The great irony of William's use of Avicenna's principle that 'nature operates in the manner of a servant' is that William so often uses this expression in his De trinitate, De universo, and De anima to correct Avicenna. His corrections cover a wide variety of topics, including the free will of rational creatures, and arguments against necessary emanation and the eternality of the world.
William repeatedly uses Avicenna's nature/servant principle in De universo to correct several errors in Avicenna's description of the ten intelligences. For instance, although William praises the Aristotelians for teaching much of what is true about the intelligences, he wants to prove that the intelligences are not only prefect in their knowledge, as Avicenna knew, but that they also possess a perfect love. This perfection, however, is not absolute like God's perfection, but one which is "perfect in relation to the appropriateness of their level and rank" (William of Auvergne, Universe Ia-IIae.2; 141, Teske). William argues that either an intelligence loves its act of knowing or it does not. If it does, the intelligence receives delight in knowing and loves the one who gives it what it has received. Thus, William's point is proven, for if it is shown that an intelligence loves God, it would do so according to its natural perfection. However, if the intelligence does not love its own act of understanding then a contradiction follows, for it would then not make use of its knowledge for its own good, but would use its own thinking no differently than the sun sheds it rays or fire its heat, that is, "necessarily in the manner of a servant" (William of Auvergne, Universe Ia-IIae.2; 143, Teske). Yet, such a use of understanding is impossible, for as William notes one who understands does so for no one but himself.11 Since one disjunct is rejected, the other must remain: the intelligences must have a perfect knowledge and love.
William goes on to attack Avicenna's claim that each intelligence only knows and loves the intellect which is properly its beloved. William knows that Avicenna must be wrong about this, because if an intelligence did not look to its creator, but focused its attention only upon its beloved, such a love would be perverse and give great offense to God. But a natural love cannot be perverse since what is natural is what God commands. Therefore, each intelligence must know more than just its beloved. William defeats an objection to this conclusion by again referring to Avicenna's nature/servant principle. He writes that Avicenna's position is not helped by saying "the love of such souls for their own intelligences is natural and that the desire to become like them is likewise natural,...if he understands 'natural' as necessary or servile, as I explained to you in the preceding parts" (William of Auvergne, Universe Ia-IIae.4; 149, Teske).
Finally, William refers to Avicenna's nature/servant principle in his De anima to prove the proper relationship between the powers of the soul, especially the intellect and the will. William is very concerned that this relationship be explored, because he believed that his predecessors mistakenly focused only upon the intellect, and did not properly concern themselves with the will. Concerning this oversight, William writes:
It is the source of no small wonder that Aristotle and his followers, the Greek and Arab philosophers, have investigated with marvelous interest and care the intellective power which is far less noble. But they seem not only to have neglected this present power, but also to have not cared about it at all, since they did not consider that they should mention it, except perhaps in those books which they are said to have written on morals and the virtues. But in their books which they wrote on the soul and its powers and operations, they left to posterity all but nothing on this power, though they were able to have knowledge of it, since in its rectitude and perfection lies the beauty and dignity of human life. For this reason they should have pursued it with more interest and more care than the others to the extent that they could think it higher and more noble. (William of Auvergne, De anima 3.7.95a: 27, Teske)
William defines the relationship between the intellect and the will in the human soul in reference to a law of nature—that the one that rules is greater than the one ruled, as a master rules a servant. William explains that the will:
.has command and holds the position of emperor and king in the whole human being and in the human soul. Hence, just as an emperor or king is more excellent and loftier in his whole kingdom in power, dignity, and office, so both in the human being and in the human soul this power bears the clear likeness of a kingdom or empire, as you have heard. Hence, this power is necessarily the most noble and most excellent both in the human being and in the human soul, I mean, by the right and law of nature. After all, just as, when it [the will] is trod down in shameful servitude by vices and passions, nothing is more vile than it, so when, free from them and upright, it properly rules in its kingdom and empire, and nothing is more excellent in that kingdom and empire, nothing more worthy of glory and honor, nothing more acceptable to the creator. (William of Auvergne, De anima 3.8.95a-95b; 28, Teske)
Therefore, the intellective power "is subject to it [the will] by the law and right of nature, and for this reason [the will] does as its command everything it can" (William of Auvergne, De anima 3.8.95b; 28, Teske). Just as a counselor cannot refuse to assist his king because of the law of the kingdom, so too the intellect must serve the will as its handmaid.12 William concludes:
Hence, the former power [the will] is more excellent and more noble and higher than the latter. Hence, the knowledge of the latter, that is, of the intellective power or reason, should be less prized. And for this reason knowledge of this noble power of command should be preferred to the knowledge of the intellective power to the extent that it is clearly better and more noble that the handmaid. (William of Auvergne, De anima 3.8.95b; 28, Teske)
Thanks to William's understanding of the Avicennian nature/servant principle William attempts to prove to Avicenna what Avicenna failed to fully understand about his own principle, namely, that the intellective power, which is so praised by Aristotle and
Avicenna, is actually less noble than the will and therefore must serve the will as a servant serves his master.
William also used the nature/servant principle to correct several points associated with Avicenna's understanding of creation. He was especially critical of Avicenna's belief in necessary emanation,13 for according to William such a doctrine suggests that God must have necessarily created the first intelligence, and that each of the ten intelligences must have the power within themselves to create another. William is firmly opposed to any suggestion that God necessarily created. In fact, William believes such a conclusion reveals a serious misunderstanding about the true relationship between God and nature, that which is created. William comments that those who hold such a position "detract much from the glory and magnificence of the creator and attribute more than is fitting of might and power to the previously mentioned substances" (William of Auvergne, Universe Ia-Iae.26; 84, Teske). William refers back to Avicenna's master/ servant distinction in one of his many arguments against this error, and, once again, reminds Avicenna of the meaning of his own principle. William writes:
if he [God] did not operate in creation by his choice and supereminent freedom, but in accord with the order which these people suppose, he would undoubtedly have operated in the manner of nature. But this manner, as you have learned, is the manner of a servant and of one not choosing with ultimate freedom both the manner of operation and his operation. (William of Auvergne, Universe Ia-Iae.26; 86, Teske)
By contrasting operating in 'the manner of a servant' with 'choosing with ultimate freedom' William further clarifies how God and his creation differ; whereas all creatures, including the ten intelligences, are completely subject to God's will and thereby act without freedom or choice, there is no necessity in God's willing. William's point is not just that God cannot be forced to create, for that would involve simply freedom from coercion, but that it is up to God to choose to create or not to create. Unlike all of nature, God is (1) not coerced by something else, and (2) is not necessitated by his nature, but (3) freely chooses to act or not to act, to do this or to do that.
Avicenna's distinction is also used to defeat one of the three Avicennian arguments for an eternal universe discussed by William.14 In brief, the argument runs as follows: if a voluntary agent is not to be different in will, knowledge or power before or after he acts, and if the agent has the same obstacles or helps in both situations, it is necessary that the agent either never begins to act or was acting before.15 Otherwise, Avicenna asks, what reason or cause could there be to explain why the agent acts now rather than later. Yet, since God is uniquely immutable in every respect and since there was nothing before he created the universe to help or impede his creation, God must be the same in every respect from eternity as when he created the world. The argument concludes, "Hence, it is necessary that the creator created the world as soon as he existed, that is to say, from eternity.16
Although William provides several different arguments against Avicenna's view that the universe is co-eternal with God, I will limit my comments to those based upon what William has learned about God and nature from Avicenna. Namely, that whereas natural causes change when they act—either in themselves or in their relationship to the objects they acted upon—the creator "acts through a will that is most free and most dominant and immutable in every respect, and on this account his effects are joined to him when he wills and are separated from him when he wills" (William of Auvergne, Universe IIa-Iae.9; 127, Teske). Because God, unlike his creation, is absolutely free, William argues that:
.. .it is not necessary that he act or begin to act, except when he wills. And notice that it is possible that the creator now will something, but he could have not willed it without any change of his will. In us, however, just the opposite is necessarily the case, and you learned this elsewhere. On account of this Avicenna was mistaken on this point, and so too was Aristotle, for they did not see that the creator could will something and could not will it without any change of his will.17
Thus, by noting that the creator is not necessarily tied to his effects by his relationship to them, William rejected Avicenna's argument for an eternal universe by using Avicenna's own principle against him.
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