Bonnie Kent. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 45, Issue 2. April 2007.
In the last decade or so, as the stream of publications on virtue has slowed, scholars of medieval philosophy have turned increasingly to puzzles about evil. Because the literature reflects the broad medieval conception of evil, it ranges more widely than today’s discussions of evil do. in the thin, metaphysical sense, ‘evil’ (malum) can denote any lack of goodness required for a thing’s perfection, whether in nature, art, or morals. Most medieval philosophers agree that evil, in this sense, should be understood as a privation of goodness, much as darkness is a privation of light. Agreement on the metaphysical point nonetheless leaves ample room for disagreement about ‘evil’ in the moral sense. Here again medieval debates range more widely than they do now, for ‘evil’ in the moral sense includes not only outstandingly bad characters and actions, but also the multitude of everyday sins done from ignorance or weakness.
Much of the recent literature on evil in later medieval philosophy concerns the views of Aquinas, by far the greatest system-builder of the period. Another substantial segment explores Peter Abelard’s provocative account of sin. While few studies focus specifically on William of ockham’s or Duns Scotus’s account of evil, the controversy about whether Scotus defends a divine command theory of ethics has lately been revived. At the same time, scholars have moved beyond these familiar figures into studies of thinkers highly influential in their own day but often neglected now. two areas of research have been especially fruitful in this respect. Studies of the University of Paris in the wake of the 1277 condemnation highlight the importance of Giles of Rome, Henry of Ghent, and other masters of theology in disputes about the psychology of evil. this topic became all the more controversial because some of the doctrines condemned by the bishop appeared to conflict with a proposition about evil accepted by an assembly of the Paris theology faculty. other recent studies, especially of moral weakness, explore the views of 13th- and 14th-century commentators on the Nicomachean Ethics. As a genre, medieval Ethics commentaries have always attracted less attention than they deserve, and research on the 14th-century “question” commentaries is especially welcome. not only do most hold more philosophical interest than the literal commentaries produced by earlier masters, they help to illuminate the transition from medieval to early modern ethics. Printed editions of John Buridan’s commentary on the Ethics continued to be published well into the 17th century.
Because my topic covers such a wide range, with such diverse contributions, no genuine survey is possible. i can, at most, provide test-drillings in different regions of the secondary literature. Some studies advance our philosophical understanding of texts familiar to readers; others advance our knowledge of their historical context; still others break new ground in examining lesser-known sources. the present essay will include contributions of all three kinds. to compensate for breadth in subject matter, i generally concentrate on works published from 1995 onward, and I generally exclude studies of philosophers earlier than Anselm of Canterbury. I can only apologize in advance to those scholars whose works these chronological restrictions lead me to neglect.
Before venturing into areas where the medieval literature has much to offer, perhaps something should be said about two areas in which it tends to disappoint. the first concerns a constellation of issues in the philosophy of religion now often dubbed ‘the problem of evil’. Whether cast as a logical difficulty, or as an evidential one, the problem arises from conflict between belief in an omnipotent, all-good God, on the one hand, and the existence of pointless suffering, on the other. Medieval philosophers of all faiths regard this as a less pressing issue than moderns do, for few, if any, believe that there actually is any pointless suffering. influenced by Hellenistic “therapies of the soul,” Muslim philosophers commonly urge us to relieve our own suffering, by rooting out the passions or false beliefs that cause it (Druart 2003). Research by oliver Leaman (1995) shows that Maimonides offers the same advice, with characteristically sharp warnings against people’s penchant for anthropomorphizing. Pointing out that scripture describes Job only as “righteous,” not as “wise,” Maimonides argues that Job suffered from his own naïve expectation that God should behave like a caring parent, rewarding and punishing his creatures in accordance with their deserts. Job failed to recognize that bodily pains, the loss of wealth and loved ones, even the prospect of one’s own death, all have little importance. the intellect alone presents the path to human perfection and a better life after the death of the body. Eleonore Stump (1993) discovers in Aquinas a far more positive assessment of Job’s suffering. on this view, there is a direct connection between the amount of suffering one must bear in the present life and the degree of glory one will enjoy in the afterlife. Job suffered more than most people, says Aquinas, because he was morally superior to most people. none of these medieval solutions to “the problem of evil”—at least it was understood from the early modern period onward-seems likely to inspire much enthusiasm in philosophers today.
The second area where medieval treatments of evil tend to disappoint concerns cruelty, the summum malum of modern liberalism. Why are there no passionate denunciations of cruelty, as we find from Montaigne onward? Many assume that the answer lies mainly in the way people lived. Maybe ordinary life in the Middle Ages included so much cruelty that nobody saw anything wrong with it. Fortunately, the work of Daniel Baraz (1998, 2003) gives us a better understanding of why medieval theorists had so little to say about cruelty. According to Augustine, cruelty is natural for human beings after the Fall, unless they receive God’s grace. But instead of focusing on the physical cruelty with which we treat others, Augustine emphasizes how cruel we are to ourselves in sinning. the damage we do to others in torturing or killing them pales by comparison with the damage we do to our own souls. this spiritual, reflexive conception of cruelty remained dominant until the late 13th-century, when Aquinas’s account of cruelty in the Summa Theologiae took a different direction. Drawing mainly on Seneca’s De Clementia, Aquinas places cruelty in a legal context, casting it as the opposite of mercy in imposing punishment. Here cruelty becomes physical, though it receives only brief treatment and continues to be analyzed from the standpoint of the agent’s soul. only later did the topic of cruelty evoke serious theoretical interest—a development that Baraz attributes to the diffusion of Seneca’s tragedies, with all their stunning scenes of violence. While we see glimmerings of such interest as early as 1314, when an italian cardinal commissioned the Dominican nicholas trivet to write a commentary on Seneca’s tragedies, not until the Renaissance did physical cruelty to others emerge as the dominant concern of moral philosophers.
Baraz’s research serves as a reminder that medieval accounts of sin center never on physical actions and their consequences, but always on intentions and other psychological aspects of the agent. the best-known example is Peter Abelard’s intentionalist thesis: only a person’s intentions are properly called sins; all physical actions in themselves are morally indifferent and add nothing to the agent’s guilt. no matter that every Christian thinker from Augustine onward saw scriptural grounds for downgrading the importance of physical actions, especially in Christ’s pronouncement that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” in 1140 or 1141, the Council of Sens condemned Abelard for over a dozen errors, including the claim that actions are not sins. After Abelard’s appeal to Rome failed, the pope condemned the whole of his teachings, ordered all of his books burned, excommunicated him, and sentenced him to perpetual silence.
As scholars today often point out, Abelard never denied that actions are sins, only that actions have any value in themselves and are properly called sins. He acknowledged that actions have value derived from the agent’s intention, so that ‘sin’ can indeed be used in an extended sense, to signify the composite of intention and physical act. Abelard’s contemporary, Peter Lombard, came closer to grasping his position than the Council of Sens had. thanks to the Lombard, who included a version of Abelard’s thesis in his popular textbook, the Sentences, later generations of aspiring theologians would debate whether physical actions add anything to the moral goodness or badness of internal acts. Thirteenth-century authors typically argued that they do. not until the 14th century did universities see another luminary, William of ockham, dare to defend a position quite close to Abelard’s.
We turn now to some recent advances in Abelard scholarship. in the texts available, our knowledge of Abelard’s development, and our understanding of his moral theory, we are much better off than we were ten years ago.
Abelard On Sin
Paul Spade has translated Abelard’s Scito teipsum (also called the Ethics) as well as his Collationes (the Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian). Published together as Abelard’s Ethical Writings (1995), the two works make a welcome addition to courses on medieval philosophy. Scholars interested in the Collationes (2001) might instead prefer to consult the edition by John Marenbon and Giovanni orlandi, where the Latin text is a bit more reliable than the version used by Spade. the editors also provide a helpful overview of Abelard’s moral thought, include the Latin text of the Collationes on facing pages, and add extensive footnotes identifying Abelard’s sources and related passages in his other works. As regards the translation of the Collationes, both editions wisely refrain from resolving exegetical ambiguities, leaving readers to decide what to make of troublesome passages. the translation by Spade is more literal, while the one by Marenbon and orlandi is more attuned to English idiom.
On the face of it, both the Collationes and Scito teipsum remain incomplete. the state of the surviving texts proves a source of particular frustration for readers of the Collationes. the Philosopher and the Christian in Abelard’s dialogue agree to discuss the highest good and how it can be attained. the Philosopher, who typically promotes Stoic doctrines, presents his own views; then the Christian criticizes them and defends some positions of his own; but the text ends before the Christian gives his own account of how to attain the highest good. Likewise missing is the verdict of Abelard-self-appointed judge of the debate-about who won. But even with the text as it stands, an expositor can draw reasonable conclusions about the extent to which Abelard does, and does not, accept some of the characteristic doctrines of ancient Stoic ethics. norbert Winkler (2002) undertakes this kind of examination, paying due attention to points on which Abelard’s theology leads him to reject Stoic teachings.
One instance of development in Abelard’s thinking, flagged by Marenbon, has particular importance for the present essay. in his commentary on Romans, Abelard never distinguishes between will and consent; instead he identifies sin with an evil voluntas. Yet his intentionalist thesis, later defended at length in Scito teipsum, turns on the distinction between will (voluntas), on the one hand, and consent or intention, on the other. Abelard’s shift to treating sin as consent represents more than a terminological change. Concerned that the word ‘will’ covers too wide a variety of mental phenomena, Abelard limits its meaning to something like desire, then proceeds to argue that sin lies not in will, but in consent. At the same time, he narrows the meaning of ‘consent’. Where earlier authors speak of “consent” to desire, appetite, temptation, or all three, Abelard’s Scito teipsum usually restricts it to intended actions. Having introduced these conceptual precisions, Abelard is in a position to argue that we can sin without an evil will, and even that we can sin against our will. As evidence, he describes a servant who flees from his murderous master as long as he can, but finally, against his will, kills the attacker.
Virtually the same example appears in Book I of Augustine’s On Free Choice. Augustine declares the servant guilty of sin; Abelard agrees. Yet whereas Augustine attributes the servant’s sin to an inordinate desire to preserve his bodily life, Abelard insists that he has no evil will or desire; on the contrary, the servant acts unwillingly. His sin lies only in consenting to an unjust slaying he should have endured rather than inflicted. Abelard works hard in this discussion to establish that the same action can be both unwilling and intentional. We cannot infer from the fact that the servant willed to live, and consented to kill in order to live, that he killed willingly. While readers might well disagree, Abelard’s position is more plausible than it looks at first glance. As William Mann (2004) observes, if a mugger threatens, “Your money or your life,” and you hand over your money, it would be reasonable to say that you did so intentionally but unwillingly.
As Abelard distinguishes between consent and will, so he distinguishes between consent and the various vices which dispose us to sin. However disposed a hottempered person might be to do something wrong, she does not sin unless she consents to vent her temper in action. However disposed a lustful person might be to do something wrong, she does not sin unless she intends to satisfy her appetite in action. Following Aristotle’s Categories, Abelard holds that dispositions differ from other qualities in their resistance to change; but unlike Aristotle, he relates vicious dispositions to an evil will that can never in this life be extinguished. Citing a dictum of St. Paul, that “no one will be crowned unless he struggles according to the Law,” Abelard argues that in earthly life we must always labor to resist our evil will. Victory in resisting temptation is all the more glorious because of the difficulty. After all, there is no reason for great reward in fulfilling our own wills, only in struggling against them.
Abelard’s position resembles one now sometimes associated with Kant’s ethics, namely, that there is moral worth only in acting against one’s inclinations. While most scholars would deny that Kant actually defends the same position as Abelard, there is at least a similarity in the focus on moral worth. Arguably, the qualities that make us deserving of reward from a God’s-eye view differ from those that make it easier for us to live virtuously by earthly standards. this and other parallels between Abelard’s ethics and Kant’s are explored by Markus Enders. As Enders warns, though, one must take care not to exaggerate the similarities. Kant’s defense of the autonomy of the will represents a foundational difference between his theory and Abelard’s. (the theory Abelard that defends would surely be spurned by Kant as a premier example of “heteronomous” ethics.)
Some obscurity still surrounds Abelard’s notion of consent. Since we always consent to an act under a particular description of it, his theory would be clearer if he spoke of consenting not to actions, but to propositions. on the other hand, his account of the intention to sin apparently depends on the agent’s belief that the act at which she aims would indeed be a sin. For this reason, Calvin normore (2004) argues that Abelardian intention or consent is, or at least involves, Stoic assent. According to the Stoics, a person assents to a proposition, such as, ‘it is fitting for me to eat this cake’, and the action of eating the cake follows unless some external obstacle intervenes. Granted, Abelard does not speak of consenting to propositions; but since Abelard describes sin as contempt for God and as consenting to what one believes one should not consent to, normore concludes that an Abelardian intention to sin must at least involve the belief that one’s intention is an intention that one should not have. this reading fits nicely with Abelard’s view that there can be no sin except against conscience. He accordingly claims that those who persecuted Christ-believing that Christ ought to be persecuted—might have sinned through action, but they did not sin in the strict sense.
The Stoic reading helps to clarify what Abelard means by showing contempt for God. When we intend to do what we believe displeases God, whether or not it actually does, we demonstrate contempt. But is such a belief a necessary condition for expressing contempt, or only a sufficient one? the question arises from Abelard’s characterization of venial sins as those we intend to do knowing that we should not do them, yet not knowing this at the time. As examples, he gives impulsive acts that we do on account of forgetfulness, such as bragging or eating to excess. Marenbon argues that Abelard’s account of sin as contempt for God makes it hard to see why these venial sins are sins at all. Although the sinner knows, in the dispositional sense, that God disapproves of such behavior, when he impulsively brags or overeats, he does not believe that he is doing anything wrong.
Aquinas’s De Malo
Later medieval thinkers, as a rule, did not write treatises or conduct disputations dedicated to a topic so diffuse as evil. there is, however, one notable exception: Aquinas’s disputed questions De Malo (On Evil), a text that the labors of translators have now made widely accessible. though a German translation has yet to appear, the work is available in French (1992), Spanish (1997), italian (1999), and two English editions: one by Jean oesterle (1995), the other by Richard Regan (2003).
Both English translations of De Malo represent solid work, each with its own assets and liabilities. Oesterle’s keeps much closer to the Latin text and provides more valuable footnotes. Regan’s translation includes comparatively few footnotes, omitting even the usual note at the beginning of each article listing parallel texts in the Summa and other works by Aquinas. Regrettably, the oesterle volume offers little aid to readers unfamiliar with Aquinas’s thought. With its long introduction by Brian Davies, the Regan version explains basic concepts and principles that help to place Aquinas’s treatment of evil in the wider context of his metaphysics, psychology, and theory of action.
The drawback to Davies’ introduction is that, occasionally, it does more to mislead than to enlighten. His remarks on Aquinas’s distinction between “the evil penalty” and moral evil are a case in point. the first expression, says Davies, refers to what later writers call ‘natural’ or ‘physical’ evil-pain, sickness, etc.—and hence might be translated as ‘evil suffered’. While he concedes in a footnote that Aquinas regards pain, sickness, and the like as due to the sin of Adam, Davies still insists that one can understand Aquinas’s use of ‘the evil of penalty’ without reference to the notion of a primeval fall. this effort to make Aquinas’s teachings more fashionable creates needless confusion. Excluding reference to the fall gives readers the impression that such evil belongs to nature as God created it, or as the way it must be, instead of only to the disordered condition of nature that we now experience. Furthermore, philosophers now use ‘natural evil’ to include natural disasters like floods and earthquakes—apart from the pain that such disasters cause to sentient creatures—so that “evil suffered” typically represents a subset of natural evil. Even if one limits it to evil suffered, natural evil now includes the suffering of animals as well as human beings. in contrast, Aquinas’s distinction between moral evil and “the evil of penalty” applies exclusively rational creatures. He thinks that we never suffer harm except because of previous moral fault, whether in the individual in human nature. the same does not hold for creatures lacking reason.
Disputes about the dating of De Malo, summarized by Davies, receive fuller treatment by Jean-Pierre torrell (1996). All extant manuscripts of De Malo stem from a single Parisian copy, indicating that the questions were first published 1268-72, during Aquinas’s second regency at Paris. Did the disputation itself also take place during the second regency at Paris, or rather in 1265-68, when Aquinas was teaching in Rome? Even if it did take place in Rome, did he put the text in its final form only after his return to Paris? the consensus says that he did, though this judgment does nothing to solve a problem that tends to embarrass Aquinas scholars. The total number of works attributed to his second regency rather difficult to believe. Could any master, no matter how brilliant he was and how many secretaries he had, be quite so productive?
Other doubts surround the order of works dating from Aquinas’s second regency, a matter of importance to those convinced that his moral thought changed during this period. James Doig sides with René Gauthier in rejecting the theory that Aquinas composed his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) preparation for writing the second part of the Summa Theologiae (ST). Both judge the commentary to be roughly contemporary with the Secunda Secundae. on the other hand, Doig diverges from Gauthier in arguing that sections of Books II-VII of the Ethics commentary actually postdate parallel passages of the Secunda Secundae. He diverges even further in declaring Aquinas’s Ethics commentary mature statement of his moral philosophy, which should be studied as such, with the Summa used only to fill in spots where the Ethics commentary has too little to say. Whether Aquinas even has some moral “philosophy” that can be abstracted from his works remains a bone of contention among today’s interpreters. Even scholars who think that he does usually consider the Summa Theologiae, De Malo, and some of his other disputations a better source for it than his commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics.
Since De Malo brings together problems spread out in the Summa over the Pars Prima, the Prima Secundae, and the Secunda Secundae, the text can make it easier to judge which position Aquinas ultimately takes on one issue or another. Consider, for example, a question discussed both by Aristotle and by the Church Fathers: whether it is worse to act from anger than from appetite. in the Prima Secundae, Aquinas reports Aristotle’s claim that incontinence in lust is more shameful than incontinence in anger. Gregory the Great, however, seems to hold the opposite view. Dividing the seven capital sins into two carnal sins (gluttony and lust), and five spiritual sins (including anger), Gregory argues that the spiritual sins are more serious. How does Aquinas resolve the conflict?
As Eileen Sweeney (2002) shows, Aquinas highlights Gregory’s claim that we have more guilt for spiritual sins but more shame for carnal ones. the distinction between guilt and shame enables him to endorse Gregory’s view that spiritual sins are more serious—at least, other things being equal—without rejecting Aristotle’s claim that incontinence in lust is more shameful than incontinence in anger. Sweeney draws some intriguing conclusions from this article of the Prima Secundae:
For Aristotle, Aquinas implies, the scale of shamefulness is the same as that of gravity. However, for Aquinas (and Gregory), human beings might be ashamed of their animal nature; it may hurt one’s sense of dignity, nay vanity, to be (and to be seen to be) in any way vulnerable to desire and pain as animals are; however, what constitutes a true loss of humanity for Aquinas and Gregory is not the humiliation of physical desire but the prideful rejection of the spiritual end in God. (Sweeney 2002, 161)
While Aquinas does regard the prideful rejection of God as the worst of all sins, he turns out to be more supportive of Aristotle’s dim view of appetitive sins and of “the scale of shamefulness” than the Prima Secundae suggests. in the Secunda Secundae Aquinas argues not only that appetitive sins are more shameful than sins of anger, but also that they are more serious. Here he groups sins of appetite (concupiscentia) together with hatred and envy, placing all three above anger on the scale of seriousness. Abandoning Gregory’s basic dichotomy between spiritual and carnal sins, Aquinas declares that the seriousness of a sin depends on the object of desire. Why, then, should a sin of lust be considered more serious than a sin of anger? is the desire for physical pleasure supposed to be worse than the desire to take revenge for what one perceives as a slight? Aquinas replies:
Absolutely speaking, the sin of anger seems to be less serious, according as the good of justice, which the angry person desires, is better than the pleasurable or useful good desired by the subject of appetite. Hence the Philosopher says in Book Vii of the Ethics that the person incontinent in appetite is more shameful than the one incontinent in anger.
Readers of the Summa often overlook this discussion, for it appears in the Secunda Secundae, a thick text so packed with virtues, vices, and sins that Aquinas’s assessment of anger is easy to miss. the chances of noticing it are greater for readers of De Malo. the version in De Malo also makes it abundantly clear that Aquinas judges anger to be less serious than appetitive sins. Where the Secunda Secundae says that the sin of anger “seems to be” less serious, De Malo drops the ‘seems to be’ hedge. instead, Aquinas says, “absolutely speaking, anger is less serious”; “absolutely speaking, anger is a lesser sin.” Because these emphatic formulations appear in his response, not in opening arguments conceivably formulated by students participating in the disputation, there can be little doubt that they reflect Aquinas’s own views.
The 1277 Condemnation and Its Aftermath
If there is one date that will always live in infamy for specialists in medieval philosophy, it is surely March 7, 1277, when Stephen tempier, the bishop of Paris, condemned over 200 propositions as errors. Tempier prefaced his list of errors with complaints about students in arts “exceeding the limits of their faculty.” He said nothing explicit against students or masters of theology at Paris. At the same time, the list plainly included propositions held by Giles of Rome, a bachelor of theology, and by thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), a master of theology. Recognizing that some of Aquinas’s doctrines were touched by the condemnation, late 13th century theologians proceeded to argue about which ones. they fought even more bitterly over whether the bishop was justified in condemning views defended by a master held in high esteem by so many. though scholars today join in deploring the condemnation of views found in Aquinas’s works, they agree about little else. there are so many controversies swirling around the events of 1277 that I cannot do justice to them all here. My discussion will have to be highly selective.
Did tempier’s intervention cause an anti-Aristotelian turn in medieval philosophy, or was it more a symptom of intellectual developments already unfolding? While relatively few scholars now support the causal thesis, there remains considerable disagreement about whether the dominant trend in philosophy after 1277 should indeed be characterized as ‘anti-Aristotelian’. As regards developments in moral thought, the picture is further complicated by apparent conflict between the articles condemned by tempier and a proposition about evil approved by a group of masters of theology at Paris. on no topic other than evil did they officially endorse doctrines even in apparent conflict with the 1277 syllabus. Recent studies, however, raise doubts about exactly what transpired during this tumultuous period.
Scholars have long known that March of 1277 was a busy time for the bishop. Sometime between March 7—when tempier presented his long list of errors—and March 28, he initiated a separate investigation of various doctrines defended in Book I of the Sentences commentary by Giles of Rome (Aegidius Romanus). We know, too, that Giles defended himself, declined to recant, chose to leave the university, did not return to teaching at Paris until 1285, and became a master in 1287. According to the traditional view, it was only upon his return that an assembly of masters of theology at Paris “conceded” a proposition about evil taught by Giles. Known as the propositio magistralis, it reads either: “there is no evil in the will unless there is error in reason,” or “there is no evil in the will unless there is error or at least some lack of knowledge [nescientia] in reason.” No one doubts that the proposition was accepted sometime after March 7, 1277, because there are sources declaring that it contradicts theses condemned by the bishop and that the condemnation must therefore be interpreted in the light of it (not vice versa). Two of the articles condemned on March 7 were especially difficult to square with the propositio magistralis: “While passion remains and particular knowledge is actually present, the will cannot act against it,” and, “if reason is right, the will is also right.”
In his edition of Giles’s Apologia, Robert Wielockx (1985) added some striking twists to the story of what transpired in March 1277. The “apologia” itself occupies less than a dozen pages of this volume. over two hundred pages go to discussion of the historical circumstances, including Wielockx’s arguments for two important claims:
(1) Between March 7 and March 28, tempier initiated a separate proceeding against Aquinas. He summoned a group of theologians to consider the thesis that there is only one substantial form in a human being, and they censured Aquinas for this doctrine. tempier’s scheme, however, never came to fruition. After the death of Pope John XXII on May 20, some members of the Roman Curia instructed tempier not to continue the proceedings against Aquinas until a new pope was appointed. He was instructed to await further orders from Rome, which never arrived. As a result, the proceedings against Aquinas never advanced beyond the censure by Paris masters of theology.
(2) the masters assembled to discuss the charges against Giles conceded the propositio magistralis when they met in March 1277. the proposition was merely reaffirmed upon Giles’s return to Paris in 1285.
Wielockx’s first claim triggered what developed into a transatlantic storm in the scholarly literature. Both Hans thijssen (1997) and John Wippel (1997a) fault him for building an edifice of interpretation on only three bits of documentary evidence, none of which they think provides unambiguous support for his thesis. While neither author insists that the alleged proceeding against Aquinas never occurred, they argue that there has yet to be persuasive evidence of one, and that Wielockx interprets as contemporary references to a proceeding against Aquinas what are best construed as references to the proceeding against Giles. Wielockx (1998) replies that his critics overlook the most compelling evidence he offers for a separate proceeding against Aquinas: the wording of the articles in the proceeding against Aquinas differs from the wording of those in the proceeding against Giles. Furthermore, the decisive proof rests on the relative chronology of events: the March 7 condemnation, the process against Giles, and the process against Aquinas.
Thijssen offers additional challenges to Wielockx’s second claim, about the proceedings against Giles. He focuses especially on two bits of documentary evidence: the marginal notes written by Godfrey of Fontaines on a manuscript of Book i of Giles’s commentary on the Sentences, from which Wielockx reconstructed Giles’s Apologia; and a letter dated June 1, 1285, by Pope Honorius IV, ordering that a meeting of theologians at Paris be convened to reconsider the charges against Giles. According to thijssen, the fact that Giles’s proposition about evil was conceded by the masters in March 1277, but still appeared on the list of errors that tempier charged against him, implies that the bishop failed to heed the masters’ advice. Giles’s “apologia” represents his oral defense (jotted down by Godfrey) in the 1277 proceedings against him, not a deliberate treatise defending himself. Because he finds no evidence that Giles recanted, either in 1277 or after his return to Paris, Thijssen argues for his own revisionist thesis: tempier never completed the proceedings against Giles, and Giles was never officially censured. One might take as further evidence for this view the fact that none of the compilations of condemned articles circulated during this period includes the list of 51 errors attributed by tempier to Giles. Why were the proceedings against him never completed? In a more speculative vein, thijssen suggests that the Roman Curia intervened to prevent a formal condemnation because many of the errors charged against Giles are virtually indistinguishable from positions equally held by Aquinas. the propositio magistralis itself figures among them.
Ludwig Hödl (1999) challenges the claim that the propositio magistralis was conceded in the meeting about Giles in March 1277, instead of only after Giles returned to Paris in 1285. Once again, there is very little evidence, so that debate centers on what should be made of the scant evidence that we have. neither Hödl nor anyone else disputes that the magisterial proposition was conceded sometime after March 7, 1277. But why should we believe that the meeting in which the masters accepted the proposition about evil was the same meeting in which they considered tempier’s charges against Giles? According to Hödl, the only clear testimony we have that it was the same meeting comes from John of Pouilly’s Quodlibet ii, which dates from 1307/08. Against this, though, is the fact that not a single surviving text from before 1285/86 refers to the propositio magistralis. if the masters of Paris conceded the proposition in 1277, as Wielockx claims, why did no one mention it until eight years later? in the period after March 1277 but before 1285, when the 1277 condemnation was often cited against Aquinas’s views on the will, why did none of his defenders suggest that the propositio magistralis superseded the condemned articles? Finding no evidence that anyone knew of the propositio magistralis before 1285, Hödl warns against trusting the testimony of John of Pouilly. He thinks it most likely that John, writing many years later, conflated two different meetings by masters of theology at Paris.
Despite the objections to it, Wielockx’s work calls attention to two important points, neither of which his critics dispute. First, the voluntarist understanding of evil that the 1277 condemnation supports was soon countered by the propositio magistralis. At most, eight years passed when the condemned articles stood without official challenge from the Paris theology faculty. Second, as the proceedings against Giles called some of Aquinas’s teachings into question, so too did Giles’s return to Paris and subsequent career as a master tend to “rehabilitate” them. of course, many masters never doubted that Aquinas teachings were correct, and in 1325 another bishop of Paris annulled all of the 1277 articles that had been claimed to touch his work.
In the last decade, a good deal of research has been done on this stormy time at the University of Paris. two books focused on it appeared in 1995: Insolente liberté: controverses et condemnations au XIIIe siècle, by François-Xavier Putallaz, and my Virtues of the Will: The Transformation of Ethics in the Late Thirteenth Century. the first examines debates about freedom of choice all the way from Siger of Brabant to Dante. the second, concerned mainly with developments leading to the work of Scotus, relates debates about freedom to disputes about moral weakness and moral virtue. Where the first pays more attention to authors defending the superiority of the intellect, and the second to authors defending the superiority of the will, both highlight the importance of Walter of Bruges, William de la Mare, Peter olivi, Godfrey of Fontaines, and other figures given short shrift in panoramic histories of medieval philosophy. Henry of Ghent plays an important role in both studies, partly because of efforts in his Quodlibet X (Christmas 1286) to show that, if properly interpreted, the propositio magistralis does not contradict the 1277 condemnation. According to Henry, the magisterial proposition says only that there can be no evil in the will without some error or ignorance in reason; it does not say that some error or ignorance in reason causes evil in the will. As one of the masters tempier consulted in developing the 1277 list of articles and one of those participating in the meeting of theologians that accepted the magisterial proposition, Henry had added incentive to argue that the two were compatible.
Insolente liberté relates the “intellectualist conception of freedom” defended by various masters of Paris to the vision of political freedom from religious authorities presented in Dante’s Monarchia. Godfrey of Fontaines’s protest against the 1277 condemnation figures prominently in the story of progress towards this—worldly humanist ideals. Virtues of the Will adopts a very different historiographical perspective. It argues that the vast majority of Paris theologians opposed only particular interpretations of Aristotle on particular topics, not Aristotle’s authority on the whole, and it criticizes histories of the period framed in terms of post-medieval dichotomies between “philosophy” and “theology,” or “Aristotelianism” and “Augustinianism.”
As the 20th century neared its end, more and more scholars directed their attention to masters dominant in the period immediately following the 1277 condemnation. A research project co-sponsored by the University of notre Dame’s Medieval institute and the University of Köln’s thomas-institut culminated in 2001 with the publication of Nach der Verurteilung von 1277: Philosophie und Theologie an der Universität von Paris im letzen Viertel des 13. Jarhunderts. Regrettably, only one essay in this large volume—Martin Stone’s “Moral Psychology After 1277″—bears directly on controversies about evil in the wake of the condemnation. the essay begins with a sketch of positions held by Aquinas and Siger of Brabant, both of whom direct attention away from the view that the will is free if, and only if, the agent “could have done otherwise.” there follows a more extensive examination of Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus, both of whom, says Stone, emphasize “the sovereign nature of the will in the process of moral decision-making.” Without denying that theological concerns, or the 1277 condemnation, or both, could have had some influence on Henry’s and Scotus’s teachings, Stone highlights the philosophical motivations for their positions.
Most studies of the post-1277 period link Giles’s teachings on evil and the will to those of his teacher, Aquinas. Giles’s views on these topics have seldom been considered worthy of study, let alone close study, in their own right. two articles by Peter Eardley represent a notable exception to the prevailing trend. Eardley (2003) argues that interpretations positing some voluntarist turn in Aquinas’s thought are sorely misguided: from first to last, Aquinas’s moral psychology remains fundamentally intellectualist. it is actually Giles, at least in his later works, who developed Aquinas’s theory of action in the direction of voluntarism. not only does Giles compare the relationship of the will to the intellect with that of a king to his adviser, he also lays heavy emphasis on the will’s control over how the intellect considers a proposed action. Fornication, for example, might be considered either good or bad, depending upon whether one attends to the pleasure it produces or to the “disorder” of the act. Calling this state of neutrality “forked consideration” (consideratio bifurcata), Giles argues that the will—by focusing on one aspect more than the other—determines the intellect to take a specific stance on the proposed act. Although the seeds of this theory may be found in Aquinas’s works, Eardley argues that Giles breaks with Aquinas in treating the will’s control over the intellect as exercised independently of any prior evaluative judgment by the intellect.
Eardley (2006) argues that Giles’s teachings on the foundations of freedom diverge even more radically from those of Aquinas. Where Aquinas places the foundations of freedom in rationality, Giles claims that human beings are free because we have wills that can determine our actions “from a spontaneous, formal principle for self-motion located in the will itself.” His views on this topic owe less to thomistic intellectualism than to the voluntarism of such Franciscans as John of la Rochelle and Walter of Bruges. Here again, Eardley’s assessment of Giles rests on quodlibetal disputations conducted after his return to Paris. No effort is made to prove that his views differed sharply from Aquinas’s in 1277, when Giles was summoned to answer tempier’s charges against him.
Scotus and Ockham: Metaethics and Unreliable Texts
“The sovereign nature of the will” figures in later medieval debates about evil in two very different ways. One kind of dispute concerns metaethical questions about the relation between God’s will and moral norms: is an act right because God wills it, not vice versa? What kind of constraints, if any, are there on what God can will? the second kind of dispute chiefly concerns the moral psychology of creatures: Are we free to will counter to our own judgment about what should be done here and now, in these particular circumstances? If, whatever we will, we will sub ratione boni (under the aspect of the good), do all sins involve some kind of mistake about what it would be good to do? This section will discuss recent literature on the first kind of dispute. the second kind will be treated in the two sections that follow.
From the mid-20th century onward, controversies about medieval metaethics have been more prominent in the secondary literature than they were among late 13th- and early 14th-century masters themselves. Can Scotus be classified as a divine command theorist? Can Ockham? Present-day fascination with such questions owes something to the historian’s search for medieval antecedents to Reform theology; it owes something, too, to the philosopher’s wish to group moral theorists according to their views on “basic” metaethical issues. In both respects medieval authors tend to resist classification. Not only are they in no position to explain how they differ from Reform theologians, their interest in metaethical issues tends to be considerably smaller than our own.
Interpretation of the texts is all the more difficult because one must take pains to distinguish between claims about what God can will de potentia absoluta and what he can will de potentia ordinata. For Ockham this distinction roughly corresponds to a contrast between what God could have willed and what he actually wills, so that anxieties about God’s initiating a radical change in moral rules should not arise. Unfortunately for Ockham, the distinction did little to allay concerns about his teachings. Many of the propositions that triggered an investigation of them concerned what God could have willed de potentia absoluta not what God can will now or in the future (Courtenay 1999).
McGrade (1999) offers a reconstruction of Ockham’s thought, aimed at solving a related problem that has long bedeviled interpreters. there appear, in effect, to be two ockhams: the one who defended divine command ethics in his academic writings, and the older Ockham in exile, whose works argue for a secular political order based on natural law. If all valid moral norms are divine commands, and if God can command virtually anything, how could Ockham be so confident that natural law is both stable and knowable? The easy answer says that Ockham changed his mind. Eschewing the easy answer, McGrade warns that the youthful ockham’s remarks about divine commands actually imply less than scholars might assume. Consider, says McGrade, God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice isaac: “that a direct divine command to kill an innocent child would make the action right does not at all imply that, absent such a command, the action is morally neutral or that we have no reason to reject it.”
While the last decade has seen little debate about ockham’s moral thought, the mid-20th-century controversy over whether Scotus supports divine command theory has been revived with a vengeance. The revival began with a series of articles by thomas Williams, mainly criticizing Allan Wolter for misinterpreting Scotus’s claim that “everything other than God is good because it willed by God and not vice versa.” Williams declares that there are two possible readings: either essential goodness depends on the divine will, in which case “Scotus is committed to just the sort of voluntarism from which Wolter wishes to save him,” or essential goodness does not depend on the divine will, in which case “there is no need to ask further whether the principle implies voluntarism.” Wolter has long endorsed the second reading, arguing that Scotus does not make essential goodness depend on some arbitrary divine will. Instead, Scotus teaches that, whatever God wills, he wills in accordance with right reason and justice. Williams, who defends the first reading, contends that Scotus means by God’s willing “in accordance with right reason” only “God’s acting as he pleases,” and that God’s justice is no constraint in Scotus’s theory, because God can justly will the opposite of whatever he does. Furthermore, Williams observes, there appears to be no text in which Scotus attributes an affectio iustitiae to God. Absent such a text, Wolter needs an argument to establish that the affectio iustitiae is a pure perfection, and hence, attributable to God on the (undisputed) grounds that God possesses all pure perfections.
Both Mary Beth ingham (2001) and Wolter himself (2003) reply to these objections in some detail, supporting their rebuttals with extensive citations of Scotus’s works. Where ingham focuses more on Scotus’s moral theory and Wolter more on his understanding of God, both fault Williams for misinterpreting the texts. What the texts mean, however, obviously depends on what the texts say; and, unlike Aquinas, Ockham, or any medieval thinker of equal stature, with Scotus, what the relevant texts say often remains murky. Not only is the Scotistic Commission’s critical edition of Scotus’s theological works far from complete, it lacks most of the texts necessary for ascertaining his views on the will and morality. interpreters must rely on the unreliable Wadding edition, use published selections from Wadding texts that Wolter corrected according to what he judged to be the better manuscripts, and/or acquire copies of the manuscripts needed in order to do their own editing of key texts. thus, Wolter’s criticisms rest largely on his view that Williams draws too freely on the Wadding edition; and even when Williams does his own editing of a key text, he fails to consider the most reliable manuscripts of it.
When scholarly controversy about what Scotus means reflects deeper disagreement about what he says, prospects are poor that it will soon be resolved. Even members of the Scotistic Commission have been faulted for serious mistakes in their critical edition of Scotus’s works. According to Stephen Dumont (2001), volume 19 of the critical (Vatican) edition corrects some mistakes made by the Commission’s founder, Charles Baliç; yet the editors continue to insist that Scotus never substantially changed his view that intellect and will are partial, efficient co-causes of volition. on the contrary, Dumont argues, Scotus teaches in his later works that the will is the sole efficient cause of volition. not only did Scotus change his mind, he became a more radical voluntarist.
Ingham (2002) contends that the evidence presented by Dumont falls short of justifying his conclusions. Here the conflict involves no dispute about what Scotus said or when he said it. ingham instead objects to Dumont’s interpretation of Scotus’s teachings. the views expressed in Scotus’s (early) Lectura do indeed differ from those in his (late) Reportatio lectures on Sentences II, distinction 25, and his Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle IX. in his early work, Scotus never treats the will as a rational potency. In his later work, says Ingham, where he declares that the will is the soul’s only rational potency, he reduces the role of the intellect but not the role of rationality.
Philosophers interested in the interpretation of Scotus’s teachings on the will, but not in debating which manuscripts of a particular text are the best, may wish to consult his questions on Book IX of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Thanks to the Franciscan institute of St. Bonaventure University, this work is now available in critical edition. Readers may consult the Latin text alone (Duns Scotus 1997-98), an English translation alone (Duns Scotus 1998a), or an edition with the Latin text, an English translation, and commentary by Wolter (Duns Scotus 2000).
Weakness and Malitia in Theological Works
As a rule, later medieval debates about sins from malitia concern sins unmitigated by the agent’s ignorance or passions. Sins of this kind need not be motivated by the will to harm others, as the common English translation, ‘malice’, might seem to imply. By our own standards, they might be trivial sins, or not sins at all, such as choosing to overeat without being moved by some passion to do so. As Gregory Reichberg explains, ‘malitia’ refers not to a particular kind of sin, for sins of the flesh can be done from malitia; instead, it denotes a special way that any kind of sin can be carried out. In a similar way, modern criminal law classifies offenses not only according to the physical action performed, but also according to mens rea, so that offenses done “from malice aforethought” are more serious, caeteris paribus, than those done from passion, or from ignorance of the harm likely to result.
How do sins from weakness differ from sins from malitia? Later medieval authors tackle the question not only in commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics, but also in commentaries on the Sentences and other theological works. Whatever the genre, most works from the period after 1277 display the author’s awareness of both the condemned articles concerning the will and those passages in the Aristotelian corpus that appear to contradict them. Aristotle’s analysis in Ethics VII of moral weakness (akrasia) does much to fuel debate, for he presents the weak person as one who, in some sense, knows the moral principle on which she should act, but who nonetheless acts badly. For masters keen to prove that we can will to sin without making an erroneous judgment about what we ought to do, Aristotle’s analysis of weakness usually held more promise than his account of full-blown vice.
An article by normore (1998) provides a helpful schema for sorting out the complex and sometimes technical debates of this period. He lists three theses which together characterize what he dubs ‘the Aristotelian model’ of choice:
(A) Everything which changes is changed by another.
(B) Deliberation is always with respect to means rather than with respect to ends.
(C) Everything sought is sought under the aspect of (that is, because it is perceived to be) good.
While the Aristotelian model had its advocates—not the least Aquinas, who endorsed all three theses—normore declares that “the center of gravity in medieval thinking” lies with a different model of choice. The alternative tradition he sketches originates with Anselm of Canterbury’s treatise on the fall of Satan, written before most of Aristotle’s works were available in Latin translation.
According to Anselm, Satan would not have been able to sin if he had only the affectio commodi, which inclines the agent to will what he judges to be beneficial to himself. nor would he have been able to sin if he had only the affectio iustitiae, which inclines the agent to will what is right. Because a “one-willed” agent would act from natural necessity, he would be no more capable of moral action than an animal lacking reason. Normore says that Anselm’s model of choice differs from the Aristotelian model in just one respect, albeit a crucial one: where the Aristotelian agent is naturally directed to a single end, the Anselmian agent—with an innate direction to two ends—determines which end he will pursue in a given situation. How, then, did Satan sin? Anselm answers that Satan chose what he (mistakenly) believed would make him happy, instead of choosing what he knew to be just. Normore suggests that this alternative tradition took a more radical turn with Peter olivi, was further developed by Scotus, and culminated in Ockham’s rejection of all three Aristotelian theses.
Later medieval thinkers dissatisfied with the Aristotelian model of choice often followed Anselm in making Satan Exhibit A. Humans were less useful in proving that one can choose an act that one firmly judges to be wrong, for according to the prevailing view at the time, humans suffer from ignorance and disordered passions resulting from original sin. Even Adam and Eve, before sinning, had limitations that angels lack. not only is the angelic intellect far superior to the human intellect, angels are free of all limitations associated with the body and the passions. Thus an angel’s fall became a popular test for competing theories of free choice-or, as masters in the alternative tradition preferred to frame the debate, theories of free will. if sin always involves ignorance of a moral precept, or at least ignorance of how it applies to the particular situation in which the agent finds himself, how is it possible to explain Satan’s fall?
Scholars agree that Scotus’s account of Satan’s fall had a great deal of influence, although they diverge in describing the influence that it had. A study by Jacob Schmutz (2002) aims mainly to show the influence of Scotus’s “angelology” on the “freedom of indifference” defended in Jesuit and Franciscan works of the 16th and 17th centuries. Schmutz pays particular attention to Scotus’s view of synchronic contingency and the theory of modality he develops to support it, both of which are enlisted to prove that Satan was able to sin in the very first instant of his existence. Both Aquinas and Bonaventure deny that this was possible. In contrast, Scotus argues that we must distinguish between instants of nature and instants of time. the same temporal instant can be regarded as two instants of nature, in the first of which Satan has the power to love God and to hate God, and in the second of which he has actualized the power to hate.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of Peter Olivi’s work remains unpublished, research on his arguments about freedom and evil continues to advance. Olivi now gets due credit for the distinction between temporal and natural priority that came to be associated with Scotus (Dumont 1995). He attracts even more interest because of his steady refusal to join other theologians of the day in adopting a favorable reading of Aristotle. instead of interpreting Aristotle charitably and attacking only his own contemporaries, Olivi sharply criticizes Aristotle’s teachings and everyone he believes to be influenced by them. As Mikko Yrjönsuuri (2002) points out, not only does olivi think that the Aristotelian model of choice excludes the freedom necessary for moral responsibility, he believes it threatens the very foundations of human society; for “it denies from us what we properly are, namely our personhood, and allows us nothing more than that we would be some kind of intellectual beasts, or beasts with understanding.”
Just how far does olivi truly go in rejecting the Aristotelian model? the scholarly consensus says that he rejects thesis (A), and that he enlists Anselm’s theory of the two affections to weaken the force of thesis (C). Although an agent can choose only what his intellect presents as somehow useful or desirable—as a good (in contrast to the good)—Olivi insists that the agent who sins need not be suffering from any intellectual deficiency whatsoever. Someone might, for example, regard fornication as both shameful and pleasurable, so that both choosing to fornicate and choosing to avoid fornication could be regarded as desirable. There appears to be some disagreement only as regards Olivi’s position on thesis (B). Yrjönsuuri highlights a passage where Olivi claims that the will constitutes many ends for itself. Normore, who devotes much less space to Olivi, instead credits Ockham with the claim that we choose our own ends. At least there can be no doubt that ockham makes the rejection of thesis (B) central to his moral theory in a way that olivi does not.
On Ockham’s theory, creatures can set any object whatsoever as an end for themselves. Where Scotus teaches that creatures can fail to will the perfect happiness of the Beatific Vision, yet cannot nill it, Ockham insists that we can indeed nill it. Where Scotus denies that it is possible for one to choose an evil act sub ratione mali, thereby accepting thesis (C) in its attenuated form, Ockham’s position is less clear. if all one means by ‘good’ is what is desired or desirable, ockham argues, the thesis is true but trivial: we always will sub ratione boni. on the other hand, if one means by ‘good’ either morally good, useful, or pleasurable, the thesis must be rejected as false. Someone can will an act she regards as good in none of these ways—even one she herself correctly regards as evil, such as worshiping false gods. Does ockham believe that we can even will an act because it is evil—that we can actually will evil “for evil’s sake”? Where most scholars hesitate to attribute this view to ockham, presumably because they find it incoherent, Marilyn Adams suggests that it is indeed a view that he holds.
At least Ockham makes one point quite clear: the Aristotelian model of choice obliterates the distinction (that theologians should take care to preserve) between sins from malitia and sins from ignorance. In De connexione virtutum, Ockham challenges rivals to prove that they can indeed preserve this distinction. His argument, as translated by Rega Wood, reads:
All theologians agree that some sin is based on malice; other sin, on ignorance. i ask, then, is a malicious sinner in possession of both universal and particular knowledge or only universal knowledge? If both, I have what i set out to prove-namely, that someone in possession of both universal and particular knowledge can act maliciously … if a malicious sinner has only universal knowledge, then an ignorant sinner has as much universal knowledge as a malicious sinner. For an ignorant sinner scientifically knows major premises-such as “everything just should be done” … —but he is ignorant of minor premises—such as “this is just.” … if, therefore, a malicious sinner knew no more, then the scientific knowledge of someone sinning from malice would be equal to that of someone sinning from ignorance, and thus both people will equally be said to sin from malice; and the same could be said of ignorance. (William of ockham 1997, 125, 127)
Whether or not the tradition to which ockham belongs represents “the center of gravity,” it clearly represents a strain of later medieval thought that scholars are beginning to study as closely as they have long studied the works of Aquinas and like-minded figures.
Ethics Commentaries And Their Pitfalls
Risto Saarinen’s Weakness of Will in Medieval Thought (1994) is the only work to date that discusses a wide range of commentaries on Ethics Vii in detail: not only those by Albert the Great and thomas Aquinas but also the (now) lesser-known commentaries of Walter Burley, Gerald (or Gerard) odonis, and John Buridan. Here we have another useful schema for sorting out the various positions defended in medieval commentaries. Saarinen begins by proposing three rough “heuristic models” for understanding the texts:
(1) The Socratic-Aristotelian position;
(2) The non-Socratic Aristotelian position; and
(3) The non-Aristotelian position.
Model (1) is characterized by the claim that there is something wrong with the premises of the agent’s practical syllogism that prohibits him from reaching the conclusion. in effect, it denies that clear-eyed akrasia is possible. Saarinen subdivides this model into (1a), which describes the agent as ignorant of the minor premise, and (1b), which describes him as knowing both premises but failing to connect them. Model (2) holds that the agent reaches the syllogism’s conclusion but temporarily neglects it. Model (3)—reflecting the commentator’s view that the will is self-determining, and not merely a rational desire—holds that morally weak action “always proceeds from a kind of ‘free decision of the will’.” Saarinen notes that model (3) can itself take three different forms: (3a), which holds that people try to choose what they perceive as best, but may freely decide among options they see as uncertain; (3b), which holds that reason gives the agent’s final ends, but does not rule over choices of particular actions; and (3c), which claims either that the will can decide both ends and means or that the actions one wills “need not have a teleological goal at all.”
Which models do the various commentators follow in their exegesis of Aristotle’s account of weakness? Saarinen finds that Albert largely adheres to model (1a) in both of his commentaries on the Ethics, though a few passages suggest (1b). An exposition without the kind of questions and comments added by the other commentators, Aquinas’s commentary sticks so closely to the text that “one has difficulty locating a totally non-Aristotelian idea.” But rather than interpret Aquinas simply as an adherent of model (1), Saarinen explores related sections of the Prima secundae and De malo, concluding that Aquinas adopts (1a) for the first step of the syllogism, but (3a) for the second step. It is unclear whether Saarinen means to suggest that Aquinas changed his mind about how Aristotle’s account of weakness goes, or that Aquinas changed his mind about the substantive issues, or both, or neither. If Doig is right in thinking that Books II-VII of the Ethics commentary postdate parallel passages of the Secunda secundae, then the exposition of Aristotle presented in the Ethics commentary supersedes anything that looks like an exposition in the Prima secundae (and possibly related “expositions” in De malo as well).
As differences in genre create problems for interpreters, so too do differences between the expository sections of an Ethics commentary and the more free-wheeling sections. Saarinen charges odonis with “trying to have it both ways”—defending model (3a) in his questions on Ethics iii but model (1a) in his exposition of Ethics VII. Burley’s commentary poses even greater exegetical difficulties. not only does his commentary include a good many sections of dubia and notanda along with “straight” textual exposition of the Ethics, Burley’s work borrows heavily—often without acknowledgement-from Aquinas’s commentary. According to Saarinen, Burley vacillates between models (1b) and (2), but favors (2); and passages apparently supporting (1b) can be understood within the framework of (2). None of the other commentators studied by Saarinen clearly identifies model (2) as a plausible option.
Jeffrey Hause (1996) challenges this interpretation of Burley, arguing that Saarinen cannot have it both ways. Since model (1b) holds that the agent never draws the conclusion of the syllogism, whereas model (2) holds that he does, the first cannot be reconciled with the second. Rega Wood calls attention to passages where, in addition to (1b) and (2), Burley considers model (1a). In her judgment, though, Burley treats as Aristotle’s preferred solution one in which the agent’s knowledge of the universal premise-not the particular premise—is “bound” (ligatus). Aquinas contends that the weak agent’s appetite “binds” his intellect in such a way that what he knows habitually cannot be brought to bear on the particular situation in which he finds himself; but unlike Aquinas, Burley does not think that the agent’s appetite generates a universal premise such as, “Everything sweet should be eaten.” Because he holds that passions of the sensitive appetite incline directly to particulars, instead of only by means of universals, Wood credits Burley with greater fidelity to the historical Aristotle than Aquinas displays.
Whatever the correct assessment of Burley, it is surely true that medieval commentators as a group struggle with Aristotle’s claim in Ethics Vii that someone with unqualified weakness acts in the expectation of physical pleasure, but without judging the action she performs to be good. on Aristotle’s analysis, such a person does not judge it good either for people in general or for her in particular—even on the present occasion—to pursue such pleasure: a highly problematic analysis to theorists convinced that all moral actions must somehow be caused by the will, and that whatever we will, we will sub ratione boni. Where some medieval authors opt to present weak actions as more rational than Aristotle does in Ethics Vii, others opt for some version of model (3), which highlights the role of the agent’s will in deciding what she sees as good. this brings us, at last, to John Buridan.
The fact that all surviving copies of Buridan’s commentary on the Ethics contain only questions turns out to be a mixed blessing. Because there are no purely expository sections, we need not labor to resolve conflicts with Buridan’s questions, but neither do we know in detail how he interprets key passages. Did Buridan even produce an exposition of the Ethics? if he did, no copy of it has been found. Research by Christoph Flüeler shows that fragmentary expositions sometimes attributed to Buridan are not, in fact, his work. Buridan’s commentary on the Ethics poses an additional problem for scholars. As Burley’s commentary borrows heavily from Aquinas’s, so Buridan’s borrows heavily from odonis’s. Buridan’s commentary thus presents the same exegetical pitfall that Burley’s does: how much weight should we assign to passages where the author merely copies or paraphrases his favorite source? Fortunately, the sections of Buridan’s commentary on moral weakness and free choice are not among those shown to be dependent on odonis’s commentary; so scholars concerned strictly with these topics need not consider the odonis factor.
Recent research on Buridan’s analysis of weakness—and more generally, his account of free choice—reflects uncertainty about where his professed search for a middle ground actually leads him. Between the series of questions about the will at the beginning of Book III of his commentary, and more than a dozen questions in Book VII related to moral weakness, interpreters have a great deal of material to piece together, including texts discussing issues given little attention by commentators like Albert and Aquinas. (then, as now, issues that professors have been debating for more than fifty years attain a formidable level of complexity and technicality.) Perhaps the greatest single problem for interpreters arises from Buridan’s repeated references to articles about the will condemned in 1277, along with his earnest effort to avoid any direct contradiction of them. Does he truly endorse a voluntarist account of free choice? if not, why does he appropriate voluntarist terminology, as he plainly does?
Saarinen sees “two foundational ideas” in Buridan’s analysis of moral weakness: the possibility of postponing or deferring volition (i.e., of not willing), and the distinction between certain and uncertain judgments. He declares that, reflecting “the Scotistic conception of a self-determining will,” the first becomes a cornerstone of Buridan’s ethical theory. the second at once connects Buridan’s thought with Albert’s and distinguishes it from Aquinas’s and Odonis’s. though Buridan leaves unclear exactly how choice figures in morally weak actions, Saarinen claims that he largely follows model (3a).
Both Jack Zupko and Fabienne Pironet take issue with this reading of Buridan. Without denying that there is some evidence of Scotistic influence, Zupko agues that Buridan belongs to the opposing camp: “Buridan’s way of cleaving to the middleground in this debate was to provide a doctrinally acceptable defense of intellectualist principles, rather than to invent some kind of compromise position between intellectualism and voluntarism.” Pironet (2001) agrees that Buridan’s search for some compromise position on the will is only a façade. to support her view of his theory as strictly intellectualist, Pironet examines what Scotus and Buridan mean by ‘not willing’. She finds the differences to be substantial; indeed, they “provide sufficient grounds to reject the idea that Buridan’s theory of the will is in any significant way Scotistic.” While the differences might well be substantial, the case cannot be proved by referring, as Pironet does, exclusively to the 1637 edition of a single question from Book I, distinction 1 of Scotus’s Ordinatio. to demonstrate how much Buridan diverges from Scotus on our capacity for not willing, one would need to consult more reliable editions of Scotus’s work and consider other texts where he discusses the topic.
Henrik Lagerlund (2002) declares both sides in this scholarly controversy to be mistaken: Buridan actually does develop a middle-ground position between the opposing extremes on free choice. in this study, however, much less attention is paid to our capacity for not willing, and ockham, rather than Scotus, represents the voluntarist extreme. With what normore describes as the Aristotelian tradition cast as one extreme, and ockham’s theory cast as the other, Buridan’s theory surely does lie in the middle ground. Such a wide “middle ground” nonetheless makes it hard to judge how Lagerlund’s interpretation of Buridan actually differs from those defended by Saarinen, Zupko, and Pironet.
Further research is needed to clarify the similarities and differences between Buridan’s teachings and Scotus’s. As it stands, scholars have small hope of determining which author, if either, influenced various philosophers who debated freedom of choice in the early modern period. But, as Lagerlund suggests, the task of tracing such influence would be extremely difficult. Given that Buridan, Scotus, and ockham all employ similar terminology, the language of voluntarism offers no reliable guide to substantive positions, let alone historical influence.