Thomas of York (1220/1225–1260/1269)

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Thomas of York, the English metaphysician and theologian, joined the Franciscan order by 1245, and he became doctor of theology at Oxford in 1253. He was fifth lecturer to the Oxford Franciscans (1253/1254) and sixth lecturer at the Cambridge convent (1256/1257). Thomas was the protégé of both Adam Marsh and Robert Grosseteste, whose tradition he followed. He wrote a treatise, Manus Quae contra Omnipotentem (The hand which is raised against the almighty), supporting St. Bonaventure in the battle between seculars and mendicants at Paris.

His major work, Sapientiale, written between 1250 and 1260 and never finished, is the earliest known metaphysical summa of the thirteenth century. It makes use of all the major writers of antiquity, as well as the Muslim and Jewish philosophers (particularly Avicebron and Maimonides), the Church Fathers, and his immediate predecessors at Paris and Oxford. Although he presents all the important opinions on each point, he is not a mere compiler but an original and profound philosopher who had mastered the entire corpus of knowledge available.

In the Sapientiale he treats all the standard metaphysical problems, both general and specific (a distinction he seems to have been the first to make), from an essentially Augustinian standpoint. His theory of matter is eclectic: There is a universal matter that is pure potentiality, and matter understood simply as privation. Heavenly bodies, for example, lack the second kind. Because in act they are already everything they are capable of becoming, they are free of any privation. He subscribes to a modified form of Grosseteste's light metaphysics, including a form of corporeity that is present in every body. Since form is the principle of individuation, however, there must be a plurality of forms in any given body. (Thomas does not explicitly raise this question, but it is implicit in much that he says.) He is very clear, though, that the soul cannot be a form perfecting that of the body. It is itself composite and is related to the body "as a pilot is to a ship." The soul is able to gain knowledge by abstracting universals from singulars through sense (the complete universal can be known from one singular), but it gains more certain knowledge from above, receiving ideas from Ideas through interior illumination.

Thomas maintained the distinction in creatures between essence and existence, the latter characterized by composition from matter and form, and the mark of a creature's contingency. His emphasis on the contingency of creation prevented his arriving at a clear-cut assertion of the efficacy of natural causes, although he usually seems to favor this position.

Finally, Thomas was a vigorous proponent of what had become the typical Franciscan position since Grosseteste, denying the eternity of the world, of time, of matter, and of motion, and refusing any accommodation to the Aristotelian or Averroistic schools.

See also Augustinianism; Averroism; Bonaventure, St.; British Philosophy; Essence and Existence; Grosseteste, Robert; Ibn Gabirol, Solomon ben Judah; Maimonides; Metaphysics, History of; Patristic Philosophy.


An edition of the Sapientiale is being prepared by R. J. O'Donnell, C.S.B. Pending its appearance, see D. E. Sharp, Franciscan Philosophy at Oxford in the Thirteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930), pp. 49114; Felix Treserra, "De Doctrinis Metaphysicis Fratris Thomae de Eboraco," in Analecta Sacra Tarraconensis 5 (1929): 33102; and A. B. Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19571959), Vol. III, pp. 21392140.

Richard C. Dales (1967)