quotes & notes

Aristotle’s Children
Richard E. Rubenstein

Richard E. Rubenstein

These pages: Aristotle’s Children

first page (here)

second page



index pages:

My chapter notes include approximate time span, events, and major dramatis personæ. Dates are approximate, and refer to the Common Era (C.E.) unless marked B.C.E.

The history and philosophy discussed in this book form the context of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.

Aristotle’s Children

How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages

Copyright © 2003 by Richard E. Rubenstein

Preface The civilization that we call modern, with its split between the cultures of the heart and the head, its sanctification of power, “privatization” of religion, and commodification of values, emerged out of a very different past, and is in the process of evolving toward a very different future. Late in the writing process, it dawned on me that this might account for the studied indifference that has all but erased the Aristotelian Revolution from our historical memory. Such blank spots are often the result of the semiconscious neglect reserved for stories that run counter to generally accepted notions of who we are as a people, and how we got that way.
The Medieval Star-Gate

The split between knowledge and wisdom, between the provable, apparently objective truths of science and the intuitive, subjective truths of religion and personal philosophy is a hallmark of what people now call the modern perspective. Ancient wisdom is fine in its place, says the modernist gospel, but when it comes to understanding how Homo sapiens and the rest of the universe are constructed, how they evolved, and how they operate, we will not find much of this sort of learning before the Age of Reason.

Yet the idea of lost knowledge haunts even the skeptical consciousness of a scientific age.

Chapter One
“The Master of Those Who Know”

Aristotle Rediscovered

Note (Hal’s):

c. 1100: post-Reconquista rediscovery and translation; Muslim falsafah (philosophy) movement
Raymund of Toledo, Domingo Gundisalvo and other translators

4th c. B.C.E.: life and work of Aristotle
Aristotle, Plato, Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great

— end note

Nowadays when people think about the response of the Catholic Church to new knowledge, they often recall Rome’s hostility to free inquiry and its willingness to suppress unpalatable truths. But the travails of scientific pioneers such as Giordano Bruno and Galileo have obscured an earlier, brighter image: that of Archbishop Raymund of Toledo, one of the unrecognized heroes of Western culture, who did more than any man to make the treasures of Greek philosophy and science available to the Latin world, and who opened the door to advanced Arab and Jewish ideas as well. Little is known of Raymund’s career and personality, but all agree that it was his idea to create a translation center in Toledo and to recruit the best scholars available to work there, whether they be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Latin, Greek, or Slav. Moreover, this work would be carried out without censorship.

Plato did not hate the world, but it reminded him of a much better place. What evoked joy and wonder in the old man was the conviction that behind the façade of deceptive sense impressions and turbulent emotions was a realm of pure thought that gave mundane experience whatever intelligibility and value it had. That is why he saw art as a window to eternity, and why he pictured God as an artisan. What most pleased and excited Aristotle, on the other hand, was his conviction that the “real world” perceived by the senses––our only home, however much one might wish for another––contains within itself the sources of intelligibility and value. He agreed with Plato that surface appearances are deceptive, that the real nature or structure of things is hidden, and that wisdom means uncovering these underlying realities. But he denied the existence of a world of absolute intelligibilities separate from the natural world. In his view, ideas cannot exist without the input of the senses, nor are the things of this world mere shadows or approximations of eternal concepts.

While Plato heard through the static of imperfection and illusion the immortal music of the gods, Aristotle perceived orderly rhythms and melodies within the same apparent cacophony.
There is something about these works, or about their conjunction with certain moments in human history, that makes them seem almost indestructible. Time and again, they fade from sight in one civilization only to reappear centuries later in another, often with the most extraordinary impact. “Lost” in Greece, they are later “found” in Rome. Neglected by Byzantine Christians, they inspire a great burst of philosophical creativity in the Islamic world. Unread for centuries in the Latin West, their rediscovery in medieval Spain triggers an intellectual revolution in Europe.
The God of the Bible and the Koran is the eternal ruler of a transient kingdom. He has no predetermined or knowable function, but acts freely as a sovereign lord. The Aristotelian God, by contrast, is the eternal resident of an equally eternal cosmos. He/it has a knowable function, which is to inspire everything in the universe to actualize itself as far as its nature permits.



Aristotle’s writings were most likely to be “rediscovered” in eras of newborn confidence, when people who had formerly considered the universe impenetrable and their own natures ungovernable, or who had been too busy struggling to survive to imagine exercising dominion over nature and society, recognized themselves as rational beings––and as potential conquerors.
Chapter Two
The Murder of “Lady Philosophy”

How the Ancient Wisdom Was Lost, and How It Was Found Again

Note (Hal’s):

5th-6th c.: Neoplatonism; Alexandrian pogrom and murder of Hypatia; Nestorianism and Monophysitism; Muslim and Christian approaches to Aristotelian philosophy
Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose, Boethius, Theodoric, Cyril, Nestorius

— end note

Because the bishop’s writing was so passionate and insightful, and because his Platonized Christianity made such good sense in the context of post-Roman society, Western Christians came to believe that it was the only possible version of the true faith––that Augustine’s doctrine was Christianity, period. They did not recognize that there might be other defensible versions that he had decided to reject.

To comprehend this choice, it helps to recognize that, in some periods of history, Plato’s ideas and attitudes make obvious sense to thinking people, while in others, Aristotle’s vision of the world seems far more realistic and inspiring.



[...] Could Christian believers make sense of the universe, as Aristotle had attempted to do, and still remain believers?

In fact, the Muslim and Jewish philosophers had not answered this question to the satisfaction of their own religious authorities. For this reason (among others), the movement of falsafah was dying in the Islamic world just as it reached a takeoff point in Europe.

An Aristotelian philosopher could be a convinced monotheist, but he could not believe in a simpleminded way in doctrines like divine miracles, the resurrection of the body, or the immortality of the individual soul. Either these doctrines were true in a way that was unprovable by reason, or they were true in ways more complex than what was generally understood.



Chapter Three
“His Books Have Wings”

Peter Abelard and the Revival of Reason

Note (Hal’s):

early 12th c.: Gregorian reform; ultra-realism and nominalism; Bernard vs. Abelard
Peter Abelard, Anselm, William of Champeaux, Roscelin de Compiègne, Bernard of Clairvaux

— end note

Coursing through society were two powerful currents of thought and feeling: a surge of religious piety and a great yearning for knowledge. Today many people would consider these diametrical opposites: the more religious passion, the less scientific inquiry, and vice versa. But in medieval times (and on occasion since then), they seemed twin aspects of the same aspiration: to develop and exercise one’s capacities as a human being, and by doing so, to breathe new life and meaning into stale rituals and traditional formulas. The new religious zeal expressed itself in passionate devotion to Jesus and Mary, spontaneous movements to purify the Church, and militant Crusades against non-Christians. Abelard’s contemporaries were discovering what it felt like to love a humanized Christ and his altogether human Mother, to bond with fellow believers, and to let these emotionally charged beliefs influence their everyday behavior. At the same time, many were experiencing, almost as if intoxicated, the joys of logical reasoning.

A new demand for understanding––a demand to “know” the truths of religion in addition to believing them––drew students from all across the Latin world to cities like Paris, Bologna, and Oxford, where pioneer thinkers such as Abelard were creating a new fusion of philosophy and religion that they called theology.

Chapter Four
“He Who Strikes You Dead Will Earn a Blessing”

Aristotle Among the Heretics

Note (Hal’s):

1140-1215: pietistic evangelism; rise of universities; Cathars, disputations, and the anti-Cathar Crusade
Henry the Monk, Arnold of Brescia, Bernard, Innocent III, Domingo de Guzmán (Dominic), Raymond of Toulouse, Francis of Assissi

— end note

Clerical marriage or concubinage was one worldly practice condemned by the Gregorians. Others included the buying and selling of Church offices, the accumulation of needless wealth by churches and monasteries, failure to attend to the needs of the poor, and giving free rein to oppressive secular authorities. Men like Bernard believed that they could eliminate these evils by purifying and professionalizing the clergy and imbuing the Church’s servants with a passion for selfless service. The problem they had not been able to solve was how to accomplish these goals in a society that defined every group’s identity, status, and power on the basis of its relationship to landed property.
The Gregorian movement had now reached a point that will be familiar to modern readers––the point that a reform movement grown stale begins to spawn genuinely revolutionary alternatives. Itinerant evangelists like Henry the Monk provided a foretaste of a mass movement that would soon mobilize tens of thousands of laypeople to follow brilliant organizers such as the Lyons businessman Peter Waldes and the Italian spiritual genius Francis of Assissi. Intellectual innovators like Peter Abelard would prove tame, indeed, compared with a new breed of thinkers whose shockingly radical ideas were now beginning to circulate from southern France to the Rhineland. Most dangerous of all, a growing number of secular leaders who deeply resented Rome’s political power might form a common front with the dissenting evangelists and intellectuals. To deal with some of these threats, repression––indeed, a repression far more violent than the silencing of a few heretics––might be considered necessary. But awakened people striving to satisfy basic human needs are not easily repressed.

Interestingly, the principal source of resistance to expanding the anti-Cathar mobilization to include other potentially “subversive” movements was Innocent III himself. For all his ferocity where outright heretics and religious competitors were concerned, the pope remained a Gregorian, deeply devoted to radical reform of the clergy. His most remarkable achievement was to incorporate into the body of the Church many of the mass-based evangelical organizations that had terrified older conservatives like Bernard.

text checked (see note) Feb 2005

top of page

Graphics copyright © 2004 by Hal Keen