Contrasting Renaissance Views Of Man (II): A Few Optimists

By contrast to the pessimism of Aurelio in Fernán Pérez de Oliva’s Dialogue on the Dignity of Man, the character named Antonio cautions his hearers not to offend God “by making him guilty of a crime for having created a piece of work which he judged worthy of being preserved at the cost of such perseverance and so much suffering.” It may be objected that man’s body is lowly and mean and has not been provided for by Nature with sufficient protection. Antonio notes that God made man erect “so that he would be able to contemplate the heavenly mansions for which he was created.” Other animals were created “short of stature, facing the ground, in order to search for pastures on which to graze and fulfil the one concern they have: feeding their stomachs.” Further, although God covered the entire bodies of other animals with fur, he only covered man’s head because only man’s reason needs protection. “Once reason is provided for, it will sufficiently provide for the rest.”:”(From Book II 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], pg. 39.)”:

Contrary to the pessimism about Nature’s purposes, after an extended passage celebrating the virtues of various body parts, all designed fittingly for marvelous purposes, Antonio says, “No one can judge whether their artificer put more effort into making them convenient to use or into making them beautiful…nature brings man forth from the womb naked, as if she eagerly wished to display such an excellent piece of work without any covering.” Interestingly, “If man comes into the world weeping, it is not because nature hates him or because this world does not serve him well, but rather…because he is not in his true homeland. For what native of heaven could feel well anywhere else, no matter how good the treatment he received there? Man is a native of heaven; so do not be surprised to see him weep when he is far from home.”:”(Ibid., pg. 41.)”:

On the fact that man has to use Nature to provide for that with which Nature has not provided him, Antonio cites David from Psalm 8 saying that God made man to have dominion over the works of his hands. Consequently, says Antonio, “Having been given to us to make use of them, as required by our needs, they are not injured when they are slaughtered in order to sustain man’s life; rather, they strive to attain the goal for which they were created.”:”(Ibid.)”: Further, man’s deficiencies naturally make him create communities, without which “solitary men would wander about with no cares, no learning, no virtue” and “scarcely be any different from brute animals.”:”(Ibid., pp. 41-42.)”:

The “indeterminate condition in which God placed man corresponds to the freedom of his soul…God wanted to fulfil everyone’s desires by so constructing them that they would each be able to make their own choice.” In this way, human nature “imitates all things and surpasses them in perfection.” The process of man’s maturation, which takes a very long time, was made that way by God precisely “to make clear what a magnificent piece of work he was creating in him” – that is, just as “great building are begun in one age and finished in another,” so “God brings man to perfection only after many long days, although he could do it in a moment.”:”(Ibid., pg. 42.)”:

The soul, which “lives in the body, ruling and maintaining everything,” yet “has its principal seat in the head; and it is there that it achieves its most excellent actions.” Of course, the brain, like all physical things, is corruptible and at times this corruption of the physical can affect the soul. But this, too, is by design: “for by means of these corruptions [the soul] can separate itself from these bodily parts in order to fly away to heaven, which is its natural home.”:”(Ibid., pg. 43.)”: In this light, reason, which Aurelio condemns so strongly, enables man to go everywhere: “We travel around the earth; we chart the seas; ascending to the heavens, we view their magnitude and we calculate the movements; and we do not stop until we reach God, who does not hide himself from us. Nothing is so shrouded, so distant, so obscure as to escape human reason…The body’s sloth is no match for the agility of reason…”:”(Ibid., pg. 43.)”:


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