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.

Medieval philosophy


Medieval philosophy » The late Middle Ages

In the late Middle Ages earlier ways of philosophizing were continued and formalized into distinct schools of thought. In the Dominican order, Thomism, the theological and philosophical system of Thomas Aquinas, was made the official teaching, though the Dominicans did not always adhere to it rigorously. Averroism, cultivated by philosophers such as John of Jandun (c. 1286–1328), remained a significant, though sterile, movement into the Renaissance. In the Franciscan order, John Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308) and William of Ockham (c. 1285–c. 1347) developed new styles of theology and philosophy that vied with Thomism throughout the late Middle Ages.


John of Jandun
French philosopher
French Jean De Jandun
born c. 1286, Jandun, Champagne, Fr.
died 1328, Todi, Papal States

foremost 14th-century interpreter of Averroës’ rendering of Aristotle.

After study at the University of Paris, John became master of arts at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, where he lectured on Aristotle. He associated with Marsilius of Padua, writer of the Defensor Pacis, which asserted the superiority of civil authority over that of the pope. Because of controversy over this work, John and Marsilius sought the protection of Louis IV of Bavaria. After a series of condemnatory papal bulls, they were excommunicated as heretics by Pope John XXII in 1327.

John of Jandun’s most influential writings are commentaries on Aristotle; his major concern was the division between faith and reason. Some critics think that he held a “double-truth” theory, believing that contradictory statements of faith and reason may be simultaneously true; others call him anti-Christian, and still others judge him to be a thinker of the Augustinian tradition.


Medieval philosophy » The late Middle Ages » John Duns Scotus

John Duns Scotus opposed the rationalists’ contention that philosophy is self-sufficient and adequate to satisfy the human desire for knowledge. In fact, he claimed that a pure philosopher, such as Aristotle, could not truly understand the human condition because he was ignorant of the Fall of Man and his need for grace and redemption. Unenlightened by Christian revelation, Aristotle mistook humankind’s present fallen state, in which all knowledge comes through the senses, for its natural condition, in which the object of knowledge would be coextensive with all being, including the being of God. The limitation of Aristotle’s philosophy was apparent to Duns Scotus in the Aristotelian proof of the existence of God as the primary mover of the universe. More adequate than this physical proof, he contended, is his own very intricate metaphysical demonstration of the existence of God as the absolutely primary, unique, and infinite being. He incorporated the Anselmian argument into this demonstration. For Duns Scotus, the notion of infinite being, not that of primary mover or being itself, is humankind’s most perfect concept of God.

In opposition to the Greco-Arabic view of the government of the universe from above by necessary causes, Duns Scotus stressed the contingency of the universe and its total dependence on God’s infinite creative will. He adopted the traditional Franciscan voluntarism, elevating the will above the intellect in human beings.

Duns Scotus’s doctrine of universals justly earned him the title “Doctor Subtilis.” Universals, in his view, exist only as abstract concepts, but they are based on common natures, such as humanity, which exist, or can exist, in many individuals. Common natures are real, and they have a real unity of their own distinct from the unity of the individuals in which they exist. The individuality of each individual is due to an added positive reality that makes the common nature a specific individual—e.g., Socrates. Duns Scotus calls such a reality an “individual difference,” or “thisness” (haecceitas). It is an original development of the earlier medieval realism of universals.

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.


Medieval philosophy » The late Middle Ages » William of Ockham

In the late 14th century, Thomism and Scotism were called the “old way” (via antiqua) of philosophizing, in contrast to the “modern way” (via moderna) begun by philosophers such as William of Ockham. Ockham, no less than Duns Scotus, wanted to defend the Christian doctrine of the freedom and omnipotence of God and the contingency of creatures against the necessitarianism of Greco-Arabic philosophy. But for him the freedom of God is incompatible with the existence of divine ideas as positive models of creation. God does not use preconceived ideas when he creates, as Duns Scotus maintained, but he fashions the universe as he wishes. As a result, creatures have no natures, or essences, in common. There are no realities but individual things, and these have nothing in common. They are more or less like each other, however, and on this basis human beings can form universal concepts of them and talk about them in general terms.

The absolute freedom of God was often used by Ockham as a principle of philosophical and theological explanation. Because the order of nature has been freely created by God, it could have been different: fire, for example, could cool as it now heats. If God wishes, he can give us the sight, or “intuitive knowledge,” of a star without the reality of the star. The moral order could also have been different. God could have made hating him meritorious instead of loving him. It was typical of Ockham not to put too much trust in the power of human reason to reach the truth. For him, philosophy must often be content with probable arguments, as in establishing the existence of the Christian God. Faith alone gives certitude in this and in other vital matters. Another principle invoked by Ockham is that a plurality is not to be posited without necessity. This principle of economy of thought, later stated as “beings are not to be multiplied without necessity,” is called “Ockham’s razor.”

Ockhamism was censured by a papal commission at Avignon in 1326, and in 1474 it was forbidden to be taught at Paris. Nevertheless, it spread widely in the late Middle Ages and rivaled Thomism and Scotism in popularity. Other Scholastics in the 14th century shared Ockham’s basic principles and contributed with him to skepticism and probabilism in philosophy. John of Mirecourt (flourished 14th century) stressed the absolute power of God and the divine will to the point of making God the cause of human sin. Nicholas of Autrecourt (c. 1300–c. 1350) adopted a skeptical attitude regarding matters such as the ability of human beings to prove the existence of God and the reality of substance and causality. Rejecting Aristotelianism as inimical to the Christian faith, he advocated a return to the atomism of the ancient Greeks as a more adequate explanation of the universe.

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



John of Mirecourt
French philosopher
French Jean De Méricour, Latin Johannes De Mercuria

flourished 14th century

French Cistercian monk, philosopher, and theologian whose skepticism about certitude in human knowledge and whose limitation of the use of reason in theological statements established him as a leading exponent of medieval Christian nominalism (the doctrine that universals are only names with no basis in reality) and voluntarism (the doctrine that will and not reason is the dominant factor in experience and in the constitution of the world).

Originally from the Vosges Mountains in Lorraine, John, also called “the White Monk” because of his religious clothing, obtained his bachelor’s degree in theology at Paris in 1345 and wrote a commentary on the Sentences, or theological theses, of Peter Lombard. In 1347 the university faculty censured 63 propositions from this commentary for their divergence from Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Later that year, however, following the counsel of Pope Clement VI that church authority should not involve itself in philosophical matters not immediately related to matters of faith, the faculty granted John’s request to submit an accompanying “apology,” or clarification, with his theological commentary and then reduced the censure to 41 propositions. John’s basic proposals were that rational certitude is largely unattainable because of the fallibility of the senses, and, even granting the possibility of the human mind’s forming correct ideas, truth escapes it because God, in his absolute power, can alter reality. Accordingly, John denied the possibility of rationally proving the existence of God as the most perfect of all beings or as the first cause of all that exists, indeed, even that any created thing requires a cause. He submitted that it is more meritorious for man to believe in God’s existence by faith informed with love than to reach certainty by deductive reasoning.

John, however, admitted the certainty of self-existence, the doubting of which served only to prove the existence of a doubting self. His difficulties with church authorities arose principally from his attributing to God a role in the existence of evil and suffering, citing that, even if God is said only to permit evil, he in effect causes it. John’s extreme views derived from his concern to safeguard at least a limited area of cognitional certitude, while acknowledging God’s absolute freedom to effect anything, even the possibility that man might hate him.




Nicholas of Autrecourt
French philosopher and theologian
French Nicolas D’autrecourt
born c. 1300, Autrecourt, near Verdun, Fr.
died after 1350, Metz, Lorrain

French philosopher and theologian known principally for developing medieval Skepticism to its extreme logical conclusions, which were condemned as heretical.

Nicholas was an advanced student in liberal arts and philosophy at the Sorbonne faculty of the University of Paris from 1320 to 1327. He became one of the most notable adherents of nominalism, a school of thought holding that only individual objects are real and that universal concepts simply express things as names. Nicholas’ chief writings are commentaries on the 12th-century Sentences of Peter Lombard, the basic medieval compendium of philosophical theology, and on the Politics of Aristotle; nine letters to the Franciscan monk-philosopher Bernard of Arezzo; and an important treatise usually designated by the opening words Exigit ordo executionis (“The order of completion requires”). This last contains the 60 theses controverted at Nicholas’ heresy trial, convened by Pope Benedict XII at Avignon, in 1340.

Nicholas rejected the traditional Aristotelian objectivism, with its allusions to a single intellect for all men, and proposed that there are only two bases for intellectual certitude: the logical principle of identity, with its correlative principle of contradiction, which states that a thing cannot simultaneously be itself and another; and the immediate evidence of sense data. Consistent with his nominalist doctrine, he denied that any causal relation could be known experientially and taught that the very principle of causality could be reduced to the empirical declaration of the succession of two facts. The consequence of such a concept of causality, he averred, was to reject the possibility of any rational proof for the existence of God and to deny any divine cause in creation. Indeed, he held as more probable that the world had existed from eternity.

Nicholas’ nominalism precluded the possibility of knowing anything as a permanent concept and allowed only the conscious experience of an object’s sensible qualities. Rejecting Scholastic–Aristotelian philosophy and physics, Nicholas believed that the physical and mental universe is ultimately composed of simple, indivisible particles or atoms. He maintained, however, that his innovative thought did not affect his fidelity to Christian religious tradition, including the moral commandments and belief in a future life. Faith and reason, he taught, operate independently from each other, and one could assent to a religious doctrine that reason might contradict. Because of the fallibility of the senses and the human inclination—even in Aristotle—toward erroneous judgment, evidence and truth are not always identical, and philosophy at best is simply the prevalence of the more probable over the less probable.

The ecclesiastical judges at Nicholas’ heresy trial labeled his avowals of Christian belief as mere subterfuge and denounced him. Condemned in 1346 by Pope Clement VI, Nicholas finally was ordered in 1347 to resign his professorship, recant his error, and publicly burn his writings. That he took refuge with Emperor Louis IV the Bavarian is a legend created to form a parallel with the life of William of Ockham, his nominalist precursor. Nicholas became dean of the cathedral at Metz in 1350, after which nothing more is heard of him. His Exigit manuscript was discovered by A. Birkenmayer at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and was published in 1939 by J.R. O’Donnell in Medieval Studies.


Medieval philosophy » The late Middle Ages » Meister Eckehart

The trend away from Aristotelianism was accentuated by the German Dominican Meister Eckehart (c. 1260–c. 1327), who developed a speculative mysticism of both Christian and Neoplatonic inspiration. Eckehart depicted the ascent of the soul to God in Neoplatonic terms: by gradually purifying itself from the body, the soul transcends being and knowledge until it is absorbed in the One. The soul is then united with God at its highest point, or “citadel.” God himself transcends being and knowledge. Sometimes Eckehart describes God as the being of all things. This language, which was also used by Erigena and other Christian Neoplatonists, leaves him open to the charge of pantheism (the doctrine that the being of creatures is identical with that of God); but for Eckehart there is an infinite gulf between creatures and God. Eckehart meant that creatures have no existence of their own but are given existence by God, as the body is made to exist and is contained by the soul. Eckehart’s profound influence can be seen in the flowering of mysticism in the German Rhineland in the late Middle Ages.

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


Medieval philosophy » The late Middle Ages » Nicholas of Cusa
Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64) also preferred the Neoplatonists to the Aristotelians. To him the philosophy of Aristotle is an obstacle to the mind in its ascent to God because its primary rule is the principle of contradiction, which denies the compatibility of contradictories. But God is the “coincidence of opposites.” Because he is infinite, he embraces all things in perfect unity; he is at once the maximum and the minimum. Nicholas uses mathematical symbols to illustrate how, in infinity, contradictories coincide. If a circle is enlarged, the curve of its circumference becomes less; if a circle is infinite, its circumference is a straight line. As for human knowledge of the infinite God, one must be content with conjecture or approximation to the truth. The absolute truth escapes human beings; their proper attitude is “learned ignorance.”

For Nicholas, God alone is absolutely infinite. The universe reflects this divine perfection and is relatively infinite. It has no circumference, for it is limited by nothing outside of itself. Neither has it a centre; the Earth is neither at the centre of the universe nor is it completely at rest. Place and motion are not absolute but relative to the observer. This new, non-Aristotelian conception of the universe anticipated some of the features of modern theories.

Thus, at the end of the Middle Ages, some of the most creative minds were abandoning Aristotelianism and turning to newer ways of thought. The philosophy of Aristotle, in its various interpretations, continued to be taught in the universities, but it had lost its vitality and creativity. Christian philosophers were once again finding inspiration in Neoplatonism. The Platonism of the Renaissance was directly continuous with the Platonism of the Middle Ages.

The Rev. Armand Maurer, C.S.B.


Nicholas of Cusa
Christian scholar
German Nikolaus Von Cusa, Latin Nicolaus Cusanus

born 1401, Kues, Trier
died Aug. 11, 1464, Todi, Papal States

cardinal, mathematician, scholar, experimental scientist, and influential philosopher who stressed the incomplete nature of man’s knowledge of God and of the universe.

At the Council of Basel in 1432, he gained recognition for his opposition to the candidate put forward by Pope Eugenius IV for the archbishopric of Trier. To his colleagues at the council he dedicated De concordantia catholica (1433; “On Catholic Concordance”), in which he expressed support for the supremacy of the general councils of the church over the authority of the papacy. In the same work he discussed the harmony of the church, drawing a pattern for priestly concord from his knowledge of the order of the heavens. By 1437, however, finding the council unsuccessful in preserving church unity and enacting needed reforms, Nicholas reversed his position and became one of Eugenius’ most ardent followers. Ordained a priest about 1440, Cusa was made a cardinal in Brixen (Bressanone), Italy, by Pope Nicholas V and in 1450 was elevated to bishop there. For two years Cusa served as Nicholas’ legate to Germany, after which he began to serve full-time as bishop of Brixen.

A model of the “Renaissance man” because of his disciplined and varied learning, Cusa was skilled in theology, mathematics, philosophy, science, and the arts. In De docta ignorantia (1440; “On Learned Ignorance”) he described the learned man as one who is aware of his own ignorance. In this and other works he typically borrowed symbols from geometry to demonstrate his points, as in his comparison of man’s search for truth to the task of converting a square into a circle.

Among Cusa’s other interests were diagnostic medicine and applied science. He emphasized knowledge through experimentation and anticipated the work of the astronomer Copernicus by discerning a movement in the universe that did not centre in the Earth, although the Earth contributed to that movement. Cusa’s study of plant growth, from which he concluded that plants absorb nourishment from the air, was the first modern formal experiment in biology and the first proof that air has weight. Numerous other developments, including a map of Europe, can also be traced to Cusa. A manuscript collector who recovered a dozen lost comedies by the Roman writer Plautus, he left an extensive library that remains a centre of scholarly activity in the hospital he founded and completed at his birthplace in 1458.



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy