The Enlightenment in France had a more anti-clerical flavor (in partbecause of the history of Jansenism, unique to France), and for thefirst time in this narrative we meet genuine atheists, such as Barond'Holbach (1723–89) who held not only that morality did not needreligion, but that religion, and especially Christianity, was itsmajor impediment. François-Marie Voltaire (1694-1778) was,especially towards the end of his life, opposed to Christianity, butnot to religion in general (Letters of Voltaire and Frederick theGreat, letter 156). He accepted from the English deists the ideathat what is true in Christian teachings is the core of human valuesthat are universally true in all religions, and (like the Germanrationalists) he admired Confucius. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78)said, famously, that mankind is born free, but everywhere he is inchains (The Social Contract, Ch. 1). This supposes adisjunction between nature and contemporary society, and Rousseau heldthat the life of primitive human beings was happy inasmuch as theyknew how to live in accordance with their own innate needs; now weneed some kind of social contract to protect us from the corruptingeffects of society upon the proper love of self. Nature is understoodas the whole realm of being created by God, who guarantees itsgoodness, unity, and order. Rousseau held that we do not need anyintermediary between us and God, and we can attain salvation byreturning to nature in this high sense and by developing all ourfaculties harmoniously. Our ultimate happiness is to feel ourselves atone with the system that God created.
Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74) undertook the project of synthesisbetween Aristotle and Christianity, though his version of Christianitywas already deeply influenced by Augustine, and so byNeo-Platonism. Aquinas, like Aristotle, emphasized the ends(vegetative, animal and typically human) given to humans in thenatural order. He described both the cardinal virtues and thetheological virtues of faith, hope and love, but he did not feel thetension that current virtue ethicists sometimes feel between virtueand the following of rules or principles. The rules governing how weought to live are known, some of them by revelation, some of them byordinary natural experience and rational reflection. But Aquinasthought these rules consistent in the determination of our good, sinceGod only requires us to do what is consistent with our owngood. Aquinas's theory is eudaimonist; ‘And so the willnaturally tends towards its own last end, for every man naturallywills beatitude. And from this natural willing are caused all otherwillings, since whatever a man wills, he wills on account of theend.’ (Summa Theologiae I, q.60. a.2) God's will is notexercised by arbitrary fiat; but what is good for some human being canbe understood as fitting for this kind of agent, in relation to thepurpose this agent intends to accomplish, in the real environment ofthe action, including other persons individually and collectively. Theprinciples of natural moral law are the universal judgments made byright reasoning about the kinds of actions that are morallyappropriate and inappropriate for human agents. They are thus, atleast in principle and at a highly general level, deducible from humannature. Aquinas held that reason, in knowing these principles, isparticipating in the eternal law, which is in the mind of God(Summa Theologiae I, q.91. a.2). Aquinas was not initiallysuccessful in persuading the church to embrace Aristotle. In 1277 theBishop of Paris condemned 219 propositions (not all Thomist),including the thesis that a person virtuous in Aristotle's terms‘is sufficiently disposed for eternal happiness.’ But inthe Counter-Reformation, the synthesis which Aquinas achieved becameauthoritative in Roman Catholic education.
Ethics and morality: a broad range of topics
The next two centuries in European philosophy can be described interms of two lines of development, rationalism and empiricism, both ofwhich led, in different ways, to the possibility of a greaterdetachment of ethics from theology. The history of rationalism fromRené Descartes (1596–1650) to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz(1646–1716) is a history of re-establishing human knowledge onthe foundation of rational principles that could not be doubted, aftermodern science started to shake the traditional foundations supportedby the authority of Greek philosophy and the church. Descartes was notprimarily an ethicist, but he located the source of moral law(surprisingly for a rationalist) in God's will. The most importantrationalist in ethics was Benedict de Spinoza (1623–77). He wasa Jew, but was condemned by his contemporary faith community asunorthodox. Like Descartes, he attempted to duplicate the methods ofgeometry in philosophy. Substance, according to Spinoza, exists initself and is conceived through itself (Ethics, I, def. 3);it is consequently one, infinite, and identical with God(Ethics, I, prop. 15). There is no such thing as natural law,since all events in nature (‘God or Nature’) are equallynatural. Everything in the universe is necessary, and there is no freewill, except in as far as Spinoza is in favor of calling someone freewho is led by reason ( Ethics, I, prop. 32). Each human mindis a limited aspect of the divine intellect. On this view (which hasits antecedent in Stoicism) the human task is to move towards thegreatest possible rational control of human life. Leibniz was, likeDescartes, not primarily an ethicist. He said, however, that‘the highest perfection of any thinking being lies in carefuland constant pursuit of true happiness’ (New Essays on HumanUnderstanding, XXI, 51). The rationalists were not denying thecentrality of God in human moral life, but their emphasis was on theaccess we have through the light of reason rather than through sacredtext or ecclesiastical authority.