Olivi, Peter John (1248–1298)

views updated


Peter John Olivi was one of the most original philosophers of the late thirteenth century. Despite the influence his ideas had in the Middle Ages and in the formation of the early modern thought, his own writings have been studied little. The Council of Vienne (13111312) and Pope John XXII (in 1326) condemned some of his views, and after this his works (most of which have survived in the Vatican library) remained mostly in obscurity. His innovative ideas on the philosophy of history, on Aristotelian metaphysics, and especially on human freedom were developed by other philosophers whose texts had a more constant and wider circulation (e.g., John Duns Scotus, William Ockham, and Peter Aureol).

As a twelve-year-old youth in 1261, Olivi entered the Franciscan order and thereby also one of the best educational systems of the time. From 1267 to 1272 he studied in Paris with St. Bonaventure and other famous thinkers. Possibly because of arrogant opinions, he did not receive a doctorate. Nevertheless, he moved on to teach at different Franciscan schools in southern France. After some of his views were condemned in 1283, he withdrew from such duties. He was rehabilitated in 1288 with the help of his former teacher, Cardinal Matthew of Aquasparta, and taught in Florence for two years before returning to Montpellier and later Narbonne, where he stayed until his death on March 14, 1298.

Readers of Olivi's works have often noted that Olivi had a very distinctive writing style. Though his works clearly belong to the genres of medieval academic writing, they contain a very personal tone that seems to spring from Olivi's intimate experiential touch to philosophical thinking. Olivi clearly had a liking for arguments, and often he refrained from making a determinate solution, although he did not hesitate to take strong stances on some very controversial issues. In general, his habits of thought have a surprisingly modern feel.

Social Philosophy

Olivi's most important innovations in social philosophy are related to the Franciscan ideal of poverty. In his commentary on the Apocalypse and already in the early Questions on Evangelical Perfection he formulated a theory of how the Franciscans used the necessities of life without having property in them (usus pauper ). The theory differs in its detail to what John Duns Scotus and William Ockham presented later, but the crucial philosophical innovations can be found already in Olivi's works.

The idea of subjective right is often connected to early modern political philosophy, but it was developed already in the discussions concerning Franciscan poverty. Olivi's view concerning rights differed from the Aristotelian orthodoxy of the time, for according to him the natural order does not imply rights. Rather, they must be constituted by an act of a free will. This view becomes clear in his theory of property acquisition and of political power. Though Olivi taught for the Franciscans absolute obedience to the superiors, he qualified that the power of the superiors must accord with the purpose of the power. This makes obedience in fact an issue that each person must weigh in his or her own conscience.

Olivi was a theologian, and he wrote many biblical commentaries, often with an apocalyptic message. He also had a historical view of the Church as a changing institution. He has often been understood as claiming that the Antichrist will be a pope.

Human Freedom

The human free will is a topic that receives a large share of what can be called Olivi's main philosophical work, the commentary on Peter of Lombards Sentences. Some of Olivi's strongest anti-Aristotelian formulations come form this context. Like apparently all the texts where he explicitly opposes Aristotelian thought, it was written soon after the bishop Etienne Tempier's condemnation of 1277 against 219 more or less Aristotelian theses. Olivi showed no knowledge of the documents of the condemnation themselves, but attacked the Aristotelian positions and apparently also Thomas Aquinas's views quite openly.

According to Olivi's main argument for the freedom the human will, the ground for human social practices like friendship and gratitude, and even personhood, would collapse if human beings denied the freedom of the will. In Olivi's view, free choice is a real possibility open for all mentally healthy adult humans in their normal condition. Unlike the animals, humans can make choices self-reflexively as their own choices. Olivi discussed the Aristotelian practical syllogism and accepted that humans consider rationally what would be the best course of action given a certain end. But even after this consideration, humans remain free to follow the best course of action or to do something else. Also, the human will is always free to posit a new ultimate end. In Olivi's example, if one hates one's enemy and reasons the best way to harm the person, one remains free not to inflict harm, or even to begin loving the person for his or her own sake. Every human has an almost infinite moral worth based on such freedom, and as a free agent can be treated as a person.


Olivi's ontological view of the human soul was rejected by the fourteenth-century Church as too dualist. He was understood to have claimed that the soul is not the form of the body, though his point was subtler. According to his metaphysics, all individuals consist of matter and form. However, he distinguished two kinds of matter: corporeal and spiritual. The human soul informs matter of both kinds, but the intellectual soul does not inform any corporeal matter. The human soul is thus a form of the corporeal body only in respect to its sensitive part. Thus, Olivi accepted the Aristotelian metaphysics of form and matter, but thought that the human intellectual soul is a full individual capable of existence and activity even without the body. This tradition of thought was continued by later Franciscans like Scotus and Ockham, although they gave up the idea of spiritual matter and with it also the universality of the form-matter metaphysics, making the intellectual soul an immaterial substance. In this way, Olivi's theory can be seen as direct predecessor of René Descartes's seventeenth-century dualist view.

In the philosophy of mind, Olivi's most important starting point was that the mind is active and the corporeal bodies are passive. He described sensory perception in terms of an intentional relation where the mind comports to the world, thus rejecting the standard Aristotelian model that the corporeal things act upon the cognitive systems. Olivi also developed a relatively elaborated theory of the self and human self-understanding.

Olivi was a well-educated intellectual working in a way similar to his contemporaries. In most of the topics he treated he refrained from putting forward a full theory. Rather, he aimed at deeper, though incomplete, understanding on the complexity of the problems, and called for recognition of the imperfections of the human reasoning capacities. Olivi did not oppose rational thought, but he saw its limits. Much of his philosophical originality lies in the way he strove for a rationally un-Aristotelian way of thinking at a time in which basic university education was based on Aristotle's texts.

See also Aristotelianism; Bonaventure, St.; Descartes, René; Determinism and Freedom; Duns Scotus, John; Matthew of Acquasparta; Medieval Philosophy; Peter Aureol; Peter Lombard; Philosophy of History; Philosophy of Mind; Thomas Aquinas, St.; William of Ockham.


works by peter john olivi

For a listing of Olivi's writings, see Archivum Franciscanum historicum 91 (34) (1998).

Quaestiones in secundum librum Sententiarum. Bibliotheca Franciscana Scholastica 46. Edited by B. Jansen. Quaracchi: Collegium S. Bonaventurae, 19221926.

Quodlibeta quinque. Edited by S. Defraia. Grottaferrata: Editiones Collegii S. Bonaventurae ad Claras Aquas, 2002.

works about peter john olivi

Boureau, A., and S. Piron, eds. Pierre de Jean Olivi (12481298). Paris: Vrin, 1999.

Burr, David. Olivi and Franciscan Poverty: The Origins of the Usus Pauper Controversy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.

Lagerlund, H., and M. Yrjönsuuri, eds. Emotions and Choice from Boethius to Descartes. Kluwer: Dordrecht, 2002.

Pasnau, Robert. Theories of Cognition in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Putallaz, François-Xavier. Insolente liberté. Controverses et condamnations au XIIIe siècle. Paris: Cerf, 1995.

Yrjönsuuri, Mikko (2005)

About this article

Olivi, Peter John (1248–1298)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article