Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Jews, Arabs, Christians in Medieval Spain: Rémi Brague

Rémi Brague, a French historian, seeks to revise our notions of medieval thought, or what we mistakenly perceive as that era's lack of reason. His essays, "The Legend of the Middle Ages," explore philosophical intersections of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian pursuits of truth.

Adam Kirsch, in March 7, 2009's "NextBook," reviews Brague: "Medieval Times." Here, the reviewer sums up the scholar's take on how we look at science differently than they did. It's not that they did not study it, but that they studied it with an eye, literally, to seek another reason why to study natural phenomena.
For modern people, Brague suggests, physics—- broadly speaking, the study of the natural world and its laws—- can be intellectually engaging and aesthetically pleasing. But it is not “interesting” in the way it was to medieval thinkers, because we have lost the ability to see the natural world as a reflection of God and of ourselves.

The Jewish scholars of the time looked to the world as they did to the heavens. There was not the separation from the Creator that distinguishes for most moderns who enter the laboratory or the observatory today the walling off of God from matter.
To Maimonides, nature was the royal road to understanding God: “There is, moreover, no way to apprehend Him except it be through the things He has made; for they are indicative of His existence and of what ought to be believed about Him…It is therefore indispensable to consider all beings as they really are.” Gersonides, the 14th-century French Jewish thinker, went even further, writing that “Human happiness is achieved when a man knows reality as much as he can.”

Brague agrees that Gersonides sounds pretty modern himself with this admission. Modernity itself would not have emerged, the professor opines, without the tremendous push from the medievals who sought in Aristotle the summa of knowledge, next to the Prophet, for the Arabic translators in Spain who transferred Greek wisdom and ancient knowledge into their own language. Once carried over, the Greek could be discarded by the Arab: their sacred tongue then subsumed that of the infidel's vernacular.

Certainly, this differed from those Jews who learned Arabic to rescue, as it were, the Greek storehouse of Aristotelian science, or the Catholics who did the same by learning Hebrew to delve more deeply into the shared scholarship of their own times. Brague goes on to insist that the legacy of Aristotle we inherit comes from Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians who turned the texts into Latin for dissemination across Christian Europe. The Arabs, contrarily, held that once the Greeks had been rendered into the language of the Qur'an, that no more transmission was needed. Perfection had been attained in the tongue of the Prophet.

For the Jews, they bridged the divide opened in Spain by their expulsion from the southern part of Iberia by the Almohid dynasty in the twelfth century. The Spanish Jews fled north and brought with them fluency in Arabic and a knack for polyglot survival. The Christians learned what the Jews had learned from the Muslims, who had found what they wanted in Aristotle's Greek.

Kirsch sums up Brague on the contrasts between the relative openness of Jews and Christians towards their "pagan" inspirations and the rather more smug confidence of those in power and tenure, as it were, over Moorish Spain:
Brague quotes a 15th-century Tunisian writer to this effect: “[The Muslims] took them over into their own language from the non-Arab languages and surpassed the achievements of [the non-Arabs] in them. The manuscripts in the non-Arabic language were forgotten, abandoned, and scattered . . . . Thus students of the sciences . . . could dispense with all other languages, because they had been wiped out and there was no longer any interest in them.”

Europeans, on the other hand, tended to write commentaries on Greek authors, in which the original text was preserved and explicated line by line. The result was that Aristotle could be approached in his foreignness—he remained an “other” for medieval Europeans, and for that very reason could challenge their assumptions. For Brague, indeed, the noblest definition of Europe is that it is a culture which has always looked outside itself for guidance and inspiration: “The relationship with the exterior is internal to it.”

Although Kirsch does not expand on his closing point, I wonder if the commonplace observation of Islamic stagnation intellectually under centralized power and fear of unorthodox opinions that would run counter to the Qur'an can be traced back to such diasporic forces? These foreshadow, in their institutional arrogance and clerical domination, the dispersion of both the Jews and the last Muslims from Spain. That final conquest by Christians ended in 1492 with the great Sephardic scattering-- when some fleeing Jews found themselves back in Salonika, speaking of Greece, at the source again?

(A version of this posted to Amazon US today.)

No comments: