Siger of Brabant Criticism

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Fernand Van Steenberghen (essay date November 1951)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

I. CONCLUSIONS REACHED

THE CAREER

We have no positive information about the place and date of Siger's birth. His name indicates that he was a native of the duchy of Brabant, which, in the thirteenth century, was a fief of the Germanic Empire. His relations with Bernier of Nivelles and John of Huy, his enrollment in the nation of the Picards (one of the four corporations of the Faculty of Arts at Paris), and finally the fact that he was canon of St. Paul at Liège, all suggest that he was born in the Walloon portion of the duchy of Brabant; that is, in that portion in which Romance dialects or dialects akin to French were spoken. As for the date of his birth, we have no reason for placing it before 1240.

Probably when Siger was about fourteen years old (for this was the custom of the time), he went to Paris to study liberal arts. He must have arrived there between 1255 and 1260, and he obtained the mastership six years later, between 1260 and 1265. We may suppose that he was then little more than twenty years of age. His name appears for the first time in the decree of August 27, 1266, by which the papal legate, Simon of Brion, put an end to the dissensions that had troubled the Faculty of Arts. His first appearance on the historical scene reveals him in the unedifying role of a young and unscrupulous leader, who was determined to impose his views on others by every means in his power.

From his very first years as a teacher, Siger professed a disquieting Aristotelianism, without regard for theology and orthodox Christian doctrine. This is clear from the Quaestiones in Tertium de Anima, the only work certainly anterior to 1270 that has come down to us; it is also attested by the reaction of St. Bonaventure in his Collationes de Decem Praeceptis (conferences given at Paris during the Lent of 1267) and in his Collationes de Donis Spiritus Sancti (Lent of 1268), as well as by the reaction of St. Thomas in his opusculum De Unitate Intellectus (1270), which was directed especially against Siger. The young master, however, was not alone in his opinions, for a notable group of masters and students shared his ideas, as is clear from texts of St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, and other contemporary witnesses.

On December 10, 1270, the bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, condemned a series of thirteen philosophical errors and excommunicated all who should teach them knowingly (qui eos docuerint scienter vel asseruerint). The errors condemned may be reduced to four chief ones: the eternity of the world, the denial of universal providence, the unicity of the intellectual soul, and psychological determinism.

We do not know what the immediate reaction of Siger was. If there was a calm, it was of short duration. Public disturbances were but the symptoms of a profound divergence of ideas on the doctrinal plane. In the face of the theologians and the orthodox members of the Faculty of Arts, who were led by Alberic of Rheims, the radical party of Siger maintained an intransigent attitude of fealty to philosophy and especially to Aristotle, who was for them its incarnation. On the other hand, within the party itself, divergences arose over the interpretation of Aristotle. Some, among them Siger, came under the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas and mitigated in some measure their heterodox position, while others, on the contrary,...

(The entire section is 86,008 words.)