At first glance, the task of comparing these two philosophers – both undoubtedly Christian, but so very different – seems downright ridiculous. What possible could have in common the most classical of Renaissance magi and the man who, when Satan supposedly materialized before his eyes, threw his inkwell at him? Upon examining the works proposed, I found that, at first glance, they have no similarities in their anthropological vision. At second, some similarities in concept begin to appear into being. And yet, the third glance shows that, though they come to similar practical conclusions – for they must work with one world in practice – their precepts are completely different, and the ideas they propagate lead to very different modes of thought. This is shown very clearly in their concepts of human nature.
The first subject to be examined about human nature is whether there actually is one, according to Pico and Luther. What they think seems fairly clear at first glance: Pico seems to say that human nature is unfixed and changing from man to man, while Luther states that man has a fixed, spiritual nature (as the human body does not truly affect the virtues of the soul in any way) (Luther, 346). However, should we examine these ideas closer, we might find a certain interesting correlation.
Pico’s view of the nature of man only seems mutable. Man in his view has the potential to become anything, take any form – and thus has no form of his own, but instead seeds of all other forms. The physical image of man seems to be only the best form for accessing these potentialities. Having no form of his own, man is, essentially, nothing.
One may ask: what of the essence? What care we of the form of man, while his nature does not lie in the form? In fact, according to Pico’s philosophy, it does lie in form. Pico, in his Neoplatonism as a whole, considers everything to be merely manifestations of the philosophical and religious God. Everything is of God’s substance – it is the form that makes us what we are. Man’s form is not fixed – thus, giving him more freedom and more limitation than to any other being. He can become anything, however, he cannot escape the becoming itself. In this, man’s nature is as fixed as that of any other creature’s – the others simply have other functions, that’s all. Man has been given the gift and burden of freedom, and that is his essential quality and defining characteristic. It is a paradox: according to Pico, we can choose anything but our essence. The only creature truly Free is God, man may merely become like him.
Luther’s view on the nature of man is pretty straightforward: the path to salvation is one alone and alone, and thus human nature is one. It is spiritual in nature – the body is just accidence – and the soul is what matters truly. The human has quite the fixed purpose – to both serve and to rule (Luther, 355), to be an instrument of God’s will: an all-powerful instrument, but an instrument. This sounds quite similar to part of Pico’s doctrine: which states that the human exists to accept and realize God’s gift of multiplicity to man as well as man can. Alike, is it not: we almost seem to be bound by politesse to make good of the Gift of our existence and not waste it, we are masters of our Gift, and yet servants to it, as we cannot change it.
Herein, I think, lies the fundamental difference between Pico’s doctrine and Luther’s. In Pico, we see the human as the God – he supports the notion that all men are Gods in their own right – as His Will manifested, so our Will cannot go against his own, because it is our own Will. Luther sees humans as secondary to God. God does not require humans to exist – they require God and Scripture to do so. Pico seems more Arabian in this respect – one can come to the conclusion from his writings that, humans, as part of God, are a requirement for His existence, for nothing from the Absolute can be taken away without it ceasing to become the Absolute. The human has no purpose in God but to exist, by Pico’s concept – his existence is enough, and his evolution is desirable, but not necessary. Luther’s purpose of life for the human being is to be an instrument of God’s will.
From difference in fundamental metaphysics comes the difference within the roles of the different facilities of man. Pico calls us only to use what we are given to best and most maximal effect. Thus, he considers reason to be an instrument, mostly for purifying the self before it is able to step up to the challenge of “climbing the evolutional ladder” beyond reason. Reason is available to all people, as anything is possible for anyone, and is quite the useful instrument for its own purposes, created by the philosophical side of the Absolute. Pico acknowledges the limits of reason well before Kant, however, if for different purposes. Reason is a form, which, too, has its limitations. A human being can use it or disregard it, but it has its limits as a tool. Faith, for Pico, is unnecessary – he seems to know, not to have faith in his God. He has proven to himself the existence of God in the way he imagines Him, and requires no faith, taking knowledge in its stead.
Luther, however, disregards reason utterly. He barely acknowledges it necessary to survive in the physical world. Yet, as the physical world is ultimately unimportant except as a tool to achieve spiritual progress, reason is ultimately unimportant, as well. Faith, however, being one of the basic tenets of Christianity, is all-important (Luther, 351). Only through faith and through nothing else – even through mere good deeds – one can achieve true spiritual liberty. Luther’s God is far too personal to allow knowledge of him. The essentially pantheistic Pico can allow for knowledge as being an equal tool to faith, just going through different means than faith. He does not interpret the Bible literally, but rather liberally. Luther, who adheres to the letter of the Law as closely as to the spirit – if only to the initial Law and not what the Church grants – cannot accept such ideas. Faith is necessary for free will, according to Luther (362-363), for only upon knowing that man is safely saved he can be free from the tenets of the outside world, and concern himself solely with the concerns of God.
This is the difference between the two notions of liberty of Pico and Luther. Pico’s liberty for man is his ability to become whatever he chooses. He needn’t serve God consciously, as in being God’s instrument – he does that by accepting the gift and striving to better himself. By evolving, by bettering himself he pleases God. The mundane world does not even come in as a concern here – it is man’s playground and school, and it needs to be used, and not being freed from! Luther, however, seems to regard the physical body as almost a prison, and the mundane world as not a manifestation of the glory of God, but, rather, as an obstacle to be overcome. This can be seen by the way he sees faith as freeing from the tenets of greed and other such vices. Luther’s liberty is in being able to turn away from the world, illusory in essence, and turn his face to what is truly real – God. To Pico, the world is as real as anything else. What is interesting is that in both philosophies men are free to choose for themselves – however, the choices are different. In Pico’s case, it is the choice between many possible realities, of which the human should pick the better one. In Luther’s case it is the choice between illusion and reality.
To summarize the conclusions: the human is seen very differently in these two philosophies. The role of the human in both philosophies is immutable; he can do nothing else but accept his predicament and do with it what he will; yet he is free to do what he will with it, nobody forces him to a choice. Quite a number of fundamental similarities. However, the number of differences, while less, is more fundamental, it seems. In Pico’s universe, the human being is at the center, in one place with God, essentially one with God. The Universe is one grand “point”, in the mathematical sense, everything is at the center at the same time – the human’s right is to be wherever on this point, paradoxical as it may sound. In Luther’s world, the human is secondary. His faith places him in a certain relation with the center of all existence, God, but never nears him to God in truth. The difference between finite and infinite is unbreakable. For Pico, it does not exist. As we can clearly see, human nature, as seen by these two philosophers, is very different – though, paradoxically, both worldviews are very representative of their timeframe. They do not really contradict each other, but rather, complement from the point of view of psychology. This Renaissance is the time of one crisis: the crisis of the human and his relationship with God. These are simply two alternative ways by which such a relationship can be recreated, which seem close in their practical application – for the morals are essentially the same – but the motives for working within them are strikingly different.