Gerson, Jean de (1363–1429)

views updated


Jean de Gerson was one of the most influential French intellectuals of the early fifteenth century. He studied under Pierre d'Ailly and received his doctorate in theology in 1392. He was elected the chancellor of the University of Paris in 1395. He used this key position for intense intellectual involvement in ecclesiastical politics. He was part of the University of Paris delegation to the Council of Constance and played an important role in the discussions there. After the council, he fell from political favor. Returning to France in 1419, he lived in Lyon for the rest of his life in relative obscurity. He was then engaged mainly in literary work, producing, for example, the well-known defense of Joan d'Arc.

During Gerson's lifetime, the emphasis in university work turned from research to teaching and social influence. The saying "everything necessary has already been written" was often used at the time, and accordingly university teaching was often directly based on canonical sources. Gerson was an active figure in developing the university away from "idle speculations" and toward applying learning for the larger world. His own philosophical work cannot be described as highly original. But he was very productive and very influential through his writings on popular topics.

In political philosophy, Gerson was close to his master Pierre d'Ailly. They worked in close cooperation on many issues. As conciliarists, they understood the church as a political society. Thus, they thought that a general council of the church would have the power to solve the papal schism, like in any political society the ruler may rightly be deposed if he fails to promote the welfare of the society. Gerson cannot be said to have promoted individual rights because he did not understand the welfare of society in terms of the welfare of the individual.

Gerson has been called both an opponent and a proponent of the nominalist movement of his time. In many contexts, he relied on nominalist positions. He was, however, an opponent of the idea that natural reason could solve metaphysical problems. Also, he acted with the Renaissance humanists against the increasing role of logic and natural reason in the theological faculties. This was a time in which the English tradition in nominalist logico-semantical work was gaining ground in continental universities, especially among the Scotists and the Ockhamists. Later on, achievements in this field were to prove crucial in the formation of what is today known as modern science. Gerson's opposition to this increasing emphasis on logico-semantical analysis in the theological faculties was not so much due to a disagreement about philosophical issues so much as a preference for what he saw as more applicable and experientially grounded knowledge.

Instead of speculative theology, Gerson encouraged mystical theology, and indeed many of his best known writings are from this field. His approach is that it is the duty of every person to acquire experiential knowledge of God. This did not mean a rejection of philosophical learning. Rather, Gerson sought for mutual support between devotion and learning. In his anthropological writings, he presents a threefold division both of cognitive potenciessimple understanding, reason, and sensitivity (intelligentia simplex, ratio, and sensualitas )and of affective potenciesconscience, rational desire, sensitive desire (synderesis, appetitus rationalis, and appetitus sensualis ). These divisions accord with neoplatonic models, but Gerson's special emphasis is upon the reciprocal relations between the affective and the cognitive powers. They must work together so that knowledge and love both contribute to the approach to God. In this way, the unio mystica can be achieved. Gerson says very little about that experience itself, claiming that it is known only through experience and cannot be described.

Gerson was a typical fifteenth-century Renaissance intellectual. He was deeply religious and committed his efforts to public affairs, concentrating on the papal schism and his duties at the University of Paris. Apart from the writings on mysticism, his philosophical views are best understood in terms of the ecclesiastical situation and his position in the university politics of the time.

See also Ailly, Pierre d'; Bonaventure, St.; Luther, Martin; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Pseudo-Dionysius; Ruysbroeck, Jan van; Scotism; Thomism.


works by jean de gerson

Ouevres completes, edited by P. Glorieux. 10 vols. Paris: Desclée & Cie, 19601973.

Early Works. Translated by B. P. McGuire. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998.

The Consolation of Theology. Translated by Clyde L. Miller. New York: Abaris Books, 1998.

works about jean de gerson

Brown, D. C. Pastor and Laity in the Theology of Jean Gerson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Burger, C. Aedificatio, Fructus, Utilitas: Johannes Gerson als Professor der Theologie und Kanzler der Universität Paris. Tübingen: Mohr, 1986.

Ryan, John J. The Apostolic Conciliarism of Jean Gerson. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1998.

Mikko Yrjönsuuri (2005)