Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages

by Richard E. Rubenstein

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780156030090
  • ISBN-10: 0156030098
  • Pages: 384
  • Publication Date: 09/20/2004
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
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  • About the Book

    Europe was in the long slumber of the Middle Ages, the Roman Empire was in tatters, and the Greek language was all but forgotten, until a group of twelfth-century scholars rediscovered and translated the works of Aristotle. His ideas spread like wildfire across Europe, offering the scientific view that the natural world, including the soul of man, was a proper subject of study. The rediscovery of these ancient ideas sparked riots and heresy trials, caused major upheavals in the Catholic Church, and also set the stage for today's rift between reason and religion.

    In Aristotle's Children, Richard Rubenstein transports us back in history, rendering the controversies of the Middle Ages lively and accessible-and allowing us to understand the philosophical ideas that are fundamental to modern thought.

  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

    "The Master of Those Who Know"

    ARISTOTLE REDISCOVERED

    IT IS HARD NOT TO think of twelfth-century Spain as a scholar's paradise. The picture that comes to mind is that of a broad table, well lit by candles, on which are spread out dozens of manuscripts written in Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek. Around the table, poring over the manuscripts, taking notes, or conversing animatedly, are bearded Jews, tonsured Christian monks, turbaned Muslims, and dark-haired Greeks. The setting is Toledo, a Spanish city long ruled by Islamic authorities but now under Christian control. The table occupies the center of a hall in the city's cathedral, whose archbishop, Raymund I, stands to one side, benevolently watching the polyglot scholars at their work. In his own hands, he holds a book written in Latin-apparently a Catholic missal or one of Saint Augustine's works. But close examination reveals its distinctly non-Christian authorship. The book that the archbishop holds so carefully, as if he were afraid it might once again disappear, is a new translation of De Anima-Aristotle's lost book on the soul.

    How was this famous work-along with the rest of the Aristotelian corpus-rediscovered? The story really begins in the tenth century, when Christian knights launched the Reconquista (Reconquest)-a lengthy, on-again, off-again struggle to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims who had ruled it for more than three hundred years. The Christians would not drive the Muslims out of Spain altogether until the fall of Grenada in 1492, but by 1100, great centers of Islamic culture like Toledo and Lisbon were already under their control. The very length of this campaign, and the fact that the cities and peoples conquered were among the most civilized on earth, made it more "a work of co-penetration and synthesis" than a simple military crusade. One commentator justly calls it "a long-term, sensible, humane, even liberal process of fusion between different faiths and races, which does great honour to the people of medieval Spain and Portugal."1

    In a way, the Reconquest resembled the "barbarian" takeover of Rome centuries earlier, for the society that the conquerors acquired was far more developed than their own. While Europe was just emerging from centuries of poverty and social strife, Muslim Spain-al Andalus, as the Arabs called it-was a land long enriched by international trade, brilliant artisanship, and a highly productive agriculture. The kingdom's rulers were literate men, heirs of the Roman tradition of rational-legal bureaucracy, and generous patrons of scholarship and the arts. Its world-famous poets anticipated and probably inspired the love songs of the troubadours. Its intellectuals were admired for their achievements in law, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and the natural sciences, as well as chemistry, metallurgy, and the practical arts. At a time when learning in Europe was confined to a few monasteries and church schools, the scholars of al Andalus taught in publicly supported universities and did research in well-stocked libraries. In an era when most Christian healers were still brewing herbs and casting spells, Muslim and Jewish physicians practiced something akin to scientific medicine.2

    As in other Muslim kingdoms, the authorities had permitted these secular activities to flourish, so long as they kept their distance from the mosque. And they had encouraged non-Muslims-Jews, in particular-to play significant roles in the kingdom's politics, trade, and intellectual life, on the sole condition that they pay the "minorities tax" and recognize the Islamic majority's supremacy. As a result, Spain's Christian invaders found themselves mixing with well-established, highly cultured Muslim and Jewish communities. This situation was to have fateful consequences for the future development of European thinking, for behind Christendom's armed knights marched its clergy-at this point, Europe's only literate class-and what they found in Spain left them astonished and perplexed. Not only were cities like Toledo and Cordoba clean and well-ordered; not only was life softened and beautified by fountains, flowers, music, and an architecture as imaginative as Europe's was stolid; not only did the Arabs live at peace with a bewildering assortment of minority communities, but scholarship flourished as in some dream of ancient Athens or Alexandria. One can only imagine what it must have been like for dazzled Christian churchmen to talk with Muslim and Jewish scholars about philosophical and religious issues that their coreligionists had been exploring with great insight and sophistication for the last three hundred years.

    There was a religious rationale, of course, for studying the philosophy and science of the Arabs. In order to defend the faith and convert the unconverted, one had to know their language and thinking. Still, defensive strategy alone cannot explain the Christians' fascination with Muslim culture. How had the former horsemen of the Arabian Peninsula managed to develop such remarkable competence in science and philosophy? What were the sources of their wisdom? It had long been rumored that they were in possession of ancient documents long lost to the Latin West-priceless treasures of esoteric or forgotten knowledge. But the reality was more fantastic than anyone had imagined. Almost as soon as they began to talk with local scholars, inquisitive Christians discovered that the Muslims and Jews had long ago translated virtually every important work of Greek learning (as well as monuments of ancient Persian and Indian culture) into Arabic. Not only that, they had commented extensively on Aristotle, Plato, and the Greek scientists, and reinterpreted classical thinking in the light of their own commitment to monotheism.

    Clearly the Muslims were creative thinkers in their own right. Their cultural achievements were the pride of Moorish Spain. But the warrior-kings who, centuries earlier, had conquered the great centers of classical learning in Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia had given them a head start by acquiring their subjects' cultural treasures along with their lands. Al-Kindi, the ninth-century founder of Muslim philosophy, acknowledged his people's debt to the Greeks. Without them, he wrote, "it would have been impossible for us, despite all our zeal, during the whole of our lifetime, to assemble these principles of truth which form the basis of the final inferences of our research." He also described the Arab scholars' method, which was "first to record in complete quotations all that the Ancients have said on the subject, secondly to complete what the Ancients have not fully expressed, and this according to the usage of our Arabic language, the customs of our age, and our own ability."3 This bold attempt to "complete" the work of the Greeks permitted al-Kindi and his successors to adapt classical ideas to the requirements of contemporary Muslim civilization. For the next three centuries, the Arab philosophy movement (falsafah) generated works of great originality by thinkers like al-Farabi, the founder of Muslim Neoplatonism; the Jewish mystic, Ibn Gabirol (Avicebron, to Latin-speakers); the brilliant Persian, Ibn Sina (Avicenna); Moses Maimonides of Cordoba, the Jewish sage; and his fellow Cordoban, the boldest of all commentators on Aristotle, Ibn Rushd (Averroës).

    All these authors' writings could be found in the libraries of Toledo, Lisbon, Segovia, and Cordoba...and so could their original sources. There, to their amazement, Spain's new masters found Arabic translations of books that Europeans had long talked about but never read-legendary works like Ptolemy's Almagest, the lost key to astronomy and astrology. In one library, Muslim physicians could be seen consulting Galen's On the Art of Healing and On Anatomical Procedures, the first scientific medical textbooks. In

  • Reviews

    PRAISE FOR ARISTOTLE'S CHILDREN

    "A superb storyteller who breathes new life into such fascinating figures as Peter Abelard, Albertus Magnus, St. Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham and Aristotle himself." -Los Angeles Times

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