St. Bonaventure

The Italian theologian and philosopher St. Bonaventure (1217-1274) was very influential in the development of scholasticism in medieval thought.

The quarter century from 1250 to 1275 has a particular character in the history of medieval thought. In this period Paris emerged as the leading university in Europe, a position it retained until the mid-14th century. Moreover, discussions in philosophy and theology, which earlier had centered on various disputed questions, began to be organized into systematic surveys of theology in the form either of commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard or of works known as theological summaries, or Summae. These attempts at a logical arrangement of theological thought and at the exploration of every aspect of a theological question are the distinguishing characteristics of this period of scholasticism, which some historians have considered the high point of that movement.

Bonaventure born John of Fidanza, was the son of a fairly prosperous doctor. He received his early education in his birthplace, Bagnoregio, near Lake Bolsena in central Italy. In 1234 he went to Paris to study and became a master of arts. Influenced by the Franciscans throughout his education and having a great reverence for the life of St. Francis of Assisi, he entered the Franciscan order about 1243.

Bonaventure continued his studies in theology at the University of Paris and wrote commentaries on the Scriptures (1248) and on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (1250-1252). He received a license to teach in 1253, and probably from that time until his election as minister general of the Franciscan order in 1257 Bonaventure taught theology at the University of Paris.

Minister General of the Franciscan Order

By the middle of the 13th century the Franciscan order was becoming divided between those who wished to alter the rule and program of St. Francis in favor of the corporate possession of private property and activity in university education and political life, and those who wished to remain as faithful as possible to St. Francis's original ideal of poverty and missionary activity among the common people. By training and probably by inclination, Bonaventure was committed to the aims of the former group; that is, he advocated Franciscan participation in education and ecclesiastical affairs for which it was necessary to have the financial support provided by the corporate possession of property. But he made sincere attempts to heal the division in the Franciscan order.

As minister general of the Franciscans, Bonaventure led a very active life. Although he tried to make Paris the center of his administration, he visited Italy almost every year. In 1260 the order adopted as its new constitution a collection of Franciscan legislation compiled by Bonaventure. A biography of St. Francis written by Bonaventure was accepted as the official biography, and earlier biographies were required to be destroyed. Thus Bonaventure's views had a great and lasting influence on the activity and spirit of the Franciscans.

In recognition of his activity as general of the Franciscan order and as papal confidant, Pope Gregory X made Bonaventure cardinal bishop of Albano in 1273. Bonaventure helped to organize and conduct the Second General Council of Lyons in 1274. On July 15, before the end of the council, he died suddenly and was buried the same day in the Franciscan church in Lyons. He was canonized in 1482 and was later made a Doctor of the Church.

Thought and Writings

Bonaventure is numbered with Albertus Magnus, St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Duns Scotus as one of the greatest thinkers of the 13th century. The content of Bonaventure's thought as well as the style of much of his writing may be described as scholastic. Like many theologians before him, Bonaventure made an attempt to explore, within the limits of human reason, the doctrines of Christianity that are initially accepted on faith. In his commentary on the Sentences, one of the most extensive and highly structured commentaries ever produced, this theological inquiry was presented according to the pro and con of school debate, which was one of the most characteristic features of scholasticism.

Bonaventure was familiar with the thought of Aristotle and the Arabian philosophers. In some areas, such as his understanding of how men come to know external reality, Bonaventure was influenced by the Aristotelian epistemology. Such knowledge, for Bonaventure, is received through the senses and implanted upon the mind. In general, however, Bonaventure questioned many of the philosophical conclusions of Aristotle and Averroës. In contrast to other thinkers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure was a strongly traditional theologian, closely tied to the thought and approach of St. Augustine. Bonaventure's theology was Christ-centered and non-apologetic; that is, he was not preoccupied with the problem of presenting the Christian faith to nonbelievers.

As a result of this approach, Bonaventure arrived at a series of distinctive positions. While he adopted the Aristotelian description of the process of empirical knowledge, Bonaventure maintained that certain ideas, especially values, are placed within the human mind and are recognized by means of divine illumination, an idea he drew from Augustine. Exemplarism and the general notion of Forms or Ideas played a very important role in the thought of Bonaventure, and he chastised Aristotle for rejecting the Platonic Ideas.

Perhaps the most important single controversy in which Bonaventure was involved concerned the Aristotelian idea of the eternity of the world. Unlike Aquinas, Bonaventure asserted categorically that the idea of the eternity of the world entailed a direct contradiction and consequently was a demonstrable falsehood.

Many of Bonaventure's writings may be described as mystical. Bonaventure's thought has as its final and often immediate aim the encouragement of the individual in his quest for and ascent to God. This strong mystical approach characterized most of Bonaventure's thought, which may thus be seen as a theology of aspiration.

Further Reading on St. Bonaventure

The most extensive treatment of the life and thought of Bonaventure remains Étienne Gilson, The Philosophy of Saint Bonaventure (trans. 1938). The Catholic University of America published several studies of different aspects of Bonaventure's thought: Conrad J. O'Leary, The Substantial Composition of Man according to St. Bonaventure (1931); Clement M. O'Donnell, The Psychology of St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas (1937); and Matthew M. De Benedictis, The Social Thought of Saint Bonaventure: A Study in Social Philosophy (1946). A detailed analysis of the thought of Bonaventure that challenges some of Gilson's conclusions is Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2 (1952; new ed. 1962). A short but pithy study is Efrem Bettoni, Saint Bonaventure (trans. 1964). Two studies of note were published by the Franciscan Institute: Robert P. Prentice, The Psychology of Love according to St. Bonaventure (1951; 2d ed. 1957), and Sister Emma J. M. Spargo, The Category of the Aesthetic in the Philosophy of St. Bonaventure (1953).

Additional Biography Sources

Bonaventure & Aquinas: enduring philosophers, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.

Cousins, Ewert H., Bonaventure and the coincidence of opposites, Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1978.

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