Bonaventure, St. (c. 1217–1274)

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(c. 12171274)

St. Bonaventure, the Italian Scholastic philosopher, was known as the Seraphic Doctor. Bonaventure, whose real name was John of Fidanza, was born in Bagnorea, in Tuscany. After obtaining a master of arts degree at Paris, Bonaventure joined the Franciscan friars (probably in 1243) and studied theology under their masters, Alexander of Hales and John of La Rochelle. After their deaths in 1245, he continued his studies under Eudes Rigaud and William of Meliton. He also came under the influence of the Dominican Guerric of Saint-Quentin and the secular master Guiard of Laon. In 1248 as a bachelor of Scripture he began lecturing on the Gospel of St. Luke and then on other books of Scripture (not all of these commentaries have survived). His monumental "Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard," perhaps the most perfect example of this form of medieval literature, was composed between 1250 and 1252.

In 1253 he was licensed by the chancellor of the University of Paris and functioned as regent master of theology until 1257. During this time he composed four sets of Quaestiones Disputatae, of which the De Scientia Christi (On Christ's knowledge) is important for his theory of illumination; De Mysterio Trinitatis (On the mystery of the Trinity) contains the best exposition of his proofs of God's existence; and De Caritate et de Novissimis (On charity and the last things) contains sections taken over literally by Thomas Aquinas.

Bonaventure's formal reception into the masters' guild was delayed until October 1257 by the controversy between the mendicant friars and the secular masters. By that time, however, he was no longer actively teaching; in February 1257 he had been elected minster general of the Franciscan order and had resigned his chair at the university to devote himself to the administration of that post. Although often absent on business for the order or church, he continued to make Paris his general headquarters and was largely responsible for the friars' being so active in academic pursuits. He himself preached frequently at the university, touching on many of the religious and philosophical troubles that disturbed faculty and students.

It was during these years that he composed the Breviloquium (1257), or brief compendium of speculative theology, which was a departure from the usual scholastic method of presentation; De Reductione Artium ad Theologiam (On the reduction of the arts to theology), whose exact date of composition is unknown; and Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (The journey of the mind to god; 1259). All of these are important for understanding his general system of thought and the particular role of philosophy in it. Even more important in this connection are the three sets of Collationes a series of informal evening conferences given during Lent to the faculty members and students in the Paris friaryincluding De Decem Praeceptis (On the ten commandments; 1267), De Septem Donis Spiritus Sancti (On the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; 1268), and In Hexaemeron Sive Illuminationes Ecclesiae (On the six Days of creation or enlightenments of the church; 1273). All of these reflect the Averroistic tendencies in the arts faculty and Bonaventure's reaction to them. The last of these Collationes was left unfinished when Bonaventure was called from Paris and made cardinal bishop of Albano by Pope Gregory X, with whom he worked in organizing the Second Ecumenical Council of Lyons. He died shortly before the council closed and was buried there in the presence of the pope.

Spirit of Bonaventur's Philosophy

Bonaventure's fame rests primarily on his reputation as a theologian rather than as a philosopher. In both Dante Alighieri's Paradiso and Raphael's "Disputà" he appears as the equal of St. Thomas, and in the field of mystical theology he has been considered without peer. It is more difficult, however, to isolate the philosophical components of his system. This is partly due to the fact that all Bonaventure's extant works postdate his entrance into the Franciscan order and the beginning of his career as a theologian and ascetical writer. The chief reason, however, for the prevalence of theological interests in all of his writings was his understandable reaction against the rationalism rampant in the arts faculty at Paris that threatened the very raison d'être of speculative theology and led to the condemnations of 1270 and 1277 by Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris. Among the 219 items listed as theological errors in the second of these condemnations, for example, are such statements as

  1. The most exalted of all vocations is that of the philosopher.
  2. There is no subject he is not competent to discuss and settle.
  3. One gains nothing in the way of knowledge by knowing theology.
  4. Only the philosophers deserve to be called wise; the speech of the theologian is founded on fables.

In the face of such views, it is understandable why Bonaventure, who believed in the validity of Christian revelation, should have stressed the inability of philosophers in general and of Aristotle in particular to learn the full truth about man's existential situation. Conversely, Bonaventure tried to show the continuity between the aims of philosophy and those of theology. He maintained that philosophy has a genuine, albeit limited, autonomy; the knowledge it yields is a stage in the overall ascent of the human mind to true wisdom, the culmination of which in this life is found in quasi-experiential knowledge of God, achieved by such mystics as Francis of Assisi.

Part of the great literary charm of Bonaventure's style is his ability to play upon words. Throughout his later works, particularly his sermons and Collationes, he continually gives a deliberately theological twist to technical philosophic terms, with the result that he has frequently been unjustly accused of confusing theology with philosophy either in principle or in practice. The truth of the matter is that while he was eminently able to conduct a purely philosophical discussion and often did so in his university lectures, he preferred to limit himself to particular topics. He never formed a complete system from his philosophical analyses, but he put them into the service of his overall theological synthesis.

Bonaventure's Metaphysics

Bonaventure's linguistic sophistication and his idea of the continuity between philosophy and theology are perhaps best represented in his discussion of metaphysics in the In Hexaemeron. Christ, the Son of God, not Aristotle, is the "metaphysician" par excellence.

As the Son said: "I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; again I leave the world and go to the Father" [John 16:28], so anyone may say: "Lord, I came forth from you, the All High; I go to you, the All High, and by means of you, the All High." Here is the metaphysical medium leading us back. And this is the whole of our metaphysics: it concerns emanation, exemplarity, and consummation [that is, being illumined by spiritual rays and led back to the All High]. It is in this way you become a true metaphysician. (Collatio I, No. 17; in Opera, Vol. V, p. 332)


Bonaventure uses the term emanation to designate the general theory of how creation proceeds from God. With its Plotinian overtones, however, "emanation" suggested more specifically the thesis of al-Fārābī, Avicenna, and Averroes that all creatures, by an inevitable and eternal process, spring from the creative mind of God through a chain of intermediary causes of continually diminishing perfection. This thesis was designed to reconcile Aristotle's eternal world with the creation concept of the Qurʾan. Bonaventure, however, wished to reconcile "emanation" with Christian theology. His counterthesis is summarized in the Breviloquium : "The whole of the cosmic machine was produced in time and from nothing, by one principle only who is supreme and whose power, though immense, still arranges all according to a certain weight, number and measure" (Book II, Part 1, in Opera, Vol. V, p. 219). It is to be noted that he rejects the concepts of the eternity of the world, of the eternity of matter, of a dual principle of good and evil, and of the existence of intermediary causes.

His description of the supreme principle implies that a perfect power must be free to create varying degrees of perfection, in contrast with the Arab belief that direct creation by a perfect power could only result in perfect effects. Also, the use of Augustine's triad of weight, number, and measure suggests the seal of the Blessed Trinity stamped on every creature. This becomes clearer if we consider the next and most characteristic feature of Bonaventure's metaphysics.


Emanation concerns natural philosophy as much as metaphysics. God, as final cause and ultimate goal of man's quest for happiness, is the concern of the moral philosopher as well as the metaphysician. But only the metaphysician can understand God as exemplar cause. And it is in analyzing this aspect of the science of causes and first principles that man is most truly a metaphysician.

Though this metaphysical pursuit begins with reason, it can be successfully terminated only by a person with faith. Comparing the two greatest pagan philosophers, Aristotle and Plato, Bonaventure maintained that Plato, the master of wisdom, erred in looking only upward to the realm of eternal values, of the immutable ideas, while Aristotle, the master of natural science, looked only earthward to the everyday sensible world that Plato neglected. But Aristotle's was the greater sin, for in rejecting the Platonic ideas in toto, he closed the door to a full understanding of the universe in terms of its causes. Bonaventure saw Augustine as the model of Christian wisdom because he combined the science of Aristotle with Plato's wisdom (Christus Unus Omnium Magister, Nos. 1819, in Opera, Vol. V, p. 572). As a Christian he could complete what Plato could only begin. Not only did he demonstrate that Plato's archetypal Ideas are the exemplar causes or models that God used in creating the universe, a point that a philosopher alone could establish, but he also showed further that these Ideas are associated in a special way with the second person of the Trinity, an insight only divine revelation could help one discover. Bonaventure, following Augustine, explained that since the Father begets the Son by an eternal act of self-knowledge, the Son may also be called the wisdom of the Father and expresses in his person all of God's creative possibilities. As such, the Son is the Word or Logos adumbrated in the writings of the philosophers but fully revealed only at the beginning of the Gospel of John, where he appears as the one through whom all things are made (that is, as exemplar cause) and who "enlightens every man who comes into the world" (an allusion to Augustine's theory that only some illumination by divine ideas can account for man's knowing immutable truths). "From his [magisterial] chair in heaven Christ teaches us interiorly," wrote Bonaventure. "If as the Philosopher [Aristotle] says, the knowable qua knowable is eternal, nothing can be known except through that Truth which is unshaken, immutable and without limit" (In Hexaemeron, Collatio I, No. 13; in Opera, Vol. V, p. 331).

Averroes had written of Aristotle: "I believe this man to be nature's model, the exemplar which nature found to reveal the ultimate in human perfection" (De Anima III, 2). Bonaventure maintained that Christ, not Aristotle, is God's model for humanity. The Word is not only God but also a perfect man. He gives us "the power of becoming the sons of God," and he is the "one master of all the sciences" (Sermo IV ; in Opera, Vol. V, p. 567); to know him fully is to know all that can be known.

Bonaventure held that Plato's theory of Ideas was a first philosophical approximation to this theological insight, and Aristotle's rejection of this view led to his errors about God. For if God lacked the exemplar ideas, he would know only himself and nothing of the world. He would be, as Aristotle claimed, related to the world only as final cause and not as creator. Moreover, in Aristotle's world, since chance clearly does not explain the cyclic changes of the cosmos, the universe must be ruled by determinism, as the Arabic commentators claim. But then man would no longer be a responsible agent; he would deserve neither reward nor punishment, and divine providence would be a myth.

With the recognition of exemplarism, on the other hand, the whole of creation takes on a sacramental characterthat is, it becomes a material means of bringing the soul to God. Nature becomes the "mirror of God," reflecting his perfections in varying degrees. Although we see only a shadowy likeness (umbra ) or trace (vestigium ) of the creator in inorganic substances and the lower forms of life, the soul of man is God's image (imago ) and the angel his similitude (similitudo ).

The recognition of God in nature begins in philosophy, but it is continued and perfected in theology. In De Mysterio Trinitatis Bonaventure argued that philosophers know that secondary beings imply a first; dependent beings imply an independent being; contingent things imply some necessary being; the relative implies an absolute; the imperfect, something perfect; Plato's participated beings imply one unparticipated being; if there are potential beings, then pure act must also exist; composite things imply the existence of something simple; the changeable can only coexist with the unchangeable. Pagan philosophers, knowing that these ten self-evident conditionals have their antecedents verified in the corporeal world, learned much about God (De Mysterio Trinitatis I, 1; in Opera, Vol. V, pp. 4647).

More can be learned, however, by the soul reflecting upon itself. In his other works Bonaventure went on to suggest that the soul, possessed of memory, intelligence, and will, is an image of God, not only mirroring his spiritual nature but adumbrating the Trinity itself. Memory, which creates its own thought objects, resembles the Father who begets the Son or Logos (intelligence) as an intellectual reflection of himself, and the two through their mutual love (willthe active principle of "spiration") breathe forth the Holy Spirit. But although a philosopher can discover a spiritual God as the ultimate object of the soul's search for truth and happiness, only a man of faith like Augustine can find the Trinity manifest throughout creation.

consummation or enlightened return

The third aspect of Bonaventure's metaphysics concerns a creature's fulfillment of its destiny by returning to God. This return (called technically a reductio ) in the case of the lower creation is achieved in and through man (who praises God for and through subhuman creation). Man's return is made possible in turn by Christ. For man returns to God by living an upright lifethat is, by being rightly aligned with Godand this can be accomplished only through the grace of Christ. Man's mind is right (rectus ) when it has found truth, and above all, eternal truth. His will is right when it loves what is really good, his exercise of power is right when it is a continuation of God's ruling power. Through original sin or the Fall, man lost this triple righteousness. His intellect, lured by vain curiosity, has enmeshed itself in interminable doubts and futile controversies; his will is ruled by greed and concupiscence; in his exercise of power he seeks autonomy. But although man lost the state of original justice, he still hungers for it. This longing for the infinite good is revealed in his ceaseless quest for pleasures. Through faith and love (grace), man can find his way back.

Since knowledge is involved at every stage of the return, reductio is also a quest for wisdom and hence, in an extended theological sense, it is metaphysical. It is an enlightened return, because every branch of learning is a gift from above, from the "Father of lights" (Epistle of St. James, 1. 17), and can be put into the service of theology (this is the theme of Bonaventure's De Reductione Artium ). Although man's return begins with the natural light of reason reflecting first on the external world and then turning inward in an analysis of the soul, it is perfected initially by a natural illumination of the divine ideas and then by varying additional degrees of supernatural illumination which culminate in the experiential cognition of God through mystical union (the theme of the Itinerarium ). This experience is not the same as the clear vision of the blessed in heaven but is the "learned ignorance" referred to by the mystical writersa union of the soul with God in darkness, granted to saints like Francis before death.

Other Doctrines

The elements of Bonaventure's philosophy are woven into his religiously oriented system. Like all the Parisian thinkers of this period, Bonaventure developed a basically Aristotelian philosophy, but he included a larger admixture of Neoplatonic and Augustinian elements than we find in St. Thomas, for instance, who studied Aristotle somewhat later and more thoroughly under Albert the Great.

theory of knowledge

Bonaventure believed that the mind has no innate ideas, not even in the sense postulated by the authors of the Summa Theologica (ascribed to Alexander of Hales), who argued that ideas are latent in the agent intellect but are actually acquired only when the light of the agent intellect illumines the possible intellect. Bonaventure rejected this, holding with Aristotle that the mind at birth is a tabula rasa. It needs sensory stimulation before it can acquire any notions about the external world of objects. However, Bonaventure did use the Augustinian theory of illumination to explain how the mind passes judgment on sensible things in terms of their values. For when the mind judges something to be, for example, good or beautiful, there must be an implicit awareness of what beauty and goodness are in themselves; and this requires that the human mind have some knowledge of the divine ideas. Obviously this is not a clear or intuitive knowledge of God such as the angels or the blessed in paradise possess. Yet just as one can see by sunlight without looking into the sun itself, so one can have knowledge of the divine ideas. At the same time, Bonaventure rejected the interpretation (also found in the Summa of Alexander) that we attain these ideas only in terms of the residual effects of the divine actioneffects which remain in the soul like habitual or buried memories. Bonaventure claimed that in some mysterious way (which he called contuition but which he never fully explained), when we know a created object, our mind is simultaneously enlightened so that it is moved to judge correctly about the object and is hence in accord with God's own mind on the subject.

Although Bonaventure agreed with Aristotle that our knowledge of the external world is sense-dependent, he did not fully subscribe to Aristotle's principle that "nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses." He held that the intellect can turn inward, reflecting on the soul and its tendencies. In analyzing the precise nature of the object of these tendencies, the mind discovers God and itself as his image. The reasoning process involved is neither deductive nor inductive in the usual meaning of these terms, but is called technically a "reduction" and seems to resemble in some respects the "abduction" of Charles S. Peirce. Reasoning proceeds by progressively deepening insights into what the desire for truth and perfect happiness involve. If the reduction remains imperfect and does not go on to completion, God is not discovered and one may err about his nature or even his existence. Although at times Bonaventure, following the authority of John of Damascus, Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius, or Augustine, spoke of the existence of God as a truth implanted by nature in the human mind, he meant this to be interpreted as referring immediately to man's natural desire for knowledge, truth, happiness, or goodnessall of which need explication before man realizes they have God as their ultimate object (De Mysterio Trinitatis, I, 1; in Opera, Vol. V, p. 49).


In his analysis of material creation, Bonaventure introduced extraneous elements into Aristotle's theory of matter and form. Thus, for instance, he adopted Avicebron's theory of the hylomorphic composition of spiritual as well as corporeal creatures. The argument here is that since creatures have some measure of potentiality (only God is pure actuality), they must have some kind of matter, for according to Aristotle matter is the principle and source of potentiality. This spiritual matter, found both in the angel and in the human soul, is never separable from its spiritual form; hence, such spiritual substances are not subject to changethey cannot die or disintegrate like terrestrial bodies, nor can they be perfected by a hierarchy of forms, as can corporeal matter.

In Breviloquium, Book II, Bonaventure, in explaining the visible universe, made use of the theories of light developed by Robert Grosseteste and the Oxford school. He distinguished light (lux ), luminosity (lumen ), and color. The first is the most basic of substantial forms; it enables both terrestrial and celestial bodies to subsist and is the root source of whatever internal dynamism they possess. Lumen is the invisible radiation which has its origin especially in celestial bodies like the sun but exists in the intervening transparent medium. It is described by Bonaventure as being both an active power (virtus activa ) and something substantial in itself but only accidentally related to the transmitting medium through which it flows continually and instantaneously by a self-generative process called multiplication. Being neither an accidental nor a substantial form properly speaking, it is not educed from the potentialities of matter as are other corporeal forms, with the exception of lux. Yet it requires some material medium or body and coexists with such without changing it substantially. Not only does it penetrate the bowels of the earth, where it governs the formation of minerals, but in virtue of its purity and similarity to the spiritual, this substantial radiation disposes bodies to receive the life form and acts as a sort of intermediary between soul and body. It is active in the reproduction of animals, functioning as one of the external agents that educes the higher forms from the matter where they exist as "seminal reasons."

This theory of seminal reasons was adopted on the authority of Augustine, but Bonaventure interpreted it within the framework of the general Aristotelian formula that forms are educed from the potency of matter. Unlike St. Thomas, Bonaventure interpreted these "potencies" as active powers rather than passive potentialities. They are really latent forms existing in matter in an inchoate or germinal state. External agents only cooperate with these powers, in much the way that a gardener cultivates a rosebush or a seedbed so that it bears flowers or germinates (Commentarium in Librum II Sententiarum, Dist. 7, in Opera, Vol. II, p. 198). All forms, except the primary light form and the human soul, which are directly created by God, arise through the cooperation of seminal powers and external agents, under the influence of light.

Bonaventure, unlike Thomas, believed that creation in time (in contrast with Aristotle's belief in the eternity of the world) is demonstrable from reason, using Aristotle's own principles (Commentarium in Librum I Sententiarum, Dist. 1, in Opera, Vol. II, pp. 2022). His arguments, although interesting, are based on a medieval concept of number and infinity and on the presupposition that the immortality of the human soul is a purely rational truth.

As his name implies, Bonaventure's character seems to have represented all that the medieval Christian regarded as ideal. Born at a critical period in the history of his church, his order, and of speculative theology, he saw himself cast in a mediating role. As a bachelor of theology, trained in the arts, he sought to put the new philosophy into the service of theology. As a master of theology he tried not only to defend the new mendicant orders against the attacks of the secular masters but also to heal their differences. As minister general he took a middle position between the extreme factions of the Franciscan order, who differed on the subjects of evangelical poverty and the pursuit of studies. Bonaventure's works, such as De Reductione Artium ad Theologiam and Itinerarium Mentis in Deum were not only theoretical expressions of his gift for synthesis but also served the practical purpose of silencing the anti-intellectual friars who claimed that the academic life was incompatible with the ascetical aims of a follower of St. Francis. As cardinal, Bonaventure played a major role at the Council of Lyons in healing the rift between Greek and Latin Christendom. Under the aegis of Augustine, he consolidated theological opposition to the cult of Aristotle and Averroistic rationalism. Although this led eventually to the Parisian condemnations of 1270 and 1277, in which even theses of St. Thomas were included, it also bore fruit in a renewed interest in Augustine's contributions to philosophy by Matthew of Acquasparta, Roger Marston, John Peckham, and others of the Augustinian school.

See also Albert the Great; Alexander of Hales; al-Fārābī; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Augustinianism; Averroes; Averroism; Avicenna; Boethius, Ancius Manlius Severinus; Dante Alighieri; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Grosseteste, Robert; Ibn Gabirol, Solomon ben Judah; John of Damascus; John of La Rochelle; Marston, Roger; Matthew of Acquasparta; Medieval Philosophy; Mysticism, History of; Peckham, John; Peter Lombard; Plato; Rationalism; Revelation; Thomas Aquinas, St.


The collected Latin works of St. Bonaventure were published as S. Bonaventurae Opera Omnia. 10 vols. (Quaracchi, 18821902). The two works not contained in that collection are Questions disputées "De Caritate," "De Novissimis," edited by P. Glorieux (Paris, 1950), and a second redaction of Collationes in Hexaemeron, edited by F. Delorme (Quaracchi, 1934). Commentary on the Sentences has been reprinted in 4 vols. (Quaracchi, 19341949) without the critical notes. Also see Tria Opuscula, 5th ed. (Quaracchi, 1938), which includes Breviloquium, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, and De Reductione Artium ad Theologiam.

English translations of Bonaventure's work include St. Bonaventure's De Reductione Artium ad Theologiam, translated by E. T. Healy (St. Bonaventure, NY, 1955), in Latin and English; St. Bonaventure's Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, translated by Philotheus Boehner (St. Bonaventure, NY, 1956), in Latin and English; Breviloquium by St. Bonaventure, translated by E. E. Nemmers (St. Louis and London: Herder, 1946); J. de Vinck, The Work of Bonaventure (Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild Press, 19601970); and four questions from the "Commentary on the Sentences" in Selections from Medieval Philosophers, edited by Richard McKeon (New York: Scribners, 1930), Vol. II, pp. 118148.

A Latin and Spanish translation is L. Amoros, B. Aperribay, M. Oromi, and M. Oltra, eds., Obras de S. Buenaventura, 6 vols. (Madrid, 19451949), Vol. I of which contains an extensive bibliography and new data on authentic works not in Opera Omnia.

General bibliographies for Bonaventure can be found in F. Ueberweg and B. Geyer, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, 12th ed. reprint (Basel, 1951), Vol. II, pp. 735738, and Étienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York: Random House, 1955), pp. 685686. For studies after 1953, see the annotated Bibliographia Franciscana (Rome: Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini, 1962), Vol. XI ff. The classic introduction to Bonaventure's thought is Étienne Gilson, La philosophie de saint Bonaventure. 2nd ed. (Paris, 1953; English translation of 1st ed., London: Sheed and Ward, 1938). Critical evaluations of this and alternate views are B. A. Gendreau, "The Quest for Certainty in St. Bonaventure," in Franciscan Studies 21 (1961): 104227, and J. G. Bugerol, Introduction à l'étude de S. Bonaventure (Paris, 1961). Bonaventurean themes in Raphael are discussed in H. B. Gutman, "The Medieval Content of Raphael's 'School of Athens,'" in Journal of the History of Ideas 2 (1941): 420429, and "Raphael's 'Disputà,'" in Franciscan Studies 2 (1942): 3548. For Bonaventure's own theory of art, see E. J. M. Spargo, The Category of the Aesthetic in the Philosophy of St. Bonaventure (St. Bonaventure, NY, 1953). Also see R. P. Prentice, The Psychology of Love according to St. Bonaventure, 2nd ed. (St. Bonaventure, NY, 1957), which is a comparison of Bonaventure and Max Scheler, and A. Schaefer, "The Position and Function of Man in the Created World according to St. Bonaventure," in Franciscan Studies 20 (1960): 261316; and 21 (1961): 233382.

Allan B. Wolter, O.F.M. (1967)

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Bonaventure, St. (c. 1217–1274)

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