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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ethics of the Middle Ages

Alice C. Linsley


354-430 AD: Augustine, North African philosopher/theologian/bishop
480-524 AD: Boethius, Translator of Aristotle’s works on logic
482-556 AD: Emperor Justinian, Imperial Code of Law
1054 AD:  Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches
1033-1109:  Anselm of Canterbury
1225-1274:  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae
1466-1536:  Erasmus, Christian Humanist
1483-1546:  Martin Luther, Fiery Reformer
1575-1624:  Jacob Böehme, Neo-Platonist philosopher

Having devoted attention to the ethical thought of the ancient Afro-Asiatics and Greeks, we now turn to consideration of the ethical thought of the so-called “Middle Ages.” The term “medieval” means “the in-between time” and refers to the period of roughly 1200 years between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Protestantism.

The Medieval Period is divided into the Early and Late Middle Ages. The earlier period is largely concerned with reconciliation of Christian theology and Greek philosophy. The synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian theology reached its climax in the 11th century (called the “High Middle Ages”). In the Late Middle Ages, ethics was tied to Scholasticism and the universities. Scholasticism influenced the development of Renaissance humanism in the 16th century. During the late Middle Ages the Jesuits established over 200 universities.

The Middle Ages are sometime termed “the Dark Ages.” This label was first applied by 17th century Humanists who regarded the entire period as mired in superstition and useless debate. Today the Middle Ages are recognized as a time of extraordinary creativity, innovation and intellectual brilliance. Objects that we take for granted were invented in the Middle Ages: clocks, eyeglasses, buttons, forks, gunpowder, and the telescope.

Great cathedrals and monasteries were constructed. These fostered exceptional words of art in stained glass, icons, paintings, sculpture, and illuminated manuscripts. Great musical works were composed for worship services in the cathedrals and monasteries.

Universities were established in Italy, Spain, Germany, France and England. Three of these remain the oldest in continuous operation universities in Europe: The University of Bologna, Italy (founded 1088), the University of Salamanca, Spain (founded 1134), and the University of Oxford, England (founded 1167). The universities fostered learning in philosophy, math, science, literature, and theology. They produced the most learned men of Europe, among them: Erasmus, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Rene Descartes.

It was also an age chivalry, one of the more remarkable features of the Middle Ages. Chivalry refers to the knightly system and the virtues of loyalty and courage that characterized its followers. Chivalry directed knights and squires to honor and serve their lords and to protect ladies and maidens. Often romantic love developed between the knight and his lady. After 1600 AD tales of chivalry and romance went out of fashion, and Miguel de Cervantes satirized the genre in his famous novel Don Quixote.

This early centuries of the Middle Ages were termed “the Dark Ages” by 17th century Humanists who regarded the collapse of ancient Rome and Greece as a great tragedy. They preferred the pagan aesthetic of the Greco-Roman world.

Early and Late Periods

For ease of study, the Middle Ages will be divided into the Early and Late Middle Ages. The earlier period is largely concerned with reconciliation of Christianity with the paganism of the Greco-Roman world. The synthesis of classical philosophy and Christian theology reached its climax in the 11th century and then flowered during the later Middle Ages. In the latter period, ethics is tied to the Scholasticism of the universities and remained the dominant philosophy, influencing the development of Renaissance humanism in the 16th century.

European political structures experienced a decline after the collapse of the old Roman Empire. The collapse was felt more acutely the closer one lived to Rome itself. But even in the farthest reaches of the British Isles, the deterioration of the authority of Rome was felt. There would have been a great leadership void had it not been for the leadership of the Church in 5 important centers: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome.

In each of these cities there was a Bishop who provided leadership in both religious and civil affairs. In Rome, the Pope consolidated papal authority, claiming to represent the whole of Christianity. The Patriarch of Constantinople certainly disputed this, although he was willing to grant the Pope symbolic status as a symbol of Christian unity.

Eventually, power struggles ensued between the western Latin-speaking Church and the eastern Greek-speaking Church. The Christian Church split along doctrinal, theological, linguistic, political, and geographic lines. The split, called “the Great Schism” came to a head in A.D. 1054. From that time, Roman Catholicism emerged as the dominant church in the West and Eastern Orthodoxy as the dominant church in the East.  The split was not simply about control and politics. It also involved theological controversies that largely sprang from different understandings of Plato and Aristotle. The writings of both philosophers were read in the original Greek in the Byzantine Empire centered in Constantinople, but in the West, their writings were read in Latin translations from the Greek.

Aristotle’s work was known in the West through the translation work of the Roman statesman Boethius, considered one the founders of the Middle Ages because of his great influence on medieval education. Boethius was a master of the Greek language and for many centuries what was known of Aristotle in the West came from Boethius’ translations of Aristotle’s writings on logic.

For the most part, medieval thinkers regarded themselves as “modern” in relation to the “ancients.” Like the ancients they were guided by religious belief but this was not always strictly “Christian”, as in the case of Jacob Böehme (1575-1624), who blended Gnosticism, Christianity, alchemy, and Jewish mysticism. For the most part local bishops tolerated thinking that strayed from Catholic teaching, but in an effort to further strengthen the administrative power of the Pope, Inquisitors took action against leaders of “heretical” movements such as the Waldensians. The Inquisitors were well educated men whose responsibility it was to guard the Faith by banning certain books and investigating charges of heresy.

Transition to the Medieval Era

We have seen that in Antiquity ethics was closely linked to the institutions of religion. Among the Afro-Asiatic peoples moral obedience to the law codes was based on the concept that these codes took their authority from the Deity and the Deity’s kingly representative on earth. Religious practices involving priests, sacred oracles and temples continued in the Classical and Hellenistic Periods. Plato and Aristotle were also religious, though they questioned aspects of the religious beliefs of their day.

The early Church Fathers attempted to distance Christianity from pagan philosophies and Gnosticism. The Christian message was about self-sacrifice and especially about the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. This was incompatible with Aristotle’s emphasis on personal happiness as the highest good.
During the Medieval Period, Christian thinkers would turn again to Plato and Aristotle and discover in their writings much that was valuable. Plato’s influence would prevail through the writings of the brilliant Christian theologian, Augustine of Hippo, and later in the work of an Augustinian Monk, Martin Luther. Aristotle’s thought would influence West civilization through the writings of Thomas Aquinas, and later in the thought of Enlightenment empiricists.

The ethical questions of the Middle Ages which will be addressed in this lesson are:

·        The Existence of God
·        Human Nature
·        Freedom of the Will
·        The Relationship of Faith and Reason
·        The Relationship of Civil and Church Authorities
·        The Nature of Just War

The Christian Ethical Tradition

Well established in both East and West, Christianity proved to be a powerful cultural and ethical force. While it is evident that Christianity did not solve societal problems, it did largely improve the conditions of women and slaves. We see this is in the establishment of the Justinian Law Code around 530 AD.

The Justinian Code served to unite the vast areas over which Justinian exercised his rule. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Justinian Code. It is the basis of both Church law and civil law in virtually every European country.

It is especially notable that the Justinian Code improved the conditions of women and slaves. With its implementation, the following practices quickly disappeared:

·        Infanticide
·        Polygyny (multiple wives)
·        Incest
·        Cultic prostitution
·        The 3-tiered caste system that limited women’s marriage options
·        The practice of fathers selling their daughters into slavery

The Code also made it legal for:

·        Slave owners to grant liberty to as many slaves as they wanted
·        Families to retain the estate in cases where the father died intestate
·       Noble women to exercise political power

St. Augustine (354-430)

Without doubt the most influential Christian thinker of the early Middle Ages was Augustine of Hippo, the first truly great medieval philosopher. In his Confessions, he describes his life before becoming a Christian as undisciplined and sinful. After being a Christian he devoted himself to the exposition of Platonism in support of Christianity.

Augustine's method is based on the idea that human reason and philosophy are useful only to those who already have faith. He wrote, “Credo ut intellegiam” (“I believe in order that I may understand”) and he believed that even if he were mistaken about nearly everything that he thought to be true, one inescapable truth remained: “Si fallor, sum” (“If I am mistaken, I exist”). Upon this foundation, Augustine believed it possible to employ the senses and reason in the pursuit of knowledge.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

The most influential of all medieval thinkers was Thomas Aquinas who synthesized Aristotle’s thought with Latin theology in his extensive Summa Theologiae. What is striking about this work is the way in which it responds to a fundamental difficulty in both Plato and Augustine’s views. Both Plato and Augustine focus on the restraint of appetite or desire. By focusing on the negative—on how we should not be ruled by appetites—they do not explain positive motivation to act ethically. My reason tells me that it is right to return a lost wallet, but my desire motivates me to keep it. What motivates me to do right in this situation? To act against an immoral desire, I must have a contrary motivation or appetite to do good. If this is so, then it cannot be the case that all appetites or desires are irrational, excessive or bad. Borrowing from Aristotle, Aquinas argues that humans must have good desires that direct us to act morally.

He distinguishes acts of a man from human acts. Acts in the more general sense, that is, activities of humans but also found in some non-human agents, are not the same as human acts which proceed from knowledge and will. Here we see Thomas Aquinas’ definition of human nature as having both rationality and will. In the Thomistic view the human act is the pursuit of a known good. He defines this good as the soul’s pursuit of God.

Aristotle believed that the good is expressed when a man exercises reason as a political creature, seeking personal happiness in both private and public life.  For Aristotle, this is what humans exist to do. Aquinas borrows Aristotle’s notion of the good as fulfilling our final end, but instead of viewing our final end as rational activity, claims instead that humanity’s final end is the contemplation of God (the “beatific vision”). Aquinas agrees with Augustine and Anslem that happiness, defined as spiritual flourishing, is found in knowledge of God. Unlike Augustine, Aquinas places less emphasis of divine revelation.  Humans are capable of knowing God through their reason. Unlike Anselm, Aquinas believes that it is possible to reason oneself to faith, if one reasons logically.

Aquinas, following Aristotle, justifies his claim about human happiness using Nature. Happiness is found in the fulfillment of our natural function, which for Aquinas is self-preservation. Consequently, we naturally seek to preserve our soul and in accomplishing this natural function, we achieve true happiness. The ethical virtues are those activities and character traits that help us fulfill self-preservation. We are naturally inclined toward virtue out of our natural tendency to preserve ourselves.

Following Plato, Aquinas explains moral failure as a failure of knowledge. If we fail to be virtuous, it is not because we do not desire to be so, but because we are ignorant or confused about what virtue is. Rather than condemning all desire as sinful, as Augustine seems to do, Aquinas distinguishes correct and incorrect desire. He says that humans naturally desire and seek God. Virtue consists in training ourselves to successfully reach the goal to which we are naturally destined.

This distinctive feature of Aquinas’ philosophy has an important consequence for the relationship of philosophy and religion. It means that human nature is not hopelessly sinful or flawed. Because human beings are rational and desire God, they have the ability to act virtuously.

Thomas Aquinas’ work represents great intellectual rigor, complexity and subtlety. He is the most impressive of the medieval “schoolmen” and like all schoolmen he asked questions that had a theological bearing. His Summa Theologiae was left unfinished at his death. There is some question as to whether he may have changed his mind on certain points before he died. It is reported that on December 6, 1273 he had a mystical experience while attending Mass and thereafter wrote nothing more. His explanation was: “All that I have written seems to me like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.” He died four months later.

The Papacy Challenged

After the 12th century the intellectual environment in Western Europe began to change. There were many challenges to the authority of the Papacy in both spiritual and temporal affairs. These challenges reached a peak in the 15th century.

One thinker who challenged the Church’s corruption was the Dutch scholar Erasmus, who lived long enough to be embarrassed by the extremes of the Protestant reformers and the social disorder that their ideas stimulated. The English scholar John Colet said, "The name of Erasmus will never perish." Sir Thomas More wrote, "Erasmus has published volumes more full of wisdom than any which Europe has seen for ages."

Erasmus advocated referring to the Bible for guidance on how to live a good life, and study of classical Greek and Roman writings for guidance on how to achieve an orderly civilization. He integrated Renaissance humanism and Christian theology and proposed significant educational reforms.

After living in Rome for three years where he observed clergy corruption, Erasmus wrote of his contempt for their immoral and unethical practices in the Praise of Folly. He wrote a satire in which Pope Julius and St. Peter discuss Julius’ entry into heaven. Erasmus believed that Pope Julius was a hypocrite, preaching peace while he “stirs up the world with tempests of war for the sake of his authority over a small town.”

Although Erasmus criticized the Papacy, he remained a Catholic and was committed to a Catholic understanding of free will, which many Reformers rejected in favor of the doctrine of predestination. This angered leading Reformers, such as Martin Luther.

Erasmus was sympathetic with some points of Luther’s criticism of the Church, stating that, “It is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed.” So it was said that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.” Erasmus respected Luther and Luther admired Erasmus' superior learning, urging him to join the Lutheran movement. Erasmus declined, believing that his life’s purpose was as a leader in the movement for humanistic scholarship and as a translator of the Bible. If he were to influence the reform of the Church it would be as a scholar. When Erasmus hesitated to support the Lutheran movement, Luther accused Erasmus of either cowardice or a lack of purpose. Erasmus, however, believed that there was room within existing structures and doctrine for the reforms he valued. His attempts to remain neutral during this time of unrest caused both Catholics and Protestants to accuse him of siding with the other. Erasmus wrote, “I detest dissension because it goes both against the teachings of Christ and against a secret inclination of nature. I doubt that either side in the dispute can be suppressed without grave loss.”

Erasmus and Luther Debate the Question of Free Will

In 1524, Erasmus wrote a treatise in which he dealt with the Lutheran notion of the bondage of the will to sin. He systematically set out the weaknesses of Martin Luther’s Augustinian view in his De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (The Freedom of the Will). In response, Luther wrote On the Bondage of the Will which directly attacks Erasmus, going so far as to claim that Erasmus was not a Christian.

To Erasmus, the Bible and the Classics were two sides of the same coin, thus he strove to combine them. This is reflected in Erasmus’ definition of education: "The task of fashioning the young is made up of many parts, the first and consequently the most important part of which consists of implanting the seeds of piety in the tender heart; the second in instilling a love for, and thorough knowledge of, the liberal arts; the third in giving instructions in the duties of life; the fourth in training in good manners right from the very earliest years.”

To Erasmus, “a man without education has no humanity at all; that man’s life is a fleeting thing; that youth is an easy prey to sin; that adulthood is afflicted with numerous cares; and that old age, which few are permitted to reach, is barren and sterile...” He believed that the seeds for a good life are in us ‘by nature’, and teachers are to cultivate these seeds. He wrote: “The seeds that nature has implanted in us to attain this goal are bursting with life; the only thing that is required, in addition to this natural inclination, is the effort of a dedicated teacher.”

While Luther began his theology with the depravity of man, Erasmus started with the goodness of the teacher and the student, making Christ’s teachings the objective of all learning.  To Erasmus, classical antiquity showed the best method for teaching. He wrote, “I would not want you to imbibe pagan morals together with pagan writings. On the other hand, you will find many things there which are conducive to a holy life, and the good precepts of a pagan author should not be rejected...” Luther held that since the Fall of Adam and Eve man’s will is not free to choose or even desire God, and that we lost our humanity. Luther believed that it is only through Christ that people regain their full humanity and he thought that Erasmus made too little of this point: “I am afraid, however, that he [Erasmus] does not advance the cause of Christ and the grace of God sufficiently.... Human things weight more with him than the divine.”  

Luther countered Erasmus’ belief in the freedom of the will, saying: “Free will after the fall exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do it commits a mortal sin... The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin.” 

This question of whether humans have free will to elect the Good continues to be debated throughout the history of Ethics, but the Lutheran view of utter depravity and bondage of the will receives less consideration as we move into the modern and post-modern periods. In fact, his position will be completely rejected by most philosophers from the mid 1700s to the present.

Luther maintained that God teaches us about justification, focusing on the inner man for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Human instruction prepares us to live in the finite earthly kingdom, but divine revelation prepares us to live in the eternal Kingdom of God. This is the basis of Luther’s Two-Kingdoms Theory, the earthly kingdom being separate from and subordinate to the Kingdom of God. Luther recognized that what happens on earth is important for eternal life.  He saw education as a means to protect children from the devil’s attempts to take them away from God and as a way to teach them how to live wisely in the earthly kingdom.

Because he believed that the human will is held in bondage by sin, Luther saw education as a way to fight the devil: “Let this, then, my dear sirs and friends, be the first consideration to influence you, namely, that herein we are fighting against the devil as the most dangerous and subtle enemy of all.” It also means that the government has responsibility to promote the spiritual welfare of its citizens, while not neglecting its temporal responsibilities.

The Church-State Tension of 16th Century Political Thought

Luther’s articulation of the relationship between religious authority and civil authority supported a close interaction between church and state, each doing its part to nurture spiritually healthy citizens and to protect them from corrupting influences. Here we see a connection to Plato, who also justified the state’s right to censor for the protection of the weak-minded.

Luther never advocated a separation of Church and State, but rather a close co-operation. His “two-kingdoms theory” supports strong interdependence of church and state, with each having different responsibilities. The state has authority to regulate commerce, tax citizens, and defend against foreign aggressors. The state has authority to protect the Church and religious education. However, in On the Freedom of a Christian, Luther states that the state has no authority to declare what is to be believed in matters of faith and salvation. Only the Church has authority in this area.

Martin Luther
Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (two jurisdictions) maintains that God is the ruler of the whole world and that he rules in two ways; through secular authority and authority of the heavenly kingdom represented by Christians who voluntarily obey God according to Luther’s view of the gospel of grace (New Covenant) versus the burden of the law (Old Covenant). This excluded the Roman Catholic Church as an expression of the heavenly kingdom, since the Papacy did not represent Luther’s understanding of the gospel of grace. Luther regarded Roman Catholicism as a religion of salvation by works.

The Lutheran Book of Concord, compiled in 1580, references Luther’s sermon on the Two Kingdoms preached in Marburg in 1528. In his Two Kingdoms Theory, Luther stressed the importance of cooperation between church and state. However, he denied that the state has authority to speak on issues of faith and salvation (On the Freedom of a Christian).

Luther articulated his view in these words:

“God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly…The laws of worldly government extend no farther than to life and property and what is external upon earth. For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but himself. Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God's government and only misleads and destroys souls. We desire to make this so clear that every one shall grasp it, and that the princes and bishops may see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing one thing or another.”

Lutheranism became the national religion in Germany as noblemen broke free of Papal authority. They benefited from the seizure of lands held by the Catholic Church wherever the ruler declared for the Protestant movement. Even is this era of religious pluralism Germany remains predominantly Lutheran, and Lutheranism is the official state church of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland.

Medieval Views on War

The theory of “just war” developed out of the Christian Church. Early Christians largely abstained from war, although surprising numbers of Roman soldiers have been identified as Christians.

After Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire Christian thinkers such as Augustine concluded that waging war was justified as a legitimate exercise of the authority of rulers. As a rule is justified in punishing wrong doers within his realm, so he may punish external wrong doers.

Over the centuries the just war theory was further refined and during the Middle Ages divided into related ideas:  jus ad bellum and jus in bello. Jus ad bellum addresses what justifies going to war and jus in bello addresses what may justly be done in war.

Jus ad bellum requires that war be undertaken according to these conditions:
  1. It may be waged only by legitimate authority.
  2. It may be waged for a just cause.
  3. It must be a last resort.
  4. There must be a formal declaration of war.
  5. There must be reasonable prospect of success. 
Jus in bello involves the following conditions:
  1. War should be motivated by right intentions such as protecting one’s territory.
  2. War should be fought proportional to the end sought, not constituting a greater evil than the evil it was fought to remedy.
  3. War should not involve killing the innocent (non-combatants).

In his City of God, Augustine examines the nature of the state and its relationship to Christianity, as well as the response of the Christian to war. His ideas influenced the young Christian empire and provided the framework used later by Thomas Aquinas, whose three components of just war in the Summa can be traced directly to Augustine. In Contra Faustum, Augustine states, “A great deal depends on the causes for which men undertake wars, and on the authority they have for doing so; for the natural order which seeks the peace of mankind, ordains that the monarch should have the power of undertaking war if he thinks it advisable.” Aquinas expounds on this, writing: “…as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city.”

Both Augustine and Aquinas recognize that the only person who can legitimately declare war is the head of the state as he seeks to fulfill his obligation to provide for the common good, and to promote peace and justice. Erasmus also held this view but he hated war.  He once wrote, “Dulce bellum inexpertis.” (War is sweet to those who have no experience of it.)

Martin Luther drew on their ideas and took matters a step further in his Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should be Obeyed (1523). Here he defines the role of civil authority and the proper Christian attitude towards rulers. When the peasants revolted against their rulers, Luther criticized them in Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants (1525), saying that their actions were in violation of God’s authority vested with the rulers, and that they were acting as instruments of the Devil.

In an earlier work: Appeal to the German Nobility (1520), Luther set forth the duties of Christian rulers and deplored their wrong doing and abuse of power.  In this same work, Luther described how the Roman Catholic Church had injured the German people and urged them to take action against it, explaining: “If we want to fight Turks, let us begin here - we cannot find worse ones. If we rightly hang thieves and behead robbers, why do we leave the greed of Rome unpunished? For Rome is the greatest thief and robber that has ever appeared on earth, or ever will. It is time the glorious Teutonic people should cease to be the puppet of the Roman pontiff. Because the pope crowns the emperor, it does not follow that the pope is superior to the emperor. Samuel, who crowned Saul and David, was not above these kings, nor Nathan above Solomon, whom he consecrated.”

Unfortunately, this is not the only time the Bible has been used to incite violence and to exalt the German nationalism. Nor would this be the last time. The Nazis followed Luther’s lead in this exercise four centuries later, co-opting the state church and executing dissenting Christian pastors such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote, “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” 

1 comment:

  1. The Philosophers Corner
    Ethics of the Middle Ages
    In reading the Philosophers Corner found is very interesting when how the Medieval Period is the divided into the late and early Middle Ages and how they relate to the reconciliation of Christian theology and Greek philosophy. It was also interesting that another term for Middle Ages is Dark Ages and as of today the Middle Ages are recognized the entire period as mired in sustentation and useless debates. There was over 200 universes is accepted during the late Middle Ages by the Jesuits this was a very informative article speaking of the early and late Middle Ages.