Aristotle’s Children (Richard E. Rubenstein)

David Shasha

Posted Mar 23, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Transmission in the Name of the Master

Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages, Harcourt Publishers, 2003

In his recent article in Commentary Magazine, “Out of Andalusia,” the Ashkenazi Zionist polemicist Hillel Halkin put into question the use of Muslim Spain as a model for our own benighted and racially divided times.  Assessing the thesis of our good friend Maria Rosa Menocal in her splendid work The Ornament of the World, Halkin seriously doubts whether Muslim Spain, a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians appeared to live in relative harmony and produced a progressive and humanistic culture, was actually all it was cracked up to be.

Halkin has intensified a trend among Zionists that began decades ago with Yitzhak Baer and Ben-Zion Dinur that plays out the current Arab/Israeli conflict on the very pages of works of “objective” historical research.  Their demonization of Arab culture and society is a crucial part of this rhetorical strategy and Halkin’s article, whose thematic and ideological bias was echoed by another anti-Sephardic article in the Sunday New York Times, is clearly part of a Zionist ideological assault on the cultural past of the Middle East.

In trying to cast a polemical shadow over the culture and history of the Arabs and their civilization, partisan critics like Halkin also unwittingly throw into the mix the salience of the very Jewish culture that was produced under the aegis of Arab civilization.  This critical approach, meant to lash out at the Arabs for their role in the current conflict over Israel/Palestine, has served to distort the realities not merely of Arabo-Islamic history, but to cut the legs out from under the Sephardic tradition itself.

Richard E. Rubenstein, a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University, has added more fuel to the fire of this debate.  As he states in the introduction to Aristotle’s Children, a work that clarifies and enriches our understanding of the ways in which Andalusian culture has impacted Western civilization: “Cultural chauvinists may find it awkward to recall that Europe depended upon Muslim and Jewish scholars for the recovery of its classical heritage.” 

Rubenstein has “discovered” what the traditional Sephardic community has always known: The development of philosophy and science took place away from the center of the Roman Empire in the inter-ethnic Semitic cauldron of Sepharad/Al-Andalus. 

As he points out, such a realization comes as an embarrassment to Western partisans as the story of the Andalusian/Sephardic “rediscovery” of the ancient works of Plato and Aristotle, and the integration of those traditions into the monotheistic Scripture that has been the fount of all Western understanding, bespeaks a cultural sophistication that has been denied the members of Oriental culture by Western chauvinists such as Halkin.

In a newly-published work by Charles Murray, Human Accomplishment, the alleged intellectual and cultural superiority of the West (and Ashkenazi Jewry) is presented as a scientific fact.  This comes at a time when the repugnant Bernard Lewis has characterized the internal Jewish conflict in Israel as being between the Jews of Christendom and the Jews of Islam – with the Jews of Islam being a clear and present danger to the success of the Jewish state.

If the arguments of Menocal and Rubenstein are indeed correct – that the members of the Andalusian civilization were indeed responsible for the dynamic preservation of the wisdom of the ancient world - then the constant barrage of racist propaganda from the “West First” ideologues would take a huge hit.  The credibility of arguments made by Western partisans would lose their scientific and cultural legitimacy.

There is indeed a good deal at stake in this particular argument.

Rubenstein begins to tell a story that starts out in ancient Greece with the birth of Aristotle, a philosopher who developed a scientific view of the world in contradistinction to Platonic essentialism:

He [Aristotle] agreed with Plato that surface appearances are deceptive, that the real nature or structure of things is hidden, and that wisdom means uncovering these underlying realities. But he denied the existence of a world of absolute intelligibilities separate from the natural world.  In his view, ideas cannot exist without the input of the senses, nor are the things of this world mere shadows or approximations of eternal concepts.  On the contrary, they embody concepts.  To Aristotle, that is the miracle: that apparently dumb, “thingy” reality can speak to human beings, and that humans using their power of reason can apprehend the principles inherent in things.

Aristotle created a sea change in the manner in which philosophy approached reality.  Taking a middle ground between the empirical skepticism of materialist philosophy – parodied in the many Platonic dialogues – and the metaphysical mysticism of the Platonic ideal, Aristotle anchored his thinking in the material world while still permitting philosophers to continue to create categories and taxonomies. 

Aristotle’s thought quickly formed the very foundational curriculum of Greek pedagogy in the aftermath of its initial articulation.  But when the Greek system was transformed in the later Roman Empire by the adoption of Christianity, the works of Aristotle were elided in favor of the more otherworldliness of Plato:

Platonism also supplied Augustine with a theory of knowledge that could be harmonized with the concept of man’s fall.  To the bishop and his successors, human knowledge was the result of a divine “illumination,” not the product of unaided human reason.  Aristotle had been wrong, therefore, to suppose that rational thought alone could unlock the secrets of the universe.  Either God would enlighten us directly, or the truth would remain forever concealed. 

Augustine, as is well known, was the spiritual father of the nascent Christian church.

The ideas of Plato, in this Augustinian synthesis, were captured and locked into an emerging Christian systemology.  The works of Aristotle were seen as religiously and philosophically irrelevant and were subsequently frozen out of the Christian library.

The story of Aristotle thus moves East to the Orient.

In the many centuries of inner Christian polemics, the Eastern churches, such as those of the Nestorians and the Copts, in Syria, Persia and Egypt, preserved the traditions of Aristotle because of their polemic against the doctrinal essentialism of the Roman Catholic Church.  This fact would be very significant in the emergence of the Aristotelian corpus in the Islamic world centuries later.

With the exception of the great Boethius – who was a key figure in the transmission of Greek learning in the Christian world – the better part of the early Middle Ages, from the 6th century onward, saw an almost complete evisceration of the Greek scientific and philosophical heritage, a heritage that had once brought enlightenment to the world.

After the successes of Islam in the East ultimately leading to the conquest of Spain in the West, ideological and philosophical conundrums took place among adherents of the new faith.  The Koranic scripture was canonized and subsequently debated with great passion and intensity among the clerics and schoolmen of Islam. 

Out of this debate came a new scholastic theology known as Kalam. 

Islamic thinkers began to develop, as the Jewish rabbis did centuries earlier, philosophical mechanisms to answer questions that were left vague and ambiguous in the Holy Writ: the nature of evil; man’s place in nature; the role of the natural world itself; the reality of God and many other seemingly impenetrable questions that were addressed in ways that opened the door for a new study of the Greek masters.

In this vein, the Muslims went to their Christian brethren who had maintained their study of Aristotle and began to address their religious problematic within the context of ancient Greek thought.

The apotheosis of this cultural interplay was in Spain, a country that linked the Arab East to the Christian West.  In Spain, the Arabs developed a philosophical culture and it was this new culture that attracted European Christian scholars to their “side”: The Arabs welcomed the Christian and Jewish participation and translation “teams” worked together in Spain to bring the corpus of Greek learning into the three languages of culture – Latin, Arabic and Hebrew:

The first European scholars to confront the apparent clash between Aristotle’s perspective and their own orthodox Christianity were the translators in Toledo.  Scholars like Domingo Gundisalvo, Daniel of Morley, and Michael Scot understood that converting an ancient philosopher’s map of reality into language understandable by those living in a different time and culture was far more than a mechanical task – that it really meant mediating between cultures.  The work of translation therefore carried over naturally into that of commenting on the newly translated material.

What was developed in Muslim Spain and subsequently in Christian Toledo, was religious humanism, an expansive and deeply reflective culture that did not permit the orthodoxies of the inherited past to dictate how things were to be understood in the context of a rapidly developing scientific world that for over 500 years would be the barometer of technological and material progress in the world.

This wisdom breached the walls of medieval Rome through the figure of the brilliant Peter Abelard who gave his whole life for the development and enrichment of the orthodox Christian worldview.  Abelard was seen by the Church as a controversial figure whose writings questioned hallowed truths that had been enshrined in Church teaching for many centuries.  Abelard’s method saw to it that reason would become a crucial part of the new learning:

The lecturer referred to the method of reasoning described in his famous book Sic et Non.  In that work he had collected conflicting statements of the Church Fathers and arranged them in groups arguing for and against 158 different propositions: for example, “That faith is to be supported by human reason, et contra”; “That God is not single, et contra”; “That no one can be saved without baptisms of water, et contra”; “That it is lawful to kill a man, et non.”  The purpose of the book was to show students a wide range of alternative arguments, to help them decide by close analysis which disagreements among the authorities were real and which were only apparent, and to encourage them to reconcile opposing positions.

Similar to the roles played in their respective faiths by the Jewish sage Maimonides and the Islamic sage Ibn Rushd, Abelard opened Christian learning from an arid traditionalism into a dynamic and exciting new epoch bringing to the fore the wisdom of Aristotle.

Rubenstein traces the tortured and circuitous route that led from the Arab awakening to Thomas Aquinas and finally to the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  He tells this story with grace, wit and great learning.  He highlights heroic figures that have become obscure to us at present, men like Abelard, David of Dinant and Siger de Brabant and so many others who took on the Church hierarchy to create a more liberated and more pluralistically tolerant religious faith amidst the Inquisitors of the times.

The story moves on from the Arabs and Jews to Christendom because – as Jose Faur has pointed out to me remarking on the closing of the school of translators at Toledo – the Jews and Arabs closed themselves off from the progressives at the very time that the Christians continued to work through their internal conflicts.  As Faur shows in his seminal study In the Shadow of History, the school of translators at Toledo became irrelevant to a Jewish intelligentsia that had anathematized the study of philosophy, thus leading to many centuries of ignorance in the European Jewish world. 

In the Christian world, new developments and battles were taking place that continued to struggle for the new wisdom.  Christendom had been deeply afflicted and divided by controversies which at times took on a violent shape.  But the continued debate in Europe led to a development which did not take place in Arab culture – as demonstrated by Abdelwahhab Meddeb in his masterpiece The Malady of Islam – the continued growth of scientific and theological speculation which led Europe to its eventual triumph over Arab civilization in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

This debate eventually led to the questioning of the Aristotelian model and the development of a critical scientism that has become the paradigm of modern Western epistemology; an epistemology that emerged out of the ultimate vacuousness of the medieval model that had spent its capital and was replaced by new ways of seeing things, ways of seeing that reflect of Modern value system.

But Rubenstein, far from leaving the story at that – a place that we normally end up in standard histories of this sort – ends this splendid book with a discussion of how the West did indeed triumph materially and scientifically because of its sheer tenacity, but eventually lost its spiritual center and the “religious” part of the equation “religious humanism.” 

The West cut God out of its civilization while the Jews and Arabs cut out the humanism and relied increasingly and almost exclusively on God.  With the emergence of Sabbatean messianism in the 17th century and the massive political and social collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 18th, Jews and Arabs found themselves, after holding the torch of creativity and innovation for many centuries, beholden to the whims of the West under the guise of Imperialism.

But in assessing this thematic from a contemporary perspective, Rubenstein sees that the Andalusian model that fed and nurtured the humanism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment can still function as a valid cultural model in the times we now live in:

The fundamental thrust of the scholastic movement, stimulated by Aristotle’s concept of a purposeful universe, was to “reconcile faith with reason.”  Intelligent people committing themselves to certain religious beliefs or ethical values wanted reasons to do so in addition to those mandated by tradition or the command of some charismatic leader.  They wanted to know why they should make these commitments rather than others, and how those they made were reflected or affirmed by developments in nature and society.  At the same time, scholars investigating nature and society wanted to understand the relationship between the facts and patterns they uncovered and the realm of beliefs and values.  That is, they needed to be able to evaluate the impact of their discoveries and to determine how they could be used for human betterment.  The end of the Aristotelian era left us with these urgent needs unsatisfied.  Science, deprived of its connection with religious faith, has become increasingly technical and “value-free,” while religious commitments, cut loose from their naturalistic moorings, seem increasingly a matter of arbitrary “instincts” or tastes.  Worse yet, with global economic and military power concentrating at an unprecedented rate in the hands of a few powerful elites, both faith and reason tend to become tools in the hands of raw, self-aggrandizing power.

The final sentence of the citation sounds a good deal like a passage from another book that we have highlighted in our pages, Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference.  And Richard Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children is another crucial marker in an increasingly vital series of works by scholars from David Gross to Karen Armstrong to Maria Rosa Menocal; books that speak of the traditions of religious humanism, a concept that was presented some decades ago by Jose Faur in writings that had no peer in the religious community – Jewish or otherwise.

Aristotle’s Children, a classic in the offing, will surely take its place in this rarefied class of books that teach its readers not merely to follow the common platitudes of the horde, but to look more deeply and critically at the legacy that has been passed on to us as a civilization.  Rather than accept the inherited wisdom as articulated by the status quo in the media and the academy – a status quo that seeks to perpetuate political, religious and historical viewpoints that lack the elasticity to solve our most pressing inter-cultural problems, in a world that is on fire with such conflicts – particularly in the Middle East, Rubenstein, an Aristotelian to the core, seeks to focus on the ways in which we can rework the inherited truths with elements that have drifted off our radar screens.

This method turns Rubenstein’s project into a modern variant of the model that originally led the Jews, Muslims and Christians of Andalusia to turn back to Aristotle in the first place.

Rather than follow the distorted logic of an ideologue like Hillel Halkin and try to re-read our modern problems into the historical past, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that would guarantee a failure to resolve our current dilemmas, Richard Rubenstein brilliantly configures the ancient and modern in ways that can provide a constructive utility in dealing with the seemingly intractable issues we now face.

Rubenstein proves that there is more to the study of history than the accumulation of dead factoids; we can derive very important lessons from history if we seek to read history in a manner that acknowledges the very innovations that certain historical moments provide to us, thus leaving aside the attempt to measure the efficacy of the historical moment from the standards of the present.  For history to have any value whatsoever, we must see history in its own context and not measure it from within our own.

The recovery of Aristotle by the Jews and Arabs of the Middle Ages was a watershed moment in Western culture that has been magnificently reconstructed in Aristotle’s Children and is a story that would be well learned by all those who are concerned with the Modern condition.  Serving as a bookend Maria Rosa Menocal’s equally brilliant Ornament of the World, Aristotle’s Children will surely take its place as our main entry point into medieval civilization and its importance to us at this epochal time in our history; a time where we need to bridge the various cultures of the world – a thematic that was typified by the pluralistic civilizations that coalesced around the interpretation of Aristotle in the three monotheistic faiths in the Middle Ages.