By Gabriel Blanchard
Though little studied today, Averroes was one of the chief architects of Medieval thought.
For more than seven hundred years, the Iberian peninsula was the melting pot of Medieval Europe. The Muslim Umayyad dynasty invaded Spain in 711, conquering all but the northern coastal region, where the Catholic kingdoms of Navarre, Léon, Castile, and Portugal slowly took shape. By the twelfth century the peninsula was split roughly in half, between the Muslim-ruled south, known as al-Andalus, and the Christian north. For most of its existence, al-Andalus was one of the few places where Muslims, Jews, and Catholics lived alongside each other, and was a major center of scholarship. One of its greatest luminaries was Abu l-Walid Ibn-Ahmad Ibn-Rushd, better known to English speakers by the Latinized form of his name: Averroes.
Like his Jewish contemporary Maimonides, Averroes started out as a physician. He wrote a medical textbook which remained standard for centuries, and may have been the first to correctly describe Parkinson’s disease, the causes of stroke, and the operation of the retina. Additionally, he served as a judge in Seville and Córdoba, and wrote several works on Islamic jurisprudence and political theory.
But his most resounding influence lay in philosophy. (Curiously enough, this was true chiefly in Jewish and Christian thought; Averroes’ importance in Islam was minimal until a resurgence of interest in the nineteenth century.) The Greek classics, particularly the works of Aristotle and Plato, were fueling a golden age of Islamic learning that had at this point been going strong for about three hundred years. With the exception of the Politics, Averroes wrote commentaries on every one of Aristotle’s surviving works, and in many cases multiple commentaries on the same work. These ranged from summaries of Aristotle’s works designed to clarify their content for a wider audience, to close, detailed analyses that reproduced their originals line by line. He also wrote original philosophical books of his own, like On the Intellect and On Time, and argued for a return to a more purely Aristotelian form of philosophy against the Neoplatonic influence of both contemporaries and predecessors like Avicenna. Averroes’ voluminous output earned him the respectful nickname “the Commentator.”
One of his major ideas was that of the unity of the intellect. This drew on a doctrine of Aristotle’s, that there was a “maker intellect” which made things intelligible rather in the same way that light makes things visible; however, Aristotle still affirmed the existence of the individual mind as well. Averroes took the curious step of proposing that in fact there is only one human intellect, and individual minds are something more like organs or instruments for it. This, later Averroists argued, offered a justification for the knowledge of universals, which had been called into question by Nominalists in the tradition of Peter Abælard.
Averroes’ approach to the relation between faith and reason closely resembled the outlook that the Catholic Church would define as her own—though of course in his case the faith in question was Islam rather than Christianity. While he admitted divine revelation as a source of truth, he also insisted on the inherent validity of human reason and philosophy, and upon the inherent consistency of all truth; therefore, if religious doctrine appeared to contradict verifiable reason, the doctrine must have been misunderstood and needed to be reinterpreted by those with the wisdom to do so. Accordingly, he thought, philosophy itself was not only a permissible pursuit for the educated, but actually an obligatory service to the community. Moreover, because most people are swayed by rhetoric, but the intellectual minority are convinced by logical demonstrations that most people lack the tools to understand, it was necessary that both a simplified form of the truth and this deeper form be available—not two truths exactly, but two levels of comprehension and detail of a single truth.
This (along with the doctrine of the “unity of the intellect”) was one of the doctrines which made Averroes’ entry into the universities of Christendom so controversial. As knowledge of Greek and Arabic returned to western Europe, devotees of Averroes thought began to spring up in Catholic intellectual centers like Oxford, Padua, and above all Paris. Rightly or wrongly, many authorities in the Church regarded these Averroists as promoting a doctrine of “double truth”—that an idea could be true according to reason but false in religion, and vice versa. The Latin Averroists were also viewed as teaching that only an exalted elite were capable of this esoteric doctrine of “double truth,” while the simple could be permitted to rely on childish myths to sustain their faith. St. Thomas Aquinas mounted a major intellectual attack against this idea in the thirteenth century, and in so doing may have saved Catholic Aristotelianism from the dubious reputation of the Latin Averroists. For that matter, he may have saved the Averroists as well! Through them, Averroes remained an influential figure in European philosophy and law right down to the end of the sixteenth century, when Aristotle, and thus Averroes too, fell from favor during the slow dawn of the early Enlightenment.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Virgil and Dostoevsky, or these student essays on the importance of hardships and the history of zero. And be sure to check out our podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate sits down with leading intellectuals to discuss issues of education and culture.
Gabriel Blanchard is a staff writer and editor for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.