Averroes (c. 1126–c. 1198)

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(c. 1126c. 1198)

Averroes, or ibn Rushd, was the foremost figure in Islamic philosophy's period of highest development (7001200). His preeminence is due to his own immense philosophical acuity and power and to his enormous influence in certain phases of Latin thought from 1200 to 1650.

Averroes ("ibn Rushd" is a more exact transliteration of the Arabic, while "Averroes" is the medieval Latin version) was born in Córdoba into a family of prominent judges and lawyers; his grandfather, bearing the same name, served as the chief qādī (judge) of Córdoba, and there is a tradition that his father carried out the same duties. (In Muslim society a qādī 's professional concepts and practical duties were simultaneously civil and religious. Thus, a "lawyer" had expert knowledge of divine law.)

There are, however, few other specific details about his life and career. Ernest Renan and Salomon Munk mention that he studied under the most learned teachers in theology and law (in the Muslim world the two disciplines are effectively the same). It has been suggested that he studied with such scientists and philosophers as ibn ufayl (d. 1185) and ibn Bajja (or Avempace, d. 1138), but the tenuous evidence would indicate that he became acquainted with the former only when he was past forty and that the death of the latter occurred when Averroes was only eleven or twelve years of age. Thus, significant pedagogical influence by these personalities upon Averroes is doubtful.

There remain, nevertheless, scattered pieces of evidence and suggestions of dates delineating his career. Averroes himself mentions that he was in Marrakech in 1153, on which occasion he observed the star Canope, not visible in Spain at that time. This sighting confirmed for him the truth of Aristotle's claim that the world was round. Some years later he seems to have been associated with the family of the Ibn Zuhr, traditionally physicians and scholars of medicine. He is reported to have been well acquainted with Abū Marwān ibn-Zuhr, perhaps the most outstanding member of the family, and when Averroes composed his medical handbook titled Kulliyat (literally, "generalities," which became latinized to Colliget ), he encouraged Abū Marwān to write a companion text concerned with the details of specific ailments.

Tradition next reports that Averroes came into the favor of the sultan of Marrakech, a notable patron of scholarship and research, through the personal recommendation of his friend and presumed mentor, ibn ufayl. His ready intelligence seems to have pleased the cālīf, who, according to a student of Averroes, subsequently encouraged the vast series of commentaries on Aristotle that became known in the West around 1200. It is generally conjectured that the association among ibn ufayl, the cālīf, and Averroes can be dated between 1153 and 1169.

Through the cālīf's offices, Averroes was appointed qādī of Seville in 1169, and he began his array of commentaries on Aristotle about that time. In 1171 he returned to Córdoba, probably as qādī, and eventually became chief qādī. He was, however, continually traveling to Seville and to Marrakech, as the colophons of various of his writings attest. In 1182 he became physician to the cālīf of Marrakech, continuing as a court favorite until about 1195. At that time he is supposed to have retired, possibly under a cloud as the result of religious controversy, or perhaps to be protected from conservative theologians, to a village outside Seville; details are not available. In any case, he soon returned to Marrakech, where he died.

His death coincided with the virtual disappearance of the dynamic speculative tradition evidenced in Arabic thinking for the several centuries after 700. Interestingly, it also coincided with the bursting forth of a similarly active tradition in the Latin West, which was greatly stimulated by the translations of Aristotle and Greek science from Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts. All these eventsthe death of Averroes, the abrupt decline of Arab intellectual dynamism, the translation into Latin of Aristotle (notably the Metaphysics and De Anima about 1200), and the exponential acceleration of Western philosophizingoccurred virtually within two decades. These are perhaps neither radically causative nor dependent events, but their close association is historically remarkable.


During the course of his active professional life as qādī, physician, scientist, and philosopher, Averroes found time to compose an impressive number of scientific, philosophical, and religious writings. It is possible that some of his appointments may have been, in part, preferments for the purpose of sustaining scholarship. Certainly in the medieval Latin West, many a Sorbonne scholar formally designated "canon of Rheims," for example, could rarely be found at Rheims fulfilling his canonic responsibilities.

Most of Averroes's writings that can be dated fall between 1159 and 1195. There is the medical encyclopedia Kulliyat (composed before 1162), along with expositions of and commentaries on such medical writers as the Greek Galen and the Eastern Islamic ibn Sīnā (normally latinized as Avicenna). There are writings on astronomy. In religious philosophy there is the famous reply to the philosopher Muhammad al-Ghazālī's attack on the pretensions of rationalism in matters of divine law (The Incoherence of the Philosophers ); Averroes's response is titled The Incoherence of the Incoherence, in which he strongly affirms the solid adequacy of natural reason in all domains of intellectual investigation. There are many lesser writings, on problems of divine law, on logic, on natural philosophy, and on medicine. Finally, there is the massive set of commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus, which profoundly affected medieval Latin thoughtsometimes with official ecclesiastical approbation, sometimes not.

commentaries on aristotle

The commentaries on Aristotle are of three kinds: short, often called paraphrases or epitomes; intermediate; and long, usually meticulous and detailed explications. These different versions may well correspond to stages in the educational curriculum.

The commentaries survive in many forms. For some writings of Aristotle, all three commentaries are available, for some two, and for some only one. Since Aristotle's Politics was not accessible to him, Averroes wrote a commentary on Plato's Republic, under the assumption that Greek thought constituted a coherent philosophical whole. He believed that the Republic contributed to this total philosophical construction. In still a further attempt to complete the presumed integrity of all Greek natural philosophy, Averroes supplemented Aristotle's Physics and De Caelo with a treatise of his own titled De Substantia Orbis.

In supplementing Aristotle in this fashion, Averroes did violence to the original methodology of the Stagirite. For Aristotle the Physics and De Caelo investigated motions and processes according to two different perspectivesPhysics, motion as such; De Caelo, motion in the particular context of the activities of the heavenly bodies. These investigations were not conceived as standing in any hierarchical order, reflecting any vertical order of being or reality; they were simply different investigations and must not be taken, as did many ancient and medieval commentators, in terms of category and subcategory. Averroes, with methodological dispositions akin to the Platonic, did take them in this way, and thus eventually he found it necessary to provide an all-comprehensive celestial physicshence, the De Substantia Orbis.

textual tradition

The actual textual tradition of Averroes's works is extremely complex. Some of the commentaries remain in Arabic versions, some in Hebrew translations from the Arabic, some in Arabic texts recorded in Hebrew script, and many in Latin translations. These categories are not mutually exclusive. Beginning in 1472 there appeared numerous printed editions of some, but by no means all, of the commentaries; the format usually consists of a paragraph of Aristotelian text followed immediately by Averroes's comments on and interpretation of that text. This was no doubt an apparatus designed for the practical needs of the teaching of natural philosophy in the Western Latin universities, for it is clear that Averroes's analyses had become influential by the first quarter of the thirteenth century, accompanying as they did the translations of Aristotle, and they remained influential in the traditions of the universities well into the seventeenth century.

Averroes's Philosophy

Averroes's own philosophical position can best be characterized as Aristotle warped onto a Platonic frame. He inherited Greek thought as a literary corpus and, like his Islamic philosophical predecessors, viewed this corpus as an intellectually integrated totality. Aristotle, his commentators (such as Alexander of Aphrodisias and Simplicius) and such thinkers as Plotinus and Proclus were all understood as parts dovetailing into a single coherent philosophical system. Al-Fārābī (d. c. 950) is an eminent example of this syncretism: he composed a work titled The Harmony between Plato and Aristotle, and Averroes himself, lacking Aristotle's Politics, found little difficulty in incorporating Plato's Republic within his compass of speculation.

reliance on neoplatonism

The doctrinal positions of Greek and Alexandrian thinkers were, in fact, often quite divergent and even incompatible, and to complete the final union of their philosophies into a single intellectual system the Arab philosophers made use of a writing called the Theology. Late ancient tradition attributed this treatise to Aristotle, but modern scholarship has established that the Theology is fundamentally a compendium based on Plotinus's writings. This work was taken uncritically by Arabic philosophers as the capstone of all Greek speculative thought and, as such, was employed by them to effect the unity of ancient philosophy.

"Mystical" knowledge

There were at least two reasons for the eager Islamic approval of the Theology. First, it strongly reflected the Neoplatonic emphasis especially evident in Plotinus' Enneads, on the culminating "mystical" experience at the apex of human knowledge. This experience involved a passing from a condition of ordinary logical ratiocination over into a condition of nondiscursive (although quasi-rational) grasp of ultimate reality. Such an attitude is strongly sympathetic to the Islamic conception of ultimate religious experience, in which there is an analogous passing from individuality into an impersonal fusion with a Whole or Divine Essence.

Hierarchy of reality

Correlative to its reflection of Neoplatonic "mystical" knowledge, the Theology reflected the Neoplatonic methodological conception that is ordered in an organic hierarchy, with interlocking levels indicating superordinate and subordinate dependency. Such relationships involve levels of being and, concomitantly, sources and receivers of being. Such an intellectual structure might be visualized as a series of pyramids successively superimposed, with the preeminent pyramid pointing to an ultimate One that simultaneously comprehends being as such and is the culmination of human reflective experience. This structure is, moreover, dynamic and not static, with a continuing flow of creativity downward and a continuing activity of noetic discovery upward.

analysis of the soul

The general methodology described above is evident in many specific places in Averroes's philosophy. In his analysis of the soul, for example, Aristotle's original doctrine undergoes a transformation. Whereas Aristotle's insistence on the physical principle that every form separate from matter is one in species leads to a presumption against the possibility of individual immortality, Averroes takes the obverse: Separate forms or substances can subsist in the general hierarchy of being, and thus immortality, in a purely impersonal sense, is possible.

scientific knowledge

The case in natural science is similar to that of the soul. In Aristotle the various sciences are diverse and not necessarily reducible to one another in any formal sense: the Physics views natural behavior from one perspective and in accordance with one set of working principles, while the De Caelo, in contrast, uses another perspective and another set of principles. Aristotle's natural sciences are irrefragably diversified. In the Metaphysics he goes so far as to say that similar terminology is employed in the several sciences; however, this apparent unity of the sciences is qualified by his insistence that the use of the most general metaphysical language is, in disparate domains, only analogous and not semantically equivalent. The particular subject matter that a science encompasses controls the precise significance of the terms and logic used in the analysis and description of that science; the term "being" as it is used in the Physics does not possess the same meaning as "being" used in De Anima.

For Averroes, however, such differentiations among the sciences were not the case. "Being" had a univocal significance, not equivocal, as it had for Aristotle; and Averroes viewed nature and reality as exhibiting a single coordinated and coherent structure, proceeding in orderly hierarchical fashion from levels that are lesser (both metaphysically and noetically) to greater and richer levels of being. Aristotle's horizontal and discrete conglomeration of sciences became a harmonious order of vertically structured science with dependent and causative relationships.

active and passive intellects

From Aristotle, Averroes understood that the knowing process in man comprised a passive aspectadumbrant concepts capable of being fully activatedand an active aspecta power of dynamically activating such concepts. This power, termed during the medieval period the "active intellect," was taken to operate against a "passive intellect" to actualize concepts and thus constituted the thinking activity; and the resulting fusion of function was termed the "acquired intellect." This terminology applicable to the noetic process was based on Aristotle's De Anima, and appears, with minor variations, in Greek and Arabic thought down to the time of Averroes. God, as the First Intelligence, provides through the next subordinate level of intelligencesthe celestial bodies, upon which he exercises immediate controlactivating power for the active intellect controlling man's thought.

The active intellect is not personalized, however, because it is Aristotelian form, and each such form is a species and never an individual. Nor is the passive intellect, in its nonnoetic status apart from participation in the acquired intellecta further pressing of Aristotle impelled by Platonic dispositions. In Averroes's philosophy, consonant with Muslim theology, it is thus a domain of reality that looks upward to God for its sustaining power and with which individual souls strive to fuse impersonally, in knowledge and ultimately in immortality. Thus Averroes, and certainly his medieval interpreters, believed in the unlikelihood of individual immortalitythe active intellect with which man hopes to unite at death being a single undifferentiated formand the soul, as individuated in this life, cannot subsist without the body.

metaphysics, natural philosophy, science

Averroes's metaphysics, natural philosophy, and science can be classified as a moderate Platonism, tempered with a profound appreciation of Aristotle. Unlike many of his Islamic predecessors, Averroes accepted Aristotle's rigorous rationalism wholeheartedly, although at various crucial points his renderings of Aristotle's laconic texts are governed by his own Platonic methodological predispositions. Against the latter, he held the principle of the univocality of being, flowing downward from a Supreme Principle. God's existence is established from the Physics, in that the eternity of motion demands an unmoved mover, which is in itself pure form. In addition to being the source of motion, such pure form is also Intelligence as such, operating not only as the source of the celestial bodies and all subordinate motions but also as the creative originator and sustaining force behind all lesser intelligences.

theology and natural philosophy

In the Christian intellectual environment of the thirteenth century, apparent conflicts between argumentation in natural philosophy and argumentation in matters of theological doctrine became exceptionally acute. The newly introduced writings from the ancientsGreek philosophy and science, accompanied by Arabic and Hebrew commentaryrigorously set forth propositions alien to fundamental dicta of Christian faith: for example, the eternity of the world, the impossibility of individual immortality, and the radical noncontingency of existence as such. Averroes's rendering of the Aristotelian writings contributed heavily to these conflicts. Aristotle was read in the medieval faculties of arts as the staple of natural philosophy and science, and Averroes was read as his primary interpretive adjunct. In fact, in later medieval writings Averroes is merely referred to as "the Commentator." Thus, since he put forward analyses understanding Aristotle to deny the creation of the world in time, personal immortality, and the contingency of existence, such views attained wide currency among masters of arts.

The response from the theological side was early and direct. "Arabic" commentary was forbidden to be read in 1210 and 1215, and permitted only with censoring in 1231, at the University of Paris. Albert the Great published a treatise, Contra Averroistas, and Thomas Aquinas wrote about 1269, at a time of great intellectual controversy at Paris, a Tractatus de Unitate Intellectus Contra Averroistas.

"Double-truth" doctrine

The replies to Averroes were reasoned and moderate, but they seem to have been accompanied by many contemporary declarations that the "Averroists" were actually maintaining a doctrine of "double truth," according to which conclusions in natural philosophy were said to be true, while simultaneously conclusions affirming the contrary in theological argument were held truepresumably an intolerable intellectual situation. Thus there were official condemnations of "unorthodox" doctrines at the University of Paris in 1270 and 1277, including specific injunctions against two standards of truth. It is not, however, clear that any philosophers in the thirteenth century explicitly held such a theory of "double truth"; in the writings that survive, philosophers faced with these conflicts take great pains to concede truth itself to the declarations of faith and say of Aristotelian writings only that they have been properly arrived at according to Aristotle's methods.

Averroes himself composed the short treatise On the Harmony between Religion and Philosophy ; his main effort in this work was to establish that there is but one truth to which there are several modes of accessthe rhetorical, open to any man through the persuasions of teachers; the dialectical, available for some to explore the probability of truths of divine law; and the philosophical, to be used only by those few capable of exercising pure ratiocination with the fullest competence. Such a variety of methods ensures for each man, depending on his individual capability, the possibility of grasping ultimate realities. The fact that in this work Averroes distinguishes between such modes of access to truth has, by many historians, been taken to adumbrate the theory of the "double truth," as attributed to many thinkers in the thirteenth century, but this is not probable. First, this work of Averroes was not available to medieval Latin scholars and thus obviously cannot have been directly influential; second, the doctrine of alternative modes of access to truth is hardly the same as that of maintaining incompatible truths in disparate domains.

Thus, the attribution of a doctrine of "double truth" to medievals cannot be sustained by any writings of Aristotle accompanied by Averroistic commentaries, nor can it be justified explicitly from any Christian medieval master. The oppositions between Aristotelian-Averroist argument and basic Christian doctrine constituted a fundamental intellectual dilemma within Christian speculationone never resolved by the masters of arts in an explicit proclamation of a logical contradiction between two domains of reflection but always by an absolute accession of truth to faith. Averroes did not contribute specifically to the discussion arising from this dilemma, except insofar as his rigorous analysis of Aristotle made necessary certain conclusions in natural philosophy.

Averroes stands as a philosopher in his own right, but his influence was felt essentially in Western Latin philosophy from 1200 to 1650. His commentaries on Aristotle, an integral part of the educational curriculum in the faculties of arts of western European universities, shaped several centuries of Latin philosophy and science. Despite institutional criticism and even formal condemnation, his powerful statements of Aristotelian doctrine were sustained among Latin scholars and thinkers well into the mid-seventeenth century.

See also Albert the Great; Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Averroism; Averroism in Modern Islamic Philosophy; Ibn Bājja Ibn ufayl; Jewish Averroism; Neoplatonism; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Plotinus; Thomas Aquinas, St.


The most important general references are Ernest Renan, Averroès et l'averroisme (Paris: A. Durand, 1852; modern ed., Paris, 1949); Salomon Munk, Mélanges de philosophie juive et arabe (Paris: A. Franck, 1859), pp. 418458; Léon Gauthier, Ibn Rochd (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1948); and G. Quadri, La philosophie arabe dans l'Europe médiévale (Paris: Payot, 1947), pp. 198340. The last two of these studies depend heavily on the first two, which are the unsuperseded (except in occasional detail) classics in the literature on Averroes, although Gauthier properly views some of the indirect traditions with caution. For Averroes's predecessors, mentors, and contemporaries, see George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, Vol. I (Baltimore: Carnegie Institution of Washington, Williams and Wilkins, 1927) and Vol. II (Baltimore: Carnegie Institution of Washington, Williams and Wilkins, 1931), passim. Significant recent interpretations, with varying emphases, can be found in Étienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York: Random House, 1955); A. A. Maurer, Medieval Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1962); and D. Knowles, Evolution of Medieval Thought (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1962).

For a detailed catalog of Averroes's writings, see George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, Vol. II, Part 2, pp. 356360. Also see Léon Gauthier, Ibn Rochd, pp. 1216, and M. Bouyges, Notes sur les philosophes arabes connus de Latins au moyen âge, Vol. IV, Inventaires des textes arabes d'Averroès (Beirut, 1922). The latter, a monograph, is in the Mélanges de l'Université Saint-Joseph (Beirut: Catholique, 1922), Vol. VIII, Fascicle 1. H. A. Wolfson has meticulously stated the ambitious program for preparing and publishing modern editions of the Aristotelian commentaries in "Plan for the Publication of a Corpus Commentariorum Averrois in Aristotelem," in Speculum 6 (1931): 412427, and "Revised Plan for the Publication of a Corpus Commentariorum Averrois in Aristotelem," in Speculum 38 (1963): 88104. The latter article provides the most reliable listing of the surviving writings. There are other modern editions and translations of some works: for instance, E. I. J. Rosenthal, Averroës' Commentary on Plato's Republic (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1966); G. F. Hourani, Averroës on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy (London: Luzac, 1961); and Simon Van den Bergh's translation of The Incoherence of the Incoherence (London: Luzac, 1954).

Stuart MacClintock (1967)