It is often thought—in part because of irresponsible polemic masquerading as scholarship or learned analysis from people who ought to know better, in part because of Protestants’ equally inexcusable neglect of their own tradition—that the Protestant Reformers held no brief for natural law or for the wisdom of the Greeks and Romans. Fewer claims sit less easily with the truth of things than this one; but it has by now become a convention, and, as conservatives know (and usually celebrate), conventions die hard.
The consensus position has begun to change in recent years due to a return ad fontes among many Protestant scholars. In this brief essay, I’d like to look at one example of why this consensus must continue to be modified in a more historically responsible direction: Philip Melanchthon’s preface to Cicero’s On Duties, written in 1525. Melanchthon (1497-1560), one of the chief and most influential figures among both the Protestant Reformers and northern European humanists, found a wealth without parallel for the study of ethics in Greek and Roman authors, and particularly in the writings of Cicero and Aristotle; and the former’s On Duties held a position in the first rank for him (as, indeed, it did later for the American Founders).