William of Ockham (1290-1350)

William of Ockham is often known (at least by name) by his most famous intellectual tool, “Ockham’s Razor”. This principle states, basically, that when analyzing the world one should avoid “multiplying entities unnecessarily.” The meaning of this is set within the centuries-old debate amongst Christian intellectuals regarding Realism and Nominalism, a set of profound questions about the relationship of human language to reality. By Ockham’s day, the Realist school had progressed to such an extreme point that some of its adherents were proclaiming theories which strongly implied that God himself was metaphysically bound by realities outside of himself and could not operate out of accord with those norms. This implication, in turn, derived from the basic Realist notion that the world of changing space and time things was–and had to be–undergirded by a vast metaphysical hierarchy of unchanging things, all interconnected and rationally understandable by the human mind.

St. Augustine had held this view as the basis of his great intellectual synthesis of Platonism and Christianity, but he had placed the unchanging things within God’s mind, making them God’s thoughts and not entities outside of God’s control. Extreme forms of Realism, however, had begun to make headway in Christian intellectual circles in the 14th century. It was against these beliefs that Ockham directed his famous “Razor,” using it to “slice” out of reality the entire great hierarchy of presumed unchanging things and instead to focus attention onto the changing things as changing things. According to one scholar, Ockham’s “epistemological revolution came through his insistence that individual things could be known as individual things, that direct, unmediated knowledge of particulars was possible.”:”(Steven Ozment, <em>The Age of Reform 1350-15:50</em> [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980], pp. 56-57.)”:

Ockham, following an earlier theological schema (usually associated with Nominalism) of distinguishing God’s abilities into “Absolute Power” and “Ordained Power,” held that reality was coherent and knowable because God alone undergirded it by his sovereign will and solemnly, unilaterally bound himself by covenant to do certain things under certain conditions. This idea had serious ramifications for nearly every aspect of Christian theology, not least among them the doctrine of the Church, the doctrine of the sacraments, and the doctrine of salvation. Ockham was, rightly, perceived by the hierarchy of his day to be a great threat to its principles, power, and prestige.

Because of his wide-ranging assault on the great projects of synthesizing Christianity with the best of classical culture, Ockham is often thought by Realists to have been a “skeptic”–which, in this context means a philosopher who ultimately undermined the ability of human beings to know reality for what it is. Ockham is thus thought to have been on the forefront of a vast 14th century movement that eventually destroyed Medieval Christendom and paved the way for the secularization that is characteristic of the Modern era. It is important to understand, however, that such charges emanate from Realist philosophical commitments and Realists can be equally met by counter-charges that Realism leads to binding God to realities outside of himself, and perhaps even leads to a form of pantheism. Modern scholarship about Ockham is tending to move away from this older, negative picture of the man and his work as harbingers of “skepticism” and societal destruction, and instead to more deeply appreciate his genius and the profound questions he asked about old ideas which were causing great havoc in society at the time.

Ockham is also known to students of the Middle Ages for his sweeping and powerful attack upon the Papal Monarchy, a theory of the government of Christian society which held that all powers in society, both spiritual and temporal, descended from the pope, who , as the “Vicar of Christ,” was the supreme power on earth under God. Ockham wrote a number of political treatises exposing what he believed to be the tyrannical foundations and implications of this theory of government, and helped to increase the already existing trend in Medieval thinking toward constitutionalist forms of government. For instance, he wrote:

<blockquote>Now just as sometimes from a true principle correctly understood countless truths are inferred, so sometimes from a false principle, or a true one misunderstood, are inferred countless errors; a wise man has said that given one anomaly, many follow, and elsewhere it is said that a small error in the beginning is a big one in the end. I believe that this has happened with the power of the pope.:”(William of Ockham, A Short Discourse on Tyrannical Government, trans. John Kilcullen [Cambridge University Press, 1992], pg. 17.)”: </blockquote>


<blockquote>If the pope is not trying to tyrannize over his subjects, but wishes, as he ought, to govern them with leniency and justice, then he should not be offended, but should rejoice, if experts try to search out what power he has…A pope irritated by such investigation therefore deserves to be suspected of intending to tyrannize.:”(Ibid., pg. 10.)”: </blockquote>

A third and final example for purposes of this short article is this:

<blockquote>If, therefore, a question arises between pope and emperor or other Catholics about power that the pope asserts belongs to him by divine law, the emperor and his subjects will not be able to argue chiefly from imperial law, or the pope chiefly from canon law; they both must in the end go back to the sacred Scriptures, which neither, if he wishes to be regarded as a Catholic, will presume to deny. For if the pope wishes to prove the power that he asserts is his by divine law from the decrees and decretals only, he will be answered that, unless it can be supported from the divine Scriptures, this proof, prejudicial to one party, must be regarded as suspect, like the evidence of a member of his household. It will be possible to say the same to the emperor or anyone else, if he tries to defend himself against the pope in such a matter only from the imperial laws.

…just as according to canon and civil law no one can determine his own right or be judge in his own case, so no one having a case against another can adduce in his own favor his own laws made by himself. Therefore no one can adduce in his own favor his predecessor’s laws, which have no more authority than his own; for what seems equal in authority seems equally fit to be adduced in favor of the same person. Therefore, if either pope or emperor has a case against the other about power the pope says belongs to him by divine law, since neither can base his contention on his own laws or canons (for then either could make new laws on his own side and give judgment by them against the other), it follows that neither can base his position on the laws of his predecessors, at least not chiefly. They must therefore go back to the sacred Scriptures, which both sides judge must be accepted whichever side they favor.:”(Ibid., pp. 13-14.)”: </blockquote>

Ockham’s controversy with the Papal Monarchy was spurred by a dispute between the papacy and the “Spiritual Franciscans” regarding the pope’s ability to infallibly define doctrine. Ockham was joined in this battle by a more radical theologian than he, Marsilius of Padua, who made his own significant contributions to constitutionalism.

Ockham’s ecclesiopolitical tracts were extremely threatening to the papalists, who were themselves firmly ensconced in Thomistic Realism and increasingly spinning its basic categories in rigidly monarchical directions. Against this grand Realist synthesis, the developing absolutism of seeing the Institutional Hierarchy as “the continuing incarnation of Christ,” the perfect divine-human society, Ockham’s theology posited a Church radically dependent upon the sovereign, unsearchable grace of God, a “mere” historical creature known by faith—but a faith entirely subservient to the Divine Scriptures as the only wellspring of revelation. Theology for Ockham was to be firmly grounded directly in revelation (not the speculations of sanctified Reason, operating within a Realist matrix) with all of its truths “guaranteed by the authority of revelation and by the grace that enables us to accept it as true.”:”(Marcia Colish, <em>Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition 400-1400</em> [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998], pg. 313.)”: In one bold stroke, the entire long-standing tradition of natural theology (and natural law, as well) was rendered obsolete.

In these ways and more, William of Ockham contributed to the advance of a basically Nominalist paradigm over a basically Realist one, to the development of generally constitutionalist theories of the governance of society, and, more specifically, to the Conciliar Movement of the 15th century which would prove to be so influential upon the work of the 16th century’s Protestant Reformation.

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