Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Introduction : Pico’s Angel Comparison and Encounter with Neoplatonic Angel Metaphysics

Pico's angelology is a philosophical not a magical topic. He is doing an original interpretation of Christian Neoplatonism, which involves an encounter with Neoplatonic angelology that develops his Dionysian and Thomistic themes. Pico's contribution is characterized as much by this exploration of Neoplatonic angel metaphysics as it is by his encounter with "Kabbalah and Magic." There have been many attempts to discover an "angel magic" or "theurgy" in Pico but I will show that when we look at Pico's actual discourse on angels we do not find such a magic. Theurgy might be a useful term to describe Pico's Dionysian interest in angelology as part of the story of mystical ascent, but it must be studied with care before we can be sure that we have avoided misleading connotations.

Pico's Oration has been misunderstood as a celebration of the radical freedom of man to tap the powers of angelic being and become a Magus. But these readings have not held up. Pico's Oration does present a challenging vision of man in the context of the angelic life, but this is a Christian vision based on the Bible, as Pico understands it--relying on Dionysius' interpretation of Paul via Aquinas.

The Dignity of man does not consist in human power to do angel magic, but rather in his ability to choose any form of life, whether animal or angelic, or even divine. In saying this Pico does not suggest anything other than the Dionysian concept of divinization. The point of his angel comparison is not to celebrate only that man can become an angel, but to emphasize that he can go beyond even the angelic state into the mystical darkness of Dionysius. He does not imitate the angelic life in order to gain power over the world, but in order to by mystically uplifted away from the world.

Pico's 900 Conclusions have been the stuff of much speculations, but contemporary scholars who have studies Pico's methods of constructing the sentence collection have emphasized that it is difficult to extract any "position of Pico" from them.

Rather the 900 should be understood as a reference guide for debate. Pico promises to solve many interesting problems relating to the theme of man in contrast to the angel, from theory of mind to angelic illumination but especially on metaphysics. I will look at Pico’s discussions of angels in the 900 exploring these scholastic and neoplatonic themes, which provide more evidence for Pico preserving the distance between man and angels than for some magical conflation of the angelic and human levels.

Pico's Proclan conclusions, which add up to about a hundred, have not been studied very much but reveal a great deal of Pico's interests in developing Dionysian angel metaphysics themes. In the light of his deep engagement with the Thomistic reading of Dionysius in his later text On Being and Unity, I suggest that his encounter with Neoplatonic angelology in the 900 Conclusions might better be understood as re-reading Neoplatonism in light of Dionysian and Thomistic (Christian) metaphysical developments than as an attempt to use Neoplatonic angel metaphysics to construct a magical system. We have a great deal of evidence, much neglected, about Pico's philosophical encounter but very little evidence about his views on Neoplatonic magic.

Pico’s use of Iamblichus demonstrates that his interest in Neoplatonism was philosophical rather than magical. Although he describes Iamblichus as representing an “occult philosophy” in the Oration, he means by this a metaphysician in the Dionysian style rather than an idolatrous sorcerer. Pico’s Iamblichean conclusions in the 900 deal with problems understanding the metaphysics of the Celestial Hierarchy. Here we see an interesting correlation of the Kabbalistic Sefirah Binah with a Neoplatonic supercelestial entity. Pico does not bring material concerning Iamblichean theurgic theory for debate.

In the Heptaplus we get a hint of Iamblichus’ insistence that theurgy requires the influence of the Gods, but Pico uses this notion of Iamblichus without mentioning theurgy, in the context of a Christian pious sentiment about the need for divine aid. Pico shares with Iamblichus everything that can be found to resemble Christian mysticism due to the similarity with Dionysius, but he does not use Iamblichus as a source for magic. Copenhaver has pointed out that Pico uses Plotinus to define natural magic in the Oration but not Iamblichus, which indicates that Pico did not see magic in terms of Iamblichean theurgy—which is really a mystical topic not a magical one. Iamblichus like Pico was very clear in his “On the Mysteries” that theurgy is to be distinguished with the bad kind of coercive conjuring daimonic magic that both call goetia.

Pico’s deepest ontological treatise De Ente explores the Dionysian negative theology in detail. Continuing the trend of Heptaplus Pico emphasizes the limitations of man and the distance between man and the divine as well as the angelic. While Pico has been seen as a critic of Aquinas based on his willingness to debate Thomistic angelology in the 900 Conclusions, here we see Pico following the developments in angel metaphysics that Thomas made in his own encounter with Dionysius in the angel treatise of the Summa Theologiae.

In Pico’s Disputations against Astrology there is one significant mention of angels that demonstrates Pico’s consistent development of our theme of the angel comparison. Pico argues that planetary bodies should not be see as influencing man because that is the place of the angels. Even in his most anti-magical text Pico can be seen to be exploring and developing his angelological concerns.

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