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Medieval Times

Essay collection sheds light on the dark ages

Adam Kirsch
April 07, 2009

“The history of philosophy, like history in general, aims at replacing a naïve relation with the past with one that is more thoughtful. It implies an intention to strangle legends.” A statement like that, coming in a book titled The Legend of the Middle Ages, amounts to a battle-cry; and there is no doubt that Remi Brague, the French historian of ideas, is ready for intellectual combat. For as he says, “the Middle Ages abounds in legends. Perhaps we would even have to say that the Middle Ages is itself a legend.”

Brague’s work has been devoted to showing how profound and subtle the thought of the Middle Ages really was. “Against the legend of the dark ages,” he writes, “it will be shown that people never stopped thinking, that in fact medieval people did a lot of thinking, and that many highly refined concepts were shaped during those years”—roughly, the thousand years between the fall of Rome in the fifth century CE and the Renaissance. In earlier books like The Law of God and The Wisdom of the World—translated and published, like this new one, by University of Chicago Press—Brague explored those “highly refined concepts,” introducing the modern reader to the complex ways ancient and medieval people thought about the universe, its Creator, and its laws.

In this new collection of essays, Brague supplements those major works of synthesis with smaller, more targeted studies. Drawing on a wide range of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish texts, Brague sets out to explode some of the clichés and misunderstandings that, he laments, still shape our picture of the medieval world (though much less, arguably, than they once did, thanks to the success of revisionist historians like him). Take, for instance, our habitual pride in the achievements of modern science. In the 16th century, the textbooks tell us, human beings began to wake up to their profound ignorance of the natural world. Instead of relying on the ancient errors of Aristotle in physics and Galen in medicine, they began to ask questions for themselves, to do experiments—in short, to practice science.

There is, of course, a good deal of truth in this story. But Brague offers a different perspective in his essay “Is Physics Interesting?”, whose unusual title announces its novel approach to the subject. For modern people, Brague suggests, physics—broadly speaking, the study of the natural world and its laws—can be intellectually engaging and aesthetically pleasing. But it is not “interesting” in the way it was to medieval thinkers, because we have lost the ability to see the natural world as a reflection of God and of ourselves. Physics is something we use and master, but not something that is interesting in the precise sense Brague means: “What is interesting is what is found between us and ourselves. . . so that we must pass through it in order to get at ourselves.”

But that is the kind of interest that medieval Jewish thinkers found in physics. To Maimonides, nature was the royal road to understanding God: “There is, moreover, no way to apprehend Him except it be through the things He has made; for they are indicative of His existence and of what ought to be believed about Him…It is therefore indispensable to consider all beings as they really are.” Gersonides, the 14th-century French Jewish thinker, went even further, writing that “Human happiness is achieved when a man knows reality as much as he can.” As Brague observes, “This is an idea that admittedly has a modern ring to it.”

As Brague’s citation of these Jewish philosophers shows, the Middle Ages were also a time when thinkers of all three monotheistic faiths were engaged with the same problems and shared the same conceptual vocabulary. In his essay “The Interpreter,” Brague writes that “the history of medieval philosophy—and even modern philosophy—would not have been what it was without a vast movement to transfer knowledge from one language and one culture to another.”

Famously, the Arab world preserved the heritage of Greek philosophy which the West abandoned after the fall of Rome. Averroes—as the West called the great Ibn Rushd, who lived in Spain in the 12th century—“commented on all the available works of Aristotle at least once, and on occasion three times.” “For him,” Brague writes, “Aristotle was the absolute summit of humanity—with the exception, of course, of the prophets.” Even those who believed in different prophets shared Averroes’ views: “his commentator and Jewish disciple Moses of Narbonne went even further, saying that if Aristotle has said something, there is no reason to seek elsewhere.” When a Christian philosopher like Thomas Aquinas read Aristotle, he did so through the lenses of the Muslim Averroes and the Jewish Maimonides.

Brague points out that Jewish translators played a central role in transmitting texts from Arabic to Latin. This was an ironic side effect of the mass emigration of Jews from Spain’s Muslim South to its Christian North, in the 12th century CE, after they were expelled by the conquering Almohad dynasty. These Jews were perfectly equipped to mediate between cultures that regarded one another with distrust—much as the Marranos would do, centuries later, when the Jews were expelled in turn from Christian Spain. One family of exiles, named Ibn Tibbon, produced three generations of translators: Samuel translated Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, while his son Moses translated Aristotle and Averroes.

The Ibn Tibbons are a reminder that, when we speak of the “Islamic world” in the Middle Ages, we are not necessarily talking about either Muslims or Arabs, but rather about a variety of peoples who lived in Arabic-speaking lands, including many Christians and Jews. Indeed, Brague writes that while Muslim thinkers produced an extraordinarily rich philosophical literature, it was Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews who deserve credit for passing that heritage on to Latin-speaking Europe, since the role of Muslims in the work of translation was “nil. They did not actively transmit anything.” The reasons for this are explored in Brague’s essay “Inclusion and Digestion,” where he examines the different ways Muslims and Christians adapted ancient Greek and Latin works to their own purposes.

When Muslim philosophers wrote about Aristotle, Brague shows, they tended to do so by paraphrasing his works, creating new originals: “the text is completely rewritten, the demonstration proceeds more systematically, the exposition is clearer, and examples that are out-of-date or have become hard to understand are replaced by others that are more current and easier to grasp.” The effect is to “digest” the original, divesting it of its foreignness and making it an integral part of Arabic thought.

Because Muslims believed that Arabic was a sacred language, the tongue in which God dictated the Koran, this kind of translation represented a promotion; once a text was available in Arabic, it was no longer necessary to read it in the original Greek. Brague quotes a 15th-century Tunisian writer to this effect: “[The Muslims] took them over into their own language from the non-Arab languages and surpassed the achievements of [the non-Arabs] in them. The manuscripts in the non-Arabic language were forgotten, abandoned, and scattered . . . . Thus students of the sciences . . . could dispense with all other languages, because they had been wiped out and there was no longer any interest in them.”

Europeans, on the other hand, tended to write commentaries on Greek authors, in which the original text was preserved and explicated line by line. The result was that Aristotle could be approached in his foreignness—he remained an “other” for medieval Europeans, and for that very reason could challenge their assumptions. For Brague, indeed, the noblest definition of Europe is that it is a culture which has always looked outside itself for guidance and inspiration: “The relationship with the exterior is internal to it.” He traces this tendency back to the origins of Christianity, which had just such a relationship with Judaism: “Using the technical term of Jewish exegesis, the New Testament is like a pesher of the Old, which is to say an interpretation that applied the text to the present situation and interprets it.” In this and many other ways, Brague shows, the subtle, often acrimonious interplay between Judaism, Christianity and Islam helped to create the advanced thought of the Middle Ages—a phrase that, after reading Brague’s book, no longer sounds like an oxymoron.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.