What was the meaning of ethics in early modern culture, what was its place in society? How to write a history of ethics? How to reconnect past and present, and how to combine biological, psychological and cultural perspectives on ethics?
The five-year research project ‘The Ways of Virtue’, generously founded by the VolkswagenStiftung’s Freigeist programme and based at the University of Göttingen, tries to answer these questions by looking at the Ethica section in Wolfenbüttel.
Once part of the book collection of Duke August the Younger of Brunswick-Lüneburg (1579-1666), the section is preserved in today’s Herzog August Bibliothek. It offers us a ‘window’ onto the varied landscape of early modern ethics and the wealth of literature on ethics: philosophical treatises, poetry, novels, plays, emblem books, proverbs, conduct books.
The works in the Ethica section reflect the interest of August and his contemporaries in questions of a moral ‘formation’ and in the notion of virtue, one of the central concepts of early modern ethics and culture. It provides us with ample materials to examine the ways in which the concept of virtue marked early modern arguments, attitudes, and mentalities, and how it was challenged by the changes in the political and intellectual climate of the seventeenth century.
Along those lines, the study of the ways of virtue should not only affect our interpretation of early modern ethics and culture but also prompt us to assess our own ideas on ethics and morality.