The Scriptures provided ample material for discussion about the good Christian life, and moral philosophy was for many centuries largely subsumed in mediaeval Christian teaching on the virtues and vices. Prudentius provided a literary model in his Psychomachia (written in Augustine's lifetime),
PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES in the form of an allegorical battle between personified virtues and vices. (Alan of Lille made use of that idea in his late twelfth-century poem Anticlaudianus, and there are a number of other mediaeval imitations.) But as we have seen, something akin to a notion of philosophy as a guide of life, and thus of Christianity itself as a 'philosophy', persisted in some authors. Peter Abelard, for example, says that we are truly 'philosophers' if we love Christ (CCCM, XII.149).
Philosophia Moralis was characteristically divided into those aspects of right living which concern one's relations with fellow-citizens and subjects, and which may be described as 'political'; those which have to do with family life and are called 'economic'; and those which concern the inward life of the individual (Lafleur, pp. 333-4). Right behaviour in a ruler is to punish malefactors and reward those who keep the law, to provide for the healing of the sick and to ensure that there is scope for those who are well to work. The head of the household is to provide for the household's needs, instruct its members and keep them from wrongdoing. The private individual, similarly, is to avoid wrong doing, do good and follow good examples (Lafleur, p. 335). So in this realm of ethics we again find lingering traces of the notion that philosophy is the guide of life.
A few ancient philosophical texts were regularly used by Christian writers on ethics in the centuries before Aristotle's Ethics and Politics became available: various Latin moralists, especially Cicero in the De Officiis, De Senectute and De Amicitia. Collections were made in the Carolingian and post-Carolingian periods of moral sayings taken from classical authors.103 Heiric of Auxerre and Sedulius Scottus did not attempt to weave these into fresh treatises in which they were subjected to Christian criticism. That was attempted by an author who may have been William of Conches, early in the twelfth century. He devised a new version of Cicero's De Officiis in which he says that he intends to summarise what both Cicero and Seneca say, and in which he also includes material from Horace, Terence, Lucan and Sallust. In this Moralium Dogma Philosophorum he explores in Ciceronian fashion but from a Christian standpoint the results of distinguishing between 'honesty' and utilitas in moral questions.104 Rupert of Deutz in the same period took issue with Macrobius' account of the four virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice, on the grounds that he had no understanding of their value in the sight of God.105 In a treatise later in the twelfth century on The Virtues and Vices and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, Alan of Lille put the four virtues listed by Cicero and Macrobius alongside the faith, hope and charity of St Paul and asked how they are related to one another.106
Peter Abelard's Scito te ipsum (Know Thyself) was altogether a more substantial enquiry, philosophically speaking, and contained original material. He explored the Aristotelian and Boethian notion that virtue is a quality or habitus which an individual can acquire by effort. He also contended that God sees the intention and counts that and not the act.
Before the assimilation of Aristotle's Ethics, ethics remained, however, a notional subject of the syllabus, divided formally into moral principles appropriate to the private individual, those needed in family life, and those for public life.101 Aristotle's Ethics was available in Latin in the twelfth century, but only Books II and III, later known as the ethica vetus. These parts of the book provided material on happiness and virtue. In the late 1240s, Robert Grosseteste made a complete translation, with a group of Greek commentaries to go with it: notably that of Michael of Ephesus, but including material from as early as the third century and as late as the twelfth. Albert the Great provided two new Latin commentaries, and his pupil Aquinas heard him lecture on the Ethics. Aquinas' own reflections on the book (about 1211-2) took him some way towards making a distinction between the study of ethics as a branch of philosophy, that is, as a speculative science; and the examination of practical questions of what it is right to do. He was also anxious to set the study of ethics in the context of the rules which govern both large and small communities, and which promote order in the state and the household, as well as in the individual soul.108 But despite its obvious attractions as a work which allowed some sophistication of philosophical treatment in the moral sciences, the Ethics was slow to establish itself generally as a textbook in the schools. A number of Franciscan and Dominican commentaries survive from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but it never set the schools on fire as the libri naturales did.
The old motifs were perhaps the most persistent. Among late thirteenth-century commentators working in the Arts Faculty at Paris there was a revival, in this new arena of academic philosophy, of the notion that philosophy is a true guide of life. This proved controversial. In 1211 the 219 Theses condemned by the Bishop of Paris included several which made bold claims for philosophers. They alone are said to be wise; their study is said to be the best possible way of life. That cannot be allowed in a Christian university. There was also a continuance of interest in the four Ciceronian and Macrobian virtues in the thirteenth century. Arnulf Provincialis refers to an ancient book On the Intellectual Virtues - a book apparently invented by Arnulf himself - which, he says, distinguishes intelligentia, sapientia andphronesis. These are the degrees by which human understanding rises from a mere love for God to a passionate desire for God. They are virtues because they are the upwardly aspiring movements of the soul, and counterparts to
PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES those habits of virtue by which we rule our bodies. The regulation of the power of reasoning produces prudence and justice; the regulation of anger produces fortitude; the regulation of desire, temperance (Lafleur, pp. 3356).
Late mediaeval philosophy made some progress with the idea of conscience. The thirteenth-century Franciscan Bonaventure takes up earlier thinking about synderesis as a tendency or disposition for good, and identifies conscience as a faculty of recognition or apprehension of moral law. Aquinas agrees that synderesis is the natural disposition of the human mind for good which makes it possible for the conscience to act. The conscience applies the principles recognised through synderesis. Both Bonaventure and Aquinas see that conscience can make mistakes. Neither resorts here to Augustinian explanations in terms of the confusing effects of sin upon human reasoning. Both prefer to speak in terms of false premisses and erroneous reasoning, and both are chiefly interested in the underlying questions about obligation in propositions involving 'owe' and 'ought' and 'must'. There is a shift here, perhaps, from a Platonic preoccupation with clarity and beauty and the light of right reason in the virtuous mind, to an Aristotelian interest in the mechanics of logic and language.
Philosophically speaking, politics came late to mediaeval Europe. With the end of the Roman Empire in the West, urban life as the ancient world had known it decayed even in Italy, and in northern Europe government gradually became broadly feudal. That is to say, it was tribal, run by kings and a military aristocracy which was often illiterate and dependent upon a secretariat for the production of the few documents necessary to the system: charters, treaties, letters of negotiation. Royal households were constantly on the move, using up in kind the dues of sheep and cattle and other agricultural produce owed to them by those who farmed their land. The administration of justice was not conducted in a manner which required the services of sophisticated advocates with a legal training. The essential apparatus of Greek and Roman city life had been an educated citizenry of men equipped to hold public office and regarding it as their duty to do so; a forum for public debate about matters of policy; the expectation that citizens would fight for their city when it was necessary, but that war would not be a man's career and sole serious occupation; and in Rome especially, the practice of advocacy as a routine duty of the well-born, with an education in rhetoric to teach forensic skills. Only in late mediaeval Italy did Europe produce conditions again in which something resembling this pattern was recognisable in city life.
For nearly a millennium, until Aristotle's Politics was translated by William of Moerbeke about 1260, the Latin West lacked textbooks from which it could have gleaned more than the sketchiest notion of the political character of this lost world. Augustine's City of God reflects it, but it is about many things of more immediate interest to its earlier mediaeval readers: the discussions of providence, magic, angels, heaven and hell, its summaries of classical philosophical schools of thought, for instance. Cicero's De Officiis, De Amicitia, De Senectute, De Republica gave glimpses, but his notion, for example, of civic virtue could not in the nature of things appeal on that level where it made no connection with contemporary circumstances. A literature about the ideal prince had a place in early mediaeval society, but its inspiration is not primarily philosophical. Rather, it has to do with the imitation of Christ and the exemplification of Christian virtues at their highest.
An exception to the general lack of interest in political theory before the arrival of Aristotle's Politics is John of Salisbury. Although he spent most of his life living in a feudal society in England and France, he writes in his Policraticus about the respublica. His chief concern was with the right to disobey or unseat a tyrant. He defines a tyrant as one who does not rule according to law; a legitimate ruler must do so. There are elements of Ciceronian thinking in his view that a civilitas ought to be cultivated at Court, in which love of justice balances patriotism, and the courtier is an educated man who takes pleasure in literature and conducts his life somewhat philosophically, in search of self-knowledge. But there is also a substantial influence of Christian ideals about the perfect prince in John of Salisbury's description of a monarch who is in the image of God, and of Old Testament principles on the subject of law in his account of the way rulers must remain subject to the law. (He was attacking those among his contemporaries who said on the authority of Roman law-codes that the prince is above the law.) John of Salisbury's imagery of the body public also blends classical and Christian sources.
John of Salisbury's pioneering work was not influential. Despite the groundwork he had laid, the first attempts to comment upon Aristotle's Politics show how uneasily it sat upon the mediaeval stomach at first (despite the comparative familiarity in the early thirteenth century of the books of the Ethics which deal with the virtues of good citizenship). Albert the Great found it impossible to do more than try to elucidate Aristotle's meaning. Aquinas began a commentary which was finished by Peter of Auvergne. Peter takes up what Aristotle says about kingship and adds an insistence (which would come relatively naturally to a Frenchman though perhaps less so to an Italian) that it is not merely one of the acceptable forms of
PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES government but definitely the best. Aquinas had tried to 'place' the Politics in a different way, by considering in his introduction to Book I what manner of science politics must be. He argues that philosophy will not be complete unless it includes a discipline which studies the city; yet the discipline is practical as well as speculative; in particular, it belongs to the moral sciences rather than the mechanical; it is the highest of the practical sciences because the city is the most important thing under the direction of human reason; moreover, it treats of the highest good in human affairs. Politics is speculative in its method. That is to say, it studies a unity, analyses it and extracts first principles. But it is also practical because it shows how the perfect city is to be brought into being and maintained.
Guy of Rimini wrote his commentary at the beginning of the fourteenth century. He had reached the stage to which commentators on Aristotle's other rediscovered writings had come almost a century earlier, of seeking to weigh Christian imperatives against the philosopher's ideas. He notes that Christians cannot wholly approve of a doctrine of natural slavery. Peter of Auvergne began the task of extracting 'questions' from the text of the Politics, and others followed him during the fourteenth century. That threw into relief issues the Politics raised, for theologians as well as for those interested chiefly in making Aristotle fit mediaeval society. Is it better for a few wise men to rule, or the multitude? If the multitude should at least elect and punish princes, should they also have supreme authority to rule in general? Various considerations are brought into play: notably the question of the virtue and wisdom which those who exercise power ought to have.109
In the field of the theory of law we do not encounter the same long gap between the ancient world and the arousal of mediaeval interest. Law continued to be a necessity in the barbarian kingdoms which took over the Empire, and many of their rulers took over Roman codes, with modifications. From the late eleventh century there was a revival of enthusiasm for law. Ivo of Chartres in his Panormia, Gratian in his Decretals of the next generation, and a succession of school and university lawyers throughout the twelfth century and beyond turned law into an academic subject. Behind such work stood Christian assumptions: that all right and ultimately all right law comes from God; that the law of charity makes it imperative for the individual to give up his own claims to the common good. The good government operates within the framework of the whole universe under God's providence and ought to be a microcosm of it; and the just ruler is morally upright, a man of Christian virtue. Aquinas sets out a threefold hierarchy of law, in which an immutable divine law stands at the top, with a natural law beneath it which is conducive to the general human good
(that a man should not be ignorant; that he should not give offence to those who live in his community with him). At the bottom comes human law, in which detailed provisions are made, in accordance with natural law, but changeable when circumstances alter (ST qq.93-5). The Platonic and Aristotelian categories in which early Christian thought had been so decisively cast continued to be pervasive even in the late Middle Ages. When Dante in his De Monarchia or Marsilius of Padua in his Defensor Pacis seek to begin with self-evident truths and proceed by irrefutable reasoning to their conclusions, many of the assumptions they make are those of the ancient philosophers. The notion that human society needs unity and peace to thrive seems to Dante a truth easily established if we begin from the principle that we must look for the purpose of human life on earth. He does so in Aristotelian terms. God and nature make nothing in vain. Whatever is made has a purpose or function. Created things exist not for their own existence's sake, but with an intention or end. An individual has a different purpose or function from an organised multitude of individuals. If we want to identify that collective or common purpose, we must look for the characteristic which is distinctive to the species. Only man has a capacity for intellectual growth (for the angels, which are also rational beings, do not grow in understanding). So the proper work of mankind must be to exercise this capacity. Individuals find that they grow in wisdom in tranquility. That must therefore be a necessary condition of such growth for humanity as a whole. Peace is best maintained in the community by a government which can give it unity (DeMonorchia I.3-4). These familiar themes of the need for peace, unity, order, of human rationality and of purpose do not need to be laboured for his readers. Dante can assume their general acceptability.
Similarly, in his Defensor Pacis, Marsilius sets peace before us as the goal of the state. This he defines as a disposition of the state which will enable its parts to function as they ought. He therefore asks what are the causes or purposes of each part and their order in relation to one another (Discourse I.iii).
Marsilius made the experiment of seeking to demonstrate his conclusions about the temporal aspects of government by pure reason, adducing authorities in his second Discourse on the place of the Church in society (I.i.8). In the first Discourse, he considers the origin and final cause of the state in relation to its function of maintaining peace. For his account of the origins of the state, as it evolves from the single household through larger and larger assemblies of people for the common good, he is much indebted to Aristotle, in both the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics. It is
PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES again to Aristotle that he turns for an explanation of the final cause or purpose of the state. He is much struck by Aristotle's remark in Politics I.i that the 'perfect community' which can live in self-sufficiency 'came into being for the sake of living well'. The state, Marsilius believes, makes it possible for mankind to live at a level beyond that of the beasts, a level fitting human dignity, in which rational beings may enjoy the exercise of their higher faculties in both thought and action (I.iv.1). But he departs from Aristotle in seeing society as created primarily by biological needs and the need for government as arising out of the human tendency to quarrel which, he argues, if unrestrained would always lead to the breakdown of society.
From this principle he derives arguments for the necessity of the state's having a series of 'parts'. There must be a standard of justice and a guardian, who sets that standard. There must be an organ of state with powers to restrain wrongdoers who offend against the standard of justice. There must be provision for various kinds of practical need, which will vary in peace and in war. There must also be provision for spiritual needs, for Marsilius' state looks to a Christian hope of the life to come, as Aristotle's could not.
Marsilius returns to Aristotle, however, when he seeks to enumerate the parts of the state more precisely (I.v). Aristotle gives him six: the agricultural, the artisan, the military, the financial, the priestly and the judicial or deliberative (Politics VII.8.1323b2ff.). These seem to Marsilius to fall into three 'honourable' and three common functions. Only the priestly, the military and the judicial 'parts' are, he argues, strictly parts of the state; the others are necessary but at a level appropriate only to their discharge by the common people (vulgaris) (see also Aristotle, Politics, loc. cit.). Although he considers Aristotle's six forms of government, he comes to the conclusion that a monarchy is best, and the considerations which apply to good government for Marsilius are, again, critically different at certain points from those of Aristotle. He favours the election of the monarch by the public will. The people as a whole - or what Marsilius calls the valentior pars - that body of citizens which carries responsibility for the 'honourable' functions - is the legislator, or primary efficient cause of the law (I.xii). It makes law by expressing the common will in a general assembly. The monarch who is chosen to execute the law thus made must be a man of prudence and goodness, says Marsilius (I.xiv); he will have coercive power, to support which he will need an army, because there will be conflict.
Thus out of Aristotle and his own observation of human social and political behaviour and a number of Christian assumptions, Marsilius constructs a theory of secular government which rests on the assertion that the state is an expression of human rationality, designed to enable men to live according to their highest capacities as rational beings; that the chief function of political authority is to exercise control when there is conflict: it will therefore need coercive power; that the only legitimate sources of that power is the will of the people, which they express in making law and entrusting governmental authority to a monarch.
The complex questions of the relation of Church and state touches philosophy only tangentially, as Marsilius saw. But they were of great importance theologically, because they did much to shape the late mediaeval thinking about ecclesiology. In the late eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII had altered the balance of power by asserting the superiority of the spiritual over the temporal sphere. That could be defended on the authority of the so-called 'Donation of Constantine', in which the imperial power hands over a good deal to the spiritual, and which was not then discovered to be a Carolingian forgery. During the twelfth century, papal claims expanded. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a book On Consideration for Eugenius III, a Pope who had once been one of his Cistercian monks. There it is argued that spiritual authority, focused in the Bishop of Rome, extends over all things on earth, and stands high in the hierarchy of heaven. A cluster of treatises of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, prompted by contemporary politics, made a contribution to this debate from the standpoint of authors with an academic training in philosophy. Dante's De Monorchia puts the case for the restoration of a World Emperor, a temporal 'primate' to match the spiritual, on the model of imperial Rome. John of Paris wrote On Royal and Papal Power in the circumstances of the encounter between Philip the Fair of France and Boniface VIII over taxation of clergy property. At stake here was the question of sovereignty. John of Paris argues (drawing heavily on Aquinas) that the Pope has no jurisdiction from Christ over the property of laymen, and thus none over temporalities. He says that the Donation of Constantine cannot be said to bind the King of France in any case; he thus provides Gallicanism with support for the view that the French Crown is independent of ecclesiastical authority in temporal affairs (and to Some degree in spiritual ones, too). Most importantly perhaps for the later Middle Ages, he argues that Popes can be deposed. His
PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES grounds are that the whole Church, acting through the College of Cardinals, makes the Pope, and can therefore unmake him (24). Here we are moving towards an ecclesiology which sees the Church of the whole People of God acting by common consent, and away from the notion that the clergy, and a fortiori the Pope, are entrusted by God with personal power to act on behalf of the Church.
Marsilius of Padua was a radical. He argued that the Church is merely an organ of the state. He sees it as one part of the state, and a necessary one, but as standing under the coercive authority of the secular system. Its purpose is to serve the spiritual needs of the citizens and to enable them to achieve the 'sufficient life' in the world to come, as the remainder of the state's provisions make it possible for them to do in this world (Discourse II). This was a view for which he was understandably condemned by the ecclesiastical authorities, but it constituted a new and influential contribution to the long-running mediaeval debate about the respective positions of Church and state in the structures of authority.
Marsilius gave Wyclif matter for thought, as did William of Ockham (d. 1347/9), a radical among the Franciscans, who was excommunicated for his opinions. He became involved in the Church-state debate, as Marsilius did, because he was critical of the contemporary papacy. In particular, he argued for apostolic poverty and against theories of papal property-rights (a matter which had become deeply controversial during the thirteenth century); and he believed that a Pope who became a heretic was automatically stripped of his spiritual power. This doctrine involved a challenge to the contemporary view that the Pope was the final authority by which orthodoxy might be tested in matters of faith. Here, too, there was material for Wyclif to use. Wyclif himself developed out of all this a theory of dominion based on the idea that all God's faithful people possess the world and its goods in common, and must be both lord and servant to one another.
The themes of ethics and politics which caught the attention of Christian scholars above all were perhaps those of virtue and happiness. Aristotle sees the aim of the virtuous life as a human happiness which can be attained by effort and in this life (Ethics I.6, 1096b34). (It was not always clear to his commentators that this was his message. One Paris Master of Arts of the late 1230s gave the impression in his lecture-course that Aristotle thought beatitudo does not need to be created; it simply exists, and a man has only to join himself to it.110 Arnulfus Provincialis thought he could distinguish in
Aristotle a double good. Virtue is attained by human effort. Felicity is not created by human efforts, but a man may join himself to it by good works.)111
Up to a point philosophers and Christian theologians were agreed. The end of life is happiness, and virtue is conducive to true happiness. But for the ancient philosophers this-worldly considerations necessarily had a different place from that which they occupied for Christians. Platonists might see the highest happiness as consisting in the contemplation of the Highest Good, and in freedom from the disturbances brought about by attachment to bodily pleasures (and Stoics and others could agree in part with that); but there was no exact philosophical equivalent of the Christian belief in a life to come in which happiness would be fully enjoyed and all stresses disappear. Similarly, the philosophers - here especially Aristotle -had placed an emphasis on the perfecting of the human individual which was largely in tune with Christian ideas, but with important differences as to the character of that perfection. Aristotle's perfect man is a social and political being, and a good citizen first and foremost; his virtues those which foster the well-being of the political community; Cicero's good citizen is (with Roman reservations) much the same. Augustine believed that man is not by nature a political animal, but is obliged to be so by his fall into sin, for that made it necessary for God to provide social structures and government to save him from the consequences of anarchy. Man's natural and proper citizenship when saved by grace is the citizenship of heaven. Mediaeval critics would often allow - as Godfrey of Fontaines and Henri de Gand did in the last decades of the thirteenth century - that man is at least a social if not a political animal by nature. The perfectus homo of Alan of Lille, writing in the Christian tradition, is above all a citizen of heaven. He is like Christ. His perfection is a freedom from sin and its consequences; the perfection of the 'philosophers' citizen' consists in being upright, balanced, reasonable and putting the common good first: an ideal which Roger Bacon and Aquinas could both endorse. Community-minded, the philosopher's good man serves his city in war or politics; the community-mindedness of the Christian is a sense of belonging to Augustine's city of heaven, the koinonia of the New Testament.
Anselm's descriptions of beatitudo encapsulate the Christian view. In the final chapters of his Proslogion he describes what it will be to enjoy the Highest Good, God himself. All goods of body and soul will be in that enjoyment, every innocent enjoyment known on earth in immeasurable fullness. All those who love God will be bound together in a love in which they love him and themselves and one another and God loves himself and his people through himself. There will be perfect peace, for all will will one will. Joy will abound because each will rejoice in the others' joy (25). The ladder of good things with which the Monologion begins, and which leads the mind and soul to the Highest Good, is in evidence here, and for Anselm earthly and bodily goods are not merely inferior things to be left behind by the soaring soul. They are for him, as for Augustine, God's creations and therefore good in themselves.
Was this article helpful?