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  • On Morals by William of Auvergne
  • Bonnie Kent
William of Auvergne. On Morals. Translated with an introduction and notes by Roland J. Teske. Mediaeval Sources in Translation, 55. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2014. Pp. xxvi + 250. $30.00.

William of Auvergne’s On Morals is the second part of his six-part treatise, On the Virtues and Vices. There is no critical edition of this text. Roland Teske’s translation is based on the 1674 edition. In places where there is an obvious mistake in the Latin, or where it simply makes no sense, Teske makes reasonable emendations (flagged in footnotes). His translation consistently displays impressive skill in transforming scholastic Latin into readable English.

On the Virtues and Vices belongs to a work of immense scope: William’s Magisterium divinale et sapientiale, begun in the 1220s and probably not completed until around 1240, long after he had risen from the ranks of university masters to become the bishop of Paris. On the Virtues, the first part of On the Virtues and Vices, sets out his overall theory of virtue. Here he distinguishes between three kinds of virtues: those bestowed on Adam and Eve in creation, which people now possess only in attenuated form; virtues acquired by habituation, such as those described by Aristotle and Cicero; and virtues given by God’s grace, though human effort may help to develop them. In On Morals, William focuses exclusively on virtues in the last category. He writes only one short paragraph before launching into a detailed account of nine God-given virtues: faith, fear, hope, charity, piety, zeal, poverty, humility, and patience.

One need not read On the Virtues before tackling On Morals. Teske supplies enough information in his introduction and footnotes so that On Morals can stand on its own. On the other hand, On the Virtues provides readers a better sense of the issues William and his contemporaries faced as a steady stream of Greek and Muslim works, available for the first time in Latin translation, began reshaping the intellectual landscape. When William was writing, there was still no complete Latin edition of the Nicomachean Ethics. He himself had read only Books II and III, the first sections of the Ethics to be translated, but he read them carefully and considered many problems they raised. This is evident from On the Virtues, where he devotes considerable space to discussing the concept of a habitus, how a habitus differs from a potency, in what sense virtue is a good-making property, and other issues of interest to philosophical readers. On Morals differs significantly in style as well as substance.

Consider, for example, the nine virtues that William singles out for attention. There can be no surprise that faith, hope, and charity are among them. These three virtues, all praised by St. Paul (1 Cor. 13:13), had long been central to Christian moral thought. But from the patristic era onward, the four cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—had also played an important role. Why does William omit the cardinal virtues, focusing instead on secondary virtues like patience, or even what modern readers might presume to be mere emotions, such as fear and zeal? William never answers the question. As he explains in his short introduction to On Morals, he intends to proceed not by “the path of proofs” but instead by “the path of narratives.” The virtues themselves (personified) will describe their magnificent works, their battles and victories (1). William deviates from this plan only when he turns to humility, a virtue averse to singing her own praises (160).

The narratives answer some questions about William’s choice of virtues but hardly all of them. Understood as a virtue, not merely as an emotion, fear is primarily fear of the Lord, described in scripture as the “fountain of life” and one of seven important spiritual gifts [End Page 157] (Prov.14: 27; Isa. 11:1–2). Such fear gives one the strength to flee the evils of the world, so that it lends support to the virtue of hope (7–10, 19). Zeal as a virtue is primarily zeal for righteousness. It makes people angry about...


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pp. 157-158
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