Oration on the Dignity of Man - Part VI
I was not unaware, most revered Fathers, that this present disputation of mine would be as acceptable and as pleasing to you, who favor all the good arts and who have consented to grace it with your presence, as it would be irritating and offensive to many others. I am also aware that there is no dearth of those who have condemned my undertaking before this and continue to do so on a number of grounds. But this has always been the case: works which are well-intentioned and sincerely directed to virtue have always had no fewer --- not to say more --- detractors than those undertaken for questionable motives and for devious ends. Some persons disapprove the present type of disputation in general and this method of disputing in public about learned matters; they assert that they serve only the exhibition of talent and the display of opinion, rather than the increase of learning. Others do not disapprove this type of exercise, but resent the fact that at my age, a mere twenty-four years, I have dared to propose a disputation concerning the most subtle mysteries of Christian theology, the most debated points of philosophy and unfamiliar branches of learning; and that I have done so here, in this most renowned of cities, before a large assembly of very learned men, in the presence of the Apostolic Senate. Still others have ceded my right so to dispute, but have not conceded that I might dispute nine hundred theses, asserting that such a project is superfluous, over-ambitious and beyond my powers. I should have acceded to these objections willingly and immediately, if the philosophy which I profess had so counseled me. Nor should I now undertake to reply to them, as my philosophy urges me to do, if I believed that this disputation between us were undertaken for purposes of mere altercation and litigation. Therefore, let all intention of denigration and exasperation be purged from our minds and with it that malice which, as Plato writes, is never present in the angelic choirs. Let us amicably decide whether it be admissible for me to proceed with my disputation and whether I should venture so large a number of questions.
I shall not, in the first place, have much to say against those who disapprove this type of public disputation. It is a crime, --- if it be a crime --- which I share with all you, most excellent doctors, who have engaged in such exercises on many occasions to the enhancement of your reputations, as well as with Plato and Aristotle and all the most esteemed philosophers of every age. These philosophers of the past all thought that nothing could profit them more in their search for wisdom than frequent participation in public disputation. Just as the powers of the body are made stronger through gymnastic, the powers of the mind grow in strength and vigor in this arena of learning. I am inclined to believe that the poets, when they sang of the arms of Pallas and the Hebrews, when they called the barzel, that is, the sword, the symbol of men of wisdom, could have meant nothing by these symbols but this type of contest, at once so necessary and so honorable for the acquisition of knowledge. This may also be the reason why the Chaldeans, at the birth of a man destined to be a philosopher, described a horoscope in which Mars confronted Mercury from three distinct angles. This is as much as to say that should these assemblies and these contests be abandoned, all philosophy would become sluggish and dormant.
It is more difficult for me, however, to find a line of defense against those who tell me that I am unequal to the undertaking. If I say that I am equal to it, I shall appear to entertain an immodestly high opinion of myself. If I admit that I am unequal to it, while persisting in it, I shall certainly risk being called temerarious and imprudent. You see the difficulties into which I have fallen, the position in which I am placed. I cannot, without censure, promise something about myself, nor, without equal censure, fail in what I promise. Perhaps I can invoke that saying of Job: ``The spirit is in all men'' or take consolation in what was said to Timothy: ``Let no man despise your youth.'' But to speak from my own conscience, I might say with greater truth that there is nothing singular about me. I admit that I am devoted to study and eager in the pursuit of the good arts. Nevertheless, I do not assume nor arrogate to myself the title learned. If, consequently, I have taken such a great burden on my shoulders, it is not because I am ignorant of my own weaknesses. Rather, it is because I understand that in this kind of learned contest the real victory lies in being vanquished. Even the weakest, consequently, ought not to shun them, but should seek them out, as well they may. For the one who is bested receives from his conqueror, not an injury but a benefit; he returns to his house richer than he left, that is, more learned and better armed for future contests. Inspired by such hope, though myself but a weak soldier, I have not been afraid to enter so dangerous a contest even against the very strongest and vigorous opponents. Whether, in doing so, I have acted foolishly or not might better be judged from the outcome of the contest than from my age.
I must, in the third place, answer those who are scandalized by the large number of propositions and the variety of topics I have proposed for disputation, as though the burden, however great it may be, rested on their shoulders and not, as it does, on mine. Surely it is unbecoming and captious to want to set limits to another's efforts and, as Cicero says, to desire mediocrity in those things in which the rule should be: the more the better. In undertaking so great a venture only one alternative confronted me: success or failure. If I should succeed, I do not see how it would be more praiseworthy to succeed in defending ten theses than in defending nine hundred. If I should fail, those who hate me will have grounds for disparagement, while those who love me will have an occasion to excuse me. In so large and important an undertaking it would seem that a young man who fails through weakness of talent or want of learning deserves indulgence rather than censure. For as the poet says,
if powers fail, there shall be praise for daring; and in great undertaking, to have willed is enough.
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