Ficino vs. Vincenzo on Man’s Ultimate End: Intellect or Will?

Vincenzo Bandello's letter to Lorenzo de' Medici
Vincenzo Bandello’s treatise addressed to Lorenzo de’ Medici

In the mid-1960s the late Renaissance scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller uncovered a manuscript by the Dominican Vicar General Vincenzo Bandello (†1507) addressed to Lorenzo de’ Medici concerning the teaching of Lorenzo’s close confidant, the famous Renaissance Platonist Marsilio Ficino (†1499) on the subject of human beatitude – the full title of the text is, Opusculum fratris Vincentii de Castro Novo Ordinis Predicatorum ad magnificum ac generosum virum Laurentium Medicem quod beatitudo hominis in actu intellectus et non voluntatis essentialiter consistit. This text is interesting for various reasons but primarily that it provides an example of the contrast between Late Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, specifically with respect to the debate between Thomists and Scotists over whether man’s ultimate end consists in an act of the intellect or of the will and how the terms of this debate changed during the Renaissance.  The title betrays the fact that according to Fra Vincenzo, the ultimate end of man consist essentially in an act of the intellect and not an act of the will. Though Vincenzo and Ficino are indebted to Thomas Aquinas’s philosophical synthesis in crucial aspects, both however, sought to justify their positions with reference to the classical sources, Vincenzo to Aristotle, Ficino to Plato. Kristeller explains in more detail:

For both of them, the ultimate happiness of man consists in a conjunction of the soul with God that is permanently attained, on the part of the blessed, in the future life. Both of them also take it for granted that the intellect and will are involved in the attainment of this ultimate happiness which includes the vision and fruition of God on the part of the soul and presupposes the love and desire of the soul for its ultimate end […] [One] basic difference [between the two] concerns the theory of pleasure. Fra Vincenzo stands firm on the Aristotelian theory presented in the last book of the Nicomachean Ethics that pleasure is the accompanying perfection of an activity, and hence should not be coonsidered as a primary good or end of desire. Ficino, on the other hand, was at one time deeply influenced by the hedonism of Epicurus and Lucretius, and actually refers in his letter to his early treatise De voluptate, in which his views on this subject are developed. Moreover, he was influenced by the Neoplatonic view that the good, and the appetite directed towards it, have both a higher and broader metaphysical significance than the order of truth and intellect. [For Ficino] the intellect grasps its object through images or species … and when its object is God, the intellect lowers and narrows it to conform with its own capacity. Love, on the other hand, moves the soul towards its object as it is in itself, and when this object is God, love will lift and enlarge the soul to the infinity of God. Fra Vincenzo’s reply to this important argument is characteristic: the distinction between the acts of the will and of the intellect as given by Ficino is true for the present life. In the future life, the knowledge of God will be aided by the lumen gloriae, the soul will know God immediately in His essence, and thus be enlarged to His infinity through the vision of God, rather than through fruition.

(Kristeller, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, vol. 3, 154-155)

Kristeller notes also that Ficino does not place such a radical division between the present and the future life as does Vincenzo. Rather, the present is a “genuine foretaste of the future life” and so the metaphysical pleasure or enjoyment of God that one enjoys in the present corresponds in a fundamental way to that of the future life. This would recall to any Presbyterian ears the words of the first question of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession, that the “chief end” of man is to “glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” Vincenzo rejects dilectio and fruitio as forming an essential (essentialiter) part of human beatitude because, as Aristotle argues, this sort of desire aims at a particular good for the sake of pleasure and not for its own sake. According to Tamara Albertini this division between desire (or pleasure, enjoyment, or love – Vincenzo refutes all of them as essential to beatitude) and ultimate beatitude – and the way of dividing the intellect from the will so that one contributes more to beatitude than the other – was considered by Ficino, at least in his later years, to be a false dichotomy (see Albertini, “Intellect and Will in Marsilio Ficino: Two Correlatives of a Renaissance Concept of Mind” in Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy).

Though Kristeller published some of the Latin text of Vincenzo’s treatise, he was only able to transcribe about half of it. For those who may be interested, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana of Florence still has the original copy and has digitized it – click here to read it. The treatise is appended to Vincenzo’s interesting refutation of the doctrine of the “immaculate conception.” The Quod beatitudo… begins on Carta 157r.

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.

Ohne Reformation kein Humanismus

Reformed SchoolOhne Humanismus keine Reformation (without Humanism no Reformation)  is the conclusion of one German scholar. On this Reformation Day, a day that bids us stop and reflect, the question, “Would the Reformation have occurred without humanism?,” seems pertinent. Many scholars have focused on the influence of humanism upon Luther, Zwingli, and Clavin, concluding that these three prominent Reformers came to their conclusions through the use of humanistic methods. Without ad fontes there would be no sola scriptura or sola fide. Yet, there is another side to the coin.

Unfortunately, the adage Ohne Humanismus keine Reformation stressed too much, signifies the notion that humanistic ideals and education were in the stages of decline in the mid-16th century, a decline that was precipitated by the Reformation return to Christian piety. This Reformation of piety, some say, valued theology over the arts curriculum and even sought to stunt the spread of a liberal education, fearing pagan authors would distract the youth from the importance of the sacred text. Against this notion are the examples of the Reformers themselves and those with whom they associated.

Lewis Spitz has done a tremendous service to Reformation scholarship with his work on education at the time of the Reformation and, particularly, his publication of the essential pedagogical writings of Johann Sturm. The research of Spitz and many others (including Barbara Tinsley and Karin Maag) has led scholars (such as Erika Rummel) to reverse the question of how humanism influenced the Reformers and ask, “How did the Reformation influence Humanism?” Spitz, in “The Importance of the Reformation for the Universities: Culture and Confession in the Critical Years,” points out that although Erfurt and Leiden Universities were influenced by traveling humanists such as Rudolph Agricola and Mutianus Rufus, genuine humanistic reform did not occur in these schools until 1519.

New humanist translations of Aristotle were to replace the medieval Latin texts. Instruction in classical Latin, poetry, rhetoric, lectures on Cicero and Virgil, and the study of Greek were added to the curriculum. (Spitz, in Rebirth, Reform, and Resilience, p. 50)

LutherThe same type of Reform in the classical arts occurred at Heidelberg in 1522, in Tübingen in 1525, and Cologne shortly after. At the University of Wittenberg humanistic education flourished under Luther and Melanchthon due to the protection of Elector Frederick and the distance of Wittenberg from the older centers of learning – in the older universities humanism had to battle with scholasticism and church tradition. Elector Frederick appointed Philip Melanchthon as professor in Greek, against Luther who suggested Peter Mosellanus. Elaborating on Luther’s and Melachthon’s humanism, Spitz notes:

Although no humanist theologically speaking, Luther was, nevertheless, a protagonist of the humanist curriculum on the arts level. He understood that the reform of theology in the advanced faculty of theology would be impeded and perhaps even impossible if the students’ arts training was exclusively in traditional dialectic and Aristotle in Latin commentaries and if they lacked education in poetry, rhetoric, languages, and history, subjects he deemed necessary for Biblical exegesis and the theological disciplines. He took an active role in promoting these subjects with the Augustinian colleagues and especially with Melanchthon after his arrival in 1518. Melanchthon’s draft of the statutes for the Faculty of Liberal Arts in 1520 eliminated everything that had referred to scholasticism. Melanchthon’s inaugural oration, De corrigendis adolescentia studiis [On the correcting of adolescent studies], was programmatic for Wittenberg, decrying the loss of learning, the ignorance of Greek language and culture, and the schoolmen’s dialectic, and urging the university to turn to the studia humanitatis for new light. The various reform statutes adopted between 1533 and 1536 … completed the symbiosis of humanism and reformation. Melanchthon, praeceptor Germaniae, labored for a reform of education from top to bottom. His role in the educational reform of the secondary schools was of critical importance. He took the initiative in encouraging the establishment of gymnasia in Nuremberg and many other cities, and his influence reached through Johannes Sturm in Strasbourg to Roger Ascham in England and Claude Baduel in Nimes. (ibid., 51.)

Through the influence of Wittenberg, humanistic reform came to other universities throughout Europe and even reaching England. Spitz slightly exaggerates the influence of Melancthon in this article. For instance, Johann Sturm was mainly influenced by the Brethren of the Common Life, through his education at the College of St. Jerome in Liege. Yet, no matter who influenced whom, it is a proven fact that were it not for these pivotal figures humanism would not have advanced in European centers of education. Even such a staunch biblical theologian as John Calvin worked to implement a humanist curriculum at the Genevan Academy, mainly under the influence of Johann Sturm’s Strausburg Academy. Therefore, on this Reformation Day we should all remember the humanism of these great church Reformers and instead of saying Ohne Humanismus keine Reformation (without humanism no Reformation) we should say, Ohne Reformation kein Humanismus (without the Reformation no humanism).

The Birth of Scholasticism in Renaissance Italy

PetrarchFor the sake of brevity or simplicity, historians often speak of certain literary or cultural movements in broad terms such as “scholasticism” or “humanism” when in reality there was no single functioning entity to which those terms refer. Scholastics in Italy were not mirror images of those in the French schools. Kristeller focuses on the Renaissance in Italy, noting that it developed from traditions passed on from the Medieval period within Italy itself and from current trends flowing from France. In fact, the “rebirth” in Italy was not limited to humanism, but a widespread acceptance of Aristotle’s logical works for the first time led to what could be called a “birth” simpliciter of scholasticism within Italy. When Petrarch and Bruni lashed out against scholasticism they were not necessarily castigating an archaic discipline, but were most likely writing against current trends in the Italian universities, exemplified by the “Averroist” Peter of Venice, which flowed from French and mostly English influence. Kristeller affirms:

Paul of VeniceThe common notion that scholasticism as an old philosophy was superseded by the new philosophy of humanism is thus again disproved by plain facts. For Italian scholasticism originated toward the end of the thirteenth century, that is, about the same time as did Italian humanism, and both traditions developed side by side throughout the period of the Renaissance and ever thereafter. However, the two traditions had their locus and center in two different sectors of learning: humanism in the field of grammar, rhetoric, and poetry and to some extent in moral philosophy, scholasticism in the fields of logic and natural philosophy. Everybody knows the eloquent attacks launched by Petrarch and Bruni against the logicians of their time, and it is generally believed that these attacks represent a vigorous new movement rebelling against an old entrenched habit of thought. Yet actually the English method of dialectic was quite as novel at the Italian schools of that time as were the humanist studies advocated by Petrarch and Bruni, and the humanist attack was as much a matter of departmental rivalry as it was a clash of opposite ideas of philosophies. (Renaissance Thought and Its Sources, pp. 100, 101.)

A Reformed Education in Renaissance England


The following letter is from a young Swiss student Conrad ab Ulmis, writing to one of his sponsors John Wolfius. At the time of this letter Martin Bucer had been dead one year, Bishop Cranmer was busy completing the first Prayer Book, and Peter Martyr was at Oxford lecturing on the Epistle to the Romans. Merely one year later King Edward dies and is promptly succeeded by  Mary Tudor and the Reformation in England seems all but lost. But, in the mean time there was a renaissance of classical education at Oxford, as exemplified by this letter.

Greeting. As I never entertained a doubt but that it was my duty to write to you, as my preceptor, some account of my studies; though I wrote last month at the house of Joshua Maler, my dear friend, and one too who has a great respect for you; yet as I have at this time changed my course of study, I have thought fit to write to you again. Receive therefore a brief account of my studies. I devote the hour from six to seven in the morning to Aristotle’s politics, from which I seem to derive a twofold advantage, both a knowledge of Greek and an acquaintance with moral philosophy. The seventh hour I employ upon the first book of the Digests or Pandects of the Roman law, and the eighth in the reconsideration of this lecture. At nine I attend the lecture of that most eminent and learned divine, master doctor Peter Martyr. The tenth hour I devote to the rules of Dialectics of Philip Melanchthon de locis argumentorum. Immediately after dinner I read Cicero’s Offices, a truly golden book, from which I derive no less than a twofold enjoyment, both from the purity of the language and the knowledge of philosophy. From one to three I exercise my pen, chiefly in writing letters, wherein, as far as possible, I imitate Cicero, who is considered to have abundantly supplied us with all instructions relating to purity of style. At three I lean the institutes of civil law, which I so read aloud as to commit them to memory. At four are read privately, in a certain hall in which we live, the rules of law, which I hear, and learn by rote as I do the institutes. After supper the time is spent in various discourse; for either sitting in our chamber, or walking up and down some part of the college, we exercise ourselves in dialectical questions. You have now a brief account of my studies, with which I think you will be pleased. Do you take care, in the first place, to preserve your health, and in the next place, to address me occasionally by your letters; for you can hardly conceive how much pleasure I shall derive both from their elegance and agreeableness. Solute for me those most honourable ladies, your wife and mother. Farewell. Oxford, March 1, 1552.

Your pupil,

John Conrad Ab Ulmis

On the Difference Between Philosophy and Theology from Philip Melanchthon’s Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics

Philip MelanchthonWhen Peter Martyr Vermigli gave his lectures on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to the students at the Strasbourg Academy in the year 1553, he undoubtedly had a commentary upon the same Aristotelian text in mind, one published by Philip Melanchthon in 1535 (which may be found here). Like Vermigli’s lectures-turned-commentary, Melancthon’s commentary does not go beyond the fourth book of the Ethics – Vermigli’s stopped at book three. Yet, within these pages we are given a glimpse into a Reformed, yet thoroughly Medieval, understanding of the relationship between the civic and religious spheres, the law and the gospel. I have listed below a short section on this problem treated by Melanchthon in his commentary. The Latin original is listed with a translation to follow. As usual, any corrections or improvements to the translation are encouraged. Since Melanchthon’s treatment of this problem spans the length of a few pages, I intend to devote a few more posts to the translation of this section.

De discriminae Christianae doctrinae, & Philosophiae

Qui nihil inter Philosophiam, & Christiana doctrinam interesse existimant, & idem doctrinae genus Philosophiam ac doctrinam Evangelii esse putant, ii in magno errore versantur, & tamen huic opinioni applaudant multi magni, ut videntur homines. Sunt alii quidam illiterati, qui vociferantur praecepta Philosophica cum pietate pugnare, eaq; simpliciter damnant: qui quoniam inscitiae ac stultitiae suae religionem praetexunt, plane sunt, ut est in proverbio, ὄνοι ἀΐοντες μυσηρια. Quanquam autem quid sentiendam sit de his studiis philosophicis, saepe alias diximus: tamen quoniam hic locus proprie id poscit, breviter & hic sententiam nostram recitabimus.

Philosophia nihil tradit de voluntate Dei, nihil de remissione peccatorum, nihil de timore, de fiducia erga Deum. Tantum docet praecepta de externa & civili consuctudine vitae, sicut publicae Leges civitatum. At Evangelium exponit nobis voluntatem Dei, remittit peccata, pollicetur Spiritu sanctum, qui corda prirum sanctificat, & vitam aeternam affert. Interea foris sinit nos uti moribus civilibus, sicut cibo, potu, vestitu utimur. Et ut cibus, potus, vestitus, res corporales sunt, quae non pertinent ad fidei iustitiam. Ita mores civiles, non pariunt cordis iustitiam. Proinde toto coelo errant, qui nihil inter Philosophiam & Evangelium interesse iudicat. Nam Philosophiam tota nihil continet, nisi praecepta de externa actione, qua, ut ita dicam, tanq in scena, in hac civili societate hominu utendum est. Evangeliu vero longe alia profitetur. Non enim venit Christus in mundu, ut praecepta de moribus doceret, quae iam ante norat ratio, sed ut remitteret peccata, ut credentibus in ipsum donaret spiritum sanctum. Et tamen, ut Magistratus approbat, ita civilem consuetudinem vitae probat, vult mores esse civiles, & humanos, hoc est, non pugnantes cum ratione naturali, seu cum iudicio rationis. Ut enim iudicium rationis in aliis corporalibus rebus valet, in aedificando, in numerando, ita valet in regendis moribus civilibus.


Concerning the difference between Christian doctrine and Philosophy

Those who think that there is no difference between Philosophy and Christian doctrine and who reckon the genus of the doctrine of Philosophy to be the same as the doctrine of the Gospel occupy themselves in great error, and yet they applaud many great men of this opinion, as they appear to be men. There are certain other uneducated ones who exclaim that Philosophical precepts fight against piety, and these they simply condemn who, because of their own ignorance and foolishness, make religion a pretext, as it is (said) in the proverb onois aiontes myshria, “asses breathe out foul things.” But nevertheless that which may be observed from these Philosophical studies we have said many times in other (places): Yet, because this place particularly demands it we will briefly recite our judgment.

Philosophy hands down nothing about the will of God, nothing about the remission of sins, nothing about fear, or about trust in God. It only teaches the precepts concerning external and civil customs of life, as the public Laws of the city. But the Gospel sets forth to us the will of God, it forgives sins, it promises the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies the hearts of the pious, and it imparts eternal life. Nevertheless, in public it is permitted us that, as with civic morals, so we make use of food, drink, and clothing. And as food, drink, and clothing are corporeal things which do not pertain to the righteousness of faith. So civic morals do not pertain to the righteousness of the heart. Accordingly, in all of heaven those err who think there is no difference between Philosophy and the Gospel. For the whole of Philosophy contains nothing except precepts concerning external action, which, if I may say so, as in a theater, man must make use of in this civil society. But the Gospel professes other things at a distance. For Christ did not come into the world to teach precepts about (civic) morals, the rules of which (the world) already knew, but to forgive sins, in order that he may give the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him. But nevertheless, as the Magistrate establishes the civic customs of life, in the same manner he tests them, wanting morals to be civil and human, in other words, that which does not fight against natural reason, or with the judgment of reason. For as the judgment of reason is able in other corporeal things, in construction and in calculation, so it is able to direct civic morals.

Vermigli on the Contemplative Life

MonksThe Reformers did not believe that true perfection, as it may be had in this life, comes by living the purely contemplative life. Rather they saw a necessity of living both a contemplative and an active life, a supposition that falls in the same vein as that of the Renaissance humanists who sought a more practical way of life in opposition to the life of the detached ascetic. James Hankins explains that the the humanists of the 14 – 16th centuries did not consider philosophy something to be contemplated in a cell but a science that should be implemented in everyday life in order to bring about improvements in the behavior of ordinary citizens.

The idea of a philosophical school, of disciples pursing an alternative life and vision under the guidance of a master, separate from the world around them, was foreign to humanism; even Ficino’s supposed “academy” now appears to be nothing more than a kind of secondary school. Indeed, beginning with the so-called “civic humanists” of the early fifteenth century, humanists insisted that philosophy should serve the city by inculcating prudence and other virtues into its citizens. Philosophy now had to address, not a professional caste of specially trained experts with its own technical language, but the ruling class of the city-state; men and women who had studied humanistic Latin but had no special qualifications for philosophical study. (Hankins, “Humanism, scholasticism, and Renaissance philosophy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosphy, pp. 45, 46.)

Thomas More's Utopia
Thomas More's Utopia

Calvin disapproves of the monastic culture of his day and even that of the early church, of which Augustine approved. His reasons for this disapproval may be traced to a humanistic Zeitgeist. Calvin refers to monks of various religious orders in his day as a “conventicle of schismatics,” since they followed a particular theologian, took the sacraments separately from the common folk, and considered themselves more perfect than the average citizen. Yet, his main objection to the ascetic way is that God calls all men to take charge of a household and to serve him  in a “definite calling” (obviously referring only to men). This does not mean that he considered contemplation trivial. On the contrary, he states, “It is a beautiful thing to philosophize in retirement, far from intercourse with men. But it is not part of Christian meekness, as if in hatred of the human race, to flee to the desert and the wilderness and at the same time forsake those duties which the Lord has especially commanded.” (Institutes, IV.13.xvi.) The Italian Reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, produces a more philosophical demonstration on the importance of living both a contemplative and active life. Commenting on Aristotle’s Ethics, Vermigli notes:

It is quite true that Aristotle deals separately with political life and activity, and also with the contemplative life; this is not with the intention, however, that someone should devote the whole of his life to one of these alone, but so that he may know that it is not possible for anyone who aspires to happiness to obtain it unless he participates fully in both aspects of life. There are two properties of our nature: for nature herself has made us both intelligent and social. For this reason we ought to accordingly take account of both conditions in our actions, and when either one occurs in our lives we should respond to them on the basis of the appropriate virtue. And when we have free time or are impeded from the action for some reason, we should occupy ourselves with great delight in the contemplation of human and divine things, with the result that these actions that seem to be different in kind are mutually beneficial. For anyone who has practiced the moral and civic virtues in the governance of a family or a state has a mind more composed and more prepared for assisting and supporting his associates, and the result is that he is better suited for contemplation. In turn, when someone has had the leisure granted to him to contemplate divine and human things in more depth, he is restored to the active life all the more ready to act. We know that Cicero, Cato, Pompey, Lucullus, and other outstanding men among the pagans did this. And we read in the holy scriptures that Christ our Savior sometimes retired into the mountains and woods in order to pray and meditate on divine matters, but soon he returned to the crowds and gave every kind of assistance to the human race. John the Baptist, Elijah, and the other prophets had the same practice. Indeed, Jesus our Lord first taught the apostles in solitude and then sent them forth throughout Judaea to preach and heal the sick. Certainly, there are two types of life, but one should not be exclusively devoted to either. (Vermigli, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p. 179.)

For Vermigli, the contemplative and active life are the outcomes of two properties of human nature. Man is by nature both intelligent and social, and must bring both of these aspects of his nature to actualization in order to achieve happiness in this life. Therefore  these two ways of life should not be separated but are mutually beneficial. The contemplative life stirs one up for work within the civic sphere and working in the world with other people makes one better suited for the contemplation of things divine and human. Vermigli comes to this conclusion by the use of reason and the “ad fontes” spirit of humanism. Not only did pagans such as Cicero and Cato seek the good within the contemplative and active life but so did Jesus and his disciples. As I have already pointed out in a previous post, Vermigli chose a more humanist definition of Aristotle’s tagathon than had the Scholastics, because he believed that the common good of the civic sphere is the natural desire of the passions and thus the ultimate goal of man in this life. He delivered his lectures on Aristotle’s Ethics before a group of young students in the Strasbourg Academy, students aspiring to professions within the city and the church. Thus, he sought to educate the youth in a philosophy that spurred men and women on to work for the common good of neighbor and kingdom.

Johann Sturm: Calvinist, Humanist, and Educator

Johann SturmWe should all know more about Johann Sturm, and I hope to devote another post to his legacy. For now it will be sufficient to give a very brief account of who this man was. He was responsible for the Classical curriculum at the Stasbourg  Gymnasium (academy) founded by Martin Bucer, and through his lifelong service to that school and his reputation as a man of superior intellect and piety he became the father of the German public school system. Sturm was a tutor to the famous logician Peter Ramus and friends with the tutor of Queen Elizabeth I of England Roger Ascham, even working for Elizabeth for a time as a diplomat. Within the first decade of Sturm’s rectorship of the Strasbourg Academy he employed such professors as John Calvin, Wolfgang Capito, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and the founder of the school, Martin Bucer. All of these men had the utmost respect for Sturm, to the extent that they trusted him with the education of Strasbourg’s future civil and ecclesiastical leaders.

So, what was a Reformed education like in the 16th century? Speaking of Sturm’s treatise The Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters, Lewis Spitz notes:

If this treatise were merely a discussion of books, classroom procedures and teaching techniques, it would still be fascinating; for its description of Sturm’s expectations for boys astonishes modern readers who find it hard to believe that seven-year-olds, often brought to their first year teacher without knowledge of the alphabet, were by the end of that year expected to be reading Cicero’s shorter letters! In their third year they were reading Vergil’s Aeneid, and in their fifth, the one in which they began Greek, Aesop. Then, during “their last year of boyhood” (at twelve) they were studying Aristotle’s logic. At fourteen, the year they would have acquired “ornate speech,” they began to study Hebrew. In their final year of the Gymnasium, they were to perfect “apt speech,” which Sturm expressed as “instructed, liberal, and accommodated to things” and to have begun (!) “the science of numbers,” and astrology. (Spitz, Johann Sturm on Education, p. 48)

You might have noticed that there is no mention of Latin amidst this discussion of curricula. That ommission is due to the fact that Latin was the language of discussion for teachers and students within the classroom, at play time, and on the walk home. Sturm writes to an instructor in the Lauingen School:

We want youth – all of them, including those harbored in the lowest grades – to have Latin conversations. We do not want teachers speaking to them in the native tongue, nor will it be necessary. . . When boys enter school, when they play, when they walk together, when they are coming on the way to school, their speech should be Latin or Greek. Let no one come here if he is going impudently to stray in this matter. (Sturm, For the Lauingen School, in Spitz, p. 246)

I will discuss the motives behind Sturm’s academic rigor in a separate post, but suffice it say that he was a true humanist who considered the eloquence of speech achieved by Cicero and others of antiquity to be the quintessential element of a proper education. Sturm viewed rhetoric with the utmost importance, since a true rhetor must be gifted with the knowledge of subject matter and the prudence required to choose the appropriate words and their arrangement, the combination of which will not merely stir the heart of the listener but will convince the mind as well. As a humanist educator and promoter of Classical education, Johann Sturm is one scholar that all Reformed educators – all Christians for that matter – should know about.

Theodore Beza’s Poetic Ode to Queen Elizabeth

Portrait of a young Theodore Beza
Portrait of a young Theodore Beza

The Reformers are not usually known for their poetry or their appreciation for aesthetics. Yet, church Reformers such as Peter Martyr Vermigli were reared hearing the poems of Ovid and Cicero, often knowing them by heart. Calvin went on to produce a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia and Theodore Beza wrote his Iuvenilia, a collection of original love poems inspired by his love of Catullus and Ovid (some of which may be found here.) Of course, Calvin and Beza published these works at an early age, the latter of whom even regretted the literary achievements of his early days, saying of his early poems, “Would, therefore that they might at length be buried in perpetual oblivion.”

Despite the apparent disdain for their former aesthetic pursuits both of these men went on to write Christian literary works in which pagan poets are quoted in a positive light. Both Calvin and Beza became writers of hymns, the latter even arranged what became the Huguenot “battle psalm.” Another example of Beza’s later use of poetry is his Ad Serenissimam Elizabetham Angliae Reginam (To the Most Serene Elizabeth Queen of England), which was written in 1588 to congratulate the English queen for the recent defeat of the Spanish Armada. The Latin original is quoted below with an English rendering to follow.

Straverat innumeris Hispanus navibus aequor,
Regnis iuncturus sceptra Britanna suis.
Tanta huius, rogitas, quae motus causa? Superbos
Impulit ambitio, vexit avaritia.
Quam bene te ambitio mersit vanissima ventus,
Et tumidos tumidae vos superastis aquae.
Quam bene totius raptores orbis avaros
Hausit inexhausti iusta vorago maris!
At tu, cui venti, cui totum militat aequor,
Regina, o mundi totius una, decus,
Sic regnare Deo perge, ambitione remota,
Prodiga sic opibus perge iuvare pios,
Ut te Angli, longum Anglis ipsa fruaris,
Quam dilecta bonis, tam metuenda malis

The following English translation was rendered in the same year by an unknown Englishman:

1588 Portrait of Elizabeth with Spanish Armada in background
1588 Portrait of Elizabeth with Armada in background

The Spanish fleete did flote in narow seas,
And bend her ships against the English shore,
With so great rage as nothing could appease,
And with such strength as never seene before.
And all to joyne the kingdom of that land,
Unto the kingdoms that he had in hand.
Now if you aske what set this king on fire
To practise warre when he of peace did treat,
It was his pride, and never quencht desire,
To spoile that islands wealth, by peace made great,
His pride, which farre above the heavens did swell,
And his desire, as unsuffic’d as Hell.
But well have winds his proud blasts overblown
And swelling waves alaid his swelling heart,
Well hath the sea with greedie gulfs unknown,
Devoured the devourer to his smart,
And made his ships a praie unto the sand
That meant to praie upon anothers land.
And now, o queene above al others blest,
For whom both windes and waves are prest to fight,
So rule your owne, so succour friends opprest,
(As farre from pride, as ready to do right),
That England you, you England long enjoy,
No lesse your friends delight, then foes annoy.

This poem and two others that Beza wrote to Elizabeth concerning the English defeat of the Spanish Armada are significant not only as examples of aesthetic appreciation among the Reformers but also because very few literature pieces of that time exist that are dedicated to that most significant battle. Read the other poems and learn about their historical context at the University of Birmingham Philological Museum.

A Brief Bio of Jerome Zanchi: Italian Reformer

Jerome ZanchiThe following is a brief biography of Jerome Zanchi by Samuel Clarke, a late 17th century English Presbyterian. The accuracy of the data should be taken with caution due to the nature of the writing and the polemical agenda of the writer. However, the facts seem to be correct and do not present anything that appears blatantly dubious. If I were to write this bio I would make greater mention of Zanchi’s humanism, particularly his lectures on Aristotle’s Physics that he delivered in Strasbourg while Peter Martyr was lecturing on the Nicomachean Ethics in the same school. I’d also include the fact that Zanchi, like Martyr, was a trained Thomist and even planned to organize his works into a Summa theologiae. Yet, the following is a good intro to the life and times of such a monumental Reformed divine who has been unjustly neglected in our day. 

Early Years and Conversion:

Hierom Zanchius was born at Atzanum in Italy, Anno 1516. His Father was a Lawyer, who brought him up at School; and when Zanchy was but twelve years old his Father died of the Plague Anno Christi 1528; at which time Zanchy was at School, where he was instructed in the Liberall Sciences: When he came to the age of fifteen years, being now deprived of both his parents, observing that divers of his kindred were of the order of Canons Regular, amongst whom that there were divers learned men, being exceeding desirous of Learning, he entered into that Order, where he lived about twenty ears, and studied Arts and School-Divinity, together with the Tongues. He was very familiar with Celsus Martiningus, joyning studies with him, was a diligent hearer of Peter Martyr’s publick Lectures at Luca upon the Epistle to the Romans, and of his private Lectures upon the Psalmes, which he read to his Canons. This drew his mind to an earnest study of the Scriptures. He read also the Fathers, especially St. Augustine, with the most learned Interpreters of the Word of God: And thereupon he preached the Gospel for some years in the purest manner that the time and place would suffer. And when Peter Martyr left Italy, so that his godly Disciples could no longer live in safety there, much lesse have liberty of Preaching, about twenty of them in the space of one year left their station, and followed their Master into Germany, amongst whom Zanchy was one. Being thus (as he used to say) delivered out of the Babylonish captivity, anno Christi 1550. He went, first into Rhetia, where he staied about eight months, and from thence to Geneva, and after nine months stay there, he was sent for by Peter Martyr into England, but when he came to Strasborough, he staid there to supply Hedio’s room newly dead, who read Divinity in the Schooles, which was in the year 1553. (The Marrow of Ecclesiastical History, 804-807)

Professor of Divinity in Strasbourg:

He lived, and taught Divinity in that City about 11 years; sometimes also reading Aristotle in the Schools; yet not without opposition, old James Sturmius, the Father of that University being dead: Yea his adversaries proceeded so far as to tell Zanchy, that if he would continue to read there, he must subscribe the Augustane Confession, to which he yeelded for peace-sake, with this proviso, modo Orthodoxe intelligatur; declaring his judgment also about Christ’s presence in the Sacrament, wherwith they were satisfied. And thus he continued to the year 1563, being very acceptable to the good, and a shunner of strife, and a lover of concord. At the end whereof the Divines and Professors there, accused him for differing from them in some points about the Lord’s Supper, the Ubiquity of Christ’s Body, the use of Images in the Churches, Predestination, and the Perseverance of the Saints: About these things they raised contentions, which were partly occasioned by the book of Heshusius, printed at this time at Strasborough, About the Lord’s Supper; and it came to this pase, that they put Zanchy to his choice either to depart of himself, or else they would remove him from his place. And though many waies were tried for the composing of this difference, yet could it not be effected. (ibid.)

Pastor of an Italian Congregation:

But it pleased God that about this time there came a Messenger to signifie to him that the Pastor of the churhch of Clavenna, in the borders of Italy, being dead, he was chosen Pastor in his room; wherefore obtaining a dismission from the Senate of Strasborough, he went thither, and after he had preached about two months, the Pestilence brake forth in that Town so violently, that in seven months space there dyed twelve hundred men; yet he continued there so long as he had any Auditors; but when most of the Citizens had removed their families into a high mountain not farre off, he went thither also, and spent above three months in Preaching, Meditation, and Prayer, and when the plague was stayed, hee returned into the City again. And thus he continued in that plae almost four years to the great profit of many, but not without afflictions to himself. (ibid.)

Professor of Divinity in Heidelberg and Christian Apologist:

Anno Christi 1568 hee was sent for by Frederick the third, Elector Palitino, to Heidelberg to be Professor, and was entertained with all love and respect, where he succeeded Urfin, and at his entrance made an excellent Oracion about the preserving, and adhering to the inner world of God alone. The same year he was made Doctor of Divinity. About which tie that excellent Prince Frederick, who was a zealous promoter of the Doctrine of the Prophets and Apostles, required him to explain the Doctrine of the one God, and three Persons, to confirm it, and to confute the Doctrine of those which at the time denyed the Deity of Christ and the Holy Ghost in Poland and Transilvania, and to answer their arguments whence upon he wrote those learned Tractates, De Dei natura, De tribus Elohim, etc. In which book the whole Orthodox about that great Mystery so unfolded and confirmed, that all adversaries may forever be ashamed which goe about to contradict the same…. (ibid.)

Move to Neostade and Death:

He taught in that University ten years till the death of Prince Frederick. Then by Prince John Cassimire he was removed to his new University at Neostade, where he spent above seven years in reading Divinity. Though in the year 1578 he had been earnestly solicited to come to the University of Leiden, then newly begunne; as also the year after the Citizens of Antwerp called him to be their Pastor, yet the Prince would by no means part with him, knowing that he could not be missed in his University. The Prince Elector Palatine, Ledwick, being dead, and Prince Cassimire being for the time made Administrator of his estate, the University was returned from Neostade to Heidelberg, and Zanchy being now grown old, had a liberal stipend setled upon him by Prince Cassimire; whereupon going to Heidelberg to visit his friends, he fell sick, and quietly departed in the Lord Anno Christi 1590, and of his age seventie five. He was excellently versed in the writings of the ancient Fathers and Philosophers, he was of singular modesty, and very studious to promote the peace of the Church. (ibid.)