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Pico and the historiography of Renaissance astrology.

The William B. Hunter Lecture

South-Central Renaissance Conference

Corpus Christi, Texas

March 18, 2010

The last few decades have witnessed many changes in attitudes toward the historiography of Renaissance astrology in general and toward Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Pico's treatise Disputations against Judicial Astrology (1494) in particular. This paper will focus on some of those developments and their significance for scholarship today.

As he did for the Italian Renaissance as a whole, Jacob Burckhardt in his 1860 classic, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, set up the paradigm against which Pico and Renaissance astrology came be measured. Pico was a humanist hero in Burckhardt's view: Through his syncretism "[h]e was the only man who loudly and vigorously defended the truth and science of all ages against the one-sided worship of classical antiquity" (210). This ability to avoid the worship of classical antiquity was important to Burckhardt because "antiquity ... was on the side of astrology," which Burckhardt decried (484). But Pico wrote against astrology, and "his main achievement was to set forth, in the fourth book, a positive Christian doctrine of the freedom of the will and the government of the universe, which seems to have made a greater impression on the educated classes throughout Italy than all the revivalist preachers put together" (Burckhardt 492).

Some twentieth-century scholars followed Burckhardt's assessment of Pico's achievement. Ernst Cassirer claimed that Pico sought the liberation of humanity from the shackles of necessity, a theme, Cassirer maintained, that Pico enunciated in the Oration on the Dignity of Man and reinforced and expanded in the Disputations against Judicial Astrology: "To accept astrology means to invert not so much the order of being as the order of value--it means making of 'matter' the master of spirit" (The Individual and the Cosmos 118); and astrology failed to make the distinction that "[e]verything physical is subject to strict necessity; everything spiritual rests on freedom and can only be understood in its terms" ("Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola" 338-346; for a critique of Cassirer, see Copenhaver, "Magic and the Dignity of Man" 305-308 and Craven). Eugenio Garin in 1976 published a work that was translated into English as Astrology in the Renaissance: The Zodiac of Life. In this work Garin suggested that humanist critiques of astrology contributed to its decline in the seventeenth century, and the foremost critic was Pico: "The importance of Pico should not be undervalued. The very angry reaction which constantly broke out against him is proof of the impact of his work" (83).

On the other hand, most writers on Pico in the English-speaking world found him uninteresting and unoriginal. Even Paul Oskar Kristeller, who appreciated Pico, saw Marsilio Ficino as the more important thinker. Those who demeaned Pico wrote with powerful voices. In 1893 Walter Pater published The Renaissance, a work that glorified the period. Pater made Pico the exemplar of Renaissance philosophy but called it a "feebler counterpart" to other aspects of Renaissance culture (27). And Pater believed in Burckhardt's Renaissance! What about the other side? Avery Dulles, in Princeps Concordiae: Pico della Mirandola and the Scholastic Tradition, made Pico into an unoriginal scholastic. Lynn Thorndike's monumental, path-breaking History of Magic and Experimental Science was in part an exercise in destroying the validity of what we call the Renaissance. Thorndike wrote about Pico in two chapters. He introduced him by declaring, "One cannot but feel that the importance of Pico delia Mirandola in the history of thought has often been grossly exaggerated.... The darling of enthusiasts for the so-called Italian Renaissance, his reputation must decline with its" (4:485). This opens the chapter in which Thorndike handled Pico's earlier work, particularly the use of magic and Kabbalah in his Conclusions. Thorndike's personal opposition to astrology, which he felt necessary to affirm in a footnote to his article on asserting the importance of astrology in the history of science ("The True Place" 278, n. 13), did not stop him from further belittling Pico in the chapter dealing with the Disputations. Thorndike sneeringly cited Burckhardt's claim about the influence of the Disputations and concentrated instead on the negative responses it evoked (History 4:540-41), thus simultaneously demeaning the Renaissance, Burckhardt, and Pico. The climax of the disputations against Pico appeared in 1981, with William Craven's Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Symbol of His Age: Modern Interpretations of a Renaissance Philosopher. While making valid criticisms of the excesses and distortions of scholars regarding their understanding of Pico's work, he ended up giving us a diatribe, in which every aspect of Pico's thought and work was belittled and derided. While he correctly noted, against Cassirer and others, that preserving human free will was not the main goal of the Disputations, Craven did not recognize that human free will was an important part of the religious world view Pico supported and was, consequently, a theme in the Disputations. But in the end, none of this mattered to Craven, for the Disputations was "more often cited than read" (154).

One author who read the Disputations carefully was Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who was also a practicing astrologer. Kepler claimed he respected the Pico of the Disputations and agreed with most of what Pico wrote, but in two of his major works, On the New Star (De stella nova, 1606) and The Harmony of the World (Harmonices mundi, 1619) he also argued against some of Pico's claims in the Disputations (De stella nova 184-94; Harmonices 266-68; Harmony 361-62; see also Rabin, "Kepler's Attitude"). Kepler tried to reform the way astrology was done, and the thrust of his reform was to make it more compatible with the astronomy he was also in the process of reforming (see Simon; Rabin, "Kepler's Astrology"). Kepler tried to fit astronomy and astrology together, and his pursuit of astrology was important in the formulation of his cosmological ideas. The importance of astrology in Kepler's work does not affirm Frances Yates's attempt to make Hermetism the foundation of modern science (for critiques of the "Yates thesis" see Westman and Maguire; Copenhaver, "Natural Magic"), and her call to reassess Kepler as what she called "a heretic from Rosicrucianism" (The Rosicrucian Englightenment 281) has gone unanswered because Kepler was never a Rosicrucian.

Regarding Pico, Yates tried to make him into a hermetist and a student of Ficino. While there was much intellectual interaction between Pico and Ficino, it was that of two scholars with very real differences rather than student and teacher. And she went astray in a more serious way. There has been a long debate whether or not Pico changed his mind regarding astrology (see Rabin, "Unholy Astrology"). Garin, for example, tried to argue that Pico had always questioned the validity of astrology, despite theses in the Conclusions that suggest otherwise. In his introduction to Pico's Disputationes (1:7-8), Garin claimed that Pico always rejected astrology, but later in Astrology in the Renaissance, Garin softened that claim but still insisted that Pico had always questioned basic astrological doctrines (80). But Pico not only asserted his acceptance of astrology in the Conclusions (see 900 Theses 553); in his Heptaplus he showed a positively astrological outlook when he claimed, for example, "Jupiter is hot, Mars is hot, and the sun is hot, but the heat of Mars is angry and violent, that of Jupiter beneficent, and in the sun we see both the angry violence of Mars and the beneficent quality of Jupiter, that is, a certain tempered and intermediate nature blended of these. Jupiter is propitious, Mars of ill omen, the sun partly good and partly bad, good in its radiation, bad in conjunction" (Heptaplus 100-101; De hominis dignitate 234, 236; see also Rabin, "Unholy Astrology"; and Rutkin 306-28). That Pico had his friend Girolamo Benivieni draw up his horoscope (see Castelli on the circumstances and later history of the horoscope) reinforces his early acceptance of astrology. Despite Burckhardt's claim for the modernity of the Renaissance, it is unlikely that Pico was cynical enough to have his horoscope drawn up if he did not believe in the value of horoscopes.

D. P. Walker, on the other hand, suggested that Pico not only believed in astrology when he wrote the Conclusions, but that he did not even reject astrology in the Disputations. Walker pointed out that Pico in book 3 of the Disputations expressed ideas about celestial influence that were similar to Marsilio Ficino's ideas about the issue in his 1489 treatise On Obtaining Life from the Heavens (De vita coelitus comparanda), in particular, the acceptance of a causal connection between human souls and the spirits that move the heavens. Walker did note that Pico denied that a particular astral condition could affect one individual differently from another because of an astrological predisposition, a point of disagreement with Ficino. But Walker maintained that in the Disputations Pico, like Ficino, accepted astrology when it did not interfere with human free will or divine providence, and rejected it when it did (54-57). And Pico did specify judicial astrology (astrologia divinitricem) in the title. Yates used Walker's arguments to support her absolutely absurd claim that in the Disputations Pico was "really defending the Ficinian 'astral magic' ... the book against astrology is really a vindication of Magia naturalis" (Giordano Bruno 115). Her only textual evidence to support this claim was that Pico referred to Ficino and Plotinus as opponents of astrology in book 1. "Astral magic" is the manipulation of the stars for human benefit; nowhere in the Disputations did Pico suggest that people could or should manipulate the stars in any way for any ends whatsoever.

Some more recent scholarship has acknowledged that Pico underwent a change but minimized its extent. S.J. Tester used the fact that Pico had "divinatory" in the title to claim that Pico was, in fact, only against judicial astrology, under which he included "natal charts, progressions, elections, 'interrogations' ... all the uses of astrology to discover what is hidden." Tester argued that natural astrology, or what he called "physical astrology," which dealt with medical and meteorological conditions was not discussed in the Disputations (209). Steven Vanden Broecke stated that "the primary objective" of the Disputations "was to attack a new genre of popular prognostications that were based on astrological conjunction theories. Accordingly, Pico's attitude to astrological theory was more forgiving than is often assumed. In fact, it is possible to read the Disputations as a sophisticated call for the reform of astrological practice" (2; see also chapter 3).

Surprisingly, I find it harder to refute the claim that Pico's Disputations did not reject astrology than the claim that he had rejected astrology all along. On the other hand, all these scholars seem to base their arguments on nothing more than the Conclusions and the first four, more theoretical books, of the Disputations. And using them we can agree with Walker that there are ideas in the work that strike us today as astrological. That might be one of the problems with reading Pico's work today. Those who maintain that the Disputations did not reject astrology may have been demanding that Pico approach the subject with contemporary eyes, not the eyes of a Renaissance thinker. This could have been one of Walker's problems. The acceptance of celestial spirits, for example, was not necessarily astrological in the Renaissance because they were often seen as planetary movers, as Pico used them in book 4 of the Disputations. It would have been impossible to do astrology if, as Walker acknowledged, a particular astral condition could not affect one individual differently from another. Tester had a very difficult time separating Renaissance attitudes toward astrology from modem attitudes. His chapter on the Renaissance is suffused with value judgments based on the degree to which a Renaissance thinker distanced himself from astrology. Tester asserted that Pico's attacks on astrology in the Disputations "are not those of a modem, rationalist, humanist, but arise out of convictions that no one now would wish to defend" (206).

The most radical suggestion came from Steven Farmer, who translated Pico's Conclusions into English. Farmer contended that the editors of the Disputations, Pico's nephew Gianfrancesco Pico and Giovanni Mainardi, both strong opponents of astrology, tampered with the Disputations. Farmer adduced what he claims is a completed but lost work of Pico's, The Concord of Plato and Aristotle, as well as Gianffancesco's philosophical writings and Savonarola's access to the manuscript of the Disputations to support his contention that the nephew and Mainardi seriously altered the Disputations (151-79). However, there is only spurious evidence that The Concord of Plato and Aristotle ever existed. Moreover, the Disputations praised Aristotle, whom Gianfrancesco despised, and the nephew also brought out On Being and the One, which actually took an Aristotelian position (on the tension between Pico and Ficino this work created, see Allen). Louis Valcke, who maintained that Pico began a philosophical journey away from Neoplatonism as early as in the Commento of 1485-86, has pointed out that Pico's turn to Aristotle was not surprising given his background. He was educated in the scholastic tradition and had even gone to Paris, the center of scholasticism, to study after his first sojourn in Florence. Valcke suggested that Pico eventually gave up what Valcke identified as "Orphic magic," and the Disputations was the culmination of that rejection (287-299).

The suggestion is that after a flirtation with Neoplatonic magic and Kabbalah, Pico returned to his Aristotelian and scholastic roots. Scholars for a long time had seen Pico's interest in Kabbalah as a mere passing interest and downplayed the extent of his involvement with it. Even Garin had suggested that Pico's understanding of Kabbalah was limited (Giovanni Pico della Mirando 71). But Chaim Wirszubski changed that with his Pico della Mirandola's Encounter with Jewish Mysticism. For the first time, Pico's use of Kabbalah in the Conclusions was being studied by someone with a real grasp of Kabbalah, and his conclusion was that not only had Pico absorbed Kabbalah, but understanding Kabbalah was crucial to understanding the Conclusions. Based on this, Copenhaver was able to show that even the number of theses had kabbalistic significance ("Number, Shape, and Meaning" 61). Pico was not unoriginal as his detractors had maintained.

What about Pico's Disputations? I always believed that Pico changed his mind regarding astrology (see Rabin, "Unholy Astrology" and "Pico on Magic"; also Valcke 287-99; Rutkin 338-91). No one has satisfactorily explained why he did. Perhaps Savonarola was responsible, which was first asserted by the astrologer Lucas Bellanti in 1497, the year after the work was first published (Bellanti 1:169-70; see also Pico, Disputationes 1:1-6; Weinste in 212-16; Vander Broecke 78 - 80). Of course, there is the tradition from the church fathers, particularly Augustine, that viewed astrology as anti-Christian (Tester 108-112; Tester misread On Christian Doctrine 2:29:46 [65-66] and claimed that Augustine believed the study of astronomy was necessary for understanding scripture [108]). I found a Jewish tradition going back to the thirteenth-century scholar and kabbalist Nahmanides, which Pico may have encountered, maintaining that there is no intermediary like the heavenly bodies between the Jewish people and the divine (Nahmanides 3:268-69) that Pico could have co-opted (Rabin, "Pico on Magic" 173-174).

Whatever the reason Pico changed his mind, the Disputations continually attacked astrology for being against the Christian religion. In the proem he claimed it was "forbidden by civil and religious laws" (1:40) and "weakens religion" (1:44); in book 1 that it was condemned by "the oracles of prophets, the sanctions of popes, the voices and teachings of the holiest men" (1:46); in book 2 that "we shall demonstrate throughout this entire work that this very superstition was lawfully rejected for definite reasons by the saints, for it is very strongly opposed to religion"(1:100) and, indeed, so forth throughout. In a good part, Pico was attacking astrology in the name of religion, and the growing belief on his part that astrology was opposed to religion may have been his motivation for attacking it, as Kristeller and others suggested (Kristeller 68; Allen 20-23; Craven 137-38).

And it was a sweeping attack. The title may have proclaimed that Pico's attack was limited to judicial astrology, but Pico was attacking the entire practice of astrology, natural as well as judicial. Natural astrology dealt principally with medicine and health, both individual and public, and with the weather; judicial astrology with readings of personal characteristics and predictions of future events. It is hard to determine where one began and the other ended. Personal characteristics and even some predictions could involve health and medicine so that when Pico attacked the use of astrology in medicine, we could assume it was because of that overlap between natural and judicial. But the weather only involved natural astrology, and Pico attacked astrology as useless for predicting the weather. Pico had indeed collapsed natural astrology into judicial astrology, though one has to read beyond book 4 to realize this. But weather prediction was important for farmers who wanted to know when to plant and for merchants and sailors who wanted to know when to set sail. What did Pico propose to replace astrology? He suggested, for example, that to get the best information about when to set sail, simply ask the sailors. They told him that the best days to leave port were 1, 7, 15, 17, 19, and 25 March; 5, 12, 20 April; 12, 15, 17, 19, 20 February (1:284). There is no foundation for such reasoning other than unsupported experience. Tea leaves anyone? Does the sky not have anything to do with the weather? In 1494, about two centuries before the invention of the thermometer and barometer, astrology was the most successful means of predicting the weather, and, consequently, in attacking astrology Pico was attacking the best meteorological science of the day. All in the name of religion.

Moreover, Pico maintained in his Disputations that astronomers would never succeed in improving their ability to measure accurately the dispositions of the heavenly bodies (2:320). It is not surprising that Copemicus's associate Rheticus accused Pico "of impugning not merely astrology but also astronomy" (127). The issue was not that Pico was anti-astronomy, despite Rheticus's assertion. As Pico informed readers near the beginning of the Disputations "when I say astrology, I do not mean that art which measures the size and the motions of the stars by mathematical calculations ... but that art which predicts future occurrences from the stars" (1:40). Pico was not Saint Augustine; he was aware of the value of astronomy and supported it. But the lines between astronomy and astrology were very fluid, and it was difficult to support the one without the other. Furthermore, the improvement of astrological prediction was often a spur to the improvement of astronomical measurements and understanding. Tycho Brahe, the great sixteenth-century astronomical observer, pursued the study of astrology (Thoren 16-17); Robert Westman has plausibly argued that one of the reasons Copernicus was attracted to heliocentricism was because it refuted Pico's claim that the uncertainty about the order of the planets was a valid argument against astrology. If Pico had been immediately successful in destroying astrology in the name of religion with his Disputations, it is possible that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century astronomy would not have seen the dramatic advances that took place.

Looking at the historiography on Pico is in many ways a cautionary tale: It shows how difficult it can be to separate the student of history from the subject of studies. We all know that Burckhardt was seeing his own century reflected in the Renaissance despite his determination to follow his mentor Leopold von Ranke and present history "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist." But twenty- and twenty-first century scholars who were more successful in seeing the fifteenth century "as it truly was" have also had difficulties. Thomdike, who accurately saw the extent of belief in and practice of astrology and other "occult" subjects during the Renaissance, did not understand that not only was that their science, but it should be valued as such and not deprecated. On the other hand, Garin praised Pico because Pico rejected astrology, but this rejection was not out of greater scientific foresight or understanding, and it could have had negative results in its time. Two twentieth-century scholars, united in their opposition to astrology, presented opposing pictures of the Renaissance and Pico's place in it, but neither was able to comprehend the positive role astrology played at that time.

Yet the historian cannot and probably should not ignore the issues of the present when trying to understand the past. I have touched on the religious aspect of Pico's attack against astrology and shown how it can be read as a matter of tension between science and religion. When most people think of the clash between science and religion in the early modem period, they immediately point to Galileo and the Catholic Church. But the issue of science and religion in the early modern period must be seen as far more nuanced: It was often a relationship of compatibility and cooperation, and the Catholic Church was not endemically against science. I was moved to concentrate on the issue of science and religion in Pico's Disputations in part because in recent decades we have witnessed the clash of science and religion, particularly regarding the teaching of Darwinian evolution. Viewing Pico's Disputations as a chapter in the tension between science and religion can shed light not only Pico and on early modern science and religion but also on the issue in our own time.


I am grateful to the members of the audience at the SCRC's William B. Hunter Lecture for the reactions and suggestions that assisted in the revision of my presentation. A Faculty Research Associate grant from Saint Peter's College for the academic year 2009 2010 was helpful in enabling me to undertake the research and writing of this paper.

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Date:Dec 22, 2010
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