Philip Melanchthon on Heroic Impulses

Can Christians have a place for “Great Men,” for heroes who transcend ordinary mortal limitations to achieve a special kind of excellence? For Philip Melanchthon, the answer is “yes,” and the group of such heroes is not limited to Christian saints or martyrs. It includes pagan writers and statesmen.

Below is an excerpt from Book 1 of my forthcoming translation of Melanchthon’s Summary of Moral Philosophy (Philosophiae moralis epitome), and comes near the end of his refutation of Epicurean arguments about man’s chief or principal end, which Epicurus identified with pleasure.

Heroic impulses, which produce the most excellent actions, set a man in motion without respect to what is useful to him. Therefore, we do not undertake the actions of the most excellent virtues on account of what is pleasurable and useful to us. For that reason, pleasure is not the end. For just as Ovid is driven to write a poem by the impulse of his talent rather than by rewards or any external usefulness, so also Alexander, Torquatus, Scipio, and Caesar are spurred on to courage not by popular praise and advantages, but by their general, nature. Therefore, those motives themselves are the end, not pleasure.

Melanchthon will have more to say about these later in Book 1: such “impulses” are the gift of God and come about by God’s special action in individuals, though that doesn’t mean ordinary people can’t have ordinary versions of the virtues inculcated by teaching and training. More on that, perhaps, in a follow-up post sometime down the road.


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