Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alexander of Hales

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ALEXANDER of Hales (d. 1245), a celebrated theologian, and one of the first of the christian philosophers of the thirteenth century, was born in Gloucestershire at a town or village called Hales. Of the events of his early life there remain only the scanty traditions that he was trained for the church, held in succession various ecclesiastical appointments, and finally arrived at the dignity of an archdeaconry. In this position he acquired wealth, without, as Roger Bacon is careful to intimate, losing his honesty. Like many other Englishmen at the time, he resigned his career in his native country in order to prosecute his studies in Paris, the great school of theology and metaphysics. At Paris he occupied a chair, and lectured with much success. In 1222, the first date in his history established by any authority, he again resigned his career, and entered the order of the Franciscans. Although the mendicant friars were, from principle and from accidental circumstances, averse to philosophical training, they could not forego the opportunity afforded by the presence of a distinguished teacher among them. Alexander assumed the place of lecturer among the Franciscans, and it was largely owing to his ability that the order was enabled to establish its existence as a teaching body in opposition to the secular professors of the university. Full of years and honours, Alexander resigned his chair in 1238, to be succeeded by his pupil, John of Rochelle, and retired in the position of brother of the order. He died in 1245.

Alexander has acquired a place in the roll of mediæval writers mainly by the accidents of his historic position. He was among the first to approach the labour of expounding the christian system with the knowledge not only of the whole Aristotelian corpus, but also of the Arab commentators. He thus initiated the long and thorny debates which grew out of the attempt to amalgamate the christian faith with a radically divergent metaphysical view. He was also the first to give to the teaching of the orders an authority that could only have been secured by the overwhelming ability of individual members. The character of his teaching may be learned from the vast ‘Summa Theologiæ’—quæ est plus quam pondus unius equi, in the contemptuous language of Roger Bacon—a work undertaken at the request of Innocent IV, vehemently approved by a conclave held under Alexander IV, and completed by the conjoint labours of other members of the order. The ‘Summa’ was first printed in 1475 in folio, and passed through several editions, the last being issued at Cologne in 1611 in four folio volumes. Alexander's reputation secured for him the honourable titles of ‘Doctor Irrefragabilis,’ ‘Doctor doctorum,’ ‘Theologorum monarcha,’ and the like, but his operose work has only historic value. On no point of general interest does it furnish any hint that was fruitful for after-thinkers, nor was it of much effect as stimulating discussion even in its own age. Roger Bacon sarcastically remarks that the very Franciscans did not concern themselves with it, but allowed the huge manuscript to rot and corrupt.

[There is no monograph of Alexander of Hales. The best notices in the various histories seem to be those of Hauréau, Philosophie Scolastique, 2nd ed. 1880, part ii. i. 131–141; Stöckl, Gesch. d. Phil. d. Mittelalters, 1865, ii. 317– 326; I. E. Erdmann's Grundriss d. Gesch. d. Phil. 3rd ed. 1878, i. 324–329.]

R. A.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.5
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
271 i 9 f.e. Alexander of Hales: for an archdeaconry read the archdeaconry of Coventry
ii 18 for in 1245 read on 21 Aug. 1245 (Le Neve)