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.

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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.)

Paul, Plato, and Aristotle on the Lex Naturalis: The Interpretation of David Pareus

David Pareus

David Pareus (d. 1622) is one of those church reformers that most people have never heard of. In fact, his name was world renowned in his day. He was known via his association with former tutors such as Zacharius Ursinus and Jerome Zanchi, and for his biblical scholarship, defense of the Reformed churches against Catholic apologists, and for his humanism. The divines who gathered in Dordrecht for the famous Synod held there, requested his attendance as a distinguished scholar. Though he was unable to attend, the delegates requested his assistance through letters and his writings were held in high regard by all of those in attendance at the Synod. On the issue of the extent of Christ’s death, both moderates and extremists acquiesced to his opinion on the matter. 

The following is taken from Pareus’s In divinam ad Romanos S. Pauli Apostoli Epistolam Commentarius (p. 153), and demonstrates a Reformed Catholic humanism, not only in Pareus’s knowledge of the Classic languages and literature, but also in his willingness to use pagan philosophy as a true explanatory reference for principles found in both Holy Scripture and nature. I have cited the Latin/Greek original with a translation underneath. Any correction to perceived errors in the translation would be greatly appreciated:

Dubium:  Ex ver. 15. Ostendunt opus legis scriptum in cordibus suis: quomodo dicat Apostolus, legem esse scriptam in cordibus: cum physici doceant, intellectum esse instar tabulae rasae, in qua nihil sit scriptum: omnia tamen nohta¿ scribi possint? Plato in Philebo: dokei√ moi to/te hJmw◊n hJ yuch\ bibli÷w tini« proseoike÷nai quam sententiam sequitur Aristoteles I.3. capit 4. de anima: wJsper ejn grammatei/w wvJ mhde\n uJparxei ejnteleceia gegrammenon oJper sumbainei ejpi\ touv nouv. 

Responsio. Non pugnant: Nihil enim est in intelectu scriptum actu, quod Aristotel. dicit ejnteleceia: Omnia vero sunt scripta potentia: quoniam intellectus ad omnia intelligibilia habet se in potentia. Et quodamodo tamen actu inscripta dicuntur ea, ad quae ratio & mens sana se convertit per se sine demonstratione: ut sunt notitiae de Deo colendo, de parentibus honorandis, de discrimine honesti & turpis, etc. quae notitiae dicuntur lex naturae & naturales, quia harum femina nobiscum nascuntur. Praeter has sunt aliae, quas vocant koi\naß ejnnoiaß, quibus assentitur ratio ex solo sensu totum esse maius sua parte, ignem urere, aequalia aequalibus addita facere tota aequalia, etc. ex qualibus doctrinae mathematicae exstructae sunt. Platonis sententia est, omnia naturaliter inscriptura esse: sed nascentibus propinari poculum Lethes, unde oblivio omnium notitiarum, quas discere, sit reminisci. Intellexit praestantiam mentis & naturae humanae non esse a Deo conditam cum tanta ignorantia: sed quia veritatem non novit, fabulam finxit, quam etiam tabula Cebetis proposuit. 

Translation:

Problem. From verse 15, “They show the work of the law written in their hearts”: Why does the Apostle say that the law is written in the hearts: when the physicians teach that the intellect is like a blank tablet upon which nothing is written, yet every intellect can be written upon? Plato in his Philebus says: “It seems to me that our soul in such a situation is like a book,” which is followed by a sentence of Aristotle (I.3. Chap. 4. de Anima): “just as characters may be on a tablet on which nothing has been written, so it happens with the mind.”

Response. They do not disagree: For nothing is written upon the intellect actually, which Aristotle calls entelechea: Indeed, all things are written potentially: because the intellect is itself in potency to all intelligible things. And in a certain way, nevertheless, those things are said to be actually inscribed, to which reason and the whole mind itself is converted by its very nature without demonstration: as is the knowledge about worshipping God, honoring the parents, the distinction of honest and filthy things, etc. which knowledge is said to be the law of nature and natural because it is begotten with us from woman. After these there are other [types of knowledge] which they call koinas enoias [common sense], to which reason ascends by sense alone: the whole is greater than its parts, fire burns, equals are added to equals to make whole equals etc. by which sort of doctrine mathematics were built. The sentence of Plato is, all things are inscribed naturally [upon the intellect] but after being born it drinks the cup of Lethe, whereupon all knowledge is lost, which to discern is to remember. He knew that the excellence of the mind and human nature was not preserved by God after so great an ignorance: but because he did not know the truth, he imagined a tale, which even the tablet of Cebes proposed. 

For Pareus, as for Vermigli, Zanchi, et alia, this law of nature that is inscribed upon the hearts of man – the law that tells us to worship God, honor our parents, and distinguishes between good and evil – was known by Paul, Plato, and Aristotle. Pareus does not see a disagreement between Plato and Aristotle, an innate knowledge and a knowledge by acquisition. The two may be reconciled by the distinction between the passive and active intellects. The former is in potency to all things, and the latter only gains knowledge through abstraction.

Even the active intellect contains certain types of innate knowledge, in the sense that these things are self-evident and are assumed within rather than proven by demonstration. The natural law pertains to that ability given from birth to distinguish between good and evil. Common sense, on the other hand, pertains only to sense perception and those principles that are discovered through those means. Finally, Plato’s tale of the river Lethe came close to the true cause of man’s ignorance, but without divine revelation he could not know that ignorance did not come from drinking the wrong water but from a volitional choice to abandon nature and God. Pareus’s ideas in this passage do not differ from those of Vermigli, Zanchi, and even Calvin. But, his exposition is more scholastic than the latter, as can be seen in his use of the method of proposition-aporia-response. He is a paragon for a Reformed humanism that seems all but forgotten today, and we could all benefit greatly from the translation of his whole corpus.

Voluntarism, Skepticism, and the Unveiling of Nature

Medieval ClockPierre Hadot distinguishes between what he calls a Promethean and Orphic concept of nature in the history of philosophy. Both groups see the inner workings of nature as secretive and hidden from mankind. However, these secrets may be discovered by man by the use of certain methods. The Promethean method seeks to do violence to nature in order to force her to confess her secrets. The Orphic philosopher sees nature as somewhat divine and seeks to woo her through poetry and art, believing that the secrets of nature must be given voluntarily by Nature herself. According to Hadot, the Christian theology of voluntarism contributed to a more Promethean concept of nature and her secrets (Hadot also erroneously charges all Christians with a Promethean theology). Where Augustine held that God’s will and goodness are one and simple, voluntarists believed that God was more free and could do that which was contrary to his revealed will and even things contradictory. This view of God’s will led to an agnosticism about the secrets of nature, and Nature herself became more like a clock than a personality. Hadot explains, quoting Descartes:

According to theological voluntarism … if two plus two are four, it is because God so willed it. There is no intelligible necessity to impose itself on God’s absolute power: “The mathematical truths that you call eternal have been established by God and depend entirely on him, as do all other creatures. Indeed, to say that these truths are independent of God is to speak of him as a Jupiter or a Saturn, and to subject him to the Styx and the Fates.” [Oeuvres philosophiques, 1:259-260] (Hadot, The Veil of Isis, p. 133)

Hadot is not accusing Descartes of using God’s absolute will as a first principle of knowledge or speculative investigation. Rather, Descartes’ philosophy dealt violence to speculative science by attributing to God a virtually unknowable will and to nature, an unpredictable set of laws, and assumed an opposition between God’s will and the nature of things. Hadot continues:

God has established these truths “as a king establishes laws in his kingdom,” as Descartes wrote on April 15, 1630, to Father Mersenne. This doctrine of complete divine freedom had two consequences. First of all, it is possible that phenomena, or that which appears to us, may be produced by processes different from those we can construct mathematically and according to the laws of mechanics. We must renounce the idea of an absolutely certain science that knows genuine causes. The result is that we can observe and measure natural phenomena, but we cannot truly understand their causes. Seventeenth-century scientists found a sufficient motive for renouncing worries about the finalities and essence of phenomena in theological reasons; it was enough for them to determine how these phenomena occur according to the laws of mechanics. (ibid. p. 133)

Thus, the voluntarist concept of certain possible worlds that God may will to create, worlds that function completely different from ours, led to the birth of a minimalist science of phenomena that reduced the organic and dynamic Nature of things to a mechanical nature that is identical with man’s own art. In this system, the secrets of nature that were once only thought to be discoverable by imitation can now be known by reduplication via the art of mechanics. If the universals of Nature can be other than man is able to know, then Nature will be reduced in value to predictable physical phenomena, thus losing her personality, volition, and mystery. Thus, by reducing Nature’s value the Promethean project was furthered.

Original Edition Books by Reformers Online

The Bayerische StaatsBiblioteche is an excellent source of digitized books from all periods. They are up to 39,137  titles and adding more facsimile editions daily. The great thing about this site is you can download entire books in pdf. I’ve provided links to a couple of works that the Reformed community could greatly profit from. Martyr’s commentary has an English edition but Zanchi’s work needs to be translated for the benefit of those who are not proficient in Latin – it would provide a great source of scholastic learning for the laity and scholar alike. Anyone interested in the Reformed acceptance of the classics and Greek philosophy and Scholasticism should check out the following books.

Peter Martyr Vermigli, Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics:

In Aristotelis ethicorum ad Nicomachum librum I. II. ac initium tertii commentarius

Vermigli's Commentary on the Ethics Image

Girolamo Zanchi, On God’s Nature:

De Natura Dei seu de divinis attributis libri v

Zanchi De Natura Dei Image

The Meaning of Aristotle’s τἀγαθόν: The Benefit of a Humanist Ethos

Peter Martyr Vermigli

During the time of the Renaissance there was a debate between humanist moral theologians and those who followed the via antiqua. The former thought moral theology could not be properly utilized by the laity and should therefore be confined to the universities. The latter considered the practical science apt for the virtuous rhetor to use in discourse and civic instruction on the nature of human behavior. Thus, one can see a disagreement between those who considered the science more speculative and those who considered it more practical. The University of Padua adopted the Florentinian humanistic concept of the science of morals but later confined the discipline to the clerics.

According to David Lines, many books were used during the Renaissance as sources for the study of morals, including Thomas Aquinas’s Sententia libri Ethicorum (i.e., his commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics). 

In fourteenth century Italy, most interpreters of the Ethics [Aristotle’s] drew heavily on Thomas’s own commentary. Acciaiuoli’s commentary was admired partly for its faithfulness to the Dominican friar. Even Ottaviano Ferrari (1518-86), a pugnacious scholar who lectured on the Ethics in the Collegio Canobiano of Milan, could oppose but not ignore the saint from Aquino. The effects were even clearer on the members of the Dominican and Jesuit orders. Around 1490 two near contemporary Dominicans, Ludovico Valenza da Ferrara and Girolamo Savonarola, produced compendia of moral philosophy. Tellingly, these works are not digests of Aristotle’s works, but of Thomas’s Summa IIa IIae, even though they cover topics in ethics, oeconomics, and politics. (Lines, “Humanistic and Scholastic Ethics,” Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy [CCRP], 310.) 

The Paduan trained Peter Martyr Vermigli carried on the tradition of lecturing on moral theology that saw the value of the science for the civic sphere, as he lectured at the Academy of Strasbourg. Vermigli was trained in the via Thomae and most likely knew the humanist poet Flaminio of Serraville, but the extent of his humanism lies in a literary technique and linguistic capacity that was typical of the ad fontes approach of the age.  An example of this can be seen in his translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics from Erasmus’s 1531 Greek edition, rather than relying on a Latin text. Particularly, Vermigli follows a humanist interpretation of one of Aristotle’s key phrases.

Johannes Argyropoulos - Byzantine humanist
J. Argyropoulos

He comments on Aristotle’s statement τἀγαθόν οὗ πάντ᾽ ἐφίεται (the good is that at which all things aim), saying even though τἀγαθόν is definitive (as opposed to ἀγαθόν) it does not refer to something supreme, as the “summum bonum” (supreme good) or “God” and especially not “The Holy Trinity.” He notes that the Greek article does not always denote something particular:  “Another function of the article is to indicate the reason and form without any particular conditions, in which several individuals are united; for example, as when we say ho anthropos logikos, ‘man is rational,’ we do not mean a specific individual, but rather we define the common nature and form that are shared by various individuals like Socrates and Plato.” (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, 21.) Contrary to those who see the phrase as a reference to the Trinity, Vermigli believes that τἀγαθόν refers to the “good itself” or the common good, which is the common form of the many naturally desired goods. A horse seeks after its own good, a dog its own good, and a human aims at its own good, but all things seek the good in general. If all things aimed at God or the supreme good there would be no natural end or reason for which each species was created, as if nature does not aim at its own preservation and perfection.  Vermigli recounts the interpretation of Leonardo Aretino (a.k.a Bruni; d. 1444) and George of Trabizond (d. 1486), who were led by the Greek article preceding the noun to interpret the phrase as a reference to the Trinity.  Instead, Vermigli follows the exegesis of Johannes Cardinal Bessarion (d. 1472).  “Bessarion, Nicene cardinal and the most learned man among the Greeks of the modern era, refuted this opinion, saying that Trapezuntius [Trabizond] should have been aware that in Greek when an article precedes a word it has a triple function.” (ibid, 22, 23)  Vermigli then adopts as his own the translation of the humanist Johannes Argyropoulos (d. 1487) who rendered τἀγαθόν as “the good itself.” (ibid)

The translation of τἀγαθόν posed a problem for other theologians during the time of the Renaissance.  David Lines affirms that one issue of debate in this period was the notion of the goal of all things:

which Aristotle described at the beginning of the Ethics as tagathón (“the good”).  Bruni’s [Leonardo Aretino] translation of this expression as summum bonum … was often followed well into the sixteenth century.  But it also raised questions and objections.  After all, if moral philosophy really deals with the supreme good, how does it differ from metaphysics and theology? And to what extent could one really expect a pagan such as Aristotle to be cognizant of Christian truth?

Vermigli seems to tie his interpretation of τἀγαθόν as the “good itself,” as opposed to summum bonum, to his belief that the pagan philosopher does not know the good as God per se in his search for the good as his final end. In other words, his translation is not abstracted from a real doctrinal issue. He notes:  “The difference between us and pagan philosophers is that they suggest the ultimate end should be achieved by one’s own virtue and zeal, whereas we say on the basis of divine scripture that the supreme good [summum bonum] cannot be obtained unless we are assisted by the spirit and grace of Christ.”  (ibid, 41.) In this passage Vermigli appears to limit the translation summum bonum to that particular end which may only be realized through the assistance of Christ. Thus, Vermigli distinguishes summum bonum from “the good itself” in order to clearly differentiate between the final end as understood by the pagan philosophers and the final end as it is revealed in the scriptures, an idea that he sees exemplified by the rules of Greek grammar.   

Moerbeke's Translation of book 7 of Aristotle's Metaphysics
Moerbeke's Translation of book 7 of Aristotle's Metaphysics

Thomas Aquinas’s exegesis of Aristotle’s τἀγαθόν is similar; although, he was unfamiliar with the Greek text and depended upon a Latin translation that rendered the term summum bonum. Instead of the humanist ethos that provoked study of the original languages Thomas did not have a functioning knowledge of Greek and relied on William of Moerbeke’s Latin translation of Aristotle’s Ethics. Like Vermigli, Thomas also makes a distinction between the different desires of particular beings, and, although beasts lack the type of desire that comes with knowledge, they also tend toward the good via the guiding knowledge of the “divine intellect.”  (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I.1.11) Aristotle’s summum bonum does not imply a single good that all things desire but refers to the good in general.  However, Thomas’s interpretation falls into the realm of Vermigli’s critique in his statement, “because nothing is good except insofar as it is a likeness and participation of the highest good [summum bonum], the highest good itself is in some way desired in every particular good.” (ibid) However, this evidence does not demonstrate a substantial theological difference between Thomas and Vermigli, because Thomas’s method of commenting on Aristotle primarily consists of finding the truth for the instruction of the theologian and only secondarily consists of determining authorial intent. In fact, “Thomas places himself explicitly in the Christian perspective and arranges things so as to have the Philosopher speak of the contemplative faculty in which Thomas himself sees the happiness of beatitude.”  (Jean-Pierre Torrell, St. Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1, 228) Also, Thomas’s assertion that the summum bonum is desired in every particular good “in some way” is ambiguous and does not appear to differ per se from Vermigli’s statement that the pagan philosopher seeks God per accidens, not per se, in seeking the common good.

In conclusion, one can see the benefits of a new age and development of scholarship that was the Renaissance. Vermigli remained a follower of the via antiqua, but his acceptance of certain humanistic principles and alacrity to follow the interpretation of humanist philosophers rendered him more capable to determine the proper relationship between philosophy and theology.