Thursday, June 8, 2017

William of Ockham - Rejection of Absolutes

As the papacy became weaker but also more rigid and more corrupt, there were various  people who opposed it on various grounds. William of Ockham opposed it from a more scholastic and philosophical point of view. His main point of contention was the defense of the Franciscan spirituals. This was the branch that, following the lead of Francis of Assisi, claimed it was wrong for them to own anything, whether individually or corporately. They were opposed by Pope John XXII, who supported the other branch of the Franciscans, which held that while they were not able to own things as individuals, it was proper for the order to own things corporately. Also, William and other defenders of the spirituals ended up taking refuge with Lewis of Bavaria and therefore became defenders of the state against the church leadership.

William followed Duns Scotus  in holding that the Christian faith could not be defended by reason but could only be known based on revelation. From the same source he also held that that most principles are based on God's choice, including such matters as what is right and wrong, and that God could have chosen otherwise. He also followed the principles of nominalism, which says there are no categories or universals, but only independent individuals. The categories are merely human creations made after the fact. William backed off this a little by claiming that categories may represent something that exists in the mind but are not part of ultimate reality. One of of William's great principles was Ockham's razor. This held that the simplest explanation, which involved the least number of causes, was the right one. The universe should be made up of only of those things necessary to be there. The result is a universe made up of very few absolutes, the majority of things being the result of arbitrary choice. This leads to a universe so arbitrary it is questionable whether we can know anything.

On the practical level he denied that either popes or councils were unquestionable authorities; only Scripture was. In this he is seen as supporting the Protestant Reformation and the Consular Movement (the movement to subject the pope to the councils). But the feel of William is that he was not so much trying to assert the authority of Scripture but that he reached the limit of those authorities he was willing to deny. He did not claim the state should be subject to the church or the church to the state, but that each should be supreme in its own realm and not interfere in the sphere of the other. The state should only restrain as much as necessary the free choice of the people.

His whole approach appears to be to minimize absolute authority as much as possible. He did not, of course, go as far as our age in this, but he carried it very far for his own. He reacted against the extreme of absolute authority by going to the opposite extreme of minimal authority. Some middle ground needed to be found.         

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