1902 Encyclopedia > Averroes

Arab philosopher, jurist and medical writer

AVERROES, known among his own people as Abul-Walid Mohanimed Ibn-Ahmed Ibn-Mohammed IBN-ROSHD, the kadi, was born at Cordova in 1126, and died at Marocco in 1198. His early life was occupied in mastering the curriculum of theology, jurisprudence, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy, under the approved teachers of the time. The years of his prime were a disastrous era for Mahometan Spain, where almost every city had its own petty king, whilst the Christian princes swept the land in constant inroads. But with the advent of the Almohades, the enthusiasm which !the desert tribes had awakened, whilst it revived religious life and intensified the observance of the holy law within the realm, served at the same time to reunite the forces of Andalusia, and inflicted decisive defeats on the chiefs of the Christian North. For the last time before its final extinction the Moslem caliphate in Spain displayed a splendour which seemed to rival the ancient glories of the Ommiade court. Great mosques arose; schools and colleges were founded; hospitals, and other useful and beneficent constructions, proceeded from the public zeal of the sovereign; and under the patronage of two liberal rulers, Jusuf and Jaktib, science and philosophy flourished apace. It was Ibn-Tofail (Abubacer), the philosophic vizier of Jusuf, who introduced Averroes to that prince, and Avenzoar (Ibn-Zohr), the greatest of Moslem physicians, was his friend. Averroes, who was versed in the Malekite system of law, was made kadi of Seville (1169), and in similar appointments the next twenty-five years of his life were passed. We find him at different periods in Seville, Cordova, and Marocco, probably following the court of Jusuf Almansur, who took pleasure in engaging him in discussions on the theories of philosophy and their bearings on the faith of Islam. But science and free thought then, as now, in Islam, depended almost solely on the tastes of the wealthy and the favour of the monarch. The ignorant fanaticism of the multitude viewed speculative studies with deep dislike and distrust, and deemed any one a Zendik (infidel) who did not rest content with the natural science of the Koran. These smouldering hatreds burst into open flame about the year 1195. Whether, as one story ran, he had failed in conversation and in his writings to pay the customary deference to the emir, or a court intrigue had changed the policy of the moment, at any rate Averroes was accused of heretical opinions and pursuits, stripped of his honours, and banished to a place near Cordova, where his actions were closely watched. Tales have been told of the insults he had to suffer from a bigoted populace. At the same time efforts were made to stamp out all liberal culture in Andalusia, so far as it went beyond the little medicine, arithmetic, and astronomy required for practical life. But the storm soon passed, when the transient passion of the people had been satisfied, and Averroes for a brief period survived his restoration to honour. He died in the year before his patron Almansur, with whom (in 1199) the political power of the Moslems came to an end, as did the culture of liberal science with Averroes. The philosopher left several sons, some of whom became jurists like Averroes's grandfather. One of them has left an essay, expounding his father's theory of the intellect. The personal character of Averroes is known to us only in a general way, and as we can gather it from his writings. His clear, exhaustive, and dignified style of treatment evidences the rectitude and nobility of the man. In the histories of his own nation he has little place; the renown which spread in his lifetime to the East ceased with his death, and he left no school. Yet, from a note in a manuscript, we know that he had intelligent readers in Spain more than a century afterwards. His historic fame came from the Christian Schoolmen, whom he almost initiated into the system of Aristotle, and who, but vaguely discerning the expositors who preceded, admired in his commentaries the accumulated results of two centuries of labours.

For Aristotle the reverence of Averroes was unbounded, and to expound him was his chosen task. The uncritical receptivity of his age, the defects of the Arabic versions, the emphatic theism of his creed, and the rationalising mysticism of some Oriental thought, may have sometimes led him astray, and given prominence to the less obvious features of Aristotelianism. But in his conception of the relation between philosophy and religion, Averroes had a light which the Latins were without. The science, falsely so called, of the several theological schools, their groundless distinctions and sophistical demonstrations, he regarded as the great source of heresy and scepticism. The allegorical interpretations and metaphysics which had been imported into religion had taken men's minds away from the plain sense of the Koran, and destroyed the force of those appeals which had been spoken to the hearts and understandings of our common humanity, not to the wisdom of the " people of demonstration." God had declared a truth meet for all men, which needed no intellectual superiority to understand, in a tongue which each human soul could apprehend according to its powers and feelings. Accordingly, the expositors of religious metaphysics, Algazali included, are the enemies of true religion, because they make it a mere matter of syllogism. Averroes maintains that a return must be made to the words and teaching of the prophet; that science must not expend itself in dogmatising on the metaphysical consequences of fragments of doctrine for popular acceptance, but must proceed to reflect upon and examine the existing things of the world. Averroes, at the same time, condemns the attempts of those who tried to give demonstrative science where the mind was not capable of more than rhetoric: they harm religion by their mere negations, destroying an old sensuous creed, but cannot build up a higher and intellectual faith.

In this spirit Averroes does not allow the fancied needs of theological reasoning to interfere with his study of Aristotle, whom he simply interprets as a truth-seeker. The points by which he told on Europe were all implicit in Aristotle, but Averroes set in relief what the original had left obscure, and emphasised things which the Christian theologian passed by or misconceived. Thus Averroes had a double effect. He was the great interpreter of Aristotle to the later Schoolmen, worthy of a place, according to Dante, beside the glorious sages of the heathen world. On the other hand, he came to represent those aspects of Peripateticism most alien to the spirit of Christendom; and the deeply-religious Moslem gave his name to the anti-sacerdotal party, to the materialists, sceptics, and atheists, who defied or undermined the dominant beliefs of the church.

On three points Averroes, bike other Moslem thinkers, came specially into relation, real or supposed, with the religious creed, viz., the creation of the world, the divine knowledge of particular things, and the future of the human souL But the collision was rather with the laboured ratiocinations by which the Asharite and Motazelite theologians aimed at rationalising dogma than with the doctrine of religion in its simplicity. True philosophy is the foster sister of religion, but is the critic of scholastic subtleties. In regard to the second charge, Averroes himself remarks that philosophy only protests against reducing the divine to the level of the created mind. But the real grandeur of Averroes is seen in his resolute prosecution of the standpoint of science in matters of this world, and in his recognition that religion is not a branch of knowlodge to be reduced to propositions and systems of dogma, but a personal and inward power, an individual truth which stands distinct from, but not contradictory to, the universalities of scientific law. In his science he followed the Greeks, and to the Schoolmen he and his compatriots rightly seemed philosophers of the ancient world. He maintained alike the claim of demonstrative science with its generalities for the few who could live in that ethereal world, and the claim of religion for all,—the common life of each soul as an individual and personal consciousness. But theology, or the mixture of the two, he regarded as a source of evil to both—fostering the vain belief in a hostility of philosophers to religion, and meanwhile corrupting religion by a pseudo-science. A standpoint like this was the very antithesis of scholasticism; it was the anticipation of an adequate view which modern speculation has seldom exhibited.

The latent nominalism of Aristotle only came gradually to be emphasised through the prominence which Christianity gave to the individual life, and, apart from passing notices as in Abelard, first found clear enunciation in the school of Duns Scotus. The Arabians, on the contrary, emphasised the idealist aspect which had been adopted and promoted by the Neo-Platonist commentators. Hence, to Averroes the eternity of the world finds its true expression in the eternity of God. The ceaseless movement of growth and change, which presents matter in form after form as a continual search after a finality which in time and movement is not, and cannot be reached, represents only the aspect the world shows to the physicist and to the senses. In the eye of reason the full fruition of this desired finality is already and always attained; the actualisation, invisible to the senses, is achieved now and ever, and is thus beyond the element of time. This transcendent or abstract being is that which the world of nature is always seeking. He is thought or intellect, the actuality, of which movement is but the fragmentary attainment in successive instants of time. Such a mind is not in the theological sense a creator, yet the onward movement is not the same as what some modern thinkers seem to mean by development. For the perfect and absolute, the consummation of movement is not generated at any point in the process ; it is an ideal end, which guides the operations of nature, and does not wait upon them for its achievement. God is the unchanging essence of the movement, and therefore its eternal cause.

A special application of this relation between the prior perfect, and the imperfect, which it influences, is found in the doctrine of the connection of the abstract (transcendent) intellect with man. This transcendent mind is sometimes connected with the moon, according to the theory of Aristotle, who assigned an imperishable matter to the sphere beyond the sublunary, and in general looked upon the celestial orbs as living and intelligent. Such an intellect, named active or productive, as being the author of the development of reason in man, is the permanent, eternal thought, which is the truth of the cosmic and physical movement. It is in man that the physical or sensible passes most evidently into the metaphysical and rational. Humanity is the chosen vessel in which the light of the intellect is revealed; and so long as mankind lasts there must always be some individuals destined to receive this light. " There must of necessity always be some philosopher in the race of man." What seems from the material point of view to be the acquisition of learning, study, and a moral life, is from the higher point of view the manifestation of the transcendent intellect in the individual. The preparation of the heart and faculties gives rise to a series of grades between the original predisposition and the full acquisition of actual intellect. These grades in the main resemble those given by Avicenna. But beyond these, Averroes claims as the highest bliss of the soul a union in this life with the actual intellect. The intellect, therefore, is one and continuous in all individuals, who differ only in the degree which their illumination has attained. Such was the Averroist doctrine of the unity of intellect—the eternal and universal nature of true intellectual life. By his interpreters it was transformed into a theory of one soul common to all mankind, and when thus corrupted conflicted not unreasonably with the doctrines of a future life, common to Islam and Christendom

Averroes, rejected by his Moslem countrymen, found a hearing among the Jews, to whom Maimonides had shown the free paths of Greek speculation. In the cities of Languedoc and Provence, to which they had been driven by Spanish fanaticism, the Jews no longer used the learned Arabic, and translations of the works of Averroes became necessary. His writings became the textbook of Levi ben Gerson at Perpignan, and of Moses of Narbonne. Meanwhile, before 1250, Averroes became accessible to the Latin Schoolmen by means of versions, accredited by the names of Michael Scot and others. William of Auvergne is the first Schoolman who criticises the doctrines of Averroes, not, however, by name. Albertus Magnus and St Thomas devote special treatises to an examination of the Averroist theory of the unity of intellect, which they labour to confute in order to establish the orthodoxy of Aristotle. But as early as iEgidius Romanus (1247-1316), Averroes had been stamped as the patron of indifference to theological dogmas, and credited with the emancipation which was equally due to wider experience and the lessons of the Crusades. There had never been an absence of protest against the hierarchical doctrine. Berengar had struggled in that interest, and with Abelard, in the 12th century, the revolt against authority in belief grew loud. The dialogue between a Christian, a Jew,f and a philosopher suggested a comparative estimate of religions, and placed the natural religion of the moral law above all positive revelations. Nihilists and naturalists, who deified logic and science at the expense of faith, were not unknown at Paris in the days of John of Salisbury. In such a critical generation the words of Averroism found willing ears, and pupils who outran their teacher. Paris became the centre of a sceptical society, which the decrees of bishops and councils, and the enthusiasm of the orthodox doctors and knight-errants of Catholicism, were powerless to extinguish. At Oxford Averroes told more as the great commentator. In the days of Roger Bacon he had become an authority. Bacon, placing him beside Aristotle and Avicenna, recommends the study of Arabic as the only way of getting the knowledge which bad versions made almost hopeless; and the student of the present day might echo his remark. In Duns Scotus, Averroes and Aristotle are the unequalled masters of the science of proof; and he pronounces distinctly the separation between Catholic and philosophical truth, which became the watchword of Averroism. By the 14th century Averroism was the common leaven of philosophy; John Baconthorpe is the chief of Averroists, and Walter Burley has similar tendencies.

Meanwhile Averroism had, in the eye of the great Dominican school, come to be regarded as the arch-enemy of the truth. When Frederick II. consulted a Moslem free-thinker on the mysteries of the faith, when the phrase or legend of the " Three Impostors " presented in its most offensive form the scientific survey of the three laws of Moses, Christ, and Mahomet, and when the characteristic doctrines of Averroes were misunderstood, it soon followed that his name became the badge of the scoffer and the sceptic. What had begun with the subtle disputes of the universities of Paris, went on to the materialist teachers in the medical schools and the sceptical men of the world in the cities of Northern Italy. The patricians of Venice and the lecturers of Padua made Averroism synonymous with doubt and criticism in theology, and with sarcasm against the hierarchy. Petrarch, vexed by the arrogance and over-refinements of their argumentation, and by the barbarism of their words, refuses to believe that any good thing can come out of Arabia, and speaks of Averroes as a mad dog barking against the church. In works of contemporary art Averroes is at one time the comrade of Mahomet and Antichrist; at another he lies with Arius and Sabellius, vanquished by the lance of St Thomas.

It was in the universities of North Italy that Averroism finally settled, and there for three centuries it continued as a stronghold of Scholasticism to resist the efforts of revived antiquity and of advancing science. Padua became the seat of Averroist Aristotelianism; and, when Padua was conquered by Venice in 1405, the printers of the republic spread abroad the teaching of the professors in the university. As early as 1300, at Padua, Petrus Aponensis, a notable expositor of medical theories, had betrayed a heterodoxy in faith; and John of Jandun, one of the pamphleteers on the side of Lewis of Bavaria, was a keen follower of Averroes, whom ho styles a "perfect and most glorious physicist." Urbanus of Bologna, Paul of Venice (d. 1428), and Cajetanus de Thienis (1387-1465), established by their lectures and their discussions the authority of Averroes; and a long list of manuscripts rests in the libraries of Lombardy to witness the diligence of these writers and their successors Even a lady of Venice, Cassandra Fedele, in 1480, gained her laurels in defence of Averroist theses.

With Pomponatius, in 1495, a brilliant epoch began for the school of Padua. Questions of permanent and present interest took the place of outworn scholastic problems. The disputants ranged themselves under the rival commentators, Alexander and Averroes; and the immortality of the soul became the battleground of the two parties. Pomponatius defended the Alexandrist doctrine of the utter mortality of the soul, whilst Augustinus Niphus, the Averroist, was entrusted by Leo X. with the task of defending the Catholic doctrine. The parties seemed to have changed when Averroism thus took the side of the church ; but the change was probably due to compulsion. Niphus had edited the works of Averroes (1495-7) ; but his expressions gave offence to the dominant theologians, and he had to save himself by distinguishing his personal faith from his editorial capacity. Achillini, the persistent philosophical adversary of Pomponatius both at Padua and subsequently at Bologna, attempted, along with other moderate but not brilliant Averroists, to accommodate their philosophical theory with the requirements of Catholicism. It was this comparatively mild Averroism, reduced to the merely explanatory activity of a commentator, which continued to be the official dogma at Padua during the 16th century. Its typical representative is Marc-Antonio Zimara (d. 1552), the author of a reconciliation between the tenets of Averroes and those of Aristotle.

Meanwhile, in 1497, Aristotle was for the first time expounded in Greek at Padua. Plato had long been the favourite study at Florence ; and Humanists, like Erasmus, Ludovicus Vives, and Nizolius, enamoured of the popular philosophy of Cicero and Quintilian, poured out the vials of their contempt on scholastic barbarism with its " impious and thrice-accursed Averroes." The editors of Averroes complain that the popular taste had forsaken them for the Greek. Nevertheless, while Fallopius, Vesalius, and Galileo were claiming attention to their discoveries, tha Professors Zabarella, Piccolomini, Pendasio, and Cremonini continued the traditions of Averroism, not without changes and additions. Cremonini, the last of them, died in 1631, after lecturing twelve years at Ferrara, and forty at Padua. The legend which tells that he laid aside his telescope rather than see Jupiter's moons, which Galileo had discovered, is a parable of the fall of .scholastic Averroism. Mediaevalism, with its misconstruction of Averroes, perished because it would not see that the interpretation of the past calls for the ripest knowledge of all discoveries in the present.

The literary works of Averroes include treatises on jurisprudence, grammar, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy. In 1859, a work of Averroes was for the first time published in Arabic by the Bavarian Academy, and a German translation appeared in 1875 by the editor, J. Müller. It is a treatise entitled Philosophy and Theology, and, with the exception of a German version of the essay on the conjunction of the intellect with man, is the first translation which enables the non-Semitic scholar to form any adequate idea of Averroes. The Latin translations of most of his works are barbarous and obscure. A great part of his writings, particularly on jurisprudence and astronomy, as well as essays on special logical subjects, prolegomena to philosophy, criticisms on Avicenna and Alfarabius, remain in manuscript in the Escoriai and other libraries. The Latin editions of his medical works include the Colliget (i.e., Kulliyyat, or summary), a résumé of medical science, and a commentary on Avicenna's poem on medicine ; but Averroes, in medical renown, always stood far inferior to Avicenna. The Latin editions of his philosophical works comprise the Commentaries on Aristotle, the Destructio Destruction (against Algazali), the De Substantia Orbis, and a double treatise De Animoz Beatitudine. The Commentaries of Averroes fall under three heads:—the larger commentaries, in which a paragraph is quoted at large, and its clauses expounded one by one ; the medium commentaries, which cite only the first words of a section; and the paraphrases or analyses, treatises on the subjects of the Aristotelian books. The larger commentary was an innovation of Averroes ; for Avicenna, copied by Albertus Magnus, gave under the rubrics furnished by Aristotle works in which, though the materials were borrowed, the grouping was his own. The great commentaries exist only for the Posterior Analytics, Physics, De Oalo, De Anima, and Metaphysics. On the History of Animals no commentary at all exists, and Plato's Republic is substituted for the then inaccessible Politics. The Latin editions of these works between 1480 and 1580 number about 100. The first appeared at Padua, 1472 ; about fifty were published at Venice, the best known being that by the Juntas (1552-3), in ten volumes folio.

See Renan, Avérroes et l'Averroisme ; Munk, Milanges, 418-458; Muller's German translation, Philosophie und Theologie, Mùnchen, 1875; Stockl, Phil. d. Mittelalters, ii. 67-124 ; Averroes (Vater und Sohn), Drei Abhandl. ilbtr d. Conjunction d. separaten Intellects mit d. Menschen, translated into German from the Arabic version of Sam. ibn-Tibbon, by Dr J. Hercz, Berlin, 1869. (W. W.)

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