John Calvin’s Aristotelean Cosmology

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

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

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

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

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

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Philosophy as Habitus

Sed videtur definienda, ut sit, Habitus mentibus humanis a Deo cocessus, industria et exercitio auctus, quo comprehenduntur omnia quae sunt, qua certo & firma ratione comprehendi possunt, ut ad felicitatem homo perveniat. (Commentaria D. Petri Martyris Vermilii … in Primum librum Ethicorum Nicomachiorum Aristotelis)

So it appears that it [Philosophy] must be defined as a Habit given by God to the minds of man, increased by diligence and performance, by which all things which exist are known, able to be understood by certain and firm reason, so that man may attain happiness.

Like Aristotle, Vermigli believed that philosophy was for the purpose of achieving happiness in this life, not purely for the inventions of the speculative intellect. Therefore, philosophy is inherently practical. That is one reason why Reformed Divines on the continent and beyond emphasized the teachings of Aristotle in their local Gymnasia.

Plato’s Theism and Martyr’s Humanism

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Vermigli on Man’s Natural Knowledge of the Final Judgment

The Last Judgment by Memling

God is set forth to be both mercifull and good, but yet in such sort, that his long sufferyng and patience have endes & limites. And by reason of this differryng of punishments which happeneth in thys lyfe, the Apostle is compelled to make mention of the last iudgement. Otherwyse, forasmuch as in this lyfe many are passed over unpunished, & others are most severly delt with all. God might be thought to deale uniustly. Wherefore he urgeth them wyth the feare of the last iudgement and affirmeth that the differryng of vengeaunce bryngeth more grevous punishmentes. Which thyng Valerius Maximus, an Ethenike writer speaketh of, that God by the grevousness of the punishment, recompenceth the long delaying thereof. Whereby it is playne, that Paule, disputing against the Ethenikes, which knew not the holy scriptures, reproved them by those thynges, which might be known by the lyght of nature. Wherefore there is a certayne naturall knowledge grafted in the hartes of men, touchyng the iudgement of God to come after thys lyfe: which thyng the fables also of the Poets declare, whiche have placed Minoes, Radamanthus, and Eacus as iudges in hel. Wherefore they shall be more grevously punished, which have bene the longer borne withall: because the contempt of God addeth no small waight unto theyr sinnes: which contempt semeth to have crept into them, whilest thy so long tyme despised his lenitie and patience. (Commentarie upon the Epistle to the Romanes, 50)

This passage is interesting for a couple of reasons:  1) Knowledge of “other-worldly” stuff is often confined to the realm of faith, but here Vermigli attributes the knowledge of a final reckoning of spiritual and physical affairs to the natural man. 2) Vermigli notes that Paul uses arguments from reason because the Greeks did not accept the authority of scripture. Some Reformed folks today would not admit such a style of argument to St. Paul, seeing it as a tacit admission of the basic coherence of the pagan’s position. Vermigli did not view rational argument through such a minimalist lens. Neither was he afraid to admit the possibility of coherence within the philosophy of the natural man. The point of using reason in this situation is not to find elements of agreement between two “worldviews” but to discover and demonstrate the pagan’s misuse of philosophy. In this case, Vermigli implies, Paul sought to demonstrate the contradiction of a natural knowledge of the final judgment coupled with a continued lifestyle of misconduct and rebellion against God.

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.