Nicholas of Autrecourt

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Scholastic theologian; b. Autrecourt (Ultricuria), near Verdun, France, c. 1300; d. Metz, shortly after 1350. Having obtained his degree in arts at Paris, he became a bachelor of theology. In 1340 benedict xii cited Nicholas to the papal court at Avignon on suspicion of teaching erroneous doctrines. On May 19, 1346, clement vi condemned Nicholas and ordered his works to be burned in public. His surviving writings are nine letters to Bernard of Arezzo, of which only two are complete; one letter to Giles of Medonta; a question, Utrum visio creaturae possit naturaliter intendi; and an important treatise, Ad videndum an sermones Peripateticorum fuerini demonstrativi, usually designated by the opening words, Exigit ordo or Satis exigit ordo. The complete treatise is extant in one manuscript only. In the prologue he states clearly that he does not intend to establish any positive teaching but only to examine the main Averroist doctrines and to test the validity of their demonstrations. He asks that the reader not accept as a fact the eternity of the world or atomism or any of the statements he makes in proving that the peripatetic conclusions are, at best, only probable and, at worst, quite false. He also asks that men not spend their whole life investigating the sayings of Aristotle and his commentators; rather, let them adhere to the sacred Christian law and the articles of faith. The judges at Nicholas's trial for heresy rejected such assertions as mere subterfuge (excusatio vulpina ).

In his attack on aristotelianism and Averroism, Nicholas began with two principles: that all knowledge comes from sensation and that there is only one valid criterion of certitude, namely, the basic principle that contradictories cannot at one and the same time be true. However, the senses do deceive man, and it is often difficult to reduce arguments to the principle of contradiction. Therefore, in most cases, one must be satisfied with probabilities. Nicholas applied these principles in criticisms of Averroist-Aristotelian physics, of the theory of knowledge, and of causality. Concerning physics, generation and corruption as described by Aristotle cannot be proved; atomism, which Aristotle rejected, is just as probable an explanation. Nicholas's method was either to prove a doctrine contrary to that held by Aristotle or to prove an Aristotelian argument to be insufficient. Concerning knowledge, Nicholas first proves that there is not a single intellect for all men (see intellect, unity of). He then shows that man is certain of his sensations, of his feelings, and of principles known by means of terms. He is aware of the objection that evidence and truth are not identical. In reply he asserts that, since the intellect desires truth, deprivation of truth would be a violation of universal goodness and man's desires would be in vain. Nicholas did not deny causality, but he did deny its demonstrability. The doctrines expressed by Nicholas were not unique: john of mirecourt, a contemporary, taught many of them. It is difficult to assess the influence of Nicholas because of the condemnation of 60 of his theses in 1346 and his abjuration in 1347 (Chartularium universitatis Parisiensis, ed. H. Denifle and E. Chatelain, 4. v. [Paris 188997], 2:576587). After his condemnation he is supposed to have fled to the court of Louis IV, the Bavarian.

Bibliography: j. r. o'donnell, "Tractatus universalis magistri Nicholai de Ultricuria ad videndum an sermones Peripateticorum fuerint demonstrativi," Mediaeval Studies 1 (1939) 179280; "The Philosophy of Nicholas of Autrecourt and the Appraisal of Aristotle," ibid. 4 (1942) 97125. j. lappe, Nicolaus von Autrecourt: Sein Leben, seine Philosophie, seine Schriften (Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters 6.2; 1908). j. r. weinberg, Nicolaus of Autrecourt (Princeton 1948). m. dal pra, Nicolà di Autrecourt (Milan 1951); "La fondazione del'empirismo e le sue aporie nel pensiero di Nicolà di Autrecourt," Rivista critica di storia della filosofia 5 (1952), 389402. e. maccagnola, "Metafisica e gnoseologia in Nicolà d'Autrecourt," Rivista di filosofia neoscolastica 45 (1953) 3653. w. p. suhow, "Nicolaus von Autrecourt und die altgriechischen Atomisten," Bibliotheca classica orientalis 4.5, 318.

[j. r. o'donnell]

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Nicholas of Autrecourt

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