Saturday, 16 March 2013

Oration on the dignity of man

I read in one of David Berlinski's books that Galois was a tragic figure in the same way that Mozart was: both were gifted in the extreme (one in maths, the other in music) and both died before they had the opportunity to live out their full potential; to this I would add Giovanni Pico, count of Mirandola. This list is not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination, but it does illustrate how giftedness is not restricted to a single thing (vague and mysterious though it seems to us mere mortals) but occurs in all human endeavours. Historical pedagogy/study is replete with examples of such human genius that would humble anyone capable of reflection and thought, and/or have attempted to create something.

Giovanni Pico was born February 24, 1463 and died November 17, 1494 (31 years on this planet). In a book called, The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (The University of Chicago Press, 1948), one of its editors, Paul Oskar Kristeller, writes in his introduction:

The range of Pico's learning is not only extensive; it assumes additional interest from the fact that he was able to absorb many different ideas and traditions that most of his contemporaries would have considered incompatible. Having enjoyed a thorough classical education, he was familiar with the major works of Latin and Greek literature and philosophy; he cultivated friendship of some of the leading Humanists of his time; and was able to write letter and treatises in a style which satisfied their meticulous standard of literary elegance. At the universities of Padua and Paris he became acquainted with the logical and philosophical tradition of the Middle Ages and with the writings of the Schoolmen. Pico was not only able to handle their technique of argument and their terminology; he was ready to defend their reputation against the attacks of his Humanist friends. (The Renaissance of Philosophy of Man, p. 215)

Kristeller continues:

In order to understand the content and significance of the Oration [on the Dignity of Man], it is important to recall the circumstances of its composition. In December, 1486, Pico published in Rome his nine hundred theses, inviting all scholars interested in to a public disputation in January, 1487. The disputation never took place. Pope Innocent VIII suspended it and appointed a commission to examine the theses. The commission condemned some of them as heretical; and when Pico tried to defend the incriminated theses in an Apologia, he made things even worse and became involved in a conflict with the papal authorities that was to last for several years. (ibid, p. 217)

Though, according to my modern eyes and literary tastes, the schema and mental images Pico draws up in the beginning parts of his Oration on the Dignity of Man are somewhat "baroque", it is not lost upon me his power and capacity to absorb and reconcile "many different ideas and traditions that most of his contemporaries would have considered incompatible", and I cannot help but admire and appreciate him for the many wonderful insights he is able to gain and adumbrate the incomprehensible fullness of God at work in the history of humanity (the continuous, unbroken strand of ethical, spiritual and philosophical/literary discourse in the Occident and Orient is clearly discernible throughout the ages in the able hands and mind of Pico). But what else would we expect from a spiritual and literary prodigy?

The Judaic tradition itself is full of examples of the likes of Pico. These Torah and Talmud prodigies are called Illui (iluyim, in plural) derived from Hebrew and Yiddish. In the Gospel of Luke (I wrote "Matthew" in error earlier), it says that the Christ himself was such a person. There is a passage in there that speaks of the parents of the young Jesus who had lost him in the bustle of the Temple and found him in an involved discussion with the Jewish elders who were confounded by his brilliance.

Whether or not we choose to put a spiritual spin, Pico's works can more than stand on their own as works of a brilliant mind. But, of course, I do not speak nor read Latin (the language of academic discourse even up to Newton's time) however, it is the substance if not the form that determines the beauty of the ideas which solid translations bring out so well. And it is the notion of "syncretism" of Pico that I would like to discourse on.

The idea of "syncretism" is defined as: The amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.

There is a rhyme, reason and method to this practice of syncretism in that it follows strict logical and principled means of reconciliation and synthesis of seemingly different, even disparate ideas - of which Pico was clearly a master. In linguistics, we have a principle that says that any human language is translatable into any other human language (no matter how apparently far these langages may be). Syncretism of Pico follows this logical principle.

It is not about trying to reconcile diametrically opposed ideas (such as our notions of "good" and "evil"; "light" and "darkness", etc.) but is rather more like Socratic or Hegelian dialectics which goes: thesis, antithesis, synthesis ("antithesis" being such a poor choice of word because it is about synthesizing into an argument the true limits of a given statement or principle, and not something that would contradict a given principle itself).

In one language we may write a lyric that goes: "a thousand shades of something new" but try translating this line into another language. Though the lyric may sound good in one language, upon examination and closer scrutiny it's apparent grammatical/semantic soundness falls away very quickly indeed because it has no real meaning other than its specific metaphorical value (in that one language and the context of that one song). In reality the lyrical line has no archetypal ground on which to walk on its own.

Spiritual, philosophical, ethical and factual statements do have that all-important archetypal grounding (variously called the "human experience") that lines in a lyrical song do not. This is why syncretism and translation of historical, philosophical, spiritual and literary works of substance are translatable (in the same sense that mathematics has an ability to describe reality in such a fashion it does). It is as if rough-and-ready lyrics were a primitive form of human literature the same way that astrology begat astronomy and alchemy begat chemistry.

My father spoke not one word of English let alone any of the classical languages (to which, besides Latin and Greek, I would include Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Sanskrit and Tibetan among cultures that have produced holy scriptures and works of philosophical/rational import), but he was a baptized Christian and tried his best to lead a virtuous life having been inspired by text not indigenous to his/our language.

Scientific discourse has that same quality I speak of above. It is one of the reasons why I truly believe that all scientific principles that generate logically productive insights are very translatable to Inuktitut. Having some familiarity with the grammar of Inuit language(s), what I believe in is not some airy-fairy wish but a proven principle of the human experience.


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