Nicholas of Cusa on Faith & Holy Communion

There are many statements in Nicholas of Cusa’s sermons that emphasize the importance of faith in those who receive the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. This is likely due to his early education among the Brethren of the Common Life, but it also relates to his peculiar brand of Platonism.

Therefore, this faith is best signified by means of the visible form of bodily food, which expels weakness and furnishes strength—as do, basically, the wheaten bread and the wine. Hence, take cognizance of the fact that in the power of the bread and the wine—[a power] that expels the weakness of the flesh’s ravenous hunger and that brings strength, or renews strength, (things which happen with respect to the outer man)—faith sees the power of the Word working similar things in the inner man. And that which nature ministers to the outer man by means of visible food, faith by means of invisible Food (which is the Word of God) obtains in the inner man (which is invisible),  (Sermon CLXXXIII).

Marsilio Ficino on Divine Accommodation

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

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

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

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

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

~ Ficino, Opera II:1027-1028

Translation:

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

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

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

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.

A Practical Impetus for the Aristotelian Renaissance in 17th Century England

During the days of Richard Hooker, England was experiencing a time of intellectual revival. For decades the various faculties of Oxford and Cambridge had experienced a decline, not only in matriculation of students, but in the intellectual creativity of their instructors. The time between Erasmus and Bacon is often seen as a veritable Dark Ages. This decline came in part from the rise and fall of the various Tudors, particularly Mary, and partly from the comprehensive reshaping of society that was the Reformation. Yet, under Queen Elizabeth, England once again experienced a Renaissance of learning. During this renewal, exemplified by men such as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spencer, there was also a revamped interest in the corpus of Aristotle; and this Renaissance of Aristotelianism may need some explanation.

In 1593 and Richard Hooker had just published his now famous Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in which he explained to the more radical wing in the Anglican Church why it is not necessary for every nation to imitate Geneva’s ecclesiastical polity. In defending Anglican polity and the ability of human reason to guide the affairs of the civic realm, Hooker relied on Aristotle’s method. But, he did not really have much of a choice in the matter. Every man is a product of his time. All of Hooker’s theological predecessors were Aristotelian in some form, whether they be Medieval such as Thomas and Scotus, Reformed such as Vermigli and Jewel, or the divines who preceded him at Corpus Christi College such as William Cole and John Rainolds.

Hooker was also influenced by the writings of Plato (as Torrance Kirby has demonstrated) and one of his contemporaries, Everard Digby, was the first English Neo-Platonist of the Seventeenth century; Digby’s Theoria Analytica popularized the Neo-Platonic texts of Proclus and the Cabala and later inspired the Platonism of the Cambridge Platonists. Yet, even with the advent of Neo-Platonism and Renaissance Humanism, Aristotelianism remained the foundation of the liberal arts curriculum at Oxford and Cambridge. Charles Schmitt explains the very practical reason for this, a reason that still held sway in the mid-1630s:

If arts education was meant to be reasonably comprehensive and to embrace the range of reliable knowledge, were there alternatives to the Aristotelian synthesis? The writings of Bruno were certainly not systematic enough for teaching purposes. The new philosophies of Telesio or Patrizi were possibilities, but neither covered a significant portion of the range of subjects to be taught. The same could be said of ancient works such as those of Plato or Pliny. The approach to knowledge produced by the sixteenth-century humanistic movement was curiously one-sided, with whole areas of positive knowledge left unaccounted for. The new synthesis of Gassendi, of Descartes, of Newton, were all in the future, if by only a few years or decades. . . In short, Aristotelianism still was the best comprehensive philosophy available. When genuine and useful alternatives did emerge a few decades later, they were taken up rather quickly by the universities of England. (Schmitt, John Case and Aristotelianism in Renaissance England, p. 44)

John Case is another example of an English Aristotelian of this time period, one who has received little attention aside from Schmitt’s work. Case is one of the first in England to use the notion of the prisca theologia gleaned from the Corpus Hermeticum. According to Schmitt, he was the most widely read Aristotelian from the 1550s to the 1650s, thus setting the intellectual climate for Bacon and Herbert of Cherbury. Case, just as Hooker, used a variety of sources but was an Aristotelian at heart. As Schmitt notes, Case as well as other English educators at this time used the sources that were available (i.e., Aristotle) to build the curriculum by which they sought to perfect the next generation because those sources were available and all encompassing.

One lesson in historical interpretation to learn from this is that the primacy of a certain philosophical system for a certain body of people at a certain time does not always indicate a staunch loyalty for that particular system. (By “staunch loyalty,” I mean a loyalty for a particular way of systematizing truths vs. a loyalty toward the pursuit of the truth itself) Usually that system just happens to be the best option at the time. When new ideas correct or add greater clarity to the old ones, new curricula are formed out of necessity. The corpus of Aristotle continued to supply the basis of college curriculums even after the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century until more updated and modern systems arrived that were capable of replacing it.

Rhetoric as Divine Art: A Reformed Notion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Birth of Scholasticism in Renaissance Italy

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

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

Plato’s Theism and Martyr’s Humanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.