William of Auvergne served as bishop of Paris from 1228 to 1249. On the Virtues is the first of six parts of Williamís larger work On the Virtues and Vices, which in turn is one of seven works in Williamís Teaching on God in the Mode of Wisdom. The works in Williamís Magisterium were not written chronologically, but were fit into what he deemed a logical order. For example, On the Virtues was composed in two stages. Chapters 10-11 of On the Virtues were written earlier, as is evidenced by the fact that a later work On the Faith refers to this material. However, chapters 1-9 and 12-23 reference On the Faith, so these chapters were obviously written later.
This work is translated with a helpful introduction and notes by Roland Teske, who is the general series editor for the 45-volume Mediaeval Philosophical Texts in Translation series. Teske, who serves as Donald J. Schuenke Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University, is among the worldís foremost authorities on William of Auvergne. This is Teskeís sixth translation of Williamís works. Teskeís articles on William have been compiled in Studies in the Philosophy of William of Auvergne, which is a useful companion to understand any work by William. Specializing in mediaeval philosophy, Teske has also translated ten works by Augustine and three volumes by William of Ghent. All his works reflect remarkable facility in Italian, Latin, French, and German.
The translation in this volume is predictably excellent, although it is taken from the rather flawed 1674 edition which, in Teskeís words, ďdefies translation.Ē Teske provides needed corrections to obvious errors and proposes plausible alternative wording for apparently mistaken readings. Since William wrote before the day of modern bibliographical referencing, Teske provides extremely helpful documentation for the works vaguely referenced by William. The text of On the Virtues helpfully includes the folio numbers which are used as reference points throughout Williamís works. Teskeís notes also enhance the text by explaining technical terms and arcane references.
In this work, William of Auvergne approaches the virtues in much the same way Aristotle did biology Ė categorization by species and genus. However, although he sometimes utilizes logic and the use of contraries to determine the virtues, at times the selection of items in these lists appears to be rather arbitrary. The reader may grow weary of the rather tedious number of lists Ė three goals of human life, twenty-two synonyms for virtue, three forms of love, seven ways in which grace helps a fallen nature, the fourfold expression of love, the five differences distinguishing true love, four spiritual savors, seven good volitions, eleven evil volitions, seven evils, four cardinal virtues, five intellectual virtues, three affective virtues, five apprehensive virtues, twenty-four irascible virtues, six consuetudinal virtues, etc. Some of these lists have subcategory lists within them, and a discussion of their contraries.
Although William refers to Aristotle frequently, he had limited access to Aristotleís thought. Most of his knowledge of Aristotle was through Avicenna, which somewhat colored his perception. He also was aware of the limitations of Aristotle regarding ethical thought. For example, while agreeing with Aristotle that habit is an important way of inculcating ethics in oneís person life, William felt that this approach had its limits. In particular, he felt that Aristotle did not give an adequate account of original sin, and thus some virtues were unattainable without grace. In Williamís terminology, humans are born with natural virtues, persons can increase virtue by making it habitual (consuetudinal virtues), and some virtues come only by Godís grace (gratuitous virtues). The interaction between the Aristotelian and Augustinian accounts of virtue is a major complementary theme of this work.
Since Williamís primary purpose was definition of virtues, On the Virtues is not particularly useful for devotional purposes or ethical instruction. However, some valuable proverbial insights are sprinkled through the work, and Williamís case studies are interesting (at least as a reflection of his era). For example, in discussing the interrelation of motivation, justice, obedience, and covetousness, William addresses whether a soldier enters the army for desire for plunder or to serve his king, and whether an easily tempted monk who feels safe in the cloister should disobey his assignment by the abbot to serve in a local parish in which he would be more vulnerable to these temptations.
This book offers valuable insights into mediaeval thought on the virtues. Recommended for readers interested in these issues.