Siger of Brabant Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: By combining his mastery of Latin Averroistic philosophy with his intention to remain loyal to the institution and doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, Siger was able to help clarify the enduring questions concerning the relationship of philosophy to theology and of reason to revelation.

Early Life

Most of the details of Siger of Brabant’s life, especially his early life, appear to be irretrievably lost. He was born about 1235, probably in or near the region of Brabant, in what is modern Belgium. Beyond these few sketchy facts, however, historians can only speculate.

Scholars suppose that his academic training was typical for his day. Siger’s education began with the trivium, which consisted of introductory instruction in grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Such studies were designed not only to aid the student in speaking sense plainly and compellingly but also in speaking it beautifully. This course of study typically was followed by the quadrivium, which consisted of instruction in mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy.

Sometime between 1255 and 1260, Siger seems to have come to the University of Paris to study in the Faculty of Arts. There he developed the philosophical prowess upon which his reputation chiefly rests. There also most of the important events in his turbulent academic career occurred. Significantly, Siger and the works of Aristotle made their way into the university at almost the same time. In those days, the university was agitated by the ancient Greek works of philosophy and science that, by means of Arab commentators and commentaries, were enjoying new prominence in the Latin-speaking world of Western intellect. Because these writings offered conclusions that were apparently well conceived and well reasoned, and because these conclusions occasionally stood at odds with Christian orthodoxy, conflict ensued.

Scholars had various responses to the problem of what relationship should exist between the newly emerging Greek thought and Christian theology. On the left were those called “the secular Aristotelians,” who pursued their philosophical studies without regard to Christian doctrine. On the right were the orthodox Roman Catholic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and his mentor, Albertus Magnus. They believed that, if properly understood, reason and revelation could not conflict. If ever they appeared to conflict, an error could be presumed either in one’s philosophizing or in one’s theologizing, or both. To them, because all truth came from God, and because God could not lie, truth admitted no contradictions. With such reasonings the secularists were unconcerned. As will be seen, Siger would assume a position between the two sides and, from those two sides, would receive the severest forms of opposition, especially after the works of Aristotle were officially admitted to the university’s course of study and curricular adjustment became necessary.

After approximately five years of university study, Siger received his degree. He studied at, was graduated from, and later taught at a university racked by internal dissent.

Life’s Work

Siger joined the Faculty of Arts in the mid-1260’s. Even though (unlike many of his colleagues) he never went on to join the theological faculty, he acted as a loyal son of the Church. Despite the fact that many of his philosophical propositions stood in opposition to received dogma, and despite the fact that he was condemned twice for erroneous teaching, Siger remained, at least in his own views, a faithful Roman Catholic.

Siger’s doctrinal deviations are centered on four major ideas. First, unlike traditional views of God that pictured Him as Creator, Siger viewed God as the primum Mobile (or First Mover). That is, God’s role in making the world was not to create it ex nihilo (out of nothing) but to shape it, or form it, out of a preexisting yet shapeless matter. This matter was independent of God, not created by God, and was eternal. God’s role was to move upon the matter in such a way as to shape it, not to create it. Hence, He is the First Mover.

Second, as a correlative of the previous premise, Siger believed in an eternal cosmos. To him, not only was matter eternal, but so also was the world it constituted. By this Siger did not mean to say that the world...

(The entire section is 1805 words.)