Arabic Thought and Its Place in History/Chapter XI

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Arabic Thought and Its Place in History by De Lacy O'Leary
Chapter XI. Influence of the Arabic Philosophers on Latin Scholasticism

We have now followed the way in which Hellenistic philosophy was passed from the Greeks to the Syrians, from the Syrians to the Arabic-speaking Muslims, and was by the Muslims carried from Asia to the far West. We have now to consider the way in which it was handed on front these Arabic-speaking people to the Latins. The first contact of the Latins with the philosophy of the Muslims was in Spain, as might be expected. At that time, that is to say during the Middle Ages, we can rightly describe the Western parts of Europe as "Latin," since Latin was used not only in the services of the church but as a means of teaching and as a means of intercourse between the educated; it does not imply that the vernacular speech in all the western lands was of Latin origin, and of course makes no suggestion of a "Latin race"; it refers only to a cultural group, and we are employing the term "Latin" only to denote those who shared a civilization which may fairly be described as of Latin origin. In Spain this Latin culture was in contact with the Arabic culture of the Muslims. The transmission of Arabic material to Latin is especially associated with Raymund, who was Archbishop of Toledo from 1130 to 1150 A.D. Toledo had become part of the kingdom of Castile in 1085, during the disordered period just before the Murabit invasion. It had been captured by Alfonso VI., and he had made it the capital city of his kingdom, and the Archbishop of Toledo became the Primate of Spain. When the town was taken it was agreed that the citizens should have freedom to follow their own religion, but the year after its capture the Christians forcibly seized the great church, which had been converted into a congregational mosque about 370 years before, and restored it to Christian use. For the most part, however, the Muslims lived side by side with the Christians in Toledo, and their presence in the same city as the king, the royal court, and the Primate made a considerable impression on their neighbours, who began to take some interest in the intellectual life of Islam during the following years. The Archbishop Raymund desired to make the Arabic philosophy available for Christian use. At the moment, it will be remembered, the Muwahhids were established in Spain, and their bigotry caused a number of the Jews and Christians to take refuge in the surrounding countries.

Raymund founded a college of translators at Toledo, which he put in the charge of the archdeacon Dominic Gondisalvi, and entrusted it with the duty of preparing Latin translations of the most important Arabic works on philosophy and science, and thus many translations of the Arabic versions of Aristotle and of the commentaries as well as of the abridgments of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina were produced. The method employed in this college and the method commonly followed in the Middle Ages was to use the services of an interpreter, who simply placed the Latin word over the Arabic words of the original, and finally the Latinity was revised by the presiding clerk, the finished translation usually bearing the name of the revisor. It was an extremely mechanical method, and the interpreter was treated as of minor importance. It seems that the preparation of a translation was done to order in very much the same way as the copying of a text, and was not regarded as more intellectual than the work of transcription. The revisor did no more than see that the sentences were grammatical in form: the structure and syntax was still Arabic, and was often extremely difficult for the Latin reader to understand, the more so as the more troublesome words were simply transliterated from the Arabic. The interpreters employed in this college certainly included some Jews; it is known that one of them bore the name of John of Seville. We have very little information as to the circulation of the translations made at Toledo, but it is certain that about thirty years afterwards the whole text of Aristotle's logical Organon was in use in Paris, and this was not possible so long as the Latin translations were limited to those which had been transmitted by Boethius, John Scotus, and the fragments of Plato derived through St. Augustine. But this material already in the possession of the West was the foundation of scholasticism, and was developed as far as it would go. Boethius transmitted a Latin version of Porphyry's Isagoge and of the Categories and Hermeneutics of Aristotle, whilst John Scotus translated the Pseudo-Dionysius. The further development of Latin scholasticism came in three stages: first, the introduction of the rest of the text of Aristotle, as well as the scientific works of the whole logical canon, by translation from the Arabic; then came translations from the Greek following the capture of Constantinople in 1204; and thirdly, the introduction of the Arabic commentators.

The first Latin scholastic writer who shows a knowledge of the complete logical Organon was John of Salisbury (d. 1182 A.D.), who was a lecturer at Paris, but it does not appear that the metaphysical and psychological works of Aristotle were in circulation as yet.

By this time Paris had become the centre of scholastic philosophy, which was now beginning to predominate theology. This takes its form, as yet untouched by Arabic methods, in the work of Peter Lombard (d. 1160 A.D.), whose "Sentences," an encyclopædia of the controversies of the time but a mere compilation, remained a popular book down to the 17th century. The methods and form used in the "Sentences" shows the influence of Abelard, and still more of the Decretals of Gratian. It is interesting to note that Peter Lombard possessed and used a newly finished translation of St. John Damascene.

Early in the 13th century we find various controversies at Paris on subjects very like those debated by the Arabic philosophers, but in reality derived from quite independent sources. Nothing would seem more suggestive of Arabic influence than discussion of the essential unity of souls, which seems as though it were an echo of Ibn Rushd; but this doctrine had been developed independently from neo-Platonic material in the Celtic church, and, in its main features not at all unlike the teaching of Ibn Rushd, was fairly common in Ireland (cf. Rènan: Averroes, 132-133). So we find Ratramnus of Corbey in the 9th century writing against one Macarius in refutation of similar views. Here Arabic influence is out of the question; at the time, indeed, Ibn Rushd was not yet born. So of Simon of Tournay, who was a teacher of theology at Paris about 1200 A.D., we read that "whilst he follows Aristotle too closely, he is by some recent writers accused of heresy" (Henry of Gand: Lib. de script. eccles. c. 24 in Fabrisius Bibliotheca, 2, p. 121), but this simply means that he carried to an extreme the application of the dialectical method to theology.

More interest attaches to the decrees passed at a synod held at Paris in 1209 and endorsed by the decisions of the Papal Legate in 1215. These measures were provoked by the pantheistic teaching of David of Dinant and Amalric of Bena, who revived the semi-pantheistic doctrines of John Scotus’ Periphysis, and the prohibitions dealing with them cite passages from Scotus verbatim. The Periphysis itself was condemned by Honorius III. in 1225. But the decrees of 1209 also forbade the use of Aristotle's Natural Philosophy and the "commenta," whilst the Legate's orders of 1215 allowed the logical works of the old and new translations where perhaps the "new translations" refers to the "new" translations made from the Arabic as contrasted with the "old" versions of Boethius, though it is just possible that some version direct from the Greek was in circulation and known as the "new translations," and also forbade the reading of the Metaphysics, Natural Philosophy, etc., all material which had become accessible through the Arabic.

In 1215 Frederick II. became Emperor, and in 1231 he began to reorganize the kingdom of Sicily. Both in Sicily and in the course of his crusading expeditions in the East Frederick had been brought into close contact with the Muslims and was greatly attracted to them. He adopted oriental costume and many Arabic customs and manners, but, most important of all, he was a great admirer of the Arabic philosophers, whose works he was able to read in the original, as he was familiar with German, French, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Contemporary historians represent him as a free-thinker, who regarded all religions as equally worthless, and attributed to him the statement that the world had suffered from three great imposters, Moses, Christ, and Muhammad. This opinion of Frederick is expressed in passionate words by Gregory IX. in the encyclical letter "ad omnes principes et prelatos terrae" (in Mansi. xxiii. 79), where he compares the Emperor to the blaspheming beast of Apocalypse xiii., but Frederick in reply likened the Pope to the beast described in Apoc. vi., "the great dragon which reduced the whole world," and professed a perfectly orthodox attitude towards Moses, Christ, and Muhammad. It is quite probable, as Rènan (Averroes, p. 293) supposes, that the views ascribed to Frederick really are based on a professed sympathy towards the Arabic philosophers, who regarded all religions as equally tolerable for the uninstructed multitude, and commonly illustrated their remarks by citing the "three laws" which were best known to them. In 1224 Frederick founded a university at Naples, and made it an academy for the purpose of introducing Arabic science to the western world, and there various translations were made from Arabic into Latin and into Hebrew. By his encouragement Michael Scot visited Toledo about 1217 and translated Ibn Rushd's commentaries on Aristotle's de coelo et de mundo, as well as the first part of the de anima. It seems probable also that he was the translator of commentaries on the Meteora, Parva Naturalia, de substantia orbis, Physics, and de generatione et de corruptione. Ibn Sina's commentaries were in general circulation before this, so that they were very probably the "commentaries" referred to in the Paris decree of 1209, but we do not know who was responsible for their rendering into Latin, save that they almost certainly proceeded from the college at Toledo. The introduction of Ibn Rushd, not of great repute amongst the Muslims, bears evidence to the weight of Jewish influence in Sicily and in the new academy at Naples. We know that Michael Scot was assisted by a Jew named Andrew.

Another translator of this period was a German Hermann who was in Toledo about 1256, after Frederick's death. He translated the abridgment of the Rhetoric made by al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd's abridgment of the Poetics, and other less known works of Aristotle. Hermann's translations were described by Roger Bacon as barbarous and hardly intelligible; he transliterated the names so as to show even the tanwin in Ibn Rosdin, abi Nasrin, etc.

By the middle of the 13th century nearly all the philosophical works of Ibn Rushd were translated into Latin, except the commentary on the Organon, which came a little later, and the Destruction of the Destruction, which was not rendered into Latin until the Jew Calonymos did so in 1328. Some of his medical works also were translated in the 13th century, namely, the Colliget, as it was called, and the treatise de formatione; others were translated from the Hebrew into Latin early in the following century.

The first evidence of the general circulation of ideas taken from Averroes (Ibn Rushd) is associated with William of Auvergne, who was Bishop of Paris, and these show a considerable amount of inaccuracy in detail. In 1240 William published censures against certain opinions, which he states to be derived from the Arabic philosophers; amongst these he expresses his disapproval of the doctrine of the First Intelligence, au emanation from God, as being the agent of creation, a doctrine common to all the philosophers, but which he attributes specifically to al-Ghazali; he objects also to the teaching that the world is eternal, which he attributes correctly to Aristotle and Ibn Sina, but mentions Averroes as an orthodox defender of the truth; he further condemns the doctrine of the unity of intellects, which most incorrectly he attributes to Aristotle, and also refers to al-Farabi as maintaining this heresy; throughout he cites Averroes as a sounder teacher who tends to correct these ideas, but his description of the doctrine of the unity of intellects reproduces the features which are distinctive of Averroes. The arguments he uses against this latter doctrine are, on the whole, very much the same as those employed a little later by Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas, viz., that the doctrine undermines the reality of the individual personality, and is inconsistent with the observed facts of diversity of intelligence in different persons. He cites Abubacer (Ibn Bajja) as a commentator on Aristotle's Physics, but in fact this was a book on which Ibn Bajja did not write a commentary, and the substance of the citation agrees with the teaching of Averroes. At that time evidently the position was that Aristotle and the Arabic commentators generally were regarded with suspicion save in the treatment of logic, the one exception being Averroes, who was considered to be perfectly orthodox. So strange a perversion of the facts could only be due to Jewish influence, for the Jews at that time were devoted adherents of Averroes.

When the friars began to take their place in the work of the universities we note two striking changes: (i.) the friars cut loose entirely from the timid policy of conservatism and begin to make free use of all the works of Aristotle and of the Arabic commentators, and also make efforts to procure newer and more correct translations of. the Aristotelian text from the original Greek; under this leadership the universities gradually became more modern and enterprising in their scientific work, though not without evidence of strong opposition in certain quarters. (ii.) As a natural corollary a more correct appreciation was made of the tendencies of the several commentators.

The leader in these newer studies was the Franciscan Alexander Hales (d. 1245), who was the first to make free use of Aristotle outside the logical Organon. His Summa, which was left unfinished and continued by the Franciscan William of Melitona, was based on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, and serves as a commentary to it. Peter Lombard, however, had not quoted Aristotle at all, whilst Alexander uses the metaphysical and scientific works as well as the logic. From this time forth the Franciscans begin to use the Arabic commentators.

The more accurate study of Aristotle in mediæval scholasticism begins with Albertus Magnus (1206-1280), the Dominican friar who first really perceived the importance of careful and critical versions of the text, and thus introduced a strictly scientific standard of method. He studied at Padua, a daughter university of Bologna, but became a Dominican in 1223. His methods were followed and developed by his pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), who arranged his work on the lines already indicated in Albertus’ commentary on Aristotle's Politics, lines which became the regulation method in Latin scholastic writers, and he was at pains to get new translations made directly from the Greek, which was now freely accessible; a new translation direct from the Greek was made by William de Moerbeka at the request of St. Thomas. But there is a significant change from the time when Albertus delivered his lectures: in the work of Albertus the commentator chiefly used was Ibn Sina, but in that of St. Thomas there is a free use of Averroes (Ibn Rushd), although St. Thomas shows that he is perfectly well aware of the peculiar doctrines held by this latter philosopher, and guards himself carefully from them.

St. Thomas frequently enters into controversy with the Arabic commentators, and especially attacks the doctrines (i.) that there was a primal indefinite matter to which form was given at creation (cf. Summa. lae quaes. 66, art. 2); (ii.) that there were successive series of emanations, a doctrine which had now assumed an astrological character; (iii.) that the Agent Intellect was the intermediary in creation (cf. Summa. 1, 45, 5; 47, 1; 90, 1); (iv.) that creation ex nihilo is impossible; (v.) that there is not a special providence ruling and directing the world; and (vi.) most of all, the doctrine of the unity of intellects, a doctrine which, as he shows, is not to be found in Aristotle, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Avicenna, or Ghazali, but is a speculative theory of Averroes alone, at least in the form then becoming popular as pampsychism. All these objections were essentially the same as had been already brought forward by the orthodox scholastics of Islam, and undoubtedly al-Ghazali is used in refuting them. According to St. Thomas, the doctrine of pampsychism is entirely subversive of human personality and of the separate individuality of the ego, to which our own consciousness hears witness. God creates the soul for each child as it is born; it is no emanation, but has a separate and distinct personality. As a corollary he denies the ittisal or final "union," which involves the reabsorption of the soul in its source.

It is worth noting that St. Thomas received his education before joining the Dominican order in the university of Naples, which had been founded by Frederick II. and was a centre of interest in the Arabic philosophers, and this probably goes far to account for his more accurate appreciation of their teaching. Unquestionably St. Thomas Aquinas must be regarded as the prince of the Latin scholastics, for it is he who first draws freely upon metaphysics and psychology and co-ordinates them with theology—the psychological analysis given in the Secunda secundae of the Summa is one of the best products of the Latin scholastics—and also he was the first to appreciate correctly the difficulties of translation and insist on an accurate rendering as essential to an understanding of Aristotle. For the most part, as we have noted, the mediæval scholars undervalued the translator's task and were content with a hack interpreter, and saw no reason for applying themselves to the study of the original test, a view in which the Arabic philosophers shared. Incidentally St. Thomas was the first who makes free use of all the Arabic commentators and shows that he is fully aware of their defects. Undoubtedly he regarded Averroes as the best exponent of the Aristotelian text and the supreme master in logic, but heretical in his metaphysics and psychology.

About 1256 Averroes’ teaching about the unity of intelligences was sufficiently widespread at Paris to induce Albertus to write his treatise "On the unity of the intellect against the Averroists," a treatise which he afterwards inserted in his Summa. In 1269 certain propositions from Averroes were formally condemned. At this time his works were well known, and there was a distinct party at Paris which had adopted his views and which we may describe as a semi-Judaistic party. This time both Albertus and St. Thomas published treatises against the doctrine of the unity of intelligences.

Again in 1277 various Averroist theses were condemned at Paris, for the most part emanating from the Franciscans, who, as Bacon notes (opus Tert. 23), were strongly inclined towards Averroes both at Paris and in England, a condition which prevailed until the great Franciscan doctor Duns Scotus (d. 1308) took a definitely anti-Averroist line. Still, even in the 14th century, when Averroism was practically dead at Paris, it still retained its hold amongst the Franciscans in the English "nation."

The Dominicans were less favourably disposed towards the Arabic writers, at least after the time of Albertus, and show a much more careful estimate of their work. This was no doubt due to the fact that they had a house of Arabic studies in Spain, and were actually engaged in controversy with the Muslims. As a rule a careful distinction is drawn between Averroes the commentator, who is treated with great respect as an exponent of the text of Aristotle, and Averroes the philosopher, who is regarded as heretical. It seems as though there was a deliberate policy to secure Aristotle by sacrificing the Arabic commentators. Very characteristic of the work of the Dominicans was the Pugio Fidei adversum Mauros et Judaeos of Raymund Martini, who lived in Aragon and Provence; he was familiar with Hebrew, and freely uses the Hebrew translations of the Arabic philosophers. His arguments are largely borrowed from al-Ghazali's Destruction of the Philosophers. It is curious to note that, in his anxiety to defend Aristotle, he accuses Averroes of borrowing the doctrine of the unity of intelligences from Plato, and in a sense there was an element of truth in this, for the Averroist doctrine was ultimately derived from neo-Platonic sources. Raymund also cites the medical teaching of Averroes at a date earlier than any Latin version, and here again shows familiarity with the Hebrew translations.

John Baconthorp (d. 1346), the provincial of the English Carmelites and "doctor" of the Carmelite order, tends to palliate the heretical tendencies of Averroes’ teaching, and was called by his contemporaries "the prince of Averroists," a title which was apparently regarded as a compliment.

Amongst the Augustinian friars Giles of Rome in his de Erroribus Philosophorum was an opponent of the teaching of Averroes, especially attacking the doctrine of the unity of souls and the union or ittisal, but Paul of Venice (d. 1429), of the same order, shows a tendency favourable to Averroism in his Summa.

The 13th century had generally used Ibn Sina (Avicenna) as a commentator on Aristotle, but in the 14th century the general tendency was to prefer Averroes, who was regarded as the leading exponent of the Aristotelian text even by those who disapproved his teaching.

The University of Montpelier as a centre of medical studies might be expected to use the Arabic authorities, but this university, though traditionally founded by Arabic physicians driven out of Spain, was re-founded as a distinctly ecclesiastical institution in the 13th century, and became the home of Greek medical studies based on Galen and Hippocrates, though probably the earlier texts in use were translated from the Arabic versions. To this more wholesome Greek character the university remained faithful, and there was always a tendency at Montpelier to regard the Arabic use of talismans and astrology in medicine as heretical. It was not until the beginning of the 14th century that the Arabic medical writers began to be used there at all, and they remained in quite a secondary rank. In 1304 Averroes’ Canones de medicinis laxativis was translated from the Hebrew, and in 1340 we find that i. and iv. of the Canons of Avicenna are included in the official syllabus set for candidates for medical degrees, and from this time forward the lectures include courses on the Arabic physicians. In 1567 the Arabic medical works were definitely struck off the list of books required for examination in the schools at the petition of the students, but occasional lectures on the Canons of Avicenna were given down to 1607.

The real home of Averroism was the University of Bologna, with its sister University of Padua, and from these two centres an Averroist influence spread over all N.E. Italy, including Venice and Ferrara, and so continued until the 17th century. It was a precursor of the rationalism and anti-church feeling of the renascence, perhaps assisted by Venetian contact with the East. At Bologna Arabic influence was predominant in medicine; already in the later 13th century the medical course centres in the Canon of Avicenna and the medical treatises of Averroes, with the result that astrology became a regular subject of study, and degrees were granted in it. Most of the physicians of Bologna and Padua were astrologers, and were generally regarded as freethinkers and heretics. Bologna had at one time enjoyed the favour of Frederick II., and he had presented the University with copies of the Latin translations prepared by his order from Arabic and Greek.

The "Great Commentary" was firmly established at Padua, and in 1334 the Servite friar Urbano de Bologna published a commentary on the commentary of Averroes, which was printed in 1492 by order of the general of the Servites. But it is Gaetano of Tiena (d. 1465), a canon of the cathedral at Padua, who is generally regarded as the founder of Paduan Averroism. He was less bold in his statements than the Augustinian Paul of Venice, but still quite definitely an Averroist in his teaching as to the Agent Intellect and the unity of souls, etc. He seems to have had a great popularity, as many copies of his lectures survive. This Averroist cult in Padua held good through the greater part of the 15th century.

Towards the end of the century, however, the reaction begins, and comes from two distinct sources. On one side Pomponat lectured at Padua on the de anima, but interprets it by the aid of Alexander of Aphrodisias and discards Averroes, setting forth his doctrines in the form of essays instead of the time-honoured commentary on the Aristotelian text. From this time (circ. 1495) the university of Padua was divided into two factions, the Averroists and the Alexandrians. Pomponat was at the same time a representative of more distinctly rationalist theories, towards which the Italian mind was then tending. It was not that Alexander was more difficult to reconcile with the Christian faith than Averroes, but that those whose scepticism was inclined to be more freely expressed took advantage of these new methods of interpretation to give free vent to their own opinions. Quite independent of these Alexandrians were the humanists proper, who objected most to the barbarous Latinity of the text-books in general use, and especially to the terminology employed in the translations made from the Arabic commentators. Representative of these was Thomæus, who about 1497 began to lecture at Padua on the Greek text of Aristotle, and to treat it very largely as a study of the Greek language and literature.

Philosophical controversy at this time was centred chiefly in the psychological problems connected with the nature of the soul, and especially with its separate existence and the prospects of immortality. This indeed was perceived to be a crucial problem of religion and was very keenly debated. In the early years of the 16th century the controversy became even more prominent, until the Lateran Council of 1512 tried to cheek such discussions and passed a formal condemnation, which, however, was powerless to restrain the debates. It is to be noticed that these discussions did not arise from any philo-pagan attitude of the renascence, although they favoured that attitude, but from the topics suggested by the study of the Arabic philosophers in N.E. Italy, and had their beginning in the problem as to whether the soul at death could continue an individual existence or was reabsorbed in the source, the reservoir of life, whether Agent Intellect or universal soul.

Officially the University of Padua continued to maintain a moderate Averroism. In 1472 the editio princeps of Averroes’ commentaries was published at Padua. Then in 1495-7 Niphus produced a fuller and more complete edition. Through the next half-century a series of essays, discussions, and analyses of Averroes were produced almost continuously, and in 1552-3 appeared the great edition of Averroes’ commentaries, with marginal notes by Zimara. In the course of the 16th century, also, Padua produced a new translation of Averroes from the Hebrew. The last of the Averroist succession was Cæsar Cremonini (d. 1631), who, however, shows strong leanings towards Alexandrianism. By this time the study of the Arabic philosophers in Europe was confined to the medical writers and to the commentaries of Averroes.

Outside Padua and Bologna Averroes retained his position as the principal exponent of Aristotle to the end of the 15th century. In the ordinances of Louis XI. (1473) it is laid down that the masters at Paris are to teach Aristotle, and to use as commentaries Averroes, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and similar writers instead of William of Ockham and others of his school, which is no more than saying that the official attitude is to be realist and not nominalist.

With the 16th century the study of the Arabic commentators on Aristotle fell into disrepute outside Padua and its circle, but for a century more the Arabic medical writers had a limited range of influence in the European universities.

The actual line of transmission in and after the 15th century lay in the passage of the anti-ecclesiastical spirit developed in North East Italy under the influence of the Arabic philosophers to the Italian renascence. The arrival of Greek scholars after the fall of Constantinople and the resultant interest developed in archæological research diverted attention into a new direction, but this should not disguise the fact that the pro-Arabic element in scholastic days was the direct parent of the philopagan element in the renascence, at least in Southern Europe. In northern lands it was the archæological side which assumed greater importance and was brought to bear upon theological subjects.