Article abstract: As the first European medieval scholar to attempt to integrate Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology, William encouraged the growth of philosophy as a discipline distinct from theology and paved the way for the great synthesis of faith and reason of the later Middle Ages.
The date of William of Auvergne’s birth is unknown, as are most of the facts about his early life. Scholars have assumed that he was born before 1190, because in 1225, he was teaching theology at the University of Paris, a privilege not usually granted to those below the age of thirty-five. His birthplace was Aurillac, a village in the French province of Auvergne. A legend suggests that his parents were poor: As a child, William was begging one day on the street, when a woman offered him some money if he would promise never to become a bishop. Perhaps William had a sense of his own destiny, for he declined the offer.
Regardless of whether he was prescient, rich or poor, he must have shown enough intellectual promise to be sent to school, though where or when is unknown. In the Middle Ages, almost all elementary instruction was given in cathedral or monastic schools, and it was expected that most students would become candidates for the priesthood. William was not only ordained but also went to the University of Paris, the most prestigious school of higher learning in France. By 1223, he was a cathedral priest, or canon, of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and was probably already teaching at the university.
In the early thirteenth century, the basic intellectual assumptions of the academic world were undergoing a rapid process of change, and William was to become an important part of this transformation. Until shortly before William went to Paris, most of the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle had been unavailable to the Christian scholars of Europe. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, in 476 c.e., Europe had been virtually cut off from the more affluent and cultured East, and much of the heritage of Greek philosophy which had been passed to the Romans was lost. In the disruption that followed Rome’s fall, the decline of the towns and the disappearance of secular schools left most education in the hands of the only well-organized institution that remained intact, the Church. While the flickering lamp of civilization was kept alight in the monasteries, it was necessarily colored by the viewpoint of religious faith. Thus for several centuries, philosophy, which then included all forms of inquiry about the universe, was taught as a part of Christian theology and remained firmly anchored to the views articulated by Saint Augustine early in the fifth century.
In the Augustinian universe, the knowledge of God obtained through the revelation of the Gospels and maintained in its purity by the Church was seen as inherently superior to the knowledge gained through reason and the senses. These faculties existed, in fact, simply to help human beings understand the revelation in which they already believed. Following Augustine, medieval philosophers had attempted to explain the phenomena of the world around them within a framework limited by such tenets of faith as God, His creation, and the Resurrection. This effort was seen as the whole purpose of Christian philosophy; ideas or observations which contradicted the structure of faith, as it had been revealed in the Bible and by the church fathers, were rejected as heresy.
Starting in the late twelfth century, however, the works of the Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle, began to filter once more into Europe through Arabic translations and commentaries from Islamic Spain. As they were gradually translated into Latin, these works revealed a whole new (or, rather, very old) world of pre-Christian explanations of the universe based solely upon the use of reason. At first, the Church attempted to stamp out the Greek ideas, and, in 1228 and 1231, Pope Gregory IX condemned the use of Aristotle by the faculty at the University of Paris. Since Aristotle had addressed nearly every area of knowledge, however, the curiosity of the scholars could not be suppressed for long, and William was among the first to attempt to integrate Aristotelian ideas into Christian philosophy.
That William was a man of some prominence and ability, even early in his career, is evidenced by his appointments, in 1224 and 1225, to papal commissions assigned to investigate monasteries in need of reform. He was also, apparently, quite ambitious, as his actions following the death of Bartholomaeus, Bishop of Paris, in 1227 demonstrate. Church law provided that the canons of Notre Dame were to elect a new bishop, subject to papal approval. If the canons were not essentially unanimous in their choice, the right of selection would revert to the pope. On April 10, 1228, the canons elected a candidate, but only by a slim majority. William proclaimed that the election was invalid and threatened to appeal the decision to Rome. The other canons, not wishing to lose their autonomy in the matter, accordingly held another election, but William was still unsatisfied and complained to Pope Gregory. The result was that William himself was appointed to the position, in which he remained for the rest of his life.
Though he is remembered today as a philosopher, among his contemporaries William was known primarily for his activities as Bishop of Paris. In fact, he was largely unknown to all but a few of the great philosophers who followed him, and Saint Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham seem not to have been familiar with his writings. Only Roger Bacon briefly mentions William, and even Bacon’s brief note of praise seems more connected with William the bishop than with William the philosopher.
During William’s tenure as prelate, the University of Paris was gradually gaining its independence from the Church. Since it had evolved out of the cathedral school of Notre Dame, the university remained under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Paris. By the early thirteenth century, however, it had become a largely autonomous body, governed not by the laws of the city or the kingdom but by its own teachers (called “masters”) and students. The immunity of the university from either royal or municipal control set a precedent for other universities and became the basis of the centuries-long conflicts between “town and gown” which can still occasionally be seen. The only check on the often highly disruptive behavior of students and teachers was the bishop, who was himself often a former student and master. Nevertheless, both faculty and scholars chafed under even this usually sympathetic form of control and worked to end it.
William’s relations with the university got off to an inauspicious start, for a famous strike of masters and students occurred in the spring of 1229. In February, the students had begun a riot in the course of celebrating the annual Carnival, and, after complaints from many citizens, royal troops were sent in to quell the disturbance. The resulting bloodshed outraged both masters and students, who demanded that William obtain redress from the king for this violation of their immunity. When William...
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