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Reviewed by:
  • Moral Philosophy on the Threshold of Modernity
  • Paul Richard Blum
Jill Kraye and Risto Saarinen , eds. Moral Philosophy on the Threshold of Modernity. The New Synthese Historical Library 57. Dordrecht: Springer, 2005. vi + 344 pp. index. tbls. bibl. $169. ISBN: 1–4020–3000–2.

Philosophical problems have a history that makes them understandable. This is perfectly illustrated by this collective effort to trace concepts such as agency, obligation, liberty, possession, and responsibility back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Yet we are also witnessing the disappearance of methods and questions over time without the comfort that these might have been successfully solved. Thus the need to take them on, again, by delving into the context where they were seriously debated.

Due to the success of Thomist theology during the fifteenth century, Jean Buridan's nominalist definition of human freedom as being rooted in the aptitude to felicity seemingly disappeared from the public discourse, together with the proliferation of his works in Italy (David Lines). However, it obviously survived as an idol of the humanist marketplace. Thomas Pink, Rudolf Schüssler, and Sven K. Knebel address the question of obligation, since it may stay in the way of earthly happiness: divine command and human rationality, the will to live and the will to believe, were at stake when scholastic thinkers debated what makes a law or a moral imperative binding. Probabilism, for instance, asked how far one has to go in order to ascertain a maxim of action — a problem much pertinent to present day criminal law. (Is it enough to establish guilt "beyond reasonable doubt," or should one avoid any risk of injustice?) Torture, yet another example, brings virtuous and factual life into conflict, when the doubt arises whether one can save eternal life by lying in admitting a crime in order to end pain and life. How, then, is moral [End Page 938] agency possible at all? The debate on human nature, fostered by Michael Baius, elicited that only two sources of moral acts are thinkable: divine grace and free will (M. W. F. Stone); if we neglect grace, natural wickedness and free enterprise may be taken for granted. If physical and moral life are to be distinguished, personal existence and appropriating the world needed to be clarified, as they were in the debate over Franciscan poverty (Roberto Lambertini; Virpi Mäkinen). In all these papers, Hobbes and Locke lurk in the background, but the immediate conflict is that between legal and moral-theological paradigms.

And then came the Reformers: the Lutheran jurist Conrad Summenhart seems to have been unable to reconcile law and right, individual liberty and natural law (Jussi Varkemaa). For, Luther had separated divine order from human political agency, having individual ethics merge with salvation through grace (Risto Saarinen). Melanchthon's attempt at damage control didn't help much, because he misunderstood Albert the Great's psychology (conceived as emanation from God) by contriving "innate ideas" as guarantors of intellectual correctness and moral righteousness (Günter Frank). Consequently, he blended the concepts of external and internal (that is, moral) nature of man (Dino Bellucci). Calvin's remedy was to parallel all orders: social and religious ministry, divine law, and earthly possession (Christoph Strohm).

It should be emphasized that all these early modern efforts were exerted, and are reported by the authors, with acumen and diligence in words and matters. However, it becomes once more clear that they also spurred a search for alternatives. Stoicism was first choice in ethics. Vives and Muretus, presented by Lorenzo Casini and Jill Kraye, pondered critically the usefulness of this alternative and rejuvenated the interference between ancient and Christian ethics.

Most of the contributors to this book are non-native speakers of English (as the reviewer is); therefore the editors and the publisher would have done a great favor to all had they edited the contributions linguistically. Every scholar of late medieval and Renaissance philosophy will find a wealth of up-to-date research; and every modern philosopher will encounter problems and methods that, expectedly or not, sound familiar.

Paul Richard Blum
Loyola College in Maryland


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pp. 938-939
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Archived 2009
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