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Aristotle and the Soul

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Aristotle as painted by Raphael Aristotle as painted by Raphael

This lucid and fascinating book looks at two main strands of thought related to Aristotle. One derives from the ancient Greek commentaries on Aristotle, the other on medieval commentaries. Among these, one of the most influential was that of the Muslim Averroes (1126-1198).


The people studying these various commentaries were figures such as Pietro Pomponazzi in the 1500s. His influence was so great author Craig Martin entitles one his chapters “Italian Aristotelianism After Pomponazzi.” Martin is associate professor of history at Oakland University.


“Averroes,” writes Martin, “believed his goal was to interpret Aristotle, who had exceeded all others in his understanding of nature.”


Agostino Nifo who (around the year 1500) positioned himself as an interpreter of Aristotle, likened Averroes to the 4th century philosopher Themistes, who Averroes followed very closely. Since Averroes commented and expanded on Aristotle, “Nifo thereby reasoned that commenting on a book written by a Muslim was warranted because of his literal expositions of Aristotle's words.”



Pomponazzi lectured on the soul before the eighth session of the Fifth Lateran Council on Dec. 19, 1513 (Martin does not give this date). Throughout the first decade of that century, questions he posed (which were not printed until the 20th century) show he was not convinced by Averroes' arguments about the soul. Pomponazzi contended that both Averroes and Aristotle were wrong, thus highlighting the "incompatibility of Aristotelian philosophy with Christian philosophy," in the words of Martin. 


Pope Leo X with 2 cardinals, including Giulio d'Medici at leftPope Leo X with 2 cardinals, including Giulio d'Medici at leftPomponazzi maintained that, according to Aristotle, the soul is mortal. This so incensed Pope Leo X (who reigned 1513-1521) that he ordered a prosecution of Pomponazzi, but thanks to his patron Cardinal Bembo he was not convicted of heresy. Nifo took the more politically correct view. "In a 1518 point-by-point refutation of Pomponazzi dedicated to Leo X, Nifo rejected the idea that the soul's immortality could not be proven by philosophy." Nifo was showered with honours by the pope and the Medici family.


In 1520 Pomponazzi write that those who wanted to condemn him of heresy should “put an end to their barking” because they “put forth a far greater heresy, since they accuse an innocent man.” The controversy still resonated more than a century later when the French writer La Mothe Le Vayer felt compelled to defend Pomponazzi. Martin writes Le Vayer said of Pomponazzi that he “rightly maintained that asserting the immortality of the soul could not be proven by Aristotelian principles.”


As this makes clear, just commenting on Aristotle's works 500 years ago in a way that suggested his views differed from Church faith could potentially end in a loss of life.


Martin gives the final verdict on Pomponazzi to the 18th century philosopher Pierre Bayle, who hails him, in Martin's words, as “an exemplar for affirming the limits to human reason and the possibility of intellectual freedom.” It is here we see the value of this book and why such esoteric controversies as the mortality of the soul matter in our own day. Those who founded modern science in the 1600's, such as Galileo and the men in London who formed the Royal Society, were a product of these controversies.


As Martin says in conclusion, “the motivations of seventeenth century innovators in natural philosophy, whether Protestant or Catholic, were deeply religious.” It was their understanding of Aristotle's deviation from Christianity that gave them “permission to seek more pious alternatives.” By tracing “the role of religion in the downfall of Aristotle,” Martin's book offers a necessary tonic to those texts that merely hold up religion as the adversary of science without explaining why.

  Subverting Aristotle: Religion, History & Philosophy in Early Modern Science (262 pages) is $54.95 from John Hopkins Univ. Press.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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