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Melanchthon’s Aristotle: Civic Virtue

Philip Melanchthon is nothing if not consistent in the way in which he handles the appropriation of classical, and particularly Aristotelian, thinking about virtue for the benefit of Christians (a topic treated recently at Mere Orthodoxy). Melanchthon finds Aristotle (or an eclectically ressourced Aristotle) of special use for political purposes, provided that his insistence be granted that Aristotle should be construed as speaking of civic or temporal virtues only: virtue coram hominibus rather than virtue coram Deo; virtue in the left-hand Kingdom. This is a different thing from spiritual virtue before God, which Aristotle did not understand or treat.

The reason, for Melanchthon, is straightforward: Aristotle did not know that spiritual vice proceeds from the root of original sin. And if he did not even acknowledge this truth, he was certainly ignorant of its remedy and the true means of cultivating virtue before God in the inner man, in what might be called–what Bavinck would call–“theonomous” perspective.

A nice illustration of Melanchthon’s basic position is found in some comments of his on the first chapter of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle raises the question of the relation between nature and habituation–teaching and training–in the acquisition of virtue. In the following passage, Melanchthon contrasts Joseph’s virtue and motives to virtue with the Aristotelian account, and contrasts both with the imputed righteousness received in justification. (This is the Joseph of Genesis, not of the Gospels.) After discussion of how the concerns of Aristotle should best be balanced, Melanchthon writes:

Students must be advised that Aristotle says what he says concerning civic virtues; one speaks of spiritual virtues somewhat differently, as in the case of Joseph there are four concurrent causes of spiritual virtue: the Word of God, the Holy Spirit, the mind that gives assent, and the will that obeys. Joseph thinks of the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,”1 and the Holy Spirit inclines his mind to assent to the commandment, and to gather together multiple causes: “lest God in his anger absolutely reject you, punish you with present and future punishments, and take away his present gifts; also, you must have regard for the occasion for scandal that will be given; likewise, you must spare others’ consciences.” By these arguments his will is moved, and the Holy Spirit confirms his hope, with the result that he obeys the law. And the will, strengthened and roused by the Holy Spirit, restrains the external members, while Joseph also adds the training he had received, he avoids close encounters with women and debauched parties, he fixes his mind more sharply on the tasks of his office, his studies, and prayer, as Paul also by his own example commends training, saying in 1 Corinthians 9.27: “I beat my body, and bring it into servitude.” These things come about partly because of the Holy Spirit moving him, partly by human diligence. But concerning righteousness, that is, concerning imputation, the question is entirely different, and I pass by it here.2

(Incidentally, for those interested in further exposition of Melanchthon’s views of the Christian use of “reason” and philosophy, consult my essay “Reason Diabolical, Reason Divine: Philosophy, Classical Humanism, and the Scripture Principle in Philip Melanchthon and Niels Hemmingsen,” in Joseph Minich, editor, Philosophy and the Christian: The Quest for Wisdom in the Light of Christ.)

  1. Let us leave aside for the moment the question of how Joseph knows this commandment.
  2. In secundum librum Ethicorum Aristotelis enarrationes Philippi MelanthoniscaputI. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.