The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 8 How Europe Got Its Aristotle Back: The Life and Philosophy of Ibn Rushd

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How Europe Got Its Aristotle Back: The Life and Philosophy of Ibn Rushd

In an era when anybody can call up the sum total of human knowledge from any of half a dozen devices within an arm’s reach, it’s often hard to wrap one’s head around the historical fragility of information. And not just via the grand conflagrations—the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria, the closing of the School of Athens—but through that slow, imperceptible vanishing that passes unremarked until what was once the wisdom of a civilization exists only as whispers and rumor, leaving us to wonder how we casually let so much of our cultural past slip through our fingers.

The great example is the West’s seven-century-long amnesia as to its classical legacy. From roughly 500 to 1220 CE, Aristotle and Plato lay almost entirely forgotten, the entirety of their formidable knowledge reduced to one translated volume of the former, and a fragment of the latter. The regaining of their intellectual legacy is, among historians of philosophy, almost universally considered the great turning point in Western Civilization, and the man most responsible for it was a Spanish Muslim philosopher who stands as perhaps the only figure in world history to have an equally towering influence in the development of Islamic, Christian, and humanist thought.

AverroesHis name was Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), though we know him as Averroes, or simply The Commentator. He came of age during the great flowering of Andalusian thought under the Almohades caliphate. Until that time, Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world, and it was there that the rationalists of the Islamic tradition waged their philosophical war with the traditionalists, armed with the inherited wisdom of the Greeks. In the Western part of the Islamic Empire, however, the traditionalists, those who could not countenance the use of reason in the realm of theology, held sway until Ibn Tumart founded the Almohades Dynasty and encouraged the importation of the ancient classics.

Within a half century, Cordoba’s intellectual influence was second only to that of Baghdad, and towered over a Parisian academic climate that was just finding its feet. Ibn Rushd was born to a family of celebrated jurists during a time when the rationalist camp had been forced into a corner by the fundamentalist vigor of Al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers, a work which labeled as heretics all who attempted to philosophically probe the content of Islam. He was the reigning titan of Islamic theology, and in four decades none had stepped forward to contest his vision of strict scriptural obedience.

Then came Ibn Rushd, a man who seemed to master anything he put his mind to. He studied law and medicine, astronomy and philosophy, with some of the greatest minds of Cordoban society, and could have made a full career out of any of them, so easily did proficiency come to him. However, though given the distinguished position of Judge of Seville in 1160, it wasn’t until 1169 that he stumbled into his true calling.

The story goes that his friend brought him one day to see Abu Ya’qub Yusuf, the second caliph of the Almohades dynasty. Yusuf asked Ibn Rushd if he believed the sky had existed for all time, or if it had been created at some point. The question seems innocuous and speculative to us, but it was in fact one of the most dangerous things Yusuf could have inquired about. The Muslim community was fiercely split on the issue of the eternity of the world, and the wrong answer could have destroyed Ibn Rushd’s career.  Quick on his feet, he protested ignorance of the topic, whereupon Yusuf began talking freely of the opinions of the Greeks and other philosophical traditions, putting the rationalist-leaning Averroes at ease.

The two fell into easy conversation, and Yusuf suggested that Ibn Rushd should write a full set of Aristotelian commentaries. It was an immense task, but that’s precisely what Ibn Rushd committed his life to achieving. Displaying a mastery for synthesis, he wrote summaries of all the Aristotelian works then known and severely criticized the shortcomings of previous Arabic interpretations of The Philosopher. Beyond that, using Aristotle as his firm base, he struck out against the prevailing anti-philosophical bent of Islamic theology, aiming his scorn directly at its most intimidating work, the Incoherence of the Philosophers. With a boldness in the face of superior power almost unfathomable today, he wrote a work whose title set the tone for all that was to be found within: The Incoherence of the Incoherence.

It was a thorough and merciless attack on Al-Ghazali and everything the fundamentalists had wrongly imputed to the Islamic philosophical movement. Where Al-Ghazali had said, in an attempt to preserve the existence of miracles, that there was no natural order and in fact that God is directly intervening anytime anything happens, Ibn Rushd argued that this elaborate attempt to discredit the power of causality was unnecessary, unsound, and admitted of no possible knowledge of the workings of the universe, rendering all science void. Where Al-Ghazali stuck firmly by the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic account of the beginning of the universe, Ibn Rushd declared that all three religions were mistaken in their shared tradition, and that the idea of creation out of nothing was scientifically and philosophically abhorrent. And where the traditionalists maintained steadfastly their exact knowledge of the attributes of God, Ibn Rushd countered with the impossibility of accurately employing nature-derived vocabulary in the description of super-natural capacities.

But the most impressive thing about the book is its pragmatic approach to religion itself. Following Plato’s Republic, on which he wrote a commentary, Ibn Rushd gives pride of place to philosophy as a way of investigating the world and its truths, and of explaining how a good and happy life is to be achieved, but he recognizes that it is entirely too subtle and intricate for most people to follow. He holds it to be the job of religion, then, to provide laws and enticements to improve the common people’s lives. Whichever religion has the best laws at a given time is, by his account, the best religion, and it is to be entirely expected that, no matter how good a religion is now, it will be eventually superseded by something that practically does the job of inspiring the masses better.

On these and many other points, what Ibn Rushd consistently fought for was the right to use reason to illuminate theology and life. It was the responsibility of humans to reach their full intellectual potential by considering the causes of what they saw around them, and with each discovery to climb to higher levels of intellectual clarity. To an Islamic establishment that called for full and unquestioning subservience, and accused of infidelity all who dared question the content of religion, Ibn Rushd responded that the true infidelity was disobeying God’s command to investigate reality, to be given a divine instrument like the brain and then not use it to its fullest.

His works were understandably controversial in Islamic circles, and towards the end of his life, during a moment when the caliphate needed to appease the orthodox elements of the Empire, he was sent into exile and his books burned, though he was called back once the political situation had simmered. Roundly condemned by most, his influence as the greatest expositor of Islamic rationalism nevertheless survived as a strand of Islamic thought down to the present day, a constant reminder of another way for those oppressed by the strictures of Islamic belief.

That he was a massive figure in the history of Islamic thought (and I haven’t even touched upon his definitive contribution to Islamic jurisprudence) there is no doubt, but for those of us in the West, his contribution to our intellectual life is if anything more pronounced than his domestic legacy. His works were taken up with an unabashed zeal by the Spanish Jewish community, and translated with an astonishing rapidity by a culture that found in his treatment of Aristotle and Plato a whole new world of intellectual possibility. From Spain, his works passed to Europe via the translations of Michael the Scott, William de Luna, and everybody’s favorite medieval translator, Hermann the German. (You just snickered, didn’t you? So immature.)

To a Europe that had known only a book and change of the entire Platonic-Aristotelian tradition, the arrival of Ibn Rushd’s complete commentaries on all known works of Aristotle was a thunderbolt. While Aristotle came to be known by medieval scholars as The Philosopher, Ibn Rushd became simply The Commentator. He was a hero to Siger of Brabant and Boetius of Dacia and, even when arguing against him, the influence of Averroes is very much present in the Aristotelianism of Thomas Aquinas.

Aristotle’s teleological approach to investigating the cosmos became, as a result of Ibn Rushd’s masterful expositions, the dominant intellectual force for the next four centuries of European thought. More than that, he has often been credited as well with the founding of modern skeptical philosophy, centuries before Descartes. His rational approach to theology inspired the Averroist movement, which was eventually condemned by the Church as being tantamount to atheism, and which served as the source for luminaries like Dante Alighieri in arguing for the separation of church and state, and other philosophers to argue that if investigation and reason deemed something to be true, then religious tradition had to give way. Regardless of whether Ibn Rushd would have condoned the conclusions that people derived from his work, the fact that his thought was so rich as to inspire internal changes to Islam and Christianity, as well as providing the raw material for a philosophical school a good 400 years ahead of its time, speaks to the breadth of his philosophical project.

Now, there’s one of you out there who has been very patient while dying to ask a question. Now’s your chance.

“But isn’t Aristotelianism bad?  Didn’t scientific progress come to a dead stop until we broke away from teleological explanations of nature?  Why are we celebrating this dude, then, for bringing us a set of works that delayed for centuries our intellectual progress?”

That’s a very fair question. If Plato was the Bad Greek of late 19th century philosophy, Aristotle was that of the 20th, as historians of science pieced together what made our scientific revolution possible, and came to the conclusion that it was when Aristotelian why-type explanations were replaced by Newtonian how­-type ones. And that’s a very important observation, but let’s not forget what Aristotle improved upon. Faced with the Platonic conception of a world of Forms that exist outside of their physical instantiations, Aristotle called foul and said that the way we know things is by abstracting from the real. Intellectual inquiry for Aristotle is not a matter of positing metaphysical absolutes behind mere reality, but is rather an investigation of how things came to be the way they are.

That was a hugely important adjustment to make—it put the focus back on the world as it is, and if his successors became so wrapped up in the potential of this cause-and-goal way of looking at the world, to the point that it took them centuries to do for Aristotelian thought what he had done to Platonic belief, it’s because of the raw power of his notion of causality. It got people thinking about mechanisms of change and motion, and that was all for the ultimate good. Had it been Plato’s works, and not those of Aristotle, that Ibn Rushd concentrated on explaining, the Scientific Revolution would likely have taken even longer, and had he not existed, leaving the more modest accountings of Avicenna and other Arabic commentators to do their work, the delay would have been longer still.

All roads lead from Ibn Rushd. In him, the three great religious traditions of the West met with a full accounting of the wisdom of antiquity and found a synthesis that would define the Western intellectual project for centuries to come, and a tension that would set the stage for the great rationalist turn that we are still enjoying. In the near millennium since his death, the only figure of remotely comparable stature in terms of philosophical impact on the structure of world thought is Karl Marx, and yet a stroll down Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue will net one very few Ibn Rushd-inspired t-shirts. He’s the world historical intellectual figure we’ve decided to forget about. And that’s rather too bad.


Further Reading

If you don’t read Arabic, your options are pretty limited in terms of works concentrating solely on Ibn Rushd. I think Majid Fakhry’s Averroes: His Life, Works, and Influence is a nice, brief introduction that highlights the revolutionary aspects of Ibn Rushd’s thought without overlooking the areas in which he was more of a compiler than an innovator. If you read French, the godfather of Western sources for Averroes is the great Ernest Renan’s 1852 Averroes et l’Averoissme, which is pretty easy to flag down in print-on-demand form. The works of Averroes were made available in Latin in the 60s in an eleven volume edition, but for English your starting point is probably the Simon van den Bergh translation of Incoherence.