Remember this detail of Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) in The School of Athens fresco by Raphael? Aristotle is gesturing to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, while Plato is gesturing to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms. Rinse, wait 1000 years, and repeat. (picture credit Wikipedia)
What is it about philosophers that makes them think there is a world of perfection somewhere out there hanging free from this one? Is it in the nature of those who think hard about the world to lose themselves in their reveries and drift loose to a place where they can dream that they have no ties to the material realm? Or do their difficulties and frustrations with things as they are somehow nurture them to develop these idealist longings? The answer is a bit of both of course, with the "nature x nurture" model explaining both the origin of personalities distributed along a spectrum of being biased towards thought or action, as well as explaining how random environments help exaggerate or blunt those tendencies toward a successful adaptive fit. Explained thusly, it's no wonder we keep seeing these patterns repeated—of thinkers drifting off, only to be tugged back to reality by a clear-eyed empiricist. We first saw this in the perfect forms of Plato, which he thought existed out there somewhere in the ether and were the prior generators of all things in the world. But those forms were dismissed by Aristotle, perhaps the first great scientist, who preferred to start with what he saw and simply explain the world from there.
Two weeks ago, I took a look at Avicenna—the first great philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age. He lived in the far eastern edge of the caliphate in modern day Uzbekistan and used arguments about infinite regressions and floating men to infer that there must be an essence that precedes the existence of the world. But just as Aristotle rebuffed Plato
If you remember from my profile of Aristotle, we only have 31 of his approximately 200 treatises, and the writing that survives, "makes heavy use of unexplained technical terminology, and his sentence structure can at times prove frustrating...haphazardly organized, if organized at all…(which) helps explain why students who turn to Aristotle after first being introduced to the prose in Plato's dialogues often find the experience frustrating." One of the reasons Aristotle survives at all is because of the translations and summaries that Averroes undertook for these works. Reporting how he was inspired to write his famous commentaries, Averroes said, "Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl summoned me one day and told me that he had heard the Commander of the Faithful complaining about the disjointedness of Aristotle's mode of expression and the resultant obscurity of his intentions. He said that if someone took on these books who could summarize them and clarify their aims after first thoroughly understanding them himself, people would have an easier time comprehending them. 'If you have the energy,' Ibn Tufayl told me, 'you do it. I'm confident you can, because I know what a good mind and devoted character you have, and how dedicated you are to the art.'"
Important work, these summaries of philosophers too lost in their obtuse thoughts for their own good… Speaking of which, here's how I viewed the contributions of Averroes in my own analysis of the survival of the fittest philosophers.
Averroes (1126-1198 CE) was a Muslim polymath, a master of Aristotelian philosophy, Islamic philosophy, Islamic theology, Maliki law and jurisprudence, logic, psychology, politics, Arabic music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics and celestial mechanics.
In ontology, Averroes rejects the view advanced by Avicenna that existence is merely accidental. Avicenna held that “essence is ontologically prior to existence.” The accidental, i.e. attributes that are not essential, are additional contingent characteristics. A hat may be red, it may be old, and (for Avicenna) it may exist. Averroes, following Aristotle, holds that individual existing substances are primary. One may separate them mentally; however, ontologically speaking, existence and essence are one. Yes. More existentialism in history.
Averroes’ most important original philosophical work was The Incoherence of Incoherence, in which he defended Aristotelian philosophy. Other works were the Fasl al-Maqal, which argued for the legality of philosophical investigation under Islamic law. Averroes, following Plato, accepted the principle of women’s equality. He thought they should be educated and allowed to serve in the military; the best among them might be tomorrow’s philosophers or rulers. Averroes had no discernible influence on Islamic philosophic thought until modern times though. What a shame for such a large swath of humanity.
Needs to Adapt
Arab philosophers did not have access to Aristotle's Politics. Averroes commented on Plato's Republic, arguing that the state there described was the same as the original constitution of the Arabs. Averroes, following Plato’s paternalistic model, advances an authoritarian ideal. Absolute monarchy led by a philosopher-king creates a virtuous society. This requires extensive use of coercion, although persuasion is preferred and possible if the young are properly raised. Kings, even philosopher-kings, are an untenable inconsistency in a cooperative society. Representative government is required to strengthen social bonds since that is philosophically consistent with the ideal society’s principles. Force may be required to ensure that cheaters do not win, and cooperation increases when punishment from the group is allowed, but no one should be coerced to do the right thing. Raising the young properly would go a long way toward creating this kind of society.
According to Averroes, there is no conflict between religion and philosophy; they are different ways of reaching the same truth. He believed in the eternity of the universe. He also held that the soul is divided into two parts, one individual and one divine; while the individual soul is not eternal, all humans at the basic level share one and the same divine soul. Averroes has two kinds of Knowledge of Truth. The first being his knowledge of truth of religion being based in faith and thus could not be tested, nor did it require training to understand. The second knowledge of truth is philosophy, which was reserved for an elite few who had the intellectual capacity to undertake its study. The beliefs he held show just how incompatible religion is with philosophy. The universe is not eternal - we can now roughly date it. There are no souls separate from existence. And no one should take religious views blindly. Philosophy, evolutionary philosophy anyway, finds justification for laws and morality that are useful for everyone, not just an intellectual elite.
Influenced by the empirical worldview of Aristotle, Averroes' thoughts could have been a great influence on the direction of the Islamic world. Unfortunately, that empire was about to crumble and have little time for well thought out progress. There is "little agreement on the precise causes" of the decline of the golden age of Islam, but in addition to invasions by Mongols and crusaders that brought the destruction of libraries and madrasahs, it has also been suggested that political mismanagement and the stifling of ijtihad (independent reasoning) in the 12th century in favor of institutionalised taqleed (imitation) thinking played a part. The destruction of Baghdad in 1258 by Hulagu Khan (Genghis Khan's grandson and Kublai Khan's brother) is traditionally seen as the approximate end of the Golden Age—a mere 60 years after the death of Averroes. Just as the fall of the Roman Empire stalled scientific explorations and progress by the Aristotelian disciples of that age, any further explorations the Islamic world may have made were halted by yet another disastrous political upheaval.
Fortunately, Averroes' thoughts took hold in a Europe that was ready to listen to Aristotle and the wisdom of ancient greece again after several centuries of stagnation. Averroes was "the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe" and his detailed commentaries on Aristotle earned him the title of "The Commentator" in Europe. Latin translations of Averroes' work led the way to the popularisation of Aristotle and were responsible for the development of scholasticism in medieval Europe, which we saw the beginnings of last week with Anselm and will continue a bit further next week with our penultimate religious scholar. Stay tuned!