Henry of Ghent (French, Henri de Gand, byname, Doctor Solemnis (“Exalted Teacher”)) (c. 1217 – 1293), scholastic philosopher and theologian, known as Doctor Solemnis (the Solemn Doctor), was a highly esteemed professor at the University of Paris and in Tournai, and a Neo-Platonic opponent of Aristotelianism. He developed many of his ideas in critical dialog with his contemporary, Thomas Aquinas. His two greatest works were ”Summa Theologiae” (Summation of Theology) and a set of “Quodlibeta,” reports of his response to questions, put to him in the context of disputations on a wide range of issues. Henry maintained that Aristotelianism was not a viable option for a Christian thinker, and attempted an eclectic synthesis of Aristotelianism with Augustinianism. Henry distinguished between the cognition by which man acquires knowledge of actual objects, and the divine inspiration by which man cognizes the being and existence of God. He disagreed with Thomas Aquinas’ view that individuals were defined by the existence of their physical bodies, maintaining instead that they were unique because they were created as separate entities. He denied any real distinction between the soul and its faculties, and portrayed an intimate union of soul and body, with the body forming part of the substance of the soul.
Henry's writings were widely read between the fourteenth and eighteenth century, and the British philosopher John Duns Scotus developed much of his thought in answer to Henry's arguments.
Henry of Ghent was born at Ghent in Belgium. The exact year of his birth, early in the thirteenth century, is unknown, as is also his family name. He is said to have belonged to an Italian family named Bonicolli (in Flemish, Goethals), but the evidence for this is inconclusive. He was also called Henricus de Muda or Mudanus or ad Plagam, probably from his place of residence in the town of Tournai, a French-speaking area about eighty miles southwest of Brussels.
Henry studied at Ghent and Tournai, where he became a canon in 1267, and at Cologne under Albertus Magnus. He studied theology at the University of Paris and became famous as a lecturer from 1276, the date of his first disputatio de quodlibet, (when he was archdeacon of Bruges) to 1292. Although he does not seem to have resided permanently at the University of Paris, he taught in the faculties of arts and theology and was well known and highly esteemed there. In 1277, after receiving the degree of Magister, or Doctor of Theology, he returned to Ghent, and is said to have been the first to lecture there publicly on philosophy and theology. In 1278 he was principal archdeacon of Tournai, and was a member of the commission that drafted the condemnation of Averroism in 1277. In 1282, Martin IV appointed him, with two others, to arbitrate a dispute about whether mendicant friars should be allowed to hear confessions. He defended the position of the bishops against Bonaventure and the Franciscans, and his opposition to the mendicants was so vehement that in 1290 he was censured by Cardinal Benedict Caetani, later Pope Boniface VIII. After 1282, he was actively involved in the ecclesiastical affairs of Tournai, as well as in the university life of Paris, and attended several Councils, including those of Lyon (1274), Cologne, and Compiègne. Henry of Ghent died at Tournai (or Paris) in 1293.
Scholasticism was at its height when Henry of Ghent lived and worked, during the intense intellectual activity at the end of the thirteenth century. His writings were an eclectic synthesis of Aristotelianism and Augustinianism, drawing from the metaphysics of Avicenna concerning the nature of being. His two greatest works,”Summa Theologiae” (Summation of Theology) and a set of “Quodlibeta,” reports of his response to questions, put to him in the context of disputations on a wide range of issues, show him to be a psychologist and metaphysician.
Henry discussed all the philosophical questions of his age with insight and originality. A contemporary of Aquinas, he developed his positions in opposition to several of the dominant theories of the time, defending Plato against Aristotelian criticism, and endeavoring to show that the two views were in harmony. Henry maintained that Aquinas was applying the principles of Greek metaphysics to Christianity without sufficient discernment, and that Aristotelianism was not a viable option for a Christian thinker.
Henry distinguished between the cognition by which man acquires knowledge of actual objects, and the divine inspiration by which man cognizes the being and existence of God. He disagreed with Thomas Aquinas’ view that individuals were defined by the existence of their physical bodies, maintaining instead that they were unique because they were created as separate entities. He rejected the contemporary philosophical distinction between “essence” and “existence,” and taught that God could create matter to exist independent of form.
Henry’s psychology denied any real distinction between the soul and its faculties, and portrayed an intimate union of soul and body, with the body forming part of the substance of the soul, which through this union is made more perfect and complete. He viewed the relationship between will and reason as that of master and servant. Conscience was a choice of the will, which would never disagree with reason.
Henry of Ghent’s theory of cognition was worked out partially in response to the question, “Can a human being know anything without divine illumination?” Like Thomas Aquinas, he attempted to incorporate the mechanisms of Aristotle’s theory of cognition into the Augustinian doctrine that true knowledge is beyond the natural capacity of human cognition and requires divine illumination. However, Henry argued against Aquinas’ idea that this illumination was a natural faculty of the soul. Henry did not think that all knowledge required divine illumination, as this would diminish the “worth and perfection of the created intellect.” He distinguished between “simple understanding,” the intellectual knowledge acquired by natural perception of something, and more complex forms of knowledge which involved judging how the perceived thing conformed to an “exemplar” within the divine intelligence. Simple knowledge could be acquired through the senses, but further understanding required some kind of divine illumination from outside the human faculties. “Certain knowledge” of a thing was possible only when its conformity to its immutable, unchangeable divine exemplar could be judged, and these divine exemplars could only be cognized through a special gift of grace.
This theory was strongly criticized by Duns Scotus, who argued that humans do have natural knowledge of first principles, because they are inherent in understanding and perception.
The inaccessibility of Henry’s works caused him to be ignored by historians, but he played a significant role in the development of medieval philosophy, particularly in the fields of ethics, psychology and epistemology. The British philosopher John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), who especially criticized Henry for his lack of clarity, developed much of his thought in answer to Henry's arguments, adopting certain Augustinian elements. Despite similar attacks from other thinkers such as William of Ockham and Durandus of Saint-Pourçain, Henry's writings were widely read between the fourteenth and eighteenth century. During the sixteenth century, the Servites erroneously adopted him as their official doctor, reinforcing a misperception that Henry had belonged to one of the religious orders.
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