Cary J. Nederman

title.none: McGrade et al. eds., The Cambridge Translations of Medieval Philosophical Texts (Cary J. Nederman)

identifier.other: baj9928.0202.012 02.02.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Cary J. Nederman , Texas A & M University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: McGrade, Arthur Stephen, John Kilcullen, and Matthew Kempshall, eds. The Cambridge Translations of Medieval Philosophical Texts, Vol II: Ethics and Political Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. v, 664. $90.00. ISBN: $30.000-512-23625-8 0-521-28082-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.02.12

McGrade, Arthur Stephen, John Kilcullen, and Matthew Kempshall, eds. The Cambridge Translations of Medieval Philosophical Texts, Vol II: Ethics and Political Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. v, 664. $90.00. ISBN: $30.000-512-23625-8 0-521-28082-6.

Reviewed by:

Cary J. Nederman
Texas A & M University

The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy was first published nearly twenty years ago to considerable acclaim. The volume offered a comprehensive survey of the important philosophical trends of thirteenth- and fourteenth- century scholasticism in all of its dimensions. As with other Cambridge History volumes, its contributors included the very best scholars working in the field. The result was a survey accessible to the non-specialist reader, yet extremely useful for the research scholar. One of the challenges posed by the Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy was the unavailability of many of the writings discussed in it, at least for readers who lacked the Latin language. An obvious remedy was to provide a series of companion texts containing English translations of these sources, the first volume of which (containing texts on logic and philosophy of language) duly appeared in 1988. Another thirteen years passed before the second volume (of a projected five) reached print, no doubt due to the sheer magnitude of the enterprise. A decade in the making, Ethics and Political Philosophy contains seventeen selections from previously untranslated treatises of mainly scholastic origin, commencing with Albertus Magnus and ending with Wyclif. The resulting book totals nearly seven hundred pages. It should be noted that the emphasis has been placed (rightly to my mind) on maximizing the amount of primary source materials and minimizing commentary--presumably since the latter had already been offered in the original Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy. In addition to a short general introduction, each of the selections is prefaced by a brief bio-bibliographical sketch. Thus, perhaps no more than fifty pages of the book are taken up with material other than the translations and accompanying editorial apparatus.

In most cases, the selections included are complete or substantial. The editors have made every effort to permit the authors to speak for themselves. Their decisions about the inclusion of specific texts were largely guided by two principles: first, the themes emphasized by the contributors to the Cambridge History volume; second, the unavailability of the texts in translation elsewhere. Thus, because Georg Wieland's contribution to the original volume paid a great deal of attention to issues about the nature of happiness posed in Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics, the present editors have taken particular care to represent the commentary tradition on that section of Aristotle's work. Likewise, the matter of the superiority of kingship to other constitutional arrangements, which formed an important element of the medieval reading of Aristotle's Politics, had been highlighted by Jean Dunbabin in the Cambridge History and recurs in the sources produced here. Where the selections veer from the framework established in the Cambridge History, it is on account of the special interests of the editors themselves, a fact that they freely admit.

As for the second selection principle, there are no works by Aquinas or Duns Scotus to be found here, and only one selection each from Albertus Magnus and Bonaventure, all of whose writings are more widely known and available in English. The figures included are mainly less popular, but equally important, figures of Western European scholasticism such as Henry of Ghent, Godfrey of Fontaines, and James of Viterbo, who all merit two or more chapters. William of Ockham also receives two chapters--perhaps because two of the three editors are well known scholars and translators of Ockham. Quibbling with the editors' choice not to include the work of other significant philosophers of the period--Nichole Oresme comes immediately to mind-is a fruitless activity: the demands imposed by space limits mean that not every worthy author could be represented, as the editors acknowledge. The translations themselves are beautifully executed; they are fluid yet accurate. The editors divided the task of rendering the Latin into English amongst themselves, but they clearly shared their efforts with one another, for there is a noteworthy consistency in style and phrasing. On a couple of occasions, in addition, the translations are based on emended Latin texts (with the emendations given as appendices), thus contributing to the improvement of the textual tradition of the treatises. The art of translating scholastic Latin has seldom seen a more refined display than in this collection.

Two caveats about the volume are worth mentioning--one the result of its alignment with the preceding Cambridge History, the other the product of the editors' own decisions. My first concern is with the chronological starting-place of the selections. A considerable body of literature appeared after the 1982 publication of the Cambridge History setting into question the assumption that political and moral philosophy experienced a watershed in roughly 1250 with the translation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Politics into Latin. The thesis of a so-called "Aristotelian revolution", and with it the very idea that it is possible to "begin" the history of scholastic moral and political philosophy in the mid-thirteenth century, are untenable. For various reasons, there was a great deal of consistency between thought pre- and post-1250, the latter constituting in many ways an expansion and elaboration of the central themes of the former. Given the decision of the editors to ignore this development in scholarship, and to leave the impression of a profound break in philosophical discourse beginning in the time of Albertus Magnus, conveys a partial and somewhat distorted picture of the philosophical tradition. While the contributions to the original Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy were up-to-date when they were published, the pretense that nothing much has changed in the historiography of medieval philosophy during the intervening two decades should not have been upheld.

My second complaint stems from the balance between ethics and political thought found in the volume. While ten of the seventeen chapters address topics that might loosely be regarded as "political", the total number of pages runs devoted to this aspect runs to perhaps 250, far less than the 350 or so pages of text dedicated to unambiguously ethical topics. And of the political works that are included, four appear in radically pruned and abbreviated versions, whereas all of the ethical treatises are complete. One might say that such a weighting is justified by the availability of many of the standard works of scholastic political philosophy in good translations, including two volumes of Ockham's writings produced by McGrade and Kilcullen for the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series. But in my view, the selections from political works are sufficiently compressed and idiosyncratic that they will ultimately be of lesser value to readers than the texts falling into ethics.

These two critical points ought not to detract from the considerable accomplishment of the volume. McGrade, Kilcullen, and Kempshall are to be congratulated for their commitment to the highest standards of translation, an art that is neither adequately recognized nor sufficiently rewarded. The very fact that they introduce to an English speaking audience so many writings that contribute to the historical development of ethics and political thought is a reason for congratulation.