Henry of Ghent (??–1293)

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The Augustinian secular theologian Henry of Ghent, traditionally known as Doctor Solemnis, was born at Ghent or Tournai, probably in the second quarter of the thirteenth century. In addition to holding high ecclesiastical office at Bruges and Tournai, he taught both arts and theology at the University of Paris. In 1277 he served on the theological commission that prepared the condemnation issued by Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris, against the Averroism of Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia. He died in 1293.

Henry's principal writings are a Summa Theologica and fifteen Quodlibeta (occasional disputations). The extended criticism of his ideas by John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and others is a sign of his considerable influence in his own age. In the sixteenth century the Servite friars chose him as their official theologian, although he had never belonged to their order.

As a philosopher, Henry of Ghent stood in the main line of development of medieval Platonism. The Augustinian tradition, already brilliantly represented in the thirteenth century by Bonaventure and Matthew of Acquasparta, was unmistakably the weightiest element in his thought, and the Platonic orientation thus established was further strengthened by the influence of Avicenna. At the same time, following Bonaventure and other earlier Augustinians, he incorporated a number of Aristotelian ideas into his synthesis. Furthermore, in adapting the Neoplatonic metaphysics of Avicenna to the requirements of the Christian view of God and creation, he anticipated certain critical tendencies of the fourteenth century, by which the whole structure of medieval realism was to be undermined. It is fair to say that Henry failed to blend these diverse elements into a fully coherent system. Nonetheless, in inspiration and aim he was the true precursor of Duns Scotus, the last great constructive philosopher of the Middle Ages.


For Henry of Ghent the starting point of metaphysical thinking was the idea of being (ens or res or aliquid ), out of which the metaphysician draws the intelligible essences virtually contained in it. Analysis shows that being is an analogical idea. Taken in its widest sense, it includes both imaginary entities (res secundum opinionem ), which exist only in the mind, and genuine beings (res secundum veritatem ), which exist, or at any rate can exist, outside the mind. Genuine being, which is the proper object of metaphysics (ens metaphysicum ), is further divided into Being Itself (ipsum esse ), or God, and contingent beings, or creatures. Finally, creaturely being is divided into that which exists in itself (substance) and that which exists in another (accident).

Genuine beings, actual or possible, are distinguished from imaginary entities by their possession of "essential being" (esse essentiae ). This essential being is not a rudimentary mode of existence. It is best described as an intrinsic possibility or intelligibility that pertains to definable essences as reflections of the divine ideas. It is to be contrasted with the intrinsic impossibility and incoherence of res secundum opinionem.

Actual beings are distinguished from merely possible beings by their possession of "existential being" (esse existentiae ). This existential being is not a principle or act within actually existing things; Henry refused to accept the real distinction between essence and existence as formulated either by Giles of Rome or by Thomas Aquinas. The difference between essential and existential being is to be found not in things themselves but in the relation of essences to God. Essential being consists in being thought by God, while existential being consists in actually depending on God as creative Cause.

Apart from the fact that each actual being, as a product of divine creativity, is individually related to God, individual things, in which specific essences are multiplied, require no explanation of their individuality. Individuation involves no addition, whether of matter or of act of existence, to the intelligible essence. In analyzing the individual as such it is sufficient to say that it is internally undivided and is not identical in existencethat is, in its relation to the Creatorwith any other individual.

Divine Freedom

The transition from essential to existential being, or the act of creation, is an act of divine freedom. Individual beings come into existence not from any intrinsic necessity but because God freely wills to create. Here the Christian and Augustinian conception of God's transcendent liberty excludes the Avicennian idea of the divine will as subject, equally with the divine intellect, to necessity. In his fear of compromising God's freedom in creation, Henry further minimized the intelligibility of individual beings. There are no divine ideas of singular things as such; God knows them only through their essences considered as multipliable in numerically distinct beings. Consequently, the existence of creatures can in no way be deduced from God's eternal ideas.

Necessary and Contingent Being

The fundamental metaphysical notion of being is neither simply derived from sense experience nor strictly innate in the human mind. It is indeed formed by the mind from within, but on the occasion of sense experience. It would actually be more correct to say that two fundamental notions of being are formed by the mind, since the concepts of necessary or divine Being and contingent or creaturely being are radically distinct and cannot be deduced from a more general notion. When we conceive being unconfusedly, we always conceive either necessary Being or contingent beingnever some undifferentiated, neutral being.

In thus asserting the irreducible duality of the notion of being, Henry was again trying to exclude any suggestion that God necessarily creates. If neither divine Being nor creaturely being can be deduced from a universal concept of being, one argument for necessitarianism is effectively undermined. The further consequences of Henry's principle, however, were disastrous for his own metaphysical enterprise. His insistence that there is no positive content common to the two fundamental notions of being leaves a gap between divine Being and creaturely being that no mere affirmation of analogy between the two concepts can bridge. But if, as Henry claimed, there is some empirical factor in the formation of our notions of being, it is hard to see how necessary Being can be conceived, let alone demonstrated, as long as the gap remains. It is true that an a posteriori or "physical" proof of God's existence, based on experience of individual objects rather than on metaphysical principles, is possible, but such a proof can attain only to a supreme Being, not to a necessary Being. An appeal to divine illuminationthe obvious remaining alternativewas excluded for Henry because he did not conceive of the divine light as a power impressing ideas upon the human mind. Although Henry refused to draw it, the conclusion seems inevitable that no firm basis can be found for a metaphysical theology.

With Henry of Ghent, medieval Platonism was clearly entering its final phase. In his thought, for all its predominantly Augustinian and Avicennian character, more or less novel concernsa new stress on divine freedom, a fresh interest in sense experience, a new emphasis on sheer particularityalready modified the Platonic view of reality. Henry is thus a significant symbol of the transition from the constructive to the critical period of medieval thought.

See also Aristotelianism; Augustinianism; Avicenna; Being; Boetius of Dacia; Bonaventure, St.; Duns Scotus, John; Matthew of Acquasparta; Medieval Philosophy; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Siger of Brabant; Thomas Aquinas, St.; William of Ockham.



Series Henrici de Gandavo Opera Omnia (Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, Series 2), De Wulf-Mansion Centre.

Already Published

Macken, Raymond. Bibliotheca manuscripta Henrici de Gandavo. I. Catalogue A-P, (Henr. de Gand. Opera Omnia, I), Leuven/Leiden: Leuven University Press/E. J. Brill, 1979.

Macken, Raymond. Bibliotheca manuscripta Henrici de Gandavo. II. Catalogue Q-Z, (Henr. de Gand. Opera Omnia, II), Leuven/Leiden: Leuven University Press/E. J. Brill, 1979.

Quodlibeta: Quodlibet I. (edited by Raymond Macken); Quodlibet II (edited by Robert Wielockx); Quodlibet VI (edited by Gordon A. Wilson); Quodlibet IX (edited by Raymond Macken); Quodlibet X (edited by Raymond Macken); Quodlibet XII, q. 130 (edited by Jos Decorte); Quodlibet XII, q. 31, Tractatus super facto praelatorum et fratrum (edited by Ludwig Hödl and Marcel Haverals); Quodlibet XIII (edited by Jos Decorte).

Lectura ordinaria super S. Scripturam (edited by Raymond Macken).

Summa (Quaestiones Ordinariae ): art. IV (edited by Gordon A. Wilson); art. XXXVXL (edited by Gordon A. Wilson); art. XLIXLVI (edited by Ludwig Hödl).


Emery, Kent Jr. "The Image of God Deep in the Mind: The Continuity of Cognition according to Henry of Ghent." In Nach der Verurteilung von 1277. Philosophie und Theologie an der Universität von Paris im letzten Viertel des 13. Jahrhunderts. Studien und Texte (After the Condemnation of 1277. Philosophy and Theology at the University of Paris in the Last Quarter of the Thirteenth Century. Studies and Texts), edited by Jan A. Aertsen, Kent Emery, Jr., and Andreas Speer. Berlin; New York: de Gruyter, 2001 (Miscellanea Mediaevalia, 28), 59124.

Guldentops, Guy, and Carlos Steel, eds. Henry of Ghent and the Transformation of Scholastic Thought. Studies in Memory of Jos Decorte. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2003. (Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, I/31), with Bibliography 19942002 [Studies by J. Decorte, C. Steel, J. Janssens, W. Goris, A. Speer, J. A. Aertsen, J.-L. Solère, C. Kann, R. Plevano, M. W. F. Stone, J.-M. Counet, S. P. Marrone, G. A. Wilson, J. C. Flores, G. Pini, M. S. de Carvalho, L. Hödl, P. Porro].

Macken, Raymond. Essays on Henry of Ghent. Leuven: Editions Medieval Philosophers of the Former Low Countries, Vol. 1, 1994; Vol. II, 1995; Vol. III, 1996; Vol. IV, 1998.

Macken, Raymond. "Henry of Ghent and Augustine." In "Ad litteram": Authoritative Texts and Their Medieval Readers, edited by Mark D. Jordan, and Kent Emery, Jr. Notre Dame; London: University of Notre Dame Press ("Notre-Dame Conferences in Medieval Studies,", 3), 1992, 251274.

Macken, Raymond. "Synderesis and Conscience in the Philosophy of Henry of Ghent." Franziskanische Studien 70 (1988): 185195.

Macken, Raymond. "The Superiority of Active Life to Contemplative Life in Henry of Ghent's Theology." Medioevo 20 (1994): 115129.

Marrone, Steven P. Truth and Scientific Knowledge in the Thought of Henry of Ghent. Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Academy of America (Speculum Anniversary Monographs, 11), 1985.

Pasnau, Robert. "Henry of Ghent and the Twilight of Divine Illumination." Review of Metaphysics 49 (1995): 4975.

Porro, Pasquale. "Metaphysics and Theology in the Last Quarter of the 13th Century: Henry of Ghent Reconsidered." In Geistesleben im 13. Jahrhundert, edited by Jan A. Aertsen and Andreas Speer. Berlin; New York: de Gruyter, 2000 (Miscellanea Mediaevalia, 27), 265282.

Vanhamel, Willy, ed. Henry of Ghent. Proceedings of the International Colloquium on the Occasion of the 700th Anniversary of His Death (1293). Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1996 (Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, I/15), with Bibliography 18371993 [Studies by J. A. Aertsen, J. V. Brown, M. A. S. de Carvalho, J. Decorte, J. McEvoy, L. Hödl, J. Janssens, M. Laarmann, S. P. Marrone, P. Porro, B. B. Price, R. J. Teske, C. Trottmann, G. A. Wilson].

For further references, see Macken, Raymond, Bibliographie d'Henri de Gand, Leuven: Editions Medieval Philosophers of the Former Low Countries, 1994.

Eugene R. Rairweather (1967)

Bibliography updated by Maria Lucrezia Leone (2005)