Pietro Pomponazzi

Pietro Pomponazzi (also known by his Latin name, Petrus Pomionatius) (September 16, 1462 – May 18, 1525) was an Italian philosopher. He was the leading Aristotelian scholar of the Alexandrist group. His famous treatise De immortalitate animae (On the Immortality of the Soul) in 1516 provoked a controversy by asserting that although faith instructs immortality, natural reason and Aristotelian doctrines are unable to prove it. In spite of efforts by church authorities to convict him of heresy, Pietro Pomponazzi was able to keep his chair at the University of Bologna.


Pomponazzi also radically criticized what are generally thought of as miracles, explaining them in terms of a concatenation of natural causes and astrological influences. His discussions raised doubts about morality, for without immortality of the soul or an afterlife, human beings are deprived of reward for virtue and punishment for evil outside this material world. Pomponazzi explained in De fato (On Fate) in 1567 that all activity of insentient and sentient beings is guided to predestined aims by the circumstances in which they exist.


Pietro Pomponazzi was born September 16, 1462, in Mantua, Italy, where he began his education. He studied “Artes” (i.e. the philosophical disciplines) and completed his degree at the University of Padua, where he became a doctor of medicine in 1487. In 1488 he was elected professor of philosophy at Padua, where he was a colleague of Achillini the Averroist. He taught logic for three years at the court of Alberto Pio, prince of Carpi, who was exiled at Ferrara. From about 1499 to 1509 he occupied the chair of natural philosophy, until the closing of the schools of Padua, when he took a professorship at Ferrara where he lectured on De anima (the soul). In 1512 he was invited to Bologna where he remained until his death in 1525, and where he produced all his important works.

The predominance of medical science at Padua had absorbed his energies, but at Ferrara, and even more at Bologna, the study of psychology and theological speculation were given more priority. In 1516 he produced his great work De immortalitate animi (On the Immortality of the Soul), which gave rise to a storm of controversy between the orthodox Thomists of the Catholic Church, the Averroists headed by Agostino Nifo, and the so-called Alexandrist School. The treatise was publicly burned at Venice, and only the help of Cardinal Pietro Bembo enabled Pomponazzi to avoid the charge of heresy. Pomponazzi himself ran serious risk of death at the hands of the Catholics; nonetheless, he was compelled to defend his views. He published two pamphlets, the Apologia (1518) and the Defensorium, (1519, a reply to De immortalitate libellus written as a criticism of him by Agostino Nifo) wherein Pomponazzi explained his paradoxical position as Catholic and philosophic materialist.

These debates convinced him not to publish two other treatises that he wrote in 1520: De incantationibus (1556; On Incantations), which offered a natural explanation of allegedly miraculous phenomena, and De fato (1567; On Fate), which discussed predestination and free will. These last two treatises were posthumously published in an edition of his works printed at Basel.


During medieval times, Pope Innocent III (r. 1198 – 1216) wanted to make the University of Paris the center of Catholic truth. Aristotle’s books, except for Organon, were forbidden at the University of Paris. After the thirteenth century, the philosophy of Aristotle penetrated the University of Paris through the Latin translations of the works of the Islamic philosophers, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). The Dominican order aggressively adopted the theories of Aristotle, and the theology of its leading scholar, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225 – 1274) was connected with the ideas of Aristotle.

At the beginning of the fifteen century, Scholastic method and Aristotelian logic became targets of criticism by the humanists. Challengers of the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophies appeared among the Aristotelians themselves. The Aristotelian camp was divided mainly between two groups; one which interpreted Aristotle according to the method of Averroes, and another which followed the method of Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. 200 C.E.), who had been known as the commentator on Aristotle until that title was given to Averroes. The main point of argument concerned immortality.

The Averroists held the opinion that there is only one immortal intellect, present in all men; the Alexandrists followed the ideas of Alexander of Aphrodisias whose doctrines included denial of the reality of time and of the immortality of the soul. At the Fifth Lateran Council (1512 – 1517), the doctrines of both Averroists and Alexandrists about the rational soul of man were denounced. (This council also tried unsuccessfully to prevent the rise of the Protestant Reformation; seven months after its end, Martin Luther began the promulgation of his Ninety-Five Theses.)

Pietro Pomponazzi was the leading scholar of the Alexandrist group. He was born in the period of transition when Scholastic formalism was losing its hold both inside and outside of the Church. Hitherto the dogma of the Church had been based on Aristotle as interpreted by Thomas Aquinas. Any attack on Aristotle, or even an attempt to reopen the old discussions on the Aristotelian problems, was regarded by the Church as a dangerous heresy. Pomponazzi claimed the right to study Aristotle for himself, and devoted himself to the De anima with the view of showing that Thomas Aquinas had entirely misconceived the Aristotelian theory of the active and the passive intellect.

Immortality of the Soul

The doctrine of the immortality of the soul had been advocated for a long time, and theories existed in the Christian, pagan, Pythagorean, and Platonic traditions. Marsilio Ficino (1433 – 1499), the main representative of Platonism and Neoplatonism during the Renaissance period, claimed that both the Averroists and the Alexandrists did away with religion by denying immortality and divine providence.

In 1516 Pomponazzi insisted in his treatise De immortalitate animae (On the Immortality of the Soul) that, from Aristotle’s viewpoint, the human soul is mortal insofar as it is inseparable from the body. He accepted that the human soul is not able to act without assistance from the body, meaning that the existence of the soul cannot be maintained independently. Pomponazzi’s philosophical conclusions about the human soul had a serious impact on morality and ethics. The main opposition to his opinions was that the promise of eternal reward and punishment would become meaningless, and people’s motivation to act in a moral and ethical manner would lose strength. Pomponazzi listened to these opinions, but asserted that people who live a truly philosophical life, understand and distinguish between virtue and vice (like the Stoics).

Later, Pomponazzi admitted that the immortality of the soul cannot be decisively established, and accepted the authority of the Church as a matter of faith. He did not accept the Church’s intervention in his philosophy, merely claiming that the immortality of the soul is a neutral problem.

Concerning “Miracles”

In ancient and medieval times, people widely believed in miracles, charms, incantations, and demonic and magical events. In 1556, Pomponazzi's De incantationibus (On Incantations) was published, in which he strove to establish on rational grounds that all miraculous events can be explained by the forces of nature. He asserted that, from an Aristotelian point of view, an incorporeal being cannot directly act on a corporeal being. Many miraculous events discussed by the public, such as the driving away of clouds or the appearance of saints in the sky, could be explained by physical forces and changes in the climate.

Fate and Free Will

Pomponazzi completed his treatise De fato (On Fate) in 1520. It was the most involved of his works, discussing whether the human will can be free or not, and the conflict between determinism and Christian thought.

In the first section, he discussed divine rule and human free will. Although his main thought was close to Alexander of Aphrodisias, whose opinion was that the human will can select between two equal alternatives, Pomponazzi concluded by yielding free will to the determinism of natural laws. This determinism, similar to that promoted by the Stoics, was criticized by Alexander.

In the second section, Pomponazzi attempted to mitigate the uncertainty regarding human freedom and perpetual divine foresight. He examined in detail the theories of previous philosophers such as Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus, concluding that no philosophical demonstration could support the doctrines of the Church. He even went so far as to say that the Stoic thought on fate and freedom is less contradictory; the god in Stoicism is the indwelling principle of order in the cosmos, while the god in Christianity, though he is almighty, merciful, and good, is puzzlingly not able to block evil.


  • Cassirer, E., et al. 1956. The Renaissance Philosophy of Man: Petrarca, Valla, Ficino, Pico, Pomponazzi, Vives. University of Chicago Press.
  • Douglas, A. H. 1962. The Philosophy and Psychology of Pietro Pomponazzi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pine, M. L. 1986. Pietro Pomponazzi: Radical Philosopher of the Renaissance. Padua: Antenore.
  • Pomponazzi, P. 1948. De immortalitae animae. Translated by W.H. Hay II. In The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, edited by E. Cassirer, P. O. Kristeller, and J. H. Randall Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Thorndike, L. 2005. Pietro Pomponazzi on Incantations. Kessinger Publishing.

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