Why Law Presupposes Nature According to Ralph Cudworth (†1688)

In his A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (new version edited by Sarah Hutton, Cambridge: 1996), Ralph Cudworth defends, in a thoroughly Modern way, what one may rightly deem a classical ontology. I will offer here a review of the first two chapters of book one and will devote future posts to the remainder of the treatise. Cudworth begins Ralph Cudworthby noting that a common view throughout the ages has held that there is no natural law but only positive law, no natural difference between good and evil but only mandates established by the authority of a sovereign. Aristotle affirms that politically “honest” and “just” things seem to vary so greatly that they cannot possess any common nature. Hence, by way of clarification, Aristotle divided:

  • Politically Just things (to dikaion politikon) between
    1. Natural (physikon) – things that are the same everywhere, and
    2. Legal (nomikon) “which before there be a law made, is indifferent, but when once the law is made, is determined to be just or unjust” (Cudworth’s trans. of Ethics 1134b18-21).

Among those who deny the first among this division are Democritus, Epicurus, and more contemporaneous, Thomas Hobbes. Cudworth quotes the latter as saying, “In the state of nature nothing can be unjust; the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place; where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no transgression … No law can be unjust” (Elementorum philosophiae… vol. II, p. 145).

In connection with this denial of #1 are those who claim that only by the command of God in his absolute power do things become good. Cudworth singles out Ockham as one who held to this view of “an omnipotent Being devoid of all essential and natural justice” (p. 14). Some, such as Joannes Szydlovius (early 17th cent.) claim that “to love God is by nature an indifferent thing, and is morally good only, because it is commanded by God…” (Vindiciae questionum...).

Cudworth sets out in chapter 2 to prove by logical argument that commands depend upon and presuppose natures. No omnipotence, he argues,  is able to make a thing white or black without there being whiteness or blackness, and this is true whether one thinks of these as qualities (Aristotle) or dispositions of parts that beget the sensations of white or black within us (Descartes). Also, omnipotence cannot make things like or equal to one another without the nature of likeness and equality.

The reason thereof is plain, because all these things imply a manifest contradiction: that things should be what they are not. And this is a truth fundamentally necessary to all knowledge, that contradictories cannot be true; for otherwise nothing would be certainly true or false (p. 16).

By way of the Scholastics, Cudworth affirms the principle “that God himself cannot supply the place of a formal cause (Deum ipsum non posse supplere locum causae formalis).” In other words, “God” is not the nature of “justice” or “honesty” which is what would be the case if those terms were not self-referential but refer only to God’s will. Perhaps Cudworth’s clearest working principle, which one must affirm in order to avoid both logical contradiction and uphold natural rights, is that, “There is no such thing as an arbitrarious essence, mode, or relation, that may be made indifferently any thing at pleasure” (p. 17). In other words, things have their own existence and because of this they are not indifferent and thus cannot be changed at will. “For an arbitrarious essence is a being without a nature, a contradiction, and therefore a nonentity” (ibid.).

However, Cudworth notes, it is true that when God or a civil authority issues a command, the thing commanded becomes good when before it was indifferent, thus appearing to support the voluntarist claim that good and evil are human constructs. Even if things are bound by their natures, some claim, morality is created by the command of an authority. Cudworth responds that commands are not obligatory accept insofar as they apply to specific natures. For example, no known ruler has ever founded his authority of making commandments and others’ duty to obey them in a law of his own making.  Thus the authority of the commander must arrive from natural justice and an antecedent obligation to obey within the subjects. “Which things are not made by laws, but presupposed before all laws to make them valid ” (p. 18). For Cudworth, if there were no antecedent obligation to obey within subjects not even God himself could place any obligation on them to obey his commands “because the natures of things do not depend upon will, being not things that are arbitrarily made (gignomena) but things that are (onta)” (p. 19).

Having explained the logic of the above division between natural and legal good/evil Cudworth procedes to clarify what is known as “the Euthyphro dilemma” from Plato’s Euthyphro – Are things good because they are commanded or commanded because they are good? The answer to this dilemma, for Cudworth, depends upon a right division between intellect and will. The nature of man that does not depend upon arbitrary will is an intellectual nature. Thus, good and evil for an intellectual nature are things to which the intellect is obliged to pursue per se and others that the intellect obliges itself to pursue per accidens. This break-down may be of some help here:

  • Intellect – pursues the good by nature
    • Natural good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to immediately, absolutely, and perpetually, and upon no condition of any voluntary action that may be done or omitted intervening.
  • Will by means of Intellect- pursues accidental or “indifferent” good and evil by a voluntary action either
      • self imposed or
      • imposed by another person
    • Positively (accidentally) good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to accidentally upon condition of some voluntary act of another person invested with lawful authority in commanding.

Through a command of the will indifferent things acquire a new relation to the intellectual nature by falling underneath something that is absolutely good or evil. In other words, though they are commanded by the will, these indifferent things depend upon the intellectual nature of the subject supplying the general categories of good and evil under which they fall. For example, to keep faith is an obligation of natural justice. To keep faith with a particular person/entity at a specific time is a thing indifferent. However, when one makes a promise by voluntary action, that particular thing falls under the absolute category of “keeping faith” thus forming a new relation to the rational nature. Thus, natural justice for man is the intellectual nature which obliges one to obey both God and civil authority.

Subjects are not required to obey a specific civil authority merely because of a “positive” law but because the intellect naturally pursues obedience to the general office of the civil authority. Yet, even the civil authority is bound by the intellect and loses the power to command if he or she exceeds these naturally imposed bounds.

Cudworth clarifies that commands do not change indifferent things into things good per se but the obedience to a particular positive law concerning an indifferent thing can be divided between form and matter. The act of obedience to the indifferent thing which has become obligatory is material obedience while  formal obedience corresponds to the universal of yielding obedience to lawful authority.

Wherefore in positive commands, the will of the commander doth not create any new moral entity, but only diversely modifies and determines that general duty or obligation of natural justice to obey lawful authority and keep oaths and covenants, as our own will in promising doth but produce several modifications of keeping faith. And therefore there are no new things just or due made by either of them, besides what was always by nature such, to keep our own promises, and obey the lawful commands of others (p. 21).

Cudworth concludes from the above premises that if there were no intellectual nature or natural justice then nothing would be obligatory, especially not that which is supposedly begotten by a mere command of the will. One can see in this the foundation for a Western theory of innate and inalienable rights as things founded upon certain and intellectual principles. It is no wonder that a man as influential as John Locke was first schooled in the philosophy of Ralph Cudworth and nurtured through close convivial acquaintance with the latter’s daughter Lady Masham.


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.

A Practical Impetus for the Aristotelian Renaissance in 17th Century England

During the days of Richard Hooker, England was experiencing a time of intellectual revival. For decades the various faculties of Oxford and Cambridge had experienced a decline, not only in matriculation of students, but in the intellectual creativity of their instructors. The time between Erasmus and Bacon is often seen as a veritable Dark Ages. This decline came in part from the rise and fall of the various Tudors, particularly Mary, and partly from the comprehensive reshaping of society that was the Reformation. Yet, under Queen Elizabeth, England once again experienced a Renaissance of learning. During this renewal, exemplified by men such as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spencer, there was also a revamped interest in the corpus of Aristotle; and this Renaissance of Aristotelianism may need some explanation.

In 1593 and Richard Hooker had just published his now famous Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in which he explained to the more radical wing in the Anglican Church why it is not necessary for every nation to imitate Geneva’s ecclesiastical polity. In defending Anglican polity and the ability of human reason to guide the affairs of the civic realm, Hooker relied on Aristotle’s method. But, he did not really have much of a choice in the matter. Every man is a product of his time. All of Hooker’s theological predecessors were Aristotelian in some form, whether they be Medieval such as Thomas and Scotus, Reformed such as Vermigli and Jewel, or the divines who preceded him at Corpus Christi College such as William Cole and John Rainolds.

Hooker was also influenced by the writings of Plato (as Torrance Kirby has demonstrated) and one of his contemporaries, Everard Digby, was the first English Neo-Platonist of the Seventeenth century; Digby’s Theoria Analytica popularized the Neo-Platonic texts of Proclus and the Cabala and later inspired the Platonism of the Cambridge Platonists. Yet, even with the advent of Neo-Platonism and Renaissance Humanism, Aristotelianism remained the foundation of the liberal arts curriculum at Oxford and Cambridge. Charles Schmitt explains the very practical reason for this, a reason that still held sway in the mid-1630s:

If arts education was meant to be reasonably comprehensive and to embrace the range of reliable knowledge, were there alternatives to the Aristotelian synthesis? The writings of Bruno were certainly not systematic enough for teaching purposes. The new philosophies of Telesio or Patrizi were possibilities, but neither covered a significant portion of the range of subjects to be taught. The same could be said of ancient works such as those of Plato or Pliny. The approach to knowledge produced by the sixteenth-century humanistic movement was curiously one-sided, with whole areas of positive knowledge left unaccounted for. The new synthesis of Gassendi, of Descartes, of Newton, were all in the future, if by only a few years or decades. . . In short, Aristotelianism still was the best comprehensive philosophy available. When genuine and useful alternatives did emerge a few decades later, they were taken up rather quickly by the universities of England. (Schmitt, John Case and Aristotelianism in Renaissance England, p. 44)

John Case is another example of an English Aristotelian of this time period, one who has received little attention aside from Schmitt’s work. Case is one of the first in England to use the notion of the prisca theologia gleaned from the Corpus Hermeticum. According to Schmitt, he was the most widely read Aristotelian from the 1550s to the 1650s, thus setting the intellectual climate for Bacon and Herbert of Cherbury. Case, just as Hooker, used a variety of sources but was an Aristotelian at heart. As Schmitt notes, Case as well as other English educators at this time used the sources that were available (i.e., Aristotle) to build the curriculum by which they sought to perfect the next generation because those sources were available and all encompassing.

One lesson in historical interpretation to learn from this is that the primacy of a certain philosophical system for a certain body of people at a certain time does not always indicate a staunch loyalty for that particular system. (By “staunch loyalty,” I mean a loyalty for a particular way of systematizing truths vs. a loyalty toward the pursuit of the truth itself) Usually that system just happens to be the best option at the time. When new ideas correct or add greater clarity to the old ones, new curricula are formed out of necessity. The corpus of Aristotle continued to supply the basis of college curriculums even after the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century until more updated and modern systems arrived that were capable of replacing it.

John Calvin’s Aristotelean Cosmology

Aristotelean CosmologyMany of John Calvin’s references to Aristotelean cosmology occur during his later years, representing his mature theology. Christopher Kaiser has shown that Calvin viewed the universe through the lens of Aristotelean natural philosophy. (Kaiser, “Calvin and Natural Philosophy,” in Calviniana, vol. X) He accepted such ideas as the concept of natural place (the earth is the center of the spheres due to its weight), the system of homocentric spheres (the ten spheres interconnected and moved by the primum mobile), and the subordination of terrestrial cycles to the revolutions of the heavenly spheres.

Kaiser notes that Calvin, as Aquinas and Bonaventure before him, sought to remedy the problem of the distant primum mobile with the providential guidance of the Christian God. Calvin did this by extending the sovereign guidance of the divine hand beyond the sphere of the Moon, where Aristotle placed a limit. Rather than solving the problem of how the earth remains stable while the enormous celestial spheres drag and press upon it by using a solution from Aristotle himself, Calvin substituted the providence of God who holds the earth upon the outer waters and keeps it stable as the celestial spheres move. According to Kaiser, “For Calvin, of course, there was a clear correlation between the concept of stability and order in the natural sphere and the sense of God’s protection in the personal and social spheres.” (ibid., p. 89) Therefore, the idea of God holding the earth in place brings much hope to believers that while the social sphere may be torn apart by tyrants God remains holding everything in place.

Kaiser asks where Calvin got his ideas and how he was influenced to read and write in such Aristotelean terms. The answer is that he was partly following the concepts of the times, since Aristotle’s cosmology had been accepted as an authentic representation of the universe for hundreds of years. However, Calvin was also influenced by those near him, sparking his interest in natural phenomena and causing him to delve more deeply into the texts of Aristotle. Kaiser lists all of Calvin’s influences in this matter. Particularly interesting is the fact that many of Calvin’s writings on Arisotelian natural philosophy came during and after the arrival of the Italians, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi, both scholastically trained Aristoteleans. Kaiser’s list follows:

Based on the evidence cited here, a plausible account of the origins of Calvin’s understanding of Aristotelian natural philosophy would be as follows. Calvin probably became interested in and informed about the subject during his college days in Paris; his approach to Aristotle’s natural philosoph appears to be that of a humanist like Jacques Lefere d’Eteples or Francois Vatable, who may have been his Hebrew instructor at the College royal in 1531-32. Calvin’s interest and understanding were heightened by his study of Seneca (early 1530s), his reading of Basil’s Hexaemeron (early 1540s), and by the publication of Luther’s Lectures on Genesis (1544). This led to his first treatment of the distribution of the terrestrial elements and the mechanics of the celestial spheres … Finally, in the mid-1550s, Calvin thought more deeply about the problem of the stability of the earth in the midst of a whirling cosmos. This further development may reflect the influence of Vermigli and Zanchius. (ibid., pp. 91, 92)

It is interesting to think that Calvin’s theology may have become more Aristotelean during the final years of his life due to the influence of his Italian acquaintances, who were known both for their humanism and scholasticism.

Plato’s Theism and Martyr’s Humanism

BoethiusThe Medieval world knew Aristotle from the translations of Boethius and the Muslim commentators, all of which interpreted the Stagarite through the lens of his Neoplatonic commentators. Aquinas realized that the Liber de Causis was written by Proclus, not Aristotle as tradition claimed. Yet, he continued commenting on that book and was influenced by it, and he was influenced by the Neoplatonism of the Pseudo-Dionysius. As Kristeller notes, during the time of the Renaissance philosophers began to examine the context and grammar of Aristotle’s writings, seeking to study him on his own terms rather than secondarily through the interpretation of the Neoplatonists.

However, this “rebirth” of the tools of investigation, particularly with regard to Aristotelian philosophy, did not lead theologians to dispose of all things Platonic in the search of a “perennial” philosophy. There were humanists, Thomists, Scotists, Occamists, Augustinians and many others during this era, still endeavoring to find the Archimedean point between the Queen of the sciences and her handmaiden. But, all of these groups were fundamentally Augustinian, and thus could not forsake a certain Neoplatonism. Peter Martyr exemplifies this humanist renewal in Aristotelean studies coupled with a reiterated Platonism. I demonstrated this a while back in a post on the Divine Ideas. Martyr carried on this doctrine, saying that these ideas are God’s contemplation of himself as he may be expressed in infinite ways and are thus the exemplar causes of all things. He also was not afraid to affirm that Plato had an accurate conception of God:

Plato had a very clear notion of God. First, that God is one and is ineffable: he is one, so we do not have to go on to infinity [immensum] in search of causes, for it is true that he is the first cause; he is ineffable, since in human speech there are no words that can express the divine properties. If a man acquired equine nature, he would not be able to transmit to other horses what ha had devised in his human mind. Similarly, philosophers and great thinkers, even if they have a sublime knowledge of God, have no words to express it. Besides, Plato knew that God comprises everything and at the same time exceeds everything, so that there is no kind of miniscule good that God would not possess, nor is there such enormous good that he would not surpass and to which he would not be superior. God pervades all things and never goes outside himself. Even if he is infinite, wherever he is, he is in himself. He produces everything and is prompted by no other reason than his own goodness. For there can exist nothing superior to his goodness that god would seek in creation of the universe; Good is good and produced everything that he made out of his goodness. His goodness is not acquired through application or effort as in the case o human goodness, but is inherent to him and is naturally implanted in his mind. Therefore he did not acquire it by his will or choice. Similarly, the sun enlightens everything with its brightness that it di not acquire, but possesses as something inborn and innate. And all things not only owe their creation to God but also tend toward him as their ultimate goal. Therefore it is no wonder that everything is related to him, since the perfection of all things depends on him. Plato understood and explained in his writings very clearly those aspects of God’s nature that I have just reviewed as well as many other concepts. The same concepts are contained both in holy scripture and in ancient ecclesiastical writers. (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 136, 137.)

Plato and SocratesThis attribution of divine knowledge to the pagan philosopher may be shocking to some Christians but it was a common opinion. Luther and Calvin believed that the pagan had a natural knowledge of the first table of the Decalogue but lacked a knowledge of the second. As I noted here, Calvin believed that the unbeliever needs to know how to worship God rather than just gain an understanding of God, an understanding that Calvin says they already have.

Peter Martyr’s perspective on Plato and Aristotle is still very much Medieval. He quotes Boethius and Averroes (whom he calls “the greatest of the Peripatetics”) as well as Augustine as authorities on the doctrine of the Ideas. Yet, he also translates Aristotle from the Greek text and examines phrases and words, demonstrating the philological methods of a new day and time. Plato’s doctrines are useful inasmuch as they reflect the true foundation of all things in the divine mind. Yet, Martyr, once again demonstrating his humanist mentality, does not care for Plato’s ideas beyond the necessity of exemplar causes. He notes, “For even if such Ideas – of one kind or another – really existed, we would not find them useful in our actions.” (ibid., p. 170.) In other words, even if men could have some sort of participation in the divine ideas through contemplation, this sort of knowledge would leave us no closer to the good than the mentally ill. We may only approach the good through acts of virtue and wisdom, and we must abandon Plato for Aristotle when he directs us elsewhere. Thus, Plato’s philosophy is necessary for certain principles of our doctrine of God, but we must lean on Aristotle for our method and pursuit of the common good.

God Provides Knowledge: Heinrich Bullinger on Natural Law

Heinrich BullingerHeinrich Bullinger, the Swiss successor of Zwingli, says that the natural law is an act of the conscience and an innate knowledge of good and evil. This is similar to Thomas Aquinas’s view of the natural law, the conscience is an act and synderesis is a habit of knowledge of the difference between good and evil, the principle which provides the foundation of the law of nature. Yet, where Thomas emphasized the whole faculty of reason and the necessity of virtue, Bullinger places emphasis upon the act of conscience in accusing and excusing the acts of man. This emphasis upon the intellect over the will does not mean that Bullinger de-emphasized or overlooked the role of the desiring faculty or the necessity of virtue in the natural law. He simply attributes the moving of men toward good things to the inspiration of God that comes by means of the conscience. He also attributes the natural law itself to God’s work in men’s souls:

The law of nature is an instruction of the conscience, and, as it were, a certain direction placed by God himself in the mind and hearts of men, to teach them what they have to do and what to eschew. And the conscience, verily, is the knowledge, judgment, and reason of a man, whereby every man in himself, and in his own mind, being made privy to everything that he either hath committed or not committed, doth either condemn or else acquit himself. And this reason proceedeth from God, who both prompteth and writeth his judgments in the hearts and minds of men. Moreover, that which we call nature is the proper disposition or inclination of every thing. But the disposition of mankind being flatly corrupted by sin, as it is blind, so also is it in all points evil and naughty. It knoweth not God, it worshippeth not God, neither doth it love the neighbour; but rather is affected with self-love toward itself, and seeketh still for its own advantage. For which cause the apostle said, “that we by nature are the children of wrath.” Wherefore the law of nature is not called the law of nature, because in the nature and disposition of man there is of or by itself that reason of light exhorting to the best things, and that holy working; but for because God hath imprinted or engraven in our minds some knowledge, and certain general principles of religion, justice, and goodness, which, because they be grafted in us and born together with us, do therefore seem to be naturally in us. (Decades, II.194.)

The Reformers tended to answer the apparent discrepancy between Plato’s idealism and Aristotle’s empiricism by referring to the narrative of Genesis three, where the representatives of the human race fell from their upright state by sinning against the will of God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam had innate knowledge and virtues. Yet, these gifts were not “natural” in the sense that they were produced solely by nature but they were “natural” in the sense that Adam was created with these gifts. They were not added later. After the fall, and because of original sin, men are no longer born with supernatural virtue or knowledge, yet, God does continue to write his law upon men’s hearts – both Melanchthon and Vermigli follow the Stoic notion of prolepseis, or precognitions that stir men up to think on divine things.  So, just as Adam’s gifts were not produced by nature in the beginning, much less may this knowledge be produced by nature after nature has become corrupt. Bullinger, in the above statement, appears to present this same resolution between the two concepts of innate and acquired knowledge. The natural law cannot come from nature because of the corruption of original sin. Yet, Bullinger seems to display a rather extreme doctrine of original sin in this passage. He notes that man’s nature, defined as “the proper disposition or inclination of every thing,” has been so corrupted by sin that reason no longer functions, leaving men utterly evil and debauched. And, because of this corruption the law of nature can only exist if God so delights to write it upon the hearts of men – these principles are written upon the hearts of all men by God and only seem to be natural.

I do not think Bullinger is truly saying that after the fall man’s nature was so corrupt that the very faculty that distinguishes man from beast was lost, that reason no longer held any directive power over the passions. Other Reformers such as Calvin and Vermigli hold to a less than optimistic view of original sin, but even they admit that man’s reason has been preserved from utter destruction, to the extent that even pagans may regulate their passions to the common good of society. Bullinger is being somewhat polemical in concert with Augustine’s condemnation of pagan virtue as “splendid vices.” He is viewing the first table of the law from the perspective of the second. In other words, he is speaking of the potentialities of nature in the City of Man from the perspective of the City of God. Viewed from this perspective, and the boasts of the City of Man that claims a purely autonomous path to perfection, the law of nature is utterly destroyed by the Fall. This is the case because the natural law originally guided man toward his supernatural goal, but after the fall man pursues whatever seems right in his own eyes. So, the pagans would know nothing of God or the difference between good and evil if God did not form the souls of men with these principles from the instant of their creation. Therefore, the City of Man cannot boast in an autonomous acquisition of this knowledge since these principles have been given to it by God. Bullinger seeks to keep Aristotle’s principles of acquired virtue and knowledge while at them same time safeguarding the Biblical doctrine of original sin and innate knowledge of God. He continues, explaining how this law is written in man’s nature:

But in what sort have they it [the law of nature] in themselves? This again is made manifest by that which followeth: “For they shew the work of the law written in their hearts.” But who is he that writeth in their hearts, but God alone, who is the searcher of all hearts? And what, I pray you, writeth he there? The law of nature, forsooth; the law, I say, itself, commanding good and forbidding evil, so that without the written law, by the instruction of nature, that is, by the knowledge imprinted of God in nature, they may understand what is good and what is evil , what is to be desired and what is to be shunned. By these words of the apostle we do understand, that the law of nature is set against the written law of God; and that therefore is is called the law of nature, because it seemeth to be, as it were, placed or graffed in nature. We understand, that the law of nature, not the written law, but that which is graffed in man, hath the same office that the written law hath; I mean, to direct men, and to teach them, and also to discern betwixt good and evil, and to be able to judge of sin. We understand, that the beginning of this law is not to the corrupt disposition of mankind, but of God himself, who with his finger writeth in our hearts, fasteneth in our nature, and planteth in us a rule to know justice, equity, and goodness. (ibid.)

Thus, this law is perfectly natural, just like every good with which man is adorned. But, in order to stay in line with the Aristotelian notion of acquired good while maintaining the Pauline notion of natural corruption, we must not speak of  this law as natural. God has given us these moral principles to lead us back to him, and they are ours, but as a corrupt nature cannot begin to lead man to do good things without the hand of God molding it and adorning it with knowledge of good and evil, so the Gentiles would have an utterly depraved nature were it not for the common grace of God.

Aristotle’s Method as Promethean Fire: Melanchthon’s Opinion

Prometheus Brings Fire to MankindThe 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.”