Alexander of Hales Scholastic Innovator

Dan Graves, MSL

Alexander of Hales Scholastic Innovator

A decisive moment in Medieval scholasticism came when Alexander of Hales substituted Peter Lombard's Sentences in place of the Bible as the basic text for his teaching. Like many who came after him, he also wrote a commentary on Lombard's work.

Alexander was a brilliant scholar. In his own day he was called the "unanswerable doctor" and "king of theology." Born in Hales, Shropshire, England, he studied and taught in Paris. Although his method looked back to ancient authority, he was an innovator within the scholastic system.

In addition to making Peter Lombard's Sentences his basic text, he was the first scholastic philosopher to build a summary of Christian theology using the newly discovered writings of Aristotle as its key authority. Because he became a Franciscan friar at the height of his career, his teachings became a powerful influence on Franciscan theology. Alexander didn't stop with Aristotle, but also included Arabic ideas, as well as the more standard ideas of the neo-Platonists and Augustine of Hippo.

Christian summaries were not a new idea. Many people had already written their own versions. They were arranged under "questions." But because Alexander (and the others who worked on the Summa universae theologiae) quoted Aristotle as a reference to almost every question, using the newly recovered books on logic, metaphysics, physics and ethics, he paved the way for scholars like Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas who attempted to reconcile Aristotle's thinking with Christian theology. In fact, Aquinas considered Alexander his favorite scholar and closely followed the outline of the Summa universae theologiae when he wrote his own, more famous, Summa theologica. He probably never actually studied with Alexander, however.

Some of the little we know about Alexander Hales comes from the writings of Roger Bacon, who was critical of him. Bacon thought Alexander got too much praise while real contributors to knowledge remained unknown.

Although it is not strictly true, Alexander is often regarded as the founder of the Franciscan school of theology. In large measure, he followed the path of Bonaventura, the first really great Franciscan theologian.

In 1245, Alexander attended the Council of Lyons in Paris. He died that same year on this day, August 21, 1245, probably during an epidemic. He was 59, a pretty good age in those days. Today we remember the works of those who learned from him more than we do his. However, he continues to be studied by scholars of that time period.

Bibliography:

  1. Edwards, Paul, editor. Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan and the Free Press, 1967.
  2. Turner, William. "Alexander of Hales." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1907.
  3. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated July, 2007

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