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On Human Worth and Excellence
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(--) : more of historical than literary (or philosophical) value, but has some interesting facets to it
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
The Introduction, by translator and editor Brian P. Copenhaver, to this I Tatti edition of Manetti's On Human Worth and Excellence begins not with Manetti but Antonio da Barga, noting that his Book On Mankind's Worth (Dignitas) and the Excellence of Human Life was: "the first product of Renaissance Italy to name dignitas as its subject. Helpfully, that short text is included in the Appendix -- though only in translation (unlike Manetti's text, which is presented in both the original Latin and English translation) --, as is Bartolomeo Facio's longer On Human Excellence and Distinction. As Copenhaver explains in his Note on Sources, Texts, and Translations:
Manetti's book cannot be understood without them: he completed a project that Antonio initiated and passed on to Facio.Both Antonio and Facio specifically also refer to yet another text in theirs, by Lotario dei Segni (who became Pope Innocent III, in 1198). The future Pope had written a grim esssay, On Human Misery (De miseria humanae conditionis); in his Introduction Copenhaver suggests:
if there were a Library of Loathing stocked with attacks on the human species, and if its masterpieces were ranked, the cardinal's book would make the top tenIt really does sound like quite the piece of work, and it's understandable that there was seen to be a need for a (more positive) counter-piece. Antonio notes (and Facio makes a similar claim) that the future pope: "promised to write a companion volume which, since it was to take the opposite view, would have been titled On the Worth and the Excellence of Human Life", but that he never got around to it; "papal business prevented him from keeping his promise", Facio suggests. So first Antonio and then Facio took up the gauntlet -- and Manetti followed suit, even then directly addressing Innocent III's work in his own (though biding his time before doing so; he only gets around to it in the fourth part of his four-part work).
For all the excuses Antonio and Facio make for Innocent III, it doesn't sound like the pope really had it in him to write the kind of work they were hoping for; his worldview really does seem too dark. Antonio and Facio then go for up-lift -- but they can't hold a candle to cheerleader-for-humanity Manetti, whose On Human Worth and Excellence is practically overflowing with enthusiasm about the wonder and grandeur of the human experiment. He's completely convinced of mankind's dignitas and excellentia, and glories in it in this work.
The four-part essay begins with sections considering body and then soul. Here as throughout Manetti relies heavily on other authorities in support of his claims -- though limiting himself to (extensive) quotation of only a handful, most notably Cicero. Indeed, right at the start, in making the claim for the divinely created human body and its superiority to the alternatives (specifically the lesser physical forms of animals) he simply quotes verbatim at considerable length -- a couple of pages worth -- from Cicero.
The case for the body, covered in the first of the four sections, is fairly straightforward, practically a catalogue of body-parts and functions and their perfection. Manetti's approach is not exactly critical or even just questioning here: the human body is an amazing thing, so what more need be said ? After all, for example:
And then the testicles and private parts: the great skill that produced and arranged them for procreation would be hard to explain.So he doesn't much bother. It's not so much a conclusion for him as obvious all along, as he basically is convinced, about all the body-parts:
Do we not see that each was fashioned and assembled by workmanship so great and wondrous that we should have no doubt or hesitation at all about God as maker of the human body ?Eventually, he doesn't shy away from broad statements of what seems obvious to him (but maybe isn't ...?):
Through each of the senses -- sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch -- the pleasures and delights enjoyed by humans are certainly stronger, surer and more abundant than those had by other animals.It gets more interesting in the second section, when he gets to the idea of a 'human soul'. He takes it for granted that such a thing exists, but acknowledges that there have been quite some debates about what it actually is, and its nature. Helpfully -- somewhat ... --, he offers a history tour, from the ancients through more contemporary times, considering what the wise men (yes, all men) of days gone by thought. If some of his conclusions are dubious, to say the least, at least he's open about how he reaches them, as when he begins with Thales of Miletus. He admits:
the point is not that he ever made any special remark about the soul. Still, since he thought that water is the basis of all things and that all the world's elements, the world itself and whatever comes to be in the world originate and emerge from water, we may fairly conclude that in his view the soul, like other things, gets its start from water.It's surely arguable whether this is fairly concluded or not, but leaving that aside, surely the point would be to argue what the consequences of such a belief are and why, or why not, it should be taken seriously. Manetti does none of that, simply moving on to the next theory. The reasons for this approach seem fairly clear: without the God-concept -- specifically the Christian conception of 'God' -- there's little point in taking any of these ideas too seriously; in Manetti's devoutly Catholic worldview, there's one force behind all of this -- body and soul and everything else -- and that would be your supreme creator. He can separate himself from the dusty times and thinking of pre-Christian yore and lore and present himself as a modern man and thinker -- "to whom the reserved and hidden light of truth has been plainly revealed and clarified by the divine oracle of sacred Scripture". This doesn't sound like a particularly sound basis for theory, but Manetti has no doubts.
Still, it's interesting to see how Manetti treats and uses the pre-Christian thinkers to support his case, or help -- with interpretive embellishments -- make it. And he does obviously -- if very cautiously -- admire many of the old thinkers, as his reliance especially on Cicero would suggest, or his praise of Aristotle as: "everybody's teacher". Indeed, while he does not engage particularly seriously with their thought, beyond adapting it, where he sees fit, to his purposes, Manetti does at least show wide (if arguably shallow) learning, and certainly livens up his text with mentions of older thought and thinkers. And he certainly lets it be known what he doesn't think is worth taking seriously: he can be -- with typically (over-)broad brushstrokes -- summarily dismissive:
Hence, the views of all the poets about the forming of man have been conspicuously silly and worthless.Still, it's fun to see him practicing avoidance: aware of the alternative philosophies and ideas, he at some points practically has to hold himself back from falling into their abysses. It's an interesting stretching of his subject matter -- suggesting other possibilities, even if he leaves them unexamined -- before pulling back, completely; certainly there's at least some suggestion here, a gentle prodding of readers to maybe also look elsewhere rather than just accepting the dominant ideology of the day (even as he exhibits complete fealty to it):
Let me omit the Platonists, who thought that humans were made in order to inhabit the earth. I shall also leave out the Stoics, who said that people were born to benefit people. Next, while tossed about by this great storm -- as I pass by the Peripatetics and the rest of the philosophers from other sects, who are like people hunting at night for a dark and hidden truth -- let me turn back for shelter to our Catholic teachers as the only safe and quiet harbor of salvation, distinct and authentic. God made man to worship and recognize him, then -- through some understanding of God's own wondrous works and through sure knowledge of Him who made them -- as Maker of these things.It's in the last section that Manetti finally gets around to Innocent III's On the Misery of Human Life -- about which he notes: "Starting from the first instant of birth and continuing to the final moment, he crams a lot in". The two differ fundamentally in outlook -- and in their understanding of the essence of (Catholic) faith, the future pope wallowing in just how terrible man and his condition are, while Manetti manages to see practically only the bright side.
A bizarre aspect of Manetti's argument is a (dubious) reliance on etymology -- which particularly comes to bear on his disagreement with Innocent III's work. Early on he already argues, for example, that: "False semblances of the gods, whether painted or carved, actually got that name from resemblance" (simulachra and similitudine inthe Latin original). In taking on Innocent III's arguments, he claims the future pope already: "went astray in his starting points and foundations". Much of the misunderstanding, Manetti argues, is simply linguistic:
Yet he would never have slipped into confusions so great and so obvious had he not been utterly ignorant of the Hebrew language.This approach might have been more convincing if Manetti's own etymological arguments were sounder -- but at least they give him an out, as to why he differs so markedly from what the pope (kind of an ultimate authority -- even if this work was from before when he assumed that position) said .....
Copenhaver admits, tucked away in his Note on Sources, Texts, and Translations, that:
Manetti's presentation is orderly, repetitive, rigid, and dull: the pleonasms are annoying; outlining and signposting are incessant, though not always successful. Sentences are frequently longer and more convoluted (I hope) than their versions in this translation. (...) I have not tried to maintain consistency of terminology, for two reasons: Manetti's writing is not exact or technical, and his pleonastic Latin would show up as too grand and wordy in English.The advantage of a bilingual edition such as this one that has the original facing the translation is that readers can always see for themselves. Copenhaver does have a point -- though grand and wordy can be fun, too -- but it can be helpful to compare Manetti's actual terminology, since he does make rather a point about language, and since this is a text focused very much on two specific concepts, those of dignitas and excellentia. (Copenhaver is careful about those, but admits: "I have found no single way to render dignitas".)
On Human Worth and Excellence isn't exactly a soundly argued work, with Manetti's deference to Biblical *truth* his all-too ready and relied on default position, but in its sweep -- with at least a nod to much classical thinking on the subject(s) -- certainly more than a mere theological tract. Beyond its literary and historical interest -- both rather limited and specific, one would imagine -- its true appeal, however, is in Manetti's incredibly cheerful enthusiasm. He leaves no doubt about his conviction in human worth and excellence, and makes his case for both by seeing only the best in practically everything. He has no doubts about 'the worth of man', and glories in it, a kind of refreshing ultra-positive outlook in times when it's again become harder to believe in it.
This I Tatti volume is, as one has come to expect from the series, an exemplary edition, with a useful Introduction and endnotes. On Human Worth and Excellence should remain mainly of (limited) literary and historical interest, but it's certainly nice to have text and translation accessible in this handy form.
- M.A.Orthofer, 18 October 2020
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Florentine scholar Giannozzo Manetti lived 1396 to 1459.
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