Aristotle’s Ethics and Medieval Philosophy: Moral Goodness and Practical Wisdom by Anthony Celano
Celano’s book focuses on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (NE) and thirteenth-century scholastic appropriations of it. Its objectives are to unravel the inconsistencies in Aristotle’s accounts of eudaimonia, to establish the prominence of phronesis (practical wisdom), and to reveal alterations of Aristotle’s phronesis in medieval moral thought (back-cover). Celano’s textual analyses are laborious, and some features of his story may be considered stimulating insights. His construal of phronesis as primary to Aristotle’s moral conception (viii), his emphasis on Albert’s contribution to medieval moral thought (chapters 5–6), and his inclusion of the largely uncharted anonymous Erfurt commentary (chapter 8) represent important contributions. Yet Celano tells a tale that others have already told (e.g. R. A. Gauthier 1947–48, quoted by Celano on 78): that Aristotle’s NE contains a single veracity which seemingly transcends history. With their decidedly Christian agenda, however, scholastic interpreters “misread Aristotle’s Ethics” (78) or provided readings “contradictory to his thought” (231).
Celano’s story takes its impetus from his view that, with the passage of time, thirteenth-century thinkers (all with close ties to the University of Paris) arrive at an improved grasp of Aristotle’s NE. Celano suggests that, early in the century, when only parts of the NE circulated, William of Auxerre, Philip the Chancellor, and six arts masters tried to get to the root of Aristotle’s ethics, but were “not entirely successful” (99). In the second half of the century, when the NE was translated and disseminated in its entirety, “more gifted theologians, such as Albert, Thomas and Bonaventure” achieved better results in understanding the text than their scholastic forebears had done (99). Celano reads Albert’s early De natura boni, [End Page 160] De bono, and De homine—the latter of which he misconstrues as an ethical work (100)—as preparations for Albert’s subsequent reconciliations of the NE “with the Christian ideals of perfect beatitude and natural law” in his two commentaries on the NE (130). Celano then argues that Albert’s commentaries decisively influenced later medieval commentaries on Aristotle, including that of Thomas Aquinas, while he equally portrays Thomas’s reading of Aristotle as departing from Albert’s (169). Finally, Celano discusses two commentaries on Aristotle’s NE written at the end of the thirteenth century: one by the anonymous Erfurt commentator and one by Radulphus Brito. In Celano’s view, they read Aristotle in “decidedly un-Aristotelian ways” to harmonise his NE with their own moral principles (231); and they replaced the “ground-breaking work” of Albert and Thomas (209) with their “reverence for tradition” (231).
Celano’s book is a hero-narrative complete with denouement. Crucial to it is the thesis that the scholastic thinkers he discusses altered Aristotle’s intention in accordance with their Christian agenda. While, in Celano’s reading of the text, Aristotle founded his NE on the “human standard” of phronesis, the scholastic readers established it on “a divine foundation.” They read Aristotle through the lens of foreign concepts such as “natural law” or “synderesis” (viii, 64), and restricted Aristotle’s phronesis to moral decisions (231).
Yet I wonder whether this is an accurate picture. The scholastic thinkers discussed here were more concerned with determining the truth about human prudence and happiness than with developing a truthful reading of Aristotle’s text. In their negotiations of this truth, they differed notably in accordance with their different historical contexts. Regrettably, Celano underplays these contexts, which constituted the ‘lifeworlds’ (Husserl’s term) within which they wrote. Indeed, it would be helpful to understand that early thirteenth-century moral theology, as propounded by William and Philip, arose within the theological framework established by Peter Lombard, and merely utilised some Aristotelian moral concepts. In contrast, early thirteenth-century moral philosophy conducted by the arts masters shifted the framework away from Lombard toward an Aristotelian one. This contrast could help evaluate important motives behind the early appropriations by Parisian theologians and uncover the intentions behind the focus on Aristotelian ethics among the Parisian arts masters. Moreover, insofar as Albert and Thomas linked Lombard’s theological framework to the Aristotelian philosophical one, it would be helpful to understand that this rendered them mutually congruent. This congruence could elucidate key shifts in meaning of Aristotle’s ethics in accordance with Albert’s and Thomas’s changed lifeworlds. None of these scholastic approaches to Aristotle, however, calls for Celano’s teleological hero-narrative. Instead, they call for a historical epistemology mindful of different contexts: how these contexts institute different interpretive options, when they condition different possibilities for truth claims, and why they evoke different epistemic commitments among historical actors. More could have been done to evaluate these lifeworlds by standards less vulnerable to anachronism than Celano’s hermeneutical commitments.
In consequence of his general approach, Celano also lacks appreciation for some historical essentials. He sidesteps the influence of Arabic moral thought on thirteenth-century ethics, bypasses later developments of scholastic moral thought (despite what the title promises), and leaves important secondary literature unexplored. Still more puzzling is Celano’s conclusion that ushers in Platonic and Stoic “eternal standards” of moral action (235) and opposes them to his preferred Aristotelian “community standards” (242). Yet I wonder, if Platonic or scholastic universal grounds, which Celano seems to identify with one another, are indeed deficient for moral practice, could his tale of the NE’s veracity that seemingly transcends history be similarly insufficient for analysing its individual scholastic appropriations? [End Page 161]