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  • Coronaeus and the Relationship between Philosophy and Doctrine in Jean Bodin's Colloquium
  • Thomas F. X. Varacalli (bio)

One of the most significant questions for thinkers both ancient and modern is whether the philosophical life is compatible with adherence to religious doctrine. Jean Bodin's Colloquium of the Seven about the Secrets of the Sublime, one of the last great works of the Renaissance, is a neglected text that addresses this important issue.1 Written in the form of a Platonic dialogue, it recounts the learned conversations among seven men from different religious and philosophical backgrounds—Paulus Coronaeus, a Roman Catholic; Fridericus Podamicus, a Lutheran; Antonius Curtius, a Calvinist; Salomon Barcassius, a Jew; Octavius Fagnola, a Muslim; Hieronymus Senamus, a skeptic; and Diegus Toralba, a humanist who abides solely by the law of nature. These men over the course of six days discuss and debate a variety of pivotal philosophical questions, ranging from the existence of God and demons to an examination of free will. In the first three books, the dialogue is concerned mostly with general philosophical and metaphysical questions. In the last three books, however, the focus turns to doctrine, especially to a critical analysis of several Catholic doctrines such as the Trinity, the Eucharist, Christ's hypostatic nature, and the cult of the saints. The tension [End Page 122] between philosophy and doctrine is embedded in the structure of the dialogue. Some modern commentators, such as Quentin Skinner and George Sabine, have suggested that the dialogue exposes the futility and uselessness of ecumenical discussion.2 Both Skinner and Sabine are wrong in their assessment, especially because the interlocutors in the dialogue do not seem to think that the colloquium is a waste of time. Careful examination of the responses by Coronaeus demonstrates that the Catholic interlocutor forms a defense of the compatibility between philosophy and doctrine. Coronaeus, therefore, finds an answer to one of the most important questions in the dialogue: the relationship between faith and reason.

Regrettably, scholarship on Bodin's Colloquium is scarce, but those scholars who have studied the dialogue generally praise it as one of the earliest and most influential defenses of both toleration and freedom of religion in early modern Europe.3 Bodin wrote his dialogue during a time of great religious turmoil and political upheaval due to the French wars of religion, the fallout of the Reformation, and the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire into Europe. The book was so controversial that it was not published until the mid-nineteenth century. For centuries, it was read clandestinely by luminaries as diverse as John Milton and Queen Christina of Sweden.4 The fact that such a banned book made its rounds among Europe's elites attests to its innovation and relevance.

Historians do not exaggerate the originality and boldness of Bodin's dialogue. European thinkers, especially in Bodin's native France, often did not exemplify the moderation and collegiality of the interlocutors in the work. The unnamed narrator of the Colloquium himself marvels at the fact that representatives of seven different religious and philosophical traditions are able to participate in such potentially contentious exchanges without hatred or malice.5 In emphasizing the historical achievement of the work, however, modern commentators have generally failed to provide adequate analysis of the text. More specifically, few scholars have made the effort to unpack the significant differences among the interlocutors. [End Page 123]

The most important commentator on the Colloquium in the twentieth century is Marion Leathers Kuntz, the only English translator of the text. Kuntz, following the traditional argument, claims that the primary aim of Bodin's work is a defense of toleration. The truly penetrating aspect of Kuntz's interpretation, however, is how she defines what toleration is. Toleration, she writes, begins with harmony. In order for there to be harmony, there must be genuine and distinct differences. She writes, "Bodin's concept of toleration is not relativistic, exclusive, or disinterested. Toleration is inclusive, since it is based on knowledge of various opinions. Like harmony, it is inherent in the nature of things but must be sought out and understood by the people."6 In other words, toleration does not consist in destroying...


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