The Spanish-Arabic scholar Averroës (1126-1198), also known as Ibn Rushd, was a leading philosopher of the Middle Ages. His commentaries on Aristotle became a major source for understanding the work of that thinker in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The tradition of Arabic philosophy, one of the monuments of medieval Islamic civilization, culminated in the work of Avicenna (980-1037), Avempace (died 1138), and Averroës. Avicenna expanded upon the work of such earlier Arab philosophers as al-Kindi (died 873) and al-Farabi (870-950) to form a more unified system based on Aristotelian and Neoplatonic concepts. Averroës defended that achievement against the criticism of the more conservative al-Ghazali (died 1111) and provided, through his commentaries on Aristotle's works, a view of man and the universe that conflicted with various theological dogmas of Islam and Christianity.

Averroës was a Spanish Arab. He was born in Cordova, Spain, and was educated there in mathematics, philosophy, theology, law, and medicine. He came from a family prominent in law, a profession that in Islamic society was closely associated with religion and theological concepts.

In 1153 Averroës visited Marrakesh in Morocco and caught the attention of the sultan, a noted patron of scholarship. It may have been at the sultan's suggestion that Averroës planned a commentary on all the works of Aristotle. While there Averroës observed the star Canope, which was not visible from Spain. This confirmed, for him, Aristotle's belief that the world was round.

Judge and Physician

Through the sultan's support Averroës became a judge in Seville in 1169. Later he returned to Cordova, where he became the chief judge. During this period he wrote the commentaries on Aristotle that became so important in the development of philosophy and science in Europe. These commentaries are of three types: short summations, or epitomes; long, elaborate explanations of the text; and a group intermediate in length. Their purpose was to present the true Aristotle without the accretions and misinterpretations of earlier generations.

In 1182 Averroës went to Marrakesh as physician to the sultan. He composed a medical handbook and urged other specialists to write on the subject of medicine.

In 1195, seemingly under attack by conservative theologians, Averroës retired from public life. He lived for a short time near Seville and then returned to Marrakesh, where he died in 1198.

Thought of Averroës

Only a portion of the works of Averroës were known to the Latin West in the 13th century, as many of his works were not translated until the second quarter of the 14th century. Consequently the Averroës that was known in the 13th century, on whom Latin Averroism was based, is different from the Averroës revealed through a fuller examination of his works.

On the basis of 13th-century interpretation, Averroës was held to affirm the following doctrines, which were the foundation of the school of Latin Averroism: the world was eternal rather than created; God was impersonal and, consequently, there was no divine intervention; there was one active reason, or Agent Intellect, for all mankind; there was no personal survival after death; and some truths of philosophy and theology could contradict each other and still be valid or true in their respective domains. Inasmuch as these doctrines were in direct opposition to Christian belief, Western theologians rejected them and the philosopher to whom they were attributed.

During the 14th century several other works of Averroës were translated into Latin. They indicated a more balanced, sometimes theologically conservative, thinker who seldom, if ever, denied the accepted Moslem dogma. From these works it is clear that Averroës never affirmed the possibility of double truth. Truth was one, and where philosophy contradicted religious dogma as revealed in the Koran, truth lay with the Moslem scriptures. Although there was one Agent Intellect for all men, Averroës seems to have continued to affirm personal survival, reinforced by the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The world is eternal, for Averroës, because it depends on God, the creator, who is eternal. Averroës's God remained a personal deity who knew particular things in creation, because he knew himself and thus his creation.

Averroës's philosophical writing had a twofold purpose. First, writing after al-Ghazali, who had attacked Avicenna and all philosophy, and living in a society where conservative religious forces threatened his personal safety, Averroës defended Avicenna and Islamic philosophy. Second, within the context of philosophy itself, Averroës attempted to reconstitute a pure Aristotle, free from the corruptions of all earlier commentators and interpreters, including Avicenna.

Apart from those ideas associated with Averroës that conflicted with Christian doctrine and caused a series of theological crises during the 13th century, some aspects of Averroës's thought contributed directly to the development of Western philosophy in that period. It was largely through the work of Averroës that the Latin West became familiar with the ideas of Aristotle, ideas that had great importance for the development of medieval philosophy and science. Averroës's emphasis on logical demonstration as the major tool of scientific and philosophical inquiry was generally accepted. His emphasis on the concept of motion and the Prime Mover shaped the development of metaphysics and the conception of God in 13th-century European thought. Finally, Averroës's description of the way in which the human mind receives knowledge of the sensible world around it was generally accepted up to the 14th century. Through his association with Aristotle and the establishment of a school of Averroism, the name and thought of this Islamic philosopher were kept alive well into the 17th century.

Further Reading on Averroës

The two most important studies on the life and thought of Averroës are in French: Ernest Renan, Averroës et l'averroisme: Essai historique (1852; 13th ed. 1866; repr. 1949), and Léon Gauthier, Ibn Rochd (1948). Étienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955), provides a good survey of the thought of Averroës. The distinction between the 13th-century view of Averroës and the view based on a fuller examination of his writings is described in Julius Weinberg, A Short History of Medieval Philosophy (1964). For an examination of the metaphysics of Averroës see étienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers (1949: 2d ed. 1952).

Additional Biography Sources

Leaman, Oliver., Averroes and his philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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