Pomponazzi, Pietro (1462–1525)

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Pietro Pomponazzi, the Italian Renaissance Aristotelian, was born in Mantua. He studied philosophy at the University of Padua, where, after obtaining his degree, he became extraordinary professor of philosophy in 1488 and ordinary professor in 1495. When war caused the university to close in 1509, he left Padua. After a short period at Ferrara he became a professor of philosophy at the University of Bologna, where he taught from 1512 until his death. He married three times and had two children.

Of Pomponazzi's writings only a few were published during his lifetime. Best known is the treatise De Immortalitate Animae (On the immortality of the soul, 1516), which immediately provoked a large controversy. It was publicly attacked by several philosophers and theologians and was followed by the author's two treatises in defensethe Apologia (1518) and the Defensorium (1519)which were longer than the original work. Probably as a result of this experience Pomponazzi did not publish anything else except for a few short philosophical questions that he added to the 1525 reprint (Tractatus Acutissimi ) of his three writings on immortality. Equally important are his treatises De Incantationibus (On incantations) and De Fato (On fate), both written about 1520, which were published posthumously in Basel by a Protestant exile in 1556 and 1567, respectively. A sizable body of other writings has been preserved in manuscript, and the study and publication of this material have barely begun. The most important among these unpublished writings are questions on Aristotelian and other problems, which Pomponazzi probably worded himself and that therefore directly reflect his thought. A much larger group consists of his class lectures on various works of Aristotle. Since they were taken down by students and show a certain amount of oscillation from year to year and from copy to copy, they must be used with caution in any attempt to reconstruct Pomponazzi's thought and philosophical development.

Pomponazzi was a product and in many ways a typical representative of the tradition of scholastic Aristotelianism that flourished at Bologna, Padua, and other Italian universities from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. This school, often referred to as Paduan Averroism, had no institutional or doctrinal connections with theology, as did its northern counterparts, but rather with medicine, and this accounts for its secular orientation. In the study of Aristotle, whose writings served as the prescribed texts for the teaching of the philosophical disciplines, the emphasis was, as in Paris and elsewhere, on logic and natural philosophy rather than on ethics and metaphysics.

Pomponazzi's main sources were the writings of Aristotle and of his commentators, and his style, far removed from classical or humanistic elegance, is a rather harsh example of scholastic terminology and argument, although he was at times capable of concise formulation and caustic wit. His reasoning shows great subtlety and acumen, but he is repetitious and sometimes inconsistent. He obviously enjoyed spinning out an argument and following reason wherever it led, and out of intellectual honesty he was prepared to admit his puzzlement before certain dilemmas and to modify his views whenever he felt compelled to do so by some strong argument. Thus, we may well understand the outburst in De Fato (III, 7) in which he compares the philosopher with Prometheus. In his efforts to understand the secrets of God the philosopher is eaten up by his continual worries and thoughts; stops eating, drinking, and sleeping; is held up to ridicule by all; is taken as a fool and a faithless person; is persecuted by the Inquisition; and is laughed at by the multitude.

In spite of his general scholastic orientation Pomponazzi was by no means unaffected by other currents. He knew and respected Plato and was clearly influenced by Marsilio Ficino (and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola) in his remarks about the place of man in the universe and perhaps in his preoccupation with the immortality of the soul. Like the humanists he cultivated the monographic treatise in addition to the question and the commentary, occasionally injected personal remarks about himself, and cited such sources as Cicero and Plutarch. His doctrine that virtue is its own reward has Stoic rather than Aristotelian antecedents, and his insistence that the end of man consists in practical virtue rather than in contemplation is at variance with Aristotle and may owe something to Cicero and to such humanists as Leonardi Bruni and Leon Alberti.

One may even link with humanism Pomponazzi's interest in Alexander of Aphrodisias. Alexander was not entirely unknown during the Middle Ages, but his writings acquired a much wider diffusion through new translations around the turn of the sixteenth century. The label of Alexandrism often attached to Pomponazzi is dubious and misleading. We know from a question composed by Pomponazzi in 1504 that his view on the problem of immortality, as adopted in his treatise of 1516, was derived from that of Alexander. We also learn that the writing of his treatise De Fato was occasioned by his reading a new Latin translation of Alexander's treatise on the subject (Pomponazzi knew no Greek). However, De Fato is actually a defense of the Stoic position against Alexander.

Pomponazzi's De Incantationibus is an attempt to offer natural explanations for a number of occurrences popularly ascribed to the agency of demons and spirits. The effects ascribed to the stars by the astrologers form for Pomponazzi a part of the system of natural causes. This work is the only one by Pomponazzi that was once on the Index of Prohibited Books (it no longer is) because of its implied criticism of miracles. It contains an interesting passage on prayer that shows a certain affinity to some ideas expressed in the treatise on immortality. The value of prayer, he said, consists not in the external effects it may have but in the pious attitude it produces in the person who prays.

The De Fato, which is divided into five books, is by far the longest of Pomponazzi's works. He discusses in great detail and with a great number of intricate arguments the problems of fate, free will, and predestination. His conclusions are by no means simple or clear-cut, but it appears from his final remarks that he regarded the Stoic doctrine of fate, on purely natural grounds, as relatively free from contradictions. Yet, because human wisdom is subject to error, Pomponazzi was willing to submit to the teaching of the church and to accept the doctrine that God's providence and predestination are compatible with man's free will. However, he was not satisfied with the way in which this compatibility is customarily explained and tried to propose an explanation that he considered more satisfactory.

De Fato has been unduly neglected by students of Pomponazzi, perhaps because of its length and difficulty. It is now available in a critical edition and may be studied within the twofold historical context in which it belongs: first, the philosophical controversy between determinism and indeterminism as it appeared in antiquity in the works of the Stoics and Alexander and again in more modern discussions and, second, the specifically theological problem of reconciling providence and predestination with free will. The second question has occupied Christian theologians of all centuries; it had been discussed before Pomponazzi by Lorenzo Valla in his treatise on free will, and it was to be debated by Martin Luther, Desiderius Erasmus, and many other theologians during and after the Reformation.

De Immortalitate Animae

Pomponazzi's treatise De Immortalitate Animae is much better known, and it had far wider repercussions during the sixteenth century and even later. Pomponazzi explains the origin of the treatise as follows: He had stated in a class lecture that Thomas Aquinas's view on immortality, though perhaps true, did not agree with Aristotle's, and he was subsequently asked by a Dominican friar who was his student to express his own opinion on the question, staying strictly within the limits of natural reason. In complying with this request, Pomponazzi begins with the statement that man is of a manifold and ambiguous nature and occupies an intermediary position between mortal and immortal things (Ch. 1). The question is in what sense such opposite attributes as mortal and immortal may be attributed to the human soul (Ch. 2). Pomponazzi first lists six possible answers, and after having discarded two of them because they had never been defended by anybody, he promises to discuss the remaining four (Chs. 23).

The first of the four answers is the view attributed to Averroes and others, according to which there is only one immortal soul common to all human beings and also an individual soul for each person, which, however, is mortal. Pomponazzi rejects this opinion at great length (Ch. 4). The Averroist position maintains that the intellect is capable of acting without a body and can therefore be considered as separable and immortal. Yet in our experience, Pomponazzi argues, the intellect has no action that is entirely independent of the body, and therefore we have no evidence that the intellect is separable. If we wish to understand the relationship of the intellect and the body, we must distinguish between being in the body as having the body for its organ or subject or substratum and depending on the body as having the body, its perceptions, and imaginations for its object. Pomponazzi insists that the intellect does not have the body as its subject as do the souls of animals and the lower faculties of the human soul. Yet the human intellect cannot know anything without the perceptions or imaginations offered to it by the body, and this fact alone proves that the intellect is not separable from the body.

Second, Pomponazzi discusses an opinion he attributes to Plato, according to which each person has two souls, one immortal and the other mortal (Ch. 5). This position is rejected on the ground that the subject of perception and that of intellectual knowledge must be the same and that it is therefore impossible to distinguish two separate natures within the human soul (Ch. 6).

Third, he examines the view, attributed to Thomas Aquinas, which holds that the human soul has but a single nature and that it is absolutely (simpliciter ) immortal and only in some respects (secundum quid ) mortal (Ch. 7). Elaborating on some of the arguments he had already advanced against Averroes, Pomponazzi insists that he finds no evidence to prove the absolute immortality of the soul. He has no doubt, he adds, that the doctrine of the absolute immortality of the soul is true, since it is in accordance with Scripture, but he wonders whether it is in agreement with Aristotle and whether it can be established within the limits of natural reason without recourse to the evidence of faith and revelation (Ch. 8).

Fourth, Pomponazzi discusses a position according to which the human soul, having only one nature, is absolutely mortal and only in certain respects immortal (Ch. 9). He then proceeds to defend this position, which he had identified elsewhere as that of Alexander of Aphrodisias. Insisting once more on the middle position of humankind, he argues that the human intellect, unlike that of the pure intelligences, always needs the body for its object and has no way of acting without the help of the images of sense or imagination. It must therefore be considered absolutely mortal and only relatively, or improperly speaking, immortal. However, unlike the souls of the animals, the human intellect does not have the body as its subject because it does not use a bodily organ in knowing. If it resided in an organ, the intellect could not reflect on itself or understand universals. The fact that the human intellect is capable of some knowledge of itself and of universals shows that it participates somewhat in immortality and, hence, that it is in some respect immortal. This interpretation of immortality is claimed to be more probable than the others and to be more in accordance with the teachings of Aristotle (Chs. 910).

Having reached this conclusion, Pomponazzi continues in good scholastic fashion to formulate several sets of objections to his view (Chs. 11 and 13) and to answer these objections in great detail (Chs. 12 and 14). In addition to repeating and elaborating some of the same arguments presented in the preceding chapters, he introduces, especially in Chapter 14, several new arguments and conclusions that are of great intrinsic interest.

Along with other objections to his view Pomponazzi cites (Ch. 13) the argument that, according to Aristotle's Ethics, the ultimate end of man is contemplation and that the satisfactory fulfillment of this end requires immortality. In his reply he states that man has a threefold intellectspeculative, practical, and technical. Only a few persons have a share in the speculative intellect, whereas the technical intellect is shared by some animals. We may thus conclude that the practical intellect, in which all human beings and only all human beings share, is the faculty peculiar to human beings. Every normal person can attain the practical intellect in a perfect way, and a person is called absolutely good or bad with reference to this practical intellect but merely in some respect good or bad with reference to the other two intellects. For a man is called a good man or a bad man with reference to his virtues and vices, yet a good metaphysician with reference to his speculative intellect and a good architect with reference to his technical intellect. However, a good metaphysician or a good architect is not always a good man. Hence, a man does not mind so much if he is not called a good metaphysician or a good architect, but he minds very much if he is called unjust or intemperate, for it seems to be in our power to be good or wicked, but to be a philosopher or an architect does not depend on us and is not necessary for a man. The ultimate end must thus be defined in terms of the practical intellect, and every man is called upon to be as virtuous as possible.

By contrast, it is neither necessary nor even desirable that all men should be philosophers or architects but only that some of them should be. Moreover, since the perfection of the practical intellect is accessible to almost everybody, a farmer or a craftsman, a poor man or a rich man, may be called happy and is actually called happy and is satisfied with his lot whenever he is virtuous. In other words, Pomponazzi departs in this important respect from Aristotle and identifies the end of human life with moral virtue rather than with contemplation, because this end is attainable by all human beings.

There had been another objectionthat God would not be a good governor of all things unless all good deeds found their reward and all bad deeds their punishment in a future life. To this Pomponazzi replies that the essential reward of virtue is virtue itself, and the essential punishment of vice is vice itself. Hence, it makes no difference whether the external or accidental reward or punishment of an action is sometimes omitted, since its essential reward and punishment are always present. Moreover, if one man acts virtuously without the expectation of a reward and another with such an expectation, the act of the latter is not considered to be as virtuous as that of the former. Thus, he who receives no external reward is more fully rewarded in an essential way than he who receives one. In the same way the wicked person who receives no external punishment is punished more than he who does, for the punishment inherent in guilt itself is much worse than any punishment in the form of some harm inflicted upon the guilty person.

Pomponazzi further develops this idea in reply to another objection. It is true that religious teachers have supported the doctrine of immortality, but they have done so in order to induce ordinary people to lead virtuous lives. Yet persons of a higher moral disposition are attracted toward the virtues by the mere excellence of these virtues and are repelled from the vices by the mere ugliness of these vices; hence, they do not need the expectation of rewards or punishments as an incentive. Rejecting the view that without a belief in immortality no moral standards could be maintained, Pomponazzi repeats that a virtuous action without the expectation of a reward is superior to one that aims at a reward and concludes that those who assert that the soul is mortal seem to preserve the notion of virtue much better than those who assert that it is immortal. In thus stating that moral standards, as defined by the philosopher, do not depend on religious sanctions, he does not deny the validity of religious beliefs but asserts the autonomy of reason and philosophy, drawing upon certain passages in Plato and above all on Stoic doctrine and anticipating to some extent the views of Benedict de Spinoza and Immanuel Kant.

Having presented all arguments against the immortality of the soul, Pomponazzi states in the last chapter that the question is a neutral one, as is that of the eternity of the world. That is, he does not believe there are any natural reasons strong enough to demonstrate the immortality of the soul or to refute its mortality, although he knows that many theologians, notably Thomas Aquinas, have argued otherwise. Since the question is thus doubtful on purely human grounds, it must be resolved by God himself, who clearly proved the immortality of the soul in the Holy Scriptures. This means that the arguments to the contrary must be false and merely apparent. The immortality of the soul is an article of faith, for it is based on faith and revelation. It must thus be asserted on this ground alone and not on the basis of inconclusive or unconvincing rational arguments.

This conclusion and a similar one found in the De Fato have given rise to a variety of interpretations on the part of Pomponazzi's contemporaries and of modern historians. The statement made by some that Pomponazzi simply denied the immortality of the soul is patently false. He merely said that the immortality of the soul cannot be demonstrated on purely natural grounds or in accordance with Aristotle but must be accepted as an article of faith. This position is widely and somewhat crudely referred to as the theory of the double truth. The term is inadequate, for neither Pomponazzi nor anybody else ever said that something is true in theology and its opposite true in philosophy. What Pomponazzi did say, and what many respectable thinkers before and after him said, is that one theoryfor example, that of the immortality of the soulis true according to faith but that it cannot be demonstrated on the basis of mere reason and that its opposite would seem to be supported by equally strong or even stronger probable arguments.

This view has been called absurd by many modern historians and, ironically, by some who actually take a similar position themselves, though perhaps on other issues and with different words. Yet the persistent charge made against Pomponazzi and against many other medieval and Renaissance thinkers who took a similar position has been that the so-called theory of the double truth is merely a hypocritical device to disguise their secret disbelief and to avoid trouble with the church authorities. Thus, in saying that immortality cannot be demonstrated and that mortality may be defended by strong rational arguments whereas immortality is to be held as an article of faith, Pomponazzi, according to these historians, merely concealed his opinion that the soul was really mortal and substituted for it a formula that would protect him against ecclesiastic censure or punishment.

This is a serious and delicate problem. We cannot deny that a thinker of the past may have entertained opinions that we do not find expressed in his writings or that he may have put into writing views which he did not hold in his innermost heart. On the other hand, unless we have some text or document in support of this assertion, we are not entitled to claim that a thinker held some specific views that he failed to express in his writings or that are even in contrast with his expressed views. As a theologian of the eighteenth century said on this matter, we must leave it to God to look into Pomponazzi's heart and to see what his real opinion was. The human historian has no basis other than the written document, and the burden of proof, in history as in law, rests with those who want to prove something that is contrary to the overt evidence. Neither innuendo nor the assertions made by unfriendly critics or extremist followers can be accepted as valid evidence in lieu of some original statement or testimony concerning the author's view.

According to this standard, we have no real grounds for maintaining that Pomponazzi was hypocritical. The position he takes in the treatise on the immortality of the soul is fundamentally retained in two lengthy works composed afterward in defense of the first and, with a few dubious exceptions, also in his questions and class lectures. He was attacked by some theologians but defended by others, and his treatise was not condemned by the church authorities. The general position that immortality could not be rationally demonstrated, if not all the specific opinions that Pomponazzi associated with it, was held also by John Duns Scotus and even by the leading Thomist of Pomponazzi's time, Cardinal Cajetan. After the first excitement had passed, Pomponazzi continued to teach at a university located in the papal states, had among his students many clergymen who apparently found nothing offensive in what he said, and died peacefully as a widely respected scholar. The pupil who took his remains to his hometown and erected a monument for him was Ercole Gonzaga, later a cardinal and president of the Council of Trent. If there is any presumptive evidence, it hardly favors the opinion that Pomponazzi was a secret disbeliever or atheist.


Pomponazzi's influence, although not easily traceable, was considerable. The school of Italian Aristotelianism to which he belonged flourished for a hundred years or more after his death, and within this tradition his name remained famous and his views on such questions as the immortality of the soul and the unity of the intellect continued to be cited and discussed, if not adopted. The posthumous publication of several of his writings later in the century also gives testimony to his continued fame. His lectures and questions were copied in a large number of manuscripts, an indication of his popularity among his students; moreover, a considerable number of manuscripts containing the De Incantationibus and the De Fato prove that these works circulated widely, although, or perhaps because, they were not published during the author's lifetime. A few anecdotes associated with his name that we find in biographies, short stories, and dialogues of the period suggest that he made some personal impression even on the larger public outside university circles. He obviously was read by students and writers who did not belong to the Aristotelian tradition, and we may cite as an example Giulio Cesare Vanini, who seems to have used him as one of his favorite sources.

During the seventeenth century the Aristotelian school that had dominated the teaching of philosophy for such a long time finally lost its hold, especially in the field of natural philosophy, which was gradually replaced by the new mathematical physics of Galileo Galilei and his successors. Aristotelianism persisted much longer in the fields of logic, biology, and metaphysics. Yet because physics was the center and stronghold of medieval and Renaissance Aristotelianism, especially in Italy, most of Pomponazzi's specific teachings lost their immediate validity when the Aristotelian system within which he had developed his ideas came to be abandoned. Nevertheless, we may say that his view of the relation between natural reason and faith was capable of being reformulated in terms of the new physics and that in certain instances this did happen.

Even more important is another development. The seventeenth century, and still more the eighteenth, witnessed the rise and diffusion of free thought and overt atheism, especially in France. Some of the freethinkers who set out to discard faith and established religion came to consider the Aristotelian rationalists such as Pomponazzi as their forerunners and allies. Pomponazzi's treatise on the immortality of the soul was praised by the free thinkers and condemned by Catholic apologists, although moderate thinkers like Pierre Bayle tried to preserve a proper perspective. Pomponazzi's treatise was even reprinted in a clandestine edition with a false early date.

The use to which the French Enlightenment put Pomponazzi and the other Italian Aristotelians has had a strong influence on modern historians of the school, beginning with Ernest Renan. Again, a distinction is needed. It is one thing to say that Pomponazzi and the Aristotelians held the same views as later freethinkers, and it is another to state that they represent an earlier stage in a development that was to produce the views held by the freethinkers. In the first sense Pomponazzi was a forerunner of the freethinkers; in the second sense the evidence says he was not. Hence, we should not praise or blame him, depending on our own preferences and values, for being a freethinker, since we lack the factual basis for judgment. Yet in a different sense we may praise him. He belongs to the long line of thinkers who have attempted to draw a clear line of distinction between reason and faith, philosophy and theology, and to establish the autonomy of reason and philosophy within their own domains.

See also Alexander of Aphrodisias; Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Averroes; Averroism; Bayle, Pierre; Cajetan, Cardinal; Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Duns Scotus, John; Erasmus, Desiderius; Ficino, Marsilio; Galileo Galilei; Humanism; Kant, Immanuel; Luther, Martin; Pico della Mirandola, Count Giovanni; Plato; Plutarch of Chaeronea; Reformation; Renan, Joseph Ernest; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Stoicism; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Valla, Lorenzo.


works by pomponazzi

Pomponazzi's De Immortalitate Animae is available in several modern editionsedited by G. Gentile (Messina, 1925), by G. Morra (Bologna, 1954), and by W. H. Hay II in a facsimile of the original edition of 1516 (Haverford, PA, 1938). It is also included, along with the Apologia, the Defensorium, and several shorter treatises, in the collection titled Tractatus Acutissimi (Venice, 1525).

The De Naturalium Effectuum Causis Sive de Incantationibus was printed separately in Basel (1556) and with the De Fato in the Opera (Basel, 1567); the volume contains only these two works. There is also a French translationLes causes des merveilles de la nature, translated by Henri Busson (Paris, 1930).

There is a modern critical edition of the De Fato edited by Richard Lemay (Lugano, 1957). Of the De Immortalitate there is an English translation by W. H. Hay II, first published with the facsimile edition of the text and then in a revised and annotated version in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, edited by Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John H. Randall Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

For the unpublished works of Pomponazzi see L. Ferri, "Intorno alle dottrine psicologiche di Pietro Pomponazzi ," in Atti della Reale Accademia dei Lincei, Memorie della classe di scienze morali, storiche e filologiche, Series 2, Vol. 3 (18751876), Part III, 333548; C. Oliva, "Note sull'insegnamento di Pietro Pomponazzi," in Giornale critico della filosofia italiana 7 (1926): 83103, 179190, 254275; Bruno Nardi, "Le opere inedite del Pomponazzi," in Giornale critico della filosofia italiana, 2935 (19501956); and Paul Oskar Kristeller, "A New Manuscript Source for Pomponazzi's Theory of the Soul ," in Revue internationale de philosophie 2 (1951): 144157, and "Two Unpublished Questions on the Soul of Pietro Pomponazzi," in Medievalia et Humanistica 9 (1955): 76101, and 10 (1956): 151.

works on pomponazzi

For the general background see Ernest Renan, Averroès et l'averroïsme (Paris: Durand, 1852); Bruno Nardi, Saggi sull'Aristotelismo Padovano dal secolo XIV al XVI (Florence, 1958), and John H. Randall Jr., The School of Padua and the Emergence of Modern Science (Padua, 1961).

For Pomponazzi's doctrine see Francesco Fiorentino, Pietro Pomponazzi (Florence: Successori Le Monnier, 1868); Andrew H. Douglas, The Philosophy and Psychology of Pietro Pomponazzi (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1910); E. Weil, "Die Philosophie des Pietro Pomponazzi," in Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 41 (1932): 127176; Ernst Cassirer, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, Vol. I (Berlin: Cassirer, 1922), 105117; and Bruno Nardi, Studi su Pietro Pomponazzi (Florence, 1965). For the immortality controversy see Giovanni Di Napoli, L'immortalità dell'anima nel Rinascimento (Turin: Società editrice internazionale, 1963).

See also Martin Pine, "Pomponazzi and Double Truth," Journal of the History of Ideas (29 [1968]: 163176; John L. Treloar, John L., "Pomponazzi: Moral Virtue in a Deterministic Universe," Midwest Studies in Philosophy (26 [2002]: 4455; John L. Treloar, "Pomponazzi's Critique of Aquinas' Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul," Thomist (54 [3] [1990]: 453470; Margaret M. Van De Pitte, Margaret M., "Pietro Pomponazzi and the Debate Over Immortality," in Philosophy and Culture, Vol. 3, edited by Venant Cauchy (Montreal: Montmorency, 1988).

Paul Oskar Kristeller (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)