Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.60 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.60

Nikolaus Egel, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: Neunhundert Thesen. Übersetzt, mit einer Einleitung und Anmerkungen. Philosophische Bibliothek, 708.   Hamburg:  Felix Meiner Verlag, 2018.  Pp. xliv, 217.  ISBN 9783787331833.  €22,90.  

Reviewed by Isabella Walser-Bürgler, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies (


The works of the Italian philosopher and humanist Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) have been met with a growing interest among the German-speaking Neo-Latin world in recent years. To that effect, Meiner’s series Philosophische Bibliothek (also known as the ‘green series’ in Germany) has produced the fourth student edition of one of Pico’s works, this time of his Conclusiones nongentae (1486). Pico designed these 900 theses as the basis for a disputation he envisioned to be held among the most important scholars of his time, in order to reconcile the different existing philosophical and theological traditions and integrate them into one big peaceful Christian concept of the world. Apart from his treatises Apologia (a vindication of the 900 theses) and Heptaplus (a discourse on the seven days of creation), Pico’s Conclusiones number among the only works published during his lifetime.

In light of Pico’s grand undertaking as well as his acknowledged role as one of the leading Renaissance figures, it is quite striking that Egel’s edition is only the sixth modern edition of the Conclusiones and the first German edition altogether after the French editions of Kieszkowski, Schefer and Viellard, the Italian edition of Biondi and the English edition of Farmer.1 Compared to the quantity of editions in which the texts of other Italian humanists have been prepared, six editions is a relatively small number. Making the text also accessible in German, however, has fulfilled a big research desideratum, even though the edition is ‘just’ a student edition. The reasons for that are manifold. Just to mention the most crucial ones: Neo-Latin and Renaissance studies are—maybe apart from Italy—nowhere near as strong as in the German-speaking world at the moment; a German edition of the preface to the 900 theses, Pico’s Oratio de hominis dignitate, had already come out almost thirty years ago (in fact also in the ‘green series’)2; Pico is not only one of the key figures of Renaissance Humanism, but also the first non-Jewish scholar known to have studied the Kabbalah; and last but not least, Pico’s theses constitute an interesting source for a wide range of research topics surrounding the Early Modern Period such as philosophy, theology and university/humanist speeches.

Egel does appropriate justice to the demands of a student edition. He provides his edition with an introduction (pp. VII- XLIV), the Latin text accompanied by a German translation (pp. 1-197), an appendix consisting of Pico’s thirteen theses condemned by the papal commission (pp. 199-201), notes on the text (pp. 203-206), a bibliography (pp. 207-213) and an index of names (pp. 215-217). Despite the fact that each of the edition’s single parts and chapters is kept basic and pointed enough to suit a student’s (or any Neo-Latin beginner’s) needs, Egel shows a sound up-to-date knowledge of both the life of Pico and the context of his theses.

The introduction perfectly reflects Egel’s scholarly engagement in that respect. It basically comes down to a solid survey of the scholarship on Pico. Even though room for new ideas and observations is hardly left, the format of a student edition does not require otherwise. In the first chapter, Egel broadly discusses the intellectual background and aim of Pico’s 900 theses from the beginning of his literary enterprise in 1486 to the retraction of the printed text and Pico’s excommunication a year later. Pico’s most important life dates are skilfully fused with the context of his theses, so that Egel can eventually forego a classical chapter à la ‘author and works’. The second chapter takes into consideration Pico’s Oratio de hominis dignitate as both a preface and a supplement to the 900 theses. Since the two texts are usually examined as separate from each other in current scholarship, Egel deserves special praise for understanding that their respective significance as to the promotion of the principle of humanitas only lies in their interrelation. The third chapter slightly redundantly retraces the context and aim of the Conclusiones as outlined in the first chapter, but at its heart, the reader finds a description of the theses’ general structure—part 1: syncretic theses of authors from the dawn of mankind to Pico’s own times; part 2: Pico’s own theses—as well as an account of their organisation according to a complex mysticism of numbers, nations, historical chronology and the intentional coupling of contradictory theses. At this point, a more in-depth summary of the theses’ content might have been useful, because as Egel’s introduction stands, the actual substance of Pico’s Conclusiones is not made sufficiently clear.

The Latin text and the German translation of the theses are arranged side by side. In both versions, the text is equally organised by means of a double division into headings (to wit, an indication of the number of conclusions and their author, e.g. “Conclusiones secundum Thomam numero .XXXXV.”; p. 6) and the respective theses assigned to them (listed in an ascending order of Arabic numerals). Even though Egel does not apply any line numbers, the text remains clear given that each thesis constitutes one paragraph of its own. Since there is no extensive commentary on the text, the missing line numbers (especially in the case of longer theses) are not to be queried. As far as the Latin text is concerned, Egel fully rests on Farmer’s widely recognised critical edition of 1998; the German translation draws on the translations of Farmer, Kieszkowski, Biondi and Schefer. Relying on existing editions and translations does of course always involve the risk of incorporating potential errors made by one’s predecessors. Yet Egel seems to process the editions mentioned in a smart way, not even in his translation giving the impression of an inconsistent blend. On the contrary, he strives for a straightforward translation according to the standards of modern German. Whenever the text gets complicated, it is invariably owing to its content, never to any inappropriateness of style. Egel’s handling of difficult or technical vocabulary is particularly convincing. He usually translates it into German, but he also adds the original Latin (in a few cases also the Greek or Semitic) term employed by Pico in square brackets to the German translation (e.g. in the context of medieval philosophy: “die Seele als zusammengefügte Form [formam complexionalem]”, p. 27; “die Washeit [quiditas]”, p. 39; “die Selbstheit [ipseitas]”, p. 109). As a consequence, special terms do not get distorted through the translation. Rather, they are preserved in their pristine sense and can be correspondingly searched in other ancient, medieval or Renaissance sources as well. Appended to the main text are the thirteen theses that were eventually denounced by the papal commission. Unfortunately, they are reproduced only in German according to the quotation from two secondary sources.3

The notes constitute the weakest part of Egel’s edition. They are tagged in the German translation by superscript numbers, which comes in a bit unhandy when going into the text coming from the notes (in order to retrace a specific thesis, for instance). The notes are restricted to citing the sources mentioned in Pico’s Conclusiones; sometimes, references to further reading are added. This mode of comment explains the relative shortness of the notes section (four pages or 111 notes) relating to a text covering almost 100 pages (or 900 theses). On the positive side, it is quite user-friendly for a student edition to have all the author’s sources lined up and ready to be looked up, instead of having to sift through Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas on one’s own. Moreover, the source-oriented approach also perfectly illustrates Pico’s general philosophical and theological outlook, his reading and intertextual relations. On the negative side though, the focus narrowly on the sources leads to the notes’ declining to elucidate content, which would have clarified the at times difficult text without exceeding the scope of a student edition. Just to give two vivid examples: In the Conclusiones secundum Porpyhrium XII.4, Pico deals with the origin of cause and effect alongside the genesis of man. Egel edits and translates as follows (pp. 50-51): “Omnis anima participans uulcanio intellectu seminatur in lunam”—“Jede Seele, die an dem vulkanischen Intellekt Anteil hat, wird im Mond besamt.” In this sentence, it is indeed difficult to grasp what is meant by “uulcanio intellectu” and why “anima…seminatur in lunam”. Similarly delicate is Conclusiones secundum propriam opinionem LXII.45 (pp. 140-141): “Sensus naturae quem ponunt Alchindus, Bacon, Guilielmus Parisiensis, et quidam alii, maxime autem omnes magi, nihil est aliud quam sensus uehiculi quem ponunt Platonici”—“Die sensuelle Natur, die Alkindi, Bacon, Wilhelm von Paris und einige andere—nämlich fast alle Magier—setzen, ist nichts anderes als der Sinn des Fahrzeugs, den die Platoniker annehmen.” Even for experts of ancient philosophy and its reception it is not immediately apparent what Pico refers to with the phrases “sensus naturae” or “uehiculi…Platonici”, let alone what the central view of the scholars mentioned was, when they lived and which context binds them together. Only in a couple of exceptional cases (i.e. 12 notes out of 111 in sum), is some short information on the content offered (e.g. note 11 explains the name “Metatron” with regard to the cabbalistic tradition; note 45 elaborates on the Greek Neoplatonist philosopher Syrianos). Yet all in all, the criteria for the selection of these rare content-related notes remain obscure, leaving the impression of random reading support.

Both the bibliography and the index sufficiently cover the needs of a student edition despite two minor bibliographical shortcomings. While the index itemizes the names of the real and mythological/literary figures mentioned, the bibliography records the essential primary and secondary literature on Pico in a nutshell. For a more comprehensive list of secondary studies, Egel refers the reader to the extensive bibliography featured in Quaquarelli and Zanardini (2005).4 The inherent disadvantage of this practice, i.e. its first shortcoming, relates to the fact that the literature of roughly the last ten years remains completely disregarded. As to the primary literature cited by Egel, i.e. the second shortcoming, the most recent critical edition of Viellard (2017) is missing.

In sum, Egel has produced a useful edition of Pico’s Conclusiones that will appeal to those already acquainted with Pico as well as those who are not. Ultimately, Egel renders Pico attractive to a German non-specialist audience, enhancing the range of humanist texts from Italy within the German-speaking world. Of special merit is Egel’s straightforward examination that is utterly free from the typical ‘Renaissance romanticism’ often displayed in many studies and editions of early Italian humanists.


1.   Bohdan Kieszkowski, ed. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: Conclusiones sive Theses DCCCC (Geneva: Droz. 1973); Albano Biondi, ed. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: Conclusiones nongentae. Le novecento Tesi dell’anno 1486 (Florence: Olschki. 1995); Stephen A. Farmer, ed. Syncretism in the West: Pico’s 900 Theses (1486): The Evolution of Traditional Religious and Philosophical Systems. With Text, Translation, and Commentary (Tempe, Arizona. 1998); Bertrand Schefer, ed. Jean Pic de la Mirandole: Neuf cents conclusions philosophiques, cabalistiques et théologiques (Paris: Allia. 2006); Delphine Viellard, ed. Pic de la Mirandole: Les 900 conclusions (Paris: Les Belles Lettres. 2017).
2.   Norbert Baumgarten, August Buck, eds. Pico della Mirandola: Über die Würde des Menschen. Philosophische Bibliothek, 427 (Hamburg: Meiner. 1990).
3.   Léon Dorez, Louis Thuasne, Pic de la Mirandole en France (1485-1488) (Paris: Leroux. 1897; reprint Geneva: Slatkine Reprints. 1976); Paul Richard Blum, ‘Pico, Theology and the Church’, in M.V. Dougherty, ed. Pico della Mirandola. New Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2008): 37-60.
4.   Leonardo Quaquarelli, Zita Zanardini, Bibliografia delle edizioni e degli studi (Florence: Olschki. 2005).

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