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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Averroës (1126–1198)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
AVERROËS (Abu ’l Walid Muhammad, ibn Achmad, ibn Muhammad, IBN RUSHD; or more in English, Abu ’l Walid Muhammed, the son of Achmet, the son of Muhammed, the son of Rushd) was born in 1126 at Cordova, Spain. His father and grandfather, the latter a celebrated jurist and canonist, had been judges in that city. He first studied theology and canon law, and later medicine and philosophy; thus, like Faust, covering the whole field of mediæval science. His life was cast in the most brilliant period of Western Muslim culture, in the splendor of that rationalism which preceded the great darkness of religious fanaticism. As a young man, he was introduced by Ibn Tufail (Abubacer), author of the famous ‘Hayy al-Yukdhan,’ a philosophical ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ to the enlightened Khalif Abu Ya’kub Yusuf (1163–84), as a fit expounder of the then popular philosophy of Aristotle. This position he filled with so much success as to become a favorite with the Prince, and finally his private physician. He likewise filled the important office of judge, first at Seville, later at Cordova.  1
  He enjoyed even greater consideration under the next Khalif, Ya’kub al-Mansur, until the year 1195, when the jealousy of his rivals and the fanaticism of the Berbers led to his being accused of championing philosophy to the detriment of religion. Though Averroës always professed great respect for religion, and especially for Islâm, as a valuable popular substitute for science and philosophy, the charge could hardly be rebutted (as will be shown later), and the Amir of the Faithful could scarcely afford openly to favor a heretic. Averroës was accordingly deprived of his honors, and banished to Lacena, a Jewish settlement near Cordova—a fact which gives coloring to the belief that he was of Jewish descent. To satisfy his fanatical subjects for the moment, the Khalif published severe edicts not only against Averroës, but against all learned men and all learning as hostile to religion. For a time the poor philosopher could not appear in public without being mobbed; but after two years, a less fanatical party having come into power, the Prince revoked his edicts, and Averroës was restored to favor. This event he did not long survive. He died on 10th December 1198, in Marocco. Here too he was buried; but his body was afterward transported to Cordova, and laid in the tomb of his fathers. He left several sons, more than one of whom came to occupy important positions.  2
  Averroës was the last great Muslim thinker, summing up and carrying to its conclusions the thought of four hundred years. The philosophy of Islâm, which flourished first in the East, in Basra and Bagdad (800–1100), and then in the West, Cordova, Toledo, etc. (1100–1200), was a mixture of Aristotelianism and Neo-Platonism, borrowed, under the earlier Persianizing Khalifs, from the Christian (mainly Nestorian) monks of Syria and Mesopotamia, being consequently a naturalistic system. In it God was acknowledged only as the supreme abstraction; while eternal matter, law, and impersonal intelligence played the principal part. It was necessarily irreconcilable with Muslim orthodoxy, in which a crudely conceived, intensely personal God is all in all. While Persian influence was potent, philosophy flourished, produced some really great scholars and thinkers, made considerable headway against Muslim fatalism and predestination, and seemed in a fair way to bring about a free and rational civilization, eminent in science and art. But no sooner did the fanatical or scholastic element get the upper hand than philosophy vanished, and with it all hope of a great Muslim civilization in the East. This change was marked by Al-Ghazzali, and his book ‘The Destruction of the Philosophers.’ He died in A.D. 1111, and then the works of Al-Farabi, Ibn-Sina, and the “Brothers of Purity,” wandered out to the far West, to seek for appreciation among the Muslim, Jews, and Christians of Spain. And for a brief time they found it there, and in the twelfth century found also eloquent expounders at the mosque-schools of Cordova, Toledo, Seville, and Saragossa. Of these the most famous were Ibn Baja, Ibn Tufail, and Ibn Rushd (Averroës).  3
  During its progress, Muslim philosophy had gradually been eliminating the Neo-Platonic, mystic element, and returning to pure Aristotelianism. In Averroës, who professed to be merely a commentator on Aristotle, this tendency reached its climax; and though he still regarded the pseudo-Aristotelian works as genuine, and did not entirely escape their influence, he is by far the least mystic of Muslim thinkers. The two fundamental doctrines upon which he always insisted, and which long made his name famous, not to say notorious, the eternity of matter and of the world (involving a denial of the doctrine of creation), and the oneness of the active intellect in all men (involving the mortality of the individual soul and the impossibility of resurrection and judgment), are both of Aristotelian origin. It was no wonder that he came into conflict with the orthodox Muslim; for in the warfare between Arab prophetism, with its shallow apologetic scholasticism, and Greek philosophy, with its earnest endeavor to find truth, and its belief in reason as the sole revealer thereof, he unhesitatingly took the side of the latter. He held that man is made to discover truth, and that the serious study of God and his works is the noblest form of worship.  4
  However little one may agree with his chief tenets, there can be no doubt that he was the most enlightened man of the entire Middle Age, in Europe at least; and if his spirit and work had been continued, Western Islâm might have become a great permanent civilizing power. But here again, after a brief period of extraordinary philosophic brilliancy, fanaticism got the upper hand. With the death of Averroës the last hope of a beneficent Muslim civilization came to an end. Since then, Islâm has been a synonym for blind fanaticism and cruel bigotry. In many parts of the Muslim world, “philosopher” is a term of reproach, like “miscreant.”  5
  But though Islâm rejected its philosopher, Averroës’s work was by no means without its effect. It was through his commentaries on Aristotle that the thought of that greatest of ancient thinkers became known to the western world, both Jewish and Christian. Among the Jews, his writings soon acquired almost canonical authority. His system found expression in the works of the best known of Hebrew thinkers, Maimonides (1135–1204), “the second Moses”; works which, despite all orthodox opposition, dominated Jewish thought for nearly three hundred years, and made the Jews during that time the chief promoters of rationalism. When Muslim persecution forced a large number of Jews to leave Spain and settle in Southern France, the works of Averroës and Maimonides were translated into Hebrew, which thenceforth became the vehicle of Jewish thought; and thus Muslim Aristotelianism came into direct contact with Christianity.  6
  Among the Christians, the works of Averroës, translated by Michael Scott, “wizard of dreaded fame,” Hermann the German, and others, acted at once like a mighty solvent. Heresy followed in their track, and shook the Church to her very foundations. Recognizing that her existence was at stake, she put forth all her power to crush the intruder. The Order of Preachers, initiated by St. Dominic of Calahorra (1170–1221), was founded; the Inquisition was legalized (about 1220). The writings of Aristotle and his Arab commentators were condemned to the flames (1209, 1215, 1231). Later, when all this proved unavailing, the best intellects in Christendom, such as Albertus Magnus (1193–1280), and Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), undertook to repel the new doctrine with its own weapons; that is, by submitting the thought of Aristotle and his Arab commentators to rational discussion. Thus was introduced the second or palmy period of Christian Scholasticism, whose chief industry, we may fairly say, was directed to the refutation of the two leading doctrines of Averroës. Aiming at this, Thomas Aquinas threw the whole dogmatic system of the Church into the forms of Aristotle, and thus produced that colossal system of theology which still prevails in the Roman Catholic world; witness the Encyclical Æterni Patris of Leo XIII., issued in 1879.  7
  By the great thinkers of the thirteenth century, Averroës, though regarded as heretical and dangerous in religion, was looked up to as an able thinker, and the commentator par excellence; so much so that St. Thomas borrowed from him the very form of his own Commentaries, and Dante assigned him a distinguished place, beside Plato and Aristotle, in the limbo of ancient sages (‘Inferno,’ iv. 143). But in the following century—mainly, no doubt, because he was chosen as the patron of certain strongly heretical movements, such as those instigated by the arch-rationalist Frederic II.—he came to be regarded as the precursor of Antichrist, if not that personage himself: being credited with the awful blasphemy of having spoken of the founders of the three current religions—Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad—as “the three impostors.” Whatever truth there may be in this, so much is certain, that infidelity, in the sense of an utter disbelief in Christianity as a revealed religion, or in any sense specially true, dates from the thirteenth century, and is due in large measure to the influence of Averroës. Yet he was a great favorite with the Franciscans, and for a time exercised a profound influence on the universities of Paris and Oxford, finding a strong admirer even in Roger Bacon. His thought was also a powerful element in the mysticism of Meister Eckhart and his followers; a mysticism which incurred the censure of the Church.  8
  Thus both the leading forms of heresy which characterized the thirteenth century—naturalism with its tendency to magic, astrology, alchemy, etc., etc., and mysticism with its dreams of beatific visions, its self-torture and its lawlessness (see Görres, ‘Die Christliche Mystik’)—were due largely to Averroës. In spite of this, his commentaries on Aristotle maintained their credit, their influence being greatest in the fourteenth century, when his doctrines were openly professed. After the invention of printing, they appeared in numberless editions,—several times in connection with the text of Aristotle. As the age of the Renaissance and of Protestantism approached, they gradually lost their prestige. The chief humanists, like Petrarch, as well as the chief reformers, were bitterly hostile to them. Nevertheless, they contributed important elements to both movements.  9
  Averroism survived longest in Northern Italy, especially in the University of Padua, where it was professed until the seventeenth century, and where, as a doctrine hostile to supernaturalism, it paved the way for the study of nature and the rise of modern science. Thus Averroës may fairly be said to have had a share in every movement toward freedom, wise and unwise, for the last seven hundred years. In truth, free thought in Europe owes more to him than to any other man except Abelard. His last declared follower was the impetuous Lucilio Vanini, who was burned for atheism at Toulouse in 1619.  10
  The best work on Averroës is Renan’s ‘Averroës et l’Averroïsme’ (fourth edition, Paris, 1893). This contains, on pages 58–79, a complete list both of his commentaries and his original writings.  11
 
 
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