Suárez and Stoicism

Looking for the traces of Stoic wisdom and Greek humanism in the Western tradition…



Francisco Suárez was an Andalusian Jesuit in the 16th century who wrote in the scholastic tradition of Catholic philosophy.  Like Aquinas, then, he was strongly influenced by Aristotle’s virtue ethics.

I became interested in him when I read this bit in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on him:

Operating within this basic framework of morality, Suárez developed a theory of natural law that has attracted much attention despite his consciously attempting to position himself midway between two radically opposed views about natural law. There was, on the one hand, extreme naturalism, which he attributed to Gregory of Rimini (DL II, 6.3). According to extreme naturalism, the moral law does not require an exercise of legislative will by God. The natural goodness and badness of actions exhaustively generates all our moral obligations. Even if God had not have given us laws, or even, indeed, if God had not existed at all, on the version of extreme naturalism favored by Gregory of Rimini, all the presently existing moral duties would still apply.

At the other extreme was the voluntarism attributed by Suárez (rightly or wrongly) to William of Ockham and to a lesser extent also to Duns Scotus (DL I, 6.4). According to this view, actions have no intrinsic (pre-positive) goodness or badness (or, even if they have some goodness and badness, this does not determine or constrain what we ought to do). Obligations come from divine commands resulting from the free exercise of God’s will. Further, in this view, God is entirely free as to the content of the moral law. Should God command us to hate him, then this is what we ought to do.

Greco-Roman ethics, however much it sometimes made use of teleological or Providential reasoning, veered strongly toward the first category—which is why it is so appealing and accessible to secular people today.

But Christians, too, have always had an interest in natural ethics (which is why my answer to “Can a Christian be a Stoic?” is “absolutely!”).  There is palpable common ground between believer, pantheist, agnostic, and atheist—common, albeit complicated to navigate.

Not just with Christians, but Muslims, too.  This week I also began reading another Andalusian, Ibn Tufayl, who wrote favorably of natural ethics in his Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (“The Self-Taught Philosopher”)—another volley  in the long struggle of the Abrahamic traditions to reconcile divine revelation with the Greek view of morality as “following nature.”

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