William of Ockham essay


William of Ockham was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher. He was born in the English county of Surrey. Ockham is regarded as one of the fourteenth century's most prominent intellectuals, religious theologians, logicians, and political philosophers. He also remained involved in the great intellectual debates of his period. Ockham's razor is one of his most important contributions. He introduced new ideas and concepts in physics, logic, and theology. Among the most famous figures in the history of philosophy, he is positioned with Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus throughout the High Middle Ages. He is most well-known now for his support of metaphysical nominalism. Background

Ockham's Contribution to the Concept of Private Property

William of Ockham proposed the concept of private property as he proposed the idea of separation of church and state. In order to further elaborate on the concept of private property proposed by Ockham it is important to understand the background. The religious communities in various religions whether Abrahamic or non-Abrahamic idealize poverty. This is generally due to the fact that major religious leaders such as Jesus Christ or Prophet Muhammad led a poor life. From the perspective of orders in Christianity, the general concept has been that the members of the order do not own any property. If any member of the order purchases any asset, that asset belongs to the order but not to the member himself. This is also valid in the case even when the member may have exclusive rights to use the property. The Franciscan order to which Ockham belonged went one step further in its ideal of poverty. The Franciscan order proposed that none of the member of the order owned any property and neither did the order itself. It was therefore considered valid for the Franciscan members to live by begging as they did not own any property. In this case, if individual members received any asset from any person, they never owned it rather it remained the property of the original donor. In certain cases, where the ownership of goods could not be traced it became the property of the papacy. The Spirituals and the Conventual traced this concept of poverty directly to Jesus and apostles as they believed that Jesus had given up all his property and never kept any worldly possession to himself. The same practice was exercised by the apostles. St. Francis in the evidence of such concept referred to the Old Testament and New Testament. In conclusion it could be safely claimed that Franciscan did not believe in living in a safety net.

Opposing Views on Private Property

The theology proposed by Franciscan was not shared by all theoreticians. There were intellectuals and religious scholars who thought otherwise. Although they believed that Jesus and Apostles did not own any private property, they at the same time also believed that Jesus and Apostles shared property collectively. The person whose opinion mattered the most in this situation was Pope Nicholas III. The pope also approved the theology of Franciscan. It is important to note that he himself did not propagate such ideas but approved them as being correct in nature. The time at which such theories were being propagated, the papacy and church was enjoying the wealth that it had never experienced before in its history. In a way this also showed, the papacy was following a standard which was completely against what had been propagated by Jesus Christ. It is unclear whether the above reason was the fact that induced Pope John XXII to reopen discussion on the apostolic poverty. When the discussions actually began, differing propositions were presented before the pope. The chapter-general [of the Franciscan order] at Perugia declared itself convinced of the absolute poverty of Christ and the Apostles without waiting for Holy See's decision. Such an act from the Chapter General was bound to provoke the Pope. Pope John also argued that Property right or the institution of property originated for the first time in Garden of Eden as soon as Adam and Eve ate for the first time. Pope John suggested that such was the result of a positive law by God and therefore were not natural rights. The property that was granted to Adam and Eve was the result of the positive law rather than natural right.

Ockham's Counter Narrative

At this particular point Ockham differed from Pope in the concept of private property. At first, Ockham argued that the property right to the Adam and Eve was not as a result of the positive law, rather a result of the natural law. Adam and Eve according to Ockham had natural rights to use the property. He proposed that the kind of positive law being propagated by Pope only began after the fall of Adam and Eve from the garden of Adams. He suggests that after the fall, as the civilization started to flourish, people made arrangements which were positive in nature and focused on assigning legal rights on claiming ownership on goods. This owner ship was free from encumbrances or any external claim of ownership. The owners according to Ockham had complete control over the goods, and they also had the rights to allow anyone to use their goods. This permission was restrictive in nature and in no way the original owners could be deprived of their rights to claim back their goods. According to Ockham the Franciscans also worked in the similar mechanism. All the goods that are provided to them by the donors do not become their property and they cannot claim any legal rights over such donations. Rather, the donations provided to them enable natural rights of use but not the legal rights. These natural rights were similar to the rights that were provided to Adam and Eve in the Garden of heaven.

Evaluation of Ockham's View on Private Property

Evaluating the statement of Ockham it could be argued that Ockham had to face two different aspects and religious concepts. At first, Ockham was faced with the situation of explaining the poverty of Jesus Christ and Apostles and Jesus' own stance of poverty, at the same time he also had to defend the right of private property which was never rejected by Jesus Christ and was never abolished in Old or the New Testament. Both the concepts were opposing in nature however from a rational perspective it showed Jesus Christ's own preference to adopt poverty rather than wealth. The particular condition that Jesus faced, forced him to take the particular decisions that he took regarding private property. However his decisions to accept poverty was voluntary and he never required his followers to adopt the same values regarding poverty or property rights that he possessed. Ockham therefore seemed focused on the fact that such values could be attributed to religious leaders, Pope and the Church; however the worldly rulers cannot be forced to adopt same standards. If these values are adopted by all, there would be no private property and therefore the social structure would change completely as it was present in Ockham's times and today. It could be argued that Ockham adopted a rational approach to analyze the religious orders, the values of the bible and that standards set by Jesus Christ himself. It was this rational approach that made him to provide a view which was completely against the stance held by papacy and the church.

Ockham's Differentiation between Legal and Moral Property Rights

Ockham's ideas of private property can be termed to be devised on the basis of civil law. Ockham himself was a theologian who referred to bibles for his ideas and concepts as he has done in "The work of ninety days". It is however interesting to note that when Ockham talks about private property he talks more in the legal sense or civil law. Ockham proposes two types of rights with respect to private property. The first type is legal right, while the other type is moral right. It is at this place that Ockham distinguishes between the legal right to property and the moral right to property. Ockham suggests that Adam and Eve had a moral right to property in the Garden of Eden however after the fall, the human beings started to adopt the legal right of property which God had permitted them to do. It was only after the fall, that legal rights were established by humans to own property. These legal rights are enforced by the legal courts and therefore need to be separated from the mere moral rights. It could be argued that through these propositions he tried to create a differentiation between the religious ideology and social and legal concepts. Being a religious theologian, it is difficult to claim that Ockham intended to reduce the impact of religion on the life of an individual however what could be safely estimated is the fact that he did not agree to the religious interpretation and perspectives that were propagated by Pope John and other school of thoughts. It was for this reason; he came up with his own interpretations of religious knowledge which created conflicts between him and the papacy.

Ockham's View on Private Property and Church

Ockham's concept of private property seems to be inspired from law and constitution. It was for the first time in the history of papacy that legal and constitutional ideas were discussed side by side with religious theories and scholars like Ockham were giving equal importance to legal interpretation as they have been giving to religious interpretations. There are various factors for that. One factor is the fact that the concept of private property as had been propagated by Ockham could not be established on religious grounds. Secondly, the ideas were also in contrast with the established standards of Jesus and Apostles. Jesus' preference of poverty made his followers to admire him; however the later Christians which lived ordinary life did not follow the way of life of Jesus in the literal senses. They owned property and had greater influence of worldly affairs on their life as compared to religious or spiritual affairs. This created a contrast in the teachings of Jesus who said "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor". The ordinary Christians though extremely devoted to Jesus did not act exactly according to his instructions. Even the papacy at that time had gained so much power and wealth that it seemed quite opposite to the teachings of Jesus. Ockham therefore in his analysis of the private property did not only focus on what should happen, rather he also focused on what actually happens. His analysis and ideas of private property therefore also considered the historical narratives that occurred before and after Jesus Christ. He suggested that the moral standard code as practiced by spiritual leader cannot be practiced by ordinary human beings and therefore the moral sense of property should be separated from that of legal sense of poverty.

Distinction between Earthly Rulers and Spiritual Rulers

Ockham's ideas of private property also seem to be influenced by the notion that spiritual rule and earthly rule are two distinct matters and should be kept distinct. It is for this reasons Ockham argued that when it comes to private property, the matter becomes completely different for the earthly ruler and the spiritual rulers. He suggested that pope and church do not have a right to own private property. This is because having property is a tradition of earthly rulers and in no way the church should follow this tradition. He suggested that Jesus' power did not lie in owning or having property, rather his power lied in the character and virtue. This is exactly the same model that Church should also follow. He therefore restricted the right of property for earthly rulers as he believed that this is necessary for the functioning of such rule. He did not deprive the earthly rulers of the right to private property. In his view, it was only the church that should follow the tradition of the Christ and the Apostles.


Ockham supported the idea of private property in an ideal situation. He was among the earlier theologians who tried to separate the state and the Church. His ideas of private property and moral and legal rights also became foundations for the later theologians to devise new codes of religious and social interpretations. In the development of western constitutional ideas, the contribution of Ockham is sought with great admiration.


McGrade, Arthur Stephen. The Political Thought of William Ockham. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Ockham, William. "Philosophical writings." (1990).

Spade, Paul Vincent, and Claude Panaccio. "William of Ockham." (2011).

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