Contrasting Renaissance Views Of Man (I): A Few Pessimists

Fernán Pérez de Oliva (1494-1531) opens his Dialogue on the Dignity of Man with this pessimistic appraisal by a character named Aurelio: “We are located here in the dregs and depths of the world, living among beasts and covered in darkness…for all the world’s great size, we are restricted to a very small space, in the most contemptible part of it.” Lacking the survival gifts that nature gives all other animals, man “comes into the world as if it were a foreign place, crying and moaning like someone signaling the miseries he is about to endure.” Nature seems hostile to man: “It seems as though the world is almost forced to receive him and that nature gives man a place in life almost against her own wishes. Even then she sustains him by means of the most contemptible things.” Man is “the least worthy of animals,” and “nature hates him and does not provide for him.” Nature has “created a thousand poisons and venomous animals to kill man, as if she had repented for having created him.”:”(From Book I of “Dialogue on the Dignity of Man,” trans. Eleazar Gutwirth, in Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts Vol. 1: Moral Philosophy, ed. Jill Kraye [Cambridge University Press, 1997], pp. 38-39.)”:

[As a side note, contrast this with Aristotle’s view of provident nature in the Politics: “Property in the sense of a bare livelihood, seems to be given by nature herself to all, both when they are first born, and when they are grown up” (1256b9-10). The examples here are the natural equipments that animals have when they are born, and the natural provisions for their young; and in this light, all the other animals must have been made for the sake of man, since man does not have all these natural equipments when he is born.]

In his Disputation of the Donkey, Anselm Turmeda (c. 1352-1423) wittily has “a vile and miserable donkey, his coat abraded all over, snotty-nosed, mangy, without a tail” provide eighteen points of refutation of the idea that man is superior to the beasts and that the beasts were made for man’s use. Here the pessimistic interpretation of the human condition appears not so much in positive points, but in demonstrations by the donkey that the things which man supposes to be flaws in the animals are really their strengths, and the things which man supposes to be his strengths are really his flaws.

For example, man’s superiority of force, by which he captures, makes use of, and buys and sells the animals, is really a flaw because first, “where force rules, there is no room for either justice or equity,” and second, without the animals man would not have many things which he thinks are needful for his health and survival. He would have no wool or furs with which to clothe himself when cold, he would have no milk, cheese, butter, or cream, and would have to walk about carrying his own burdens.:”(From “Disputation of the Donkey,” trans. Neil Kenny, in Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts Vol. 1: Moral Philosophy, ed. Jill Kraye [Cambridge University Press, 1997], pg. 7.)”: Again, if men think they are so great because of their skill and ingenuity in building, it may be shown that bees and spiders are far more skilled and ingenious builders. Man thinks himself superior because he eats all the other animals, yet because he himself is eaten by worms, the lowliest of animals, man fails his own stipulation that “the eater is more noble than the thing eaten.” Man thinks himself superior because he has an immortal soul, yet, says the donkey, unlike animals men are sinners and cannot please God. Furthermore, most men will die and go to Hell, whereas even the great Solomon (Ecc. 3:21) did not presume to know what happens to the souls of animals when they die. Man thinks himself superior because he is made in the image of God, and yet man himself symbolizes God with animals: God by a lamb, St. Luke as an ox or bull, St. John as an eagle, and so forth.

By such arguments as these, the donkey shows that clearly man is a much more miserable and inferior creature than the animals. All arguments from nature and form and function neatly confuted, man’s cause would seem to be lost and pessimism about his condition the only just conclusion. At the last, however man’s dignity is only saved by the argument that the Son of God joined himself to man. While this fact decisively wins the argument as a whole, on the preceding points it is difficult to deny the disturbing implications of the donkey’s demonstrations.


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