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Pope Innocent III on Man’s Afflictions

Pleasures of External Senses

Intellectual Pleasures

Pleasures Overcome Afflictions 

Frivolous Arguments About Afflictions

Man is Gifted with Rationality

Innocent III’s Ignorance

His Etymological Errors 

His Errors Invalidate His Arguments

Man’s Nakedness 

The Fruits of Man

The Span of Life

Pleasures of Old Age






Giannozzo Manetti (1396-1459) was born in Florence, the son of a rich merchant. From 1429 he served the Florentine Republic in various offices including an advisory council, diplomatic missions, and city governorships. He is more widely known, however, for his membership of a group at the center of the great intellectual movement of the Fifteenth Century—the Italian Renaissance. Others included Carlo d’Arrezzo, Poggio Bracciolini, Leonardo Bruni, Francesco Filelfo, Niccolo Niccoli, Palla Strozzi, and Lorenzo Valla. All were committed to reviving the learning of the Greek and Roman classics and to exercising the freedom of thought that these represented.

In addition to Greek and Latin, Manetti learned Hebrew so that he could read the Hebrew Bible and the commentary of rabbis in the original language. Perceiving the differences between the accepted texts of that time and the originals, he advocated the retranslation of sacred texts. He also devoted himself to translation of Greek works, to a commentary on Aristotle, and to biographies of Socrates and Seneca. In the process, he developed a formidable Ciceronian style. From his familiarity with the humanistic nature of classical writings, Manetti wrote a spirited rebuttal to On the Misery of Human Life—a book published under the name of Pope Innocent III. In this ecclesiastical work, all of the Church’s overt disgust with the human body and human behavior was poured forth in a torrent of invective. Manetti’s On the Dignity of Man captured the rising pride in humanity that characterized the Renaissance. A few extracts are given here.



1 Pope Innocent III on Man’s Afflictions


. . . when the aforementioned Innocent composed his particular book which, as we said, was called On the Misery of Human Life, he began with the origin of birth and extended his matter to include man's final end, and brought together many things from among which we have chosen only as many as we thought more worthy of mention than others and better suited to the purposes of refutation. After he treated of the rotten and vile conception of the foetus he wrote that all of us at the moment of birth, when it is impossible for us to be corrupted and depraved by age, yet male or female we rend the air with our complaints and lamentations in order to show the very certain nature of our misery. . . He proceeded at great length and in great detail through a labyrinth of human afflictions: fetters, sputum, streams of urine, mounds of excrement, the brevity of time, old age, the various pains and labors of mortals, their diverse preoccupations, the closeness of death, the many kinds of torments and the various other ills of this sort that afflict the human body.



2 Pleasures of External Senses


We admit all of this but—without wishing to appear too querulous, ungrateful, stubborn or choosy—we might venture to put forth the thought that we also enjoy various kinds of pleasure as well as afflictions in our ordinary and every day life. For there is no human action— wonderful to say—if we pay diligent and close attention to its nature, from which man does not draw at least some little pleasure. Nay, he at all times takes such deep and intense pleasure from each and every one of his external senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch—that other interests meanwhile appear superfluous, excessive and unnecessary. It would be hard, indeed impossible, to describe the intense pleasures that possess man: they derive partly from the untrammeled vision of beautiful bodies, partly from listening to sounds and symphonies and even more delightful things, partly from smelling the odors of flowers and such like, partly from tasting various sweet and succulent viands and, finally, partly from the touch of the softest substances.



3 Intellectual Pleasures


And what shall we say of the remaining internal senses? What great pleasures that sense, which is called the common sense [intellect] by philosophers, carries with it in discerning the subtleties and differences of sensible things; how greatly also does the varied imaginings of substances and accidents delight us; how intense the pleasure afforded by judgment, the memory, and finally, the understanding. Words cannot express the pleasure we experience when we imagine, compare, make value judgments, remember and understand those things we have already apprehended by a particular sense.



4 Pleasures Overcome Afflictions


Therefore if men enjoy the pleasures and delectations everyday living affords to many—rather than being tormented by afflictions and anguish—they ought rather to rejoice and be consoled instead of complaining and lamenting, especially since nature has supplied abundant remedies for cold, heat, toil, pain and disease—antidotes, so to speak, for these sicknesses. These remedies are not harsh, disagreeable or bitter, as are those we are likely to find on the pharmacist's shelf, but rather soothing, agreeable, sweet and pleasurable.

    For example when we eat and drink to appease our hunger and thirst we are marvelously satisfied and we enjoy similar pleasure when we are warmed, cooled or rested. The sense of taste seems in a certain way more pleasurable than those sensible objects which are experienced by the general sense of touch, although the particular touch which is sexual seems superior. Thus the philosophers have taught us that nature herself—the most clever, most cunning and, indeed, the unique teacher of reality—has brought it about that far greater pleasures are had in coitus than in eating and drinking because she intended primarily the conservation of the species rather than the conservation of the individual. The one is preserved by the union of male and female; the other by the taking of food for the restoration of what we might call the perishing individual.



5 Frivolous Arguments About Afflictions


Thus all the opinions concerning fragility, cold, heat, toils, hunger, thirst, disagreeable odors, looks, touches, weariness, vigils and sleep, food and drink and other similar views about human afflictions will seem to be frivolous and empty to anyone who adverts to the nature of things with even a little awareness and considers that nature with the least bit of accuracy. . . To be sure, the senses of sight and hearing can be burdensome and disagreeable but only when they are used excessively. But when we use these and like senses with measure and moderation, not only do we not weary of them or find them burdensome but rather we are enthused, enlivened, and we rejoice. Although, as Cicero has said, nature has given us fragile, weak and infirm bodies—a fact that we cannot deny or dispute—yet she has sufficiently provided us with a variety or remedies for our weakened condition. And if this habitation of ours has been fashioned out of moist earth, as the most patient of men said, that is, out of the lowest fluids, it could not have been fashioned otherwise on account of the admirable and delicate complexion of this body which was thought suitable to be so great and so worthy and so outstanding a receptacle of the human soul.



6 Man is Gifted with Rationality


Although winds, planets and stars were made from air and fire they are evidently without either sense or life. Man is more admirable than the fish and birds which were made of the air and the beasts which had been created along with him as living things from the earth. For this rational animal, possessing sagacity and foresight, has a body much more noble than the beasts and cattle, with which it seems to have in common its peculiar matter, because it is much more suited for action, speech and understanding—aptitudes which beasts lack. It may be thought equally superior to the stars, bodies totally lacking in sensation; to fish and birds, too, both of which are living things. For although the human body has nothing in common, as far as its peculiar matter is concerned, with any of these creations we must conclude that it is nevertheless superior to insensate things for the reasons we have already mentioned with regard to beasts and cattle. It is likewise more excellent than fish and birds because it was created in such a way that by its very nature, unless man had sinned, it would not have fallen under the law of death—as we have demonstrated above. And this is a privilege enjoyed by no other bodies.



7 Innocent III’s Ignorance


The primary tenet which our worthy Innocent seems to have based the whole sorry work which it pleased him to call On Misery is evidently what concerns the birth of every man in the process of being born, a principle he laid down almost at the beginning of his book, as well he might, where he treats of human misfortunes in these words: "We are all born wailing that we might express the misery of our nature. For the new born male says ‘ha’ and the female ‘he’—saying ‘he’ or ‘ha’ all who are born of Eve. And what is ‘Eva’ but heu ha? In either case the interjection does but express the depth of the pain of the one who suffers it. Hence she, who before her sin was called ‘virago’ (made of man), deserved to be called Eve after her sin, and so forth."

    He develops his argument from this starting point, where he thinks he has laid excellent foundations for his projected edifice. But these foundations are such that were I not restrained, as our poet says, by the reverence I owe to the Sovereign Pontiff, I should strongly maintain them to be shallow, childish and far from being consonant with pontifical and apostolic dignity.



8 His Etymological Errors


In the first place, the sacred words of Holy Scripture clearly show how false and repugnant to real truth are his attempts to construe the natural interjections 'he' and 'ha' as evident expressions of the wretchedness of man. For Moses, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, says in the beginning of Genesis: "The man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living." (3:20) And so she was called "Eve" because she was to be the mother and origin and principle of all men who would descend from her as from an original root. This is clear enough in the sacred words of the Latin text but it is still clearer in the Hebrew for the great prophet, describing the origin and growth of all things in this book says, among other things: "And he called the name of his wife Aia;" and wishing to show the reason for such a name, he at once adds; "because she was to be the mother of all the living," . . .

    The other instance of Innocent's errors is like the first —namely, what he says of the term "woman" when he affirms that before sin she deserved to be called "woman" and after sin "Eve." This will be shown to be just as false as the first, especially if the very words of the prophet are examined a little more attentively and accurately: "Then the man said: This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man." (Gen. 2:23) This is easy enough to understand in the Latin and is still clearer and more evident in the Hebrew, which puts it thus: "She shall be called 'Misca' because she was taken out of 'Misc' (a word which means what 'vir' means in Latin)." Now Jerome, in order to maintain as faithfully as possible the etymology of the word in his translation, substituted for the Hebrew 'Misca' the word 'viragine' which means derived from 'vir' (or man). Josephus in the first book of his Jewish Antiquities supports our contention in these words: "For thus, he says, woman was called Misca in the Hebrew language. But their name for woman was Eve, which means mother of all the living."



9 His Errors Invalidate His Arguments


If in view of the above our worthy Innocent is proven to be so obviously wrong in his principles and fundamentals, what shall we expect him to do in the rest of the structure that is erected upon the aforesaid errors? It is not likely that a man who, as we know, has gone wrong from the outset will grasp the truth as he proceeds with the work. Of course, he would never have fallen into such serious and manifest errors if he had not been completely ignorant of Hebrew literature. Let us take a short look at some of the details of his work and arraign before the tribunal of truth, in order to refute them, a number of his chapters on the individual misfortunes of men— namely, those concerned with nakedness, the fruits of men and trees, the disability of old age, the brevity of life, the toil of mortals, the various preoccupations of men, their diverse anxieties and other matters of the kind which for the sake of brevity we will pass over— although Innocent had a great deal to say about all of them.



10 Man’s Nakedness


To proceed with some order in our refutation, let us begin at the beginning by setting down a few points concerning nakedness. When he speaks of it, Innocent says:

"Man comes naked into the world and naked will he depart. He comes forth possessing nothing and possessing nothing will he depart."

To this we answer that it behooved man to be so born for the sake of dignity and beauty. For, in the first place, if we were born like the brutes with hairy pelts of one sort or another there is no saying how shameful and ugly we would appear. Because of the excellence of our make-up, the result of the delicacy of the human seed, the manner of our birth could not eventuate otherwise. But, supposing it could have been otherwise, certainly nature would never have hidden the human body, here most beautiful and most marvelously shaped work, under a foreign garment lest she cover its beauties with unsuitable and unworthy veils.

    We might give a different answer concerning the natural covering of all men at their birth; and we are determined to make such reply because in the same place Innocent decries the natural garment in which we are all born in these words: "If, however, man is born clothed let him consider how he is clothed—in a garment that is shameful to mention, more shameful still to hear described, most shameful of all to look upon: a filthy hide streaming with blood." We rightly interpret him to mean here the after-birth, this is what physicians call the kind of membrane with which infants are born. It is by natural necessity that everyone must bear this during birth, to be laid aside after birth.



11 The Fruits of Man


What shall we say of his attempt to compare the fruits of men and trees to each other? A little after he spoke of nakedness, he attempted a comparison in these words: "Consider the grasses and the trees; out of their substance they produce flowers, leaves and fruit. But man brings forth lice-eggs, lice and stomach worms. They yield oil, wine and balsam whereas man spews forth sputum, urine and excrement. They breathe forth a sweet odor; but man is redolent of an abominable stink." And so he goes on with great flourish and an abundance of detail, regaling us with other broadsides of filthiness and malodorousness, which in the name of dignity and good morals we will pass over at this time.

    To these objections of the sovereign Pontiff, so cunningly conceived and aptly expressed, the reply can be given that the very choice of such a comparison is evidently absurd for that fruit is truly said to be peculiar to any tree which that tree produces of its own nature. Now the fruits proper to man are not those shameful and incidental kinds of filthiness and malodorousness mentioned above; rather our human fruits are to be deemed the many operations of intelligence and will. It is these to which man is born by nature just as the tree is born to produce fruit. And although nature does not intend those incidental things in man (they come from a certain necessary excess of food and drink) yet it is altogether marvelous and even unbelievable to observe how much service many of the things which are called incidental in man seem to render in many areas.



12 The Span of Life


What shall we say about the afflictions of old age and the brevity of life? . . . After men had built many cities and developed the useful arts and propagated the race it was not at all necessary for the conservation and well being of the human race that there be a longer life than is now commonly lived. For the purpose of the knowledge we have to acquire and the works we have to perform and for the purpose of living well and happily, both the life span man once lived and that he now lives are sufficient as Seneca show in De Brevitate Vitae where he refutes the well-known adage: "Art is long but life is short." Let us emphasize that to the above mentioned infirmities of old age ought to be compared not only the pleasures of youth but also the pleasures of old age; if this were done we are rightly convinced that many more and much greater pleasures than afflictions accrued to men who lived in ancient times and do accrue to men living presently.



13 Pleasures of Old Age


We can give the same answer concerning the labor of mortals as we just gave concerning the afflictions of old age. It is our opinion that many more pleasures than labors arise from human activity for those engaged in it. If we consider carefully each and every activity of man it seems clear that just as some toil is involved in every activity, just as surely do we find pleasure equal to and even greater than the labor in any one of our pursuits. According to the celebrated opinion of Aristotle men ought necessarily to find enjoyment while they are living; nay, that philosopher, speaking of pleasure in the 10th book of his Ethics, proves that it can never be separated or disjoined from human activity. And, what is more admirable, he avows that pleasure is so firmly rooted in human life that nothing can separate it. These are his very words: "It is clear that pleasure arises through each and every one of the senses: for we say that acts of seeing and hearing bring pleasure." And further on when he had proved that pleasure is sought after by all men, he speaks thus: "But let the question, whether we seek to live for the sake of pleasure or seek pleasure for the sake of life, remain where it is at present; for these things appear to go together and suffer no separation; without activity there is no pleasure and pleasure is the fine point of all activity.

    It follows from this that man is in a state of continuous pleasure throughout his life, at every moment from birth to death. If this is the case then it is evident that there are more pleasures than labors. We spoke of this and explained it in fuller detail earlier. It is our opinion that the same reply applies to objections about the various preoccupations and anxieties of men. In discussing matters that are so evident let us not be more lengthy than the nature and terms of the matter require.





Two Views of Man: Pope Innocent III—On the Misery of Man; Giannozzo Manetti—On the Dignity of Man, translated by Bernard Murchland. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, New York, 1966


Bernard Murchland teaches international business ethics at Ohio Wesleyan University. He can be reached at


Introduction and selection of  extracts Copyright © Rex Pay 2003