Averroism is the term applied to two philosophical trends originating among European scholastics in the late thirteenth century, after the introduction of Averroës' interpretations of Aristotle. European scholastics, who had been heavily dependent on Platonism and Neo-Platonism, made a new acquaintance with Aristotle in the twelfth century, through Latin translations of the Arabic commentaries of Averroes (1126-1198). From about 1230 onwards, these commentaries exerted a powerful influence on Latin scholastics. Centering on Boetius of Dacia and Siger of Brabant (c. 1240 - c. 1284), the University of Paris became the center of the new Aristotelianism. The term Averroistae ([too ardent] followers of Averroes) began to be used around 1270. In 1277, the Bishop of Paris condemned 219 theses, including the concept of a shared intellect, and accused unnamed professors at the University of Paris of paying more attention to heathen philosophers than to Christian revelation.
Certain Aristotelian philosophical tenets were inconsistent with standard understandings of Christian doctrine, prompting the Averroists to develop a theory of “double truths,” one arrived at through philosophy and science, and one arrived at through religion. The main conflicts were over monopsychism, the concept that all human beings share a single intellect; the attainability of happiness in this life through the pursuit of truth through reason; the impossibility of resurrection of the dead; and the eternity of the world. Averroistic ideas are evident in the works of Giordano Bruno, Pico della Mirandola, and Cesare Cremonini, which discuss the superiority of philosophers to the common people and the relation between the intellect and human dignity.
Rise of “Averroism”
During the thirteenth century, Latin translations of the works of Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126 - 1198), the twelfth-century Muslim commentator on Aristotle, made the teachings of Aristotle widely available to scholars in Europe for the first time. From about 1230 onwards, these commentaries exerted a powerful influence on Latin scholastics. Centering on Boetius of Dacia and Siger of Brabant (c. 1240-c. 1284), the University of Paris became the strongest center of the new Aristotelianism. Around 1270, the term Averroistae ([too ardent] followers of Averroes) began to be used in a derogatory sense, mainly to characterize those who contended that there is only one shared human intellect. In 1277, the Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, condemned 219 theses, including the concept of a shared intellect, and accused unnamed professors at the University of Paris of paying more attention to heathen philosophers than to Christian revelation, and of behaving as if there were two truths, one of philosophy and another of faith. A generation later, Ramon Llull used the term Averroistae when he launched a series of attacks on university philosophers whom he perceived as continuing to promote the propositions which had been condemned in 1277. Some theologians became known as "Latin Averroists."
Nineteenth century historians of philosophy introduced the term “Averroism” based on the medieval use of Averroistae. Averroism was considered to be a movement of thirteenth-century followers of Averroes who saw an inconsistency between philosophy and faith, and claimed that the same proposition could have different “truth values” in theology and philosophy. It was viewed as a precursor of modern atheism, opposed by Albertus Magnus and by Thomas Aquinas in De unitate intellectus (On the Unicity of Intellect) and De aeternitate mundi (On the Eternity of the World).
Twentieth-century historians identified three trends in late-thirteenth century philosophy. Augustinianism, represented by Franciscan thinkers, continued to oppose the growing influence of Aristotelian thought. Averroism took an Aristotelian approach to philosophical problems, even though it conflicted with Christian faith; and a third trend represented by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas produced a synthesis of Aristotelian ideas and Christian faith.
The basic emphasis of Latin Averroism was the superiority of reason and philosophy over faith and knowledge founded on faith, and the independent use of reason. Although condemned by the Church, many Averroistic ideas survived to the sixteenth century in the works of Giordano Bruno, Pico della Mirandola, and Cesare Cremonini, which discuss the superiority of philosophers to the common people and the relation between the intellect and human dignity.
More recently, historians have questioned the accuracy of applying the label “Averroism” to the thirteenth-century movement, and have begun to replace it with 'radical Aristotelianism' or 'heterodox Aristotelianism.' There is historical evidence that the condemnation of 219 theses in 1277 was directed at two “Averroists,” Boethius of Dacia and Siger of Brabant, and consequently early-twentieth century historians had assumed that all 219 theses were drawn from the ideas of Averroism. More recent study showed that most of the theses were not inspired by Averroes. Many of the later philosophers who were influenced by Siger of Brabant or Averroes’ Aristotelianism, such as the Parisian thinkers Ferrandus Hispanus (b. 1275) and John of Jandun (d 1328), and Italian writers from Gentile da Cingoli (1290s), Taddeo of Parma and Angelo d'Arrezzo (early fourteenth century) to Agustino Nifo (1473 – 1538) were more loyal to Averroes than the early “Averroists.”
The Theory of “Averroism”
During the later half of the thirteenth century, when European scholars, who were almost entirely governed by the Roman Catholic Church, began to apply Aristotelian methods to the examination of Christian “truth,” it became clear that certain philosophical tenets were inconsistent with standard understandings of Christian doctrine. Their interpretation of Aristotle’s teaching was based primarily on Latin translations of the Arabic commentaries of Avicenna and Averroes and the Liber de causis, rather than on direct translations from the Greek.
Three concepts became the focus of the conflict between reason and faith; the idea that all humans share a common intellectual soul (monopsychism), the question of whether happiness is attainable in this life, and the eternity of the world.
Medieval philosophers generally accepted that the intellectual soul has two components; an “agent intellect” which processes information provided by the senses and forms universal concepts, and the “possible intellect” which was like an initially blank wax tablet, on which the agent intellect imprints its discoveries. Traditionally, Christian philosophers had thought of the agent intellect as a separate, extra-human substance responsible for shared concepts, while the possible intellect was unique to each individual. Averroes taught that the intellect is a single universal substance with which individual human souls come into contact by forming mental representations of things outside the mind. This doctrine came to be known as monopsychism.
The doctrine of monopsychism allowed for the irrational part of a human soul to be destroyed by death, without diminishing the universal intellect. It also explained how human beings were able to share knowledge, but it did not explain how people were able to think independent, personal thoughts. Medieval Christian thinkers were concerned that monopsychism did not allow for an afterlife of the individual rational soul, to carry responsibility for the acts of that individual during their life on earth. It is also contrary to the Christian doctrine that God creates new souls every day and that God has the power to annihilate a soul if He wishes.
For the next two centuries philosophers continued to use monopsychism to explain the function of the intellect in acquiring and sharing knowledge, while standard Church doctrine continued to proclaim that the intellect was both the “form” of the body and capable of a separate, individual existence after the death of the body. In 1513, the Fifth Lateran Council explicitly asserted that it is the form of the human body, immortal, and as many in number as are the bodies into which it is infused, and condemned monopsychism.
Happiness attainable during Earthly life
Around 1260-1270, masters from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Paris often expressed optimism that happiness could be attained during life on earth. The way to attain happiness was through an intellectual ascent to the contemplation of ever higher beings, culminating in contemplation of the First Cause (God) and the temporary union of the individual’s possible intellect with the source of intellectual understanding, the agent intellect. The agent intellect was considered a separate substance, not identical with God Himself. Such a state of intellectual bliss would be the fullest actualization of a person as a rational being.
This concept did not require either divine revelation or an individual life after death in order for humans to reach their ultimate goal of happiness. Boethius of Dacia maintained that according to natural philosophy, resurrection of the dead was impossible; this view was commonly held by many philosophers. This was one of the points on which philosophy and theology held different truths. It was known through revelation that there will be an afterlife, but a claim to that effect could be incorporated into a consistent theory of nature.
Eternity of the world
Some early philosophers, such as William of Conches (twelfth century), attempted to interpret Aristotle as accepting a temporal beginning of the world. Beginning with Robert Grosseteste in the 1230s it was commonly assumed that Aristotelian philosophy required the eternal existence of the world, because the idea of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) was not consistent with any of the Aristotelian modes of change. Since change implies the prior existence of the subject undergoing change, creation of matter out of nothing could not be incorporated in Aristotelian concepts of natural science. The Averroists simply denied that God created the world out of nothing.
Like their Islamic predecessors, Averroists developed a theory of “double truth” to accommodate the conflicts between philosophy and the teachings of the Church. Averroes had held that there is one truth, but there are (at least) two ways to approach it, through philosophy and through religion. Averroist thinkers developed several ways to deal with the conflict. Thomas Aquinas, for example, explained that philosophers had misinterpreted some of the information obtained by natural means, and that their conclusions were therefore incomplete. Siger of Brabant claimed that there existed a "double truth," a factual or "hard" truth reached through science and philosophy, and a "religious" truth reached through religion. The nature of a philosophical thesis is such that there is no way to detect error within its derivation; if it conflicts with a Christian principle, it should be rejected on the authority of faith. Boethius of Dacia, distinguishing the conditional truth of a scientific theorem from absolute truth, explained that belief in a first cause makes it reasonable to expect that there are truths which no scientific theory can possibly account for.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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- Ebbesen, Sten. Averroism, Islamic Philosophy Online, Routledge, 1998.
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Paideia Project Online
- Project Gutenberg
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