Siger of Brabant Essay - Critical Essays

Siger of Brabant


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.

Principal Works

Quaestiones in librum tertium de anima (treatise) c. 1269-70

De aeternitate mundi (treatise) c. 1270s

De anima intellectiva (treatise) 1270

De necessitate et contingentia causarum (treatise) c. 1270s

Impossibilia (treatise) c. 1270s

Quaestio utrum haec sit vera: Homo est Animal, nullo homine existente (treatise) c. 1270s

Quaestiones logicales (treatise) c. 1270s

Quaestiones naturales (treatise) c. 1270s

Quaestiones super libros metaphysicae (treatise) c. 1270s

Commentary on the Liber de causis (treatise) c. 1274-76

On the Eternity of the World (De aeternitate mundi) (translated by Cyril Vollert, Lottie H. Kendzierski, and Paul M. Byrne) 1964


Fernand Van Steenberghen (essay date November 1951)

SOURCE: Steenberghen, Fernand Van. “Siger of Brabant.” The Modern Schoolman 29, no. 1 (November 1951): 11-27.

[In the following essay, Steenberghen discusses Siger's career, writings, doctrine, and historical role, offering suggestions for the direction of future studies.]

What is the present state of research in Siger of Brabant? To answer this question, I propose to give first a brief account of the conclusions that seem to be definitely reached and universally accepted about the career, writings, doctrine, and historical role of Siger. Then I shall briefly indicate the points that are still unsettled or that require further investigation.


(The entire section is 6746 words.)

Armand A. Maurer (essay date January 1956)

SOURCE: Maurer, Armand A. “The State of Historical Research in Siger of Brabant.” Speculum 31, no. 1 (January 1956): 49-56.

[In the following essay, Maurer provides a history of scholarly interest in Siger.]

Siger of Brabant is one of the most remarkable figures rescued from oblivion by research in mediaeval philosophy during the past fifty years. In the second half of the thirteenth century he was a well-known and influential philosopher at Paris. His views on philosophical questions and on the relationship of faith to reason were an important feature of the intellectual scene. St Thomas Aquinas thought them significant enough to single them out for attack. St...

(The entire section is 4341 words.)

Thomas P. Bukowski (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Bukowski, Thomas P. “The Eternity of the World according to Siger of Brabant: Probable or Demonstrative?” Recherches de Théologie ancienne et médiévale 36 (1969): 225-29.

[In the following essay, Bukowski explains how recent discoveries of works by Siger have forced a reappraisal of his views on the eternity of the world.]

As a result of a new discovery of works by Siger of Brabant, the question of Siger's relationship to Thomas Aquinas has taken on greater interest1. With regard to that question, it is clearly opportune to direct attention to an interpretation developed some years ago by J. P. Muller, O.S.B., and commended by that...

(The entire section is 2182 words.)

Armand Maurer (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Maurer, Armand. “Siger of Brabant on Fables and Falsehoods in Religion Mediaeval Studies.” Mediaeval Studies 43 (1981): 515-30.

[In the following essay, Maurer discusses Siger's understanding of the role of fables in philosophy and religion.]

While Siger of Brabant was teaching philosophy at the University of Paris in the early 1270's, it was obligatory for him to lecture on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Reading and commenting on book 2, he had to deal with a subject warmly debated since antiquity by both pagan and Christian writers—the role of fables or myths in religion and philosophy.1 His comments on this topic are of interest not...

(The entire section is 6937 words.)

Edward P. Mahoney (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Mahoney, Edward P. “Sense, Intellect, and Imagination in Albert, Thomas, and Siger.” In The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism 1100-1600, edited by Norman Kretzmann, Anthony Kenny, and Jan Pinborg, pp. 602-22. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Mahoney discusses Siger in the context of the ideas of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, focusing on Averroes's interpretation of Aristotle.]


Albert the Great reveals the influence of Avicenna and Averroes in his psychology, though he certainly...

(The entire section is 11540 words.)

Christopher J. Ryan (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Ryan, Christopher J. “Man's Free Will in the Works of Siger of Brabant.” Mediaeval Studies 45 (1983): 155-99.

[In the following essay, Ryan examines Siger's position on free will and discusses the inadequacies of earlier critical analyses.]

The recent monograph1 by Fernand Van Steenberghen, the doyen of Sigerian studies, bids fair to remain for some time the standard work on the medieval philosopher and the starting point for any research on his medieval compatriot. Van Steenberghen remarks in introducing his relatively slight section on will and the moral life: ‘Les problèmes relatifs à la nature de l'âme intellective et de l'activité...

(The entire section is 22416 words.)

Armand Maurer (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Maurer, Armand. “Siger of Brabant and Theology.” Mediaeval Studies 50 (1988): 257-78.

[In the following essay, Maurer compares Siger's account of sacred theology with Aquinas's and discusses Siger's remarks in the larger context of his total extant works.]

While William Dunphy and I were preparing the editions of the Vienna and Cambridge manuscripts of Siger of Brabant's Quaestiones in Metaphysicam, we found that both contain a passage in which he describes six ways in which sacred theology (which he calls ‘the science that is sacred Scripture’) differs from theology in the Aristotelian sense (which he calls ‘the theology that is part of...

(The entire section is 10598 words.)

Thomas P. Bukowski (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Bukowski, Thomas P. “Siger of Brabant, Anti-Theologian.” Franciscan Studies 50, no. Annual 28 (1990): 57-82.

[In the following essay, Bukowski explores the differences between the theological views of Siger and those of Thomas Aquinas.]


1. Toronto's distinguished Professor Armand Maurer has, in Mediaeval Studies (1988), presented a veritable sequel, entitled “Siger of Brabant and Theology,” to a much earlier study of his. The earlier study, entitled “A Promising New Discovery for Sigerian Studies,” was done with his colleague William Dunphy as co-author, and had itself appeared in Mediaeval Studies...

(The entire section is 10165 words.)

Carlos Steel (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Steel, Carlos. “Siger of Brabant versus Thomas Aquinas on the Possibility of Knowing the Separate Substances.” In Nach der Verurteilung von 1277: Philosophie und Theologie an der Universität von Paris im letzten Viertel des 13. Jahrhunderts; Studien und Texte, edited by Jan A. Aertsen, Kent Emery, Jr., and Andreas Speer, pp. 211-31. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter, 2001.

[In the following essay, Steel discusses a commentary by Renaissance philosopher Agostino Nifo on a now-lost work in which Siger defends Averroes's theories concerning the nature of the intellect.]

In his second introduction to the Metaphysics, Aristotle remarks that the knowledge of...

(The entire section is 11083 words.)

Further Reading


Bukowski, Thomas P. “Siger of Brabant vs. Thomas Aquinas on Theology.” New Scholasticism 61, no. 1 (winter 1987): 25-32.

Criticizes the Armand Maurer-William Dunphy study of 1967.

Dunphy, William. “The Similarity between Certain Questions of Peter of Auvergne's Commentary on the Metaphysics and the Anonymous Commentary on the Physics Attributed to Siger of Brabant.” Mediaeval Studies 15 (1953): 159-68.

Compares similar passages found in the two works.

——— and Armand Maurer. “A Promising New Discovery for Sigerian Studies.” Mediaeval Studies 29...

(The entire section is 233 words.)