1 liberality : In the 14 th- and 15 th-century, this word (coupled with humanitas) has two meanings, based on classical sources (Cicero in particular, On Duties, §§52-85): a. "inclination to spend and give profusely with munificence or even in a prodigal way;" b. "loftiness and nobility of character and soul, generosity, magnanimity, benevolence, courtesy” (see entry “liberalità” in Battaglia, Dictionary of the Italian Language). Together with magnanimity (which it precedes), liberality is one of the Aristotelian virtues (Nichomachean Ethics, Book IV, ch. 1) celebrated in the Tenth Day of Boccaccio’s Decameron, as a sort of aristocratic sublimation of the utilitarian mercantile logic which pervades 14 th- and 15 th-century Florentine civic culture. In the Oratio Pico, the scion of an old aristocratic dynasty, clearly goes beyond the earthly meaning of “liberality” in order to embrace its loftier, spiritual meaning. For a thorough understanding of the use of this term in Latin humanistic literature and Pico’s work in particular, one must also refer to Patristic sources (see E. Garin, La Dignitas Hominis e la lettaratura patristica, Torino: Giappichelli, 1972). In this passage of the Oratio, Pico establishes a “double bind” between liberalitas dei and liberalitas hominis (-um). The latter is conceived as a reflection of the first.
2 happiness : another key term in 14 th- and 15 th-century humanistic thought, which goes beyond its Aristotelian-Scholastic roots (see Dante, Conv. IV, 17, 8, <<felicitade è operazione secondo virtude in vita perfetta>>" – “happines is activity according to virtue in perfect life”) toward a dynamic redefinition, in Platonic or Neo-Platonic terms. Here too, the influence of Cicero (according to whom happiness is a function of the will) is clearly detectable. Giannozzo Manetti (1396-1459) in book IV of his De dignitate et eccellentia hominis, effectively confutes (following Lattantius, see Garin 1972, 23-ff.) the opinions of those, Ancients or Moderns, Pagans or Christians, who emphasize the misery of human life. Also Manetti considers happiness as the result of a “virtuous life,” that is, a Christian life "...all those who accurately observe heavenly commandments will without a doubt be destined to be fortunate from birth, and always happy and blessed for ever” (quoted by Garin, Prosatori Latini del Quattrocento, Milano-Napoli: Ricciardi, 1952, 485, my translation). Pico adds a gnoseological dimension for which it may not be out of place to recall here also Virgil, Georg. II, 490: "Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causam."
3 The emphasis on “appetite,” desire and (free) will is fundamental for Pico, who moves beyond the Ciceronian tradition of "gubernare terrena," (the governing of earthly affairs) toward a gnoseological and theological-metaphysical horizon. The following sentence by Lorenzo de' Medici seems to echo the dynamic (and proto-Modern) meaning of “happiness” mentioned above: "All Men are born with a natural appetite for happiness, and all human actions aim at it, as their true goal” (quoted in Battaglia, V, 795, my translation).
4 bulga , Latin term, of Celtic origin, translated as “womb” by analogy (from Lucilius, Satyres).
5 In the second Proem of Pico’s Heptaplus (a commentary on Genesis), we read: “It is a common expression in the Schools to say that man is a microcosm, whose body is a mixture of elements, including the heavenly spirit, the vegetating soul, the senses of brutes, reason, the angelic mind and the image of God” (Garin 1942, 193, my translation).
6 This passage must be read against the backdrop of Medieval Patristic sources such as John of Salisbury (cfr. TL, gl. 33) and Alain de L’Isle. In the latter’s Liber de Planctu Naturae “the possibility for man to degenerate into a brute and regenerate himself in God are expressed in terms very similar to those used by Pico” (Garin, 1972, 37 e cfr. TL, gl. 33). Tognon suggests as a reference for this entire section of the Oratio John Scotus Eriugena’s De divisione naturae (lib. III, c. 37, PL 122, 732 B-C e lib. IV, c. 5, 754 A-B). According to De Lubac “ l’Oratio ne fait que redire en propres termes, pour exprimer exactement la même idée, ce qui avait été dit plus de vingt fois auparavant...” (De Lubac, 198-99). However, the reference to Patristic sources should not overshadow the different emphasis of the Oratio, its substantially new rhetorical thrust. The Fathers of the Church and Monastic authors (perhaps with the exception of such mystic authors as Saint Bernard) generally emphasize the element of the fall and provide a true (allegorical and theological) “menagerie” of human degradation into a variety of brutes and animals, according to the various sins, also including as a corollary the demonic corruption of the imaginative and rational faculties of man (Saint Thomas of Aquinas). Pico, instead, is focused on extolling the transcendent possibilities of the Chameleon-like human nature (see below).
7 Caligine . This word is used in at least two different meanings, both fundamentally linked to each other: a. as an original divine attribute, beyond representation (similitudes of night, abyss etc.) and b. as a paradoxical hermeneutical term (the obfuscation of the mind and reason as a mystical pre-condition for penetrating into God’s mystery, see also De Ente, V -- Garin, 412). In this second meaning, Pico’s fundamental source (recurring also in other works of his, see TL, gl. 36) is Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita (read through Marsilio Ficino): Dionysius best describes the condition of he who is sine interprete, without intermediary between himself and divinity (Garin 239). We find the same imagery (darkness as an attribute of divine inscrutability and blindness as the necessary paradoxical medium of human knowledge of the divine) in Pico’s Italian sonnets XVI, IV "di caligine opaca dianci pieno"; XXX, 6: "di caligine operto è 'l vivo ragio (sic)" (Dilemmi, 33 e 61).
8 Aristotle introduces the simile of the Chameleon in Et. Nic. (I, 1100 a, 5-sgg.) speaking of happiness – which, as we have seen, is the product of perfect virtue and an accomplished life – measuring it against the instability of man’s "fortunes:" " For clearly if we were to keep pace with his fortunes, we should often call the same man happy and again wretched, making the happy man out to be a chameleon and insecurely based…” (trans. by W.D. Ross). While Aristotle uses the term in a negative sense, pointing to the instability of the human condition, Pico positively emphasizes the changing nature of man. One could also recognize here the great Renaissance theme of Fortune as chance, opportunity, occasio, etc. According to Garin, the most important reference for Pico’s use of this word remains Ficino’s mention of that passage of Priscianus’s commentary on Theophrastus where the adjectives Chameleontean and Protean are attributed to human imagination. See Garin, "Phantasia e Imaginatio fra Marsilio Ficino e Pietro Pomponazzi", «Giornale critico della filosofia italiana», III, 1985. It is worth mentioning here also Brian Copenhaver’s suggestion that behind Pico’s use of the term there is a reference to Pliny and the magic tradition (Natural History, 8, 120-22), a thesis argued in a recent essay (The Secret of Pico’s Oration. Cabala and Renaissance Philosophy, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XXVI, 2002, 60).
9 Asclepius. Lat. Aesculapius. Legendary Greek physician, son of Apollo and Coronis and god of healing (also related to the Egyptian Imothep). His first teacher was the wise centaur Chiron (on the cult of Asclepius in ancient Greece, see the work of the late S. B. Aleshire, The Athenian Asklepieion, Amsterdam 1989 and Asklepios at Athens, Amsterdam 1991 ). Pico, however, seems to refer again to that composite collection of texts known as the Corpus Hermeticum (already quoted in the opening paragraph of the Oratio) that Marsilio Ficino started to translate from Greek into Latin in 1463; namely, to the so-called Latin Asclepius (Ficino’s edition of the Asclepius was printed in 1469). Pico’s text clearly echoes the Hermetic Asclepius (the interlocutor and disciple of Hermes Trismegistus, also understood to be a descendant of the great Asclepius, just as Hermes is a grandson of of the great Egyptian god Toth). At page 69 of a recent English translation (Hermetica, ed. by Brian Copenhaver, Cambridge Un. Press, 1992) we read the following passage (paragraphs 5-6): “ [5…] The form of humankind is multiform and various…Human are they who remain content with the middle status of their kind, and the remaining forms of people will be like those kinds to whose forms they adjoin themselves.  Because of this, Asclepius, a human being is a great wonder…”
10 Proteus: In Pico’s Conclusions on the ways of interpreting Orpheus’s Hymns according to Magic, we find the following aphorism (n. 28): "Frustra adit naturam et Protheum, qui Pana non attraxerit" ("He who cannot attract Pan, in vain approaches Proteus” - see TL, gl. 37). Edgar Wind explains this obscure passage as follows (Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, New York, W.W. Norton, 1968, p. 241): "Mutability, according to Pico, is the secret door through which the universal invades the particular. Hence Proteus transforms himself continuously because Pan [All] is within him.” This enigma seems to describe the unique situation of the human being in relation to the divine. According to Pico, the human being is like a Chameleon and a Proteus, capable of changing shape (effingere, see below) as well as contemplating all forms and “names.” The human being is thus effectively an agent of God but its “demiurgic” abilities also reflect a degree of free will and free choice. Commenting on this passage, Wind seems to qualify Pico’s radical mysticism (267): "This doctrine provides a convincing mystical justification for an eminently rational mental state."
11 Jews : the specific reference seems to be to the “Hebrew Cabalist Wisemen Whose Memory Should Always be Honored” to whom are dedicated 47 cabalistic Conclusiones (see Farmer, 344-45, and note for a discussion of Pico’s Cabalistic sources, all drawn from late Medieval texts, and more specifically, according to Wirszubski, from Flavius Mithridates’ Latin translation of Menahem Recanati’s Commentary on the Pentateuch, a thesis strongly criticized by Farmer).
12 Pythagoreans : Cabalistic and Pythagorean doctrines and calculations are a significant component of the Conclusiones (both according to opinions of others and his own opinion). For references to the Mathematics of Pythagora, namely the quaternarius, see in particular 25. 1-14. According to Farmer, Pico draws his references to Pythagorean doctrines from late Greek sources, primarily Proclus’s Theologia Platonica (Farmer, 334). A numerical (and mystical) ratio underlies the metamorphic nature of the cosmos .
13 Enoch : Book of E., 40:8. Both Garin and Tognon refer to the Ethiopian Book of Enoch (1 st- or 2 nd- century C.E., Tertullian considered it part of the Holy Scriptures) a source of apocalyptic literature (to be distinguished from a Book of the Secrets of Enoch, of which there exist Medieval manuscripts in slavic languages, ca. 1200). Second- and Third-Century "Church Fathers" like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen and Clement of Alexandria also make use of the Book of Enoch. The reference could also be to the so-called Third Book of Enoch, presumably compiled in Babylon around the 6 th-century C.E. (Dictionary of the Bible, I, 704, sgg.). This is a late apocalyptic text harking back to the mysticism of the Merkava and circulating in Medieval mss. (Pico’s library was rich in Kabbalistic texts in Hebrew, sine titulo, see Kibre). In the Jewish tradition, many legends collect around the figure of Enoch (son of Jared, father of Methuselah, the 7 th in the Adamitic genealogy, along the line of Seth) who "walked with God for three hundred years," was taken to heaven without abandoning the human form and transfigured. In this tradition, Enoch is also represented as the inventor of letters, arithmetic and geometry and called “first author.” In the Third Book of Enoch (or Book of Enoch of the Merkava mystics, on which see G. Scholem, " Merkava mysticism and Jewish Gnosis", in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism), the elevation of Enoch has two versions, in the second of which E. is "taken with the Shekhinà" and "transfigured" as Metatron (according to the prevailing etimology: "Methathronius= he who is next to the throne of God – see Scholem). A reference to Metatron can be found in Pico’s Commentary on the Love Song of Hieronymo Benivieni (written in the same year of the Oratio and the Conclusiones, 1486) almost in the exact terms of the Oratio, as a synonym of transfiguration: “...thus one must understand the saying of the Kabbalists, when they say that Enoch is transformed into Matatron [sic], angel of divinity, or universally any other man [is transformed] into an angel” (see Garin, 1942, 554). After a devout life on earth, E. was elevated to the rank of the first of angels and Sar ha-panìm (literally: prince of the divine visage, or divine presence). This intricate constellation of possible references, not precisely identifiable with a direct quotation of the Ethiopian (Third?) Book of E., hints at the complexity of Pico’s angelology, as articulated in the Oratio and elsewhere.
14 “...I was born a male and female child, a plant, a bird and a dumb fish of the sea…” (Empedocles of Akragas, fr. 117, see K. Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Oxford, 1952, 65). Pico’s thought is pervaded by this idea of trasmigration (man as a microcosm, containing in himself the seeds and stages of the entire creation) which can be found in the many traditions he quotes but certainly acquires a new intonation in his writing. For his interpretation of Empedocles, see Conclusiones (according to his own opinion), 3>71, in which Empedocles’s teaching is related to the sefirot, 5>5 and, in particular, 8>4, in which Empedocles is connected to Zoroaster’s saying and his Chaldean commentators: “In the same place [the so called Chaldean Oracles], by the roots of the earth they can only mean vegetative life, which comforms to the words of Empedocles, who points transanimation even into plants” (Farmer, 489 and Biondi, 114). See also Pico, Heptaplus, lib. IV, cap. 5: “Following Plato in the Republic we say different species of animals are within us, hence it is not difficult to believe that paradox of the Pythagoreans, if we rightly understand it, that inept men can easily change into brutes. Inside us, in our viscera so to speak, there are brutes, thus often we are led astray and simply become them.” (see Garin, 1942, 280; Plato, Resp. 588d).
15 Particularly effective is Pico’s iterative and emphatic use of three almost synonymous terms in order to articulate man’s specific and unique capability. The most interesting of these terms is effingere, from et fingere , which has two meanings: a) to form, to procreate with artifice (Tac., Plin., Tert., Arnob. et al.) and b) to imitate (Rhet. Her. ); to imagine (TLL).
16 See for example King James Gen 6:12 (“ And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for allflesh had corrupted his way upon the earth); Numbers 27:16 (“Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of allflesh, set a man over the congregation…); Deut. 5:26 (For who is there of allflesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived?”; Luke 3:6 (“Andall flesh shall see the salvation of God”); John 3:6 (“That which is born of theflesh isflesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”) and 17:2 (As thou hast given him power over allflesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him”). See also, 1 Cor. 15:39 (“All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds…”); 1 Peter 24 (“Forall flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away…”).
17 Evantes . Difficult to ascertain to what “Persian” source Pico is referring here. Pico claims he possessed the Chaldean Horacles (i.e. books containing the horacles of “Ezre, Zoroastris and the Melchiar of the Magi”) in a letter to Ficino (fall 1486, Supplementum Ficinianum , pp. 272-3). According to Farmer (see footnote at page 486-87), this became the source of a conviction, among Renaissance editors of the Oracles such as, for example, Francesco Patrizi, that Pico indeed possessed the original, integral texts from which the extant and incomplete Greek collections made by Psellus (11 th-century) and Pletho (15 th-century) were drawn (fragments from Plotinus, Proclus, etc.). Ficino himself had translated and commented Pletho’s collection. The strange text that follows here, restored from the manuscript, the Chaldean saying that “no inner image belongs to man…” absent from the Editio Princeps, but legible in P, is a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, in Ethiopian character: according to Farmer, taken by Pico from a version of the Oracles provided to him by Flavius Mithridates and most likely a forgery. It may be interesting to note that this quote reimphasizes one of the central tenets of Pico’s argument, in the Oratio, a definition of human being retraced at the core of all religious-philosophical traditions (prisca theologia), all confirming the biblical narrative of Genesis. There’s no trace of it (attributed to Chaldean sources) in the Conclusiones. More about the Oracles below, ¶¶136-143.
18 The reference is to Psalms 49:10-21; 82: “I have declared: you are all gods,/and sons of the Most High,/ Yet you shall die as men die,/ And you shall fall as one of the princes.” These are words spoken by God to the angels, condemned for their sins. Pico applies them to men, in order to incite them to ascend from their intermediate (and shapeless) station toward a higher, angelic form, the theme of the next section of the Oratio.
19 Wallis, Miller and Carmichael mistakenly translate “ caelestia contemnamus” as “let us struggle toward the heavenly.” I prefer to be consistent with the letter of the text, sticking to the classical meaning of the verb contemnare (used by Cicero etc.) and translating caelestia as “celestial,” rather than “heavenly.” Pico’s reference might be to astronomical-astrological knowledge of the heavens. In any case, it is consistent with what he writes in ¶42 (see above), where he suggests a higher stage of contemplation, beyond the eartlhy and the heavenly.