Francisco Suárez (1548-1617)

If you are looking for links to online versions of Suárez's work in Latin, see 'Suárez in Latin online'; if you are looking for translations, online and otherwise, see 'Suárez in English translation' or 'Suárez in non-English translation'. If you are looking for a bibliography of secondary literature on Suárez, see 'Bibliography of works on Francisco Suárez, 1850-present'.

For an introduction to his life and thought, see Christopher Shields and Daniel Schwartz's Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Suárez or my own Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Suárez. Both articles review some key features of Suárez's thought; the following introduction focuses more on his life and historical context. A more in-depth examination of numerous facets of Suárez's thought is promised by a new website on the Conimbrincenses (articles should start appearing by the end of 2018).

A historical introduction

Francisco Suárez was born into a prosperous family in the Andalusian city of Granada on January 5, 1548, a mere half-century after Ferdinand and Isabella finally wrested the city from eight centuries of Moorish control. In 1564, as a student at the University of Salamanca, he asked to join the vibrant, rapidly expanding Society for Jesus. He was initially rejected on grounds of deficient health and intelligence. He was persistent, however, and was eventually admitted as an 'indifferent', meaning that his superiors would decide later whether he had the capacity for the study leading to the priesthood. There seems to have been little doubt later on, since, despite the initial worries about his intelligence, he rapidly rose in prominence. During his career he taught at the schools in Segovia, Valladolid, Rome, Alcalá, Salamanca, and, finally, at Philip II's insistence, in Coimbra.

The Coimbra appointment involved enough political intrigue to merit a digression. Suárez was reluctant to accept the post at Coimbra, although a highly prestigious post, because of political dangers. The Portuguese were less than welcoming of a Spanish Jesuit appointed by a Spanish king, even if the Spanish king was also Philip I of Portugal after having successfully claimed Portugal during the 1580 Portuguese succession crisis. One wonders, too, if the Portuguese may also have had racial concerns. The Portuguese joined the 'anti-Spanish' campaign during the Jesuits' Third General Congregation (1573), where 'Spanish' was likely a euphemism for 'Jew/converso'. Spanish Jesuits had been unusually open to those of Jewish origins, with the result that there were many converso Jesuits even at the highest levels of the Order. In fact, Suárez himself had converso ancestry. But it is hard to know if such concerns were part of the political intrigue surrounding Suárez's appointment. It is, at any rate, difficult to argue with the kings of powerful empires and so Suárez's appointment had to be accepted. One amusing consequence of the situation was that Suárez now needed to acquire a doctoral degree, since the Coimbra faculty objected to having a colleague without one. The Jesuit Provincial in Lisbon promptly conferred one on Suárez. This failed to satisfy the faculty, so Suárez had to make a trip to University of Evora in southern Portugal, where he directed a public theological debate and received a doctorate for his efforts.

Despite the political intrigue, Suárez produced a massive body of work. His published works fill twenty-six large volumes. A number of unpublished manuscripts remain in addition. Suárez died on September 25, 1617, in Lisbon, productive to the end (he had begun a revision of his De anima commentary that was left unfinished with his death).

It is worth pausing to take note of Suárez's dates. He is often regarded as one more medieval scholastic, albeit one of the later ones. But seeing him as a medieval scholastic is misleading at best, as his dates should suggest. Anyone born in 1548 is clearly not part of the age of Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham. Much has happened in Europe in the centuries separating them from Suárez. He comes after the Reformation, after the rise of humanism, after the Europeans' rediscovery of the Americas, and after their recognition of the great number of non-Christian cultures in other parts of the world. Much in the world is going to look different to an educated person in Suárez's day than it would have in Aquinas's day. It is difficult to see what sense it could make to consider Suárez's era as medieval rather than early modern.

Of course, Suárez might be a citizen of the early modern era and yet be firmly rooted in the scholastic tradition and so justifiably called a scholastic (at least if we divorce the term 'scholastic' from temporal connotations). I think this is fair. It seems clear that Suárez is part of the scholastic tradition, though one might wonder whether he is a 'strictly scholastic thinker', as he has been called. Suárez was, after all, a Jesuit rather than a Dominican, and their conservative opponents saw the Jesuits as dangerous in part because of their reliance on humanist education. There were many prominent humanists in the Jesuit order. It is also worth noting that Suárez seems to have gotten into trouble because he objected to the traditional form of scholastic teaching and so made a point of lecturing in a different manner. The divergence in form of the Disputationes metaphysicae from most earlier scholastic literature has also often been noted. Finally, in case one is tempted to think that the difference between scholastics and humanists is the difference between barbaric, mangled Latin and elegant, Ciceronian Latin, we have testimony from Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) that Suárez 'stands out by his incomparable eloquence'. I will leave it to the readers to make their own judgements on that score!

Still, there is ample reason to think of Suárez as belonging to the scholastic tradition. He predominantly cites medieval scholastics such as Aquinas, Scotus, Biel, and Durandus (and Aristotle, of course); more importantly, he discusses them as colleagues engaged in a common project rather than as objects of ridicule as becomes fashionable among all too many early modern philosophers. He adopts the classic scholastic practice of organizing his texts into clearly delineated sections, each addressing one question. He cites the authorities on either side of an issue—exhaustively—before attempting to reach a resolution. Finally, he himself explicitly says in the introduction to one of his works that he will not depart from the scholastic method since it is familiar to him and especially suitable for finding truth and combatting error. His defence of the scholastic method is significant; if we keep his dates in mind, we recognize that he is not a scholastic merely by default. Rather, he chose to remain in the scholastic tradition.

Whether scholastic or otherwise, intellectual and cultural life flourished in Spain during Suárez's time. This is the Siglo de Oro of Spain. The magnificent Complutensian Polyglot—the first printed polyglot of the complete Bible—was published just before Suárez's birth. The painter El Greco (1541-1614), the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), and the composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) were all born in the same decade as Suárez. Lope de Vega, 'the Spanish Shakespeare', was born when Suárez was fourteen years old. Most relevant for our purposes, philosophy flourished in Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is when the famous Coimbra commentaries on Aristotle's texts, combining the philological scholarship of the humanists with the philosophical exegesis of the scholastics, were prepared. That the names of most of the prominent figures of the Iberian scholasticism of the time sound relatively unfamiliar to us—Francisco de Vitoria (1483/1486-1546), Domingo de Soto (c. 1494-1560), Pedro da Fonseca (1528-1599), Domingo Báñez (1528-1604), Luis de Molina (1535-1600), and Gabriel Vásquez (c.~1551--1604) are some others in addition to Suárez—says more about our ignorance than about the importance of this later scholasticism.

Francisco Suárez is undoubtedly a preeminent figure in Iberian scholasticism and his Disputationes metaphysicae is likely his most influential work. A brief look at the history of this work should lay to rest any suggestion that Iberian scholasticism was merely a quaint relic in a conservative—and Catholic—outpost of Europe. It was first published in Spain in 1597, well after Renaissance ideals had time to permeate all of European thought (including Spain, where there was an influential circle of Erasmians). The book was extraordinarily well-received. Within several decades it went through almost twenty editions. These editions were not restricted to the Iberian peninsula: by 1620, for example, there had been six editions in Germany. It quickly became widely used not only in Jesuit-run schools, but also in Protestant universities in northern continental Europe, especially in Germany. These facts become even more remarkable when one notes what sort of work the Disputationes metaphysicae is. Written in true scholastic fashion, it exhaustively catalogues the views from Hellenistic, Patristic, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian scholastic sources on whatever question is at hand before arguing that one view is more probable than another. Combining this thorough scholarship with a comprehensive discussion of metaphysical questions results in a forbidding work. The fifty-four disputations, each covering numerous questions, fill two large volumes of the Opera Omnia in Latin.

The editions of Suárez's works, numerous as they are, fail to account fully for the dissemination of his thought. Numerous handbooks were compiled by other philosophers that to a large extent relied on Suárez's work. For example, Franco Burgersdijk (1590-1635) summarized many of Suárez's views in textbooks that were widely used in seventeenth-century Holland (at least one of Burgersdijk's textbooks was still in use when John Stuart Mill studied logic). Christoph Scheibler (1589-1653), 'the Protestant Suárez', played a similar role in Germany. One historian, Karl Eschweiler, in a study of Spanish scholasticism's influence in German universities, deems Scheibler's Opus metaphysicum the most widely-used textbook in Germany. Eschweiler eventually concludes that for most of the seventeenth-century, Suárez's metaphysics provided the received philosophy in German Protestant universities.

Summarizing Suárez's philosophy is difficult; he addresses a wide range of questions from the whole philosophical and theological spectrum rather than pursuing the implications of a single motivating idea. But here are a few especially significant points (this is by no means a comprehensive list):

  • Suárez tries to find a middle way between intellectualism and voluntarism about natural law. Roughly, he thinks there is natural goodness and badness antecedent to God's willing (God commands us not to murder because murdering is wrong rather than the other way around), but moral obligation depends on God's will.
  • Human beings have libertarian free will. That is, even after all the prerequisited for acting are in place, the will is free either to do something or not to do it. The way to reconcile this with various theological desiderata is along broadly Molinist lines.
  • Suárez earned himself some royal enmity by writing against the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Suárez argued that political authority comes from the people and so the people can revoke the authority they have granted (in certain cases, even killing political leaders is permissible).
  • The principle of individuation in a substance is the substance's own entity, i.e., there is no really distinct principle of individuation.
  • Suárez appears to posit a weaker distinction between essence and existence than Aquinas does. This point has received much attention, but there is a great deal of confusion about the matter with controversy about both Aquinas's and Suárez's positions and hence about the relation between their positions.

[This introduction is adapted from the preface to my dissertation. Footnotes can be found in the actual preface (PDF).]

Biographies and bibliographies

The most authoritative biography of Suárez is Raoul de Scorraille's French François Suárez de la Compagnie de Jesus, 2 volumes (Paris: Lethielleux, 1912-13). A rather hagiographical, but useful, English biography is Joseph H. Fichter's Man of Spain: A Biography of Francis Suárez (New York: Macmillan, 1940). Spanish readers might want to consult Carlos Larrainzar's Una introduccion a Francisco Suárez} (Pamplona: Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, 1977). Two useful English articles are: Jorge J. E. Gracia, 'Francisco Suárez: The Man in History', American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 65 (1991): 259-66, and Carlos Noreña, 'Suárez and the Jesuits', American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 65 (1991): 267-86. Note, too, of course, the two online encyclopedia articles linked to at the top of this page.

The best bibliography of editions of Suárez is Francisco de Pablo Solá's Suárez y las ediciones de sus obras: monografia bibliografica con ocasión del IV centenario de su nacimiento, 1548-1948 (Barcelona: Editorial Atlántida, 1949), though, as you can see, it does not include recent editions. But if you want to know about early editions, that's the place to look, at least if you can find a copy.

The most comprehensive bibliography of scholarship on Suárez is, I believe, the one to be found right on this website.

Suárez, of course, was a Jesuit. If you want to know more about Jesuits generally, a good place to start is Jesuitica.