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Stanley B. Cunningham: Reclaiming Moral Agency: The Moral Philosophy of Albert the Great.

Stanley B. Cunningham

Reclaiming Moral Agency: The Moral Philosophy of Albert the Great.

Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press 2008.

Pp. 306.

US$79.95 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-8132-1540-2).

In 1955 the eminent historian of medieval philosophy, Fernand van Steenberghen, pointed out that the chief merit of the thirteenth-century theologian Albert the Great is that he established, for the first time, the rightful position of learning in Christian culture. At first glance this might seem something of an exaggeration given the intellectual accomplishments of the early medieval monastic schools, not only in the Latin West, but in the Greek and Semitic East as well. It may also seem to overlook the various periods of Byzantine humanism as well as the liberal arts traditions among Armenian Christians and others. Yet, van Steenberghen's remark was made in the context of his discussion of the reception of Aristotle's works in the Latin West, and in this respect he was quite right to focus attention on Albert. Indeed, subsequent scholarship has made significant progress in detailing the ways in which Albert was a central figure in the thirteenth-century integration of Aristotelian naturalism and the Christian theological tradition derived from the ancient Church Fathers.

During the five decades following the publication of van Steenberghen's remark in his Aristotle in the West, scholarship has confirmed the importance of Albert in the Christian appropriation of Aristotle's naturalistic worldview. Much of this has been in the area of natural philosophy and metaphysics. James A. Weisheipl, for example, established Albert as the first to recognize clearly the distinctively Aristotelian conception of form as foundational to the study of nature. Weisheipl demonstrated that Albert's opposition to the mathematical reductionism of the School of Robert Grosseteste was grounded in a deep appreciation of the autonomous principles of physical nature. More recent scholarship has drawn attention to Albert's role in reviving Aristotle's long-dormant research programs in the natural sciences, especially in biology. This new study by Cunningham extends this scholarship by arguing that Albert was the first thinker to combine systematically and comprehensively the naturalistic ethics of Aristotle with traditional Christian moral theology.

Albert, according to Cunningham, did much to change the landscape of moral philosophy in the Latin west. Prior to the reception of Aristotle's works, there existed no sustained effort to develop a science of ethics. This was largely due to lack of attention to the possibility of natural moral goodness. Following Augustine, most early medieval monastic writers had focused their attention on the necessity of divinely infused grace as a source for good human acts. Little attention was given to natural virtue and natural moral benefit. With the reception of Aristotle's ethical works, the natural human good became a central theme in moral philosophy, allowing significant development of both virtue theory and moral psychology. As the pivotal figure in this historic change, Albert provided a systematic account of naturally-acquired virtue as a foundation for a naturalistic conception of human happiness.

Cunningham opens his study by placing Albert's contributions to moral philosophy in the context of modern virtue theory. He goes on to detail the sources for a naturalistic ethics within Albert's massive literary corpus. Most important is the De bono which represents the first systematic treatment of virtue theory in the Latin West. This work is also the first to treat natural law in the context of a general account of moral goodness. In addition, Cunningham discusses Albert's two commentaries on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as well as the ethical elements of Albert's various theological works. This is followed by a general account of Albert's significance for the history of ethics, extending earlier research such as Dom Odon Lottin's now classic study Psychologie et morale aux Xlle et Xllle siecles. From this account there emerges a clear picture of Albert's innovation in moral philosophy as well as his influence on other medieval thinkers, including his student Thomas Aquinas.

The remainder of the book is given over to a detailed study of the individual elements of Albert's moral philosophy. Cunningham begins with Albert's conception of moral science and its foundation in a metaphysics of the good. Turning to the virtues, he systematically sets out Albert's views on the causes, definition, and order of the virtues as well as his treatment of the passions. Cunningham also provides a treatment of Albert's contributions to the notions of natural law and synderesis, integrating this with the theory of virtue. Finally, Albert's views on friendship and ultimate human good are examined.

Especially important in Cunningham's account is his treatment of Albert's conception of the possibility of a moral science. Discussing this in the context of Albert's own insightful treatment of scientific method, Cunningham shows that a central element in Albert's innovative approach to the virtue theory is his grounding it in the methods and ontology of Aristotelian science. No less than the natural sciences, moral science is a search for causes, and it proceeds according to methods of causal demonstration. Moreover, the necessity of actions in the moral world is suppositional, as are natural processes in general. These considerations nicely anticipate concerns of recent moral philosophers to ground virtue in biological function.

Cunningham's study of Albert's importance to the development of moral philosophy is to be recommended. Albert's place in the history of philosophy is still not generally appreciated and this book provides the sort of investigation needed to foster such appreciation. Earlier medievalists had considered Albert a scholar of great learning and enormous productivity, but of little philosophical originality. This view of Albert's place in intellectual history has changed radically in recent decades as scholars make progress in assimilating his massive literary output. Cunningham's study continues this process of recovery by disclosing Albert's importance for the development of Western ethics. The result is a significant contribution to the history of medieval moral thought as well as an important historical source study for those interested in modern virtue theory.

Michael W. Tkacz

Gonzaga University
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Author:Tkacz, Michael W.
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2009
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