Averroes

The Andalusian Arab Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 CE), known to the Latins as Averroes, was the most highly regarded commentator on Aristotle in the medieval and Renaissance Latin- and Hebrew-speaking worlds. Many of Aristotle’s central works first became available in Latin due to the translation of commentaries by Averroes that included Aristotle’s full text. In the early 14th century, the pope directed that European universities should teach Aristotle from the commentaries of Averroes, except where the opinions of “the Commentator” contradicted Christian faith. The first printed editions of Aristotle in the Renaissance were actually editions of Averroes with the works of Aristotle embedded in them.

Averroes was an Islamic judge in the Maliki tradition, and also an important medical authority. He maintained that philosophy and Islam taught the same truth in different ways. In addition to commentaries on Aristotle and works on law and medicine, he wrote several works on religion, and a short commentary on Plato’s Republic. The voluntaristic Sunni theologian al-Ghazali had written an influential denunciation of philosophy, which Averroes famously refuted in his Incoherence of the Incoherence. For most of his life he enjoyed the patronage of the Almohad caliphate, which controlled southern Spain and northwest Africa, but the situation was tenuous. Further East, the the Islamic Golden Age’s marvelous flowering of all sorts of learning and popular interest in “ancient wisdom” had already passed, as religious conservatives acquired greater influence.

As a reader of Aristotle, Averroes contributed greatly to distinguishing Aristotle’s own thought from that of the neoplatonically influenced commentary tradition. Though he only had access to Arabic translations of Syriac translations of the Greek, he did an amazing job of close textual analysis, comparing different translations of the same work to get better insight. He still inherited al-Farabi’s over-emphasis on demonstrative “science”, underestimation of the place of dialectic in Aristotle’s thought, and privileging of theory over practical ethical judgment, but on countless other points promoted textually sound and interesting readings of Aristotle’s works.

I feel a little guilty for perpetuating the Western obsession with a very narrow if important strand of his thought, concerned with his unique views on the nature of “intellect”, but I don’t read Arabic and my Latin is very poor, so my acquaintance is mainly based on sources in modern European languages. I also find the whole debate about intellect fascinating in its own right. (See also Fortunes of Aristotle; Errors of the Philosophers; 1277; “This Human Understands”; “This Human”, Again.)