Ex Oriente Lux! Light comes front the East, not only in its material manifestation as the rising sun. but also spiritually as the all-illuminating sun of Truth. This is one of those universal sayings which have become commonplaces because of their perfect truth. If we take any great truth born in the East, and follow it in its wanderings through Western civilization, it may sometimes disappear for a time, thrown into the shadow by some inimical teaching, but a closer investigation of the facts soon enables us to trace it and follow out its influence. For instance, the Eastern doctrines of the eternity of matter, the impersonality of the highest intelligence, and the union of the higher and lower intellect have appeared again and again in our own Western world of thought, Greece in its days of fame was full of them; Roman civilization, which imposed itself on the half of Europe, was, intellectually considered, but a reflection of Greek culture; and what was the Alexandrian school of Neoplatonists but a fresh outcome of Eastern thought? Christianity itself, in the Erst centuries of its existence, had many an Eastern doctrine, over which we End the Greek and Latin Fathers engaged in endless controversy, for several of these learned and earnest men found it most difficult to accept the Jewish teachings of a creation ex nihilo and of a personal God. Only when the Roman Catholic Church gained the victory over all her enemies and became the supreme religious and secular authority in the West, do the doctrines of the East seem to have been entirely obliterated from Western consciousness. Before much time elapsed, however, they emerged out of the seeming oblivion, upheld by the authority of one of the greatest Greek philosophers of the past, and clothed in the garb of Arabian culture. Here let us pause awhile.
In a work entitled Averroes and Averroism, Ernest Renan, the well-known author of The Life of Jesus, gives us an account of this phase in the history of certain Eastern doctrines, as interpreted and taught by the Arabian philosophers, and from this work the following sketch is drawn.
The eleventh and twelfth centuries were the brightest epoch of Arabian civilization in Spain, and poetry, architecture and philosophy then flourished greatly. Philosophy was, however, less adapted to the peculiar genius ol` the Arabians, and they relied for guidance in their philosophical conceptions upon Aristotle, who had been translated into Arabian by the Nestorians of Syria, and was taught by all the Arabian philosophers, such as Ibn-Zohr, Ibn-Badja, Ibn-Fofail and Ibn-Roschd.
Aboul-Walid. Mo’hamed, Ibn-A’hmed, Ibn-Roschd, whose name was corrupted through the Spanish pronunciation into Averroiés} was born at Cordova in 1126, and was the most celebrated of all. He belonged to one of the best families ol’ Andalusia and occupied high state offices, but his favourite studies were medicine and philosophy, and he owes his fame to his commentaries on Aristotle. It is here important that we should understand that the Arabian philosophers, especially Averroes, although they took Aristotle as the text for their commentaries and looked upon him as their master. created a philosophy in which many elements foreign to Aristotle’s teachings can he found. And the influence of the Alexandrian school clearly traced. Long before Ibn-Roschd’s time Arabian thought was deeply imbued with Neoplatonic views; and, although it must be acknowledged that their philosophers vigorously took up the most important problems of the Peripatetics and sought their solution with great penetration, still the Arabians developed some theories at the expense of others, and so modified to a certain extent the teachings of Aristotle.
The whole of Arabian philosophy, or, better still, the whole of Averroism, can be summed up in these two doctrines: the eternity of matter, and the theory of the intellect.
Philosophy has only two hypotheses to explain the system of the universe: on the one hand, au absolute personal God with attributes of his own, Providence, the causality of the universe centred in God, the human soul substantial and immortal; on the other hand, eternity of matter, evolution of germs through their own innate force, God undefined, laws, nature, necessity, reason, impersonality of the ruling intelligence, ‘immersion and reabsorption of the individual. Arabian philosophy, particularly that of Averroes, comes under the second category. Its favourite theme is the theory of the intellect, which is divided into five clauses: (1) distinction of the two intellects, active and passive; (2) incorruptibility of the one, corruptibility of the other; (3) conception of the active intellect as outside of man, and as the sun of all intelligence; (4) unity of the active intellect; (5) identity of the active intellect with the last of the wor1d’s intelligences. Of these five clauses the first two belong to Aristotle in full, the third is defined by hint clearly but not unquestionably, and the last two belong entirely to the commentators who thought themselves capable of thus completing the master’s teaching. A summary of these two theories will soon show that, although of Arabian growth, they greatly resemble those of the Alexandrian school. In the words of Renan:
The passive intellect aspires to unite itself with the active. as power aspires after action, matter after Form, and as the flame rushes towards the combustible body. Now this effort does not stop at the first degree of possession, viz., that called the acquired intellect. The soul can arrive at s much more intimate union with the universal intellect—at a sort of identification with primordial reason. The acquired intellect serves to lead man to the door of the sanctuary, but it disappears es soon as the goal is reached. just as sensation prepares the imagination but vanishes when the working of the imagination becomes too intense. Therefore, the active intellect has two distinct actions on the soul, one of which has for its scope the elevating of the material intellect to the perception of the comprehensible, and, the other the drawing of it beyond this perception to a union with the comprehensible itself. Having once entered into this state, man understands all things through the power of this reason which he has appropriated; become like unto God, he is in some way identified with all beings, and knows them as they are; for beings and their cause have no existence outside his knowledge of them. Even the animal creation partakes of this faculty. in so far as it carries in itself the power of arriving at this first state of being. How admirable is this state exclaims Ibn-Roschd, and how strange is this mode of being. Therefore, it is not at the beginning, but at the end of human development that we reach it, when everything in man has changed froth power into action.
Such, adds Renan, is the doctrine of “Union,” or, as the Sufis called it, “the problem of the We and Thou” which forms the basis of all Oriental psychology and is the object that most preoccupies the Arabo-Spanish school.
Ibn-Roschd is the least mystical of all the Arabian philosophers, and proclaims loudly that science alone can bring man to this union. The highest development which man can hope to attain is to carry the human faculties to their apogee. God is reached when, through contemplation, man has pierced the veil of material objects and Ends himself face to face with transcendental truth. Asceticism is vain and useless. The aim of this human life is to ensure the victory of the superior part of the soul over sensation. When this is reached Paradise is attained, whatever may be the religion which we profess. But this happiness is rare and resewed for great men only; it is mostly obtained in old age, by the persevering practice of contemplation and by renouncing everything superstitious, under the condition, however, of not giving up the things necessary to life. Many only taste this joy at the moment of death, for such perfection is in the inverse ratio of bodily perfection. The necessary aptitude for this union is not the same with all men, but there is a sort of election and gratuitous grace attached to it. This theory has a name in the history of philosophy; it is called “Rationalistic Mysticism,” and is the Henosis of the Alexandrian school.
With this belief in the union of the two intellects was intimately associated in the Arabian mind that of the perception of separate substances in Aristotle. The Arabians, as well as later on the Scholastics, understood by this name the separate intelligences, the angels, the spheres, the active intellect. The question to solve was therefore this: Can man arrive at the knowledge of invisible beings through his natural and experimental faculties? Ibn-Roschd answers in the affirmative:
If man could not arrive at the perception of these substances, nature would have laboured in vain, since it would have created the intelligible without the intelligent to understand it.
No philosophy has insisted so strongly as this on the objective existence of the intellect, If the intellect be outside of us. where is it? What is this being who makes its that which we are, and who cooperates more than we do ourselves in the acts of our intellect?
According to Averroes, the “agent-intellect” is a part of the hierarchy of those first principles which govern the stars, and transmit divine action to the universe. Ibn-Roschd does not identify the active intellect with God, although many of the Averroists after hint did so, and separated themselves on this point from their master’s teaching.
It is easy to understand what became of the doctrine of immortality in this system of thought. Man can only partake of immortality according to the degree of his union with the active intellect. As to the doctrine of resurrection, Averroes rejects it entirely, attributing its origin to the earnest wish of religious teachers to increase morality.
I do not reproach any one for believing that the soul is immortal, but for pretending that the soul is only accidental and that man will take on the same body which has been decomposed. No, he will take another one, like to the first, for that which is dead cannot return to life. Those two bodies are one considered as to their species, but two according to their number.
Orthodox Mohammedanism was never tolerant with respect to philosophy. Ibn-Roschd himself fell for some short time into disgrace and had many enemies. His open declaration that all religions were equally good if they fulfilled their scope of elevating mankind, caused him to be considered as a heretic by the zealous Mohammedans, who were always trembling for the authority of their Koran. This narrow-mindedness prevented Arabian philosophy from being cultivated in countries where the Moslem faith prevailed, and the works of Averroes, as well as those of other Arabian philosophers. ate now mostly to be found in Hebrew translation. The whole Jewish literature of the Middle Ages is lint a reflection of Arabian culture, towards which the Jews felt themselves naturally attracted. Moses Maimonides, the great Hebrew philosopher, shared almost all Ibn-Roschd’s opinions, proclaiming him the supreme authority in philosophy; and it is to the Jews that we owe the first translation of the Great Commentary of Averroes into Latin. After at sojourn in Toledo, Michael Scot, at least so runs the story, brought back a Latin translation of this important work to Italy. He was received with open arms by Frederic II, Hohenstaufen, King of the Two Sicilies, who had, as is well known, a great predilection for Arabian culture; and it is thanks to his influence that the other works of Averroes were translated into Latin and spread all over Italy, where they were soon taken up by the Scholastics and became a subject of violent controversy.
Averroes plays a two-fold part in Scholasticism. On the one hand he is the author of the Great Commentary, the most learned interpreter of Aristotle, the trustworthy guide respected even by those who reject his teaching. On the other hand, he is looked upon as the blasphemer of religion, the father of all unbelievers, the greatest of heretics: and it is most extraordinary to notice how in the Middle Ages it was found quite natural to take lessons in philosophy from a master who from the religions point of view was ever liable to condemnation as heterodox.
The two great centres of Averroism in the thirteenth century were the University of Paris and the Franciscan Order; its greatest enemies the Dominicans, who represented strict orthodoxy in the Roman Church, and whose celebrated advocate, St. Thomas, the “angelic doctor,” wrote a treatise, Contra Averroistas. Oxford was another centre of Franciscan thought, where we cannot fail to see the influence of Averroes. Roger Bacon in his Opus Majus writes:
The human soul is of itself incapable of knowledge. Philosophy is the result of an external divine light. The active intellect, which is the rudiment of this light is not a part of the soul, but a substance separated from the soul, as the artizan is separated from the matter on which he works, light from colour, the pilot from his boat.
And in another passage:
The philosophy of Averroes, which has been long rejected and condemned by the most celebrated doctors, has obtained to-day the unanimous approbation of the wise.
Duns Scotus and Occam both side with Averroes on all important points. The school of mysticism itself which has so many analogies with the Franciscan teaching, makes a frequent use of the Arabian psychology. The German mystics of the fourteenth century, Meister Eckhart especially, often use the hypothesis of the active and passive intellect as a demonstration of the theory of union with God. In an essay of that school, written in German on the intellect active and passive, Averroes (Arverios) and Aristotle (Herr Steotiles) are quoted as weighty authorities.
The revival of Greek letters in Italy, which took place at the end of the Eighteenth century, put an end to Averroism. The Greek philosophers were read and studied in the original, and the Arabian commentators were henceforth considered as barbarous and unworthy translators of Aristotle. But in the University of Padua, in which the Arabian school of medicine reigned supreme, the teaching of Averroes was kept tip systematically until the middle of the seventeenth century, and his name remained a watch-word for all freethinkers in the north of Italy. The final extinction of Averroism can be considered from two different points of view. On one side it represents the triumph of the rational scientific method; on the other, tl1e victory of narrow-minded orthodoxy. In the second half of the seventeenth century all intellectual activity disappears in Italy together with Arabian peripateticism.
Such is the rough outline of Averroism which may be considered as the introduction of Eastern doctrines into dogmatic Christianity, through the agency of Arabian culture. These doctrines did their work, and disappeared with the garb they had assumed but modern philosophy, which took the place of Scholasticism, upheld many of them, until it was given as a privilege to the nineteenth century to open the East to earnest students, and thus to enable the West to study Truth at its original source.
The sun has risen again once more. May its day be long, its light shine brightly!