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Philosophy and Humanism in a Cynical Machiavellian Age of Geo-Politics Philosophy and Humanism in a Cynical Machiavellian Age of Geo-Politics
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-07-18 10:31:53
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 lno01

The Humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)

“Philosophy is not something to be used scornfully or as insult, but for honor and glory. People are beginning to think wrongly in that philosophy should only be studied by very few, if any at all, as if it is something of little worth. We have reduced philosophy to only being useful when being used for profit. I say these things with regret and indignation for the philosophers who say it should not be pursued because it has no value, thus disqualifying themselves as philosophers. Since they are in it for their own personal gain, they miss the truth for its own sake. I'm going to say, not to brag, but I've never philosophized except for the sake of philosophy, and have never desired it for my own cultivation. I have been able to lose myself in philosophy and not be influenced by others who try to pull me away from it. Philosophy has taught me to rely on my own convictions rather than on the judgments of others and to concern myself less with whether I am well thought of than whether what I do or say is evil.”

               --Pico della Mirandola (from his “De Hominem Dignitate” on the Dignity of Man)

The above quote on philosophy by the Neo-Platonic Italian Humanist Pico della Mirandola is perhaps more relevant today, the era of cynical Machiavellian geo-political realities, than it ever was, perhaps even more so than during the first century of the Renaissance in Florence. Today, as in the past, many go about full of pious pronouncements on the intrinsic value of philosophy, how the rejection of philosophy is in itself a philosophy of sort; they even declare themselves devotees of philosophy, but, alas, there are precious few among them who are willing to die, like Socrates, for their ideas or what they truly believe in, with the possible exception of ideological fanatics of various persuasions who confuse the advocacy of mindless outrageous actions and revolutions for serious thinking; and this despite the fact that in many schools in the West philosophy continues to be part of the Liberal Arts curriculum.

Unfortunately, the Liberal Arts curriculum, like philosophy, is more honored in words than in deeds and so the struggle between the two worlds continues; that is to say, the positivistic world of science and the humanistic world of the arts as C.P. Snow taught us in his celebrated book The Two Cultures. On the other hand, a Leonardo Da Vinci, that quintessential Renaissance man, conceived no such dichotomy: he was both a great artist and a great scientist and was able to synthesize and harmonize the two cultures. How did we get to this sorry stage?

I happen to teach introductory college philosophy courses to beginners in philosophy. The first thing I have to disabuse those students of, is the notion that philosophy is some kind of esoteric difficult subject for a few specialists and connoisseurs to be put to rest once and for all once graduation requirements have been fulfilled. In other words, the notion that it’s a subject one has to bear and suffer for a while, so to speak, for the sake of a degree, not one that could be greatly enjoyed and profited from, both intellectually and morally, for one’s whole life-time.

 I begin in a negative mode by having them read an essay of mine titled “What philosophy is not” where I make the point that philosophy is not a mere tool of rhetoric and logic with which to win arguments, persuade people to do one’s bidding, and become a “successful” politician. Socrates is of course mentioned as the father of western philosophy and the very antithesis of that sophistic utilitarian stance. He famously said in the Athenian agora that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The point is then stressed that the subject of philosophy as an academic discipline, despite Plato’s enduring academy, does not begin, and it certainly does not end, esoterically in academia; rather, it is first born with Socrates exoterically in the public square in ancient Athens, in the midst of the drama that is human life, from cradle to tomb. Socrates is considered the father and the first martyr of philosophy because he was a man willing to die for his principles and beliefs. It is basically a reflection on the meaning of life, one’s own and that of humanity, hence history is always to be considered an essential component of philosophy, so that we don’t end up re-inventing the wheel.

I then touch on Boethius’ (the second great martyr of philosophy) “The Consolation of Philosophy” to impress upon them that when everything else fails intellectually and existentially, philosophy remains a constant, a reliable consolation, like the sun shining in the sky, ready to encourage us, despite it all; but of course, to get to see the sun one needs first to get out of the cave of ignorance. Plato’s myth of the cave is then introduced and discussed at some length.

   lno02_400

Eventually we get to the discussion of Pico della Mirandola, a  great devotee of philosophy, if there ever was one. He was an Italian Humanist from the 15th century who understood thoroughly that the Renaissance was a harmonious synthesis of faith and reason, something already theoretically mapped out by the great scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas a century earlier. It would be enough to look at a painting like Primavera by Botticelli, or the David of Michelangelo to be convinced of that. The harmony between Greco-Roman and Christian culture is unmistakable. The David is not just a perfect naked Greek statue aesthetically pleasing, it is also portraying the moment of faith in a Biblical event. Nowhere in Greek sculpture one will find the face of a David and the spirituality it exudes. Primavera of Botticelli, likewise, is not just a Greek goddess; she is also a Raphaelite Madonna. The synthesis may not be perfect, but it is extraordinary. This is a synthesis that modern man preoccupied with geo-political considerations has all but forgotten.

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Michelangelo’s David                                Botticelli’s Primavera

Kenneth Clark in his famous video series “Civilization” dedicates a whole one hour segment to the discussion of Italian Humanism which admittedly was based on the famous slogan by Euripides that “man is the measure of all things” but he also mentions Pico della Mirandola’s “On the dignity of man” which is based not so much on the paradox that everything changes constantly and the only thing that does not change is man’s capacity for change, but on the fact that the transformation of man is first and foremost a moral transformation requiring constant intellectual and moral effort and having perfection as its ultimate goal; a perfection which turns out to be a transcendent reality (hence the neo-Platonism of Pico), and aiming at the very divinity of God symbolized by nature which he created. For a neo-Platonist, poetry, at its best, always points to the transcendent. St. Francis of Assisi “Canticle of Creatures” written in the 13th century is exemplary in this respect and that is the reason he is the patron saint of ecology and respect for animals.

So it turns out that while it may be true that man is the measure of all things, as contemporary secular humanists like to insist upon ignoring the fact that man did not create himself, one needs first to understand what exactly is the nature of man and the goal toward which his nature tends and for which he was created. As it turns out, ultimately the human vocation, its very purpose (telos) and destiny, seems to be a mystical vocation; something that Aristotle and Plato, two non-Christian philosophers, certainly intuited when they postulated a theoretical “isle of the blessed” on which to contemplate the True, the Good and the Beautiful, but which humanists such as Pico (and Thomas Aquinas way before him) actually accomplished by the harmonization of reason and faith in the Summa.


    
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