William of Ockham Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

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. 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...

(The entire section is 3016 words.)