I taught today on Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. In this short text, the Prince of Concord — I was somewhat disappointed to learn he was actually prince of Mirandola and Concordia, rather than merely having given this title to himself, which I wouldn’t put past him — explains why he felt called to, and capable of, defending 900 theses on a miscellany of philosophical and theological topics before the College of Cardinals. 72 of these positions, he says, are original to him: his offering at the banquet of philosophy, which makes it sound rather like a pot-luck.
One of the things Pico writes is on the subject of the difference between prudence and wisdom, or, as he phrases it, the reasons why the pragmatists are missing something. He writes:Already (and this is the misfortune of our age) all this philosophizing makes for contempt and contumely rather than for honor and glory. This destructive and monstrous opinion that no one, or few, should philosophize, has much invaded the minds of almost everybody. As if it were absolutely nothing to have the causes of things, the ways of nature, the reason of the universe, the counsels of God, the mysteries of heaven and earth very certain before our eyes and hands, unless someone could derive some benefit from it or acquire profit for himself. It has already reached the point that now (what sorrow!) those only are considered wise who pursue the study of wisdom for the sake of money . . .*
The five hundred years since he wrote this, at the age of 23 — the year was 1486 — haven’t changed any of the essential problems. Plato had already raised them in the Republic, in the person of the Sophist Thrasymachus. It never goes away, this question, nor its answer, to the perennial bafflement of both sides. The hunger is there — or it isn’t — to come to the banquet.
I asked my students whether they’d already come across this argument, and was met with a few rueful laughs, though not too many — probably because they’re only in first year of their undergraduate. It was the summer after first year for me that this came home, when I went to a gathering of practical university types with my father (they were all in education) and was asked repeatedly what on earth I was going to do with my Bachelor of Humanities, concentration in liberal arts. (Medieval Studies was a step up in terms of practicality.) After the usual boring answers — uh, teach? — I finally cracked and said, “I’m going to walk around the world.” A pause; then, “And how are you going to afford that?” I replied: “I’m going to write books.” Ten minutes later my father came over to me in great delight, this plan having gone round the room in short order. I am teaching; the circumambulation may yet happen.
A friend, however, had the best riposte of them all. On being asked what she was going to do with her Bachelor of Humanities, she said: “If you study engineering, you become an engineer. If you study law, a lawyer; nursing, a nurse. But if you study humanities, you just get to be human.”
The best answer, and the only real one, to the question. Why study anything? Why seek out the reason of the universe, the mysteries of heaven and earth, the ways of nature, the counsels of God? Not because someone might invent a better chair — though of course, that would perhaps be an acceptable offering at the pot-luck — but simply because it’s awesome.
*Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. Paul J.W. Miller (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1965), p. 17.