Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Pico and Aquinas

Pico and Aquinas
Pico's writings on angels do not have many obvious magical implications. Rather they are explicit efforts to explain, criticize, and develop ideas about angels from Dionysius and Aquinas. As we will see below, Pico explores alternative philosophical approaches to Aquinas in the experimental wanderings of the 900 Conclusions, and Dionysius in the exercise in Neoplatonic commentary that is the Commento, but ultimately embraces both philosophers in his more mature works Heptaplus and On Being and Unity. Even when he is questioning them Pico makes his debt to Dionysius and Aquinas clear, and in his late works we see Pico accepting Aquinas' interpretation of Dionysius, which he employs in a polemic against Ficino and the Proclan-style Neoplatonism that places Unity over Being. Pico agrees with Aquinas that God is better seen as Being itself than Beyond Being, and that anything that has being gets its unity from the being. This makes sense to Pico in terms of the same logic of participation that Aquinas adopted from Dionysius but modified in light of his Aristotelian reaction to Platonism, which he had to employ in order to think about Angels and God but had to modify in light of his Aristotelian metaphysics. The end result in Aquinas has been described as Aristotelian, but as scholars of Aquinas and Platonism have soundly demonstrated, since Aquinas accepts many Platonic notions in a modified form the situation is more complicated. This complication should be our guide to understanding the difficulties of Pico's own reaction to Neoplatonism and Aristotelian, both of which he embraces although he feels free to criticize aspects of both approaches as well. Aquinas has a story about divine illumination and the Agent Intellect that was clearly a profound influence on Pico, and tells us more about his correlation of the angel Metatron with the Agent Intellect than any Kabbalistic or magical explanation. In arguing for a compromise with the view that there is an intellectual or angelic part of the human mind, Pico is doing something similar to what Aquinas did making a compromise between the Augustinian illumination model and the Aristotelian interpretation of the role of the agent intellect. Pico's criticisms of Aquinas deal with problems concerning angels and the intellect. Since he sees Aquinas in the light of the scholastics who followed him, as well as having access to more texts from the Aristotelian and Platonic texts that form Aquinas' background, Pico thinks he can solve the philosophical problems that Aquinas left behind.
Pico's work on angels is better understood as a development of the philosophical themes of the Angel Treatise of Aquinas than an application of Neoplatonic metaphysics to magic. He never got very far with his project, and can't be considered to have produced anything like the angel treatise of Aquinas. Pico's explorations of the metaphysical themes from the angelology of Aquinas and their master Dionysius are original, sometimes brilliant, but not developed into anything like the systematic rigor we see in Aquinas. Pico offers some genuinely interesting new starts, but since he did not live to complete his project we will never know what the finished angelology would have looked like. We do not even know how he would have argued the propositions from the 900 Conclusions that claim to reconcile the differences between Aquinas and his scholastic opponents like Scotus on angelology problems.

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