VIII. AVERROËS

For a time philosophy survived in Moslem Spain by judiciously sprinkling professions of orthodoxy among the timid tentatives of critique; and thought found a precarious freedom in the courts of rulers who enjoyed in private the speculations that they accounted harmful to the populace. So the Almoravid governor of Saragossa chose as his minister and friend Abu Bekr ibn Bajja, who had been born there about 1106. Avempace, as Europe would call him, had reached even in youth an extraordinary proficiency in science,medicine, philosophy, music, and poetry. Ibn Khaldun tells how the governor so admired some verses of the young scholar that he vowed the poet should always walk on gold when entering his presence; whereupon ibn Bajja, lest this vow should abate his welcome, put a gold coin in each of his shoes. When Saragossa fell to the Christians the poet-scientist-minister fled to Fez, where he found himself destitute among Moslems who accused him of atheism. He died at the age of thirty, allegedly by poison. His lost treatise on music was accounted the masterpiece on that subtle subject in the literature of Western Islam. His most famous work, A Guide to the Solitary, renewed a basic theme of Arabic philosophy. The human intellect, said Ibn Bajja, is composed of two parts: the “material intellect,” which is bound up with the body and dies with it; and the “Active Intellect,” or impersonal cosmic mind, which enters into all men, and is alone immortal. Thought is man’s highest function; by thought, rather than by mystic ecstasy, man can attain to knowledge of, and union with, the Active Intellect, or God. But thinking is a perilous enterprise, except in silence. The wise man will live in quiet seclusion, shunning doctors, lawyers, and the people; or perhaps a few philosophers will form a community where they may pursue knowledge in tolerant companionship, far from the maddened crowd.95

Abu Bekr (Europe’s Abubacer) ibn Tufail (1107?–1185) continued the ideas of Ibn Bajja, and almost realized his ideals. He too was scientist, poet, physician, and philosopher. He became the doctor and vizier of the Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf at Marraqesh, the Almohad capital in Morocco; he managed to spend most of his waking hours in the royal library, and found time to write, among more technical works, the most remarkable philosophical romance in medieval literature. It took its title from Ibn Sina, and (through Ockley’s English translation in 1708) may have suggested Robinson Crusoe to Defoe.

Hayy ibn Yaqzan (“Alive, Son of Vigilant”), who gives his name to the tale, was cast in infancy upon an uninhabited island. Nursed by a she-goat, he grew in intelligence and skill, made his shoes and clothes from animal skins, studied the stars, dissected animals alive or dead, and “arrived at the highest degree of knowledge, in this kind, which the most learned naturalists ever attained.”96 He passed from science to philosophy and theology, demonstrated to himself the existence of an all-powerful Creator, practiced asceticism, forswore meat, and achieved an ecstatic union with the Active Intellect.97 Hayy was now forty-nine, and ripe for an audience. Fortunately a mystic named Asal now had himself deposited on the island, seeking solitude. He met Hayy, who for the first time discovered the existence of mankind; Asal taught him language, and rejoiced to find that Hayy had arrived unaided at a knowledge of God. He confessed to Hayy the coarseness of the popular religion in the land from which he, Asal, had come, and mourned that a modicum of morality had been achieved only by promises of heaven and threats of hell. Hayy resolved to go and convert this benighted people to a higher and more philosophical religion. Arrived, he preached his pantheism in the market place. The populace ignored him, or did not understand him. Hayy concluded that Mohammed was right: that the people can be disciplined to social order only by a religion of myth, miracle, ceremony, and supernatural punishments and rewards. He apologized for his intrusion, returned to his island, and lived there with Asal in daily companionship with placid animals and the Active Intellect; and “thus they continued serving God until they died.”

It was with a rare absence of jealousy that Ibn Tufail, about 1153, introduced to the favor of Abu Yakub Yusuf a young lawyer and physician, known to Islam as Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Rushd (1126–98), and to medieval Europe as Averroës—the most influential figure in Islamic philosophy. His grandfather and his father had in turn been chief justice of Cordova, and had lavished on him all the education that the old capital could provide. One of his pupils has transmitted what purports to be Averroës’ own account of his first interview with the Emir.

When I was presented to the Prince of Believers I found him alone with Ibn Tufail, who … sounded my praises to him with compliments that I did not deserve…. The Emir opened the conversation by asking, “What opinion did the philosophers hold about the heavens? Are they eternal, or did they have a beginning?” I was overcome with terror and confusion, and sought some pretext for not answering … but the Emir, perceiving my trouble, turned to Ibn Tufail, and began to discourse with him on the question, recalling the opinions of Plato and Aristotle and other philosophers, and the objections that had been made to them by Moslem theologians; all with such fullness of memory as I should not have expected even of professional philosophers. The Emir put me at my ease, and tested my knowledge. When I had retired he sent me a sum of money, a riding horse, and a costly robe of honor.98

In 1169 Averroës was appointed chief justice of Seville; in 1172, of Cordova. Ten years later Abu Yaqub called him to Marraqesh to serve as court physician; and he continued in this capacity when (1184) Yaqub was succeeded by Yaqub al-Mansur. In 1194 he was banished to Lucena, near Cordova, to satisfy public resentment of his heresies. He was forgiven and recalled in 1198, but died in that year. His tomb may still be seen at Marraqesh.

His work in medicine has been almost forgotten in his fame as a philosopher; he was, however, “one of the greatest physicians of his time,” the first to explain the function of the retina, and to recognize that an attack of smallpox confers subsequent immunity.99His encyclopedia of medicine (Kitab al-Kulliyat fi-l-tibb), translated into Latin, was widely used as a text in Christian universities. Meanwhile the Emir Abu Yaqub had expressed the wish that someone would write a clear exposition of Aristotle; and Ibn Tufail recommended the task to Averroës. The suggestion was welcomed, for Averroës had already concluded that all philosophy was contained in the Stagirite, who merely needed interpretation to be made contemporary with any age.* He resolved to prepare for each major work of Aristotle first a summary, then a brief commentary, then a detailed commentary for advanced students—a mode of progressively complex exposition habitual in Moslem universities. Unfortunately he knew no Greek, and had to rely on Arabic translations of Syriac translations of Aristotle; nevertheless his patience, perspicuity, and keen analyses won him throughout Europe the name of the Commentator, and placed him at once near the head of Moslem philosophy, second only to the great Avicenna himself.

To these writings he added several works of his own on logic, physics, psychology, metaphysics, theology, law, astronomy, and grammar, and a reply to al-Ghazali’s Destruction of Philosophy under the title of Destruction of the Destruction (Tahafut al-Tahafut). He argued, as Francis Bacon would, that though a little philosophy might incline a man to atheism, unhindered study would lead to a better understanding between religion and philosophy. For though the philosopher cannot accept in their literal sense the dogmas of “the Koran, the Bible, and other revealed books,”100 he perceives their necessity in developing a wholesome piety and morality among the people, who are so harassed with economic importunities that they find no time for more than incidental, superficial, and dangerous thinking on first and last things. Hence the mature philosopher will neither utter nor encourage any word against the established faith.101 In return the philosopher should be left free to seek the truth; but he should confine his discussions within the circle and comprehension of the educated, and make no propaganda among the populace.102 Symbolically interpreted, the doctrines of religion can be harmonized with the findings of science and philosophy;103 such interpretation of sacred texts through symbol and allegory has been practiced, even by divines, for centuries. Averroës does not explicitly teach, he merely implies, the doctrine imputed to him by Christian critics—that a proposition may be true in philosophy (among the educated) and false (harmful) in religion (and morals).104 Hence the opinions of Averroës must be sought not in the minor treatises which he composed for a general audience, but in his more recondite commentaries on Aristotle.

He defines philosophy as “an inquiry into the meaning of existence,” with a view to the improvement of man.105 The world is eternal; the movements of the heavens never began, and will never end; creation is a myth.

The partisans of creation argue that the agent [God] produces a [new] being without needing for its production any pre-existing material…. It is such imagining that has led the theologians of the three religions existing in our day to say that something can issue from nothing.106 … Motion is eternal and continuous; all motion has its cause in a preceding motion. Without motion there is no time. We cannot conceive of motion having either a beginning or an end.107

Nonetheless God is the creator of the world in the sense that it exists at any moment only through His sustaining power, and undergoes, so to speak, a continuous creation through the divine energy.108 God is the order, force, and mind of the universe.

From this supreme order and intelligence there emanates an order and intelligence in the planets and the stars. From the intelligence in the lowest of the celestial circles (that of the moon) comes the Active or Effective Intellect, which enters into the body and mind of individual men. The human mind is composed of two elements. One is the passive or material intellect—a capacity and possibility of thought, forming a part of the body, and dying with it (the nervous system?). The other is the Active Intellect—a divine influx which activates the passive intellect into actual thought. This Active Intellect has no individuality; it is the same in all men; and it alone is immortal.109 Averroës compares the operation of the Active Intellect upon the individual or passive intellect with the influence of the sun, whose light makes many objects luminous, but remains everywhere and permanently one.110 And as fire reaches out to a combustible body, so the individual intellect aspires to be united with the Active Intellect. In this union the human mind becomes like unto God, for it holds all the universe potentially in the grasp of its thought; indeed the world and its contents have no existence for us, and no meaning, except through the mind that apprehends them.111 Only the perception of truth through reason can lead the mind to that union with God which the Sufis think to reach by ascetic discipline or intoxicating dance. Averroës has no use for mysticism. His notion of paradise is the quiet and kindly wisdom of the sage.112

This was Aristotle’s conclusion too; and of course the theory of the active and passive intellect (nous poietikos and nous pathetikos) goes back to Aristotle’s De Anima (iii, 5) as interpreted by Alexander of Aphrodisias and Themistius of Alexandria, transformed into the emanation theory of the Neoplatonists, and transmitted in philosophic dynasty through al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Ibn Bajja. Here at the end, as in its beginning, Arabic philosophy was Aristotle Neoplatonized. But whereas in most Moslem and Christian philosophers Aristotle’s doctrines were retailored to meet the needs of theology, in Averroës Mohammedan dogmas were reduced to a minimum to reconcile them with Aristotle. Hence Averroës had more influence in Christendom than in Islam. His Moslem contemporaries persecuted him, Moslem posterity forgot him, and allowed most of his works to be lost in their Arabic form. Jews preserved many of them in Hebrew translation, and Maimonides followed in Averroës’ steps in seeking to reconcile religion and philosophy. In Christendom the Commentaries, translated into Latin from the Hebrew, fed the heresies of Siger de Brabant, and the rationalism of the School of Padua, and threatened the foundations of Christian belief. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his Summae to stem this Averroistic tide; but he followed Averroës in the method of his Commentaries, in divers interpretations of Aristotle, in choosing matter as the “principle of individuation,” in the symbolical explanation of anthropomorphic Scriptural texts, in admitting the possible eternity of the world, in rejecting mysticism as a sufficient basis for theology, and in recognizing that some dogmas of religion are beyond reason, and can be accepted by faith alone.113 Roger Bacon ranked Averroës next to Aristotle and Avicenna, and added, with characteristic exaggeration, “The philosophy of Averroës today [c. 1270] obtains the unanimous suffrage of wise men.”114

In 1150 the Caliph Mustanjid, at Baghdad, ordered burned all the philosophical works of Avicenna and the Brethren of Sincerity. In 1194 the Emir Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, then at Seville, ordered the burning of all works by Averroës except a few on natural science; he forbade his subjects to study philosophy, and urged them to throw into a fire all books of philosophy wherever found. These instructions were eagerly carried out by the people, who resented attacks upon a faith that for most of them was the dearest solace of their harassed lives. About this time Ibn Habib was put to death for studying philosophy.115 After 1200 Islam shunned speculative thought. As political power declined in the Moslem world, it sought more and more the aid of the theologians and lawyers of orthodoxy. That aid was given, but in return for the suppression of independent thought. Even so, the aid did not suffice to save the state. In Spain the Christians advanced from city to city, until only Granada remained Moslem. In the East the Crusaders captured Jerusalem; and in 1258 the Mongols took and destroyed Baghdad.

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