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Pomponazzi, Pietro


(b. Mantua, Italy, 16 September 1462; d. Bologna, Italy, 18 May 1525)

natural philosophy.

Pomponazzi was a professional philosopher in the Aristotelian tradition, who was associated with the universities of Padua, Ferrara, and Bologna. Educated at Padua under Nicholas Vernia, he learned the Scholastic analysis of Aristotle and his commentators, and the traditional separation of philosophy and faith. In 1488 he began his teaching career at Padua as extraordinary professor. Promoted to ordinary professor in 1495, he left the following year for Ferrara. With the death of Vernia in 1499, Pomponazzi was recalled to Padua to succeed his former teacher. When that university was closed because of war in 1509, he returned to Ferrara. After about a year at Ferrara he was called to Bologna, where he remained until his death.

Pomponazzi’ cheif works concern immortality, miracles, and free will. In his treatises on immortality, De immortalitate (1516), Apologia (1518), and Defensorium (1519), Pomponazzi developed a theory of mortality based primarily on Aristotle’s view of the knowing process. All knowing, he argued, depened all sensation, which in turn depends on the continuous functioning of bodily powers. When sensation ceases at death, knowing too must cease; the mind corrupts with matter. In the Peripatetic tradition only the mind or intellect can be considered immortal. Therefore this argument, indissolubly connecting the intellect to the corruptible powers, proves mortality. Pomponazzi insisted further that Aristotle’s definition of the soul as the act of the body supports this analysis.

Following the interpretation of the late Greek commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias, Pomponazzi held that Aristotle’s definition is univocal—that the entire soul, intellect included, is the act of the body. Inseparable from the bodily powers it actualizes the intellect perishes with the decay of organic life. Mortality, then, is the conclusion of natural philosophy. To prevent a conflict with faith, Pomponazzi drew on the distinction traditional among professional Aristotelians since the thirteenth century: he sharply separated philosophy and faith, reserving truth for the doctrine of faith. The conclusions of philosophy, he said, are not true; they can be described as neutral, rational, or probable. As a doctrine of faith, immortality alone is true; its truth is guaranteed by revelation, the principles of which are above rational apprehension.

There is evidence that this disclaimer was a device that at once protected Pomponazzi from the censure of the Church and allowed him to prove a view quite the opposite of that dictated by faith. It is contradicted by another position in the philosophical discussion, in which pomponazzi ascribed a human origin to immortality and asserted indirectly the truth of mortality. The doctrine of immortality, he said, is an invention of religious lawmakers who “do not care for truth.” The aim of these lawmakers is to make men good rather than learned. Relying on the fear of punishment and the hope of reward, the doctrine of immortality aims at producing decent behavior in the masses. The truth these lawmakers “do not care for” is apparently mortality—the doctrine of philosophy.

In the De incantationibus (written 1520, published 1556), Pomponazzi investigated seemingly miraculous events reported by contemporary witnesses, pagan literature, and Christian doctrine. He developed naturalistic explanations for all these occurrences except, at first, the Christian miracles. The first event Pomponazzi considered was a recent series of cures supposedly produced by demons invoked by a magician. These cures, said Pomponazzi, are actually produced by the magician himself, who must have possessed occult properties that could cure these diseases. He based his argument on the observation that curative occult powers existing in plants and animals must also be found in man, whose essence unites all natural qualities.

The second “miracle” attracting Pomponazzi’s attention was the recent appearance of St. Celestine to the people of Aquileia. During a long rainstorm the people of Aquileia prayed to their patron, St. Celestine, for relief. Soon their prayers were answered, for the storm ended and St. Celestine appeared in the sky. Pomponazzi believed that the people actually saw this vision; he doubted only that it was produced by the miraculous intervention of angels, demons, or God. Offering natural explanations for this occurrence, he suggested that the vision might have been produced by the people themselves in one of two ways. The sheer power of their collective wills might have projected the image from their internal imaginations into the heavens. Or perhaps the vapors emitted by the praying crowd were imprinted with the image that later appeared. Finally, this vision could have also been produced by the intervention of Intelligences who were favorably disposed at that moment to the cult of St. Clestine.

The third category of strange events derived from pagan literature and included animals talking and prophesying, spirits of the dead communing with the living, and statues moving, sweating, and bleeding. These events, explained Pomponazzi, are produced by the Intelligences as movers of the heavenly bodies. The intervention of the Intelligences is simply an aspect of the eternal movement of the heavens rather than a violation of natural processes. Guided by divine providence, the heavens can therefore produce these events within natural limits.

Pomponazzi realized that the application of natural explanations to Christian miracles would destroy their very nature. He noted that his position, if generalized, would mean that “there are no miracles.” And if there no miracles, the religions of Moses and Christ are imperiled, for their fundamental doctrines rest on miraculous events. To avoid this position Pomponazzi again exempted faith from the conclusions of philosophy. Biblical miracles, he stated, are indeed suspensions and reversals of the normal operations of nature. They are produced directly by God or by demons or angels. Knowledge of them is guaranteed by the truth of Knowledge of them is guaranteed by the truth of revelation. Thus there are no natural explanations for the raising of Lazarus, the gushing of the fountain at the word of Moses, the stopping of the sun by Joshua, or the exceptionally long eclipse at the crucifixion of Jesus.

This resolution of the conflict between the natural and the religious explanation in favour of religion is reversed at a certain point in the philosophical discussion. The Christian religion, which at first appeared as a final truth, above time and corruption, is now depicted as having a perfectly natural origin. All religions, said Pomponazzi, are born, flourish, and die. Their birth is produced not by the fiat of a personal deity but by the eternal movements of the heavens, guided by the Intelligences. Religious miracles, apparently interruptions of natural laws, are simply rare and wondrous events produced by the Intelligences. The Intelligences endow religious leaders with the power to perform all kinds of wonders, including curing the ill and raising the dead. The purpose of these “miracles” is easily explained. Occurring mostly at the birth of a new religion, they dispose men favorably toward a new cult. As religions decline, their “miracles” grow less frequent and finally cease. This is why, Pomponazzi held, there were so few miracles in his time. Christianity was dying, having run its life cycle.

If religions arise naturally, it follows that their doctrines may also have a natural basis, a human rather than a divine origin. In fact, the doctrines about angels and demons are not eternal truths but simply fictions. Like the doctrine of Immortality, they were invented to lead men to the good life, “although their inventors knew very well that their existence was impossible.”

In the De fato (written 1520, published 1567), Pomponazzi shifted his approach. Instead of a purely philosophical analysis the conclusions of which were apparently suspended by faith, he presented a double investigation of religious and philosophical determinism, examining each of these traditions in relation to free will.

Pomponazzi held that philosophical determinism, as derived from Stoic-Aristotelian formulas, eliminates free will. Every natural object, he noted, is a moved mover the motion of which could ultimately be traced to the Prime Mover, the source of all motion. All objects are thus subject to external motions that determine their course. As part of nature, man is also subject to movement; his actions, seemingly caused by internal decision, are actually controlled externally; his will, which propels him to action, is itself determined by external movement. Whenever man acts, therefore, he has chosen a course determined for him by the pressure of external motion on the will. We need not deny, said Pomponazzi, the experience of the internal power of choice or the actual deliberation about alternative courses of action. But, he added, these internal activities, attested to by experience, can in no way change the determining effect of external stimuli.

Where philosophical doctrine eliminates free will, Christian doctrine apparently can preserve it. The great problem in Christian doctrine is to reconcile God’s omniscience and omnipotence with free will. Pomponazzi attempted this by qualifying God’s eternal knowledge and power through the temporal sequences of past, present, and future. Included in God’s omniscience is the certain knowledge of future events, even those within our willpower. Hence man appears unable to act other than as foreknown by God, and consequently his freedom disappears. Human freedom can nevertheless be preserved, argued Pomponazzi, if we hold that God foreknows the future in two ways. In His eternal vision of time, God sees the future both as present and as future. As present, God knows the future event as a settled occurrence, as it is “beyond its causes,” reduced from potentiality to actuality. As future. God sees the future event as a possibility, a potentiality that can or cannot occur. The future event, foreknown as purely future, is not really determined by God. God is here limited by the nature of time; He cannot know as determined a future event that is by nature undetermined. Thus free will is not destroyed by God’s foreknowledge. Apparently Pomponazzi meant that God knows both the future as present and the future as future in a single eternal intuition. Yet He is somehow able to set aside his knowledge of the future as present when he knows the future as future. It is this gap in God’s foreknowledge that allows for human freedom.

Yet God not only foreknows the future but also caused it, for through His omnipotence he is the cause of all He knows. Furthermore, He has caused the future in the special sense that He has predestined it. Clearly He cannot be ignorant at any moment of what He Himself has predetermined. Pomponazzi solved this paradox by limiting predestination through the temporal concept of the future. In order to accord with the nature of future time, God’s determination of the future as future is contingent. Just as He foreknows the future as future as a mere possibility, so He predestines the future as future as a mere contingency. This contingent determination, allowing freedom to the will created with liberty, saves human freedom.

It seems, then, that Christian doctrine rather than natural reason can save free will. Yet Pomponazzi still had doubts. He wondered if Christian doctrine could have saved the will from the determination by external stimuli to which the Stoic-Aristotelian view condemned it. Setting aside the earlier Stoic argument which granted deliberation while denying its impact on choice, Pomponazzi was now prepared to argue that thought does lead to free choice. By a complex combination of the doctrines of Aquinas and Scotus, he tried to prove that the will always retains some freedom in choosing among the objects presented by the intellect. It is therefore not blindly led to choice but freely makes its own decisions. Although this Scholastic defense of free will was not as fully developed as the earlier Stoic determinism, it nevertheless reflected several key elements in Pomponazzi’s thought.

The Scholastic doctrines, which Pomponazzi now appeared to accept, depend on the view that the psychological foundations of action are the real determinants of human conduct. It is the will, guided by the intellect, which seizes on external stimuli and directs them to its own end. Yet this view was completely opposed to the Stoic-Aristotelian tradition which he had hitherto defended. In spite of this he devoted a good part of the De fato to a defense of the religious doctrine of freedom. In the light of his emphasis in previous works that religious doctrines cannot have a rational foundation, this defense appears at first glance as a surprising reversal of his fundamental method of inquiry. But he was driven to this defense of free will by a deep conflict in his own thought.

Pomponazzi’s vision of the universe was deeply split. On one side, he defended a view of nature which, by making the highest powers of intellect and will dependent on organic forces, eliminates autonomous activity. On the other side, his ethical doctrine always championed a view of man which places human dignity precisely in the subjection of and escape from the forces of nature. This conflict between a naturalism eliminating freedom and a freedom independent of material determinations remained unresolved. The irresolution of the De fato, as Cassirer has noted, was one of the fundamental themes of Renaissance thought. The Renaissance sense of nature which demanded an orderly universe to which man himself is subject conflicted with the Renaissance sense of life which demanded freedom for the individual. From the view of nature, freedom can only be miraculous, a force escaping the natural agents which determine all organic life. From the view of morality, nature itself must be subjected to and commanded by man’s reason. Man may be part of nature but he cannot be absorbed by it. He must be able to turn against its blind forces and direct them to human ends.

Pomponazzi’s doctrines on miracles and free will were not widely circulated in his lifetime since they remained in manuscript and were published posthumously. But his doctrines on immortality, first set forth in the De immortalitate, occasioned cries of outrage from prominent philosophers and theologians and produced the immortality controversy, one of the most important debates prior to the Reformation. In this battle, nine men wrote against Pomponazzi including such distinguished figures as Gaspar Contarini, Agostino Nifo, and the prominent Dominican theologian Bartolomeo de Spina. It was Spina who charged that Pomponazzi’s views were heretical and demanded a trial for heresy. The other opponents contented themselves with arguments for the immortality of the soul derived from the classical and medieval traditions. The controversy reached such proportions that Pope Leo X demanded a retraction from Pomponazzi in 1518, and Pomponazzi’s final work on immortality, the Defensorium (1519), was allowed to be published only with an appended list of orthodox conclusions supporting the immortality of the soul. Despite this furor, Pomponazzi was never formally charged with heresy nor was he forced to retract his views. Undoubtedly, he was protected by his close friends in the Church hierarchy. The fact that the height of the immortality controversy coincided with the Church’s preoccupation with the more serious Lutheran problem may also have indirectly helped him: the Church had more serious matters to attend to.

Although Pomponazzi never recanted formally, he certainly became more circumspect about expressing his views after he was attacked. In his later works, the doctrine of mortality is treated less as an independent philosophical position and more as a purely exegetical view. This doctrine, he came to say, was simply the position of Aristotle, which he was professionally charged to expound and develop. He also became more restrained in his assertion that religious belief could be reduced to doctrines of great social utility but of dubious truth.

The general tendency of Pomponazzi’s philosophy was a pervading naturalism. By binding the soul, will, and religion of man to the forces of nature, he tended to undermine those medieval categories that separated man from the natural universe. That universe, governed by eternal laws and freed from miraculous interruptions, was a necessary stage in the development of the later mathematical view of nature. Through his astrological determinism, Pomponazzi developed a strict causality for all occurrences within nature so that “once this astrological concept is replaced by that of mathematics and physics, the development of the new concept will find no inner obstacle to resist it. In this completely mediate sense, even Pomponazzi’s strange and abstruse work [De incatuationibus] helped pave the way for the new, exact scientific conception of natural occurrences” (Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in the Renaissance, trans, by M. Domandi [Oxford, 1963] 106).


I. Original Works. For full bibliographical references (up to 1954) on original works, modern eds., and secondary literature, see G. Morra, ed., Tractatus de immortalitate animae (Bologna, 1954), 17–31.

Collected eds. are Tractatus acutissimi, utillimi et mere peripatetic, de intensione et remissione formarum ac de parritate et magnitudine, de reactione, de modo agendi primarum qualitatum, de immortalitate animae, apologie libri tres, contradictoris tractatus doctissimus, defensorium actoris, approbationes trataonum defensorii, per fratrem chrysostomum thcologum ordinis prcdicaturum divinum, de nutritionc et augmentatione (Venice, 1525); and Opera, de naturalium effectuum admirandorum causis, sen de incantationihus liber: Item de fato, libera arbitrio, pracdes-tionatione, providentia dei libri V (Basel, 1567). Dubitationes in quartum Metcorologicorum Aristotelis librum (Venice, 1563) and De naturalium effectuum causis, sive de incantationihus (Basel, 1556) were published separately.

Previously unpublished texts are L. Ferri, La psicologia di Pietro Pomponazzi secondo un manoscritto della Biblioteca Angelica di Roma (Rome, 1877); P. O. Kristeller, “Two Unpublished Questions on the Soul of Pietro Pomponazzi,” in Mediaevala et humanistica, 9 (1955), 76–101; B. Nardi, Studi su Pietro Pomponazzi (Florence, 1965); and P. Pomponazzi, Corsi inediti dell’insegnamento padovano, A. Poppi, ed., I (Padua, 1966); II (Padua, 1970).

II. Secondary Litbratiure. Sec G. Di Napoli, L’immortalità dell’anima nel Rinaseimento (Turin, 1963), 227–338; A. H. Douglas, The Philosophy and Psychology of Pietro Pomponazzi (Cambridge, 1910); F, Fiorentino, Pietro Pomponazzi. Studi storici sulla scuola bologenese e padovana del secolo XVI (Florence, 1868); E. Gilson, “Autour de Pomponazzi, problématique de I’immortaiité de I’âme en Italic au début du XVIe siécle,” in Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge, 36 (1961), 163–279; A. Poppi, Saggi sul pensiero inedito di Pietro Pomponazzi (Padua, 1970); and M. Pine, “Pomponazzi and ‘Double Truth,’” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 29 (1968), 163–176, and “Pietro Pomponazzi and the Scholastic Doctrine of Free Will,” in Rivista critica di storia della filosofia (1973), 3–27.

Martin Pine

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Pietro Pomponazzi

Pietro Pomponazzi

The Italian Aristotelian philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525) was associated with the rationalist and humanist currents that swept Padua, Bologna, and other northern Italian universities in the early 16th century.

The fame of Pietro Pomponazzi rests principally on the De immortalitate animae, published in Bologna in 1516. In this work he concluded that the immortality of the soul, a cardinal doctrine in Christianity, could not be proved by philosophical argument.

Pomponazzi was born in Mantua on Sept. 16, 1462. At the University of Padua he studied natural philosophy under Nicoletto Vernia and Pietro Trapolino, metaphysics under Francesco Securo da Nardò, and medicine under Pietro Roccabonella. After 1487, with some interruptions, he taught philosophy at Padua, where he began his commentary on Aristotle's De anima and had as a pupil the future cardinal and Catholic reformer Gasparo Contarini. The siege of Padua and the closing of the university in 1509 compelled Pomponazzi to move to Ferrara, where he resided for a year, finally settling in Bologna, where he remained until his death on May 18, 1525.

In his most celebrated work, the De immortalitate animae, Pomponazzi elaborated on Aristotle's conception of the soul as it had been interpreted and transmitted by the Alexandrians. In his concern for the new humanistic view of the worth and dignity of the individual soul, Pomponazzi came to oppose the prevailing impersonal and collectivist view of human nature held by the Averroist school. Through a series of subtle technical arguments he parted with the Averroist concept of a single, corporate, but transcendent and immortal Intellect—a concept within which there was no place for human individuality.

Pomponazzi's insistence on the soul's perishability was clearly in conflict with Catholic eschatology and moral theory—with the Church's contention that rewards and punishments for human actions are reserved for the hereafter. Pomponazzi substituted what he considered a higher ethic: the essential reward of virtue is virtue itself, and the real punishment of evil is evil itself. Pomponazzi avoided official condemnation for this view in his own lifetime, despite the great anger of Pope Leo X. However, he was compelled to make at least a partial retraction, which he did in two writings, the Apologia (1517) and the Defensorium (1519).

The rationalist and humanist bent of Pomponazzi's mind continued to exhibit itself in his later writings. In the De incantationibus and the De naturalium effectuum causis he sought natural explanations for the miracles described in the Bible. In the De fato he attempted to reconcile human freedom and Providence. In his efforts to separate science and philosophy from theology, Pomponazzi stands as a pioneer in the progressive secularization of thought that has characterized the modern period.

Further Reading

An English translation of the De immortalitate animae, with an excellent introductory essay by John Herman Randall, is in Ernst Cassirer and others, eds., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (1948). The essay is reprinted, with some revisions, in Randall's The School of Padua and the Emergence of Modern Science (1961). The only comprehensive monograph on Pomponazzi in English is Andrew Halliday Douglas, The Philosophy and Psychology of Pietro Pomponazzi (1910). □

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Pomponazzi, Pietro

Pietro Pomponazzi (pyĕ´trō pōmpōnät´tsē), 1462–1525, Italian philosopher, b. Mantua. He was a professor at Padua, Ferrara, and Bologna. Pomponazzi aroused great interest in intellectual circles when he questioned St. Thomas Aquinas's interpretation of Aristotle. In his De immortalitate animae (1516), Pomponazzi argued that evidence suggests that the soul is mortal; its immortality, therefore, must be accepted as an article of faith. His naturalist position is developed in De incantationibus (1520), in which he stressed the evolution of man and of nature. He sought to reconcile this position with the dogmas of the church by distinguishing between faith and knowledge and by asserting that what is true in theology may not be true in philosophy.

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