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

Averroes by Giorgione893 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 does lead 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!

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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O.P. Recommends: How Paper Shaped Civilization

De briefschrijfsterIn his Atlantic review of Mark Kurlansky’s new book Paper: Paging Through History, Reid Mitenbuler gives us a brief overview of the history and impact of paper ,and how modern technology is once again radically shifting the way we communicate:

‘…Beyond tweeting, how would Plato have responded to modern changes in the way humans communicate? During his own time, people increasingly recorded their thoughts and experiences in writing, and he worried that written language reduced our reliance on memory. The tool made us less human, even mechanical, he argued, because once something was jotted down, it no longer came from within a person. It was less authentic, and therefore less true.

Then again, Plato expressed this concern in Phaedrus, his dialogue that most famously grapples with the issue, by writing it down.

Plato’s complicated relationship with writing—or really, with the seismic shifts of technological change—forms the heart of an impressive new book, Paper: Paging Through History. Mark Kurlansky …picks up a seemingly mundane commodity to examine a wider phenomenon: historical attitudes toward disruptive technologies. His question: how do humans absorb and disseminate information? His answer helps reveal the evolution, both politically and economically, of how the world has come to be organized….’ Read more: 

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!

Book review: Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away

As I sit here and sit here, racking my brain for a place to start this book review, I find I’m at a loss. I should have scribbled some notes as I was going along. But I didn’t, dammit. Perhaps it was because I was too enthralled all the while, each chapter taking me to new and surprising places. And since I’ve finished, it left me with so much to think about all at once, so therefore, I don’t know where to begin…

Well, here’s the gist of it: Plato at the Googleplex, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, is about Plato, his philosophy, his life and times, and his relevance to the world today. The chapters jump back and forth in time: each non-fiction chapter is about Plato’s (and his main influence Socrates’) life and thought, and is interspersed with a fictional one where Plato finds himself in some modern scenario. In each of the latter, he’s involved in dialogue and debate with various figures representative of our time, from an advice-session-turned-discussion with a media escort accompanying Plato in advance of his Authors at Google presentation and a tech geek on lunch break, to a panel discussion on how to raise a perfect child with a tiger-mom-slash-idealist and a Freudian, to an interview with a Bill O’Reilly-like pundit, to an MRI session in a neuroscientist’s research lab.

I’ve read some Plato over the years, a book here, and (mostly) a selection there, and he nearly always felt very removed. His language seemed remote and foreign, his thought experiments (the mythical Republic) seemed outlandish and overly idealistic, and the leading-question and answer style of his Socrates felt contrived, by modern standards of taste. Yet it took this scholar of Plato, who brought to bear her considerable skill as a novelist, to reveal Plato as the thinking, seeking, flesh-and-blood person who, more than just about anyone, got this whole philosophical project going in a big way.

Plato got it all going by showing us how to question everything, and why we should: it’s the only way to make progress. Not progress for its own sake: progress for our own sake, as it’s necessary to make every life better in a practical sense, and more worthwhile in a personal and social sense. Goldstein addresses time and again the objection that philosophy makes no progress, since it’s still asking the same questions. While the ‘same questions’ part might be true, the ‘no progress’ part is not. Some of the questions remain the same because they’re the questions each individual person must answer in regards to their own lives and experiences, no two of which are just alike. Therefore, the answers will be different for each person. Others of these ‘same questions’ are of such magnitude that we must keep asking them in order to slowly fill in the wealth of detail each answer requires if we are ever to get to a satisfactory one. Some remain important but unanswered, not necessarily because they are unanswerable (though many may well be), but because we don’t have the tools or information we need available yet. And so on and so forth.

Yet the most important reason we keep asking so many of these same questions is that the search for answers keeps generating yet more important questions, and yet more answers. And we, intelligent, restless, creative, curious creatures that we are, love love LOVE trying to find things out. I think more than we love knowing, though we love to know some things. And it’s the practice of never taking things for granted, never resting on our epistemological laurels too long, always asking, that Plato teaches us is the best way to learn about the marvelous world around us, and the universe out there, and that within our own minds.

In short: I highly recommend this glorious book. We would all do better to know more about Plato and why he’s so important, and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of describing why and how this is than Goldstein. But more than that, this book is a celebration of philosophy, the love of wisdom itself. It’s taken its place way up there among my very favorites!
(It’s = Philosophy and this book.)

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. Pantheon, New York 2014.