4. IBN ROSHD.
1. Abu-l-Walid Mohammed ibn Akhmed ibn Mohammed ibn Roshd (Averroes) was born at Cordova, of a family of lawyers, in the year 1126. There too he made himself master of the learned culture of his time. In 1153 he is said to have been presented to the prince Abu Yaaqub by Ibn Tofail; and we possess a report of that occurrence, full of character. After the introductory phrases of politeness the prince asked him: “What is the opinion of philosophers about the heavens? Are they eternal, or have they been brought into existence?” Ibn Roshd cautiously replied that he had not given attention to philosophy. Thereupon the prince commenced to discuss the subject with Ibn Tofail, and, to the astonishment of the listener, she wed that he was acquainted with Aristotle, Plato, and the philosophers and theologians of Islam. Then Ibn Roshd also spoke out freely, and won the favour of his high-placed master. His lot was fixed: He was destined to interpret Aristotle, as no one before him had done, that mankind might be put in complete and genuine possession of science.
He was, besides, a jurist and a physician. We find him in 1169 in the position of judge in Seville, and shortly
afterwards in Cordova. Abu Yaakub, now Caliph, nominates him his Body-Physician in the year 1182; but, a short time after, he is again judge in his native city, as his father and grandfather had been. Circumstances, however, change for the worse. Philosophers are pronounced accursed, and their writings are committed to the flames. In his old age Ibn Roshd is banished by Abu Yusuf to Elisana (Lucena, near Cordova), but yet he dies in Marocco the capital, on the 10th December, 1198.
2. It was upon Aristotle that his activity was concentrated. All that he could procure of that philosopher’s works, or about them, he subjected to diligent study and careful comparison. Writings of the Greeks, which are now lost either entirely or in part, were still known to Ibn Roshd in translated form. He goes critically and systematically to work: He paraphrases Aristotle and he interprets him, now with comparative brevity, and anon in greater detail, both in moderate-sized and in bulky commentaries. He thus merits the name of “the Commentator”, which also is assigned to him in Dante’s “Commedia” 1. It looks as if the Philosophy of the Muslims had been fated in him to come to an understanding of Aristotle, just that it might then expire, after that end had been attained. Aristotle for him is the supremely perfect man, the greatest thinker, the philosopher who was in possession of an infallible truth. New discoveries in Astronomy, Art or Physics could make no alteration in that respect. Of course it is possible to misunderstand Aristotle: Ibn Roshd himself came to have a different and better understanding of many a point which he took from the works of Farabi and Ibn Sina; but yet he lived continually
in the belief that Aristotle, when rightly understood, corresponds to the highest knowledge which is attainable by man. In the eternal revolution of worldly events Aristotle has reached a height which it is impossible to transcend. Men who have come after him are frequently put to the cost of much trouble and reflection to deduce the views which readily disclosed themselves to the first master. Gradually, however, all doubt and contradiction are reduced to silence, for Aristotle is one who is more than man, destined as it were by Providence to illustrate how far the human race is capable of advancing in its approximation to the World-Spirit. As being the sublimest incarnation of the Spirit of Mankind, Ibn Roshd would like to call his master the ‘Divine’ Teacher.
It will be shewn by what follows, that even in the instance of Ibn Roshd, unmeasured admiration for Aristotle did not suffice to bring about a perfect comprehension of his thoughts. He allows no opportunity to pass of doing battle with Ibn Sina, and, upon occasion, he parts company with Farabi and Ibn Baddja,–men to whom he owes a great deal. He carps at all his predecessors, in a far more disagreeable fashion than Aristotle did in the case of his teacher Plato, And yet the himself is far from having got beyond the interpretation of Neo-Platonic expositors and the misconceptions of Syrian and Arab translators. Frequently he follows even the superficial Themistius in opposition to the judicious Alexander of Aphrodisias, or else he tries to combine their views.
3. Ibn Roshd is above all a fanatical admirer of the Aristotelian Logic. Without it one cannot be happy, and it is a pity that Plato and Socrates were ignorant of it!
[paragraph continues]The happiness of men is measured by the degree of their logical attainments. With the discernment of a critic he recognizes Porphyry’s “Isagoge” as superfluous, but he still counts the “Rhetoric” and the “Poetics” as forming part of the Organon. And then the oddest misapprehensions are met with. For example, Tragedy and Comedy are turned into Panegyrics and Lampoons; poetical probability has to be content with signifying either truth capable of demonstration, or deceptive appearance; recognition on the stage (ἀναγνώρισις) becomes Apodictic judgment, and so on. Of course he has absolutely no conception of the Greek world; and that is venial, for he could not have had any notion of it. And yet we do not readily excuse one who has been so severe a critic of others.
Like his predecessors, Ibn Roshd lays especial emphasis upon Grammar, as far as it is common to all languages. This common principle, and therefore the universal one, Aristotle, he thinks, keeps always before him in his Hermeneutics, and even in the Rhetoric. Accordingly the Arab philosopher is also bound to adhere to it, although in illustrating universal rules he may take his examples from the Arabic language and literature. But it is universal rules which form his object, for science is the knowledge of the universal.
Logic smoothes the path for the ascent of our cognition from sensuous particularity to pure rational truth. The multitude will always live in the sensuous element, groping about in error. Defective mental parts and poor education, and depraved habits to boot, prevent them from making any advance. But still it must be within the power of some to arrive at a knowledge of truth. The eagle looks
the sun in the face, for if no being could look at him, Nature would have made something in vain. Whatever shines there is meant to be seen; and so whatever exists is meant to be known, were it only by one single man. Now truth exists; and the love for it which fills our hearts would have been all in vain, if we could not approach it. Ibn Roshd thinks that he has come to know the truth in the case of many things, and even that he has been able to discover absolute Truth. He would not, with Lessing, have cared to resign himself to a mere search for it.
Truth, in fact, has been given him in Aristotle; and from that standpoint he looks down upon Muslim theology. Certainly he recognizes that religion has a truth of its own, but theology is repugnant to him. It wants to prove what cannot be proved in this way. Revelation, as contained in the Koran,–according to the teaching of Ibn Roshd and others, and similarly of Spinoza in later times,–does not aim at making men learned, but at making them better. Not knowledge, but obedience or moral practice is the aim of the lawgiver, who knows that human welfare can only be realized in society.
4. That which especially distinguishes Ibn Roshd from those who preceded him, and in particular from Ibn Sina, is the unequivocal mode in which he conceives of the world as an eternal process of ‘becoming’. The world as a whole is an eternally necessary unity, without any possibility of non-existence or of different existence. Matter and Form can only be separated in thought. Forms do not wander like ghosts through dull Matter, but are contained in it after the manner of germs. The Material Forms, in the guise of natural forces, operate in an eternal process
of generation, never separated from matter, but yet deserving to be called divine. Absolute origination or extinction there is none, for all happening is a transition from potentiality to actuality, and from actuality back to potentiality, in which process like is ever generated by like and by that alone.
But there is a graded order in the world of Being. The material or substantial Form stands midway between mere Accident and pure (or separate) Form. Substantial Forms also exhibit varieties of degree,–intermediate conditions between potentiality and actuality. And, finally, the whole system of Forms, from the nethermost hylic Form up to the Divine Essence, the original Form of the whole, constitutes one compact structure rising tier upon tier.
Now the eternal process of Becoming, within the given System, presupposes an eternal movement, and that again an eternal Mover. If the world had had an origin, we might have reasoned from it to another and a similarly originated corporeal world, which had produced it, and so on without end. If again it had been a ‘possible’ entity, we might have inferred a ‘possible’ entity out of which it had proceeded, and so on ad infinitum. And according to Ibn Roshd, it is only the hypothesis of a world moved as a unity and of eternal necessity, that yields us the possibility of inferring a Being, separate from the world, yet eternally moving it, who in his continually producing that movement and maintaining the fair order of the All, may legitimately be called the Author of the world, and who in the Spirits that move the Spheres,–for every separate kind of movement demands its separate principle, possesses agents to give effect to his activity.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
by T.J. de Boer