Jacques Maritain Center : Aristotle and the Christian Church



THE Mussulman Philosophy was not simply that of Aristotle. An undercurrent of Arabian thought flowed around the older system and gave it a special drift and tendency. This also passed over to the Schoolmen, and brought with it problems all its own which they were compelled to face and refute as best they could. It is only by noting the bearings of this current, deep and narrow and strong, that we can understand and appreciate the drift of many an argument and many a proposition in the Philosophy of the Schools. It is the clue to what would otherwise seem enigmatic or irrelevant. The Arabian is a sterile intellect. It cannot invent; it cannot originate. It has brought to the whole sphere of thought not a single addition that posterity thinks worth preserving. It simply cultivated and transmitted the sciences which it had received from its Syrian Christian masters. Its chief merit, in the estimate of history, is that it preserved and brought back to Europe the current of thought and of study that had been temporarily diverted. True, it made progress in medicine; but medicine it received from Galen; moreover, it is a recognized fact that the chief physicians in the courts of the Califs were Christians. It made progress in algebra; but algebra it received from the Greek Diaphantus. It gave us the Arabian numbers; but these it received from its Hindu kinsfolk. The Arabians were not linguists. Syrians and Jews translated their scientific works either from the Greek, the Syriac, or the Hebrew. They were plain-thinking children of the desert, who, finding themselves masters of cultured races, went to school to them, and received from them whatever knowledge it was within their intellectual capacity to imbibe. Their narrow religious training limited the scope of the subjects upon which they were allowed to receive instruction from strangers. At first their schooling was confined to the study of medicine and the natural sciences. But soon a taste for philosophical speculation grew upon them. Their master, guide, and almost sole authority was Aristotle. It was an authority that monopolized the cultured Mohammedan intellect even to the exclusion of the Korân. Hence the struggle between philosophy and orthodoxy, which raged for centuries and ended only with the triumph of the Korân.

Throughout the contest, the attitude of the popular mind was one of antagonism to all philosophy. Every philosopher was a heretic who had frequently to submit to persecutions and indignities, sometimes from the people, and sometimes from those in high places who courted the popular favour. Every man given to study was a suspect. Al-Kendi, though the friend of the Calif Al-Mamoun, and charged by him with the translation of Aristotle, does not escape the eye of jealousy. He is calumniated and persecuted, and Al-Mótawakkel confiscates his library.{1} The mosques rang with denunciations of Aristotle, Al-Farabi, and especially Avicenna. In Bagdad, in 1150, all the philosophical works from the library of a Kadhi are burnt.{2} In 1192, the operation is repeated upon the works of another philosopher. We are told of a certain Ibn-Habib, of Seville, who is put to death by the Sultan "because it was proved against him that he worked secretly at philosophy."{3}

We read of Avempace that "he was the banner of his age and the phoenix of his time in the philosophical sciences, for which reason he was greatly exposed to the shafts of malice."{4} Ibn-Khakan wrote a severe satire against him, in which he called him a calamity for religion, an affliction for those who are in the good way.{5} The great Ibn-Roschd, after having basked in the sunshine of court favour for many years, finds himself persecuted at the end of his life, and his works everywhere proscribed.{6} The historian Makrizi sums up the popular feeling against philosophy when he writes: "The theorizings of philosophers have been the cause of more direful evils than can be mentioned to religion among the Mussulmans. Philosophy has served merely to increase the errors of heretics and add to their impiety an additional impiety."{7} The struggle continues during four centuries. At last philosophy falls into utter disrepute; the spirit of study becomes extinct; the Korân triumphs. If the writings of the great intellects of Arabia would be preserved, they must be translated into Hebrew or written in Hebrew characters.{8} Such being the soil, let us now examine the philosophical growth that sprung from it.

From Syria and from Persia did the Mussulman get the first breath of intellectual freedom that inspired him to rebel against the suffocating thraldom of the Korân.{9} There he learned that he was a free and responsible agent. There he was initiated into that mysticism that taught intimate union with the Godhead. Both these truths were heretical. But a century has scarcely elapsed since Mohammed imposed the fatalism of the Koran upon his people, when these doctrines begin to be discussed and to divide the faithful into rival camps. Wâcel ben-'Atha (699-748), chased from the school of Hasan because of his unorthodox opinions, reduced for the first time the teachings of the Kadrites, or those believing in freedom of will, to a scientific system. His school held a medium ground between the faithful and the heretics. It endeavoured to reconcile reason with faith. Its fundamental doctrine was the efficacy of reason to discover all man's moral obligations and all truths necessary for salvation, independently of any religious code.{10} The disciples of this school were known as the Motécallamin.{11} Such was the condition of Islamite thought when the writings of Aristotle raised it out of its apathy into intellectual regions, for it, as new and as wonderful as anything revealed by the fabled lamp of Aladdin.

From the Metaphysics of the Grecian philosopher, men drew forth the theory of the eternity of matter and the denial of all human attributes of God in the sense of the Koran. Others wished to reconcile the doctrine of creation with this doctrine of absence of all attributes in God. Even God could not create without willing to do so. How overcome the difficulty? By means of a mental fiction. They conceive attributes existing without a substratum. Therefore will may so exist; and this is the will by which God creates.{12} Again, some would deny causality. To account for sequence, they invented the fiction that accidents are things created, positive and independent of any substance of inherence. For instance, I write. In this act, say they, are four accidents created directly for the purpose: that of the will to move the pen, that of the faculty of moving. that of the motion of the hand, and that of the motion of the pen.{13} Childish doctrines these, becoming a people grappling with problems beyond their ken. They held, in opposition to the fatalism of the Korân, that God's providence extends to things universal alone, and not to the singular or the accidental. But in accordance with Gnostic teachings, they invented intermediate worlds and creations that accounted for the actions of the singular and the individual.{14} Their intellectual cravings were fed upon any number of spurious works. They had false writings of Pythagoras; they had false writings of Plato; they had false writings of Empedocles, who was a great favourite among them, and in whose name a philosophical sect was established; they had false writings of Aristotle, more orthodox than Aristotle's own.{15} And there was a Jewish tradition to account for this orthodox work. Aristotle, we are told, became converted by Simeon the Just, and renounced his doctrine concerning the eternity of the world, and all other opinions which he had held in contradiction with the doctrines of Moses.{16}

But the problem that overshadowed all others in Arabian philosophy was the problem of knowing. Aristotle is both indefinite and unsatisfactory in his treatment of this problem. How does reason, which is immaterial, think the material? Where is the, bond of connection? Aristotle places it in the creative reason. He tells us that reason is a becoming of all things -- tô panta ginesthai -- and a making of all things -- ho de tô panta poiein.{17} He further explains the difference between this creative reason and the receptive reason: the creative reason is never at rest; it is eternally active; it does not at one time think and at another time not think; it alone is immortal and eternal; it leaves us no memory of this unceasing work of thought because it is unaffected by its object;{18} the receptive, passive reason is perishable, and can really think nothing without the support of the creative intellect.{19}

The Arabian philosophers forthwith undertook to account for the existence of this mysterious creative intellect. They found the solution in the apocryphal Theology of Aristotle. They read how God, in contemplating His most absolute and true unity, formed the Supreme Creative Intellect.{20} This is first in a series of intelligences from which finally is derived the creative intellect of which Aristotle speaks. The mode of evolution is somewhat in this manner: There are nine celestial spheres.{21} Soul is the principle of their motion. That motion is circular, and supposes the conception of a particular end, and therefore thought or intelligence.{22} This implies desire. The object of desire is the Supreme Intelligence. But the difference in motion is due to difference in desire. Therefore each sphere should have, besides the Supreme Intelligence, an inferior intelligence to regulate its movements. There exist, then, nine other intelligences emanated from the Supreme Intelligence. They are known as separated intelligences.{23} The lowest of these separated intelligences which presides over the motions of the sphere nearest us -- the moon -- is the active intelligence by whose influence the passive or material -- hylic -- intellect within us is made active, and becomes the intellect in act. When it comes to be always in act, it is known as the Acquired or Emanated Intellect. To attain to this state is the end of all striving after perfection.{24}

In this manner have Arabian philosophers given the creative intellect a local habitation and a name. This creative intellect they conceived as the sole intellect of humanity, into which all others are merged. "The soul," says Averroës, "is not divided up according to the number of individuals; it is one and the same in Socrates and in Plato; the intellect has no individuality; individuation comes only from sensibiiity."{25} Did Averroës or any of the Arabian philosophers mean by this creative intellect "a living and permanent humanity?"{26} The very genesis of the intellect in Arabian philosophy which we have given, is in itself sufficient answer. This proves it to be a thing apart from humanity -- a distinct creation -- to the level of which a favoured few may attain, and this is all. It is easy and convenient to see the fictions of the present in those of the past.{27}

We can only glance at the names of those Arabian philosophers, whose impress may be traced in the philosophy of the Schools. Al-Farabi (d. 950), was one of the great lights of Arabian philosophy. It is noteworthy that he studied under a Christian teacher, John Bar-Gilân. Maimonides says that "all he composed, and specially his work on the principles of things, is of the pure flour of the wheat."{28} But Ibn-Tofaïl finds in his works many contradictions. He taught that there was no happiness for the large majority of men beyond that of the present life. That man should become a separate substance in another life, he called old women's tales.{29} The Supreme Good is attainable only by those possessed of perfect intellectual organizations and every way apt to receive the impression of the active intellect. But his commentaries upon the Logic were quoted with approval by the Schoolmen; William of Auvergne, Albert the Great, and Vincent of Beauvais made frequent use of them. "He opened," says Hauréau, "to our Scholastic doctors, as logician, ways which Abélard had never imagined."{30}

Ibn-Sina -- Avicenna -- (980-1037), was the greatest medical authority among the Arabians. He made his studies under a Christian physician, 'Isa ben-Ya'hya. In the domain of philosophy he is no less eminent. "He can be considered," says Munk, "as the greatest representative of the Peripateticism of the Middle Ages."{31} He gave Albert the Great the model of his commentaries upon Aristotle. His division of the faculties of the soul is that which has been adopted by nearly all mediaeval and modern philosophers. His distinction of the animal faculty by which beasts form a judgment -- vis aestimativa -- has been accepted in Scholastic nomenclature as a permanent contribution to philosophical science.{32} But though Avicenna in his endeavour to be conservative had made many concessions to the Korân, he still found but small favour at the hands of his brethren.

Al-Gazali (1058-1111), was known as "the proof of Islamism and the ornament of religion." His was an intensely religious nature which received no satisfaction from any of the philosophical systems of his day. After examining them all, he found himself landed in scepticism. He distrusted his senses; he distrusted his intellectual faculties. "Are we sure," he asks, "that there will not be another state for us which will be to our waking-mood what our waking-mood now is to our sleeping-mood, so that on arriving at this new state, we should be forced to acknowledge that what we had believed true by means of our reason was but a dream without any reality?"{33} A question this, which is still asked and answered, now affirmatively, now negatively, according to individual bias and prejudice.{34} He grew sceptical of reason, only to throw himself into the arms of religion with all the greater fervour. In the mysticism of the Sûfis were the yearnings of his soul satisfied.{35} The writings and the influence of Al-Gazali extinguished the philosophical spirit in the East. It took its flight into Spain.

Ibn-Badjà -- Avempace -- (1090-1138), domesticated Arabian philosophy upon Spanish soil. We have already seen how his brilliant talents made him enemies. He died comparatively young, but not before he had laid his impress upon his age. He it was who first developed the all-absorbing doctrine of the unity of souls. He also attempted to show how the soul may raise itself up to union with the active intellect.{36}

Ibn-Tofail -- Abubacer -- (1100-1185), was more successful over the same problem. Upon a groundwork of fiction he goes to show that there is no contradiction between the truths of religion and those of science. The hero of his story{37} is born and raised away from society, and by the unaided light of reason, arrives at mystical union with the Godhead.{38} He meets another solitary, who has reached the same point from prayer and meditation upon the Korân. They compare notes and find that upon all essential truths they are of one accord. Hayy, in the first flush of his joy, is desirous of announcing this discovery to his fellow-men. The solitary, who has been among men and knows the world, would dissuade his companion from the enterprise; but to no purpose. They both set out together. Hayy is well received at first; but when he begins to explain his philosophy he is given the cold shoulder. Finding his task unappreciated, he leaves in disgust, and with his companion returns to a life of severity and contemplation.{39} Abubacer was thus expressing the strong popular prejudice against the purest doctrine imparted with the purest intentions when presented under the name of philosophy. But his influence upon Scholasticism was of an indirect nature.

Ibn-Roschd -- Averroës -- (1126-1198), was patronized and encouraged by Abubacer, who has been called the artisan of his fortunes. He was the Arabian philosopher whose influence was most profoundly impressed upon Scholasticism. Coming into immediate contact and relation with the great men of his day, he absorbed all the learning and spirit of Arabian science. His love for philosophy grew into a passion and a species of religion. "The only religion for philosophers," he said, "is to make profound study of whatever exists; for we can render unto God no more sublime worship than that of knowing His works, which causes us to know Himself in all His reality."{40} His love and admiration for Aristotle knew no bounds. "This man," he says, "has been the rule of Nature and a model in which she seeks to express the type of the last perfection."{41} He epitomized Aristotle; he paraphrased Aristotle; he commented upon Aristotle. These three operations were known as his three commentaries. He was called emphatically the Commentator. St. Thomas learned and followed his method. We are told by his biographer that it was a novel and peculiar one.{42} Like Averroës,{43} St. Thomas did not know the language of Aristotle,{44} But he got Brother William of Moerbek to make translations directly from the Greek.{45} He procured other versions also from the Greek. These he compared and collated. With a reverence bordering upon veneration,{46} and after the manner of the great commentary of Averroës, he studied the Master word for word and line for line. Note the caution with which he proceeds. Here he explains a passage; there he refutes; in another place he attempts to impose an orthodox sense upon what, at first reading, would seem opposed to the Christian spirit.{47} Still, for two centuries the great Commentator continues to overshadow the Schools. He is quoted, commented, and refuted. Through him all the errors of Arabian philosophy are transplanted within the very shadow of the Church, and together with those of Aristotle, produce a plentiful harvest of disputes, criminations and un-Christian doctrines. It will be our task to trace their growth and influence through the varying fortunes of the Master Mind of both Christian and Arab.

{1} Munk, Mélanges de Philosophie Juive et Arabe, p. 340.

{2} Renan, Averroës et l'Averroisme, p. 31. Paris, 1866.

{3} Gayangos, History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, tr. from the Arabian historian Al-Makkari, vol. i. p. 198.

{4} Gayangos, ibid., vol. i. Appendix, p. xii.

{5} Munk, Mélanges, p. 385.

{6} Renan, Averroës et l'Averroisme, p. 20.

{7} Munk, loc. cit., p. 315.

{8} We may be considered severe. Renan is not less so: "Incapable of transforming herself and of finding room for any element of life, civil and profane, Islamism tore from her bosom every germ of rational culture" (Averroës et l'Averroisme, Avert. iii.).

{9} M. F. Ravaisson, De La Philosophie d'Aristote chez les Arabes. Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, tom. v. p. 16. Paris, 1844.

{10} Munk, Mélanges, p. 311.

{11} They called their science 'Ilm-al-Calâm', or science of the word. Hence their name.

{12} This is the doctrine of the Motazales, Al-Djobbaï and his disciples. Maimonides refutes it (Guide des Egarés, edit. Munk, tom. i. p. 445).

{13} This is the doctrine of the Ascharites (Munk, Melanges, p. 326).

{14} However, the Motécallamin would admit of no intermediary between God and His creation (Munk, ibid., P. 324).

{15} Munk, Mélanges, p. 242.

{16} Ibid., p. 249.

{17} De Anima, iii. v. § I.

{18} As against the Platonic doctrine of reminiscence.

{19} De Anima, iii. v. § 2.

{20} Theologia AEgyptor., lib. xiii. cap. vii.

{21} Aristotle, Metaphysics, xii. cap. 7, 8.

{22} Cf. Aristotle, De Coelo, II. xii. § 3.

{23} See St. Thomas, De Substantiis Separatis, cap. ii. Opp. , tom. xvi. p. 184.

{24} See Munk, Mélanges, p. 332; also Ravaisson, Metaphysique d'Aristote, tom. ii. pp. 542 sqq.

{25} Destr. Destr., part ii. disput. ii. fol. 349. See Renan, Averroës et l'Averroisme, p. 155.

{26} "Une humanité vivante et permanente, tel semble donc être le sens de la théorie averoïstique de l'unité de l'intellect" (Renan, loc. cit., p. 138).

{27} Attributing the Positivism of Comte to Averroës, has been well characterized as a distortion of historical truth and a gratuitous lending to the past the inventions of the present (Jourdain, La Philosophie de S. Thomas, tom. ii. p. 393).

{28} Munk, Mélanges, p. 344.

{29} Ibid., p. 346. Averroës attributes to him the expression.

{30} Hist. de la Phil. Schol., tom. ii. p. 22.

{31} Mélanges, p. 366.

{32} St. Thomas adopts it in his great Summa, I. i. quaest, lxxix. Art. 4. c. St. Thomas here reduces the five interior sensitive powers of Avicenna to four, by identifying the imaginative with that of fantasy.

{33} Treatise of Saving the Wandering and Enlightening the Just, chap. ii., tr. Schmoelders, p. 22.

{34} One of the more recent affirmative answers, purporting to be on a scientific basis, is the Unseen Universe. Therein the authors seek to establish a continuity of physical as well as spiritual life beyond the present.

{35} To discuss the Sûfis is beyond the scope of this Essay. Mr. W. S. Lilly has a very good account of them in his Ancient Religion and Modern Thought, pp. 162-187.

{36} Munk, Mélanges, pp. 409, 410.

{37} 'Hayy ibn-Yakdhân, The Living One, Son of the Vigilant.

{38} Of course, intellectual development away from all social intercourse, is, in the nature of things, an impossibility.

{39} Apud Munk, Mélanges, p. 417.

{40} Munk, Mélanges, p. 456 note. See also the account of Ibn-Roschd, by Abú Merwân Albâjí, quoted by Caynugos, Hist. Mohamm. Dyn., vol. i. Appendix, pp. xvii.-xxvii.

{41} Comment., De Anima, 1. iii.

{42} Tolomaeus, Hist. Eccl., lib. xxii. c. xxiv. p. 1154.

{43} Neither Averroës, nor perhaps any Spanish Mussulman, knew Greek (Renan, Averroës et l'Averroisme, p. 49).

{44} St. Thomas ne possédait ni l'arabe ne le grec (C. Jourdain, La Philosophie de S. Thomas, tom. i. p. 82). This statement does not preclude his having a knowledge of the grammar of the Greek language, for there are traces of such knowledge in his writings.

{45} Tocco. Vita. S. Thom. in Acta Sanctorum.

{46} See the Introduction to his Commentary upon the Ethics.

{47} Munk, after Buble and others, tells us that both Albert and St. Thomas studied Aristotle in the Latin versions made from the Hebrew (Mélanges, p. 335). Their first readings of Aristotle may have been from such versions. But St. Thomas used only versions made from the Greek in his commentaries. Jourdain tells us that he frequently cites and compares two such versions. The commentary upon the Metaphysics shows that three distinct versions. from the Greek were used. Jourdain refers to no less than fifteen instances as proof. And yet Monk gives Jourdain as his authority for saying that St. Thomas studied Aristotle in Latin versions made from the Hebrew. See Jourdain, Recherches critiques sur les Traductions d'Aristote, pp. 40, 41.

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