Early Modern Aristotle

In Early Modern Aristotle, Eva Del Soldato examines treatises, legends, proverbs, fictions, and rhetorical tropes to trace how recourse to the authority of Aristotle shaped intellectual discourse even during a period that challenged and overturned much of his teaching.

Early Modern Aristotle
On the Making and Unmaking of Authority

Eva Del Soldato

2020 | 320 pages | Cloth $55.00
History / Philosophy
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Comparing Philosophers: How to Elevate or Undermine an Authority
Chapter 2. Comparationes and External Aids
Chapter 3. Learning, Protecting, Advertising: Comparationes in University Halls
Chapter 4. Customizing Authorities: Legends, Anecdotes, Fictions
Chapter 5. If Aristotle Were Alive, or the Paradoxical Ways of Authority
Appendix A. Preface by Alfonso Pandolfi to His Comparatio
Appendix B. Federico Pendasio's Comparatio
Appendix C. Skeptical Attitudes Toward Philosophical Concordiae
Appendix D. Francesco Vimercato's De Dogmatibus


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In his Nicomachean Ethics (1096a 11-15) Aristotle affirmed that despite his friendship with Plato, he was a better friend of the truth, and therefore rejected his teacher's authority, implying that the pursuit of philosophy does not entail obedience to any authority. Yet over the centuries Aristotle himself became the authority par excellence in the Western world. And a wide variety of thinkers ostensibly preferred to keep him as a friend rather than contradict him. Even Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the champion of the new science, opposed to the traditional doctrines rooted in Aristotelianism, eagerly described himself as a disciple of the ancient philosopher. Galileo had good reason to make this claim because for him, and for many other philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals of the early modern period, the approval of an authority like Aristotle was simply too advantageous to relinquish. Early modernity is often described and characterized as an era during which authority was challenged. But the argumentative strategies employed in this period must be reconsidered and reevaluated. In fact, recourse to the authority of Aristotle shaped philosophical and scientific debates throughout Europe until the dawn of the Enlightenment, not only among traditionalists interested in keeping Peripateticism alive, but also among novatores.

It may seem counterintuitive that even men engaged in updating the curriculum and elaborating novel visions of the world should appeal to the authority of an ancient philosopher like Aristotle when defending their agendas, to the extent that the association of a "hotbed of Aristotelianism" like Padua with decisive developments of the Scientific Revolution has been regarded by some as a historical paradox. More generally, the very notion of authority is something that "does not seem self-evidently desirable." Authority can, in fact, encompass several meanings, which extend well beyond the purely intellectual sphere, and which have pernicious sociopolitical implications, thoroughly discussed in the last century. But even when they understood it as a deferential and obliging appeal to a universally respected auctor, thinkers who shaped the weltanschauung of the Western world, from Locke to Mill, passing through Kant's "exit from self-incurred minority," provided an essentially negative image of the principle of authority. After all, etymologically speaking, an auctor in ancient Rome was the person responsible for validating the actions of a minor or of an incapacitated person, and even later implied "an essential duality in which an insufficiency or incapacity is completed or made valid." Yet the principle of authority has not only been an instrument for inculcating minds with an immutable body of knowledge and keeping them in a state of minority. While from an epistemic point of view it has been argued that the self-reflective person has to be committed to belief in authority, from the perspective of intellectual history the principle of authority has to be considered as an instrument adaptable to strategic uses, which could even include the subversion of the status quo. In this sense, the recourse to an authority was not necessarily incompatible with autonomy but could fuel the most disparate intellectual struggles. An authority—far from being a monolithic lodestar—is typically the product of shifting and negotiation, the result of the application of exegetical and rhetorical keys that are often in conflict with one another. As a fluid object, it could be called on to support diverse and opposing agendas, with its identity modified, manipulated, and reshaped according to what was at stake.

As recent studies have highlighted, the attitude toward one or more of the ancient authorities was decisive in shaping the discursive strategies of early modern writers, philosophers, and scientists. Authors who were excluded from the "canon" of the great seventeenth-century philosophers, because of their reverence for ancient schools of thought, have recently been vindicated, for example in a collection of essays edited by G. A. J. Rogers, Tom Sorell, and Jill Kraye. Craig Martin has shown how demonstrating the impiety of Aristotle was crucial for many of those who sought to subvert the supremacy of the Peripatetic school in early modern Europe and to promote philosophies allegedly better suited to religion. In the same way, Martin has proved that saving Aristotle was essential for those who aimed to keep him on his proverbial throne. Dmitri Levitin, mainly focusing on the British context, has demonstrated how ancient wisdom, especially Platonism—as filtered through pioneering historiographical accounts—provided essential support for many protagonists of early modern science and philosophy, challenging the contradiction between "old" and "new." More recently, Ada Palmer has argued that even apparently innocent antiquarian paratexts, like biographies of ancient thinkers introducing editions of their texts, could inspire libertinism and antireligious ideas. During the early modern era, ancient authorities were therefore pulled in a constant tug-of-war, at times portrayed more in terms of rhetoric than of their ideas, yet with full awareness of their vital centrality for intellectual debates.

The case studies in this book investigate the use and abuse of Aristotle's authority in the early modern period, from both a transnational and an interdisciplinary perspective. Indeed, for as long as he maintained an institutional presence in universities and academies, Aristotle was invoked in writings and treatises that made use of his authority, sometimes through manipulations of his philosophical doctrines, mental experiments, and fanciful narratives of his life.

As is well known, particularly from the twelfth century onward, the Latin Christian world began to absorb pagan authorities into its institutions and cultural traditions. In a Christian context the elevation of a pagan thinker such as Aristotle to the status of an authority was not an obvious conclusion. Aristotle had argued against the creation of the world and was very ambiguous on the destiny of the soul, to mention only two upsetting aspects of his doctrines for a Christian readership. Nevertheless, he managed to become the backbone of Western university teaching and Scholastic theology for centuries to come. The acceptance of a pagan authority like Aristotle in a Christian framework therefore required negotiation and selection, cherry-picking, and justification: that is, relying on or justifying Aristotle when he was deemed useful, silencing him or acknowledging his limitations when his ideas were in clear conflict with faith. And the approach to Aristotle's authority in the Western world became all the more complex when, in the second half of the fifteenth century, he was confronted by an adversary capable of eroding at least some aspects of his prestige, his teacher Plato.

Until then, while Plato was a sort of underground presence in the Western world, where only a handful of his works were directly known, he was the authority of reference in Byzantium. Like Aristotle in the West, Plato owed this position to a number of convenient exegeses of many of his doctrines. Yet, unlike Aristotle, Plato offered teachings that were potentially more harmonious with religious dogma, in particular with regard to the soul and creation. Plato provoked a kind of quiet storm with his return to the Latin world, and he operated as a counter-authority to the almost undisputed supremacy of Aristotle. On one hand, he served as the inspiration for many authors interested in decreasing the role played by Aristotle in supporting Roman Catholic theology, thus forcing Peripatetic philosophers to reassess their priorities. This association between Plato and theology facilitated, in fact, the "radicalization" of many Aristotelians. These thinkers found the Philosopher's proprium in the dimension of pure nature, favoring a divorce between metaphysics and natural philosophy. On the other hand, since Plato's divine philosophy seemed to others to be a potential source of heresy, it was also possible to turn to Aristotle as a safe haven for theology. It was enough to insist that the worldly perspective of his thought, unlike that of Plato, would not lead to heresy. There were also individuals, however, eager to invent fictitious biographies of Aristotle, following patterns cultivated in the Platonic milieu. For instance, the association of Plato with Moses and Jewish wisdom—already promoted in late antiquity—inspired the production of similar biographical legends with Aristotle as their main protagonist. Either inventing a special gift of divine grace or converting him to Judaism, early modern authors ingeniously attempted to situate Aristotle within the history of salvation, so as to legitimate his support in matters of theology and other fields. If such biographical efforts were perceived as too far-fetched, there were other ways to save the Philosopher's authority, via fictions or counterfactual imaginings, postulating his return to life, eager to serve Christianity and to recant his own philosophical mistakes. In most of these instances, Aristotle was merely playacted and ventriloquized, presented as debating matters alien to his philosophy and his mental framework, in order to gain favor for the agenda of a modern author.

Present-oriented approaches to the ancient authors were a constant feature in European intellectual history starting from the Middle Ages. The early modern period offered remarkable examples of how pagan authorities like Aristotle and Plato were strategically molded by authors who were in reality employing them for their own immediate purposes, as the contextualist approach adopted in this book helps to clarify.

This book is composed of five chapters that reconstruct several episodes in which the authority of Aristotle was employed during the early modern period. The stories they tell often develop along the same chronological lines and reveal consistent diachronic and synchronic patterns. Each of them focuses on strategies of negotiation, integration, and rejection of Aristotle, considering both macro-phenomena, such as the philosophical genre of the comparatio, and smaller-scale instances, such as the circulation of legends, anecdotes, fictions, and counterfactual imaginations.

The fortune and dissemination of all these different ways of approaching Aristotle as an authority confirm what a relatively recent trend in studies of early modern philosophy has demonstrated: that between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, Aristotelianism, despite its long-standing reputation as a rigid, even reactionary form of inquiry, was, in fact, a thriving philosophical school; that Aristotle remained in that period the philosophical fulcrum of the Western world; that the privileged association between Platonism and the Renaissance—which in earlier scholarly literature was understood to create a liberating rupture with the "Peripatetic" Middle Ages—was the result of a number of simplifications and oversights. Certainly, Plato played an important role in shaping philosophical and scientific development in the early modern period. Yet he was also frequently exploited as an anti-Aristotelian resource, as a battering ram to undermine Peripatetic supremacy. Petrarch, whose scanty knowledge of Greek prevented him from becoming familiar with Platonic philosophy, celebrated nonetheless the excellence of Plato over Aristotle, exemplifying the often merely instrumental recourse to Plato as an anti-Peripatetic weapon. Long excluded from university halls, and never entirely trusted by ecclesiastical elites, Plato did not enjoy the institutional importance granted to Aristotle. The idol either to protect or tear down was Aristotle, while referring to Plato could serve either to amplify or diminish Aristotle's merits.

The pairing with Plato undoubtedly informs many early modern uses of Aristotle as an authority, yet the Philosopher did not necessarily require an "antagonist" to define his significance, which had deep roots in Western culture. It was possible to associate his name and his reputation as a thinker with virtually any characterization: he was depicted as a papist, a Jew, an enemy of Moses, a Spaniard, a master enraged at his followers, or a wise man eager to be corrected both philosophically and theologically.

This flexibility in the use of Aristotle as an authority, invoked to endorse the most diverse agendas, should come as no surprise. Just as today rhetoric has taken on an increasingly important role in scientific and empirical debates, a device like the principle of authority was likewise used, at times paradoxically, by early modern thinkers to support the doctrines they upheld. If the need to subvert Aristotle and his system was pivotal in the search for an efficacious rhetoric that motivated early modern philosophers and scientists, their efforts were also driven by the ambition to prevail in a cultural marketplace that had suddenly become pluralistic, first thanks to the return of Plato and then to the emergence of new visions of the world. For this reason, the endorsement of Aristotle would have been particularly useful for those who wanted to make their positions acceptable by giving the impression of respecting tradition, though they were instead demolishing it. At the same time, also defenders of the Peripatus were compelled to employ acrobatics to safeguard the prestige of Aristotelianism and find new ways to exploit Aristotle's authority. In any case, the diffraction of Aristotle's authority confirms and further substantiates Charles Schmitt's conclusion that there were multiple early modern Aristotelianisms, rather than a single one. Yet, precisely because this diffraction was exploited in different, opposing directions, it contributed to the undermining of the Aristotelian tradition.

The conviction underlying this book is that apparently marginal details—an expression, a recurring motif, a proverbial anecdote—can be useful clues for interpreting a cultural movement, both in its synchronic and in its diachronic articulations. In this perspective, the varied use of certain expressions aids in understanding the tenacity and the vulnerability of a philosophical tradition, at both an intellectual and an institutional level. By stressing the tension between morphology and history—a suggestion originally proposed by Aby Warburg with regard to the study of Pathosformel in art—the persistence of a motif, which does not necessarily bear the same meaning over the centuries, is isolated and tested in order to grasp the implications of those connotative shifts.

The first three chapters of the book focus on comparationes between Plato and Aristotle, that is, comparisons between the two philosophers intended to demonstrate their relative merits, their harmony, or their opposition. One could argue that basically any theoretical text written in early modernity was in a certain way a comparison between philosophers: the commentaries on Aristotelian texts, in which the opinions of Aristotle are typically juxtaposed with the alternative solutions of his ancient and modern peers, could be cited as an example. Comparationes between Plato and Aristotle were a genre with a long history behind them, however, and when they began circulating in the Western world, they had already been used for centuries, both as pedagogical and as apologetic tools, in the Greek milieu. For this reason, when they had their Western revival, comparationes could already count on a well-rehearsed repertory of arguments and exegetical keys that made the genre recognizable.

In The School of Athens (1509-1511), one of the most evocative frescoes of the Renaissance, Raphael juxtaposes Plato and Aristotle. The pairing seems obvious, because the two thinkers were for centuries symbols of philosophy and wisdom. Yet only the fifteenth-century return of Plato had allowed the Latin West to gain a better understanding of Platonic philosophy and therefore to compare Plato's doctrines directly with those of Aristotle. If until the second half of the fifteenth century the limited knowledge of Platonic philosophy had left Aristotelianism unchallenged, the exchanges with Greeks who arrived in Italy in 1438 for the Council of Ferrara-Florence allowed Latins to learn more about Plato's works and ideas, and about many of his interpreters. By virtue of the new perspectives provided by Platonism, anti-Aristotelian impulses, such as those expressed by Petrarch, could gain momentum. Aristotelians were eager, however, to defend the status quo, with respect both to theology and to the educational curriculum. For this reason, comparationes also became instruments of Peripatetic resistance, with the effect of revealing the limits of Plato not only in relation to religion but also as a philosopher tout court. The strength and resilience of the Aristotelian faction also brought about attempts to reconcile Plato and Aristotle. These pursuits were not necessarily driven by a desire to prove the agreement of the two philosophers. Rather, they often concerned the institutional legitimization of Plato's status without creating conflict with the supporters of Aristotle, who typically held powerful positions within the academic system.

Deploying the genres of invective and apology rhetorically, in a constant effort to promote one authority while condemning the other, comparationes were by no means an innocent academic game. While the possible outcomes of a comparatio were limited—either Plato or Aristotle was superior, unless the two were found to be in agreement—the agendas they could serve were numerous. When Cardinal Bessarion (d. 1472) and George of Trebizond (d. 1472/3) engaged in a dispute over who was superior, Plato or Aristotle, in reality they were fighting over the continuing value of Scholasticism; when the professors Francesco Vimercato (d. 1569), Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597), and Jacopo Mazzoni (1548-1598) offered their contribution to the debate, they were attempting to revise, strengthen, or even subvert the traditional university curriculum. In short, the decision either to support one of the philosophers or to defend their harmony was always made to meet precise ideological or personal ends. Plato and Aristotle were often exploited as stand-ins for modern allies or enemies, and the assessment of their reciprocal merits could imply the validation or the outright rejection of cultural institutions and schools of thought.

Comparationes have never been studied as a whole, save for the first chapter of the regrettably unpublished Ph.D. dissertation by Frederick Purnell Jr. Purnell did important work by collecting material that until then had been scattered and disjointed, during a time when online resources were not yet available. And although the list of comparationes he offered is far from complete, it is nonetheless impressive. He traced the ancient roots of the genre and in studying the paratexts of early modern comparationes presented the genre's recurring motifs. Yet his research centered specifically on one comparatio, Jacopo Mazzoni's Praeludia, and his general discussion of the genre serves the purpose of introducing his main topic. This "teleological" approach is confirmed by the fact that Purnell concluded his general review of comparationes with Mazzoni, without taking into consideration seventeenth-century examples of the genre.

The first three chapters in this book investigate the strategies and agendas behind the proliferation of comparationes spanning the period from 1439 (the appearance of Gemistus Pletho's De differentiis, in Greek) to 1700 (the composition of the vernacular treatise On Philosophy written in Naples by Giambattista Vico's friend Giuseppe Valletta). Chapter 1 describes the Greek background of the genre and its introduction in the Latin world. The following two chapters focus on the main applications of comparationes: apologetic and didactic. The didactic context is particularly interesting, since my research in Italian and French libraries has brought to light a wealth of material that reveals how comparationes had already found a use inside university halls in the hands of Aristotelian professors, even before the laborious creation of short-lived Platonic chairs gave a different prominence to the genre. This Aristotelian appropriation of the genre shows the receptivity of the academic milieu to both the pedagogical and the self-promotional potential embedded in the comparatio, a genre revived and long practiced not only outside university circles but often in polemic with them. In the apologetic context, Plato was instead usually the preferred author, typically presented as an accomplished theologian.

Chapter 4 considers various biographical legends, a proverbial anecdote, and a fictional account involving Aristotle. Among the examples considered are legends of Aristotle as a Spaniard and a Jew, a proverbial anecdote that placed Aristotle (and Plato) in conflict with Moses and the Bible, and a series of fictional dialogues written by a German Jesuit intended to convert Protestants, which featured a papist Aristotle as their protagonist. While crucial and more general theological issues, such as the salvation of pagans, are central to many of the works studied in this chapter, they were in reality mere pretexts for introducing the topics that were truly at stake. Behind the decision to vouch for the salvation or damnation of Aristotle was the need to exploit and protect him as an authority, or to condemn him for the support he provided to the opposite faction. The choice of resorting to a legend or a proverb could be conditioned by nationalistic interest or complex philosophical or political needs. And the intertwining of auctoritas and authorship was crucial in many of these instances: his status as a long-established authority resulted in Aristotle being credited with statements he never made.

Chapter 5 deals with the history of a mental experiment, typically expressed in the form of "if Aristotle were alive, he would say/do this." Past studies by Charles B. Schmitt and Luca Bianchi have demonstrated how following the transformations of an expression can offer unexpected and insightful perspectives on the history of ideas over the longue durée. In the early modern period the "if Aristotle" tactic was often deployed against his contemporary followers. In this way, Aristotle was opportunistically called back to life in order to rebuke those who claimed to profess his ideas, and to endorse new agendas in a paradoxical use of the principle of authority—for example, Juan Luis Vives (1493-1540), Petrus Ramus (1515-1572), and Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655). The chapter pays particular attention to Galileo, who employed the strategy in many of his writings, combining its rhetorical effectiveness with a theoretical foundation taken directly from Aristotelian writings. The chapter also investigates other patterns in the use of the strategy, notably its application to the legitimacy of interpreting, editing, and translating ancient texts, presenting examples of fifteenth-century humanists like Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464), of an archenemy of Aristotle like Martin Luther (1483-1546), and of other interpreters from Spain and France. The trajectory of "if Aristotle were alive" shows that it was used extensively in the most controversial fields, both philosophical and scientific, until the second half of the seventeenth century, when it became common in more "harmless" contexts, such as in the case of literary debates on the Poetics. More generally, the history of "if Aristotle were alive" can also be seen as a trans-European mirror of the parallel histories of early modern Aristotelianism and anti-Aristotelianism. Resurrecting Aristotle in order to obtain his approval was useful as long as he was considered the reigning authority. When new philosophies, new visions of nature, and new paradigms began to prevail, there was no longer any need to invoke him: at that point, he could finally be allowed to rest in peace.

There are four appendixes. The first two contain transcriptions and translations of two unpublished texts discussed in Chapters 2 and 3: the preface to Alfonso Pandolfi's comparatio of Plato and Aristotle to scripture (surviving in a single manuscript in the Vatican Library), and a short comparatio of Plato and Aristotle as natural philosophers by Federico Pendasio (surviving in a single manuscript in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan). The next two appendixes contain two notes: one on the views of some early modern Skeptics regarding the comparationes devoted to proving the harmony between Plato and Aristotle, and the other on proofs for the attribution to Francesco Vimercato of an anonymous comparatio now held in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.