Sceptical Anti-Aristotelianism

  • Barry Brundell
Part of the Synthese Historical Library book series (SYHL, volume 30)


According to Gassendi’s own account he conceived a dislike for Aristotelian philosophy during his student days in the college of Aix-en-Provence. His complaints at that time concerned an alleged ethical inadequacy in Aristotelianism, for the Peripatetic philosophy, in his view, did not measure up to the Stoic philosophical ideal to which Cicero had alluded in his praise of philosophy: “Philosophy can never be praised as she merits; the man who obeys her precepts may live all the days of his life without trouble”.1


Seventeenth Century Practical Science Aristotelian Philosophy Humanist Author Church Establishment 
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  1. 1.
    “Nunquam satis laudari digne poterit philosophia: cui qui pareat, omne tempus aetatis sine molestia possit degere” (Cicero, De senectute (Loeb classical library edition), I.2.); P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, p.99.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Cf. Gassendi’s letter to Henri du Faur de Pibrac, a prominent public figure, later President of the Parlement of Provence, son of Guy du Faur de Pibrac: P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, VI, p.2.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, p.99.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    “Verum mihi animos adiecit, timoremque omnem depulit et Vivis, et mei Charonii lectio, ex qua visus sum non iniuria suspicari sectam illam non esse penitus probandam, quod probaretur quamplurimis. SedGoogle Scholar
  5. et vires accrevere ex Ramo praesertim, ac Mirandulo: quorum idcirco mentionem facio, quod ingenuum semper duxerim profiteri per quos profecissem.” (P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, p.99.)Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Cf. B. Rochot: 1955, “La vie, le caractère et la formation intellectuelle”, in B. Rochot et al.:. 1955, Pierre Gassendi 1592–1655, sa vie et son oeuvre (Centre International de Synthèse), Paris, pp.9–54, espc. p. 16Google Scholar
  7. 5a.
    also R. Lenoble: 1971, Mersenne ou la naissance du mécanisme, 2nd Edition, J. Vrin, Paris, p.410.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, pp.99–106a; VI, p.30.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    Idem, III p.106a-b.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    Idem, III, pp. 107a–108a.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    “Per mathematicas scimus, si quid scimus.” (Idem, III, p. 107a.) This statement was a criticism of the Aristotelians. It is not to be concluded from it that Gassendi was himself a mathematician in any sense, for he was not.Google Scholar
  12. 9a.
    Cf. B. Rochot: 1957, “Gassendi et les mathématiques”, in Revue d’histoire des sciences, 10, pp.69–78. Gassendi was doing no more than repeat what he had read in the writings of Vives, Ramus and MersenneGoogle Scholar
  13. 9b.
    cf. P. Dear: 1984, “Marin Mersenne and the probabilistic roots of ‘mitigated scepticism’”, in Journal of the history of philosophy, 22, pp.173–205.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, p. 107b.Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    “Uno verbo de hac rerum natura nihil perviderunt: quando suas scholas ingressi, aliam naturam ingressi sunt cum hac exteriori minime congruentem.” (Idem, III, p. 108a.)Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    See H.O. Evennett: 1968, The spirit of the Counter-Reformation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp.78–79, 84–86Google Scholar
  17. 12a.
    also Robert Mandrou: 1978, From humanism to science 1480–1700, Penguin, Harmondsworth, pp. 156–159.Google Scholar
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    See Ignatius of Loyola: 1558–1599, The constitution of the Society of Jesus, IV, Ch.13Google Scholar
  19. 13a.
    Father Aquaviva S.J.: 1599, Ratio studiorum Google Scholar
  20. 13b.
    George E. Ganss S.J. (Ed.): 1970, Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The constitution of the Society of Jesus, St. Louis, pp.215ff.Google Scholar
  21. 13c.
    Ganss claims: “One great merit of the Ratio of 1599 is that it produced a unity of procedure throughout the far-flung hundreds of Jesuit schools in Europe and the Americas. That procedural unity was greater than would be desirable or possible today; but it was a significant advantage and achievement amid the educational disorganisation of the 1500’s and 1600’s.” (Idem, p.216, note 4.)Google Scholar
  22. 14.
    Ignatius, Constitution, IV, ch. 14.3; Aquaviva, Ratio studiorum, ch. 3 (“De studio philosophiae”).Google Scholar
  23. 15.
    For example, two text-books issued by faculty members of the Collegio Romano: Benedetto Pereira: 1576, De communibus omnium rerum naturalium principiis et affectionibus libri quindecim, RomeGoogle Scholar
  24. 15a.
    and Francisco de Toledo: 1585, Commentaria, una cum quaestionibus in octo libros Aristotelis ‘de Physica…, Cologne; also the text-books of the Jesuits of Coimbra, for example: Conimbricenses: 1602, Problemata quae in… physicis…, Moguntiae, 1601; and Commentariorum… in octo libros physicorum…, Cologne. These text-books were used very widely in Jesuit schools.Google Scholar
  25. 16.
    Cf. A.C. Crombie: 1977, “Mathematics and Platonism in the sixteenth-century Italian universities and in Jesuit educational policy”, in IIPIΣMATA, Festschrift für Willy Hartner, Wiesbaden, pp.63–94.Google Scholar
  26. 17.
    Cf. E.A. Fellmann, “Fabri, Honoré”, Dictionary of scientific biography, IV, pp.505–507.Google Scholar
  27. 18.
    It was true of all sixteenth and early seventeenth-century scholastic texts that I have consulted (see bibliography). Charles B. Schmitt has written as follows: “… even a casual reading of the Aristotelian commentaries of the period [late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries] reveals a peculiar reluctance to quote authors other than the school tradition… the Aristotelian commentary had changed remarkably little over a period of several centuries, considering how much philosophical water had passed under the bridge since the beginning of the humanist criticism of the schools… All in all, the school philosophy was considerably more traditionally oriented — both in form and content — than were the other philosophical movements which emerged in the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.” (Charles B. Schmitt: 1964, “Who read Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirándola?”, in Studies in the Renaissance, II, pp. 125–126.)Google Scholar
  28. 18a.
    Paul Dibon, in his interesting work (1954), La philosophie néerlandaise au siècle d’or.Google Scholar
  29. 18b.
    Tome I, L’enseignement philosophique dans les universités à l’époque précartésienne (1576–1650), L’Institut Français d’Amsterdam, Amsterdam, has painted a different picture of scholastic teaching as it was conducted in Holland. Dibon has given a number of examples of Peripatetic philosophers teaching in scholastic institutions who were adapting their teaching in order to reflect the new intellectual movements. This was especially true in Leyden, he claimed, in the cases of Daniel Voetius, Cornelius Valerius and Jaccheus. This detail is of particular interest, since Gassendi visited Leyden in 1629 and later sent outlines of his Epicurean project to scholars of the Academy (cf. infra, Chs. 2, 3).Google Scholar
  30. 19.
    P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, p.99, 100.Google Scholar
  31. 20.
    Gassendi had a theory that the chyle passed through the choledoch duct, and had debated this theory with a certain Professor Merindol of Marseilles. He was forced to abandon it when the De lacteis venis of Gasparo Aselli was published in 1627. Cf. Gassendi’s letter to Peiresc of 16.5.1628 (P. Tamizey de Larroque (Ed.), Lettres de Peiresc, IV, pp. 186–189Google Scholar
  32. 20a.
    also Georges Martin-Charpenel: 1957, “Gassendi physiologiste”, in B. Rochot et al.: 1957, Actes du Congrès du Tricentenaire de Pierre Gassendi (4–5 août, 1955), Digne, pp.207–215).Google Scholar
  33. 21.
    P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, p. 102.Google Scholar
  34. 22.
    Idem, IV, p.76.Google Scholar
  35. 23.
    Idem, III, p.102. Cf. the letter of Gassendi to Peiresc of 28.2.1629, in which he referred to the dissections of Payan that he had witnessed at an earlier time, in P. Tamizey de Larroque (Eds.), Lettres de Peiresc, IV, pp.203–209Google Scholar
  36. 23a.
    also Martin-Charpenel: (1957), “Gassendi physiologiste”.Google Scholar
  37. 24.
    “Postquam enim pervidere licuit quantis Naturae Genius ab humano ingenio dissideret intervallis, quid aliud potui, quam existimare effectorum naturalium intimas causas prorsus fugere humanam perspicaciam? Miserescere proinde, ac pudere coepit me levitatis et arrogantiae Dogmaticorum Philosophorum, qui et glorientur se arripuisse, et tarn severe profiteantur naturalium rerum scientiam.” (P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, p.99.)Google Scholar
  38. 25.
    “Enitendum duxi, quantum in me esset, retundere huius tantae credulitatis aciem, probaturus num simul quidpiam ex turgida illa Aristoteleorum praesumptione detraherem.” (Idem, III, p. 100.) There seems to be a verbal echo of Vives who complained that the Aristotelian subtleties “break and blunt the spearhead of the intelligence” (“frangunt ingenii aciem ac retundunt”) (J.L. Vives, Opera omnia, 1782, Gregorio Majansio (Ed.): Joannis Ludovici Vivis Valentini opera omnia, 8 vols., B. Monfort, Valencia, VI, p.352).Google Scholar
  39. 26.
    Supra, p. 15.Google Scholar
  40. 27.
    Cf. supra, p. 15; Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Loeb classical library edition), I.190,200.Google Scholar
  41. 28.
    “Nullum veriorem hoc sapiente Christianum fore puto.” (J. Vives, Opera omnia, III, p. 17.) Concerning the ethical writings of Vives, cf. Carlos G. Norena: 1970, Juan Luis Vives, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Ch.10.Google Scholar
  42. 29.
    For an account of the storm and for a spirited defence of Pierre Charron that goes against the standard censorious view, cf. the study of Charron by a latter-day kinsman, Jean Daniel Charron: 1960, The “wisdom” of Pierre Charron. An original and orthodox code of morality, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.Google Scholar
  43. 30.
    P. Charron: 1601, De la sagesse livres trois, S. Millanges, Bordeaux.Google Scholar
  44. 31.
    See the objections of those whom Charron called “esprits faibles”, and others, as they are listed in 1606, Traicté de sagesse, D. Le Clerc, Paris, pp.224–225, and in the preface to the second and all subsequent editions of the Sagesse. The objections which Charron took most note of were the claim that he was a Pelagian heretic and the objections against his Pyrrhonism on the grounds of its alleged danger for the faith.Google Scholar
  45. 32.
    P. Charron: 1606, Traicté de sagesse, composé par Pierre Charron, Parisien, D. Le Clerc, Paris.Google Scholar
  46. 33.
    Idem., ch. 2, par.9; ch. 4, par.2,3; ch. 7,etc.Google Scholar
  47. 34.
    “Infame escrivain, cynique et brutal s’il en fut jamais” (P.F. Garasse S.J.: 1625, La somme théologique des véritez capitales de la religion chrestienne, S. Chappelet, Paris, p.665). Garasse was himself subsequently condemned by the SorbonneGoogle Scholar
  48. 34a.
    cf. Richard H. Popkin: 1968, The history of scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes, revised edition, Harper and Row, New York, pp.114–118.Google Scholar
  49. 35.
    Charron replied in Traicté de sagesse, ch. 2, par.9; ch. 4, pars.2,3.Google Scholar
  50. 36.
    Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, I.190, 200.Google Scholar
  51. 37.
    Idem., 1.8, 10, 196, 205.Google Scholar
  52. 38.
    Idem, 1.8, 10, 12, 17,28–30.Google Scholar
  53. 39.
    J. Vives, Opera omnia, VI, pp.23–24Google Scholar
  54. 39a.
    cf. C.G. Norena, Juan Luis Vives, pp.248–249.Google Scholar
  55. 40.
    “Philosophia tota opinionibus et conjecturis verisimilitudinis est innixa” (J. Vives, Opera omnia, VI, p.417).Google Scholar
  56. 41.
    P. Charron, Traicté de sagesse, p.224.Google Scholar
  57. 42.
    “Ces sont choses opposites” (P. Charron, Traicté de sagesse, p.225).Google Scholar
  58. 43.
    “Pulchre porro me admones authorem hune mecum in solitudinem ducam… Charronio vero quis sanior iudex?” (Letter of 8.4.1621, P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, VI, pp. 1–2.)Google Scholar
  59. 44.
    Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirándola: 1520, Examen vanitatis doctrinae gentium, et veritatis Christi anae disciplinae distinctum in libris sex, quorum tres omnem philosophorum sectam universim, reliqui Aristoteleam et Aristotelis armis particulatim impugnant, ubicumque autem Christiana et asseritur, et celebratur disciplina, Mirandola.Google Scholar
  60. 45.
    “I came to the conclusion that it was much better and much more useful to reduce all the dogmas of the philosophers to uncertainty, than to reconcile them with one another as my uncle wished to do.” “Mihi autem venit in mentem consentaneum magis esse, et utile magis, incerta reddere philosophorum dogmata, quam conciliare, ut patrinus volebat.” (Preface written by Gianfrancesco Pico to his edition of his uncle’s works entitled: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: 1572–1573, Opera omnia Joannis Pici, Mirandulae Concordiaeque comitis…, 2 vols., Basileae, II, p.738.)Google Scholar
  61. 46.
    “Quid restat praeterea ut non ipsa gentium doctrina et vana, et incerta prorsus iudicetur.” (G.F. Pico della Mirandola, Idem, preface.)Google Scholar
  62. 47.
    Idem, II, pp.812–815; pp.718–719. Ramus also supported this view; cf. Reijer Hooykaas: 1958, Humanisme, science et réforme: Pierre de la Ramée (1515–1572), E.J. Brill, Leyden, pp.9.ff.Google Scholar
  63. 48.
    This conclusion has been arrived at after a certain amount of discussion among the scholars. Fortunat Strowski argued in his work Montaigne F. Alean, Paris (1906), that the Examen vanitatis had a very considerable influence on later thinkers. The opposite view was taken insofar as it concerned the relationship of Pico’s work with that of Montaigne, in the work of Pierre de Villey: 1908, Les sources de l’évolution des essais de Montaigne, Fondation Thiers, Paris, II, p. 166, pp.324–325. In more recent times both R.H. Popkin, History of scepticism, pp. 19–22Google Scholar
  64. 48a.
    and Charles B. Schmitt: 1964, “Who read Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola?” in Studies in the renaissance, II, pp. 105–132Google Scholar
  65. 48b.
    and Charles B. Schmitt in 1967, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola (1469–1533), Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, have been in general agreement that the influence of Pico was not great, but that the Examen vanitatis was of some importance as a source-book for the anti-Aristotelians in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.Google Scholar
  66. 49.
    C.B. Schmitt: 1964, pp.128–129.Google Scholar
  67. 50.
    Charles B. Schmitt: 1972, Cicero scepticus: a study of the ‘Academica’ in the Renaissance, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, ch. 4.Google Scholar
  68. 51.
    “Aristotelis philosophiam, orbis terrarum pene totam et solam philosophiam esse” (preface to Bks IX and X of 1556, Animadversionum Aristotelicarum libri XX, A. Wechelum, Paris). For complaints of Ramus against the Aristotelian commentators, see the same preface, also Bk. II, p.67, Bk. III, p.97; cf. also Hooykaas, Humanisme, science et réforme, p. 13.Google Scholar
  69. 52.
    C.B. Schmitt, Cicero scepticus, p.89.Google Scholar
  70. 53.
    Cf. C.B. Schmitt, Cicero scepticus, p. 12.Google Scholar
  71. 54.
    Sextus Empiricus: 1562, Sexti philosophi Pyrrhoniarum hypotypwsewn [sic]… interprete Henrico Stephano, M. Juvenum, ParisGoogle Scholar
  72. 54a.
    Sextus Empiricus: 1569, Adver sus mathematicos, Gentiano Herveto Aurelio interprete…, M. Juvenum, Paris.Google Scholar
  73. 54b.
    Cf. R.H. Popkin, History of scepticism, pp.68–69.Google Scholar
  74. 55.
    “Quanto usui autem esse possit Sexti Empirici commentarius ad tuenda Christianae religionis dogmata adversus externos Philosophos, pulchre docet Francisus Picus Mirandulanus in eo libro quo Christianam tueter philosophiam adversus dogmata externorum Philosophorum.” (Preface of Gentian Hervet to his translation of Sextus Empiricus: 1569, Adversus mathematicos, as quoted by C.B. Schmitt (1964), p.114.)Google Scholar
  75. 56.
    See Charles B. Schmitt: 1967, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola (1469–1533) and his critique of Aristotle, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, pp. 172–174. Another author who might very possibly have drawn Gassendi’s attention to Pico was Giovanni Battista Bernardi, author of a dictionary of philosophical quotations entitled Seminarium totius philosophiae… (1582–1585)Google Scholar
  76. 56a.
    cf. C.B. Schmitt, Idem, pp.170–171.Google Scholar
  77. 57.
    P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, pp.99–100.Google Scholar
  78. 58.
    Cf. the account of Pyrrhonic doubt given by Sextus Empiricus: “Chapter XXVI of the expressions “I am non-apprehensive” and “I apprehend not”. Both the expressions “I am non-apprehensive” and “I apprehend not” are indicative of a personal state of mind, in which the sceptic, for the time being, avoids affirming or denying any non-evident matter of enquiry, as is obvious from what we have said above concerning the other expressions.’ (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, I.201.) The Pyrrhonisms manner of proceeding has been described as follows: “The Academician takes active part in philosophical discussion, maintaining a definite position, a standpoint; the sceptic in the sense of Sextus [i.e. the Pyrrhonist] has no position… Although he throws arguments into the discussion, he takes no part in it. Although he confronts the dogmatist with counterarguments, he does so without accepting any of them as true or valid.” (Arne Naess: 1968, Scepticism, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, p.4.) Cf. P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, I, p, 13b.Google Scholar
  79. 59.
    “Quantis Naturae Genius ab humano ingenio dissideret intervallis” (P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, p.99).Google Scholar
  80. 60.
    “Aristoteles… adolescentes in thesi, non ad hunc morem philosophorum tenuitur disserendi: sed ad copiam rhetorum in utramque partem, ut ornatius et uberius dici posset, exercuit.” (P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, p. 100) Gassendi referred to Cicero, probably De oratore (Loeb classical library edition), I, xi. 49–54, as his authority.Google Scholar
  81. 61.
    “Tarn indigna opera” (P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, p. 101).Google Scholar
  82. 62.
    “Sed utcumque se res habeat: seu dogmatice quid defendo, seu sceptico more quid experior: et, seu profero quidpiam verum, seu quidpiam dico probabile…” (P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, p.101.)Google Scholar
  83. 63.
    Cf. A. Naess, Scepticism, p.2ff.Google Scholar
  84. 64.
    “Paradoxa mea publice disputata sunt apud celeberrimos illos totius Provinciae consessus…” (P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, I, p.98.)Google Scholar
  85. 65.
    Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 1.1.Google Scholar
  86. 66.
    “At vero nostrates philosophi, quorum princeps idem, philosophorum omnium facile sapientissimus, Aristoteles Stagyrites fuit.” (J. Vives, Opera omnia, III, p. 18.)Google Scholar
  87. 67.
    “Nullum videtur fuisse ingenium Aristotélico praestantius.” (Idem, III, P.25.)Google Scholar
  88. 68.
    “Nugatoria et praepostera doctrina valde ineptum, nee ulla fere parte Aristoteleum…” (P. Ramus: 1556, Animadversionum Aristotelicarum libri XX…, Bk. 3, p.97.)Google Scholar
  89. 69.
    “Detrahant a Grammatica omnia definitionum partitionumque lumina: pro exemplis elegantibus misceant abecedaria figmenta.” (Idem, Bk. 2, p.67.)Google Scholar
  90. 70.
    Idem, preface to Bks. 9 and 10. Cf. R. Hooykaas, Humanisme, science et réforme, p.13ff.Google Scholar
  91. 71.
    P. Gassendi, Opera omnia, III, p. 101.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barry Brundell
    • 1
  1. 1.Saint Paul’s National SeminarySydneyAustralia

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