AFGLC and IFGLC Book Reviews
How Christians, Muslims and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages
By Richard E. Rubenstein
This fast-paced book by a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University describes the fortuitous rediscovery of Aristotle's writings on natural history in the twelfth century and its subsequent impact on the intellectual life of the West, which was almost incalculable. The lessons to be drawn by educated lay readers in any walk of life make it a must-read for anyone who wants to understand-and improve-- the shape of the world today.
Professor Richard E. Rubenstein
After the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of classical learning, it was the Arabs of North Africa and Spain who kept alive the tradition of intellectual inquiry in Western Europe. It is no accident that Spain, with its rich and fairly tolerant interaction of three great worlds of religious thought, experienced a renaissance well before the rest of Europe emerged from the Dark Ages. In the twelfth century, under the benevolent gaze of Alfonso the Wise, Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars came together in Toledo to translate jointly the ancient Greek texts of Aristotle. The dissemination of his humanistic ideas, with their stress on rational explanation and the ability-and right--of the human mind to attain to real knowledge of the world, struck an intellectual blow that ran like a shock wave through the universities of Europe. They were seen as a challenge to the Platonic, otherworldly theology of the Catholic Church that held sway even over areas that would seem to us to belong clearly to natural science. They would profoundly influence the thinking of scholars like Peter Abelard, spawn heresies and give birth to new forms of religious life, but eventually be adopted by great and orthodox minds like St. Thomas Aquinas. By the time the Renaissance proper had blossomed throughout Europe, the idea of faith and reason living in harmony had become a commonplace, making way for scientific investigations of all sorts and even for truly speculative theology. There is no question that the Catholic Church was strengthened by its eventual embrace of reason.
Dr. Rubenstein's presentation of a fascinating but too-little-known period of the history of the West is written in a lucid style that does not take for granted its readers' knowledge of medieval history, but neither does it condescend. It presents a cast of strong-minded and brilliant characters who clash forcefully, yet are never stereotyped as "good guys" and "bad guys." Perhaps that aspect of the book is one of its most valuable, and could we expect any less of an author whose life study is the resolution of conflict? Here we have a tale with many morals. First of all, there is the collaboration of scholars of many traditions who set aside their differences to concentrate on a project of interest to them all. It is significant that the wise balance of Aristotle is the common object of interest. His natural philosophy did not address the religious issues that divided the translators, but the workings of the world in which they all lived. One can only lament the absence of this same philosophy (or any philosophy) in too many cases from the curriculum of today. In a world where colliding religions are once more often revealing an intolerant and anti-intellectual side, a healthy dose of Aristotle might offer thinkers a non-partisan place to open a conversation on issues like morality in a multicultural world.
Another thought-provoking aspect of the story is the popular passion excited by mere ideas. In fact, although we now choose to call them ideologies, there is nothing stronger than the constructs of the mind. The drawing up of the world into good and evil, in stark Platonic black and white, is responsible for some of today's most lamentable conflicts, just as it was in the dogmatic Middle Ages. Aristotle's contribution to the culture wars might be to teach us to "integrate, not fuse" faith and reason, as Rubenstein phrases it in his conclusion. Science needs ethical guidance, but it has certain rights of its own, including the right to serve the common good. Somehow this balance was clearer to the ancient Greek than to the modern American! But Aristotle has been rediscovered once; his message of the collaboration of mind and soul in the pursuit of truth can find a resonance again in the humanistically educated citizen of today just as it did (and all the more surprisingly) in the twelfth century. And so let this be the last and most important lesson to take away from Rubinstein's book: where people are taught to think critically, through the rigorous training of philosophy; where they are taught to think of themselves as noble and intelligent beings with the duty to use their god-given reason to examine all manner of things, they are better prepared to share life on our planet with those of other faiths. Bring on the Aristotle!