TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 1.13. Die Bedeutung des Mittelalters für Europa
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Dina Salama (Universität Kairo)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The Importance of Middle Ages for a renewal of moral thinking

Zora Hesova (LMU) [BIO]



There are two fundamental ways of looking back to a past civilisational period: the rupture one and the continuity one. For long centuries rupture was what defined the relationship to the Middle Period, seen as an age of dark bridge between two glorious civilisations – the antique and the modern ones. Rather recently, historical scholarship and that of the Geisteswissenschaften has embarked on a myth-breaking enterprise – not only were the Middle Ages not an age of darkness, especially the late Middle Ages were marked by a highly rationalist culture and were in many aspects the precursors of what has yielded modernity. Our view of the darkness of the middle age is being gradually altered, especially through the rediscovery of the role of medieval scholars in the reception and development of Aristotelian tradition and rationality. Our image if the unknown millennium, above all of its later periods, changes in many ways into times, where origins of modernity are to be sought, rather than passed over. Continuity, rather that  rupture, is the discovery of the day. Yet, there might be a good reason for upholding a narrative of rupture between the middle and the modern age – and this not with regard to the “progress of rationalism” but rather as an alternative narrative of changing – not necessarily progressively – rationalities.

Modern rationalism's achievements in natural sciences and technologies can indeed not be put into question. The side-effects, so to say, of a rationalist outlook in human, especially moral sciences, should. The critique of modernity, a reflexive endeavour sometimes seen as the essence of recent refinement of modern thought, can base itself on the present age's imminent matters, or as well, seek estrangement and other perspectives in a past. The preceding historical period is not just a foregone past, but a source of insights into the pre modern, into the other of modernity. Regarding a number of the dead ends of a modern development – like the secularisation, xenophobia, cultural homogenisation – to name a few, a look back helps needed to restore a sense of a historicity of many problems pertaining seemingly to a whole culture, not just to one if its traditions, and strip them of their inevitable character. Moral thought especially, in the age of purported cultural 'clashes' with plural modernities, is one of the examples of the importance of Middle Ages.

The otherness of the high Middle Ages should be preserved – it should even be valued, contrasted and studied – such is the view of Alasdair MacIntyre, a prominent moral philosopher, who since the beginning of the 80's attracts attention to 'pre modern' moral thinking. He has struck with his radical diagnosis of the present shape of moral thought and with his – for many shocking – advocacy of the practice of rationality of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Without arguing for an outright return to the Middle Ages, he argues for a turn to certain moral traditions, in which the Thomist, the medieval one, in his view, is still largely superior to the liberal one.


Out of the moral wilderness

Alasdair MacIntyre has spurred the interest in “outdated” medieval ethics with the diagnosis of the modern moral discourse in his 1981 work After Virtue which he staged as dramatically as he could: taking a parallel from an older science fiction piece, he likened contemporary moral thought to fictional account of monks after a nuclear cataclysm, gathering fragmented documents on natural sciences lost as a discipline in the disaster, concepts and meaning of which nobody understands. Such would be the modern theoretical efforts to make sense of morality: a mere tangling with moral concepts such as good, right, ought etc., meaning of which are only superficially understood, as their original practice and knowledge has been completely lost since the abandonment of teleological Aristotelian ethics.

MacIntyre's account is radical in two ways: he does not give modern moral thought any chances in resolving moral conflicts using these void concepts; but all the more, his attempt to re-establish a pre-modern ethics seems even more shocking. Like in natural sciences, we care to think about most disciplines in terms of progress, and if moral thought does not seem to progress as quickly as the former, it must be for its complexity or even for its lack of rational grounds. On the contrary, says MacIntyre, it is the modern endeavour to rationally justify moral principles which stalls all moral thought as it is based on false premises. Logical and linguistic inquiries into metaphysical-ethical, perennial meanings of moral terms do not help in any way to get out of a number of basic flaws in contemporary moral state: moral subject thought to be morally autonomous is in fact fragmented into social roles without a ground of a life unity; values are not seen as facts but as mere expression of preferences of independent subjects, whose good is thought of as often in opposition with the good of their group or political community.

Facing the modern condition – the diagnosis of which has since been largely investigated – MacIntyre looks for another moral understanding and finds a different account of morality in the long lasting Aristotelian tradition, which has, in various shapes and forms, dominated late antiquity and the whole period of Middle Ages – Latin, Islamic or Jewish, finding its refinement in the works of St. Thomas. In the Thomist account moral life is thought of in theological concepts - in conformity to natural and divine laws – today largely unavailable – but presents also a distinct kind of moral rationality the description and justification of which is put forth in accessible philosophical terms. First and foremost, human life has a telos, a finality, an individual human flourishing - a very much revived Aristotelian term of eudemonia; it is achieved only as a member of human communities; moral life is based on moral inquiry and practical reasoning – i.e. applying rational principles in concrete situations – which distinguishes itself from modern practical reasoning in that its core element is the perfectioning in the various 'crafts' of a virtues pertaining to concrete human practices and activities. That is to say, the moral subject is not an autonomous, anonymous, “ghost-like” self of modern morality, but a socially determined being engaging in building up different kinds of excellences – virtues in various human practices, each governed by a distinct good (e.g. as a student, mother, physician, neighbour, citizen). Virtues are interconnected as goods based in individual practices.


Rediscovery of (a) tradition

MacIntyre re-discovers not so much a distinctive morality – the term as we understand it is eminently modern – but an altogether different attitude to ethical life and its distinct practices and methods of inquiry. This formula is his definition of a tradition. Tradition, a core term of MacIntyre's looking back into the Middle Ages, is a normative context and practice of rationality, without which no moral reasoning is possible. The modernist assumption that a timeless and universal code of moral principles should be worked out is thus put under severe criticism. Indeed, since the ground breaking work of Thomas Kuhn on epistemological revolutions in natural science (from 1962, no rational system can be thought of outside of all traditions. Traditions are more than a core of general principles of inquiry: they involve accepted normative standards of the science in question, available and widespread practices informed by institutions of learning, a set of principal problems to be tackled, a scientific community defining and clashing over these and a basic scientific paradigm, inside of which what counts as truth, rationality and axioms are defined. History of science has since accepted the fact of tradition-bound rationalities; moral sciences lag behind and, under the sanction of becoming wholly irrelevant and leaving social and political worlds void of their moral dimensions, need to take a similar step.

The foremost importance of Middle Ages is thus to offer a different historical context and an example of a tradition, which in MacIntyre's view, is well superior to modern moral thought. A return to a medieval morality is of course out of question. Rather, the Thomist rationality is to be considered and worked out again in modern context. The working out of a Thomist-inspired ethics involves at least two lines: a different narrative of the transition from Aristotelian Middle Ages to the modernity and working out of the basic tenets of Thomist ethics: teleology, community, moral practical reasoning, virtues and narrative unity of life. In all these respects, the influence of Alasdair MacIntyre has been to spur a diligent activity of scholarship.

Modernity has indeed its roots in the scientific and intellectual ground of the late Middle Ages. The slow transition of moral thought toward modern morality amounts to a radical rupture, which has not yet been thoroughly investigated. MacIntyre's thinking of tradition change has two precursors, scholars of late Antiquity moral thought, who have pointed to a radical change, nevertheless without a full explanation: Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault.

Pierre Hadot has coined anew the term of spiritual exercises, a stoic moral practices, part of a conception of pre-modern philosophy which was practical before being theoretical. In his Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (1995), reflection of on one's life in the Stoic tradition was an existential endeavour, aimed at informing one's practical conduct of life by a set of meditational, disciplinary, concentration, self-examinatory, reflective practices – subsumed under the term of spiritual exercises, with the overall end of building a rational, accountable, emotionally balanced, in short: virtuous persona. The relationship to truth was not that of a discovery of newness and justification of one's systematic assertions – as philosophy came to be practices in the modern age – but the practical application of known truths about the good in a life of 'wisdom' – of conformity with the natural law.

Taking up Hadot's topic, Michel Foucault has concentrated on an elaboration of the pre-modern idea of the self, its practices, techniques and understanding mainly in the three volumes of the History of sexuality. For Foucault too, the pre-modern moral thought was essentially an ethical endeavour of subjectivation practices, extending from dietetics, moral and physical hygiene to logical and cosmic meditation. The pre modern self, thus produced, was a locus of knowledge in a very different sense from the way we understand epistemic subjects today. Truth, moral, metaphysical, was not available to an informed, unperfected self, on the contrary, the self had to acquire a whole set of mostly ethical (intellectual and social) excellencies, habits, ways of conduct – virtues – in order to become refined enough to understand truths, part of a pre-modern 'régimes de vérité'. The knowledge thus attained had the character of the good and finality of one's life and was, in this very particular understanding of ethics, itself an ethical matter.

Even if Stoicism is a particular part of Late Antiquity's intellectual tradition, it subscribes by way of its main tenets to the Aristotelian tradition, perpetuated in a Christianised form by St. Thomas. For St. Thomas too, as MacIntyre exposes in his Three Rivals Versions of Moral Inquiry, ethics was precisely not a set of morality's principles, but a rationality based in a practical reasoning, i.e. in a refinement of ethical conduct, the core of which was the acquisition of intellectual and moral virtues pertaining to concrete practices. Every practice presents its own excellence and finality (good) and it is through the slow personal appropriation of different virtues that a subject arrives at a knowledge of higher goods and truths. Thus, St. Thomas does not teach what is good and what is bad (and how to justify it in a Kantian way) but dispenses not dissimilar practical exercises in a way of acquisition of the necessary intellectual virtues. Learning those is always tied to their practising insofar as moral life becomes what MacIntyre together with Marta Carruthers work on medieval monasticism, calls crafts – techne, techniques.


The transitions

In the transition towards a different, a modern kind of moral knowledge and inquiry, the practical, life-governing aspect of ethics, gets lost. MacIntyre opposes two modern rationalities in moral thought – encyclopaedic and genealogical ones, to the pre-modern, Thomist ethics, in order to show the great difference of later intellectualist, theoretical, imposing ways of thinking about morality. The transition is clearly difficult to explain.

Michel Foucault contrasts the emergence of the modern self in Descartes with earlier tradition of the refinement of the soul: Cartesian subject through a autonomous, abstracted 'light of reason' asserts its capability of accession to truth by mere introspection and reduction of the objects of knowledge to geometrical aspects of the world that it seeks to describe in an indubitable way. In the modern conception of subjectivity, all ethical, transformative dimension is cut off in favour of simple but universalisable calculus; the idea of truth as a formative force becomes a mere warranted assertability, a matter of this calculus. In the tide, ethics loses its core formative aspect and becomes a mere morality: i.e. a set rules of calculus not unlike those of a geometer, aimed to assists the subject in deciding questions rational action (X or Y), but not to direct his or her life as a whole any more.

Pierre Hadot also asks why philosophy as a way of life has ceded to philosophy as a purely abstract and theoretical enterprise at the height of the Middle Ages. A possible explanation would be the paramount role taken up by theological disputations which evolved into a theoretical discipline concerned above all by logical matters, while the ethical care for the soul was relegated into monastic orders. Indeed, the two modes of thinking based in different institutions on the rise in the Latin Middle Ages, the university and the Middle Ages, can stand as two proponents of the modern-in-becoming and the pre-modern intellectual accents.

If it is impossible to understand the transition from pre-modern ethics to modern morality without a larger historical scholarship at hand, one should be clear now: the pre-modern ethical tradition presents a distinct idea of the self, of practical reasoning and of ethical goals. Even without a theological underpinning of the Thomist tradition, some of its basic understandings can (and according to MacIntyre should be) worked out as to reorient the moral subject of modernity.

MacIntyre tried to redefine some of these: the teleology in biological and sociological terms using the description  of human condition as dependent on other and vulnerable (in Dependent Rational Animals); community as a set of mostly local communities giving sense to identity roles in them and defining their own goods; and finally virtue as practice-based excellence of a subject seeking a narrative unity of his or her life and as a part of various communities. His work has inaugurated a whole new philosophical school of virtue ethics, leaning on previous works on virtue by Margaret Ascombe and on practice-based understanding of ethics by Martha Nussbaum. In this way, a seemingly discarded pre-modern tradition of Aristotelian ethics elaborated in the Middle Ages finds and important way into the reflexive moral discourse of modernity and does not stop asking difficult questions of sense and finality to the moderns.

1.13. Die Bedeutung des Mittelalters für Europa

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Zora Hesova: The Importance of Middle Ages for a renewal of moral thinking - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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