Siger of Brabant on the Eternity of the World & Epistemology

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I happen to be reading through various Medieval texts on the question of the eternity of the world, so I’ll deposit a few thoughts here as I go along. I will be revisiting Bonaventure and Aquinas on this issue in the coming weeks but for now my focus is on selections from King’s translation of Siger’s De aeternitate mundi.

Siger of Brabant’s reading of Aristotle presents a helpful contrast to Bonaventure’s view (which I will present sometime soon) because they both represent the various poles – one sided furiously loyal to Aristotle and the other to Plato.

Siger accepts Aristotle’s arguments from Physics 8 and De Generatione et Corruptione, namely, that the Universe is eternal, yet not “eternal” in the same way as the First Mover. The existence of the First Mover curbs the logical paradox of an infinite regress, thus placing a limit on finitude by means of the division between potency and act. However, the Universe is eternal in the same way that circular motion is eternal. Any “beginning” in circular motion must be preceded by another “beginning” and another and so on. Thus, individual species are also eternal. Any concept of a “first” man presupposes temporality and there could not have been a time before time when “man” would have not existed since time is the measure of motion and motion is circular.

From [§ 22] it follows that the human species, according to philosophers, always exists, and that it did not begin to exist at a time when it had not previously existed at all. For to say that [the species] will have begun to exist at a time when it had not previously existed at all is to say that some individual belonging to the [species] will have begun to exist, before which there existed no other individual belonging to that species. And since the human species is not caused in any other way, according to philosophers, save as having been generated through the generation of [one] individual before [another] individual, the [species] began to exist. Even though in every case everything generated begins to exist, still, [the species] begins to exist, since it did exist and previously had existed. (De aeternitate mundi, I.24.)

This is all quite perplexing partly because “eternity” strains the capacities of reason.

Now, what if we add a further complication to this in order to understand what the implications of this doctrine of the eternity of the world would have on the doctrine of God or the Prime Mover? It seems that for Siger – and as it appears for Aristotle also – the Prime Mover, defined as “thought thinking on thinking” (nous noêsis noeseôs) does not comprehend the totality of existing things within itself without those things simultaneously (if that word works) existing as individuals sempiternally. In other words the Prime Mover does not create based on “forms” that preexist as perfections of the things existing in reality but rather knows itself in the manner of a species within the existing individual species. The division between Prime Mover and “species” is purely logical just as the division between thought, thinking, and thing thought is purely logical. I’d be happy to entertain correction to my reading of Siger but, as it stands, it seems to me that his interpretation of Aristotle represents a more nominalist epistemology than realist of any variety.

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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.

Platonic Reasoning as Cure for Materialism: W.G.T. Shedd’s Ontological Argument

It is often quite difficult to trace the influences upon a particular author’s opinion. To use the labels ”Platonic” or “Aristotelian” as the means for discovering the school of thought to which the author belongs can be a dubious method. Many ideas seem Platonic when they are actually essential aspects of religions that would claim no relation to Platonism or Neo-Platonism. And, just because one accepts Platonic ideas does not mean he/she is not Aristotelian in other matters or that he/she belongs to a particular “school” of thought. The case is more clear in authors such as Augustine and Anselm who both tell us that they have read Plato (or Plotinus) and consider the Platonic philosophy to be the most accurate and beneficial philosophy for the explanation of Christian theology.

In the case of W.G.T. Shedd, the conservative 19th century American Presbyterian theologian author of the famous three-volume Systematic Theology, his philosophical influences are quite clear. In the 1884 edition of the Presbyterian Review Shedd offers a defense of Anselm’s classic ontological argument for God’s existence. Not only is Anselm’s a priori method Platonic, depending upon the notion of God as Being which is knowable apart from the senses – not to mention the fact that Plato was the only philosopher available to thinkers in Anselm’s day –  but Shedd’s interpretation and defense of this argument is also Platonic, drawing upon the thoughts of Platonists who post-date Anselm.

Shedd begins his discussion noting that the Reformers and divines of the 16th and 17th centuries favored the ontological argument. Among these learned churchmen are the Cambridge Platonists – Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and John Smith – who used Anselm’s argument in their battle against the materialism of Thomas Hobbes. Shedd defends the a priori method taking his queues from these men. He notes that the present judgment against this defense of God’s existence is erroneous:

May it not be that the present absorption in the study of visible and material objects has unfitted the mind for the study of ideas, by blunting the keenness of metaphysical conception, so that the needle’s point of the a priori argument is missed, and it is pronounced to be inconclusive? Be this as it may, it will certainly do no harm to the cause of truth, to consider the form and force of this old argument for the being of God. (p. 213)

One of Shedd’s major points in this article cuts against materialism and Kantian subjectivism, the point that if the subjective existence of God is more real than the objective existence – which Shedd notes is the current argument against Anselm’s reasoning – then the presupposed “matter” of materialism will itself be more real subjectively than objectively and thus “the certainty of the material world is gone.” (ibid.) In other words, if one’s idea of “matter” need not correspond to any matter in reality, then one’s knowledge of the material world will not be certain. The same is the case with the idea of God. This assumption rests on the saying of Augustine that, “God is more truly thought than he is described, and exists more truly than he is thought.” In fact, Shedd says of the material world that it is but a shadow when compared with the essence of God, an argument similar to that C.S. Lewis uses against the Pantheistic idea that “spirit” is less than “matter” in Miracles. One element of Anselm’s argument that Shedd praises is his realization that necessity of existence is an attribute of being. It can be affirmed of one being and denied of another. Necessity is a higher attribute of being than contingency, a distinction which differentiates creature from Creator and implies the dependency of the former upon the latter. Quoting the Puritan and Platonist John Howe, Shedd furthers his point that a priori reasoning leads to certain knowledge of God. “It is truly said,” remarks Howe,

of all created things, that their non esse is more than their esse; that is, they have more no-being than being. It is only some limited portion [degree] of being that they have; but there is an infinitude [infinite degree] of being which they have not. And so coming infinitely nearer to nothingness than to fulness of being, they may well enough wear the name of ‘nothing.’ ‘All nations before him are as nothing, and they are counted to him less than nothing’ (Isa. xl. 17). Wherefore the First and Fountain-Being justly appropriates to himself the name I Am, yea tells us, He is, and there is none besides Him; therebye leaving no other name than that of ‘nothing’ unto creatures. (ibid., 216, quoting Howe.)

For Shedd, not only has the materialistic philosophy of his age spoiled the collective Reason so that men look askance at a priori reasoning, but the rejection of this type of argument, Anselm’s specifically, hides a more fundamental rejection of the hyperousia characteristic of God’s nature. If God is hyper-real, if he is Being itself, then he is that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought and so existence is presupposed in the first premise. Shedd even finds evidence in the Scriptures to defend Anselm, reading Exodus 3:13 in a Platonic light:

The truth that absolutely perfect being is necessary being is taught in the revealed name of God. The ontological argument has the endorsement of inspiration. The Hebrew Jehova, in Ex. iii. 13, denotes necessity of existence . . . To give a name, in both Hebrew and the Greek intuition, is to describe the inmost and real nature of the thing. Plato, in the Cratylus (390), represents Socrates as saying that “the right imposition of names is no easy matter, and belongs not to any and everybody, but to him only who has an insight into the nature of things.” The nomenclature given by the unfallen man to the objects of nature (Gen. ii. 19, 20) implies a deep knowledge of nature. And when the deity chooses before all others the name I Am, or Jehovah, for himself, the reference is to his absoluteness and perfection of being. The ethnic names in distinction from the revealed name of the deity, imply attributes, not essence . . . [T]he Hebrew, divinely taught upon this point, chose a term which does not refer to a particular attribute, but to the very being and essence of God, and teaches that the deity must be, and cannot be conceived of as a nonentity. (ibid., 223)

Therefore, even the scriptures approve and require that the idea of God as Being implies a necessary being. In the Shleiermacherian manner, Shedd refers to this idea of God as man’s natural God-consciousness, which must have an objective referent; otherwise it would make as much sense as having the ability of smell with no existing object that can be perceived through the sense of smell. “The subjective requires the antithetic objective . . . in order to escape the absurd supposition that something comes from nothing, or that there is an effect in consciousness without any cause of it.” (ibid., 225)  Surely we may be able to imagine beings that do not exist. But, the absolutely perfect Being is not an object of the imagination but that of reason.

Any one who will examine it [the idea of the absolutely perfect Being], as he finds it in his consciousness, will immediately perceive that it is not a construction of his fancy, like the idea of a winged lion; or of his imagination, like the abstract conception of a house. These latter are attended with the conviction of their unreality, not of the reality. We know that there is nothing objectively correspondent to them. No man is influenced in the least by such ideas. A winged lion, like the heathen idol, “is nothing in the world.” Such purely subjective notions inspire no fear. But not so with the idea of God. “I thought of God, and was troubled,” is true of every man. There has never been a human being old enough to fear, but what has feared the Supreme Being in some way or other. The idea of the deity causes terror sometimes in the atheist himself. But if it were not the representation of a tremendous reality, it would produce no such effects the world over. (ibid., 225.)

Another proof that the idea of God must have an objective referent is the fact that the idea of “self” or “person” demands the existence of one’s own “self” or “person” in actu which in turn demand the existence of God’s “person.” “No man can believe that he is an ego, without believing that God is another ego – the I Am. The attributes of finite personality, namely, freedom and accountability, imply and necessitate the attributes of infinite personality, namely, sovereignty, justice, and omnipotence.” (ibid., p. 225)

Furthermore, Shedd replies to an objection that this idea of God which all men may know does not and should not take away from the mystery of God. If God is the really-Real Being that establishes the basis of all other being then his essence will inevitably be infinitely beyond man’s capacity to trace. This fact is proven with a quotation from the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, who says:

It is indeed true, that the deity is more incomprehensible to us than anything else whatever: which proceeds from the fulness of his being and perfection, and from the transcendency of his brightness. But for this very same reason may it be said also, in some sense, that he is more knowable and conceivable than anything else; as the sun, though by reason of its excessive splendor it dazzle our weak sight, yet is notwithstanding far more visible, also, than any of the nebulosae stellae, the small, misty stars. (ibid, p. 226., quotting Cudworth)

So, we must maintain the mysterious nature of God but because he is as knowable as the sun’s light is intense we cannot rule out philosophical proofs of his existence, like Anselm’s ontological argument. Yet, we must admit that our own finitude renders our intellects week when exposed to the brightness of the divine Intellect. Thus, Shedd concludes his discussion of a priori reasoning calling on his readership to think like Anselm.

The a priori argument is of uncommon importance in an age inclined to materialism. For it turns the human mind in upon itself and thereby contributes to convince it of the reality of mind, as a different substance from matter. The neglect of a priori methods, and overvaluation of a posteriori, is one of the reasons why matter has so much more reality for many men than mind has. If an object is not considered, it gradually ceases to be regarded as an object at all. When theorists cease to reflect upon purely mental and moral phenomena, they cease to believe that there are any. The gaze of the materialist is intent upon the physical solely . . . What is needed is, the cultivation of philosophy in connection with physics; of a priori methods along with the a posteriori . . . Those a priori methods, consequently, which dispense with physical sensation and outward sensuous observations, are best adapted to convince of the reality of an invisible and immaterial entity like the human spirit, and its infinite antithesis and corresponding object the Eternal Spirit. (ibid., 227)

Shedd’s defense of Anselm came in the era of August Comte and Charles Darwin, an era that saw an increased emphasis on matter in the light of new methods in natural science. His training under the Christian transcendentalist James Marsh, who was himself a disciple of Samuel Taylor Colleridge, most likely shaped his thought toward an a priori method. These presuppositions most likely facilitated his reading of Plato, Anselm, and the Cambridge Platonists.  The battle of the latter against Thomas Hobbes and the materialists of their day probably hit home with Shedd, who found himself doing theological and philosophical battle with materialists of a new and more radical breed.

In some camps rational arguments for God’s existence are seen in a negative light. Some think these arguments only function to lead unbelievers to a purely abstract idea of God, one that has no objective referent. Yet, as Shedd has demonstrated this disagreement assumes that the idea of “that-than-which-nothing-greater-exists” is not a necessary being, whereas Anselm and Augustine originally thought of God as the most Real and concrete Being. Poetry has never written a poem, only poets; but God created poets. Surely Shedd would agree with Lewis that God is trans-concrete and trans-corporeal because existence is his nature.

It almost goes without saying that the Reformed world needs more scholars such as W.G.T. Shedd. We also need to remember men such as he and consider the sources that influenced them and cease to be afraid that “pagan” thinking will lead us astray. In my experience, it is the lack of such sound philosophy that has led theologians to erroneous conclusions. Perhaps a more “Platonic” education will help in the current battle against atheism in both the ecclesiastic and public spheres.

Girolamo Zanchi Uses Aquinas as Authority

In the following passage Jerome Zanchi, the Italian Reformer and friend of Peter Martyr and Zacharius Ursinus, appeals to the authority of Thomas Aquinas to demonstrate the orthodoxy of his own definition of original sin (something Peter Martyr also did). This definition assumes the correctness of the concept of original righteousness and the inherited guilt that accompanies the loss of that ontological status. Although Zanchi refers to Thomas as Scholasticus he places the current paragraph under the heading Confirmatio sententiae ex Patribus (confirmation from the opinions of the Fathers).

Thomas Aquinas eandem secutus est docrinam, & clarissime explicat, eum alibi tum in Quaestionibus disputatis, quaest. 4. de peccato originali, aritculo primo. Ubi concludit de actuali inobedientia Adae, eam convenire toti humano generi & singulis hominibus, quatenus omnes fuimus unum & sumus eum Adamo. Quod enim ille admisit, non illud eum admisisse ut privatum hominem, sed ut totius humani generis caput: quemadmodum etiam justitiam originalem non acceperat ut privatus homo, & sibi soli; sed ut pater omnium hominum, & nobis omnibus. Constat igitur nomine peccati originalis venire non solum justitiae originalis privationem naturaeque corruptionem, sed simul cum reatu & culpa inobedientiae Adami. Imo ideo cumprimis peccatum originale appelatur, quia omnes homines in Adamo tanquam in sua origine peccarunt. Sed interim non negatur altera ratio, nempe, quia quisque ex vitiosa origine peccatis concipitur nasciturque filius irae. Eadem doctrinam confirmant etiam alii seniores Shcolastici… (Zanchius, Commentarius in Apostolam Sancti Pauli Ad Ephesios, pp. 234, 235)

Translation:

Thomas Aquinas followed the same doctrine, and explains it most clearly in other places and in the Disputed Questions, quest. 4 concerning original sin, article one. Where he concludes concerning the actual disobedience of Adam that it unites the whole human race and every human being,  insofar as everyone was and is one with Adam. For although he committed this crime, he did not do it as a private individual but as the head of the whole human race: just as he did not receive original justice as a private individual or by himself; but as the father of all human beings, and for us all. It is agreed therefore that by the name “original sin” comes not only a privation of original justice and corruption of nature, but also the accusation and guilt of Adam’s disobedience. By all means therefore the first sin is called “original”, because all men sin in Adam as it were in their “origin.” But in the meantime another reason is not denied, namely, that whoever is conceived in sin from vicious origin is also born a son of wrath. Other older Scholastics confirm the same doctrine…

Many of those who consider themselves theologians in the Reformed tradition believe the Reformed position on Adam’s original state is antithetical to that of the Scholastics, positing a legal/ontological dichotomy between the language of “guilt” and that of “nature.” Here Zanchi shows no such dichotomy.

David Pareus de Creatione ex Nihilo

Pareus de creationeDavid Pareus, German theologian of the 17th century, defined creation as did the scholastics before him. He says:

Definitur autem Creatio a theologis scholasticis, quod sit productio seu emanatio totius Entis a causa universali, quae est Deus. (Pareus, Theses de creatione rerum, XVIII)

But creation is defined by the scholastic theologians as, that which is a product or emanation from the universal cause of all Being, which is God.

The scholastics inherited the concept of emanation from the Neo-Platonic commentators on Aristole and from Philo, the latter of whom Pareus does not follow. Yet, Pareus, either wittingly or unwittingly, follows the same interpretation, bringing a Christianized Platonic reading into Reformed doctrine. He continues, quoting Aquinas in refutation of the slogan “nothing is made from nothing”, a slogan used against the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

Illud igitur Physicorum principium: Ex nihilo nihil sit: creationem non evertit: quia, ut Thomas loquitur, tantum est verum de emanatione effectuum particularum a causis particularibus, quas necesse est praesupponere aliquid in sua actione: quia agunt per motum: hoc est, tantum verumest de effectis causarum secundarum, naturae vel artis, quae non possunt fieri absque materia praeeistente, propter causarum imbecillitatem. Non autem est verum de effectis causae primae immediatis aut etraordinariis, ut sunt prima ipsius naturae ex nihilo productio, aut iam productae miraculosa immutatio, virtute Dei facta. (Theses de creatione rerum, XXXV.)

Thus from the principle of the Physici: Nothing is made from nothing: creation is not abandoned: because, as Thomas says, it is only true concerning the emanation of particular effects from particular causes, which necessarily presuppose something in their own action: because they act by motion: that is, it is only true concerning the effects of secondary causes, of nature or art, which are not able to be made apart from preexistent matter, because of the weakness of causes. But it is not true concerning the effects of the First Cause, either immediate or extraordinary, so the first things of nature itself are produced from nothing, or produced by miraculous immutation, made by the power of God.

Here, Pareus follows a scholastic and thoroughly Aristotelean concept of exemplar causes. Augustine spoke of the Platonic ideas as exemplar causes, Vermigli followed him, and Pareus follows the scholastic interpretation of Aristotle with a certain tinge of Neo-Platonism.

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.

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.