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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
Occam, William of
the last of the great scholars in the succession of mediaeval scholasticism, and assuredly one of the most acute, was the notable precursor of John Wickliffe, John Huss, and Martin Luther. His logical perspicacity and dialectical subtlety earned for him the designation of the Invincible and the Singular (unique) Doctor. He pursued the refinements of eristic disputation so far as to render it impossible to proceed farther in. the same direction. "The force of reason could no farther go." But, if he "could divide ahair ‘ twixt north and north-west side," he never consented to "change hands and still dispute." He was earnest and sincere, and concealed a large fund of solid sense under the familiar forms of scholastic logomachy. If the wondrous machine of scholasticism did not actually break down under the strain to which it was subjected by him, it became too complex and rigid for any later Ulysses to bend, and lost its availability with succeeding generations. To this rejection of the great creation of the Middle Ages Occam contributed in another mode; if he should not rather be regarded as himself, in this respect, the creature of the times and of the tendencies of the times. No other schoolman connected dialectics so closely with practical life, or linked speculation and academic disputation so intimately with the pressing questions which agitated contemporaneous society. If he did not succeed in bringing scholasticism home to men's business and bosoms — an achievement incompatible with its nature — he did bring logic and metaphysics from the cloisters and from "the shady spaces of philosophy," and associated them with the politics and the ecclesiastical transformations of the day. The letters of Eloise and Abelard show how the desiccated members and hardened sinews of technical ratiocination may be adapted to "the poignant expression of frenzied love-quid nion cogit amor? In the writings of Occam the same dry and dreary formulas are rendered applicable to the popular and-instinctive aspirations of the times. Occam thus unconsciously gave predominance to passion, interest, rude instinct, and popular tendency over abstract reasoning and formal controversy, though himself preserving all the externals of his tribe. He maintained himself on the ancient and tottering throne, but a new race was springing around him. When the monarch of the woods had fallen, the undergrowth shot up into tall timber, and filled the forest with an unlike production. The school of Occam survived, and the ranks of the schoolmen still continued to be adorned with illustrious names, such as those of John Gerson, cardinal D'Ailly. and others;. but the age of the great leaders of sects had passed away, and the generation of the Epigoni derives distinction from other qualities than those which had given renown to their precursors.
Life. — The biography of the schoolmen, from the nature of their pursuits, is usually jejune and obscure. It rarely presents the fascination which is afforded by the romantic story of Abelard, or the calm instruction which is offered by the career of Bonaventura, or the angelical Thomas of Aquino. Until Occam had conquered fame, and had become a power among men, few and trifling are the details of his career that have been transmitted to us, and even the chronology of his fortunes is indistinct and confused. The name of Occam by which he is habitually known, is derived from the humble hamlet of Occam, Ockham, or Okeham, which lay in the wastes of Surrey, and straggled along the southern outskirts of what is now designated as Ockham Heath. The growing population of six centuries. and the proximity of London, have cleared and reclaimed the wilderness, and improved culture has converted sterility into productiveness. At the close of the 13th century, and in the reign of Henry III or of Edward I, when Occam was born, the country around his birthplace must have been a dreary tract, given up to black cattle and hogs, except in scattered patches which had been tamed by the indomitable perseverance and far-reaching hope of monastic fraternities. The exact date of his birth has not been ascertained, but it may be concluded that he first saw the light before the 13th century had entered upon its last quarter, as he had attained distinction, and was regius professor of theology in the University of Paris, in the early years of the 14th century, and died at an advanced age before the century had half expired. His brightness as a boy attracted the attention of the Cordeliers, who induced him to take the vows of the Franciscan Order, and who afforded him the best opportunities for cultivating his precocious talents. He was sent by them to Merton College, Oxford — this great university having been brought into renown under the supervision of Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln, and the teachings of Frater Agnellus, Adam de Marisco, and Roger Bacon. It must have been at this time that Duns Scotus, also an alumnus of Merton, and then at the height of his eminent reputation, was attracting to Oxford the thirty thousand pupils whom he is said to have drawn thither. Occam attended his courses, and became the favorite pupil of the Subtle Doctor — but his own mind was of a bold and independent character "nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri." He did not hesitate to assail the positions of his teacher, and to propound keen and embarrassing objections. After attaining his degree he opened a course of lectures, and excited almost as much enthusiasm as his master, winning many hearers from him. Duns Scotus was the acknowledged chief of the Realistic School, which had long been dominant, and was then reigning almost without opposition. Occam revived the doctrine of the Nominalists, which, if not actually dead, had long been dormant. A violent antagonism thus arose between the Occamists and the Scotists — a discordance which frequently led to blows and wounds between the disputants. The belli etererima causa may appear trivial and ridiculous to us with our changed — habits of thought and dlverse aspirations, but in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries it was neither a play upon words nor a fantastic difference to contend that abstract notions, or universals, were entia realia, entia intelligibilia, or entia rationalia. The dissension involved the antagonism of the profoundest convictions, and was immediately implicated with the gravest questions, religious, ecclesiastical, political, and intellectual, which were then agitating society, and imperatively demanding a practical solution. (See NOMINALISM) and (See REALISM).
As Protogenes divided the delicate colored line of Apelles by one still more delicate of different color, according to the anecdote reported by Pliny, so Occam drew still more attenuated distinctions among the fine and intricate lines of the logical propositions of Duns. Nor were these distinctions and divisions merely caprices of dialectical ingenuity. Occam was earnest, sagacious, and ardent for truth and practical results, under all the disguises of the cumbrous machinery of scholastic ratiocination. It has justly been said of him that "his eager, restless, and active mind was always at work acquiring and testing every kind of knowledge that presented itself, and his subdued enthusiasm early marked him out as one who would become a leader of men... The abstract dialect of the times could not veil his powerful, clear, and concrete vision; he must see everything with his own eyes ere he will believe it or teach it. He was full of sturdy self-dependence, which made itself felt on questions both of Church and State policy." How often has it happened that the speculations of the great thinkers of other days have been slighted or misunderstood because their language has been forgotten and their meaning become indistinct!
Of course the antagonism to the Scotists was only gradually developed. Occam was sent to Paris, and became regius professor of theology in the university. On his return to England he was appointed by the Franciscans one of their professors at Oxford. This office he was compelled to renounce — in consequence of a charge of exciting disturbances among the students. The young collegians of that day were always ready for an uproar — even more so than in our own — whether the question concerned town and gown, battles, or metaphysical quodlibets. Occam's bold doctrines and uncompromising polemics might well occasion controversies and quarrels among doctors and disciples, especially as the Dominicans and Thomists mustered strong in the cloisters and halls of His. The dates of Occam's scholastic career are exceedingly obscure and uncertain, and cannot be exhibited with any clear consistency. They can be determined only by vague conjecture, or by known synchronism with events historically determined. We cannot undertake their conciliation. Occam is said to have declined the archdeaconry of Stow in 1300. but to have accepted, two years later, a prebend at Bedford, and in 1305 to have been inducted into a living at Stow, which he did not resign till 1319. During much of this period he was certainly in Paris; but benefices and residence were by no means inseparable in that day of papal provisions, non-obstantes, and exemptions. It was in the first years of the 14th century that he engaged in the defense of the civil power, and obtained his earliest notoriety beyond the precincts of the schools by advocating the cause of Philip the Fair of France against the arrogant pretensions of Boniface VIII, and by inclining, through his advocacy, the balance in favor of secular sovereignty. He maintained against the claims of the papacy the independence of princes in all temporal affairs, denied their subordination to the Church, and asserted their responsibility to God alone. It was not the first time that temporal rulers had endeavored to establish a coequal authority with the chiefs of Christendom; it was not the first time that the papal pretensions had been sternly rebuked in formal treatises; but it was the first time that the doctrine had been so explicitly proclaimed within the circle of the ecclesiastical order. For his reply to the bull Unam Sanctam Occam was excommunicated, and he was compelled to leave France in consequence, about twelve years later, on the death of Philip in 1314. In 1322 he was elected provincial general of the English Cordeliers.
In this capacity he attended the general chapter of the order held at Perugia. In that council was discussed the often-debated question between the Fratricelli and the more worldly brethren of the fraternity in regard: to the degree of poverty imposed upon the order by its founder, and the propriety of ecclesiastical endowments. The question had excited furious discords almost ever since the death of Francis of Assisi, and had recently assumed portentous proportions in the revolutionary attempts of the Dolcinists, whose leader, Dolcino, had perished at the stake in 1307. The more ascetic and earnest of the Mendicants denied the right of holding any property at all, and extended the denial to the whole spiritual body. The majority of the brethren, appreciating and enjoying the wealth accumulated from the fanatical admiration of their votaries, had curiously discriminated between corporate and individual property, between dominium and possessio, between ownership and usufruct. Divisions on this subject had arisen even under the administration of Elias of Bologna, the first general of the order in succession to the founder. During the brief pontificate of Nicholas III, who had himself been a Franciscan, an attempt was made to settle the contention by a papal bull, which authorized the sodality to hold property and enjoy it sub titulo ecclesiae, the actual ownership being considered as vested in the general Church. This decision had not proved satisfactory to the more consistent and extreme Franciscans. Further offense was given when the bull of Nicholas III was revoked by the extravagant Ad Conditorem of John XXII, which condemned the severance of the domain from the use. The whole legal doctrine of uses is connected with these nice ecclesiastical fictions.
The question was brought up for re-discussion in the Chapter of Perugia. Occam in concert with Michele di Cesena, the general of the order, maintained the obligation of absolute poverty — of total abstention from all property — asserting that such had been the practice of Christ and his apostles, and that the whole spiritual community was bound by their example. His positions were so unlimited as to occasion the celebrated query — Whether the dominion, or only the usufruct of things eaten and drunk belonged to the consumer. The peril to the greedy pope and to ecclesiastical wealth was instinctively recognized by the holy court at Avignon. Proximus Ucalegon ardet. John imposed silence on the daring and logical Franciscan; and by the extravagant Cum inter, condemned his dogma regarding the absolute destitution of Christ and his apostles. The impetuous controversialist would not be silenced, and, leaving the narrower field of the divisions in his order, he denounced without measure the avarice, the wealth, the corruption, the luxury, the worldliness, and the arrogance of the pope and the hierarchy. He was sustained by his general, Michele di Cesena. They had returned to France, and had probably been summoned to appear before the pontifical court. They had been thrown into the pontifical dungeons at Avignon. They made their escape by the assistance of the emperor Louis of Bavaria, May 26, 1328, then in the midst of his warfare with the pope. With the emperor they found refuge, and were excommunicated for their flight. Pontifical comminations had few terrors for Occam. His convictions and adhesions were unshaken by spiritual censures, which had lost their force in the wild ravings of Boniface VIII, and in the outrage which had overtaken him. It must have been at this time that he promised the emperor to- defend him with his pen, if he received in return the protection of the imperial sword. He fulfilled his promise, and the alliance remained unbroken. It marked an aera when letters became a ruling power in the world by the side of the Church and the State. Haudrau may truly remark that Occam "began a revolution." He lived for years under the shelter afforded by his imperial patron, throwing himself courageously and passionately into the thickest of the strife; indefatigable in his labors, fearless in his opinions, keen in discernment, ingenious in argumentation, honest in motive, and quick in catching the aura popularis of the approaching age. To his indication, or participation, may safely be ascribed the repudiation" of papal jurisdiction in Germany; by the electors at Rense, and by the Diet at Frankfort, 1338 an early anticipation of Huss and Luther. — Little information has been transmitted to us in regard to the later years of Occam. The time and place of his death have both been disputed, as has been the statement of his relief from the sentence of excommunication. Luke Wadding, in history of the Order of the Minorites, represents him as having died at Capua in 1350; but that writer stalids alone in this opinion. The habitual statement is that he died in the monastery of his order at Munich, April 7, 1347. the year in which his protector, Louis of Bavaria, also died. By some authorities, 1343 is given as the year of Occam's death.
Philosophy and Writings. — Occam introduced no new principles into philosophy. He did introduce a new spirit. The tenets on which his system rested had all been advocated before. He recombined previous opinions, and placed them in a new and clearer light. He was not an Eclectic, though there is something of eclecticism in his procedure. He has habitually been represented as the restorer of nominalism. This has recently been denied, and too strenuously denied. Individual Nominalists may, indeed, be found among his immediate predecessors and older contemporaries, but they were few and unnoted among the multitude of Realists — rari nantes in gurgite vasto. Occam rendered nominalism again a power in the realm of speculation: it became dominant in his hands, and thenceforward continued to advance in public regard till it introduced a general tendency to rationalism. The Nominalists who follow him and issue from his school may not blaze as brilliantly as earlier philosophers of the Middle Ages, because scholasticism itself was smitten with a slow decay by the procedure adopted by the Venerabilis Inceptor; and speculation was directed into other and broader channels by his impulse. It is a grave misapprehension to accuse the great schoolmen of wasting their powers over vain and abstract disputations. In their most rarefied abstractions they comprehended the urgent problems of the time, though it is with difficulty that our hasty glance can now discern, in their dry light, the vital issues of the hour. They clothed them in the costume of the day, and the fashions have entirely changed. We can recognize then more obviously practical discussions of Occam and his successors, and their rapid movement in the direction of modern thought.
If Occam was the last of the great schoolmen, he was the herald of the intellectual revolution which produced the modern world. What was most distinctive in his speculations was his statement of older theses in the language and forms of the Byzantine Logic, lately introduced to the admiration of the West by the Summulae of Petrus Hispanus. With the Byzantines he preceded Locke in recognizing and exhibiting the close coherence between logic and grammar; he preceded Hobbes in regarding words as nothing more than the counters of thought as voces hypothetice reprcesentive, rather than as voces essentialiter siqnificativae; he preceded Hume, though employing different terms and ascending to higher altitudes, in insisting upon the wide difference between impressions and ideas. These anticipations display both the modern habitudes of his mind and his skeptical or antidogmatic tendency. Even a more notable characteristic of his philosophy was his straightforward, unequivocating application of his doctrine and dialectics to the questions which rent the spiritual and the secular society of his century. If he assailed his master, Duns Scotus, and the Realists, he attacked, with less restraint, popes, hierarchs, and synods, and vulgar errors in both theology and government. "In all the struggles, disputes, and controversies, political, ecclesiastical, and theological, with emperor, pope, and universities, Occam was the chief actor. He thrust himself into every European strife; the biggest, burliest figure — a man who never seemed able to get enough of fighting. He has put into clear and authoritative words every great question which men were dumbly or inarticulately striving to express; and the whole life of his age centers in him, and is mirrored in his conduct." In the opening of his career he stood by the side of the haughty and tyrannical Philip le Bel of France, in the defense of temporal sovereignty, against the usurpations of the more haughty and imperious Boniface VIII. In the closing years, of his life he maintained with equal resolution the cause of the empire, in the fierce duel between Louis of Bavaria and the popes John, XXII, Benedict XII, and Clement VI. In the interval between these congruous extremes he stubbornly insisted upon the strict observance of the vows of his order, advocated apostolical destitution with extravagant vigor, and denounced the immoralities of popes, papal courts, and clergy. Excommunicated, he disregarded excommunication, and lived under the sternest papal commination, perhaps dying without care for its removal. It will thus be seen how much more prominent and potent was the action of Occam than his theoretical speculations. His public course, however, grew necessarily out of his philosophy and dialectics, in combination with the sincere and unswerving temper of the man.
Unfortunately, Occam's writings are almost inaccessible, and can scarcely be found outside of the rich repositories of mediaeval lore and mediaeval thought in monastic libraries, or in libraries plundered from monastic collections. They have not been revealed to our long research, and we derive our imperfect knowledge, through many successions, from others. Before the middle of the 17th century Naudeeus lamented the prospect that "the followers of Occam would be eternally denied the sight of his works," and declared that "the hope was almost lost of ever seeing them printed." They had been printed a century and a half before, but had become as rare as manuscripts. They may have been consumed in the fires and popular excesses of the Reformation; but their character was calculated to consign them to early obscurity. Occam gave an impulse to the times, which enabled ensuing generations to leave him neglected on the strand — "stat nvagni nominis umbra." We must note, with such second-hand materials as are available, the most striking opinions of Occam.
It has already been mentioned how strenuously he resisted the presumptuous demands of Boniface VIII, and maintained the responsibility of sovereigns to God alone. The papal bull, Clericis Laicos, fulminated against Philip the Fair, was publicly burned at Paris. Boniface, after a council held at Rome, issued his more celebrated bull, Unam Sanctam, claiming for the Church an absolute and unshared supremacy. Occam, then rector of the University of Paris, responded, at the personal request of the king, it is said, in the Disputatio super potestate praelatis ecclesiae atgue principibus terrarum commissa, and absolutely repudiated the papal pretensions. The advocacy of the strict rule of the Mendicants and of apostolical poverty produced Contra Johannern XXII de Paupertate Christi et Apostolorum Apologia, and his Defensorium. The latter has been styled a mediaeval Areopagitica, and declared to be "one of the noblest defenses of the liberty of writing." It brought the author, however, before the ecclesiastical tribunals, with what result is unknown. In defense of Louis of Bavaria, he wrote his Dialogus contra Johannem XXII pro Imperatore Ludovico IV — one of his most characteristic works; and in favor of his spiritual superior, Michele di Cesena, Opus nonaginta diesum de civili dominio clericorum atque monachorum. — These tracts, however neglected, can scarcely be deemed antiquated, when the like questions have been revived recently by Le Pere Hyacinthe, Prof. Dollinger, prince Bismarck, and Mr. Gladstone.
More immediately germane to the scope of the present work, though intimately associated with the whole body of Occam's doctrine, is his treatise De Sacramento Altaris, wherein he impugns transubstantiation without positively denying it, and arrives at conclusions kindred with Luther's view of the sacrament. Nominalism will scarcely accord with transubstantiation; and Occam's thesis, Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, like Newton's Hypotheses non fingo, was fatal to fictitious quiddities and imaginary essences. The skeptical attitude, without express negative of so cardinal a tenet, was peculiarly illustrative of the relations of Occam's theology to his philosophy, and reveals the perilous tendency of his speculations. He maintained the irreconcilability of reason and faith, and advocated their divorce, alleging that knowledge and science were fallacious, and that the intuitions of faith were alone true. It has been intimated that this view sprung from his acceptance and application of the Byzantine Logic. The view itself is in entire consonance with the critical system of Kant, and is an evident prelude to the justification by faith alone of Luther and the Protestant Reformers. In addition to these works of a controversial character, Occam wrote copiously on various departments of the Aristotelian philosophy, and also commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. How few of the schoolmen refrained from the latter task!
Influence. — In the case of many men, who have occupied a large space in the eyes of the world, "the good they do is buried with their bones;" but in the case of others, and pre-eminently of Occam, all they achieved with their contemporaries constitutes but a small part of their actual service to mankind. This notice would accordingly be incomplete if it neglected to call attention to the relation of its subject to his own and the preceding age, and to illustrate his action on the ages which ensued.
Neglected and misunderstood as the long medieval period has too often been, it cherished the accomplishment of the most stupendous labor ever imposed upon humanity — the transmutation of the ancient into the modern world; the transfiguration of paganism into Christianity; the change from the worship of nature and of the manifestations of nature to the worship of nature's God. Each century, in its order, seemed to have its own appointed task in the elaboration of this grand palingenesia. The thirteenth. had been the period of premature renovation. It had witnessed the culminating splendors of the Holy Roman Empire, the arrogance and triumph of the papacy, the glory of the schoolmen — Bonaventura, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Henry of Ghent, and Roger Bacon; it had seen the creation of the modern tongues, and had rocked the cradle of modern literature; it had reanimated society, and reorganized jurisprudence and legislation; but its activity was precocious and premature. The spirit of the past was still too powerful, and the shadow of the past lay too darkly on the nations. The great redintegration demanded other auspices and a fresher inspiration. What the 13th century attempted so brilliantly to reconstruct, the 14th remolded, undermined, or destroyed. It was the transition by which we swept into the later day. Church and empire had been struggling for predominance: Church and empire were to feel each its own scepter sliding from its weakened grasp under ecclesiastical discords and imperial anarchies under secessions, schisms, and domestic feuds. The towering pride of scholasticism was to be shackled and degraded by the issue of her own travail, and the intricate but symmetrical scheme of the scholastic theology was to crumble away under the assaults of emancipated reason and unfettered belief. The toil was long and arduous; the fullness of the portent was not revealed till the 16th century had fairly opened. Occam occupies the central position in this mighty process of four writhing centuries; not merely chronologically, but intellectually and dynamically. He was prominent in all the chief lines of antagonism to the ancient spirit and the ancient forms. In the genius of his philosophy, and in his ecclesiastical and theological views, he was a true creator of a school, a veritable inceptor, and entitled in no slight degree to be regarded as "anticipator mundi quem factcturus erat." The freedom of Franciscan speculation was almost proverbial. Occam was the front and boldest of Franciscan speculators. He merited in many ways the distinction of being cherished by Luther, notwithstanding Luther's aversion to the schoolmen; and of being affectionately designated by him "Mein Meister Occanz," "Mein lieber Meiste Occam." He is said to have been the only schoolman whom the great Reformer habitually read.
Literature. — The Opera Omnia Occami appear never to have been fairly gathered together and printed in collected form. The date of such publication is sometimes and variously given, but none such seems known to Brucker, to Tennemann, or to Ueberweg. Separate works were printed and reprinted to meet passing demands of theological or imperial controversy. The treatises in defense of temporal sovereignty were inserted by Goldastus in his Monarchia Sancti Imperii Romani. Others were published in other collections, and several were edited separately. A list of his writings is given by the antiquarian John Leland, De Scriptoribus Britannicis, and more completely in the Bibliotheca Scriptorum Ordinis Minoritarum, and in Cave, Scriptores Ecclesiastici. The historians of philosophy are of course compelled to notice Occam, but they do it in a brief and unsatisfactory manner. Ueberweg gives a clear summary of his characteristic positions, but is otherwise very inadequate. The most instructive essay on the Invincible Doctor is contained in the British Quarterly Review, July, 1872, but this regards chiefly his theological aspects. In addition should be consulted Haurdau, Philosophie Scholastique; Caraman, Hist. de la Philosophie en France au Moyen Age; Moreri, Dictionnaire Historique; Raynaldus, Baronii A nnalium Continuatio;. Milman, Hist. Latin Christianity; Rettberg, Occam und Luther, in Theolog. Stud. u. Krit. 1839; Schreiber, Die polit. u. relig. Doctrinen unter Ludcigq dem Baier. (Landshut. 1858); Ritter, Gesch. d. christl. Philosophie, 4:574 sq.; Dorner, Entwickelungsgesch. v. d. Person Christi, 2:447, 457, 607; Baur, Die christl. Lehre v. der Dreieinigkeit und Menschwerdung Gottes, 2:866; Kohler, Realismus u. Nominalismus (Gotha, 1858), p. 162; Hallam, Introd. to the Lit. of Europe, vol. i; The Academy, 1872, p. 264; Anmer. Ch. Rev. April, 1873, art. 8:See also the references in Allibone, Dict. of Brit. and Amer. Auth. s.v. (G. F. H.)
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Occam, William of'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/o/occam-william-of.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.