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Saint Bonaventura, John of Fidanza, Franciscan theologian, was born in 1221 at Bagnarea in Tuscany.

He was destined by his mother for the church, and is said to have received his cognomen of Bonaventura from St Francis of Assisi, who performed on him a miraculous cure. He entered the Franciscan order in 1243, and studied at Paris possibly under Alexander of Hales, and certainly under Alexander's successor, John of Rochelle , to whose chair he succeeded in 1253.

Three years earlier his fame had gained for him permission to read upon the Sentences, and in 1255 he received the degree of doctor. So high was his reputation that in the following year he was elected general of his order. It was by his orders that Roger Bacon was interdicted from lecturing at Oxford, and compelled to put himself under the surveillance of the order at Paris. He was instrumental in procuring the election of Gregory X, who rewarded him with the titles of cardinal and bishop of Albano, and insisted on his presence at the great council of Lyons in the year 1274. At this meeting he died.

Bonaventura's character seems not unworthy of the eulogistic title, "Doctor Seraphicus," bestowed on him by his contemporaries, and of the place assigned to him by Dante in his Paradiso. He was formally canonized in 1482 by Sixtus IV, and ranked as sixth among the great doctors of the church by Sixtus V in 1587. His works, as arranged in the Lyons edition (i vols., folio), consist of expositions and sermons, filling the first three volumes; of a commentary on the Sentences of Lombardus, in two volumes, celebrated among medieval theologians as incomparably the best exposition of the third part; and of minor treatises filling the two volumes, and including a life of St Francis. The smaller works are the most important, and of them the best are the famous Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum, Breviloquium, De Reductione Arlium ad Theologiam, Soliloquium, and De septem itineribus aeternitatis, in which most of what is individual in his teaching is contained.

In philosophy Bonaventura presents a marked contrast to his great contemporaries, Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon. While these may be taken as representing respectively physical science yet in its infancy, and Aristotelian scholasticism in its most perfect form, he brings before us the mystical and Platonizing mode of speculation. which had already to some extent found expression in Hugo and Richard of St. Victor, and in Bernard of Clairvaux. To him the purely intellectual element, though never absent, is of inferior interest when compared with the living power of the affections or the heart. He rejects the authority of Aristotle, to whose influence he ascribes much of the heretical tendency of the age, and some of whose cardinal doctrines--such as the eternity of the world--he combats vigorously. But the Platonism he received was Plato as understood by St Augustine, and as he had been handed down by the Alexandrian school and the author of the mystical works passing under the name of Dionysius the Areopagite.

Bonaventura accepts as Platonic the theory that ideas do not exist in rerum natura, but as thoughts of the divine mind, according to which actual things were formed; and this conception has no slight influence upon his philosophy. Like all the great scholastic doctors he starts with the discussion of the relations between reason and faith. All the sciences are but the handmaids of theology; reason can. discover some of the moral truths which form the groundwork of the Christian system, but others it can only receive and apprehend through divine illumination. In order to obtain. this illumination the soul must employ the proper means, which are prayer, the exercise of the virtues, whereby it is rendered fit to accept the divine light, and meditation which may rise even. to ecstatic union with God. The supreme end of life is such union, union in contemplation or intellect and in intense absorbing love; but it cannot be entirely reached in this life, and remains as a hope for futurity. The mind in contemplating God has three distinct aspects, stages or grades--the senses, giving empirical knowledge of what is without and discerning the traces (vestigia) of the divine in. the world; the reason, which examines the soul itself, the image of the divine Being; and lastly, pure intellect (intelligentia), which, in a transcendent act, grasps the Being of the divine cause.

To these three correspond the three kinds of theology-theologia symbolica, theologia propria and theologia mystica. Each stage is subdivided, for in contemplating the outer world we may use the senses or the imagination; we may rise to a knowledge of God per vestigia or in vestigiis. In the first case the three great properties of physical bodies—weight, number, measure,--in the second the division of created things into the classes of those that have merely physical existence, those that have life, and those that have thought, irresistibly lead us to conclude the power, wisdom and goodness of the Triune God. So in the second stage we may ascend to the knowledge of God, per imaginem, by reason, or in imagine, by the pure understanding (intellectus); in the one case the triple division—memory, understanding and will,--in the other the Christian virtues--faith, hope and charity,--leading again to the conception of a Trinity of divine qualities--eternity, truth and goodness.

In the last stage we have first intelligentia, pure intellect, contemplating the essential being of God, and finding itself compelled by necessity of thought to hold absolute being as the first notion, for non-being cannot be conceived apart from being, of which it is but the privation. To this notion of absolute being, which is perfect and the greatest of all, objective existence must be ascribed. In its last and highest form of activity the mind rests in the contemplation of the infinite goodness of God, which is apprehended by means of the highest faculty, the apex mentis or synderesis. This spark of the divine illumination is common to all forms of mysticism, but Bonaventura adds to it peculiarly Christian elements. The complete yielding up of mind and heart to God is unattainable without divine grace, and nothing renders us so fit to receive this gift as the meditative and ascetic life of the cloister. The monastic life is the best means of grace.

Bonaventura, however, is not merely a meditative thinker, whose works may form good manuals of devotion; he is a dogmatic theologian of high rank, and on all the disputed questions of scholastic thought, such as universals, matter, the principle of individualism, or the intellectus agens, he gives weighty and well-reasoned decisions. He agrees with Albertus Magnus in regarding theology as a practical science; its truths, according to his view, are peculiarly adapted to influence the affections. He discusses very carefully the nature and meaning of the divine attributes; considers universals to be the ideal forms pre-existing in the divine mind according to which things were shaped; holds matter to be pure potentiality which receives individual being and determinateness from the formative power of God, acting according to the ideas; and finally maintains that the intellectus agens has no separate existence. On these and on many other points of scholastic philosophy the Seraphic Doctor exhibits a combination of subtilty and moderation. which makes his works peculiarly valuable.

Ventura, California and Ventura County, California are named for Saint Bonaventure. St. Bonaventure, New York, St. Bonaventure University, and Bonaventure, Quebec are also named after the saint.

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica.

Last updated: 02-24-2005 14:50:12