William of Auvergne

On Providence

Introduction by Roland Teske

William says: "But just as [one responds] in those things that seem to come about by chance, such as in the unforeseen encounters of human beings and in other things that come about apart from our intention and thought, so one should respond [to the question] concerning the catch of fishes in nets and of wild animals in snares, namely, why it is this fish rather than that one or this animal rather than that one that falls into it. In the same way, what is the reason that such a man met this man in the forum, although he was not looking for him and did not even think of him? For it is evident that those walking at the same time on the same road in opposite directions necessarily meet, and they could have had different reasons for walking."

Original Latin

Chance Events under Godís Providence?

Medieval philosophers and theologians wondered whether chance events were compatible with Godís universal providence. In other words, can some events in the world occur without Godís knowledge and providence?

Some philosophers thought that knowledge of unimportant events, such as this fish being caught rather than that one, was unworthy of God. But since the God of Christianity as well as of Judaism and Islam is all-knowing (omniscient), how can there be chance events in the world -- how can there be anything God does not know?

If there were chance events, at times God would be surprised just as we are by what happens. And yet we all speak of chance events. For instance, I would say that I met my friend, Joe, by chance this afternoon when I was walking at the lakefront. It is a chance event in relation to me and to Joe, because neither of us intended our meeting. But since we were walking along the lakefront at the same time in opposite directions, it was necessary that we should meet, and that the all-knowing God knew that we would.

William and other Christian thinkers insist that in relation to Godís knowledge and providence such events are not chance events at all. Rather, his knowledge and providence extend to all things, even to what we regard as very unimportant events. William et al. hold that events occur by chance only in relation to us, but there is no absolute chance in the world.

What is Chance to Us, is Providence to God

In the present passage William explains in much the same way how Godís providence extends to such seemingly unimportant and chance events such as this fish being caught rather than that fish. What are some of the reasons he gives why one fish is caught and another fish escapes the net?

If all the fish or wild animals of a certain kind in some place were caught at the same time, that would be the destruction of that kind of animal in that place. Princes and lesser lords at times forbid hunting and fishing in lands under their ownership, not merely selfishly, but to provide for the conservation of nature. In a similar way the goodness of the creator looks out for the conservation of natural beings so that they do not completely perish.

Notice that William thinks that the various kinds of fish and animals are meant to be of use and benefit to human beings. Hence, the creator will not conserve them once their usefulness has ceased. When will their usefulness cease, according to William?