Henry of Ghent – A brilliant medieval scholastic suspended for not toeing the line…

In an age where some university professors arguably waste the taxpayers’ money by obsessing on obscure topics that almost nobody cares about we would do well to remember that this wasn’t always the case.

There were periods throughout history when more essential and profound matters were hotly debated, such as the era of the medieval scholastics.

Not to say that the scholastics had free reign. They didn’t. And sometimes if they deviated too far from what the Pope said, they could be chastised or even barred from teaching. Such was the case with Henry of Ghent (c. 1217 – 1293), a brilliant thinker given the honorary title of Doctor Solemnins who nevertheless went a bit too far and was suspended from teaching.

Power, politics, religion, ideology and education have always been intertwined. And Henry was caught up in a turbulent debate about the need to confess to a parish priest after already having confessed to a friar. Henry believed a second confession was unnecessary, but “the rules” said otherwise.

Henry would be engaged in this violent controversy for the rest of his life and it seems that he was even temporarily suspended from teaching for not having heeded the papal legates’ warning not to hold disputes on the interpretation of privileges granted by the pope.¹

A portrait of Avicenna, the Latinized name of Ibn Sina, a Persian polymath

Henry taught at the University of Paris and is generally understood to have revived St. Augustine of Hippo’s idea that knowledge arrives through an “illumination of the intellect” by God, this view prefigured by the work of the Greek philosopher Plato.

However, recent studies suggest that Henry was more of a synthetic thinker, trying to meaningfully combine what he saw as the best from Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and Muslim polymath Avicenna.

Ghent believed that knowledge of natural phenomena depends in part on divine illumination and that the body isn’t entirely separate from the soul.

 In psychology, his view of the intimate union of soul and body is remarkable. The body he regards as forming part of the substance of the soul, which through this union is more perfect and complete.²

Some contemporary writers such as Marina Warner say it is “absurd thinking” to suppose that God intervenes in natural matters such as conception.³

This demonstrates Warner’s belief that nature is discrete from spirit. However, for Ghent, the natural and the spiritual realms mingle—especially when it comes to knowing.

Henry’s view of knowledge was challenged by Duns Scotus (1265/66 – 1308), a Franciscan thinker whom Catholics generally rate even higher in brilliance than Henry. Most historians say Duns’ thinking was subtle and quick. He also supported the Papal stance on not taxing church property and his teaching that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin was hailed as “correct” by the Vatican.4

¹ https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/henry-ghent/

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_of_Ghent

³ Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex, London: Vintage, 2000, p. 46.

4 The winds of inquiry eventually shifted and Duns was ridiculed by 16th-century humanists as a “dunce” incapable of ‘real’ scholarship. For Catholics, however, the belief in the Immaculate Conception became dogma in 1854.


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