Marsilio Ficino on Divine Accommodation

Ficino Epitaph in Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy
Ficino Epitaph in Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

Marsilio Ficino inherited many philosophical principles both from the Medievals and from the ancient Platonists that he wished to emulate. One of these principles is quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur, that is, “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” In application to theology this means that divine knowledge is received by the angelic intellect in a specific angelic mode (i.e., by pure intellection) and by humans in a specifically human mode (i.e., through concepts abstracted from sensible qualities). In his commentary on Dionysius’s Divine Names, Ficino explains this principle as a necessary outcome of the human duality of body and soul. Because the intellect must first gain sensible images from the senses in order to know immaterial realities, so it was necessary for God to accommodate the heavenly light to the human sensation of vision in his revelation of himself to man. He did this, argues Ficino, in the Holy Scriptures.

Ficino comments on the first book of the Divine Names, where Dionysius explains divine illumination which reveals a hidden tradition “at one with scripture.” I offer his comment in Latin with an English translation below. This passage, to my knowledge, has never been translated into English:

Facilius tutiusque divina videmus si mentis aciem ad eloquia sacra convertimus, quam si in ipsum Deum audentius dirigamus:

Quod lucet in Deo tanquam Solis mundani Sole, super essentiae & intelligentiæ limites, non tam perscrutari quam venerari debemus. Mentisque oculos immensam hanc lucem minime sustinentes, hinc ad sacras literas tanquam ad cœlos flectere. In quibus nomina sunt cognomentaque divina tradita divinitus, velut stellæ oculis nostris accomodatæ, ex quibus sane stellis nobis emicant propriæ Dei vires & appellationes laudesque divinæ, tanquam Solis, virtutes in stellis. Ex hoc denique sedulo pioque studio duo quædam potissima reportamus. Primum quidem, quod divinos radios hinc haurimus nostro ingenio congruentes. Secundum, quod divinum Solem radiorum eiusmodi sacrum fontem, ut Deo placet, rite laudamus. In nominibus appellationibusque divinis divinitus videlicet traditis, mirabiles latere virtutes, tum ad divina mysteria declaranda, tum ad mirabilia perpetranda Hebræi omnes existimant, & Zoroaster Iamblichusque confirmant.

~ Ficino, Opera II:1027-1028

Translation:

We will more simply and safely view divine things if we turn the vision of the mind to the Holy Scriptures, than if we more presumptuously steer into God himself.

We ought not so much investigate as worship the light which shines in God, just as the light of the sun of this world, beyond the limits of essence and intelligence, and we ought to turn the eyes of the mind (by no means holding this immense light) to the Holy Scriptures as to the heavens. In [the Scriptures] are the divine names and characteristics handed down by divine influence like stars accommodated to our eyes, because of which the particular divine powers, titles, and merits of God truly shine forth to us just as the powers of the Sun [shine forth] in the stars. From this we relay, in short, two most powerful [principles] to the one diligent and pious in devotion. First, we take in the divine rays from here in a manner suitable to our nature. Secondly, that we solemnly praise the divine sunlight, the sacred font of these rays, that it might please God. All of the Jews believe, and Zoroaster and Iamblichus confirm that wonderful powers lie hidden in the divine names and titles which were clearly and divinely handed down, whether for the sake of declaring divine mysteries or for accomplishing wonderful things.

Many modern interpreters of Ficino have labeled him as a philosopher to the exclusion of his theological writings. Others have recognized his devotion to “religion” and argued that Ficino promoted a purely naturalistic religion while excluding from the discussion his explicitly Christian theology most clearly propounded in his lengthy confession De Religione Christiana, which Amos Edelheit refers to as the “manual” of humanist theology. In his commentary on the Divine Names, Ficino shows his orthodoxy, which is partly why his commentary on the Corpus Dionysiacum was included in manuals of piety alongside the comments of other authorities such as Maximus and Eck.

Ohne Reformation kein Humanismus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhetoric as Divine Art: A Reformed Notion

Johann SturmThe lexicon is a deceptive source of information. It is incredibly useful but tends to commit one to bondage. For those who have attempted to learn one of the classical languages, the ultimate freedom comes in achieving the goal of breaking free of the lexicons and syntax books and reading the text with one’s own mind. In essence, the goal in learning a language is to create a habit of speaking/thinking in that tongue by transforming the mind into a sort of living and breathing lexicon-grammar-syntax.

For this and other reasons, Renaissance humanists held the commentaries produced by the scholastics of the Medieval Universities in high disdain. Activities such as producing commentaries on Peter Lombard’s Sentences preoccupied the mind with the opinions of other men rather than directing the student ad fontes, to the source of truth itself. Rather, students should be trained in linguistics and logic so that they may read the Fathers in the original tongue and do research without the limitation of a lexicon or the slippery opinions of some other man’s commentary. This ad fontes approach to education and scholarship is exemplified in the Reformers who while seeking to remove the barrier of clergymen that kept the “blood of Christ” from the mouths of the faithful were also seeking to remove the barrier of textual glosses and scholastic commentaries that separated the student and scholar from the original source.

Not only are there barriers in the realm of reading dead languages but barriers also exist for the spoken word, the art of Rhetoric. As moderns we often think of an artist as someone who is born with a gift. Beethoven was a childhood genius born with an incredible capacity for music, composing his first piece at the tender age of three years. Yet, the classic definition of “art” is an inward characteristic that comes through experience and training. Aristotle used the example of a harp-player. The good harp-player is the one who has a perfect knowledge of the correct strings to play at the correct time and has developed a disposition allowing him to bring that knowledge to actuality in the playing of a beautiful song. In a similar manner, the good rhetorician must have a knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and syntax coupled with the learned disposition that enables him to speak “off the cuff”, free from the aid of lexicons and speech aids. In other words the good rhetor must combine knowledge with skill.

Another innovation of Renaissance thought was the renewed emphasis and centrality of the art of rhetoric for the purpose of education and the pursuit of the common good. During this period the speculative sciences (particularly Metaphysics) were abandoned for the more practical sciences, such as Ethics. Figures such as Lorenzo Valla and Rudolph Agricola sought to combine Ethics and Logic with the art of Rhetoric. The goal of Ethics – the pursuit of the common good – was de-Platonized and applied to the civic sphere. With Dante Alighieri as a living example of the turmoil between Emperor and Pope at this time, the Renaissance humanists considered the education of young men to civic office to be of utmost importance for the survival of the state. Therefore, even Logic transformed to fit the agenda of the rhetor who must not only have the ability to rouse the emotions of the masses but most importantly, he must be able to persuade the mind while enflaming the heart as well.

The art of Rhetoric was considered the savior of Christendom. This may seem like an odd opinion to us moderns but, as Barbara Sher Tinsley argues, the art of eloquent speech was necessary in a society in which letters took days to reach their destinations and the persuasive power of mass media was hundreds of years in the distance.

[E]loquence was appropriate enough for an age in which, though books were relatively plentiful, the exigencies of policy making – often during periods of extended warfare – were such that the policy makers had little time for reading. Furthermore, the most difficult problems were not those which depended on knowledge so much as on opinion; for policy hinged on ethical and religious points of view more often than on technical circumstance. In late twentieth-century policy making, mass media serves the function of rhetorical eloquence with this difference: the media are less concerned with apt or elegant rhetoric. Instead, they emphasize speedy delivery, quantification, and visual impact. In the Renaissance, such opinion-molding factors were not readily available. (Tinsley, “Johann Sturm’s Method for Humanistic Pedagogy”, Sixteenth Century Journal XX, 1, 1989, p. 32.)

Rhetoric was considered a necessity for the well ordered society, particularly because the good rhetor held a tremendous power in his ability to sway public policy. This is also why Ethics was considered crucial for the eloquent speaker. Humanists of this period were not interested in merely producing flowery speeches with no substance, but sought to combine knowledge of the truth (Logic) and true practical wisdom (Ethics) with the art of eloquent speech (Rhetoric).

Many modern writers have claimed that the downfall of this humanistic pursuit came at the hands of the Protestant Reformers. Yet, the legacy of Johann Sturm (pictured above), rector of the Strasbourg Gymnasium and friend of Martin Bucer and John Calvin, fights against this notion. As Tinsley points out, Sturm’s program for the reform of education in Strasbourg was thoroughly humanistic. Sturm’s goal was to educate the youth in the liberal arts so that they might be able “to move freely about in all writers without an interpreter.” (De literarum ludis, 185) These authors included only classical authors: Vergil, Horace, Terrence, Plautus, Caesar, Sallust, and most importantly, Cicero. There was to be one class on catechetical instruction but the remainder of the student’s education would be from the classics. The impetus for this primarily pagan education was due to Sturm’s belief that he shared with other Reformers and Renaissance thinkers, the belief that the classical artists were divinely inspired. Tinsley notes:

[T]he approach to “godly things” and to religion was to be gained primarily by studying literature and language; to a lesser degree by studying Scripture and the apostles. Dogma as such (except for catechism) was largely ignored. how this learned piety affected pedagogy is difficult to determine, since the pedagogical writings offer little explanation. They do suggest that the emphasis was on classical authors, not Christian ones. Sturm held the traditional humanist attitude towards classical writers, which was that they were divinely inspired, hence, not opposed to Christian teaching. Indeed, they were necessary to understand God and his religion properly. (Tinsley, p. 29.)

For Sturm, a perfected Christendom will not be realized without the aid of the classics in directing Christians in the proper method of thought and speech. God has provided a helpful handmaiden for his church, a handmaiden who possess the divine secrets of a well-ordered society. According to Sturm, the loss of ornate speaking in a society signifies an ethical problem, laziness and self-indulgence. He follows other humanists in seeing the commentaries of the scholastics as we may see “cliff-notes” the bane of the English professor who wants to remove all temptations toward academic laziness (though he encouraged the reading of commentaries outside of school). There is a reason why a rhetor should steer away from Barbarisms. The Barbarians were an unethical and uncivilized people. For a man like Sturm, prudence and rhetoric walk hand-in-hand.

However, Sturm did not consider the education of his day as a “rebirth” of classical learning. He believed there to be much potential in Europe, yet he was not without his criticisms. He asks, “What if Socrates were living today?” and responds, “He could find nobody in letters and in that philosophy now whom he could compare with those [his contemporaries].” (On the Lost Art of Speaking, in Johann Sturm on Education, p. 123.)

To speak briefly, the minds of our people have been corrupted and the philosophy of living vitiated. For though many are gifted with ready understanding during adolescence, how few remain who are not softened by self indulgence, or if able to avoid that, remain in letters and do not turn to profitable arts before they have acquired even an elementary education? . . . Nothing is so inimical to study as self-indulgence and softness of the spirit, even though the former furnishes too weak a defense of our morals and the latter is believed to be the very reward of virtue and is for the most part desired. But not only … have vices and haste led us away from the good, but also inasmuch as Latin is not so highly regarded in the city-states as formerly, and is used only by a few and that faultily, that approach is not so feasible for elementary instruction as once was. And if it were, we have sill lost it: it is now more rude and less pleasing. This being the case, speech has also been changed and conversation once pure and Roman, ornate and learned, is now impure and foreign, rude and unlearned. (ibid., 125, 126)

Sturm may sound like an elitist in this diatribe against the lack of education in letters in his day, and especially for the castigation of Medieval Latin. Yet, we must remember that Sturm has a biblical view of human behavior. The external acts reflect that which is in the heart. A society that looks scornfully at or simply ignores the art of speaking a pure Latin tongue is a society that sees perfection as an easy pursuit and has satisfied itself with mediocrity. Sturm continues with an omen of things to come if the way of self-indulgence is pursued:

For since the use of eloquence is great in all the arts, especially in theology and political science, as long as we do not possess, properly practice or cultivate rhetoric, so long too shall we not see our people produce anything that is polished in speech, elaborated by industry, or ornamented by abundance and variety. (ibid.)

In other words, as long as we are satisfied with mediocre Latin and a mediocre language we will only be able to achieve a mediocre society, which, especially during Sturm’s day, is a society headed for destruction. Thus, Sturm made it his goal to reverse this poor situation and work on the reunification of Christendom through the education of the youth in pure Latin and rhetoric. He followed Crassus in implementing nine areas in which the faculty of speaking consists.

1) the nature of the mind and its capacity for learning 2) the education and teaching of youth 3) keener observation 4) the knowledge of letters 5) the habit of daily conversation 6) the reading of good authors 7) experience 8 ) memory and 9) continual study. (ibid., 123)

Sturm notes that these nine elements have become corrupted in his day and offers  the means of their restoration:

The first thing to do is to protect the mind from the corruption of desire and vice. Good teaching and the imparting of wisdom do not sort well with self-indulgence and depravity. If the last are avoided and the first promoted, excellent talent can be cultivated. The goodness of nature must be stirred up by the zeal and ardor of love in order to progress toward those ends for which good natures were born. All this must be done naturally so that the desire added is for diligence. For though nature cannot be given by friends, but is conferred together with life, youth is nevertheless encouraged by those whom it considers dear. This task pertains not only to parents, teachers and others involved either by necessity or connection, but indeed to those who care for the state as well. (ibid., 130, 131.)

Here Sturm reassures the reader that the most important aspect involved in the renewal of rhetoric is the curbing of the heart’s malicious desires and tendency toward self-indulgence. He also notes that education must be accompanied by the guidance of good friends, parents, and those who care for the state. By these means Sturm hoped to “create in adolescents the burning desire to excel in letters and the opportunity thus to earn rewards and praise.” (ibid.) Mainly through the imitation of the classical authors, children should be schooled in the correct use of the Latin tongue, in Ethics and Natural Philosophy, and most importantly, in the art of eloquent oration. Only by means of a classical education centered around the art of rhetoric, an art which frees the soul from textbooks and endows the student with the virtue of avoiding self-indulgence in thought and speech, only by this means will the commonwealth prosper. The feet of those who bring good news will tread upon Roman roads.

Sturm’s method was a tremendous success, influencing the creation of a number of similar schools across the continent and even influencing the tutor of Queen Elizabeth. It was only at the hands of the Lutherans and their antipathy toward all things Calvinistic that Sturm later lost his position as rector of the Strasbourg Gymnasium. Yet, by this time he had already guided the school for decades, training many in the ways of classical literature and learning. Sturm is an untapped resource for all of those interested in Christian and classical education in our day. Though not without errors, Sturm is an important thinker and protential influence for modern Christian and non-Christian educators, and he is an important figure for our understanding of the reform of educational practices among the Reformers of the 17th century.

The Birth of Scholasticism in Renaissance Italy

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

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

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.

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

Prometheus Brings Fire to MankindThe old view that the Renaissance humanists exchanged Aristotle for Plato in toto has been discredited for a long time now (see Kristeller). Sure, philosophers of the 16th century steered away from Aristotle’s metaphysics but at the same time they took up his writings on Logic and Rhetoric with renewed gusto. Philip Melanchthon’s opinion of Aristotle is interesting because he was a humanist, and because his magister theologicus, Martin Luther, was so adamantly against Aristotle. Melanchthon asserts that Aristotle was “divinely endowed with a heroic nature,” and concludes his 1537 address to the Masters students of Wittenburg:

I feel strongly that a great confusion of doctrines would follow if Aristotle, who is the one and only creator of method, were neglected. By no other plan can anyone learn method except by regular practice in the genre of Aristotelian philosophy. Wherefore I urge you, not only for yourselves, but for all posterity, to cultivate and preserve that best form of doctrine. Plato said that the fire that had been taken by Prometheus from the sky was method. But if that little fire is lost, men will be transformed back into beasts; for indeed if the true plan of teaching is removed, nothing will separate man from beasts. So then let us hold on to that fire, that type of doctrine that Aristotle handed down, and preserve it with the greatest zeal.

Melanchthon says that it would be a great tragedy and much confusion would follow if mankind neglected the philosophy of Aristotle. But, you might ask, if the church has the teachings of the prophets, of Christ, and of the apostles, do societies need the methods of Aristotle’s philosophy to keep order amongst what would be chaos? Melanchthon’s view, and that of the other Reformers, is that philosophy is the God-given tool by which the Magistrate orders life within the civil realm. The difference between good and bad, just and unjust, are known via the natural law and rulers create positive laws based on this knowledge. The natural law is the divine law written on the hearts of man and is practically the same as the Mosaic Law. And, without this natural knowledge and the science of philosophy that is built upon these natural principles, men would become beasts. Yet, Melanchthon also believed, as have the majority of theologians throughout ecclesiastical history, that philosophy is necessary for the protection of the church. And, not just any philosophy can do this. Only the methods derived from Aristotle’s works may preserve church unity. What are these methods and how do they safeguard the church? Melanchthon answers in his other address to the Master’s students in the year 1544:

I think that of all things the task of dialectic is the most important one in our church, for it properly informs our methods, defines correctly, divines properly, corrects fittingly, judges, and separates hideous connections. Those who do not know this method cut apart the matters to be explained the way cats tear rags. . . But someone may say: What good are Physics and Ethics to the church? This is really a Scythian question when it is asked in that way. Since it is right for the church of God both to be the most moderate and the most beautifully endowed with literature and art, these subjects may be understood as gifts of God, because they are of great use to the human race. . . Remember the insolent and Stoic confusions that come from the Anabaptists, who take all emotions from men and leave them without feeling. This error arises from an ignorance of physics, as if they said that they saw no distinction between good emotions, which are divinely implanted in the human heart and are called natural affections, and the depraved impulses or the unjust flames of the heart. . . Of the Ethics you yourselves know that true ethics is part of the divine law. . .

So, philosophy is the beautiful adornment of the church, without which, men fall into errors such as that of the Anabaptists, and without proper philosophy societies do not recognize the relationship between the natural law and the divine law that leads to discipline. The method that steers away from error is found in Aristotle’s dialectic, a possible jab at 16th century scholars such as Rudolf Agricola and Peter Ramus, who tried to reinvent dialectic around the art of Rhetoric. Melanchthon concludes this last speech by noting the reason why God gave man philosophy:

Nor in fact should it be doubted that these philosophical passages [of Aristotle and Cicero] … are useful for discipline. God wants us to look at nature, and has impressed his sign in it so that we may recognize him: he gave arts not only that they may be a support in life, but also that they may inform us of the order of its author, who is seen in numbers, in the motion of the heavens, in pictures and in that eternal and unchanging barrier set in the mind of man, namely in the judgment of good and bad: for that sweetest voice of Plato is correct when he says that the grace of God is scattered through the arts. Then let us love philosophy and know that it is to be used by the church to her great benefit, if it is used rightly. The minds of the pious would be thoroughly shocked if among the sacred things they saw the altars smeared with the sordid and filthy. It is no less evil to rush upon heavenly teaching barbarically, with inadequate knowledge of languages, history and arts, than it would be to desecrate sacred altars. Then let us cultivate studies of literature, language and honorable subjects, and give our work to the glory of God; and if we do that, it will be in God’s care, and will not lack rewards.

There are divine things within nature that may be discovered by all men. Contrary to what you may think he is doing with the image of the altar being smeared with unclean things, Melanchthon is actually continuing his line of thought, that when Aristotle’s method is abandoned or neglected, the “heavenly teaching” of philosophy is smeared with the “sordid and filthy.” And, in an apparent jab at the Scholastics, Melanchthon implies that heavenly teaching is distorted and the altars are smeared with filthy things when the pious possess an “inadequate knowledge of languages, history and arts.” Melanchthon was accused of being a rationalist because of his high praise of Aristotle, but when we look at nature from his perspective this accusation does not hold water. If nature glows with a divine light that is objective and if every man is part of that nature – man having the divine law written within him – then true and perfect philosophy, to which Aristotle came closer than any other pagan, is also divine and should be guarded for the welfare of both church and world. The torch which Prometheus took from the sky ignites “the minds of men with the power to think rightly.”

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.