Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. II / by Ralph McInerny

The Thirteenth Century

Chapter II

The Beginnings

Before turning to progressively more important responses to the influences just mentioned, we want in the present chapter to give some sense of the initial efforts to cope with and profit from the new influx of philosophical literature. The men we shall presently mention -- William of Auvergne, Alexander of Hales, and Robert Grosseteste -- though subsidiary figures in the broad sketch we are trying to give, are, when considered for themselves alone, a good deal more interesting than the following may suggest.

A. William of Auvergne (c.1180-1249)

William was a master of theology at the University of Paris, who in 1228 became bishop of Paris. Since William was a member of the commission appointed by Pope Gregory IX to study and correct the writings of Aristotle, his works take on a special interest. William writes at a time when the attitude toward Aristotle is at least wary, and what William has to say gives us a fair indication of an early thirteenth-century response to the inundation of new philosophical literature.

The first thing that must be said about William's treatment of Aristotle is that he seems imperfectly aware of the line of demarcation between Aristotle's doctrine and the doctrines of the Islamic thinkers. Often criticisms are made of Aristotle and his followers when the point at issue is one that Aristotle emphatically did not hold. For example, William attributes to Aristotle the view that from the one God only one effect can immediately proceed and that that first creature, the first intelligence, goes on to create its own effect, and so on to the constitution of the ten intelligences, with the tenth the creator of matter, corporeal forms, and human souls. We are familiar with this Neoplatonic emanation theory in Islamic thinkers, but it is possible that William attributes it to Aristotle as well because Gerard of Cremona, the translator of the Liber de causis, had called that work a work of Aristotle's. Furthermore, William often cites specific works of Aristotle and accurately identifies Aristotelian doctrines. Consequently, if some of William's criticisms of Aristotle are misconceived, others are not.

The mode of William's critique is interesting. Whenever he encounters a philosophical doctrine contrary to Christian belief, he will label it an error. But he does not leave the matter there. He will go on and try to show by argument that the position is false or ill-founded. An error that particularly incenses William is the contention that there is but one human soul, that the present diversity of souls is merely a function of matter, and that when death comes, the distinction between souls disappears. He says that this error should be countered not only by proofs and arguments but also with steel and torments! This problem raises the question of the principle of individuation. William's discussion of the matter is critical of the doctrine of Boethius, found in the De trinitate, according to which it is the "variety of accidents" which individuates members of the same species. William transfers the question to the angels and goes on to criticize the identification of the nine intelligences and the choirs of the angels, since in each choir there is a plurality of angels. It is difficult to know whether William is suggesting a plurality of angels of the same species or not.

Let us consider William's treatment of the eternity of the world, a question he takes up in his De universo, the second part of the first principal part, chapters one to eleven, especially chapter eight.

Some have tried to suggest extenuating reasons for Aristotle's claim, William observes, but it is quite clear that Aristotle held the world to be eternal, that it did not begin to be, and that he held the same to be true of motion; Avicenna followed him in this and added reasons and arguments to sustain the claim. The first reason the philosophers give is as follows: either the creator precedes the world or he does not; if he does not, there would be neither creator nor world, since the creator is the creator of the world and the world is the effect of the creator. We might want to say that they come to be simultaneously (incoepit esse cum mundo), but this will not do since the first cause cannot come to be.

William's resolution of the difficulty is to free the relation of eternity to time of the temporal sense of before. Eternity is not just endless time; its priority to time is a priority of nature. To say that God is eternal and before the world is not to say that he is older than the world in the usual sense of older which is temporal. To ask what is before time sounds as funny as it would to ask what is beyond the world. Time like space is intramundane; therefore, to speak of God as before the world is not to speak of a time before time.

William criticizes the view, associated with Avicebron, to the effect that all creatures are composed of matter and form, even angels. In order to sustain that position, it was necessary to speak of a different kind of matter in angels, a spiritual matter. For William, nwtter means what it meant for Aristotle: it is a principle of generable and corruptible things. Thus, he holds that angels are not composed of matter and form. Matter of course is the cause of the contingency of material things, that because of which they can cease to be. Would not a creature which was not composed of matter and form, a creature who was pure form, be a necessary being?

The Islamic view that creation is necessary was one that William of Auvergne strongly contested. Despite this opposition, William took over from Islam the distinction between essence and existence, finding in this the fundamental ontological difference between creator and creature. In God there is no distinction between essence and existence: what God is is necessary existence. The existence of any creature is other than what it is and thus relates to its essence or nature as an accident. The composition of essence and existence calls for a cause and thus is the basis for the contingency and dependence on God of every creature.

It is in the first eight chapters of his De trinitate that William develops his doctrine on essence and existence. First, he distinguishes between essential being and participated being. He draws an analogy between the predication of "good" and of "being": some thing may be essentially good, be goodness, while other things participate in goodness. These different modes, being and having, are explained by Boethius in his De hebdomadibus, William observes, and he goes on to construct a general rule. Whatever is predicated is predicated either essentially or accidentally, that is, the predicate expresses what the thing is or something other than what the thing is. Such a predicate as being cannot be an accidental predicate of everything of which it is said; it must be predicated essentially of something. "Ens igitur de unoquoque aut substantia aut participatione dicitur. Dicitur autem de quodam substantialiter, de quodam participatione dicetur: et quoniam non potest dici de unoquoque secundum participationem, necesse est ut de aliquo dicatur secundum essentiam." William underpins this move by saying that we must either accept it or get involved in an infinite regress. Let A be said to be good by participation, that is, by having good; call the good it has B, and then if B is good by having good, call that good C, and so on to infinity. To avoid this we must say that something is good in the sense of being goodness, not having it, and the same must be said of being.

The Latin infinitive "esse" that we have been translating as "existence' has two senses, according to William. It can mean essence or nature: the residue left when all accidents are removed, the substance, what the defining notion rather than the specific name expresses. In another sense "esse" means something other than essence: it is not part of the essence or nature of any creature. It is, however, the essence of what is said to be essentially. Given these two senses of "esse," we can say that in God they are one, in creatures they differ. Only that being whose essence is existence is truly called being, and being is its proper name. God is the only being of whom it can be said that it is impossible to think of him without thinking of him as existing. Such a being is uncaused; every being which is such that existence is other than its essence must be a caused being.

William goes on to draw the corollaries of this doctrine. The being in whom essence and existence are identical is simple, unique, and so forth. With William of Auvergne's discussion of essence and existence we have a first contribution to what will be a continuing discussion of his century and beyond. The influence of Islamic thinkers is palpable here, but the doctrine is also referred to Boethius. Islamic thinkers, as we have seen, trace the distinction back to Aristotle. We stress its importance for a further reason as well, for it reveals that William of Auvergne was not merely a critic of the new philosophy, but a judicious borrower from it. His obvious acquaintance with the new sources of philosophy was bound, we should think, to leave its mark on him; and so it did.

The Aristotelianism that William never ceased to oppose can be conveniently summed up in the point suggested by Pierre Duhem. (1) It contends that the whole of creation is necessary and exists from all eternity; that it necessarily issues from the first cause. (2) It holds that God creates directly but one creature, which, though created, in turn creates; of these further creatures God is only a mediate cause. (William's major objection to this is that it suggests that God can do more things in conjunction with creatures than he could do on his own.) (3) Human souls are not really distinct from one another save in their bodily existence and thus must coalesce into one after death. In treating these points William does not merely label them heresies; he seeks arguments to refute them.

As for the philosophical teachings he accepts, it is difficult to say what larger whole they become parts of. With William we are not yet at the point where the structure of Aristotelian philosophy is accepted as fundamental, with the errors it may contain refuted in terms of its own principles. Perhaps we must conclude that William remains very much an ad hoc philosopher; his De universo is reminiscent of earlier writings bearing that same title which were more or less random collections of everything under the sun. Nevertheless, in many ways William is the herald of an emerging style both in theology and philosophy, a style that developed with astonishing rapidity.

Bibliographical Note

The 1674 edition of William of Auvergne's works was reproduced in 1963: Guiliemi Alverni opera omnia, 2 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Minerva). See too, Pierre Duhem, Le système du monde, vol. 3, pp. 249-260; É. Gilson, "La notion d'existence chez Guillaume d'Auvergne," Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Age, 21 (1946), pp. 55-91.

B. Alexander of Hales (c.1185-1245)

Alexander was an Englishman who came to Paris, where he was a master of arts prior to 1210 and went on to become a master of theology probably around 1220. He went home for several years (1229-1231), where he was named archdeacon of Coventry, but he reclaimed his chair in theology at the University of Paris in 1232. He joined the Franciscan Order in 1236.

Alexander was the first master of theology to employ the Sentences of Peter Lombard as the text for his courses. His commentary on it, discovered in 1945 and recently published (1951- 1957), was written prior to his entrance into the Franciscans. Several volumes of Disputed Questions, published in 1960, contain work done by Alexander before becoming a Franciscan. He continued to teach in the university as well as in the Franciscan house of studies after he had entered religion; indeed, it is held that he taught until the time of his death. His Summa theologica is in many ways a Franciscan effort, since it is generally agreed that the Summa consists of a compilation from Alexander with contributions by other hands, all of them Alexander's confreres in religion. The recognition that the Summa is not in every sense a personal work does not lessen its interest or importance.

Alexander's explanation of the Sentences clarifies the text princlpally by appeals to Scripture and St. Augustine, but he cites Aristotle both in his logical writings and in the Physics, On the Soul, and Metaphysics. References to other philosophical writings are infrequent, and Van Steenberghen sees in Alexander's commentary on the Sentences the first tentative effort at speculative theology in the presence of Aristotelianism. So too, the Disputed Questions thus far published exhibit a modest interest in the new influx of philosophical writings. The Summa is something else again. Its attitude toward the new literature is open but critical, though questions have been raised as to the extent of the acquaintance with the new literature that the Summa exhibits. The general attitude of the Summa has been compared with that of William of Auvergne, but there are many substantive differences of judgment about particular points of doctrine. Let us mention some salient points of the teaching of the Summa attributed to Alexander of Hales.

We find a discussion of the nature of the human soul and human intelligence. Aristotle is said to have distinguished a material, a potential, and an active intelligence. Though it is usually held that the material intelligence is the potential intelligence for Aristotle, the Summa takes them to be distinct and identifies the former with the sensitive soul. The role of the active intelligence is abstraction; it illumines and actuates the potential intelligence. As for the status of the active intelligence -- is it a part of the human soul or separate from it? -- the Summa suggests that the reason for maintaining that it is separate is that there are intelligible forms nobler than those attained by means of abstraction. In order for the mind to grasp such divine forms, it seems necessary that it be aided by something other than and apart from it. The agent intellect is assigued this role. In discussing this position, the Summa distinguishes between the form and matter of the soul, The agent intellect relates to the form of the human soul whereby it is spirit; the possible intellect relates to the matter of the soul, and the use of the term "matter" here is suggested by the fact that the soul is in potency to knowable things. Thus, the Summa would deny that the agent intellect is something apart from soul. The reason for suggesting that it is, alluded to above, is contested by saying that the agent intellect is said to be in act, not in the sense that it actually knows all forms, but in the sense that it receives from the first agent an illuminating power which relates to forms. The agent intellect is thus a participated light. However, if the agent intellect is not considered to be a power separate from the human soul, both the possible and agent intellects are held to be separable in the sense that they can continue in existence apart from the body.

A point of difference between the Summa and William of Auvergne lies precisely in this talk of the matter and form of the soul. Indeed, the Summa holds to a universal hylomorphism: every creature is composed of matter and form; hylomorphic composition is the mark of the created. Boethius' distinction between quod est and quo is invoked in this connection, and Albert the Great, who denied hylomorphic composition of the soul, is explicitly contested. The matter which enters into the composition of spiritual creatures is, of course, a spiritual matter and not to be confused with the component of physical things. Thus, there is not one and the same matter present in all creatures; if there were, transmutation between spiritual and physical things would be possible, and it is not. The term "matter," that is, covers any and every potentiality, and it must be recalled that the motive for universal hylomorphism is to retain a distance between creator and created. Speaking of this initially surprising claim, Aquinas will say that while it is misleading to say that angels, for example, are composed of matter and form, once one understands the intention of those who say this, it is possible to agree with them without admiring their vocabulary; but, in the final analysis, sapientis non est curare de nominibus.

Mention should also be made here of John of Ia Rochelle, a disciple and contemporary of Alexander of Hales, who is probably the one most responsible for the Summa attributed to Alexander, although he wrote other things as well and indeed was a master of theology at the same time as Alexander. The Augustinian doctrine of illumination, employed in the Summa, was a favored doctrine of John's and was to receive even greater development at the hands of Bonaventure.

C. Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253)

William of Auvergue, Alexander of Hales, and John of Ia Rochelle give us a rather good indication of the initial reaction to the influx of new philosophical writings at the University of Paris. Meanwhile, at Oxford the example of Robert Grosseteste is an indication of a quite different response to the new literature. Robert, who was later to become bishop of Lincoln, was well acquainted with the works of Aristotle. Roger Bacon, whose admiration for Grosseteste knew no bounds and whose contempt for such Parisian masters as Alexander of Hales was equally unrestrained, liked to portray Grosseteste as the easy equal of the likes of Aristotle and indeed as one who opposed the Greek philosopher on all important points.

The thing that strikes the reader of the philosophical writings of Grosseteste, edited in 1912 by Ludwig Baur, is the preponderance of mathematical and scientific topics. It is easy to feel that here is independence and originality of a sort unknown in William of Auvergne and Alexander of Hales. Further consideration leads, however, to the judgment that, despite the mathematics, Grosseteste is actually representative of a conservative mentality, that in him Augustinianism lives on in a less adulterated form than in his continental contemporaries. It is customary, convenient, and fitting that the flavor of Grosseteste's work be exhibited by his contribution to Augustine's theory of illumination.

Among the philosophical writings of Grosseteste is one entitled De luce seu de incohatione formarum (On Light and the Beginning of Forms). The following amounts to a rough translation of the beginning of that essay. I think, Grosseteste writes, that the first bodily form, what some call corporeity, is light, for light of its very nature (per se) diffuses itself in all directions such that, given a point of light, a sphere of light of whatever size is immediately generated unless something opaque (umbrosum) impedes. Matter's extension in three dimensions follows necessarily on corporeity, but matter itself is a simple substance lacking dimensions. So too, form is a simple substance also lacking dimensions, and it cannot account for the dimensions matter comes to have. To account for the extension of matter, Grosseteste says, I nominate light. Extension in all directions is a per se property of light; it diffuses and multiplies itself everywhere. Whatever performs the task of introducing dimensions into the compound of form and matter must therefore be either light or something that does this just insofar as it participates in light. Corporeity, bodily extension, is either light or a participation in light: something which acts through the power of light. Grosseteste's own opinion is simply put. Light is the most noble form of bodies and is that in bodies which makes them most akin to separate substances.

If light is employed to explain the extension of bodies, it is also used to explain the constitution of the universe. We mentioned earlier that the diffusion of light can be checked by the interposition of an obstacle; Grosseteste also holds that any given point of light has an intrinsic limitation on the extent of its diffusion. As for the constitution of the cosmos, then, he can begin with a single body which may be thought of as light and matter, a compound of form and matter: its diffusion to the extent of its intrinsic power will produce a sphere which is finite and whose limit is the heaven. Then, by thinking of that outer limit of light reflecting on the center from which it radiated, Grosseteste speaks of the generation of the celestial bodies. The picture that results is quite geocentric. The degree or intensity of light provides Grosseteste with a scale on which he can compute the ontological status of entities, so that the universe for him is a hierarchy of lights or a hierarchy based on degrees of participation in light.

Thus far Grosseteste's use of light to explain the cosmos may seem only the inspiration of one who had been impressed by the application of mathematics to natural phenomena, like the distribution of light from a source and like the rainbow. Bacon was to laud Grosseteste for having views about the natural world which derived not simply from what he read but from his own careful observations. Historians of science dispute the importance of the contribution Grosseteste made to the emergence of scientific method as we know it. At any rate, beyond his attempt to interpret the physical world by means of light as his basic concept, Grosseteste's theory must be seen as a continuation of the Augustinian doctrine of illumination. St. James spoke of God as the Father of lights and St. John of Christ as the light of the world, and it may not be too much to say that what Augustine had developed from such scriptural remarks as these is as important for the development of Grosseteste's universe of light as anything of an observational nature.

In speaking of the relation of creatures to God two of Grosseteste's philosophical essays are of particular importance. One asks if God is the single form of all things (De unica forma omnium), and the other deals with the emanation of creatures from God (De ordine emanandi causatorum a deo). In discussing the first point Grosseteste employs Augustine's reinterpretation of the Platonic Ideas and is careful to deny that God is the form of all things in the sense of their constitutive or inherent form. The second point deals with the need to distinguish the difference between the procession of the Son from the Father and the emanation of creatures from God. In the course of the essay he distinguishes between the measure of God's duration (eternity) and that of creatures (time) and removes some of the confusion that surrounds the claim that a creature might be eternal. The text Grosseteste seems to be commenting on here is taken from proposition two of the Liber de causis. Only the Son is coeternal with the Father; angels and soul are measured by something other than time, which is the measure of the duration of corporeal things. When God is said to exist before every creature, the adverb must not be understood as temporal, since God is not measured by time. (Cum dico creator est quando non fuit creatura, illud quando significat aeternitatem . . . et est sensus: creatorem esse in aeternitate, in qua non est vel fuit creatura. . . .) The truth of things, Grosseteste maintains in De veritate pro positionis, consists in a conformity with the creative Idea of God. To know the truth, consequently, involves ultimately knowing that conformity. This is the twist Grosseteste, in the familiar Augustinian manner, will give the dictum that truth resides in a conformity of thing and mind. Grosseteste wants no more than Augustine to hold that when we know the truth, we are attending both to things and to the divine pattern, the Word of God, and seeing the conformity between the two. Rather, he suggests that our mind is a participation in the light that is the Word and that as a participation in light our mind is capable of knowing the truth.

Bibliographical Note

See S. H. Thomson, The Writings of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln (Cambridge, 1940); L. Baur, Die philosophischen Werke des Robert Grosseteste (Münster, 1912) and Die Philosophie des Robert Grosseteste (Münster, 1917). A. C. Crombie, Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science (Oxford, 1953) and D. A. Callus, ed., Robert Grosseteste, Scholar and Bishop (Oxford, 1955).

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