Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

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Alexander of Hales

  • Christopher CullenEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_24-2


Alexander of Hales (c. 1185–1245) is a thirteenth-century thinker who made major contributions to the development of Scholasticism, especially insofar as it became a rigorously systematic and philosophical method for doing theology. Alexander contributed to this development in two principal ways: he is among the earliest scholars to engage the thought of the newly translated works of Aristotle, and he is the first to use the Sentences of Peter Lombard as the basis for his lectures in theology. This momentous choice marks the shift of theology from focus on biblical commentary to systematic treatment of questions. Alexander also became the first Franciscan to be regent master of theology at Paris, when this “well-respected and rich man” entered the order in the academic year 1236–1237, while also retaining his chair of theology at the University of Paris. Alexander’s influence among early Franciscans came about in three important ways: through his leadership of the Franciscan studium generale at le grand couvent des Cordeliers at Paris; through his most famous pupil, Bonaventure (who reveres him as his mentor); and through a summa of theology that was compiled, to some extent, under his direction before his death. It was eventually attributed to him and was widely used within the order. Alexander provides evidence of maintaining a fundamental, doctrinal loyalty to Augustine, while also trying to incorporate various doctrines of Aristotle into his systematic thought. It is this intellectual trajectory that has led scholars to regard him as the founder of the early Franciscan school. Like other famous scholastics, he is known by an epithet – he is the “Irrefutable Doctor” (doctor irrefragibilis).

Biographical Information

Alexander was likely born in Hales, Shropshire (now Halesowen, Worcestershire), between 1180 and 1186 (Doucet 1951). He studied at Paris and became a master of arts there sometime before 1210. He incepted as regent master of theology around 1220 or 1221. In 1230 he represented the university at the papal curia of Pope Gregory IX. He became a canon of St. Paul’s, London, and later at Lichfield (the cathedral city for the diocese in which Hales was); by 1231 he was archdeacon at Coventry. In 1235 he was sent on a diplomatic mission to France for King Henry III. In 1236, when he was at least 50 years old, he entered the Franciscans. He attended the First Council of Lyon (1244–1245) and died on August 21, 1245, shortly after returning from it. He was buried at le grand couvent des Cordeliers in Paris; his tomb was damaged in a fire in 1580. In 1795, it was demolished, along with the church, during the revolution (Wierzbicki 2008).


Until developments in scholarship in the twentieth century, Alexander was most famous for a summa of theology attributed to him, long referred to as the Summa fratris Alexandri. During the production of the modern critical edition, scholars began to question his sole authorship of the summa, and it is now clear that this work is not exclusively by Alexander. We know definite parts of this work are not by Alexander (Doucet 1948); the entire fourth volume, for example, is not by him. Although Alexander is not the sole author, he may have supervised the redaction of the text up until his death in 1245, and those scholars whom we know did work on the compilation of this text were his collaborators in a common project: Jean de la Rochelle (c. 1190/1200–1245), Odo Rigaud (d. 1275), and William of Melitona. Jean de la Rochelle was a colleague of Alexander’s at Paris and succeeded him in his chair when the latter resigned. Odo and William were students of Alexander; Odo succeeded La Rochelle in the Franciscan chair at Paris. It is thus at least accurate to say that this early and influential summa is the work of a “Halesian circle” of Franciscans which produced the final version, completed by 1257, and now usually referred to as the Summa Halesiana (or Halensis). “It was meant to provide students at studia generalia with an up-to-date systematic theological encyclopedia” (Roest 126). In this regard it had considerable influence within the Franciscan network of studia. Gilson takes this work to illustrate “the spirit of the thirteenth-century Franciscan school of theology” at Paris (Gilson 1955). It does provide evidence of doctrines that some scholars have called an “Augustinianism,” at least as this was held prior to the 1260s: the identity of the soul and its powers, divine illumination, universal hylomorphism, and the impossibility of creation from eternity. Boehner (1945) provides a detailed exposition of the philosophical doctrines of this text. Given the complicated authorship of the Summa Halesiana, the definitive sources for Alexander’s own teachings must be sought in those works that can be definitively attributed to him.

The discovery of the most important of these authentic works was announced in 1946, namely, his lectures on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, edited and published as Glossa in quatuor libros Petri Lombardi (1951–1957). The editors date this work to a period between 1223 and 1227. In addition to this work, we also have many disputed questions from Alexander’s teaching career, both from before and after he became a friar. Sixty-eighty questions, dating from before he entered the Franciscans, were published in 1960. Several questions from after he became a friar are now available in critical editions, as well as certain other works, including an exposition of the Franciscan rule (Wierzbicki 2013a,b, 2015, 2016; see list, Wierzbicki 2008). Wierzbicki has established that many of these disputed questions from his Franciscan years were incorporated into the second book of Summa Halensis (Wierzbicki 2015; Robson 2017).

Alexander’s Glossa on Peter the Lombard’s Sentences are important for many reasons, three to be considered here: its methodology, its sources, and its aim. It is based on the structure of the Sentences, and so is divided into four parts: God, creation, the incarnation, and the sacraments.

In his commentary Alexander adopts a dialectical method that becomes typical of scholastic methodology; this method allows him to treat questions one-by-one, presenting arguments on various sides of a question before responding to opinions contrary to his own position. This methodology did not go without criticism: Alexander’s contemporary, Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294), for example, faults him for his role in directing theology away from a biblically- focused method by his decision to teach by commenting on the Sentences of Peter the Lombard, into which he also introduced the distinctions within the text. As Gilson points out, the Glossa already contain, for many topics, the basic structure of the scholastic quaestio: (1) a statement of the question, (2) objections against the author’s answer, (3) an affirmation of the author’s answer with a theological authority, (4) the justification of the answer, (5) responses to objections (Gilson 1955).

The range of sources that Alexander brings together in the Glossa is extensive and reflects the range of the vastly expanded medieval library also being consulted by his contemporaries at Paris, such as William of Auxerre (1140/1150–1231) and William of Auvergne (d. 1249). His cautious eclecticism is worthy of considerable note for anyone surveying the development of thirteenth-century thought, for, although he is often hesitant to follow Aristotle, he is, by no means, hostile. On the contrary, he draws on major writings of Aristotle and is clearly working to take considerable account of various teachings of Aristotle as he constructs his theological synthesis. But he also incorporates various writings from the Christian tradition, both ancient – including Pseudo-Dionysius, Boethius, and John Damascene – and more recent – Bernard of Clairvaux, Anselm of Canterbury, and the Victorines.

Alexander is attempting a theological synthesis that takes account of both the intellectual heritage of Christendom and Greek philosophical thought, while also covering the entire range of theology, from God to creatures to their return to their creator. Alexander is thus a major contributor to the Scholastic project of an all-encompassing synthesis, which attempts to harmonize discordant authorities in its quest for truth.

Alexander writes as a theologian who regards faith and reason as distinct in various ways even if they are ultimately harmonious. Although he has not worked out the nuances of this distinction, Alexander thinks that we can know that God exists by use of reason alone, despite the fact that we have no direct knowledge of the divine essence. Alexander presents a sort of anthology of proofs for God’s existence, including a brief version of Aristotle’s argument from the Physics for a first, unmoved mover: “Every mover, as such, is led back to some supreme immoveable principle; otherwise one proceeds in infinitum. Likewise, none of the things that are has being from itself, because being would have no term, and so, the existence of a supreme being is able to be inferred” (Glossa I 1951).

Alexander also thinks that we can accurately arrive at certain conclusions about the divine nature by negation and by analogy, that is, by denying what is unworthy of God or by coming to recognize how certain perfections can be predicated analogously of God. So, based on this intellectual foundation, Alexander works at length to articulate an understanding of God as simple, infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, and immutable.

Among these divine attributes, Alexander gives considerable attention to God’s knowledge. He takes his starting point from Augustine who posited the Platonic forms as ideas in the divine mind. He tries to work out the difficulties of claiming a plurality of ideas in the simplicity of the divine being. Given this divine simplicity, he reasons that whatever is in God must, in fact, be God. And so, he concludes that the divine ideas only differ in a manner of speaking. It is in this way that God himself is the exemplar of creatures. Alexander thus affirms the unity of God while also establishing “exemplarism” as a principal causal relation from which to consider creatures and their creator.

In contrast to God’s simplicity, creatures are distinguished by various levels of composition. Alexander adopts a version of Aristotle’s theory of hylomorphism, which holds that corporeal beings are composed of matter and form. The distinguishing principle of a human being is a rational soul, which then enters into union with matter. The rational soul is the principle of life, sensation, knowing, and willing. The powers of the soul are one with its substance; hence the human soul is the image of God in its substance (and not merely accidentally). Alexander understands freedom of choice to be a function of the complicated interaction of both intellect and will.

A focus on the will and freedom is found in the Alexander’s ethical teachings, which clearly reflect his strong allegiance to Augustine. Morality is a matter of loving rightly and requires due respect for the hierarchy of goods. Alexander attempts to synthesize a charity-based ethics with a theory of divine and natural law. Many of his ethical teachings are developed at greater length in his disputed questions.

Alexander, influential among the early Franciscans, such as Richard Rufus and Jean de la Rochelle, represents a trajectory of scholastic thought that adheres closely to Augustine while attempting to synthesize a wide range of sources.



Primary Sources

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyFordham UniversityNew YorkUSA