Bonaventure on the Neoplatonic Hierarchy of Virtues

Bonaventure is among those medieval Christian philosophers who specifically address this Neoplatonic theory of a hierarchy of virtues. He discusses it at length in Collationes in Hexaemeron 6, where he attributes the theory to Plotinus, apparently on the authority of Macrobius; Collation 6 ends with a long excerpt from Macrobius's Dream of Scipio.2

Bonaventure begins the sixth Collation as a discussion of the passage at Genesis 1:4: "God saw the light that it was good; and he divided the light from the darkness." He uses this text as an occasion to discuss God as an exemplar cause, the source, and "illuminating light," of all truth—"the truth of things, the truth of words, and the truth of morals." Bonaventure believes this to be a central Christian teaching, but it is one which some non-Christians have grasped: "the most noble and ancient philosophers have come to see this, that there is a principle, and an end, and an exemplar reason." 7

The noble philosophers which Bonaventure has in mind are Plato and his followers, representing a tradition more or less defined by its willingness to countenance "exemplar" causes. This tradition is to be contrasted with that of Aristotle and his followers, for Aristotle repeatedly criticized the notion of an exemplar cause and Plato's doctrine of "ideas," especially, as Bonaventure points out, in the Metaphysics and in the Nichomachean Ethics. For Bonaventure, this distinction between the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions is so important that it separates philosophers as God separated the light from the dark. Indeed, Bonaventure explains in detail how the failure to acknowledge exemplars led Aristotle into a "threefold blindness," believing that the world is eternal, that there is only one intellect, and that there is no punishment or glory after death. So that we do not misunderstand him about the cause of these mistakes, Bonaventure asks, "Why did some," namely the Aristotelians, "follow the darkness?" The answer is that while acknowledging a first principle and final end of all, they denied that there were exemplars of things.2

The specific Neoplatonic doctrine of the hierarchy of virtues is thus introduced by Bonaventure because of its articulation of the exemplar virtues. After discussing the fundamental errors which follow from a denial of the existence of exemplar causes, Bonaventure says that "the eternal light is the exemplar of all," and that "in it the first to appear to the soul are the exemplars of the virtues."29 Emphasizing the necessity of considering the exemplars of the virtues, Bonaventure quotes Plotinus, who said that it would be absurd for the exemplars of all things to be in God, and not the exemplars of the virtues.

This is Bonaventure's opportunity to begin to offer descriptions of the individual cardinal exemplar virtues ("virtutes exemplares sive exemplaria virtutum" Collationes 6.7), considered as the first features revealed by eternal light: "the height of purity, the beauty of clarity, the strength of power, and the straightness of diffusion.30 Bonaventure associates each of these features of divine light with one of the traditional cardinal virtues, for each one is the cause of a cardinal virtue manifested on a lower level. Specifically, the cardinal virtues are impressed in the soul by that exemplar light and descend into the cognitive, affective, and operative realms. By the height of purity is impressed the sincerity of temperance; by the beauty of clarity is impressed the serenity of prudence; by the strength of power is impressed the stability of constancy [or fortitude]; by the straightness of diffusion is impressed the sweetness ofjustice.31

Immediately after this summary of the exemplar virtues, Bonaventure again emphasizes their importance by saying that "these are the four exemplar virtues with which the whole of Sacred Scripture is concerned." And immediately after that, he again returns to the observation that only some philosophers were aware of them: "Aristotle sensed nothing of them," in contrast to "the ancient and noble philosophers" who did.32

Though he is most concerned to concentrate on the exemplar virtues, and to remind his readers of the limitations of those philosophers who did not acknowledge them or exemplars in general, Bonaventure does discuss the entire four-fold hierarchy of virtues. The other three levels of virtues, according to Bonaventure, are designed to lead men back to the origin of virtue in the exemplars:

These virtues flow from the eternal light into the hemisphere of our minds and retrace the soul to its origin, as a perpendicular or direct ray returns by the same path by which it went out. And this is beatitude. Whence the first [level of virtues] are political, the second are purificative, and the third for the soul already purified. The political [virtues] consist in action, the purificative [virtues] in contemplation, and those of the soul already purified in the vision of the [divine] light.33

Bonaventure proceeds to quote at length Macrobius describing this hierarchy of virtues, in details that are to be found in Porphyry's discussion considered above. But before he does so, Bonaventure is careful to establish that his concern with these levels of virtues is not based strictly on pagan sources. He cites a Christian authority for this hierarchy of virtues, Origen. Origen, according to Bonaventure, wrote that Solomon was concerned with the three lower levels of virtue at different points in the Old Testament: he was concerned "with the political in Proverbs, with the purificative in Ecclesiastes, and with those of the soul already purified in the Song of Songs."34

Following his long quotation of Macrobius, which ends Collation 6, Bonaventure recapitulates his discussion of the hierarchy of cardinal virtues at the beginning of Collation 7. He states again that "some philosophers attacked the ideas," thus being separated from other philosophers as darkness from light.35 As evidence of this, he again describes the "threefold blindness" which is caused by a failure to recognize the ideas or exemplar causes. Then he notes that other "enlightened philosophers...posited exemplar virtues, from which the cardinal virtues flowed, first into the cognitive power and then through that into the affective, and then into the operative."36 These are the cardinal virtues, of which the first are called political, insofar as they pertain to worldly relations; the second are purificatory insofar as they pertain to solitary contemplation; the third for the purified soul, as they make the soul to be at rest in the exemplars.. [T]hrough these virtues the soul is modified, purified, and reformed.37

Though crediting the "enlightened philosophers" with grasping this theory, Bonaventure's emphasis here is much different than in Collation 6, when he drew attention to the difference between the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, criticizing only the latter. For in Collation 7, Bonaventure insists that the "enlightened" Platonists are still in some degree of darkness,38 for they lack the light of faith. So after complimenting the Platonists for seeing truths that Aristotle did not see, he proceeds with his specifically Christian goal of articulating the necessity of faith. Of course Bonaventure must believe that Christ only can bring the soul back to God, not the pagan virtues—even if the virtues are grasped in a hierarchy presided over by the exemplars. "The philosophers," he says, "had the wings of ostriches, because their affective powers could not be healed, nor ordered, nor rectified; for this is done only by faith."39

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