Petrus Ramus

The French humanist logician and mathematician Petrus Ramus (1515-1572) founded the anti-Aristotelian philosophical school of Ramism.

Petrus Ramus was born Pierre de La Ramée in the village of Cuth in Picardy. He worked and studied at the College of Navarre at Paris until he took his master of arts degree in 1536, having defended his thesis that "everything which Aristotle said is invented or contrived" ("quaecumque ab Aristotle dicta essent, commentitia esse"—the exact rendering in English of Ramus's dictum is still disputed, but the common translation of "commentitia" as "false" is now generally rejected). In 1543 he published his criticism of Aristotelian logic, called Aristotelicae animadversiones. This and further editions brought on Ramus the ire of his colleagues at the University of Paris, who accused him of heretical tendencies contrary to true religion and philosophy. Modern commentators do not see his departure from Aristotle as being as dramatic as his Parisian contemporaries did—his main differences with Aristotle are now considered to be more in pedagogical method than in logic. His case, however, was first taken before a civil magistrate, then before the Parlement of Paris, and eventually before Francis I, who in March 1544 issued a decree prohibiting Ramus's works and preventing his teaching of philosophy. Ramus left Paris and turned to mathematical studies until the decree was rescinded in 1547 by Henry II.

Ramus was a brilliant lecturer and the prolific author of more than 50 works. His adoption of Protestantism in 1561 rekindled his colleagues' hostility toward him, and he fled from Paris again in 1562. He returned in the next year, when Charles IX was able to conclude a tenuous peace with the Protestants. Ramus reclaimed his chair of philosophy and continued teaching until the religious civil wars resumed in 1567. This began a period of flight from France during which he traveled extensively and lectured at various universities throughout Europe. In August 1570 he returned to France. For 2 more years he lectured and published, but on April 24, 1572, his opponents seized the opportunity of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre to murder Ramus.

Ramus was a considerable influence in the humanist development of anti-Aristotelian, antischolastic, antimedieval thinking; he was a major contributor to the "new philosophy" then challenging the assumptions of the Middle Ages. His influence was especially strong (according to their own testimony) among the English and Scottish Ramists (including John Milton and Sir William Temple), in the German universities (Johann Sturm and Johann Friege), and among the Puritans of New England. Nonetheless, the controversies which he aroused in the 16th century now seem merely tendentious.


Further Reading on Petrus Ramus

A readable biography of Ramus is Frank Pierrepont Graves, Peter Ramus and the Educational Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (1912). Indispensable for a thorough study of Ramus are the works of Father Walter J. Ong, Ramus: Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958) and Ramus and Talon Inventory (1958). Wilbur Samuel Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700 (1956), contains helpful chapters on the English Ramists. For Ramus's influence in colonial times see Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939).