The greatest story (hardly) ever told [updated]
"The events of any given period of history are the result of the thinking of the
preceding period. The nineteenth century [for example]—with its political freedom,
science, industry, business, trade, all the necessary conditions of material
progress—was the result and the last achievement of the intellectual power
released by the Renaissance."
- Ayn Rand
HERE’S A STORY FROM history that’s hardly ever told, but yet it’s the greatest story history could tell.
It’s a story that covers two continents and 2,000 years, and is the fundamental reason for all our health,wealth and happiness —and freedom—but most people don’t know anything about it, and couldn’t tell you why it matters.
Here’s a small part of that story, which starts for us in an unlikely place. . .
While Western Europe endured its Dark Ages—that wasteland of crosses and graves that lasted nearly a millennia, and buried more than a million souls in misery and squalor—the Arab and Persian world was making advances in medicine, mathematics, cartography, astronomy, philosophy, poetry, scientific method and more.
If you were a scientist, an artist, or any sort of human being hoping to breathe free then, from the eighth to twelfth century, the places in which you wanted to breathe had names like Toledo, Cordoba and Baghdad.
And then, it all came to a crashing halt. And within two centuries, the situation in the two places was almost entirely reversed.
What happened? What changed? And what made the successes happen in the first place?
A fascinating 28 minute interview on Radio New Zealand with scientist Jim al-Khalili, author of Pathfinders - The Golden Age of Arabic Science, tells part of the tale—one of history’s most-interesting yet least told. And he tells a fascinating story. I recommend a listen.
al-Khalili explains how Muslim scientists flourished in a culture that then valued the “this-world” knowledge they were pursuing. But he finds it damnably hard to put his finger on the precise reason for the growth and development of this culture—talking about things like the invention of paper and “the ideas of the Greeks,” without really saying much about what those ideas were.
Equally, he finds it difficult to explain the rapid fall of Islamic science and the slow awakening of western Europe from its intellectual slumber, beyond talking about a “conservative backlash” in Islam, “the discovery of the New World” by the West (which actually happened around three centuries after Islamic decline began) and the transmission of “the ideas of the Greeks” from the Muslim world to the West.
In fact, the reason for both fall and rise is the relationship that both these cultures had with Greek ideas. Specifically, with their relationship to reason, and especially to the man they called The Philosopher of Reason, Aristotle.
“Ancient Greece tore away the heavy shroud of mysticism woven for centuries in
murky temples, and achieved, in three centuries, what Egypt had not dreamed of in
thirty: a civilization that was essentially pro-man and pro-life. The achievements of
the Greeks rested on their confidence in the power of man’s mind—the power of reason.”
- Mary Ann Sures
ARISTOTLE WAS PLATO’S STUDENT, yet the mature philosophies of these two giants could not have been more different.
Raphael’s famous painting shows Plato pointing to the heavens, and Aristotle to this earth. It is an accurate summation of their positions. Plato looked to the heavens for the “true reality,” and found there rules for living on this “imperfect,” non-ideal plane. Aristotle saw instead that happiness on this earth was man’s highest estate, and that knowledge of the things of this earth—observing nature and drawing conclusions from it—is the means by which to begin obtaining it.
It’s said that the history of philosophy is described by the duel between Plato and Aristotle. In virtually every important sense, this is true. In both the Muslim and Christian worlds, it’s played out in the duel between mysticism, with Plato and neo-Platonism brought in on the side (literally) of the angels and of other-worldly maunderings; and Aristotle (when he’s been rediscovered) on the side of reason and a focus on success in this world.
It’s the rediscoveries of the ideas of Aristotle that have been crucial in our story.
Aristotle left behind at his death a veritable manual of scientific discovery and how to live on this earth—especially the Organon, six treatises on logic that were a virtual toolkit of logic. These were “the ideas of the Greeks” that mattered most to Muslim scientists when they rediscovered them eleven centuries later, and to western philosophers and scientists when (thanks to Muslim scholars) they rediscovered them for the west fifteen centuries after they had first been buried.
Because these ideas, while powerful enough to turn civilisations around, barely had time to be given even a full road test after their first brief time in the sun, around 300BC. Because this was very quickly becoming very much not a safe time in which to be a philosopher, and just a few short decades after Aristotle’s death his school was closed, his students were scattered, and his works on papyrus rolls were buried for safety in a trench in Asia Minor, not to be uncovered for centuries.
And while they lay buried, the light of reason which had flickered so briefly and so well was going out around the world, in Athens and Alexandria and eventually, finally, even Rome.
It was buried by pagan mysticism (which had never fully gone away) and neo-Platonism (which had been around long enough to take hold), but most forcefully and more thoroughly still by those Roman emperors who from the fourth century had already set themselves up as both definers and enforcers of religious “orthodoxy,” and the head of a monotheistic state. (The Christian insistence on the absurdity of the Trinity, for example, dates from Theodosius’s 381AD decree dictating that all his subjects subscribe to a belief in the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or else.)
As if to demonstrate that without reason to deal with one another there is only force, the emperors from Theodosius on now began the systematic suppression by the sword of all non-orthodox Christianity, and of all still-surviving pagan philosophies that couldn’t be made hand-maidens of theology as easily as neo-Platonism (which could easily be bent to fill up the gaps in the emerging Christian theology).
With Justinian edicts in the 530s enforcing religious conformity on pain of death, the assault on reason and freedom was complete.
Thus began the inevitable waves of barbarism, looting and darkness that necessarily accompanies the widespread rejection of reason and a culture-wide focus on the next world rather than on this one.
“If there is a philosophical Atlas who carries the whole of Western civilization on
his shoulders, it is Aristotle…. Aristotle may be regarded as the cultural
barometer of Western history. Whenever his influence dominated the scene, it
paved the way for one of history’s brilliant eras; whenever it fell, so did mankind.”
- Ayn Rand
WHILE THE WEST WAS committing intellectual suicide, the Islamist world was just beginning to wake up. It was the rediscovery of Aristotle in Muslim Spain and the Middle East that was the next light of hope in the world, and that built and underpinned the Islamic Golden Age—which at its three-hundred year peak spread wealth, riches, learning, art and happiness from Baghdad to Spain.
Just as it was built by ideas, so too however was it killed by them—by what scientist al-Khalili calls the “conservative backlash,” a reaction against science and reason best summed up by eleventh-century theologian Al-Ghazali, who called for the Greek ideas to be thrown out, saying essentially, “If it’s in the Quran we don’t need it; if it’s not in the Quran we don’t want it.” And so out it all went. For good—or at least for ten centuries.
One of the most illustrative examples of Al-Ghazali’s “thinking” was his direct assault on causality. Things don’t act according to their nature, he said, God makes things act any way he pleases:
The connection [said Ghazali] between what is habitually believed to be a cause and what is habitually believed to be an effect is not necessary…
For example, there is no causal connection between the quenching of thirst and drinking, satiety and eating, burning and contact with fire, light and the appearance of the sun, death and decapitation, healing and the drinking of medicine, the purging of the bowels and the using of a purgative…
On the contrary, it is within [divine] power to create satiety without eating, to create death without decapitation, to continue life after decapitation, and so on to all connected things…
You might think this is insane, and it is; the stuff of madness, and you’d be right; utterly illogical--which is it’s point. al-Ghazali is here simply doing God’s work:
Our opponents claim [for example] that the agent of the burning is the fire exclusively; this is not a natural, not a voluntary agent, and cannot abstain from what is in its nature when it is brought into contact with a receptive substratum. This we deny, saying: The agent of burning is God, through His creating the black in the cotton and the disconnection of its parts, and it is God who made the cotton burn and made it ashes either through the intermediation of angels or without…
This is a God for every teenage arsonist seeking an excuse: “Well, yes, I lit the match. But it was God wot burned the school down.”
This is nothing like the “God of the Gaps” that leave God just to fill in what science has yet to discover. This is a God who holds every test tube, sparks every flame, guides every bullet, and detonates every bomb—either with the intermediation of angels, or without.
According to al-Ghazali—whose “thinking” swept the Muslim world (and swept away reason, logic and science with it)—there is no other causal agent in the universe but God, and therefore “no unity in the world, moral, physical or metaphysical; all hangs from the individual will of Allah.”
Nothing could be more destructive to reason, to science, and to civilisation. Yet al-Ghazali’s fateful rejection of reason swept the Islamic world, which (still proudly waving his flag and that of the Quran) sank into the intellectual mire from which it has yet to emerge.
“Aristotle’s philosophy was the intellect’s Declaration of Independence. Aristotle, the
father of logic, should be given the title of the world’s first intellectual, in the purest
and noblest sense of that word. No matter what remnants of Platonism did exist
in Aristotle’s system, his incomparable achievement lay in the fact that he defined
the basic principles of a rational view of existence and of man’s consciousness…
If we consider the fact that to this day everything that makes us civilized beings,
every rational value that we possess—including the birth of science, the industrial
revolution, the creation of the United States, even the structure of our language—is
the result of Aristotle’s influence, of the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men
accepted his epistemological principles, we would have to say: never have so
many owed so much to one man.”
- Ayn Rand
STTING HERE IN 2010, it’s easy to laugh at al-Ghazali. That’s because we, here and now, mostly take reason for granted—so thoroughly that we find it hard to understand those who don’t. That we do take it so much for granted is testament to how thoroughly western culture has supped from Aristotle’s well. But it took a while.
Because in the first ten centuries after Christian theology first gained its toehold, the west was also labouring under similar nonsense to al-Ghazali’s, and with the same existential results as the Islamist apostle of unreason would deliver to his culture. Early Christian theologians were in virtually all respects peddlers of the very same nonsense, just delivered wearing a different brand.
Paul, for example, who took violently against the “upstart” Greek philosophers whose logic he had trouble countering, took instead to attacking the very core of Greek intellectual achievement.
The more they [Greeks] call themselves philosophers, the more stupid they grew … they made nonsense out of logic and their empty minds were darkened. [Romans 1:21-22]
The wisdom of the world is foolishness to God. [Corinthians 1:25]
(He made more sense when he declared, “I know of nothing good living in me.” [Romans 7:20] On that, I can concur.)
And while Augustine, the second-most influential Christian theologian, was willing to allow reason, he also declared it may only be used to explore “truths” already revealed by his God—and even these revelations were only to be accepted on the authority of the monotheistic state. (“I would not have believed the Gospels except on the authority of the Catholic Church.”)
And Tertullian, “I believe because it is absurd.”
And John Chrysostom: “Restrain our own reasoning and empty our mind of secular learning in order to provide a mind swept clear for the reception of divine words.”
And Lactantius: “What purpose does knowledge serve—for as to knowledge of natural causes, what blessing is there for me if I know where the Nile rises, or whatever else under the heavens the ‘scientists’ rave about?”
And Philastrius of Brescia, who was ready to declare causality itself implicitly a heresy in a fashion that Cantabrians might appreciate:
There is a certain heresy concerning earthquakes that they come not from God’s command but, it is thought, from the very nature of the elements… Paying no attention to God’s power they [the heretics] presume to attribute the motions of force to the elements of nature … like certain philosophers who, ascribing this to nature, know not the power of God.
(T paraphrase al-Ghazali’s similar “arguments” aired above, it would seem that Philastrius’s God has extended to him the power to think without having possession of a brain.)
Finally, to show that they knew who their enemy was, we have Anastasius of Sinai, who was ready to declare that the ten sections of Aristotle’s Categories were ten “heresies” representing the ten horns of the dragon in the Book of Revelation (12:4)
No wonder, under the sway of “thinkers” like these, that western Europe spent so many centuries in darkness.
Fortunately however, in the brief window before the fruits of Islamic thinking disappeared forever, western translators eager to learn the “heresies” that had been buried for so long discovered and began translating Islamic works on medicine, astronomy, mathematics, engineering … and philosophy. They discovered the Arab commentators on Aristotle, and they discovered the great works of Aristotle himself. In short, they re-discovered his manual of reason, and with it the key to begin civilisation anew.
If the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century owes its genesis to the tremendous intellectual power released by the Renaissance, as the quote at the top of the page suggests, then it’s important to realise that the intellectual power released in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was generated by the intellectual “atomic power station” of Aristotelian reason that was rediscovered in the twelfth.
The new Latin translations of Aristotle’s Organon (translated in Spain and Sicily from Arabic, which themselves were translations from lost Greek originals) were the transmission belts for the ideas that powered the new thinking of Albertus Magnus, Aquinas, and Francis Bacon; the new art of Giotto, Michelangelo and Da Vinci; the new architecture of Brunelleschi, Bramante and Palladio; the new science of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton; the new conception of human freedom embodied in the ideas of Grotius, and Locke and (eventually) Jefferson—who all of them, as reason requires, began their work by turning their eyes to observing the facts before them before seeking the causal integration that explained the facts observed: a re-use and rediscovery of reason’s method all but lost in the west since the original days of the Greeks.
To that almost fortuitous rediscovery we owe virtually all human progress of the past five centuries. That’s how important this story, and that rediscovery, is.
“The events of any given period of history are the result of the thinking of the preceding period.” That’s what this story makes so plain—that ideas do have tremendous consequences, for good and for ill.
It’s astonishing that the story is so rarely told---and so little understood when it is—told when it is told with, for example, the sort of mechanistic detail that explains the rise of Islam by the discovery of paper or the west by the discovery of the New World; or the fall of Rome by the onset of hyperinflation, or the fall of Islamic science to some undefined “conservative backlash”; without ever seeking to look beyond these outward details to the fundamental facts that caused them.
The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics (9780451230058): David Harriman, Leonard Peikoff: Books
“There is no future for the world except through a rebirth of the Aristotelian
approach to philosophy. This would require an Aristotelian affirmation of the reality
of existence, of the sovereignty of reason, of life on earth—and of the splendor of man.”
- Leonard Peikoff
YOU’LL HAVE NOTICED by now that I’ve strewn a few books across your path, each of which tells a part of the story. And below I’ve added three more that between them integrate and give the culmination of the story—the first as a guide to the loss and rediscovery; the second, in which the title essay tells the tale told here in far more colourful and sweeping terms than I could; and the third, to demonstrate that the primordial struggle for reason and individual liberty are the same story, whose culmination we find in the discovery of individual rights and their implementation.
Taken together, they tell a remarkable tale. But the astonishing thing to note is how few books there are telling the story itself. When Burgess Laughlin, for example, began work on another project, he looked for a book telling the tale and found none. So he wrote his own, The Aristotle Adventure. To my knowledge it’s still the only book-length survey giving the whole context.
If you want to bury yourself in books on the greatest story (hardly) ever told, then these listed here are a good place to start.
And there’s no time like a long summer holiday to begin.
NB: Note that not all books listed here are entirely without fault or error. I should note that those to be most careful of are Rubinstein’’s Aristotle’s Children and Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind, which are both sadly infected by the authors’ own religiosity, making them sadly unable to see the full drama of the story they’re trying to tell.
Naturally, I’d be very happy to have other books recommended that might fill in some of the gaps.
And to see the whole story in one graphic, here’s one of the charts from Burgess Laughlin’s Aristotle Adventure that makes it so valuable:
UPDATE: Andy Clarkson points out
It was Arabs qua Aristotelians and not Arabs qua Islamists who are responsible for the accomplishments of Arab Muslims.
It was Arabs qua Aristotelians and not Arabs qua Islamists who are responsible for the accomplishments of Arab Muslims.