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Aristotle's Ethics in the Italian Renaissance (ca. 1300-1650): The Universities and the Problem of Moral Education.

David A. Lines. Aristotle's Ethics in the Italian Renaissance (ca. 1300-1650): The Universities and the Problem of Moral Education.

Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002. xxiv + 614 pp. index. append. bibl. $140. ISBN: 90-04-12085-8.

This large book studies the history of the teaching of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics in Italian universities by examining over 160 Latin commentaries and translations produced between 1300 and 1650. It begins with an introduction in which the author finds fault with interpretations of humanism and humanistic education by some scholars and agrees with others. Lines sees humanism as conservative and wanting in some respects, while also insisting on some innovative force.

The book offers good background information about the Ethics in the ancient world and the Middle Ages, then assesses the position of moral philosophy in Italian universities. Like Charles B. Schmitt and others before him, Lines concludes that moral philosophy was not an important subject in Italian universities. Some universities did not teach the subject, it was sometimes combined with natural philosophy, or it was an extraordinary or feast-day subject taught by young scholars. The explanation of different kinds of professorships in Italian universities is not always clear.

The heart of the book is an analysis of commentaries on the Ethics by Italian scholars who taught in the universities of Florence, Padua, Bologna, and Rome, and in the Jesuit Collegio Romano. For Florence he begins with the commentary of Niccolo Tignosi (ca. 1460) which departed from medieval approaches by using Scholastic techniques less and historical examples from the classics and contemporary events more, by referring to poets, and by occasionally using Greek. He sees the humanist approach of Tignosi to reflect the interests and needs of a humanistically-oriented audience. The commentary of Pier Vettori in 1584 was a philological commentary more concerned with getting the text right than dealing with the philosophical issues. Lines sees this as another humanist approach to the Ethics and evidence for changes in humanism over time.

At the University of Padua, Ermolao Barbaro, Francesco Zabarella and Francesco Piccolomini (the latter two professors of logic and/or natural philosophy) commented on the Ethics. Zabarella explicated it as an exercise in knowing. Piccolomini scrambled the order of the books of the Ethics, discussed moral education generally, used it as a means of educating Venetian nobles, and sought to reconcile Aristotle and Plato. At Bologna, where moral philosophy was not taught for many years in the sixteenth century, several professors discussed the work from philosophical and logical perspectives. Claudio Betti seems to have been influenced by French commentators.

For Rome, Lines discusses the commentaries by Marc' Antoine Muret, who examined the philosophical issues as well as points of philological and literary detail using a wide range of authors, and Lelio Pellegrini, who saw ethics as preparation for theology. The Jesuits at the Collegio Romano taught the Ethics to students in the third, or metaphysics, year of the philosophy triad, just before theology. In Jesuit teaching the Ethics became captive to theological considerations.

Lines emphasizes the variety of approaches to moral philosophy. He does not find any university "schools," which is not surprising, given that it was a minor subject. By the late sixteenth century the teaching of moral philosophy became more systematized and teachers often used textbooks, a development found in philosophical teaching generally. Throughout the book Lines weighs the influence of humanism on moral philosophy and finds it wanting. For example, he comments that better philological analysis did not necessarily translate into a better historical understanding of the text. This might be asking for something that professors, who saw explaining and teaching virtue a primary purpose of the Ethics, were not seeking. It is not always clear exactly what Lines means by humanism and humanistic education and, thus, what he finds missing. By contrast, he sees Scholasticism to be more open. Despite noting the importance of humanism, Lines aligns himself with the school of interpretation that downgrades humanism's impact.

Extremely useful appendices fill the last 150 pages. Appendix A lists all the teachers of moral philosophy in the universities of Bologna, Florence-Pisa, Padua, Pavia, Rome, and the Collegio Romano through 1600 and sometimes beyond. (Other Italian universities taught very little moral philosophy.) Lines provides information about appointments, salaries, and anything else found in archival documents, which he has scoured. Appendix B lists the major medieval translations and commentaries on the Ethics, and Appendix C lists the Latin translations, commentaries, etc., produced in Italy through 1650. Lines has made good use of the pioneering research of Charles Lohr and added to it. The bibliography of printed primary and secondary sources is very comprehensive and carefully done. Indexes of subjects, names, manuscripts, and references in the text to works of Aristotle and Plato complete the work. The book has also been carefully proofread. The prose is serviceable if a little diffuse. (On 393 he writes that medieval and Renaissance universities were not research but teaching universities. The enormous scholarly production of professors in law, medicine, philosophy, theology, even moral philosophy, disproves the point.) Although readers may not agree with all the points made, the great amount of information made available will make this book useful for some time to come.


University of Toronto, Emeritus
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Grendler, Paul F.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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