History of Literature, Fhilosophy and Religions


Part III

A Brief History of Western Philosophy

Introduction Phylosophy

The nature of Western philosophy

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy

Medieval philosophy

Renaissance philosophy

Modern philosophy

Contemporary philosophy


Western Philosophy







Western philosophy

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Western philosophy

History of Western philosophy from its development among the ancient Greeks to the present.

The nature of Western philosophy » General considerations » Ways of ordering the history
The writing of the history of philosophy is controlled by a variety of cultural habits and conventions.

The ensuing article on the history of Western philosophy is divided into five sections—ancient, medieval, Renaissance, modern, and contemporary. A threefold distinction between ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy was prevalent until recent times and is only as old as the end of the 17th century. This distinction slowly spread to historical writing in all fields and was given definitive influence in philosophical writing through the series of lectures on the history of philosophy that Hegel delivered first at Jena, then at Heidelberg, and finally at Berlin between 1805 and 1830. In the century after Hegel, it was taken for granted as standard practice, though a host of cultural assumptions is implied by its use.

Treatment of the total field of the history of philosophy has been traditionally subject to two types of ordering, according to whether it was conceived primarily as (1) a history of ideas or (2) a history of the intellectual products of human beings. In the first ordering, certain ideas, or concepts, are viewed as archetypal (such as matter or mind or doubt), and the condensations occurring within the flow of thought tend to consist of basic types, or schools. This ordering has characterized works such as The History of Materialism (1866) by Friedrich Lange (1828–75), The Idealist Tradition: From Berkeley to Blanshard (1957) by A.C. Ewing (1899–1973), and The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (1960) by Richard H. Popkin (1923–2005). In the second type of ordering, the historian, impressed by the producers of ideas as much as by the ideas themselves—that is, with philosophers as agents—reviews the succession of great philosophical personalities in their rational achievements. This ordering has produced the more customary histories, such as A History of Western Philosophy (1945) by Bertrand Russell and The Great Philosophers (1957) by Karl Jaspers (1883–1969).

These two different types of ordering depend for their validity upon an appeal to two different principles about the nature of ideas, but their incidental use may also be influenced by social or cultural factors. Thus, the biographers and compilers of late antiquity (among them Plutarch [46–c. 119], Sextus Empiricus [flourished 3rd century ad], Philostratus [170–c. 245], and Clement of Alexandria [150–c. 211]), impressed by the religious pluralism of the age in which they lived, thought of philosophers, too, as falling into different sects and wrote histories of the Sophists, the Skeptics, the Epicureans, and other such schools; whereas, almost 2,000 years later, Hegel—living in a period of Romantic historiography dominated by the concept of the great man in history—deliberately described the history of philosophy as “a succession of noble minds, a gallery of heroes of thought.”

Moving between these two ordering principles, the article below will be eclectic (as has come to be the custom), devoting chief attention to outstanding major figures while joining more-minor figures, wherever possible, into the schools or tendencies that they exemplify.


Friedrich Albert Lange
German philosopher

born Sept. 28, 1828, Wald, near Solingen, Prussia
died Nov. 21, 1875, Marburg, Ger.

German philosopher and Socialist, important for his refutation of materialism and for establishing a lasting tradition of Neo-Kantianism at the University of Marburg.

Lange was the son of theologian Johann Peter Lange and was educated at Cologne, Bonn, and Duisburg. In 1861 he became involved in politics. Among his best known works are Die Leibesübungen (1863; “On Physical Exercise”); Die Arbeiterfrage (1865; “The Worker Question”); Die Grundlagen der mathematischen Psychologie (1865; “The Foundation of Mathematical Psychology”); Geschichte des Materialismus und Kritik seiner Bedeutung in der Gegenwart (1866; History of Materialism); J. St. Mill’s Ansichten über die soziale Frage (1866; “John Stuart Mill’s Theories About the Social Question”). Lange left Germany in 1866 and moved to Winterthur, near Zürich, to write for a democratic newspaper. He also wrote the Neue Beiträge zur Geschichte des Materialismus (1867; “A New Contribution on the History of Materialism”) and in 1870 became professor of philosophy at the University of Zürich, resigning his post in 1872 because of the pro-French sympathies of the Swiss in the Franco-German War. He then accepted the chair of philosophy at the University of Marburg and was largely responsible for a Kantian revival there. His Logische Studien (“Studies in Logic”) was published in 1877, after his death.




A. C. Ewing
British philosopher and educator

born May 11, 1899, Leicester, Eng.
died May 14, 1973, Manchester

British philosopher and educator and an advocate of a Neo-Realist school of thought; he is noted for his proposals toward a general theory of personal and normative ethics (as against the purely descriptive). He proposed a theory of the intuitive knowledge of good and duty (“deontological”) that dispensed with the necessity for an essential concept or definition of the good. His principal writings include Kant’s Treatment of Causality (1924); Reason and Intuition (1941); The Fundamental Questions of Philosophy (1951); Ethics (1953); and Non-Linguistic Philosophy (1968). His essays in philosophical journals emphasize Realist theories of knowledge and the possibility of a meaningful metaphysics.




Karl Jaspers
German philosopher
in full Karl Theodor Jaspers

born Feb. 23, 1883, Oldenburg, Ger.
died Feb. 26, 1969, Basel, Switz.

German philosopher, one of the most important Existentialists in Germany, who approached the subject from man’s direct concern with his own existence. In his later work, as a reaction to the disruptions of Nazi rule in Germany and World War II, he searched for a new unity of thinking that he called world philosophy.

Early life and education
Jaspers was the oldest of the three children of Karl Wilhelm Jaspers and Henriette Tantzen. His ancestors on both sides were peasants, merchants, and pastors who had lived in northern Germany for generations. His father, a lawyer, was a high constable of the district and eventually a director of a bank.

Jaspers was delicate and sickly in his childhood. As a consequence of his numerous childhood diseases, he developed bronchiectasis (a chronic dilation of the bronchial tubes) during his adolescent years, and this condition led to cardiac decompensation (the inability of the heart to maintain adequate circulation). These ailments were a severe handicap throughout his adult life.

Jaspers entered the University of Heidelberg in 1901, enrolling in the faculty of law; in the following year he moved to Munich, where he continued his studies of law, but without much enthusiasm. He spent the next six years studying medicine at the Universities of Berlin, Göttingen, and Heidelberg. After he completed his state examination to practice medicine in 1908, he wrote his dissertation Heimweh und Verbrechen (“Nostalgia and Crime”). In February 1909 he was registered as a doctor. He had already become acquainted with his future wife, Gertrud Mayer, during his student years, and he married her in 1910.

Research in clinical psychiatry
In 1909 Jaspers became a volunteer research assistant at the University of Heidelberg psychiatric clinic, a position he held until 1915. The clinic was headed by the renowned neuropathologist Franz Nissl, who had assembled under him an excellent team of assistants. Because of his desire to learn psychiatry in his own way without being regimented into any particular pattern of thought by his teachers, Jaspers elected to work in his own time, at his own pace, and with patients in whom he was particularly interested. This was granted to him only because he agreed to work without a salary.

When Jaspers started his research work, clinical psychiatry was considered to be empirically based but lacking any underlying systematic framework of knowledge. It dealt with different aspects of the human organism as they might affect the behaviour of human beings suffering from mental illness. These aspects ranged from anatomical, physiological, and genetic to neurological, psychological, and sociological influences. A study of these aspects opened the way to an understanding and explanation of human behaviour. Diagnosis was of paramount importance; therapy was largely neglected. Aware of this situation, Jaspers realized the conditions that were required in order to establish psychopathology as a science: a language had to be found that, on the basis of previously conducted research, was capable of describing the symptoms of disease well enough to facilitate positive recognition in other cases; and various methods appropriate to the different spheres of psychiatry had to be worked out.

Jaspers tried to bring the methods of Phenomenology—the direct investigation and description of phenomena as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanation—into the field of clinical psychiatry. These efforts soon bore fruit, and his reputation as a researcher in the forefront of new developments in psychiatry was established. In 1911, when he was only 28 years old, he was requested by Ferdinand Springer, a well-known publisher, to write a textbook on psychopathology; he completed the Allgemeine Psychopathologie (General Psychopathology, 1965) two years later. The work was distinguished by its critical approach to the various methods available for the study of psychiatry and by its attempt to synthesize these methods into a cohesive whole.

Transition to philosophy
In 1913 Jaspers, by virtue of his status in the field of psychology, entered the philosophical faculty—which included a department of psychology—of the University of Heidelberg. His academic advance in the university was rapid. In 1916 he was appointed assistant professor in psychology; in 1920 assistant professor in philosophy; in 1921 professor in philosophy; and in 1922 he took over the second chair in that field. The transition from medicine to philosophy was due in part to the fact that, while the medical faculty was fully staffed, the philosophical faculty needed an empirical psychologist. But the transition also corresponded to Jaspers’ intellectual development.

In 1919 Jaspers published some of his lectures, entitled Psychologie der Weltanschauungen (“Psychology of World Views”). He did not intend to present a philosophical work but rather one aimed at demarcating the limits of a psychological understanding of man. Nevertheless, this work touched on the border of philosophy. In it were foreshadowed all of the basic themes that were fully developed later in Jaspers’ major philosophical works. By investigating the legitimate boundaries of philosophical knowledge, Jaspers tried to clarify the relationship of philosophy to science. Science appeared to him as knowledge of facts that are obtained by means of scholarly methodological principles and that are apodictically certain and universally valid. Following Max Weber, a sociologist and historian, he asserted that scientific principles also applied to both the social and humanistic sciences. In contrast to science, Jaspers considered philosophy to be a subjective interpretation of Being, which—although prophetically inspired—attempted to postulate norms of value and principles of life as universally valid. As Jaspers’ understanding of philosophy deepened, he gradually discarded his belief in the role of a prophetic vision in philosophy. He bent all his energies toward the development of a philosophy that would be independent of science but that would not become a substitute for religious beliefs. Though the resulting system presupposed science, it passed beyond the boundaries of science in an effort to illuminate the totality of man’s existence. For Jaspers man’s existence meant not mere being-in-the-world but rather man’s freedom of being. The idea of being oneself signified for Jaspers the potentiality to realize one’s freedom of being in the world. Thus, the task of philosophy was to appeal to the freedom of the individual as the subject who thinks and exists and to focus on man’s existence as the centre of all reality.

The elaboration of these germinal ideas occupied Jasper’s thought from 1920 to 1930. During this decade his brother-in-law, Ernst Mayer, himself a philosopher of repute, worked with him. During these years he also enjoyed the friendship of Martin Heidegger. Somewhat later, this friendship broke up because of Heidegger’s entry into the National Socialist Party.

In the early years of the 1930s the fruits of his intellectual labour became evident: in 1931 Die geistige Situation der Zeit (Man in the Modern Age, 1933) was published; in 1932 the three volumes of Philosophie (Philosophy, 1969) appeared—perhaps the most systematic presentation of Existential philosophy in the German language. A book on Max Weber also appeared in 1932.

Conflict with the Nazi authorities
When Hitler came into power in 1933, Jaspers was taken by surprise, as he had not taken National Socialism seriously. He thought that this movement would destroy itself from within, thus leading to a reorganization and liberation by the other political forces active at the time. These expectations, however, did not materialize. Because his wife was Jewish, Jaspers qualified as an enemy of the state. From 1933 he was excluded from the higher councils of the university but was allowed to teach and publish. In 1935 the first part of his future work on logic, entitled Vernunft und Existenz (Reason and Existenz, 1955), appeared; in 1936 a book on Nietzsche; in 1937 an essay on Descartes; in 1938 a further work preliminary to his logic, entitled Existenzphilosophie (Philosophy of Existence, 1971). Unlike many other famous intellectuals of that time, he was not prepared to make any concessions to the doctrines of National Socialism. Consequently, a series of decrees were promulgated against him, including removal from his professorship and a total ban on any further publication. These measures effectively barred him from carrying on his work in Germany.

Friends tried to assist him to emigrate to another country. Permission was finally granted to him in 1942 to go to Switzerland, but a condition was imposed by the Nazis that required his wife to remain behind in Germany. He refused to accept this condition and decided to stay with his wife, notwithstanding the dangers. It became necessary for his friends to hide his wife. Both of them had decided, in case of an arrest, to commit suicide. In 1945 he was told by a reliable source that his deportation was scheduled to take place on April 14. On March 30, however, Heidelberg was occupied by the Americans.

Disillusioned by the events of these years, Jaspers withdrew more and more into himself. He revised the General Psychopathology in an effort to make it represent the high point of a free but responsible search for knowledge of man, as distinct from science, which had betrayed man. He also completed his work on logic, Von der Wahrheit (“Of Truth”), the first part of which was intended to throw the light of reason on the irrational teachings of the times. These works appeared in print in 1946 and 1947.

Postwar development of thought
After the capitulation of Germany, Jaspers saw himself confronted with the tasks of rebuilding the university and helping to bring about a moral and political rebirth of the people. He dedicated all of his energies in the postwar years toward the accomplishment of these two tasks. He also represented the interests of the university to the military powers. He gathered his thoughts on how the universities could best be rebuilt in his work Die Idee der Universität (1946; The Idea of the University, 1959). He called for a complete de-Nazification of the teaching staff, but this proved to be impossible because the number of professors who had never compromised with the Nazis was too small. It was only gradually that the autonomous university of the pre-Nazi years could once again assert itself in Germany. Jaspers felt that an acknowledgment of national guilt was a necessary condition for the moral and political rebirth of Germany. In one of his best political works, Die Schuldfrage (1946; The Question of German Guilt, 1947), he stated that whoever had participated actively in the preparation or execution of war crimes and crimes against humanity was morally guilty. Those, however, who passively tolerated these happenings because they did not want to become victims of Nazism were only politically responsible. In this respect, all survivors of this era bore the same responsibility and shared a collective guilt. He felt that the fact that no one could escape this collective guilt and responsibility might enable the German people to transform their society from its state of collapse into a more highly developed and morally responsible democracy. The fact that these ideas attracted hardly any attention was a further disappointment to Jaspers. In the spring of 1948 he accepted a professorship in philosophy in Basel, Switz. In spite of the apparent neglect of Jaspers’ ideas of a moral regeneration of the German people, his departure for Basel was regarded as a betrayal by many of the German people. Jaspers himself hoped to find there a peace of mind that might enable him to work through and revise once again his whole approach to the entire field of philosophy.

This revision was guided mainly by the conviction that modern technology in the sphere of communication and warfare had made it imperative for mankind to strive for world unity. This new development in his thinking was defined by him as world philosophy, and its primary task was the creation of a mode of thinking that could contribute to the possibility of a free world order. The transition from existence philosophy to world philosophy was based on his belief that a different kind of logic would make it possible for free communication to exist among all mankind. His thought was expressed in Der philosophische Glaube (1948; The Perennial Scope of Philosophy, 1949) and Der philosophische Glaube angesichts der Offenbarung (1962; Philosophical Faith and Revelation, 1967). Since all thought in its essence rests on beliefs, he reasoned, the task confronting man is to free philosophical thinking from all attachments to the transient objects of this world. To replace previous objectifications of all metaphysical and religious systems, Jaspers introduced the concept of the cipher. This was a philosophical abstraction that could represent all systems, provided that they entered into communication with one another by means of the cipher. In other words, the concept of the cipher enabled a common ground to be shared by all of the various systems of thought, thus leading to a far greater tolerance than had ever before been possible. A world history of philosophy, entitled Die grossen Philosophen (1957; The Great Philosophers, 2 vol., 1962, 1966), had as its aim to investigate to what extent all past thought could become communicable.

Jaspers also undertook to write a universal history of the world, called Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (1949; The Origin and Goal of History, 1953). At the centre of history is the axial period (from 800 to 200 bc), during which time all the fundamental creations that underlie man’s current civilization came into being. Following from the insights that came to him in preparing this work, he was led to realize the possibility of a political unity of the world in a 1958 work called Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen (The Future of Mankind, 1961). The aim of this political world union would not be absolute sovereignty but rather world confederation, in which the various entities could live and communicate in freedom and peace.

Under the influence of these ideas, Jaspers closely observed, during the latter years of his life, both world politics and the politics of Germany. When the efforts toward democracy in Germany appeared to him to turn more and more into a national oligarchy of parties, he wrote a bitter attack on these tendencies in Wohin treibt die Bundesrepublik? (1966; The Future of Germany, 1967). This book caused much annoyance among West German politicians of all shades. Jaspers, in turn, reacted to their unfair reception by returning his German passport in 1967 and taking out Swiss citizenship.

At the time of his death in 1969, Jaspers had published 30 books. In addition, he had left 30,000 handwritten pages, as well as a large and important correspondence.

Hans Saner




Greek biographer
Greek Plutarchos, Latin Plutarchus

born ad 46, Chaeronea, Boeotia [Greece]
died after 119

biographer and author whose works strongly influenced the evolution of the essay, the biography, and historical writing in Europe from the 16th to the 19th century. Among his approximately 227 works, the most important are the Bioi parallēloi (Parallel Lives), in which he recounts the noble deeds and characters of Greek and Roman soldiers, legislators, orators, and statesmen, and the Moralia, or Ethica, a series of more than 60 essays on ethical, religious, physical, political, and literary topics.

Plutarch was the son of Aristobulus, himself a biographer and philosopher. In 66–67, Plutarch studied mathematics and philosophy at Athens under the philosopher Ammonius. Public duties later took him several times to Rome, where he lectured on philosophy, made many friends, and perhaps enjoyed the acquaintance of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. According to the Suda lexicon (a Greek dictionary dating from about ad 1000), Trajan bestowed the high rank of an ex-consul upon him. Although this may be true, a report of a 4th-century church historian, Eusebius, that Hadrian made Plutarch governor of Greece is probably apocryphal. A Delphic inscription reveals that he possessed Roman citizenship; his nomen, or family name, Mestrius, was no doubt adopted from his friend Lucius Mestrius Florus, a Roman consul.

Plutarch traveled widely, visiting central Greece, Sparta, Corinth, Patrae (Patras), Sardis, and Alexandria, but he made his normal residence at Chaeronea, where he held the chief magistracy and other municipal posts and directed a school with a wide curriculum in which philosophy, especially ethics, occupied the central place. He maintained close links with the Academy at Athens (he possessed Athenian citizenship) and with Delphi, where, from about 95, he held a priesthood for life; he may have won Trajan’s interest and support for the then-renewed vogue of the oracle. The size of Plutarch’s family is uncertain. In the Consolatio to his wife, Timoxena, on the death of their infant daughter, he mentions four sons; of these at least two survived childhood, and he may have had other children.

Plutarch’s literary output was immense. The 227 titles in the so-called catalog of Lamprias, a list of Plutarch’s works supposedly made by his son, are not all authentic, but neither do they include all he wrote. The order of composition cannot be determined.

The Lives
Plutarch’s popularity rests primarily on his Parallel Lives. These, dedicated to Trajan’s friend Sosius Senecio, who is mentioned in the lives “Demosthenes,” “Theseus,” and “Dion,” were designed to encourage mutual respect between Greeks and Romans. By exhibiting noble deeds and characters, they were also to provide model patterns of behaviour.

The first pair, “Epaminondas and Scipio,” and perhaps an introduction and formal dedication, are lost. But Plutarch’s plan was clearly to publish in successive books biographies of Greek and Roman heroes in pairs, chosen as far as possible for their similarity of character or career, and each followed by a formal comparison. Internal evidence suggests that the Lives were composed in Plutarch’s later years, but the order of composition can be only partially determined; the present order is a later rearrangement based largely on the chronology of the Greek subjects, who are placed first in each pair. In all, 22 pairs survive (one pair being a double group of “Agis and Cleomenes” and the “Gracchi”) and four single biographies, of Artaxerxes, Aratus, Galba, and Otho.

The Lives display impressive learning and research. Many sources are quoted, and, though Plutarch probably had not consulted all these at first hand, his investigations were clearly extensive, and compilation must have occupied many years. For the Roman Lives he was handicapped by an imperfect knowledge of Latin, which he had learned late in life, for, as he explains in “Demosthenes,” political tasks and the teaching of philosophy fully engaged him during his stay in Rome and Italy. The form of the Lives represented a new achievement, not closely linked with either previous biography or Hellenistic history. The general scheme was to give the birth, youth and character, achievements, and circumstances of death, interspersed with frequent ethical reflections, but the details varied with both the subject and the available sources, which include anecdote mongers and writers of memoirs as well as historians. Plutarch never claimed to be writing history, which he distinguished from biography. His aim was to delight and edify the reader, and he did not conceal his own sympathies, which were especially evident in his warm admiration for the words and deeds of Spartan kings and generals; his virulent and unfair attack on Herodotus, the Greek historian of the 5th century bc, probably sprang from his feeling that he had done Athens more and Boeotia less than justice.

The Moralia
Plutarch’s surviving writings on ethical, religious, physical, political, and literary topics are collectively known as the Moralia, or Ethica, and amount to more than 60 essays cast mainly in the form of dialogues or diatribes. The former vary from a collection of set speeches to informal conversation pieces set among members of Plutarch’s family circle; the date and dramatic occasion are rarely indicated. The diatribes, which often show the influence of seriocomic writings of the 3rd-century-bc satirist Menippus, are simple and vigorous. The literary value of both is enhanced by the frequent quotation of Greek poems, especially verses of Euripides and other dramatists.

The treatises dealing with political issues are of especial interest. “Political Precepts” is an enlightening account of political life in contemporary Greece; in “Whether a Man Should Engage in Politics When Old,” Plutarch urged his friend Euphanes to continue in public life at Athens; Stoic ideas appear in the short work “To the Unlearned Ruler” and the fragmentary argument that “The Philosopher Should Converse Especially with Princes.”

Plutarch’s interest in religious history and antiquarian problems can be seen in a group of striking essays, the early “Daemon of Socrates,” and three later works concerning Delphi, “On the Failure of the Oracles,” in which the decline of the oracle is linked with the decline in the population, “On the E at Delphi,” interpreting the word EI at the temple entrance, and “On the Pythian Responses,” seeking to reestablish belief in the oracle. Contemporary with these is “On Isis and Osiris,” with its mystical tones. “Convivial Questions” (nine books) and “Greek and Roman Questions” assembled a vast collection of antiquarian lore.

Among the more important works that are of doubtful authenticity or are clearly apocryphal are the Consolatio to Apollonius for his son, the “Lives of the Ten Orators,” “On Fate,” the “Short Sayings of Kings and Commanders,” the “Short Sayings of Spartans,” and “Proverbs of the Alexandrines.”

Plutarch’s perennial charm and popularity arise in part from his treatment of specific human problems in which he avoids raising disquieting solutions. He wrote easily and superficially, with a wealth of anecdote. His style is predominantly Attic, though influenced by the contemporary Greek that he spoke; he followed rhetorical theory in avoiding hiatus between words and was careful in his use of prose rhythms. He is clear, but rather diffuse. Plutarch’s philosophy was eclectic, with borrowings from the Stoics, Pythagoreans, and Peripatetics (but not the Epicureans) grouped around a core of Platonism. His main interest was in ethics, though he developed a mystical side, especially in his later years; he reveals that he had been initiated into the mysteries of the cult of Dionysus, and both as a Platonist and as an initiate he believed in the immortality of the soul. He believed too in the superiority of Greek culture and in the meritoriousness and providential character of the Roman Empire. Personally, he preferred a quiet and humane civic life as a citizen of a small Boeotian town, where his writing and teaching enlivened provincial life in 1st-century Greece.

Reputation and influence
Plutarch’s later influence has been profound. He was loved and respected in his own time and in later antiquity; his Lives inspired a rhetorician, Aristides, and a historian, Arrian, to similar comparisons, and a copy accompanied the emperor Marcus Aurelius when he took the field against the Marcomanni. Gradually, Plutarch’s reputation faded in the Latin West, but he continued to influence philosophers and scholars in the Greek East, where his works came to constitute a schoolbook. Proclus, Porphyry, and the emperor Julian all quote him, and the Greek Church Fathers Clement of Alexandria and Basil the Great imitate him without acknowledgment. His works were familiar to all cultivated Byzantines, who set no barrier between the pagan past and the Christian present. It was mainly the Moralia that appealed to them; but in the 9th century the Byzantine scholar and patriarch Photius read the Lives with his friends.

Plutarch’s works were introduced to Italy by Byzantine scholars along with the revival of classical learning in the 15th century, and Italian humanists had already translated them into Latin and Italian before 1509, when the Moralia, the first of his works to be printed in the original Greek, appeared at Venice published by the celebrated Aldine Press. The first original Greek text of the Lives was printed at Florence in 1517 and by the Aldine Press in 1519. The Lives were translated into French in 1559 by Jacques Amyot, a French bishop and classical scholar, who also translated the Moralia (1572). The first complete edition of the Greek texts by the French humanist Henri II Estienne in 1572 marked a great improvement in the text.

That François Rabelais knew Plutarch well is proved by the frequency with which he quotes from both the Lives and the Moralia in his satirical novels. It was Michel de Montaigne, however, who read Plutarch in Amyot’s version, who first made his influence widely felt. The style of Montaigne’s Essays (1580–88) owed much to the Moralia, and from the Lives he adopted Plutarch’s method of revealing character by illustrative anecdote and comment, which he applied to self-revelation. Moreover, the Essays made known the ideal, derived from Plutarch’s presentation of character and openly expressed opinion, of “high antique virtue and the heroically moral man” that became the humanist ideal of the Renaissance period.

The Lives were translated into English, from Amyot’s version, by Sir Thomas North in 1579. His vigorous idiomatic style made his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans an English classic, and it remained the standard translation for more than a century. Even when superseded by more accurate translations, it continued to be read as an example of Elizabethan prose style. North’s translation of Plutarch was William Shakespeare’s source for his Roman history plays and influenced the development of his conception of the tragic hero. The literary quality of North’s version may be judged from the fact that Shakespeare lifted whole passages from it with only minor changes.

In 1603 the complete Moralia was first translated into English directly from the Greek. Its influence can be seen in the 1612 edition of Francis Bacon’s Essays, which contain counsels of public morality and private virtue recognizably derived from Plutarch. Francis Bacon was more attracted by Plutarch the moralist than by Plutarch the teller of stories or painter of character, but to the Renaissance mind it was the blend of these elements that gave him his particular appeal. His liking for historical gossip, for the anecdote and the moral tale, his portrayal of characters as patterns of virtue or vice (in the manner of the morality play and the character), and his emphasis on the turn of fortune’s wheel in causing the downfall of the great, all suited the mood of the age, and from him was derived the Renaissance conception of the heroic and of the “rational” moral philosophy of the ancients.

Historians and biographers in the 16th and 17th centuries followed Plutarch in treating character on ethical principles. The 17th-century English biographer Izaak Walton knew Plutarch well, and his own Lives (collected 1670, 1675) imitated Plutarch by dwelling on the strength, rather than the weakness, of his subjects’ characters.

Plutarch was read throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The English poet and dramatist John Dryden edited a new translation of the Lives first published in 1683–86, and abridged editions appeared in 1710, 1713, and 1718. The Moralia was retranslated in 1683–90 and also frequently reprinted. In France, Amyot’s translations were still being reprinted in the early 19th century, and their influence on the development of French classical tragedy equaled that of North’s version on Shakespeare. Admiration for those heroes of Plutarch who overthrew tyrants, and respect for his moral values, inspired the leaders of the French Revolution; Charlotte Corday, who assassinated the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat, spent the day before that event in reading Plutarch.

In the German states, the first collected edition of Plutarch’s works was published in 1774–82. The Moralia was edited by Daniel Wyttenbach in 1796–1834 and was first translated in 1783–1800. The Lives, first edited in 1873–75, had already been translated in 1799–1806. The German classical poets—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, and Jean Paul (Johann Paul Richter) especially—were influenced by Plutarch’s works, and he was read also by Ludwig van Beethoven and Friedrich Nietzsche.

In the 19th century, Plutarch’s direct influence began to decline, in part as a result of the reaction against the French Revolution, in part because the rise of the Romantic movement introduced new values and emphasized the free play of passions rather than their control, and in part because the more critical attitude of scholars to historical accuracy drew attention to the bias of his presentation of fact. He was still admired, however, notably by the American poet, philosopher, and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and, although in the 20th century his direct influence was small, the popular ideas of Greek and Roman history continued to be those derived from his pages.

Frank W. Walbank




Sextus Empiricus
Greek philosopher

flourished 3rd century

ancient Greek philosopher-historian who produced the only extant comprehensive account of Greek Skepticism in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism and Against the Dogmatists.

As a major exponent of Pyrrhonistic “suspension of judgment,” Sextus elaborated the 10 tropes of Aenesidemus and attacked syllogistic proofs in every area of speculative knowledge. Almost all details of his life are conjectural except that he was a medical doctor and headed a Skeptical school during the decline of Greek Skepticism. The republication of his Hypotyposes in 1562 had far-reaching effects on European philosophical thought. Indeed, much of the philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries can be interpreted in terms of diverse efforts to grapple with the ancient Skeptical arguments handed down through Sextus.




Flavius Philostratus
Greek author

born ad 170
died c. 245

Greek writer of Roman imperial times who studied at Athens and some time after ad 202 entered the circle of the philosophical Syrian empress of Rome, Julia Domna. On her death he settled in Tyre.

Philostratus’s works include Gymnastikos, a treatise dealing with athletic training; Ērōïkos (“Hero”), a dialogue on the significance of various heroes of the Trojan War; Epistolai erōtikai (“Erotic Epistles”), one of which was the inspiration for the English poet Ben Jonson’s To Celia (“Drink to me only with thine eyes”); and two sets of descriptions (ekphraseis) of paintings of mythological scenes, attributed to two men named Philostratus, possibly the well-known figure and his grandson. Flavius Philostratus’s Bioi sophistōn (Lives of the Sophists) treats both the Sophists of the 5th century bc and the later philosophers and rhetoricians of the Second Sophistic, a name coined by Philostratus to describe the art of declamation in Greek as practiced in the Roman Empire from the time of Nero (ad 54–68) to Philostratus’s own day.

Philostratus’s work on the life of the Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana (1st century ad), which was commissioned by Julia Domna, is revealing of religious attitudes in a transitional period. His idealized portrait of Apollonius as an ascetic miracle worker was taken up with enthusiasm by the pagan elites of the next centuries—when Christianity had become of political significance—as a counter figure to the Christian Jesus. In Philostratus’s moderately Atticizing prose (i.e., aspiring to the Classical style of 5th-century-bc Athens and opposed to the florid and bombastic style of Greek associated especially with Asia Minor), formal elegance was a way to give new significance and validity to the traditional cultural heritage of the pagan Greek world.




Saint Clement of Alexandria
Christian theologian
Latin name Titus Flavius Clemens
born ad 150, Athens
died , between 211 and 215; Western feast day November 23; Eastern feast day November 24

Christian Apologist, missionary theologian to the Hellenistic (Greek cultural) world, and second known leader and teacher of the catechetical school of Alexandria. The most important of his surviving works is a trilogy comprising the Protreptikos (“Exhortation”), the Paidagōgos (“The Instructor”), and the Strōmateis (“Miscellanies”).

Early life and career
According to Epiphanius, a 4th-century bishop, the parents of Titus Flavius Clemens were Athenian pagans. There is little significant information about his early life. As a student, he traveled to various centres of learning in Italy and in the eastern Mediterranean area. Converted to Christianity by his last teacher, Pantaenus—reputedly a former Stoic philosopher and the first recorded president of the Christian catechetical school at Alexandria—Clement succeeded his mentor as head of the school about 180.

During the next two decades Clement was the intellectual leader of the Alexandrian Christian community: he wrote several ethical and theological works and biblical commentaries; he combatted heretical Gnostics (religious dualists who believed in salvation through esoteric knowledge that revealed to men their spiritual origins, identities, and destinies); he engaged in polemics with Christians who were suspicious of an intellectualized Christianity; and he educated persons who later became theological and ecclesiastical leaders (e.g., Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem).

In addition to the famed trilogy, his extant works include a tract on the use of wealth, A Discourse Concerning the Salvation of Rich Men; a moral tract, Exhortation to Patience; or, Address to the Newly Baptized; a collection of sayings by Theodotus, a follower of Valentinus (a leading Alexandrian Gnostic), with commentary by Clement, Excerpta ex Theodoto; the Eclogae Propheticae (or Extracts), in the form of notes; and a few fragments of his biblical commentary Hypotyposeis (Outlines).

Clement presented a functional program of witnessing in thought and action to Hellenistic inquirers and Christian believers, a program that he hoped would bring about an understanding of the role of Greek philosophy and the Mosaic tradition within the Christian faith. According to Clement, philosophy was to the Greeks, as the Law of Moses was to the Jews, a preparatory discipline leading to the truth, which was personified in the Logos. His goal was to make Christian beliefs intelligible to those trained within the context of the Greek paideia (educational curriculum) so that those who accepted the Christian faith might be able to witness effectively within Hellenistic culture. He also was a social critic deeply rooted in the 2nd-century cultural milieu.

Clement’s view, “One, therefore, is the way of truth, but into it, just as into an everlasting river, flow streams but from another place” (Strōmateis), prepared the way for the curriculum of the catechetical school under Origen that became the basis of the medieval quadrivium and trivium (i.e., the liberal arts). This view, however, did not find ready acceptance by the uneducated orthodox Christians of Alexandria, who looked askance at intellectuals, especially at the heretical Gnostics who claimed a special knowledge (gnōsis) and spirituality. Led by Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria who was elevated to the episcopacy in 189, they taught a legalistic doctrine of salvation and preached that the Christian was saved by faith (pistis).

Clement’s view of the roles of faith and knowledge
Clement attempted to mediate between the heretical Gnostics and the legalistic orthodox Christians by appropriating the term gnostic from the heretical groups and reinterpreting to meet the needs of both the uneducated orthodox stalwarts and the growing numbers of those educated in the Greek paideia who were enlisting in the Christian church. Gnōsis became, in Clement’s theology, a knowledge and aspect of faith; he viewed it as a personal service that “loves and teaches the ignorant and instructs the whole creation to honor God the Almighty” (Strōmateis). Thus, Clement’s Christian Gnostic—as opposed to the heretical Gnostic—witnessed to nonbelievers, to heretics, and to fellow believers, the educated and uneducated alike, by teaching new insights and by setting a lofty example in moral living. Like the pistic Christians (those who claimed that man was saved by faith, which was to be demonstrated in legalistic and moral terms), Clement held that faith was the basis of salvation; but, unlike them, he claimed that faith was also the basis of gnōsis, a spiritual and mystical knowledge. By distinguishing between two levels of believers—i.e., the pistic Christian, who responds through discipline and lives on the level of the law, and the Christian Gnostic, who responds through discipline and love and lives on the level of the gospel—Clement set the stage for the efflorescence of monasticism that began in Egypt about a half century after his death.

Though much of Clement’s attention was focussed upon the reorientation of men’s personal lives in accordance with the Christian gospel, his interest in the social witnessing of Christians also involved him in the political and economic forces that affected man’s status and dignity. In keeping with the logos–nomos (word–law, or, sometimes, gospel–law) theme that pervades his works, Clement alluded to the theory of the two cities, the city of heaven and the city of the earth. Like Augustine, the great theologian who utilized the same theme two centuries later in De civitate Dei (The City of God), Clement did not equate the city of heaven with the institutional church. According to Clement, the Christian was to live under the Logos as befitting a citizen of heaven and then, in an order of priorities, under the law (nomos) as a citizen of the earth. If a conflict should arise between God and Caesar (i.e., the state), the Christian was to appeal to the “higher law” of the Logos. At one point Clement advocated the theory of the just cause for open rebellion against a government that enslaves people against their wills, as in the case of the Hebrews in Egypt. In this view he also anticipated Augustine’s theory of the just war, a theory that has been dominant in Western civilization since the early Middle Ages. He also struck at racism when it is considered a basis for slavery.

Views on wealth
In Egypt during the late 2nd century the rising inflation, high cost of living, and increased taxes placed extreme burdens not only on the poor but also on the relatively wealthy middle class, which was eventually ruined. From the tenor of the Paidagōgos, one can conclude that the majority of Clement’s audience came from the ranks of Alexandrian middle and upper classes, with a few intelligent poorer members coming from the Alexandrian masses. The problem of wealth was disturbing to the pistic Christians, who interpreted literally the command of Christ to the rich young man who wanted to be saved, “sell what you have and give to the poor.” In response to the literal interpretation, Clement wrote The Discourse Concerning the Salvation of Rich Men, in which he stated that wealth is a neutral factor in the problem. Possessions are to be regarded as instruments to be used either for good or for evil. “The Word does not command us to renounce property but to manage property without inordinate affection” (Eclogae Propheticae). In the matter of welfare (almsgiving), Clement’s views are not consistent. On the one hand, he advised that the Christian should not judge who is worthy or unworthy of receiving alms by being niggardly and pretending to test whether or not a person is deserving. On the other hand, he stated that alms should be dispensed with discernment to the deserving, for freeloaders, who are lazy and have some possessions, take what can be given to the needy.

Because of the persecution of Christians in Alexandria under the Roman emperor Severus in 201–202, Clement was obliged to leave his position as head of the catechetical school and to seek sanctuary elsewhere. His position at the school was assumed by his young and gifted student Origen, who became one of the greatest theologians of the Christian church. Clement found safety and employment in Palestine under another of his former students, Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem. He remained with Alexander until he died.

In his various roles, as missionary theologian, Apologist, and polemicist, Clement developed or touched upon ideas that were to influence the Christian world in the areas of monasticism, political and economic thought, and theology. In this last area, the Greek church regarded his views as too close to Origen’s, some of which were considered heretical. In the Latin church, however, he was regarded as a saint, and his feast day was celebrated on December 4. In 1586, however, because some of his views were questioned in regard to their orthodoxy, Sixtus V deleted his name from the Roman martyrology.

Linwood Fredericksen



The nature of Western philosophy » General considerations » Factors in writing the history

The type of ordering suggested above also has some relationship to the more general problems of method in the writing of the history of philosophy. Here there are at least three factors that must be taken into account:

(1) that any philosopher’s doctrines depend (at least in part) upon those of his predecessors,
(2) that a philosopher’s thought occurs at a certain point in history and thus expresses the effects of certain social and cultural circumstances, and
(3) that a philosopher’s thought stems (at least in part) from his own personality and situation in life.

This is only to say that the history of philosophy, to be at all comprehensive and adequate, must deal with the mutual interplay of ideas, of cultural contexts, and of agents.

The first factor may be called logical because a given philosophy is, in part, the intellectual response to the doctrines of its forerunners, taking as central the problems given by the current climate of controversy. Thus, many of the details of Aristotle’s ethical, political, and metaphysical systems arise in arguments directed against statements and principles of Plato; much of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) by the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), an initiator of the Enlightenment, is directed against contemporary Cartesian presuppositions; and the New Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1704) by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), a broadly learned German rationalist, is, in turn, specifically directed against Locke.

The second factor may be called sociological because it considers philosophy, at least in part, as a direct form of social expression, arising at a certain moment in history, dated and marked by the peculiar problems and crises of the society in which it flourishes. From this perspective, the philosophy of Plato may be viewed as the response of an aristocratic elitism to the immediate threat of democracy and the leveling of values in 5th-century Athens—its social theory and even its metaphysics serving the movement toward an aristocratic restoration in the Greek world. Thus, the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas may be viewed as an effort toward doctrinal clarification in support of the institution of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, as the saint spent his life obediently fulfilling the philosophical tasks set for him by his superiors in the church and the Dominican order. Thus, the philosophy of Kant, with all of its technical vocabulary and rigid systematization, may be viewed as an expression of the new professionalism in philosophy, a clear product of the rebirth of the German universities during the 18th-century Enlightenment.

The third factor may be called biographical, or individual, because, with Hegel, it recognizes that philosophies are generally produced by people of unusual or independent personality, whose systems usually bear the mark of their creators. And what is meant here by the individuality of the philosopher lies less in the facts of his biography (such as his wealth or poverty) than in the essential form and style of his philosophizing. The cool intensity of Spinoza’s geometric search for wisdom, the unswerving (if opaque) discursiveness of Hegel’s quest for completeness or totality, the relentless and minute analytic search for distinctions and shades of meaning that marks Moore’s master passion (“to be accurate—to get everything exactly right”)—these qualities mark the philosophical writings of Spinoza, Hegel, and Moore with an unmistakably individual and original character.

John Locke
English philosopher

born Aug. 29, 1632, Wrington, Somerset, Eng.
died Oct. 28, 1704, High Laver, Essex, Eng.

English philosopher whose works lie at the foundation of modern philosophical empiricism and political liberalism. He was an inspirer of both the European Enlightenment and the Constitution of the United States. His philosophical thinking was close to that of the founders of modern science, especially Robert Boyle, Sir Isaac Newton, and other members of the Royal Society. His political thought was grounded in the notion of a social contract between citizens and in the importance of toleration, especially in matters of religion. Much of what he advocated in the realm of politics was accepted in England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 and in the United States after the country’s declaration of independence in 1776.

Early years
Locke’s family was sympathetic to Puritanism but remained within the Church of England, a situation that coloured Locke’s later life and thinking. Raised in Pensford, near Bristol, Locke was 10 years old at the start of the English Civil Wars between the monarchy of Charles I and parliamentary forces under the eventual leadership of Oliver Cromwell. Locke’s father, a lawyer, served as a captain in the cavalry of the parliamentarians and saw some limited action. From an early age, one may thus assume, Locke rejected any claim by the king to have a divine right to rule.

After the first Civil War ended in 1646, Locke’s father was able to obtain for his son, who had evidently shown academic ability, a place at Westminster School in distant London. It was to this already famous institution that Locke went in 1647, at age 14. Although the school had been taken over by the new republican government, its headmaster, Richard Busby (himself a distinguished scholar), was a royalist. For four years Locke remained under Busby’s instruction and control (Busby was a strong disciplinarian who much favoured the birch). In January 1649, just half a mile away from Westminster School, Charles was beheaded on the order of Cromwell. The boys were not allowed to attend the execution, though they were undoubtedly well aware of the events taking place nearby.

The curriculum of Westminster centred on Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, mathematics, and geography. In 1650 Locke was elected a King’s Scholar, an academic honour and financial benefit that enabled him to buy several books, primarily classic texts in Greek and Latin. Although Locke was evidently a good student, he did not enjoy his schooling; in later life he attacked boarding schools for their overemphasis on corporal punishment and for the uncivil behaviour of pupils. In his enormously influential work Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), he would argue for the superiority of private tutoring for the education of young gentlemen (see below Other works).

In the autumn of 1652 Locke, at the comparatively late age of 20, entered Christ Church, the largest of the colleges of the University of Oxford and the seat of the court of Charles I during the Civil Wars. But the royalist days of Oxford were now behind it, and Cromwell’s Puritan followers filled most of the positions. Cromwell himself was chancellor, and John Owen, Cromwell’s former chaplain, was vice-chancellor and dean. Owen and Cromwell were, however, concerned to restore the university to normality as soon as possible, and this they largely succeeded in doing.

Locke later reported that he found the undergraduate curriculum at Oxford dull and unstimulating. It was still largely that of the medieval university, focusing on Aristotle (especially his logic) and largely ignoring important new ideas about the nature and origins of knowledge that had been developed in writings by Francis Bacon (1561–1626), René Descartes (1596–1650), and other natural philosophers. Although their works were not on the official syllabus, Locke was soon reading them. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1656 and a master’s two years later, about which time he was elected a student (the equivalent of fellow) of Christ Church. At Oxford Locke made contact with some advocates of the new science, including Bishop John Wilkins, the astronomer and architect Christopher Wren, the physicians Thomas Willis and Richard Lower, the physicist Robert Hooke, and, most important of all, the eminent natural philosopher and theologian Robert Boyle. Locke attended classes in iatrochemistry (the early application of chemistry to medicine), and before long he was collaborating with Boyle on important medical research on human blood. Medicine from now on was to play a central role in his life.

The restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 was a mixed blessing for Locke. It led many of his scientific collaborators to return to London, where they soon founded the Royal Society, which provided the stimulus for much scientific research. But in Oxford the new freedom from Puritan control encouraged unruly behaviour and religious enthusiasms among the undergraduates. These excesses led Locke to be wary of rapid social change, an attitude that no doubt partly reflected his own childhood during the Civil Wars.

In his first substantial political work, Two Tracts on Government (composed in 1660 but not published until 1967), Locke defended a very conservative position: in the interest of political stability, a government is justified in legislating on any matter of religion that is not directly relevant to the essential beliefs of Christianity. This view, a response to the perceived threat of anarchy posed by sectarian differences, was diametrically opposed to the doctrine that he would later expound in Two Treatises of Government (1690).

In 1663 Locke was appointed senior censor in Christ Church, a post that required him to supervise the studies and discipline of undergraduates and to give a series of lectures. The resulting Essays on the Law of Nature (first published in 1954) constitutes an early statement of his philosophical views, many of which he retained more or less unchanged for the rest of his life. Of these probably the two most important were, first, his commitment to a law of nature, a natural moral law that underpins the rightness or wrongness of all human conduct, and, second, his subscription to the empiricist principle that all knowledge, including moral knowledge, is derived from experience and therefore not innate. These claims were to be central to his mature philosophy, both with regard to political theory and epistemology.

Association with Shaftesbury
In 1666 Locke was introduced to Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, later 1st earl of Shaftesbury, by a mutual acquaintance. As a member and eventually the leader of a group of opposition politicians known as the Whigs, Ashley was one of the most powerful figures in England in the first two decades after the Restoration. Ashley was so impressed with Locke at their first meeting that in the following year he asked him to join his London household in Exeter House in the Strand as his aide and personal physician, though Locke did not then have a degree in medicine. Politically, Ashley stood for constitutional monarchy, a Protestant succession, civil liberty, toleration in religion, the rule of Parliament, and the economic expansion of England. Locke either shared or soon came to share all these objectives with him, and it was not long before a deep—and for each an important—mutual understanding existed between them. Locke drafted papers on toleration, possibly for Ashley to use in parliamentary speeches. In his capacity as a physician, Locke was involved in a remarkable operation to insert a silver tube into a tumour on Ashley’s liver, which allowed it to be drained on a regular basis and relieved him of much pain. It remained in place for the remainder of Ashley’s life. Locke also found a suitable bride for Ashley’s son.

By 1668 Locke had become a fellow of the Royal Society and was conducting medical research with his friend Thomas Sydenham, the most distinguished physician of the period. Although Locke was undoubtedly the junior partner in their collaboration, they worked together to produce important research based on careful observation and a minimum of speculation. The method that Locke acquired and helped to develop in this work reinforced his commitment to philosophical empiricism. But it was not only medicine that kept Locke busy, for he was appointed by Ashley as secretary to the lords proprietors of Carolina, whose function was to promote the establishment of the North American colony. In that role Locke helped to draft The Fundamental Constitutions for the Government of Carolina (1669), which, among other provisions, guaranteed freedom of religion for all save atheists.

Throughout his time in Exeter House, Locke kept in close contact with his friends. Indeed, the long gestation of his most important philosophical work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), began at a meeting with friends in his rooms, probably in February 1671. The group had gathered to consider questions of morality and revealed religion (knowledge of God derived through revelation). Locke pointed out that, before they could make progress, they would need to consider the prior question of what the human mind is (and is not) capable of comprehending. It was agreed that Locke should prepare a paper on the topic for their next meeting, and it was this paper that became the first draft of his great work.

Exile in France
In 1672 Ashley was raised to the peerage as the 1st earl of Shaftesbury, and at the end of that year he was appointed lord chancellor of England. He was soon dismissed, however, having lost favour with Charles II. For a time Shaftesbury and Locke were in real danger, and it was partly for this reason that Locke traveled to France in 1675. By this time he had received his degree of bachelor of medicine from Oxford and been appointed to a medical studentship at Christ Church.

Locke remained in France for nearly four years (1675–79), spending much time in Paris and Montpelier; the latter possessed a large Protestant minority and the most important medical school in Europe, both of which were strong attractions for Locke. He made many friends in the Protestant community, including some leading intellectuals. His reading, on the other hand, was dominated by the works of French Catholic philosophers. But it was his medical interests that were the major theme of the journals he kept from this period. He was struck by the poverty of the local population and contrasted this unfavourably with conditions in England and with the vast amounts that the French king (Louis XIV) was spending on the Palace of Versailles. From time to time Locke turned to philosophical questions and added notes to his journal, some of which eventually found a place in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Back in England, Shaftesbury had been imprisoned for a year in the Tower of London but was released in February 1678. By the time Locke returned to England in 1679, Shaftesbury had been restored to favour as lord president of the Privy Council. The country, however, was torn by dissension over the exclusion controversy—the debate over whether a law could be passed to forbid (exclude) the succession of Charles II’s brother James, a Roman Catholic, to the English throne. Shaftesbury and Locke strongly supported exclusion. The controversy reached its apex in the hysteria of the so-called Popish Plot, a supposed Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles and replace him with James. The existence of the plot was widely accepted and resulted in the execution of many innocent people before its fabricator, the Anglican priest Titus Oates, was discredited.

Two Treatises of Government
When Shaftesbury failed to reconcile the interests of the king and Parliament, he was dismissed; in 1681 he was arrested, tried, and finally acquitted of treason by a London jury. A year later he fled to Holland, where in 1683 he died. None of Shaftesbury’s known friends was now safe in England. Locke himself, who was being closely watched, crossed to Holland in September 1683.

Out of this context emerged Locke’s major work in political philosophy, Two Treatises of Government (1690). Although scholars disagree over the exact date of its composition, it is certain that it was substantially composed before Locke fled to Holland. In this respect the Two Treatises was a response to the political situation as it existed in England at the time of the exclusion controversy, though its message was of much more lasting significance. In the preface to the work, composed at a later date, Locke makes clear that the arguments of the two treatises are continuous and that the whole constitutes a justification of the Glorious Revolution, which brought the Protestant William III and Mary II to the throne following the flight of James II to France.

It should be noted that Locke’s political philosophy was guided by his deeply held religious commitments. Throughout his life he accepted the existence of a creating God and the notion that all humans are God’s servants in virtue of that relationship. God created humans for a certain purpose, namely to live a life according to his laws and thus to inherit eternal salvation; most importantly for Locke’s philosophy, God gave humans just those intellectual and other abilities necessary to achieve this end. Thus, humans, using the capacity of reason, are able to discover that God exists, to identify his laws and the duties they entail, and to acquire sufficient knowledge to perform their duties and thereby to lead a happy and successful life. They can come to recognize that some actions, such as failing to care for one’s offspring or to keep one’s contracts, are morally reprehensible and contrary to natural law, which is identical to the law of God. Other specific moral laws can be discovered or known only through revelation—e.g., by reading the Bible or the Qurʾān.

The essentially Protestant Christian framework of Locke’s philosophy meant that his attitude toward Roman Catholicism would always be hostile. He rejected the claim of papal infallibility (how could it ever be proved?), and he feared the political dimensions of Catholicism as a threat to English autonomy, especially after Louis XIV in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had granted religious liberty to the Protestant Huguenots.

Two Treatises of Government » The first treatise
The first treatise was aimed squarely at the work of another 17th-century political theorist, Sir Robert Filmer, whose Patriarcha (1680, though probably written in the 1630s) defended the theory of divine right of kings: the authority of every king is divinely sanctioned by his descent from Adam—according to the Bible, the first king and the father of humanity. Locke claims that Filmer’s doctrine defies “common sense.” The right to rule by descent from Adam’s first grant could not be supported by any historical record or any other evidence, and any contract that God and Adam entered into would not be binding on remote descendants thousands of years later, even if a line of descent could be identified. His refutation was widely accepted as decisive, and in any event the theory of the divine right of kings ceased to be taken seriously in England after 1688.

Two Treatises of Government » The second treatise
Locke’s importance as a political philosopher lies in the argument of the second treatise. He begins by defining political power as a

right of making Laws with Penalties of Death, and consequently all less Penalties, for the Regulating and Preserving of Property, and of employing the force of the Community, in the Execution of such Laws and in defence of the Common-wealth from Foreign Injury, and all this only for the Publick Good.

Much of the remainder of the Treatise is a commentary on this paragraph.

Two Treatises of Government » The second treatise » The state of nature and the social contract
Locke’s definition of political power has an immediate moral dimension. It is a “right” of making laws and enforcing them for “the public good.” Power for Locke never simply means “capacity” but always “morally sanctioned capacity.” Morality pervades the whole arrangement of society, and it is this fact, tautologically, that makes society legitimate.

Locke’s account of political society is based on a hypothetical consideration of the human condition before the beginning of communal life. In this “state of nature,” humans are entirely free. But this freedom is not a state of complete license, because it is set within the bounds of the law of nature. It is a state of equality, which is itself a central element of Locke’s account. In marked contrast to Filmer’s world, there is no natural hierarchy among humans. Each person is naturally free and equal under the law of nature, subject only to the will of “the infinitely wise Maker.” Each person, moreover, is required to enforce as well as to obey this law. It is this duty that gives to humans the right to punish offenders. But in such a state of nature, it is obvious that placing the right to punish in each person’s hands may lead to injustice and violence. This can be remedied if humans enter into a contract with each other to recognize by common consent a civil government with the power to enforce the law of nature among the citizens of that state. Although any contract is legitimate as long as it does not infringe upon the law of nature, it often happens that a contract can be enforced only if there is some higher human authority to require compliance with it. It is a primary function of society to set up the framework in which legitimate contracts, freely entered into, may be enforced, a state of affairs much more difficult to guarantee in the state of nature and outside civil society.

Two Treatises of Government » The second treatise » Property
Before discussing the creation of political society in greater detail, Locke provides a lengthy account of his notion of property, which is of central importance to his political theory. Each person, according to Locke, has property in his own person—that is, each person literally owns his own body. Other people may not use a person’s body for any purpose without his permission. But one can acquire property beyond one’s own body through labour. By mixing one’s labour with objects in the world, one acquires a right to the fruits of that work. If one’s labour turns a barren field into crops or a pile of wood into a house, then the valuable product of that labour, the crops or the house, becomes one’s property. Locke’s view was a forerunner of the labour theory of value, which was expounded in different forms by the 19th-century economists David Ricardo and Karl Marx (see also classical economics).

Clearly, each person is entitled to as much of the product of his labour as he needs to survive. But, according to Locke, in the state of nature one is not entitled to hoard surplus produce—one must share it with those less fortunate. God has “given the World to Men in common…to make use of to the best advantage of Life, and convenience.” The introduction of money, while radically changing the economic base of society, was itself a contingent development, for money has no intrinsic value but depends for its utility only on convention.

Locke’s account of property and how it comes to be owned faces difficult problems. For example, it is far from clear how much labour is required to turn any given unowned object into a piece of private property. In the case of a piece of land, for example, is it sufficient merely to put a fence around it? Or must it be plowed as well? There is, nevertheless, something intuitively powerful in the notion that it is activity, or work, that grants one a property right in something.

Two Treatises of Government » The second treatise » Organization of government
Locke returns to political society in Chapter VIII of the second treatise. In the community created by the social contract, the will of the majority should prevail, subject to the law of nature. The legislative body is central, but it cannot create laws that violate the law of nature, because the enforcement of the natural law regarding life, liberty, and property is the rationale of the whole system. Laws must apply equitably to all citizens and not favour particular sectional interests, and there should be a division of legislative, executive, and judicial powers. The legislature may, with the agreement of the majority, impose such taxes as are required to fulfill the ends of the state—including, of course, its defense. If the executive power fails to provide the conditions under which the people can enjoy their rights under natural law, then the people are entitled to remove him, by force if necessary. Thus, revolution, in extremis, is permissible—as Locke obviously thought it was in 1688.

The significance of Locke’s vision of political society can scarcely be exaggerated. His integration of individualism within the framework of the law of nature and his account of the origins and limits of legitimate government authority inspired the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) and the broad outlines of the system of government adopted in the U.S. Constitution. George Washington, the first president of the United States, once described Locke as “the greatest man who had ever lived.” In France too, Lockean principles found clear expression in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and other justifications of the French Revolution of 1789.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
Locke remained in Holland for more than five years (1683–89). While there he made new and important friends and associated with other exiles from England. He also wrote his first Letter on Toleration, published anonymously in Latin in 1689, and completed An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding » Theory of ideas
A dominant theme of the Essay is the question with which the original discussion in Exeter House began: What is the capacity of the human mind for understanding and knowledge? In his prefatory chapter, Locke explains that the Essay is not offered as a contribution to knowledge itself but as a means of clearing away some of the intellectual rubbish that stands in the way of knowledge. He had in mind not only the medieval Scholastics and their followers but also some of his older contemporaries. The Scholastics—those who took Aristotle and his commentators to be the source of all philosophical knowledge and who still dominated teaching in universities throughout Europe—were guilty of introducing technical terms into philosophy (such as substantial form, vegetative soul, abhorrence of a vacuum, and intentional species) that upon examination had no clear sense—or, more often, no sense at all. Locke saw the Scholastics as an enemy that had to be defeated before his own account of knowledge could be widely accepted, something about which he was entirely right.

Locke begins the Essay by repudiating the view that certain kinds of knowledge—knowledge of the existence of God, of certain moral truths, or of the laws of logic or mathematics—are innate, imprinted on the human mind at its creation. (The doctrine of innate ideas, which was widely held to justify religious and moral claims, had its origins in the philosophy of Plato [428/427–348/347bce], who was still a powerful force in 17th-century English philosophy.) Locke argues to the contrary that an idea cannot be said to be “in the mind” until one is conscious of it. But human infants have no conception of God or of moral, logical, or mathematical truths, and to suppose that they do, despite obvious evidence to the contrary, is merely an unwarranted assumption to save a position. Furthermore, travelers to distant lands have reported encounters with people who have no conception of God and who think it morally justified to eat their enemies. Such diversity of religious and moral opinion cannot not be explained by the doctrine of innate ideas but can be explained, Locke held, on his own account of the origins of ideas.

In Book II he turns to that positive account. He begins by claiming that the sources of all knowledge are, first, sense experience (the red colour of a rose, the ringing sound of a bell, the taste of salt, and so on) and, second, “reflection” (one’s awareness that one is thinking, that one is happy or sad, that one is having a certain sensation, and so on). These are not themselves, however, instances of knowledge in the strict sense, but they provide the mind with the materials of knowledge. Locke calls the materials so provided “ideas.” Ideas are objects “before the mind,” not in the sense that they are physical objects but in the sense that they represent physical objects to consciousness.

All ideas are either simple or complex. All simple ideas are derived from sense experience, and all complex ideas are derived from the combination (“compounding”) of simple and complex ideas by the mind. Whereas complex ideas can be analyzed, or broken down, into the simple or complex ideas of which they are composed, simple ideas cannot be. The complex idea of a snowball, for example, can be analyzed into the simple ideas of whiteness, roundness, and solidity (among possibly others), but none of the latter ideas can be analyzed into anything simpler. In Locke’s view, therefore, a major function of philosophical inquiry is the analysis of the meanings of terms through the identification of the ideas that give rise to them. The project of analyzing supposedly complex ideas (or concepts) subsequently became an important theme in philosophy, especially within the analytic tradition, which began at the turn of the 20th century and became dominant at Cambridge, Oxford, and many other universities, especially in the English-speaking world.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding » Primary and secondary qualities
In the course of his account, Locke raises a host of related issues, many of which have since been the source of much debate. One of them is his illuminating distinction between the “primary” and “secondary” qualities of physical objects. Primary qualities include size, shape, weight, and solidity, among others, and secondary qualities include colour, taste, and smell. Ideas of primary qualities resemble the qualities as they are in the object—as one’s idea of the roundness of a snowball resembles the roundness of the snowball itself. However, ideas of secondary qualities do not resemble any property in the object; they are instead a product of the power that the object has to cause certain kinds of ideas in the mind of the perceiver. Thus, the whiteness of the snowball is merely an idea produced in the mind by the interaction between light, the primary qualities of the snowball, and the perceiver’s sense organs.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding » Personal identity
Locke discussed another problem that had not before received sustained attention: that of personal identity. Assuming one is the same person as the person who existed last week or the person who was born many years ago, what fact makes this so? Locke was careful to distinguish the notion of sameness of person from the related notions of sameness of body and sameness of man, or human being. Sameness of body requires identity of matter, and sameness of human being depends on continuity of life (as would the sameness of a certain oak tree from acorn to sapling to maturity); but sameness of person requires something else. Locke’s proposal was that personal identity consists of continuity of consciousness. One is the same person as the person who existed last week or many years ago if one has memories of the earlier person’s conscious experiences. Locke’s account of personal identity became a standard (and highly contested) position in subsequent discussions.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding » Association of ideas
A further influential section of Book II is Locke’s treatment of the association of ideas. Ideas, Locke observes, can become linked in the mind in such a way that having one idea immediately leads one to form another idea, even though the two ideas are not necessarily connected with each other. Instead, they are linked through their having been experienced together on numerous occasions in the past. The psychological tendency to associate ideas through experience, Locke says, has important implications for the education of children. In order to learn to adopt good habits and to avoid bad ones, children must be made to associate rewards with good behaviour and punishments with bad behaviour. Investigations into the associations that people make between ideas can reveal much about how human beings think. Through his influence on researchers such as the English physician David Hartley (1705–57), Locke contributed significantly to the development of the theory of associationism, or associationist psychology, in the 18th century. Association has remained a central topic of inquiry in psychology ever since.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding » Language
Having shown to his satisfaction that no idea requires for its explanation the hypothesis of innate ideas, Locke proceeds in Book III to examine the role of language in human mental life. His discussion is the first sustained philosophical inquiry in modern times into the notion of linguistic meaning. As elsewhere, he begins with rather simple and obvious claims but quickly proceeds to complex and contentious ones. Words, Locke says, stand for ideas in the mind of the person who uses them. It is by the use of words that people convey their necessarily private thoughts to each other. In addition, Locke insists, nothing exists except particulars, or individual things. There are, for example, many triangular things and many red things, but there is no general quality or property, over and above these things, that may be called “triangle” (“triangularity”) or “red” (“redness”) (see universal). Nevertheless, a large number of words are general in their application, applying to many particular things at once. Thus, words must be labels for both ideas of particular things (particular ideas) and ideas of general things (general ideas). The problem is, if everything that exists is a particular, where do general ideas come from?

Locke’s answer is that ideas become general through the process of abstraction. The general idea of a triangle, for example, is the result of abstracting from the properties of specific triangles only the residue of qualities that all triangles have in common—that is, having three straight sides. Although there are enormous problems with this account, alternatives to it are also fraught with difficulties.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding » Knowledge
In Book IV of the Essay, Locke reaches the putative heart of his inquiry, the nature and extent of human knowledge. His precise definition of knowledge entails that very few things actually count as such for him. In general, he excludes knowledge claims in which there is no evident connection or exclusion between the ideas of which the claim is composed. Thus, it is possible to know that white is not black whenever one has the ideas of white and black together (as when one looks at a printed page), and it is possible to know that the three angles of a triangle equal two right angles if one knows the relevant Euclidean proof. But it is not possible to know that the next stone one drops will fall downward or that the next glass of water one drinks will quench one’s thirst, even though psychologically one has every expectation, through the association of ideas, that it will. These are cases only of probability, not knowledge—as indeed is virtually the whole of scientific knowledge, excluding mathematics. Not that such probable claims are unimportant: humans would be incapable of dealing with the world except on the assumption that such claims are true. But for Locke they fall short of genuine knowledge.

There are, however, some very important things that can be known. For example, Locke agreed with Descartes that each person can know immediately and without appeal to any further evidence that he exists at the time that he considers it. One can also know immediately that the colour of the print on a page is different from the colour of the page itself—i.e., that black is not white—and that two is greater than one. It can also be proved from self-evident truths by valid argument (by an argument whose conclusion cannot be false if its premises are true) that a first cause, or God, must exist. Various moral claims also can be demonstrated—e.g., that parents have a duty to care for their children and that one should honour one’s contracts. People often make mistakes or poor judgments in their dealings with the world or each other because they are unclear about the concepts they use or because they fail to analyze the relevant ideas. Another great cause of confusion, however, is the human propensity to succumb to what Locke calls “Enthusiasm,” the adoption on logically inadequate grounds of claims that one is already disposed to accept.

One major problem that the Essay appeared to raise is that if ideas are indeed the immediate objects of experience, how is it possible to know that there is anything beyond them—e.g., ordinary physical objects? Locke’s answer to this problem, insofar as he recognized it as a problem, appears to have been that, because perception is a natural process and thus ordained by God, it cannot be generally misleading about the ontology of the universe. In the more skeptical age of the 18th century, this argument became less and less convincing. This issue dominated epistemology in the 18th century.

The Essay’s influence was enormous, perhaps as great as that of any other philosophical work apart from those of Plato and Aristotle. Its importance in the English-speaking world of the 18th century can scarcely be overstated. Along with the works of Descartes, it constitutes the foundation of modern Western philosophy.

Other works
Locke’s writings were not confined to political philosophy and epistemology. Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), for example, remains a standard source in the philosophy of education. It developed out of a series of letters that Locke had written from Holland to his friend Edward Clarke concerning the education of Clarke’s son, who was destined to be a gentleman but not necessarily a scholar. It emphasizes the importance of both physical and mental development—both exercise and study. The first requirement is to instill virtue, wisdom, and good manners. This is to be followed by book learning. For the latter, Locke gives a list of recommended texts on Latin, French, mathematics, geography, and history, as well as civil law, philosophy, and natural science. There should also be plenty of scope for recreation, including dancing and riding.

Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity(1695) is the most important of his many theological writings. Central to all of them is his belief that every individual has within him the abilities necessary to comprehend his duty and to achieve salvation with the aid of the Scriptures. Locke was constantly trying to steer a course that would allow individuals to accept the essential doctrines of Christianity while retaining a certain freedom of conscience. According to Locke, all Christians must accept Jesus as the Messiah and live in accordance with his teachings. Within this minimum framework, however, differences of worship could and should be tolerated. Locke was thus in many ways close to the Latitudinarian movement and other liberal theological trends. His influence on Protestant Christian thought for at least the next century was substantial.

Locke wrote no major work of moral philosophy. Although he sometimes claimed that it would be possible in principle to produce a deductive system of ethics comparable to Euclid’s geometry, he never actually produced one, and there is no evidence that he ever gave the matter more than minimal attention. He was quite sure, however, that through the use of reason human beings can gain access to and knowledge of basic moral truths, which ultimately arise from a moral order in “the soil of human nature.” As he expressed the point in Essays on the Law of Nature (1664), an early work expressing a position from which he never diverted,

since man has been made such as he is, equipped with reason and his other faculties and destined for this mode of life, there necessarily result from his inborn constitution some definite duties for him, which cannot be other than they are.

Just as one can discover from the nature of the triangle that its angles equal two right angles, so this moral order can be discovered by reason and is within the grasp of all human beings.

Last years and influence
Locke remained in Holland until James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution. Indeed, Locke himself in February 1689 crossed the English Channel in the party that accompanied the princess of Orange, who was soon crowned Queen Mary II of England. Upon his return he became actively involved in various political projects, including helping to draft the English Bill of Rights, though the version eventually adopted by Parliament did not go as far as he wanted in matters of religious toleration. He was offered a senior diplomatic post by William but declined. His health was rarely good, and he suffered especially in the smoky atmosphere of London. He was therefore very happy to accept the offer of his close friend Damaris Masham, herself a philosopher and the daughter of Ralph Cudworth, to make his home with her family at Oates in High Laver, Essex. There he spent his last years revising the Essay and other works, entertaining friends, including Newton, and responding at length to his critics. After a lengthy period of poor health, he died while Damaris read him the Bible. He was buried in High Laver church.

As a final comment on his achievement, it may be said that, in many ways, to read Locke’s works is the best available introduction to the intellectual environment of the modern Western world. His faith in the salutary, ennobling powers of knowledge justifies his reputation as the first philosopher of the Enlightenment. In a broader context, he founded a philosophical tradition, British empiricism, that would span three centuries. In developing the Whig ideology underlying the exclusion controversy and the Glorious Revolution, he formulated the classic expression of liberalism, which was instrumental in the great revolutions of 1776 and 1789. His influence remains strongly felt in the West, as the notions of mind, freedom, and authority continue to be challenged and explored.

Graham A.J. Rogers




Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
German philosopher and mathematician

born July 1 [June 21, old style], 1646, Leipzig
died November 14, 1716, Hannover, Hanover

German philosopher, mathematician, and political adviser, important both as a metaphysician and as a logician and distinguished also for his independent invention of the differential and integral calculus.

Early life and education
Leibniz was born into a pious Lutheran family near the end of the Thirty Years’ War, which had laid Germany in ruins. As a child, he was educated in the Nicolai School but was largely self-taught in the library of his father, who had died in 1652. At Easter time in 1661, he entered the University of Leipzig as a law student; there he came into contact with the thought of men who had revolutionized science and philosophy—men such as Galileo, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and René Descartes. Leibniz dreamed of reconciling—a verb that he did not hesitate to use time and again throughout his career—these modern thinkers with the Aristotle of the Scholastics. His baccalaureate thesis, De Principio Individui (“On the Principle of the Individual”), which appeared in May 1663, was inspired partly by Lutheran nominalism (the theory that universals have no reality but are mere names) and emphasized the existential value of the individual, who is not to be explained either by matter alone or by form alone but rather by his whole being (entitate tota). This notion was the first germ of the future “monad.” In 1666 he wrote De Arte Combinatoria (“On the Art of Combination”), in which he formulated a model that is the theoretical ancestor of some modern computers: all reasoning, all discovery, verbal or not, is reducible to an ordered combination of elements, such as numbers, words, sounds, or colours.

After completing his legal studies in 1666, Leibniz applied for the degree of doctor of law. He was refused because of his age and consequently left his native city forever. At Altdorf—the university town of the free city of Nürnberg—his dissertation De Casibus Perplexis (“On Perplexing Cases”) procured him the doctor’s degree at once, as well as the immediate offer of a professor’s chair, which, however, he declined. During his stay in Nürnberg, he met Johann Christian, Freiherr von Boyneburg, one of the most distinguished German statesmen of the day. Boyneburg took him into his service and introduced him to the court of the prince elector, the archbishop of Mainz, Johann Philipp von Schönborn, where he was concerned with questions of law and politics.

King Louis XIV of France was a growing threat to the German Holy Roman Empire. To ward off this danger and divert the King’s interests elsewhere, the Archbishop hoped to propose to Louis a project for an expedition into Egypt; because he was using religion as a pretext, he expressed the hope that the project would promote the reunion of the church. Leibniz, with a view toward this reunion, worked on the Demonstrationes Catholicae. His research led him to situate the soul in a point—this was new progress toward the monad—and to develop the principle of sufficient reason (nothing occurs without a reason). His meditations on the difficult theory of the point were related to problems encountered in optics, space, and movement; they were published in 1671 under the general title Hypothesis Physica Nova (“New Physical Hypothesis”). He asserted that movement depends, as in the theory of the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, on the action of a spirit (God).

In 1672 the Elector sent the young jurist on a mission to Paris, where he arrived at the end of March. In September, Leibniz met with Antoine Arnauld, a Jansenist theologian (Jansenism was a nonorthodox Roman Catholic movement that spawned a rigoristic form of morality) known for his writings against the Jesuits. Leibniz sought Arnauld’s help for the reunion of the church. He was soon left without protectors by the deaths of Freiherr von Boyneburg in December 1672 and of the Elector of Mainz in February 1673; he was now, however, free to pursue his scientific studies. In search of financial support, he constructed a calculating machine and presented it to the Royal Society during his first journey to London, in 1673.

Late in 1675 Leibniz laid the foundations of both integral and differential calculus. With this discovery, he ceased to consider time and space as substances—another step closer to monadology. He began to develop the notion that the concepts of extension and motion contained an element of the imaginary, so that the basic laws of motion could not be discovered merely from a study of their nature. Nevertheless, he continued to hold that extension and motion could provide a means for explaining and predicting the course of phenomena. Thus, contrary to Descartes, Leibniz held that it would not be contradictory to posit that this world is a well-related dream. If visible movement depends on the imaginary element found in the concept of extension, it can no longer be defined by simple local movement; it must be the result of a force. In criticizing the Cartesian formulation of the laws of motion, known as mechanics, Leibniz became, in 1676, the founder of a new formulation, known as dynamics, which substituted kinetic energy for the conservation of movement. At the same time, beginning with the principle that light follows the path of least resistance, he believed that he could demonstrate the ordering of nature toward a final goal or cause.

The Hanoverian period
Leibniz continued his work but was still without an income-producing position. By October 1676, however, he had accepted a position in the employment of John Frederick, the duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg. John Frederick, a convert to Catholicism from Lutheranism in 1651, had become duke of Hanover in 1665. He appointed Leibniz librarian, but, beginning in February 1677, Leibniz solicited the post of councillor, which he was finally granted in 1678. It should be noted that, among the great philosophers of his time, he was the only one who had to earn a living. As a result, he was always a jack-of-all-trades to royalty.

Trying to make himself useful in all ways, Leibniz proposed that education be made more practical, that academies be founded; he worked on hydraulic presses, windmills, lamps, submarines, clocks, and a wide variety of mechanical devices; he devised a means of perfecting carriages and experimented with phosphorus. He also developed a water pump run by windmills, which ameliorated the exploitation of the mines of the Harz Mountains, and he worked in these mines as an engineer frequently from 1680 to 1685. Leibniz is considered to be among the creators of geology because of the observations he compiled there, including the hypothesis that the Earth was at first molten. These many occupations did not stop his work in mathematics: In March 1679 he perfected the binary system of numeration (i.e., using two as a base), and at the end of the same year he proposed the basis for analysis situs, now known as general topology, a branch of mathematics that deals with selected properties of collections of related physical or abstract elements. He was also working on his dynamics and his philosophy, which was becoming increasingly anti-Cartesian. At this point, Duke John Frederick died on Jan. 7, 1680, and his brother, Ernest Augustus I, succeeded him.

France was growing more intolerant at home—from 1680 to 1682 there were harsh persecutions of the Protestants that paved the way for the revocation of the Edict of Nantes on Oct. 18, 1685—and increasingly menacing on its frontiers, for as early as 1681, despite the reigning peace, Louis XIV took Strasbourg and laid claim to 10 cities in Alsace. France was thus becoming a real danger to the empire, which had already been shaken on the east by a Hungarian revolt and by the advance of the Turks, who had been stopped only by the victory of John III Sobieski, king of Poland, at the siege of Vienna in 1683. Leibniz served both his prince and the empire as a patriot. He suggested to his prince a means of increasing the production of linen and proposed a process for the desalinization of water; he recommended classifying the archives and wrote, in both French and Latin, a violent pamphlet against Louis XIV.

During this same period Leibniz continued to perfect his metaphysical system through research into the notion of a universal cause of all being, attempting to arrive at a starting point that would reduce reasoning to an algebra of thought. He also continued his developments in mathematics; in 1681 he was concerned with the proportion between a circle and a circumscribed square and, in 1684, with the resistance of solids. In the latter year he published Nova Methodus pro Maximis et Minimis (“New Method for the Greatest and the Least”), which was an exposition of his differential calculus.

Leibniz’ noted Meditationes de Cognitione, Veritate et Ideis (Reflections on Knowledge, Truth, and Ideas) appeared at this time and defined his theory of knowledge: things are not seen in God—as Nicolas Malebranche suggested—but rather there is an analogy, a strict relation, between God’s ideas and man’s, an identity between God’s logic and man’s. In February 1686, Leibniz wrote his Discours de métaphysique (Discourse on Metaphysics). In the March publication of Acta, he disclosed his dynamics in a piece entitled Brevis Demonstratio Erroris Memorabilis Cartesii et Aliorum Circa Legem Naturae (“Brief Demonstration of the Memorable Error of Descartes and Others About the Law of Nature”). A further development of Leibniz’ views, revealed in a text written in 1686 but long unpublished, was his generalization concerning propositions that in every true affirmative proposition, whether necessary or contingent, the predicate is contained in the notion of the subject. It can be said that, at this time, with the exception of the word monad (which did not appear until 1695), his philosophy of monadology was defined.

In 1685 Leibniz was named historian for the House of Brunswick and, on this occasion, Hofrat (“court adviser”). His job was to prove, by means of genealogy, that the princely house had its origins in the House of Este, an Italian princely family, which would allow Hanover to lay claim to a ninth electorate. In search of these documents, Leibniz began travelling in November 1687. Going by way of southern Germany, he arrived in Austria, where he learned that Louis XIV had once again declared a state of war; in Vienna, he was well received by the Emperor; he then went to Italy. Everywhere he went, he met scientists and continued his scholarly work, publishing essays on the movement of celestial bodies and on the duration of things. He returned to Hanover in mid-July 1690. His efforts had not been in vain. In October 1692 Ernest Augustus obtained the electoral investiture.

Until the end of his life, Leibniz continued his duties as historian. He did not, however, restrict himself to a genealogy of the House of Brunswick; he enlarged his goal to a history of the Earth, which included such matters as geological events and descriptions of fossils. He searched by way of monuments and linguistics for the origins and migrations of peoples; then for the birth and progress of the sciences, ethics, and politics; and, finally, for the elements of a historia sacra. In this project of a universal history, Leibniz never lost sight of the fact that everything interlocks. Even though he did not succeed in writing this history, his effort was influential because he devised new combinations of old ideas and invented totally new ones.

In 1691 Leibniz was named librarian at Wolfenbüttel and propagated his discoveries by means of articles in scientific journals. In 1695 he explained a portion of his dynamic theory of motion in the Système nouveau (“New System”), which treated the relationship of substances and the preestablished harmony between the soul and the body: God does not need to bring about man’s action by means of his thoughts, as Malebranche asserted, or to wind some sort of watch in order to reconcile the two; rather, the Supreme Watchmaker has so exactly matched body and soul that they correspond—they give meaning to each other—from the beginning. In 1697, De Rerum Originatione (On the Ultimate Origin of Things) tried to prove that the ultimate origin of things can be none other than God. In 1698, De Ipsa Natura (“On Nature Itself”) explained the internal activity of nature in terms of Leibniz’ theory of dynamics.

All of these writings opposed Cartesianism, which was judged to be damaging to faith. Plans for the creation of German academies followed in rapid succession. With the help of the electress Sophia Charlotte, daughter of Ernest Augustus and soon to become the first queen of Prussia (January 1701), the German Academy of Sciences in Berlin was founded on July 11, 1700.

On Jan. 23, 1698, Ernest Augustus died, and his son, George Louis, succeeded him. Leibniz found himself confronted with an uneducated, boorish prince, a reveller who kept him in the background. Leibniz took advantage of every pretext to leave Hanover; he was constantly on the move; his only comfort lay in his friendship with Sophia Charlotte and her mother, Princess Sophia. Once again, he set to work on the reunion of the church: in Berlin, it was a question of uniting the Lutherans and the Calvinists; in Paris, he had to subdue Bishop Bénigne Bossuet’s opposition; in Vienna (to which Leibniz returned in 1700) he enlisted the support of the Emperor, which carried great weight; in England, it was the Anglicans who needed convincing.

The death in England of William, duke of Gloucester, in 1700 made George Louis, great-grandson of James I, a possible heir to the throne. It fell to Leibniz, jurist and historian, to develop his arguments concerning the rights of the House of Braunschweig-Lüneburg with respect to this succession.

The War of the Spanish Succession began in March 1701 and did not come to a close until September 1714, with the Treaty of Baden. Leibniz followed its episodes as a patriot hostile to Louis XIV. His fame as a philosopher and scientist had by this time spread all over Europe; he was named a foreign member by the Academy of Sciences of Paris in 1700 and was in correspondence with most of the important European scholars of the day. If he was publishing little at this point, it was because he was writing Théodicée, which was published in 1710. In this work he set down his ideas on divine justice.

Leibniz was impressed with the qualities of the Russian tsar Peter the Great, and in October 1711 the ruler received him for the first time. Following this, he stayed in Vienna until September 1714, and during this time the Emperor promoted him to the post of Reichhofrat (“adviser to the empire”) and gave him the title of Freiherr (“baron”). About this time he wrote the Principes de la nature et de la Grâce fondés en raison, which inaugurated a kind of preestablished harmony between these two orders. Further, in 1714 he wrote the Monadologia, which synthesized the philosophy of the Théodicée. In August 1714, the death of Queen Anne brought George Louis to the English throne under the name of George I. Returning to Hanover, where he was virtually placed under house arrest, Leibniz set to work once again on the Annales Imperii Occidentis Brunsvicenses (1843–46; “Braunschweig Annals of the Western Empire”). At Bad-Pyrmont, he met with Peter the Great for the last time in June 1716. From that point on, he suffered greatly from gout and was confined to his bed until his death.

Leibniz was a man of medium height with a stoop, broad-shouldered but bandy-legged, as capable of thinking for several days sitting in the same chair as of travelling the roads of Europe summer and winter. He was an indefatigable worker, a universal letter writer (he had more than 600 correspondents), a patriot and cosmopolitan, a great scientist, and one of the most powerful spirits of Western civilization.

Yvon Belaval


The nature of Western philosophy » General considerations » Shifts in the focus and concern of Western philosophy
Any adequate treatment of individual figures in the history of philosophy tries to utilize this threefold division of logical, sociological, and individual factors; but in a synoptic view of the history of philosophy in the West, one is particularly aware of the various shifts of focus and concern that philosophy has sustained and, indeed, of the often profound differences in the way that it defines itself or visualizes its task from age to age or from generation to generation.

Philosophy among the Greeks slowly emerged out of religious awe into wonder about the principles and elements of the natural world. But as the Greek populations more and more left the land to become concentrated in their cities, interest shifted from nature to social living; questions of law and convention and civic values became paramount. Cosmological speculation partly gave way to moral and political theorizing, and the preliminary and somewhat fragmentary questionings of Socrates and the Sophists turned into the great positive constructions of Plato and Aristotle. With the political and social fragmentation of the succeeding centuries, however, philosophizing once again shifted from the norm of civic involvement to problems of salvation and survival in a chaotic world.

The dawn of Christianity brought to philosophy new tasks. St. Augustine (354–430)—the philosophical bishop of Hippo—and the Church Fathers used such resources of the Greek tradition as remained (chiefly Platonism) to deal with problems of creation, of faith and reason, and of truth. New translations in the 12th century made much of Aristotle’s philosophy available and prepared the way for the great theological constructions of the 13th century, chiefly those of the Scholastic philosophers St. Bonaventure (c. 1217–74), St. Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–80), St. Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon (c. 1220–92), and John Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308). The end of the Middle Ages saw a new flowering of the opposite tendencies in the nominalism of William of Ockham (c. 1285–c. 1347) and the mysticism of Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1327).

The Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance. Universalism was replaced by nationalism. Philosophy became secularized. The great new theme was that of the mystery and immensity of the natural world. The best philosophical minds of the 17th century turned to the task of exploring the foundations of physical science, and the symbol of their success—the great system of physics constructed by Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727)—turned the philosophers of the Enlightenment to epistemology and to the examination of the human mind that had produced so brilliant a scientific creation. The 19th century, a time of great philosophical diversity, discovered the irrational, and in so doing prepared the way for the 20th-century oppositions between logical atomism and phenomenology and between logical positivism and existentialism.

Although the foregoing capsule presentation of the history of philosophy in the West follows a strict chronology, it does not do justice to the constant occurrence and recurrence of dominant strands in the history of thought. It would also be possible to write the philosophical history of the Middle Ages simply by noting the complicated occurrence of Platonic and Aristotelian doctrines, of the Renaissance according to the reappearance of ancient materialism, Stoicism, and skepticism, and of the 18th century in terms of the competing claims of rationalist and empiricist principles. Thus, chronology and the interweaving of philosophical systems cooperate in a history of philosophy.

Albert William Levi


Saint Augustine
Christian bishop and theologian
also called Saint Augustine of Hippo, original Latin name Aurelius Augustinus
born Nov. 13, 354, Tagaste, Numidia [now Souk Ahras, Algeria]
died Aug. 28, 430, Hippo Regius [now Annaba, Algeria]

feast day August 28, bishop of Hippo from 396 to 430, one of the Latin Fathers of the Church, one of the Doctors of the Church, and perhaps the most significant Christian thinker after St. Paul. Augustine’s adaptation of classical thought to Christian teaching created a theological system of great power and lasting influence. His numerous written works, the most important of which are Confessions and City of God, shaped the practice of biblical exegesis and helped lay the foundation for much of medieval and modern Christian thought.

Augustine is remarkable for what he did and extraordinary for what he wrote. If none of his written works had survived, he would still have been a figure to be reckoned with, but his stature would have been more nearly that of some of his contemporaries. However, more than five million words of his writings survive, virtually all displaying the strength and sharpness of his mind (and some limitations of range and learning) and some possessing the rare power to attract and hold the attention of readers in both his day and ours. His distinctive theological style shaped Latin Christianity in a way surpassed only by scripture itself. His work continues to hold contemporary relevance, in part because of his membership in a religious group that was dominant in the West in his time and remains so today.

Intellectually, Augustine represents the most influential adaptation of the ancient Platonic tradition with Christian ideas that ever occurred in the Latin Christian world. Augustine received the Platonic past in a far more limited and diluted way than did many of his Greek-speaking contemporaries, but his writings were so widely read and imitated throughout Latin Christendom that his particular synthesis of Christian, Roman, and Platonic traditions defined the terms for much later tradition and debate. Both modern Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity owe much to Augustine, though in some ways each community has at times been embarrassed to own up to that allegiance in the face of irreconcilable elements in his thought. For example, Augustine has been cited as both a champion of human freedom and an articulate defender of divine predestination, and his views on sexuality were humane in intent but have often been received as oppressive in effect.

Life overview
Augustine was born in Tagaste, a modest Roman community in a river valley 40 miles (64 km) from the African coast. It lay just a few miles short of the point where the veneer of Roman civilization thinned out in the highlands of Numidia in the way the American West opens before a traveler leaving the Mississippi River valley. Augustine’s parents were of the respectable class of Roman society, free to live on the work of others, but their means were sometimes straitened. They managed, sometimes on borrowed money, to acquire a first-class education for Augustine, and, although he had at least one brother and one sister, he seems to have been the only child sent off to be educated. He studied first in Tagaste, then in the nearby university town of Madauros, and finally at Carthage, the great city of Roman Africa. After a brief stint teaching in Tagaste, he returned to Carthage to teach rhetoric, the premier science for the Roman gentleman, and he was evidently very good at it.

While still at Carthage, he wrote a short philosophical book aimed at displaying his own merits and advancing his career; unfortunately, it is lost. At the age of 28, restless and ambitious, Augustine left Africa in 383 to make his career in Rome. He taught there briefly before landing a plum appointment as imperial professor of rhetoric at Milan. The customary residence of the emperor at the time, Milan was the de facto capital of the Western Roman Empire and the place where careers were best made. Augustine tells us that he, and the many family members with him, expected no less than a provincial governorship as the eventual—and lucrative—reward for his merits.

Augustine’s career, however, ran aground in Milan. After only two years there, he resigned his teaching post and, after some soul-searching and apparent idleness, made his way back to his native town of Tagaste. There he passed the time as a cultured squire, looking after his family property, raising the son, Adeodatus, left him by his long-term lover (her name is unknown) taken from the lower classes, and continuing his literary pastimes. The death of that son while still an adolescent left Augustine with no obligation to hand on the family property, and so he disposed of it and found himself, at age 36, literally pressed into service against his will as a junior clergyman in the coastal city of Hippo, north of Tagaste.

The transformation was not entirely surprising. Augustine had always been a dabbler in one form or another of the Christian religion, and the collapse of his career at Milan was associated with an intensification of religiosity. All his writings from that time onward were driven by his allegiance to a particular form of Christianity both orthodox and intellectual. His coreligionists in North Africa accepted his distinctive stance and style with some difficulty, and Augustine chose to associate himself with the “official” branch of Christianity, approved by emperors and reviled by the most enthusiastic and numerous branches of the African church. Augustine’s literary and intellectual abilities, however, gave him the power to articulate his vision of Christianity in a way that set him apart from his African contemporaries. His unique gift was the ability to write at a high theoretical level for the most discerning readers and still be able to deliver sermons with fire and fierceness in an idiom that a less cultured audience could admire.

Made a “presbyter” (roughly, a priest, but with less authority than modern clergy of that title) at Hippo in 391, Augustine became bishop there in 395 or 396 and spent the rest of his life in that office. Hippo was a trading city, without the wealth and culture of Carthage or Rome, and Augustine was never entirely at home there. He would travel to Carthage for several months of the year to pursue ecclesiastical business in a milieu more welcoming to his talents than that of his adopted home city.

Augustine’s educational background and cultural milieu trained him for the art of rhetoric: declaring the power of the self through speech that differentiated the speaker from his fellows and swayed the crowd to follow his views. That Augustine’s training and natural talent coincided is best seen in an episode when he was in his early 60s and found himself quelling by force of personality and words an incipient riot while visiting the town of Caesarea Mauretanensis. The style of the rhetorician carried over in his ecclesiastical persona throughout his career. He was never without controversies to fight, usually with others of his own religion. In his years of rustication and early in his time at Hippo, he wrote book after book attacking Manichaeism, a Christian sect he had joined in his late teens and left 10 years later when it became impolitic to remain with them. For the next 20 years, from the 390s to the 410s, he was preoccupied with the struggle to make his own brand of Christianity prevail over all others in Africa. The native African Christian tradition had fallen afoul of the Christian emperors who succeeded Constantine (reigned 305–337) and was reviled as schismatic; it was branded with the name of Donatism after Donatus, one of its early leaders. Augustine and his chief colleague in the official church, Bishop Aurelius of Carthage, fought a canny and relentless campaign against it with their books, with their recruitment of support among church leaders, and with careful appeal to Roman officialdom. In 411 the reigning emperor sent an official representative to Carthage to settle the quarrel. A public debate held in three sessions during June 1–8 and attended by hundreds of bishops on each side ended with a ruling in favour of the official church. The ensuing legal restrictions on Donatism decided the struggle in favour of Augustine’s party.

Even then, approaching his 60th year, Augustine found—or manufactured—a last great challenge for himself. Taking umbrage at the implications of the teachings of a traveling society preacher named Pelagius, Augustine gradually worked himself up to a polemical fever over ideas that Pelagius may or may not have espoused. Other churchmen of the time were perplexed and reacted with some caution to Augustine, but he persisted, even reviving the battle against austere monks and dignified bishops through the 420s. At the time of his death, he was at work on a vast and shapeless attack on the last and most urbane of his opponents, the Italian bishop Julian of Eclanum.

Through these years, Augustine had carefully built for himself a reputation as a writer throughout Africa and beyond. His careful cultivation of selected correspondents had made his name known in Gaul, Spain, Italy, and the Middle East, and his books were widely circulated throughout the Mediterranean world. In his last years he compiled a careful catalog of his books, annotating them with bristling defensiveness to deter charges of inconsistency. He had opponents, many of them heated in their attacks on him, but he usually retained their respect by the power and effectiveness of his writing.

His fame notwithstanding, Augustine died a failure. When he was a young man, it was inconceivable that the Pax Romana could fall, but in his last year he found himself and his fellow citizens of Hippo prisoners to a siege laid by a motley army of invaders who had swept into Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar. Called the Vandals by contemporaries, the attacking forces comprised a mixed group of “barbarians” and adventurers searching for a home. Hippo fell shortly after Augustine’s death, and Carthage not long after. The Vandals, holders to a more fiercely particularist version of the Christian creed than any of those Augustine had lived with in Africa, would rule in Africa for a century, until Roman forces sent from Constantinople invaded again and overthrew their regime. But Augustine’s legacy in his homeland was effectively terminated with his lifetime. A revival of orthodox Christianity in the 6th century under the patronage of Constantinople was brought to an end in the 7th with the Islamic invasions that permanently removed North Africa from the sphere of Christian influence until the thin Christianization, now rapidly disappearing, of French colonialism in the 19th century.

Augustine survived in his books. His habit of cataloging them served his surviving collaborators well. Somehow, essentially the whole of Augustine’s literary oeuvre survived and escaped Africa intact. The story was told that his mortal remains went to Sardinia and thence to Pavia (Italy), where a shrine concentrates reverence on what is said to be those remains. Whatever the truth of the story, some organized withdrawal to Sardinia on the part of Augustine’s followers, bearing his body and his books, is not impossible and remains the best surmise.

Life retold
As outlined above, the story of Augustine’s life will seem in numerous ways unfamiliar to readers who already know some of it. The story of his early life is exceedingly well known—better known than that of virtually any other Greek or Roman worthy. Augustine’s Confessions recounts that early life with immense persuasiveness, and few biographers can resist abridging that story to serve their own purposes. Yet it is a story told with a sophisticated purpose, highly selective in its choice of incident and theological in its structure. The goal of the book was ultimately self-justification and self-creation. Modestly successful in Augustine’s lifetime, the book has been triumphant ever since, defining his life on his terms in ways both obvious and subtle.

For Augustine the defining moment of his life was the time of his religious conversion to an intense and highly individual form of Christianity. He dated this experience to his time in Milan, and in relation to this he explained his ensuing career. But contemporaries found it odd to single out that particular moment—when he was conveniently away from Africa and from any scrutiny of his motives and actions—in a life that was not always as he seemed to narrate it. None of the handful of Augustine’s contemporaries known to have read the Confessions was persuaded by its narrative of youthful dissipation turned to austere maturity. Augustine was always dutiful and restrained. Neither he nor any of his modern biographers has yet succeeded in getting at the essence of his personality. The hostages he left to psychobiography in the Confessions have not made it any easier for modern readers to find him; in an odd way, the Freudian readings of Augustine common in the 20th century shared with him an emphasis on the selected emotional high points he chose to narrate and so were captives of his own storytelling.

The observable facts about Augustine’s religious history are that he was born to a mother, Monnica, who was a baptized Christian and a father, Patricius, who would take baptism on his deathbed when Augustine was in his teens. Neither was particularly devout, but Monnica became more demonstratively religious in her widowhood and is venerated as St. Monica. Augustine was enrolled as a pre-baptismal candidate in the Christian church as a young child, and at various points in his life he considered baptism but deferred out of prudence. (In that age, before the prevalence of infant baptism, it was common for baptism to be delayed until the hour of death and then used to wash away a lifetime of sins.) His classical education was supplemented by a curious but dismissive reading of the Christian scriptures, but he then fell in with the Manichaeans, enjoying their company and their polemics, in which he took eager part, for most of a decade. He sheltered himself with them and used them for political influence even after he claimed to have dissociated himself from their beliefs; he abandoned them when he found himself in Milan. It was there, where Ambrose was making a name for himself as a champion of orthodoxy, that Augustine found orthodoxy—or at least found orthodoxy satisfactory as something a gentleman could practice.

But when Augustine accepted baptism at the hands of Ambrose in 387, thereby joining the religion of his mother to the cultural practices of his father, he managed to make it a Christianity of his own. To some extent influenced by Ambrose (but few others influenced by Ambrose went in the same direction), Augustine made his Christianity into a rival to and replacement for the austerity of ancient philosophers. Reading Platonic texts and correctly understanding some of their doctrine, Augustine decided for himself that Christianity was possible only if he went further than any churchman said he was required to go—he chose to remain celibate even though he was a layman and under no requirement to do so. His life with a succession of lovers ended, Augustine accepted sexual abstinence as the price of religion. After a long winter in retirement from the temptations of the city, he presented himself to Ambrose for baptism, then slipped away from Milan to pursue a singularly private life for the next four years. That this life ended in his entering the Christian clergy was something he did not foresee, and he should probably be believed when he says that he did not want it. It was in office as Christian bishop of Hippo that he chose to tell the story of his life as a drama of fall and rise, sin and conversion, desolation and grace. He told that story at a time when his own credentials were suspect—his Donatist opponents thought it queer, or at least suspiciously self-serving, that he left Africa a raving Manichaean and returned meekly claiming to have been baptized in the official church. It is likely that his telling of the story was meant to reassure his followers and disarm his opponents.

If the Confessions had not survived, we would not surmise its story. We should learn to hear it without letting its self-interested narrative blind us to a fresh reading of Augustine’s life.

Chief works
Two of Augustine’s works stand out above the others for their lasting influence, but they have had very different fates. City of God was widely read in Augustine’s time and throughout the Middle Ages and still demands attention today, but it is impossible to read without a determined effort to place it in its historical context. The Confessions was not much read in the first centuries of the Middle Ages, but from the 12th century onward it has been continuously read as a vivid portrayal of an individual’s struggle for self-definition in the presence of a powerful God.

Chief works » Confessions
Although autobiographical narrative makes up much of the first 9 of the 13 books of Augustine’s Confessiones (397; Confessions), autobiography is incidental to the main purpose of the work. For Augustine confessions is a catchall term for acts of religiously authorized speech: praise of God, blame of self, confession of faith. The book is a richly textured meditation by a middle-aged man (Augustine was in his early 40s when he wrote it) on the course and meaning of his own life. The dichotomy between past odyssey and present position of authority as bishop is emphasized in numerous ways in the book, not least in that what begins as a narrative of childhood ends with an extended and very churchy discussion of the book of Genesis—the progression is from the beginnings of a man’s life to the beginnings of human society.

Between those two points the narrative of sin and redemption holds most readers’ attention. Those who seek to find in it the memoirs of a great sinner are invariably disappointed, indeed often puzzled at the minutiae of failure that preoccupy the author. Of greater significance is the account of redemption. Augustine is especially influenced by the powerful intellectual preaching of the suave and diplomatic Bishop Ambrose, who reconciles for him the attractions of the intellectual and social culture of antiquity, in which Augustine was brought up and of which he was a master, and the spiritual teachings of Christianity. The link between the two was Ambrose’s exposition, and Augustine’s reception, of a selection of the doctrines of Plato, as mediated in late antiquity by the school of Neoplatonism. Augustine heard Ambrose and read, in Latin translation, some of the exceedingly difficult works of Plotinus and Porphyry; he acquired from them an intellectual vision of the fall and rise of the soul of man, a vision he found confirmed in the reading of the Bible proposed by Ambrose.

Religion for Augustine, however, was never merely a matter of the intellect. The seventh book of the Confessions recounts a perfectly satisfactory intellectual conversion, but the extraordinary eighth book takes him one necessary step further. Augustine could not bring himself to seek the ritual purity of baptism without cleansing himself of the desires of the flesh to an extreme degree. For him, baptism required renunciation of sexuality in all its express manifestations. The narrative of the Confessions shows Augustine forming the will to renounce sexuality through a reading of the letters of Paul. The decisive scene occurs in a garden in Milan, where a child’s voice seems to bid Augustine to “take up and read,” whereupon he finds in Paul’s writings the inspiration to adopt a life of chastity.

The rest of the Confessions is mainly a meditation on how the continued study of scripture and pursuit of divine wisdom are still inadequate for attaining perfection and how, as bishop, Augustine makes peace with his imperfections. It is drenched in language from the Bible and is a work of great force and artistry.

Chief works » City of God
Fifteen years after Augustine wrote the Confessions, at a time when he was bringing to a close (and invoking government power to do so) his long struggle with the Donatists but before he had worked himself up to action against the Pelagians, the Roman world was shaken by news of a military action in Italy. A ragtag army under the leadership of Alaric, a general of Germanic ancestry and thus credited with leading a “barbarian” band, had been seeking privileges from the empire for many years, making from time to time extortionate raids against populous and prosperous areas. Finally, in 410, his forces attacked and seized the city of Rome itself, holding it for several days before decamping to the south of Italy. The military significance of the event was nil—such was the disorder of Roman government that other war bands would hold provinces hostage more and more frequently, and this particular band would wander for another decade before settling mainly in Spain and the south of France. But the symbolic effect of seeing the city of Rome taken by outsiders for the first time since the Gauls had done so in 390 bc shook the secular confidence of many thoughtful people across the Mediterranean. Coming as it did less than 20 years after the decisive edict against “paganism” by the emperor Theodosius I in 391, it was followed by speculation that perhaps the Roman Empire had mistaken its way with the gods. Perhaps the new Christian god was not as powerful as he seemed. Perhaps the old gods had done a better job of protecting their followers.

It is hard to tell how seriously or widely such arguments were made; paganism by this time was in disarray, and Christianity’s hold on the reins of government was unshakable. But Augustine saw in the murmured doubts a splendid polemical occasion he had long sought, and so he leapt to the defense of God’s ways. That his readers and the doubters whose murmurs he had heard were themselves pagans is unlikely. At the very least, it is clear that his intended audience comprised many people who were at least outwardly affiliated with the Christian church. During the next 15 years, working meticulously through a lofty architecture of argument, he outlined a new way to understand human society, setting up the City of God over and against the City of Man. Rome was dethroned—and the sack of the city shown to be of no spiritual importance—in favour of the heavenly Jerusalem, the true home and source of citizenship for all Christians. The City of Man was doomed to disarray, and wise men would, as it were, keep their passports in order as citizens of the City above, living in this world as pilgrims longing to return home.

De civitate Dei contra paganos (413–426/427; City of God) is divided into 22 books. The first 10 refute the claims to divine power of various pagan communities. The last 12 retell the biblical story of mankind from Genesis to the Last Judgment, offering what Augustine presents as the true history of the City of God against which, and only against which, the history of the City of Man, including the history of Rome, can be properly understood. The work is too long and at times, particularly in the last books, too discursive to make entirely satisfactory reading today, but it remains impressive as a whole and fascinating in its parts. The stinging attack on paganism in the first books is memorable and effective, the encounter with Platonism in books 8–10 is of great philosophical significance, and the last books (especially book 19, with a vision of true peace) offer a view of human destiny that would be widely persuasive for at least a thousand years. In a way, Augustine’s City of God is (even consciously) the Christian rejoinder to Plato’s Republic and Cicero’s imitation of Plato, his own Republic. City of God would be read in various ways throughout the Middle Ages, at some points virtually as a founding document for a political order of kings and popes that Augustine could hardly have imagined. At its heart is a powerful contrarian vision of human life, one which accepts the place of disaster, death, and disappointment while holding out hope of a better life to come, a hope that in turn eases and gives direction to life in this world.

Chief works » Reconsiderations
In many ways no less unusual a book than his Confessions, the Retractationes (426–427; Reconsiderations), written in the last years of his life, offers a retrospective rereading of Augustine’s career. In form, the book is a catalog of his writings with comments on the circumstances of their composition and with the retractions or rectifications he would make in hindsight. (One effect of the book was to make it much easier for medieval readers to find and identify authentic works of Augustine, and this was surely a factor in the remarkable survival of so much of what he wrote.) Another effect of the book is to imprint even more deeply on readers Augustine’s own views of his life. There is very little in the work that is false or inaccurate, but the shaping and presentation make it a work of propaganda. The Augustine who emerges has been faithful, consistent, and unwavering in his doctrine and life. Many who knew him would have seen instead either progress or outright tergiversation, depending on their point of view.

Other works
None of Augustine’s other works has the currency or readership of his two masterpieces. Of greatest interest are the following:

Other works » Christian Doctrine
De doctrina christiana (books 1–3 396/397, book 4 426; Christian Doctrine) was begun in the first years of Augustine’s episcopacy but finished 30 years later. This imitation of Cicero’s Orator for Christian purposes sets out a theory of the interpretation of scripture and offers practical guidance to the would-be preacher. It was widely influential in the Middle Ages as an educational treatise claiming the primacy of religious teaching based on the Bible. Its emphasis on allegorical interpretation of scripture, carried out within very loose parameters, was especially significant, and it remains of interest to philosophers for its subtle and influential discussion of Augustine’s theory of “signs” and how language represents reality.

Other works » The Trinity
The most widespread and longest-lasting theological controversies of the 4th century focused on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity—that is, the threeness of God represented in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Augustine’s Africa had been left out of much of the fray, and most of what was written on the subject was in Greek, a language Augustine barely knew and had little access to. But he was keenly aware of the prestige and importance of the topic, and so in 15 books he wrote his own exposition of it, De trinitate (399/400–416/421; The Trinity). Augustine is carefully orthodox, after the spirit of his and succeeding times, but adds his own emphasis in the way he teaches the resemblance between God and man: the threeness of God he finds reflected in a galaxy of similar triples in the human soul, and he sees there both food for meditation and deep reason for optimism about the ultimate human condition.

Other works » Literal Commentary on Genesis
The creation narrative of the book of Genesis was for Augustine scripture par excellence. He wrote at least five sustained treatises on those chapters (if we include the last three books of the Confessions and books 11–14 of City of God). His De genesi ad litteram (401–414/415; Literal Commentary on Genesis) was the result of many years of work from the late 390s to the early 410s. Its notion of “literal” commentary will surprise many moderns, for there is little historical exposition of the narrative and much on the implicit relationship between Adam and Eve and fallen mankind. It should be noted that a subtext of all of Augustine’s writing on Genesis was his determination to validate the goodness of God and of creation itself against Manichaean dualism.

Other works » Sermons
Almost one-third of Augustine’s surviving works consists of sermons—more than 1.5 million words, most of them taken down by shorthand scribes as he spoke extemporaneously. They cover a wide range. Many are simple expositions of scripture read aloud at a particular service according to church rules, but Augustine followed certain programs as well. There are sermons on all 150 Psalms, deliberately gathered by him in a separate collection, Enarrationes in Psalmos (392–418; Enarrations on the Psalms). These are perhaps his best work as a homilist, for he finds in the uplifting spiritual poetry of the Hebrews messages that he can apply consistently to his view of austere, hopeful, realistic Christianity; his ordinary congregation in Hippo would have drawn sustenance from them. At a higher intellectual level are his Tractatus in evangelium Iohannis CXXIV (413–418?; Tractates on the Gospel of John), amounting to a full commentary on the most philosophical of the Gospel texts. Other sermons range over much of scripture, but it is worth noting that Augustine had little to say about the prophets of the Old Testament, and what he did have to say about Paul appeared in his written works rather than in his public sermons.

Other works » Early writings
Moderns enamoured of Augustine from the narrative in the Confessions have given much emphasis to his short, attractive early works, several of which mirror the style and manner of Ciceronian dialogues with a new, Platonized Christian content: Contra academicos (386; Against the Academics), De ordine (386; On Providence), De beata vita (386; On the Blessed Life), and Soliloquia (386/387; Soliloquies). These works both do and do not resemble Augustine’s later ecclesiastical writings and are greatly debated for their historical and biographical significance, but the debates should not obscure the fact that they are charming and intelligent pieces. If they were all we had of Augustine, he would remain a well-respected, albeit minor, figure in late Latin literature.

Other works » Controversial writings
More than 100 titled works survive from Augustine’s pen, the majority of them devoted to the pursuit of issues in one or another of the ecclesiastical controversies that preoccupied his episcopal years.

Of his works against the Manichaeans, the Confessions probably remains the most attractive and interesting; the sect itself is too little known today for detailed refutation of its more idiosyncratic Gnostic doctrines to have much weight.

Augustine’s anti-Donatist polemic, on the other hand, has had a modern resonance for its role in creating the relationship between church and state (in Augustine’s case, church and state using each other deliberately to achieve their ends) and in arguing the case for a universal church against local particularism. To the young and still Anglican John Henry Newman, what Augustine had written about the provincial self-satisfaction of the Donatists seemed an equally effective argument against the Church of England. For the theology, Augustine in De baptismo contra Donatistas (401; On Baptism) expounds his anti-Donatist views most effectively, but the stenographic Gesta Collationis Carthaginensis (411; “Acts of the Council of Carthage”) offers a vivid view of the politics and bad feeling of the schism.

The issues raised by Augustine’s attacks on Pelagianism have had a long history in Christianity, notoriously resurfacing in the Reformation’s debates over free will and predestination. De spiritu et littera (412; On the Spirit and the Letter) comes from an early moment in the controversy, is relatively irenic, and beautifully sets forth his point of view. De gratia Christi et de peccato originali (418; On the Grace of Christ and on Original Sin) is a more methodical exposition. The hardest positions Augustine takes in favour of predestination in his last years appear in De praedestinatione sanctorum (429; The Predestination of the Blessed) and De dono perseverantiae (429; The Gift of Perseverance).

Augustine’s spirit and achievement
Augustine’s impact on the Middle Ages cannot be underestimated. Thousands of manuscripts survive, and many serious medieval libraries—possessing no more than a few hundred books in all—had more works of Augustine than of any other writer. His achievement is paradoxical inasmuch as—like a modern artist who makes more money posthumously than in life—most of it was gained after his death and in lands and societies far removed from his own. Augustine was read avidly in a world where Christian orthodoxy prevailed in a way he could barely have dreamed of, hence a world unlike that to which his books were meant to apply.

Some of his success is owed to the undeniable power of his writing, some to his good luck in having maintained a reputation for orthodoxy unblemished even by debates about some of his most extreme views, but, above all, Augustine found his voice in a few themes which he espoused eloquently throughout his career. When he asks himself in his early Soliloquies what he desires to know, he replies, “Two things only, God and the soul.” Accordingly, he speaks of his reverence for a God who is remote, distant, and mysterious as well as powerfully and unceasingly present in all times and places. “Totus ubique” was Augustine’s oft-repeated mantra for this doctrine, “The whole of him everywhere.”

At the same time, Augustine captures the poignancy and tentativeness of the human condition, centred on the isolated and individual experience of the person. For all he writes of the Christian community, his Christian stands alone before God and is imprisoned in a unique body and soul painfully aware of the different way he knows himself and knows—at a distance and with difficulty—other people. Augustine must have been an overpowering friend to many who knew him, a whirlwind and almost bullying force, but at the same time we see no friend of his as intimate as Atticus was to Cicero or Lou Andreas-Salomé was to Rainer Maria Rilke—two other eloquent loners.

But Augustine achieves a greater poignancy. His isolated self in the presence of God is denied even the satisfaction of solipsism: the self does not know itself until God deigns to reveal to human beings their identity, and even then no confidence, no rest is possible in this life. At one point in the Confessions the mature bishop ruefully admits that “I do not know to what temptation I will surrender next”—and sees in that uncertainty the peril of his soul unending until God should call him home. The soul experiences freedom of choice and ensuing slavery to sin but knows that divine predestination will prevail.

Thousands upon thousands of pages have been written on Augustine and his views. Given his influence, he is often canvassed for his opinion on controversies (from the Immaculate Conception of Mary to the ethics of contraception) that he barely imagined or could have spoken to. But the themes of imperial God and contingent self run deep and go far to explain his refusal to accept Manichaean doctrines of a powerful devil at war with God, Donatist particularism in the face of universal religion, or Pelagian claims of human autonomy and confidence. His views on sexuality and the place of women in society have been searchingly tested and found wanting in recent years, but they, too, have roots in the loneliness of a man terrified of his father—or his God.

In the end, Augustine and his own experience, so vividly displayed and at the same time veiled in his Confessions, disappear from view, to be replaced by the serene teacher depicted in medieval and Renaissance art. It is worth remembering that Augustine ended his life in the midst of a community that feared for its material well-being and chose to spend his last days in a room by himself, posting on a wall where he could see them the texts of the seven penitential Psalms, to wrestle one last time with his sins before meeting his maker.

James O’Donnell




Saint Bonaventure
Italian theologian
Italian San Bonaventura, original name Giovanni Di Fidanza

born c. 1217, Bagnoregio, Papal States
died July 15, 1274, Lyon; canonized April 14, 1482; feast day July 15

leading medieval theologian, minister general of the Franciscan order, and cardinal bishop of Albano. He wrote several works on the spiritual life and recodified the constitution of his order (1260). He was declared a doctor (teacher) of the church in 1587.

He was a son of Giovanni of Fidanza, a physician, and Maria of Ritella. He fell ill while a boy and, according to his own words, was saved from death by the intercession of St. Francis of Assisi. Entering the University of Paris in 1235, he received the master of arts degree in 1243 and then joined the Franciscan order, which named him Bonaventure in 1244. He studied theology in the Franciscan school at Paris from 1243 to 1248. His masters, especially Alexander of Hales, recognized in him a student with a keen memory and unusual intelligence. He was also under the tutelage of John of La Rochelle. After their deaths (1245) he studied further under Eudes Rigauld and William of Meliton. He was later probably influenced by the Dominican Guerric of Saint-Quentin.

By turning the pursuit of truth into a form of divine worship, he integrated his study of theology with the Franciscan mode of the mendicant life. In 1248, he began to teach the Bible; from 1251 to 1253 he lectured on the Sentences, a medieval theology textbook by Peter Lombard, an Italian theologian of the 12th century, and he became a master of theology in 1254, when he assumed control of the Franciscan school in Paris. He taught there until 1257, producing many works, notably commentaries on the Bible and the Sentences and the Breviloquium (“Summary”), which presented a summary of his theology. These works showed his deep understanding of Scripture and the Fathers of the early church—principally St. Augustine—and a wide knowledge of the philosophers, particularly Aristotle.

Bonaventure was particularly noted in his day as a man with the rare ability to reconcile diverse traditions in theology and philosophy. He united different doctrines in a synthesis containing his personal conception of truth as a road to the love of God. In 1256 he defended the Franciscan ideal of the Christian life against William of Saint-Amour, a university teacher who accused the mendicants (friars who wandered about and begged for a living) of defaming the Gospel by their practice of poverty and who wanted to prevent the Franciscans and their fellow mendicants, the Dominicans, from attaining teaching positions. Bonaventure’s defense of the Franciscans and his personal probity as a member of his religious order led to his election as minister general of the Franciscans on Feb. 2, 1257.

Founded by St. Francis according to strict views about poverty, the Franciscan order was at that time undergoing internal discord. One group, the Spirituals, disrupted the order by a rigorous view of poverty; another, the Relaxati, disturbed it by a laxity of life. Bonaventure used his authority so prudently that, placating the first group and reproving the second, he preserved the unity of the order and reformed it in the spirit of St. Francis. The work of restoration and reconciliation owed its success to Bonaventure’s tireless visits, despite delicate health, to each province of the order and to his own personal realization of the Franciscan ideal. In his travels, he preached the Gospel constantly and so elegantly that he was recognized everywhere as a most eloquent preacher. As a theologian, he based the revival of the order on his conception of the spiritual life, which he expounded in mystical treatises manifesting his Franciscan experience of contemplation as a perfection of the Christian life. His Journey of the Mind to God (1259) was a masterpiece showing the way by which man as a creature ought to love and contemplate God through Christ after the example of St. Francis. Revered by his order, Bonaventure recodified its constitutions (1260), wrote for it a new Life of St. Francis of Assisi (1263), and protected it (1269) from an assault by Gerard of Abbeville, a teacher of theology at Paris, who renewed the charge of William of Saint-Amour. He also protected the church during the period 1267–73 by upholding the Christian faith while denouncing the views of unorthodox masters at Paris who contradicted revelation in their philosophy.

Bonaventure’s wisdom and ability to reconcile opposing views moved Pope Gregory X to name him cardinal bishop of Albano, Italy, in May 1273, though Bonaventure had declined to accept appointment to the see of York, England, from Pope Clement IV in 1265. Gregory consecrated him in November at Lyon, where he resigned as minister general of the Franciscans in May 1274. At the second Council of Lyon he was the leading figure in the reform of the church, reconciling the secular (parish) clergy with the mendicant orders. He also had a part in restoring the Greek church to union with Rome. His death, at the council, was viewed as the loss of a wise and holy man, full of compassion and virtue, captivating with love all who knew him. He was buried the same day in a Franciscan church with the pope in attendance. The respect and love that was held for Bonaventure is exemplified in the formal announcement of the council: “At the funeral there was much sorrow and tears; for the Lord has given him this grace, that all who saw him were filled with an immense love for him.” His exemplary life as a Franciscan and the continual influence of his doctrine on the life and devotion of the Western church won for him a declaration of sanctity by Pope Sixtus IV; he was designated a doctor of the church by Sixtus V.

Modern scholars consider him to have been one of the foremost men of his age, an intrepid defender of human and divine truth, and an outstanding exponent of a mystical and Christian wisdom.

The critical edition of St. Bonaventure’s works is Opera omnia, 10 vol. (1882–1902). Translations of his works by Jose de Vinck are “The Journey of the Mind to God,” in vol. 1 of The Works of Bonaventure (1960); and vol. 2, Breviloquium (1963).

John Francis Quinn




Saint Albertus Magnus
German theologian, scientist, and philosopher
English Saint Albert The Great, German Sankt Albert Der Grosse, byname Albert Of Cologne, or Of Lauingen, or Doctor Universalis (Latin: “Universal Doctor”)

born c. 1200, Lauingen an der Donau, Swabia [Germany]
died November 15, 1280, Cologne; canonized Dec. 16, 1931; feast day November 15

Dominican bishop and philosopher best known as a teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas and as a proponent of Aristotelianism at the University of Paris. He established the study of nature as a legitimate science within the Christian tradition. By papal decree in 1941, he was declared the patron saint of all who cultivate the natural sciences. He was the most prolific writer of his century and was the only scholar of his age to be called “the Great”; this title was used even before his death.

Albertus was the eldest son of a wealthy German lord. After his early schooling, he went to the University of Padua, where he studied the liberal arts. He joined the Dominican order at Padua in 1223. He continued his studies at Padua and Bologna and in Germany and then taught theology at several convents throughout Germany, lastly at Cologne.

Sometime before 1245 he was sent to the Dominican convent of Saint-Jacques at the University of Paris, where he came into contact with the works of Aristotle, newly translated from Greek and Arabic, and with the commentaries on Aristotle’s works by Averroës, a 12th-century Spanish-Arabian philosopher. At Saint-Jacques he lectured on the Bible for two years and then for another two years on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the theological textbook of the medieval universities. In 1245 he was graduated master in the theological faculty and obtained the Dominican chair “for foreigners.”

It was probably at Paris that Albertus began working on a monumental presentation of the entire body of knowledge of his time. He wrote commentaries on the Bible and on the Sentences; he alone among medieval scholars made commentaries on all the known works of Aristotle, both genuine and spurious, paraphrasing the originals but frequently adding “digressions” in which he expressed his own observations, “experiments,” and speculations. The term experiment for Albertus indicates a careful process of observing, describing, and classifying. His speculations were open to Neoplatonic thought. Apparently in response to a request that he explain Aristotle’s Physics, Albertus undertook—as he states at the beginning of his Physica—“to make . . . intelligible to the Latins” all the branches of natural science, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, ethics, economics, politics, and metaphysics. While he was working on this project, which took about 20 years to complete, he probably had among his disciples Thomas Aquinas, who arrived at Paris late in 1245.

Albertus distinguished the way to knowledge by revelation and faith from the way of philosophy and of science; the latter follows the authorities of the past according to their competence, but it also makes use of observation and proceeds by means of reason and intellect to the highest degrees of abstraction. For Albertus these two ways are not opposed; there is no “double truth”—one truth for faith and a contradictory truth for reason. All that is really true is joined in harmony. Although there are mysteries accessible only to faith, other points of Christian doctrine are recognizable both by faith and by reason—e.g., the doctrine of the immortality of the individual soul. He defended this doctrine in several works against the teaching of the Averroists (Latin followers of Averroës), who held that only one intellect, which is common to all human beings, remains after the death of man.

Albertus’ lectures and publications gained him great renown. He came to be quoted as readily as the Arabian philosophers Avicenna and Averroës and even Aristotle himself. Roger Bacon, a contemporary English scholar who was by no means friendly toward Albertus, spoke of him as “the most noted of Christian scholars.”

In the summer of 1248, Albertus was sent to Cologne to organize the first Dominican studium generale (“general house of studies”) in Germany. He presided over the house until 1254 and devoted himself to a full schedule of studying, teaching, and writing. During this period his chief disciple was Thomas Aquinas, who returned to Paris in 1252. The two men maintained a close relationship even though doctrinal differences began to appear. From 1254 to 1257 Albertus was provincial of “Teutonia,” the German province of the Dominicans. Although burdened with added administrative duties, he continued his writing and scientific observation and research.

Albertus resigned the office of provincial in 1257 and resumed teaching in Cologne. In 1259 he was appointed by the pope to succeed the bishop of Regensburg, and he was installed as bishop in January 1260. After Alexander IV died in 1261, Albertus was able to resign his episcopal see. He then returned to his order and to teaching at Cologne. From 1263 to 1264 he was legate of Pope Urban IV, preaching the crusade throughout Germany and Bohemia; subsequently, he lectured at Würzburg and at Strasbourg. In 1270 he settled definitively at Cologne, where, as he had done in 1252 and in 1258, he made peace between the archbishop and his city.

During his final years he made two long journeys from Cologne. In 1274 he attended the second Council of Lyon, France, and spoke in favour of acknowledging Rudolf of Habsburg as German king. In 1277 he traveled to Paris to uphold the recently condemned good name and writings of Thomas Aquinas, who had died a few years before, and to defend certain Aristotelian doctrines that both he and Thomas held to be true.

Albertus’ works represent the entire body of European knowledge of his time not only in theology but also in philosophy and the natural sciences. His importance for medieval science essentially consists in his bringing Aristotelianism to the fore against reactionary tendencies in contemporary theology. On the other hand, without feeling any discrepancy in it, he also gave the widest latitude to Neoplatonic speculation, which was continued by Ulrich of Strasbourg and by the German mystics of the 14th century. It was by his writings on the natural sciences, however, that he exercised the greatest influence. Albertus must be regarded as unique in his time for having made accessible and available the Aristotelian knowledge of nature and for having enriched it by his own observations in all branches of the natural sciences. A preeminent place in the history of science is accorded to him because of this achievement.




John Duns Scotus
Scottish philosopher and theologian
Latin given name Joannes, byname Doctor Subtilis
born c. 1266, Duns, Lothian [now in Scottish Borders], Scotland
died November 8, 1308, Cologne [Germany]

influential Franciscan realist philosopher and scholastic theologian who pioneered the classical defense of the doctrine that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived without original sin (the Immaculate Conception). He also argued that the Incarnation was not dependent on the fact that man had sinned, that will is superior to intellect and love to knowledge, and that the essence of heaven consists in beatific love rather than the vision of God.

Early life and career
As the historian Ernest Renan noted, there is perhaps no other great medieval thinker whose life is as little known as that of Duns Scotus. Yet patient research during the 20th century has unearthed a number of facts. Early 14th-century manuscripts, for instance, state explicitly that John Duns was a Scot, from Duns, who belonged to the English province of Friars Minor (the order founded by Francis of Assisi), that “he flourished at Cambridge, Oxford, and Paris and died in Cologne.”

Though accounts of his early schooling and entry into the Franciscan Order are unreliable, Duns Scotus would have learned as a novice of St. Francis’s personal love for Christ in the Eucharist, his reverence for the priesthood, and his loyalty to “the Lord Pope”—themes given special emphasis in Duns Scotus’s own theology. In addition, he would have studied interpretations of St. Francis’s thought, particularly those of St. Bonaventure, who saw the Franciscan ideal as a striving for God through learning that will culminate in a mystical union of love. In his early Lectura Oxoniensis, Duns Scotus insisted that theology is not a speculative but a practical science of God and that man’s ultimate goal is union with the divine Trinity through love. Though this union is known only by divine revelation, philosophy can prove the existence of an infinite being, and herein lies its merit and service to theology. Duns Scotus’s own intellectual journey to God is to be found in his prayerful Tractatus de primo principio (A Treatise on God As First Principle, 1966), perhaps his last work.

Jurisdictionally, the Scots belonged to the Franciscan province of England, whose principal house of studies was at the University of Oxford, where Duns Scotus apparently spent 13 years (1288–1301) preparing for inception as master of theology. There is no record of where he took the eight years of preliminary philosophical training (four for a bachelor’s and four for the master’s degrees) required to enter such a program.

After studying theology for almost four years, John Duns was ordained priest by Oliver Sutton, bishop of Lincoln (the diocese to which Oxford belonged). Records show the event took place at St. Andrew’s Church in Northampton on March 17, 1291. In view of the minimum age requirements for the priesthood, this suggests that Duns Scotus must have been born no later than March 1266, certainly not in 1274 or 1275 as earlier historians maintained.

Duns Scotus would have spent the last four years of the 13-year program as bachelor of theology, devoting the first year to preparing lectures on Peter Lombard’s Sentences—the textbook of theology in the medieval universities—and the second to delivering them. A bachelor’s role at this stage was not to give a literal explanation of this work but rather to pose and solve questions of his own on topics that paralleled subject “distinctions” in Lombard. Consequently, the questions Duns Scotus discussed in his Lectura Oxoniensis ranged over the whole field of theology. When he had finished, he began to revise and enlarge them with a view to publication. Such a revised version was called an ordinatio, in contrast to his original notes (lectura) or a student report (reportatio) of the actual lecture. If such a report was corrected by the lecturer himself, it became a reportatio examinata. From a date mentioned in the prologue, it is clear that in 1300 Duns Scotus was already at work on his monumental Oxford commentary on the Sentences, known as the Ordinatio or Opus Oxoniense.

Statutes of the university required that the third year be devoted to lectures on the Bible; and, in the final year, the bachelor formatus, as he was called, had to take part in public disputations under different masters, including his own. In Duns Scotus’s case, this last year can be dated rather precisely, for his name occurs among the 22 Oxford Franciscans, including the two masters of theology, Adam of Howden and Philip of Bridlington, who were presented to Bishop Dalderby on July 26, 1300, for faculties, or the proper permissions to hear confessions of the great crowds that thronged to the Franciscans’ church in the city. Because the friars had but one chair of theology and the list of trained bachelors waiting to incept was long, regent masters were replaced annually. Adam was the 28th and Philip the 29th Oxford master, so that Philip’s year of regency was just beginning. It must have coincided with Duns Scotus’s final and 13th year because an extant disputation of Bridlington as master indicates John Duns was the bachelor respondent. This means that by June of 1301 he had completed all the requirements for the mastership in theology; yet, in view of the long line ahead of him, there was little hope of incepting as master at Oxford for perhaps a decade to come.

Years at the University of Paris
When the turn came for the English province to provide a talented candidate for the Franciscan chair of theology at the more prestigious University of Paris, Duns Scotus was appointed. One reportatio of his Paris lectures indicates that he began commenting on the Sentences there in the autumn of 1302 and continued to June 1303. Before the term ended, however, the university was affected by the long-smouldering feud between King Philip IV and Pope Boniface VIII. The issue was taxation of church property to support the king’s wars with England. When Boniface excommunicated him, the monarch retaliated by calling for a general church council to depose the pope. He won over the French clergy and the university. On June 24, 1303, a great antipapal demonstration took place. Friars paraded in the Paris streets. Berthold of Saint-Denis, bishop of Orleans and former chancellor of the university, together with two Dominicans and two Franciscans, addressed the meeting. On the following day royal commissioners examined each member of the Franciscan house to determine whether he was with or against the king. Some 70 friars, mostly French, sided with Philip, while the rest (some 80 odd) remained loyal to the pope, among them John Duns Scotus and Master Gonsalvus Hispanus. The penalty was exile from France within three days. Boniface countered with a bull of August 15 suspending the university’s right to give degrees in theology or canon and civil law. As a result of his harassment and imprisonment by the king’s minister, however, Boniface died in October and was succeeded by Pope Benedict XI. In the interests of peace, Benedict lifted the ban against the university in April 1304, and shortly afterwards the king facilitated the return of students.

Where Duns Scotus spent the exile is unclear. Possibly his Cambridge lectures stem from this period, although they may have been given during the academic year of 1301–02 before coming to Paris. At any rate, Duns Scotus was back before the summer of 1304, for he was the bachelor respondent in the disputatio in aula (“public disputation”) when his predecessor, Giles of Ligny, was promoted to master. On November 18 of that same year, Gonsalvus, who had been elected minister general of the Franciscan order at the Pentecost chapter, or meeting, assigned as Giles’s successor “Friar John Scotus, of whose laudable life, excellent knowledge, and most subtle ability as well as his other remarkable qualities I am fully informed, partly from long experience, partly from report which has spread everywhere.”

The period following Duns Scotus’s inception as master in 1305 was one of great literary activity. Aided by a staff of associates and secretaries, he set to work to complete his Ordinatio begun at Oxford, using not only the Oxford and Cambridge lectures but also those of Paris. A search of manuscripts reveals a magisterial dispute Duns Scotus conducted with the Dominican master, Guillaume Pierre Godin, against the thesis that matter is the principle of individuation (the metaphysical principle that makes an individual thing different from other things of the same species), but so far no questions publicly disputed ordinarie—i.e., in regular turn with the other regent masters—have been discovered. There is strong evidence, however, that some questions of this sort existed but were eventually incorporated into the Ordinatio. Duns Scotus did conduct one solemn quodlibetal disputation, so called because the master accepted questions on any topic (de quodlibet) and from any bachelor or master present (a quodlibet). The 21 questions Duns Scotus treated were later revised, enlarged, and organized under two main topics, God and creatures. Though less extensive in scope than the Ordinatio, these Quaestiones quodlibetales are scarcely less important because they represent his most mature thinking. Indeed, Duns Scotus’s renown depends principally on these two major works.

The short but important Tractatus de primo principio, a compendium of what reason can prove about God, draws heavily upon the Ordinatio. The remaining authentic works seem to represent questions discussed privately for the benefit of the Franciscan student philosophers or theologians. They include, in addition to the Collationes (from both Oxford and Paris), the Quaestiones in Metaphysicam Aristotelis and a series of logical questions occasioned by the Neoplatonist Porphyry’s Isagoge and Aristotle’s De praedicamentis, De interpretatione, and De sophisticis elenchis. These works certainly postdate the Oxford Lectura and may even belong to the Parisian period. Antonius Andreus, an early follower who studied under Duns Scotus at Paris, expressly says his own commentaries on Porphyry and De praedicamentis are culled from statements of Duns Scotus sedentis super cathedram magistralem (“sitting on the master’s chair”).

Final period at Cologne
In 1307 Duns Scotus was appointed professor at Cologne. Some have suggested that Gonsalvus sent Scotus to Cologne for his own safety. His controversial claim that Mary need never have contracted original sin seemed to conflict with the doctrine of Christ’s universal redemption. Duns Scotus’s effort was to show that the perfect mediation would be preventative, not merely curative. Though his brilliant defense of the Immaculate Conception marked the turning point in the history of the doctrine, it was immediately challenged by secular and Dominican colleagues. When the question arose in a solemn quodlibetal disputation, the secular master Jean de Pouilly, for example, declared the Scotist thesis not only improbable but even heretical. Should anyone be so presumptuous as to assert it, he argued impassionedly, one should proceed against him “not with arguments but otherwise.” At a time when Philip IV had initiated heresy trials against the wealthy Knights Templars, Pouilly’s words have an ominous ring. There seems to have been something hasty about Duns Scotus’s departure in any case. Writing a century later, the Scotist William of Vaurouillon referred to the traditional account that Duns Scotus received the minister general’s letter while walking with his students and set out at once for Cologne, taking little or nothing with him. Duns Scotus lectured at Cologne until his death. His body at present lies in the nave of the Franciscan church near the Cologne cathedral, and in many places he is venerated as blessed.

Whatever the reason for his abrupt departure from Paris, Duns Scotus certainly left his Ordinatio and Quodlibet unfinished. Eager pupils completed the works, substituting materials from reportationes examinatae for the questions Duns Scotus left undictated. The critical Vatican edition begun in 1950 is aimed at, among other things, reconstructing the Ordinatio as Duns Scotus left it, with all his corrigenda, or corrections.

Despite their imperfect form, Duns Scotus’s works were widely circulated. His claim that universal concepts are based on a “common nature” in individuals was one of the central issues in the 14th-century controversy between Realists and Nominalists concerning the question of whether general types are figments of the mind or are real. Later this same Scotist principle deeply influenced Charles Sanders Peirce, an American philosopher, who considered Duns Scotus the greatest speculative mind of the Middle Ages as well as one of the “profoundest metaphysicians that ever lived.” His strong defense of the papacy against the divine right of kings made him unpopular with the English Reformers of the 16th century, for whom “dunce” (a Dunsman) became a word of obloquy, yet his theory of intuitive cognition suggested to John Calvin, the Genevan Reformer, how God may be “experienced.” During the 16th to 18th centuries among Catholic theologians, Duns Scotus’s following rivaled that of Thomas Aquinas and in the 17th century outnumbered that of all the other schools combined.

The Rev. Allan Bernard Wolter, O.F.M.




William of Ockham
English philosopher
also called William Ockham, Ockham also spelled Occam, byname Venerabilis Inceptor (Latin: “Venerable Enterpriser”), or Doctor Invincibilis (“Invincible Doctor”)

born c. 1285, Ockham, Surrey?, Eng.
died 1347/49, Munich, Bavaria [now in Germany]

Franciscan philosopher, theologian, and political writer, a late scholastic thinker regarded as the founder of a form of nominalism—the school of thought that denies that universal concepts such as “father” have any reality apart from the individual things signified by the universal or general term.

Early life
Little is known of Ockham’s childhood. It seems that he was still a youngster when he entered the Franciscan order. At that time a central issue of concern in the order and a main topic of debate in the church was the interpretation of the rule of life composed by St. Francis of Assisi concerning the strictness of the poverty that should be practiced within the order. Ockham’s early schooling in a Franciscan convent concentrated on the study of logic; throughout his career, his interest in logic never waned, because he regarded the science of terms as fundamental and indispensable for practicing all the sciences of things, including God, the world, and ecclesiastical or civil institutions; in all his disputes logic was destined to serve as his chief weapon against adversaries.

After his early training, Ockham took the traditional course of theological studies at the University of Oxford and apparently between 1317 and 1319 lectured on the Sentences of Peter Lombard—a 12th-century theologian whose work was the official textbook of theology in the universities until the 16th century. His lectures were also set down in written commentaries, of which the commentary on Book I of the Sentences (a commentary known as Ordinatio) was actually written by Ockham himself. His opinions aroused strong opposition from members of the theological faculty of Oxford, however, and he left the university without obtaining his master’s degree in theology. Ockham thus remained, academically speaking, an undergraduate—known as an inceptor (“beginner”) in Oxonian language or, to use a Parisian equivalent, a baccalaureus formatus.

Ockham continued his academic career, apparently in English convents, simultaneously studying points of logic in natural philosophy and participating in theological debates. When he left his country for Avignon, Fr., in the autumn of 1324 at the pope’s request, he was acquainted with a university environment shaken not only by disputes but also by the challenging of authority: that of the bishops in doctrinal matters and that of the chancellor of the university, John Lutterell, who was dismissed from his post in 1322 at the demand of the teaching staff.

However abstract and impersonal the style of Ockham’s writings may be, they reveal at least two aspects of Ockham’s intellectual and spiritual attitude: he was a theologian-logician (theologicus logicus is Luther’s term). On the one hand, with his passion for logic he insisted on evaluations that are severely rational, on distinctions between the necessary and the incidental and differentiation between evidence and degrees of probability—an insistence that places great trust in man’s natural reason and his human nature. On the other hand, as a theologian he referred to the primary importance of the God of the creed whose omnipotence determines the gratuitous salvation of men; God’s saving action consists of giving without any obligation and is already profusely demonstrated in the creation of nature. The medieval rule of economy, that “plurality should not be assumed without necessity,” has come to be known as “Ockham’s razor”; the principle was used by Ockham to eliminate many entities that had been devised, especially by the scholastic philosophers, to explain reality.

Treatise to John XXII
Ockham met John Lutterell again at Avignon; in a treatise addressed to Pope John XXII, the former chancellor of Oxford denounced Ockham’s teaching on the Sentences, extracting from it 56 propositions that he showed to be in serious error. Lutterell then became a member of a committee of six theologians that produced two successive reports based on extracts from Ockham’s commentary, of which the second was more severely critical. Ockham, however, presented to the pope another copy of the Ordinatio in which he had made some corrections. It appeared that he would be condemned for his teaching, but the condemnation never came.

At the convent where he resided in Avignon, Ockham met Bonagratia of Bergamo, a doctor of civil and canon law who was being persecuted for his opposition to John XXII on the problem of Franciscan poverty. On Dec. 1, 1327, the Franciscan general Michael of Cesena arrived in Avignon and stayed at the same convent; he, too, had been summoned by the pope in connection with the dispute over the holding of property. They were at odds over the theoretical problem of whether Christ and his Apostles had owned the goods they used; that is, whether they had renounced all ownership (both private and corporate), the right of property and the right to the use of property. Michael maintained that because Christ and his Apostles had renounced all ownership and all rights to property, the Franciscans were justified in attempting to do the same thing.

The relations between John and Michael grew steadily worse, to such an extent that, on May 26, 1328, Michael fled from Avignon accompanied by Bonagratia and William. Ockham, who was already a witness in an appeal secretly drafted by Michael on April 13, publicly endorsed the appeal in September at Pisa, where the three Franciscans were staying under the protection of Emperor Louis IV the Bavarian, who had been excommunicated in 1324 and proclaimed by John XXII to have forfeited all rights to the empire. They followed him to Munich in 1330, and thereafter Ockham wrote fervently against the papacy in defense of both the strict Franciscan notion of poverty and the empire.

Instructed by his superior general in 1328 to study three papal bulls on poverty, Ockham found that they contained many errors that showed John XXII to be a heretic who had forfeited his mandate by reason of his heresy. His status of pseudo-pope was confirmed in Ockham’s view in 1330–31 by his sermons proposing that the souls of the saved did not enjoy the vision of God immediately after death but only after they were rejoined with the body at the Last Judgment, an opinion that contradicted tradition and was ultimately rejected.

Nevertheless, his principal dispute remained the question of poverty, which he believed was so important for religious perfection that it required the discipline of a theory: whoever chooses to live under the evangelical rule of St. Francis follows in the footsteps of Christ who is God and therefore king of the universe but who appeared as a poor man, renouncing the right of ownership, submitting to the temporal power, and desiring to reign on this earth only through the faith vested in him. This reign expresses itself in the form of a church that is organized but has no infallible authority—either on the part of a pope or a council—and is essentially a community of the faithful that has lasted over the centuries and is sure to last for more, even though temporarily reduced to a few, or even to one; everyone, regardless of status or sex, has to defend in the church the faith that is common to all.

For Ockham the power of the pope is limited by the freedom of Christians that is established by the gospel and the natural law. It is therefore legitimate and in keeping with the gospel to side with the empire against the papacy or to defend, as Ockham did in 1339, the right of the king of England to tax church property. From 1330 to 1338, in the heat of this dispute, Ockham wrote 15 or 16 more or less political works; some of them were written in collaboration, but Opus nonaginta dierum (“Work of 90 Days”), the most voluminous, was written alone.

Excommunicated after his flight from Avignon, Ockham maintained the same basic position after the death of John XXII in 1334, during the reign of Benedict XII (1334–42), and after the election of Clement VI. In these final years he found time to write two treatises on logic, which bear witness to the leading role that he consistently assigned to that discipline, and he discussed the submission procedures proposed to him by Pope Clement. Ockham was long thought to have died at a convent in Munich in 1349 during the Black Death, but he may actually have died there in 1347.

Paul D. Vignaux




Meister Eckhart
German mystic
English Master Eckhart, original name Johannes Eckhart, also called Eckhart von Hochheim, Eckhart also spelled Eckehart

born c. 1260, Hochheim?, Thuringia [now in Germany]
died 1327/28?, Avignon, France

Dominican theologian and writer who was the greatest German speculative mystic. In the transcripts of his sermons in German and Latin, he charts the course of union between the individual soul and God.

Johannes Eckhart entered the Dominican order when he was 15 and studied in Cologne, perhaps under the Scholastic philosopher Albert the Great. The intellectual background there was influenced by the great Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas, who had recently died. In his mid-30s, Eckhart was nominated vicar (the main Dominican official) of Thuringia. Before and after this assignment he taught theology at Saint-Jacques’s priory in Paris. It was also in Paris that he received a master’s degree (1302) and consequently was known as Meister Eckhart.

Eckhart wrote four works in German that are usually called “treatises.” At about the age of 40 he wrote the Talks of Instruction, on self-denial, the nobility of will and intellect, and obedience to God. In the same period, he faced the Franciscans in some famous disputations on theological issues. In 1303 he became provincial (leader) of the Dominicans in Saxony, and three years later vicar of Bohemia. His main activity, especially from 1314, was preaching to the contemplative nuns established throughout the Rhine River valley. He resided in Strasbourg as a prior.

The best-attested German work of this middle part of his life is the Book of Divine Consolation, dedicated to the Queen of Hungary. The other two treatises were The Nobleman and On Detachment. The teachings of the mature Eckhart describe four stages of the union between the soul and God: dissimilarity, similarity, identity, breakthrough. At the outset, God is all, the creature is nothing; at the ultimate stage, “the soul is above God.” The driving power of this process is detachment.

1. Dissimilarity: “All creatures are pure nothingness. I do not say they are small or petty: they are pure nothingness.” Whereas God inherently possesses being, creatures do not possess being but receive it derivatively. Outside God, there is pure nothingness. “The being (of things) is God.” The “noble man” moves among things in detachment, knowing that they are nothing in themselves and yet aware that they are full of God—their being.

2. Similarity: Man thus detached from the singular (individual things) and attached to the universal (Being) discovers himself to be an image of God. Divine resemblance, an assimilation, then emerges: the Son, image of the Father, engenders himself within the detached soul. As an image, “thou must be in Him and for Him, and not in thee and for thee.”

3. Identity: Eckhart’s numerous statements on identity between God and the soul can be easily misunderstood. He never has substantial identity in mind, but God’s operation and man’s becoming are considered as one. God is no longer outside man, but he is perfectly interiorized. Hence such statements: “The being and the nature of God are mine; Jesus enters the castle of the soul; the spark in the soul is beyond time and space; the soul’s light is uncreated and cannot be created, it takes possession of God with no mediation; the core of the soul and the core of God are one.”

4. Breakthrough: To Meister Eckhart, identity with God is still not enough; to abandon all things without abandoning God is still not abandoning anything. Man must live “without why.” He must seek nothing, not even God. Such a thought leads man into the desert, anterior to God. For Meister Eckhart, God exists as “God” only when the creature invokes him. Eckhart calls “Godhead” the origin of all things that is beyond God (God conceived as Creator). “God and the Godhead are as distinct as heaven and earth.” The soul is no longer the Son. The soul is now the Father: it engenders God as a divine person. “If I were not, God would not be God.” Detachment thus reaches its conclusion in the breakthrough beyond God. If properly understood, this idea is genuinely Christian: it retraces, for the believer, the way of the Cross of Christ.

These teachings are to be found in his Latin works too. But the Latin Sermons, Commentaries on the Bible, and Fragments are more Scholastic and do not reveal the originality of his thought. Nevertheless, Eckhart enjoyed much respect even among scholars. In his 60th year he was called to a professorship at Cologne. Heinrich von Virneburg—a Franciscan, unfavourable to Dominicans, anyway—was the archbishop there, and it was before his court that the now immensely popular Meister Eckhart was first formally charged with heresy. To a list of errors, he replied by publishing a Latin Defense and then asked to be transferred to the pope’s court in Avignon. When ordered to justify a new series of propositions drawn from his writings, he declared: “I may err but I am not a heretic, for the first has to do with the mind and the second with the will!” Before judges who had no comparable mystical experience of their own, Eckhart referred to his inner certainty: “What I have taught is the naked truth.” The bull of Pope John XXII, dated March 27, 1329, condemns 28 propositions extracted from the two lists. Since it speaks of Meister Eckhart as already dead, it is inferred that Eckhart died some time before, perhaps in 1327 or 1328. It also says that Eckhart had retracted the errors as charged.

Although Eckhart’s philosophy amalgamates Greek, Neoplatonic, Arabic, and Scholastic elements, it is unique. His doctrine, sometimes abstruse, always arises from one simple, personal mystical experience to which he gives a number of names. By doing so, he was also an innovator of the German language, contributing many abstract terms. In the second half of the 20th century, there was great interest in Eckhart among some Marxist theorists and Zen Buddhists.

Reiner Schürmann




Sir Isaac Newton
English physicist and mathematician

born December 25, 1642 [January 4, 1643, New Style], Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England
died March 20 [March 31], 1727, London

English physicist and mathematician, who was the culminating figure of the scientific revolution of the 17th century. In optics, his discovery of the composition of white light integrated the phenomena of colours into the science of light and laid the foundation for modern physical optics. In mechanics, his three laws of motion, the basic principles of modern physics, resulted in the formulation of the law of universal gravitation. In mathematics, he was the original discoverer of the infinitesimal calculus. Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), 1687, was one of the most important single works in the history of modern science.

Formative influences
Born in the hamlet of Woolsthorpe, Newton was the only son of a local yeoman, also Isaac Newton, who had died three months before, and of Hannah Ayscough. That same year, at Arcetri near Florence, Galileo Galilei had died; Newton would eventually pick up his idea of a mathematical science of motion and bring his work to full fruition. A tiny and weak baby, Newton was not expected to survive his first day of life, much less 84 years. Deprived of a father before birth, he soon lost his mother as well, for within two years she married a second time; her husband, the well-to-do minister Barnabas Smith, left young Isaac with his grandmother and moved to a neighbouring village to raise a son and two daughters. For nine years, until the death of Barnabas Smith in 1653, Isaac was effectively separated from his mother, and his pronounced psychotic tendencies have been ascribed to this traumatic event. That he hated his stepfather we may be sure. When he examined the state of his soul in 1662 and compiled a catalog of sins in shorthand, he remembered “Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them.” The acute sense of insecurity that rendered him obsessively anxious when his work was published and irrationally violent when he defended it accompanied Newton throughout his life and can plausibly be traced to his early years.

After his mother was widowed a second time, she determined that her first-born son should manage her now considerable property. It quickly became apparent, however, that this would be a disaster, both for the estate and for Newton. He could not bring himself to concentrate on rural affairs—set to watch the cattle, he would curl up under a tree with a book. Fortunately, the mistake was recognized, and Newton was sent back to the grammar school in Grantham, where he had already studied, to prepare for the university. As with many of the leading scientists of the age, he left behind in Grantham anecdotes about his mechanical ability and his skill in building models of machines, such as clocks and windmills. At the school he apparently gained a firm command of Latin but probably received no more than a smattering of arithmetic. By June 1661, he was ready to matriculate at Trinity College, Cambridge, somewhat older than the other undergraduates because of his interrupted education.

Influence of the scientific revolution
When Newton arrived in Cambridge in 1661, the movement now known as the scientific revolution was well advanced, and many of the works basic to modern science had appeared. Astronomers from Copernicus to Kepler had elaborated the heliocentric system of the universe. Galileo had proposed the foundations of a new mechanics built on the principle of inertia. Led by Descartes, philosophers had begun to formulate a new conception of nature as an intricate, impersonal, and inert machine. Yet as far as the universities of Europe, including Cambridge, were concerned, all this might well have never happened. They continued to be the strongholds of outmoded Aristotelianism, which rested on a geocentric view of the universe and dealt with nature in qualitative rather than quantitative terms.

Like thousands of other undergraduates, Newton began his higher education by immersing himself in Aristotle’s work. Even though the new philosophy was not in the curriculum, it was in the air. Some time during his undergraduate career, Newton discovered the works of the French natural philosopher René Descartes and the other mechanical philosophers, who, in contrast to Aristotle, viewed physical reality as composed entirely of particles of matter in motion and who held that all the phenomena of nature result from their mechanical interaction. A new set of notes, which he entitled “Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae” (“Certain Philosophical Questions”), begun sometime in 1664, usurped the unused pages of a notebook intended for traditional scholastic exercises; under the title he entered the slogan “Amicus Plato amicus Aristoteles magis amica veritas” (“Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth”). Newton’s scientific career had begun.

The “Quaestiones” reveal that Newton had discovered the new conception of nature that provided the framework of the scientific revolution. He had thoroughly mastered the works of Descartes and had also discovered that the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi had revived atomism, an alternative mechanical system to explain nature. The “Quaestiones” also reveal that Newton already was inclined to find the latter a more attractive philosophy than Cartesian natural philosophy, which rejected the existence of ultimate indivisible particles. The works of the 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle provided the foundation for Newton’s considerable work in chemistry. Significantly, he had read Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist, and was thereby introduced to another intellectual world, the magical Hermetic tradition, which sought to explain natural phenomena in terms of alchemical and magical concepts. The two traditions of natural philosophy, the mechanical and the Hermetic, antithetical though they appear, continued to influence his thought and in their tension supplied the fundamental theme of his scientific career.

Although he did not record it in the “Quaestiones,” Newton had also begun his mathematical studies. He again started with Descartes, from whose La Géometrie he branched out into the other literature of modern analysis with its application of algebraic techniques to problems of geometry. He then reached back for the support of classical geometry. Within little more than a year, he had mastered the literature; and, pursuing his own line of analysis, he began to move into new territory. He discovered the binomial theorem, and he developed the calculus, a more powerful form of analysis that employs infinitesimal considerations in finding the slopes of curves and areas under curves.

By 1669 Newton was ready to write a tract summarizing his progress, De Analysi per Aequationes Numeri Terminorum Infinitas (“On Analysis by Infinite Series”), which circulated in manuscript through a limited circle and made his name known. During the next two years he revised it as De methodis serierum et fluxionum (“On the Methods of Series and Fluxions”). The word fluxions, Newton’s private rubric, indicates that the calculus had been born. Despite the fact that only a handful of savants were even aware of Newton’s existence, he had arrived at the point where he had become the leading mathematician in Europe.

Work during the plague years
When Newton received the bachelor’s degree in April 1665, the most remarkable undergraduate career in the history of university education had passed unrecognized. On his own, without formal guidance, he had sought out the new philosophy and the new mathematics and made them his own, but he had confined the progress of his studies to his notebooks. Then, in 1665, the plague closed the university, and for most of the following two years he was forced to stay at his home, contemplating at leisure what he had learned. During the plague years Newton laid the foundations of the calculus and extended an earlier insight into an essay, “Of Colours,” which contains most of the ideas elaborated in his Opticks. It was during this time that he examined the elements of circular motion and, applying his analysis to the Moon and the planets, derived the inverse square relation that the radially directed force acting on a planet decreases with the square of its distance from the Sun—which was later crucial to the law of universal gravitation. The world heard nothing of these discoveries.

Career » The optics » Inaugural lectures at Trinity
Newton was elected to a fellowship in Trinity College in 1667, after the university reopened. Two years later, Isaac Barrow, Lucasian professor of mathematics, who had transmitted Newton’s De Analysi to John Collins in London, resigned the chair to devote himself to divinity and recommended Newton to succeed him. The professorship exempted Newton from the necessity of tutoring but imposed the duty of delivering an annual course of lectures. He chose the work he had done in optics as the initial topic; during the following three years (1670–72), his lectures developed the essay “Of Colours” into a form which was later revised to become Book One of his Opticks.

Beginning with Kepler’s Paralipomena in 1604, the study of optics had been a central activity of the scientific revolution. Descartes’s statement of the sine law of refraction, relating the angles of incidence and emergence at interfaces of the media through which light passes, had added a new mathematical regularity to the science of light, supporting the conviction that the universe is constructed according to mathematical regularities. Descartes had also made light central to the mechanical philosophy of nature; the reality of light, he argued, consists of motion transmitted through a material medium. Newton fully accepted the mechanical nature of light, although he chose the atomistic alternative and held that light consists of material corpuscles in motion. The corpuscular conception of light was always a speculative theory on the periphery of his optics, however. The core of Newton’s contribution had to do with colours. An ancient theory extending back at least to Aristotle held that a certain class of colour phenomena, such as the rainbow, arises from the modification of light, which appears white in its pristine form. Descartes had generalized this theory for all colours and translated it into mechanical imagery. Through a series of experiments performed in 1665 and 1666, in which the spectrum of a narrow beam was projected onto the wall of a darkened chamber, Newton denied the concept of modification and replaced it with that of analysis. Basically, he denied that light is simple and homogeneous—stating instead that it is complex and heterogeneous and that the phenomena of colours arise from the analysis of the heterogeneous mixture into its simple components. The ultimate source of Newton’s conviction that light is corpuscular was his recognition that individual rays of light have immutable properties; in his view, such properties imply immutable particles of matter. He held that individual rays (that is, particles of given size) excite sensations of individual colours when they strike the retina of the eye. He also concluded that rays refract at distinct angles—hence, the prismatic spectrum, a beam of heterogeneous rays, i.e., alike incident on one face of a prism, separated or analyzed by the refraction into its component parts—and that phenomena such as the rainbow are produced by refractive analysis. Because he believed that chromatic aberration could never be eliminated from lenses, Newton turned to reflecting telescopes; he constructed the first ever built. The heterogeneity of light has been the foundation of physical optics since his time.

There is no evidence that the theory of colours, fully described by Newton in his inaugural lectures at Cambridge, made any impression, just as there is no evidence that aspects of his mathematics and the content of the Principia, also pronounced from the podium, made any impression. Rather, the theory of colours, like his later work, was transmitted to the world through the Royal Society of London, which had been organized in 1660. When Newton was appointed Lucasian professor, his name was probably unknown in the Royal Society; in 1671, however, they heard of his reflecting telescope and asked to see it. Pleased by their enthusiastic reception of the telescope and by his election to the society, Newton volunteered a paper on light and colours early in 1672. On the whole, the paper was also well received, although a few questions and some dissent were heard.

Career » The optics » Controversy
Among the most important dissenters to Newton’s paper was Robert Hooke, one of the leaders of the Royal Society who considered himself the master in optics and hence he wrote a condescending critique of the unknown parvenu. One can understand how the critique would have annoyed a normal man. The flaming rage it provoked, with the desire publicly to humiliate Hooke, however, bespoke the abnormal. Newton was unable rationally to confront criticism. Less than a year after submitting the paper, he was so unsettled by the give and take of honest discussion that he began to cut his ties, and he withdrew into virtual isolation.

In 1675, during a visit to London, Newton thought he heard Hooke accept his theory of colours. He was emboldened to bring forth a second paper, an examination of the colour phenomena in thin films, which was identical to most of Book Two as it later appeared in the Opticks. The purpose of the paper was to explain the colours of solid bodies by showing how light can be analyzed into its components by reflection as well as refraction. His explanation of the colours of bodies has not survived, but the paper was significant in demonstrating for the first time the existence of periodic optical phenomena. He discovered the concentric coloured rings in the thin film of air between a lens and a flat sheet of glass; the distance between these concentric rings (Newton’s rings) depends on the increasing thickness of the film of air. In 1704 Newton combined a revision of his optical lectures with the paper of 1675 and a small amount of additional material in his Opticks.

A second piece which Newton had sent with the paper of 1675 provoked new controversy. Entitled “An Hypothesis Explaining the Properties of Light,” it was in fact a general system of nature. Hooke apparently claimed that Newton had stolen its content from him, and Newton boiled over again. The issue was quickly controlled, however, by an exchange of formal, excessively polite letters that fail to conceal the complete lack of warmth between the men.

Newton was also engaged in another exchange on his theory of colours with a circle of English Jesuits in Liège, perhaps the most revealing exchange of all. Although their objections were shallow, their contention that his experiments were mistaken lashed him into a fury. The correspondence dragged on until 1678, when a final shriek of rage from Newton, apparently accompanied by a complete nervous breakdown, was followed by silence. The death of his mother the following year completed his isolation. For six years he withdrew from intellectual commerce except when others initiated a correspondence, which he always broke off as quickly as possible.

Career » The optics » Influence of the Hermetic tradition
During his time of isolation, Newton was greatly influenced by the Hermetic tradition with which he had been familiar since his undergraduate days. Newton, always somewhat interested in alchemy, now immersed himself in it, copying by hand treatise after treatise and collating them to interpret their arcane imagery. Under the influence of the Hermetic tradition, his conception of nature underwent a decisive change. Until that time, Newton had been a mechanical philosopher in the standard 17th-century style, explaining natural phenomena by the motions of particles of matter. Thus, he held that the physical reality of light is a stream of tiny corpuscles diverted from its course by the presence of denser or rarer media. He felt that the apparent attraction of tiny bits of paper to a piece of glass that has been rubbed with cloth results from an ethereal effluvium that streams out of the glass and carries the bits of paper back with it. This mechanical philosophy denied the possibility of action at a distance; as with static electricity, it explained apparent attractions away by means of invisible ethereal mechanisms. Newton’s “Hypothesis of Light” of 1675, with its universal ether, was a standard mechanical system of nature. Some phenomena, such as the capacity of chemicals to react only with certain others, puzzled him, however, and he spoke of a “secret principle” by which substances are “sociable” or “unsociable” with others. About 1679, Newton abandoned the ether and its invisible mechanisms and began to ascribe the puzzling phenomena—chemical affinities, the generation of heat in chemical reactions, surface tension in fluids, capillary action, the cohesion of bodies, and the like—to attractions and repulsions between particles of matter. More than 35 years later, in the second English edition of the Opticks, Newton accepted an ether again, although it was an ether that embodied the concept of action at a distance by positing a repulsion between its particles. The attractions and repulsions of Newton’s speculations were direct transpositions of the occult sympathies and antipathies of Hermetic philosophy—as mechanical philosophers never ceased to protest. Newton, however, regarded them as a modification of the mechanical philosophy that rendered it subject to exact mathematical treatment. As he conceived of them, attractions were quantitatively defined, and they offered a bridge to unite the two basic themes of 17th-century science—the mechanical tradition, which had dealt primarily with verbal mechanical imagery, and the Pythagorean tradition, which insisted on the mathematical nature of reality. Newton’s reconciliation through the concept of force was his ultimate contribution to science.

Career » The Principia » Planetary motion
Newton originally applied the idea of attractions and repulsions solely to the range of terrestrial phenomena mentioned in the preceding paragraph. But late in 1679, not long after he had embraced the concept, another application was suggested in a letter from Hooke, who was seeking to renew correspondence. Hooke mentioned his analysis of planetary motion—in effect, the continuous diversion of a rectilinear motion by a central attraction. Newton bluntly refused to correspond but, nevertheless, went on to mention an experiment to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth: let a body be dropped from a tower; because the tangential velocity at the top of the tower is greater than that at the foot, the body should fall slightly to the east. He sketched the path of fall as part of a spiral ending at the centre of the Earth. This was a mistake, as Hooke pointed out; according to Hooke’s theory of planetary motion, the path should be elliptical, so that if the Earth were split and separated to allow the body to fall, it would rise again to its original location. Newton did not like being corrected, least of all by Hooke, but he had to accept the basic point; he corrected Hooke’s figure, however, using the assumption that gravity is constant. Hooke then countered by replying that, although Newton’s figure was correct for constant gravity, his own assumption was that gravity decreases as the square of the distance. Several years later, this letter became the basis for Hooke’s charge of plagiarism. He was mistaken in the charge. His knowledge of the inverse square relation rested only on intuitive grounds; he did not derive it properly from the quantitative statement of centripetal force and Kepler’s third law, which relates the periods of planets to the radii of their orbits. Moreover, unknown to him, Newton had so derived the relation more than ten years earlier. Nevertheless, Newton later confessed that the correspondence with Hooke led him to demonstrate that an elliptical orbit entails an inverse square attraction to one focus—one of the two crucial propositions on which the law of universal gravitation would ultimately rest. What is more, Hooke’s definition of orbital motion—in which the constant action of an attracting body continuously pulls a planet away from its inertial path—suggested a cosmic application for Newton’s concept of force and an explanation of planetary paths employing it. In 1679 and 1680, Newton dealt only with orbital dynamics; he had not yet arrived at the concept of universal gravitation.

Career » The Principia » Universal gravitation
Nearly five years later, in August 1684, Newton was visited by the British astronomer Edmond Halley, who was also troubled by the problem of orbital dynamics. Upon learning that Newton had solved the problem, he extracted Newton’s promise to send the demonstration. Three months later he received a short tract entitled De Motu (“On Motion”). Already Newton was at work improving and expanding it. In two and a half years, the tract De Motu grew into Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which is not only Newton’s masterpiece but also the fundamental work for the whole of modern science.

Significantly, De Motu did not state the law of universal gravitation. For that matter, even though it was a treatise on planetary dynamics, it did not contain any of the three Newtonian laws of motion. Only when revising De Motu did Newton embrace the principle of inertia (the first law) and arrive at the second law of motion. The second law, the force law, proved to be a precise quantitative statement of the action of the forces between bodies that had become the central members of his system of nature. By quantifying the concept of force, the second law completed the exact quantitative mechanics that has been the paradigm of natural science ever since.

The quantitative mechanics of the Principia is not to be confused with the mechanical philosophy. The latter was a philosophy of nature that attempted to explain natural phenomena by means of imagined mechanisms among invisible particles of matter. The mechanics of the Principia was an exact quantitative description of the motions of visible bodies. It rested on Newton’s three laws of motion: (1) that a body remains in its state of rest unless it is compelled to change that state by a force impressed on it; (2) that the change of motion (the change of velocity times the mass of the body) is proportional to the force impressed; (3) that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The analysis of circular motion in terms of these laws yielded a formula of the quantitative measure, in terms of a body’s velocity and mass, of the centripetal force necessary to divert a body from its rectilinear path into a given circle. When Newton substituted this formula into Kepler’s third law, he found that the centripetal force holding the planets in their given orbits about the Sun must decrease with the square of the planets’ distances from the Sun. Because the satellites of Jupiter also obey Kepler’s third law, an inverse square centripetal force must also attract them to the centre of their orbits. Newton was able to show that a similar relation holds between the Earth and its Moon. The distance of the Moon is approximately 60 times the radius of the Earth. Newton compared the distance by which the Moon, in its orbit of known size, is diverted from a tangential path in one second with the distance that a body at the surface of the Earth falls from rest in one second. When the latter distance proved to be 3,600 (60 × 60) times as great as the former, he concluded that one and the same force, governed by a single quantitative law, is operative in all three cases, and from the correlation of the Moon’s orbit with the measured acceleration of gravity on the surface of the Earth, he applied the ancient Latin word gravitas (literally, “heaviness” or “weight”) to it. The law of universal gravitation, which he also confirmed from such further phenomena as the tides and the orbits of comets, states that every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres.

When the Royal Society received the completed manuscript of Book I in 1686, Hooke raised the cry of plagiarism, a charge that cannot be sustained in any meaningful sense. On the other hand, Newton’s response to it reveals much about him. Hooke would have been satisfied with a generous acknowledgment; it would have been a graceful gesture to a sick man already well into his decline, and it would have cost Newton nothing. Newton, instead, went through his manuscript and eliminated nearly every reference to Hooke. Such was his fury that he refused either to publish his Opticks or to accept the presidency of the Royal Society until Hooke was dead.

Career » International prominence
The Principia immediately raised Newton to international prominence. In their continuing loyalty to the mechanical ideal, Continental scientists rejected the idea of action at a distance for a generation, but even in their rejection they could not withhold their admiration for the technical expertise revealed by the work. Young British scientists spontaneously recognized him as their model. Within a generation the limited number of salaried positions for scientists in England, such as the chairs at Oxford, Cambridge, and Gresham College, were monopolized by the young Newtonians of the next generation. Newton, whose only close contacts with women were his unfulfilled relationship with his mother, who had seemed to abandon him, and his later guardianship of a niece, found satisfaction in the role of patron to the circle of young scientists. His friendship with Fatio de Duillier, a Swiss-born mathematician resident in London who shared Newton’s interests, was the most profound experience of his adult life.

Career » International prominence » Warden of the mint
Almost immediately following the Principia’s publication, Newton, a fervent if unorthodox Protestant, helped to lead the resistance of Cambridge to James II’s attempt to Catholicize it. As a consequence, he was elected to represent the university in the convention that arranged the revolutionary settlement. In this capacity, he made the acquaintance of a broader group, including the philosopher John Locke. Newton tasted the excitement of London life in the aftermath of the Principia. The great bulk of his creative work had been completed. He was never again satisfied with the academic cloister, and his desire to change was whetted by Fatio’s suggestion that he find a position in London. Seek a place he did, especially through the agency of his friend, the rising politician Charles Montague, later Lord Halifax. Finally, in 1696, he was appointed warden of the mint. Although he did not resign his Cambridge appointments until 1701, he moved to London and henceforth centred his life there.

In the meantime, Newton’s relations with Fatio had undergone a crisis. Fatio was taken seriously ill; then family and financial problems threatened to call him home to Switzerland. Newton’s distress knew no limits. In 1693 he suggested that Fatio move to Cambridge, where Newton would support him, but nothing came of the proposal. Through early 1693 the intensity of Newton’s letters built almost palpably, and then, without surviving explanation, both the close relationship and the correspondence broke off. Four months later, without prior notice, Samuel Pepys and John Locke, both personal friends of Newton, received wild, accusatory letters. Pepys was informed that Newton would see him no more; Locke was charged with trying to entangle him with women. Both men were alarmed for Newton’s sanity; and, in fact, Newton had suffered at least his second nervous breakdown. The crisis passed, and Newton recovered his stability. Only briefly did he ever return to sustained scientific work, however, and the move to London was the effective conclusion of his creative activity.

As warden and then master of the mint, Newton drew a large income, as much as £2,000 per annum. Added to his personal estate, the income left him a rich man at his death. The position, regarded as a sinecure, was treated otherwise by Newton. During the great recoinage, there was need for him to be actively in command; even afterward, however, he chose to exercise himself in the office. Above all, he was interested in counterfeiting. He became the terror of London counterfeiters, sending a goodly number to the gallows and finding in them a socially acceptable target on which to vent the rage that continued to well up within him.

Career » International prominence » Interest in religion and theology
Newton found time now to explore other interests, such as religion and theology. In the early 1690s he had sent Locke a copy of a manuscript attempting to prove that Trinitarian passages in the Bible were latter-day corruptions of the original text. When Locke made moves to publish it, Newton withdrew in fear that his anti-Trinitarian views would become known. In his later years, he devoted much time to the interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel and St. John, and to a closely related study of ancient chronology. Both works were published after his death.

Career » International prominence » Leader of English science
In London, Newton assumed the role of patriarch of English science. In 1703 he was elected President of the Royal Society. Four years earlier, the French Académie des Sciences (Academy of Sciences) had named him one of eight foreign associates. In 1705 Queen Anne knighted him, the first occasion on which a scientist was so honoured. Newton ruled the Royal Society magisterially. John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, had occasion to feel that he ruled it tyrannically. In his years at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, Flamsteed, who was a difficult man in his own right, had collected an unrivalled body of data. Newton had received needed information from him for the Principia, and in the 1690s, as he worked on the lunar theory, he again required Flamsteed’s data. Annoyed when he could not get all the information he wanted as quickly as he wanted it, Newton assumed a domineering and condescending attitude toward Flamsteed. As president of the Royal Society, he used his influence with the government to be named as chairman of a body of “visitors” responsible for the Royal Observatory; then he tried to force the immediate publication of Flamsteed’s catalog of stars. The disgraceful episode continued for nearly 10 years. Newton would brook no objections. He broke agreements that he had made with Flamsteed. Flamsteed’s observations, the fruit of a lifetime of work, were, in effect, seized despite his protests and prepared for the press by his mortal enemy, Edmond Halley. Flamsteed finally won his point and by court order had the printed catalog returned to him before it was generally distributed. He burned the printed sheets, and his assistants brought out an authorized version after his death. In this respect, and at considerable cost to himself, Flamsteed was one of the few men to best Newton. Newton sought his revenge by systematically eliminating references to Flamsteed’s help in later editions of the Principia.

In Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German philosopher and mathematician, Newton met a contestant more of his own calibre. It is now well established that Newton developed the calculus before Leibniz seriously pursued mathematics. It is almost universally agreed that Leibniz later arrived at the calculus independently. There has never been any question that Newton did not publish his method of fluxions; thus, it was Leibniz’s paper in 1684 that first made the calculus a matter of public knowledge. In the Principia Newton hinted at his method, but he did not really publish it until he appended two papers to the Opticks in 1704. By then the priority controversy was already smouldering. If, indeed, it mattered, it would be impossible finally to assess responsibility for the ensuing fracas. What began as mild innuendoes rapidly escalated into blunt charges of plagiarism on both sides. Egged on by followers anxious to win a reputation under his auspices, Newton allowed himself to be drawn into the centre of the fray; and, once his temper was aroused by accusations of dishonesty, his anger was beyond constraint. Leibniz’s conduct of the controversy was not pleasant, and yet it paled beside that of Newton. Although he never appeared in public, Newton wrote most of the pieces that appeared in his defense, publishing them under the names of his young men, who never demurred. As president of the Royal Society, he appointed an “impartial” committee to investigate the issue, secretly wrote the report officially published by the society, and reviewed it anonymously in the Philosophical Transactions. Even Leibniz’s death could not allay Newton’s wrath, and he continued to pursue the enemy beyond the grave. The battle with Leibniz, the irrepressible need to efface the charge of dishonesty, dominated the final 25 years of Newton’s life. It obtruded itself continually upon his consciousness. Almost any paper on any subject from those years is apt to be interrupted by a furious paragraph against the German philosopher, as he honed the instruments of his fury ever more keenly. In the end, only Newton’s death ended his wrath.

Career » Final years
During his final years Newton brought out further editions of his central works. After the first edition of the Opticks in 1704, which merely published work done 30 years before, he published a Latin edition in 1706 and a second English edition in 1717–18. In both, the central text was scarcely touched, but he did expand the “Queries” at the end into the final statement of his speculations on the nature of the universe. The second edition of the Principia, edited by Roger Cotes in 1713, introduced extensive alterations. A third edition, edited by Henry Pemberton in 1726, added little more. Until nearly the end, Newton presided at the Royal Society (frequently dozing through the meetings) and supervised the mint. During his last years, his niece, Catherine Barton Conduitt, and her husband lived with him.

Richard S. Westfall



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