History of Philosophy in Islam, by T.J. de Boer , at sacred-texts.com
1. Abu-l-Walid Mohammed ibn Akhmed ibn Mohammed ibn Roshd (Averroes) was born at Cordova, of a family of lawyers, in the year 1126. There too he made himself master of the learned culture of his time. In 1153 he is said to have been presented to the prince Abu Yaaqub by Ibn Tofail; and we possess a report of that occurrence, full of character. After the introductory phrases of politeness the prince asked him: "What is the opinion of philosophers about the heavens? Are they eternal, or have they been brought into existence?" Ibn Roshd cautiously replied that he had not given attention to philosophy. Thereupon the prince commenced to discuss the subject with Ibn Tofail, and, to the astonishment of the listener, she wed that he was acquainted with Aristotle, Plato, and the philosophers and theologians of Islam. Then Ibn Roshd also spoke out freely, and won the favour of his high-placed master. His lot was fixed: He was destined to interpret Aristotle, as no one before him had done, that mankind might be put in complete and genuine possession of science.
He was, besides, a jurist and a physician. We find him in 1169 in the position of judge in Seville, and shortly
afterwards in Cordova. Abu Yaakub, now Caliph, nominates him his Body-Physician in the year 1182; but, a short time after, he is again judge in his native city, as his father and grandfather had been. Circumstances, however, change for the worse. Philosophers are pronounced accursed, and their writings are committed to the flames. In his old age Ibn Roshd is banished by Abu Yusuf to Elisana (Lucena, near Cordova), but yet he dies in Marocco the capital, on the 10th December, 1198.
2. It was upon Aristotle that his activity was concentrated. All that he could procure of that philosopher's works, or about them, he subjected to diligent study and careful comparison. Writings of the Greeks, which are now lost either entirely or in part, were still known to Ibn Roshd in translated form. He goes critically and systematically to work: He paraphrases Aristotle and he interprets him, now with comparative brevity, and anon in greater detail, both in moderate-sized and in bulky commentaries. He thus merits the name of "the Commentator", which also is assigned to him in Dante's "Commedia" 1. It looks as if the Philosophy of the Muslims had been fated in him to come to an understanding of Aristotle, just that it might then expire, after that end had been attained. Aristotle for him is the supremely perfect man, the greatest thinker, the philosopher who was in possession of an infallible truth. New discoveries in Astronomy, Art or Physics could make no alteration in that respect. Of course it is possible to misunderstand Aristotle: Ibn Roshd himself came to have a different and better understanding of many a point which he took from the works of Farabi and Ibn Sina; but yet he lived continually
in the belief that Aristotle, when rightly understood, corresponds to the highest knowledge which is attainable by man. In the eternal revolution of worldly events Aristotle has reached a height which it is impossible to transcend. Men who have come after him are frequently put to the cost of much trouble and reflection to deduce the views which readily disclosed themselves to the first master. Gradually, however, all doubt and contradiction are reduced to silence, for Aristotle is one who is more than man, destined as it were by Providence to illustrate how far the human race is capable of advancing in its approximation to the World-Spirit. As being the sublimest incarnation of the Spirit of Mankind, Ibn Roshd would like to call his master the 'Divine' Teacher.
It will be shewn by what follows, that even in the instance of Ibn Roshd, unmeasured admiration for Aristotle did not suffice to bring about a perfect comprehension of his thoughts. He allows no opportunity to pass of doing battle with Ibn Sina, and, upon occasion, he parts company with Farabi and Ibn Baddja,--men to whom he owes a great deal. He carps at all his predecessors, in a far more disagreeable fashion than Aristotle did in the case of his teacher Plato, And yet the himself is far from having got beyond the interpretation of Neo-Platonic expositors and the misconceptions of Syrian and Arab translators. Frequently he follows even the superficial Themistius in opposition to the judicious Alexander of Aphrodisias, or else he tries to combine their views.
3. Ibn Roshd is above all a fanatical admirer of the Aristotelian Logic. Without it one cannot be happy, and it is a pity that Plato and Socrates were ignorant of it!
[paragraph continues] The happiness of men is measured by the degree of their logical attainments. With the discernment of a critic he recognizes Porphyry's "Isagoge" as superfluous, but he still counts the "Rhetoric" and the "Poetics" as forming part of the Organon. And then the oddest misapprehensions are met with. For example, Tragedy and Comedy are turned into Panegyrics and Lampoons; poetical probability has to be content with signifying either truth capable of demonstration, or deceptive appearance; recognition on the stage (ἀναγνώρισις) becomes Apodictic judgment, and so on. Of course he has absolutely no conception of the Greek world; and that is venial, for he could not have had any notion of it. And yet we do not readily excuse one who has been so severe a critic of others.
Like his predecessors, Ibn Roshd lays especial emphasis upon Grammar, as far as it is common to all languages. This common principle, and therefore the universal one, Aristotle, he thinks, keeps always before him in his Hermeneutics, and even in the Rhetoric. Accordingly the Arab philosopher is also bound to adhere to it, although in illustrating universal rules he may take his examples from the Arabic language and literature. But it is universal rules which form his object, for science is the knowledge of the universal.
Logic smoothes the path for the ascent of our cognition from sensuous particularity to pure rational truth. The multitude will always live in the sensuous element, groping about in error. Defective mental parts and poor education, and depraved habits to boot, prevent them from making any advance. But still it must be within the power of some to arrive at a knowledge of truth. The eagle looks
the sun in the face, for if no being could look at him, Nature would have made something in vain. Whatever shines there is meant to be seen; and so whatever exists is meant to be known, were it only by one single man. Now truth exists; and the love for it which fills our hearts would have been all in vain, if we could not approach it. Ibn Roshd thinks that he has come to know the truth in the case of many things, and even that he has been able to discover absolute Truth. He would not, with Lessing, have cared to resign himself to a mere search for it.
Truth, in fact, has been given him in Aristotle; and from that standpoint he looks down upon Muslim theology. Certainly he recognizes that religion has a truth of its own, but theology is repugnant to him. It wants to prove what cannot be proved in this way. Revelation, as contained in the Koran,--according to the teaching of Ibn Roshd and others, and similarly of Spinoza in later times,--does not aim at making men learned, but at making them better. Not knowledge, but obedience or moral practice is the aim of the lawgiver, who knows that human welfare can only be realized in society.
4. That which especially distinguishes Ibn Roshd from those who preceded him, and in particular from Ibn Sina, is the unequivocal mode in which he conceives of the world as an eternal process of 'becoming'. The world as a whole is an eternally necessary unity, without any possibility of non-existence or of different existence. Matter and Form can only be separated in thought. Forms do not wander like ghosts through dull Matter, but are contained in it after the manner of germs. The Material Forms, in the guise of natural forces, operate in an eternal process
of generation, never separated from matter, but yet deserving to be called divine. Absolute origination or extinction there is none, for all happening is a transition from potentiality to actuality, and from actuality back to potentiality, in which process like is ever generated by like and by that alone.
But there is a graded order in the world of Being. The material or substantial Form stands midway between mere Accident and pure (or separate) Form. Substantial Forms also exhibit varieties of degree,--intermediate conditions between potentiality and actuality. And, finally, the whole system of Forms, from the nethermost hylic Form up to the Divine Essence, the original Form of the whole, constitutes one compact structure rising tier upon tier.
Now the eternal process of Becoming, within the given System, presupposes an eternal movement, and that again an eternal Mover. If the world had had an origin, we might have reasoned from it to another and a similarly originated corporeal world, which had produced it, and so on without end. If again it had been a 'possible' entity, we might have inferred a 'possible' entity out of which it had proceeded, and so on ad infinitum. And according to Ibn Roshd, it is only the hypothesis of a world moved as a unity and of eternal necessity, that yields us the possibility of inferring a Being, separate from the world, yet eternally moving it, who in his continually producing that movement and maintaining the fair order of the All, may legitimately be called the Author of the world, and who in the Spirits that move the Spheres,--for every separate kind of movement demands its separate principle, possesses agents to give effect to his activity.
The essence of the First Mover, or of God, as well as of the Sphere-Spirits, is found by Ibn Roshd in Thought, in which unity of Being is given him. Thought which is identical with its object is the sole positive definition of the Divine Essence; but Being and Unity absolutely synchronize with such Thought. In other words, Being and Unity are not annexed to the Essence, but are given only in Thought, just like all universals. Thought produces everywhere the general in the particular. It is true that the universal as a disposition is operative in things, but the universal qua universal exists in the understanding alone. Or, in possibility (or potentiality) it exists in things, but it exists actually in the understanding,--that is, it has more Being,--a higher kind of existence,--in the understanding than in things.
If now the question is asked,--'Does Divine Thought take in merely the general, or does it take in the particular too?', Ibn Roshd replies, 'It does not directly take in either the one or the other, for the Divine Essence transcends both of them. Divine Thought produces the All and embraces the All. God is the principle, the original Form, and the final aim of all things. He is the order of the world, the reconciliation of all opposites, the All itself in its highest mode of existence. It follows of course from this theory, that there can be no talk of a Divine Providence in the ordinary sense of the term.
5. Two kinds of Being we know: one which is moved, and one which causes motion, though itself unmoved,--or a corporeal and a spiritual. But it is in the spiritual that the higher unity or perfection of all Being lies, and that too in graded order. It is thus no abstract unity. The farther the
[paragraph continues] Sphere-Spirits are from the First, so much the less simple are they. All know themselves, but in their knowledge there is at the same time a reference to the First Cause. The result is a kind of parallelism between the corporeal and the spiritual. There is something in the lower Spirits which corresponds to the composition of the corporeal oat of Matter and Form. What is mingled with the purely spiritual is of course no mere Matter, that could suffer anything, but yet it is something resembling Matter,--something which has the faculty of taking to itself something else. Otherwise the multiplicity of intelligibilia could not be brought into harmony with the unity of the Spirit which apprehends them.
Matter suffers, but Spirit receives. This parallelism, with its subtle distinction, has been introduced by Ibn Roshd with special reference to the human Spirit.
6. Ibn Roshd is firmly of opinion that the human soul is related to its body, as Form is to Matter. He is completely in earnest on this point. The theory of numerous immortal souls he most decidedly rejects, combating Ibn Sina. The soul has an existence only as a completion of the body with which it is associated.
As regards empirical psychology he has anxiously endeavoured to keep by Aristotle, in opposition to Galen and others; but in the doctrine of the "nous" he diverges from his master not inconsiderably, without being aware of it. His conception,--springing from Neo-Platonic views,--of the Material Reason, is peculiar. It is not a mere aptitude or capacity of the human soul, neither is it equivalent to the sensuous-spiritual life of presentation, but it is something above the soul, and above the individual.
[paragraph continues] The Material Reason is eternal, imperishable Spirit, as eternal and imperishable as the pure Reason or the Active Spirit over us. The ascription of a separate existence to Matter in the domain of the corporeal, is here transferred by Ibn Roshd,--following of course Themistius and others,--to the region of the spiritual.
The Material Reason is thus eternal substance. The natural aptitudes, or the capacity of the human individual for intellectual knowledge Ibn Roshd denominates the Passive Reason. That comes into being and disappears, with men as individuals, but the Material Reason is eternal, like Man as a race.
But a measure of obscurity remains, and it could hardly have been otherwise, about the relation between the Active Spirit and the Receptive Spirit, (if we may for the time use this last term for the Material Reason). The Active Spirit renders intelligible the presentations of the human soul, while the Receptive Spirit absorbs these intelligibilia. The life of the soul in individual men thus forms the meeting-place of this mystic pair of lovers. And such places differ very greatly. It depends on the entire capacity of a man's soul, and on the disposition of his perceptions, in what degree the Active Spirit can elevate these to intelligibility, and how far the Receptive Spirit is in a position to make them a portion of its own contents. This explains why men are not all at the same stage of spiritual knowledge. But the sum of spiritual knowledge in the world continues unaltered, although the partition of it undergoes individual variations. By a necessity of nature, the Philosopher re-appears, without fail, whether an Aristotle or an Ibn Roshd, in whose brain Being becomes
[paragraph continues] Idea. It is true that the thoughts of individual men occur in the element of time, and that the Receptive Spirit is changeable, so far as the individual has a part in it; but considered as the Reason of the Human Race, that Spirit is eternally incapable of change, like the Active Spirit from the last. Sphere above us.
7. On the whole, three great heresies set the system of Ibn Roshd in opposition to the theology of the three world-religions of his time: first, the eternity of the material world and of the Spirits that move it; next, the necessary causal nexus in all that happens in the world, so that no place is left for providence, miracle, and the like; and, thirdly, the perishable nature of all that is individual, by which theory individual immortality is also taken away.
Considered logically the assumption of a number of independent Sphere-Spirits under God does not appear to have any sufficient basis. But Ibn Roshd, like his predecessors; gets over this difficulty by asserting that these Sphere-Spirits do not differ individually but only in kind. Their sole purpose was to explain the different movements in the system of the world, so long as its unity was still unknown. After the Ptolemaic system of the world had been put aside, and these intermediary Spirits had become superfluous, men identified the Active Spirit with God, as, for the matter of that, they had even in earlier times attempted to do, on speculative and religious grounds. It was merely one step farther, to identify even the eternal Spirit of Man with God. Ibn Roshd did neither of these things, at least according to the strict letter of his writings; but his system, when consistently carried out, made
it possible to take these steps, and in this way to arrive generally at a Pantheistic conception of the world. On the other hand Materialism might easily find support in the system, however decidedly our philosopher contended against such a view; for where the eternity, form and efficacy of all that is material are so strongly emphasized, as was done by him, Spirit may indeed still receive the name of king, but seemingly by the favour merely of the material.
Ibn Roshd deserves at all events to be called a bold and consistent thinker, although not an original one. Theoretical philosophy was sufficient for him; but yet he owed it to his time and his position to come to an understanding with religion and practice. We may devote a few words to this point.
8. Ibn Roshd often takes the opportunity of expressing himself against the uneducated rulers and obscurantist theologians of his own day; but he continues to prefer life as a citizen to a solitary life. He even thanks his opponents for many a piece of instruction,--and that is a pleasing touch of character. He thinks that the solitary life produces no arts or sciences, and that one can at the most enjoy in it what has been gained already, or perhaps improve it a little. But every one should contribute to the weal of the whole community: even women as well as men should be of service to society and the State. In this opinion Ibn Roshd agrees with Plato (for he was not acquainted with the Politics of Aristotle), and he remarks with entire good sense that a great deal of the poverty and distress of his time arises from the circumstance that women are kept like domestic animals or house plants for purposes of gratification, of a very questionable
character besides, instead of being allowed to take part in the production of material and intellectual wealth, and in the preservation of the same.
In his Ethical system our philosopher animadverts with great severity upon the doctrine of the professors of Law, that a thing is good or bad only because God so willed it. On the contrary, says he, everything has its moral character from nature or in conformity with reason. The action which is determined by rational discernment is moral. It is not, of course, the individual Reason, but the Reason which looks to the welfare of the community or State, to which appeal must be made in the last instance.
Ibn Roshd regards religion also from a statesman's point of view. He values it on account of its moral purpose. It is Law, not Learning. He is therefore constantly engaged in fighting the Theologians, who wish to understand intellectually, instead of obeying with docile faith. He makes it a reproach to Gazali, that he has allowed philosophy to exercise an influence upon his religious doctrine, and thereby has led many into doubt and unbelief. The people should believe, exactly in accordance with what stands in the Book. That is Truth,--Truth meant no doubt for a bigger sort of children, to whom we convey it in the form of stories. Whatever goes beyond this, comes of evil. For example, the Koran has two proofs of the existence of God, which are evident to every one, viz: the Divine care of everything, especially of human beings,--and the production of life in plants, animals, &c: These deliverances should not be disturbed, nor should the literal acceptation of revelation be quibbled about, in the theological fashion. For, the proofs which theologians adduce
of the existence of God can make no stand against a scientific criticism, any more than the proof which is furnished from the notion of the possible and the necessary, in Farabi and Ibn Sina. All this leads to Atheism and Libertinism. In the interests of morality, and therefore of the State, this semi-theology should be fought against.
On the other hand, philosophers who have attained to knowledge are permitted to interpret the Word of God in the Koran. In the light of the highest truth they understand what is aimed at therein; and they tell merely just so much of it to the ordinary man as he is capable of apprehending. In this way the most admirable harmony results. Religious precept and philosophy are in agreement with one another, precisely because they are not seeking the same thing. They are related as practice and theory. In the philosopher's conception of religion, he allows its validity in its own domain, so that philosophy by no means rejects religion. Philosophy, however, is the highest form of truth, and at the same time the most sublime religion. The religion of the philosopher, in fact, is the knowledge of all that exists.
But yet this view has the appearance of being irreligious; and a positive religion can never be content to recognize the leading position of philosophy in the realm of truth. It was only natural that the theologians of the West, like their brethren of the East should seek to profit by the favour of circumstances, and take no rest until they had reduced the mistress to the position of the handmaid of Theology.
188:1 "Averrois, che’l gran comento feo" Canto IV.