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Alexander of Hales

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Franciscan, theologian, and philosopher, one of the greatest of the scholastics, born at Hales, or Hailles, in Gloucestershire, towards the end of the twelfth century; died at Paris in 1245. He was educated at the monastic school in his native village, and probably also at Oxford. After having finished his studies in England, he went to the University of Paris, and there attained the Master's degree, first in the faculty of arts (philosophy), and afterwards in that of theology. From a remark made by Roger Bacon it is inferred that, in 1210, Alexander was Magister regens in the faculty of arts, and this is the first date of his biography that is certain. Roger is also our authority (though not the only one) that Alexander became archdeacon; but whether the title was conferred by the Bishop of Paris or by an English bishop, is uncertain. In 1220, Alexander joined the faculty of theology, in which he soon became one of the most celebrated teachers. In 1231, he entered the order of St. Francis, continuing, however, to perform, as a monk, the duties of a licensed teacher of theology, a fact which was of the utmost importance both for the University and for the course of studies in the Franciscan Order. Alexander died at the convent of his Order in Paris.

In the chronicles and theological treatises of the fourteenth century we find Alexander styled Doctor irrefragabilis, Fons Vitae, Theologorum monarcha. His principal work is the "Summa Universae Theologiae", begun about the year 1231 and left unfinished. The third part is defective, especially the portion treating of the virtues and other questions in moral theology. To supply this defect, the "Summa Virtutum" was composed by the Franciscan William of Melitona, though the work was, and is still sometimes, ascribed to Alexander himself. It is now agreed that not Alexander of Hales, but Alexander of Bonini is the author of the "Commentaries" on Aristotle's "Metaphysics" and "De Anima". The "Summa Theologiae" has been several times published (Venice, 1475, 1576; Nuremberg, 1481, 1502; Pavia, 1481; Cologne, 1622). A critical edition has recently been promised by Quaracchi editors of the works of St. Bonaventure. Alexander's other works (Salimbene, a contemporary, speaks of his "many writings") are still unpublished.

Alexander's importance for the history of theology and philosophy lies in the fact, that he was the first to attempt a systematic exposition of Catholic doctrine, after the metaphysical and physical works of Aristotle had become known to the schoolmen. His is not the first "Summa". The collections of "Sentences" which were current in the schools since the days of Abelard, were summaries of theology and were often so titled in manuscripts. So that Alexander had many Summists as predecessors, as predecessors for instance: Hugh of St. Victor, Roland, Omnebene, Peter Lombard, Stephen Langton, Robert of Melun, Peter of Poitiers, William of Auxerre, and Robert Pulleyn. His, however, is the first "Summa" in which use was made of Aristotle's physical, metaphysical, and ethical, as well as logical treatises. Peter Lombard did not quote Aristotle once. Alexander quotes him in almost every Quaestio; he quotes also Arabian commentators, especially Avicenna, and thus prepares the way for Albert, St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus for whom Aristotle was the philosopher. The "Summa" is divided into four parts: the first treats of God, the Trinity, etc.; the second, of creatures, sin, etc.; the third of Christ, Redemption, supernatural law; the fourth, of the sacraments. Each part is divided into Questions, each Question into Members, each Member into Articles. The method is a development of that employed by Abelard in his "Yea and Nay", and is practically that with which readers of St. Thomas are familiar. The article opens with a recital of the objections, then follows the thesis, with proofs, scriptural, patristic, and rational, and at the end of the article, under the title "Resolutio" are given the answers to the objections.

Alexander's theology is, in its main outlines, identical with that of St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas. Thus he starts with the question of the knowableness of God, and decides that, while the human mind can know that He is, no created mind can comprehend what He is. In enumerating the proofs of the existence of God, he lays stress on St. Augustine's argument from the need of an absolute truth, on Saint Anselm's ontological argument, on Hugh of St. Victor's argument from consciousness, and on the Aristotelean argument from causality. He teaches that God is the exemplar, efficient and final cause of all things, that He is the Creator and Preserver of all things, that He is pure Actuality (Actus Purus), all things else being composed of matter and form. This latter point, the coextensiveness of matter with created being, later on became a distinctive tenet of the Franciscan School. On the problem of Universals, Alexander takes up the position of a metaphysician and psychologist, and thus reaches a conclusion to which his predecessors of the twelfth century, who argued the question solely from the point of view of dialectics, could never have attained; he teaches that Universals exist ante rem, in the mind of God, and also in re, as forms or essences which the active intellect abstracts. This is the conclusion of Moderate Realism.

In psychology, more than elsewhere, Alexander shows that he is not prepared to break with the traditional Augustinian teaching which prevailed in the schools before the introduction of Aristotle's "De Anima". Thus he adopts the threefold division of the faculties of the soul into ratio, which has for its object the external world, intellectus which has for its object created spiritual substances, and intelligentia, which has for its object first principles and the eternal prototype of things in the mind of God. Augustinian, also, is the doctrine that our knowledge of higher truths, especially of higher spiritual truths, is dependent on special divine illumination. Despite these Augustinian principles, however, he adopts Aristotle's doctrine of the Active and Passive Intellect, and by means of it accounts for our knowledge of the external world. Alexander's importance in the history of Christian Ethics is due to the use which he makes of Aristotle's ethical treatises. William of Auxerre, in his "Summa Aurea", made use of a Latin translation of Aristotle's "Ethics"; following his example, though working along independent lines, Alexander takes up the problems of the Highest Good, the nature of virtue, the moral aspect of actions and habits, and brings to bear on his discussions not merely the principles of the evangelical law, the ethical definitions of patristic writers, the legislation and practice of the Church, but also the definitions and principles laid down in the "Ethics". God, he teaches, is the highest Good; man's duty is through knowledge and love of God to attain possession of Him. He defines virtue, in the Aristotelean, not in the traditional Augustinian sense. Alexander, being the first of the great thirteenth century schoolmen in point of time, naturally exercised considerable influence on all those great leaders who made the thirteenth century the golden age of Scholasticism. Within his own order he was the model of other great Summists as to method and arrangement of matter. Gerson says that Alexander was a favourite teacher (doctor) of St. Thomas. This, however, need not mean, as it is sometimes taken to mean, that St. Thomas frequented his lecture hall. The influence was exerted chiefly, if not exclusively, through Alexander's "Summa Universae Theologiae," which St. Thomas followed very closely in the arrangement and method of his "Summa Theologica".


ENDRES, Des Alex. von Hales Leben, etc. in "Philosophisches Jahrb." (Fulda, 1888), I; FELDER, Studien im Franziskanerorden (Freiburg, 1904), 177 sqq.; DE MARTIGNE, La scolastique et les traditions franciscaines (Paris, 1888); STOCKL, Gesch. der Phil. de Mittelalters, Bd. II (Mainz, 1865), 320 sqq.; TURNER. Hist. of Philosophy (Boston, 1905), 326 sqq.

About this page

APA citation. Turner, W. (1907). Alexander of Hales. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Turner, William. "Alexander of Hales." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Geoffrey K. Mondello.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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