The Philosophy of David de Dinant

David and Amaury

It is time to consider the most obvious influence upon the Amalricians, after Amaury himself, and that is David de Dinant.  His work was blamed for its contribution to their heresy from the beginning, from the time of the Council of Paris. Contemporaries certainly linked the ideas of the Amalricians with those of David de Dinant, who had probably taught at Paris, and who was responsible for introducing into France some of the less well known works of Aristotle, from texts which he had sought out in Greece.

Both Amaury de Beynes and David de Dinant were radical thinkers, ready to incorporate new materials, as they became available, into their bold speculations.  They may well have influenced each other.  The Anonymous of Laon goes so far as to call David “that heretic from Dinant” and to affirm that:

“For David himself was more subtle than was fitting; from his Quaterni, as it is believed, Master Amalric and the other heretics of that time absorbed David’s error.”[1]

The Council of Paris did not condemn David, but did condemn his books, the Quaternuli.  Both Caesarius’ detailed account of the Amalrician story and Robert de Courçon’s decree of 1215 made the connection between David’s books and the Amalricians.[2]

Amaury and David were, however, treated very differently by Pope Innocent III.  In June 1206, the Pope wrote to the church in Dinant in the diocese of Liège, asking for the prebend held by Master David, “our chaplain”, to be given to David’s nephew, because David would not be returning.[3]  That David had found favour with the Pope was echoed by the Anonymous of Laon, who said that David

“was often in the company of Pope Innocent, because the Pope dedicated himself passionately to subtle questions.”[4]

David may also have been favoured, because he was a useful physician.  A more likely reason, however, could be that he may have answered the Pope’s call, made in 1205, to all the clergy and laity of France, and particularly to the academics of Paris, to go east, to help in the new Latin administration of the Eastern Empire (Byzantium), which had just been captured by the Fourth Crusade.[5]  Certainly David mentions the time he spent in Greece in some of the fragments of his work that have survived.[6]  The historian, Marie-Thérèse d’Alverny, thought that David must have been an extraordinary man: he was a cleric, a scientist and a physician and, on top of that, he seems to have made his own translations from Greek for his quotations from the books of Aristotle on natural science.[7]  To be able to study Aristotle’s scientific books directly and in full, rather than from other people’s discussions and commentaries, was probably a principal reason for him going out to Greece.[8]

David de Dinant’s writings and their effects

Although genuine fragments of David’s scientific writings have been found (by A. Birkenmajer) and edited (by M. Kurdziałek),[9] much of our knowledge of the theological ideas expressed in the Quaternuli still comes from the reconstruction made by the historian, G. Théry.  He was able to use the long quotations from David’s works, which had been preserved by the 13th-century scholastic philosophers, Albertus Magnus and Aquinas.[10]  They quoted him at length in order to refute his opinions.  It is not surprising that David should have provoked such interest from these two champions of Aristotle, since he must have done more than anyone else, to bring that philosopher into disrepute with orthodox clergy in the early years of the century.

In the extracts which concern issues of theology, David quotes most often from the first book of Aristotle’s Physics and from the first book of his Metaphysics.[11]  These are precisely the works which had only recently been translated from Greek into Latin:[12] David had presumably sought them out to check what had been written in the original.  However that may be, it explains why the Council of Paris condemned Aristotle’s books of natural philosophy along with the Quaternuli; why Robert d’Auxerre recorded that the study of Aristotle’s natural philosophy was prohibited in Paris for three years;[13] and why Robert de Courçon in 1215 decreed that lectures could not be given on

“the books of Aristotle on metaphysics or natural philosophy.”[14]

Amaury’s contemporary, the royal chronicler, Guillaume le Breton, who made no reference to David de Dinant, said that the works

“of Aristotle on metaphysics, recently brought here from Constantinople and translated from Greek into Latin,”[15]

had helped to give rise to the Amalrician heresy.  From all this it is clear that David must be considered as likely to have had a strong influence on some of the Amalricians.  Certainly some of David de Dinant’s writings can present an unequivocally pantheist doctrine.

His three categories and three fundamental principles

Like Amaury, David had studied logic; and he reasoned back from effect to cause, and from multiple to simple, until he had everything divided into three universal categories: bodies, souls and eternal substances.  He then distinguished the fundamental, unchanging and unifying principle for each category.  To express it in another way, there had to be one basic substance, which was common to everything within a particular category.  He found these principles in: Hyle (prime matter) for bodies; Noys (mind) for souls; and God for eternal substances.

“All things can be separated into three categories: bodies, souls and eternal substances.  The fundamental and indivisible component of all bodies is called Hyle.  The fundamental and indivisible component of all souls is called Noys or Mind.  The fundamental and indivisible component of eternal substances is called God.”[16]

Since all these principles are indivisible, eternal, without form or differentiation, they cannot be distinguished.

“It appears that Mind and Hyle do not differ, because neither of them is subject to any received attribute.”[17]

One can therefore conclude:

“that Mind and Hyle are identical.  Plato seems to agree with this when he says that the world is God made perceptible.”[18]

If there are no differences, then all these universal principles, Hyle, Noys and God, must be the same.

“And these three are one and the same; from which it follows that all things are one in their essence.”[19]

His pantheism

He has argued back to the unity of being.  God is Being, that which underlies absolutely everything.  At the creation, what must have come first could be called potential being.  But that, before which there is nothing, is God.  Therefore God is potential being.  What is potential being?  It is matter before it has been differentiated by form; this is usually called prime matter or Hyle.  Therefore God is Hyle.[20]

He may call it Hyle, as others call it God: it is the classic pantheist doctrine of the underlying oneness of all being.  It seems perfectly obvious to David, that God is the being of the universe, which is in all bodies as universal matter, and in all souls as universal mind.

“It is clear, therefore, that there is only one substance, not only of all bodies but also of all souls, and this substance is nothing other than God himself.  The substance from which all bodies come is called Hyle, while the substance from which all souls come is called Reason or Mind.  It is therefore manifest that God is the reason of all souls and the hyle of all bodies.”[21]

Just as Hyle means prime or universal matter, Reason is here considered as the divine reason, which pervades the world, like a world soul, and is present in all creative processes, giving all things their particular being.

David also distinguishes between the worlds of being and seeming.  This world is the world of existence, of seeming, of appearances, in which things proclaim the reality of God as Being to different degrees, but all do so imperfectly.[22]  It may seem curious to talk of this material world as a place of appearances; but David is trying to distinguish the concept of being, which is eternal, from existence, which is temporal.  He is aware how difficult it is to conceptualise being, when there is nothing in our earthly experience which is truly unchanging and eternal, not even the mountains or the oceans; everything we see is part of the changeable world of existence.  We are unable to see the divine unity, which underlies our world of existence; but we need to be able to understand it.

Distinctions to be made

Although David’s main concerns are scientific, they are based on an ontology (a theory about the nature of being), which is akin to that of all pantheists, including the Amalricians.  However, whereas the latter would have spoken more theologically, David was writing as a natural philosopher and a physician, more interested in what the practical implications would be, for his studies of the human mind and body.  David’s clear exposition of pantheism must have been very helpful to a number of Amalricians, but it is important to distinguish the two.  David’s God seems to be a necessary part of his philosophical system, rather than an inner experience.  His extant work contains no scriptural references and shows no concern over the Trinity, Christ, the sacraments or any of the key issues exercising the minds of the Amalricians.

The tract Against the Amalricians seems to suggest that Amalrician pantheism was expressed in more Platonic language, closer to that of the 12th-century Platonists and Hermeticists, who believed that God was the form of being, and that his presence in the world-soul brought everything to perfection in its own kind.[23]  This should not have conflicted, however, with what they could have learned from David; for David taught that God was both the underlying being, which is present in every thing (prime matter), and the universal spirit (mind), which is present in every soul, as the ideal towards which that soul must strive.

David de Dinant was not an Amalrician, but his writings must have been of great benefit to them, and must have given them enormous encouragement.  One may imagine that the learned sub-deacon Bernardus, who was probably the leader of the Amalricians in Paris, could have been particularly impressed by David’s clear philosophical analysis.  Bernardus was the only Amalrician Master of Arts who had not gone on to study theology; perhaps he, like David, was more interested in science (or natural philosophy, as it would have been called).  Bernardus was convinced that God was within him as Being, i.e. that his being was part of the eternal, universal Being.  David’s work must have offered a logical and scientific explanation for what Bernardus and other Amalricians were feeling in their experiences of mystical union.

David de Dinant must have been a key figure, an immediate source, for the development of Amalrician pantheism, just as Joachim would seem to have been a key figure and possible source for their Trinitarian and evolutionary doctrine of history.  Both were alluded to in contemporary accounts of the Amalrician phenomenon.  A similar proximate source for the third (and probably most important) component of their heresy, their illuminism, is not so easy to find.  There may have been influence from some of the more radical Cistercians, although there is not much evidence to support such a proposition.  There remains, nevertheless, one last, but somewhat mysterious, lead to follow, and that is the link to ‘Mauricius Hyspanus’.

The quest for an illuminist mystical source

This second quest for sources will study a tradition of speculative mysticism, which started to enter Western Europe in the latter part of the 12th century and which was welcomed by the bolder spirits among both the Cistercians and the Platonists.  Its development will be followed in a straightforward chronological history, from Islam in the 9th/10th centuries to Latin Europe in the 12th.  It was attached to a philosophy which, in its later stages, is known to historians as Avicennism.  This will discover more fascinating (but often little known) radical thinkers in all three monotheist religions.  This second quest is found in the section entitled THE LADDER OF ASCENSION.  To take the story of the development of the Avicennist consensus for granted, and to leap straight to the end, go to the section entitled CONCLUSION.



[1] “Erat enim idem David subtilis ultra quam deceret, ex cujus quaternis, ut creditur, magister Almaricus et caeteri haeretici hujus temporis suum hauserunt errorem”:  Anonymous of Laon (A.10) p.715A, as translated by J.Hunt, in E.Maccagnolo (B.4) p.430.
[2] Decree (A.5) p.70; Caesarius (A.17) p.307; Robert de Courçon (A.11) pp.78-79.
[3] G.Théry : David…(B.4) p.9; A.Boghaert-Vaché (B.4) p.269; E.Maccagnolo (B.4) p.435; quoting Innocent III, Letter 85 in PL 215: 901-2: “dilectus filius, magister David, capellanus noster.”
[4] “circa Papam Innocentium conversabatur, eo quod idem Papa subtilitatibus studiose incumbebat”: Anon. of Laon (A.10) p.715A; as translated by J.Hunt, in E.Maccagnolo (B.4) p.430.
[5] A.Luchaire: Innocent III (B.49) vol.4, p.169.
[6] A.Birkenmajer: Découverte… (B.4) pp.221-2.
[7] M.T. d’Alverny: Les nouveaux apports… (B.4) p.869.
[8] One may ponder whether Amaury would have been received more favourably by the Pope, if he had agreed, like David, to go and  work in the Eastern Empire, even though Amaury was probably too old for such an adventure.
[9] David de Dinant: Tractatus Naturalis ed. M.Kurdziałek (S.14) pp.65-80.
[10] David de Dinant: Quaternulorum Fragmenta ed. G.Théry (S.13) pp.126-145.  Where a quotation can be checked against the Kurdziałek text, it has been found to be wholly accurate.
[11] G.Théry: David de Dinant (B.4) pp.81-82 lists as examples: Aristotle’s distinction between being and seeming, from Parmenides, in Metaphysics I; that all is one and that the one is God, from Xenophanes, in the same book; that matter is the principle of all and is divine, from Physics I and Metaphysics I, etc. etc.
[12] A.Birkenmajer: Le rôle joué par les médecins… (B.68) p.7.
[13] Robert d’Auxerre (A.9) p.276.
[14] Robert de Courçon (A.11), translated by L.Thorndike in Ross & McLaughlin (B.8) pp.594-5.
[15] Guillaume le Breton (A.8) para.155, p.233: “In diebus illis legebantur Parisius libelli quidam ab Aristotele, ut dicebatur, compositi qui docebant metaphysicam, delati de novo a Constantinopoli, et a greco in latinum translati…”  (There is a French translation in Guizot (B.8) vol.11 (XI) p.246.)
[16] David de Dinant: Quaternulorum Fragmenta ed.G.Théry (S.13)  proemium, pp.126-7: “Dividuntur res in partes tres, in corpora, animas, et substantias aeternas separatas; et primum indivisibile, ex quo constituuntur corpora, dicitur yle; primum autem indivisibile, ex quo constituuntur animae, dicitur noys vel mens; primum autem indivisibile, in substantiis aeternis dicitur Deus.”
[17] Translated by J.Hunt, in E.Maccagnolo (B.4) p.440, from Tractatus Naturalis (S.14) p.70.
[18] Tractatus Naturalis (S.14) p.70: “Ex hiis ergo colligi potest mentem et ylen idem esse. Huic autem assentire videtur PLATO, ubi dicit mundum esse [Deum] sensibilem.”
[19] Quaternulorum fragmenta ed. G.Théry (S.13) proemium, p.127: “Haec tria sunt unum et idem; ex quo consequitur esse omnia per essentiam unum.”
[20] Ibid. chap.1, para.3:5, p.135.
[21] ibid. conclusio, pp.144-5; and Tractatus Naturalis (S.14) p.71; translated by J.Hunt in Maccagnolo (B.4) p.440.  This passage is identical in G.Théry’s reconstruction and in M.Kurziałek’s edition.
[22] Quaternulorum Fragmenta ed. G.Théry (S.13) chap.2, para.1:1, p.136.
[23] Contra Amaurianos (A.7) p.46; also Aquinas (A.21) p.20.

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