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Philosophy, Moral: Medieval and Renaissance

Philosophy, Moral: Medieval and Renaissance

Moral philosophy in the medieval West derived from two main sources: Christianity and classical ethics. The attempt to reconcile these different traditions and develop a viable synthesis of the two was a central concern of moral philosophy throughout the period.

Christianity and Classical Ethics in the Medieval West

Starting with the early church fathers, Christian thinkers took differing views of the proper relationship between their moral system and that of the pagan philosophers of antiquity. On the one hand, St. Ambrose (c. 340397), in De officiis ministrorum (On the duties of the ministry), was prepared to adapt the Stoic-inspired account of virtue set out in Cicero's (10643 b.c.e.) De officiis (On duties) to the needs of Christians seeking eternal bliss in the afterlife. On the other hand, St. Augustine (354430), another doctor of the church, denied that Christians could learn anything from pagans about either virtue in the present life or happiness in the next, both of which were gifts of God's grace.

Ambrose's conviction that the ancient framework of ethical theory could be extended and modified to accommodate Christianity found wide resonance in thinkers from the Iberian bishop St. Martin of Braga (c. 520580), who wrote influential moral tracts closely based on the writings of the Roman Stoic Seneca (4 b.c.e.?65 c.e.), to the Cistercian abbot Ailred of Rievaulx (11091166), whose treatise De spirituali amicitia (On spiritual friendship) is modeled on Cicero's De amicitia (On friendship).

The uncompromising position of Augustine was echoed by monastic moralists such as Abbot Rupert of Deutz (c. 1076c. 1129), who rejected pagan philosophers out of hand on the ground that they had no knowledge of spiritual or heavenly values. The first medieval philosopher to put forward a serious challenge to Augustine's characterization of virtues as gifts of divine grace was Peter Abelard (10791142). Drawing on Cicero and on Boethius's (c. 480c. 524) commentary on Aristotle's (384322 b.c.e.) Categories, he defined natural virtues as fixed dispositions that were acquired by the exercise of human powers and that could be transformed into Christian virtues by being directed toward God. Abelard was nevertheless acutely aware that while Seneca, the pagan philosopher he most admired, held that virtue must be sought for its own sake, Christians believed that virtue should be pursued in the hope of a greater reward: happiness in the future life.

It was precisely this issue that made Aristotelian ethics, with its this-worldly orientation, particularly problematic for medieval Christians. In the Nicomachean Ethics, which began to be available in Latin translation at the end of the twelfth century, Aristotle declared that humankind's supreme good was a happiness that consisted of philosophical contemplation in the present lifea view that was clearly incompatible with the Christian belief that humanity's highest and ultimate goal was everlasting bliss in the afterlife. A solution to the problem was found in the mid-thirteenth century by scholastic philosophers at the University of Paris. Building on a distinction originally made by the French theologian William of Auxerre (d. 1231), they maintained that the subject of Aristotle's treatise was imperfect happiness, a natural state attainable in the present life by human powers, while perfect happiness or beatitude, a supernatural state attainable in the next life through grace, was the subject of theological, not philosophical, inquiry.

This position was further developed by the Dominican theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274), who carved out a legitimate area of investigation for moral philosophy: the examination of the limited happiness that can be achieved by man through the naturally acquired virtues described by Aristotle, whereas theology was concerned with the unlimited heavenly beatitude produced by divinely infused virtues. This formulation, which established that Aristotelian moral philosophy, though vastly inferior to Christian theology, was nonetheless fundamentally in agreement with it, made it possible for university professors from the late Middle Ages to the end of the Renaissance and beyond to base the teaching of ethics firmly on the doctrines of Aristotle.

Islam, Judaism, and Classical Ethics

As in the Christian West, medieval Islamic and Jewish moral philosophy devoted considerable effort to reconciling scriptural precepts and values with those deriving from the classical ethics inherited from Greece. Muslim moral philosophers, rather than drawing a clear distinction between the imperfect happiness of the present life and the perfect beatitude of the hereafter in the manner of their Christian counterparts, emphasized the harmony between religion and philosophy (or falsafah from the Greek term philosophia ) by pointing out that both were based on a proper understanding of the universe and mankind's place within it. Ethics was linked to theoretical knowledge, acquired by rational means, which led individuals toward the ultimate goal of attaining happiness in this life or the next. The Spanish Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (11261198), who produced comprehensive commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus that circulated widely in the West under his Latinized name Averroës, held that the path to happiness was an intellectual ascent to the contemplation of ever higher beings, culminating in the contemplation of the first cause and temporary union with the source of intellectual understanding. This account of happiness, which had no need for divine revelation or life after death, apparently gained adherents among Latin Averroists at the University of Paris in the late thirteenth century, since the doctrine "that happiness is to be had in this life and not in another" was among the 219 propositions condemned by the bishop of Paris in 1277.

Jewish moral philosophy was also concerned with establishing the proper relationship between religious and philosophical ethics. Moses Maimonides (11351204), the most influential of medieval Jewish philosophers, held that faith and reason were not in conflict and therefore, attempted to ground the basic principles of Aristotelian ethics in Jewish tradition, modifying them according to its needs. Maimonides, like Islamic moral philosophers, had a highly intellectualist conception of ethical perfection, in relation to which moral perfection played a merely subsidiary and preparatory role. A different trend in ethics, however, arose in conjunction with Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism. Kabbalists such as Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (15221570) regarded moral perfection as the road to mystical union with aspects of the deity and believed that the moral behavior of individuals had an impact on the cosmic struggle between good and evil.

The Renaissance Recovery of Ancient Moral Philosophy

Although Aristotelianism dominated ethics in the West well into the seventeenth century, the Renaissance witnessed the recovery of other ancient traditions of moral philosophy. As had happened with Aristotle's ethical thought in the Middle Ages, the acceptability of these revived philosophies was largely conditioned by their compatibility with Christianity. The Florentine priest and philosopher Marsilio Ficino (14331499), who played the key role in the fifteenth-century revival of Platonism, stressed the extent to which the doctrines of Plato, unlike those of his student Aristotle, were in accord with Christianity. Ficino demonstrated this agreement most successfully in relation to moral philosophy through his influential theory of Platonic love, in which Plato's intellectual ascent from physical beauty to the realm of Ideas was interpreted as a spiritual journey whose final destination was God.

Stoic ethics inspired admiration from many Renaissance thinkers on account of its high-minded principle that virtue alone was sufficient for the good life. Yet its stern moral demands, which included a complete eradication of the emotions, provoked an equal amount of criticism for requiring a superhuman strength that surpassed even the powers of Christ, who had given way to both anger and sorrow. This ambivalent attitude toward Stoic moral philosophy was not overcome until the late sixteenth century, when a new brand of Stoicism, more accommodated to Christianity, was promoted by the Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius (15471606). The Spaniard Francisco de Quevedo (15801645) attempted to carry forward Lipsius's program of Christianizing Stoicism by claiming that the ultimate source of the philosophy of patient resignation recommended by the Greek Stoic Epictetus (c. 55135) was the Book of Job. The recovery of Stoic moral philosophy, with its belief that human beings through their reason can comprehend and participate in the rational order of nature, contributed to renewed interest in natural-law theory.

Compared to Platonism and Stoicism, Epicurean moral philosophy made very few inroads into Renaissance thought. Epicurus's doctrine that pleasure was the supreme good, mis-interpreted since antiquity as an endorsement of sensual indulgence, combined with his rejection of divine providence and immortality, rendered his philosophy unacceptable to Christians. Not surprisingly, serious attempts to adapt Epicureanism to Christianity were rare. When the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla (14071457) transferred the earthly pleasures of Epicurus to the heavenly ones enjoyed by the virtuous in the next life, his aim was less to rehabilitate the ancient philosophy than to reassess Christian theology. Similarly, the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536), by maintaining that Christ was the true Epicurean, since his disciples led the most pleasurable life, sought to highlight the ethical dimension of Christian piety.

The first Renaissance thinker to tap the ethical potential of Pyrrhonian skepticism, which held that it was impossible to attain certain knowledge, was the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (15331592). Adopting the motto Que sais-je? (What do I know?), he deployed skeptical arguments to undermine any claims to moral knowledge, in the hope of deflating human presumption, which he regarded as the root of all evil. The recovery of skepticism was part and parcel of the Renaissance movement to revive ancient philosophical traditions. Yet it presented epistemological challenges that in the following era would turn moral philosophy from a discipline based on classical and Christian authority to one founded on principles that had been rationally deduced from self-evident axioms.

See also Aristotelianism ; Natural Law ; Neoplatonism ; Skepticism ; Stoicism .



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Kraye, Jill. Classical Traditions in Renaissance Philosophy. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2002. See especially the section "Classical Ethics in the Renaissance."

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McGrade, A. S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Chapters 10 and 11 deal with moral philosophy.

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Wieland, Georg. "The Reception and Interpretation of Aristotle's Ethics " and "Happiness: The Perfection of Man." In The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism, 11001600, edited by Norman Kretzmann, Anthony Kenny, and Jan Pinborg; associate editor, Eleonore Stump. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Jill Kraye

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