In the 7th century, Islamic armies swept the world. In conquering parts of the Byzantine Empire, Arabs encountered Greek thought. To their everlasting credit, Muslim scholars studied and were fascinated by the writings of Aristotle and translated them into Arabic. In Baghdad, during the 9th and 10th centuries, a serious and systematic Greco-Arabic translation movement persisted, generally with the full cooperation of enlightened caliphs.69

Aristotle was the favored Greek philosopher of several major Muslim thinkers. Avicenna (980–1037) and Averroes (1126–1198) were superlative Aristotle scholars, as well as two of the outstanding physicians and medical researchers of the Middle Ages. The influential philosopher Al-Farabi (870–950 AD) was dubbed the “Second Teacher”—successor to Aristotle, the “First Teacher.”

The Arabs learned the method of observation-based rationality and, in a true golden age, made superb contributions to medicine, astronomy, mathematics, literature, and other fields. But it did not last. Due to the monumental influence of Al-Ghazali (1058–1111) and other reason-rejecting theologians, as well as a fundamentalism firmly entrenched in Islamic culture from its outset, faith ultimately crushed freedom of thought. Under orthodox Islam, the books of Avicenna, Averroes, and other great thinkers were burned in the 12th century. By 1200, Muslims’ love affair with Greece—and, correspondingly, Islam’s golden age—was largely over.70 The devastating 13th-century Mongolian invasions merely delivered a deathblow to a once glorious civilization already far advanced in a suicidal process. For eight hundred years since, the Islamic world has wallowed in a dark age. (For details about the rise and fall of the Islamic golden age, see my article, “Great Islamic Thinkers versus Islam,” TOS, Winter, 2012–13.)

The Western “Medieval Renaissance”

As Islamic civilization writhed, Christians reconquered from the Muslims large areas of Spain. They had access to the great Islamic centers of learning in southern Spain. In the 12th century, Archbishop Raymund I of Toledo supported Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim scholars in another great translation movement, mirroring that of Baghdad three centuries earlier, but this time translating Greek masterpieces from Arabic into Latin, the language of European scholars.71 Predictably, as it had done centuries before, the Church resisted study of Greek philosophy. Durant points out: “In 1210 a Church council at Paris . . . forbade the reading of Aristotle’s ‘metaphysics and natural philosophy;’” a “prohibition . . .repeated by a papal legate in 1215.”72

But this time the Church failed.

After centuries of Christians rejecting a rational study of nature, Europeans witnessed the superior culture and living standards of Islamic Spain—for example, the startling street lights of Cordoba. Leading European minds, although still Catholic, were determined to gain a greater understanding of the natural world—and nobody, at that point in history, had attained a knowledge of nature equal to Aristotle’s. Albertus Magnus (1193–1280), his brilliant student Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), and other great minds of the period risked their lives to carefully study, teach, and write on Aristotle. These scholars revived in Christian Europe the long-dormant fields of rational philosophy and natural science.

Contemporary scholar William Wallace writes of the great accomplishments of Albertus Magnus:

Albert both helped to introduce Aristotle’s philosophy of science to the medieval world and challenged prevailing conceptions of nature. In response to the older Augustinian tradition, Albert criticized the notion that ideas in the mind of God . . . exist independently and provide the formal natures of sensible objects. . . . As a result, we are not compelled to rely upon knowledge of God for a knowledge of things. . . . Nature itself can reveal this order to us. With Albert, nature, which had been too often rendered mute by medieval intellectuals, would find its own voice. Once discovered and suddenly made articulate, its voice would gradually liberate science (and the arts) from theology.73

 


References:

69. Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Greco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 2, 29–33; Durant, “Age of Faith,” pp. 239–40.

70. Durant, “Age of Faith,” pp. 206–344; Robert Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2011), pp. 11–58 and 119–26; Andrew Bernstein, “Great Islamic Thinkers Versus Islam,” The Objective Standard, Winter 2012–13, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 50–67.

71. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children, pp. 12–23.

72. Durant, “Age of Faith,” p. 954.

73. William Wallace, “Foreword,” Albertus Magnus on Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, 2 vols., translated and annotated by K. F. Kritchell and I. M. Resnick (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), vol. 1, pp. xvi–xx.

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 9, No. 1. Andrew Bernstein holds a PhD in philosophy from the Graduate School of the City University of New York and taught philosophy for many years at SUNY Purchase. He is the author of The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic, and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire (2005); Objectivism in One Lesson: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (2008); Capitalism Unbound: The Incontestable Moral Case for Individual Rights (2010); and Capitalist Solutions (2011). Dr. Bernstein is currently writing a book, Heroes and Hero Worship, at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, and is a contributing editor of The Objective Standard.