Juan Luis Vives

Juan Luis Vives
Juan Luis Vives

 Juan Luis Vives, the Spanish humanist, was born in Valencia and died in Bruges. Considerably younger than such scholars as Desiderius Erasmus, Guillaume Budé, and John Colet, Vives deserves an honorable place among them for his moral seriousness, sincerity of religious belief, promotion of education, and social concern, as manifested in projects for the promotion of peace and the relief of the poor.

In many of these respects Vives is approached only by his nearer contemporary, Thomas More; his character emerges very favorably from any comparison with the earlier group. His efforts to secure patronage from the nobility did not blind him to the plight of those more needy than he, nor did he engage in the acrimonious personal quarrels that marred the character of some humanists.

Vives was a fine scholar and an excellent writer. After initial schooling in Spain he went to Paris to attend the university. Here he found still active a school of terminist logicians and physicists whose influence extended, so Vives tells us, to all the higher faculties.

John Major
John Major

The earlier Oxford and Paris developments in logic and physics were being studied by teachers under the influence of the Scottish philosopher and theologian John Major. But the new learning was gaining favor, and there were signs among both students and teachers of dissatisfaction with the nominalist approach.

Two of Vives’s own teachers,Gaspar Lax and John Dullaert, told him that they were sorry that they had wasted so much time on “useless little questions.” The “little questions” concerned such issues as the logical analysis of signification and of inference, as well as the quantification of physical phenomena.

The complaint voiced by Vives and by many other humanists concerned not so much the intrinsic value of these discussions as the fact that they were permitted to invade all other fields of learning, often to the exclusion of the proper subject matter. Vives particularly disliked the petty vindictiveness and personal egoism displayed by younger men who delighted in scoring points over older opponents.

University of Paris
University of Paris

When Vives returned to the University of Paris after his sojourn at Louvain, he expected to meet with a cool reception because of his book Adversus Pseudodialecticos (Against the pseudo dialecticians; 1520), in which he sharply criticized the academic climate at the university. To his surprise, he was warmly received, as he told Erasmus in a letter of 1520, and was assured that terminist quibbling was no longer tolerated in nonlogical discussions.

Vives’s criticism of school philosophy was one of the more moderate and informed humanist attacks. He held Aristotle and the other ancients in high regard but deplored the failure of their followers to observe nature afresh.

Vives condemned the undue humility of those who claimed to be only “dwarfs, standing on the shoulders of giants”: If we cannot see farther than our predecessors, he insists, it is not because we are dwarfs and they giants but because we are lying prostrate on the ground, having given up the search for the truth.

Lorenzo Valla
Lorenzo Valla

Vives insists as strongly as did Lorenzo Valla that philosophical terminology should not be artificial; the usage of such ancient writers as Cicero and Seneca should be taken as models. Philosophers should not depart too far from the speech of the people. Vives admitted, however, that it may occasionally be necessary for philosophers to coin terms of their own as well as to clarify those in ordinary usage.

Vives’s own philosophy may be characterized as Augustinian in its general outlines, with eternal salvation and the vision of God overriding lesser concerns. It is in the light of this general orientation that his much discussed “empiricism” must be evaluated.

Of all things on Earth, it is man’s own soul that it most behooves him to know, by means of direct observation. But undue curiosity concerning other things, especially concerning their “inner natures and causes,” is out of place and, indeed, impious.

curriculum of studies
curriculum of studies

To inquire too curiously into the elements, the forms of living beings, or the number, magnitude, disposition, and powers of natural objects is to “tear the seventh veil.” Such an attitude is certainly not favorable to purely theoretical scientific inquiry. But Vives’s central concern is with man’s felicity, and only to the extent that inquiry into nature serves to promote man’s felicity is it admissible as part of the curriculum of studies.

This curriculum would stress the useful arts, to the analysis of which Vives devoted great attention. In common with humanists in general, Vives stressed the utility of the arts and insisted that they must be systematized or brought into rules and precepts so as to be applicable to the purposes of ordinary life.

Inordinate attention to their logical analysis must be curtailed; instead, students are to be constantly reminded of the empirical origins of useful knowledge. In his discussion of method in the arts, Vives explicitly drew on Galen as well as on suggestions in Aristotle.

Common life
Common life

Neither history nor theology is an art from this standpoint, since neither subject has been reduced to rules. Vives was impatient with the school theology of his time; he found little of value in the controversies between Scotists and Thomists and disliked their fanaticism: “They would accuse each other of heresy if it were not for the mellowing effect of the customs of the school.”

It has been aptly remarked that Vives’s religious thought has close affinities with northern Pietism as exemplified by the Brethren of the Common Life, the movement that left such an impression on Erasmus. In keeping with this is Vives’s obvious sympathy for the common people, a note conspicuously absent from the writings of many other humanists.

On a few points Vives specifically rejected Platonism—for example, in maintaining that God does not require divine Ideas and that we do not have reminiscences of Ideas from our past lives. Vives prefers to explain the insights of Plato’s doctrine of reminiscence by means of certain natural relationships between the human mind and “those first true seeds of knowledge whence all the rest of our knowledge springs,” called anticipations by the Stoics.

modern flavor
modern flavor

This Stoic doctrine merges easily in Vives’s thought, as in that of many of his contemporaries, with an appeal to common sense (sensus communis), which here takes on its modern flavor. Common sense furnishes us with an argument for God’s existence, there being no people so benighted as to be completely destitute of some knowledge, however dim, of God.

Human minds, furthermore, are all informed with the need to worship God, but what form this worship takes is a matter of human persuasion. Here we may trace the influence of Florentine Platonism, with which Vives was quite familiar. Perhaps from the same source is Vives’s often repeated assertion that nothing would be more wretched than man if his actions aimed only at earthly ends.

He condemns the vices of pleasure (voluptas) and pride (superbia) as roundly as any other medieval writer. Pride is responsible for the “frenzied craving for knowledge” shown by some men who are anxious to appear distinguished among their fellow men. Only piety, however, can permanently satisfy man and give him rest.
Florentine Platonism
Florentine Platonism
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