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William of Conches


William of Conches, the twelfth-century Chartrain philosopher, was born at Conches in Normandy at the end of the eleventh century. He probably studied under Bernard of Chartres, learning at least grammar from him, and began teaching in the early 1120s. About 1140 William, who was perhaps now in Paris, had John of Salisbury as one of his pupils; John found him perpetuating the spirit of Bernard's own teaching. However, opposition from less lettered philosophers led William to return to his native Normandy under the protection of Duke Geoffrey Plantagenet, whose son, the future Henry II of England, he taught. He died sometime after 1154.

William left glosses on Priscian in both an early and a later version, and recent evidence suggests that he may have written glosses on Juvenal. However, his other surviving writings testify above all to a considerable achievement in philosophy and in scientific thought. They include a commentary on the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius that is dependent on older glosses but is animated by an ampler philosophical and physical interest; glosses upon Macrobius; a first version of a commentary upon the Chalcidian version of Plato's Timaeus ; and a systematic work, the Philosophia Mundi, which ranges widely over the topics of God, the universe, and man. William considers the nature of God and his relationship to creation; he also considers the structure and composition of the universe, the elements, the heavens, motion, and geography. Finally, he examines the biology and psychology of man.

These were all youthful writings, completed by the early 1120s. In a second version of his commentary on the Timaeus, William abandoned his former assimilation of the Platonic world soul with the Holy Spirit of Christian doctrine. In the later 1140s he continued to modify youthful theses and produced a masterpiece, the Dragmaticon Philosophiae, cast in the form of a dialogue with Duke Geoffrey. In this work, which built upon the earlier Philosophia Mundi, William developed his physical and astronomical interests and produced the most up-to-date scientific encyclopedia of the mid-twelfth century. Like the Philosophia Mundi, it was widely circulated. Some historians consider William to be the author of the Moralium Dogma Philosophorum, an influential collection of moralist citations from Scripture, the Church Fathers, and ancient pagan writers.

Much of William's philosophical effort was directed toward ensuring that Christian theology embraced the study of the universe and of man. He saw in Plato's Timaeus a doctrine of creation that helped to explain the account given in the book of Genesis. He identified the Platonic archetypal world with the wisdom of God, the Logos of Christian belief. He firmly underlined St. Paul's teaching on the intelligibility of this world (Romans 1:20). The created universe bears the imprint of its creator, and its harmony reveals the fundamental attributes of Godpower, wisdom, and goodness. These aspects of God are commonly signified by the names of three divine persons, but William was preoccupied with the creative activity of the Trinity rather than with the intimate relationships of the divine life. Stressing the cosmological function of the Holy Spirit, William presented the third person of the Trinity as the principle of life that animates the world and, in his earlier writings, as identical with the anima mundi, or world soul, of Platonic doctrine. Conservative theological opinion was thereby antagonized.

After 1140 William of St.Thierry, the Cistercian friend of Bernard of Clairvaux, launched an attack against the grammarian of Conches, as he had earlier against Peter Abelard. He criticized William for following Abelard and for transgressing the limits of theological inquiry set by the fathers of the church. He accused the Chartrain of Sabellianism and of subordinationism in his cosmological interpretation of the Trinity, and of materialism in making God an immanent regulatory principle of the universe. In the Dragmaticon William yielded somewhat to these criticisms, but he was also influenced by new translations of Greek and Arabic medical writings. His animistic vision of the universe was now tempered by an increased insistence on the power of secondary causes, of nature itself to sustain the universe in cooperation with God. William arrived at a new sense of the autonomous value of nature, and he offered many new perspectives. On the individual human soul and its faculties he joined the medical theories of the newly translated Pantegni of ʿAlī ibn al-ʾAbbas and of the Isagoge of Johannitius to the traditional Boethian doctrine. Stimulated by the Pantegni as well as by Vergil and Lucretius, he criticized the traditional theory of the four elements as the first principles of things. The Ptolemaic theory of planetary motion appeared in William's Dragmaticon, which became a striking witness to the broadening of the contemporary scientific horizon.

See also Abelard, Peter; Bernard of Chartres; Bernard of Clairvaux; Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus; Chartres, School of; Creation and Conservation, Religious Doctrine of; God, Concepts of; John of Salisbury; Lucretius; Medieval Philosophy; Plato.


Extracts from the Commentary on Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy are in J. M. Parent, La doctrine de la création dans l'école de Chartres (Paris: Vrin, 1938), pp. 122136, and, edited by C. Jourdain, in Notices et extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Impériale, Vol. 20, Part II (Paris, 1862), pp. 4082.

Glosses on Macrobius' Commentary on the Dream of Scipio is unedited, but see E. Jeauneau in Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge 27 (1960): 1728.

Extracts from Glosses on Plato's Timaeus have been edited by V. Cousin, in Ouvrages inédits d'Abélard (Paris, 1836), pp. 646657; by J. M. Parent, op. cit., pp. 137177; and by T. Schmid, in Classica et Mediaevalia 10 (1949): 220266; there is also an edition of Schmid's version by E. Jeauneau, Glosae super Platonem (Paris: J. Vrin, 1965).

Extracts from Glosses on Priscian, edited by E. Jeauneau, are in Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale 27 (1960): 212247.

Philosophia Mundi may be found in Patrologia Latina, edited by J. P. Migne, Vol. 172, Cols. 39102 (under Honorius Augustodunensis), and in Vol. 90, Cols. 11271178 (under Bede).

Dragmaticon Philosophiae, edited by G. Gratarolus, was published under the title of Dialogus de Substantiis Physicis (Strasbourg, 1567).

See also Moralium Dogma Philosophorum, edited by J. Holmberg (Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksells, 1929.)

A study of William is T. Gregory, Anima mundi. La filosofia di Guglielmo di Conches e la scuola di Chartres (Florence: Sansoni, 1955).

David Luscombe (1967)

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