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August 15 2011


It was Pico who first made explicit the connection between displacement and the Humanist project. His touchstone was the phrase, “Man is his own Maker,” which appeared in his brief essay “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” written, it is now thought, while Pico was in prison. Pico imagines God as “the master-builder [who] by the laws of his secret wisdom fabricated this house, this world which we see.”2 But God, whom Pico calls the “Master Artisan,” then created mankind as a “work of indeterminate form.” Pico imagines God the Master Artisan speaking to Adam, his unfinished creation, as follows, “in conformity with thy free judgement, in whose hands I have placed thee, thou art confined by no bounds; and thou wilt fix limits of nature for thyself.”3 These words had the personal meaning to Pico that, as a displaced person, he would have to make up a life for himself.

Freedom, then, to do anything and to become anyone? Informality and spontaneity as the ends of life? Pico emphatically rejected this. Born indeterminate, he says, human beings have to find unity in their lives; a person must make him or herself coherent. In Renaissance Humanism, this quest meant uniting conflicting ancient ideals by bridging the Hellenic and the Christian mindset; in Pico’s own philosophy, it meant making the one and the many cohere, or as philosophers would put it today, discovering unity in the midst of difference. Spinoza, two centuries later, was grounded in just this Humanist project.


In Burckhardt’s own time, the nationalism nascent in the nineteenth century seemed to the historian to usher in the “age of brutal simplifiers,” nationalism denying the mixture of peoples and the multiple identities of individuals in each nation. The paradox appears because the nineteenth century was also the great age of industrial development, of productive technology. His paradox connected these two developments, technology and nationalism, with industrial technology tending to the complex and nationalism tending to the brutally simple.

If radios had existed in Burckhardt’s time, the stark us-against-them language on right-wing American talk shows would have served him to define “crude”; if Burckhardt could have web-surfed, he would have found similar evidence in blogs of all political persuasions all over the world. We could use another value-soaked word to understand what Burckhardt was getting at: society becomes more primitive, the more people see themselves categorically, in terms of fixed identities.

Whether social relations were once more complex is a question we should set aside; it is an exercise in nostalgia. We should refocus this paradox just as a proposition in itself; refocused, it suggests most simply that technical innovations run ahead of people’s ability to use the innovations well. This simple version has been true through the history of technology: human beings have invented new tools before they knew what to do with them. There is, though, a sharper version of the paradox: the first impulse in using a new tool is to simplify the social relations that existed before.


Several entries concerning Sennet's essay also with Pico della Mirandola's complete text "De Hominis Dignitate" in translations from Latin to English and Italian

via link compilation

—   Humanism  by Richard Bennet | Institute for Advanced Studies In Culture: Publications - The Hedgehog Review - - Summer 2011
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