Peter John Olivi
PETER JOHN OLIVI
Franciscan philosopher and theologian; b. Sérignan, near Béziers (Hérault), 1248; d. Narbonne, March 14, 1298.
Life. He entered the order at the age of 12 in the monastery of Béziers and studied under Fra Raimondo Barravi, a Joachimite and proponent of the most rigorous evangelical poverty. After preliminary studies he was sent to Paris, where william de la mare, john peckham, and matthew of aquasparta, all disciples of bonaventure, were teaching. There he attended the lectures Bonaventure delivered on the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in 1268 and on the Hexaëmeron in 1273.
After becoming a bachelor in theology, he declined further study, considering the title of doctor incompatible with the status of a humble Franciscan. He returned to Provence and devoted himself entirely to writing. With his brilliant and independent talent, and because of his zeal for the rigorous observance of the Franciscan Rule, especially the observance of evangelic poverty (usus pauper ), he soon won the unreserved, almost fanatical, esteem and admiration of the zealous (called Spirituals), as well as the no less fanatical envy and enmity of those who interpreted the obligation of Franciscan poverty less strictly. This gave rise to a long series of accusations, defenses, and counter-accusations.
In 1279 Olivi was in Rome on a commission charged with drawing up the decretal Exiit, qui seminar, the most important interpretation of the Franciscan Rule. Olivi himself, by order of the minister general, wrote a treatise on Franciscan poverty. He also may have written the question De indulgentia Portiunculae (Quaracchi 1895) at this time. After accusations were leveled at him at the general chapter of Strasbourg (1282), a commission was appointed to examine his writings; it compiled a series of 34 propositions, declaring some false and others heretical. At the same time the commission prepared a letter with 22 articles, all beginning with the words "we firmly believe," and all opposed to the propositions of Olivi. Since each of the seven members of the commission placed his seal on the letter, it was called the letter of the seven seals, Littera septema sigillorum [ed. G. Fussenegger, Archivum Franciscanum historicum 47 (1954) 45–53]. Olivi's writings were withdrawn from circulation, and he was summoned to Avignon, where, in the presence of the minister general, he was obliged to accept and sign the letter.
Olivi replied to 20 of the 34 accusations, leaving aside the philosophical questions, and devoting a separate, extensive declaration to his doctrine concerning the divine essence [D. Laberge, "Fr. Petri Ioannis Olivi, O.F.M. tria scripta sui ipsius apologetica annorum 1283 et 1285," Archivum Franciscanum historicum 28 (1935) 115–155, 374–407, 595–608; 29 (1936) 98–141, 366–387]. Elsewhere he demonstrated that the propositions he held had already been defended by authors such as Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, and he protested that in all he had done he had been motivated solely by zeal for the faith and love for the Church. But his enemies gave him no peace; at the general chapter of Milan (1285) he was accused again of heading a rebellious and superstitious sect that was spreading errors and creating divisions within the order. The chapter accordingly directed the confiscation of his writings. He was summoned to appear before the general chapters at Montpellier (1287) and at Paris (1292) regarding his teachings on Franciscan poverty, but both times he escaped censure. After the chapter at Montpellier, Matthew of Aquasparta, the new minister general, invited him to be lector at the studium at Santa Croce in Florence; a few years later he was transferred to the studium at Montpellier. This was tantamount to a complete rehabilitation. He was in Narbonne (c. 1295) and spent the last few years of his life there. Soon after his death he was venerated as a saint.
Works. Olivi's works, according to ubertino of casale, were 17 times larger in volume than the Sententiae of Peter Lombard [F. Ehrle, "Zur Vorgeschichte des Concils von Vienne," Archiv für Literaturund Kirchengeschichte des Mittelalters 2 (1886) 406]. D. Pacetti enumerates 64 writings and divides them into four groups: (1) philosophical and theological works, 1–15;(2) expositions or readings on the Scriptures, 16–42; (3) works dealing with evangelic perfection and Franciscan life, 43–52; and (4) ascetic and mystic works, 53–64. His most important philosophical and theological works are Quaestiones ordinatae, or Summa super Sententias, the second book of which was edited by B. Jansen [Bibliotheca Franciscana scholastica medii aevi (Quaracchi 192–226) 4–6]; Commentarius in quatuor libros Sententiarum ; and Quodlibeta (Venice c. 1509). Concerning the Franciscan life and evangelic perfection the following works are of capital importance: Expositio super regulam fratrum minorum [ed. in Speculum Minorum seu Firmamentum trium Ordinum (Venice 1513) pars. 3, 106a–124c] and the Quaestiones de perfectione evangelica. Of the 12 short ascetic and mystical works, four have been published (Spiritulis e Beghini in Provenza 274–290).
Teachings. Olivi remained faithful on many points to the teachings of St. Bonaventure, although he abandoned the theories of seminal reasons and divine illumination. For him, St. Augustine is the greatest authority after the Scriptures. He was well acquainted with Aristotle, Averroës, and Avicenna but thought it absurd that the authority of pagan and Muslim philosophers be admitted without discussion, as if they were inspired writers. He himself did not attribute great importance to purely philosophical questions; in his view, philosophy must serve theology.
He conceived the soul as essentially dynamic and active. In the act of knowing, the intellect integrates or assimilates itself to the object. Hence there is no need for species impressae, either of sensibles or of intelligibles. The human soul is a spiritual substance composed of spiritual matter and of formal or constitutive parts that are the vegetative, sensitive, and intellective powers of the spiritual matter. The soul is the substantial form of the body, yet the intellective part does not unite with the body immediately, as form to its matter, but consubstantially. Olivi advanced this theory to safeguard the freedom of the will and the immortality of the soul. In the field of physics he was among those who explained the motions of bodies by the theory of impetus.
Olivi's influence as a philosopher and theologian was not great, but his writings on evangelic perfection and his ascetic tracts were a source of inspiration for St. bernardine of siena as leader of the Observance, the most important reform movement within the Franciscan Order.
Bibliography: c. berube, De l'homme a Dieu: Selon Duns Scot, Henri de Gand et Olivi (Roma 1983). d. burr, The Persecution of Peter Olivi (Philadelphia 1976); Olivi and Franciscan Poverty: The Origins of the Usus Pauper Controversy (Philadelphia 1989). k. b. osborne, ed., A History of Franciscan Theology (St. Bonaventure 1994). f.-x. putallaz, Figures franciscaines: De Bonaventure a Duns Scot (Paris 1997).