Siger of Brabant Introduction - Essay


Siger of Brabant 1235-1282

French philosopher and theologian.

Known as the Christian Averroist, Siger was at the center of intellectual controversy because of his teachings at the Faculty of Arts in Paris during the 1270s. Siger's beliefs were heavily influenced by the radical interpretation of Aristotle by Averroes, a twelfth-century Arab philosopher who asserted that philosophy is equal to religion as a means of seeking the truth. In Quaestiones in librum tertium de anima (c. 1269-70) Siger largely ignored theology, advocating reason instead of faith, and moving on to explain the philosophical works of the ancients that had recently been rediscovered and translated into Latin. Siger argued that a twofold path allowed one to hold two logically contradictory views–one in religion and the other in philosophy. His ideas were attacked by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Tractatus de unitate intellectus contra Averroistas (1270) and they also led to Siger's first condemnation by the Church in the same year. Although he insisted on his innocence, altering his views somewhat in order to bring them in line with those of Thomas, he was again condemned in 1277. Siger's historical reputation was greatly enhanced by Dante Alighieri, however, who placed him in Paradise in his Divine Comedy, in the company of the twelve sages, along with Thomas. Siger continued to exert some influence on Averroists into the sixteenth century, but his reputation in modern times is a matter of dispute: some scholars view him as a subversive, while others see him as a champion of academic freedom.

Biographical Information

Nothing is known of Siger's family. Brabant was a fief of the Germanic empire, and there is some evidence that indicates Siger was born in the Walloon area. Probably at age fourteen Siger began his liberal arts course at the Faculty of Arts in Paris, becoming a master there around 1266. His teaching consisted of a radical form of Aristotelianism, as evidenced from his Quaestiones in librum tertium de anima and he became involved in a series of disputes with the Church. Although Siger was influenced by Thomas, as well as Aristotelianism, his views were judged too radical. In 1270, when the bishop of Paris condemned thirteen philosophical errors that were being taught in Paris, Siger was forced to become more cognizant of conflicts between his philosophy and Christianity. Following his condemnation, he appeared to avoid heterodoxy and declared himself a Catholic. He responded to Thomas in De anima intellectiva (1270), a work that is now mostly lost. In 1277 the Bishop of Paris condemned 219 propositions, many of which were taught by Siger. His academic career ended with this second condemnation and, although he was found innocent of heresy, Siger was forced to reside in the papal Curia in Orvieto, Italy, where he lived with a secretary. The secretary eventually went mad and stabbed Siger to death.

Major Works

The status of some of Siger's works has changed over time, partly due to the discovery of new manuscripts that have been attributed to him and partly because of the rejection of other works once thought to be his. Some of his commentaries are no longer extant, and others exist only in parts; one for example, is said to consider three questions but only the first section of it has survived. In addition to commentaries on Aristotle, Siger also wrote books on metaphysics and physics. In the former category are Quaestiones super libros metaphysicae (c. 1270s) and De aeternitate mundi (c. 1270s), in which Siger maintains that the world has existed for all eternity; the latter category, physics, is represented by Quaestiones naturales (c. 1270s). Among other subjects addressed by Siger are the intellect, divine providence, the soul, and immortality. For the most part, only short extracts of his work have been translated and published in English.

Critical Reception

Scholars disagree over the degree to which Siger misunderstood or distorted Averroes, whether or not he rejected certain Averroist notions, and to what degree he accepted Thomas's ideas. Noted expert Fernand Van Steenberghen provides an overview of Siger studies, discussing his career, doctrine, and historical role, as well as suggesting promising areas for future study, while Armand A. Maurer provides a history of scholarly interest in Siger during the first half of the twentieth century. In a different essay, Maurer examines Siger's views on the purpose of fables in philosophy and religion, and explains how the discussion of fables developed into discussion of falsehoods, followed by misrepresentations and the suspicion of church authorities. In yet another article, Maurer compares Siger's account of sacred theology with Thomas's, discussing the differences Siger found between sacred Scripture and theology. Edward P. Mahoney explains the importance of Albert the Great and Thomas in the development of Siger's Averroist positions. Thomas P. Bukowski also addresses the extent to which Siger agreed with Thomas's views—a task, the critic claims, rendered more difficult by fuzziness of definitions. Bukowski takes issue with Maurer's and William Dunphy's understanding of what Siger meant by the term “sacra scriptura,” explaining why he believes Siger used the term to refer to Scripture, not theology, and how Siger diverted Thomas's praise of theology into praise of Scripture. As mentioned above, the Siger corpus has been modified in recent decades. Several texts, previously attributed to him, have been determined spurious. In contrast, other, hitherto unknown treatises have been discovered. With the benefit of one of these treatises, Thomas P. Bukowski, in a 1969 essay, urges that previously held views on Siger's stance on the eternity of the world must be changed. Christopher J. Ryan traces the development of Siger's view of free will, placing it in the context of thirteenth-century Paris, and surveying modern critical interpretations of Siger's attitude. Siger scholars continue to find unexplored areas of study. For example, Carlos Steel examines the “lost” thought of Siger concerning Averroes, preserved only in isolated quotes and paraphrases in a work by Renaissance philosopher Agostino Nifo. Steel concludes that the writings of Siger that most distressed Thomas are not extant, and that the works that are extant are not his most original—therefore, writes Steel, Siger's ancient reputation was based on works that modern scholars have no access to.