Saving the Philosopher’s Soul: The De pietate Aristotelis by Fortunio Liceti
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Saving the Philosopher’s Soul:
The De pietate Aristotelis by Fortunio Liceti

The De pietate Aristotelis erga Deum et homines (1645) by Fortunio Liceti is a one-of-a-kind text. In this book Liceti claimed that Aristotle converted to Judaism, and that he never contradicted the Scriptures in his writings. At a time when competing philosophical and scientific schools put Aristotle at odds with faith, restoring his reputation from a religious point of view could be seen as key to safeguarding Peripateticism. Nonetheless Liceti composed his work not to polemicize with anti-Aristotelians, but rather with fellow Aristotelians who were not sufficiently committed to defending his stature.


Aristotelianism, Scientific Revolution, apologetics, philology, Jewish-Christian Relationships

In the mid-seventeenth century the Aristotelian fortress was under siege. Scientific discoveries, alternative theoretical paradigms, philological developments that further complicated debates over the corpus of the Philosopher’s works, and internal disagreements among his modern followers all conspired against the continuing vitality of this venerable tradition. Nonetheless, staunch Aristotelians were in no mood to surrender, and when in 1645 the magister Fortunio Liceti (1577–1657), an ardent follower of the Stagirite philosopher, published an apology in favor of Aristotle’s piety, the De pietate Aristotelis erga Deum et homines, he believed he had identified both the causes of the ills that afflicted his school and the necessary remedy.

Liceti was a university professor who taught in Pisa, Padua, and Bologna. He is best known today for his voluminous correspondence with Galileo Galilei, in which he repeatedly expressed his sorrow about Galileo’s departure from traditional cosmology, and respectfully suggested that Galileo had a personal bias against Aristotle.1 He is also often remembered because of his premature birth, which inspired his father to invent a rudimentary incubator, and was the reason behind his unusual first name, [End Page 531] Fortunio (lucky person).2 As a scholar, he is known for the impressive quantity of texts he produced, which range from commentaries on the De anima to medical treatises on miraculous fasts, from interpretations of mysterious alchemical sentences to astronomical works. The De monstris, which was considered from its first appearance a milestone in the field of descriptive teratology, stands out in particular. Nevertheless, the work in which Liceti gathered many of the conclusions of his earlier writings was the De pietate Aristotelis.3

It may be tempting to dismiss Liceti’s book as a curiosity, but a deeper consideration shows this text to be an ideal case study that illustrates the heterogeneity of intellectual traditionalists and suggests that they had concerns beyond those of the new forms of scientific and philosophical inquiry that were taking root across the continent.4 At a time when even new observations might put Aristotle at odds with Scriptures and faith,5 rather than [End Page 532] responding directly to the challenges to Aristotelianism that the new science and philosophies proposed (as he did in other writings, including his letters to Galileo), Liceti instead directed the De pietate against exponents of Peripateticism and scholasticism, breaking—when necessary—allegiances and boundaries built up and maintained over centuries. In this work, Liceti made clear that his advocacy for the religious perfection of the Philosopher was not directed against those who wanted to dismantle the edifice of Aristotelianism from the outside, but on the contrary against fellow Peripatetics, who in his opinion jeopardized it from within. This internal war, nonetheless, paradoxically forced the traditionalist Liceti to abandon or reinterpret the standard account of Aristotle’s life and works, and to embrace motifs from the most unexpected traditions.

Debates over Aristotle’s piety have a long history. Commentators have often been divided about the exact nature of his religious identity and his status in the Christian economy of salvation, leaving the Philosopher’s soul suspended between Heaven and Hell for centuries. Many different agendas have driven these discussions. During the confessional age, the Greek philosopher—the main point of reference for scholasticism and university teaching in general—was usually condemned to the deepest netherworld by Protestant authors in the footsteps of Luther, and was in turn rescued and exalted by Catholic writers in apologetic exchanges.6...