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

by Richard E. Rubenstein
Harcourt, 2003

Excerpt from CHAPTER ONE

"The Master of Those Who Know"


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 another, mathematicians perused Euclid's Elements of Geometry and Archimedes' treatises on mathematical engineering, unread in the West for the past seven hundred years. Most remarkably, the Christian scholar-priests discovered that their new subjects were in possession of the vast corpus of Aristotle's works-not just the few books on logic that a sixth-century scholar named Boethius had translated into Latin but the mother lode. Here, in Arabic translation, were the Greek sage's great essay on the philosophy of Being, Metaphysics, and his treatises on methods of reasoning and the divisions of knowledge. Here were his scientific masterpieces: Physics, On the Heavens, History of Animals, and On Generation and Corruption. And here (one can imagine Archbishop Raymund gasping with wonder as the manuscripts were placed in his hands) were Aristotle's world-famous treatise on the soul, De Anima; his Nicomachean Ethics; and his Politics. Even mystical vision was represented by Theology of Aristotle and Book of Causes, works thought to have been written by the Peripatetic master, but actually produced by later Neoplatonists.

Taken together, these books represent the most important documentary discovery (or "rediscovery") in Western intellectual history. One historian calls the recovery of Aristotle's works "a turning point in the history of Western thought...paralleled only by the later impact of Newtonian science and Darwinism."4 If the spirit of inquiry in Europe had not already begun to flower, the discovery's true significance might not have been recognized. But by the mid-twelfth century, Christian thinkers were already displaying a new interest in natural processes, human reason, and the natural world's relationship to a supernaturally creative, powerful, just, and omniscient God. That is, they had already begun to ask the questions to which Aristotle and his Arab interpreters offered answers: How does the natural universe work? Did it have a beginning in time, or is it co-eternal with God? Does nature obey certain laws? If so, how can humans exercise free will? What does it mean to say that our individual souls are immortal? The unexpected, almost miraculous appearance of ancient books and more recent commentaries addressing all these concerns caused an immediate sensation. All that was needed for the West to have access to this vast storehouse of learning was that its contents be translated into Latin.

Nowadays when people think about the response of the Catholic Church to new knowledge, they often recall Rome's hostility to free inquiry and its willingness to suppress unpalatable truths. But the travails of scientific pioneers such as Giordano Bruno and Galileo have obscured an earlier, brighter image: that of Archbishop Raymund of Toledo, one of the unrecognized heroes of Western culture, who did more than any man to make the treasures of Greek philosophy and science available to the Latin world, and who opened the door to advanced Arab and Jewish ideas as well. Little is known of Raymund's career and personality, but all agree that it was his idea to create a translation center in Toledo and to recruit the best scholars available to work there, whether they be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Latin, Greek, or Slav. Moreover, this work would be carried out without censorship. There would be no attempt by Raymund and his colleagues to distinguish between potentially dangerous and inoffensive books, or to substitute orthodox language for non-Christian words or phrases. Very likely, the archbishop's sunny faith did not recognize the possibility that the truths enunciated by Aristotle, Euclid, or the inspired philosophers of other religions could be incompatible with the truths expressed by the Apostles of Christ and the Church Fathers. God, after all, was Truth itself...and all of Spain's three faiths agreed that God was One.

Spain's three faiths, in fact, supplied the new translation center with its first personnel. One key figure was an archdeacon of the cathedral named Domingo Gundisalvo, a talented linguist with philosophical interests of his own. Gundisalvo was very likely a "Mozarab"-a native Christian who had been permitted to practice his religion during the period of Muslim rule-although he may have been a converted Jew.5 He had a close friend and colleague called Juan Avendeuth, a Jewish scholar who was an authority on Arabic language and literature. (Some believe that Avendeuth's correct name was Abraham Ibn Daud, and that he was the author of a well-known book called The Sublime Faith.6) When Raymund asked Gundisalvo to join him in establishing a workshop in Toledo to translate Arabic manuscripts into Latin, the archdeacon brought his Jewish colleague in on the project. There the two men developed a unique method of collaboration. Avendeuth translated the Arabic texts word for word into Castilian, leaving it to Gundisalvo to turn the Castilian into scholarly Latin.7 Working together, the duo produced Latin versions of a large number of precious manuscripts, including Aristotle's treatise On the Soul-remarkably accurate translations, considering their method of production.8

In any case, the two collaborators did not work alone for long. As word of the discoveries spread, scholars throughout Europe were drawn toward Toledo like northern birds to the Spanish sun.9 England supplied a large contingent, including Robert of Chester, Adelard of Bath (one of Europe's first empirical scientists), and Daniel of Morley, a Christian theologian strongly interested in astrology, which was then considered a science. From northern Italy came John of Brescia, Plato of Tivoli, and the incomparable Gerard of Cremona, who, among other accomplishments, produced Latin versions of Aristotle's major works of natural science, the mystical Book of Causes, Ptolemy's Almagest, Euclid's Elements of Geometry, al-Khwarizmi's Algebra, and twenty-four medical texts-in all, some seventy or eighty books. Flanders was well represented, as were France, the Balkans, and Germany. Distinguished Jewish scholars like Moses ben Samuel ibn Tibbon and John of Seville made shorter journeys from Provence and Spain, Greek savants arrived from the Byzantine Empire, and learned Arabs were gratefully welcomed. "It was from the example of Toledo," writes one historian, "that Europe first learnt to understand that learning knows no frontiers, that it is universal, global, and 'human,' and that it concerns mankind as a whole, without respect of race or religion."10

The translation center at Toledo remained in operation well into the thirteenth century, attracting world-class scholars like Michael Scot and Herman the German (Hermannus Alemannus), who produced definitive Latin versions of Aristotle's ethical and political works, as well as more recent masterpieces like Moses Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed and the great commentaries on Aristotle by Averroës. At the same time, everywhere that Western Christians could mingle freely with Jews, Muslims, or Greeks, new centers sprang up. Provence, with its large Jewish population, was one such "open" region, specializing in translating Arabic texts first into Hebrew and then into Latin. Northern Italy, which (thanks to the Crusades) had developed a thriving trade with North Africa and the Byzantine Empire, was another. The first important translations of Aristotle's works directly from Greek into Latin were made by James of Venice, who spent years in Constantinople working on the Aristotelian books that Europeans called the "New Logic."

The richest amalgam of cultures, however, was to be found in Sicily, a kingdom that had been part of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire before being conquered by the Arabs, and, more recently, by Latin-speaking adventurers from Normandy who had also extended their rule over England. In the twelfth century, the Norman ruler, Roger of Sicily, consolidated his hold over southern Italy and ruled his polyglot kingdom from Palermo, "where his court, with its black servants, its Saracen guards, its harem and its pleasure-domes became the scandal and the envy of Christendom."11 Another reason for scandal, at least in some quarters, was the king's patronage of Byzantine Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars as well as Roman Catholics-an imitation of the Arab tradition of clustering scholars representing many cultures and religions around a "glittering" royal court. As a result of this tolerant policy, which encouraged Greek-speaking scholars to remain in the kingdom, Palermo soon became Europe's premier center for translating ancient manuscripts from Greek into Latin.12 There was great interest among the scholars there in making scientific and medical books available to Latin-speakers, while in nearby Salerno, students and teachers from many lands (including a number of female students) were creating Europe's first medical school.13 But Palermo also produced a flood of philosophical translations by such figures as Henricus Aristippus, the first translator of Plato's Meno and Phaedo; the Muslim nobleman and poet, Eugene the Emir; and Michael Scot, the brilliant English scholar whose specialities were Aristotle and astrology.

Scot's linguistic abilities were legendary. While in Toledo, he had made numerous translations from the Arabic, including Aristotle's Metaphysics, with the help of a Jewish scholar,14 but he was also proficient in Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Chaldean, and several other tongues. While traveling during the 1220s, he was summoned to meet Frederick II, the young emperor of Germany, who considered himself a man of destiny, and who was particularly interested in Scot's command of astrology-the "science" of prediction.15 Greatly impressed by the Englishman's talent, Frederick invited him to come to work in Sicily, which he had just inherited from Norman relatives. As a result, Scot spent the rest of his life translating manuscripts, writing his own astrological treatises, and advising Europe's most colorful and controversial ruler: the man known to his admirers as "Stupor Mundus"-the Wonder of the World.

Frederick was a remarkable character-remarkable enough to inspire some of his hopeful and credulous subjects to consider him a messianic figure whose appearance betokened the approach of the End Times. His enemies, equally passionate, were more inclined to compare him to the Antichrist. To the horror of several popes, he dreamed of uniting all Italy and Germany (including the papal states) under his rule in a revived Roman Empire. A man of unbridled imagination, boundless energy, and legendary ruthlessness, he ruled the empire from his Sicilian court like a combination of Roman emperor and Muslim caliph, creating a new legal code, hunting down Christian heretics, enjoying (it was said) the attentions of numerous "wives," and plotting against the papacy. Such was his knowledge and appreciation of Muslim civilization that when ordered by the Vatican to go on Crusade in the Holy Land, he used his connections and diplomatic skill to negotiate the return of Jerusalem (temporarily) to Christian control.

Frederick never realized his dream of unifying Europe under his own "Holy Roman" banner. After he died, in fact, the extermination of his heirs became an obsession of the Vatican, and was finally completed late in the thirteenth century. But the translations produced by his scholars, along with those emanating from Spain, Italy, and Provence, would soon revolutionize Western thinking. After his demise, the effort to make all of Aristotle's work available to Latin-speakers was brought to completion by the greatest translator of the century, William of Moerbeke, a Dutch cleric who worked in Italy during the 1260s and who later became archbishop of Corinth in Greece. Working directly from Greek manuscripts, William provided new translations of scores of Aristotelian treatises, commentaries by other philosophers, and Greek and Arab scientific works, but the translations that excited the greatest interest among Europe's new intellectuals were those of Aristotle's De Anima, his little-known Politics, and his Poetics. One colleague who knew William in Italy and found his handiwork especially useful was a native of the Kingdom of Sicily originally trained at the University of Naples-a controversial scholar whose ideas were considered dangerously radical by many Christian traditionalists. The radical's Latinized name was Thomas Aquinas, and he was destined to become the spearhead of the Aristotelian Revolution.