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David of Dinant

A pantheistic philosopher who lived in the first decades of the thirteenth century

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David of Dinant, a pantheistic philosopher who Iived in the first decades of the thirteenth century. Very little is known about his life. It is not certain whether he was born at Dinant in Belgium, or at Dinan in Brittany. He is believed to have lived for some time at the Roman Court under Innocent III. He was a magister, or teacher, perhaps at Paris; at any rate, it was at Paris that his work, entitled “Quaternuli” (little note-books), was condemned by a provincial council in 1210, a condemnation which was confirmed in 1215 by a letter of Cardinal Robert Courcon, papal legate. From a work ascribed to Albert the Great, “Compilatio de Novo Spiritu”, in the Munich Library (MS. lat. 311, fol. 92 b), we learn further that in consequence of the condemnation, David fled from France, and so escaped punishment. When and where he died is unknown; all we are warranted in saying is that he died after the year 1215. Besides the “Quaternuli”, condemned in the council of 1215, and ordered to be burned “before Christmas“, another work entitled “De Tomis, seu Divisionibus” is mentioned. It is not improbable, however, that this was merely another title for the “Quaternuli”. The effect of the order issued by the council was to cause all the writing of David to disappear. Whatever is known, therefore, about his doctrines is derived from the assertions of his contemporaries and opponents, chiefly Albert the Great and St. Thomas. From these sources we learn that David was a Pantheist. He identified God with the material substratum of all things, materia prima (St. Thomas, Summa Theol., I, Q. iii, a. 8). He reduced all reality to three categories, namely bodies, minds, and eternal separate substances. The indivisible substrate or constituent of bodies is matter (yle); of minds, or souls, intellect (noes); and of eternal separate substances, God (Deus). These three, matter, intellect, and God, are one and the same. Consequently all things, material, intellectual, and spiritual, have one and the same essence—God (St. Thomas, In II Sent., dist. xvii, Q. i; Albert the Great, Sum. Theol., II, Tract. xii, Q. lxxii, a. 2).

The phraseology, which must be David’s own, as well as the title above mentioned, “De Tomis”, suggests at once the influence of John Scotus Eriugena, an influence which cannot be denied. Eriugena’s work must have been widely known and read in the first decades of the thirteenth century, as is evident from many undeniable facts. Whether David was influenced also by Amalric of Chartres (see Amalricians (Lat., Almarici, Amauriani)) is a matter of debate. Albert, who was a contemporary of David, says that David merely renewed the heresy of Alexander, “who taught that God and intellect and matter are one substance”. It is impossible to determine whom Albert here means by Alexander, “a disciple of Xenophanes”; probably the reference is to some Arabian work that went under the name of a Greek philosopher. There were several works of that kind current in the early part of the thirteenth century. Some critics, however, put forward the surmise that David’s immediate source was Avicebron‘s “Fons Vitae”, or the work “De Unitate”, written by Archdeacon Gundisalvi of Segovia, who was well versed in Arabian philosophical literature. What-ever the source, the doctrines were, as all our authorities concur in describing them, the expression of the most thoroughgoing pantheism. This of itself would justify the drastic measures to which the Council of Paris had recourse. There were, moreover, circumstances which rendered summary condemnation necessary. On the one hand the University of Paris was being made the scene of an organized attempt to foist the Arabian pantheistic interpretation of Greek philosophy on the schools of Latin Christendom. Texts, translations, and commentaries were introduced every day from Spain, in which doctrines incompatible with Christian dogma were openly taught. On the other hand, there was the popular movement in the South of France which found its principal expression in the Albigensian heresy, while in learned and ascetic communities in the North, the anti-hierarchical mysticism of the Calabrian Joachim of Floris was being combined with the more speculative pantheistic mysticism of John Scotus Eriugena. In view of these conditions the condemnation of the errors of David of Dinant, the complete extirpation of the sect of Amalricians to which he apparently belonged, and the unwonted harshness of St. Thomas’s reference to him cannot be judged untimely or intemperate.


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