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

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.


The Natural Desire for the Vision of God and the Convergence of the Sciences

Le PenseurAfter reading de Lubac and some of his critics I still think the best interpretation of Thomas’s “natural desire” for the beatific vision comes from Frederick Copleston.  The issue is a confusing one, primarily because we just don’t think in Aristotelian terms anymore.  “Nature” doesn’t mean the same thing for a modern scientist as it did for Thomas, and it doesn’t mean the same thing for a modern Christian as it did for a Medieval Doctor.  Copleston says that Thomas speaks as both a philosopher and a theologian.  De Lubac argued that modern Thomists only saw Thomas as a philosopher and not an Augustinian.  One reason why I respect Copleston so much is that he was a philosopher, yet he argued extensively for the Augustinian heritage of Thomas’s theology.  

Catholics have debated the issue of the “natural desire” for the vision of God, which Thomas says is innate in all men.  The problem with this is that the Aristotelian definition of nature does not allow a desire of anything that is not connatural.  In other words, if man had a natural desire for the supernatural, then either (a) man’s desire is greater than its cause, or (b) the supernatural is not above nature, or (c) both (a) and (b) are the case.  Therefore, as long as we are defining “nature” in Aristotelian terms – he gives four definitions for “nature” with the primary one being quod quid est or the “essence” of a thing – it will be contradictory to speak of a “natural desire” for anything above what is connatural with the thing’s essence.  

De Lubac points out that Christian philosophers have erred in trying to reconcile this apparent contradiction in Thomas.  We should not be surprised that Thomas does not confine himself to the philosophy of Aristotle.  Marie-Dominique Chenu has demonstrated that Thomas is not a strict Aristotelian, an almost obvious observation since Aristotle considered the cosmos to be eternal, he didn’t clarify the transcendence of the Prime Mover, he didn’t ground the forms of things in an eternal Mind, he didn’t speak of an “other worldly” happiness, he didn’t clarify the particularity of the agent intellect, and so on.  Thomas had to go beyond Aristotle in many ways.  Wayne Hankey, Rudi te Velde, and Fran O’Rourke (among others) have demonstrated that Thomas, per his Augustinianism, was heavily influenced by Neo-Platonic thinkers, particularly the Psuedo-Dionysius.  There’s even a book out called Aquinas the Augustinian by CUA press.

One example of modern Philosophers assuming that Thomas’s thought must fit into a pristine Aristotelian mold is P.J. FitzPatrick’s argument that Thomas’s doctrine of transubstantiation commits the Aristotelian fallacy of reification.  How can accidents exist without a substance when the very definition of accident is that it inheres within a substance?  Aristotle must be rolling over in his grave to hear one of his most faithful students commit philosophical blasphemy with such a doctrine.  However, as David Power has demonstrated, Thomas interprets Aristotle through the lens of the Psuedo-Dionysius.  I would clarify this a bit more and say that his Eucharistic theology is more Augustinian than Aristotelian.  Thomas utilized the truth, whether it came from divine revelation or pagan philosophy.  He may have used Aristotelian terminology in his doctrine of the Eucharist but in the end he knew that theology proceeds from more sublime and more certain principles.  Philosophy must be silent in certain realms of theological speculation or, stated more precisely, true philosophy should not contradict divine revelation.

Frederick CoplestonSimilarly, Copleston affirms that Thomas speaks as a theologian when he says that every intellect has a natural desire for the vision of God.  Therefore, the word “nature” may look a bit different to the theologian than to the philosopher.  Thomas did not see himself as a philosopher, that was the term used to describe the pagans.  He was a theologian.  If Holy Scripture gives us a definition of nature that is based on the authority of God, and Aristotle gives us a definition of nature that is reasonable and does not contradict divine authority, then we may utilize the truth as it can be seen in both definitions.  “Nature” for the theologian is the creation of the Triune God, whereas for the philosopher it is the essence or principle of motion in things moved principally by the First Mover.  The former speaks to concrete reality whereas the latter, an abstract one.  These definitions do not contradict each other but demonstrate different perspectives of truth.

Similarly, Thomas says that Adam was created in a supernatural state, using that term in an Aristotelian sense of what is not produced by man’s nature.  But, he also speaks of Adam from the perspective of theology when he refers to man’s first estate as the state of “perfect nature.”  (ST I-II, Q. 109, a.2) He knew from divine revelation that man’s perfection lies in the performance of acts that must come from God.  But, because these divine gifts are given to a creature capable of receiving them we may speak of Adam’s original state as a state of nature. God gave man all of the gifts whereby he may perfect himself.  To speak of a natural perfection, in the Aristotelian sense, is to speak of an imperfect and incomplete perfection – a rather contradictory saying.    

Thomas speaks about nature in a theological sense in other places as well.  Copleston explains his interpretation of Thomas on man’s natural desire for a supernatural blessedness:

In the De Veritate St. Thomas says that man, according to his nature, has a natural appetite for aliqua contemplatio divinorum, such as it is possible for a man to obtain by the power of nature, and that the inclination of his desire towards the supernatural and gratuitous end (the vision of God) is the work of grace.  In this place, then, St. Thomas does not admit a ‘natural desire in the strict sense for the vision of God , and it seems only reasonable to suppose that when in the Summa Theologica and Summa contra Gentiles he speaks of a natural desire for the vision of God, he is not speaking strictly as a philosopher, but as a theologian and philosopher combined, that is , presupposing the supernatural order and interpreting the data of experience in the light of that presupposition. (History of Philosophy, Vol: II, p. 405.)

Copleston interprets Thomas on man’s natural desire for the vision of God as both a theologian and a philosopher.  De Lubac may be accused of only seeing Thomas merely as a theologian, and Cajetan may be critiqued for seeing Thomas primarily as a philosopher. However, Copleston gives a balanced interpretation of this very difficult subject, a subject that touches the very boundary between the queen of the sciences and her handmaiden.  Thomas uses Aristotle as far as he will go but completes the project with truths derived from sacred doctrine.  He speaks of nature as both a philosopher and theologian combined.  The intelligent beings that exist in the concrete world created by God have a natural desire for the Triune God, while those intelligent beings considered within the abstract Aristotelian world have a natural desire for the First Cause. These are not two separate desires, and man does not have two ends.  Rather, this is an example of theology completing and perfecting philosophy.

Plotinus and C.S. Lewis on “Looking Along”

C.S. Lewis explained the anthropomorphism of the ancients in terms of psychology. How did they think about reality? He concludes that they did not think in terms of “literal” versus “metaphorical” but they thought of things in pictures. “Deep” meant “death,” “spirit” and “life” were synonymous, so “sex” and “love”, etc. Modern man categorizes all things in a bifurcated manner. We seek to either “look at” the object or “look along.” For example, Lewis recounts his experience of seeing a sunbeam through a hole in the roof of a toolshed. If he stood beside the sunbeam and examined it he thought of it in terms of its hugh, brightness, and so on. But if he stepped within the sunbeam he actually began to experience the effects which cannot be perfectly quantified. The problem with many modern scientists, says Lewis, is that they believe that “looking at” the sunbeam is sufficient for gaining a complete knowledge of that subject without actually experiencing or “looking along.”


As I was reading through Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus I found very interesting similarities between Lewis’s thought on beauty, myth, and metaphor and Plotinus’s beliefs concerning the Forms, Nature, and Life.  For Plotinus the Forms of things are like Hieroglyphs, which are little pictures of incarnate knowledge. He explains:

In the case of those things which they, in their wisdom, wanted to designate, the Egyptian sages did not use written characters, literally representing arguments and premises and imitating meaningful sounds and utterances of axioms. Rather, they wrote in pictures, and engraved on their temples one picture corresponding to each reality …. Thus, each picture is a knowledge, wisdom … perceived all at once, and not discursive thought nor deliberation.” (Ennead, V 8, 6, 1-9, as cited in Hadot, p. 40.)

For Plotinus, like many others, these Forms are the life principle behind things which come to be when the Intellect contemplates itself. Man cannot know these forms as a scientist or metaphysician seeks to know the cause of a particular anomaly or thing. Rather, man must put aside the natural desire to know the cause, because there is no separate cause to be found. Contemplation must take the place of reflection.

hieroglyphsThe Hieroglyphs are visible mirrors of the invisible, to use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, the recognition of which brings immediate awareness and experience of meaning rather than strict syllogistic definition. For Lewis, “thinking along” cannot be reduced to concepts. For Plotinus, Nature cannot be reduced to analysis. As Marion says, when faced with the visible mirror of the invisible one must look beyond the physical and experience the infinite gaze. Although the sunbeam is a physical reality I think it is a great example of “looking along” because it stirs us up to contemplate Beauty itself. Indeed God is Beauty for Lewis and for Plotinus (though not the Christian God for the latter).

The Intellect is beautiful; indeed it is the most beautiful of all things. Situated in pure light and pure radiance, it includes within itself the nature of all beings. This beautiful world of ours is but a shadow and an image of its beauty …. It lives a blessed life, and whoever were to see it, and – as is fitting – submerge himself within it, and become One with it, would be seized by awe. (Enneads, III 8, 11, 26-33, in Hadot, p. 43.)

It is no wonder that Augustine liked Plotinus, who became for him a praeparatio evangelicae. All of this has a bit to do with the relationship between nature and the supernatural. Even nature points beyond herself, being infused with a copy of God’s own beauty that calls us to look beyond to that Beauty that is desired for its own sake. Nature is inherently mythical. When we attempt to “look at” apart from experiences our gaze into the mirror will produce a mere reflection of ourselves.

The Telos of the City of Man: The Effects of Sin on Natural Law


Tower of Babel

Now there was need for man to receive a precept about loving God and his neighbor, because in thus respect the natural law had become obscured on account of sin:  but not about the duty of loving oneself, because in this respect the natural law retained its vigor: or again, because love of oneself is contained in the love of God and of one’s neighbor:  since the true self-love consists in directing oneself to God. (ST I-II, Q. 100, a. 5.)

This is important since many think that Thomas considered the faculty of reason to be unaffected by original sin. Further, we must remember that the natural law does not consist of innate propositional knowledge per se but is a reflection of creation working in a certain order.  Animals seek to fulfill their own natural inclinations toward the ends for which they were created.  Humans seek to order the passions in accord with reason for the purpose of achieving happiness.  Complete natural law must be Christian; not because faith takes the place of natural knowledge, but because the natural man will never order his passions toward the true telos, which is God himself, without divine guidance.  Of course no one’s nature will be perfected until that final end has been fulfilled, and so not even a Christian will function according to a complete natural law.  That is why we need divine revelation.  

But, does this leave us saying that the natural man’s use of practical reason is the same as that of the Christian? Yes and no.  The two may look identical.  We both live in the City of Man, acquiring the virtues that pertain to that city, and we both make mistakes – horrible ones at that.  However, there is also the “no” part of the answer.  If Thomas believed there was a need for man to receive a precept for loving God and loving one’s neighbor and that this precept did not contradict natural liberty but somewhat restored it (not w/out his grace of course)  then it seems that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity function in some way to restore the natural law.  Thomas says that when Adam lost his original justice he also lost the ability to easily order his passions by the use of natural law – reason directing the will to the right end.  

Should we say that the supernatural virtues only count for the City of God and therefore do not perfect man’s behavior in the City of Man?  I definitely think we should avoid the idea that just because a society is Christian or that by Christianizing culture in its various forms it will be better than the city of the noble pagans.  Should we force the bluebirds to sing Gospel? or paint crosses on all the rocks and trees? Nature does not need our help to be Christian.  This is exactly my point.  Nature is perfected by grace, the natural law by the supernatural virtues. Ransom raised Mr. Bultitude (a bear) up to a higher level of being – he didn’t just paint a cross on his chest (I’m referring to That Hideous Strength).  A twisted nature needs grace both to heal and perfect. The City of Man will become the City of God from the inside out.  If the natural law within a person becomes more perfect by being directed to God, the true end of all things, then I believe it should be our hope that this participation in the New Jerusalem will produce supernatural effects within our earthly city.  The whole universe is being sharpened and brought to a point.  The telos for the City of God ends with the vision of his essence.  The telos for the City of Man and the “natural law” that governs it ends in nothingness. When Merlin asked Ransom if they could not, as a last resort, look to the noble heathen for help against that hideous strength Ransom shook his head, “You do not understand,” he said:  

The poison was brewed in the West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now.  However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren beds:  men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven.  You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great Ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light.  The shadow of the dark wing is over all Tellus. (C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, p. 290)

We should recognize the lineaments of man’s first abode that still remain in the City of Man but we should also be aware of its end and the goal of the reason of its citizen. 

“The distinction between natural and supernatural, in fact, broke down.”


We tend to think about non-human intelligences in two distinct categories which we label “scientific” and “supernatural” respectively.  We think, in one mood, of Mr. Well’s Martians (very unlike the real Malacandrians, by the bye), or his Selenites.  In quite a different mood we let our minds loose on the possibility of angels, ghosts, fairies, and the like.  But the very moment we are compelled to recognize a creature in either class as real the distinction begins to get blurred:  and when it is a creature like an eldil the distinction vanishes altogether.  These things were not animals – to that extent one had to classify them with the second group; but they had some kind of material vehicle whose presence could (in principle) be scientifically verified.  To that extent they belonged to the first group.  The distinction between natural and supernatural, in fact, broke down; and when it had done so, one realized how great a comfort it had been – how it had eased the burden of intolerable strangeness which this universe imposes on us by dividing it into two halves and encouraging the mind never to think of both in the same context. (C.S. Lewis, Perelandra, p. 11)

Nature Reaches to the Heavens

As he continued crossing ridges and gullies he was struck with their extreme steepness; but somehow they were not very difficult to cross.


He noticed, too, that even the smallest hummocks of earth were of an unearthly shape – too narrow, too pointed at the top and too small at the base.  He remembered that the waves on the blue lakes had displayed a similar oddity. And glancing up at the purple leaves he saw the same theme of perpendicularity – the same rush to the sky – repeated there.  They did not tip over at the ends; vast as they were, air was sufficient to support them so that the long aisles of the forest all rose to a kind of fan tracery.  And the sorns, likewise – he shuddered as he thought it – they too were madly elongated.  He had sufficient science to guess that he must be on a world lighter than the Earth, where less strength was needed and nature was set free to follow her skyward impulse on a superterrestrial scale. (C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, p. 49)

C.S. Lewis Puts Reason ‘Out There’

In so far as thought is merely human, merely a characteristic of one particular biological species, it does not explain our knowledge.  Where thought is strictly rational it must be, in some odd sense, not ours, but cosmic or super-cosmic.  It must be something not shut up inside our heads but already ‘out there’ – in the universe or behind the universe: either as objective as material Nature or more objective still.  Unless all that we take to be knowledge is an illusion, we must hold that in thinking we are not reading rationality into an irrational universe but responding to a rationality with which the universe has always been saturated. (“De Futilitate” in Christian Reflections, p. 65)

Lewis does such a great job of displaying the contradiction of enlightenment thought. He makes nature sound so much better.  I was told a while back that Lewis says many things that mesh with what Van Til sought to do with his focus on presuppositions.  I definitely agree, with this exception:  where Van Til considered the standard mainly in terms of special revelation Lewis spoke of it as naturally implanted in man and assumed by the particularly human faculty of reason.  

He was a realist reader of old books – very much Medieval.  This can be seen in his utilization of imagination and his love of myth.  Without a proper view of nature one cannot have a proper love of myth. Detrimental to the Christian faith is this understanding of myth since, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” (Lewis, “Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock, p. 66) Myth allows one to come down from abstraction, speaking or thinking in the realm of facts, and experience those facts.  “It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely.” (Ibid) The enlightenment bend toward solipsism is a rebellion against nature and therefore lacks imagination and appreciation for myth.  Only in the Christian story is nature perfected, not destroyed. Only with Christ does the myth become fact. “For this is the marriage of heaven and earth:  Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.” (Ibid., 67)