Arabic Thought and Its Place in History/Chapter X
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Chapter X. The Jewish Transmittors
We have already seen that the Jews took a prominent part in bringing a knowledge of philosophical research from Asia to Spain, and Ibn Jabirul (Avencebrol) takes his place in the line of transmission by which Spanish Islam was brought into contact with these studies. This did not end the participation of the Jews in philosophical work, but their subsequent writers do not form part of the regular series of Aristotelian students influencing the Muslim world, but are rather confined to Jewish circles. Yet they are of an importance wider than merely sectarian interests, for it was by means of Jewish disciples of Ibn Rushd that he was raised to a position of much greater importance than he has ever enjoyed in the Muslim world. Amongst the Jews, indeed, there arose a strong Averroist school, which later on was the chief means of introducing Ibn Rushd's theories to Latin scholasticism. As we shall see later the transmission of philosophy from Arabic to Latin surroundings falls into two stages: in the earlier the Arabic material passes directly, and the works used are those which had attained a leading importance in Islam, but in the later stage the Jews were the intermediaries, and thus the choice of text-books and authorities was largely influenced by an existing Jewish scholasticism.
Ibn Jabirul shows the Aristotelian philosophy introduced to Jewish surroundings, just as Sa‘id al-Fayyumi in Mesopotamia shows the entrance of Mu‘tazilite discussions amongst the Jews. In fact, all the intellectual experiences of the Muslim community were repeated amongst the Jews. In Islam the Mu‘tazilites and the philosophers were followed by the scholastics, who took their final form under al-Ghazali, and so in Judaism also al-Ghazali has his parallel.
The founder of an orthodox Jewish scholasticism was the Spanish Jew, Jehuda hal-Levi (d. 540 A.H. = 1145 A.D.), who lived during the Murabit rule and the coming of the Muwahhids. His teaching is known by a work entitled Sefer ha-Kuzari, which consists of five essays, supposed to be dialogues between the King of the Chazars and a Jewish visitor to his court. These dialogues discuss various topics of a philosophical and political character. The study of philosophy is commended, but it is pointed out that good conduct is not attained by philosophy, which is occupied with scientific investigations, and many of these have no direct bearing upon the duties of practical life; the best means of promoting right conduct is religion, which is the established tradition of wisdom revealed to men of ancient times. Even in speculative matters a surer guidance is often furnished by religious tradition than by the speculations of philosophers. God created all things from nothing; the attempt to explain the presence of imperfection and evil in the world by the theory of the eternity of matter, or by the operation of laws of nature is futile; those laws themselves must refer back to God. The difficulty arising from the mingling of evil with good in creation is admitted; the real solution is unknown, but it must be maintained that creation was the work of God in spite of the difficulties which this presents.
As to the nature and attributes of God, the distinction which Sa‘id al-Fayyumi tried to make between the essential and other attributes is untenable. The attributes stated in the Old Testament may be applied to God because they are revealed, which is exactly the same teaching as that of al-Ash’ari and al-Ghazali. These attributes are either referring to active qualities, or to relative, or to negative. Those which are active and those which are relative are used metaphorically; we do not know their real significance.
The fifth essay is more especially directed against the philosophers as teaching doctrines subversive of revelation. In the first place he disapproves the theory of emanations; the work of creation was directly performed by God without any intermediary; if there were emanations, why did they stop short at the lunar sphere? This refers to the descriptions given by the Arabic writers who endeavour to explain the successive emanations from the First Cause as reaching down to different spheres. He opposes also the attempt of the Mutakallimin to reconcile philosophy and theology as tending to undermine the truths of revealed religion, so that he takes a more reactionary position than al-Ghazali. This was inevitable, for Jewish thought had as yet been much less influenced by philosophy than was the case with the Muslims. He objects also to the description of the soul as intellect, more it would appear because common usage confined "intellectual activity" too much to philosophical speculation, and especially he protested against the implication that only souls of philosophers were finally united to the Agent Intellect. The soul of man is a spiritual substance and imperishable; it does not win immortality by intellectual activity but is necessarily immortal by its own nature. He admits, however, that the passive soul in man is influenced by the Agent Intellect, which he seems to regard as the wisdom of God personified. Generally, therefore, Hal-Levi defined Jewish orthodoxy as against the teachings of the philosophers: he recognises the force of philosophical speculation, but is himself distinctly conservative. God was literally the creator, and no philosophical definition of creation which tended to explain it otherwise than according to traditional belief was permissible. But Hal-Levi does not seem to have had any great influence outside Judaism, and his work rather tends to show how far Jewish thought of the 6th cent. of the Hijra was out of sympathy with current philosophical speculation, though no longer ignorant of it.
It was in Spain that the Jews especially distinguished themselves as physicians, reproducing and extending the investigations of the Arabic authorities, who were pupils of the Nestorians and Jews in the first place. The most distinguished of these Spanish Jews who became leaders in medical science was Ibn Zuhr (d. 595 A.H. = 1199 A.D.), commonly known to the mediæval West as "Avenzoar." He was a native of Seville and member of a family of physicians. Jewish philosophy does not take a leading place until the appearance of Abu Imran Moses b. Maymun b. ‘Abdullah (d. 601 A.H. = 1204 A.D.), a contemporary and follower of Ibn Rushd and the one who did most to establish an Averroist school, and so passed on his work and influence to Latin Christendom. He was the son of a pupil of Hal-Levi, and, it is said, a pupil of one of Ibn Bajja's pupils. His family retired to Africa to avoid the persecution of the Muwahhids and settled for a time in Fez, then removed to Egypt. It was whilst he was at Cairo that Ibn Maymun, or Maimonides as he is more commonly called by European writers, first heard of Ibn Rushd.
His chief work is known as Dalalat al-Ha’irin, "the Guide of the Perplexed," which, like all his other books, was produced in Arabic; about the time of his death this work was translated into Hebrew by Samuel b. Tibbon as Moreh Nebukin. The Arable text, edited by Munk, was published at Paris (3 vols.) in 1856-66, and in 1884 an English translation by Friedländer was published in London. Next to this in importance is the treatise Maqalah fi-t-Tawhid, a treatise on the unity of God, of which a Hebrew translation was made in the 14th cent. A.D. His other works were mainly medical, and include treatises "on poisons and their antidotes," "on hæmorrhoids," "on asthma," and a commentary on Hippocrates.
Maimonides’ teaching reproduces the substance of that already associated with al-Farabi and Ibn Sina put into a Jewish form. God is the Intellect, the ens intelligens, and the intelligibile: He is the necessary First Cause and the permanent source. He is essentially and necessarily one, and attributes cannot be so used as to imply plurality: only those attributes which describe activity are admissible, not those which imply relations between God and the creature. Like Ibn Rushd he disapproves of the Mutakallimin, whom he regards as mere opportunists in their philosophy and without any staple principles, besides which their method of compromise does not face fairly the law of causality. The Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of matter cannot, however, be admitted; creation must have been from nothing, as follows from the law of causality; that such was the case cannot be proved, hut every contrary supposition is untenable. All the properties of matter, the laws of nature, etc., had their beginning at creation. On the first day God created the beginnings (reshit), that is to say the intelligences, from which proceeded the several spheres, and introduced movement, so that on this day the whole universe and all its contents came into existence. On the succeeding days these contents were disposed in order and developed; then on the seventh day God rested, which means that He ceased from active operation and laid the universe under the control of natural laws, which guided it henceforth.
The teaching of Maimonides shows a somewhat modified form of the system already developed by al-Farabi and Ibn Sina adapted to Jewish beliefs. It had a rapid and wide success, spreading through the greater part of the Jewish community in his own lifetime. But this success was not without some opposition—the synagogues of Aragon, Catalonga, and of Provence, where a very large number of Jews had sought refuge from the Muwahhids; the synagogue at Narbonne, on the other hand, defended him. It was not until the following century, and chiefly by the efforts of David Kimchi, that Maimonides was at length generally accepted as the leading doctor of the Jewish church.
Although Maimonides was known to the Latin scholastics, it was not his work nor that of any other Jewish teacher which really made the Jews important to mediæval western thought so much as the work they did in popularising Ibn Rushd, whom they called "the soul and intelligence of Aristotle." Jewish MSS. of Aristotle are rarely found without Ibn Rushd's commentary, and his paraphrases very commonly bear the name of Aristotle at their head. It was as the commentator that he held so high a position in Jewish thought, and it was as the final and authoritative commentator that he finally took his place in Latin scholasticism introduced by Jewish teachers.
The Muwahhid persecution scattered many of the Spanish Jews to Africa and to Provence and Languedoc. Those who took refuge in Africa, like Maimonides, retained the use of the Arabic language, but Arabic quickly became obsolete amongst those who had fled north. No doubt the refugees in Provence found it necessary to use the Provencal dialect for communication with their Christian neighbours, but that dialect had never yet been used for scientific or philosophical purposes; in Western Christendom Latin was invariably used for all educational and scholarly purposes, but the refugee Jews did not feel disposed to adopt a language which had no traditional associations for them and was altogether a foreign tongue never as yet employed for Jewish purposes. Under these circumstances the Jewish leaders deliberately copied the actual condition prevailing amongst their Jewish neighbours where the ancient Latin was in use as a learned language, whilst its derived dialects were the speech in everyday use, and so they revived the use of Hebrew as the medium of teaching and literature. Throughout Hebrew had retained its place as a liturgical language; there had been synagogue liturgies in Greek, but those belonged to a much earlier period. The revival of Hebrew produced a neo-Hebrew which does not preserve a line of historical continuity with the ancient Hebrew. For some time Hebrew had been a dead language in the East, and it had never spread as a living speech to the West. But this artificial revival, which has more than one parallel in history, was not so difficult a feat as it sounds at first. The vernacular speech of the Spanish Jew was Arabic, and philologically Arabic is very nearly a dialect if not of Arabic, yet at least of a proto-Arabic, which shows many close parallels with Hebrew. Of course at that time the true philological relations were not understood: influenced by theological prepossessions the Jew rather tended to regard Arabic as a derivative of Hebrew; yet the kinship was obvious, and in the early translations made from Arabic to Hebrew it is not uncommon to find that most of the words are translated in such a way that the same root-form is used as in the original. Secondly, it was not only the case that Hebrew "came easily" to those who knew Arabic, but there had been serious philological studies by Jehudh Chayyug, David Kimchi, and others which had emphasized this close kinship, and had indeed adapted all the rules of Arabic grammar to the use of Hebrew; it was therefore possible to compose and even to speak a tolerable Hebrew by the conscious rendering of the Arabic vocabulary into Hebrew. It is not suggested that the inaugurators of neo-Hebrew ignored the characteristics of the classical speech; in fact they did not do so, but they were in a position to use Hebrew as though a dialect differing from Arabic only in detail, and in this attitude they were more strictly correct than they supposed. Before long Arabic began to be entirely discarded, and Hebrew, whose revival flattered Jewish susceptibilities, was taken up with vigour as a language of the schools; how far it came into use in the home we do not know.
This change necessitated the translation of the later theological and philosophical writers from Arabic into Hebrew. Tradition puts the beginning of this work of translation in the 12th century, but this is not possibly true. It was not until well into the 13th century that Hebrew translations begin to appear. The most famous translators were of the family of Jehuda ben Tibbon, who cannot himself be accepted as a translator. The first work was done by Samuel ben Tibbon, who compiled a Hebrew "Opinions of the Philosophers," which is a catena of passages from Ibn Rushd and other Muslim falasifah. This production was in general use as a popular manual until it was replaced by complete translations of the actual texts, when, of course, such compilations went out of use. The principal part of the work was done by Moses ben Tibbon (circ. 1260 A.D.), who translated most of the commentaries of Ibn. Rushd, some portions of his medical works, and Maimonides’ "Guide of the Perplexed." About this time Frederick II. was strongly desirous of introducing the Arabic writers to the knowledge of the West, a matter to which we shall refer again when we come to consider the translation of the Arabic philosophical works into Latin, and so we find him protecting and pensioning Yaqub ben Abba Mari, a son-in-law of Samuel ben Tibbon, at Naples, and this Yaqub employed in preparing a Hebrew translation of Ibn Rushd's commentaries on the Aristotelian Organon.
The thirteenth century A.D. shows us a continuous series of Hebrew scholars either preparing compilations and abridgments or actually translating the full text of the leading Arabic philosophers, and especially of Ibn Rushd. About 1247 Jehuda ben Salomo Cohen, of Toledo, published his Hebrew "Search for Wisdom," an encyclopædia of Aristotelian doctrines mainly based upon the teachings of Ibn Rushd. A little later Shem-Tov b. Yusuf b. Falaquera also reproduced the doctrines of Ibn Rushd in his essays, and later again in the 13th century Gerson b. Salomo compiled "The Door of Heaven," which shows the same influence.
About 1257 Solomon b. Yusuf b. Aiyub, a refugee who had come from Granada to Bèziers, translated the text of Ibn Rushd's commentary on the de coelo and de mundo, and in the latter part of this century complete translations begin to take the place of abridgments and collections of extracts. About 1284 Zerachia ben Isaac from Barcelona translated Ibn Rushd's commentaries on the Physics, the Metaphysics, and the treatises de coelo and de mundo. Rènan has drawn attention to the fact that the same works are translated again and again, sometimes by translators who were very nearly contemporary and lived in the same neighbourhood. Evidently these translations did not quickly enter into wide circulation, and it does not seem that the task of the translator was held in any great esteem; it was regarded as a purely mechanical work, and not credited with any literary possibilities.
Early in the 14th century Kalonymos b. Kalonymos b. Meir translated Ibn Rushd's commentaries on the Topica, Sophistica, and analytica Posteriora (completed 1314); then his commentaries on the Physica, Metaphysics, de coelo and de mundo, de generatione and de corruptione, and the Meteora (completed 1317), and followed these by a translation of the Destruction of the Destruction. An independent Hebrew translation of this latter work was made about the same time by Kalonymos b. David b. Todros. About 1321 Rabbi Samuel ben Jehuda ben Meshullam at Marseilles prepared Hebrew versions of Ibn Rushd's commentaries on the Nicomachæan Ethics and his paraphrase of the Republic of Plato, which was regarded by the Arabic writers as part of the Aristotelian canon. It is rather interesting to note that somewhere about the same time Juda ben Moses ben Daniel of Rome prepared a Hebrew translation of de substantia orbis from the Latin translation which was itself derived from the Arabic. To a great extent the Hebrew and Latin translations were being made contemporaneously but quite independently; it was not until well into the 14th century that they begin to influence one another. It was during this later stage that so many of the Arabic philosophical works were translated into Latin via Hebrew, and this gave a marked preponderance to Ibn Rushd, the result of the Jewish vogue of his writings; the earlier translations into Latin from the Arabic rather tend to lay weight on Ibn Sina.
In the course of the 14th century A.D. the Hebrew commentators on Ibn Rushd begin. Chief amongst these was Lavi ben Gerson, of Bagnols, who wrote a commentary on Ibn Rushd's Ittisal on the doctrine of the union of the soul with the Agent Intelligence, and on Ibn Rushd's treatise "on the substance of the world." Levi's teaching reproduces the Arabic Aristotelianism much more freely and frankly than was ventured by Maimonides; he admits the eternity of the world, the primal matter he describes as substance without form, and creation meant only the impress of form on this formless substance.
Contemporary with Levi was Moses of Narbonne, who, between 1340 and 1350, produced commentaries on the same works of Ibn Rushd as had already been treated by Levi, as well as other of the treatises on physical science.
The fourteenth century was the golden age of Jewish scholasticism and the following century sees it in its decay. Ibn Rushd was still studied and commentaries were still compiled. About 1455 Joseph ben Shem-Tob of Segovia produced a commentary on Aristotle's Ethics which he intended to supplement Ibn Rushd, who had not written a commentary on this portion of Aristotle. Elias del Medigo, who taught at Padua towards the end of the 15th century, is regarded by Rènan as the last great Jewish Averroist. He wrote a commentary on the de substantia orbis in 1485, and also published annotations on Averroes.
The 16th century shows the final decay of Jewish Averroism. In 1560 an abridgment of the logic of Averroes was published at Riva di Trento, and this has remained a standard work amongst Jews, but outside logic Averroes was beginning to fall into disrepute. Rabbi Moses Almosnino (circ. 1538) uses al-Ghazali's work against the philosophers to oppose Ibn Rushd, and evidences occur of an interest in Plato by those who despised Aristotle as a relic of the dark ages. The later Jewish philosophers such as Spinoza are not in touch with the mediæval tradition, whose continuity is severed towards the end of the 16th century; later work shows the influence of post-renascence non-Jewish thought.