Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/francis-of-meyronnes-d-after-1325/v-1
Francis of Meyronnes, the doctor illuminatus (Enlightened Doctor), was called the ‘Prince of the Scotists’ for his work in systematizing and propagating the philosophy of Duns Scotus in the fourteenth century. His work in metaphysics and theology, while heavily dependent on Scotus, shows originality and independence of mind, and is characterized by his dedication to finding rational defences of Catholic doctrine. His discussion of Ideas includes a critique of Aristotelian metaphysics, and he argues instead for a position based on his conception of Platonism.
Born in Provence, Francis joined the Franciscan order and studied theology at the University of Paris, where he was probably a pupil of John Duns Scotus some time between 1304 and 1307. In 1323 he was awarded the degree of Master of Theology. Prior to this, in the academic year 1320–21, he represented the Scotist school in a spirited debate with the Thomist Peter Roger (later Pope Clement VI) over Trinitarian theology. However, Francis was never merely Scotus’ mouthpiece, but was an original and creative thinker. He often addressed philosophical issues in ways Scotus did not, and criticized Scotus when he found the latter lacking. Francis’s written work, which shows the influence also of Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius and Avicenna (see Ibn Sina), includes sermons, commentaries on the Bible, studies of theology, metaphysics and moral philosophy, and commentaries on the works of Aristotle, Pseudo-Dionysius and Augustine. His writings became very popular in the later Middle Ages, in particular his Conflatus, a revision of his commentary on Book I of Peter Lombard’s Sentences (see Lombard, P.).
Francis argues that theologians cannot demonstrate the doctrine of the Trinity, but they can defend it against objections. According to this doctrine, as Francis understands it, God is a Trinity of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three things, each of which is the same as the divine essence (see Trinity). Francis recognizes that this doctrine is vulnerable to criticism. For instance, the Father begets the Son, and the Son is begotten by the Father. However, the divine essence, which is the same as the Father, does not beget; nor is it begotten, although it is the same as the Son. Either the principle of non-contradiction does not apply to God, or each divine person must be distinct in some way from the divine essence.
Accepting the first alternative would, of course, put an end to all rational inquiry about God. Francis holds instead that each person of the Trinity is distinct in some way from the divine essence. These are not real distinctions, for real distinctions hold between things, and the doctrine of the Trinity maintains that God is three things, not four. Nor, he argues, are the distinctions purely conceptual: mental constructs that do not reflect any distinction in the Trinity itself. The sort of distinction that holds between a person and the divine essence lies between the real and the purely conceptual. Following Scotus, Francis calls this the formal distinction.
Scotus makes the formal distinction a cornerstone of his philosophy, and Francis builds on that cornerstone. To say of x and y that they are formally distinct is to say that they are really the same – they are not two things – but that x can be characterized differently than y, and the different characterizations accurately capture facts about x and y and are not simply mental constructs. By appealing to the formal distinction in order to explain how each divine person is rightly characterized in a way different from the essence, Francis attempts both to defend the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and to preserve the possibility of rational theology. Furthermore, Francis argues, this solution carries the weight of authority. Examining the history of Trinitarian theology, Francis finds that orthodox theologians such as Bonaventure and Aquinas had been working toward this solution, though they had not fully articulated it.
Francis’s originality displays itself in the Conflatus, in a series of articles on Ideas. He begins by asking whether there are Ideas in the mind of God. Ideas conceived in this way – the way theologians conceive of them – are the eternal, immutable archetypes of created things. Francis, however, does not see any necessity for concluding that there are such Ideas in God’s mind. He explores Augustine’s reasons for maintaining that there are Ideas in God, but finds them inconclusive. Nevertheless, he finds the view that there are Ideas in God’s mind a plausible one, and he is willing to concede this point on the authority of Augustine.
According to Francis, when metaphysicians discuss Ideas, they are referring not to divine, immutable archetypes, but to the quiddities, or defining characteristics, of things. Are these Ideas, as Plato argues, separated from particulars? Francis recounts the commonly held view that the quiddities are conjoined to individuating conditions in particular things, but the intellect can abstract a quiddity from its individuating condition. According to this view, there are indeed separated Ideas, but only in intellects. Francis rejects this view, offering instead what he takes to be Plato’s position: there are separated Ideas prior to any activity of the intellect, and in fact it is the Idea’s separation that grounds its abstractability by the intellect. Ideas are separated not only from the individuating conditions, but also from potentiality and actuality, existence, time and place. The Idea equinity, for example, is not actual or potential, existent or nonexistent, located in any place or at any time. It is, as Avicenna maintains, just equinity.
The reason so few philosophers have subscribed to Plato’s view, Francis suggests, is that Aristotle misrepresented it to posterity. According to Francis – who had almost no direct access to Plato’s works – Aristotle ascribes to Plato the ridiculous view that the Ideas are bizarre particulars which exist in the air. Francis thinks that Aristotle, motivated by jealousy, tried to sabotage Plato’s reputation. Otherwise we would have to say that although Aristotle was the best natural philosopher, he was the worst metaphysician, because he did not understand abstraction. Plato, Francis supposes, never held that Ideas are separated from particulars locally, but only formally. On Francis’ view, the formal distinction is a cornerstone not just of Scotism, but of Platonism as well (see Nominalism; Realism and antirealism).
Hause, Jeffrey. Francis of Meyronnes (d. after 1325), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B040-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/francis-of-meyronnes-d-after-1325/v-1.
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