William of Ockham was a controversial fourteenth-century Franciscan friar and scholar. His work focused at first on philosophy and logic and later on the separation of Church and state. He deeply influenced European ideas about the practice of science, well into the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century.
Studies as a Franciscan
William of Ockham was probably born about 1287 in Ockham, a village near London in Surrey. When he was still a boy of perhaps 8 years old, his family dedicated him to serve the Church in the Franciscan Order and sent him to the Franciscan convent in London. This was a piece of good fortune, since his career and education as a scholar were subsidized by the Order. This was one way in which someone from an undistinguished background could pursue a career in the Church.
Franciscan Order: members of an order of itinerant monks founded by St. Francis
The Franciscan School in London was called Greyfriars. It was an excellent school. Ockham learned Latin there, and from the age of 14, basic logic and natural science. He was ordained Subdeacon in 1306 at Southwark near London, and became licensed to hear confessions by 1318. In fact, we can infer his date of birth from these dates, which are known from official records.
Subdeacon: the lowest ranking of clergy in the Catholic hierarchy
confession: a Roman Catholic sacrament
Ockham attended Oxford University starting in 1309. He lectured on the Bible from 1314-1316, which was required of candidates for the Master of Theology degree. In 1317-1319 he fulfilled another required for his Theology degree by lecturing on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. After lecturing on the Sentences Ockham taught and participated in disputations. He even gave an inaugural lecture as a theologian, but he did not actually receive a degree and become a master, which is why he is called "The Venerable Inceptor."
Sentences: a systematic collection of authoritative selections from past theologians concerning all the major questions in theology
Ockham never became a master because he did not fulfill the last requirement for the degree, which was to teach for a year at Oxford as a master. At the time there was only one such post open to Franciscans, so he had to wait his turn.
While waiting Ockham taught at Greyfriars in London, where he remained from 1321-23. There he led a lively intellectual life, receiving sharp critical input from Walter Chatton and Adam Wodeham. He produced his Quodlibetal Questions, parts of his Summa Logicae, and a revised version of the reportatio of the first book of his Lectures on the Sentences (the “Ordinatio” on Book I).
reportatio: a lecture transcription prepared by a reporter, more reliable than a modern student's notes but without the benefit of the author's corrections
Controversy and Inquiry
Ockham was brilliant and intellectually uncompromising. In some circles, he began to gain a reputation for unorthodox views. While he was at Oxford, Walter Burley opposed his views and went on to write a response to Ockham’s logical works. Chatton, at Greyfriars, seemed determined to refute him at every turn.
In 1323, Ockham was asked to defend his views in a provincial chapter meeting at Bristol. By 1324, someone had complained to the Papal Court at Avignon about Ockham, and he was summoned there to defend himself. He was never to return to England or teach at Oxford, so he did not become a Master of Theology.
chapter meeting: gathering of all the Franciscans living in a particular province of the Order
In 1326 the commission of theologians established to hear Ockham's case tentatively declared that 51 propositions in Ockham’s writings were worthy of censure, and that 29 of these were heretical, but that was as far as things went. No papal pronouncement against him was based on the work of the commission -- events intervened before there could be any final resolution of the matter.
Ockham's troubles with the Pope
At Avignon, Ockham met Michael of Cesena, then Minister General of the Franciscan Order. Under Cesena's influence, Ockham became involved in the major controversy then affecting the Franciscan order: Did Christ and his apostles own anything? If not, then, in imitation of Christ and following their vows, neither should the Franciscans. Franciscan friars should depend for their living on the charity of the community. They could legitimately live by begging while following their preaching vocation wandering around outside the convent. Indeed, the convent building itself would not belong to the Order, nor would the friars even have any right to make use of it. Permission might be granted to them by the owner, but such permission could be withdrawn at any time.
This Franciscan position was legally and administratively impractical and had alienated many of the powerful people of the Church. The matter was eventually settled by compromise: The Order and its members could have a right to use things, though they did not own them. “Use” could thus be given a status under the law equivalent to ownership, satisfying the needs of administration, while the Friars could continue to live without owning anything in imitation of Christ.
Instead of accepting the compromise, however, Ockham sided with the position taken by the order in 1321 at Perugia and espoused by the so-called “Michaelists.” Ockham was encouraged in his defiance by Michael Cesena. Michael was, in fact, in Avignon to defend his friars from charges of heresy: Pope John XXII had rejected the doctrine of the poverty of Christ as heretical in 1323. So the "Michaelist" party faced increasing pressure to acquiesce, but they did not do so.
After a confrontation between Michael and the Pope, Ockham and a few principal members of the Order fled from Avignon in 1328. Ockham was particularly well-advised to flee, since he had argued openly that Pope John’s opposition to the Franciscan teaching about Christ's poverty was heretical. On this point Ockham agreed with the position stated by Louis of Bavaria, Holy Roman Emperor in 1324.
Ockham also defended Louis' claim that John's stubborn adherence to his views, even after others had attempted to correct him many times, made him no Pope at all! (Was Ockham right? Some experts on church law held that he would have been right if the doctrine of Christ’s absolute poverty was an established doctrine of the Church. Ockham thought that Pope Nicholas III had established the doctrine in 1279. According to the general opinion of the Catholic Church, however, Nicholas never defined this teaching as dogma.)
The refugees fled under cover of night to Pisa in Italy, where they found refuge with Louis of Bavaria. Louis was continually at odds with the Pope over the powers of the Church in secular affairs. In fact, before the Emperor had declared the Pope a heretic, the Pope had disputed Louis' election as Emperor. The election had been opposed by a minority of princes whom Louis defeated after eight years in 1322 at the Battle of Muhldorf. The Pope claimed the right to decide such disputed elections, inasmuch as it was his job officially to present the Emperor with the regalia of his office. There is a legend that when Ockham arrived before Emperor Louis, he said to him, “O Imperator, defende me gladio, et ego defendam te verbo.”
O Emperor, defend me with the sword, and I will defend you with the word
Eventually the little group of Franciscan refugees followed Louis to Munich. Excommunicated for leaving Avignon without permission, Ockham spent the rest of his life in Munich writing controversial works on Church-State relations, the limits of legitimate authority, and Papal power. He never returned to philosophical matters. Instead he wrote continuously in defense of Louis against John XXII, against Benedict XII, and against Clement VI (John's immediate successors).
In support of Ockham's work, in 1338 the German princes declared that whomever the majority of the Electors chose was King of the Holy Roman Empire, a central European territory. without any need of confirmation or investiture by the Pope. But in 1346 Louis’s cards seem played out, and the princes, weary of the excommunication and the endless struggle with the Pope, tried to end the affair by electing Charles of Luxembourg in Louis’ place. In 1347 Louis died, avoiding complete humiliation at the hands of his enemies.
Ockham was left without a protector, and all of his companions were dead or reconciled with the Church. People used to think that Ockham also tried to reconcile himself with his Order and the Church — that he had returned the Seal of the Order, obtained from Michael Cesena, and that the General Chapter of the Order interceded for him with the Pope. But, in fact, the seal seems to have been returned by a different “William of England.” Ockham died in 1347, apparently still recalcitrant.
God's Absolute Power and Theology
Ockham held strict views not only about Christ's poverty and about ontology, but also about what we can know. His strict views about knowledge and scientific demonstration led him to hold different theological views from many older theologians in several respects.
Ockham denied, for instance, that we can prove that there is only one God, since we cannot be certain that there is only one universe. Perhaps we could show “the most perfect of beings” exists. But we could not show that there was only such being, God. There might be several such beings, all equally perfect. Ockham did not deny that there was one God —he said that Christians "know" there is one God. Unlike older theologians, however, Ockham said we could not prove this by natural reason. We only know that there is one God, because sacred scripture says there is.
Similarly, some of Ockham’s opinions about God’s absolute power conflict with Roman Catholic notions about what God can do. In particular, Ockham held to a divine command theory of morality. He argued that God freely determined from eternity what was good and bad and made human reason able to know his determinations in these matters -- just as human reason knows that there are natural laws governing the physical world.
God’s will thus precedes God’s intellect. God does not, as Thomas Aquinas would have it, first determine the nature of the good and then seek it. Rather, what God seeks is necessarily the good simply because he wills it. This “Voluntarism,” as it is sometimes called, is rooted in Ockham’s conviction that God is not simply good and a being, but rather that God is the standard itself by which goodness and being are identified. So it is not possible that God should fail either to be, or to be good.
God's Absolute Power and Knowledge of the