William of Ockham

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Article abstract: The most original and perhaps least understood of the late medieval philosophers, Ockham exercised a pervasive influence over his contemporaries and over thinkers for the next two centuries. He held that intuition was the only form of knowledge, and that God could only be approached through faith and revelation, not through the “proofs” of natural reason. Misconstrued, Ockham’s nominalism—his rejection of the idea of abstract entities, or universals—had serious implications for the Church’s teachings on the Eucharist.

Early Life

Nothing is known of William of Ockham’s parents or childhood, except that he entered the Franciscan Order before he was fourteen and received his early education at the Franciscan house at Southwark. In 1303, he was ordained a subdeacon by Archbishop Winchelsey and thereafter went to Oxford University, where he obtained the baccalaureate. He taught at Oxford, lecturing on Peter Lombard’s Sentences (1148-1151), while at the same time writing the first version of his celebrated commentary on the four books of the Sentences, Anglici super quatuor libros sententiarum subtilissimae quaestiones earumdemque decisiones (c. 1322) and also works on logic. Around 1321, he left Oxford to return to the Franciscans in Southwark, where he taught philosophy, but there is no evidence for the tradition that he went to Paris University and there met Marsilius of Padua.

The decade which ended in 1324 was perhaps the most productive of his entire life. In terms of originality and sheer intellectual brilliance, Ockham’s was one of those minds which come early to fruition. In addition, he had a gift for rapid and prolific writing. This was the period when he revised (not for the last time) his commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, wrote several commentaries on Aristotle, and completed the Summae totius logicae. He also wrote most of the Quodlibeta septem, an undertaking of remarkable maturity, embodying a vast amount of reading and reflection within the scholastic tradition. Yet despite his later, and posthumous, reputation as the philosopher who dissolved the Thomist-Aristotelian synthesis, Ockham, during his years in England, was essentially a mainstream thinker: original, controversial, but not necessarily dangerous. His ideas circulated widely among fellow teachers and students, and for a young man he enjoyed a formidable reputation. Some of his statements were later questioned by opponents, and eventually accusations against his teaching reached the Papal Curia, but his excommunication in 1328 had nothing to do with his academic career in England. He raised issues of major intellectual concern to contemporaries, but he did not attack the Church or its teachings, or rail against clerical wealth and corruption. A typical English representative of his order, he did not (so far as is known) adopt the radical line of the Spiritual Franciscans with regard to the vita apostolica (apostolic life), and was uninfluenced (and was perhaps uninterested in) the Joachimite writings in favor with the Italian Fraticelli. He was involved neither in clerical politics nor in calls for reform, and he was certainly no self-proclaimed iconoclast.

Yet in 1323, Ockham was accused of error by John Lutterell, a former Chancellor of Oxford University, who was eager to curry favor at the papal court, and so he was compelled to set off for Avignon, then the residence of the pope, in order to defend himself from the charges laid against him. Avignon was to be his home for the next four years, and while he may have suffered from some loss of freedom, he continued writing and revising his earlier works. Meanwhile, a commission appointed to examine his writings met during 1324-1325 and identified fifty-one propositions deserving of further scrutiny....

(This entire section contains 3016 words.)

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While it detected many errors, however, it found no evidence of heresy. In 1326, the commission began a second inquiry, perhaps as a direct result of papal prompting, and this time uncovered ten heretical propositions. The papers were then passed to the famous Inquisitor, Jacques Fournier (the future Benedict XII, 1334-1342), but apparently no further steps were taken prior to Ockham’s flight from Avignon in 1328. It is not difficult to imagine, however, the frustration and uncertainty engendered during Ockham’s stay in Avignon. As David Knowles puts it,

the brilliant young man had the mortifying experience of waiting upon the delays and debates of his judges, with his high hopes dashed, and in the demoralizing surroundings of a city of luxury and intrigue, where the atmosphere was rendered permanently electric by the irascible octogenarian autocrat Pope John XXII, an untiring generator of storm and lightning.

Life’s Work

The year 1328 marked a virtual bifurcation in Ockham’s career. Before that year, he had been an academic, a teacher of theology and logic. Thereafter, he became a committed and forceful polemicist, the champion of the Spiritual Franciscans, the implacable opponent of Pope John XXII (1316-1334), whom he came to regard as a heretic, and a propagandist for the Holy Roman Emperor, Ludwig IV of Bavaria (1314-1346), the pope’s bitter foe.

The event which provided the catalyst for the change in Ockham’s life was the arrival in Avignon of Michael of Cesena, Minister General of the Franciscans, who had been summoned there by the pope to answer charges relating to apostolic poverty. The Spiritual Franciscans had long held that neither Jesus nor his apostles had owned any personal belongings, and that Saint Francis of Assisi had intended a similar evangelical poverty for his followers. Meanwhile, the success of the Franciscan movement had resulted in the Order becoming the recipient of great wealth. This development the Spiritual Franciscans abhorred, just as they abhorred the all-too-visible wealth of the Church and the worldly and luxurious life-style of many clerics. Their radical idealism, therefore, constituted a profound challenge to the Church as an institution, and it was not a challenge which the Church could afford to disregard. The debate had gone on for years, but Nicholas III (1277-1280), deeply sympathetic to Franciscan idealism, had sought a compromise, by which the Church administered the property of the Franciscans on their behalf, thereby enabling them to maintain their founder’s commitment to a life of apostolic poverty. This compromise had been further refined during the pontificate of Clement V (1305-1314).

John XXII, however, stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition when, in December, 1322, he issued the bull, or edict, Ad conditorem canonum, in which he handed back to the Franciscans the property which, since the time of Nicholas III, had been held in trust for them. Less than a year later, in a second bull, Cum inter nonnullos (1323), John pronounced that it was heresy to teach the doctrine of Christ’s absolute poverty and followed this up in November, 1324, with the bull Quia quorundam, in which he asserted his absolute authority to rule in such matters without reference to the pronouncements of his predecessors. Hitherto, Michael of Cesena had been a moderate, endeavoring to hold the middle ground within the Franciscan Order and maintain a continuous dialogue with the Curia. John, however, was outraged by Franciscan intransigence, and he summoned Michael and a learned Franciscan canonist, Bonagratia of Bergamo, to answer for their flock.

Once in Avignon, and in considerable danger from John’s anger, Michael of Cesena discovered that one of the most celebrated of Franciscan scholars was a fellow resident in the town, and he therefore commanded Ockham, as his subordinate, to review the various papal pronouncements on apostolic poverty from the point of view of a theologian. Hitherto, Ockham relates in a letter, he had deliberately avoided looking into these issues, fearful of what he might find, but ordered by his superior to examine the various bulls, he found in them statements which he later described as erroneous, foolish, ridiculous, fantastic, insane, defamatory, and worst of all, heretical. From this time forward, he was filled with horror at the thought that the pope himself had become a heretic, and in consequence, could no longer command the allegiance of the Church, views which came to be shared by Michael of Cesena and Bonagratia of Bergamo. On the night of May 28, 1328, the three men fled from Avignon, traveling down the Rhône to Aigues Mortes, where an imperial galley was waiting to transport them to Pisa. There they were well received by Ludwig and his entourage, which included the Italian author of the Defensor pacis (written 1320-1324), Marsilius of Padua, like Ludwig himself, a bitter foe of John XXII. Ludwig’s quarrel with the pope went back to his election in 1314 by the German princes, which John had refused to recognize, but the disagreement had escalated when Ludwig had marched on Rome earlier in the year, had been crowned before the Roman people by a layman, Sciarra Colonna (the same who, a quarter of a century earlier, had assaulted Boniface VIII on behalf of the King of France), and had then formally announced the deposition of John XXII and his replacement by a Franciscan antipope, Nicholas V. At Pisa, the emperor was fresh from his triumphs in Rome. It was said, but the tradition may not be authentic, that on entering Ludwig’s presence, Ockham declared: “Defend me with your sword, and I shall support you with my pen.” Regardless of whether this statement was uttered, Ockham lived for the next two decades under the emperor’s protection in Munich.

From 1328 until his death, Ockham’s writings were, in the broadest sense, political, personally attacking John XXII and his successor, Benedict XII, raising fundamental issues with regard to the governance of the Church, and vigorously upholding the rights of lay rulers. His very first polemic, Opus nonaginta dierum, written between 1330 and 1332, was a defense of Michael of Cesena, whose views had been condemned by John XXII in his bull Quia vir reprobus (November, 1329), and a refutation, sentence by sentence, of John’s pronouncements on the question of evangelical poverty. The subject matter of this work is diverse, ranging from the nature of property and its usage to the authority of the pope. Throughout the work it is clear that Ockham is acutely aware that a pope fallen into heresy must drag all Christendom down with him unless remedies are applied.

Far more ambitious is the Dialogus, a work conceived in the form of a discussion between master and pupil, of which the first part was probably begun in 1333 and completed toward the end of 1334 (by which time John XXII had been succeeded by Benedict XII), followed by a second and, in 1337 or 1338 (some have placed it as late as 1346), by an unfinished third part. Heresy is the principal theme of the Dialogus (c. 1334). This is perhaps Ockham’s most original political work, and it is marked by his characteristic concern for the precise meaning of words, for definitions, and for painstaking analysis.

It is not always clear where Ockham is taking his readers in the Dialogus. The direction becomes clearer in three later works of political philosophy. In the Octo quaestiones de potestate papae of 1340-1342, which may have been written at the emperor’s behest, he resuscitates the classic debate regarding the sources and extent of the authority of pope and emperor, and their relations with each other, issues which are also central to the Breviloquium of 1341-1342 and the De imperatorum et pontificum potestate of 1347. Yet Ockham also addressed more immediate issues of his times. Thus, in the An princeps pro suo succursu, written on behalf of Edward III of England (probably late in 1338), he upholds the right of the English king to tax his clergy in times of national crisis. Similarly, in the Consultatio de causa matrimoniali, written prior to February, 1342, and presumably on Ludwig’s orders, Ockham takes up the problem of consanguinity, which seems to stand in the way of the marriage of Ludwig’s son, Ludwig of Brandenburg, to Margaret, the heiress of the Tirol, arguing that in such a case the emperor possesses the authority to grant a dispensation. A further problem, however, was that Margaret was already married to someone else. To deal with this situation, Marsilius of Padua was called in, to argue in his Defensor minor, that in cases of a husband’s impotence (as this one was said to be) the emperor had the authority to grant a divorce. In the light of Ludwig’s poisonous relations with successive popes, there was not the slightest possibility of obtaining either a papal divorce or a papal dispensation with regard to consanguinity, and so the emperor turned to the two great luminaries of his court, Ockham and Marsilius, to legitimate a course of action upon which he had set his heart. The “marriage” was celebrated on February 10, 1342.

That same year, Michael of Cesena died. He had long been stripped of his position as minister general, but he had remained the vicar of that minority of Franciscans who had broken permanently with Avignon. Thereafter, Ockham served as vicar until, in 1348, he sent the seal to Minister General William Farinier, perhaps in the course of negotiations for a reconciliation with the Church, from which Ockham had been excommunicated since 1328. It is uncertain whether it was Ockham himself or the Curia or perhaps Farinier who took the initiative. In any case, his position had become dangerously exposed since Emperor Ludwig’s death in 1347 and the accession of Charles IV of Bohemia, a favorite with Avignon. Benedict XII had died in 1342, and his successor, Clement VI (1342-1352), a suave, Francophile diplomat, may well have been disposed to bring about the public reconciliation of a notorious heretic, who was also the most influential scholar of the age. Whether Ockham was reconciled prior to his death is a matter for speculation, but there has survived a form of submission drawn up by Clement, which was passed on to Farinier, presumably for transmission to Ockham. In it, there is no mention of those charges which had first brought him from England to Avignon a quarter of a century earlier, but Ockham was required to disassociate himself entirely from the opinions of the late excommunicants, Michael of Cesena and the Emperor Ludwig; he was to deny utterly that the emperor possessed the authority to make or unmake popes; and he was to declare himself faithful to the official teachings of the Church. It does not sound like a very onerous recantation.

Whether the document ever reached Ockham’s hands, whether there was ever a formal reconciliation, or whether Ockham died before the arrangements could be completed will never be known. He died in 1349, probably in the course of the ravages of the Black Death, and tradition has it that he was buried in the Franciscan church in Munich, implying that he was no longer an excommunicant.


William of Ockham was the most powerful and perhaps the most original mind of the later Middle Ages. “No later reformer,” writes E. F. Jacob, thinking ahead to the age of Martin Luther, “is uninfluenced by his ideas,” and David Knowles describes him as “one of the half-dozen British philosophers who have profoundly influenced the thought of western Europe.” Yet scholars have found it difficult to categorize Ockham, some regarding him as the apex of the medieval scholastic achievement, others viewing him as the great skeptic whose dialectic helped to dissolve the Thomist-Aristotelian synthesis of the thirteenth century.

He is also a prime example of the “unfinished” thinker, whose tremendous intellectual activity as a young man virtually came to an end when he involved himself in the affairs of popes and emperors and the writing of propaganda. It is impossible now to conceive of what he might have written, or in what direction he might have taken contemporary thought, had he not abandoned teaching for polemics after 1328. Before judging him too harshly for the loss to philosophy, however, it is well to remember that to a man of Ockham’s time, the issue of apostolic poverty and the terrible conviction that the head of the Church had lapsed into heresy were matters of such urgency as to outweigh entirely the claims of scholarship and the schools.


Bayley, C. C. “Pivotal Concepts in the Political Philosophy of William of Ockham.” Journal of the History of Ideas 10 (1949): 199-218. A very useful essay to the student of philosophy.

Boehner, P. “Ockham’s Political Ideas.” Review of Politics 5 (1943): 462-487. Reprinted in Boehner’s Collected Articles on Ockham (1958), edited by E. M. Buytaert. The thoughts of a great Ockhamist scholar.

Jacob, E. F. “Ockham as a Political Thinker.” In Essays in the Conciliar Epoch. 2d ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1953. An excellent discussion of Ockham’s contribution to political thought, although superseded in some respects by subsequent research.

Leff, Gordon. The Dissolution of the Medieval Outlook: An Essay on Intellectual and Spiritual Change in the Fourteenth Century. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1976. Essential reading, although Leff has subsequently modified his thinking with regard to Ockham.

Leff, Gordon. William of Ockham: The Metamorphosis of Scholastic Discourse. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1975. A magisterial work, definitive in its way. Leff sees this as a retraction of much of his earlier writing on Ockham.

McGrade, Arthur S. The Political Thought of William of Ockham: Personal and Institutional Principles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974. Indispensable for serious study.

Moody, Earnest A. The Logic of William of Ockham. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935. Still useful for Ockham’s logic.

Ockham, William. Guillelmi de Ockham Opera Politica. Edited by H. S. Offler, et al. 3 vols. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1940, 1956, 1963. This is the definitive edition of the political writings. Still incomplete, it will probably extend to at least five volumes. Volume one was reedited and completely revised in 1974.

Ockham, William. Predestination, God’s Foreknowledge, and Future Contingencies. Translated by Marilyn McCord Adams and Norman Kretzmann. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969. An accessible translation of the Tractatus de praedstinatione et de praescientia Dei et de futuris contingentibus, with related extracts from Ockham’s commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, from his commentary on Aristotle’s De interpretatione, and from the Summa totius logicae.

Tierney, Brian. “Ockham, the Conciliar Theory and the Canonists.” Journal of the History of Ideas 15 (1954): 40-70. An interesting discussion of Ockham’s later impact.