David of Dinant

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The materialistic pantheist of the Middle Ages David of Dinant taught at Paris near the beginning of the thirteenth century. Apart from this fact, almost nothing is known of his life. It is uncertain whether he derived his name from Dinant in Belgium or Dinan in Brittany. His major work, De Tomis, Hoc Est de Divisionibus, is probably identical with the Quaternuli condemned at a provincial council in Paris in 1210, and his writings were among those banned at the University of Paris in 1215 by the papal legate, Robert de Courçon. Our knowledge of his ideas is largely derived from Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Nicholas of Cusa.

David developed his philosophy at a time when Latin Christian thought was facing an almost unprecedented challenge from rival world views. Neoplatonism, introduced into the medieval West by John Scotus Erigena and popularized in the twelfth century by numerous translations of Arabic works, was the first great non-Christian system to impress the medieval mind, but by the early thirteenth century Aristotelianism loomed large, and other Greek philosophies were not unknown. Attempts were made to blend the Christian doctrine of creation with these doctrines, notably with the Neoplatonic theory of emanation, with the result that the distinctive character of the biblical conception of the relation between the world and God was at least occasionally obscured.

The title of David's De Tomis suggests some indebtedness to Erigena's De Divisione Naturae, and David's pantheism may well have been inspired to some extent by his reading of Erigena's work. His thought seems, however, to have been more strongly influenced by ancient Greek materialism, as described in Aristotle's Physics and Metaphysics, and by certain Aristotelian ideas dialectically manipulated in the manner of the early medieval logicians.

David's interpretation of reality was essentially monistic. He first divided the objects of knowledge into three classes and then presented individual objects within each class as mere modes of a primary reality. Thus, bodies are modes of matter (hyle ), souls are modes of mind (nous ), and eternal substances or separated forms are modes of God. Furthermore, these three primary realities are themselves essentially one being or substance.

David supported this doctrine by a dialectical argument based on the logical notion of a "difference" (differentia ) that, when added to a genus, forms a species. Such differentiae, he argued, can be predicated only of composite beings. God, mind, and prime matter, however, are all simple realities, and can therefore include no differentiae. Consequently, they must be substantially identical.

David's monism may be further characterized as materialistic. In his view, neither God nor matter possesses form, since beings determined by form are individual, composite substances. God and matter, therefore, cannot be known by an assimilation of their forms through abstraction. If in fact the intellect knows both God and matter, the explanation must be that it is already identical with them. Furthermore, if both God and matter are unformed, they are nothing but being in potentiality. Being in potentiality, however, is the definition of prime matter. Properly speaking, then, the ultimate reality, which is at once God, mind, and matter, is best described as matter.

See also Albert the Great; Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Erigena, John Scotus; Medieval Philosophy; Neoplatonism; Nicholas of Cusa; Pantheism; Thomas Aquinas, St.


Gabriel Théry, David de Dinant. Étude sur son panthéisme matérialiste (Paris, 1925), is the only book on David of Dinant. See also A. Birkenmajer, "Découverte de fragments manuscrits de David de Dinant," in Revue néo-scolastique de philosophie 35 (1933): 220229, which does not, however, affect the accepted picture.

Eugene R. Fairweather (1967)