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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ethics in the Renaissance

Alice C. Linsley


Giotto’s great works 1266–1337 AD
Pico della Mirandola 1463–1494 AD
Niccoló Machiavelli 1469–1527 AD
Michelangelo 1475–1564 AD
Columbus’ first voyage 1492–1493 AD
Emperor Charles V 1500–1558 AD
John Calvin 1509–1564 AD
Jesuit Order founded 1540 AD
Period of Religious Wars 1560–1598 AD
Christopher Marlowe 1564–1593 AD
Spanish Armada defeated 1588 AD

"It must be grasped that the Renaissance was primarily a human event, propelled forward by a number of individuals of outstanding talent, which in some cases amounted to genius. ...The Renaissance was about the work of individuals, and in a sense it was about individualism."--Paul Johnson

"I am aware that a philosopher’s ideas are not subject to the judgment of ordinary persons, because it is his endeavor to seek the truth in all things, to the extent permitted to human reason by God."--Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543)

The Renaissance was a cultural movement beginning in the 14th century in Italy. It spread to the rest of Europe, reaching England by the 16th century and northern Europe by the mid-17th century. It is characterized by Humanism, the predominant social, intellectual and literary currents of the period from 1400 to 1650. Humanism emphasizes appreciation of worldly pleasures, interest in classical pagan art and architecture, and the value of individual expression.

The Renaissance was driven by talented individuals who were ever seeking greater achievements. It involved renewed interest in pagan and Christian themes in literature and art. The two traditions often were shown in the same painting and depicted as sharing similar values or contrasting values. Titian’s portrayal of Sacred and Profane Love is an example (shown above). It shows two women: one dressed and holding a branch of myrtle, and the other naked and holding an oil lamp. Between them, Cupid stirs the waters. An obelisk and a church are seen in the town in the background. Hunters and hunting dogs are seen in the field behind the women. Two bodies of water separate the town from the field.

The artist who marks the transition to Renaissance painting is Giotto di Bondone, described by the 16th century biographer Vasari, as initiating “the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years.”

Many of Giotto’s works were painted on wood panels in the style of icons. These were commissioned for use in the great churches of Italy. A Giotto triptych was found as recently at 2012. (See this video.)

Imagine living as an artist in Italy during the early 16th century (High Renaissance). How would you distinguish yourself from the other artists living in your area: Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, or Titian? The competition was steep!

The artists of the Renaissance excelled in many medium. In the early Renaissance paintings were done on wood panels using tempura paint, an egg-based paint. From about 1550, paintings were done on canvas with oil paint. Some of the greatest Renaissance artists did fresco painting on walls and ceilings. Many also excelled at sculpture. Michelangelo Buonarroti is an example. Michelangelo completed most of his famous sculptures by age 30, but he continued to work until age 88.

Leonardo da Vinci excelled at drawing and his drawings reveal his genius and remarkable imagination. His private sketch books contain drawings of helicopters, gliders, a machine gun (“3-barrelled organ”), an armored tank, and many machines. Some of the machines he drew have been built and found to work very well. Da Vinci also researched the human body to ensure his artworks were anatomically accurate. Between 1507 and 1513 he dissected more than 30 human corpses. Today Da Vinci’s drawings of the human body are regarded as masterpieces both as works of art and as studies of the human anatomy.

There was as much competition and individual drive in literature and drama as in art. Christopher Marlowe’s work embodied the Humanism of Erasmus. Erasmus lived in England between 1505 and 1517 and he was influential in fostering sympathy for Henry VIII’s political aspirations. Erasmus’ views aligned well with Henry’s desire to centralize political and religious power in the person of the King and to require obedience to a unified church and state in England. Marlowe questioned religious authority, much as Erasmus questioned the corruption he saw among Roman Catholic prelates during his time in Rome. Marlowe’s plays were as famous in his day as those of Shakespeare, one of his contemporaries.

William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were trained in classical literature and were writing for the stage between 1587 and 1593. Marlowe died in 1593. Prior to 1587, there were no educated men dedicated to the public theater as professional writers. However, in England by the time Marlowe and Shakespeare had gained public recognition, there were eight other men competing for work as dramatists, and their ambition drove them to ever greater individual accomplishments.

A Time Similar to Our Own

In many ways the Renaissance was a time like our own. It was marked by individualism, renewed interest in paganism, religious conflict, Islamic expansion, deadly diseases, and new directions in literature, art, healthcare and education. The accomplishments of the Renaissance must be viewed against the backdrop of bloody religious conflict, the plague, the territorial ambitions of the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean, and the discovery of the New World which expanded geographical horizons and stimulated European imaginations and economies. The Renaissance was a period marked by the quest for discovery in virtually every area of human endeavor.

The invention of the printing press made it possible for scholars to share their research and for literate nobles and merchants to enjoy the great literature of their day. The impact was much like the impact of the internet today. The difference is that many people during the Renaissance were not able to read. It was not an egalitarian society in which equality was a value, and it was not a democratic society. Enacting laws and enforcing laws was the work of the landed nobles and their king.

In our time we also face religious upheaval and renewed interest in pagan ideas and religions. We live with terrible new diseases such as Ebola and HIV/AIDS, and the resurgence of resistant strains of old diseases such a Tuberculosis and Polio. In education, parents seek alternatives to public schools, such as charter schools, home schooling, and classical education schools. Healthcare reform is one of the most discussed topics among Americans today. Islamic leaders call for expansion of Islam, aspiring to establish an Islamic world empire under Sharia Law. This has lead to the outlawing of Sharia in some places. Some extremists propose holy war (jihad) against any who oppose them.

As there are no new lands to discover, we look instead to the heavens, as did Galileo. It is hoped that cooperative space exploration will lead to the discovery of earth-like planets in other galaxies. This hope stirs the human imagination and nurtures technological development.

Ethical Considerations of the Renaissance

This lesson concentrates on the 15th and 16th centuries because it was during these centuries that the key ethical questions of the Renaissance came most clearly into focus. The ethical questions of the Renaissance that will be addressed in this lesson are:

  • The dignity of Man
  • Responsibility of the nobility
  • Reform of education and healthcare
  • The power of rulers and the authority of the Papacy
  • Religious intolerance, persecution and war
  • Individual conscience and personal interpretation

The question of human nature was addressed by both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. The Catholic position held that while humans are sinful due to the fall of Man, the image of God with which we were originally created is not fully erased. Therefore Man has dignity derived from being made in the “image and likeness of God.” The Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin did not deny that humans were created in God’s image, but they believed that that the fall so thoroughly corrupted us that we were robbed of our original dignity. Our sinfulness is such that we no longer are free to desire communion with God. Our wills are in bondage to sin and we stand before the Creator as filthy beggars.

During the Renaissance, Luther’s view was challenged by the Christian Humanist Erasmus and by others who believed that the Lutheran doctrine of total depravity robs humanity of the dignity that remains even after the Fall. That dignity comes from the image of God that cannot be completely erased from human nature.

Humanism took various expressions in the Renaissance. Some humanists, such as Erasmus, were deeply religious. These stressed the dignity of man and both heavenly and earthly rewards. Others were scoffers of religion who sought all possible rewards in this life. This secular humanism was a reaction against Church authority and also against the bloodshed that resulted from religious conflict.

Renaissance Humanism shifted the focus from God to Man and from the supernatural to the natural. Human achievement and creative potential took center stage. Some Renaissance thinkers believed that humans have the potential to become almost divine through the use of reason (Pico della Mirandola). Others believed that humans could achieve dignity only by casting off the social and religious conventions of their time (Christopher Marlowe). The development of the printing press made it possible for all to share their ideas with a wider audience than had ever been imagined.

The debate over the dignity of man was fed by both scientific discovery and humanistic literature. Copernicus proved that the sun was at the center of the planetary system, rather than earth, radically altering the worldview of many learned people. This was significant because earth and humanity could no longer be regarded as the center of the universe.

The Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in a work titled “Oration on the Dignity of Man” exalted humanity as being capable of rising to the level of angels through philosophy and reason. He pictured humans between beasts and angels and insisted that by allowing reason to rule our emotions, we ascend to the level of angels. By acting against reason, we descend to the level of beasts. He asserted that only human beings could change themselves since humans alone have free will. His Oration on the Dignity of Man is considered the Manifesto of the Renaissance.

Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus typifies the spirit of humanism in the character of Faustus who aspires to superhuman powers by making a pact with the devil. Faustus is fascinated by the prospect of pushing beyond the religious conventions of his time. At the same time, he fears the possible consequences. The character Faustus embodies both the boldness and the anxiety of Renaissance individualism.

Faustus represents Marlowe’s exploration of his own psyche. He scoffed at the major religions and said, “I count religion but a childish toy.” He also mocked the intelligence of religious people. The character of Faustus makes a declaration about the dignity of man that is very Nietzschean, that is to say: a man can achieve any earthly power he might desire, but to do so, he must utterly reject social and religious conventions.

Doctor Faustus was performed twenty-five times between October 1594 and October 1597 and was one of the most popular plays of Renaissance England. The troupe that performed Marlowe’s play was called The Admiral’s Men because they were supported financially by their patron Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, who commanded a squadron of ships.

Patronage of the arts developed in the Middle Ages but reached its peak during the Renaissance. Nobles vied with the Church for the services of the best artists, poets and philosophers. Wealthy families provided housing, food and a stipend in exchange for an artist’s work. Renaissance patronage made it possible for people like Giotto, Titan, and Michelangelo to dedicate themselves to their work, but it was not without problems, as we will discover when we explore the ethics of patronage.

The Responsibility of Kings and Nobles

During the Renaissance the ideal nobleman was a literate and refined gentleman of courtly manners. He had responsibility for the care of servants, peasants and family members, which for noblemen of limited resources posed a financial challenge. Some noble families lost their estates or became vassals of more wealthy lords in order to be able to keep their estates. This meant swearing loyalty to the overlord and coming to his aid in time of war.

Many nobles sought to be patrons of great artists in order to gain social status. During the Middle Ages the Church had been the primary patron of the arts, but during the Renaissance new systems of patronage developed. Artists were supported by individuals, noble families, organizations, and cities. The patron who commissioned work from an artist was to provide his material needs until that work was finished. The Florentine wool guild, for example, commissioned religious paintings and sculptures for the adornment of the Cathedral in Florence.

The Renaissance saw greater centralization of power among wealthy rulers, sometimes called “new monarchs.” These were men who were able to command armies to police their territories and to expand their territories. After a period of famine, plague and self-serving medieval chivalry, the new monarchs stirred Europe out of decline by forming new allegiances. Renaissance diplomacy became an art form and there was much political intrigue. Powerful new weapons were employed in war. Power struggles and shifting alliances between kings resulted in the destruction of property and citizens. This was evident on Italian soil where the German Hapsburg kings and the French Valois kings engaged in prolonged wars that devastated Italy.

Religion played a role in government. Kings often sought the support of bishops to justify their political actions. Henry VIII declared that the Pope no longer had authority in the realm of England. In Geneva, Calvin’s teachings ruled the day and his Consistory controlled all aspects of civil and religious life.

The Consistory was a council of pastors and elders elected to represent the 13 districts (cantons). The Consistory maintained church discipline, dictated standards of moral behavior, and established laws. Calvin has been accused of using the Consistory to advance his political aims and to punish those who challenged his authority. Some of his opponents were tortured and beheaded, and those accused of witchcraft were hunted and burned to death. In 1545, the Consistory charged 23 people with practicing witchcraft and they were burned at the stake in Geneva. Calvin's acceptance of torture was not unusual among rulers of that time.

Machiavellian Ethics

By far the most significant political philosopher of the Renaissance was Niccólo Machiavelli whose writings on statesmanship have brought him both notoriety and fame.

Machiavelli took a pragmatic approach to government. He believed that the first responsibility of the ruler is to increase and maintain his power and that the ruler was justified to use any means to accomplish this. Machiavelli studied the political tactics of some of Italy’s most cunning rulers, particularly those of Cesare Borgia, who through military prowess was enlarging his holdings in central Italy. (Borgia was the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI.)

Machiavelli believed that bold and intelligent initiative on the part of a ruler could shape his fortune. In his view, human dignity was gained by exercise of the will to rule. Machiavelli provides instructions to the “new prince” on how to stabilize his power and retain control of his realm in his book “The Prince.” The prince is to appear benevolent in public while secretly acting as ruthlessly as necessary to squash his political opponents. He argues that this will achieve the greater good by maintaining social stability.

Machiavelli established guidelines for the ruler’s actions. He proposed this definition of acceptable cruelty: Whatever is done to one’s enemy must be swift, effective and short-lived, and there must not be collateral damage. In other words, killing a political opponent should be done as painlessly as possible, secretly, and without affecting other people or their property. Machiavelli justified this by reasoning that the ruler who has power can use it to benefit his subjects. The more powerful the ruler is, the greater his subjects’ benefits.

Machiavelli considered that some places, such as Milan, would never be ruled properly because there were too many nobles competing for power. His solution was to exterminate them all. He wrote, “In order to create a Republic in Milan it would be necessary to exterminate all the nobility. . . . For there are, among the nobles, so many exalted personages that the laws do not suffice to repress them, and they must needs be kept under by a living voice and a royal power.” (Discourse on the reform of the State of Firenze).

Machiavelli’s political ethics depart from those of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. This is because Machiavelli saw that whatever a ruler does there are likely to be both good and bad consequences. In “The Discourses” (1517), he wrote, “It seems that in all the actions of men, besides the general difficulties of carrying them to a successful issue, the good is accompanied by some special evil, and so closely allied to it that it would seem impossible to achieve the one without encountering the other.”

Socrates would have argued that unless an action serves the common good of all citizens, the ruler should not do it. Plato would have said that a ruler who does evil is someone who does not have an intimate acquaintance with eternal Goodness. Aristotle argued that there are some actions which are always bad and should never be done.

Consider the different viewpoints expressed in the writings of Machiavelli and Aristotle:

Machiavelli wrote that it is not necessary for a prince to have the qualities of honestly, kindness, loyalty, etc, “but it is necessary to seem to have them…useful it is to seem compassionate, trustworthy, humane, endowed with integrity, religious, and to be such, but to be in such a condition, with one’s spirit so constructed, that, when you need to not possess these qualities, you are prepared and know how to shift to the contrary qualities… Let, then, a prince act in such a manner as to conquer and maintain his estate, and the means will always be judged honorable, and they will be praised by everyone – since the crowd is always going to be taken in by appearances and results, and in the world there is no one but the crowd…”

Aristotle wrote: “There are some actions and emotions whose very names connote baseness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy; and among actions, adultery, theft, and murder. These and similar emotions and actions imply by their very names that they are bad... It is, therefore, impossible ever to do right in performing them: to perform them is always wrong.”

Reform of Education and Healthcare

Around the time that Machiavelli was gaining recognition in Italy, Ignatius of Loyola was born in Spain (1491). He was to have a worldwide influence as the founder of the Jesuits, a Catholic religious order that quickly spread over the globe.

The first Jesuits were ordained to the priesthood in Venice and offered themselves in service to Pope Paul III, who gave official approval to the Order in 1540. Ignatius served as General Superior of the Jesuits until his death at the age of 65. During his lifetime Jesuit missionaries went to China, Africa, Mexico and South America. Jesuit priests founded several towns in Brazil, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

The Society of Jesus dedicated itself to education. The first Jesuit schools adopted the curriculum of the Renaissance humanist academies which included the study of Greek, Latin poetry, oratory, drama, mathematics, theology and history. When Ignatius' died in 1556, the Jesuits were operating 74 colleges on three continents, and by 1626 the order had established 400 colleges throughout Europe. Jesuits colleges and universities became the standard for excellence and produced some of the greatest minds of European history, among them: Copernicus, Galileo, Miguel de Cervantes, Otto Brufels (the “father” of botany), and the brilliant mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, to name a few.

The Catholic Church funded schools and charity work to the poor through its parishes and religious orders throughout Europe. Priests, nuns and lay clerics staffed schools and hospitals, but where Protestantism became the established religion, such as in northern Germany, Catholic educational and charitable efforts were taken over by Protestants.

Most of the hospitals in Europe were founded by Catholic orders of nuns and monks. The Ospedale Maggiore in Milan housed one of the first community hospitals, the largest such undertaking of the 15th century. In the 14th century, the Alexian Brothers in Germany and the Netherlands organized care for victims of the Black Plague and established institutions for people with contagious diseases such as leprosy. Nuns and monks provided most of the nursing care and even made important discoveries in the field.

During the Renaissance, universities in Italy, Spain and Germany became centers for the education of medical practitioners. Success in the cure of diseases encouraged further investigation of medicinal herbs, and autopsies of the dead helped doctors learn more about the human body.

Religious Intolerance

The Renaissance was a time of religious intolerance and bloody religious conflict. Catholic and Protestant rulers made war against each other. Catholics and Protestants killed each other and both fought the Ottoman Turks.

Under Luther’s influence northern German became Lutheran and the Catholics living there faced religious persecution. To escape trouble, many moved to southern Germany which remained Catholic. The 1555 Peace of Augsburg was a treaty between the catholic Emperor Ferdinand and the Lutheran princes. It was intended to lessen religious strife in Europe, but it actually made matters worse. The Peace of Augsburg caused thousands of Calvinists to flee from Germany to the Spanish Netherlands where they stirred resistance to Spain’s control of the Netherlands. The king of Spain was determined to squash the Calvinist resistance to his authority in the Netherlands and there were many years of bloody battles. Other Calvinists left Germany for France where they encountered intolerance from the mainly Catholic population. Still others went to Geneva or to England where they were more welcome.

When Charles V gave up his throne, his son, Philip II, inherited Spain, the Netherlands, most of Italy, and Spain's colonies in the New World. Philip’s troops viciously attacked Protestant protesters in Holland and Belgium. Determined to uproot Protestantism from the Netherlands, Philip brought in Inquisitors and increased the number of Catholic bishops from four to sixteen. The Protestant rebellion against Spain dragged on until 1648 and become part of the wider European conflict known as the “Thirty Years War.”

In 1566, the Duke of Alva with an army of 10,000 Spanish troops burned Calvinist churches, executed their leaders, and nearly extinguished the Calvinist resistance in the Netherlands. However, Calvinist sea raiders gained control of some ports in the north. When word spread of these Calvinist safe ports, more Calvinists flocked Holland. As a result of this migration, most people living in northern Holland today are Protestant.

Tensions between Calvinists and Catholics in France triggered anarchy and weakened the government. The Catholic majority opposed an influential minority of French Calvinists known as “Huguenots.” The Huguenots had the advantage of living primarily in the fortified southern cities ruled by nobles who provided excellent leadership. Catholic and Huguenot armies battled in France for almost 30 years, destroying fields, homes and lives. Seven religious wars were fought in France and the fighting often involved the massacre of women and children. From 1562-157l there were 5 massacres of Catholics and 18 massacres of Protestants, the most notorious being the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572), when armed Catholics in Paris fell upon local and visiting Calvinists, killing 3000.

Spain used the unrest in France to intervene in France’s internal affairs. Tensions between Protestant England and Catholic Spain led the English to raid Spanish shipping and support the revolt in the Spanish Netherlands. Meanwhile Philip II conspired to dethrone Elizabeth I. The eclipse of Spain’s military and naval power came in 1588 when the English defeated the Spanish Armada.

Conscience and Individual Interpretation

The idea that one should act according to the dictates of one’s conscience emerged among the ancient Greeks. The conscience as a moral guide was one of the teachings at a famous philosophical academy in Tarsus in Turkey. This was the hometown of the Apostle Paul. The Tarsus academy was founded by the Stoic philosopher Athenodorus before Paul was born. The Greek geographer Strabo considered the Tarsus academy to be better than the academies of Athens and Alexandria, Egypt. Athenodorus taught that, “Every man's conscience is his god.” It is likely that Paul heard a great deal about the conscience while growing up in Tarsus because Paul makes abundant use of the Greek word for conscience in his New Testament writings (Romans 2:15; 1 Corinthians 8:7-12; 1 Timothy 1:5-19; Romans 9:1).

In the Renaissance, the individual conscience again emerged as a moral guide, but many thinkers hesitated to speak from their consciences for fear of persecution or charges of heresy. Such was the case with Galileo who had a strong interest in Copernican theory. In 1543, Copernicus published “Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs” in which he set forth his idea that the Sun was at the center of the universe and that the rotating Earth complete one full orbit around the Sun every 365 days. After much study, Galileo concluded that Copernicus was right. He admitted this in a 1597 letter to Johannes Kepler, who had also written about planetary systems. Galileo wrote, “Like you, I accepted the Copernican position several years ago and discovered from thence the cause of many natural effects which are doubtless inexplicable by the current theories.”

Galileo’s conscience led him to pursue the truth, but he was wise enough to keep his thoughts to himself until he had conclusively confirmed Copernicus’ calculations using a telescope. Galileo explained to Kepler: “I have not dared until now to bring my reasons and refutations into the open, being warned by the fortunes of Copernicus himself, our master, who procured for himself immortal fame among a few but stepped down among the great crowd.”

The Protestant movement broke with Church Tradition when it came to interpretation of the Bible. Among Catholics, Bible interpretation was done by Bible scholars; people who could read the texts in the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Protestants developed a different approach to Bible interpretation based on conscience and personal interpretation of the Bible, apart from the Tradition of the Church and the Church Fathers. The printing of Bibles in languages other than Latin made it possible for people to read the Bible in their own languages.

Historically, the Catholic Church valued individual conscience as a God-given gift that could lead the individual to virtue. However, challenges to the Catholic Church’s authority made the matter of individual conscience less important than unquestioning obedience to the Church’s teachings.

As Protestants rejected the Vatican’s teaching authority, they asserted for themselves new authorities: the individual conscience, personal interpretation of the Bible, and the importance of reason.

Baron Samuel Pufendorf, a German rationalist, concluded that the individual reason is capable of deciding between right and wrong, and between truth and falsehood. The Protestant movement leaned heavily on this rationalist idea. Coupled with Renaissance humanism and rationalism, Protestant thought prepared the way for modern ethics based on human reason, individual conscience, and personal experience.


During the Renaissance, rulers provided for artists and musicians who offered their services to their wealthy patrons. The more artists one could support, the more social status one had. The system of patronage expanded to include noble families, organizations and cities. The competition between artists to draw the attention of patrons drove them to ever greater personal accomplishments.

Many of the famous artists of the Renaissance were gifted in drawing, painting and sculpture. Some, like Leonardo da Vinci, were also visionaries who drew images of future inventions. Some excelled in math and the sciences, as well as in art. This multi-talented figure stands behind the phrase “a Renaissance man.”

During the Renaissance, there was a renewed interest in pagan themes in literature and art. Pagans themes were often portrayed alongside Christian themes. Often the two traditions were depicted as sharing similar values or contrasting values. Titan’s portrayal of Sacred and Profane Love is an example.

Competition was steep in literature and drama also. In the Golden Age of English drama there were ten famous playwrights competing for patrons.

Kings, bishops and nobles provided for artists and also took responsibility for family, servants and serfs who lived on their lands. They maintained armies and conducted diplomatic missions. They also defended the faith of their regions; Catholicism in Spain and Spanish holdings; Lutheranism in Northern Germany, and Calvinism in Switzerland.

Machiavelli believed that the ruler was to appear to be just and generous while dealing ruthlessly with his political opponents in secret. He justified his political ethics by reasoning that the ruler uses his power to benefit his subjects. The more powerful the ruler is, the greater his subjects’ benefits.

The humanism of the Renaissance stressed the dignity of man and the possibility of earthly rewards through individual accomplishments. Some humanists expressed the dignity of man in religious terms, stressing the image of God as an indelible mark. Pico della Mirandola believed that human dignity came with reason whereby humans can rise to the level of angels.

The Jesuits established universities throughout Europe and Catholic orders of nuns and monks founded many hospitals. Nuns and monks provided the nursing care and made important discoveries in the field of health care. Universities in Italy, Spain and Germany trained medical practitioners. Dissections were used to teach human anatomy.

Protestantism greatly influenced ethics during the Renaissance. Protestants developed ethical methods based on the principles of individual conscience and individual interpretation of the Bible, apart from the “Tradition” of the Church. Historically, Catholicism valued individual conscience as a God-given gift that can lead the individual to virtue. However, while the Catholic Church felt under siege from Protestantism and advancing Islam, this value was surrendered to the greater concern for obedience to the Church’s teachings.

Protestant rationalism coupled with Renaissance humanism prepared the way for modern ethics, based on human reason and individual conscience. This brings us to the eve of the Enlightenment, a new period in the history of Ethics.

Related reading: Aims and Means of Early Jesuit Education; Christopher Marlowe and the Golden Age of England; The Trial of Galileo; Machiavelli Believed in Fortune

Friday, March 28, 2014

Assessing the Historical Reliability of Ancient Sources

Alice C. Linsley

I teach my students to evaluate the reliability and appropriateness of their sources. Is the source recognized widely? Does the time period pertain to the focus of the research being done? For whom was the source written? What is the purpose of the work, or the writer's intention?

When it comes to information about the archaic world (c.10,000-2000 BC) and the ancient world (c.2000-500 BC) students are faced with a great challenge because there are not many "primary" sources that they can read in their own languages. Generally, students will find these sources helpful:

    Herodotus's Histories
    The Old Testament
    Pliney's History
    Flavius Josephus's The Antiquities of the Jews
    Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars

Here are my thoughts, as one who is especially interested in the ethics and religious practices of archaic communities.

Herodotus's Histories contains much that is factual, but he was concerned mostly about his own Roman people so the scope is sometimes too limited. The same can be said for Josephus's The Antiquities of the Jews.

Pliney's Natural History is too recent to be of value for study of the archaic world (4000-2000 BC). It is a great encyclopedic work covering botany, agriculture, zoology and minerals, but it makes statements about Africa that are wrong. It dates to around 75-77 AD.

Caesar's Gallic Wars is a classic example of Roman propaganda and hero worship. Julius Caesar's wars were to promote himself by expansion of the Roman Empire into France and Belgium. It dates to about 54 BC and focuses on his successful military campaigns.

Of these writings, the Old Testament books of Genesis, Exodus, Job, and Ruth provide the widest focus and actually contain data about the ancient world (2000-500 BC). Much of the data mined from these books has been confirmed by archaeology, linguistics, DNA studies and biblical anthropology. Anthropological information mined from Genesis has enable scholars to reconstruction the movement of Nilo-Saharans and Saharo-Nubian populations into Arabia, Syria, Southern Europe, the Indus Valley, and Southern China. There is also much information about the religious practices of these dispersed populations that reflect their ethics and worldview. Biblical anthropology has also identified The Social Structure of the Biblical Hebrew.

Related reading:  Ethical Concerns of Archaic Communities; Seats of WisdomEthics of Archaic Communities; Themistoclea of DelphiAncient Wisdom, Science, and Technology; Religion of the Archaic Rulers; The High Places

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Ethical Concerns of Archaic Communities

Alice C. Linsley


Migration out of Africa 100,000 BC
Mining Red Ochre 80,000 BC
Migration out of Africa 70,000 BC
Oldest calendar 34,000 BC
Migration out of Africa 20,000 BC
Ancient Astronomy 10,000 BC
Law of Tehut 5,000 BC
Moral Codes 3,000 BC

“The priests of the Sun at Heliopolis never carry wine into their temples, for they regard it as indecent for those who are devoted to the service of any god to indulge in the drinking of wine whilst they are under the immediate inspection of their Lord and King. The priests of the other deities are not so scrupulous in this respect, for they use it, though sparingly.”-- Plutarch (c. AD 46-120)

Anthropology, linguistics, archaeology and DNA studies have enabled scholars to gain a better understanding of the ethical concerns, morality and religious beliefs of archaic populations. Some of those findings are presented in Some Marks of Prehistoric Religion, The High Places, and Religion of the Archaic Rulers.

Ancient Moral Codes

Archaeology and anthropology have contributed to our understanding of ethics among ancient peoples and civilizations. Babylonian clay tablets dating to the 3rd century BC reveal business laws and moral codes of considerable sophistication. Moral codes such as the Code of Hammurabi did not spring suddenly into existence. They represent centuries of social development and social control.

Ancient codes appealed to a high authority for their validity. They were developed under the authority of kings and chiefs. The oldest known law code is that of King Menes of Egypt. It is called the Law of Tehut and dates to about 5000 year ago. Menes made Memphis the capital of a united Egypt and administered justice and issued edicts which were intended to improve food production and distribution, guard the rights of ruling families, improve education and enhance knowledge of the natural world through geometry and astronomy.

Another ancient law codes is that of Ur-Nammu from the reign of King Shulgi (c. 2095-2047 BC). It originally held 57 laws that addressed family and inheritance, rights of slaves and laborers, and agricultural and commercial tariffs. The Code or King Shugi prescribed compensation for wrongs, as in this example: “If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out one-half mina of silver.” (BAR, Vol. 28, Sep/Oct 202, p.30). This wording is similar to laws of retributive justice found in the Code of Moses (an eye for an eye…).

A more recent code is that of King Hammurabi. It dates to about 3500 years ago. It was engraved on a stele of dark stone more than 7 feet high. At the top appears an image of King Hammurabi standing reverently before the seated Shamash, the solar deity of justice (shams means Sun and ash means throne). Shamash is dictating the law to his earthly representative. The Code of Hammurabi closes with this statement: “The righteous laws which Hammurabi, the wise king, has established . . .” Similarly, the Code of Moses closes with this: “These are the commandments which YHWH commanded Moses for the children of Israel.” (Leviticus 27:34).

Hammurabi was an Amorite (Semite) who became King of Babylon about the time that Abraham left his father’s house in Haran and settled in the land of Canaan. Hammurabi’s capital was in the Fertile Crescent, about 55 miles south of modern Baghdad. Although the city states of the Fertile Crescent shared common customs and religious practices, they were not unified as a single nation or empire under one king. The cultural conformity came instead from the fact that the independent rulers of the region were blood relatives. Intermarriage between ruling families was a way to form political alliances and required rulers to come to the defense of their kinsmen. The pattern of intermarriage between ruling lines contributed to social stability and the preservation of the people’s cultural heritage.

When reading ancient moral codes, one is struck by their religious quality. That is because religion and government were never separate in the ancient world. The moral codes of ancient societies were not produced by a chamber of legislators. The laws were drawn from traditions preserved by kings and priests. Many of the royal advisers were high ranking religious leaders. This is evident today in primitive societies governed by tribal councils. The chief’s advisers include married, property-owning men, and the holy man, who was either a priest or a shaman.

Priests and Shamans

The offices of priest and shaman are some of the oldest institutions known to humanity. The priest pertains to the Afro-Asiatic peoples of the global south and the shaman to the Altaic and Uralic peoples of the global north. While priests and shamans serve similar functions in their societies, their worldviews are very different.

Underlying shamanism is the belief that there are powerful spirits who cause imbalance and disharmony in the world. The shaman’s role is to determine which spirits are at work in a given situation and to find ways to appease the spirits. This may or may not involve animal sacrifice. Underlying the priesthood is belief in a single supreme Spirit to whom humans must give an accounting, especially for the shedding of blood. In this view, one Great Spirit (God) holds the world in balance and it is human actions that cause disharmony. The vast assortment of ancient laws governing priestly ceremonies, sacrifices, and cleansing rituals clarifies the role of the priest as one who offers animal sacrifice according to sacred law.

The shedding of blood in war was a concern for ancient rulers and their warriors. After combat, warriors underwent cleansing rituals. There is a hint of this in the account of the priest Melchizedek visiting Abraham after the great battle between the kings (Genesis 14).

For both shamans and priests the shedding of blood, especially human blood, was of great concern. Blood was believed to hold the essence of life. The shedding of blood stirred anxiety in the community and, in the case of murder, there was also blood guilt. Ancient laws addressed this in great detail. Such laws were passed from generation to generation and upheld by the rulers.

In archaic societies religious laws governed every aspect of community life. The laws found in Leviticus and in ancient Vedic (Hindu) texts are examples. These texts provide instructions on the construction of stone fire altars, how offerings are made in the temples and shrines, and the isolation and restoration on lepers who have been healed. Many of the laws govern family relations, forbidding incest and adultery. Others establish rules for the proper treatment of slaves, foreigners, widows and orphans.

Ethical Concerns about Bloodshed

Archaic societies regarded the shedding of blood to be a moral issue of the first magnitude. They believed that the shedding of blood by murder or war could bring great misfortune or curses upon the killer. Therefore, before the hunting party departed, the priest or shaman offered sacrifice to the spirits of the animals. When someone killed another human by accident, the killer provided an animal to be sacrificed. This was a substitute for the man’s own life. The guilty party was also required to pay retribution to the victim’s family. This payment usually included livestock and gold or silver.

The person who killed on purpose forfeited his life or was expelled permanently from the village. He became a wanderer and was exposed to great dangers that often cost his life. Given that the people of the typical archaic village were blood relatives, there was a desire to avoid killing a guilty kinsman. Expulsion or exile was the natural solution. This practice is behind the accounts of biblical figures that were sent away for killing a man. Cain and Moses are examples.

There was anxiety also about the blood shed by women in their monthly cycle and in childbirth. For this reason it was common for women to remain in structures outside the village during menstruation and childbirth. Female family members brought them food and other necessary provisions. After ritual purification, the women returned to their regular routines in the village. Women of the noble classes remained in their chambers where female servants attended them.

The story of the first man - Adam - is a reference to blood. Adam is derived from the words ha-dam, meaning “the blood.”

Ethical Concerns about Water

Archaic rulers governed territories extending from the Atlantic coast of modern Nigeria to the Indus River valley of India. They spoke languages in the Afro-Asiatic language family and controlled commerce on the waterways. The Afro-Asiatic world was a river civilization that disappeared when the Earth’s climate changed. Today central Africa, Palestine, Mesopotamia and India are generally dry, but 10,000 to 20,000 years ago these areas were wet, fed by rivers many miles wide. The basins of these now extinct or much diminished rivers have been identified by satellite photos. Many ancient laws pertain to river commerce and water rights.

Rulers controlled the major water systems and received tariffs from those who moved cargo along their water ways. They also received tribute from lesser rulers and this was used to maintain order in their territories. Royal priests were responsible for the river shrines and, as the king’s agents, collected tariff monies from passing ships. A portion of this was offered to the shrine deity and used to maintain the shrine in the king’s name. All the great Egyptian shrines and monuments were built along the Nile at a time when that river was much wider. This includes the three pyramids as Giza, the three pyramids at Saqqara, and the three pyramids at Abusir. The pyramids reflect an ancient kingdom-building tradition among Abraham's Nilo-Saharan ancestors.

As the Sahara and much of the Middle East and India became arid many ancient lakes disappeared entirely. Water was not as plentiful and some laws changed to guarantee water for travelers. Caravans moving through arid regions found safe refuge at oases and springs. Wells and public watering holes became, by law, places of immunity. There was to be no fighting in that place. This was all the more necessary since the water sources were frequented by women and children whose job it was to draw and carry water.

Ethics of Family and Territories

The earliest forms of government were kinship based. The ethical standards of archaic communities developed out of their kinship. For example, Horite ruler-priests married female relatives, including half-sisters and cousins. Abraham married his half-sister Sarah. Their father was Terah, but they had different mothers. His cousin wife was Keturah who gave Abraham six sons (Genesis 25). Abraham, Sarah and Keturah had common ancestors and lived in relatively stable communities. It is easier to govern when people share common ancestors from whom they receive a common ethical and moral outlook. Multi-cultural societies, such as modern America, are more difficult to govern because there are many competing values and traditions.

Later forms of government involved control of larger territories. Rulers formed alliances with potential aggressors, often by contracting a marriage between their sons and daughters. Treaties to support one another in the even of attack from a third power were formalized by marriage, or by the exchange of gifts, and by solemn ceremonies that included animal sacrifices followed by a night of feasting. While there was no reason to align the moral codes of the allied territories, the cultural exchange that took place because of the peace between them, led to sharing common ethical views.

Councils and Oracles

The earliest form of government was the tribal council. The tribal council consisted of the ruler (tribal chief) and his advisors, one of which was either a priest or shaman. Although women were consulted outside the council meetings, women were not members of the council. The council enforced laws, rendered decisions in cases of conflict, and determined punishments for law-breakers. The council deliberated about how to avoid war and if war was necessary, developed a war strategy. A very ancient law dictated the treatment of those sent to deliver messages. Messengers were to be granted safe travel through enemy territory and protection for their return home.

Another common practice was consultation of oracles, seers or prophets. When a tribal council or an individual was uncertain as to the best action, the seer was consulted. This person was gifted to discern divine direction or guidance. When the ruler wanted to justify breaking a law, he sometimes consulted a prophet in hopes that the prophet would provide a different answer from what was written in the law code. This lead to a tradition that the test of the true prophet was that he upheld the law even if it meant defying the king, while the false prophet gave advice contrary to the law in hopes of winning the king’s favor.

As in the Heavens, so on Earth

The ethical and moral codes of ancient peoples reflect a worldview that is foreign to modern Americans. As the Romanian sociologist Mircea Eliade has shown, people of antiquity believed that things on earth are patterned after things in the heavens. Eliade called these “celestial archetypes.” The notion “as in the heavens, so on earth” is common among tribal peoples. Their rituals and ceremonies mirror celestial patterns which were understood by extensive astronomical observations. These observations were done by the ruler’s advisers and there was a risk that their calculations might be wrong. If the ceremony was not performed on exactly the right day, the advisers could be blamed for violating a celestial pattern. If war broke out, or the crops failed, or there was a flood, the ruler’s advisers were blamed. This happened to Chinese astronomers who failed to predict the solar eclipse of 2134 BC. The emperor ordered that they all be executed. The threat of punishment, even death, motivated the king’s advisers to be as accurate as possible in their calculations. This led to the development of sidereal astronomy. The sidereal day (four minutes longer than the solar day) is the time required for the earth’s rotation to be synchronized with fixed stars. Solar time is the measurement of time according to the earth’s rotation around the sun, but sidereal time is the measurement relative to a distant star. It is used in astronomy to predict when a star will be overhead.

When making ethical decisions, especially decisions that pertained to the timing of important events such as royal weddings and the signing of treaties, ancient peoples relied on observations of the stars and constellations which move in a clock like pattern. Sidereal astronomy is based on the actual location of stars and constellations, unlike popular astrology which is based on culturally-relative symbolism associated with stars and constellations. Sidereal astronomy developed out of an ethical concern to uphold the celestial pattern believed to have been established by the Creator in the beginning.

The Beginnings of Science and Technology

Discoveries in archaeology and anthropology have pushed back the beginnings of science and technology. It is evident from the study of archaic communities that their conceptions of non-material entities (metaphysics) influenced their development of science (physics). Their discoveries also influenced their views of existence (ontology).

Archaic observers of the heavens made the first astronomical charts based on the visible fixed stars in the night sky. They developed a coordinate system that astronomers use even today. They tracked the Sun's position among the stars and how the sun’s position affects temperatures on earth. They observed the 12 lunar phases and used these observations to establish religious festivals and the best times for hunting, planting and harvesting. The royal advisers kept records of their observations over such a long time that they began to accurately predict solar and lunar eclipses.

Technologies of archaic communities include stone and metal tools and weapons. Mud bricks were used in the construction of granaries. The ancient Egyptians built ships with sails and sailed the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. About 80,000 years ago, people living in the Lebombo Mountains of southern African had sophisticated tunnel mines from which they extracted red ochre for use in the burial of rulers. Around the world the graves of noble persons were lined with a fine red dust ground from red ochre. Anthropologists believe that the red dust represented blood and the hope of life after death.

The Lebombo Bone reveals that humans were marking time 40,000 years ago. This is the oldest known artifact used to track the seasons based on observation of the lunar phases.

The interest of archaic peoples to know their time and place relative to the heavens suggests an ethical concern about not violating divinely-established boundaries. This is exactly what Ethics considers. Where is the boundary between right and wrong, or between good and evil? What is the limit or boundary when asserting my rights over the rights of another person? Are boundaries relative to the individual? Are there universally accepted boundaries which guide moral decisions? These are some of the questions considered in this course.

Summary (This is helpful to prepare for the Lesson One quiz.)

Ancient Law Codes
The earliest law codes date to the between 5000 and 2000 BC and reveal a high level of sophistication. These codes reflect an already well-established practice of codification of laws. The laws were both practical and religious in nature. They derived their authority from the king who was regarded as the earthly representative of the deity.

Citizens were morally obligated to obey the laws because they were regarded as divinely inspired and given through the king. This concept of moral obligation to obey the law continued through the 17th century, finding its European expression in the concept of “the divine right of kings” to make and enforce laws. However, regnal corruption and extravagance led to the adoption of the Magna Carta which forced the English king to acknowledge limits to his powers and to protect the rights of the feudal barons. The Magna Carta is considered the first form of a “bill of rights” in the English language.

Blood and Blood Guilt
Bloodshed was one of the principal ethical concerns of archaic man. Archaic societies regarded the shedding of blood to be a moral issue of the first magnitude. The shedding of human blood, either as an act of murder or in war, caused anxiety or “blood guilt” because it could bring curses or great misfortune to the killer.

Priests addressed the guilt and anxiety felt by individuals and communities when human life was taken. They offered prayers and sacrifices to cover the offense to the Creator. Shamans offered prayers and sacrifices to appease the spirits of the dead so that these spirits would not bring harm to the individual or the community. The person who intentionally murdered was often expelled from the community.
While priests and shamans served similar functions in their communities, their worldviews were different. The priest sought to restore a right relationship to the Creator whose law was violated, while the shaman sought to appease the spirits that bring calamity to the community because of the offense.

Social Organization of Archaic Communities
The earliest form of government was the tribal council. The tribal council consisted of the chief, his advisers called “elders” and the holy man (either a priest of shaman). Social and political organization among archaic peoples reflected the hierarchy of kings, tribal rulers, priests, warriors, and prophets. Rulers married royal brides. Kinship was the basis of alliances between rulers of adjoining territories. Moral obligation to obey the ruler was based on the loyalty to kin and on the belief that the ruler’s power came by divine appointment.

Discerning the Divine Pattern
Royal advisers studied the stars and constellations because it was believed that humans are to order their ways on earth according to the celestial pattern. This idea is found in these words of the Lord’s Prayer: “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Concern about following the celestial pattern led to the development of sidereal astronomy. By studying the relationship of stars and their heavenly movement, the ruler’s advisors calculated the most auspicious time for sacred ceremonies, royal weddings, times to plant and harvest, or to go to war.
Archaic peoples wanted to know their time and place relative to the heavens because they were concerned about not violating perceived boundaries. These boundaries are the framework within which ancient Man deliberated ethical concerns.

Related reading: Ancient Wisdom, Science and Technology; Mining Blood, Ethics and Archaic Communities; Ancient Seats of Wisdom; What is a Priest?; Males as Spiritual Leaders: Two Patterns

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Reason and Revelation: Christians Need Philosophy

Many Christians question the value of philosophical arguments for conjugal marriage, preferring to appeal to revelation. But our natural moral knowledge in some ways precedes revelation and helps us to understand it. The first of a three-part series. Read more here.

From First Things

Today at Public Discourse, my brilliant co-author and former student Sherif Girgis begins an important three part series of articles on the need for philosophical reflection and analysis in thinking and arguing about moral questions, including morally-charged questions of law and public policy.

Against the view advanced by a number of prominent contemporary Christian writers, Sherif argues that we cannot get along simply by relying on scriptural revelation or the tradition of the Church. As the headnote to today’s article says “our natural moral knowledge in some ways precedes revelation and helps us to understand it.” It should go without saying that in no way is this to claim that revelation is irrelevant or redundant. It is to argue, rather, that faith and reason really are, as Pope John Paul II famously said, “like two wings on which the human spirit ascends to contemplation of truth.”

Sherif is a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton, where he won prizes for the best senior thesis in philosophy and the best senior thesis in ethics, as well as the International Dante Prize. He earned a graduate degree at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and is currently completing a J.D. at Yale Law School, where he is an editor of the Yale Law Journal, and a Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton.

Watch for this three-part series. It promises to be very good!

Related reading: Leo Strauss