Averroes’ Reason a Medieval Tale of Christianity and Islam

BY Jones Irwin. Since September 11, there has been a renewed interest in the nature of Islamic doctrine and thought. Many commentators have pointed to the fact that Fundamentalism is only one aspect of Muslim thought, albeit at this moment in time, a powerful and influential strand. However, despite such qualifications, little attention has been paid to the historical basis of this claim, i.e. the presence of a rationalist tradition in Islam. In this piece, I will look at what I will suggest is a paradigmatic example of such Islamic reason: the philosophy of Averroes. I will also highlight the significance of Averroes (and wider Islamic thought) for the development of rationalism within the Christian tradition, a factor which has been a major influence on the development of the West as such. By implication, this Islamic contribution to the formation of Western culture also calls into question any hard and fast distinction between the so-called ‘progressive’ West and ‘backward’ East.

Any analysis of Medieval Philosophy must take account of the extraordinary relationship which existed between philosophy and theology during this entire period. Although standard interpretations present Christianity as the dominant theological influence in this context, a fairer analysis must point to the constant inter-relationship and co-dependence which existed between the respective theological traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

Moreover, this strong influence did not lead to philosophy becoming the ‘handmaiden’ of theology, as many critics claim. On the contrary, in many instances the philosophical tendencies of medieval thinkers led them to interpret their own theological beliefs in specific ways. Thus in Early Christianity, for example, the influence of Plato’s philosophical criticisms of art can be seen at work in Augustine’s view of the imagination as profane. Additionally, one can wonder as to whether Augustine’s view of original sin would have been so negative if he had not imbibed the Platonic conception of the Fall of the soul.

The fusion of Hellenic and Biblical elements made Christian philosophy, particularly in its Augustinian guise, a subtle and influential metaphysic, both in the medieval period and well beyond (for example, both Calvin and Luther were to cite Augustine as a major precursor). However, it is an undeniable fact that the most profound development of Christian philosophy took place under an external influence, that of medieval Islamic thought.

Whereas Early Christianity was primarily Platonic in orientation (under the influence of both Plato’s works and those of his neo-Platonic disciple, Plotinus), later medieval thinking began to look to Plato’s successor, Aristotle, for philosophical guidance. Centres of Greek learning in Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt were responsible for the survival of Aristotle’s works in the West during this time. Most texts were translated from the original Greek into an intermediate Syriac version and then into Arabic. Later, when many of the original Greek texts were lost, it was these Arabic versions which provided the foundation for the re-translation back into late medieval Latin.

When one considers the immense influence of Aristotelianism on later medieval Christianity and Judaism, and indeed succeeding Western history, it is instructive to remember this historical debt to the East.

But the real intellectual contribution of medieval Islam to Western culture is less in terms of translation and more in terms of independent philosophical analysis.
There are three great Islamic philosophers before Averroes; Alfarabi (870-930), Avicenna (980-1037) and Algazali (1058-1111). Alfarabi is the least important of these, primarily significant because he is a pioneer in the invocation of Aristotle as a philosophical authority (thus paving the way for the Golden Age of Muslim Aristotelianism). He is said to have believed in the unity of the thought of Plato and Aristotle and his work shows a confluence of their theories, for example, in his claim that God is simultaneously identical with the ‘neo-Platonic One’ and with Aristotle’s ‘Self-Thinking Thought’.

With Avicenna however, we find the development of a Muslim philosophy more independent of theological constraints as well as an Aristotelianism less apologetic to supposed Platonic doctrine. Thus, Avicenna rejects the conception of a divine creation of the world in time (God is contemporaneous with the world) and follows Aristotle in considering the primary aim of philosophy to be the study of being qua being.

Algazali represents a critical backlash against the Aristotelianism of Avicenna, within the Islamic tradition. In his celebrated text The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he attacks the inconsistency of the philosophical positions of Alfarabi and Avicenna with orthodox Koranic interpretation. What makes this work philosophically significant is that it does not rule out the possibility of philosophy de jure, but rather points to the misuse of philosophy by both of his predecessors. In particular, he was concerned with the philosophical theories of the eternity of the world and the denial of bodily resurrection, theories which he regarded not simply as theologically ‘heterodox’ but as the result of a misapplication of Aristotelian logical methods. It was in this critical context that Averroes’ philosophy began to take shape.

Averroes is generally regarded as the greatest of the Islamic philosophers of the Medieval period and indeed one of the greatest Medieval philosophers. Nicknamed ‘The Commentator’ (because of his incisive commentaries on Aristotle), Averroes’ thought has two main strands.

On the one side, he seeks to rid Islamic Aristotelianism of what he reads as a neo-Platonic bias which conflates the very different philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Here, he is critical of both Alfarabi and Avicenna. On the other side, he is also intent on undermining Algazali’s criticisms of Aristotelianism. In his ironically titled (but nonetheless intently serious) response to Algazali, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, Averroes seeks to philosophically defend a consistent Aristotelianism, freed from Neo-platonic residue and theological prejudice. In so doing, he creates a complicated relation between his philosophy and his religious tradition.

In defending a consistent Aristotelianism, Averroes is critical of philosophical compromises made in the name of theological orthodoxy. He grounds this conviction in a three-tiered conception of truth, which privileges what he terms ‘demonstrative truth’ (i.e. philosophical truth) over what he terms ‘dialectical’ and ‘rhetorical’ truth (both of these being under the province of theology). Algazali, for Averroes, confuses the two categories of religious truth with that of philosophical truth, seeking to subordinate the category of reason to the category of revelation. But this is simply to repeat the dogmas of Islamic theology, with little philosophical relevance.

In contrast, the work of Alfarabi and Avicenna lays claim to philosophical relevance and seeks to distance itself from the mere repetition of theological orthodoxy. Nonetheless, according to Averroes, the philosophical systems of Alfarabi and Avicenna both fall into the category of theological rather than philosophical truth. This is perhaps more clearly the case with Alfarabi, whose work shows a certain caution in its attempt to be consistent with Islamic orthodoxy (notably in Alfarabi’s defence of the doctrine of creation of the world in time). However, Avicenna had already begun to distance himself from these theological residues and, for example, is explicit in his avowal of the Aristotelian theory of the eternity of the world.

Despite this apparent philosophical progression, Averroes remains critical of what he sees as implicit deferral to orthodoxy on crucial philosophical points. Thus, he censures Avicenna’s theory that ‘essence precedes existence’. Rather, for Averroes, existence precedes essence. He is also critical of Avicenna’s proofs of the existence of God from the relation of necessity to contingency, as this argument imports too much metaphysical baggage for Averroes’ liking. Rather, any proofs of God’s existence must avoid metaphysics de jure and rely on physical causation alone.

In both these cases, it is arguable that Avicenna is in fact closer to the literal meaning of Aristotle’s original texts than Averroes and that Averroes is already moving beyond mere commentary on Aristotle, to something approaching an independent philosophical system. Whatever the truth of this hypothesis, it is undeniable that Averroes has certainly succeeded in releasing Islamic philosophy from the fetters of Islamic theological dogma. In this context, it is perhaps not surprising to find that Averroes did not find too many disciples within Islam itself. His real influence was to lie beyond the boundaries of his own culture.

With hindsight, it is clear that Averroes was too radical a figure to be compatible with any of the religious orthodoxies of the medieval period. His work, which privileges philosophical reason (what he terms ‘demonstrative truth’) over theological revelation (‘dialectical’ and ‘rhetorical’ truth), looks forward to the modern paradigm of an independent rational enquiry. Nonetheless, the influence of his work was powerfully felt in the later medieval period, albeit rather negatively. An understanding of this negative reaction is crucial to an understanding not simply of the development of later medieval thought (in particular, that of Christianity), but to an understanding of the formation of the modern Western identity.

The crucial figure in understanding Averroes in the context of later medieval thought is Siger of Brabant (1240-1284). Siger is referred to as a ‘Christian Averroist’, a phrase which perfectly captures the assimilation of Islamic thought into later Christianity. The Christian Averroists represented the most radical assimilation of Muslim Aristotelianism, adhering to Averroes’ supremacy of reason over revelation and the theory of the eternity of the world. Such heterodox views brought Siger and the Averroists into conflict with the Established Church and many of their propositions were rejected in the Condemnation of 1277.

What is doubly significant is that several of the theories of the more orthodox (and historically influential) Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) were also condemned in 1277. The condemned Thomist propositions were exclusively those which Thomas himself had assimilated from Islamic thought, in particular the view that individuation depended on matter rather than form.

Apart from the explicitly condemned propositions however, it is clear that the 1277 Condemnation is an admission of the extraordinary ‘contamination’ of pure Christian dogma by Christian philosophy (under the influence of Islamic thought). Without Islamic Aristotelianism there would certainly be no Christian Aristotelianism, and although the Condemnation is an attempt to reinforce the Augustinianism of earlier Christianity, it is the Aristotelianism of Thomas Aquinas which eventually won the day.

The influence of Averroes (and also of Avicenna) on the development of Later Medieval Christian thought is therefore unequivocal. But this intellectual debt to Islam is very rarely mentioned in our times. When one considers the further development of the modern West, based on a paradigm of rational enquiry, it is Averroes who seems to best anticipate this model within the medieval epoch. On both these counts, it seems clear that Averroes truly was a philosophical visionary, anticipating and also influencing progressive developments far beyond his own milieu.

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Averroes’ Reason a Medieval Tale of Christianity and Islam

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