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11— Reason and Desire: Moral Decisions (Book VII)
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The Embodiment of Moral Dilemmas

At first glance, the miniature for Book VII in A (Figs. 35 and 35a) is modest, unremarkable for either size or position on the folio. But the illustration has considerable importance as a decision allegory. The illuminator successfully employs body language as visual metaphors for actions and choices made by an individual. In this first instance of the decision allegory, position in the center of the picture field expresses another aspect of the Aristotelian concept of the mean in which man occupies a moral position between the angelic and the bestial. The central position also embodies the dilemma faced by the man in the middle, pressed by conflicting moral choices. The preference for a triadic ordering scheme is consistent with Aristotle's advice that it is easier to recollect a central idea by relating it to concepts on either side of it.

Consistent with the pattern established in the cycle, the spiritual forces are represented as feminine, while the main protagonists are male. In Figure 35, Concupiscence is the sole depiction in the cycle of A of a negative feminine force, although in C , similar representations of vices appear in the illustrations of Books III and IV (Figs. 16 and 21). In both Figures 35 and 36, however, as in Figure 24b, the distance between the spiritual and "real" worlds is obscured by naturalistic scale, contemporary costumes, and shared gestures and expressions. Such a veristic approach, only partially related to style, gives particularly to the male figures the character of concrete, human exemplars rather than the more general personifications of abstract ideas.[11] Fashionable contemporary dress especially emphasizes the exemplary nature of Le Continent, L'Incontinent, and Concupiscence and distinguishes them from the sexually neutral Raison.

The illustration in C (Fig. 36) differs from that of Figure 35 because of the wider contrasts of moral states established in the lower register of C . It is also possible that the illustration in A offered too subtle a contrast between Le Continent and L'Incontinent, whose similarity of appearance suggests too great an identity of character. Again, Oresme may have responded to his own or the king's criticism, when in Figure 36 he differentiates by their costume the morally strong Le Continent and Le Vertueus from the weak-willed L'Incontinent and Le Vicieus. Oresme may also have intended that the social identification of the ethically strong with the intellectual and scholarly university élite serve as a warning to Charles V's worldly courtiers. Oresme may also have enjoyed the opportunity to explicate these ideas orally to Charles V and his circle. Such an occasion would have allowed him to expand on previous warnings about prodigality and unwise expenditure, particularly those expressed in the illustration of Book IV in C (Fig. 21). Oresme may have welcomed the opportunity to voice the views of a clerical moralist addressing his secular court audience.


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