Pietro Pomponazzi

The Italian Aristotelian philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525) was associated with the rationalist and humanist currents that swept Padua, Bologna, and other northern Italian universities in the early 16th century.

The fame of Pietro Pomponazzi rests principally on the De immortalitate animae, published in Bologna in 1516. In this work he concluded that the immortality of the soul, a cardinal doctrine in Christianity, could not be proved by philosophical argument.

Pomponazzi was born in Mantua on Sept. 16, 1462. At the University of Padua he studied natural philosophy under Nicoletto Vernia and Pietro Trapolino, metaphysics under Francesco Securo da Nardò, and medicine under Pietro Roccabonella. After 1487, with some interruptions, he taught philosophy at Padua, where he began his commentary on Aristotle's De anima and had as a pupil the future cardinal and Catholic reformer Gasparo Contarini. The siege of Padua and the closing of the university in 1509 compelled Pomponazzi to move to Ferrara, where he resided for a year, finally settling in Bologna, where he remained until his death on May 18, 1525.

In his most celebrated work, the De immortalitate animae, Pomponazzi elaborated on Aristotle's conception of the soul as it had been interpreted and transmitted by the Alexandrians. In his concern for the new humanistic view of the worth and dignity of the individual soul, Pomponazzi came to oppose the prevailing impersonal and collectivist view of human nature held by the Averroist school. Through a series of subtle technical arguments he parted with the Averroist concept of a single, corporate, but transcendent and immortal Intellect—a concept within which there was no place for human individuality.

Pomponazzi's insistence on the soul's perishability was clearly in conflict with Catholic eschatology and moral theory—with the Church's contention that rewards and punishments for human actions are reserved for the hereafter. Pomponazzi substituted what he considered a higher ethic: the essential reward of virtue is virtue itself, and the real punishment of evil is evil itself. Pomponazzi avoided official condemnation for this view in his own lifetime, despite the great anger of Pope Leo X. However, he was compelled to make at least a partial retraction, which he did in two writings, the Apologia (1517) and the Defensorium (1519).

The rationalist and humanist bent of Pomponazzi's mind continued to exhibit itself in his later writings. In the De incantationibus and the De naturalium effectuum causis he sought natural explanations for the miracles described in the Bible. In the De fato he attempted to reconcile human freedom and Providence. In his efforts to separate science and philosophy from theology, Pomponazzi stands as a pioneer in the progressive secularization of thought that has characterized the modern period.

Further Reading on Pietro Pomponazzi

An English translation of the De immortalitate animae, with an excellent introductory essay by John Herman Randall, is in Ernst Cassirer and others, eds., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (1948). The essay is reprinted, with some revisions, in Randall's The School of Padua and the Emergence of Modern Science (1961). The only comprehensive monograph on Pomponazzi in English is Andrew Halliday Douglas, The Philosophy and Psychology of Pietro Pomponazzi (1910).