William of Auverge, only known surviving picture. Click to see larger image.

Parker Library 16, fol. 182r, by permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

"Outstanding knowledge and unsullied virtue"

That's how Pope Gregory IX described William of Auvergne when he made him bishop of Paris, against all expectations. William was one of the canons of the Cathedral of Notre Dame who participated in the election of a successor for Bartholomaeus (d. 20 October 1227) as bishop of Paris. But William was so dissatisfied with the election that he took his appeal against the bishop-elect, Nicolas, to Rome. Impressed by William's character and his learning, Gregory ordained him to the priesthood and made him bishop of Paris.

On 10 April 1228, Gregory wrote to the canons of the Cathedral of Notre Dame that "we have ... named for you as bishop a man of outstanding knowledge and unsullied virtue, Master William. After having ordained him priest and consecrated him bishop, we return him to you."1 William remained Bishop of Paris until his death in 1249. 2 Hence, he is also known as William of Paris.

Early Life

Little is known of William's early life; he was born in Aurillac in the former province of Auvergne in south central France. The date of his birth is calculated from the fact that one ordinarily had to be thirty-five to be professor of theology. We know he studied at the recently-founded University of Paris and became a canon of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. By 1223, he was a professor of theology at the University of Paris. That means he was born perhaps as early as 1180 or as late as 1190.

Episcopacy in Paris

William's episcopacy was marked by a number of interesting events. First of all, after some students rioted over a bar bill during carnival in 1229, Blanche of Castille, regent for Louis, the future king and saint, sent troops to quiet the disorder. Accounts of what occurred differ considerably, but it is agreed that several students were killed and others injured.

The masters and students protested to William and asked redress for the violations of their rights. When William failed to accomplish this, the masters and students went on strike and withdrew to other cities. The striking members of the university also appealed to Pope Gregory, who wrote William a blistering letter of reprimand in which he expressed his regret over having made William bishop. He also appointed a commission to settle the dispute and later intervened with Blanche to receive back the returning masters.

Before the strike was settled and the masters and students returned, William appointed Roland of Cremona, a Dominican, to a chair in theology, thus admitting the first member of a mendicant order to the faculty. He later allowed Alexander of Hales to retain his chair when he became a Franciscan. Pope Gregory's intervention indicates the importance of the young university to the Church in the Pope's eyes and marked a reduction in control over the university on the part of the local bishop.

Secondly, William soon returned to the good grace of the pope and carried out many missions on behalf of Gregory IX in ecclesiastical matters, such as the reformation of monasteries, and in secular matters, negotiating a peace between France and England. Although William was devoted to Gregory, when Gregory asked him to come with or to send troops to defend the pope against the emperor, Frederick II, whom the pope had excommunicated, William sent only money, no troops.

Thirdly, as bishop, William along with his chancellor and the masters in theology of the University of Paris, condemned ten propositions in theology on 13 January 1241. The condemned propositions reveal the bishop's concern about certain doctrines being taught.

  • Error 1 claimed that neither angels nor human beings will see the divine essence.
  • Errors 2 & 3 were highly technical errors about the Trinity.
  • Error 4 held that blessed souls were in the aqueous, not in the empyrean heaven.
  • Error 5 claimed that the bad angel (malus angelus) was evil from the moment of creation.
  • Error 6 stated that angels can be in different places at the same time.
  • Error 7 maintained that many truths existed from eternity independently of God.
  • Error 8 stated that there was no first moment of time, a claim maintained by Aristotle.
  • Error 9 held that gifts of grace and glory are necessarily proportionate to natural gifts.
  • Error 10 claimed that neither the bad angel nor Adam could have remained innocent.3

Not surprisingly, William argued against most, if not all, of the errors in his works. While not a momentous event in itself, the condemnation of these errors foreshadowed the condemnation of 219 propositions by another bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, in 1277, which had a significant impact on the character of philosophy and theology taught at the university in the following years.

Fourthly, William was active and influential at the court of Louis IX, often in quite outspoken ways. In 1244 Louis suffered from a fever that brought him near to death, but when he recovered, he immediately asked William, who was at his bedside, for the cross of a crusader. Although William resisted, he eventually gave in, convinced that once the king was fully recovered, he would come to his senses and give up the idea of a crusade.

However, thoughts of a crusade did not go away. In 1247 when Louis again attempted to take up the crusader's cross, William warned that he would throw France into turmoil and rather bluntly told his king that he had been out of his mind when he had decided upon a crusade. Queen Blanche, the king's brothers, and even the Pope took the side of the bishop. Louis gave in, but only briefly. He soon threatened a hunger strike if he did not get his crusader's cross. He did, and by the time Louis returned from his crusade, William was dead, having died on Palm Sunday 1249. He was buried in the church of the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris.

Contributions to Medieval Philosophy

William's writings are of considerable interest to philosophers, theologians, and medievalists. In the twentieth century Joseph Kramp showed that seven of his works were conceived as and formed one huge work, The Teaching on God in the Mode of Wisdom (Magisterium divinale et sapientiale). 4 The constituent parts of this work, which anticipates the structure of the Summas of the later thirteenth century, are

  • The Trinity (De trinitate)
  • The Universe of Creatures (De universo creaturarum)
  • Why God Became Man (Cur Deus homo)
  • The Faith and Laws (De fide et legibus)
  • The Sacraments (De sacramentis)
  • The Virtues and Morals (De virtutibus et moribus).5

William's other works include

  • The Art of Preaching (De arte praedicandi)
  • Good and Evil (De bono et malo)
  • The Cloister of the Soul (De claustro animae)
  • The Bestowal and Singleness of Beneficence (De collatione et singularitate beneficiorum)
  • The Faces of the World (De faciebus mundi)
  • Grace and Free Choice, (De gratia et libero arbitrio)
  • The Immortality of the Soul (De immortalitate animae)
  • The Praises of Patience (De laudibus patientiae)
  • The Mass (De missa)
  • The Passion of the Lord (De passione Domini)
  • A New Treatise on Penance (De paenitentia novus tractatus)
  • A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (In Ecclesiaten)
  • A Commentary on Proverbs (In Proverbia)
  • Divine Rhetoric (Divina rhetorica).6

William saw the goal of his Magisterium divinale et sapientiale as the honor and glory of God and the perfection of the human intellect in eternal happiness. There is a division between the first magisterium, which is purely philosophical and proceeds by rational proof, and the whole magisterium, which is theological and proceeds from faith.

The Trinity

The first section of the Magisterium divinale et sapientiale includes the first three works and part of De virtutibus. It begins with a discussion of God as the first principle or source of creation and as a trinity of three persons. William presents some philosophical arguments for the existence and nature of God, and in doing so he shows a considerable debt to the thought of the great Islamic philosopher, Avicenna.7 But he also rejects the position of Avicenna on a number of points, such as that God created the world necessarily and eternally.

Principally The Trinity attempts to come to some understanding of the triune God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. William understands the procession of the Son from the Father in terms of the Father's speaking his eternal Word. So too, he understands the Holy Spirit as the mutual love between Father and Son. The Trinity ends with a long chapter on speaking correctly about God in terms of the relations among the three persons and in terms of God's relations to creatures.

The Universe of Creatures

The Universe of Creatures undertakes to state what exists besides God. The work has two principal parts, each of which has three parts. The first principal part deals with the universe in general and the material world in particular, while the second principal part deals with the spiritual or incorporeal world.

In an introductory chapter to the first part of the first principal part William says that The Universe will explain what exists and how it forms a universe. Then he argues against the Manichaean or Cathar dualists, maintaining that the world has only one first principle. He goes on to show that there is only one bodily world, and he explains how creatures have their origin from God. Finally, William turns to the origin of various parts of the bodily world, such as the heavens and the elements, and concludes with discussions of the earthly paradise, purgatory, and hell.

The second part of the first principal part begins with a preface on the goals of philosophy and then goes on to explain the nature of God's eternity in contrast with the sort of eternity that Aristotle and Avicenna attributed to the created world, which was simply temporal duration without beginning or end. William refutes the arguments for the eternity of the world and then presents arguments that the world must have had a beginning. He relies heavily on arguments stemming from John Philoponus, a sixth-century Christian commentator on Aristotle.

William then turns to a discussion of the end of time and what will come after its end. He argues against the idea that souls are created outside their bodies and can migrate from one body to another. He rejects the Platonic doctrine of the Great Year, which is that every 36,000 years everything returns to its original state. He argues against Origen's theory that bodies are ultimately destroyed, and turns to the resurrection of the body and its glorification, the characteristics of the glorified body and soul, and the state of the world at the resurrection.

The third part of the first principal part deals with God's providence and governance of the universe. William argues that the creator's providence extends to each and every creature and that there is no absolute chance in the world. His providence does not extend to sins, although he foreknows such evils and uses them to bring about good. The creator exercises his providence either immediately or by means of the powers he has given to creatures. He points to many benefits that come from pain, suffering, and oppression, which the creator uses to heal the diseases of sin and vice. After singling out four sources of error about divine providence, William replies to each, arguing that there are no chance events in relation to God and that no human beings, not even the insane and barbarian nations, are beyond the care of God.

William argues against some thinkers who held that divine providence makes everything that happens in the world necessary and inevitable. He claims that even if divine providence has foreseen something from eternity, it does not follow that it is necessary. Despite the fact that God has foreseen something from eternity, it is still possible that he did not foresee it. William warns us to avoid language that implies a change in God, for his knowledge is not acquired or lost, increased or diminished. He argues at length against the idea that propositions (enunciabilia) exist eternally and independently of the creator.

Turning to other reasons that led people to deny freedom and hold that everything that happens is necessary, William defends freedom in opposition to astrology, destiny (heimarmene), and fate. He argues that even if the cause and all its helps and conditions are given, it does not follow that the effect is brought to completion, although he admits that the production of the effect is at least begun. He presents an interesting discussing of what it means for something to be in one's power and claims that very little is in fact in our power. Although William ties the meaning of fate, which is derived from the Latin fari (to speak) to the Word of God, he cautions his readers against the use of the term "fate" because of its ties to pagan sources. After discussing six senses of the term "truth," he discusses how propositions can be true-even eternally true-without the implication that there is something eternal apart from God.

Since one of the roles of a soul is to govern its body, William examines the Platonic doctrine of a "world soul." If there were such a soul, it would seem to be a means by which God governs the world. William, however, considers inadequately motivated the suggestion that the world has a soul and firmly rejects the idea held by some Christian theologians that the Holy Spirit is the soul of the world.

The second principal part of the De universo deals with the spiritual world. In its first part he discusses the doctrine of Aristotle and his followers on the separate substances or intelligences, examining the reasons that led Aristotle to posit such substances and arguing against many of the functions that the Aristotelians attributed to such substances.

William is especially opposed to the Avicennian claim that from the first principle there proceeds only the first intelligence, from which a cascade of intelligences proceed down to the tenth, which is the agent intelligence that pours knowledge into human souls and gives forms to the material world. He also strongly opposes the idea that human souls attain beatitude by returning to the agent intelligence from which they supposedly came forth. William also rejects the Platonic doctrine of an archetypal world because it undermines the reality of the sensible world.

In the second part of the second principal part William establishes the existence of spiritual substances, namely, the angels, which have much the same ontological structure as Avicenna's intelligences, but are far more numerous and endowed with freedom and virtue. He deals with their natures, functions, levels, powers, and operations, especially in relation to human beings in 163 chapters. In the third and last part he deals with the demons and devils, who have the same natural dispositions as good angels, but have acquired malice through sin.

The Soul

William's The Soul is the last of his major philosophical works. It is divided into seven chapters, each with many parts. Although the first chapter begins with Aristotle's definition of soul from his De anima, William gives it a very Platonic spin, maintaining that the soul is a substance, that the body is its instrument, and that it is the whole human being. The second chapter argues that the human soul is incorporeal and indivisible.

William stresses in the third chapter that the soul is an immaterial and indivisible form and maintains that the powers of the soul are not distinct from the soul. He views the will as the highest power in the human soul and refers to it as the king or emperor of the soul, while holding that the intellect is its counselor. In chapter four he argues that there is only one soul in a human being and that an embryo does not live by the soul of the mother. In chapter five he claims that the soul of the child is not generated by the parents, but is infused and created by God alone. William begins to speak of the harm and injury that the human soul received through Adam's sin, where he argues that our present state is explicable only on the hypothesis of an original sin. Chapter six focuses upon the immortality of the human soul; in it William incorporates many of the arguments found in his The Immortality of the Soul. The seventh chapter is devoted almost exclusively to the intellective power and to its knowledge.

Sources and Influence

Avicenna is the principal influence on William's philosophy. His direct knowledge of Aristotle was quite limited. Plato is mentioned 165 times in William's works, often negatively. Another thinker from the Islamic world who influenced William was the Jewish author of the Fons vitae, Avicebron, whom William thought to be a Christian. Of course, Augustine and Boethius are important. But except when commenting on venerable Christian authorities, William could be very critical of errors. He did not suffer fools lightly, nor did he hesitate to brand his opponents as feeble-minded and blinded by incredible ignorance. Despite such criticisms he showed an amazing openness to the philosophy pouring into the Latin West through translations of Greek and Islamic thinkers.


1. Noël Valois, Guillaume d'Auvergne, évèque de Paris (1228-1249); sa vie et ses ouvrages (Paris: Picard, 1880), p. 11, quoted from my introduction to William's The Trinity or the First Principle (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1989).

2. For further details on the selection of Bartholomaeus's successor, see Valois, pp. 8-11 and Ernest A. Moody, "William of Auvergne and His Treatise De Anima ," in his Studies in Medieval Philosophy, Science, and Logic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), p. 2.

3. For the text of the errors, see Chartularium universitatis Pariesienis I, no. 128 (Paris: Delalain, 1889-1897), p. 170.

4. Josef Kramp, "Des Wilhelm von Auvergne 'Magisterium Divinale.'" Gregorianum 1 (1920): 538-613, 2 (1921): 42-103 and 174-195.

5. For the order of the works making up the Magisterium , see Guglielmo Corti , "Le sette parte del Magisterium diuinale et sapientiale di Guglielmo di Auvergne." In Studi e richerche di scienze religiose in onore dei santi apostoli Petro et Paulo nel XIX centenario del loro martirio , pp. 289-307. Rome: Lateran University, 1968.

6. For a complete list of William's works, editions, and translations, see Jennifer R. Ottman, "List of Manuscripts and Editions," in Autour de Guillaume d'Auvergne , ed. Franco Morenzoni and Jean-Yves Tilliette (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006), pp. 375-399.

7. See my "William of Auvergne's Debt to Avicenna." In Avicenna and His Heritage . Acts of the International Colloquium. Leuven-Louvaine-La-Neuve September 8-September 11, 1999. Ed. Jules Janssens and Daniel De Smet, pp. 153-170. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2002.