Pico della Mirandola's texts contain some of the most controversial writings on angels of the Renaissance. Because he compares man to angels, suggest imitation of angels, becoming angels, and going beyond the angelic state to union with divine—in a text that also celebrates the philosophical-theological value “magic and Kabbalah”—Pico has been suspected of angel magic. As a result of these suspicions, his philosophical treatment of angels has not received the serious attention that it deserves. His ideas about angels when examined carefully turn out not to be so radical or magical, but rather deeply grounded in his Christian Neoplatonic commitments. Pico drew his angelology from Dionysius the Areopagite and Thomas Aquinas, whom he referred to as “the glory of our theology.” He was working with problems he inherited from these authorities concerning the relation between angels and humans and angelic knowledge.
Although the controversial “angel magic” interpretation of Pico has come under historical criticism and is not widely held by Pico scholars (footnote on MVD), these magical interpretations have obfuscated the meaning of Pico's writings on angels, which remain largely neglected although they represent a unique, highly original contribution to Renaissance philosophy, however incomplete and controversial. Recent Pico scholarship has argued for the philosophical seriousness, committed Christian piety, and extensive influence of Pico's thought. In this paper I will review Pico's often unusual, but always pious and philosophical investigations into Neoplatonic and Kabbalistic angel lore. I will argue that his encounters with these foreign angelologies did not represent a dabbling in magic, but rather a philosophical project. It was not an attempt to syncretically include strange or radical non-Christian ideas about angels, but rather an apologetic attempt to find confirmation for Christian angel metaphysics in the ancient and exotic angel lore of the Neoplatonists and Kabbalists.
Admittedly, this philosophical approach cannot take into account all of the problems concerning Pico's “magic and kabbalah.” I will consider approaches to interpreting Pico's “magic and kabbalah” as impacting his angelology, but since these approaches do not seem to work, I will proceed to bracket these problems of magic and consider Pico's angelology as non-magical. Some of the mysteries of Pico's magic and Kabbalah, especially in connection with angels, remain unsolved, but we will be in a better position to solve these problems once we have a better grounding in the philosophical motivations behind Pico's involvement with magic, kabbalah, and angelology.