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Of Angels and Pinheads: The Contributions of the Early Oxford Masters to the Doctrine of Spiritual Matter Surely one of the strangest doctrines to emerge from the intense theological debates of the thirteenth century was the concept of spiritual matter} Traceable to the Fons vitae of Ibn Gabirol, spriritual matter (or "universal hylomorphism") in tandem with the doctrine of the plurality of forms became one of the pillars of what used to be called with such confidence the "Franciscan School."2 In fact, as I shall argue, this terminologically gauche teaching exemplifies the occasional ill fit between the newly discovered natural philosophy of Aristotle and traditional Christian teaching. The metaphysical testing ground par excellence for the compatibility of these two world views was the doctrine of the angels, spiritual substances that were at the same time limited and mutable. How, in philosophically coherent language, was one to account for their composition (or lack thereof) and their distinctiveness both from the incarnate spirits below them in the chain of being and the infinite Spirit above them? Indeed, how account for their distinction from one another? In the three or four decades before positions hardened into the Wegenstreit between the Dominicans [read "Thomists"] and the Franciscans, masters belonging to both orders, as well as secular masters, debated the issue without the constraints of following a party line. I intend in this paper to focus on the contributions to 1On the face of it an oxymoron, spiritual matter is more generally referred to by historians of philosophy by the less obtrusive label, "universal hylomorphism." The most complete treatment of the issue is still the dissertation of Erich Kleineidam, Das Problem der hylomorphen Zusammensetzung der geistigen Substanzen im 13. Jahrhundert, behandelt bis Thomas von Aqmn (Breslau, 1930). For corrections and additions to the latter see O. Lottin, "La composition hylémorphique des substances spirituelles; les débuts de la controverse," RNSP 34 (1932) 21-41. 2See e.g. Etienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy m the Middle Ages (New York, 1954), pp. 327-53, and David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (London, 1962), pp. 235-48. The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy (ed. Norman Kretzmann et al. [Cambridge, 1982]) talks of "Franciscan thinkers" and even "Franciscan thought" but avoids mention of a "Franciscan School." 239 Franciscan Studies, Vol. 56 (1998) 240R.James Long this debate of the earliest Oxford theologians who wrote on the subject, Grosseteste, Fishacre, and Rufus—a secular, a Dominican, and a Franciscan respectively.3 The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 had set the parameters for Christian belief concerning the angelic nature, that it was, namely, spiritual: . . . creator omnium visibilium et invisibilium, spiritualium et corporalium: qui sua omnipotenti virtute simul ab initio temporis utramque de nihilo condidit creaturam, spiritualem et corporalem, angelicam videlicet et mundanam.4 But "spiritual" was philosophically imprecise (as imprecise as mundanam "earthly" in the same formula) and needed to be translated into Aristotelian terms. And herein lay the difficulty. Did "spiritual" mean pure form, as were the separate substances in Aristotle's cosmos? If so, how account for their finitude on the one hand and for their individuation on the other hand? It was to respond to these metaphysical exigencies that the notion of "spiritual matter" was born. Although Grosseteste's influence on speculative theology at the Oxford Studium, especially on the Franciscans, is difficult to exaggerate, it seems that he was not responsible for the doctrine of spiritual matter. On a number of occasions, in fact, Grosseteste insists that the angels are immaterial both in their nature and their activity.5 The sole statement of his to the contrary—namely, that in comparison with the absolute simplicity of God all creatures are material—can be explained away by the context.6 'Although one cannot ignore the influence of Parisian theologians (among them William of Auvergne, William of Auxerre, Alexander of Hales, and Philip the Chancellor) on their English counterparts, what one finds on investigation is that the distinctively empirical orientation of Oxford infuses even their angelology. 4Conc. Lateranense G?" (1215); Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum no. 428. 5E.g. De cessatione legahum: "Igitur simpliciter universitatem reducere ad completam unitatem non est, ut videtur, alio modo possibile...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-9718
Print ISSN
0080-5459
Pages
pp. 239-254
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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