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A Book Review… A Renaissance Man Looks At Human Worth

April 20, 2019 Featured Today No Comments

By JUDE DOUGHERTY

Manetti, Giannozzo. On Human Worth and Excellence. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver; Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, I Tatti Renaissance Library, pp LI + 362.

One does not have to be a Renaissance historian or know much medieval philosophy or theology to appreciate this delightful book. On Human Worth and Excellence was completed in 1452, less than a decade before the author’s death in 1459 at the age of 63.
First a note about the origin of this volume. The present book is just one of the many major literary, historical, philosophical, and scientific works of the Italian Renaissance that the Harvard University Press is reproducing in the English language from the I Tatti Renaissance Library.
Beautifully produced, each volume provides a reliable Latin text together with a readable English translation on facing pages. The present work is graced by a splendid introduction written by Brian P. Copenhaver, the book’s translator.
Manetti is not easy to classify — diplomat, classical scholar, biblical exegete, philosopher, theologian, natural scientist — his interests spanned all of those disciplines. A thoroughgoing Aristotelian, he venerated Cicero and Lactantius, drew heavily on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, and contemporaries such as Bartolomeo Facio and Antonio da Barga. He translated Hebrew texts as well as Greek texts into Latin, notably the History of Pistoria, and produced books on the lives of Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch, Seneca, and Socrates.
He traces human worth to the nobility of the human soul. Some pagans, he notes, understood the special nature of the human soul. Aristotle spoke more clearly than Plato. He showed the soul to be “rational, immortal, and indestructible.” Cicero, taking his lead from Aristotle, in discussing the nature of the soul in the Tusculan Disputations, finds that the soul cannot be made but must be created. Add to that Genesis’ account of God’s creation of the indestructible human soul from nothing and you have a Christian anthropology.
On Human Worth and Excellence is divided into four “books.” Book I explores “human body’s perfect design,” and with the aid of Cicero and Lactantius comes to the conclusion that “God so fashioned the human body as to be a worthy and also a fitting vessel for the human soul.” Manetti is convinced that “the soul is a substance, an incorporeal form created by God out of nothing.”
Everything written in the Old and New Testaments presupposes the immortality of the human soul. Manetti finds support for this contention in the writings of Porphyry, Pythagoras, and Seneca and the Older Cyrus whom he calls “the noblest Persian king.” If the soul is not immortal, he reasons, nature’s desire and appetite for happiness could not be fulfilled.
Manetti next finds that Augustine in his analysis of the soul holds that its immateriality affirms man’s creation in the likeness of God and proves mankind’s superiority to the rest of creation. That rank, he thought, is confirmed “by the ministrations of angels in heaven, who guard every human from birth and give the holiest people special help.” But God gave His best gift when His only Son took on the lowly mortal body.
Book III is devoted to a discussion of the unity of body and soul. “Some extraordinary things belong to the body,” Manetti says, “while other remarkable and unique features belong to the soul.” But there remain a few issues that need to be addressed concerning man’s mortal existence. Some fail to see the work of divine Providence when discussing the human being’s origin.
“Many, like Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus think the world was created by chance. Then too, many Peripatetics think it has always existed, but the Stoics, to the contrary, say that the world was formed and put in place by an all-powerful god.”
Some ignore the beauty and pleasures of life that are part of God’s providential plan. Life is not a shaky bridge over the chasm of Hell as some imply. Stupidity and sin are not natural or essential features of human life. Man has the ability to manage and to govern the world that was made on his account. Manetti quotes Lactantius’ Elements of Divinity in support of his contention, “God fashioned the world and everything in it for the sake of man.”
Book IV begins: “I have brought together everything I found relevant to that special worth and singular excellence of man, everything important that bears on it.” The fourth book is largely a polemic against those who take a gloomy view of the human condition, those who focus on the misery and frailty of human life. A particular target is Lotario dei Segni [then cardinal, later Innocent III] who produced in 1250 a book entitled, On the Miseries of Human Life.
Most people, Manetti insists, rather than being racked by anguish and distress, are more taken with joys and pleasures they experience in ordinary life, the enjoyment of eating and drinking. “They take pleasure in warming up, cooling off and resting.”
Acknowledging the work of two of his contemporaries upon whom he has drawn, two appendices are added: one by Antonio da Barga, On Mankind’s Worth and the Excellence of Human Life, the other by Bartolomeo Facio, On Human Excellence and Distinction.
Manetti’s knowledge of the ancients is astonishing, and, one may say, possessed by few today. Since the 1980s magnetic resonance scanning has made the human brain visible in ways that have never been known before, but the human soul which Manetti describes with the help of Aristotle and Cicero will forever elude the modern-day Leucippus or Democritus.

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