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.

Aquinas on Civic and Infused Virtue

A human being is not only a citizen of the earthly city, but is also a member of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, which is governed by the Lord and has as its citizens the angels and all the saints, whether they are already reigning in glory and at rest in their homeland, or still pilgrims on earth, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, “You are fellow-citizens of the saints and members of the household of God”, and so on. But for us to become members of this heavenly city, our own nature is not enough; we need to be lifted up to this by the grace of God.  For it is clear that the virtues of a human being qua member of this city cannot be acquired just through what is natural to him. These virtues, therefore, are not caused through our actions, but infused in us by God’s gift.  (Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on the Virtues, pp. 54, 55)

Aquinas is here making a distinction that he obviously gets from Augustine’s distinction between the earthly city and the heavenly city in his City of God.  As I’ve shown in previous posts this notion was picked up by Peter Martyr and Martin Luther.  This distinction between the good coram humano and the good coram Deo was also used by John Calvin and many others within the Reformed world. This should help demonstrate Frederick Copleston’s thesis that a stark dichotomy should not be seen between Augustine and Aquinas. Aquinas used Aristotle to systematize what he considered to be a thoroughly Augustinian Theology.

De Justificatione ex Sola Fide: Luther’s Rescue of Theology from Philosophy

It is true that Martin Luther had more than his share to say in denunciation of Pagan philosophers, especially Aristotle.  However, one should always seek to discover the context surrounding a particular theologian before defining that person’s “system of thought” or “theological meta-narrative.”  Theology done in this manner is minimalistic – the idea that if I know what X thought about Y then I don’t need to read X on Z to know what X thinks about Z. 

Concerning Luther, Heiko Oberman points to his training in Nominalism at Erfurt which may have been the source of his disdain for philosophy.  However, Oberman also notes that Luther critiqued both the via moderna and the via antiqua as neither allowed their philosophy to be guided by the Word of God. Luther reacted to a hyper-dependence on Aristotle, “Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself.” 

Contemporaries immediately recognized the import of the attack, as Aristotle, who had become academic theology’s great authority in the course of the thirteenth century, had provided the terminology and categories used to establish the central concepts of the Holy Scriptures and Church doctrine: God is the “prime mover”; the soul, as “form,” determines the human being; justification takes place through the “infusion of “the power of grace”; the sacrament of the mass transforms the “substance” of bread and wine; man is “free” to decide between good and evil.  Gaining a critical grasp of all these basic notions and finding new biblical terms for them was to cost Luther years. (Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, p. 160)

Although I agree with Oberman’s assessment of Luther’s attitude toward philosophy I do not think that Luther thought of philosophy as completely useless for the church.  I believe that he considered it one of his main tasks to rescue the church from what he considered the infiltration and imposition of philosophy upon theology. He still thought in “Greek” terms of form and matter, substance, accident, etc. and he even agreed with Aristotle at points using him to correct his opponents.  

Evangelicals and Reformed folks point to Luther not only for their understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone but for their own identity.  The battle cry of many conservative Reformed folks is “justification by faith alone is the Gospel.” This (I would say minimalist) articulation of the Gospel is exclusive.  If works of any sort intrude into the systematic formula the Gospel has been compromised. If the ordo salutis is tampered with the integrity of that salutus is put in jeopardy. As Reformed Christians many use the doctrine of justification to exclude anyone who is not Reformed from the faith in order to secure his/her own identity as one of the elect.    

Where the doctrine of justificatione ex sola fide for Evangelicals and for the Reformed tends to be the answer to the question “why am I not Catholic?” for Luther it provided the answer to a much more important question: “what ever happened to the supernatural nature of salvation?”  For Luther the Roman Catholic version of Justification was a secularization of the Sacra Doctrina of Jesus and St. Paul. If works make a man righteous before God then the line between the sacred and the secular has become transparent.  Luther writes in his 1535 Lectures on Galatians

The sophists, as well as anyone else who does not grasp the doctrine of justification, do not know of any other righteousness than civil righteousness or the righteousness of the Law, which are known in some measure even to the heathen.  Therefore they snatch the words “do,” “work,” and the like, from moral philosophy and from the Law, and transfer them to theology, where they act in a way that is not only evil but ungodly.  Philosophy and theology must be carefully distinguished. Philosophy also speaks of a good will and of right reason, and the sophists are forced to admit that a work is not morally good unless a good will is present first. And yet they are such stupid asses when they proceed to theology.  They want to prescribe a work before the good will, although in philosophy it is necessary for the person to be justified morally before the work. Thus the tree is prior to the fruit, both in essence and in nature. They themselves admit this and teach that in nature being precedes working and that in ethics a good will is required before the work.  Only in theology do they reverse this and put a work ahead of right reason. (Jeroslav Pelikan, ed. p. 296)

Thus Luther sees the Roman Catholic doctrine of Justification as a confusion between the roles of philosophy and theology and even a misinterpretation of philosophy.  By using the terms “do”, and “work” in their philosophical sense to explain justification the secular realm has encroached upon the sacred to the detriment of the supernatural.  He continues, demonstrating the role works do play in theology:

Therefore “doing” is one thing in nature, another in philosophy, and another in theology.  In nature the tree must be first, and then the fruit.  In moral philosophy doing means a good will and right reason to do well; this is where the philosophers come to a halt.  Therefore we say in theology that moral philosophy does not have God as its object and final cause, since Aristotle or a Sadducee or a man who is good in a civic sense calls it right reason and good will if he seeks the common welfare of the state and tranquillity and honest.  A philosopher or a lawyer does not ascend any higher.  He does not suppose that through right reason he will obtain forgiveness of sins and eternal life, as the sophist or the monk does.  Therefore a heathen philosopher is much better than such a self-righteous person, because he remains within his limits, having in mind only honesty and tranquillity, and not mixing divine things with human. The sophist does not act this way.  He supposes that God pays attention to his good intention and his works.  Therefore he mixes human things with the divine and pollutes the name of God; these things he obviously draws from moral philosophy, except that he abuses this worse than a heathen does […] This is how you must answer all the passages of Scripture about works, in which our opponents stress the words “working” and “doing”:  These are theological terms, not natural or moral ones.  If they are natural or moral, they are taken according to their usage.  But if they are theological, they include right reason and a good will, which is incomprehensible to human reason, blinded as it is at this point; and another reason must come into being, which is the reason of faith.  Therefore “doing” is always understood in theology as doing with faith, so that doing with faith is another sphere and a new realm, so to speak, one that is different from moral doing.  When we theologians speak about “doing,” therefore, it is necessary that we speak about doing with faith, because in theology we have no right reason and good will except faith. (Ibid., pp. 262, 263)

Because these “sophists” have blurred the line between civil “doing” and theological “doing” Luther reiterates this distinction between “doing” and “doing with faith.” The former is civil and is worthless before God whereas the second is a gift of the Holy Spirit and brings justification. Cain performed a good work that was moral but Abel performed a good work with faith.  What Luther is here arguing is a classic Medieval doctrine. Just as the unaided reason of man cannot attain the Beatific Vision the cardinal virtues without the addition of the theological virtues cannot reach justification.  Although the Roman Catholic church of his day also held to this distinction what Luther is implying is that the “sophist” position adds “doing” to the theological virtues and therefore negates the necessity of even having a category for the supernatural.  

I am inculcating these things so diligently in order to set forth the doctrine of faith clearly, so that you may be able to reply correctly and easily to the objections of our opponents, who confuse philosophy and theology and make theological works into moral works.  A theological work is a work done in faith; thus a theological man is a man of faith.  In like manner, a right reason and a good will are a reason and will in faith.  Thus faith is universally the divinity in the work, the person, and the members of the body, as the one and only cause of justification; afterwards this is attributed to the matter on account of the form, to the work on account of the faith. (Ibid., pp. 266, 267) 

Only with the divine gift of faith can man be justified.  Here, Luther is attempting to rescue the supernatural. A good analogy for how this works, he says, is given to us in the Person of Christ:

The kingly authority of the divinity is given to Christ the man, not because of His humanity but because of His divinity.  For the divinity alone created all things, without the cooperation of the humanity.  Nor did the humanity conquer sin and death; but the hook that was concealed under the worm, at which the devil struck, conquered and devoured the devil, who was attempting to devour the worm.  Therefore the humanity would not have accomplished anything by itself; but the divinity, joined with the humanity, did it alone, and the humanity did it on account of the divinity.  So here faith alone justifies and does everything; nevertheless, it is attributed to works on account of faith. (Ibid)

Just as Christ the man did not accomplish anything by himself but conquered death on account of the divinity so sinners are justified before God not based on civil righteousness but on account of the divine gift of faith, which (as Mannerma tells us) for Luther is the presence of Christ within the believer.  Thus one can see a bit more of the context of Martin Luther’s thought on Justification.  He was not seeking to do away with philosophy altogether but he was seeking to put it in its proper place. Philosophy as long as it remains the ancillae theologiae is welcomed by the theologian. However, when moral philosophy encroaches upon theology and the faculties of man are given more power than which they are naturally endowed philosophy must be shown its place as subordinate to theology and the doctrines of the pholosophi must be refuted.  For Luther as soon as “doing” is added to justification one has replaced theology with philosophy and therefore justification coram Deo with justification coram humano.