Blog Archives

The Light of Natural Philosophy

Let us ask the Apostle Paul, that vessel of election, in what activity he saw the armies of the Cherubim engaged when he was rapt into the third heaven. He will answer, according to the interpretation of Dionysius, that he saw them first being purified, then illuminated, and finally made perfect.

We, therefore, imitating the life of the Cherubim here on earth, by refraining the impulses of our passions through moral science, by dissipating the darkness of reason by dialectic — thus washing away, so to speak, the filth of ignorance and vice — may likewise purify our souls, so that the passions may never run rampant, nor reason, lacking restraint, range beyond its natural limits.

Then may we suffuse our purified souls with the light of natural philosophy, bringing it to final perfection by the knowledge of divine things.

– Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. A. Robert Caponigri

Published in 1486, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man has been seen as a “manifesto of the Renaissance,” a flower of the humanistic spirit. And yet today’s humanists would be put off by its language, which is filtered through mysticism and Biblical rhetoric and symbols.  Ironically, the Catholic authorities of its time similarly disliked it, but for opposite reasons, finding the piece to be not only heretical for its deviation from Catholic Christian orthodoxy but also “inflamatory,” with the potential to encourage and foster further heresies.

We find a similar discordance with our contemporary concept of the humanistic endeavor in the work of the psychologist William James. Presenting a counterpoint to the mechanistic theories of the 19th century, a large part of the work he did with the Society for Psychical Research was focused on exploring such issues as survival after bodily death and other phenomena that, in the past, had been rooted in a purely religious context. It was James’s study of the world’s religions that led him to create a humanistic alternative based on the possibility that proper scientific analysis of extraordinary experiences would lead to a profound picture of reality that went far beyond the things to which mechanistic theories were willing to grant credence.  Yet today’s humanism vilifies James’s investigation of such phenomena.

Read the rest of this entry