Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Middle Ages War Over Aristotle

Ibn Rushd, the twelfth century Arab philosopher, who lived in Spain and is generally known by his Latinate name Averroes, was known in Middle Age Europe as “the Commentator,” since he was a renowned commentator on Aristotle. The distinctive aspect of his work is his atheistic interpretation of Aristotle. He believed that a harmony between reason and faith could never be achieved. While he claimed that the existence of God could be proved through reason, he rejected the idea of a “creator God,” or a God who builds and interferes in the affairs of men. He saw Aristotle’s theory of “Ultimate Mover” as a phenomena which transcended time and preached that the universe is eternal. He rejected the existence of a personal soul—death to him meant the final end. 

Thomas Aquinas, who came a century after Averroes, gave a distinctly theistic interpretation of Aristotle. His Aristotelian project was motivated by his belief that a harmony between reason and faith was possible. He believed that the existence of God could be proved through reason, and he attempted to do so in his work. He has interpreted the Aristotelian theory of “Ultimate Mover” as an act of God’s creation of the world at a definite point of time. He believed in the existence of a personal soul which survived man’s death and was judged by God. In his magnum opus, the massive Summa contra Gentiles, he has used reason, instead of the tenets of scriptures, to win over the unbelievers who were swayed by the false interpretation of Aristotle. Averroes has 503 mentions in the arguments of Summa contra Gentiles.

Averroes’s work was translated into Latin by Michael Scot in the early years of the thirteenth century and Averroism came to dominate the study of Aristotle in Europe till the fourteenth century. In this period, several top scholars claimed that they were fascinated by Averroes’s work. But in the fifteenth century, Averroes was dethroned, and Aquinas acquired the centerstage in Aristotelian scholarship. Some Renaissance scholars (the humanists) have stated that Averroes’s work on Aristotle must be rejected since it was clumsy and inaccurate. But in the twentieth century, several aspects of Averroes, especially his atheistic interpretations of Aristotle, have made a comeback in intellectual circles.

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