Monday, November 06, 2017

Averroes and Western Philosophy

Recently I was in Andalusia, the most southern region of Spain, and there were two towns that I wanted to visit anyway: Sevilla and Córdoba. There are many reasons for visiting them, but as a lover of opera and of philosophy both towns were a must for me. For isn’t Sevilla the stage of three famous operas, namely Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”, and Bizet’s “Carmen”? And, indeed, when being there it was impossible not to be reminded of them. So I passed a Restaurant Doña Elvira (one of the characters in “Don Giovanni”), I walked around the tobacco factory where the opera “Carmen” begins, and I could also have had a haircut in the hairdresser’s salon of the “Barbero de Sevilla”, if it hadn’t been closed on the moment I was there. However, I was most interested in going to Córdoba. This town is not only known for the mosque that later has been converted into a Christian church, but it is also the native town of three great philosophers: Seneca, Averroes and Maimonides.
Who doesn’t know Lucius Annaeus Seneca Jr., the Roman philosopher, statesman and dramatist and also son of an orator? The man who was the tutor and advisor of Nero, the Roman emperor, but who had also to commit suicide by order of Nero? Most remarkable is that Seneca’s works are still widely read after two thousand years.
And then Maimonides, whose real name was Rabbi Mosjé ben Maimon in Hebrew or Moesa ibn Maimon in Arab. Maimonides lived from 1138 till 1204 and he would become one of the most authoritative rabbis of the Jewish religion. He adapted Aristotelian thought to Biblical faith and his “Thirteen articles of faith” formulate the central ideas of Jewish orthodox thinking.
But most important for Western philosophy has been, I think, Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd, known in the Western countries as Averroes for short. Averroes (1126-1198) held several important positions in the service of the ruling Almohaden dynasty. He has been exiled from Córdoba for some time because of his too liberal thoughts. He died in Marrakesh in the present Morocco. During his exile Averroes’s writings were banned and burned, which made that some have been lost forever. After his death the Muslims in Spain were forced back by the Christian Spanish armies and so Averroes is considered the last Muslim philosopher from Spain.
Averroes wrote on a wide range of subjects, including medicine and law, and many of his works have been influential. In law he wrote on themes as diverse as cleanliness, marriage, jihad and the government’s role with non-Muslims. He published a medical encyclopedia and commented on the work by the Roman physician Galen (Claudius Galenus; 129 - after 200 AD). However, what affected Western thought most was his philosophical and theological work. Averroes devoted three decades to writing commentaries on thinkers in these fields. He commented on Plato, Alexander, Nicolaus of Damascus, Porphyry and Ptolemy, but especially important are his commentaries on Aristotle. Averroes wrote commentaries on all Aristotle’s works with the exception of the latter’s Politics. In this blog I cannot do justice to his thoughts; far from that. But most of Aristotle’s works had been lost in the western world since the sixth century or they had been ignored. Many were still available in the Arab world, often only in an Arab translation, but in the West they were unknown. If I was allowed to mention only one contribution by Averroes to Western thinking, it would be that his commentaries on Aristotle came to renew Western intellectual interest in this outstanding Greek philosopher. On the other hand, in the Arab world, the influence of Averroes faded into the background after his death. As Bertrand Russell says it: “In [Mohammedan philosophy] he was a dead end; in [Christian philosophy] a beginning” (p. 419). From the end of the twelfth century on Averroes influenced the scholastics, but he got also a philosophical school of his own. Its adherents were called the Averroists and they were a group of unprofessional freethinkers who denied immortality. Under the professional thinkers Averroes’s influence was big among the Franciscans, like Roger Bacon (ca.1214-ca.1294) and at the newly founded University of Paris. How would Western philosophy have developed if this Muslim thinker hadn’t revealed the thoughts of one of the founders of just this Western philosophy?

- H. Chad Hillier, “Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126—1198)”, in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, on
- Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy and its connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. London: George Allen & Unwin; 1974 (1946)

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