Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Virtures of the Will: The Transformations of Ethics in the Late Thirteenth Century

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Virtures of the Will: The Transformations of Ethics in the Late Thirteenth Century

Article excerpt

Bonnie Kent is concerned to trace part of the history of the movement in moral philosophy from a time in which philosophers `investigated morally admirable traits of character, the process of acquiring them, [and] their connection with pleasure, emotion, and human psychology', to one, as evinced in the writings of Kant, in which `moral character has been restricted to the good will, emotions have lost their relevance, and the ancient virtues of courage and temperance have been demoted to qualities of temperament neither good nor bad in their own right' (p. 1). How this came to be is a problem to which Kent succeeds in providing at least a partial answer with reference to the late thirteenth century. Initially she spends rather a long time in a revisionist ground-clearing exercise, reminding readers to be wary of global '-isms' such as 'Augustinianism' or 'Aristoteliansim', and that the old thesis of a straightforward conflict between these two, resolved by a Thomistic synthesis, no more applies in ethics than it does elsewhere in medieval intellectual history.

She is at her best when she proceeds to show how a host of philosophers writing after the condemnations of 1277 attempted to reconcile Aristotle's teachings with Christian theology. Aristotle emphasized the acquisition of moral habits and character, which eventually becomes inalterable, and described moral action in terms of 'a causal chain beginning with the external object and ending in human action' (p. 114). Christian theology needed to account for the inclination to sin, even in Christians, and increasingly stressed the role of the will as an active power. In the late thirteenth century Aristotle's teachings appeared to bypass the will: if a person acted out of habit (habitus) and did not act in a certain way on the basis of free choice made at the time, then how could the act qualify as a truly virtuous one? …

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