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Aristotle's ChildrenReview - Aristotle's Children
How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages
by Richard E. Rubenstein
Harvest Books, 2003
Review by Brook W.R. Pearson, Ph.D.
May 21st 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 21)

Medieval Philosophy. It's not a topic that excites many hearts and minds. As a teacher of this subject at university level, the reasons for this are not too difficult to discern. On the one hand, the apparent identity of 'modern' philosophy as the abandonment of reliance on mythological ways of thinking in place of reason and rationality leads students to the belief that 'modern' philosophy has somehow left the medieval behind. Let's face it--'medieval' is hardly an adjective applied with a positive sense to most things. On the other hand, Medieval Philosophy is simply a difficult topic. Most of us know very little about the medieval period, without specialised study. Even those whose identity remains connected to the Church (whose control over the European medieval world was nearly complete) rarely know much useful history of the Church, let alone the relations between history, theology and philosophy in that period.

      Unfortunately, textbooks and introductions to philosophy in the medieval period are, perhaps unsurprisingly, generally written by philosophers. Historians of philosophy often seem to think that reason and rationality are post-medieval developments (and therefore of that they themselves are beyond the problematic identity of pre-Enlightenment philosophy). This is problematic. A corollary of this difficulty is a resistance within analytical philosophy to the inter-relation of the subject matter of 'other' disciplines to the subject matter and practise of philosophy itself. History of philosophy and history of ideas have problematic inter-relations with each other and with more traditional historical enterprises--this is no new story. Yet, in the story of medieval philosophy as it emerges from the pages of analytical philosophy's apparent identity, this becomes a particularly challenging limitation.

Rationality and reason are not anti-religious, nor is religion devoid of rationality and reason: in each case, what we should rather speak of is presuppositional logic. For modern philosophers, the need to believe that we have overcome the mythical presuppositions of our forbearers is pervasive. A colleague of mine recently expressed a belief that, to be a philosopher, one must necessarily hold a position of atheism. Yet, while the disbelief in a god or gods may be a pervasive set of beliefs amongst philosophers in the western tradition in the 'modern' or 'post-modern' world, there is no necessary reason to abandon a theistic position to engage in rationality. Logic does not demand it, despite prolific protestations to the contrary. Despite the positioning of 'myth' as the antithesis of 'reason', wishing does not make it so. 'Myth' is merely a label given to presupposition set x, whereas 'reason' is also a label for a presupposition set (y).

There are, indeed, differences between these two sets of presuppositions (where they can adequately be differentiated at all). Yet, y grew out of x; they are genetically related. This is not to say that they are therefore metaphysically identical, but merely to point out that there may be aspects of the philosophical genome that have not yet been mapped. The chief mistake of 'modern' philosophy's construction of an identity for itself has been to make the mistake of seeing these differences as qualitative differences of kind, rather than quantitative differences of content. The inability conclusively to 'prove' the presuppositional basis of modern philosophy is, qualitatively, as problematic as the inability conclusively to 'prove' the existence of a god.

      The challenge of this for the study of medieval philosophy is that philosophy in the medieval period participates in y and x, holding that, for x, y is a necessary precursor, while modern philosophers' typical positions hold that y and x are mutually exclusive. Therefore, the study of medieval philosophy by modern (especially analytical) philosophy is laced with attempts by scholars to lift out the traces of reason from amidst the dross of faith. The corollary of this is, as mentioned, that the inter-relations of the history of the Church in the medieval period--factions, orders, temporal powers, inter- and intra-cultural competition, etc.--are not generally perceived to be of great relevance to our understanding of philosophy in this period, any more than analytical philosophy perceives inter-relations with culture to be an important aspect of its own understanding of itself.

      Aristotle's Children is a book whose emphasis runs counter to this trend. I suppose it is no surprise that it is not by a philosopher, nor, apparently, written with philosophers chiefly in mind. Suffused with a sense of wonder at the amazing developments of the twelfth century after the 're-discovery' in the 'west' of the bulk of the Aristotelian corpus, Rubenstein weaves together basic introductions to aspects of medieval thinking, Aristotelian philosophy, and the cultural and historical developments that made it possible for Europe to begin an emergence from the 'dark ages'.

As a philosopher, teacher of philosophy, and student of history, I found this book to be alternatively marvellous and woefully problematic. On the one hand, Rubenstein's approach to weaving the stories of individual philosophers against their own personal and their culture's histories is highly laudable. For the first time, for instance, I understood things about Abelard's story that had escaped me in my previous researches. The factionalism that pervaded the medieval church, the manner in which the manuscripts of Moorish Spain were translated, copied and disseminated, the development of the medieval university of Paris--the list goes on--all of these are treated in such a way that, particularly for students coming fresh to the subject, the relevance of philosophy to culture is brought out in a startling and memorable way.

      On the other hand, Rubenstein's grasp on and understanding of some of the philosophy he treats is more remote. I would never give his chapter on Aristotle and Plato to any student of ancient or medieval philosophy, for it participates too readily in the typical analytical philosophy framework of the understanding of the development of Greek philosophy, and adverts to a brand of historical structuralism that is, while perhaps useful as a heuristic device, problematic if extended. He (pp. 49-50) tries to develop a notion of the succession of Platonic and Aristotelian epochs or eras: 'In Aristotelian epochs, economic growth, political expansion, and cultural optimism color the intellectual atmosphere. People feel connected to each other and to the natural world. Confident that they can direct their emotions instead of being dominated by them, they are generally comfortable with their humanity…', etc. On the other hand, 'Platonic eras…are filled with discomfort and longing. The source of this discomfort is a sense of contradiction dramatized by personal and social conflicts that seem all but unresolvable. Society is fractured, its potential integrity disrupted by violent strife, and this brokenness is mirrored in the souls of individuals', etc. Thankfully, this model is not employed anywhere else in the book. Even without the silly assignment of these competing 'eras' to Aristotle and Plato, the exceptions to this sort of banding of history abound to the extent that their explanatory value is of no account.

Part of the reason Rubenstein feels able to engage in the sharp distinction between Aristotle and Plato as he does (and therefore of their 'epochs') is that his picture of Plato is skewed by neoplatonism. Throughout the book, when Plato's metaphysics are mentioned, it is actually the neoplatonic hybrid of Aristotelian and Platonic elements that is in view. Rubenstein does not appear to recognise this point, but the importance for distinguishing how these Classical and Late Antique philosophical systems interacted with the highly hybridized metaphysical system of the emerging Christian Church is paramount for any attempt to decipher the development of either Christian theology of the medieval period or of philosophy as it develops into the modern world. That work is not done well here.

Thankfully, the layout of this book lends itself to the sort of use that I both suggest and plan to execute in future medieval philosophy classes: ignore chapters 1–2, read chapters 3–7 along side more traditional introductions to medieval philosophy (such as John Marenbon's two-volume Early and Later Medieval Philosophy, London and New York: Routledge, 1988, 1987) and medieval texts themselves (my recommendation for a collection is A. Hyman and J.J. Walsh, Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamicm and Jewish Traditions, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 2nd edn 1973), while ignoring anything that is said about Plato, except as one can see this as the function of Plato's texts in some medieval contexts.

The 27-page eighth chapter is, by way of conclusion to the book, a virtually independent essay on the relations between the modern, medieval and ancient. Following the more scientific emphasis of his final chapter (on Ockham), it outlines how he sees the outcome of the flowering of Aristotelian thought in the late medieval Church, tracing developments of these ideas in the Reformations and the Renaissance: 'One can imagine this as a sort of intellectual nuclear fission. Bombarded by its early modern opponents, Aristotelianism implodes, generating a coldly objectivist science and a passionately subjectivist religion' (p. 289). This is, perhaps, overly-simplistic. Yet, in the attention that this book has given to a period that is rejected from most cultural histories as virtually irrelevant to the world in which we now find ourselves, Rubenstein has earned the right to make such suggestions, and his readers--at whatever level they approach this book--would do well to pay attention and think about the complexity that underlies this apparently simple statement.

By way of a parting shot, I should express a general uneasiness with the degree to which the 'Muslims' of the book's sub-title are brought into the story primarily as keepers of the Aristotelian flam. As with his characterisations of Aristotelian and Platonic philosophies, I think Rubenstein, in bringing his unique perspective to this field, has followed too closely the lines of that field's already-existing self-definition. Rubenstein does, it is true, give attention to the influence that the texts of Avicenna and Averroes had on some Christian thinkers, but the story that is told in this book is really the story of Christianity.

In the concluding pages of the book, Rubenstein notes that, 'As this book goes to press, the president of the United States, a believing Christian closely allied with other believers of other faiths, has committed his nation to war against an Iraqi regime that he has repeatedly defined, in Augustinian religious terms, as "evil"' (p. 292), and states that 'global economic and military power [is] concentrating at an unprecedented rate in the hands of a few powerful elites,' and suggests that, 'both faith and reason tend to become tools in the hands of raw, self-aggrandizing power' (p. 298).

I would like to suggest that part of the structure that has allowed these old west vs. east/Christian vs. Muslim notions to be brought into play so powerfully by rhetoricians on both sides of this apparent divide in the twenty-first-century world is the origination of these stories in the histories of both religions and of the cultures that have been under their influence for the past two millennia. The continuing bit-part billing for Islamic philosophers in the Late Antique and Medieval periods--as much as the history of Christianity sanitised of its eastern origins and non-standard identity for its first several centuries--are areas that need renewed attention. It will not end the war in Iraq, or convince combatants to forego hijacking airplanes, but it may lay the foundations for our children and grandchildren to feel the shame of our misunderstandings (and take power away from those who would use these stories to manipulate us). Rubenstein missed a trick here, but opens the door for future approaches to this subject that expand their perspective to accommodate a new way of seeing the histories of Christian and Islamic philosophies of the Middle Ages.


©2004 Brook Pearson


Brook W.R. Pearson, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer in Greco-Roman Philosophy & Culture, School of Humanities and Cultural Studies, University of Surrey Roehampton, London, author of Corresponding Sense: Paul, Dialectic, and Gadamer (Brill Academic Publishers, 2001).


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