Conference “Teaching Ethics at Early Modern Universities, 1500-1700”

Teaching Ethics at Early Modern Universities, 1500-1700

Warsaw, Polish Academy of Sciences, 14-15 June 2018

Conference Programme

Philosophical histories of ethics normally concentrate on eminent figures of the canon. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these figures (one might think of Michel de Montaigne or Thomas Hobbes, for example) worked in different institutional contexts, but rarely at universities. This has made the ‘academic philosophy’ of the period a field that is still underestimated in its impact and intellectual endeavours. During the last decades, however, the sharp distinction between innovative thinkers, pointing towards modernity, on the one hand, and conservative university teachers, concerned with overcome doctrines, on the other, has diminished.


Handwritten annotations of a student on the title page of Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, Compendiaria in Aristotelis ethicen introductio (Vienna 1501). Preserved in the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, A: 41.3 Quod. (8)

In a time of confessional struggles, political divisions and severe military conflicts, the teaching of ethics had to react to many challenges, and yet it seems to have developed a common, European-wide platform of methods, ideas, and cultural references to classical as well as medieval moral thought. In fact, universities were among the most important institutional contexts in which early modern ethics was taught and developed. Situated in the faculty of arts, practical philosophy made part of the curriculum, preparing for the higher faculties, theology and jurisprudence. Teachers of ethics read authors such as Aristotle and Cicero to their students, translated them, commented on them, and discussed their writings in dissertations and disputations.

In the framework of the conference, we would like to address a series of questions related to the teaching of ethics at early modern universities:

  • Who were the teachers, and which courses did they teach exactly?
  • What was the textual basis for teaching ethics? Was Aristotelianism as dominant as has been argued?
  • What was the status of ethics at the universities? Which were the strategies to institutionalize the teaching of ethics and to secure its place in early modern curricula?
  • How was the uneasy relationship with other, higher ranking ‘normative’ disciplines such as theology and jurisprudence negotiated?
  • In which ways did religious reformation and confessional struggle influence the field?
  • How did ethics relate to the other parts of practical philosophy, politics and economics?
  • How did ethics as a discipline at the universities react to the manifold conflicts and challenges of the period?
  • Were there any developments or shifts in the teaching of ethics in the early modern period?

The conference will inquire into these questions from an interdisciplinary perspective and set them within a European context.