Saturday, June 01, 2013

Vermigli and Calvin on Aristotle's ethics

Peter Martyr Vermigi, Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

On Helm's Deep we last looked at Peter Martyr Vermigli here. So this post is  a belated post-script. (The page references given in brackets are to the translation of Vermigli's Commentary illustrated above.)

Debating about the hardness of the human heart and the need for grace, Calvin states Pighius declares that the hardness [of the heart] was incurred through bad habit. Just as if one of the philosophers' crew should say that by evil living a person  had become hardened or callous towards evil’. Calvin's (and Augustine's) view is at odds with the Aristotelian idea - the idea of the 'philosophers' crew' - that we become just by doing just acts, prudent by doing prudent acts, brave by doing brave acts, and so on. For if, for example, being just is not simply a matter of habitually or spontaneously doing what is objectively just but also a matter of having the right motives and dispositions in doing so - if, in other words we take a motivational view of ethical goodness, as Calvin and Augustine do - then the first question is how we come to do the just thing in the first place, how we come to be motivated to love justice.  Calvin's answer is that we can only do a just act in the first place by having the habitus of our minds redirected, a redirecting that, at least in its first stages, must be done for and to us rather than our doing it.

However, there is reason to think that Calvin is not being quite fair to Aristotle here, if indeed he had Aristotle clearly in view.   For Aristotle does not only say,

This then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and by being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. 

 He also says

Again, the case of the arts and that of the virtues are not similar; for the products of the arts have their goodness in themselves, so that it is enough that they should have a certain character, but if the acts that are in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain character it does not follow that they are done justly  or temperately. The agent also must be in a certain condition  when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. 

There is plenty of scope here for Calvin to adapt Aristotle to his own view, by claiming that a firm and unchangeable desire to be virtuous can only be brought about  by the efficacious grace of God, though he does not appear to want to take it. Probably because he takes issue with Aristotle's view that such a character is naturally acquired.

In dealing with the same passage in which Aristotle argues that moral virtue is acquired through habit,  Vermigli makes the same point as Calvin, though he also provides Aristotle with a get-out-of-prison card. Moral virtues are (like intellectual virtues, though distinct from them) though  not co-natural or innate,  yet not contrary to nature. Virtues derive from the exercise of the will - 'or rather, the will, God, and action; we should also add reason, with which right actions should agree'. (296)  As is his custom, Vermigli compares what Aristotle says to holy scripture. 

Though expressed in a very mild and undemonstrative way, Vermigli makes serious criticisms of Aristotle.   Men have sometimes been made wise in an instant; more generally, God is the primary and most powerful cause of all the virtues (Citing I Cointhians, 4.7)

With respect to vitiated and corrupt nature, however, these statements [of Aristotle’s ] are true in the normal course of things and according to ordinary reason. Aristotle, however, was unable to see this corruption of nature, since he was left without faith and the light of holy scripture  It is also true that our nature, in its present state, is suited to and capable of receiving the virtues, if we are speaking of the civil and moral kind,  although not all people are disposed to them in the same way. (296-7)

The 'civil and moral' kind of virtue is presumably being contrasted with the theological virtues, though as far as I am aware Vermigli does not use this phrase in this work, but he goes on the refer to the 'true virtues, such as faith, hope and charity and the like'. (297)  (See also 331-7)

Voluntariness and Ignorance

In his work On the Bondage and Liberation of the Will against Pighius Calvin tirelessly insists on the fact, against Pighius but with Augustine, that our present lack of free will is not part of our nature, but is a corruption of our nature.

He includes a short Excursus, 'Coercion versus Necessity', that establishes the difference. The importance of the distinction for Calvin is that while acting out of necessity is consistent with being held responsible for the action, and being praised or blamed for it, being coerced is inconsistent with such praise or blame.  In his criterion of praise and blame he explicitly follows Aristotle

When Aristotle distinguished what is voluntary from its opposite, he defines the latter as,  to bia e di agnoian gignomenon, that is, what happens by force or through ignorance. There he defines as forced what has its beginning elsewhere, something to which he who acts or is acted upon makes no contribution (Ethic. Ni.3.1).

So normal human activity is not forced or coerced. Insofar as it proceeds from fallen human nature  it is not free because a person with a fallen nature does not have the power to choose what is good.  Nonetheless, where a person is not forced, but makes a contribution to his action, and is not acting out of ignorance, he is acting voluntarily, and is responsible for what he does.

Vermigli  similarly  follows Aristotle in his comments on the passage, (Book 3.1) but much more closely and in greater detail than Calvin. The distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary is, for Aristotle, the basis of praise and blame. (373-4) (Ought implies can applies to secular laws’ (Vermigli concedes) but  ‘not those of God.) For the latter require things that are impossible, especially in view of the corrupt and spoiled condition of nature. (374) In civil actions the involuntary and actions done through ignorance are pardoned, as also in Scripture. (Deut. 19.5).

The voluntary is understood in terms of the absence of force, an impossible-to-resist or difficult-to-resist impulse,  an external force which receives no help from the recipient (Aristotle) but which may nevertheless be cooperated with e.g. with the highwayman who shouts 'your money or your life!', and of knowledge. (375) Vermigli follows Aristotle in showing considerable analytic interest; for example, in distinguishing the spontaneous from the voluntary, and the range of possible  instances  of the voluntary, leading to a discussion of 'cases', (377), and also a discussion of the blameworthiness of actions in this range of the 'voluntary'.  For example, if one endures evil for a worthy end, this is blameworthy, if for a noble end  - one’s country, one’s parents, one’s wife and children - then praiseworthy. (379) Those who act from base motives are not acting involuntarily, as they may claim.(384) 

Vermigli goes into all this with great expository skill - clear, orderly and detailed, and making judicious points, and then towards the end of the chapter there is a longer than usual discussion of how all these Aristotelian claims accord with Holy Scripture. He cites a number of biblical examples which accord with Aristotelianism. Of particular interest is the way in which Vermigli thinks that Scriptural examples of moral action, together with praise and blame, follows the same contours as Aristotle’s thinking.

Aristotle famously distinguished between those actions which are fully voluntarily, and those in which the will is involved, but are not fully voluntarily. ‘Something of this sort occurs in jettisoning good during a storm. There is no one who, strictly speaking, willingly and voluntarily throw away his own property, but people do it to save themselves and others, if they have any sense'. So as regards responsibility there is a three-fold classification: the fully voluntary, the partly voluntary (as in the jettisoning case), and actions done out of ignorance.  Vermigli thinks that this is exactly what we find in Scripture. 

First, voluntariness . (396)  The faithful are praised for being a willing people (Ps.11.9), the woodcutter is excused if his action is accidental because it was not voluntary (Nu.35.18)  The Devil is compelled to tell the truth, and is not praised, nor is Balaam who is forced at the point of a sword to curse the people of God. (Numbers 22.1-35)  Mixed actions, that is, those where we are constrained, though we still act of our own accord,  are commended in Scripture  – e.g. self-denial for a greater good, to suffer rather than to sin, to endure persecution. (397)  We are praised for such mixed actions, for those who endure persecution are blessed.  (Matthew 5.10)  What should be endured for what? We should endure anything rather than depart from Christ. Base actions may be as voluntary as honourable actions, as Aristotle taught.

But there are issues over which Aristotle and Scripture deviate. For what if the evil we do is due to the presence of original sin?  'Supposing someone said that knowledge or awareness is lacking when this sin is contracted and that the sin is cause by the first evil motions of our soul, in which there is no deliberation or choice?' Answer: 'Aristotle’s teaching should be understood of ethical and actual behavior, but that he had no knowledge of  original sin. It is enough for us that they cannot be called compulsory because they have an internal principle.'  Original sin is such an internal principle. (400) So Aristotle is confirmed after all! (396-7)

Finally, (in this rather rapid survey) what of ignorance?  Aristotle distinguished between those actions done from ignorance about which we feel remorse etc. when our ignorance is uncovered, and those over which we don’t feel remorse. The fact that we don’t feel remorse  when sin is uncovered does not mean that we committed no sin. (398) if we ought to have known. (398)  'Forgive them, for they know not what they do'. They had sinned, and needed forgiveness,  'I know that you acted in ignorance.'But if they could not have known what they were ignorant of, this ensures non-culpability. (He cites the drunkenness of Noah.) Culpability depends partly on how important and central a matter the ignorance is of. (398) Actions done when drunk are voluntary, both for Aristotle and Scripture. (399) So the approach here is that what Aristotle says is true because  and insofar as it accords with Scripture. So we might say that Vermigli sees Aristotle as an astute observer of and commentator on human life, as a recipient of 'natural light',  'common grace' and so forth.

Several things are interesting about this treatment.  There is no discussion of the metaphysics of human action, nothing on what is nowadays called determinism or compatibism, or agent causation.  His reference to original sin presented him with an invitation to discuss these issues, but he does not accept it. There is no attempt to discuss Aristotle’s account of the voluntary and the blameworthy in the light of Aristotle’s own  indeterminism and fear of fatalism to be found in his account of The Sea Battle Tomorrow in Book V of the De Interpretatione.  It is true that Aristotle’s account of blameworthiness in terms of voluntariness and knowledge (or awareness) can be bolted onto either an compatibilist or an incompatibilist account of action, depending on what one takes the sources of voluntariness to be. In ignoring the questions of the overall consistency or otherwise of Aristotle’s moral psychology and his ethics, Vermigi is simply content to help himself to this aspect of Aristotle’s thought without bothering about its significance for Aristotle’s overall views themselves.   (This may be partly at least because he takes Aristotle to be discussing ethics from a civil or public angle rather than from the angle of metaphysics, and he may be correct in this.) There is considerable merit in the care with which he discusses voluntariness, and Calvin’s short statements on the matter, could certainly have benefited from the discussions of his friend.