There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of blog posts and articles about the various ‘options’ that we Christians in America have for living in a world that repeatedly shows disdain for our values. If we are followers of Christ, we’ll admit our sin, and perhaps even, we’ll take some advice from an unbeliever. Seneca, writing at the same time as the birth of Christianity, has this advice for us (see here, pp. 227-231)
Athenodoros seems to have surrendered too quickly to the times, to have retreated too quickly. I myself would not deny that sometimes one must retire, but it should be a gradual retreat without surrendering the standards, without surrendering the honour of a soldier; those are more respected by their enemies and safer who come to terms with their arms in their hands.
What does Seneca think we should do then if our arms become useless against the might of the enemy and we have no choice left but to retreat?
If Fortune shall get the upper hand and shall cut off the opportunity of action, let a man not straightway turn his back and flee, throwing away his arms and seeking some hiding-place, as if there were anywhere a place where Fortune could not reach him, but let him devote himself to his duties more sparingly, and, after making choice, let him find something in which he may be useful to the state. Is he not permitted to be a soldier? Let him seek public office. Must he live in a private station? Let him be a pleader. Is he condemned to silence? Let him help his countrymen by his silent support. Is it dangerous even to enter the forum? In private houses, at the public spectacles, at feasts let him show himself a good comrade, a faithful friend, a temperate feaster. Has he lost the duties of a citizen? Let him exercise those of a man.
If we desire to be “great in soul” (a.k.a., magnanimous), Seneca explains, then a complete retreat is never an option:
The very reason for our magnanimity in not shutting ourselves up within the walls of one city, in going forth into intercourse with the whole earth, and in claiming the world as our country, was that we might have a wider field for our virtue […] If Fortune has removed you from the foremost position in the state, you should, nevertheless, stand your ground and help with the shouting, and if someone stops your throat, you should, nevertheless, stand your ground and help in silence. The service of a good citizen is never useless; by being heard and seen, by his expression, by his gesture, by his silent stubborness, and by his very walk he helps. As there are certain salutary things that without our tasting and touching them benefit us by their mere odour, so virtue sheds her advantage even from a distance, and in hiding.
One is reminded of St. Paul’s “you are the aroma of Christ.” If we have any concern for God’s Kingdom, any humility, then let’s be humbled by Seneca’s wisdom. Don’t retreat too quickly, and if retreat is necessary, do not be silent without being seen, without stubborn resistance. The whole world is our country, for Christ has given it to the meek.
According to Francis Rous, Westminster Divine, the learned scribe must, as Jesus says, bring both old and new things out of his storehouse. Since the question of renaissance is one of my favorite themes, I couldn’t pass up another blog post on Rous. Of course, the perennial question for theologians is, what old things are there to gather, and from whose storehouse do we draw our influence? Rous answers that the learned Scribe must constantly be searching nature for old things like an archeologist or a treasure hunter searching, digging, and hoping to uncover something old. The old becomes new in the moment of recovery and restoration. If he happens upon other diggers who have worked to uncover the artifacts of the past, he should use their knowledge and even use their instruments of recovery. Let the Gibeonites draw water into the Temple.
Having then so absolute, both a Patterne and a Teacher, let us boldly frame the character of our heavenly Scribe, to the shape both of this chiefe Doctor, and of his Doctrine. Accordingly wee will commend to our Scribe things both new and old (but the old first, because they are first) and after him who is Truth, will lay downe this true position; That toward the making of a learned Scribe, there is a great advantage to be gained by the gathering of old things into his treasurie. The Scribe that wil be learned, may be a gatherer of old things; and so let him be. Let him gather into his treasurie the things of Nature, yea gather a stock of them, and lay them up for his use, when he comes to the new. Let him know in a competent measure what is to be found abroad in the old Creation; yea, let him learne what is copied out of it by art and industrie, to serve him in the things of Regeneration: and if in this search he meet with the learning of the Aegyptians, he may carrie their jewels into his treasurie. Let an Heathen Logician or Philosopher, be his Gibeonite to cleave wood, and to draw water for his service in the Sanctuarie. Let the one divide, define, and order; and the other draw secrets from the depths of Nature, to serve the Lords servants in the Tabernacle. Let the precept and patternes of vertues, gathered from their doctrines and stories, serve for spurs and incentives to grace, to goe beyond the effects of Nature; and for exprobrations when shee doth it not. And let the languages both of the Unbeleever, and Mis-beleever, serve for keyes to open to new men, those mysteries which the old men see not, neither doe open to themselves, though the keies be in their hands (The Heavenly Academie, 4-6).
The true scribe is spurred on in search of Truth in every possible vessel because every vessel contains some of it. In this way he imitates the heavenly Scribe, who is his exemplar, and is able to become “all things to all men” as was St. Paul’s custom. So, let the scribe constantly confront what is new with the fresh eyes of ancient wisdom.
I’ve added a few new projects to my “Research Projects” page. The members of these projects are investigating topics that are pertinent to the issues normally featured on this blog and will prove interesting to anyone currently researching Early Modern history/theology/philosophy, virtue ethics, and/or virtue epistemology.
Saint Louis University: John Greco and Eleanore Stump are the directors for the project The Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility. Those familiar with their work will not be surprised by this multi-million dollar project devoted to research on virtue and epistemology:
Intellectual humility is an intellectual virtue, a character trait that allows the intellectually humble person to think and reason well. It is plausibly related to open-mindedness, a sense of one’s own fallibility, and a healthy recognition of one’s intellectual debts to others. If intellectual humility marks a mean between extremes, then related vices would be (on the one side) intellectual arrogance, closed-mindedness, and overconfidence in one’s own opinions and intellectual powers, and (on the other side) undue timidity in one’s intellectual life, or even intellectual cowardice. The Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility project will focus on a variety of philosophical and theological issues relevant to the topic of intellectual humility. This project aims to: (1) Gain a better understanding of the nature and value of intellectual humility. (2) Employ and develop recent empirical research on intellectual humility and related subjects, especially the empirical investigation being conducted under the aegis of Fuller Theological Seminary’s “Science of Intellectual Humility” project. (3) Investigate issues related to intellectual humility, such as its relation to other virtues and/or vices, its place in the broader context of virtue epistemology, the role of humility in disagreement, its connection to problems of religious pluralism, and its implications for issues of divine hiddenness. (4) Lay the groundwork for further research on how to foster greater intellectual humility in individuals and civil society.
Whether it is an awakening to a new faith, an induction into a religious cult or radical political movement, a sexual transformation, or the re-engineering of human beings as bio-mechanical “cyborgs,” conversion is a source of fascination and a focus of anxiety for people in the 21st century. We do not know if such conversions are inward turnings toward a better life or monstrous impositions upon unwitting victims. We cannot fathom how individuals or groups of people are able to convert to a new politics, religion, or way of life all at once and quite completely, as if they had never been other than what they have become. We would not want to part with the freedom of self-determination embodied in conversion, which seems to be its purest expression, even though we are troubled by what radical transformations tell us about the instability and changeability of human beings. The Conversions project will develop an historical understanding that will enlighten modern debates about corporeal, sexual, psychological, political and spiritual kinds of transformation. The project will study how early modern Europeans changed their confessional, social, political, and even sexual identities. These subjective changes were of a piece with transformations in their world—the geopolitical reorientation of Europe in light of emerging relations with Islam and the Americas; the rethinking and the translation of the knowledge of Greek and Latin Antiquity, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; changes in and changing uses of the built environment; the reimagining of God. Indeed, early modern people changed the world and themselves in ways that have been lost to view on account of the discipline-boundedness of much recent study of the past. By examining forms of conversion across disciplinary boundaries as a network of movements and transformations, we will develop an understanding of religious, cultural, and cognitive change that will provide a new account of early modernity and a foundation for a renewed understanding of the present age. The project will make use of new ideas about extended mind and cognitive ecologies. Cognitive ecologies are, according to team members John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble, “the multidimensional contexts in which we remember, feel, think, sense, communicate, imagine, and act, often collaboratively, on the fly, and in rich ongoing interaction with our environments.”
Cambridge University: The Cambridge Platonist Research Group, directed by Douglas Headley, Sarah Hutton, and David Leech aims to revive the study of this intriguing group of 17th century English philosopher-theologians who include Peter Sterry, Benjamin Whichcote, John Smith, Ralph Cudworth, and Henry More.
Cambridge Platonism is the term that has come to be used to identify the thought of a group of seventeenth-century English thinkers who had a major influence on modern thought, at a pivotal period in its development (between 1650 and 1830). The name (coined in the nineteenth century) derives from the fact that they were largely associated with the University of Cambridge and that there is a distinctively Platonist strand in their intellectual formation. The Cambridge Platonist Research group was set up in 2012 with the aim of reviving interest in the Cambridge Platonists and to initiate research into their thought and legacy. The initial step to furtherance of these aims was made possible thanks to generous funding of by the AHRC, which financed the project ‘Revisioning Cambridge Platonism’. This took the form of a series of workshops in 2013, which brought together scholars from across disciplines and across the world. The first outcome of these meetings was the establishment of an interdisciplinary network of scholars with research interests in the Cambridge Platonists. AIMS OF THE RESEARCH GROUP: (1) To maintain the network of people with research interests in the Cambridge Platonists. (2) To provide a forum for discussion of and disseminating information about the Cambridge Platonists. (3) Promote further research on all aspects of the thought and legacy of the Cambridge Platonists through the organisation of colloquia and editions of texts.
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
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.
This year marks the 45Oth anniversary of the death of Wolfgang Musculus, the famous 16th century theologian who was influential in the Reformation of the cities of Strasbourg, Augsburg, and Bern and whose Loci Communes (Common Places) was a very popular and influential theological work both on the continent and in England for hundreds of years after its first publication. I will be delivering a short address on Musculus this week in San Juan, Puerto Rico at the annual meeting of the Sixteenth Century Society Conference, thanks to the industriousness of Jordan Ballor who put all of the pieces together for a panel on Musculus at SCSC but due to unforeseeable circumstances did not come to fruition. Below is a brief excerpt of my presentation, “Cœna Mystica: Recollection and contemplation in the Eucharistic theology of Wolfgang Musculus”:
As Gottfried Locher convincingly argues in Zwingli’s Thought: New Perspectives, Zwingli’s concept of “memory” that is crucial to his eucharistic theology, should not be thought of as univocal with natural memory or recollection. Rather, Locher argues, recollection for Zwingli is more akin to Plato’s concept of anamnesis, propounded from the mouth of Socrates in the dialogues of the Meno and Phaedro. By means of these dialogues Plato affirms the famous theory that human souls existed in the World of Forms prior to their embodiment, that embodiment has clouded the mind of its previous knowledge, and that one must turn inward away from the senses by means of recollection in order to retrieve this knowledge. Thus, as Socrates explains, all learning is recollection. This concept was adopted by Augustine, who avoided the heretical notion of the preexistence of souls but maintained the concept of recollection as a turn inward to the Truth or Christ who dwells within the soul (cf. Augustine, De Magistro).
In his commentary on Matthew (In Evangelistam Matthaeum Commentarii, 1562) Wolfgang Musculus seeks to clearly differentiate his own theology from any eucharistic theology that would hold the sacramental signs to be merely symbolic or figurative or those that consider the ceremony of the “mystical supper” (‘cœna mystica’, a phrase adopted from the 1st Helvetic Confession) to be a mere memorial. Rather, he argues, with much reference to the writings of Bernard of Clairveaux that spiritual “recollection” is analogous but not univocal to natural memory. He explains that natural memory is powerful in that the soul is ‘lifted up’ [rapitur] by memories and ‘absorbed’ [absorbetur] into them, as the memory of a lost friend moves one to sadness and longing. The recollection that occurs in the Eucharist is similar to natural recollection, yet it differs in that the memories recalled are not purely natural and the result of the recollection is not an emotional experience but one that transcends the body. He explains:
(English translation below)
Si igitur tantae virtutis in rebus mundi est memoria, qua ratione non idem posset in animis Christi fidelium, qui credunt se morte Domini redemptos? Quomodo hic non raperetur animus totus, imò totus simul homo in hanc Christi dilectionem expendendam, laudemque debitam reddendam, ut iam non in terris, sed revera extra se in Christum translatus, dicere possit: Vivo iam non ego, sed vivit in me Christus? Ex hac scilicet Dominicae mortis memoria convalescit fides, spes, charitas, patientia. Ex hac refocillatur totus internus homo. Hinc animus rapitur ad agendas redemptori gratias. Hinc gaudium est & pax pacatae iam conscientiae, & custodia simul vitae nostrae, qua cohibeamur, ne denuò peccemus. Quis ergo dicet rem nihili esse, quae tantarum est virium? … Exemplo sunto duo euntes in Emaus, quorum corda ardebant, ubi de Christo, per Christum quidem, sed incognitum, sacrae scripturae expositionem audiebant. Orandum ergo pro fide vera & integra Christi dilectione. Illae si fuerint, sentiemus istam Dominicae memoriae efficaciam, abibimus alacriores ad quaevis adversa fide firmiores, ad veram pietatem instructiores. Excidet animis nostris omnis mundi vanitas, obtinebit sola Christi dilectio. In illo iucundabimur & pascemur, in illo vivemus & moriemur.
~ In Evangelistam Matthaeum Commentarii, 616.
If, therefore, memory is of such great power with regard to the things of the world, for what reason would the same not be possible with the souls of the faithful in Christ, who believe themselves to have been redeemed in the death of the Lord? How does this not lift up [raperetur] the whole soul, or rather, seize the whole man at once in the love of Christ that he seeks and in the appropriate praise that he returns, with the result that, not being on the earth but actually having been taken outside of himself [extra se] and transferred into Christ, he can say: It is no longer I who live but Christ lives within me? Because of this, that is the memory of the death of the Lord, faith, hope, charity, and patience gain their power. Because of this the whole internal man is revived. Hence the soul is lifted up [rapitur] to give thanks to its redeemer. Hence joy is both the peace of the pacified conscience and the protection of our life, by which we are restrained that we may not sin again. Therefore, who will call this nothing which is one of the greatest powers? […] An example [of the power of memory] are the two [on the road] to Emmaus, whose hearts burned when they heard the exposition of the holy scriptures about Christ, indeed through the help of Christ though they did not know it. If these things come to pass, we will understand the efficacy of this memory of the Lord, we will go forth more courageous, more firm in faith against every enemy, more skilled in true piety. [This memory] will destroy the vanity of the whole world in our souls, it will prevail by the love of Christ alone [sola Christi dilectio]. In this [memory] we will be delighted and fed, in it we will live and die.
For Musculus the recollection of Christ in the soul requires faith. Faith permits the believer to pierce beyond the veil of the sacramental signs, yet the desire of love (dilectio) is also a requisite element. In his locus on the supper in his Loci Communes Musculus notes that only those who partake with a “greedy desire of the grace of Christ and heavenly food” may eat of it. This desire, though already imparted through baptism, is rekindled in the Eucharistic ritual. Through the hearing of the words “sursum corda” the heart of the believer is made to ascend to heaven. The “uplifting” of the heart is triggered, for Musculus, by means of the act of remembrance or recollection. He argues that faith must be placed in the specific words “do this in remembrance of me.” By remembrance “the soul is called away from earth into heaven.”
Musculus uses the common language of the “husk” and “kernel” to describe the recollection of Christ in the supper. The faithful “chew the cud [ruminant] and renew in themselves Christ who dwells within them, and are fed and filled with his spirit.” In Plato’s Phaedrus Socrates describes those who have been captured by love (eros) as being taken outside of themselves through the recollection of the god which they imitate. For Musculus the love of Christ is rekindled in the hearts of the faithful when they recall his loving death and promise of future blessings because, “He that loves is more perfectly where he loves.”
In describing the “mystical supper” Musculus uses a variety of terms that were widely used by Medieval mystics. His use of mystical language (rapitur, absorbetur, translatus extra se, etc.), however, should not lead one to conclude that he held the body and the material world in disdain. Rather, Musculus was an avid reader of the Greek fathers – e.g., he refers to the Eucharist as synaxis in several places. Gregory of Nyssa used the phrase “sober inebriation” to describe the sort of disembodied exstasis of Christian experience. Just as the disciples at Pentecost were accused of drunkenness because of their reaction to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit yet were fully conscious and sober, so those who are united to Christ are simultaneously in the body and transferred to heaven all while maintaining an awareness of both realities. Those who participate in the Eucharist, for Musculus, do not lose their senses but transcend them by a sober awareness of themselves and Christ who is recalled out of the soul by faith and love after the hearing of the words of divine institution, Sursum corda (Lift up your hearts)!
Thomas Aquinas’s attempted solution to the problem of substance dualism (i.e., the mind/body connection) involved his use of Aristotelian language to define the intellectual soul as the “form” of the body. Yet, in order to account for the separated state of the soul after death Thomas was forced to stretch Aristotle’s concept of “formal substance” to explain the Christian teaching on the soul’s disembodied afterlife. He maintains that the soul is the intellectual form of the body but is also per se subsistens (existing on its own) and that the agent intellect does not make use of any bodily organ in the act of intellection. Krista Hyde, in a master’s thesis submitted to the University of Missouri at Saint Louis, makes note of Aquinas’s attempt to connect the mind and body in one substantial form but also points out the metaphysical problem that this causes:
In this way, Aquinas reframes the mind-body connection and escapes the interaction problem, but this opens him up to another, potentially fatal, flaw. The weakness of his argument is that it is not clear how such a soul could separate from the body and survive its death, despite his protestations that this act of the body is also substantial. Aquinas maintains that the human soul is an abstract form and a concrete particular thing. He has accounted for the soul as the form of the body. It is intuitive, however, that such forms would have to be Platonic (that is, an incorporeal, abstract idea, having the highest level of reality and to which humans have access only through the world of perception and sensation) if they can be said to depart from the body and remain in existence with some function until the time of the resurrection and judgment, as required by Christian doctrine. Aquinas, of course, would never accept his philosophy as Platonic, especially on this account, because he insists that matter is for the edification of the soul. Plato maintains that the soul simply “uses” matter, but that matter is unnecessary.
If the soul is a state, it must be one that can exist apart from that which bears it. Though the concept of the free radical is helpful as an illustration of the soul as form, it fails to exemplify this aspect; the free radical is not immaterial. The soul as organizing force of the body may be fatal to Aquinas’s psychology. If the soul is seen as a sort of genetic code or as software to the body’s hardware, however, it may be possible to imagine its survival in an immaterial state, to be employed (later, during the afterlife) in organizing prime matter once more.
A counter-objection might suggest that the soul survives between death and resurrection, but is “activated” again upon the resurrection. It does not seem likely that Aquinas would be willing to accept that the soul is totally incapacitated until Judgment, since he insists that the soul retains its proper operations: will, intellectual memory, and understanding.
An interesting note to add to this is that many of Aquinas’s followers did move in a more Platonic direction after his death. Fast-forward to the 15th century and one can see with Marsilio Ficino a student of Aquinas’s thought who turns to the original sources of the Platonic tradition to explain this very problem. He argues that the soul uses various vehicles (pace Proclus) and thus maintains its formal functionality even when separated from the body. Ficino’s solution is no less problematic, however, (it does not fully explain the necessity of the soul’s embodiment) and begs the question of whether the immortality of the soul can be proven philosophically without at the same time directly appealing to such doctrines as the hypostatic union of Christ’s natures as found in the Chalcedonean definition. Whether Hyde’s proposed solution with regard to the soul as “software” or “genetic code” of the body is helpful is, of course, up to the reader to decide.
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.
Mario Equicola, the famous Renaissance poet, produced one of the comparatively few treatises on women (De Mulieribus) during the Renaissance. Equicola addresses his treatise to the Lady Margherita Cantelmo, who was one of his students and, according to Carolyn James, was being tutored by Equicola even from afar by means of his letters. After demonstrating from both scripture and authorities such as Hermes Tristmegistus and Cicero that the image of God in man is not differentiated in its essence between genders, Equicola invokes the authority of Plato and Aristotle to defend his main argument that the physiological and intellectual differences between men and women are due to poor educational custom and not nature. One traditional hermeneutic that was mined by Renaissance humanists from the texts of the Neoplatonic authors was the attempt to harmonize the apparent dichotomous philosophies of Plato and Aristotle for the sake of defending what they perceived to be the unique truth of perennial philosophical wisdom. Equicola praises both of these philosophers even though the latter wrote little to nothing on the current subject. He writes:
(English translation below)
Divinitatis a secretis semideus Plato in libris quos de republica scripsit in gymnica mulieres certamina deducere non veretur, et iactu lapidum, arcu, funda, luctatione exerceri iubet. In legibus quas ipse vehementer probavit (cum respublica voventis sit atque optantis, illae eligentis) eadem quae masculis eadem feminis exercitia tribuit, legem sanciens ut mulieres rem bellicam non negligant, gymnasticam discant, iaculandi sagiptandi exercitationes, peltasticen, quoque, et omnes armatorum dimicationes; acierum ordinationes, ductiones exercitus, castrorum positiones, et quaecumque ad equestrem pertinent disciplinam. Tales certe non tulisset leges nisi feminas – neque corporis valentia et robore, neque animae excellentia et nobilitate – viris inferiores cognovisset, et ad omnia habiles aptasque ex philosophiae penetralibus percepisset: consuetudineque feminis res forenses et bellicae, non natura, prohibitae.
Aristoteles, cum aliqua iisdem in legisbus et republica non probet, illam de mulieribus sanctionem praeterit, quod homo ingeniosissimus mortalium et gloriae ante alios cupidissimus non utique omisisset nisi sic esse habuisset optime exploratum: naturale enim cognorat, quod maxime natura fieri patitur.
~ Mario Equicola, De Mulieribus Delle Donne, edited by Giuseppe Lucchesini and Pina Totaro, (Rome: Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 2004), p. 34.
Plato (the semi-divine) writes in the Republic, by means of a secret divinity, that women are not afraid to launch a competition and he decrees that they are to be trained in throwing stones, in the bow, the sling, and in wrestling. In laws that he has vehemently proven (since the republic is characterized by laws voted on, wished for, and elected) Plato assigns the same rule for the training of both men and women, a rule sanctioning that women not neglect the military art, that they learn gymnastics, and [receive] training in throwing and shooting arrows (also with the pelta), and all the arts of combat: the arrangement of a battle line, the leading of an army, the positioning of encampments and everything that pertains to the equestrian discipline. He would have certainly not proposed such laws if he thought that women are inferior to men (either in power and strength of body or in the excellence or nobility of their souls), and he perceived (from the inner shrine of philosophy) that [women] are capable and well-suited for every activity and that courtly and military duties are prohibited for women because of custom and not because of nature.
Since Aristotle did not approve of some of Plato’s [arguments] in the Laws and the Republic, he did not make mention of any law concerning women. This man – who was the most talented of mortals and was more desirous of glory than others – would certainly not have omitted [this topic] unless he would have held that [Plato’s conclusions] were most optimally investigated, for he naturally recognized what the highest nature brings into being.
The hermeneutic employed here implies that if Aristotle omitted anything that Plato treated then the latter must have agreed (though Equicola allows for some non-essential disagreement) with his teacher. Yet, a more idealistic or Platonic account of gender difference would seem to work against Equicola’s argument that women are capable of education in the liberal arts despite their gender difference.
Later in his argument Equicola appears to depend more on Aristotle when he argues that the human mind is a tabula rasa and that women have no innate weakness or daftness but may perform well in all of the so-called “masculine” arts with the proper education. He argues, “It was rightly said that custom is a second nature [alteram naturam] – as neither conditions nor habits, vices nor virtues come into being by fortune or fate but by choice and practice [arbitrio et exercitatione] – since we are as a blank canvas [tabula rasa] on which anything can be painted.” As many Renaissance humanists, however, Equicola appears to see no essential difference Platonic and Aristotelian epistemology; he affirms, “Nature has given us an imperfect intellect but which is capable of being perfected. It has also given us the seeds of all the arts and the little sparks of the virtues [virtutum scintillas], but so great is the corruption of bad customs and of such great force that these little flames of the virtues [virtutum igniculi] are extinguished and vices spring forth and are strengthened [in their place].” For Equicola, one’s natural capacities for acquiring the various virtues are innate “little sparks” that are either strengthened or doused by education. Using these principles Equicola is able to argue that the two genders are not different in essence but, nevertheless, have certain bodily differences for the sake of procreation.
As Radek Chlup argues in his recent monograph on Proclus, later Neoplatonists such as Iamblichus and Proclus seem at first glance to present a more pessimistic account of the soul’s abilities than that of Plotinus who thought of the “higher soul” as freely able to navigate between different levels of ontological reality. For Plotinus the higher soul remains in the intellectual realm while the lower soul descends into the body. Thus, the material aspect of human existence is merely a hindrance to perfection and contemplative virtue is promoted as the only means of “escaping from here.” For Iamblichus and Proclus there is no higher undescended soul and the intelligible universe does not exist within the soul. Chlup explains that, although this divergence from the teaching of the original “father” of Neoplatonism may seem pessimistic, things are not as they may seem on the surface:
At first sight, the Neoplatonic approach [of later Neoplatonists] may appear rather pessimistic. While Plotinus had the entire universe at his fee, so to speak, and was able to pass through its various levels freely, starting with Iamblichus philosophers were ‘imprisoned’ on the psychic level, having no access to the higher ones. In fact, however, their position implies no pessimism whatsoever, and in some regards it is actually optimistic. Above all, eastern Neoplatonists have a much more positive relation towards the corporeal world. Plotinus’ identification with his ‘higher self’ established in the intelligible world caused our philosopher to show little concern for what goes on at the corporeal level. It is symptomatic that Plotinus has a very negative conception of matter, regarding it as the ultimate source of all evil. Late Neoplatonists cannot afford such a view or the simple reason that they have nowhere to escape from bodily reality. According to them, humans are mediators between the intelligible and the sensible world, and they have no choice but to take seriously both of them … A soul of this kind … should combine its contemplative activity with active providential care for things in this world. – Chlup, Proclus: An Introduction, (Oxford: 2012), 28, 29.
Thus, these later Neoplatonists, though they held a more pessimistic view of the soul, actually were more optimistic about the “hylemorphê” or the united body-soul composite that is the essence of a human. This also reflects a more optimistic metaphysics with regard the gods and their relation to the material world. According to Proclus:
[The soul] wants to imitate the providential care of the gods; it is for this reason that it abandons its contemplation. For divine perfection is of two kinds: one is intellective, the other providential; the former consists in rest, the latter in motion. This being so, the soul imitates the intellective and unswerving stability of the gods by its contemplation, but their providence and motion by its life in the world of generation. – In Tim. III 324.6-12; Chlup, 245.
And, of course, Proclus’s more optimistic view of the hylemorphê and of the gods corresponds to a more civic oriented virtue ethic. Since human reality is ultimately a dualistic unity of mind and matter and because man desires to imitate the providential actions of the gods, so his contemplation will always return to bodily action, from which one might say it never truly departed. Proclus explains:
Moreover, since virtue is not one and indivisible but multifarious, we must understand that providence always incites us to ever different projections of our reason-principles, in order that the virtuous person might realize all possible modes of virtue and be shown as its true champion in the eyes of those who have arranged the contest of virtue [i.e., the gods]. For this reason providence often brings externally active people to rest, making the intellect within them revert on itself, but it moves to actions those who only look inside themselves; in this way it teaches us what form virtue has and that it is of two aspects. This is why providence gives us various tools but then takes back again what it has given: by making human lives variegated it challenges good people to actualize their dispositions in all possible manners, training them in this way to administer this universe together with the gods. – De dec. dub. 37.9-20; Chlup, 249.
To anyone who graced the doors of a church or public edifice in Renaissance Florence female depictions of the virtues were quite conspicuous. As I recently had the opportunity to experience, portrayals of the feminine form as personifications of virtue (usually the cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude) are plainly visible from the bronze baptismal doors outside of Brunelleschi’s famous Duomo to many of the interior walls of the Palazzo della Signoria and beyond – not to mention the ubiquitous outdoor paintings and sculptings of the virgin Mary, Judith, and other religious heroines. These portrayals of women in such idealized and often angelic virtuous form were not unique, as the many Late Medieval works of art in Florence confirm.
As Peter Howard argues in “Preaching Magnificence in Renaissance Florence”, however, there was a renewed emphasis on the moral virtues as perfectly holy while at the same time worldly states of character in the mid to late 15th century. Howard notes that the virtue of magnificence, much praised by Aristotle and other classical authors, was proclaimed from the pulpit of Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo and elsewhere as a natural and religious duty of the wealthy. According to Howard, the preaching of Antonio Pierozzi, the Archbishop of Florence, was instrumental in motivating Cosimo di Medici to fund the construction of the monastery of San Marco including the famous frescoes by Fra Angelico which adorn the interior wall of each monastic cell. Around the same time that Cosimo was patronizing some of his most elaborate projects, Fra Antonino was preaching on the importance of magnificence specifically for funding the construction of beautiful architectural works. Howard notes:
More importantly, Fra Antonino moved discussion of magnificence forward to include secular, not just ecclesiastical, architecture: just like King Solomon, “the magnificent man provides for himself a suitable dwelling of a lasting nature.” Presumably it was palazzi that Antonino has in mind. He not only explicitly links magnificence to architectural patronage, but also effectively encouraged great men to be magnificent — with perhaps an implicit reference to the example of Cosimo de’ Medici and his ally Giovanni Rucellai — since fine houses were themselves to be considered ornaments to the city, further rendering it divine. A theology of magnificence had been thus carefully articulated by Antonino, the city’s archbishop, and put into circulation in his Summa and the various sermons and tracts that preceded it a decade before the boom in palace-building in the 1460s. (Howard, “Preaching Magnificence in Renaissance Florence,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2 ((Summer 2008), pp. 325-369), 355).
Is it really plausible, however, that a simple sermon could have such a profound effect on the production of Florentine art during this time? Howard argues in the affirmative, noting that there is a marked increase in references to the “common good” in the theology of the time:
Theology of this [mendicant] sort was not simply a scholarly, cloistered discipline. It was a theology of the piazza, bridging the gap between the ideals of the theological tradition and the daily experience of life in the city. This public theology tackled such questions as: could interest be earned on a loan, should the commune provide for the healthcare of widows and orphans, was conspicuous consumption a sin, what was a just wage? Intentionally, then, mendicant preachers engaged the issues of the day and the needs of different social groups, involving themselves by scrutinizing human affairs in the light of doctrine and authoritative commentators. The most adept preachers were singled out for the way in which they were able to enter into citizens’ lives and link them to doctrine, thereby constructing worlds of meaning that consoled the populace and encouraged it to think about the common good. Contemporaries praised Fra Antonino particularly for his skill in this. (Howard, 343).
An interesting connection between this renewal of virtue ethics via “public theology” and its effect on the production of art in 15th century Italy is that the correlative increase in the number of visual representations of virtue personified as women corresponds to an increased awareness of the plight of women in literature. Mario Equicola, who once studied with Marsilio Ficino in Florence, wrote a short treatise De Mulieribus in which he uses Aristotle’s tabula rasa concept to argue that there is no essential difference between women and men. Once again, this sort of literature was not new. Boccaccio lamented the cloistering of poor young girls in monasteries despite their desire for marriage. Equicola, however, writes during a time when the public theology had begun to shift to reflect a concern, not only for the essential definitions of things, but for the adornment of things and all of life in beautiful imagery, whether visual or spoken. Having argued that the physiological makeup of women depends more on custom than on nature, he argues:
Dedit nobis natura rationem imperfectam, sed quae perfici possit. Dedit omnium artium semina, dedit virtutum scintillas, sed tanta est corruptela malae consuetudinis, tanta vis, ut illi virtutum igniculi extinguantur, exoriantur, et confirmentur vitia.
Nature has supplied us with imperfect reason which is, nonetheless, capable of being perfected. It has also given us the seeds of all the arts and the little sparks of the virtues, but so great is the corruption of bad customs and of so great power that these little flames of the virtues are extinguished and vices spring forth and are strengthened [in their place].
Equicola argues that it is bad custom alone which leads to inequality among the sexes and he laments the status of women who were confined to their homes and disciplined if they were to “conceive of anything in their minds other than needles and thread.” Because flawed human reason is capable of being perfected, then the popular acceptance of this bad custom may also be removed. At a time when the adornment of language in Rhetoric was seen as inexorably linked to the virtues of wisdom and restraint taught in Ethics, it is interesting to see a man argue by means of these methods for the equality of women in a time when the “public theology” was motivating the quite wealthy citizens of Florence to spend their money on the most important woman of all, that is the Civitas. Citizens such as the Medicis were to exercise their magnificence for the city, not only for the sake of maintaining her current status but for adorning her with works of beauty in the way that poets heap eloquent words of praise upon their beloved. Virtue, as Aristotle demonstrates, does not merely place a restraint upon the desires but guides them toward their proper end and, when accompanied by right judgment and motivation, inevitably frees the desires to flame ever higher toward the attainment of the highest good.