Williams Definition of Nature

As already stated, William believed that nature operates "by necessity, not by freedom, in the manner of a servant who cannot do anything else than he is commanded."3 First and foremost, this means that according to William a natural cause acts without choice. William argues that natural causes always work in the same manner because they "do not have power over their action or freedom or choice for both alternatives." As an example, William notes that fire, by its very nature, always burns what is combustible, for "it does not have power over heating and not heating, nor freedom to choose both of them; in fact, it must heat the material that comes into contact with it and is receptive of its action." So it is with all natural causes; they cannot choose to act or not to act (William of Auvergne, Universe IIa-Iae.9;126, Teske).

Somewhat surprisingly, Scripture's account of the burning bush (Exodus 3:2ff) is not a unique example for William of a situation where fire does not do what its nature demands, but rather serves as further proof for William that fire is "by its nature sufficient for burning something combustible presented to it."4 William claims that fire must actually have the power to burn the bush or Scripture is lying when it claims the burning bush is a miracle. If God changed the potency of the fire in some way and the fire no longer had the power to burn, then the miracle of the burning bush would not be a miracle at all, but simply an illusion which duped Moses (William of Auvergne, Trinity 11; 113, Teske). Since the miracle cannot be an illusion if Scripture is to be believed, the fire must be real fire and naturally have the power to burn.

Although William agrees with the Aristotelians that natural causes like fire do indeed have the power to burn, he is very clear that when considered in themselves there is no natural necessity for natural things to act (William of Auvergne, Triniy 11; 114 Teske). In sharp contrast to God's full freedom and power, natural causes "are able to do nothing against his [God's] will or beyond it or other than it" (William of Auvergne, Triniy 11; 113 Teske) for all that they "either can do or are is the good pleasure of the creator" (William of Auvergne, Trinity 12; 115 Teske). Just as the work done by a servant does not properly belong to the servant, but to his or her master who ordained the work and gave the servant sufficient power to complete it, the actions resulting from natural causation properly belong only to God's creative power and will, and not to any natural object itself.

William believes that all natural causation is ultimately traced back to God's power, which "is the cause of nature and of natural dispositions" (William of Auvergne, Trinity 12; 117 Teske). Although William clearly recognizes that living creatures generate other living creatures, he notes that such activity cannot originate with any creature since the creature cannot share esse out of itself or out of what is its own. Hence, generation "is a path for other things to get being (esse), not as a giver, but as a messenger in some way conveying being (esse), especially if it received it in order to give it. For that is the definition of one who gives as a servant, that is, bearing the gift of another" (William of Auvergne, Trinity 12; 116 Teske). Thus, since only God is the source of all natural causation as its creator, all "other things are merely messengers and bearers of the last things received as if sent from the creator" (William of Auvergne, Universe Ia-Iae.26; 92, Teske). Just as the strength of the sun forces rays to illumine objects near it, and one wave impels another to flow further, William argues that God, as the source of all being (esse), is also the source of all activity. Therefore, natural objects do not have the power to act, "except to the extent that possibility is filled to overflowing by the influx of the first source" (William of Auvergne, Universe Ia-Iae.11; 114, Teske).

The analogy of gift-giver and messenger further clarifies for William the difference between God's causality and that of his creation. William believes that when any creature acts it is bearing God's gift to others and not acting on its power alone, just as the messenger does not truly give the gift but the one who hired the messenger to deliver the gift, regardless of who actually places the gift in the hands of the recipient. William emphasizes this point, stressing that:

...a servant in the manner of a servant can do nothing in an operation by himself: I mean in an operation which he does in this way. Nor can he stop doing it by himself or speed it up or add or lessen anything in it. Such an operation, then, in terms of its being and non-being, totally consists in the good pleasure of the one who commands—both with regard to its being and its non-being, with regard to its acceleration and it retardation, and with regard to everything else that belongs to it. It should be attributed and credited to him alone, and in our conduct we preserve this very thing, as if interpreting the servitude of nature and the command of the creator over nature. To him alone we offer thanks for the service of his servants, for by his good pleasure and command alone they are offered to us. So too, we return thanks to those who send us gifts, not to those who bear them, and we consider ourselves in debt and obligated to them alone in return for such gifts or services. (William of Auvergne, Universe Ia-IIae.30; 197, Teske)

For these reasons William notes that it is wrong for the Aristotelians to talk "as if God left these natures to themselves and does not restrain, control and order them by the care of his governance and as if they could do something by themselves."5 Their failure to recognize that "nature's total power is completely subject to divine choice" (William of Auvergne, Universe IIa-Iae. 11; 113, Teske) illustrates most clearly that they "have forgotten what they rightly said, namely that nature does not operate according to choice and will, but in the manner of a servant" (William of Auvergne, Universe IIa-Iae.11; 112, Teske). Thus, William concludes that strictly speaking, all actions and accomplishments of natural causes are completely subject to God's command and generosity; if God does not give the natural cause the means and reason to act, then the natural cause cannot act.

Although William is certain that his conclusion is sound, he is obviously aware that many might disagree. However, William believes that the error belongs to his critics, for they mistakenly believe secondary causes are primary causes. For example:

Someone might perhaps say that the lighting of a house is due to the window, but one should not say this even though the lighting of a house needs a window. Rather one should say that illumination is due to the sun which is comparable to what is first, just as it is due to the window which is comparable to what is second. For intermediate natures are certain paths and windows of all the outflowings descending from the first, but not causes, unless we use the name of cause somewhat improperly. (William of Auvergne, Universe IIa-Iae.11; 114-15, Teske)

With this image in mind, William concludes that God alone is truly worthy of the title 'cause,' and all other things called causes, even by the philosophers, are simply causes in terms of sense knowledge.6

William's arguments for the total dependence of nature upon God made many others in the Thirteenth and Twentieth centuries imagine that William doubted that created things were even secondary causes.7 I grant that William's strong language and forceful examples could easily lead many to reach this conclusion. However, I think that such criticism is unfounded. Although I do not have the time to address this point in detail,8 I believe that William's arguments against Avicenna's doctrine of necessary emanation overshadowed William's explanation of how created things can be causes in a world dominated by God's will. In fact, it is clear that William believed that created things are real causes. For example, in addition to William's claim already discussed about the miracle of the burning bush, in which the fire "with its nature completely intact" actually ensures the miracle (William of Auvergne, Trinity 11; 74, Teske), William provides in his De universo some wonderful examples of the remarkable powers which belong to natural creatures: sting rays numb the hand of those who touch them, sucking fish force ships to remain stationary, and basilisks kill by their look alone (William of Auvergne, Universe Ia-IIae.32; 199, Teske). William believes that these remarkable effects—numbing, holding back, and killing—do indeed belong to these creatures, and not solely to God. Natural causes are causes, but ultimately they are not free causes which can act differently than they naturally act, which is due to God's creative power.

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