Simone Porzio (†1554): An Aristotelian between Nature and Grace

Paul Grendler reviews a recent monograph from a work by Eva del Soldato on Simone ImagePorzio (Simon Portius in Latin) that sheds a bit more light on this important Renaissance philosopher. Portius was infamous in the 16th century for denying, along with his teacher Pietro Pomponazzi, that one may prove the immortality of the soul by rational demonstration. Needless to say there was little tolerance for this view in the rest of Europe at that time where his conclusion that reason cannot prove the immortality of the soul was seen as the equivalent of denying the immortality of the soul outright. Soldato, Grendler tells us, explains that Porzio’s philosophy was a bit more complicated than that:

Born in Naples, Porzio studied with Agostino Nifo and obtained doctorates of arts and medicine in 1520 and theology in 1522 at the University of Pisa. He taught at the University of Pisa until 1525, then natural philosophy at the University of Naples from 1529 to 1545, natural philosophy at the University of Pisa from 1545 to 1553, after which returned to Naples and died in 1554. In his second Pisan period he enjoyed the favor of Duke Cosimo I and participated in the activities of the Accademia Fiorentina, where he associated with Giambattista Gelli, who translated some of his works into Italian.

It is true that Porzio was a strict Aristotelian who argued strongly that the soul was mortal. But in other works, including lectures available only in manuscript, he addressed different topics and offered a wider range of views. In treatises on love and Petrarch’s poetry Porzio saw love in Aristotelian terms as unrestrained passion and a form of living death in which man loses reason. He concluded that the solution was faith in Christ, and the gift of faith depends on grace. In several short works based on Aristotle’s zoological works Porzio demonstrated his philological skill and knowledge of the ancient Greek commentators on Aristotle. He argued that the pseudo-Aristotelian work De coloribus was written by the ancient Theophrastus. In a treatise on pain he argued that pain came from the dispositions of soul and body rather than sense experience.

Porzio exhibited a strong fideistic tendency in several short works that dealt with ethical-theological concerns. In a short treatise on celibacy, Porzio wrote that although marriage is the solution for concupiscence, it was different for a priest, who was higher than a common man. Porzio showed the influence of Desiderius Erasmus and, possibly, evangelical views coming from Juan de Valdés, in treatises on prayer and the Our Father. In his Pisan lectures on Aristotle’s De anima Porzio expressed doubt about purgatory, for which there was no scriptural support, and Lenten fasting.

~ Paul F. Grendler, “Un aristotelico tra natura e grazia (review),” The Catholic Historical Review 98:2 (April 2012).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Birth of Scholasticism in Renaissance Italy

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

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

A Brief Bio of Jerome Zanchi: Italian Reformer

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

Early Years and Conversion:

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

Professor of Divinity in Strasbourg:

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

Pastor of an Italian Congregation:

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

Professor of Divinity in Heidelberg and Christian Apologist:

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

Move to Neostade and Death:

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

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.