Who are Renaissance Philosophers?

The Renaissance period of the Medieval era of philosophy covers, very roughly, the 15th and 16th Centuries. It can be seen as a bridge between Medieval philosophy and the start of Modern philosophy during the Age of Reason.

It includes the following major philosophers:

Erasmus, Desiderius (1466 – 1536) Dutch
Machiavelli, Niccolo 1469 – 1527) Italian
More, Sir Thomas (1478 – 1535) English
Bacon, Sir Francis (1561 – 1626) English

The Renaissance is named for the rebirth or revival of classical civilization and learning. In general terms, it is usually considered to have begun in Italy in the mid-14th Century and rolled across Europe over the succeeding two centuries.

In philosophical terms, the renaissance represents a movement away from Christianity and medieval Scholasticism and towards Humanism, with an increasing focus on the temporal and personal over merely seeing this world as a gateway to the Christian afterlife. A new sense of critical enquiry arose that looked back to the ancient Greeks but also set the stage for the birth of modern philosophy in the Age of Reason.


Sir Francis Bacon


Sir Francis BaconSir Francis Bacon (Baron Verulam, 1st Viscount St Alban) (1561 – 1626) was an English philosopher, statesman, essayist and scientist of the late Renaissance period. He was an astute and ambitious politician in the turbulent and poisonous political climate of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. But, despite his sometimes nefarious dealings and constant battles against debt, he was also the possessor of a brilliant mind.

His major contribution to philosophy was his application of inductive reasoning (generalizations based on individual instances), the approach used by modern science, rather than the a priori method of medieval Scholasticism and Aristotelianism. He was an early proponent of Empiricism and the scientific method.


Francis Bacon was born in London, England on 22 January 1561. His father was Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Queen Elizabeth I; his mother was Ann Cooke, Sir Nicholas’ second wife, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, and sister-in-law of William Cecil (Lord Burghley) (chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth). He was therefore raised as an English gentleman, and had many contacts in the royal court of the day. He was the youngest of his father’s five sons and three daughters.

Bacon’s early education was conducted at home owing to poor health, which plagued him throughout his life. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge at the age of twelve (living in Cambridge for three years with his older brother, Anthony), and it was there that he first met the Queen, who was impressed by his precocious intellect. In 1576, he briefly entered the upper class part of Gray’s Inn, but was soon granted the opportunity to travel (with Sir Amias Paulet, the English ambassador at Paris) throughout France, Italy and Spain, including some time spent at the University of Poitiers in France and at the French court. There were unsubstantiated rumours that he became romantically involved during this time with Marguerite de Valois, sister of the French king).

In February 1579, he returned to England on the sudden death of his father, although his inheritance was much less than anticipated, and he returned to Gray’s Inn to study law in order to support himself. He was admitted as a junior barristerin 1582, but his ambitions (which he described as to discover truth, to serve his country and to serve his church) led him into politics. He served as Member of Parliament for Melcome Regis in 1584, and then Taunton (1586), Southampton and Ipswich (1597), Liverpool (1589), Middlesex (1593) and St Albans and Ipswich (1604).

His early opposition to Elizabeth’s tax program retarded his political advancement, but, with the help of his powerful uncle, Lord Burghley, he rose quickly in the legal profession, receiving the valuable appointment of reversion to the Clerkship of the Star Chamber in 1589. During this period, he also became acquainted with Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and by 1591, he was acting as the earl’s confidential adviser. He continued to use his contacts to advance his career, including an appointment to Queen’s Counsel in 1596, although his money problems continued and, in 1598, he was briefly arrested for his bad debts. He was an astute politician and managed to sever his ties with the Duke of Essex before Essex was executed for treason in 1601 (even publicly arguing against his old benefactor).

With the accession of King James I after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Bacon’s star continued to rise and he was knighted in the same year. In 1606, he married Alice Barnham, the 14-year old daughter of a well-connected London MP (he was later to disinherit her on the discovery of her infidelity). Despite the generous income from his various legal positions, old debts and his spendthrift ways kept him indebted. He managed to negotiate the political obstacles of King James’ reign, and continued to receive the King’s favour, although he was not always so popular with his peers. He was rewarded with one prestigious appointment after another, including Solicitor General (1607), Attorney General (1613), Privy Councillor(1616), Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (1617), Lord High Chancellor (1618), Baron Verulam of Verulam (1618) and Viscount St. Albans (1621).

Sir Francis played a leading role in creating the British colonies in the New World, especially in Virginia, the Carolinas and Newfoundland. His government report on “The Virginia Colony” was made in 1609, and he helped form the Newfoundland Colonization Company which sent John Guy to found a colony in Newfoundland in 1610.

Sir Francis Bacon’s public career ended in disgrace in 1621, when a Parliamentary Committee on the administration of the law charged him with twenty-three counts of corruption and bribery. Although his imprisonment in the Tower of London was short-lived, he was declared incapable of holding future office or sitting in parliament, and only narrowly escaped being deprived of his titles. He was banishedfrom London, and he retired to his estate at Gorhambury (near St. Albans) to devote himself to writing and scientific work.

He died, aged 66, at the home of Lord Arundel in Highgate, London on 9 April 1626, leaving substantial debts. At his funeral at Saint Michael’s Church in St. Albans, over thirty famous thinkers of the day collected together their eulogies of him, suggesting that, among many political enemies, he also had many scholarly and literary friends.

Since his death, several controversies and conspiracy theories have arisen regarding Bacon, including his possible homosexuality, the possibility that he (and also the Earl of Essex) may have been Queen Elizabeth’s illegitimate and unacknowledged son, that he was the real author of many of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays, that he was deeply involved with various secret societies such as the Rosicrucians and Freemasons, and that he faked his own death. In the 20th Century, some Ascended Master Teachings organizations in the United States went so far as to claim that that Francis Bacon had never died, and had since become an Ascended Master.


For Bacon, the only knowledge of importance to man was empirically rooted in the natural world, and a clear system of scientific inquiry would assure man’s mastery over the world. He had a great reverence for Aristotle, although he found Aristotelian philosophy barren, disputatious and wrong in its objectives.

Bacon argued that, while philosophy at the time generally used the deductive syllogism (see the section on Logic) to interpret nature, it should instead proceed through inductive reasoning, from fact to axiom to law. However, he cautioned that before beginning this induction, the philosopher must free his mind from certain false notions or tendencies which distort the truth, which he characterized as the four Idols: “Idols of the Tribe” (common to the race); “Idols of the Den” (peculiar to the individual); “Idols of the Marketplace” (from the misuse of language); and “Idols of the Theatre” (from the abuse of authority).

In Ethics, he distinguished between duty to the community (an ethical matter) and duty to God (a religious matter). He believed that any moral action is the action of the human will (which is governed by belief and spurred on by the passions), that good habit is what aids men in directing their will toward the good, but that no universal rules can be made, as both situations and men’s characters differ. One of his many aphorisms was that “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to Atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion”.

Among his earlier publication were the “Essays”, the “Colours of Good and Evil”, the “Meditationes Sacrae” (which includes his famous aphorism, “knowledge is power”, an early expression of Pragmatism), and the “Proficience and Advancement of Learning”. In 1620, his “Novum Organum” (“The New Instrument”), the most important part of his fragmentary and incomplete “Instauratio Magna” (“The Great Renewal”), was published, and a second part, “De Augmentis Scientiarum” (“The Advancement of Learning”), was published in 1623.

“The New Atlantis”, written in 1623 and published after his death in 1627, expressed Bacon’s aspirations and ideals in the form of an idealized utopia and a vision of the future of human discovery and knowledge. In it, he envisioned a land where there would be greater rights for women, the abolition of slavery, elimination of debtors prisons (a rather personal note), separation of church and state, and freedom of religious and political expression. It includes his idea for a cooperative research institution, which was instrumental in the plans and preparations for establishing the Royal Society for science in the 17th Century.

From his early studies, Bacon was persuaded that the methods and results of scienceas then practiced (largely based on the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle) were erroneous. While many Aristotelian ideas ( such as the position of the earth at the centre of the universe) had been overturned, his methodology (based on the premise that scientific truth could be reached by way of authoritative argument) was still being used. Bacon argued strongly that truth required evidence from the real world (Empiricism), and urged full investigation in all cases, avoiding theories based on insufficient data. Although not himself a distinguished scientist, his importance is in the way he articulated what was to become the dominant mode of thought.

Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535)


Sir Thomas MoreSir Thomas More (AKA St. Thomas More) (1478 – 1535) was an English philosopher, scholar, statesman and writer of the Renaissance period.

His writing and scholarship earned him a great reputation as a Christian Humanist scholar in continental Europe, and was famously described by Robert Whittington as “a man for all seasons”. He occupied many public offices under King Henry VIII, rising to the position of Lord Chancellor of England.

More coined the word “utopia”, a name he gave to an ideal, imaginary land whose political system he described in his famous 1516 book of the same name. The book was a forerunner of the utopian literary genre, and has been claimed by some modern Socialists as key in the early development of Socialist ideas



Thomas More was born on 7 February 1478 in London, England, the the sole surviving son of Sir John More (a prominent judge) and Agnes Granger (or Grainger or Graunger). As a youth, he served as a page in the household of Archbishop Morton, who predicted that More would become a “marvellous man”. More went on to study at Oxford under Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn.

Around 1494, More returned to London to study law, was admitted to Lincoln’s Innin 1496, and became a barrister in 1501. Even while studying to be a lawyer, he subjected himself to the discipline and the monastic life of the Carthusian monksat a nearby monastery, and the prayer, fasting, and penance habits stayed with him for the rest of his life. However, his sense of duty to serve his country in the field of politics won out over both law and the church, and he entered Parliament in 1504.

In 1505, at the age of 27, More married his first wife, the 17 year old Jane Colt. Their marriage was a happy one, and they bore four children: Margaret (Meg, his favourite, who later married William Roper), Elizabeth (Beth, who married William Daunce), Cicely (Cecy, who married Giles Heron) and John (Jack). In addition, they adopted an orphan girl, Margaret Giggs. He was a very devoted father and, unusually for the era, he educated his daughters as he did his son, saying that women were just as intelligent as men (and taking particular pride in his eldest daughter Meg’s achievements).

Jane Colt died in 1511, and More remarried almost immediately (so his children would have a mother) to Dame Alice Middleton, a widow seven years his senior. They bore no children of their own, although he adopted her daughter, also called Alice.

More had become a close friend of Desiderius Erasmus during the latter’s first visit to England in 1499, and the two Humanists began of a lifelong friendship and correspondence. Together, they produced Latin translations of the works of Lucianin 1506 during Erasmus’ second visit and, on his third visit in 1509, Erasmus dedicated his “Encomium Moriae” (“In Praise of Folly”) to More.

From 1510 to 1518, More was one of the two undersheriffs of the city of London, a position of much responsibility, and he earned a reputation as an honest and effective public servant. In 1517, he entered the service of the young King Henry VIII of England as a counsellor and personal servant, and in 1518 he became a member of the Privy Council. After a diplomatic mission to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, he was knighted and made Under-Treasurer in 1521. As secretaryand personal advisor to King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas became governmentally influential, welcoming diplomats, drafting official documents and liaising between the King and his Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey.

In 1523, More became the Speaker of the House of Commons, where he helped establish the parliamentary privilege of free speech. Later, he became High Steward for the universities of Oxford and of Cambridge, and, in 1525, he became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a position holding administrative and judicial control of much of northern England.

He was passionate about maintaining the unity of Christendom and he saw the fragmentation and discord of the Reformation of Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) as a threat to the harmony and strict hierarchy he so greatly valued. With this in mind, he assisted Henry VIII with writing the “Defence of the Seven Sacraments” in 1521 (a polemic response to Luther’s “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church”), beginning a violent exchange which led to intemperate personal insults. He also aided Cardinal Wolsey in preventing Lutheran books from being imported into England, and assisted with a Star Chamber edict against heretical preaching.

Up until this time, More had been fully devoted to King Henry and to the cause of royal prerogative. He initially cooperated with the king’s new policy, denouncingboth Cardinal Wolsey and the opinion of the theologians at Oxford and Cambridge that the marriage of Henry to Catherine of Aragon had been unlawful. But as Henry began to deny the authority of the Pope, More’s qualms grew.

After the fall of Thomas Wolsey in 1529, More became Lord Chancellor, the first layman ever to hold the post. As Lord Chancellor, More had six Lutherans burned at the stake and imprisoned as many as forty others in his zeal to wipe out collaborators of William Tyndale, the exiled Lutheran who had clandestinely published a Protestant translation of the Bible in English in 1525. Although he always denied allegations of violence or torture while interrogating them, More presided over further burnings, including those of the former Benedictine monk Richard Bayfield in 1531 and the priest and writer John Frith in 1533.

In 1530, More refused to sign a letter by the leading English churchmen and aristocrats asking the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine, and in 1531 he attempted to resign after being forced to take an oath declaring the king the Supreme Head of the English Church. In 1532, he again asked the king again to relieve him of his office, claiming illness and sharp chest pains, and this time Henry granted his request.

When, in 1533, More refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as the Queen of England, Henry had More charged with patently false charges of accepting bribes, which were dismissed for lack of any evidence, and the next year he was also cleared of a trumped-up conspiracy charge. However, later in 1534, More refused to to swear to the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy (which denied the authority of the Pope), and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In 1535, he was charged with high treason for denying the validity of the Act of Succession, and was convicted (on evidence which was almost certainly perjured).

He was executed by beheading, alongside Bishop Fisher, on 6 July 1535, and his head was placed on a pike over London Bridge for a month, according to the normal custom for traitors. His daughter Margaret Roper rescued it, and the skull is believed to rest in the St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury. He is considered a Catholic martyr, and was beatified in 1886, canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935, and declared the patron saint of politicians and statesmen in 1980.



Despite his busy political career, More was a prolific scholar and literary man. In his communications with other Humanists, Erasmus described More as a model Man of Letters, and he was famously described in 1520 by Robert Whittington (c. 1480 – 1553) as “a man for all seasons”. As a Christian Humanist, he sought the re-examination and revitalization of Christian theology by studying the Bible and the writings of the Church Fathers in light of classical Greek literary and philosophic traditions.

Between 1513 and 1518, More worked on an unfinished historiography, the “History of King Richard III”, later published in both English and Latin. It reflected an early move from mundane medieval chronicles to a more dramatic writing style.

In 1516, More wrote his most famous and controversial work, “Utopia”, a novel wherein a traveller describes the political arrangements of the imaginary island country of Utopia. In Utopia, private property does not exist, and there is almost complete religious toleration. Atheism, however, is not tolerated, with More arguing that, if a man did not believe in a god or in an afterlife, he could never be trusted because logically he would not acknowledge any authority or principle outside himself. The perfectly orderly and reasonable social arrangements of Utopia (based loosely on monastic communalism) are contrasted with the contentious social life of European states, and the social need for order and discipline is emphasized (rather than liberty).

Although some have argued that “Utopia” was largely ironic and that More was at every point an orthodox Christian, it has also attracted the admiration of modern Socialists, who have argued that it was a shrewd critique of economic and social exploitation in pre-modern Europe, and that More was one of the key intellectual figures in the early development of Socialist ideas.

Along with Erasmus, More was responsible for reviving Hedonism to some extent, defending it on religious grounds. He argued that not only did God design us to be happy, but that He uses our desire for happiness to motivate us to behave morally. Perhaps more importantly, More distinguished between the pleasures of the mind and pleasures of the body, and argued that we should pursue pleasures that are more naturally grounded, so that we do not become preoccupied with artificial luxuries.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527)


niccolomachiavelliNiccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) was an Italian philosopher, political theorist, diplomat, musician and writer of the Renaissance period. He was a central figure in the political scene of the Italian Renaissance, a tumultuous period of plots, wars between city states and constantly shifting alliances.

Although he never considered himself a philosopher (and often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as irrelevant), many subsequent political philosophers have been influenced by his ideas. His name has since passed into common usage to refer to any political move that is devious or cunning in nature, although this probably represents a more extreme view than Machiavelli actually took.

He is best known today for two main works, the well-known “The Prince” (a treatise on political realism and a guide on how a ruler can retain control over his subjects), and the “Discourses on Livy” (the most important work on republicanism in the early modern period).

Although he is sometimes presented as a model of Moral Nihilism, that is actually highly questionable as he was largely silent on moral matters and, if anything, he presented an alternative to the ethical theories of his day, rather than an all-out rejection of all morality. He was also accused of Atheism, again with little justification.



Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy on 3 May 1469, the second son of Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli (a lawyer) and Bartolommea di Stefano Nelli. His family were believed to be descended from the old marquesses of Tuscany, and were probably quite wealthy.

Little is known of his early life, but his education (possibly at the University of Florence) left him with a thorough knowledge of the Latin and Italian classics, and he was trained as a man with great nobility and severe rigour by his father. He entered governmental service in Florence as a clerk and ambassador in 1494, the same year as Florence had restored the republic and expelled the ruling Medici family. He was soon promoted to Second Chancellor of the Republic of Florence, with responsibility for diplomatic negotiations and military matters. Between 1499 and 1512, he undertook a number of diplomatic missions to the court of Louis XII of France, Ferdinand II of Aragón and the Papacy in Rome. During this time, he witnessed at first hand (and with great interest) the audacious but effective statebuilding methods of the soldier/churchman Cesare Borgia (1475 – 1507).

From 1503 to 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia and the defence of the city (he distrusted mercenaries, preferring a citizen militia). He had some early success, but in 1512, the Medici (with the help of Pope Julius II and Spanish troops) defeated the Florentine force, and Machiavelli was removed from office, accused of conspiracy and arrested. After torture, he was eventually released and retired to his estate at Sant’Andrea (in Percussina near Florence) and began writing the treatises that would ensure his place in the history of Political Philosophy, “Il Principe” (“The Prince”) and “Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio” (“Discourses on Livy”).

Near the end of his life, and probably with the aid of well-connected friends whom he had been constantly badgering, Machiavelli began to return to the favour of the Medici family. From 1520 to 1525, he worked on a “History of Florence”, commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’Medici (who later become Pope Clement VII). However, before he could achieve a full rehabilitation, he died in San Casciano, just outside of Florence, on 21 June 1527. His resting place is unknown.



Machiavelli’s best known work, “Il Principe” (“The Prince”), was written in some haste in 1513 while in exile on his farm outside Florence, and was dedicated to Lorenzo de’Medici in the hope of regaining his status in the Florentine Government. However, it was only formally published posthumously in 1532. In it, he described the arts by which a Prince (or ruler) could retain control of his realm. A “new” prince has a much more difficult task than a hereditary prince, since he must stabilize his newfound power and build a structure that will endure, a task that requires the Prince to be publicly above reproach but privately may require him to do immoral things in order to achieve his goals. He outlined his criteria for acceptable cruel actions and pointed out the irony in the fact that good can come from evil actions.

Although “The Prince” did not dispense entirely with morality nor advocate wholesale selfishness or degeneracy, the Catholic Church nevertheless put the work on its index of prohibited books, and it was viewed very negatively by many Humanists, such as Erasmus. It marked a fundamental break between Realism and Idealism. Although never directly stated in the book, “the end justifies the means”is often quoted as indicative of the Pragmatism or Instrumentalism that underlies Machiavelli’s philosophy. He also touched on totalitarian themes, arguing that the state is merely an instrument for the benefit of the ruler, who should have no qualms at using whatever means are at his disposal to keep the citizenry suppressed. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, though, Machiavelli was not looking to describe the ideal society, merely to present a guide to getting and preserving power and the status quo.

His other major contribution to political thought, the “Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio” (“Discourses on Livy”) was begun around 1516 and compeleted in 1518 or 1519. It was an exposition of the principles of republican rule, masquerading as a commentary on the work of the famous historian of the Roman Republic. It constitutes a series of lessons on how a republic should be started and structured, including the concept of checks and balances, the strength of a tripartite structure, and the superiority of a republic over a principality or monarchy. If not the first, then it was certainly the most important work on republicanism in the early modern period.


Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536)


Desiderius ErasmusDesiderius Erasmus (AKA Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus or Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam) (1466 – 1536) was a Dutch philosopher and theologian of the Renaissance. He is best known as an early Humanist (sometimes known as “Prince of the Humanists” or “the crowning glory of the Christian Humanists”), and the intellectual father of the Reformation. He was instrumental in rescuing Christian theology from the pedantries of the Scholastics.

He was a very learned classical scholar, and was especially interested in the study of ancient languages. Although his Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament earned him enemies among both Catholics and Protestant Reformers, his works were hugely popular and influential, both during his life and afterwards (in the 1530’s, his writings accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales).


Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, Holland, on 27 October 1466 (or possibly 1469). He was born with the Dutch name Gerrit Gerritszoon but adopted the name Erasmus after the early Christian saint of that name. He was almost certainly illegitimate, his father, Gerard Rogers, later becoming a priest, and his mother Margaretha being the daughter of a physician. He lived his first four years in Rotterdam, before moving to his parents’ home town of Gouda.

Despite being illegitimate, his parents looked after and educated him. At nine years of age, he went to the school of the celebrated Humanist Alexander Hegius (1433 – 1498) in Deventer, run by the Brethren of the Common Life, where he soon exhibited a brilliant intellect, a wonderful memory and extraordinarily quick powers of comprehension. When both his parents suffered early deaths from the plague in 1483, his guardians forced him into in a series of monastic schools, including, in 1486, the Augustinian college of Stein (near Gouda), where he spent almost six years and had a first-hand taste of monastic life which forever coloured his views.

In 1491, a fortunate accident allowed Erasmus to leave the monastery for the post of secretary to Henry of Bergen (the Bishop of Cambray), on account of his great skill in Latin and his reputation as a man of letters. In 1492, the Bishop ordained him to the Catholic priesthood, although he never actively worked as a priest, and throughout his life he regularly attacked the monasticism of the time and the Church’s excesses in general. In 1495, with the bishop’s consent, he went on to study and also teach at the University of Paris, specifically at the Collège de Montaigu, under the strict direction of the ascetic Jan Standonck. The college was known as a centre of reforming zeal, and the University, although still the chief seat of Scholastic learning (which Erasmus found repugnant), was already coming under the influence of Humanism.

He made his first visit to England in 1498, where he lived chiefly at Oxford, before returning to Paris in 1500 where he spent the next six years, and started his early writings. In 1506, he made another short visit to England, and then carried out a long-desired journey to Italy, staying at Padua and Rome and at a publishing house in Venice. With the accession of King Henry VIII in 1509, Erasmus’ old student Lord Mountjoy induced him once more to make England (more specifically, Cambridge) his home, where he was granted the position of Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity and stayed for some time at Queens’ College. During this time, he was particularly impressed by the old-style Bible teaching of the English Humanist and theologian John Colet (1467 – 1519). After 1514, he lived alternately in England and Basel, Switzerland, and from 1517 to 1521 at Louvain in Flemish Belgium. After this, with the exception of six years in Freiburg, Switzerland, he spent the rest of his life at Basel.

While in England in 1515, Erasmus had begun a search for available manuscripts of the Greek New Testament with the goal of meeting the demand for a printed edition before the Polyglot Bible project could be finished. Inspired by Colet, and despite his continuing poverty, he rapidly mastered the Greek language and set about preparing a new edition of St. Jerome’s 4th Century Bible translation. This resulted in his “Textus Receptus”, of which he produced several versionsover the subsequent years.

At that time, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was making public his criticisms of the Church, and although Erasmus was generally sympathetic with many of them, he declined to commit himself, arguing that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which he regarded as his purpose in life. Erasmus, at the height of his literary fame throughout Europe, was inevitably called upon to take sides and, when he hesitated to support him, Luther felt that Erasmus was avoiding the responsibility due either to cowardice or lack of purpose, and he gradually withdrew his early admiration for Erasmus. The Catholic Church, however, and especially the Catholic Counter-Reformationafter his death, accused him of being instrumental in the whole Protestant movement, and all of his works were later placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Pope Paul IV in 1557. By remaining firmly neutral, both sides accused him of siding with the other.

Throughout his life, Erasmus was offered many positions of honour and profit in the academic world, but declined them all, preferring to retain his his freedom of intellect and literary expression. As a scholar, he tried to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval Scholastic traditions, and as a theologian he pursued a purification of the Christian doctrine by returning to the historic documents and original languages of scripture, and by an appeal to reason without fear of the magisterium (the teaching authority of the Catholic church). He corresponded with more than five hundred men of the highest importance in the world of politics and of thought, and his advice on all kinds of subjects was eagerly sought (even if not always followed).

Erasmus died of a sudden attack of dysentery on 12 July 1536 in Basel, and was buried there in the cathedral.


Erasmus wrote mainly on ecclesiastic subjects but also on those of general human interest (although he regarded these as trifling, a leisure activity). In 1500, he produced a collection of adages, commonly called the “Adagia”, including several of his own (e.g. he is credited with the adage “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, and with the origin of the English phrase “Pandora’s box”). In his first serious work, the “Enchiridion militis Christiani” (“Handbook of the Christian Soldier”) of 1503, he first outlined his essential view that the chief evil of the day was formalism (going through the motions of tradition, without understanding their basis in the teachings of Christ), and as examples he mentioned monasticism, saint worship, war, the spirit of class and the foibles of “society”.

His best-known work is “Moriae encomium” or “Laus stultitiae” (“The Praise of Folly”), a satirical attack on the traditions of the Catholic Church and popular superstitions, written in 1509, published in 1511 and dedicated to his friend, Sir Thomas More. The “Sileni Alcibiadis” of 1515 continues in this vein, criticizing those that spend the Church’s riches at the people’s expense. His “Institutio principis Christiani” (“Education of a Christian Prince”), written as advice to the young King Charles of Spain, was published in 1516, sixteen years before Niccolò Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. Contrary to Machiavelli’s advice, Erasmus suggested a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and benevolently and avoid becoming a source of oppression. His often reprinted “Colloquia Familiaria”, first published in 1518, was a kind of Humanist textbook for the study of Latin.

It was only comparatively late in his life, when he had fully mastered Latin, that Erasmus’ real literary productivity began. His output was prodigious, and he translated, edited or annotated many of the greatest names of the classical and patristic world, including AristotleCiceroSt. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom and St. Jerome.

While in England in 1515, Erasmus had begun a search for available manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and, although he did not have access to a single complete manuscript, he nevertheless quickly put together what became the first published Greek New Testament (with a Latin translation and annotations) in 1516, using several Greek manuscript sources. This “Textus Receptus” (and his later 1519 and 1522 editions) was subsequently used as the main source material by the reformers Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and William Tyndale (1494 – 1536), and for the Church of England’s authoritative King James Version (1611) of the Bible.

He continued to produce ever more definitive editions of his Bible translations in 1527 and 1535, as well as his popular “Paraphrases of the New Testament”, and the “Ecclesiastes” (or “Gospel Preacher”) of 1536, in which he comments on the function of preaching.

Who are the Philosophers from the Early Middle Ages?

The Early Middle Ages period of philosophy represents a renewed flowering of Western philosophical thought after the intellectual drought of the Dark Ages.

It includes the following major philosophers:

Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (980 – 1037) Persian
Anselm, St. (1033 – 1109) Italian
Abelard, Peter (1079 – 1142) French
Averroes (Ibn Rushd) (1126 – 1198) Spanish-Arabic
Maimonides (1135 – 1204) Spanish-Jewish
Albertus Magnus (c. 1206 – 1280) German
Bacon, Roger (c. 1214 – 1294) English
Aquinas, St. Thomas (1225 – 1274) Italian
Scotus, John Duns (c. 1266 – 1308) Scottish
Ockham (Occam), William of (c. 1285 – 1348) English

Much of the period is marked by the influence of Christianity and many of the philosophers of the period were greatly concerned with proving the existence of God and reconciling Christianity with classical philosophy. The early Christian theologians St. Augustine and Boethius represent a link between the Roman and Medieval periods, and arguably had more in common with the later Medieval philosophers than with the earlier Romans (where they have been included for the purposes of this guide).

An important development in the Medieval period was the establishment of the first universities with professional full-time scholars. It should also be noted that there was also a strong resurgence in Islamic and Jewish philosophy at this time.

The most influential movements of the period were Scholasticism and its off-shoots Thomism and Scotism, and the Islamic schools of Averroism, Avicennism and Illuminationism.

William of Ockham (c. 1285 – 1348)


WilliamofockhamWilliam of Ockham (or William of Occam) (c. 1285 – 1348) was an English Franciscan friar, philosopher and theologian of the Medieval period.

Along with St. Thomas AquinasJohn Duns Scotus and Averroës, he is one of the major figures of late medieval Scholastic thought, and was at the centre of the major intellectual and political controversies of the 14th Century. He is sometimes called the father of Nominalism, strongly believing that universals are merely mental concepts and abstractions which do not really exist, except in the mind.

In addition to formulating his famous methodological principle commonly known as Occam’s Razor, he produced significant works on Logic, physics and theology. His philosophy was radical in his day and continues to provide insight into current philosophical debates.



William of Ockham was born around 1285 in the small village of Ockham in Surrey, England, although nothing is known of his parents or his early life before he joined the Franciscan order (probably in London) at the age of fourteen. He was ordained a subdeacon by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Southwark, London in 1306, and was sent to study theology at the University of Oxford in 1309 (at some point he probably studied under John Duns Scotus and derived many of his views from him).

In 1320, he completed study for his bachelor’s degree, and he lectured on Logic and natural philosophy in a Franciscan school from 1321 to 1324, while he waited to return to university to study for his doctorate (although events were to overtake him and he never completed his master’s degree or doctorate). During these years he wrote many deep works on philosophy and Logic, including his monumental three-part “Summa logicae” in which he lays out the fundamentals of his Logic and its accompanying Metaphysics.

In 1324, he was summoned to the Papal court at Avignon, France, under charges of heresy (possibly levied by the Oxford Chancellor John Lutterell), and a theological commission was asked to review his “Commentary on the Sentences” (a commentary he wrote on the “Book of Sentences” of the 12th Century Italian theologian Peter Lombard, a standard requirement for medieval theology students). Lutterell made a list of 56 statements (later reduced to 49) which he deemed to be erroneous or heretical, but in fact Ockham’s views were fairly conservative and his religious statements mostly had adherents among the leading Franciscans, so he was not formally condemned for his teachings.

However, while undergoing these disciplinary difficulties, under a loose form of house arrest, Ockham also became involved in another debate, when he was asked to review the arguments surrounding “apostolic poverty” (the belief that Jesus and his apostles owned no personal property and survived by begging and accepting the gifts of others). This was the subject of another charge of heresy by Pope John XXII (who opposed the belief) against the Franciscan Minister General Michael of Cesena in 1327. Having weighed the evidence, Ockham sided with the Minister General, which brought them both into conflict with the Pope, whom Ockham effectively accused of heresy himself.

Fearing imprisonment and possible execution, Ockham, Cesena and other Franciscan sympathizers fled Avignon for Pisa in 1328, taking refuge with the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV of Bavaria, who was also engaged in a dispute with the papacy at the time. Ockham was excommunicated for leaving Avignon, but his philosophy was never officially condemned. When the court of the Emperor returned from Italy to Munich, Ockham went with them and he lived out the rest of his life in the Franciscan convent at Munich.

He spent much of the remainder of his life writing on political issues, especially on the relations between Church and State (notably his “Dialogue on the Power of the Emperor and the Pope”), and he continued to attack papal power, always employing logical reasoning in his arguments. After Michael of Cesena’s death in 1342, he became the leader of the small band of Franciscan dissidents living in exile with Louis IV.

Ockham died some time between 1347 and 1349 (before to the outbreak of the Black Death) in the Franciscan convent at Munich in Bavaria, Germany, still unreconciled with the Catholic Church. He was officially rehabilitated by Pope Innocent VI in 1359.



As a Scholastic, Ockham was strongly committed to the ideas of Aristotle, and advocated reform both in method and in content, the main aim of which was simplification. He was strongly influenced by John Duns Scotus, from whom he derived his views of divine omnipotence, grace and justification, as well as much of his epistemological and ethical convictions, although he also disagreed with Scotus in the areas of predestination, penance, his understanding of universals and his view of parsimony.

The French Franciscan philosopher Peter John Olivi (1248 – 1298), an extremely original thinker and pioneer of many of the same views that Ockham defended later in his career, was clearly an important influence on Ockham, although he never acknowledged it (possibly because Olivi himself was condemned as a heretic). Ockham has often been cast as the outstanding opponent of Thomism and St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Medieval “synthesizer” of faith and reason, although in reality he did not criticize Aquinas any more than he did others.

Ockham was a pioneer of Nominalism, and he argued strongly that only individuals exist (rather than supra-individual universals, essences or forms), and that universals are the products of abstraction from individuals by the human mind and have no extra-mental existence. However, his view is perhaps more accurately described as Conceptualism rather than Nominalism, as Ockham held that universals were mental concepts (i.e. mental substitutes for real things, which do exist, even if only in the mind) rather than, as Nominalists would have it, merely names (i.e. words, rather than existing realities). He even extended this belief to mathematics, so that it was not necessary for him to suppose the real existence of such mathematical entities as points and lines in order to make useful use of them.

One important contribution Ockham made to modern science and modern intellectual culture was his principle of ontological parsimony in explanation and theory building, which has become better known as “Occam’s Razor” (or, less commonly, “Ockham’s Razor”). Essentially, the principle states that one should not multiply entities beyond the necessary (“Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate”). Or, alternatively, one should always opt for an explanation in terms of the fewest possible number of causes, factors or variables. Or, again, one should always take a bias towards simplicity when constructing a theory, and not construct unnecessary and over-elaborate explanations.

Theologically, Ockham was a Fideist, maintaining that belief in God is a matter of faith rather than knowledge and, against the mainstream, he insisted that theology is not a science and rejected all the alleged proofs of the existence of God. He believed that human reason can prove neither the immortality of the soul nor the existence of God (nor his unity and infinity), and that these truths are known to us by Revelation alone. For Ockham, the only truly necessary entity is God (everything else being contingent).

In Ethics, he was a supporter of Divine Command Theory, a deontological and absolutist approach to Ethics which believes that an action is right if God has decreed that it is right, and that that an act is obligatory if and only if (and because) it is commanded by God. Thus, in answer to Plato’s question: “Is something good because God wills it, or does God will something because it is good?”, Ockham (against the majority view) resoundingly asserts the former. In his view, God does not conform to an independently existing standard of goodness; rather, God himself is the standard of goodness.

He contributed to an important development in late medieval Epistemology with his rejection of the Scholastic theory of species (which he held was unnecessary and not supported by experience), in favour of a theory of abstraction. He also distinguished between “intuitive cognition” (which depends on the existence or non existence of the object) and “abstract cognition” (which “abstracts” the object from the existence predicate). In effect, he defended direct realist Empiricism, according to which human beings perceive objects through intuitive cognition, without the help of any innate ideas.

In Logic, he came very close to stating what would later be called De Morgan’s Laws(expressing pairs of dual logical operators in terms of negation), and also considered the concept of ternary logic (a logical system with three truth values: true, false and some third value), a concept that would only be taken up again in the mathematical logic of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Ockham is also increasingly being recognized as an important contributor to the development of modern Western constitutional ideas (especially the idea of government with limited responsibility), and to the emergence of liberal democratic ideologies. He was one of the first medieval authors to advocate a form of Church-State separation, and was important for the early development of the notion of property rights and freedom of speech.

Ockham also wrote a great deal on natural philosophy, including a long commentary on Aristotle’s physics. One important view he held, contrary to the contemporary theory, was that motion is essentially self-conserving in itself, without need of any causal force (an application of his “razor” or the principle of parsimony).

John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – 1308)


dunsJohn Duns Scotus (often known simply as Duns Scotus) (c. 1266 – 1308) was a Scottish philosopher and Franciscan theologian of the Medieval period.

He was one of the most important Scholastic theologians of the High Middle Ages, along with St. Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham and St. Bonaventure (1221 – 1274), and the founder of a special form of Scholasticism, which came to be known as Scotism. He was also an early adopter of the doctrine of Voluntarism.

He was nicknamed Doctor Subtilis for his penetrating and subtle manner of thought, and had considerable influence on Roman Catholic thought. In the 16th Century, however, he was accused of sophistry, which led to the use of his name (in the form of “dunce”) to describe someone who is incapable of scholarship.



Scotus was probably born around 1266 in the town of Duns in the Borders region of southern Scotland (“Scotus” simply means “the Scot”).

Very little is known of his life for sure. When he was a boy he joined the Franciscanorder, and was sent to study at Oxford, possibly in 1288. We know that he was ordained as a priest in Northampton in 1291, and that he obtained his license to hear confessions at Oxford in 1300. He probably completed his Oxford studies in 1301 but, rather than remain as a master at Oxford, he was sent to the more prestigious University of Paris.

In the autumn of 1302, he began lecturing on Peter Lombard’s “Sentences” (the set of opinions on Biblical passages which were often used as a springboard for discussions among Medieval scholars) at Paris. Later in that academic year, however, he was expelled from the University (along with several other papists) for siding with Pope Boniface VIII in his feud with Philip the Fair (King Philip IV) of France over the taxation of church property. He probably spent this time in exile back in Oxford (or possibly Cambridge), where he may have taught William of Ockham at some point. However, he returned to Paris before the end of 1304 (after Pope Boniface had died and the new Pope, Benedict XI, had made his peace with Philip).

He completed his Parisian studies, probably in early 1305, and was incepted as a master, and continued lecturing there until 1307. For reasons which still remain mysterious, he was dispatched to the Franciscan house of studies at Cologne, Germany, in October of 1307.

He died in Cologne on 8 November 1308, and was buried in the Church of the Minorites (an old unsubstantiated tradition holds that Scotus was actually buried alive following his lapse into a coma). His sarcophagus bears the Latin inscription: “Scotia me genuit. Anglia me suscepit. Gallia me docuit. Colonia me tenet” (“Scotland brought me forth. England sustained me. France taught me. Cologne holds me.”). He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993.



Scotus was a great champion of St. Augustine and, like St. Bonaventure (1221 – 1274) and St. Thomas Aquinas before him, he wanted to reconstruct the thought of St. Augustine and Aristotle for the glory of God. But, although he had much in common with the other Scholastics of the time, he was not a mechanical repeater of any of them and he maintained several specific disagreements with them (and with St. Augustine himself).

Unlike St. Thomas Aquinas, Scotus rejected the distinction between essence and existence, denying that we can conceive of what it is to be something, without conceiving it as existing. Also in contrast to St. Thomas Aquinas, Scotus, believed in the controversial doctrine of univocity, that certain predicates may be applied with exactly the same meaning to God as to his creatures (Aquinas insisted that only analogical predication was possible, in which a word as applied to God has a meaning different from, although related to, the meaning of that same word as applied to creatures). Scotus also argued in favour of the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary (the great philosophers and theologians of the time were hopelessly divided on the subject, with Aquinas, for example, generally denying the doctrine).

In constrast to the later William of Ockham, Scotus is generally considered to have been a Realist rather than a Nominalist, in that he treated universals as real. However, he recognized the need for an intermediate distinction (that was not merely conceptual, but not fully real or mind-dependent either), resulting in his concept of a “formal distinction” (e.g. entities are inseparable and indistinct in reality, but their definitions are not identical).

His causal argument for the existence of God (of which he offered several versions), is perhaps the most complicated of any ever written, and constitutes a philosophical tour de force, despite its flaws. First he proved what he called the “triple primacy” (that there is a being that is first in efficient causality, in final causality and in pre-eminence); then he proved that these three primacies are co-extensive (i.e. any being which is first in one of these ways will necessarily also be first in the other two); then he proved that any being enjoying the triple primacy is endowed with intellect and will, and that any such being is infinite; and finally he proved that there can only be one such being.

Scotus devised perhaps the earliest formulation of Voluntarism (the view that regards the will is the basic factor, both in the universe and in human conduct), emphasizing the divine will and human freedom in all philosophical issues.

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225 – 1274)


thomasaquinasSt. Thomas Aquinas (AKA Thomas of Aquin or Aquino) (c. 1225 – 1274) was an Italian philosopher and theologian of the Medieval period. He was the foremost classical proponent of natural theology at the the peak of Scholasticism in Europe, and the founder of the Thomistic school of philosophy and theology.

The philosophy of Aquinas has exerted enormous influence on subsequent Christian theology, especially that of the Roman Catholic Church, but also Western philosophy in general. His most important and enduring works are the “Summa Theologica”, in which he expounds his systematic theology of the “quinquae viae”(the five proofs of the existence of God), and the “Summa Contra Gentiles”



Aquinas was born around 1225 to a noble family in the small town of Roccasecca, near Aquino, Italy, in what was then the Kingdom of Sicily. His father was Count Landulph and his mother was Theodora, Countess of Theate. His uncle, Sinibald, was abbot of the original Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino and Aquinas was expected to follow his uncle into that position. At the age of 5, Aquinas began his early education at a monastery, and at the age of 16 he continued his studies at the University of Naples.

At Naples, Aquinas soon began to veer towards the Dominican Order, much to the deep chagrin of his family (who at one point seized and held him captive in an attempt to force him to toe the family line). However, after the intervention of Pope Innocent IV, he became a Dominican monk in 1242.

In 1244, the promising young Aquinas was sent to study under Albertus Magnus in Cologne and then in Paris, where he distinguished himself in arguments against the University’s celebrated champion Guillaume de St Amour (c. 1200 – 1272). Having graduated as a bachelor of theology in 1248, he returned to Cologne as second lecturer and magister studentium and began his literary activity and public life.

In 1256 Aquinas began many years of travel and lecturing on theology throughout France and Italy, along with his friend St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221 – 1274). During this period, he was often called upon to advise the reigning pontiff and the French King Louis VIII on affairs of state, and to represent the Dominican Order in meetings and discussions. Despite preaching every day, he found time to write homilies, disputations and lectures, and continued to work diligently on his great literary work, the “Summa Theologica”.

Aquinas was characterized as a humble, simple, peace-loving man, given to contemplation, and a lover of poetry. He always maintained self-control and won over his opponents by his personality and great learning. There were various reports by friars and monks of minor miracles concerning Aquinas (ranging from levitation to voices from Heaven). He refused to participate in mortification of the flesh, which as a Dominican Friar he was supposed to observe. He also refused out of hand such prestigious positions as Archbishop of Naples and Abbot of Monte Cassino (although he was persuaded back to the University of Naples in 1272).

In 1270, the Bishop of Paris issued an edict condemning a number of teachings derived from Aristotle or from Arabic philosophers such as Averroės which were then current at the university, and the teachings of Aquinas were among those targeted. The Dominican Order prudently moved him to Italy while the investigations proceeded in Paris. In 1274, en route to attend the Second Council of Lyons to attempt to settle the differences between the Greek and Latin churches, Aquinas fell ill and eventually died at the nearby Cistercian monastery of Fossa Nuova.

In 1277, three years after Aquinas’ death, the Bishop of Paris and the Bishop of Oxford issued another, more detailed, edict which condemned a series of Thomas’s theses as heretical, on the grounds of the orthodox Augustinian theology which considered human reason inadequate to understand the will of God. As a result of this condemnation, Aquinas was excommunicated posthumously (a landmark in the history of medieval philosophy and theology), and it took many years for his reputation to recover from this censure.

In 1324, fifty years after Thomas Aquinas’ death, Pope John XXII in Avignon pronounced him a saint of the Catholic church, and his theology began its rise to prestige. In 1568, he was named a Doctor of the Church. In 1879, Pope Leo XIII stated that Aquinas’ theology was a definitive exposition of Catholic doctrine, and directed clergy to take the teachings of Aquinas as the basis of their theological positions. Today, he is considered by many Catholics to be the Catholic church’s greatest theologian and philosopher.



Aquinas was a Christian theologian, but he was also an Aristotelian and an Empiricist, and he substantially influenced these two streams of Western thought. He believed that truth becomes known through both natural revelation (certain truths are available to all people through their human nature and through correct human reasoning) and supernatural revelation (faith-based knowledge revealed through scripture), and he was careful to separate these two elements, which he saw as complementary rather than contradictory in nature. Thus, although one may deduce the existence of God and His attributes through reason, certain specifics (such as the Trinity and the Incarnation) may be known only through special revelation and may not otherwise be deduced.

His two great works are the “Summa Contra Gentiles” (often published in English under the title “On thr Truth of the Catholic Faith”), written between 1258 and 1264, and the “Summa Theologica” (“Compendium of Theology”), written between 1265 and 1274. The former is a broadly-based philosophical work directed at non-Christians; the latter is addressed largely to Christians and is more a work of Christian theology.

Aquinas saw the raw material data of theology as the written scriptures and traditions of the Catholic church, which were produced by the self-revelation of God to humans throughout history. Faith and reason are the two primary tools which are both necessary together for processing this data in order to obtain true knowledge of God. He believed that God reveals himself through nature, so that rational thinking and the study of nature is also the study of God (a blend of Aristotelian Greek philosophy with Christian doctrine).

From his consideration of what God is not, Aquinas proposed five positive statements about the divine qualities or the nature of God:

  • God is simple, without composition of parts, such as body and soul, or matter and form.
  • God is perfect, lacking nothing.
  • God is infinite, and not limited in the ways that created beings are physically, intellectually, and emotionally limited.
  • God is immutable, incapable of change in repect of essence and character.
  • God is one, such that God’s essence is the same as God’s existence.

Aquinas believed that the existence of God is neither self-evident nor beyond proof. In the “Summa Theologica”, he details five rational proofs for the existence of God, the “quinquae viae” (or the “Five Ways”), some of which are really re-statements of each other:

  • The argument of the unmoved mover (ex motu): everything that is moved is moved by a mover, therefore there is an unmoved mover from whom all motion proceeds, which is God.
  • The argument of the first cause (ex causa): everything that is caused is caused by something else, therefore there must be an uncaused cause of all caused things, which is God.
  • The argument from contingency (ex contingentia): there are contingent beings in the universe which may either exist or not exist and, as it is impossible for everything in the universe to be contingent (as something cannot come of nothing), so there must be a necessary being whose existence is not contingent on any other being, which is God.
  • The argument from degree (ex gradu): there are various degrees of perfection which may be found throughout the universe, so there must be a pinnacle of perfection from which lesser degrees of perfection derive, which is God.
  • The teleological argument or argument from design (ex fine): all natural bodies in the world (which are in themselves unintelligent) act towards ends (which is characteristic of intelligence), therefore there must be an intelligent being that guides all natural bodies towards their ends, which is God.

Aquinas believed that Jesus Christ was truly divine and not simply a human being or God merely inhabiting the body of Christ. However, he held that Christ had a truly rational human soul as well, producing a duality of natures that persisted even after the Incarnation, and that these two natures existed simultaneously yet distinguishably in one real human body.

Aquinas defined the four cardinal virtues as prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude, which he held are natural (revealed in nature) and binding on everyone. In addition, there are three theological virtues, described as faith, hope and charity, which are supernatural and are distinct from other virtues in that their object is God. Furthermore, he distinguished four kinds of law: eternal law (the decree of God that governs all creation), natural law (human “participation” in eternal law, which is discovered by reason), human law (the natural law applied by governments to societies) and divine law (the specially revealed law in the scriptures).

For St. Thomas Aquinas, the goal of human existence is union and eternal fellowship with God. For those who have experienced salvation and redemptionthrough Christ while living on earth, a beatific vision will be granted after death in which a person experiences perfect, unending happiness through comprehending the very essence of God. During life, an individual’s will must be ordered toward right things (such as charity, peace and holiness), which requires morality in everyday human choices, a kind of Virtue Ethics. Aquinas was the first to identify the Principle of Double Effect in ethical decisions, when an otherwise legitimate act (e.g. self-defence) may also cause an effect one would normally be obliged to avoid (e.g. the death of another).

Roger Bacon (1214 – 1294)



RogerbaconRoger Bacon (AKA Doctor Mirabilis, meaning “wonderful teacher”) (1214 – 1294) was a 13th Century English philosopher, scientist and Franciscan friar of the Medieval period, and certainly one of the most eminent scholars of the times.

Inspired by the works of early Muslim scientists like Avicenna and Averroës, he is sometimes credited as one of the earliest European advocates of Empiricism and the modern scientific method (although later studies have emphasized his reliance on occult and alchemical traditions). He decried the prevailing Scholastic system, based as it was solely on tradition and prescribed authorities.



Roger Bacon was born in Ilchester in Somerset, England, possibly in about 1220, but more likely in 1214 (the date depends on how literally a later statement of Bacon’s is interpreted). His family appears to have been well-off, but, during the stormy reign of King Henry III of England, their property was despoiled and several members of the family were driven into exile.

He studied at the Franciscan school at Oxford which, even in the 13th Century, was rapidly becoming one of the pre-eminent educational centres of Europe. Later, he became a Master at Oxford, lecturing on Aristotle, and he was greatly influenced by the Oxford masters and professors Robert Grosseteste, Adam Marsh, Richard Fitzacre and Edmund Rich and the French mathermatician and scientist Pierre de Maricourt. There is no evidence he was ever awarded a doctorate (the title Doctor Mirabilis was posthumous and figurative).

Some time between 1237 and 1245, he began to lecture at the University of Paris, then the undisputed center of intellectual life in Europe, where he was apparently received with applause as the equal of AristotleAvicenna or Averroës. In about 1256 he became a Friar in the Franciscan Order, (his whereabouts beytween 1247 and 1256 are not clear), and as such no longer held a teaching post. Through his acquaintance with Cardinal Guy le Gros de Foulques (who became Pope Clement IV in 1265) he managed to circumvent the restrictions on Franciscan Friars from publishing books or pamphlets without specific approval. The new Pope even ordered Bacon to write to him concerning the place of philosophy within theology, and Bacon’s response was his huge “Opus Majus” of 1267.

His friend and protector Pope Clement IV died in 1268 and, at some time between 1277 and 1279, Bacon was briefly placed under house arrest by Jerome of Ascoli, the Minister-General of the Franciscan Order. This was probably on the grounds of the Bishop of Paris’ Condemnations of 1277, which banned the teaching of certain philosophical doctrines, including deterministic astrology and the works of Aristotle, but possibly also due to Bacon’s continued dissemination of Arabic alchemy, and his protests against the ignorance and immorality of the clergy.

Some time after 1278, Bacon returned to the Franciscan House at Oxford, where he continued his studies until his death in 1294. Bacon died without any important followers, was quickly forgotten, and remained so for a long time until his works were rediscovered and published in the 18th Century.



Bacon called for a radical reform of theological study, with less emphasis on the minor philosophical distinctions that Scholasticism pursued, and more of a return to the study of the scriptures and the classical philosophers in their original languages. He urged theologians to study all sciences closely, and strongly championed experimental study over reliance on authority, and was an enthusiastic proponent and practitioner of the experimental method of acquiring knowledge about the world. Always direct and outspoken, he openly criticized his much-admired contemporaries Alexander of Hales (c. 1183 – 1245) and Albertus Magnus as mere preachers who had not fully studied the philosophy of Aristotle.

Bacon was fluent in several languages (unlike most of his contemporaries) and lamented the corruption of the holy texts and the works of the Greek philosophers by numerous mistranslations and misinterpretations. He also argued that, under the prevailing Scholastic system, physical science was not carried out by experiment, but by arguments based solely on tradition and prescribed authorities, rather than by the initial collection of facts before deducing scientific truths as Aristotle had taught.

Bacon’s most important work was the “Opus Majus” (Latin for “Greater Work”), written in Medieval Latin at the request of Pope Clement IV in 1267. This was a huge, 840-page treatise in seven main sections, ranging over all aspects of natural science, from grammar and logic to mathematics, physics, and philosophy (and particularly his views on how the philosophy of Aristotle and the new science could be incorporated into a new theology). It contains detailed treatments of mathematics, optics, alchemy, the manufacture of gunpowder, astrology and the positions and sizes of the celestial bodies. It anticipates later inventions such as microscopes, telescopes, spectacles, flying machines, hydraulics and steam ships.

However, it should be remembered that Bacon was also a Franciscan monk, and the work was also a plea for reform addressed to the Pope, and was designed to improve training for missionaries and to provide new skills to be employed in the defence of the Christian world against the enmity of non-Christians and of the Antichrist.

It was followed later the same year by a smaller second work, the “Opus Minus”, which was intended as an abstract or summary of the longer work, and then by the “Opus Tertium”, intended to complement the other two and expand on some sections which had only been covered cursorily (unfortunately, over half of this work has been lost). In addition, he had planned to publish a comprehensive encyclopedia, although only fragments ever appeared.

Bacon is the ascribed author of the controversial alchemical manual “Speculum Alchemiae” (later translated into English as “The Mirror of Alchemy”), and possibly (although less likely) also the mysterious encrypted “Voynich Manuscript”.

Bacon performed and described various experiments which were, for a time, claimed as the first instances of true experimental science, some five hundred years before the real rise of science in the West, and his popular image is as an isolated figure in an age supposedly hostile toward scientific ideas. However, this interpretation (of both Bacon’s work and of the prevailing medieval attitudes to science) has been challenged more recently, and he has been portrayed more as a brilliant and combative (if somewhat eccentric) scholar, endeavouring to take advantage of the new learning which was just then becoming available, while still remaining true to traditional notions and attitudes, and not as isolated as had been supposed.