Aristotle’s Method as Promethean Fire: Melanchthon’s Opinion
The old view that the Renaissance humanists exchanged Aristotle for Plato in toto has been discredited for a long time now (see Kristeller). Sure, philosophers of the 16th century steered away from Aristotle’s metaphysics but at the same time they took up his writings on Logic and Rhetoric with renewed gusto. Philip Melanchthon’s opinion of Aristotle is interesting because he was a humanist, and because his magister theologicus, Martin Luther, was so adamantly against Aristotle. Melanchthon asserts that Aristotle was “divinely endowed with a heroic nature,” and concludes his 1537 address to the Masters students of Wittenburg:
I feel strongly that a great confusion of doctrines would follow if Aristotle, who is the one and only creator of method, were neglected. By no other plan can anyone learn method except by regular practice in the genre of Aristotelian philosophy. Wherefore I urge you, not only for yourselves, but for all posterity, to cultivate and preserve that best form of doctrine. Plato said that the fire that had been taken by Prometheus from the sky was method. But if that little fire is lost, men will be transformed back into beasts; for indeed if the true plan of teaching is removed, nothing will separate man from beasts. So then let us hold on to that fire, that type of doctrine that Aristotle handed down, and preserve it with the greatest zeal.
Melanchthon says that it would be a great tragedy and much confusion would follow if mankind neglected the philosophy of Aristotle. But, you might ask, if the church has the teachings of the prophets, of Christ, and of the apostles, do societies need the methods of Aristotle’s philosophy to keep order amongst what would be chaos? Melanchthon’s view, and that of the other Reformers, is that philosophy is the God-given tool by which the Magistrate orders life within the civil realm. The difference between good and bad, just and unjust, are known via the natural law and rulers create positive laws based on this knowledge. The natural law is the divine law written on the hearts of man and is practically the same as the Mosaic Law. And, without this natural knowledge and the science of philosophy that is built upon these natural principles, men would become beasts. Yet, Melanchthon also believed, as have the majority of theologians throughout ecclesiastical history, that philosophy is necessary for the protection of the church. And, not just any philosophy can do this. Only the methods derived from Aristotle’s works may preserve church unity. What are these methods and how do they safeguard the church? Melanchthon answers in his other address to the Master’s students in the year 1544:
I think that of all things the task of dialectic is the most important one in our church, for it properly informs our methods, defines correctly, divines properly, corrects fittingly, judges, and separates hideous connections. Those who do not know this method cut apart the matters to be explained the way cats tear rags. . . But someone may say: What good are Physics and Ethics to the church? This is really a Scythian question when it is asked in that way. Since it is right for the church of God both to be the most moderate and the most beautifully endowed with literature and art, these subjects may be understood as gifts of God, because they are of great use to the human race. . . Remember the insolent and Stoic confusions that come from the Anabaptists, who take all emotions from men and leave them without feeling. This error arises from an ignorance of physics, as if they said that they saw no distinction between good emotions, which are divinely implanted in the human heart and are called natural affections, and the depraved impulses or the unjust flames of the heart. . . Of the Ethics you yourselves know that true ethics is part of the divine law. . .
So, philosophy is the beautiful adornment of the church, without which, men fall into errors such as that of the Anabaptists, and without proper philosophy societies do not recognize the relationship between the natural law and the divine law that leads to discipline. The method that steers away from error is found in Aristotle’s dialectic, a possible jab at 16th century scholars such as Rudolf Agricola and Peter Ramus, who tried to reinvent dialectic around the art of Rhetoric. Melanchthon concludes this last speech by noting the reason why God gave man philosophy:
Nor in fact should it be doubted that these philosophical passages [of Aristotle and Cicero] … are useful for discipline. God wants us to look at nature, and has impressed his sign in it so that we may recognize him: he gave arts not only that they may be a support in life, but also that they may inform us of the order of its author, who is seen in numbers, in the motion of the heavens, in pictures and in that eternal and unchanging barrier set in the mind of man, namely in the judgment of good and bad: for that sweetest voice of Plato is correct when he says that the grace of God is scattered through the arts. Then let us love philosophy and know that it is to be used by the church to her great benefit, if it is used rightly. The minds of the pious would be thoroughly shocked if among the sacred things they saw the altars smeared with the sordid and filthy. It is no less evil to rush upon heavenly teaching barbarically, with inadequate knowledge of languages, history and arts, than it would be to desecrate sacred altars. Then let us cultivate studies of literature, language and honorable subjects, and give our work to the glory of God; and if we do that, it will be in God’s care, and will not lack rewards.
There are divine things within nature that may be discovered by all men. Contrary to what you may think he is doing with the image of the altar being smeared with unclean things, Melanchthon is actually continuing his line of thought, that when Aristotle’s method is abandoned or neglected, the “heavenly teaching” of philosophy is smeared with the “sordid and filthy.” And, in an apparent jab at the Scholastics, Melanchthon implies that heavenly teaching is distorted and the altars are smeared with filthy things when the pious possess an “inadequate knowledge of languages, history and arts.” Melanchthon was accused of being a rationalist because of his high praise of Aristotle, but when we look at nature from his perspective this accusation does not hold water. If nature glows with a divine light that is objective and if every man is part of that nature – man having the divine law written within him – then true and perfect philosophy, to which Aristotle came closer than any other pagan, is also divine and should be guarded for the welfare of both church and world. The torch which Prometheus took from the sky ignites “the minds of men with the power to think rightly.”