09.01.08, Bejczy and Nederman, Princely Virtues

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Constant Mews

The Medieval Review baj9928.0901.008


Bejczy, István and Cary J. Nederman, eds.. Princely Virtues in the Middle Ages, 1200-1500. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xii, 318. ISBN: 978-2-503-51696-7.

Reviewed by:
Constant Mews
Monash University

The virtues, never wholly forgotten as a subject of philosophical reflection, are returning to favor. Whether in contemporary ethical theory or in business studies, there has been a renewal of interest in virtue ethics. Medievalists too have their contribution to make, as they discover the potential interest of an extensive literature of moral instruction, for many decades ignored as repetitive and stereotyped. When discussion turns to the virtues required of rulers, a rich mine of political theory is opened up. This volume, issuing from a conference held in Nijmegen in October 2004 on the theme of princely virtues, and part of a larger research project, directed by István Bejczy, "A Genealogy of Morals: The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages," highlights the complexity of expectation placed on rulers in the medieval period. In their introduction, the editors observe that there has been a tendency for scholars to pass over discussion of virtues in accounts of medieval political theory, perhaps because of an assumption that they were always presented in a standardized way. While medieval thinkers might agree that the virtues were vitally important, they did not agree about which were the most important, and indeed how they related to Christian teaching about the primacy of love. The papers in this volume, which draw on a wide range of texts from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, demonstrate this diversity of opinion.

Bejczy's own contribution to the volume is to demonstrate the variety of ways the notion of virtus politica was understood in the thirteenth century. The concept was transmitted to the medieval West through Macrobius, who summarized Plotinus's doctrine (as interpreted by Porphyry) of a fourfold division of the cardinal virtues in his commentary on the Dream of Scipio. In this neo- Platonist perspective, the political virtues were only the first of a series of virtues rising from the active life and moving to contemplation of truth. Bejczy observes that the Macrobian classification only became widely known in the twelfth century. He identifies Alan of Lille as the key figure in introducing a distinction (of huge subsequent influence) between catholic virtues, given to Christians alone, and political virtues that could be acquired by natural means. The notion of "political virtue" could be used in different ways by later authors--whether simply as the cardinal virtues, all the virtues (whether political or not), or simply those that referred to political life. The last mentioned category was developed in particular by Albert the Great and even more acutely by Engelbert of Admont. Bejczy rightly comments that the frustration of William of Auvergne with those who spoke of the cardinal virtues as "merely political" reveals the confusion prevailing in the thirteenth century about how they should be interpreted.

One of the strengths of this volume lies in the way often little known texts are presented as offering original treatments of princely virtue (and vice). Some of the papers situate themselves more in a historical than a philosophical perspective. This is the case with a paper by Manuel Alejandro Rodriguez de la Pena that offers a helpful introduction to Spanish writings about rulers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He reflects on how admiration for a strong (strenuus) king, so important at the time of the reconquista, evolved into respect for education and wisdom in writing about Alfonso el Sabio. His focus is complemented by that of Frank Tang, who writes about the criticism of Spanish rulers evident in the writing of two Franciscans, Juan Gil de Zamora (from c. 1280) and of Alvaro Pelayo (from c. 1340). He argues that both authors indirectly express strong criticism of the behaviour of rulers, namely Alfonso el Sabio and Alfonso XI. Although his focus is more on their political criticisms than the ideology shaping their approach, one suspects that the models were biblical, as is clearly the case with a Dominican author, William Peraldus, written around 1265, whose De eruditione principum is presented by Michiel Verweij. Here it seems the inspiration is theological rather than Aristotelian, enabling Peraldus to make outspoken criticism of nobility of lineage and to urge concern for the poor. Although Peraldus had written a Summa de virtutibus, Verweij observes how he did not discuss the cardinal virtues in relation to a ruler--making us appreciate the gulf that separates him from a later thinkers like Giles of Rome.

Marco Toste offers a more richly textured overview of the medieval reception of Aristotle's Politics, translated into Latin around the same time as Peraldus was writing on kingship, but soon to have a major effect on the literature of advice for rulers. Toste devotes particular attention to Peter of Auvergne, who completed the commentary started by Aquinas. Following Thomas, Peter accords prime importance to political prudence as attributes of a ruler as well as of a citizen. Toste comments on how both Peter and Giles (following Thomas) distinguish between the good man and the good citizen. The question thus arises whether moral virtue is necessary for good citizenship or rather just prudence in the sense of cunning. Although Toste does not make any comparison between Peter of Auvergne and Peraldus, it is evident that Thomas, inspired by Albert the Great's initial discovery of the Politics, transformed thinking about political virtue. He concludes by reflecting on a controversial hypothesis raised by Michael Senellart that Machiavelli's conception of political virtue may be closer to that of Aquinas than often realised. While not pronouncing on the claim, Toste does signal the significance of the shift in thinking about prudence as central to political virtue that Thomas effectively introduced.

While Dante was certainly much influenced by Aristotelian ethical discussion, he never avoided a theological perspective, as Mary Elizabeth Sullivan reminds us in a paper that offers a valuable corrective to a purely pagan focus on ethics. Justitia, as any reader of the New Testament would know, is about the righteousness of God, as much as the classical concept mentioned by Macrobius. Sullivan is perceptive in observing the different ways that Dante introduces the notion of justice. Rather than simply evaluating Dante as a political thinker, she considers Dante as the great theorist of justice, both divine and human. Although her paper focuses just on Dante, it prompts us to reflect on how brilliantly he was able to bring together both biblical and Aristotelian perspectives, both significant in different ways in the thirteenth century. Pamela Kalning introduces two less well- known figures, the Franciscan, John of Wales (writing c. 1260 and active in both Oxford and Paris) and the Dominican Jacobus de Cessolis (before 1337), who adapted John's Breviloquium de virtutibus into a treatise about behaviour, as modelled on a game of chess. John was one of the earliest of the classicizing Franciscan friars about whom Beryl Smalley wrote so eloquently. In the light of Sullivan's discussion, one would like to know more about how much classical authors (in particular Valerius Maximus) shapes their understanding of justitia, how much that of Christian thought. Nonetheless her account of how Jacobus seeks to give exempla to elucidate the virtues expounded by John of Wales helps us appreciate the pedagogic originality of the Dominican preacher.

Cary Nederman's presentation on discontent in fourteenth-century political thought is characteristically vivid in its presentation of the dynamism of the Mirror for princes genre. He shows how the Speculum regis Edwardi III of William of Pagula (written around 1331/1332) offers a rich critique of royal government. By presenting the prince as not behaving according to the law of love, William offers acute and biting commentary on many practices that he considers outrageous in their disregard for natural justice, and likely to lead to revolt. Although Nederman does not review here the extensive literature associated with the Peasant's Revolt, his paper serves as a valuable corrective to those who associate criticism of authority only with the later part of the fourteenth century. The Carthusian monk, Michael of Prague (d. 1401) is perhaps even less well known than William of Pagula. According to Michael Hohlstein, this monk, inspired by both Aquinas and Giles of Rome, but also by Peraldus, gave particular attention to the virtue of clemency, again a possible critique of existing rulers (although we do not learn so much about the context in which he was writing).

The final chapters on Jean Gerson (by Yelena Mazour-Matusevich and István Bejczy) and Michele Savanarola (by Gabriella Zuccolin) continue the presentation of princely virtue into the fifteenth century, as also does a chapter on German literature from the period by Georg A. Strack. Gerson increasingly came to prefer religious models of virtue, although he did understand the virtues as naturally acquired. Within an Italian context, Michele Savanarola (grandfather of the more famous political thinker) draws heavily on both Aquinas and Giles of Rome, although also introduces classical exempla to illustrate the primacy of prudence in good government. He also offers Borso of Este (1413-71), Marquis of Ferrara as a model of the good prince. George Strack shows a similar synthesis of religious and classical models in his survey of 15th-century literature from Germany, both in Latin and the vernacular. He observes, however, that vernacular literature tended more to religious models of piety, while that produced in Latin was more humanistic in emphasis.

Volumes like this, offering a variety of individual case studies, tend to offer food for thought rather than an overall synthesis. Some papers focus more on the history of concepts and the transmission of literary themes, while others concentrate on specific historical commentary. An emphasis on princely virtue inevitably draws attention to only one kind of virtue. None of the papers, for example, reflected on what models of virtue were offered to a Queen, or considered to what extent princely models of virtue were shaped by assumptions about gender. Nonetheless, the papers still serve to demonstrate that medieval expectations of the behaviour of their rulers were as complex and as varied as they are today. The volume is to be commended for demonstrating that the literature of moral advice is indeed worthy of study.

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Constant Mews

Monash University