Thursday, November 18, 2010

The House of Wisdom (2)

This is the second part of my review of Jonathan Lyons’ history of the impact of Arab-Muslim civilisation on the West, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation. The first part was in my previous post.

Adelard the advocate
We then move to the life of Adelard of Bath, the enthusiast for Arabic language scientific endeavour and copies of classical riches Lyons uses as a connecting thread in his narrative. There were a lot of riches of classical learning to discover: the thirteen books of Euclid’s Elements, for example. The 20 volumes of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies had covered geometry, astronomy, arithmetic and music in four pages. Arabic language scholars were much more enthusiastic, translating complete versions of Euclid’s Elements, some of his other works, producing commentaries, adopting his insistence on demonstrable proofs in their own scientific endeavours. Enthusiasts such as Adelard and his students produced Latin translations of Arabic translations of Euclidean geometry, struggling with problems of translation with limited linguistic understanding that slowly improved. This was a general problem for translation into Latin from Arabic: Lyons gives the example of one work which used the single Latin word esse to translate 34 distinct Arabic terms for being and related notions (Pp111ff).

This C12th (re)discovery of Euclid, along with transfers of skills from the Arabic world (Henry I’s court architect was a captured Muslim, while the Syrian chronicler Usama ibn Munqidh tells of a stone mason who moved to the Christian lands and took his skills with him), fed into improvements in European building techniques. Such as the rebuilding of Chartres cathedral, the adoption of the pointed arch and far greater regularity and precision in church and other architecture. Geometry and “Arabic numerals” were incorporated into the techniques of masons and architects—their Church clients continued to use Latin numerals in their accounts for another four centuries. (The “secret” knowledge of masons that fed into Freemasonry myths.) Arabic language astronomy represented data and mathematical understanding far beyond that of Latin Christendom at the time, which was not to produce astronomy to rival those of classical Islam until Copernicus, himself dependant on their observation tables (Pp115ff).

The first known astronomical observation in the history of post-Classical Western civilisation was undertaken by Walcher, the prior of the monastery in Great Malvern, on October 18, 1092, observing an eclipse with an astrolabe, having been frustrated by experience with a previous eclipse (p.125). Adelard’s On the Use of the Astrolabe was to revolutionise astronomical understanding in Latin Christendom (Pp126ff).

The onset of Aristotelian thought generated clerical opposition. The University of Paris repeatedly banned the teaching of Aristotelian ideas. Lyons sees Aristotelianism as threatening the primacy of theology established by the Augustinian framework accepted in Latin Christendom. Mainly through the interest in Arabic astrology it was associated with (and that Aristotle was a pagan) (Pp133ff). This is faith and revelation in conflict with proto-science.

Yet the greatest advocate of Aristotelian thought in Latin Christendom was to be St Thomas Aquinas, who was a supreme theologian: the Arabic writers having bequeathed to Latin Christendom a monotheist Aristotle. (Though Lyons sees his Unmoved Mover as a “removed” God as per C18th Deism: which is not really an accurate understanding of Aristotelian notions of causation. God as First Cause is not an argument about causes as such—the first cause as chain of causation inside time—but about causation, why there is any causation at all, God as ground of causation outside time: a distinction most modern philosophers don’t grasp—hence the puerile "what caused the first cause?" response, as if medieval scholastics were too stupid to have thought of such an "obvious" objection—so it is not surprising if Lyons’ understanding of Aristotelian thought is not quite up to it.)

Al-Andalus the sophsticated
We then move on to al-Andalus and the marvel that was the Umayyad capital of Cordoba. Al-Andalus was a centre of agronomy (and related disciples) and of the most sophisticated analysis of Aristotle (it turned out to be a problem for Islam that Aristotelian thought reached its peak on the Islamic periphery: but very useful for Latin Christendom). With the collapse of the centralised Cordoban caliphate, the military weak small kingdoms competed against each other culturally (Pp148ff).
Alas, Lyons informs us, in Spain, Sicily and the Crusader kingdoms, the ignorance of Christian peasants and “rigidity” of the feudal system lead to the slow loss of this Muslim agricultural innovation (Pp150ff). Except that even a Muslim chronicler such as ibn Jubayr noted that the Franj treated their (mostly Muslim and local Christian) peasants better than they were in Muslim-ruled areas while the feudal system was to prove quite willing to adopt agricultural innovations: one suspects something else is going on here, such as different incentives regarding food versus “cash” crops.

Christian “expansionism” in Spain is treated as being destructive, with Lyons sneering at the use of the term ‘Reconquista’; part of his treatment of Muslim conquests as things that just happened—or a sign of energy and vitality—while Christian conquests are nasty aggression.

Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, commissioning a Latin translation of the Qur’an was a rare attempt to enquire seriously into Muslim religious beliefs, rather than their knowledge and skills. Abbot Peter interpreted Muslim beliefs from a Christian perspective, however, rather in their own terms (Pp152-3): another perennial human failing.

Lyons struggles, as so many do, with the contradictory nature of Frederick II “Stupor Mundi”. Curious and cosmopolitan on one hand, overbearing and autocratic on another, his court and realm was a vehicle for the transfer of Arabic learning to Latin Christendom yet his style of rule was largely barren in its long-term effects. Thomas Aquinas began his career in Stupor Mundi’s realm at the University of Naples (a place where Arabic learning was available) before moving to the University of Paris (a rather more vibrant intellectual centre). Lyons does warm to Frederick’s lack of “the fear of change” which Lyons sees as holding back the intellectual life of medieval Europe (Pp168ff). Yet, as Jean Gimpel points out, this was a society with a widespread belief in progress and considerable technological dynamism.

Aquinas and other thinkers got access to Greek thought from the work of European translators, a process which was largely a by-product of the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204, with Jacques de Venise being the most important figure. Not something Lyons pays attention to.

The most important intellectual in the spread of Aristotle’s thought to Latin Christendom, however, was Averroes, ibn Rushd, known as The Commentator, as Aristotle himself was known as The Philosopher. He was the central figure in the dispute with al-Ghazali in the debate within Islam over emphasising God’s Will or His Rationality. Lyons puts it as:
The theologians fight tooth and nail to preserve a maximalist reading of God, while the philosophers led by Averroes seek to create a metaphysical space for reason and for a natural world governed by immutable laws—both essential ingredients for true science (p.182).
In Latin Christendom, the great standard bearer for Aristotelian thought was Thomas Aquinas—who was certainly a theologian as well as a philosopher. In Judaism, the great standard bearer for Aristotelian thought was Maimonedes—who was also a theologian as well as a philosopher. Ibn Rushd himself was a religious judge. Lyons’ division into theologians versus philosophers is perhaps a bit too pat.

Lyons also suffers from the difficulty that the “philosophers” won out in Latin Christendom (and Judaism) but the “theologians” won out in Islam: a bit of a problem for his “enlightened Araby/benighted Christianity” theme. The solution is simple, blame the Christians! Christian aggression forced Muslim leaders in al-Andalus to pander to conservative clerics and Averroes found himself tried, banished from court and his books burned (Pp182-3).

The full story of the triumph of al-Ghazali’s attack on Aristotelian thought is rather more complicated. First, insisting on the uncreated nature of the Qur’an as the direct word of God had been a defence against the brutal autocracy of a centralising and rationalist caliph, for it preserved law as outside his control. Second, al-Ghazali lived and wrote in the centre of Islam, not the periphery. Third, the notion of honour inherited from tribal-nomadic cultures encouraged the notion that limiting God’s Will insulted His honour.

Thomas the synthesiser
The final chapter, “The Invention of the West”, looks at the career of Aquinas and the forging of a marriage of reason and revelation. Lyons continues to equate Aristotelian thought with science and to see Aristotelian thought as fatal to Augustine’s characterisation of philosophy as the handmaiden of theology (Pp184ff). Even though Augustine’s own theology insisted on the primacy of the world as the direct creation of God over scripture as the indirect creation of God.

With the growing scope and confidence of the universities—who were increasingly serving the expanding career opportunities for more secular education—Aristotelian thought, and associated Arabic science, was both attractive and increasingly embraced: to the nervousness of various religious authorities. This tension was at least as much about authority as ideas—scientific publishing was later to be largely driven out of post-Reformation Catholic Europe due to priestly control over the licensing of printing, despite Catholic theology being more friendly to science than Protestant instance on the primacy of scripture. In the C13th struggle, conservative theologians made some rather overblown claims about the content of the Arabic Aristotelians and their works—even though, as Lyons points out, ibn Rushd himself respected revelation and thought philosophy and theology were explorations of a single realm of truth (Pp187ff).

Into this realm of controversy comes Thomas Aquinas, whose work shows the influence of Avicenna, Averroes and Maimonedes. His consideration of the perennial flashpoint between Aristotelians and text-first theologians—Aristotle’s doctrine of the Eternity of the World, which contradicted scriptural stories of Creation—was an example of the Thomist synthesis, concluding that the world could be both eternal and created by God since God, as the ground of causation, operates across all time (Pp190ff).

The Thomist synthesis gave a realm to natural philosophers while, in effect, narrowing the ambit of theology. It provided a bridging compromise that spared the Church “a debilitating and possibly fatal struggle” between reason and revelation (Pp192-3). Aquinas updated Augustine’s Neoplatonic theology of scriptural interpretation with Aristotelian “natural theology”.

Not that this synthesis was adopted without a struggle. After his death, the Franciscans launched a furious attack on the doctrines of this Dominican troublemaker, leading to the strongest condemnations yet by the University of Paris of various Aristotelian doctrines. The doctrines of Aquinas eventually won out: he was canonised in 1323 and his teachers formally cleared of any heretical taint in 1325. Not without tumult and dispute—including the condemnations of 1277 and the blighting of various careers: notably that of the pugnacious student-brawler turned metaphysician and advocate of philosophical freedom Siger de Brabant (Pp 193ff).

Lyons argues that a major reason why Aristotelian natural theology won out in the end in Latin Christendom was precisely because it came via Arabic thinkers, who bequeathed the West a monotheist Aristotelianism (Pp196-7). Lyons concludes by tracing the work of Arabic astronomers and mathematicians in revising the work of Ptolemy: adding and correcting observations, incorporating trigonometry, making the Earth the single central rotation point. He points to hints that Copernicus may have had contact with Arabic learning when he studied in Italy before launching his conceptual breakthrough of identifying the Sun as the centre of the Solar System (Pp197ff).

Inventing invention
Which leads to the conviction of Galileo for heresy that, in a conventional way, Lyons misconstrues as a conflict between science and religion rather than due to Galileo’s insistence on the right to contradict scripture without being able to answer a reasonable objection (if the Sun is the centre of the Solar System, why do we not observe parallax motion in the stars?). Lyons is in much stronger ground in critiquing the Church for its opposition to intellectual freedom (of which it was most certainly guilty, both in the case of Galileo and more savage examples, such as the burning of Giordano Bruno). Whether the Church had, as Lyons argues, failed to abide by the Thomist compromise for a “peaceful and productive coexistence” between faith and reason is a more moot point: Aquinas clearly saw heresy as a capital crime and sin.

Waxing lyrical on the achievements of Western science and the Scientific Revolution, Lyons concludes dramatically that:
Under the direct influence of the Arab Aristotelians, Thomas carved out a truce between traditional church teachings and the discoveries of the emerging generations of modern Western scientists. That compromise defines the rules of engagement to this day between the realms of faith and reason. And it stakes the Arabs’ claims as inventors of the West, a debt that Adelard of Bath identified many centuries ago on his return from Antioch: “Of course God rules the universe,” he assures his readers. “But we may and should enquire into the natural world. The Arabs teach us that.” (p.201)
If “the Arabs” invented the West, why did they not create the Scientific Revolution? Why did Aristotelian thought triumph in Latin Christendom, but fail in Islam? As historian Edward Grant notes, ibn Khaldun himself expressed the failure of philosophy, particularly natural philosophy, in Islam vividly:
Despite his brilliance as an historian, Ibn Khaldun included a chapter in the Muqaddimah titled 'A refutation of philosophy. The corruption of the students of philosophy' (Ibn Khaldun 1958, 3:246-258). In this chapter, Ibn Khaldun condemns the opinions of philosophers as wrong and proclaims to his fellow Muslims that 'the problems of physics are of no importance for us in our religious affairs or our livelihoods. Therefore, we must leave them alone' (Ibn Khaldun 1958, 3:251-252). He regarded the study of logic as dangerous to the faithful unless they were deeply immersed in the Qur'an and the Muslim religious sciences to fortify themselves against its methods.
And what about the heritage of Greek philosophy itself? As Razib Khan points out in his typically perceptive and informative review:
One could write another book about “how the Greeks and Persians civilized the Arabs.”
The tedious modern intellectual habit of attributing “good” agency to non-Westerners and “bad” agency to Westerners is perhaps the biggest failing of The House of Wisdom.

As Razib Khan also notes, there are gems of interest in The House of Wisdom, but it is very much a book that requires a fair bit of background knowledge to put said gems in useful context. A “corrective” which itself needs so much corrective knowledge in a reader has too much polemic and not enough sense.


  1. "Third, the notion of honour inherited from tribal-nomadic cultures encouraged the notion that limiting God’s Will insulted His honour."

    Aren't there similar notions in Germanic and medieval chivalric societies?

    You contrast the will of god approach with the rationality of god approach. You mention that Islam chose the former and Christianity the latter. Here or elsewhere you suggested that the reason Christianity chose a rational god goes back to Roman culture. But why did the Jews pick rationality over will of god?

    Moreover, isn't there a fluctuation between the two approaches throughout Western history, both in Christianity and Judaism? Times when religion took a turn toward more mysticism and/or pietism?

  2. Aren't there similar notions in Germanic and medieval chivalric societies? Yes, and it was a genuine debate in Latin Christendom too. But, by the C11th and C12th, they were a landowning elite, as was the Church, and the notion of good rulership as being law-bound resonated more strongly. By contrast, Islam was ruled by a tax-farming warrior elite.

    Why did the Jews pick rationality? Again, it was a genuine debate but the Jews were very much a commercial people (since they were often not allowed to own land), so the notion of a good ruler being law-bound resonated among them too.

    And yes, pietism and mysticism resurged in various times. But never enough to overthrow the concept of the natural order as structured one.

    This is not an absolute division, it is about which perspective became (and stayed) dominant. As I said in my post on Will versus Rationality, Nor, in either religion, was the contest ever completely over. Movements emphasizing God's Will continue to erupt – such as the rise of Hasidism or current support among American evangelicals for Creationism. Emphasizing rationality can always be portrayed as lessening God’s glory or as manifesting human arrogance – including giving scope for concerns which are not Godly, for rationality clearly has its own norms.

    But I also pointed out in that same post that the debate in Islam threatened clerical authority in a way it did not in Christianity and Judaism. There was more than one cultural/institutional resonance issue.

  3. Also, the Jews were a vulnerable minority; a law bound conception of good rulership would resonate on those grounds as well.

  4. The humorous site Cracked had this article:

    At first glance it's positive when someone undertakes to refute and mock some of the stupid negative beliefs people have about Islam. But it quickly becomes discouraging when you realize that the replaced one set of false generalizations with another. Why are the only choices the ignorance and distortion of the extreme right or the ignorance and distortion of political correctness?

  5. (1) Simplicity is cognitively easy.
    (2) Public attitudes are used as status/membership markers.
    (3) Strong views are more likely to be expressed ("the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity" in Yeats' words).

    That covers most of it.