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. And even if attention to Pico's philosophical motivations cannot clear up all the mysteries of his “magic and kabbalah,” it can give a picture of Pico that does more justice to his philosophy than the glib dismissals that he receives in survey treatments written by authors dubious of Pico due to his undeservedly unsavory reputation.
The Magical Interpretation of Pico's Angelology
Frances Yates professed a popular interpretation of Pico della Mirandola as a Hermetic Renaissance Magus in her “Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.” She thought that Pico's contribution was bringing Kabbalistic magic, which involved, she thought, conjuring good angels to make magic “safe.” Pico was taking magic up to the supercelestial level, and however cautious and pious he may have been with his “magical mysticism,” his “safe conjuring” leads in a “straight line” to the more dangerous and power-motivated angel magics of latter Christian Cabalist occultists such as Reuchlin, Trithemius, Agrippa, and John Dee.
Frances Yates' interpretation was influential in the 20th century, but also drew many criticisms. Pico scholars no longer understand Pico as having offered a vision of “Man the Magus.” He himself was clear to distinguish his “licit, natural” magic, which is apparently little more than “the practical part of natural philosophy” (although it has theological significance as a theoretical example). Furthermore, Pico was not discussing “magic and kabbalah” in connection with angels, except in so far as he describes Kabbalah as a Dionysian-style mystical theology—an “ineffable theology of supersubstantial divinity” containing an “exact metaphysics of angels.” Metaphysics is far from magic. Implications of angel magic appear to have been read into Pico's texts by his interepreters. Some of these interpreters imagine that Pico must not have been telling the truth about his interest in angel magic, merely hinting at it but expecting his readers to interpret the metaphysics as really being motivated by magic, or having secret magical applications. But this raises the question of why he spent so little time with magic in his texts—even in the Oration and Conclusions which contain all the suspect magical material. Magic had a significant but small place in Pico's constellation of philosophical influences. The main mistake of interpreters who see Pico as a Magus is that they make magic central when it does not seem that this was the case for Pico. Of course he is famous for having brought “magic and kabbalah” to the table for a philosophical debate, but in doing so he did not intend to make magic central or tamper with the Christian faith in a magical way.
The most recent collection of scholarly essays on Pico only devotes a few sentences to the problem of magic in Pico. Dougherty's article in his Pico della Mirandola: New Essays tersely mentions the “controversial” occultist interpretation of Pico as having come under historical criticism. Later in the book Sheila Rabin argues that Pico studied magic as a university topic, but his interest was strictly theoretical and that he did not practice magic. Many Renaissance historians have pointed out that Pico does not discuss magic in his later texts, and removes the term “kabbalah” from his Heptaplus although Jewish hermeneutics continue to play an important role. One was of understanding this change in the content of Pico's works is to assume that Pico “abandoned” magic and kabbalah, or at least seriously reduced the role of magic and kabbalah in his “system.” Another way to look at this is to understand the magic and Kabbalah of his Oration and 900 Conclusions in the way Pico claims he expected them to be intended. Pico thought a discussion of magic and kabbalah would be interesting and potentially be useful in solving problems having to do with his philosophical project of harmonizing Plato and Aristotle, but he did not bring up magic and Kabbalah because he wanted to import radical ideas or magical ideas into Christianity.
One of the biggest misunderstandings of Pico, which has come under criticism in recent scholarship, is the idea that Pico was a “syncretist” working on a project trying to harmonize the truth of all religious traditions, or a “synthesist” trying to “fuse traditions” by combining Christian mysticism and Pagan or Cabalist forms of magic. The many accounts of Pico as a “syncretist” fail to take into account his stated motivations in exploring extra-Christian philosophical ideas, which Pico thinks confirm the truth of Christianity, rather than seeing them as ideas useful on their own terms. When we look at the methods Pico used to understand, translate, and digest Kabbalistic and Neoplatonic ideas (among other traditions) we see that he was only interested in them insofar as they reminded him of his own tradition. Magic he presents in scholastic terms, attempting to articulate his insights into the theological uses of natural philosophy according to the constraints laid out by medieval Christian philosophical authorities like Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas.
Another “occultist” interpretation of Pico is more persuasive than the “angel magic” version. This approach uses the term “theurgy” to describe Pico's mysticism. Theurgy is a term that has different meanings when used by pagan Neoplatonists like Proclus and Iamblichus, Christian theologians like Dionysius, Renaissance magic theorists, and contemporary scholars of Kabbalah. Brian Copenhaver has argued that Pico uses “magic and Cabala” like the Neoplatonists used theurgy, as a preliminary stage in a system of mystical ascent:
“Theology, spirituality and philosophy—all in the broadest sense—are the main topics of Pico's Cabala, which shows (or hints) how God reveals himself in the Sefirot, the divine names and the words of scripture. In the 72 Cabalist theses at the end of the Conclusions, this revelation becomes Christology and Trinitarian theology. From a Cabalist point of view, the Sefirot and the divine names are actors in dramas of theology, cosmology, anthropology and angelology whose major themes are exile, death, atonement and redemption, stories that Pico transposes onto the Christian Trinity, with Jesus Christ, the Messiah, as the saving hero. Accordingly, leading points of spiritual practice in the Conclusions are prayer, prophecy and ascent to mystical union with God, which is also the main topic of the Oration, where Pico makes positive use of magic and theurgy as steps toward the ascent. The Conclusions, which confirm this endorsement of magic, also show in greater detail than the Oration why Pico links magic with Cabala. He sees it as a spiritual technique which, like the higher theurgy of the Neoplatonic philosophers, locates and opens routes to God which ordinarily are unknown to humans. The practice of Cabala starts with theory because these hidden channels of divinity must be disclosed and interpreted before they can be used: spirituality follows hermeneutics.” (Copenhaver _____ )
Copenhaver calls this system Pico's “angelic regimen,” which he explains in terms of the Dionysian mysticism of imitating the “contemplative life of the angels” laid out in Pico's Oration. According to Copenhaver Pico recognizes a similar theurgy in Kabbalah, although he does not explain how this correlation is established. Alongside these positive uses of theurgy to describe Pico's mystical system, Copenhaver also uses a negative sense of theurgy to describe what Pico is avoiding. Since Pico makes clear in his Apology that he does not intend any demonic or conjuring magic, Copenhaver argues that Pico is trying to find a way to do angel magic “without becoming guilty of theurgy” in his magical and Kabbalistic Conclusions.
Copenhaver's approach is attractive because it attempts to explain Pico's “magic and Cabala” as part of his mysticism. But there are problems with Pico's approach. Pico does not use the term “theurgy” himself when discussing the Neoplatonists, and he doesn't seem very much interested in Neoplatonic magic or theurgy. Moshe Idel has argued that he doesn't find the theurgy in Kabbalah. Instead of Neoplatonic magic, Pico is deeply interested in the same Neoplatonic metaphysics that inspired the angelology of Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as the metaphysical innovations of Thomas Aquinas. Rather than studying Pico's Neoplatonic influences as theurgic influences, I will look at this context of Neoplatonic metaphysics, which forms the background to Christian angelology.
Looking at this background will allow us to clear up many of the magical misconceptions surrounding Pico's writings on angels. Pico does not turn to Neoplatonism and Kabbalah as a resort to magic, but in order to develop philosophical approaches to the problems of angelology he inherited from the great Christian Platonists Aquinas and Dionysius.
Does Pico have a “mystical system?” Is the Oration enough to be understood as a mystical manual, or is it merely the humble exhortation to celebrate philosophy that Pico claims he intended? Unfortunately Pico doesn't give us much information about how magic is to be integrated into his “system.” Many scholars have argued that the Oration and its accompanying 900 Conclusions should not be considered as giving a systematic treatment of Pico's own opinions. Some emphasize that Oration was merely a rhetorical introduction (the name “Dignity of Man” was added after Pico's death), which was never even delivered. But most importantly Pico attempts to make clear what he means by magic, and he is even more clear in his Apology to rule out interpretations such as angel magic, which he explicitly says is not what he's talking about.
Scholarly visions of Pico as magician tend to exaggerate the importance of the Oration in Pico's body of work. Others have pointed out that in Pico's other texts, the position of man is not being celebrated so optimistically. Everywhere else Pico emphasizes the distance between man and angels, the low position of man in the hierarchy and the need for divine assistance. Rather than seeing this as a shift from a “more magical” position in the Oration to a “less magical” position in his later texts, it makes more sense to see Pico's Oration as a somewhat bold rhetorical exercise in celebration of mystical philosophy, but not a manual of angel magic. Although he does not discuss magic in these later texts, Pico's interest in angelology remains consistent. We see Pico developing his account of the “angel comparison,” the notion of becoming angels, the problem of angelic knowledge, and the importance of angelic influence in his later texts. There is still a place for “magic and Kabbalah” as Pico understands them, and we still have much to learn about the ways that Pico understood “magic and Kabbalah” in philosophical and theological terms, but until we better understand Pico's philosophy we must bracket the problem of magic. Pico's encounter with the Neoplatonic metaphysics behind Christian angelology has been neglected in the scholarly study of Pico's texts, but once this important context is better understood we will be on a much more solid foundation to speculate about the mysterious meanings of his magic.
Turning from speculation about Pico's potential “angel magic” or theurgy, I will turn to the philosophical context of Pico's writings on angels. When we look at his angelology (if Pico even has an angelology—his writings are not systematic and characterized by their incompleteness and provisional/experimental nature) in this philosophical context, we see him consistently developing the same themes of the Oration in a non-magical way. For example, when we understand what Pico means by “becoming angelic” in Commento and Heptaplus, texts that contain no magic and very little Kabbalah, it becomes clear that this notion does not depend on magic. While Pico is notorious for bringing “Magic and Kabbalah” to Christianity, ironically his most interesting and original contributions to angelology have little to do with magic.