History of Literature

French literature


Nicholas of Autrecourt

French philosopher and theologian
French Nicolas D’autrecourt
born c. 1300, Autrecourt, near Verdun, Fr.
died after 1350, Metz, Lorrain

French philosopher and theologian known principally for developing medieval Skepticism to its extreme logical conclusions, which were condemned as heretical.

Nicholas was an advanced student in liberal arts and philosophy at the Sorbonne faculty of the University of Paris from 1320 to 1327. He became one of the most notable adherents of nominalism, a school of thought holding that only individual objects are real and that universal concepts simply express things as names. Nicholas’ chief writings are commentaries on the 12th-century Sentences of Peter Lombard, the basic medieval compendium of philosophical theology, and on the Politics of Aristotle; nine letters to the Franciscan monk-philosopher Bernard of Arezzo; and an important treatise usually designated by the opening words Exigit ordo executionis (“The order of completion requires”). This last contains the 60 theses controverted at Nicholas’ heresy trial, convened by Pope Benedict XII at Avignon, in 1340.

Nicholas rejected the traditional Aristotelian objectivism, with its allusions to a single intellect for all men, and proposed that there are only two bases for intellectual certitude: the logical principle of identity, with its correlative principle of contradiction, which states that a thing cannot simultaneously be itself and another; and the immediate evidence of sense data. Consistent with his nominalist doctrine, he denied that any causal relation could be known experientially and taught that the very principle of causality could be reduced to the empirical declaration of the succession of two facts. The consequence of such a concept of causality, he averred, was to reject the possibility of any rational proof for the existence of God and to deny any divine cause in creation. Indeed, he held as more probable that the world had existed from eternity.

Nicholas’ nominalism precluded the possibility of knowing anything as a permanent concept and allowed only the conscious experience of an object’s sensible qualities. Rejecting Scholastic–Aristotelian philosophy and physics, Nicholas believed that the physical and mental universe is ultimately composed of simple, indivisible particles or atoms. He maintained, however, that his innovative thought did not affect his fidelity to Christian religious tradition, including the moral commandments and belief in a future life. Faith and reason, he taught, operate independently from each other, and one could assent to a religious doctrine that reason might contradict. Because of the fallibility of the senses and the human inclination—even in Aristotle—toward erroneous judgment, evidence and truth are not always identical, and philosophy at best is simply the prevalence of the more probable over the less probable.

The ecclesiastical judges at Nicholas’ heresy trial labeled his avowals of Christian belief as mere subterfuge and denounced him. Condemned in 1346 by Pope Clement VI, Nicholas finally was ordered in 1347 to resign his professorship, recant his error, and publicly burn his writings. That he took refuge with Emperor Louis IV the Bavarian is a legend created to form a parallel with the life of William of Ockham, his nominalist precursor. Nicholas became dean of the cathedral at Metz in 1350, after which nothing more is heard of him. His Exigit manuscript was discovered by A. Birkenmayer at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and was published in 1939 by J.R. O’Donnell in Medieval Studies.




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