_Averroes and Thomas Aquinas

The Greek civilization was not lost at all, because the Arabs prevented some books from being burned by Christian fanatics. But soon there were Islamist fans willing to burn the few that were left.

The Islam

At one end of the decaying Roman Empire, Muhammad founded Islam. In 630 Muhammad’s army reconquered Mecca and continued its military expansion until it occupied more territory than all the Christian kingdoms together.

In northern Arabia, a pre-scientific culture and interest in astronomy, geometry and calculus had survived. Also for medical practice, unpublished in the world. When Islam spread through Egypt, North Africa and Spain, the dominant Muslim policy was of the religious tolerance – established by Muhammad in 622 – towards Jews and Christians, who practiced religions of the Book, of Abraham as a source shared with the Islamic religion.

In little more than a century, the armies of Islam also occupied Persia, the Middle East to India, the Maghreb, Visigoth Spain and Portugal and a corner of France.

1280 almohades

In the twelfth century the Christian kingdoms of Castile, León and Portugal had already recovered much of the Iberian peninsula. The Muslim area was divided into kingdoms of Taifas.

Averroes: a philosopher in Islam





Averroes was born in 1126 in Córdoba, in Muslim Spain. He was a philosopher and doctor. He also became Cadí de Córdoba (ruler and judge of Islamic law), a position his grandfather and father had also held in Córdoba. But Averroes has gone down in history by writing a book of commentaries on Aristotle’s texts, which had been saved from the stake by the Persians and tolerated by the first Muslims. In those comments, Averroes defended Aristotle’s philosophy and its compatibility with the doctrine of the Koran.

After the triumph of the Almohads, the power of the Ulemas (Islamic scholars with thought control functions similar to Christian theologians) grew. The caliph who had protected the philosopher distanced himself from him. And Averroes was banished to another city and was ordered to burn his books. He died shortly after, in 1198.

Despite the condemnation, Aristotle’s works with the comments of Averroes were translated from Arabic to Latin and circulated throughout Europe. By 1220-1230 they were already part of the philosophy curriculum at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Paris.

Thomas Aquinas: Christian philosopher and theologian

In 1224, 26 years after the death of Averroes, Thomas Aquinas was born in Italy. He would be called “Doctor Angelic” and considered the most important philosopher and theologian of Christianity.

Aquino studied Aristotle at the University of Paris between 1246-1248, possibly of the translated version of Arabic with comments by Averroes. Between 1255-1265 the Averroismo was consolidated among the lay philosophers of the Faculty of Arts.

Since 1256 Aquino was a professor of Theology at the University of Paris. He tried to combine Aristotle’s thinking with Christianity, as Averroes had tried to do with Islam. And like Averroes, Aquino got into a good mess.

At the University of Paris the departments of philosophy (laity) and theology (religious) were seriously confronted. Among the “philosophers” Aristotle was studied with the comments of Averroes. Theologians soon accused them of “averroistas” heretics, which represented the risk of a death sentence.

Among the theologians themselves relations were not better. The Dominicans were faced with the Franciscans, who followed St. Augustine, who was criticized by some Dominicans, among whom was Thomas Aquinas.

The accusation of averroismo was frequent between the theologians, not only against the philosophers of the School of Arts, but also against the rival theologians.

Thomas Aquinas wrote numerous works, mainly the Sum against Gentiles and the Theological Sum, in which he used reasoning methods according to the Aristotle Logic treatise. In these works, Aquino develops a whole system of reasoning to support theological dogmas based on divine revelation that could be questioned.

His position was that philosophy had the right to exist, but subordinated to theology because there are truths that are based on faith. That is, as long as the philosophers were under the hierarchical control of the theologians. How Alicia learned through the Looking Glass, the question is which is to be master.

The Thomistic system (of Thomas) was very difficult to refute, if not impossible. But it was possible to attack ad-hominem (the author as a person). And that was as simple as accusing him of a heretic. The machinery of the inquisitorial power did not stop easily once it started.

In 1274 Thomas Aquinas told his friends that God had appeared to him: “Such things have been revealed to me that what I have written seems like straw.” As a result of this revelation, he stopped writing. The Theological Sum, the most important work of his life, remained unfinished. Shortly after, he passed away.

Three years after his death, in 1277, the Bishop of Paris Esteban Templier condemned 219 theses of the University’s averroistas. Some of them belonged to Thomas Aquinas. We do not know if God’s revelation to Thomas was a warning of what was coming upon him. The truth is that death freed him from being condemned as a heretic.

Fifty years after his death, after several cures and other miraculous events, Thomas was canonized and since then he is known as Saint Thomas Aquinas. Two years later (52 of his death) his works were rehabilitated and he declared by the Doctor Angelica Church.

Historical influence of Averroes and Tomás de Aquino

I am struck by the life of Averroes, which seems as if it were isolated, except for its transitory friendship with the Caliph. Where were the other thinkers of the time? Someone had to intervene so that their writings were not lost and translated into Latin.

On the contrary, Thomas Aquinas lived his entire life in the midst of a great social and ideological effervescence, from the University of Paris, but also from Cambridge, where similar things happened.

There is a continuous boil, a crossroads of ideas from previous centuries. As if such events were the omen of something very important.

They argued frantically if the world had been created by God since ever; or at a given time. They did not discuss who had created it, because they already knew that. They only discussed when. I find that question very current.

They also discussed whether the soul belongs to the body and dies with it or if it is part of a collective soul (part of the spirit of God). And if there are one or two souls. These questions also seem current to me. This essay raises a very similar one.

And they discussed this other question: if there are two ways to reach the truth. It also seems like a good question. My opinion is that there are two complementary ways to acquire knowledge: by the left, feeling and sensing, immediately, a cloud of undetermined possibilities that emotionally engage us in the situation. And by the right, determining those possibilities; either in practice through instruments or in rational thinking through language. This is how the interpreter (1) acts. But our interpreter is not a theologian, but a function of the brain.

In those discussions, philosophical or theological, two things were missing: First: there were no women. If there had been, they would have put some practical order among such manly vanity. In this image of a theologians meeting in Paris, try to recount women; but without confusing cassocks with skirts.

And there was also a lack of freedom of thought. But it was argued, that it is not little; and freedom, like life, always makes its way. They were not the end, as had happened with Averroes in Islam; but the beginning of something. It was less than two centuries before the Renaissance.

In evolution, time does not matter. Rather, it is time that makes everything change. And not as Aristotle and Plato believed, but as Heraclitus and Democritus knew before them (2).

The condemnation of Averroes in the world of Islam cut off the philosophical and scientific thinking outside the Koran. In Muslim societies, that loss has never been overcome.

On the contrary, in Paris and Cambridge in the thirteenth century, something had been sown in human thought, which would still take time to germinate. Just as life makes its way, also, even from fanaticism, the search for truth opens its way. Although that requires personal freedom…

And it happened that, in addition to philosophers and theologians, there was another class of people engaged to the future. And they began to show themselves: they were the merchants.

To them I dedicate the next chapter: Merchants to the rescue.

See Chapter index


Current chapter NOTES

(1) Michael Gazzaniga, a researcher with Sperry of spinal brain patients, defends the thesis that the left cerebral hemisphere (which controls the right side of the body) acts as an interpreter for the other hemisphere, eventually inventing, if necessary, some missing item to complete a story.

(2) On Heraclitus and Democritus see: Dialectical or metaphysical thinking?Dialectical or metaphysical thinking?

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