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Greek and Roman Sources in Niels Hemmingsen’s De lege naturae apodictica methodus

Eric Hutchinson

Niels Hemmingsen (Nicolaus Hemming) (1513-1600), the Danish Lutheran humanist, theologian, philosopher, and professor of Greek, Hebrew, dialectic, and theology at the University of Copenhagen, was famous in his own day but now languishes in almost total obscurity, although he deserves to be much better known. After studying with Melanchthon, the Praeceptor Germaniae, in Wittenberg, he returned to Denmark and, during “the flowering time of Danish humanism” (Lund 2008, 419), authored important works on theology (for example, his Enchiridion theologicum), exegesis (De methodis libri duo, a significant work in the history of biblical interpretation and hermeneutics [Hagen 1990, 181-96], and several biblical commentaries), and legal philosophy (De lege naturae apodictica methodus). Hemmingsen was honored in turn with the sobriquet Praeceptor Daniae.
I shall investigate the use of classical sources in Hemmingsen’s work on the law of nature. In De lege naturae, the first edition of which was finished, according to the dedicatory epistle, in 1562, Hemmingsen “set out to demonstrate the natural universality and superiority of the Decalogue as a source and summary of natural law. He adduced hundreds of ancient Greek and Roman passages that, in his view, were consistent with conventional Evangelical interpretations of each of the Commandments” (Witte 1990, 140). Hemmingsen’s use of ancient political philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero perhaps will not be surprising. But he also drew from a wide variety of other genres and other writers, including figures as diverse as Hesiod, Sophocles, Xenophon (to whose account of the “Choice of Hercules” in Memorabilia 2.1.21 Hemmingsen devotes several pages), Plutarch (mentioned in the very first line of the dedicatory epistle), Plautus, Ennius, Ovid, and Lucan; he even refers to his patron and dedicatee as his “Maecenas” (Vale Mœcenas optime). Yet there has been no systematic attempt to investigate how his use of classical sources coheres with his scriptural and philosophical arguments vis-à-vis the natural and Mosaic laws. In my paper, I shall examine the range of uses to which Hemmingsen puts sources from an ancient historical epoch—and, indeed, from two different traditions, the Hebraic and the Greco-Roman, in that same epoch. To do so, I shall focus especially on the epistle, the praefatio ad lectorem, and the general discussion of the lex naturae in the lengthy opening section of the work, which precedes a more detailed discussion of the Decalogue and the cardinal virtues.

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Neo-Latin Texts in the Americas and Europe

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