Monday, January 24, 2011

Pico's Apology, from Life of Pico

Thirteen were selected for examination by a special commission and were pronounced heretical. Pico, however, so far from bowing to its decision, wrote in hot haste an elaborate "Apologia" or defence of his orthodoxy, which, had it not been more ingenious than conclusive, might perhaps have been accepted ; as it was, it only brought him into further trouble.

This Apology "elucubrated," as he tells, " properante stilo" in twenty nights, Pico dedicated to Lorenzo de' Medici, modestly describing it as "exiguum sane munus, sed fidei meae, sed observantiae profecto in omne tempus erga te maxime non leve testimonium," "a trifling gift indeed, but as far as possible from being a slight token of. my loyalty, nay, of my devotion to you." Hasty though its composition was, it certainly displays no lack of either ingenuity, subtlety, acuteness, learning, or style. Evidently written out of a full mind, it represents Pico's mature judgment upon the abstruse topics which it handles, and is a veritable masterpiece of scholastic argumentation. After a brief prologue detailing the circumstances which gave occasion to the work Pico proceeds to discuss seriatim the thirteen "damnatae conclusiones," and the several objections which had been made to them. The tone throughout is severe and dry and singularly free from heat or asperity. Some of the theses are treated at considerable length, others dismissed in a page or two, or even less. Altogether, when the rapidity of its composition is borne in mind, the treatise appears little less a prodigy.

The obnoxious theses were as follows:—(i) That Christ did not truly and in real presence, but only quoad effectum, descend into hell; (2) that a mortal sin of finite duration is not deserving of eternal but only of temporal punishment; (3) that neither the cross of Christ, nor any image, ought to be adored in the way of worship; (4) that God cannot assume a nature of any kind whatsoever, but only a rational nature; (5) that no science affords a better assurance of the divinity of Christ than magical and cabalistic science; (6) that assuming the truth of the ordinary doctrine that God can take upon himself the nature of any creature whatsoever, it is possible for the body of Christ to be present on the altar without the conversion of the substance of the bread or the annihilation of " paneity;" (7) that it is more rational to believe that Origen is saved than that he is damned; (8) that as no one's opinions are just such as he wills them to be, so no one's beliefs are just such as he wills them to be; (9) that the inseparability of subject and accident may be maintained consistently with the doctrine of transubstantiation; (10) that the words "hoc est corpus" pronounced during the consecration of the bread are to be taken "materialiter" (i.e., as a mere recital) and not "significative" (i.e., as denoting an actual fact); (11) that the miracles of Christ are a most certain proof of his divinity, by reason not of the works themselves, but of his manner of doing them; (12) that it is more improper to say of God that he is intelligent, or intellect, than of an angel that it is a rational soul; (13) that the soul knows nothing in act and distinctly but itself.

It is undeniable that some of these propositions smack somewhat rankly of heresy, and Pico's ingenuity is taxed to the uttermost to give them even a semblance of congruity with the doctrines of the Church. The following, however, is the gist of his defence. Christ, he argues, did actually descend into hell, but only in spirit, not in bodily presence; eternal punishment is inflicted on the finally impenitent sinner not for his sins done in the flesh, which are finite, but for his impenitence, which is necessarily infinite; the cross is to be adored, but only as a symbol, not in and for itself, for which he cites Scotus, admitting that St. Thomas is against him. The thesis that God cannot take upon himself a nature of any kind whatsoever, but only a rational nature, must be understood without prejudice to the omnipotence of God, which is not in question; God cannot assume the nature of any irrational creature, because by the very act of so doing he necessarily raises it to himself, endows it with a rational nature. The thesis that no science gives us better assurance of the divinity of Christ than magical and cabalistic science referred to such sciences only as do not rest on revelation, and among them to the science of natural magic, which treats of the virtues and activities of natural agents and their relations inter se, and that branch only of cabalistic science which is concerned with the virtues of celestial bodies; which of all natural sciences furnish the most convincing proof of the divinity of Christ, because they show that his miracles could not have been performed by natural agencies. The sixth thesis must not be understood as if Pico maintained that the bread was not converted into the body of Christ, but only that it is possible that the bread and the body may be mysteriously linked together without the one being converted into the other, which would be quite consistent with the words of St. Paul, i Cor. x. 16: "The bread which we break is it not the communion of the body of Christ ?" if interpreted figuratively. With regard to the salvation of Origen, Pico plunges with evident zest into the old controversy as to the authenticity of the heretical passages in that writer's works, and urges that his damnation can at most be no more than a pious opinion. In justification of the position that belief is not a mere matter of will he cites the authority of Aristotle and St. Augustine, adding a brief summary of the evidences of the Christian faith, to wit, prophecy, the harmony of the Scriptures, the authority of their authors, the reasonableness of their contents, the unreasonableness of their contents, the unreasonableness of particular heresies, the stability of the Church, themiracles. As to transubstantiation, Pico professes himself to hold the doctrine of the Church, merely adding thereto the pious opinion that the Thomist distinction between real existence and essence is consistent with the theory that the bread itself remains in spite of the transmutation of its substance, and thus with the doctrine of the inseparability of subject and accident; as for the words "hoc est corpus," it appears from their context and their place in the office that they are not to be taken literally, for the priest, when in consecrating the bread he says, "Take, eat," does not suit the action to the word by offering the bread to the communicants, but takes it himself, and so when in consecrating the wine he says, "qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur," it is not to be supposed, as if the words were to be taken literally it must be supposed, that he means that the blood of Christ actually will be shed, or that he does not mean to claim the benefit of it for himself as well as the congregation, and the "many." That the value of Christ's miracles as evidences of his '/ divinity lies rather in the way in which they were wrought than in the works themselves, is supported by Christ's own words in St. John xiv. 12: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to my Father ;" which are quite inconsistent with the idea that the works are themselves evidence of his divinity. In support of the proposition 'that intellect or intelligence cannot properly be ascribed to God, Pico invokes the authority of Dionysius the Areopagite, who holds the same doctrine, but does not on that account deny to God an altogether superior faculty of cognition, even farther removed from angelic intelligence than that is from human reason. The last proposition, viz., that the soul knows nothing in act and distinctly but itself, being extremely subtle and profound, Pico forbears to enlarge upon it, pointing out, however, that it has the authority of St. Augustine in its favour. The reference is to the De Trinitate, x. 14.1 The doctrine itself is of peculiar interest, for in it lay the germ of the Cartesian philosophy.

Pico concludes the "Apologia" with an eloquent appeal to his critics to judge him fairly, which was so little heeded that some of them saw fit to impugn its good faith, and raised such a clamour about it that Pico, who in the meantime had gone to France, was peremptorily recalled to Rome by the Pope. He complied, but through the influence of Lorenzo was permitted to reside in the Benedictine monastery at Fiesole, while the new charge was under investigation. Meanwhile Garsias, Bishop of Ussel, published (1489) an elaborate examination of the "Apologia," nor did Pico hear the last of the affair until shortly before his death, when Alexander VI., by a Bull dated 18th June, 1493, acquitted him of heresy and assured him of immunity from further annoyance.

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