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.

Albertus Magnus (c. 1200 – 1280)


AlbertusMagnusAlbertus Magnus (AKA St. Albert the Great or Albert of Cologne) (c. 1200 – 1280) was a 13th Century German philosopher, theologian and scientist of the Medieval period. He is mainly associated with the dominant Medieval movement of Scholasticism, and his influence on the development of Scholastic philosophy in the 13th Century was enormous, especially his incorporation of Aristotelianism into the Christian west. He is also known as an early advocate for the peaceful coexistence of science and religion.



Albertus was born, sometime between 1193 and 1206, to the knightly family of the Count of Bollstädt in Lauingen in Bavaria, Germany. He was educated principally at Padua in Italy, where he received instruction in Aristotle’s writings. In 1223 he became a member of the Dominican Order, against the wishes of his family, and studied theology at Bologna in Italy and elsewhere. Later, he returned to Germany to teach at Cologne, Regensburg, Freiburg, Strasbourg and Hildesheim.

In 1245 Albertus went to Paris to receive his doctorate and to become provincial of the Dominican Order. He taught for some time as a master of theology in Paris with great success, and it was during this period that his most famous student St. Thomas Aquinas began to study under him. He fulfilled duties as Bishop of Regensburg from 1260 to 1263, walking rather than riding across his huge diocese, and then spent the reminder of his life in semi-retirement, studying and preaching throughout southern Germany.

He died in 1280 in Cologne, Germany, after two years of ill health. Contemporaries such as Roger Bacon and Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) applied the term “Magnus” (“the Great”) to Albertus during his own lifetime, referring to his immense reputation as a scholar and philosopher, and he remained steadfast in his defence of the orthodoxy of his former pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas, whose death in 1274 greatly grieved Albertus. He was beatified in 1622, and honoured by the Catholic Church as a Doctor of the Church in 1931.



Albertus wrote prolifically (his collected writings were collected into 38 volumes in 1899), and was perhaps the most widely read author of his time. He was famed for his literally encyclopedic knowledge of topics as diverse as logic, theology, psychology, botany, geography, astronomy, astrology, mineralogy, chemistry, zoology, physiology, phrenology and others.

Most modern western knowledge of the works of Aristotle was preserved and presented by Albertus, and he digested, interpreted and systematized the whole of Aristotle’s works (from the Latin translations and notes of Arabian commentators such as Averroës and Avicenna) in accordance with church doctrine, and with occasional divergences from the opinions of the master. His approach to this task, however, was clearly influenced by Neo-Platonism. His principal theological works are a commentary in three volumes on the “Books of the Sentences” of Peter Lombard (c. 1100 – 1160), and his “Summa Theologiae” in two volumes.

Albertus’s knowledge of physical science was considerable and (for the age) remarkably accurate, aided by his protracted study of Aristotle, which gave him great powers of systematic thought and exposition. He is credited with the discovery of the element arsenic, and there is much speculation on his work as an alchemist. He was certainly deeply interested in astrology, as were many scientists of the time, arguing that an understanding of the celestial influences affecting us could help us to live our lives more in accord with Christian precepts.

Albertus is also known for his enlightening commentary on the musical practice of his times, and wrote extensively on proportions in music, on the ways in which music worked on the human soul, and on his categorical rejection of the popular notion of the “music of the spheres”.

Maimonides (1135 – 1204)


MaimonidesMoses Maimonides (AKA Moshe ben Maimon or Abu ‘Imran Musa ben Maimun ibn ‘Abd Allah or, from a Hebrew acronym, the Rambam) (1135 – 1204) was a Spanish-Jewish philosopher, physician and rabbi who lived in Andalusia, Morocco and Egypt during the Medieval period.

He was the pre-eminent medieval Jewish philosopher, and marked the end of the golden age of Jewish culture in Moorish Spain. His copious works on Jewish law and Ethics were initially met with much opposition during his lifetime, but today his works and his views are considered a cornerstone of Jewish thought and study, and he remains the most widely debated Jewish thinker among modern scholars (see the section on Jewish Philosphers).

Maimonides foreshadowed Scholasticism and undoubtedly influenced later medieval Scholastics such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus and John Duns Scotus, although he also maintained many doctrines which the Scholastics could not accept. He strove to reconcile Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic philosophy and sciencewith the teachings of the Jewish Torah.



Maimonides (pronounced my-MON-i-dees, and meaning “Son of Maimon”) was bornon 30 March 1135 in Córdoba (Cordova) in Andalusia, the capital of Muslim Spain(as was his near contemporary Averroës). At an early age, he developed an interest in the sciences and philosophy, and read the works of Muslim scholars and also Arabic translations of the Greek philosophers. He studied the Jewish Torah under his father, Maimon, who had in turn studied under the great scholar, Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash (1077 – 1141).

In 1148, the Almohads, a Berber Muslim dynasty from North Africa, conquered Córdoba, and threatened the Jewish community with the choice of conversion to Islam, death or exile. Maimonides’ family, along with most other Jews, chose exile, and for the next twelve years they moved about southern Spain in hiding, eventually settling in Fez, Morocco in 1160. There, Maimonides acquired most of his secular knowledge, studying at the University of Al Karaouine.

As his reputation grew steadily, the Islamic authorities began to inquire into the religious disposition of this highly gifted young man, and Maimonides narrowly avoided execution due to the intercession of a Muslim friend. In 1165, Maimonides’ family were again forced to move and, after a brief time in Israel, they settled in Fostat (the first capital of Egypt under Arab rule, now part of Cairo).

After the death of their father, Moses’ brother David supported the family by trading in precious stones, but when David too died (and lost his fortune in the process), Maimonides turned to the medical profession for a living. In time, he obtained a position as physician to the Grand Vizier Alfadhil and, later, Sultan Saladin of Egypt (he also reputedly treated Richard the Lionheart while on the Crusades). His fame spread and he was soon considered one of the greatest physicians of his time, much of his knowledge taken from renowned Islamic thinkers such as Averroës(Ibn Rushd) and Al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111), and he devoted long hours to his calling.

He began to take a leading part in the administration of the affairs of the community of Fostat and Cairo, and by 1177 he had become recognized as its official head. In between his onerous medical and administrative duties, he found time to compose his major works, including his acclaimed commentary on the “Mishnah” (a major work of Rabbinic Judaism), the “Mishneh Torah” (a code of Jewish religious law), and the “Guide for the Perplexed” (a philosophical work harmonizing and differentiating Aristotle’s philosophy and Jewish theology).

The last years of Maimonides’ life were marked by increasing physical ailments, and he died on 13 December 1204. In Fostat, both Jews and Muslims observed public mourning for three days, and his body was taken to Tiberias, Israel, where his tomb became a place of pilgrimage. His son, Avraham, also recognized as a great scholar, succeeded Maimonides as head of the Egyptian Jewish community and as court physician.



Maimonides composed works of Jewish scholarship, rabbinic law, philosophy and medical texts, mainly in Arabic.

In philosophy, Maimonides was a Jewish Scholastic and he exerted an important influence on the later medieval Scholastics such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus and John Duns Scotus. His aim was to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy and science with the teachings of the Jewish Torah.

One of the his central tenets was that it is impossible for the truths arrived at by human intellect to contradict those revealed by God. In his attempt to prove this, he primarily relied upon the science of Aristotle and the teachings of the Talmud, finding basis for the latter in the former, although in some important points he departed from the teachings of Aristotle (e.g. the Aristotelian doctrine that God’s provident care extends only to humanity, and not to the individual). He also wrote on theodicy (the attempt to reconcile the existence of a God with the existence of evil in the world), adopting the Aristotelian view that defines evil as the lack of, or the reduced presence of, a God.

However, Maimonides was also led by his admiration for the Neo-Platonic commentators to maintain many doctrines which the Scholastics could not accept, such as “apophatic theology” (or “negative theology”), in which one describes God only through negative attributes (e.g. “God is not ignorant”, rather than “God is wise”, etc).

In his “Guide for the Perplexed”, he explicitly distinguished between “true beliefs” (beliefs about God which produced intellectual perfection) and “necessary beliefs” (beliefs which were conducive to improving social order). For instance, God does not actually become “angry” with people, having no human passions, but that may be a “necessary belief” if it encourages people to desist from sinning.

He distinguished two kinds of intelligence in man, a material one (dependent on, and influenced by, the body) and an immaterial one (independent of the bodily organism). He held that the knowledge of God is a form of knowledge which develops in us the immaterial intelligence, and thus confers on man an immaterial, spiritual nature and endows the soul with immortality (similar in some ways to Baruch Spinoza’s doctrine of immortality several centuries later). This focus on the immortality of the soul for people of perfected intellect (rather than the traditional resurrection of physical dead bodies) developed into a full-blown controversy and prompted some hostile criticism from the rabbis of his day, and he was even charged as a heretic by some Jewish leaders. In an attempt to placate his opponents, he arrived at the compromise position that physical resurrection may occur at some time in the future, but was not permanent or general.

In response to an inquiry concerning astrology, Maimonides answered that man should believe only what can be supported either by rational proof, by the evidence of the senses, or by trustworthy authority. Astrology, therefore, does not deserve to be described as a science, and anyway it robs life of purpose and makes man a slave of destiny.

In his commentary on the “Mishnah”, Maimonides formulated his 13 principles of Jewish faith, which evoked much criticism at the time, but which eventually became widely held and are considered as obligatory by Orthodox Jews today: God exists; God is one; God is spiritual and incorporeal; God is eternal; God alone should be the object of worship; revelation occurs through God’s prophets; Moses is pre-eminent among the prophets; God’s law was given on Mount Sinai; the Torah is God’s immutable law; God has foreknowledge of human actions; good is rewarded and evil is punished; the Jewish Messiah will come; the dead will be resurrected.

His “Mishneh Torah” was a code of Jewish law of the widest possible scope and depth, gathering together all the binding laws from the Talmud. It too attracted much opposition initially, but it has been recognized as a monumental contribution to the systemized writing of Halakha (the collective body of Jewish religious law), and has been widely studied throughout the centuries.

Maimonides also wrote a number of influential medical texts, some of which are still in existence, including a collection of medical aphorisms, and treatises on poisons and their antidotes, hemorrhoids, cohabitation, regimen of health, the causes of symptoms, the human temperaments and asthma.

Averroës (1126 – 1198)


averroesAverroës (AKA Ibn Rushd or Ibn Roschd or, in full, Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd) (1126 – 1198) was a Spanish-Arabic philosopher, physician, lawyer and polymath from the Andalusiaregion of southern Spain in the Medieval period. After his death, the Averroism movement grew up around his teachings, and his work greatly influenced the subsequent development of Scholasticism in Western Europe.

In the Islamic world, he played a decisive role in the defence of Greek philosophy against the orthodox Ash’arite theologians led by al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111). Although during his lifetime his philosophy was considered controversial in Muslim circles, he had an even greater impact on Western European thought, and he has been described as the founding father of secular thought, becoming known as “The Commentator” in the Christian West.




Averroës (pronounced a-VER-o-ees, the Latinized distortion of the actual Arab nameIbn Rushd) was born in 1126 in Córdoba (Cordova) in Andalusia, the capital of Muslim Spain. He came from a family of Maliki legal scholars (Maliki is one of the four schools of religious law within Sunni Islam), and both his grandfather, Abu Al-Walid Muhammad, and his father, Abu Al-Qasim Ahmad, were chief judges of Córdoba under the Almoravid dynasty which ruled the region until replaced by the Almohads in the mid-12th Century.

His early education followed a traditional path in such a family, beginning with studies in hadith, linguistics, jurisprudence and scholastic theology. He was influenced (and perhaps was once tutored) by the philosopher Ibn Bajjah (1095 – 1138, known as Avempace in the West). His medical education was directed under Abu Jafar ibn Harun of Trujillo, and he showed a clear aptitude for medicine, (his compendium of medicine, “al-Kulliyat” became one of the main medical textbooks for physicians in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim worlds for centuries to come).

In 1169, Averroës was made a qadi (a sharia or religious judge) of Seville, and then, in 1172, chief judge of Córdova. Throughout this period of his life, he wrote many legal commentaries and treatises on legal methodology, legal pronouncements, sacrifices and land taxes.

During one of his periodic residences in Marrakesh (Marrakech), Morocco, the North African capital of the Almohad dynasty, he was befriended by Ibn Tufail (c. 1105 – 1185, known as Abubacer in the West), a philosopher and official physician and counsellor to the caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf. Ibn Tufail introduced Averroës to the caliph, and the prince was so impressed by the young philosopher that he employedhim, first as his chief judge and later in 1182 as chief physician. He also commissioned Averroës to write a series of commentaries on the texts of Aristotle, (for whom Averroës professed the greatest esteem in all matters of science and philosophy), which became one of Averroës’ main legacies to Western philosophy.

However, despite the general liberalism of the Almohad Dynasty, public pressure from the more orthodox Islamic elements under the third Almohad caliph, Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur, led to the formal rejection of Averroës and his strictly rationalist views in 1195. He was tried as a heretic by the religious community of Córdova, exiled to Lucena (a largely Jewish village outside of Córdoba) his writings were banned and his books burned. Just two years later, shortly before his death, he was rehabilitated, despite continued doubts about his orthodoxy.

Averroës died on 10 December 1198 in Marrakesh, Morocco, and his writings found new audiences after his death, mainly in the Christian and Jewish worlds.



Averroës is perhaps most famous for his translations and detailed commentaries on the works of Aristotle, which earned for him the title of the “The Commentator”. These were based on imperfect Arabic translations, not Greek originals (it is believed that he was unacquainted with Greek or Syriac), and he did not have access to some of the texts (e.g. the“Politics”). The commentaries were organized into three levels: the Jami (a simplified overview), the Talkhis (an intermediate commentary with more critical material) and the Tafsir (an advanced study of Aristotelian thought in a Muslim context).

Many of his commentaries were translated into Hebrew and then into Latin (or sometimes directly into Latin) in the 12th and 13th Century. Many of the works on Logic and Metaphysics have been permanently lost, while others, including some of the longer commentaries, have only survived in Latin or Hebrew translation, and not in the original Arabic.

The significance of these works is that, before 1150, only a few translated works of Aristotle existed in Latin Europe, and they were not studied much or given much credence by monastic scholars, and it was through the Latin translations of Averroës’ work that the legacy of Aristotle became more widely known in the West, with particular importance for the Medieval Scholastic movement. Averroës also argued for the emancipation of science and philosophy from official Ash’ari Muslim theology, and some writers regard him as a precursor to modern secularism, or even the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe.

His most important original philosophical work was “Tahafut al-tahafut” (“The Incoherence of the Incoherence”), in which he defended Aristotelian philosophy against the claims of al-Ghazali in his “Tahafut al-falasifa” (“The Incoherence of the Philosophers”). Al-Ghazali had argued that Aristotelianism, especially as presented in the earlier writings of Avicenna, was self-contradictory and an affront to the teachings of Islam. Averroës contended both that al-Ghazali’s arguments were mistaken, but also that, in any case, Avicenna’s interpretations were a distortion of genuine Aristotelianism, so that, in effect, al-Ghazali was aiming at the wrong target.

For Averroës, there was no conflict between religion and philosophy, believing rather that they were just different ways of reaching the same truth. He identified two kinds of knowledge of truth: knowledge of truth from religion (for the unlettered multitude, based in faith and untestable); and knowledge of truth from philosophy(the real truth, but reserved for an elite few who had the intellectual capacity to undertake such study). He was bold enough to claim the superiority of reason and philosophy over faith and knowledge founded on faith, and to emphasize the independent use of reason, and the idea that the philosophical and religious worlds are separate entities.

He believed in an eternal universe, and in a soul which is divided into two parts(an individual part, and a divine part which is eternal and shared by all). His belief in the then radical idea that “existence precedes essence” was developed much later by the Transcendent Theosophy of Mulla Sadra (c. 1571 – 1640) in the 17th Century and by Existentialism in the 20th Century.

Averroës was also a highly-regarded legal scholar of the Maliki School, and he produced a textbook of Maliki doctrine in a comparative framework, as well as detailed commentaries based on the works of other legal scholars. In medicine, he wrote a medical encyclopedia called “Kulliyat” (usually translated as “Generalities”, i.e. general medicine), as well as a compilation of the works of prominent ancient Greek physician Galen (129 – 200 A.D.) and a commentary on the “Qanun fi ‘t-tibb” (“The Canon of Medicine”) of Avicenna. He also made his own contributions to physics (particularly elements of mechanics such as force, kinetic energy and inertia), astronomy (arguing for a strictly concentric model of the universe, and describing sunspots and an opaque moon) and psychology (active and passive intellect).

Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142)


abelardPeter Abelard (AKA Petrus Abaelardus or Pierre Abélard) (1079 – 1142) was a 12th Century French philosopher, theologian and logician of the Medieval period. He is mainly associated with the dominant Medieval movement of Scholasticism. He is probably most famous, however, for the story of his love affair with his student Héloïse which has become legendary as a romantic tale.



Abelard was born in 1079 in the small village of Le Pallet (about 16km east of Nantes, in Brittany, France), the eldest son of a minor noble Breton family. He was a quick learner and his father encouraged him to study the liberal arts (dialectic, rhetoric and grammar). He particularly excelled in dialectic (or logic, which at that time consisted chiefly of the logic of Aristotle), and soon becoming a wandering Peripatetic academic rather than pursuing a military career like his father.

His early teacher was Roscellinus of Compiegne (c. 1050 – 1125), who is often regarded as the founder of Nominalism (the doctrine that abstract concepts, general terms or universals have no independent existence but exist only as names). In Paris, he was taught for a while by William of Champeaux (c. 1070 – 1122), a prominent Realist, and Abelard’s arguments against Realism (and in favour of Nominalism and his own Conceptualism), were instrumental in the decline of Realism in the Middle Ages.

While still a young man, Abelard set up his own school at Melun and then at Paris, which proved very successful and, in 1115, at the age of 36, he was nominated canon of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. At the peak of his fame, he attracted thousands of students from many countries of Europe.

One of those students was Héloïse (d. 1164), and Abelard fell madly in love with her and caused a great scandal when she became pregnant. Héloïse has a son in secret and reluctantly agreed to Abelard’s suggestion of a secret marriage. Her guardian, the canon Fulbert, found out about the marriage, broke into Abelard’s chamber by night and castrated him. Héloïse, still only in her twenties, then became a nun for many years.

Aberlard returned to his teaching work, but was charged with heresy in 1121 over his rationalistic interpretation of the Trinitarian dogma (God in three persons), and he was confined to the convent of St. Medard at Soissons. Later he became a hermit, living in a cabin of reeds in a deserted part of the country, although students followed him even there. Gradually he recovered his respectability, and managed to establish Héloïse at Paraclete, and they continued a passionate but Platonic relationship, recorded in Abelard’s autobiographical “Historia Calamitatum”.

In 1141, Abelard was again accused of heresy by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) in an attempt to crush Abelard’s rationalistic inquiries, and he collapsed and died before being able to fully clear himself of the accusations.



Much of Abelard’s legacy lies in the quality of his Scholastic philosophizing and his attempt to give a formally rational expression to the received ecclesiastical doctrine. Although much of his work was condemned at the time, he paved the way for the ascendancy of the philosophical authority of Aristotle (rather than the Realism of Plato), which became firmly established in the half-century after his death.

Aberlard’s attempt to bridge the gap between Realism and Nominalism became known as Conceptualism, the doctrine that universals (qualities or properties of an object which can exist in more than one place at the same time e.g. the quality of “redness”) exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality. Immanuel Kant later developed a modern Conceptualism, holding that universals have no connection with external things because they are exclusively produced by our a priori mental structures and functions.

In theology, Pope Innocent III (1161 – 1216) accepted Abelard’s Doctrine of Limbo, which amended St. Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin, and which held that unbaptized babies did not, as at first believed, go straight to Hell, but to a special area of limbo, where they would feel no pain but no supernatural happinesseither (because they would not yet be able to behold God).

Perhaps Abelard’s best known work is “Sic et Non” (“Yes and No”), dating from between about 1121 and 1132, in which he pointed out apparently contradictoryquotations from the Church Fathers on many of the traditional topics of Christian theology (such as multiple significations of a single word), and outlined rules for reconciling these contradictions. This work rekindled interest in the dialectic as a philosophical tool, and Abelard argued that dialectic (in addition to the Scriptures) was the road to the truth, as well as being good mental exercise.

He made contributions to the field of Ethics, an area rarely touched on in Scholastic teaching, anticipating something of modern speculation with his idea that the moral character or value of human action is, at least to some extent, determined by subjective intention.

Abelard was also long known as an important poet and composer, although very little remains of his work in this field

St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109)


anselmSt. Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109) was an Italian philosopher and theologian of the Medieval period. He is often called the founder of Scholasticism, and is considered by many to be the first scholarly philosopher of Christian theology.

He is particularly known for his attempt to elaborate a rational system of faith, and as the originator of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God. He exercised an important influence on later Scholastics, as well as on subsequent Church doctrine on various theological matters.

He held the important position of Archbishop of Canterbury during a particularly turbulent period in English and Papal history.


Anselm was born in the city of Aosta in 1033 in what was then the Kingdom of Burgundy (modern-day northern Italy) to a noble and propertied family. His father, Gundulph, was by birth a Lombard and seems to have been harsh and violent; his mother, Ermenberga, was prudent and virtuous and gave Anselm careful religious instruction.

At the age of fifteen, the devout young Anselm tried to become a monk but could not obtain the consent of either his father or the abbot of the local monastery. In 1059, after his mother died and his father’s harshness became unbearable, he left home, crossed the Alps and wandered through Burgundy and France. After a short time at Avranches, he entered the Benedictine Abbey of Bec in Normandy, France as a novice in 1060, where he studied under the eminent theologian and dialectician Lanfranc (c. 1005 – 1089). Just three years later, he was elected Prior to the Abbey and then, in 1078, he succeeded Lanfranc as Abbot.

During these quiet years he wrote his first and most important works of philosophy (the “Monologion”, the “Proslogion”, the “Dialogues on Truth”“Free Will”and the “Fall of the Devil”) and, under Anselm’s jurisdiction, Bec grew in wealth and reputation, becoming one of the first seats of learning in Europe.

In 1092, at the invitation of Hugh, Earl of Chester, Anselm crossed to Englandwhere, against his will, he was offered the prestigious position of Archbishop of Canterbury. However, his tenure was not an easy one, with King William II of England constantly trying to appropriate church lands, offices and incomes, and even to have Anselm deposed. In 1097, Anselm set out for Rome in an attempt to settle some of the English King’s ecclesiastical problems, but was refused entry back into England and remained in exile until King William died in 1100, during which time he continued to write.

William’s successor, Henry I, was no easier to deal with and in 1103 Anselm again set out for Rome and was again refused re-entry back into England. It was only after King Henry was threatened with excommunication by the Pope that some reconciliation took place, and Anselm was able to once again take up his position. However, only three years later, in 1109, he died. He was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1494, and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1720.



Although Anselm wrote prodigiously throughout his life, his works are generally unsystematic tracts or dialogues on detached questions, not elaborate treatises like the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas. He makes very few references to previous thinkers in his work, and his originality and freshness has often been remarked upon. Arguably, his only major influences are St. Augustine, and to a lesser extent Boethius.

Anselm sought to understand Christian consciousness through reason, although he insisted that faith was a prerequisite, and not a result, of such understanding. In “De Veritate” he affirms the existence of an absolute truth (God) in which all other truth participates, and so, before expanding on his theories, he first needed to rationalize the existence of God.

Anselm’s philosophical proofs of God are the main contents of his “Monologion” and “Proslogion”. Following from St. Augustine, he believed that relative concepts like “good”, “great” and “just” would be meaningless without some absolute standard, and the the absolute being which represents these absolute standards is what we know as God. However, Anselm was aware that this argument uses inductive reasoning from a posteriori grounds, and was dissatisfied with it.

What has become known as the Ontological Argument for the existence of God, Anselm’s attempt to prove the existence of God through a priori abstract reasoning alone, was presented in his “Proslogion”. Briefly, if (as he believed) God can be defined as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”, then God cannot be a merely abstract, intellectual notion because a God that really existswould be greater. Therefore, God’s existence is implied by the very concept of God, and to say that God does not exist is a contradiction in terms.

The argument is certainly ingenious, but has the appearance of a linguistic trick, and the same ontological argument could be used to prove the existence of any perfect thing at all. For example, Anselm’s contemporary, the monk Gaunilo, used it to show that a perfect island must exist. Anselm’s responses to Gaunilo were long, detailed and dense, but the argument has been contentious ever since.

Anselm also authored a number of other arguments for the existence of God, based on cosmological and teleological grounds, but this was not his only contribution ot Christian theology. In other works, he strove to state the rational grounds of the Christian doctrines of the creation, the Trinity, original sin, free will and atonement.

Discussing the mystery of the Trinity, for example, he started from the standpoint that human beings could not know God from Himself but only from analogy (the memory and intelligence of man represent the relation of the Father to the Son, and the the relation they hold to one another symbolizes the Holy Spirit). Regarding atonement, he argued in his “Cur Deus Homo” that, because God is infinite, any wound to his honour caused by the sins of Man must also be infinite, and the only way infinite satisfaction for these sins can be granted on behalf of man is by the voluntary death of Jesus, who is both God and Man.

His works were copied and disseminated during his lifetime, and he exercised an important influence on later Scholastics, including St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, as well as on subsequent Church doctrine on various matters.