History of Literature, Fhilosophy and Religions


Part III

A Brief History of Western Philosophy

Introduction Phylosophy

The nature of Western philosophy

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy

Medieval philosophy

Renaissance philosophy

Modern philosophy

Contemporary philosophy


Western Philosophy







Western philosophy

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Western philosophy

History of Western philosophy from its development among the ancient Greeks to the present.

Medieval philosophy


Medieval philosophy » The transition to Scholasticism
In the 12th century a cultural revolution took place that influenced the entire subsequent history of Western philosophy. The old style of education, based on the liberal arts and emphasizing grammar and the reading of the Latin classics, was replaced by new methods stressing logic, dialectic, and all the scientific disciplines known at the time. John of Salisbury (c. 1115–1180), of the School of Chartres, witnessed this radical change:

Behold, everything was being renovated: grammar was being made over, logic was being remodeled, rhetoric was being despised. Discarding the rules of their predecessors, [the masters] were teaching the quadrivium with new methods taken from the very depths of philosophy.

In philosophy itself, there was a decline in Platonism and a growing interest in Aristotelianism. This change was occasioned by the translation into Latin of the works of Aristotle in the late 12th and the early 13th century. Until then, only a few of his minor logical treatises were known. Now his Topica, Analytica priora, and Analytica posteriora were rendered into Latin, giving the Schoolmen access to the Aristotelian methods of disputation and science, which became their own techniques of discussion and inquiry. Many other philosophical and scientific works of Greek and Arabic origin were translated at this time, creating a “knowledge explosion” in western Europe.

John of Salisbury
English scholar

born 1115/20, Salisbury, Wiltshire, Eng.
died Oct. 25, 1180, probably at Chartres, France

one of the best Latinists of his age, who was secretary to Theobald and Thomas Becket, archbishops of Canterbury, and who became bishop of Chartres.

After 1135 he attended cathedral schools in France for 12 years and studied under Peter Abelard (1136). He was a clerk in Theobald’s household in 1148 and during the next five years was mainly employed by the archbishop on missions to the Roman Curia. His Historia pontificalis (c. 1163) gives a vivid description of the papal court during this period, partly through its character sketches. From 1153 John’s main duty was to draft the archbishopric’s official correspondence with the Curia, especially in connection with appeals. In the late summer of 1156 this activity angered King Henry II, who regarded him as a champion of ecclesiastical independence.

The crisis passed, but to some extent it influenced John’s two books, the Policraticus and the Metalogicon (both 1159), in which his general intention was to show his contemporaries that in their thought and actions they were defecting from the true task of humanity. His work represented a protest against the professional specialization slowly developing in royal and papal administration and in the universities. He unfavourably contrasted the way of life followed by courtiers and administrators with an ideal practice derived from Latin poets and from classical and patristic writers.

Out of favour with Henry, John was exiled to France (1163) shortly before Becket was exiled. From his refuge in the monastery of Saint-Rémi at Reims, John wrote many letters assessing the prospects of the Canterbury case. After the reconciliation of Henry and Becket, he returned to England (1170) and was in Canterbury Cathedral when Becket was assassinated (Dec. 29, 1170). Thereafter, John was occupied with collecting Becket’s correspondence and preparing a biographical introduction. He became bishop of Chartres in 1176 and took an active part in the third Lateran Council (March 1179). He was buried at Chartres.


Medieval philosophy » The transition to Scholasticism » Arabic thought

Among the works to be translated from Arabic were some of the writings of Avicenna (980–1037). This Islamic philosopher had an extraordinary impact on the medieval Schoolmen. His interpretation of Aristotle’s notion of metaphysics as the science of ens qua ens (Latin: “being as being”), his analysis of many metaphysical terms, such as being, essence, and existence, and his metaphysical proof of the existence of God were often quoted, with approval or disapproval, in Christian circles. Also influential were his psychology, logic, and natural philosophy. His Al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb (Canon of Medicine) was authoritative on the subject until modern times. The Maqāṣid al-falāsifah (1094; “The Aims of the Philosophers”) of the Arabic theologian al-Ghazālī (1058–1111; known in Latin as Algazel), an exposition of Avicenna’s philosophy written in order to criticize it, was read as a complement to Avicenna’s works. The anonymous Liber de causis (“Book of Causes”) was also translated into Latin from Arabic. This work, excerpted from Proclus’s Stiocheiōsis theologikē (Elements of Theology), was often ascribed to Aristotle, and it gave a Neoplatonic cast to his philosophy until its true origin was discovered by St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–1274).

The commentaries of the Arabic philosopher Averroës (1126–98) were translated along with Aristotle’s works. As Aristotle was called “the Philosopher” by the medieval philosophers, Averroës was dubbed “the Commentator.” The Christian Schoolmen often attacked Averroës as the archenemy of Christianity for his rationalism and his doctrine of the eternity of the world and the unity of the intellect for all human beings—i.e., the doctrine that intellect is a single, undifferentiated form with which individuals become reunited at death. This was anathema to the Christian Schoolmen because it contravened the Christian doctrine of individual immortality.

Persian philosopher and scientist
Arabic Ibn Sīnā, in full Abū ʾAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā
born 980, Bukhara, Iran
died 1037, Hamadan

Iranian physician, the most famous and influential of the philosopher-scientists of Islam. He was particularly noted for his contributions in the fields of Aristotelian philosophy and medicine. He composed the Kitāb al-shifāʾ (“Book of Healing”), a vast philosophical and scientific encyclopaedia, and The Canon of Medicine, which is among the most famous books in the history of medicine.

Early years
Avicenna, an ethnic Persian who spent his whole life in the eastern and central regions of Iran, received his earliest education in Bukhara under the direction of his father. Since the house of his father was a meeting place for learned men, from his earliest childhood Avicenna was able to profit from the company of the outstanding masters of his day. A precocious child with an exceptional memory that he retained throughout his life, he had memorized the Qurʾān and much Arabic poetry by the age of 10. Thereafter, he studied logic and metaphysics under teachers whom he soon outgrew and then spent the few years until he reached the age of 18 in his own self-education. He read avidly and mastered Islamic law, then medicine, and finally metaphysics. Particularly helpful in his intellectual development was his gaining access to the rich royal library of the Sāmānids—the first great native dynasty that arose in Iran after the Arab conquest—as the result of his successful cure of the Sāmānid prince Nūḥ ibn Manṣūr. By the time he was 21 he was accomplished in all branches of formal learning and had already gained a wide reputation as an outstanding physician. His services were also sought as an administrator, and for a while he even entered government service as a clerk.

But suddenly the whole pattern of his life changed. His father died; the Sāmānid house was defeated by Maḥmūd of Ghazna, the Turkish leader and legendary hero who established Ghaznavid rule in Khorāsān (northeastern Iran and modern western Afghanistan); and Avicenna began a period of wandering and turmoil, which was to last to the end of his life with the exception of a few unusual intervals of tranquillity. Destiny had plunged Avicenna into one of the tumultuous periods of Iranian history, when new Turkish elements were replacing Iranian domination in Central Asia and local Iranian dynasties were trying to gain political independence from the ʿAbbāsid caliphate in Baghdad (in modern Iraq). But the power of concentration and the intellectual prowess of Avicenna was such that he was able to continue his intellectual work with remarkable consistency and continuity and was not at all influenced by the outward disturbances.

Avicenna wandered for a while in different cities of Khorāsān and then left for the court of the Būyid princes, who were ruling over central Iran, first going to Rayy (near modern Tehrān) and then to Qazvīn, where as usual he made his livelihood as a physician. But in these cities also he found neither sufficient social and economic support nor the necessary peace and calm to continue his work. He went, therefore, to Hamadan in west-central Iran, where Shams al-Dawlah, another Būyid prince, was ruling. This journey marked the beginning of a new phase in Avicenna’s life. He became court physician and enjoyed the favour of the ruler to the extent that twice he was appointed vizier. As was the order of the day, he also suffered political reactions and intrigues against him and was forced into hiding for some time; at one time he was even imprisoned.

This was the period when he began his two most famous works. Kitāb al-shifāʾ is probably the largest work of its kind ever written by one man. It treats of logic, the natural sciences, including psychology, the quadrivium (geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music), and metaphysics, but there is no real exposition of ethics or of politics. His thought in this work owes a great deal to Aristotle but also to other Greek influences and to Neoplatonism. His system rests on the conception of God as the necessary existent: in God alone essence, what he is, and existence, that he is, coincide. There is a gradual multiplication of beings through a timeless emanation from God as a result of his self-knowledge. The Canon of Medicine (Al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb) is the most famous single book in the history of medicine in both East and West. It is a systematic encyclopaedia based for the most part on the achievements of Greek physicians of the Roman imperial age and on other Arabic works and, to a lesser extent, on his own experience (his own clinical notes were lost during his journeys). Occupied during the day with his duties at court as both physician and administrator, Avicenna spent almost every night with his students composing these and other works and carrying out general philosophical and scientific discussions related to them. These sessions were often combined with musical performances and gaiety and lasted until late hours of the night. Even in hiding and in prison he continued to write. The great physical strength of Avicenna enabled him to carry out a program that would have been unimaginable for a person of a feebler constitution.

The last phase of Avicenna’s life began with his move to Eṣfahān (about 250 miles south of Tehrān). In 1022 Shams al-Dawlah died, and Avicenna, after a period of difficulty that included imprisonment, fled to Eṣfahān with a small entourage. In Eṣfahān, Avicenna was to spend the last 14 years of his life in relative peace. He was esteemed highly by ʿAlāʾ al-Dawlah, the ruler, and his court. Here he finished the two major works he began in Hamadan and wrote most of his nearly 200 treatises; he also composed the first work on Aristotelian philosophy in the Persian language and the masterly summary of his Kitāb al-shifāʾ, called Kitāb al-najāt (Book of Salvation), written partly during the military campaigns in which he had to accompany ʿAlāʾ al-Dawlah to the field of battle. During this time he composed his last major philosophical opus and the most “personal” testament of his thought, Kitāb al-ishārāt wa al-tanbīhāt (Book of Directives and Remarks). In this work he described the mystic’s spiritual journey from the beginnings of faith to the final stage of direct and uninterrupted vision of God. Also in Eṣfahān, when an authority on Arabic philology criticized him for his lack of mastery in the subject, he spent three years studying it and composed a vast work called Lisān al-ʿArab (The Arabic Language), which remained in rough draft until his death. Accompanying ʿAlāʾ al-Dawlah on a campaign, Avicenna fell ill and, despite his attempts to treat himself, died from colic and from exhaustion.

Besides fulfilling the role of the master of the Muslim Aristotelians, Avicenna also sought in later life to found an “Oriental philosophy” (al-ḥikmat al-mashriqīyah). Most of his works directly concerning this have been lost, but enough remains in some of his other works to give an indication of the direction he was following. He took the first steps upon a path toward mystical theosophy that marked the direction that Islamic philosophy was to follow in the future, especially in Persia and the other eastern lands of Islam.

Avicenna’s influence
In the Western world, Avicenna’s influence was felt, though no distinct school of “Latin Avicennism” can be discerned as can with Averroës, the great Spanish-Arabic philosopher. Avicenna’s Book of Healing was translated partially into Latin in the 12th century, and the complete Canon appeared in the same century. These translations and others spread the thought of Avicenna far and wide in the West. His thought, blended with that of St. Augustine, the Christian philosopher and theologian, was a basic ingredient in the thought of many of the medieval Scholastics, especially in the Franciscan schools. In medicine the Canon became the medical authority for several centuries, and Avicenna enjoyed an undisputed place of honour equaled only by the early Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen. In the East his dominating influence in medicine, philosophy, and theology has lasted over the ages and is still alive within the circles of Islamic thought.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr



Muslim philosopher
medieval Latin Averrhoës, also called Ibn Rushd, Arabic in full Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Rushd
born 1126, Córdoba [Spain]
died 1198, Marrakech, Almohad empire [now in Morocco]

influential Islamic religious philosopher who integrated Islamic traditions with ancient Greek thought. At the request of the Almohad caliph Abu Yaʿqub Yusuf, he produced a series of summaries and commentaries on most of Aristotle’s works (1169–95) and on Plato’s Republic, which exerted considerable influence in both the Islamic world and Europe for centuries. He wrote the Decisive Treatise on the Agreement Between Religious Law and Philosophy (Faṣl al-Maḳāl), Examination of the Methods of Proof Concerning the Doctrines of Religion (Kashf al-Manāhij), and The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahāfut al-Tahāfut), all in defense of the philosophical study of religion against the theologians (1179–80).

Early life
Averroës was born into a distinguished family of jurists at Córdoba and died at Marrakech, the North African capital of the Almohad dynasty. Thoroughly versed in the traditional Muslim sciences (especially exegesis of the Qurʾān—Islamic scripture—and Ḥadīth, or Traditions, and fiqh, or Law), trained in medicine, and accomplished in philosophy, Averroës rose to be chief qādī (judge) of Córdoba, an office also held by his grandfather (of the same name) under the Almoravids. After the death of the philosopher Ibn Ṭufayl, Averroës succeeded him as personal physician to the caliphs Abū Yaʿqūb Yūsuf in 1182 and his son Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb in 1184.

At some point between 1153 and 1169, Ibn Ṭufayl had introduced Averroës to Abū Yaʿqūb, who, himself a keen student of philosophy, frightened Averroës with a question concerning whether the heavens were created or not. The caliph answered the question himself, put Averroës at ease, and sent him away with precious gifts after a long conversation that proved decisive for Averroës’ career. Soon afterward Averroës received the ruler’s request to provide a badly needed correct interpretation of the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, a task to which he devoted many years of his busy life as judge, beginning at Sevilla (Seville) and continuing at Córdoba. The exact year of his appointment as chief qādī of Córdoba, one of the key posts in the government (and not confined to the administration of justice), is not known.

Commentaries on Aristotle
Between 1169 and 1195 Averroës wrote a series of commentaries on most of Aristotle’s works (e.g., The Organon, De anima, Physica, Metaphysica, De partibus animalium, Parva naturalia, Meteorologica, Rhetorica, Poetica, and the Nicomachean Ethics). He wrote summaries, and middle and long commentaries—often two or all three kinds on the same work. Aristotle’s Politica was inaccessible to Averroës; therefore he wrote a commentary on Plato’s Republic (which is both a paraphrase and a middle commentary in form). All of Averroës’ commentaries are incorporated in the Latin version of Aristotle’s complete works. They are extant in the Arabic original or Hebrew translations or both, and some of these translations serve in place of the presumably lost Arabic originals; e.g., the important commentaries on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and on Plato’s Republic.

Averroës’ commentaries exerted considerable influence on Jews and Christians in the following centuries. His clear, penetrating mind enabled him to present competently Aristotle’s thought and to add considerably to its understanding. He ably and critically used the classical commentators Themistius and Alexander of Aphrodisias and the falāsifah (Muslim philosophers) al-Fārābī, Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā), and his own countryman Avempace (Ibn Bājjah). In commenting on Aristotle’s treatises on the natural sciences, Averroës showed considerable power of observation.

Averroës’ defense of philosophy
Averroës’ own first work is General Medicine (Kulliyāt, Latin Colliget), written between 1162 and 1169. Only a few of his legal writings and none of his theological writings are preserved. Undoubtedly his most important writings are three closely connected religious-philosophical polemical treatises, composed in the years 1179 and 1180: the Faṣl al-Maḳāl with its appendix; the Kashf al-Manāhij; and the Tahāfut al-Tahāfut in defense of philosophy. In the two first named Averroës stakes a bold claim: only the metaphysician employing certain proof (syllogism) is capable and competent (as well as obliged) to interpret the doctrines contained in the prophetically revealed law (Sharʿ or Sharīʿah), and not the Muslim mutakallimūn (dialectic theologians), who rely on dialectical arguments. To establish the true, inner meaning of religious beliefs and convictions is the aim of philosophy in its quest for truth. This inner meaning must not be divulged to the masses, who must accept the plain, external meaning of Scripture contained in stories, similes, and metaphors. Averroës applied Aristotle’s three arguments (demonstrative, dialectical, and persuasive—i.e., rhetorical and poetical) to the philosophers, the theologians, and the masses. The third work is devoted to a defense of philosophy against his predecessor al-Ghazālī’s telling attack directed against Avicenna and al-Qārābī in particular. Spirited and successful as Averroës’ defense was, it could not restore philosophy to its former position, quite apart from the fact that the atmosphere in Muslim Spain and North Africa was most unfavourable to the unhindered pursuit of speculation. As a result of the reforming activity of Ibn Tūmart (c. 1078–1130), aimed at restoring pure monotheism, power was wrested from the ruling Almoravids, and the new Berber dynasty of the Almohads was founded, under whom Averroës served. In jurisprudence the emphasis then shifted from the practical application of Muslim law by appeal to previous authority to an equal stress on the study of its principles and the revival of independent legal decision on the basis of Ibn Tūmart’s teaching. Of perhaps even more far-reaching significance was Ibn Tūmart’s idea of instructing the heretofore ignorant masses in the plain meaning of the Sharīʿah so that practice would be informed with knowledge. These developments were accompanied by the encouragement of the falāsifah—“those who,” according to Averroës’ Faṣl, “follow the way of speculation and are eager for a knowledge of the truth”—to apply demonstrative arguments to the interpretation of the theoretical teaching of the Sharīʿah. But with the hands of both jurists and theologians thus strengthened, Averroës’ defense of philosophy continued to be conducted within an unfavourable atmosphere.

Averroës himself acknowledged the support of Abū Yaʿqūb, to whom he dedicated his Commentary on Plato’s Republic. Yet Averroës pursued his philosophical quest in the face of strong opposition from the mutakallimūn, who, together with the jurists, occupied a position of eminence and of great influence over the fanatical masses. This may explain why he suddenly fell from grace when Abū Yūsuf—on the occasion of a jihad (holy war) against Christian Spain—dismissed him from high office and banished him to Lucena in 1195. To appease the theologians in this way at a time when the caliph needed the undivided loyalty and support of the people seems a more convincing reason than what the Arabic sources tell us (attacks on Averroës by the mob, probably at the instigation of jurists and theologians). But Averroës’ disgrace was only short-lived—though long enough to cause him acute suffering—since the caliph recalled Averroës to his presence after his return to Marrakech. After his death, Averroës was first buried at Marrakech, and later his body was transferred to the family tomb at Córdoba.

It is not rare in the history of Islam that the rulers’ private attachment to philosophy and their friendship with philosophers goes hand in hand with official disapproval of philosophy and persecution of its adherents, accompanied by the burning of their philosophical writings and the prohibition of the study of secular sciences other than those required for the observance of the religious law. Without caliphal encouragement Averroës could hardly have persisted all his life in his fight for philosophy against the theologians, as reflected in his Commentary on Plato’s Republic, in such works as the Faṣl al-Maḳāl and Tahāfut al-Tahāfut, and in original philosophical treatises (e.g., about the union of the active intellect with the human intellect). It is likely that the gradual estrangement of his two masters and patrons from Ibn Tūmart’s theology and their preoccupation with Islamic law also helped him. That Averroës found it difficult to pursue his philosophical studies alongside the conscientious performance of his official duties he himself reveals in a few remarks scattered over his commentaries; e.g., in that on Aristotle’s De partibus animalium.

Contents and significance of works
To arrive at a balanced appraisal of Averroës’ thought it is essential to view his literary work as a whole. In particular, a comparison of his religious-philosophical treatises with his Commentary on Plato’s Republic shows the basic unity of his attitude to the Sharīʿah dictated by Islam and therefore determining his attitude to philosophy, more precisely to the nomos, the law of Plato’s philosopher-king. It will then become apparent that there is only one truth for Averroës, that of the religious law, which is the same truth that the metaphysician is seeking. The theory of the double truth was definitely not formulated by Averroës, but rather by the Latin Averroists. Nor is it justifiable to say that philosophy is for the metaphysician what religion is for the masses. Averroës stated explicitly and unequivocally that religion is for all three classes; that the contents of the Sharīʿah are the whole and only truth for all believers; and that religion’s teachings about reward and punishment and the hereafter must be accepted in their plain meaning by the elite no less than by the masses. The philosopher must choose the best religion, which, for a Muslim, is Islam as preached by Muḥammad, the last of the prophets, just as Christianity was the best religion at the time of Jesus, and Judaism at the time of Moses.

It is significant that Averroës could say in his Commentary on Plato’s Republic that religious law and philosophy have the same aim and in the Faṣl that “philosophy is the companion and foster-sister of the Sharīʿah.” Accepting Aristotle’s division of philosophy into theoretical (physics and metaphysics) and practical (ethics and politics), he finds that the Sharīʿah teaches both to perfection: abstract knowledge commanded as the perception of God, and practice—the ethical virtues the law enjoins (Commentary on Plato’s Republic). In the Tahāfut he maintains that “the religious laws conform to the truth and impart a knowledge of those actions by which the happiness of the whole creation is guaranteed.” There is no reason to question the sincerity of Averroës. These statements reflect the same attitude to law and the same emphasis on happiness. Happiness as the highest good is the aim of political science. As a Muslim, Averroës insists on the attainment of happiness in this and the next life by all believers. This is, however, qualified by Averroës as the disciple of Plato: the highest intellectual perfection is reserved for the metaphysician, as in Plato’s ideal state. But the Muslim’s ideal state provides for the happiness of the masses as well because of its prophetically revealed law, which is superior to the Greek nomos (law) for this reason. The philosopher Averroës distinguishes between degrees of happiness and assigns every believer the happiness that corresponds to his intellectual capacity. He takes Plato to task for his neglect of the third estate because Averroës believes that everyone is entitled to his share of happiness. Only the Sharīʿah of Islam cares for all believers. It legitimates speculation because it demands that the believer should know God. This knowledge is accessible to the naive believer in metaphors, the inner meaning of which is intelligible only to the metaphysician with the help of demonstration. On this point all falāsifah are agreed, and all recognize the excellence of the Sharīʿah stemming from its divinely revealed character. But only Averroës insists on its superiority over the nomos.

Insisting on the prerogative of the metaphysician—understood as a duty laid upon him by God—to interpret the doctrines of religion in the form of right beliefs and convictions (like Plato’s philosopher-king), Averroës admits that the Sharīʿah contains teachings that surpass human understanding but that must be accepted by all believers because they contain divinely revealed truths. The philosopher is definitely bound by the religious law just as much as the masses and the theologians, who occupy a position somewhere in between. In his search for truth the metaphysician is bound by Arabic usage, as is the jurist in his legal interpretations, though the jurist uses subjective reasoning only, in contrast to the metaphysician’s certain proof. This means that the philosopher is not bound to accept what is contradicted by demonstration. He can, thus, abandon belief in the creation out of nothing since Aristotle demonstrated the eternity of matter. Hence creation is a continuing process. Averroës sought justification for such an attitude in the fact that a Muslim is bound only by consensus (ijmāʿ) of the learned in a strictly legal context where actual laws and regulations are concerned. Yet, since there is no consensus on certain theoretical statements, such as creation, he is not bound to conform. Similarly, anthropomorphism is unacceptable, and metaphorical interpretation of those passages in Scripture that describe God in bodily terms is necessary. And the question whether God knows only the universals, but not the particulars, is neatly parried by Averroës in his statement that God has knowledge of particulars but that his knowledge is different from human knowledge. These few examples suffice to indicate that ambiguities and inconsistencies are not absent in Averroës’ statements.

The Commentary on Plato’s Republic reveals a side of Averroës that is not to be found in his other commentaries. While he carried on a long tradition of attempted synthesis between religious law and Greek philosophy, he went beyond his predecessors in spite of large-scale dependence upon them. He made Plato’s political philosophy, modified by Aristotle, his own and considered it valid for the Islamic state as well. Consequently, he applied Platonic ideas to the contemporary Almoravid and Almohad states in a sustained critique in Platonic terms, convinced that if the philosopher cannot rule, he must try to influence policy in the direction of the ideal state. For Plato’s ideal state is the best after the ideal state of Islam based on and centred in the Sharīʿah as the ideal constitution. Thus, he regrets the position of women in Islam compared with their civic equality in Plato’s Republic. That women are used only for childbearing and the rearing of offspring is detrimental to the economy and responsible for the poverty of the state. This is most unorthodox.

Of greater importance is his acceptance of Plato’s idea of the transformation and deterioration of the ideal, perfect state into the four imperfect states. Muʿāwiyah I, who in Muslim tradition perverted the ideal state of the first four caliphs into a dynastic power state, is viewed by Averroës in the Platonic sense as having turned the ideal state into a timocracy—a government based on love of honour. Similarly, the Almoravid and Almohad states are shown to have deteriorated from a state that resembled the original perfect Sharīʿah state into timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Averroës here combines Islamic notions with Platonic concepts. In the same vein he likens the false philosophers of his time, and especially the mutakallimūn, to Plato’s sophists. In declaring them a real danger to the purity of Islam and to the security of the state, he appeals to the ruling power to forbid dialectical theologians to explain their beliefs and convictions to the masses, thus confusing them and causing heresy, schism, and unbelief. The study of The Republic and the Nicomachean Ethics enabled the falāsifah to see more clearly the political character and content of the Sharīʿah in the context of the classical Muslim theory of the religious and political unity of Islam.

Leaning heavily on the treatment of Plato’s political philosophy by al-Fārābī, a 10th-century philosopher, Averroës looks at The Republic with the eyes of Aristotle, whose Nicomachean Ethics constitutes for Averroës the first, theoretical part of political science. He is, therefore, only interested in Plato’s theoretical statements. Thus he concentrates on a detailed commentary on Books II–IX of The Republic and ignores Plato’s dialectical statements and especially his tales and myths, principally the myth of Er. He explains Plato, whose Laws and Politikos he also knows and uses, with the help, and in the light, of Aristotle’s Analytica posteriora, De anima, Physica, and Nicomachean Ethics. Naturally, Greek pagan ideas and institutions are replaced by Islamic ones. Thus Plato’s criticism of poetry (Homer) is applied to Arab pre-Islamic poetry, which he condemns.

Averroës sees much common ground between the Sharīʿah and Plato’s general laws (interpreted with the help of Aristotle), notwithstanding his conviction that the Sharīʿah is superior to the nomos. He accepts al-Fārābī’s equation of Plato’s philosopher-king with the Islamic imam, or leader and lawgiver, but leaves it open whether the ideal ruler must also be a prophet. The reason for this may well be that, as a sincere Muslim, Averroës holds that Muḥammad was “the seal of the prophets” who promulgated the divinely revealed Sharīʿah once and for all. Moreover, Averroës exempts Muḥammad from the general run of prophets, thus clearly rejecting the psychological explanation of prophecy through the theory of emanation adopted by the other falāsifah. No trace of this theory can be discovered in Averroës’ writings, just as his theory of the intellect is strictly and purely Aristotelian and free from the theory of emanation. In conclusion, it may be reiterated that the unity of outlook in Averroës’ religious-philosophical writings and his commentary on The Republic gives his political philosophy a distinctly Islamic character and tone, thereby adding to his significance as a religious philosopher.

Erwin I.J. Rosenthal


Medieval philosophy » The transition to Scholasticism » Jewish thought

Of considerably less influence on the Scholastics was medieval Jewish thought. Ibn Gabirol (c. 1022–c. 1058), known to the Scholastics as Avicebron or Avencebrol, was thought to be an Arab or Christian, though in fact he was a Spanish Jew. His chief philosophical work, written in Arabic and preserved in toto only in a Latin translation titled Fons vitae (c. 1050; The Fountain of Life), stresses the unity and simplicity of God. All creatures are composed of form and matter, either the gross corporeal matter of the sensible world or the spiritual matter of angels and human souls. Some of the Schoolmen were attracted to the notion of spiritual matter and also to Ibn Gabirol’s analysis of a plurality of forms in creatures, according to which every corporeal being receives a variety of forms by which it is given its place in the hierarchy of being—for example, a dog has the forms of a corporeal thing, a living thing, an animal, and a dog.

Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), or Moses ben Maimon, was known to Christians of the Middle Ages as Rabbi Moses. His Dalālat al-hāʾirīn (c. 1190; The Guide for the Perplexed) helped them to reconcile Greek philosophy with revealed religion. For Maimonides there could be no conflict between reason and faith because both come from God; an apparent contradiction is due to a misinterpretation of either the Bible or the philosophers. Thus, he showed that creation is reconcilable with philosophical principles and that the Aristotelian arguments for an eternal world are not conclusive because they ignore the omnipotence of God, who can create a world of either finite or infinite duration.

While Western scholars were assimilating the new treasures of Greek, Islamic, and Jewish thought, universities that became the centres of Scholasticism were being founded. Of these, the most important were located in Paris and Oxford (formed 1150–70 and 1168, respectively). Scholasticism is the name given to the theological and philosophical teachings of the Schoolmen in the universities. There was no single Scholastic doctrine; each of the Scholastics developed his own, which was often in disagreement with that of his fellow teachers. They had in common a respect for the great writers of old, such as the Fathers of the Church, Aristotle, Plato, Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Avicenna. These they called “authorities.” Their interpretation and evaluation of the authorities, however, frequently differed. They also shared a common style and method that developed out of the teaching practices in the universities. Teaching was done by lecture and disputation (a formal debate). A lecture consisted of the reading of a prescribed text followed by the teacher’s commentary on it. Masters also held disputations in which the affirmative and negative sides of a question were thoroughly argued by students and teacher before the latter resolved the problem.

Ibn Gabirol
Jewish poet and philosopher
in full Solomon ben Yehuda Ibn Gabirol, Arabic Abū Ayyūb Sulaymān ibn Yaḥyā ibn Gabirūt, Latin Avicebron or Avencebrol

born c. 1022, Málaga, caliphate of Córdoba
died c. 1058/70, Valencia, kingdom of Valencia

one of the outstanding figures of the Hebrew school of religious and secular poetry during the Jewish Golden Age in Moorish Spain. He was also an important Neoplatonic philosopher.

Early life and career
Born in Málaga about 1022, Ibn Gabirol received his higher education in Saragossa, where he joined the learned circle of other Cordoban refugees established there around famed scholars and the influential courtier Yekutiel ibn Ḥasan. Protected by this patron, whom Ibn Gabirol immortalized in poems of loving praise, the 16-year-old poet became famous for his religious hymns in masterly Hebrew. The customary language of Andalusian literature had been Arabic, and Hebrew had only recently been revived as a means of expression for Jewish poets. At 16 he could rightly boast of being world famous:

…My song is a crown for kings and mitres on the heads of governors.
My body walks upon the earth, while my spirit ascends to the clouds.
Behold me: at sixteen my heart like that of a man of eighty is wise.

He made, however, the mistake of lampooning Samuel ha-Nagid, a rising Jewish statesman and vizier in the Berber kingdom of Granada, who was also a talented poet, Talmudist, strategist, and model writer of letters. After making poetical amends, Ibn Gabirol seems to have been admitted to the favour of this vizier, whose main court encomiast he subsequently became.

This happened while the poet was involved (on the Saragossan side) in the disproportionate strife between the grammarians of Saragossa and those of Granada concerning Hebrew linguistics. Being an emancipated Cordoban, he offended the orthodox with heresies such as recommending childlessness, denunciation of the “world,” Neoplatonism, and an almost insane self-aggrandizement (coupled with the use of animal epithets for his opponents). He apparently had to flee from Saragossa; the circumstances leading to his departure are described in his “Song of Strife”:

Sitting among everybody crooked and foolish his [the poet’s] heart only was wise.
The one slakes you with adder’s poison, the other, flattering, tries to confuse your head.
One, setting you a trap in his design will address you: “Please, my lord.”
A people whose fathers I would despise to be dogs for my sheep…

His “Song of Strife” and other poems show that his being a synagogal poet did not protect him against the hatred of his co-religionists in Saragossa, who called him a Greek because of his secular leanings.

Against all warnings by his patron Yekutiel, Ibn Gabirol concentrated on Neoplatonic philosophy, after having composed a non-offensive collection of proverbs in Arabic, Mukhtār al-jawāhir (“Choice of Pearls”), and a more original, though dated, ethical treatise (based on contemporary theories of the human temperaments), also in Arabic, Kitāb iṣlāḥ al-akhlāq (“The Improvement of the Moral Qualities”). The latter contains chapters on pride, meekness, modesty, and impudence, which are linked with the sense of sight; and on love, hate, compassion, and cruelty, linked with hearing and other senses.

In need of a new patron after the execution of Yekutiel in 1039 by those who had murdered his king and taken over power, Ibn Gabirol secured a position as a court poet with Samuel ha-Nagid, who, becoming the leading statesman of Granada, was in need of the poet’s prestige. Ibn Gabirol composed widely resounding poems with a messianic tinge for Samuel and for Jehoseph (Yūsuf), his son and later successor in the vizierate of Granada. All other biographical data about Ibn Gabirol except his place of death, Valencia, must be extrapolated from his poetry.

The Jewish subculture of Moorish Andalusia (southern Spain) was engendered by the cultural “pressure” of the Arab peers. Ibn Gabirol’s dual education, typical for the Jewish intelligentsia in the larger cities, must have encompassed both the entire Hebrew literary heritage—the Bible, Talmud, and other rabbinic writings and, in particular, Hebrew linguistics—and the Arabic, including the Qurʾān, Arabic secular and religious poetry and poetics, and the philosophical, philological, and possibly medical literature.

His poetry, like that of the entire contemporary Hebrew school, is modelled after the Arabic. Metrics, rhyme systems, and most of the highly developed imagery follow the Arabic school, but the biblical language adds a particular tinge. Many of Ibn Gabirol’s poems show the influence of the knightly Arab bard al-Mutanabbī and the pessimistic Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī.

His secular topics included exaggerated, Arab-inspired self-praise, justified by the fame of the child prodigy; love poems (renouncing yet keenly articulate); praise of his noble and learned protectors, together with scathingly satirical reproach of others; dirges (the most moving of which are linked with the execution of the innocent Yekutiel); wine songs (sometimes libertine); spring and rain poems; flower portraits; the agonizingly realistic description of a skin ailment; and a long didactic poem on Hebrew grammar. Ibn Gabirol’s long poetic description of a castle led to the discovery of the origins of the first Alhambra palace, built by the above-mentioned Jehoseph. Of a very rich production, about 200 secular poems and even more religious ones were preserved, though no collection of his poems survived. Many manuscript fragments of the former came to light only recently, preserved in synagogue attics by his co-religionists’ respect for the Hebrew letter. Many of his religious poems were included in Jewish prayer books throughout the world.

His religious poems, in particular the poignant short prayers composed for the individual, presuppose the high degree of literacy typical of Moorish Spain, and they, too, show Arabic incentive. His famed rhymed prose poem “Keter malkhut” (“The Crown of the Kingdom”), a meditation stating the measurements of the spheres of the universe, jolts the reader into the abject feeling of his smallness but, subsequently, builds him up by a proclamation of the divine grace.

The following morning meditation exemplifies his religious poetry:

See me at dawn, my Rock; my Shelter, when my plight
I state before Thy face likewise again at night,
Outpouring anguished thought—that Thou behold’st my heart
and what it contemplates I realise in fright.
Low though the value beof mind’s and lip’s tribute
to Thee (accomplishes aught my spirit with its might?).
Most cherish’st Thou the hymnwe sing before Thee. Thus,
while Thou support’st my breath, I praise Thee in Thine height.

His Fountain of Life, in five treatises, is preserved in toto only in the Latin translation, Fons vitae, with the author’s name appearing as Avicebron or Avencebrol; it was re-identified as Ibn Gabirol’s work by Salomon Munk in 1846. It had little influence upon Jewish philosophy other than on León Hebreo (Judah Abrabanel) and Benedict de Spinoza, but it inspired the Kabbalists, the adherents of Jewish esoteric mysticism. Its influence upon Christian Scholasticism was marked, although it was attacked by St. Thomas Aquinas for equating concepts with realities. Grounded in Plotinus and other Neoplatonic writers yet also in Aristotelian logic and metaphysics, Ibn Gabirol developed a system in which he introduced the conception of a divine will, like the Logos (or divine “word”) of Philo. It is an essential unity of creativity of and with God, mutually related like sun and sunlight, which mediates actively between the transcendent deity and the cosmos that God created out of nothingness (to be understood as the potentiality for creation). Matter emanates directly from the deity as a prime matter that supports all substances and even the “intelligent” substances, the sphere-moving powers and angels. This concept was accepted by the Franciscan school of Scholastics but rejected by the Dominicans, including St. Thomas, for whom form (and only one, not many) and not matter is the creative principle. Since matter, according to Aristotle and Plotinus, “yearns for formation” and, thus, moving toward the nearness of God, causes the rotation of the spheres, the finest matter of the highest spheres is propelled by the strongest “yearning,” which issues from God and returns to him and is active in man (akin to the last line of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “The love which moves the sun and the other stars”).

Yet, the dry treatise does not betray the passionate quest of the Neoplatonist author. A philosophical poem, beginning “That man’s love,” reveals the human intent. Therein, a disciple asks the poet-philosopher what importance the world could have for the deity (to be understood in Aristotelian terms as a deity that only contemplates its own perfection). The poet answers that all of existence is permeated, though to different degrees, by the yearning of matter toward formation, and he declares that this yearning may give God the “glory” that the heavens proclaim, as the Bible teaches.

Frederick P. Bargebuhr



Moses Maimonides
Jewish philosopher, scholar, and physician
original name Moses Ben Maimon, also called Rambam, Arabic name Abū ʿImran Mūsā ibn Maymūn ibn ʿUbayd Allāh

born March 30, 1135, Córdoba [Spain]
died Dec. 13, 1204, Egypt

Jewish philosopher, jurist, and physician, the foremost intellectual figure of medieval Judaism. His first major work, begun at age 23 and completed 10 years later, was a commentary on the Mishna, the collected Jewish oral laws. A monumental code of Jewish law followed in Hebrew, The Guide for the Perplexed in Arabic, and numerous other works, many of major importance. His contributions in religion, philosophy, and medicine have influenced Jewish and non-Jewish scholars alike.

Maimonides was born into a distinguished family in Córdoba (Cordova), Spain. The young Moses studied with his learned father, Maimon, and other masters and at an early age astonished his teachers by his remarkable depth and versatility. Before Moses reached his 13th birthday, his peaceful world was suddenly disturbed by the ravages of war and persecution.

As part of Islamic Spain, Córdoba had accorded its citizens full religious freedom. But now the Islamic Mediterranean world was shaken by a revolutionary and fanatical Islamic sect, the Almohads (Arabic: al-Muwaḥḥidūn, “the Unitarians”), who captured Córdoba in 1148, leaving the Jewish community faced with the grim alternative of submitting to Islam or leaving the city. The Maimons temporized by practicing their Judaism in the privacy of their homes, while disguising their ways in public as far as possible to appear like Muslims. They remained in Córdoba for some 11 years, and Maimonides continued his education in Judaic studies as well as in the scientific disciplines in vogue at the time.

When the double life proved too irksome to maintain in Córdoba, the Maimon family finally left the city about 1159 to settle in Fez, Morocco. Although it was also under Almohad rule, Fez was presumably more promising than Córdoba because there the Maimons would be strangers, and their disguise would be more likely to go undetected. Moses continued his studies in his favourite subjects, rabbinics and Greek philosophy, and added medicine to them. Fez proved to be no more than a short respite, however. In 1165 Rabbi Judah ibn Shoshan, with whom Moses had studied, was arrested as a practicing Jew and was found guilty and then executed. This was a sign to the Maimon family to move again, this time to Palestine, which was in a depressed economic state and could not offer them the basis of a livelihood. After a few months they moved again, now to Egypt, settling in Fostat, near Cairo. There Jews were free to practice their faith openly, though any Jew who had once submitted to Islam courted death if he relapsed to Judaism. Moses himself was once accused of being a renegade Muslim, but he was able to prove that he had never really adopted the faith of Islam and so was exonerated.

Though Egypt was a haven from harassment and persecution, Moses was soon assailed by personal problems. His father died shortly after the family’s arrival in Egypt. His younger brother, David, a prosperous jewelry merchant on whom Moses leaned for support, died in a shipwreck, taking the entire family fortune with him, and Moses was left as the sole support of his family. He could not turn to the rabbinate because in those days the rabbinate was conceived of as a public service that did not offer its practitioners any remuneration. Pressed by economic necessity, Moses took advantage of his medical studies and became a practicing physician. His fame as a physician spread rapidly, and he soon became the court physician to the sultan Saladin, the famous Muslim military leader, and to his son al-Afḍal. He also continued a private practice and lectured before his fellow physicians at the state hospital. At the same time he became the leading member of the Jewish community, teaching in public and helping his people with various personal and communal problems.

Maimonides married late in life and was the father of a son, Abraham, who was to make his mark in his own right in the world of Jewish scholarship.

The writings of Maimonides were numerous and varied. His earliest work, composed in Arabic at the age of 16, was the Millot ha-Higgayon (“Treatise on Logical Terminology”), a study of various technical terms that were employed in logic and metaphysics. Another of his early works, also in Arabic, was the Essay on the Calendar (Hebrew title: Maʾamar haʿibur).

The first of Maimonides’ major works, begun at the age of 23, was his commentary on the Mishna, Kitāb al-Sirāj, also written in Arabic. The Mishna is a compendium of decisions in Jewish law that dates from earliest times to the 3rd century. Maimonides’ commentary clarified individual words and phrases, frequently citing relevant information in archaeology, theology, or science. Possibly the work’s most striking feature is a series of introductory essays dealing with general philosophic issues touched on in the Mishna. One of these essays summarizes the teachings of Judaism in a creed of Thirteen Articles of Faith.

He completed the commentary on the Mishna at the age of 33, after which he began his magnum opus, the code of Jewish law, on which he also laboured for 10 years. Bearing the name of Mishne Torah (“The Torah Reviewed”) and written in a lucid Hebrew style, the code offers a brilliant systematization of all Jewish law and doctrine. He wrote two other works in Jewish law of lesser scope: the Sefer ha-mitzwot (Book of Precepts), a digest of law for the less sophisticated reader, written in Arabic; and the Hilkhot ha-Yerushalmi (“Laws of Jerusalem”), a digest of the laws in the Palestinian Talmud, written in Hebrew.

His next major work, which he began in 1176 and on which he laboured for 15 years, was his classic in religious philosophy, the Dalālat al-ḥāʾirīn (The Guide for the Perplexed), later known under its Hebrew title as the Moreh nevukhim. A plea for what he called a more rational philosophy of Judaism, it constituted a major contribution to the accommodation between science, philosophy, and religion. It was written in Arabic and sent as a private communication to his favourite disciple, Joseph ibn Aknin. The work was translated into Hebrew in Maimonides’ lifetime and later into Latin and most European languages. It has exerted a marked influence on the history of religious thought.

Maimonides also wrote a number of minor works, occasional essays dealing with current problems that faced the Jewish community, and he maintained an extensive correspondence with scholars, students, and community leaders. Among his minor works those considered to be most important are Iggert Teman (Epistle to Yemen), Iggeret ha-shemad or Maʾamar Qiddush ha-Shem (“Letter on Apostasy”), and Iggeret le-qahal Marsilia (“Letter on Astrology,” or, literally, “Letter to the Community of Marseille”). He also wrote a number of works dealing with medicine, including a popular miscellany of health rules, which he dedicated to the sultan, al-Afḍal. A mid-20th-century historian, Waldemar Schweisheimer, has said of Maimonides’ medical writings: “Maimonides’ medical teachings are not antiquated at all. His writings, in fact, are in some respects astonishingly modern in tone and contents.”

Maimonides complained often that the pressures of his many duties robbed him of peace and undermined his health. He died in 1204 and was buried in Tiberias, in the Holy Land, where his grave continues to be a shrine drawing a constant stream of pious pilgrims.

Maimonides’ advanced views aroused opposition during his lifetime and after his death. In 1233 one zealot, Rabbi Solomon of Montpellier, in southern France, instigated the church authorities to burn The Guide for the Perplexed as a dangerously heretical book. But the controversy abated after some time, and Maimonides came to be recognized as a pillar of the traditional faith—his creed became part of the orthodox liturgy—as well as the greatest of the Jewish philosophers.

Maimonides’ epoch-making influence on Judaism extended also to the larger world. His philosophic work, translated into Latin, influenced the great medieval Scholastic writers, and even later thinkers, such as Benedict de Spinoza and G.W. Leibniz, found in his work a source for some of their ideas. His medical writings constitute a significant chapter in the history of medical science.

Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser



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