By Daniel Gurpide
All three major religions have had to confront the ideas of the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Averroes tried to integrate Aristotle with Islam. Maimonides tried to integrate Aristotle with Judaism. Aquinas tried to integrate Aristotle with Christianity. All necessarily failed. Rationality cannot be integrated with faith; nor reason with anti-reason; nor, in philosophy, fact with fantasy.
In conquering parts of the Byzantine Empire, Arabs encountered Greek thought. Muslim scholars studied and were fascinated by the writings of Aristotle and translated them into Arabic. Avicenna and Averroes were superlative Aristotle scholars. The Arabs learned the method of observation-based rationality and, in a true golden age, made superb contributions to medicine, astronomy, mathematics, literature, and other fields.
But it did not last. Due to the influence of Al-Ghazali and other reason-rejecting theologians, as well as a fundamentalism firmly entrenched in Islamic culture from its outset, faith ultimately crushed freedom of thought. Under orthodox Islam, the books of Avicenna, Averroes, and other great thinkers were burned in the 12th century. For eight hundred years since, the Islamic world has wallowed in a dark age.
When Christians reconquered from the Muslims large areas of Spain, they had access to the Islamic centers of learning in southern Spain. In the 12th century, Archbishop Raymund I of Toledo supported Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim scholars in another great translation movement, mirroring that of Baghdad three centuries earlier, but this time translating Greek masterpieces from Arabic into Latin, the language of European scholars. Predictably, as it had done centuries before, the Church resisted study of Greek philosophy. In 1210 a Church council at Paris forbade the reading of Aristotle’s ‘metaphysics and natural philosophy.
But this time the Church failed. Leading European minds, although still Catholic, were determined to gain a greater understanding of the natural world—and nobody, at that point in history, had attained a knowledge of nature equal to Aristotle’s.
In one of history’s great and tragic ironies, in the late Middle Ages Aristotle became the patron Greek philosopher of the Catholic Church. Many of that era’s thinkers, the Scholastics, were Christian Aristotelians.
But a critical and often overlooked point is that, in the centuries following Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, they too often rejected Aristotle’s method and clung to his specific conclusions as dogmatically as they did Biblical myths.