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  • On Human Worth and Excellence ed. by Giannozzo Manetti
  • Translated by Jude P. Dougherty
MANETTI, Giannozzo. On Human Worth and Excellence. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2019. li + 362 pp. Cloth, $29.95

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 sixty-three.

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 as well as contemporaries such as Bartolomeo Facio and Antonio da Barga. He translated Hebrew and 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." Taking his lead from Aristotle, Cicero, 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 the 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 1 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, 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 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 [End Page 145] 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 3 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...


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