Encounters with the Philosopher

I have to confess, prior to about a month and a half ago, I hadn’t ever read much Aristotle. Not only that, but while I would confidently nod my head in agreement when someone else mentioned ‘the significant impact of the translation of Aristotle’s works in the thirteenth century’, I only had a somewhat vague idea of what this impact actually was (unaided by the fact that many medieval historians writing on the topic seem to assume you already know and therefore spare themselves the effort of going into any detail).

This gap in my knowledge became readily apparent when I attempted to summarize medieval virtue ethics in an essay for my supervisor and more-or-less concluded with the formal essay equivalent of ‘…. and then Aristotle happened, and … things?’

Needless to say, I was sent away to acquaint myself with the Philosopher, more particularly with his Nicomachean Ethics.

Having eminently enjoyed my forays into the classics over the summer with the likes of Cicero, Sallust, and Seneca, I was somewhat unprepared for the dense, unfathomableness that wallops the unwary first-time reader of the Ethics. Finding much of the secondary literature equally entangled (only complicated by the Ethics’ complex and gradual transmission to the medieval West), I eventually turned to Thomas Aquinas’ thirteenth-century commentary on the Ethics, which is blessedly translated into English and really surprisingly helpful, and thereby arrived at an approximate understanding of the more relevant concepts, such as counsel and prudence, which I duly presented to my supervisor.

After scrawling his own essay’s worth of notes on the back and pointing out in the nicest possible way the numerous obvious connections I had clearly failed to make, he sent me away for two weeks to have another go, with two strict injunctions: read the Politics, and read Albertus Magnus (ignoring my feeble protests that the latter’s thoughts on the Ethics reside in two separate untranslated commentaries of two hefty volumes each).

Many, many pages of Latin later, however, I have a couple ideas on why Aristotle’s Ethics was significant to the thirteenth century, particularly (in the sense of my own research) to conceptions of deliberation and counsel:

  • Precision of language and concepts: The careful and detailed language and terminology that Aristotle uses gave welcome ammunition to medieval scholastics in their quest to organise and systematise the world and all its parts. The Ethics also introduced new ways of conceiving the interplay between complex concepts such as virtue, reason, prudence, deliberation, and choice.
  • Philosophical vs. Theological: Aristotle’s conception of reason as indispensable to virtue also encouraged his medieval commentators to consider his ethical precepts from a philosophical, rather than theological, point of view, which naturally had significant implications for the nature of scholarly truth and exploration.
  • Habitus: The Ethics encouraged the conception of virtue as a habit (habitus), formed by the repeated exercise of something which was already an innate human capacity. The reception of this concept was eased by the fact that the Parisian masters in the twelfth century had already begun to develop a concept of natural virtue and a secularized conception of morality (i.e. limited virtues which were natural to the human, not divinely infused into Christians alone).
  • Practical Application: Aristotle’s Ethics is very much oriented towards action and application. The intellectual virtues include not only wisdom, concerned with the higher, universal things, but also prudence (phronesis in Greek, prudentia in Latin), which is concerned with practical and individual action in the face of contingent and uncertain circumstances. Virtue and reason must act together; experience is also given a significant role.

The influence of the Ethics on such works as Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica guaranteed its widespread influence in the medieval West. Ideas are slippery things, however, and can be put to all sorts of often contradictory uses. I am still trying to follow their trail and find out what influence, if any, Aristotle’s conception of things like experienced prudence might have had in contexts outside the universities and studia.

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