Monday, November 6, 2017

The Carolingian Renaissance

In A History of Philosophy (Volume II): Augustine to Scotus, Frederick Copleston offers an insight into the Carolingian Renaissance which flowered during the reign of the Carolingian ruler Charlemagne and was the first of the three medieval renaissances. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter II, “The Carolingian Renaissance”:
Charlemagne’s renaissance aimed at a dissemination of existing learning and what it accomplished was indeed remarkable enough; but it did not lead to original thought and speculation, except in the one instance of John Scotus’s system. If the Carolingian empire and civilization had survived and continued to flourish, a period of original work would doubtless have eventuated at length, but actually it was destined to be submerged in the new Dark Ages and there would be need of another renaissance before the medieval period of positive, constructive and original work could be realized.
Copleston’s description of the reasons behind the Carolingian Renaissance and its impact on mediaeval European society provides an answer to the important question: Why didn’t the Arabs have a Renaissance when they had several Aristotelian scholars like Avicenna and Averroes?

The Arab Kingdoms could not have a renaissance because they didn’t have a 1000 year long history of arguing for or against Aristotle. The Arab society’s contact with Aristotelianism was at a superficial level, with the discussion being confined to a few scholars like Avicenna and Averroes.

The situation, with respect to Aristotle, was markedly different in Europe, where Aristotelian ideas were being actively debated by a wide range of scholars for almost 1000 years before Aquinas. In fact, Averroes’s work was very widely read and discussed in Europe, but it did not evoke any interest in the Middle East.

Thomas Aquinas did not rediscover Aristotle in the 12th century—Aristotle was never forgotten in Europe and he didn’t need any rediscovery. The contribution of Aquinas is that his works made Aristotle's ideas dramatic and accessible to a wider public. Before Aquinas, Aristotle was known only to a fringe group of scholars, but after him Aristotle started acquiring the intellectual centerstage.

According to Copleston, historical factors outside the sphere of philosophy led to the collapse of the empire of Charlemagne and with that the Carolingian Renaissance came to an end. Here’s an excerpt:
In addition to the internal factors which prevented the fruit of the Carolingian renaissance coming to maturity (such as the political disintegration which led in the tenth century to the transference of the imperial crown from France to Germany, the decay of monastic and ecclesiastical life, and the degradation of the Papacy), there were also operative such external factors as the attacks of the Norsemen in the ninth and tenth centuries, who destroyed centers of wealth and culture and checked the development of civilization, as also the attacks of the Saracens and the Mongols. Internal decay, combined with external dangers and attacks, rendered cultural progress impossible. To conserve, or to attempt to do so, was the only practicable course: progress in scholarship and philosophy lay again in the future. 
The Europeans could recover from the failure of the Carolingian Renaissance because the Aristotelian ideas were deep rooted in their society. In the 10th century they had their second renaissance which was the Ottonian Renaissance, and when that too failed, they had their third renaissance of the 12th century. 

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