Aristotle’s Children by Richard E. Rubenstein


Audiobook.  The subtitle of this dense and delightful book is How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages.  The author came across the story of the Aristotelian Revolution while researching causes of religious conflict.  The revolution began as the Christian scholastics rediscovered the bulk of Aristotle's writings in what was Moslem Spain.  The writings which had been lost to the west for centuries, were translated by teams of Jewish, Moslem and Christian writers into Latin and were disseminated to the centers of learning, which were a part of the Catholic Church throughout Europe.  The Aristotelian logic was adopted by the Church and used, especially by the heresy-hating Dominicans, to defend the established Christian beliefs. 

Ultimately the hierarchies of the three religions rejected the Aristotelian teachings, as faith could not be achieved or explained by reason. (Now there's a nice short version of the issue!)  Around the beginning of the 12th century the philosopher al-Ghazali attacked Aristotle's worldview and the Muslim world turned away from the scientific inquiry that Aristotle taught.  The Jewish world took a similar view, eventually burning Moses Maimonides' Aristotelian masterpiece, The Guide to the Perplexed.  And the Catholic Church, well, here we get the long version of the divorce of faith and reason.

The story of this relationship is told through countless familiar names, from Abelard (and Heloise), Bernard of Clairveau, the Cathars, Thomas Aquinas, and William of Ockham, to name a few.  We are given a glimpse of the struggles within the world of higher education.  One story that I found quite refreshing was of Albertus Magnus, a Dominican with the requisite hatred of heresy.  On the other hand his most memorable work was Aristotelian in that he was a serious observer and collector of nature, an accomplished zoologist and botanist.  According to Rubenstein, "Especially for a Dominican, this passionate curiosity about the details of nature was something new."  It is encouraging that even in the single-minded world of heretic-hunters, an intense love of this world cannot be denied.

And I must mention Boethius, a name I wish to remember.  He lived from 480 to 524 and is said to be the last of the well-educated Roman scholars who read the ancients in Greek, and the first of the  Christian scholastics.  His translations were all that the west had for seven centuries.  He was successful politically, but eventually ran afoul of Ostrogoth rulers and after a year in prison, was executed.  In that year he wrote his most memorable work, The Consolation of Philosophy, a meditation on the sudden change of fortune.

The author is University Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University.

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