ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

168. William of Conches. -- We may regard WILLIAM OF CONCHES (1080-1154) as a representative of Chartres traditions by reason of his studies under Bernard (1010-1120), his humanism, his opposition to the Cornificians, his devotion to the physical sciences and his earlier philosophical views. After teaching at Paris about 1122, he became tutor to Henry Plantagenet. Besides numerous glosses on the Timaeus and the De Consolatione Philosophiae,{1} William composed, among other works, a Magna de Naturis Philosophia, a treatise De Philosophia Mundi, sometimes attributed to Venerable Bede and sometimes to Honorius of Autun,{2} another treatise entitled Dragmaticon Philosophiae, and a Summa Moralium Philosophorum, quoted under various titles and attributed to various philosophers, especially to Hildebert of Lavardin.

Early in his scholastic career, William leant towards the extreme realism which had become traditional in the Chartres schools. Led astray by a dangerous application of Pythagorism to theology, he went so far as to advocate a strange doctrine, entertained apparently also by Bernard and Theoderic: the identification of the Holy Ghost with the world-soul. Called to account by WILLIAM OF ST. THEODERIC, he retracted this view and abandoned metaphysics for the study of the sciences.

Medical studies were a speciality in the Chartres schools.{3} Through the versions of Constantine the African, William became familiar with the physiological theories of Galen and Hippocrates, and endeavoured to harmonize them with the process of sense knowledge. It was Constantine who introduced into the schools of the West the study of the physiological concomitant of sensation; and the excessive attention paid to this aspect of knowledge resulted in almost completely losing sight of its distinctly psychical aspect. Adelard of Bath, William of St. Theoderic, William of Hirschau and several others display this tendency to merge the psychical in the physiological side of the conscious process.

While the two previous teachers of Chartres offer us a dynamic explanation of the universe, William presents us in his cosmology with an atomic hypothesis. The four elements are combinations of homogeneous, invisible particles.{4} From the plasticity of these atoms spring all the works of Nature, including the human body with its highest vital perfections: so that the soul is not at all the constitutive form of the body. We need not wonder at William's professing the theory of the world-soul, traditionally taught at Chartres.

The Summa Moralium Philosophorum of William of Conches claims the attention of the historian as being the first medieval treatise on ethics. It is a mere collection of practical maxims, mainly from Seneca (De Beneficiis) and Cicero (De Officiis). Following their example he went into questions of detail upon the various virtues and upon the difference between the good and the useful; but he had no conception of scholastic ethics as a system, making no attempt to discuss such fundamental questions as the last end of man and the nature of morality. The scientific study of ethics was not developed until the next (thirteenth) century.

{1} JOURDAIN, Excurs. histor. et philosoph. à travers le m. âge, 1888, regards William as the recognized interpreter of the De Consolatione down to the fourteenth century. His commentary was plagiarized by NICHOLAS TRIVETH (1258-1358).

{2} HAURÉAU, Not. et Extr., etc., v., p. 195.

{3} They had the De Arte Medica of the physician Alexander, the Isagoge Johannitii, the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, the De Pulsibus of Philaretes, the De Urinis of Theophilus, the Theorica of Constantine the African, and commentaries on Galen (CLERVAL, op. cit., p. 240).

{4} Elementa sunt simplae et minimae particulae, quibus haec quatuor constant quae videmus. Haec elementa nunquam videntur, sed ratione divisionis intelliguntur" (MIGNE, P.L., 90, col. 1132).

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