1. The peculiarity of John Case’s Reflexus Speculi Moralis, and what first attracted my attention to the work, is that it is the first and almost the only full commentary ever written on Aristotle’s Magna Moralia or Great Ethics. In the Aristotelian corpus as it has come down to us there are four works expressly on ethics: the Nicomachean Ethics, the Eudemian Ethics, the Magna Moralia, and the short Virtues and Vices. Of these the best known and most read and studied, as well by scholars as by general readers, is the first. The Eudemian Ethics has, at least in recent years, come to be read and used by scholars as a useful support and confirmation and sometimes foil for the Nicomachean, but the Magna Moralia continues to languish in obscurity, while the Virtues and Vices has long been banished to outer darkness.
2. This modern state of affairs contrasts markedly with what prevailed in the Ancient and Medieval worlds where all four works were regarded as by Aristotle. Doubts first began to be cast on some of them again during the Renaissance when scholars puzzled over why Aristotle, notorious otherwise for his brevity, could have gone to the trouble of writing three major works on ethics that all covered pretty much the same ground in the same way. Their suggested solution was to say that one or two of them were written by someone else, and since by then the Nicomachean Ethics had achieved canonical status as the ethics of Aristotle, it was the Eudemian and Magna Moralia that they cast into doubt.
3. Case bears witness to this state of affairs among scholars of Aristotle in his opening chapter, where he mounts a strong and able defense of the authenticity of the Magna Moralia against prevailing doubts. He points out that those doubts have little or nothing to be said for them and that they can easily be answered by the observation that the Magna Moralia, despite covering the same ground as the Nicomachean, does so in a different way and for a different purpose. Modern scholars have tended to account for the existence of more than one work on ethics by Aristotle with the supposition that these works were written at different stages of Aristotle’s intellectual development, or that they have at least come to us through the mediation and editing of someone else. Such suppositions are not impossible, of course, but one wonders why Case’s alternative supposition, that these works differ because they have different audiences and a different aim, has not been taken more seriously or indeed even considered at all. For it is certainly a possible supposition. Moreover, it is an easier and in many ways a saner supposition. It accounts for the phenomena just as well and does so without all the complications and arbitrary guesses and assumptions that have, over the years, marked and marred so much of the scholarship on the developmental approach to Aristotle’s writings.
4. Nevertheless Case does present us with the curious anomaly, mentioned at the beginning, of being the first and, for some three centuries after his death, the only known author of a full length commentary on the Magna Moralia. Case himself adverts to this curiosity when defending himself, for while he is able to name scholars who translated the Magna Moralia and others who, as he says, wrote scholia on it, to wit D’Étaples and Valla (I.i.16), he cannot name any who wrote a commentary as he himself has done. Further, after Case’s death, we have, for the Magna Moralia, only the notes and running commentary of Sylvester Maurus (1668), which form part and parcel of the notes and running commentaries he labored to produce on all the extant works of Aristotle. For further study and writing on the Magna Moralia we have to await the upsurge in Aristotelian scholarship, especially in Germany, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even then, we get only monographs or extended treatments of parts of the Magna Moralia and no commentary on the whole of it until the magisterial work of Dirlmeier in 1958 (Aristoteles. Magna Moralia. Darmstadt). Since Dirlmeier, little has appeared beyond occasional monographs. So we can say that in the whole history of known Aristotelian scholarship only two people, Case and Dirlmeier, have written full commentaries on the Magna Moralia.
5. Explaining Dirlmeier is relatively easy, for his commentary on the Magna Moralia was accompanied by equally magisterial commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics (1956) and the Eudemian Ethics (1962), all three of which being designed to give, in the light of the research and controversy about Aristotle’s philosophical works by modern scholars over the past two centuries, an extended explication and defense of all three ethics as authentic documents of Aristotle. Case had no such aim, if only because he did not choose, and shows no intention of ever choosing, to write a commentary on the Eudemian Ethics to match those he wrote on the Magna Moralia, and on the Nicomachean Ethics (his Speculum Moralium Quaestionum), and on the Politics (his Sphaera Civitatis). Case must have known of the existence of the Eudemian Ethics, even though he does not mention it anywhere, for the Greek text was printed in the famous Aldine edition of Aristotle’s works (1498) and several Latin translations of it were also available (mentioned by Dirlmeier in his commentary on the Eudemian Ethics, p. 120). However, the Eudemian Ethics had been, until fairly recently, even less fortunate in securing commentators than the Magna Moralia, because the first one known is that which Maurus produced as part of his running commentary on all Aristotle’s works.
6. Why then, after writing commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics, did Case choose to write a commentary on the Magna Moralia and not on the Eudemian Ethics? One reason that immediately comes to mind is that the Magna Moralia offers the greater contrast of the two with the Nicomachean, so that if Case thought it worthwhile to write a second commentary on an ethical work of Aristotle’s he would think it more worthwhile to write on that ethical work which promised to add more to our understanding and aid more in our acquisition of the moral virtues. Such indeed is suggested by what he himself says in commending the study of the Magna Moralia:
Believe me, most humane reader, the repetition is not vain or otiose, first, because it is of the best things, namely the virtues, which cannot sufficiently be impressed and inculcated on human souls; second, because this treatise is, as it were, an epitome and summary table or collection of everything that has been dealt with more fully in the [Nicomachean] Ethics; third, because some things are here added and discussed that are not dealt with there; and finally, because here (as I showed above) everything is not dealt with in the same way or order or sense. For the Ethics has regard to individuals, this epitome to the multitude, and the science of politics to the whole city (1.i.10)
In the Ethics Aristotle aims only to make you and any individual man good; in these books, however, he has the multitude and civil life for this subject, he directs his precepts to it, he does not change his voice but his consideration, he lists the same virtues, passions, and vices, but he applies them differently; in the Ethics he strives to render men virtuous in their life alone, but here to render them virtuous in their life and in their office. But the virtue of the man is one thing, and of the office another; in the Ethics he chooses one virtue, that of the man, but here he chooses both (1.i.15).
6. Case was thus of the opinion, as indeed his dedicatory epistles make plain, that the Magna Moralia was of considerable independent value, over and above that already provided by the Nicomachean Ethics, because, by repetition, it inculcated the virtues on souls more effectively, because, as an epitome, it encapsulated and summarized what was dealt with at length and diffusely in the Nicomachean, because it added some further things not there dealt with, and because thereby, and finally and most importantly, it applied to the whole what the Nicomachean applied to the single individual. Case’s intention, then, in commenting on the Magna Moralia was the same as was Aristotle’s in writing it, namely to get people actually to be virtuous, save that Case makes explicit, what is at best implicit in Aristotle, that the aim here is the city or the community and not the individual. Certainly the character of Case’s commentary bears out this intention. For, in contrast, say, to Dirlmeier’s, it does not impress with its philological acumen or its wealth of historical detail or even its penetration of philosophical puzzles in Aristotle’s text. It does have its philosophical sophistication, to be sure, especially in the series of objections and replies that accompany and end each chapter. But it takes the form more often of summary or paraphrase than of explication, of exhortation to virtue and lament over vice than of scholarly analysis or learned disquisition. Case’s aim is practical rather than theoretical; his focus is his audience’s character rather than their mind; his wish is to make them moral rather than learned.
7. Whether or to what extent Case’s practical and moral orientation reflects the historical situation of the Oxford and the England of his own day, and whether or to what extent this orientation is an expression of a larger political agenda to which Case was committed, are questions I do not feel competent to answer but which the curious reader can pursue in the notes and introductions provided by Professor Sutton to his translations of Case’s other works available in The Philological Museum. Sufficient has it been for me to make available an English version, accompanied, courtesy of Professor Sutton, by the Latin original, of the first ever commentary known to have been written on Aristotle’s Magna Moralia. That work of the ancient Stagirite, as Case himself so eloquently urged, deserves both to be better known and better treasured. With the aid of his commentary, too long hidden from modern readers by its Latin dress but now decked out in the fashion of a newer tongue, I hope to have done something toward that noble end. Whatever then, benevolent reader, you find done well here, take freely and enjoy. Whatever you see that limps or errs, pity and gently correct.