demonstrates how unfortunate the attempts to rehabilitate Pico’s Oration have been over the past eight or nine decades: Magic and the Dignity of Man: Pico della Mirandola and his “Oration” in Modern Memory is an important, if mildly depressing, exercise in modern intellectual history that no student of the Renaissance can afford to ignore.

Perhaps nobody is more to blame for reviving Pico’s Oration than Jacob Burckhardt, the pioneering historian who almost single-handedly created the field of Renaissance studies with his glorious Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Burckhardt was a titan; let nobody question his achievements as a historian. Sadly, even a man of his grand stature could slip up every now and again; he approvingly quoted a section from the Oration in his account of the revival of classical antiquity. Born into a staunchly Protestant, patrician family in Basel, Burckhardt took a dim view of Catholicism even before he lost his faith, or came to embrace many of Schopenhauer’s ideas. He set an important, and unfortunate, historiographical precedent in terms of presenting the Renaissance as a process of liberating civilization from encumbrances and superstitions such as the Christian faith and the Roman Church.

In the twentieth century, Pico was taken up by neo-Kantian philosophers, who saw in him a kindred spirit, rightly or wrongly. Ernst Cassirer helped revive the study of Renaissance philosophy generally with his short book The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, which was not translated into English until 1963. But it was up to his fellow neo-Kantian, the intellectual historian Eugenio Garin, to publish a short book on Pico that has decisively shaped perceptions of Pico ever since. He also published the first critical edition of the Oration in 1942, along with other philosophical works.

Garin’s vision helped shape Cassirer’s two-part examination of Pico in The Journal of the History of Ideas: this is perhaps the first serious examination in English of Pico as a philosopher, if we discount the essay by Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., that won him the Phi Beta Kappa Essay Prize in 1940, the year he graduated from Harvard. Pico’s other neo-Kantian champion of note was Paul Oskar Kristeller, who became the dominant historian of Renaissance philosophy of the post-war period.

The neo-Kantians have popularized the view that Pico’s notions of human dignity and freedom are somehow to be equated with those articulated in the United Nations General Assembly’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Copenhaver has demolished this ludicrously anachronistic position time and time again. Having done so decisively in Magic and the Dignity of Man (or so he hopes), he has published a sort of sequel, Pico della Mirandola on Trial: Heresy, Freedom, and Philosophy.

Evidently Copenhaver was energized by his apparent victory over the neo-Kantians; in Pico della Mirandola on Trial he tries to finish them off. The volume testifies to the quality of a Jesuit education in the era before the Second Vatican Council: if Copenhaver lost his faith long ago, he still retains a knack for old-fashioned scholasticism and dialectics. He is bracingly clear and blunt in his demonstrations of Pico’s profoundly medieval approach to philosophy.

Copenhaver’s discussions of scholastic Latin and philosophy are entertaining as well as illuminating, and his translations tend to be lively and fun. One of the great strengths of this volume is its usefulness as an introduction to some tricky sub-disciplines. Yet there are problems with Pico della Mirandola on Trial. Copenhaver’s grasp of the intellectual history of the Magisterium, and of Church history generally, is unexpectedly shaky. He does not rely on trustworthy scholarly sources and has a defective understanding of canon law. Most dismaying of all, he is weak on theology, particularly where the liturgy is concerned. Perhaps his Jesuit education was not so impressive after all. Also, he does not seem to realize how relatively rare a working knowledge of classical Greek was even at the Vatican in the 1480s.

For all their minor flaws, Copenhaver’s two recent studies on Pico are indispensable, as is his 2022 I Tatti Renaissance Library volume, which includes Pico’s Oration, his nephew Gianfrancesco’s biography, five helpful appendices, a useful introduction, and extensive commentaries that are, for the most part, first-rate, even if Copenhaver does nothing to conceal his hostility to Gianfrancesco. The only real faults lie in the translations themselves, which are strangely stilted and tone-deaf throughout.

A Latinist of Copenhaver’s stature ought to be less lazy about vocabulary. On the whole it seems clear that he has simply not thought through his translations carefully enough, or paused to consider the point of the exercise. Most readers will not even look at the Latin pages in this volume. They will want English-language texts that sound like they were written in English; so will experienced Latinists, not because they need help with vocabulary, but because they are interested in shades and nuances of meaning, and would prefer to see how an expert of Copenhaver’s distinction interprets Pico’s words. All this is particularly disappointing because Copenhaver has elsewhere demonstrated real brilliance as a translator. Was Pico not worth the effort?

We ask ourselves the same question when we look at Pico’s champions. In 1974, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, S.J., published a study, Pic de La Mirandole: Études et Discussions, which has just been republished as volume twenty-nine of Lubac’s complete works. This is the first book-length study of Pico in French, and its very existence is a puzzle.

Lubac’s sheer range of reference can prove daunting to the reader who has not yet learned how to approach his oeuvre: the best introduction for laymen is his 1944 study The Drama of Atheist Humanism, which was republished in English in 1995. His friend Hans Urs von Balthasar says in his foreword to the Ignatius Press edition that “despite their historical and scholarly appearance, all de Lubac’s work clearly refers to the present.” If you want to understand how Lubac’s famous scholarly practice of ressourcement really functions, there is no better place to study it than The Drama of Atheist Humanism.

Lubac purports to explore the atheism of Ludwig Feuerbach, Auguste Comte, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and then offers Dostoyevsky as an admittedly unsatisfactory alternative to Nietzsche. All this is supported by extensive footnotes and an impressive-looking bibliography. Yet Lubac nowhere bothers to describe or define the positions of Feuerbach, Nietzsche, or Comte to a satisfactory degree, or subject them to effective, sustained, convincing criticism: he takes for granted that the reader already agrees with him, and does not really want an argument.

Occasionally he makes defiant assertions with which nobody really disagrees. For example: “we must rediscover the spirit of Christianity.” Elsewhere he claims “Péguy will save us from Nietzsche,” and we wish he would expand on that, because this is one of the only provocations in a bloodless, boneless, toothless, utterly feeble piece of work. At least it reveals the Lubac method of argument, which is to avoid all possibility of disagreement while manufacturing the appearance of consensus where nobody has in fact given consent, and then to proceed frictionlessly to a foreordained conclusion which nobody has been allowed or enabled to challenge.

Pic de La Mirandole begins with a cringe-makingly syrupy “avant-propos” in which Lubac reveals his decades-long “friendship” with Pico. We hope Lubac’s outpouring of emotion was not sincere: it seems kinder to treat this as an emotionally manipulative tactic to disarm criticism. After all, sentimentality is merely externalized self-pity, and it would be disturbing to think that Lubac really felt this way about Pico.

To his credit, Lubac appears to have mastered most of the relevant scholarship on Pico, and tried to agree with all of it. His section on Voltaire’s disdain for Pico in his Essai sur les moeurs for once demonstrates active rather than passive aggression. Except that if you read Voltaire’s discussion, he is in fact quite measured and fair in his judgements. Lubac appears to be bluffing here: he has not taken the time to think about what Voltaire actually wrote, and knows that a French Catholic readership (at least) will not bother to check the reference.

For all Lubac’s demonstrated mastery of secondary literature, he is essentially reliant on Garin, to whose work he adds nothing of substance. While he has clearly read some of Pico’s work, he is most familiar with the Oration, on which his views diverge little, if at all, from Garin’s. It would be nice if he could demonstrate that Pierre Cardinal de Bérulle had something to do with Pico, but he cannot prove that Bérulle read a word of Pico. There is a great deal of superfluous material here on Paul Claudel, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other twentieth-century writers whose works are completely irrelevant to Pico’s, and vice versa.

On the other hand, Lubac’s discussions of Politian, Barbaro, Lorenzo, Innocent VIII, and Savonarola are limited, shallow, and inadequate. Nobody questions Pico’s erudition, genius, or loveable personality; testimonials to that effect are superfluous. Philosophers, theologians, and lay intellectuals are more curious to know: why should we bother with Pico?

By the end of Pic de La Mirandole it becomes apparent that Lubac saw Pico as a kindred spirit—a “genius,” ahead of his time, unjustly persecuted by “rigid” authorities in the papal curia who could not understand that “idealism” means never having to say you’re sorry, even if you stray into heresy, and cause scandal, and provoke widespread confusion.

Now we understand what ressourcement really is: a tactic of flooding readers with unfamiliar, impressive-looking displays of learning to distract them from scrutinizing what is really being said: if they cannot evaluate the evidence, or are overwhelmed by untranslated Latin quotations and scholarly-seeming footnotes, then they will be in no position to say anything about your conclusions, whether or not they are relevant to the material that you have amassed (and have used as a smokescreen). This tactic proved particularly effective throughout the twentieth century, particularly when practiced by clergy, theologians, and seminary professors who swore Pope Saint Pius X’s Oath Against Modernism with their fingers crossed behind their backs.

In 1963, Marcello del Piazzo published a series of documents in volume twenty-three of the Rassegna degli archivi di stato. They contain a full account of the Arezzo incident and Pico’s botched attempt to capture his mistress. Lubac might not have been aware of this publication. But he clearly knew about the scandal: there is a reasonably full account of it in Giovanni di Napoli’s 1965 study, which Lubac explicitly cites in his footnotes. Yet he neglects to spell out what it involved, offers a few preemptive excuses and “forgiveness,” then moves on.

We hope he missed the detail of how many people died that night; if not, then we begin to wonder just how “saintly” Cardinal de Lubac really was. Pico too, despite his sweetness of manner and aspiration to become like one of the cherubim, was no angel. Savonarola was right. We should pray for him as he suffers purification.