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William of Auvergne


also known as Guilielmus Arvernus or Alvernus (b. Aurillac, Auvergne[now Cantal], France, between 1180 and 1190; d. Paris, France, 30 March 1249), philosophy, theology.

After a brief teaching career at Paris, where he was made a master of theology in 1223, William was named bishop of Paris in 1228, a post he held until his death; thus he is sometimes called William of Paris. Like a famous successor, Étienne Tempier, he meddled in the affairs of the university, but generally with a more positive attitude toward the pagan learning that was then being introduced there. He did not think highly of the Jews, however, and was among those responsible for the public burning of the Talmud at Paris in June 1242.

As a Christian philosopher William may be characterized as the last eminent French theologian, completing the tradition of Abailard and Bernard of Clairvaux; and as the first great scholastic, setting the stage for Alexander of Hales, Albertus Magnus, and their disciples. Alexander and Albertus were at Paris with him,as was Roger Bacon, who mentions having heard him lecture on the active intellect.1 William was also friendly with Robert Grosseteste. bishop of Lincoln, and is mentioned as a possible source of the latter’s “metaphysic of light” Because of his insistence on the primacy of being and his use of an Avicennian teaching on essence and existence taken over later by Thomas Aquinas, William is sometimes seen as a forerunner of Aquinas. Actually William was more in the tradition of Augustine, Boethius, and the School of Chartres; and many of his teachings were combated energetically by Aquinas.

While setting himself to destroy the errors of the pagans, William insisted on a careful study of their writings. He was particularly interested in Ibn Sīnā, although he also cited al–Karajī, al–Ghazzali, al–Fārābī, Ibn Rushd, al–Battānī Abū Ma’shar Altāf Husain Hālī, al-Bitrūjī, and al-Farghānī; and he knew of the writings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. References to these authors occur mainly in William’s De universo, the part of his monumental Magisterium divinale devoted to the world of nature composed around 1231–1236. De universo serves as an intermediary between the early medieval writings on cosmology of Isidore of Seville and Bede and the great encyclopedias of Vincent of Beauvais and Albertus Magnus that appeared later in the century. Apart from the insight it provides into William’s sparse knowledge of astronomy and cosmology, it is of considerable value for its accounts and critiques of medieval magic and so-called experimental science;William , in fact, speaks often of “experiments” but without any of the modern connotations of this expression.

The De universo is divided into two parts, each containing three subdivisions. The first part each siders creation as a whole and treats in some detail of the material universe, while the second part is devoted almost entirely to the spiritual universe, that is, the world of intelligences, angels, and demons. William upholds the Christian doctrine of creation against the Manichaeans, insisting on the unity of the universe and arguing against a plurality of worlds and any void existing between them.2 He teaches that the heavens and the elements were created at the same time.3 and that the heavenly bodies have no proper movements independent of the celestial spheres in which they are imbedded,4 the latter consideration leading him to discourse on the relative thickness of the various spheres.5 In general he endorses the astronomical system of al-Bitrūjī, against that of Ptolemy, without manifesting, an adequate grasp of either.6 There are also Platonic overtones in his exposition, as when he explains the motion of the heavens in terms of a power emanating from al-Bitrüjīs ninth sphere, somewhat like the World Soul of the Timaeus.7 and which he also likens to the phenomenon of magnetic induction8 He is explicit that the Holy Spirit is in no way to be identified with the soul of the world.9.

The second part of De universo opens with an account of Aristotle’s intelligences and a repudiation of them as movers of the heavens.10 William teaches also that angels are not necessary to account for the difference in velocities of the heavenly bodies.11 While discussing the motion of separated substances,he treats incidentally of the speed of illumination, holding that the operation of light is not instantaneous.12 He inveighs against the excesses of judicial astrology, although he admits the existence of remarkable phenomena, “which some physicians and certain natural philosophers refer to as empirical.”13 William distinguishes between natural magic and black magic, allowing that the former is based on the hidden properties of natural substances and is wrong only if used for evil purposes, whereas the latter involves the intervention of demons and is itself evil.14 Like most medievals William is exceedingly credulous in accepting and recounting the many marvelous and occult workings of nature of which he as heard or read in earlier authors. He lists detailed prescriptions against the practice of magic in another part of his Magisterium divinale entitled De legibus ; this prohibits the cult of the stars and heavenly bodies and the idolatry of elements, statues, and similar objects.15


1.Opus tertium, cap. 23: see The ‘Opus Majus’ of Roger Bacon, J. H. Bridges, ed., 1 (Oxford, 1897), p. xxvii.

2.De universo, Primae partis prima pars, cc. 13–16, in Operaomnia (Paris, 1674), 1. pp. 607–611.

3.ibid., cc. 28–29, pp. 624–625.

4.ibid., c. 44. pp. 648–653.

5.ibid., c. 45, p. 654.

6.ibid., c. 44, pp. 651–653.

7.ibid., Primae partis tertia pars, c. 28, pp. 798–801.

8.ibid., c. 29, pp. 801–803; see Duhem, Le système dumonde, III, pp. 258–260.

9.De universo, Primae partis tertia pars, c. 33, p. 806.

10.ibid., Secundae partis prima pars, c. 45, p. 843.

11.ibid., Secundae partis secunda pars, c. 97, pp. 951–952.

12.ibid., c. 101, pp. 953–954.

13. “. . .exemplis occultarum operationum et mirabilium, quaeque nonnulli medicorum et etiam quidam philosophorum naturalium empirica vocant,” Ibid., c. 76, p. 929.

14.ibid., Sencumdae partis tertia pars, cc. 7–8. pp. 1029–1035; c.18, pp. 1049–1050.

15.Opera omnia (Paris, 1674), vol. I. pp. 18–102, esp. 44, 77, 81, and 86.


I. Original Works. William’s Opera omnia has appeared in various Latin editions, all incomplete:(Nuremberg, 1496); 2 vols. (Paris, 1516, 1574); 2 vols.(Venice, 1591): 2 vols. (Orleans, 1674); and 2 vols. (Paris, 1674; repr., Frankfurt am Main, 1963). The sermons contained in vol. II of the latter edition and attributed to William of Auvergne are actually those of the Dominican William Peraldus (Perrauld or Perault). An important treatise has been edited by J. R. O’Donnell, as “Tractatus magistri Guillelmi Alvernensis De bono et malo,” in Mediaeval Studies,8 (1946), 245–299, and 16 (1954), 219–271; other writings and sermons still remain unedited.

II. Secondary Literature. For a brief biography of William and a bibliography, see J. R. O’Donnell, in New Catholic Encyclopedia, XIV (New York,1967), 921. On William’s philosophy, see Étienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York-London, 1955), 250–258, 658–660, with bibliography. William’s contributions viewed in relation to the history of science are detailed in George Sarton, introduction to the History of Science, II, pt. 2 (Baltimore, 1931), 588; E. J. Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture, C. Dikshoorn, trans. (Oxford, 1961), 139, passim ; L. Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, II (New York, 1923), 338–371; Pierre Duhem, Le système du monde, III (Paris, 1915), 249–260,and V (Paris 1917), 260–285; and Études sur Léonard de Vinci, II (Paris, 1909), 408–410. A valuable study of William’s teaching on the soul and on psychology is E. A. Moody, “William of Auvergne and His Treatise De Anima,” in his Studies in Medieval Philosophy, Science, and Logic, Collected Papers 1933–1969 (Berkeley, Calif., 1975), 1–109.

William A. Wallace, O. P.

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