William of Auvergne, on Delirium as the Highest Activity of the Human Soul

BnF Latin 14887, 2r

William of Auvergne (Bishop of Paris, 1228 to his death in 1249) was a key figure in Christianizing material flowing into Latin Christian theological philosophy from Arabic and classical Greek philosophy. His On the Immortality of the Soul, long misattributed to Dominicus Gundissalinus, proves its point by arguing, chiefly, that the particularly human soul is distinct from the body and has aims and purposes that are completely independent from the body. Plants and animals have, like us, immaterial souls; they too are alive; but their souls die with their bodies, because their souls have no aims apart from the body. Feeding, what the vegetable soul does, and sensing, what the animal soul does, have no purpose once the body’s gone.

William argues this point because Aristotle and his commentators at least propose the possibility of a mortal human soul; chiefly, however, he has to argue this point because God’s justice demands it. Given that the wicked often flourish in this world, and the good suffer, then punishment and reward must happen elsewhere. Otherwise, we should just abandon ourselves to every vice (24-26).

Establishing the independence of soul from body leads William to make these unusual arguments:

“the more [the intellective power] becomes involved with and immersed in the body, the more its intellectual knowing will be obscure, dull, slow and mixed with errors. But the more it separates and withdraws itself from the body, the more it will be sharp, clear, quick, and free from errors” (28)

“But it is certain that prophecy and revelation are the strongest and most noble activities of the intellective power while it is in the body, and it is very much strengthened for these by the greatest bodily impediments and injuries. This is the reason why prophetic illumination or revelation hardly ever occurs except with a great weakening of the body, as occurs in ecstasy” (30)

the soul’s “proper activity is strengthened in separation from the body and not as a result of the body, as can be seen in rapture and ecstasy” (38)

“For divine revelations and prophecies are what chiefly order human life, and every art and every wisdom yields to and is subjected to them” (39; Revelatines enim divinae ac prophetiae maxime ordinant vitam humanam, et omnis ars et omnis sapientia cedit eis atque subicitur)

“those suffering from melancholy, and delirious persons who, though they are prevented from reasoning about these sensible things, still at times see much concerning lofty things and foretell the future, as if they were prophesying” (42; et hoc euidenter apparet in melancholicis aegris et freneticis, qui licet prohibiti sint ratiocinari de sensibilibus, tamen de sublimibus multa vident et praedicunt futura quasi divinantes)

“melancholy persons who otherwise do not prophesy at all, but do prophesy when they are in the grip of this illness” (42; quia frenetici arrepti morbo tun divinant et alio tempore non)

William had already made points like these in his more general, much long De anima:

ecstasy is “the departure of the mind, in accord with the meaning of the word, and the proper raising of the human mind above itself as if upon a height from which it sees itself and its own and other things as if below itself” (De Anima VI.32 (II, 191b-192a), qtd 30n21)

“And it is known from experience that the intellective power is strengthened to such an extent by the gravest illnesses of the body that many souls foretell and prophesy about the deaths of their own bodies and at times of others” (De Anima VI.5 (II, 161a), qtd 31 n22)

Teske’s note on the William’s first proof-from-ecstasy directs me to Augustine’s Literal Commentary on Genesis, Book XII, where Augustine treats the apostle Paul’s remarks on a man taken up into the Third Heaven. I don’t quite see the connection, however. What’s striking to me is that William relies on a proof of certain “out-of-body” experiences to establish the fundamental independence of our soul from our bodies. These conditions — ecstasy, melancholy, and delirium — he recognizes as at once sicknesses, as a form of liberation, and as a form of cognition. For what the afflicted person often experiences is access, quite accidental, to the higher truths: prophesy, religious revelation, the very foundations of the claims about God’s mercy, justice, and providence that undergird William’s treatise.

William wouldn’t be the only one to make such arguments. The treatise on the soul by John de la Rochelle (d. 1245) — also at the University of Paris, and known to William — while discussing the “two faces of reason,” namely, the lower reason, concerned with sensible things, and the higher reason, concerned with sublime, observes “Unde et phraenetici prophetant et multa de subliminibus interdum vident, quamvis prohibiti sint rationcinari de sensibus istis” (Thus it is that the delirious sometimes prophesy and see many sublime things, although they are barred from reasoning about these {work on translation!}]. Here, then, we witness William’s fellow Parisian academic philosopher proving the higher reason via truths that are, in fact, inaccessible to reason. The proof of the powers of the rational soul rest on its capacity to be taken beyond reason.

It is of course banal to observe that it was once believed that mentally ill people had special access to truths. But to argue, as William does, that melancholy and delirium provide access to the highest modes of intellection, perhaps can still surprise us. Loosely speaking, William wants the mind to be independent of the body; freeing the mind from the body means freeing it from the senses; it also means freeing it from the routine cause and effect of things bumping up against and past each other in this merely material world. Madness — because of its indifference to the senses, to what we mundane people would say “is really happening” — liberates us. Because the mad can think anything, they are free from the body.

But they are also free in ways that can make no sense to them. The true prophet is the prophet who can’t stop themselves from doing it. Many of you will know Margery Kempe, who begged to be relieved of the gift of ecstasy. She didn’t want to cry constantly over a Christ crucified so long ago. Her book wants us to know she can’t help it, and because she can’t help it, she’s authentic.

William is trying to prove something else, however, something perhaps more fundamental: the particularity of the human soul, what’s generally called the rational soul, to distinguish it from the vegetable and sensible souls of plants and nonhuman animals. The rational soul is typically understood as concerned with causes; as able to abstract to general truths; to be able to syllogize. And it can, but that’s not its highest modes. Its highest modes, William avers, come from a certain passivity, the terror and misery even of the heavens forcing themselves onto us. We are most ourselves when we cannot know ourselves, when we are made conduits for truths beyond our capacity to articulate them.

Further reading:

A dissertation on William’s demonology

Drew Daniel, The Melancholic Assemblage.

László F. Földényi’s Melancholy.

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization [on the gradual elimination of the mad to speak of any truth outside or beyond their own, personal madness]

Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art, for a translation of pseudo-Aristotle Problema XXX, a medical consideration of melancholy, and why “all those who have beocme eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics”

Sample of manuscript: here, and here,