ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

219. Western Branch of Arabian Philosophy. Averroës. -- After the time of Avicenna, Arabian philosophy declined in the East but began to win renown in its new home in Spain. Spain in the tenth century was the rendezvous of a variety of races; and thanks to an untrammelled freedom of speculation, it continued to foster an active and intense movement of thought for the next few centuries.

Among the Arabian philosophers of Spain the most notable are AVEMPACE (fl. 1138) and ABUBACER (1100-1185), two authors of a rather mystic tendency, and above all, AVERROËS, whose influence on Western medieval philosophy is considerable.

Averroës was born at Cordova in 1126. He was a physician, like Avicenna, and led a life quite as eventful as the latter's. For, after he had been the recipient of honours at the court of the great, Averroës incurred their displeasure and fell into disgrace. He died in 1198. He is, before all else, a commentator on Aristotle, for whom he had an almost superstitious reverence. And yet he does not give us the genuine doctrine of Aristotle, any more than Avicenna does, and for precisely the same reasons. Averroës is also the author of original works. Among others he wrote the Destruction of the Destruction, in reply to Gazali; the Quaesita in Libros Logicae Aristotelis; four treatises on the unity of the intellect; the De Substantia Orbis. The salient characteristics of the Arabian mode of philosophizing find in Averroës their most marked and vigorous expression. The following are his principal theories

(1) The intelligence of the Spheres, their emanation and orderly arrangement. The heavens are composed of numerous spheres, each endowed with an intelligence which is its form. The prime mover sets the first sphere in motion and it in turn moves the spheres of the planets. The moon is moved by the human intellect (intelligentia vel motor Lunae) -- the intellect that figures in our acts of knowledge, and which has evidently a metaphysical role in the philosophy of Averroës, as in that of Avicenna.

(2) The eternity and potentiality of matter. -- Whilst the Oriental Arabians followed the Neo-Platonists in consigning matter, as the principle of imperfections, to the region of non-being, Averroës, on the contrary, makes it no mere void but a universal potency containing in itself the germ of all forms. He thus professes the doctrine of a clearly marked cosmic dualism. In presence of the eternal matter, the prime mover (extractor) disengages (extractio) the active forces of the latter: the material world is the manifestation of an uninterrupted series of these developments: a series of generations which is necessary and infinite both a parte ante and a parte post.

(3) Monism of the human intellect and denial of personal immortality. -- By forcing the meaning of a text of Aristotle, Averroës makes the human intellect the last of the planetary intelligences, an immaterial, eternal form, separate from individual men, and itself numerically one. And these are attributes not merely of the active intellect but even of the material or possible intellect. The whole human understanding is impersonal and objective; it is the torch-light which illumines individual souls and thus secures for humanity a perennial participation in the great eternal truths.{1}

In the individual man, therefore, the act of understanding is performed in this wise: By its action on the sense images, proper to each individual, the separate intelligence effects an accidental union with the individual, without suffering any detriment to its numerical unity from these manifold unions.{2}

This first stage of possession engenders in the individual the acquired intellect, which might be described as "the impersonal reason, participated by the personal being,"{3} but there are still more intimate unions of the individual human being with the universal intellect, and notably those achieved in mystic contemplation.

This doctrine involves the extinction of the individual consciousness and the impersonality of life after death: human individuals die, but humanity is immortal in the eternity of the objective, universal intelligence. Aristotle hesitated about these inferences; Averroës definitely embraced them.

(4) Allegorical interpretation of the Koran and of philosophy. -- Many of the teachings of Averroës run counter to the Mussulman religion. It was indeed because the caliphs had reason to suspect his orthodoxy that they persecuted and banished him. But Averroës had foreseen the trouble; and he tried to meet it by distinguishing between the literal interpretation of the Koran, which was all right for the illiterate, and its allegorical interpretation, which was the proper one for the educated. The latter alone gives us access to the higher truths. It need not necessarily be in harmony with the literal interpretation, which is powerless of itself to show forth the splendour of the truth. This principle of a twofold interpretation was employed especially in order to reconcile Gazali's teaching on the temporal origin of the world with Aristotle's teaching on its eternity. Averroës wrote a special treatise{4} to effect the desired reconciliation. Here we have the first foundations of the doctrine of the two truths, so extensively promulgated by the Averroïsts of the Middle Ages (Second Period). The line of Arabian philosophers proper may be said to have terminated with Averroës; but their influence continued to be felt in the philosophy of the Jews, and even more perceptibly in the Western philosophy of the thirteenth century.

{1} "Cum ex hoc dicto nos possumus opinari intellectum materialem esse unicum in cunctis individuis, possumusque adhuc ex hoc existimare humanam speciem esse aeternam, . . . idea opportebit intellectum materialem non posse denudari a principiis universalibus natura notis universae humanae speciei" (De Anima, iii., ed. Juntes, Venice, 1550, p. 165, R.B.).

{2} "Et, cum declaratum est . . . quod impossibile est ut intellectus copuletur cum unoquoque hominum, et numeretur per numerationem eorum, per partem quae est de eo quasi materia, secundum intellectum materialem, remanet ut intellectorum continuatio cum nobis hominibus sit per continuationem intentionis intellectae cum nobis, et sunt intentiones imaginatae," etc. (ibid., p. 164, V.A.). Many historians of the Averroïstic doctrine attribute unity to the active intellect alone; representing this as acting on the material or passive intellect proper to each individual. But Averroës goes farther, as we may see from the texts just quoted. Cf. the whole commentary on the De Anima, iii., and the opuscula on the separate intellect. So too, St. Thomas in his treatise De Unitate Intellectus, Dante in his Purgatorio, xxv., 64, and the Averroïsts of the thirteenth century (cf. e.g., Siger of Brabant), who were careful and exact commentators on Averroës, all attribute to him the thesis of the unity both of active intellect and of possible intellect, referring to the unity of the human intelligence simply and without any limitation. The complex terminology to be found in Averroës, in common with all other Arabian philosophers, is the source of this diversity of view as to his meaning. In places, he enumerates as many as five intellects: active, passive, material, speculative, acquired. Cf. Avicenna (217). Renan himself, the chief writer who speaks of the unity of the active intellect alone, admits that for Averroës the material intellect -- meaning by this the "capacity of knowledge" -- is incorruptible, eternal, unique, similar in everything to the active intellect. See Averròs et l'Averroïsme, 5th edit., pp. 139, 140.

{3} RENAN, op. cit., p. 140.

{4} Published by WORMS, op. cit. According to a study of M. Miguel Asin y Palacios, El Averroïsmo Teologico di Sto Tomas di Aquino (Saragossa, 1904), Averroës established between reason and faith a system of harmonical relations analogous (mutatis mutandis) to that established by St. Thomas. According to this author, Averroës would not have admitted any contradiction between the Koran and philosophy, nor between the allegorical and the literal interpretation of the former. On this point Averroës would have followed Gazali. Cf. 339, n.

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