Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 5

A HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY (Medieval - Modern) I.

Elements of Arab and Jewish Philosophy


Why discuss medieval Arabic (and Jewish) Philosophy? Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas were known to be passionate students of Aristotle. They admired his ideas, which they believed were the highest truths that any human mind could grasp. Both Albert and Thomas would become interpreters and commentators on Aristotle's writings, using his ideas to make the Christian mysteries more reasonable to the human mind. In studying Aristotle, they believed that his philosophy could be used to develop further a true philosophy. However, when Albert and Thomas first met Aristotle's philosophy, it was not the original ideas of Aristotle that they encountered. What they received or learnt at first was not really Aristotle's philosophy, but the interpretation of other scholars on Aristotle. Who were these scholars? They were first and foremost the Arabian scholars. These were not Muslims at first, and there were even Christians from the East (e.g. Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia) who translated Aristotle's works from Greek to Arabic. But in later centuries, more Muslim thinkers from Arabia became the authority on translating and interpreting the works of Aristotle. While Muslim scientists and philosophers already were acquainted with Aristotle, Christian thinkers in the West did not have many Latin translations of Aristotle's Greek writings until the 12th century. When several Christian scholars began translating Arabic texts written by Muslim scholars, they also uncovered works of Aristotle's that lay hidden in Muslim manuscripts. This was not until the 12th century. Albert and Thomas realized that the true ideas of Aristotle were covered by another layer of ideas, which was coming from a different religious tradition and culture. Muslim scholars often represented Aristotle's ideas as being so different from Christian ideas that both seemed incompatible. But Albert and Thomas did their best to get to the heart of Aristotle's philosophy. What they discovered was that Aristotle, even though his ideas may seem contradictory to Christian faith, was the best guide to explaining Revelation in terms that Reason can understand. Without the Arabic Muslim translators and interpreters, Medieval Christian thinkers would never have encountered the science of Aristotle. Also, Christian theology would not have had the benefit of learning more completely about Plato's ideas. What has been said above applies more or less to the status of Jewish philosophers.

SPC, Kuching (Term 1, 2011)

Elements of Arabic / Jewish Philosophy

A History of Philosophy (Medieval-Modern)

Elements of Arabic / Jewish Philosophy

Main Islamic thinkers Al-farabi (Abu Nasr al-Farabi, d.950) was a scientist and philosopher from the Islamic school of theology at Baghdad. His ideas had great influence on many fields, including mathematics, psychology, medicine, and music. Based on his study of Aristotle's ideas about thinking, reasoning, and argument, al-Farabi argued that logic is a necessary preparation for doing philosophy. In fact, he saw it as a necessary tool for studying any science, including society or politics. Logic, as applied by human reason, becomes the main instrument for knowing the truth about anything. Logic is applied to two main parts of philosophy (I) physics (the natural sciences, including psychology and epistemology) and metaphysics, and (II) ethics. The first is deals with the theory of truth, the second deals with the application or practice of truth. Al-Farabi also distinguished philosophy from theology. Theology, for him, deals with different topics, such as the nature of God, the afterlife (including rewards and punishments), and the existence of the believer in a religious community. Yet, philosophy can serve theology. How? By applying logic to the study of ideas, and giving arguments or proofs to show that such ideas (even theological ones) are rational, true. Al-Farabi's works therefore encourage a particular way of understanding Aristotle's idea about philosophy and theology. Aristotle himself believed that studying the world (i.e. philosophy and science) will lead to the higher study of the divine (i.e. theology). Indeed, he believed that all human knowledge must ultimately lead one to question the ultimately cause of existence. In the footsteps of Aristotle, Al-Farabi became convinced that all knowledge (no matter how scientific or technical) leads to knowledge of God. Avicenna (Ibn Sina) 1980-1037. He was born in Persia but was educated in Arabic. A very gifted mind, he was already a practising doctor by the age of 16. It was at that time that he decided to devote himself for a year or two to the study of philosophy and logic. In his studies, he came across the work of al-Farabi, and reading al-Farabi allowes Avicenna to understand the philosophy of Aristotle better. Like al-Farabi, Avicenna divided knowledge into compartments logic, philosophy (theoretical and practical), and theology (first and second, i.e. natural theology and Islamic theology). And like al-Farabi, Avicenna too believed that the study of philosophy and theology complements each other philosophy leading to the higher science or theology. In his philosophy, Avicenna was both an Aristotelian as well as a Platonist. He was able to merge the two systems in his works, but some of his ideas created controversy with Muslim theology. For example, Avicenna argued from philosophy that God creates necessarily. That is, because God's nature is Goodness and Love, God cannot do otherwise but create freely. In this matter, God has no choice. This seems to contradict the religious theology that says God is allSPC, Kuching (Term 1, 2011) 1

A History of Philosophy (Medieval-Modern)

Elements of Arabic / Jewish Philosophy

powerful. Again, Avicenna argues that creation is not finite but eternal. Since God is by nature eternal, God can be said to be eternally creative (i.e. always and everywhere in the act of creation). If this is so, creation never stops. It can never stop because God is ever-creating. In this sense, it is logically true that creation is eternal. On the contrary, religious theology would emphasize the temporary or contingent nature of creation. These are just two important ways Avicenna uses philosophy to interpret faith. It is an intellectual way of thinking about faith, and it can sometime conflict with religious interpretation. But like Aristotle and al-Farabi, Avicenna tried to merge the best of human reason with revelation (i.e. the Quran) in the belief that reason and faith stand up stronger together as one, rather than each standing up on its own. In the 12th century, parts of Avicenna's works were translated into Latin. For the first time then, Christians were introduced to a different system of philosophy. By studying Avicenna, Christian thinkers became familiar with al-Farabi (Avicenna's inspiration), and through al-Farabi, Christians were made familiar with Aristotle. Averroes or Ibn Rusd (1126-1198) was born in Spain. He was a judge, doctor, mathematician, philosopher and theologian all at once. Averroes was convinced that Aristotle represented the highest achievement of human reason. So he spent a lot of time translating and commenting on Aristotle's works. His translations and commentaries on Aristotle would become the main sources on Aristotle for Christian thinkers in the 12th century. A central part of Averroes' teaching is that the study of philosophy complements and leads to the study of theology. Like Aristotle, al-Farabi, and Avicenna, Averroes believed that both reason and faith were compatible, and he tried to show this. In his theory of 'double-truth', Averroes argued that both philosophy and theology may seem to have different conclusions about issues such as creation, freedom, immortality of the soul, and God. But the truths in philosophy and theology are actually the same. It is just that the truths of philosophy are expressed in theology in a different way, namely, an allegorical manner by using stories, parables, pictures, etc. Such truths as found in scripture are expressed in ways that the ordinary and unsophisticated mind can understand. But philosophy removes the allegory (or demythologizes the scriptures) in order to understand the unvarnished truth. This double-truth theory has a further implication: If it was true that philosophy studied reality in a way that was purer than theology, would this not mean that theology is inferior to philosophy? Is not theology, then, subordinate to philosophy? Averroes agreed with this, as did some Christian thinkers in the 13th century. But orthodox religious theologians strongly opposed such an interpretation of the relationship between philosophy and theology.
SPC, Kuching (Term 1, 2011) 2

A History of Philosophy (Medieval-Modern)

Elements of Arabic / Jewish Philosophy

Main Jewish Thinkers Ibn Gabirol or Avicebron (1021-1069/70) was a Spanish Jew and was influenced strongly by Arabic philosophy. His work, Fons Vitae, consisted of five books. It was through this work that many Christian thinkers became more familiar with Platonism. Avicebron used Platonism to argue for a close relationship between God and creation. For him, God is pure spirit and transcendent (i.e. separate and beyond) to creation. But this does not mean an absolute separation. From God's nature, God's will comes forth or emnates, and out of this emanation is produced both spiritual and physical matter. Spirit and body are thus the two elements that make creation possible, and when they are fused or joined, creation (and everything within) comes into being. So, this is what makes creation different from God: God is One and Pure Spirit, while creation is both spirit and physical matter in one. If it is true that God is by nature different from creation, it is also true that creation (spirit and physis) is from God and, therefore, must at some time return back to God. Importantly, everything in creation is an emanation of God's nature, and being a manifestation of the divine, everything in creation is by nature longing to return to the source, God. Hence, Avicebron would argue that even the lowest forms of creation (the rocks, minerals, etc.) have something to reveal about the nature of God. Study of creation (the sciences and philosophy) will lead the mind to comprehend God better (theology). Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) was also a Jewish philosopher from Spain, but he died in Cairo, Egypt. Unlike Avicebron, Maimonides was an Aristotelian in the tradition of al-Farabi and Avicenna. Like them, he was convinced that theology (based on revelation) needed to be based on reason. In his book, Guide of the Doubting, Maimonides says that human sense-experience and reason are necessary sources of knowledge. We cannot do without them, and they must be part of the human quest for truth. It is inevitable that we will encounter to contradictions between what our reason tells us and what scripture and theology says. But in such cases where philosophy and theology contradict, Maimonides insists that what theology or scripture teaches must be understood as allegories of truth that is, non-literal statements about reality. Nevertheless, scripture and theology, and, philosophy are our fountains of truth, not separately, but together. Therefore, Maimonides would never blindly accept anything that scripture says or philosophy argues. For him, philosophy has its own way of investigating truth. Yet, this rational study of truth must complement what scripture says, and vice versa. Reason can be often wrong and scripture right. For instance, scripture speaks of God as being all-powerful. If this is so, then God can create anything out of nothing; God can perform miracles by contradicting nature (although not God's own nature).
SPC, Kuching (Term 1, 2011) 3

A History of Philosophy (Medieval-Modern)

Elements of Arabic / Jewish Philosophy

Yet, Plato believed that matter was as eternal as God; Aristotle argued that creation is eternal (never-ending). According the Maimonides, Plato's and Aristotle's arguments in these cases are not very convincing. He finds inconsistent ideas in them, and so, if this is the case, we should hold fast to what revelation there is in scripture and theology. In the meantime, philosophers continue to improve their thoughts and reflections on what scripture and theology has to say. But whatever philosophy says God is, Maimonides ultimately believed that reason has only one correct way of knowing God: By saying what God is not. Since God is absolutely pure, One, and beyond creation, it stands to reason that whatever our created reason claims to know about God fails to qualify as knowledge at all, since God (that is, God's being, not God's love) is separated from us. So there is no positive knowledge of God, but only negative knowledge (the ability to say what something is by saying what it is not). Reason is capable of knowing the divine via negtiva. Conclusion The Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle that St. Thomas Aquinas would later encounter in the 13th century, first passed through the minds of Arabic Islamic and Jewish thinkers most of them Aristotlelians and Platonists at the same time. Many of them were professionals doctors, mathematicians, scientists. But all of them believed that there was a close relationship between what reason could know and what revelation shows us. Their ideas were attempts to reconcile reason and faith, philosophy (science) and theology. By the 12th century, Spain and Sicily became the centres of translation, where works of the Arabic and Jewish philosophers were translated into Latin. At the same time, Christian scholars began to improve their Greek by learning Greek from scholars in Arabia as well as Spain, so that by the 12th century, many Christian scholars in the West could already do their own translations of Greek texts by Greek philosophers. But, in general, Christians in the West still relied on Greek texts that were first translated into Arabic, then later translated into Latin. As translations of the works of Greek philosophers improved, Christian scholars in the West eventually realized that the information they have were second hand works that is, they had been over-laid with the ideas of Arabic and Jewish interpretations. This meant that the task of Christian scholars like Thomas was two-fold: They had to read and understand the works they could find, but they also had to separate the ideas of the original thinkers (e.g. Plato and Aristotle) from the ideas of their commentators/interpreters. But what was most important for these Western Christian thinkers was the realization that truth about reality could be known by reason independently of revelation. The Arabic and Jewish philosophers made it clear for Western Christianity that reason is also another fountain of truth. From the 12th century onward, Medieval Western scholars struggled to reconcile the gifts of reason and revelation.

SPC, Kuching (Term 1, 2011)