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The Civic Sphere is Essentially Good: Bartholomäus Keckermann on Moral Philosophy (pt. I)

September 25, 2010

Few modern scholars have recognized the importance of Bartholomäus Keckermann in the history of European thought. Richard Muller has defended Keckermann against those who claim complete discontinuity between his thought and that of the earlier Reformers, noting that what we find in Keckermann is a “rationalization of the Reformers.” He was heavily influenced by Scholastics (Scotus, Thomas, and others) and therefore was not opposed to natural theology, all the while recognizing the difference between truth secundum rationem and truth secundum fidem.

Joseph Freedman has written a short biography of Keckermann including a bibliography of all of his writings and the libraries that published his works in the “Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society,” vol. 141. In this article Freedman traces Keckermann’s journey from Gdansk (a.k.a. Danzig) Poland to Wittenburg to Leipzig to Heidelberg and finally back to Gdansk. Freedman notes that Keckermann’s writings have been all but forgotten today, but in the 17th century he was well known in Europe, Britain, and among the Puritans in Massachusetts. During his lifetime he published numerous works on Theology, Ethics, Politics, Astronomy, Geometry, Mathematics, Optics, among others. He was one of the first to write an Applied Logic textbook, which also included a history of Logic. He was among the earliest to discuss philosophical disciplines in terms of “system” rather than scientia, thus contributing to the initiation of the modern concept of individual subjects. Closely related to that point is the fact that Keckermann was also one of the first to stress that every discipline has its own history.  And, although he was highly indebted to the scholastics, his work in local gymnasia and his writings on the civic sphere – this is a point I hope to bring out in this post – prove that Keckermann was both scholastic and civic humanist.

The subject of this post concerns Keckermann’s civic humanism, specifically with regard to his treatment of civic virtue in Systema Ethicae. The following quote is from the prolegomena of that book and is my own translation. Concerning the relationship between Ethics and Theology, Keckermann notes:

There is a distinction of steps between Ethical virtues and Theological, so that, what concerns the virtues of Ethics may be increased and completed by means of Theologcal discipline.

A very serious question occurs here; Whether the virtues of Ethics, and even Ethical beatitude, have some connection and coherence with the virtues of Theology, especially since Augustine says in book 15, chapter 25 of City of God, “unless virtues are referred to God they are not virtues.” And Jerome, “Without Christ every virtue is a vice.” [Lambert] Daneau also treats in book one, chapter one of Christian Ethics concerning these things. But, one must distinguish between that which is essential (per se) and that which is accidental (per accidens). Virtue per se and also the act of moral virtue is actually something good and the image of God in man; and also a certain grade of Theological virtue, which is the consumation and completion of moral virtue. Nor in another way does one have moral virtue for the purpose of spiritual virtue or Theological, any more than he has warmth for the purpose of extreme heat or mourning light for the purpose of midday light. Therefore in the same way that warmth is true heat, even if it may not be so much heat as extreme heat; and in the same way that mourning light is true light, even if it may not be so much light as midday light; So moral virtue is essentially true virtue, and true good, even if it is not so much virtue or so much good, as the virtue and good that is spiritual or Theological. Whence it follows that civic virtue should not be condemned nor should vice be encouraged, but rather it should be completed by piety as the more excellent step should be added to the lower step.

Here Keckermann treats an issue that has been discussed by every Christian theologian since before Augustine. How do we understand that apparent dichotomy between the City of God and the City of Man? Augustine is often quoted as an extremist on the matter, as if he saw nothing good in the world outside of the cathedral doors. Keckermann was known as an Aristotelian, yet he also pointed out (as all good humanists did) that Aristotle needed to be adapted for use in the modern world. As we know today – this was unknown to Early Modern philosophers – the writings of Aristotle in our possession today were most likely class notes that were compiled by his students. This makes for quite atrocious Greek prose and, in parts, inexplicably nebulous discourse. Keckermann considered it his duty, as did divines such as Melanchthon and Daneau (to a certain extent), to make Aristotle relative to his day by writing textbooks on his philosophy in a “systematic” way. Part of this systematic way of thinking is the distinction between what exists essentially and what exists accidentally. This distinction is necessary for the doctrine of original sin as well as that of the civic sphere. The virtue that men and women are able to acquire as citizens is essentially good and truly virtuous. It is only bad insofar the individual citizen has corrupted what is good in themselves. Civic virtue is on a step below Theological virtue but that does not mean that the former exists for the latter. Civic or moral virtue exists for the greatest good of the state and Theological virtue exists for the greatest good of the Church universal. Yet, Theological virtue does perfect and complete Civic virtue. The two are not completely distinct. Keckermann continues:

And on the other hand I will concede willingly that many more things should be patched onto this teaching, which Aristotle and other Heathen have handed down concerning virtue, from out of the Scriptures, by means of which this teaching handed down by the Heathen is completed, and also corrected; That which should be done not only in Ethics, but also in Economics, Politics, indeed also Natural Philosophy and other disciplines. Accordingly as we have advised in its place, the Scriptures contain not only Theology but also Ethics, Economics, Politics, Natural Philosophy, and Astronomic theorums. Neither do I dissaprove of the famous instruction of the most intelligent men Philip Melanchthon, Lambert Daneau, and other of our instructors, who have instituted the combination of moral and spiritual goods, i.e., Ethics and Theology, if only in this combination the distinction may remain between that which is in reality Ethics and that which in reality pertains to Theology. Per accidens of course, by reason of this subject, in which Ethics resides, it can happen that virtue might degenerate into vice, or that he who is gifted with the beatitude of the citizen will be damned for eternity, not by the guilt of virtue, but by his own guilt. Because, of course, he did not add spiritual good to moral good; and because he did not direct moral virtue to the worship of God, neither did he exercise virtue out of faith in Christ, without which no one can please God (understood for eternal salvation). For insofaras he keeps his life for society, Scipio pleased God more certainly than Sardanapalus, nor is it doubted that Scipio’s eternal punisment will be more tolerable than that of Caligula, Nero, and Sardanapalus.

Melanchton and Daneau both wrote compendiums of Christian Ethics in order to explain the relationship between Ethics and Theology and for the purpose of encouraging others toward virtue. Here Keckermann mentions these two and refers to them as “our instructors” even though the former was not strictly speaking a Calvinist as Keckermann was. Next, Keckermann gives examples of virtuous pagans such as Scipio, who was known for his ethical treatment of captured enemy forces – it was also claimed that he refused to take a captured woman as war spoils and even returned her to her fiancé. Keckermann is so much in favor of Civic virtue and its function for the good of society that he speculates on the severity of Scipio’s punishment in contradistinction from that of Sardanapalus – a man of controverted identity who Keckermann most likely believed to be an Assyrian king characterized by his love of pleasure and sloth – and Nero. One can only think of Dante’s Paradiso, which perhaps Keckermann had read, in which Dante has a conversation with the Roman emperor Justinian. In that dialogue Justinian mentions Scipio among other Roman leaders who set the standard for how to rule virtuously. He then accuses the Italians of Dante’s time of going against that standard in their violence toward one another. Scipio’s punishment will be less than that of the Ghibellines. In the next post I will mention Keckermann’s disagreement with Juan Louis Vives and the definition of eudaimonia.

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