Transcript: 357. David Lines on Aristotle's Ethics in the Renaissance

An interview with David Lines on the Renaissance reception of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: So perhaps you can start by giving us a general sense of the sources that Renaissance thinkers drew on when they were discussing ethics. I guess the most obvious source would be Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which they certainly knew. I guess they did read that quite eagerly, but there were probably other sources of inspiration as well. 

David Lines: That's right. Aristotle was a very important source, as you indicate, the Nicomachean Ethics in the first place, but also other works, including the Magna Moralia and other works such as the Eudaemian Ethics as well, which are not terribly well known in the medieval period, but become much better known in the Renaissance period. 

Peter Adamson: They're not that well known today either. 

David Lines: No, quite. That's unfortunate. But there are lots of sources from antiquity besides Aristotle that are important. We can mention Plato among them, even though Plato didn't have a very large tradition in the medieval period. In the Renaissance, certainly his dialogues become very well known in Latin translation and later on in vernacular as well. Then we can think of one of the greatest Roman authors, Cicero, whose works such as the Tusculum Disputations were extremely well-known in the period, as well as many other orations and works of moral philosophy. Then you have Seneca, of course, and the whole tradition connected with Stoicism outside of Seneca. Many of these works are well known in the medieval period and in the Renaissance period as well, of course. I think probably one of the things we should remember is that ethics in the Renaissance is not just about the classical pagan tradition, but it's also very importantly about the Christian tradition and the Hebrew tradition. That is, those books making up what we call today the Old and the New Testaments are actually very important from the point of view of how virtue is defined and how it's explained. 

Peter Adamson: And presumably church fathers as well, like Augustine. 

David Lines: Yes, exactly. And their interpretations, again, also of the Bible. Augustine is extremely important as a conduit, not only of Christian philosophy, but of pagan philosophy, as we know. 

Peter Adamson: Back in the medieval period, we saw that there were commentaries on Aristotle's ethics. So that's an obvious kind of case where you might be writing about ethics. But there were all sorts of other contexts in which they could discuss ethics. So, when they were arguing about the right way to live as a monk, for example, or when they were having theological debates about the nature of sin. Many philosophers from Peter Abelard onwards have arguments about ethics in that sort of context. Does the Renaissance sort of continue in the same vein, or do we get new contexts for talking about ethics in the Renaissance period? 

David Lines: Okay, well, that's a very good question, because you can start by saying, I suppose, that literature continues and is very influential. You mentioned Thomas Aquinas, so the Summa Theologiae, where those questions come up constantly is actually a very influential work, continuing to be in the Renaissance period up to the very end of the 16th century and beyond. So that's literature that continues very importantly. But in addition to that, you also have a continuation of other medieval genres such as Florilegia, or collections of sentences or sayings from works in which virtue is emphasized. And these have a tradition in the Renaissance bringing about the commonplace book, which humanists use as a place in which to copy great sayings from Cicero, Seneca, Augustine, the Bible, and other sources as well. 

Peter Adamson: But are they actually doing theoretical reflection on ethics in a context like that? I mean, that's more a place where you'd have like, here's a memorable saying about how to live, but maybe not, you know, a theory about sin or something. 

David Lines: That's absolutely right. Yes. These are more means to refresh one's memory about what virtue is about, use it in practice, but also use it as a source for sermons, letters, treatises, and other kinds of contexts. I think if you think about genres and ways in which people discuss ethics more formally or issues and ethics, we can look at a continuation of the commentary tradition. Some people think of that as having ceased in the Middle Ages, but actually what we see is in the 15th and 16th centuries and beyond them up to 1700, a continuation of engagement with Aristotle's writings, but also the writings of other authors. Cicero, for instance, whose tradition we hardly know anything about actually in the Renaissance is a very, very interesting case. So, people are writing commentaries on these works as well as writing compendia of them and trying to grapple with the issues that they grappled with. 

Peter Adamson: Is there something they would have been doing in a university setting usually? 

David Lines: They often did. Universities were a very important place because universities taught moral philosophy, but also the schools of the religious orders, the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinian hermits, all of these orders had particular studia generalia, they're called, they're correspondence to universities in some ways, although they concentrate on philosophy and theology, and they're doing very much the same kind of curriculum for moral philosophy as is studied in the universities themselves. 

Peter Adamson: Right. Well, it sounds like there's a lot of ethical literature from this period and we're probably not going to be able to discuss it comprehensively in the next 20 minutes. So let's focus on something more particular, which is Aristotle's ethics, because this is something you've worked on and published on, and in any case is probably the main ethical treatise that they're engaging within this period. So can you say something about the previous medieval engagement with the ethics and then also the translations, because there was actually more than one translation into Latin during the Renaissance, and maybe something about who was reading the ethics? 

David Lines: Yes. So the medieval period sees four different translations of the Nicomachean Ethics, culminating in that of Robert Grove's tests, 1247, 48, and then William of Mervica about 30 years after that. In the Renaissance period, starting especially in 1416, 1417, the first new translation we know of is by Leonardo Bruni, who is the chancellor of Florence and writes a very rhetorically flowery translation into Latin of Aristotle's works. He gets attacked for it because it's not considered by some as being philosophically accurate. But nonetheless, it's very interesting because of the debate it sparks. Bruni believes that Aristotle's Greek is eloquent, and he wants to prove that through his translation into Ciceroanian Latin. Now you've read the ethics in Greek, I'm sure. 

Peter Adamson: I was just wondering if I would go so far as to say that it's eloquent. It's not exactly Plato. 

David Lines: It's certainly not my impression. And if you know that that work is actually coming from lecture notes taken by students in probably a fairly disorganized state, I don't think that we would say that it was eloquent either. But that translation by Bruni in any case gives rise to a number of other different translations, one by the Greek emigrate John Argyropoulos in the 1450s, and many, many more in France, Germany, and other places. And also, into translations into the vernacular later on, which expand the angle of the audience. 

Peter Adamson: And maybe we should mention here that there were also Byzantine commentaries on ethics. 

David Lines: That's absolutely true. And they would have known these as well. Yes. Eustratius, or the commentary known as Eustratius, which is mosaic of different commentaries, is the most important one. And it brings together works from the third century after Christ up to the 12th century. And that's very well known. 

Peter Adamson: Is this all just kind of manifestation of a more general tendency in the Renaissance, which usually goes under the heading of humanism? They're turning back towards these classical texts, and this is just the classical text on ethics. So of course, they translate it, and they study it, and they write commentaries on it. Is it just a kind of sub-phenomenon of humanism that they're so interested in Aristotle's ethics? 

David Lines: I think we have to consider this more in the context of the very long commentary tradition, beginning with the ancient Greek tradition, of course, that this Eustratius commentary includes in part leading through the Byzantine commentary tradition, the scholastic tradition, especially Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and then continuing its influence in the Renaissance period rather than as a special feature of humanism. I think one of the important points here is that when people wanted to talk about ethics in a systematic way, they didn't really have any option but to rely on Aristotle, because the other authors, including Cicero and Seneca and Plato especially, talk about ethics, but in a very unsystematic kind of way. And the use of dialogues in particular for Plato is very difficult. And so, because the connections are so strong with the previous tradition, humanists are happy to take over those works and reconsider them, sometimes in a new light. So, I think it's partly a difference of approach because they're wanting to read Aristotle in new translations that are more fluent than the older ones, less technical, can appeal to people who haven't necessarily studied at university and can help them in a perhaps more practical way to actually follow virtue. 

Peter Adamson: I think that point you just made about Aristotle being systematic, and it's not just that each work is systematic, it's also that the whole body of Aristotle in writing is systematic. That's something that we've really been seeing again and again ever since late antiquity, that even Platonists will concentrate on teaching Aristotle because it provides you with a curriculum. And so even now in the Renaissance, which we think of as a kind of time of resurgent Platonism, they're still turning to Aristotle as the kind of go-to text for a systematic work on a topic like ethics. 

David Lines: That's exactly right. Plato does come back, as we know. His dialogues get translated into Latin in their entirety for the first time by Marsilio Ficino in the 1470s, but Plato never really makes it into the university curriculum because of that very reason. Even ardent Platonists are teaching Aristotle in the universities. And increasingly, what I think many people are doing, whether or not they're humanists, is trying to combine the insights of Plato and Aristotle under the aegis of Christianity. I think in many ways what they're doing is creating a new kind of synthesis of the kind that Thomas Aquinas had done before, but with more sources to deal with. And so, the synthesis looks different, and the particular areas of moral philosophy have a different kind of relevance according to the new political and social situation. 

Peter Adamson: What did they do with the aspects of Aristotle that are not so easy to combine with Plato? I mean, maybe the most obvious example is that in the first book of the Ethics, he pretty soon turns to the topic of the form of the good, which you might think of as the keystone of Plato's whole ethical teaching. And he says, oh, there's no form of the good, and the good is said in many ways, so this whole theory is just rubbish. What do they do with a text like that? 

I think they often try different approaches. They try to bring Plato together with Aristotle, sometimes justifying Aristotle's not very reverent attitude towards his master. And so, in this case, they would often say, well, Aristotle was actually disagreeing with Plato in words, but not really in essence. Or they might argue the difference is more apparent than real. We can explain it in such and such a way. I think Renaissance interpreters were experts at overlooking the differences between ancient authors as much as possible because they were trying to bring them all together. They all spoke the same truth, they thought, even though they were coming from different perspectives. And so, in some ways, a lack of historical perspective brought them to flatten some of the very great differences that we see today between ancient thinkers. 

Peter Adamson: Yeah, that's reminiscent of something we see in late antiquity too. And one strategy they used in late antiquity is they'll say, well, Aristotle is just cautioning you here against a misreading of Plato, rather than criticizing Plato. And you probably see the same sort of thing in Renaissance literature. 

David Lines: Yeah, absolutely. Yes. And you see the same thing also, not just in readings of Aristotle, but also in readings of Plato. When Plato, for instance, talks about the community of wives or the community of property, many Renaissance thinkers do not like these ideas at all. 

Peter Adamson: Not ready for Marxism.

David Lines: No, quite not. And so, Jim Hankins has shown in his book on Plato and the Italian Renaissance that they will simply skip those passages or make them into something more palatable to the readers. So that's going on, I think, with all the authors. Even Stoicism, for instance, is recognized by many interpreters as not fitting very well in with Christianity. And so, they would put it aside as an ethical movement, generally speaking, very much in the same way that they put Epicureanism aside. So that the only ones remaining standing were Platonism and especially Aristotelianism, which then they tried to join together, as I said, under Christianity. 

Peter Adamson: And do they have problems with fusing together Aristotle with Christianity? I mean, so one example that leaves to mind here would be his presentation of the highest good. And there's famously a problem about whether the best life in the ethics, as Aristotle envisions it, is a life that involves practical engagement and political values and so on, or whether he's really thinking about a life of philosophical contemplation. But either way, it looks like he's talking about a life lived now here in this world. He's not talking about an afterlife, whatever Thomas Aquinas might try to say. And so, do they feel a tension there between kind of Christian ethics, Augustinian ethics, where what you're trying to do is prepare yourself for an afterlife and join the city of God? And Aristotelian ethics, where you're engaged with the city of man, or maybe just doing philosophy? 

David Lines: Yeah. Well, it's very, very hard to generalize because I think different figures have different ways of solving these issues and presenting the problem. But I think what you can say is that most Renaissance thinkers who are fundamentally believers try to point out that there are two aspects that are slightly in tension with each other in Aristotle's thought. You do have the active life, of course, in book one of the ethics, and you have the contemplative life, which is exalted as being more rarified and something more to be striven for in book 10. But they recognize that the ethics is actually grounded in the here and now rather than the hereafter. And so I think the way in which they play with those issues is not to say the active life is for now and the contemplative is for later, but they actually recognize that here on earth, one can be engaged both in active participatory politics, for instance, but at the same time have periods of contemplation and reflection so that wisdom, the wisdom of the philosopher, the one that comes out of book 10, is also something for the here and now. Obviously, they don't deny that in the end, this is a piece that fits into the general story of Christianity so that the afterlife is something that does exist. But they refer all of the ethics, generally speaking, to the present life. 

Peter Adamson: And I guess that they always can make the move when this is part of Aquinas's story of saying that insofar as we are aspiring towards a contemplative life, the thing that we're most of all contemplating is God anyway because he's the highest possible object of contemplation. 

David Lines: Absolutely. And I think many people during this period do agree actually with Aquinas to continue to agree with him on that particular point, but they just present the issue slightly differently. We have to remember that many of the ones who were interpreting Aristotle on this were very often still members of religious orders. They were very often professors of philosophy such as Francesco Piccolomini and Padua in the 16th century, who had a very strong interest in welding a Platonic metaphysics onto an Aristotelian system of moral philosophy, not terribly unlike the Thomistic system in some ways. But these elements were co-present. And so Piccolomini mentions, for instance, that, of course, the end of all things, the supreme good, is to be identified with God himself. 

Peter Adamson: Right. So then turning back towards the more practical end of things, if you haven't gotten to the book 10 yet of the ethics, then you think that the ethics is mostly about virtue. And something that I've always been struck by is the potential for another kind of conflict here with Christianity, which is that the virtues that Aristotle has in mind don't really seem to be the virtues that are most highlighted in Christianity. So, it's not all about faith, hope, and charity. It's about justice, temperance, courage, things like that. Now, obviously, Christians probably think that justice, temperance, and courage are good things too. But do they have a different kind of way of conceiving virtue than Aristotle did? 

David Lines: That's a very difficult question to answer, because the catalog of virtues, as you know, in the Renaissance, is very, very long. And some of the ones that are mentioned by Aristotle do tend to have a very strong point of tension with Christianity. One of those is magnificence, which doesn't sit very well with Christian ideals of poverty, of course. 

Peter Adamson: So, this is basically being rich and spending a lot of money on your friends. That's right. 

David Lines: Or a lot of money for the states in other ways. So this is a considerable point of problems and of tension. Now, I would say that one of the points that come up very often is the point about friendship. And friendship gets reinterpreted in the Renaissance period very often in connection with the question of how God sits in relation to man, especially by Protestant reformers who are very interested in the idea of equality within two partners in the friendship, which is something suggested by Aristotle, and the gospel message that God actually becomes man's friend through the sacrifice of Christ. And so that becomes a very significant issue that people try to resolve, given that we are not equal with God at the same time. Can we really have a friendship with the Son, Jesus Christ, or not? But there are lots and lots of problems that come up as well, such as the importance of justice, the place of honor, and other things of the sort, which have possible religious hues or colorings at the same time. It's such a broad range of issues that it's hard to talk about them in general, I suppose.

Peter Adamson: Do they even have a problem with the fundamental idea that virtue is a mean between extremes? Because if you think about a virtue like chastity, the idea isn't, oh, be chaste in the right circumstances and to the right degree. It's being as chaste as possible. That's right. So isn't there a problem there as well? 

David Lines: There is a problem, yes. And there's also a problem with ideas of justice and how you actually define the distributive kind of justice in the Aristotelian system and whether that matches Christian ideals or not. All of these are points of tension, absolutely. And it's not something that people solve. I think there's always a big question point. Could I just mention that one of the points that does come up very often, and some have written on this point, is that of heroic virtue, which is something which especially comes to the fore in the 16th century because people want to explain how saints, for instance, can be invested with a special virtue from on high. And so, this is a point in which they try to combine elements of Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology. And again, the things don't sit together very well.

Peter Adamson: This is like comparing an ancient martyr to Achilles. 

David Lines: Yes, quite. Yes. 

Peter Adamson: Yeah, I'm not quite sure I see how that's going to work. 

David Lines: It's a problem for a lot of thinkers trying to reconstruct to what extent you can use pagan philosophy to shore up the foundations of Christian theology. 

Peter Adamson: And to what extent do they do what Aristotle does, which is to put virtue within a political context? I mean, Aristotle actually says at the beginning of the Ethics that what you're about to read is part of political philosophy. And of course, political philosophy is something that is also, if not having a resurgence in the Renaissance, it's certainly a feature of the Renaissance. 

David Lines: Yes, absolutely. 

Peter Adamson: So, did they try to integrate Aristotelian ethics within a conception of civic virtue, for example, or political life? 

David Lines: Yes, I think they often do. And this is maybe one of the points of difference with some of the interpretations from, let's say, the 13th century with Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, in which virtue tends, although not always, to be treated as an individual matter. And ethics is seen as the science which deals with the virtue of the individual as opposed to that of the family or of the wider political community. So, one of the features, especially of 15th century Florentine humanism, is to concentrate on political involvement and man as a social animal becomes a very, very important part of the ethics of the individual as well. Leonardo Bruni, going back to him, gives interpretations both of the ethics, the pseudo-Aristotelian economics and the politics, precisely because he wants to show the progression among those three items. But at the same time, he's doing something which is very similar to what Thomas Aquinas is doing, because Aquinas also gave a preeminent place to politics within that whole system. And that's what Bruni does, although he's not necessarily followed in that by everyone else. So, this leads to that conversation that we were having before to that aspect we were mentioning about the active and contemplative lives and which one of those two might be more important. 

Peter Adamson: And I guess that to the extent that you want to really emphasize political life, Aristotle is probably a more useful source than say the Stoics or the other non-historical material. 

David Lines: Oh, absolutely. Quite. Very much so, yes. Also because the Stoics emphasize so much the single individual and retreat from politics, which is not, by the way, necessarily something that some humanists object to. Petrarch is famously allergic to involvement in politics after he's at least seen a failed attempt to take over Rome by Cola di Rienzo. So he retreats out of politics and even accuses Cicero of having gone too far. 

Peter Adamson: Okay. Well, thank you very much to David Lyons for coming on the podcast.


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