The “Woman’s Rights” Man: A New Book on Women in Frederick Douglass’s World, by Ibram X. Kendi

Left: Leigh Fought, image Le Moyne College; right, Anna Douglass, image Library of Congress

The author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass is Leigh Fought. Professor Fought is an associate professor of history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. She was an associate editor on the first volume of Frederick Douglass’s correspondence at the Frederick Douglass Papers, published by Yale University Press in 2009. Her previous books includes Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisa McCord (University of Missouri Press, 2003) and Mystic, Connecticut: From Pequot Village to Tourist Town (History Press, 2006). Professor Fought earned her Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Houston and a Master of Library Science degree from Simmons College in Boston.

In his extensive writings, Frederick Douglass revealed little about his private life. His famous autobiographies present him overcoming unimaginable trials to gain his freedom and establish his identity—all in service to his public role as an abolitionist. But in both the public and domestic spheres, Douglass relied on a complicated array of relationships with women: white and black, slave-mistresses and family, political collaborators and intellectual companions, wives and daughters. The great man needed them throughout a turbulent life that was never so linear and self-made as he often wished to portray it.In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career. Fought examines Douglass’s varied relationships with white women—including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing—who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women’s movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally. She also considers Douglass’s relationship with his daughter Rosetta, who symbolized her parents’ middle class prominence but was caught navigating between their public and private worlds. Late in life, Douglass remarried to a white woman, Helen Pitts, who preserved his papers, home, and legacy for history.

By examining the circle of women around Frederick Douglass, this work brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed “woman’s rights man.”

In this well-researched and richly textured book, Leigh Fought gives us a fascinating new view into the life and times of one our most famous and revered figures: Frederick Douglass. As he freely acknowledged, women helped make Douglass the man he became. So we, too, are in debt to the women whose stories come so vividly alive in these pages.”—Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Ibram X. Kendi: What are the principle findings or arguments of the book? What do you hope readers take away from reading it?

Leigh Fought: Frederick Douglass would not have become one of the greatest black activists of the nineteenth century without the work of women. This was not the cliché “behind every great man is a woman.” Women played a central role in his intellectual development, his independence as a man and activist, his economic well-being, his challenge to racial stereotypes and prohibitions, and the persistence of his place in history.

When I started this project, I was simply interested in finding more about all of these women who seemed as fascinated by Douglass as I was, except that they actually knew him. I also thought that the project would be synthetic. As it turned out, others had expressed little curiosity about most of the women themselves, with the exception of those women who merited their own biographies. Then, as I began to reconstruct the lives of the women from original research in order to explain their interaction with Douglass, I began to see a feminine space around him, much like the concept of a “negative space” in art. That feminine space, like most feminine spaces, was where the real action took place. If you want to know about a life, that is the place you have to investigate.

In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, readers will meet a host of fascinating, resourceful women, some of whom might otherwise remain footnotes. The women featured in this book had the most dramatic influence on Douglass’s life, but they also had their own agendas and contexts that explain the ebb and flow of their relationships with Douglass, as well as his respect for or sympathy with them. The abuse suffered by slave women and the capitulation of white women to the institution of slavery shaped his childhood, laying the foundation for the man he became. In his adulthood, each woman at some point formed a partnership with Douglass to advance a cause against racism that extended beyond abolition and the end of slavery. His relationships with all of these women exposed the variety of ways that gender and race were employed as tools of oppression. At the same time, he and they mobilized their resistance along those very same lines. While the story of women in Douglass’s world does not preclude other actors or influences in his life, by bringing them into focus their biographies add nuance and deeper understanding to his.

This piece was originally published at Black Perspectives, the blog of the AAIHS, on May 1st, 2017, the release date of Ms. Fought’s book

Ibram X. Kendi is the associate editor of Black Perspectives. He is the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In August, Kendi begins a new position as Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Lovely But Sterile?

Statue of Athena, goddess of Philosophy and War, in the Vatican Museum. Like so much of traditional academic philosophy: elegant, cold, impersonal, the purview of the wealthy, and white…

W.E.B. DuBois once wrote that academic philosophy is the ‘lovely but sterile land of philosophical speculation.’ He decides to turn his attention to history and the social sciences so he can offer more concrete answers and practical help to his beleaguered fellow black citizens.

I’ve been inclined to agree with DuBois now and again, out of irritation, out of impatience, out of out of distaste for the obscurantist language and arch tone philosophy is sometimes delivered in, and no doubt, out of my own inability to comprehend. While I often find academic philosophy enthralling, elegant, interesting, and beautiful, I sometimes think, well yes, this is interesting, this is clever, this is fun, but in the end, what does it do? What is it for, and who is it for? Why care about those fine points, technical details, and subtle nuances that academics and scholars go on about that are seemingly unrelated to practical matters of general human wellbeing? Are they just entertaining and impressing themselves and occasionally each other?

I’ve heard people make a similar critique of the arts as DuBois makes of philosophy. ‘Real art’ shouldn’t be primarily about pleasure, about beauty for beauty’s sake, though it can be beautiful too. Its primary purpose should be to transform, inspire, even disturb and shock the viewer so as to make them an agent of change.

Here’s the thing: as much as I love history, ethical theory, civil rights movements, the arts as described in the previous sentence, and so on, I also love human artifacts which have no apparent reason to exist other than their interest and beauty. This is sometimes portrayed as frivolous: why please ourselves with ‘useless’ things which don’t do any work, which don’t inspire action? But I counter: why does everything have to be useful to us, to do work for us? Putting aside the practical value of philosophy (which I and so many other lovers of philosophy contend is quite high) and the arts, is there no place for sheer beauty, sheer interest? Is there no value in just pleasing our senses, from our most basic and instinctual to our most highly refined? Are the deep desires for intellectual exercise and beauty any less central to the human psyche than the needs for love and liberty and life itself? I know sustaining life and expanding liberty is valuable not only because they help us to survive but because they give us access to those things which make life beautiful.

I also know, for myself, that the beauty and interest I find everywhere in the world, be they in products of nature or of human creativity, impact my heart directly and immediately. I enjoy them without wondering why they exist, if they have a right to exist, or if they are useful to me or others. With human artifacts, it’s only after that first impact that I wonder about the personality and motives of the artist, think about what they’re trying to convey, and find inspiration, whether it be to further refine of my sense of beauty or to change the world or myself in other ways.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, posted from Paris on May 12, 1780. From the Massachusetts Historical Society collections

I think of something John Adams once wrote to his wife Abigail: ‘The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.’ For Adams, the purpose of work to change the world for the better is in order that beauty can exist in the world more plentifully, to be promoted and protected for its own sake, and in order that everyone would ultimately have an equal right to access and enjoy in that beauty. Just so for art, for philosophy, for the natural world and for human society alike.

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

I think DuBois agrees, actually. He clearly loves philosophy for its own sake and thinks it beautiful; after all, he describes it as ‘lovely’ instead of merely dismissing it as useless. But he feels his own talents are best directed at making the world more just for himself and for others who are still routinely denied access to academic philosophy, the high arts, and any other realm of thought and creativity they might want to engage in. Some don’t have the leisure time or disposable income; some are deprived of the right to education or access to the funds needed to pay for it; some live in war-torn places unable to support or protect educational and arts institutions. Like Adams, Dubois feels it his duty and his calling to be an agent of change in his time. And like Adams, DuBois lives a life of philosophy-in-action, his work driven by his convictions about justice and the good life. This demonstrates that for him as it is for countless others, philosophy is fertile indeed.

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Happy Birthday, Morton White!

Morton White in 1981

Well, happy belated birthday, anyway. White was born on April 27, 1917, but I’m publishing this two days late because I had copied Wikipedia’s wrong date onto my list.

The world lost Morton White less than a year ago as I write this today, and I first learned of him through reading his obituary in The New York Times. As I read, I knew this is a man and an approach to philosophy I must learn more about. Being immersed in other projects, I learned little about him in the intervening eleven months. Happily, I was just reminded by going through my list of significant dates in the lives of the world’s great thinkers (by no means comprehensive!) I placed two of his books on hold at the San Francisco Public Library and will commence reading them on this 100th anniversary of his birth.

White was a philosopher and historian of ideas. According to the Institute for Advanced Studies, ‘he maintained that philosophy of science is not philosophy enough, thereby encouraging the examination of other aspects of civilized life—especially art, history, law, politics and religion—and their relations with science’. And as William Grimes put it for TNYT, his ‘innovative theory of “holistic pragmatism” showed the way toward a more socially engaged, interdisciplinary role for philosophy’.

I studied philosophy with great love and enthusiasm as an undergraduate, yet I found myself then as now just as curious about other disciplines, especially history and the arts, and have often felt that the lines dividing these areas of study are sometimes artificial and even impediments to understanding. Since then, I’ve been pursuing my studies in the broader history of ideas as well, informally for the past few years, formally at the University of Edinburgh starting this fall. No doubt, White has influenced the direction my studies in intellectual history will take in ways I’ll learn as I go along, and in many more ways than I’ll ever know.

Learn more about White and his fascinating ideas with me:

Holistic Pragmatism and the Philosophy of Culture‘ – chapter 1 of A Philosophy of Culture: The Scope of Holistic Pragmatism, New Jersey: Princeton University Press 2002, in which White summarizes what his holistic pragmatism is all about

Morton White, Philosopher of Holistic Pragmatism, Dies at 99‘ – Obituary for the New York Times by William Grimes, June 10, 2016

Morton White 1917–2016 – His memorial page at the Institute for Advanced Study website, June 08, 2016

And you can find his selected bibliography at Wikipedia

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Ordinary Philosophy’s 4th Anniversary

At Monticello, VA, with my Dad, John Cools, in 2015 for my history of ideas series following Thomas Jefferson in America

I published my first post for Ordinary Philosophy four years ago today, on April 23rd, 2013. Thank you, dear readers and listeners, for your kind attention, your encouragement, your corrections, your patience as I learn with and from you, and your hospitality and financial support (you know who you are!) for all of my traveling philosophy / history of ideas series.

Ordinary Philosophy has been one of the most satisfying projects of my life, and I look forward to continuing to share my love of philosophy, history, ideas, and travel for many more years to come, whatever form this will take.

I’m thrilled to share the news with you that I’ll be resuming my formal education at the University of Edinburgh this fall. What an adventure this will be! I’ll be living and studying in the center of the Scottish Enlightenment and the city of David Hume. He brought me here three years ago when I followed his life and ideas for my first history of ideas travel series. I’ll take this opportunity continue my Hume series as well. Though my studies will demand a great deal of my energy and attention, I dearly hope I’ll be able to devote more time to share more with you here at Ordinary Philosophy, not less, as I once again pour the bulk of my time, energy, and love into the world of ideas.

Yours, as ever, Amy Cools

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Selfie in the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library, 2016 Amy Cools

In the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library. Thank you, friends, for supporting my New York projects too! Ahhh, what a town…

John Steinbeck Country Part II: Grave Site and Fremont Peak State Park Hike

San Ardo Gas and Liquor Store, in San Ardo, off highway 101 in central California

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

I head north from Paso Robles, where I dropped off a troupe of long-distance cyclists this morning, via the 101 back towards the San Francisco Bay Area. My route takes me through Salinas and other old stomping grounds of John Steinbeck. I want to visit one site I missed when I was here last time on a cultural tour following his life and writings, and to revisit another site more thoroughly. On the way, I stop for gas in a little agricultural town called San Ardo, having forgotten to fill up in Paso Robles. I’m glad I have to stop here, because this little town reminds me of happy times visiting so many other small towns rather like this on road trips. I stop into the cafe to fill my thermos with coffee and buy some cookies for the road, and have a chat with the friendly young man who works here, in English and in Spanish.

San Ardo Cafe, outside and in, San Ardo, CA, 2017 Amy Cools

The town’s appearance, too, is probably not unrecognizable from Steinbeck’s time. Who knows, he may have passed through here, it’s not far from his old home territory. The people who live and work here are in many ways Steinbeck’s people, those who work the soil so that we can eat but who we have often long neglected and abused. He made it his business for much of his career to illustrate the lives, circumstances, and sometimes desperate plights of these people, often immigrants and refugees fleeing hard times in their places of origin, for the often oblivious American public.

Guide sign to John Steinbeck’s grave in the Garden of Memories, Salinas, CA

Steinbeck and Hamilton family plot, Garden of Memories, Salinas, CA

I continue an hour north to Salinas, where I visit Steinbeck’s grave in the Garden of Memories at Abbott St and East Romie Ln. Here he lies surrounded by his family. His headstone is the one decorated with tributes: coins, pens, and one pine cone (artfully placed by nature or a fan, I don’t know). You may recognize some of the names from his novel East of Eden: Hamilton, the family name of his mother; John Ernst, the first and middle name of the author and his father; and Olive Hamilton, the schoolteacher daughter of Samuel Hamilton and the author’s mother. It’s pretty here today, very green, with tiny white daisies and various kinds of yellow flowers blooming everywhere.

East of Eden is a double Cain-and-Abel story about two pairs of brothers in which one brother enjoys the love of his father with seeming little effort, and the other is jealous and driven to despair when his strenuous efforts to win that same love are rejected. Steinbeck wrote this novel for his sons and in hopes of creating the Great American Novel. It is an excellent novel, great in parts, but not the Novel. If any of his works are contenders for this mythical status, he had already written it as The Grapes of Wrath.

John Steinbeck’s grave marker

Fremont Peak State Park entrance sign, Cold Springs trailhead is to the right through the gate

Then I return to Fremont Peak, which Steinbeck ascended during his Travels with Charley to take in the broad view of his homeland from above. I plan to climb it from the bottom or as near as I can get to it, but find that Fremont Peak State Park is surrounded on all sides by private property until you’re well up the mountain. It was hard to tell this from Google Maps and from my print California maps. The park brochure, which is available free for visitors at the main parking lot near the center of the park and online, contains the map showing the entire trail system. I decide to walk them all, in an order which will take me winding counter-clockwise all around the park, leaving the loop about two-thirds of the way around for an out-and-back to the peak. I’m guessing Steinbeck would likely not have walked this long way up and around. His health was not great: he had long-term heart problems and was a lifelong heavy smoker, which seems to have aged him more than necessary for his years.

On Cold Springs Trail, Fremont Peak State Park, CA. Left, the windy and narrow under the mossy oaks. Right, a small abandoned shack which on first glance appears to be a two-room outhouse but which contains no signs of plumbing or waste pits. The sign above the trough warns that the water no longer piped here is unsafe for drinking

I backtrack to Doe Flat Day Camp near the park entrance and park my car there. As you’re entering the park on Juan Bautista Road, Doe Flat is to the left of the Fremont State Park entrance sign. The trailhead to Cold Springs Trail, on which I commence my hike, is across the street from the campground and through the gate, unmarked except on the park map. I had missed it when I first entered the park since it lacks a sign and because it’s so overgrown. Only a little, narrow, blurred strip of dirt marks the way that evidently few hikers take. It’s green and lush here, a gift of the winter and early spring heavy rains that ended our drought of the last few years. Miner’s lettuce, wood fern, thistle, various grasses, and maidenhair proliferate and revel in the joy of living. The trail is obliterated in many places by fallen trees, the less fortunate recipients of the storms. At one point, I use my head as a battering ram to get through the branches that my hands are already too full to push aside. I’m grateful for my new red sun hat, broad-brimmed and made of a not too heavy but very sturdy synthetic material. It keeps my hair free from the tangling twigs and my shoulders free from scratches. Its bright color will also serve to mark the site of my remains if I am one of those few Californians that make a meal for a mountain lion every two decades or so, if such an enterprising feline takes advantage of my aloneness on this solitary trail. My shins and ankles, however, are shit out of luck.

Left: Maidenhair, miner’s lettuce, spiny wood fern, and grasses. Right: Fallen logs. On Cold Springs Trail, Fremont Peak S.P., CA

Except when it comes to poison oak. I keep an eagle eye out for it; I still have scars from the last time I was here. It’s much easier to see now since the leaves have grown in thick and it’s already starting to redden in some places. I’m also alone this time, and hence undistracted.

Suddenly, the path changes. It’s broader and sandier, and the mossy oaks abruptly give way to manzanita, toyon, and coyote brush. Now I can look up and out at the view because the growth is lower and sparser here, and because the poison oak clearly doesn’t like this dry and sunny side of the hill. Soon after the change, I come to a clearing where a signpost marks the beginning of Valley View Trail where Cold Springs ends at a fire road crossing. There are two weathered picnic benches to my left and a beautiful stand of purple lupine to my right. I veer left on the fire road, then right to continue on to Valley View Trail. The oaks have reappeared, interior live, scrub, and poison. I pick my way with great care again, but the trail is so overgrown and the fallen branches so tangled with it that I’m not sure if I successfully avoid all danger. I’ll be sure to take a hot shower with a scrub brush and plenty of soap when I get home.

Left: Fremont Star Lily. Right: California Mountain Lilac. Fremont Peak State Park, CA

Milk maids and miner’s lettuce in bloom around a mossy trunk, Fremont State Park, CA

The wildflowers are not so thick now in most spots, though I can see the dried and shriveled evidence that they were not long ago. They may soon enjoy a second bloom from the straggler storm that passed through recently. Those still here are just beautiful, white, pink, yellow, purple, and blue. I see waxy yellow California buttercups, blue witch and blue-eyed grass, purple shooting stars and larkspur, golden poppies, white woodland stars, and many, many more. A woodpecker knocks overhead as other birds chatter, squawk, trill, and call with that ‘wheeeeeew’ sound that accompanies old-time comedy scenes.

I cross a little road and Valley View Campground, a sweet little spot. On the other side, Valley View Trail becomes a much wider and well-traveled one, and I start meeting hikers now and again. A pair of lovers frolic and laugh somewhere nearby, fitting in perfectly with the bird chorus. A barbed wire fence running along the right of the trail marks the park boundary.

Left: Hound’s Tongue. Right: Woodland Star. Fremont Peak State Park, CA

Left: Wild Pansy. Right: Royal Larkspur. Fremont Peak State Park, CA, 2017 Amy Cools

Captain John Fremont 1846 flagpole story sign, Fremont Peak State Park, CA

I arrive at the parking lot near Oak Point Campground where the Peak Trail begins, which I ascended with the John Steinbeck Odyssey Tour group in March. There’s a large sign framed in stone which tells the story of Captain John Charles Fremont’s run-in with Prefect Manuel Castro and General Jose Castro in 1846. It tells it as if it’s a heroic tale on Fremont’s part, but it reads to me like an act of arrogance and a provocation to war, waltzing into another’s country with an army and without a by-your-leave then planting your nation’s flag in their soil. His flagpole blew down, however, and the superstitious general hightailed it out of there with his soldiers before any fighting started. The roof of this monument has likewise fallen and a shirtless beefcake is reflected in the sign as I take a picture. The circumstances of this moment make me chuckle.

Rocky trail to Fremont Peak

Wildflowers along the grassy hill side of the trail to Fremont Peak

Panoramic view from Fremont Peak

Historical marker and flagpole on Fremont Peak

In all seriousness, though, this is a beautiful spot, conducive to much loftier thoughts and feelings. I climb to the peak, and the view is incredible. It’s even greener than it was in March, and now it’s wildflower season. The Monterey Bay spreads out ahead and a little my left, and the crop fields grow to my right. The Salinas Valley region is one of the most productive agricultural areas of California. The sight of Fremont’s flagpole here at the top has been marked by another, much sturdier one, and a brass plaque set in concrete, which tells the tale even more heroicly. I chuckle again as my reflective mood is broken.

Then I remember my travel companions gathered with me on the last occasion which brought me here, and sigh. I miss them.

At the foot of the Peak Trail, I turn right onto Carmen’s Trail, which zigzags thinly through slopes thickly covered with softest greenery and more thistles, which gently sting my ankles. It’s lovely and cooler here in the shade of taller oaks, which need to reach higher for the sun in this little canyon. The narrow creek bed running along its bottom is already dry. On the other side, the trail ascends a grassy, open hillside, the green just barely beginning its Midas’ touch transformation into the gold of summer. It’s inset with jewel-bright lupine and poppies throughout.

View from Carmen’s Trail, Fremont Peak State Park

Amy Cools on Fremont Peak

Carmen’s Trail ends at a little pointy shingle-sided building of quality construction, handsomely finished in varnished wood and teal paint, perhaps a cabin. I turn right just before I reach it and take Tony’s Trail, which returns me in short order to Doe Flat. I dine on some leftover pizza which I had set to warm in its foil on the sunny dashboard. It’s more delicious than it was when it was fresh at last night’s dinner.

It’s been a delightful day.

* See my profile of Julia Ward Howe, whose Battle Hymn of the Republic provided the title of The Grapes of Wrath, and which is printed in the opening pages of the novel

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Traveling Philosophy Series, Thomas Jefferson Edition: Prologue

Three years ago today

Ordinary Philosophy

As I sit here in the airport terminal in Salt Lake City, waiting for one of my connecting flights to DC, I sleepily munch on French fries and watch the crowd go by. My ever-generous darling awoke with me at three thirty this morning to drive me to the airport, and though I’m almost too tired to think, I can’t sleep either, as is usually the case at the beginning of a trip (I can usually sleep on the way home).

So as I’m watching the crowd, I’ve got Thomas Jefferson in the back of my mind, as I’ve been immersing myself in biographies, lectures, discussions, and author’s talks about his life and thought over the last couple of weeks. On the first leg of my trip, I had just been re-reading the first chapters of Susan Jacoby’s marvelous Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, in which Jefferson’s Enlightenment philosophy…

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Happy Birthday, Averroes (Ibn Rushd)! By Eric Gerlach

Averroes by Giorgione890 years ago today, on April 14th, 1126, the great Islamic philosopher, theologian, political theorist and scientist Ibn Rushd, or as he is known by the Latinate version of his name in Europe, Averroes, was born.

Among his many achievements, Averroes is credited with popularizing the study of Aristotle in Europe, inspiring the work of Thomas Aquinas and the Christian Scholastics.  Averroes was known as “The Commentator” and Aristotle “The Philosopher” to Aquinas and the Scholastics, as Averroes wrote multiple commentaries to help others understand Aristotle’s thought.  To the left is an image of Averroes standing between and above an ancient Greek sage, likely Aristotle, and an Italian scholar of the Renaissance, sitting at their feet, painted by Giorgione of Venice. Averroes was also a major influence on Maimonides, Giordano Bruno, Pico della Mirandola, and Baruch Spinoza, and was one of the great souls that Dante wrote was dwelling in limbo with the Greek sages who lived before Jesus.

Aquinas Averroes and Scholastics

Thomas Aquinas

Averroes’ grandfather and father both served as chief judge of Cordoba, the place where Averroes was born, which later became part of Spain.  Averroes wrote prolifically, twenty-eight works of philosophy as well as important treatises on law and medicine.  As a rationalist, Averroes argued that philosophy and religion teach the same truth and thus are not in conflict, such that intellectuals pursue the same matters that common people comprehend through religion and rhetoric.  He also argued that analytic thinking was important for the proper interpretation of the Quran, as Christian Scholastics would argue later about the Bible in Europe.  Averroes’ works were banned and burned in Islamic and Christian lands at different times, but they were revered enough to survive in both places.

Averroes was opposed to the work of Al-Ghazali, the Sufi mystic and author of The Incoherence of the Philosophers.  Ghazali argued that philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Al-Farabi and Avicenna contradict each other, and are thus incoherent as a set, and also contradict the teachings of Islam.  Ghazali also argued that Aristotle and those who follow him are wrong to assert that nature proceeds according to established laws, as all things proceed directly through the will of God.  Averroes wrote his most famous work, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, in response to Ghazali.  Averroes defended Aristotle and argued that philosophy doeslead to coherent truth, which is not in conflict with Islam, and that nature proceeds indirectly from God via the laws of nature, which God established during creation.

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Averroes is also famous for his idea of monopsychism, that we all share the same divine soul, mind and awareness, with each taking a part such that the lower soul is individual and mortal but the higher soul is universal and immortal, the source of true inspiration and reason.  Spinoza, who said that each of us is like a wave on the great sea of being, was a pantheist, inspired in part by Averroes.  Much later, when Albert Einstein was asked if he believed in God, he said, in the spirit of Averroes, “I believe in Spinoza’s god”.

In these and countless other instances, we can discern the influence of Averroes throughout both Eastern and Western thought. Thank you for your wisdom and insight, Averroes!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!