Scholastics, Pagan Aristotle, and Muslim Averroes


By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary

Averroes was known as ‘the commentator’ when it came to Aristotle’s works. This Muslim philosopher, who was actually called Ibn Rushd, wrote insightful commentaries on Aristotle’s works. The Church was already unhappy with scholasticism, but when scholastics added more pagan sources and even a Muslim commentator to their arsenal, it began to look too non-Christian.

Photograph shows the statue of Averroes in Cordoba, Spain.
Averroes was a valuable figure in scholasticism. He wrote sophisticated commentaries on Aristotle’s books which helped the scholastics understand the writings of the famous Greek philosopher. (Image: Luma creative/Shutterstock)

Scholastics adored Aristotle’s dry and straightforward logic, read his writings, and cited him frequently. Aristotle was a pagan who gave conservative monastics yet another reason to attack scholasticism. Things got worse when scholastics relied on the Muslim Averroes to understand the pagan Aristotle.

Averroes, the Muslim Philosopher

Ibn Rushd was a Muslim philosopher who lived most of his life in Spain. He understood Aristotle much better than his peers and reflected his understandings as commentaries. This scholar, who died in 1198, shared relatively clear, reasonably accurate, and very intellectually sophisticated commentaries on Aristotle’s books.

Photograph shows the statue of Aristotle, a great Greek philosopher.
Aristotle was a very important figure to scholastics due to his straightforward logic and style of writing. (Image: Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock)

He did not see himself as an important scholastic, but without his commentaries, scholastics would not understand Aristotle as easily. He believed that he was only expanding upon Aristotle’s thought, but his commentaries were of such a high quality that they could be regarded as stand-alone philosophical works. Thus, his commentaries were also translated into Latin.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Commentator

Averroes was briefly referred to as ‘the commentator’ in medieval writings. Medieval scholastics, such as Thomas Aquinas, referred many times to Averroes as a trustworthy source. Scholasticism was built upon questioning and debating, so scholars disagreed on some points with Ibn Rushd or even with Aristotle. At the end of the day, the commentator’s work was too prestigious and logical not to be known in the scholastic world.

The problem, from the Church’s viewpoint, was that Christian scholars read a Greek pagan’s works, and relied on a Muslim to understand it. This meant that Christian scholastics were compounding Christian intellectual shortcomings. Indeed, in some parts, Aristotle and Averroes were simply anti-Christian.

Learn more about feudalism.

Contradictions with Christianity

The first contradiction Aristotle and Averroes had with Christianity was the eternality of the world. Aristotle believed there was no beginning or end to the world, while Christianity claimed the world was created in a specific moment in time and would end at a specific moment.

The second contradiction was the nature of God. Aristotle believed there were many gods, one of which was the most powerful. However, this most powerful god was not all-powerful, not all-knowing, and could not even do much. This god could not even interfere with the material world and was drowned in self-contemplation forever.

The Christian God, on the other hand, was totally different: He knew everything that one thought and did, could count the hairs on each individual’s head, and actively intervened in the world at all levels.

The Challenging Contradiction

The third contradiction was the immortality of the individual soul. It is difficult to find Aristotle’s and Averroes’s belief about the notion of soul. The clearest belief so far is that Aristotle argued against the notion of individual immortality and believed in the ‘active intellect’, the one soul that all people are a part of.

The problem with this view was that even scholastics could not fathom it. They also believed in the reward and punishment system after death, which was impossible without an eternal soul. This last contradiction made bishops of the 13th century try to prohibit teaching Aristotle in Paris, the main theological center of Europe.

Learn more about empire versus papacy.

Prohibitions Against Teaching Aristotle

In 1210, The first prohibition against the teaching of Aristotle was issued by a pope. He wanted the University of Paris to stop using some of the books for good. It did not go as planned, and the books are still taught in Paris.

In 1231, another pope reminded the University of Paris of the prohibition. He preferred censoring the books until they were safe for the public, but the scholars abandoned his opinion as well. The bans were repeated in 1241, 1270, and 1277, when the Bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, condemned 219 articles taken from Aristotle’s writings.

Despite all the bans from the Church, scholars kept reading Aristotle and kept using Averroes’s commentary to understand it. One important scholar of the time was Thomas Aquinas, some of whose writings were also prohibited under the 1277 ban. Apparently, it was too late for the Church to stop the pagan Aristotle’s ideas, the Muslim Averroes’s acceptance and glory, and the scholastic teaching and logic.

Common Questions about Scholastics, Pagan Aristotle, and Muslim Averroes

Q: What is Averroes known for?

Averroes wrote some of the most reliable commentaries on Aristotle’s books. His comments helped intellectuals of the time gain a much better insight into Aristotle’s view and ideas. They were of such high quality that translators of Aristotle’s books translated the commentaries into Latin as well.

Q: Who was Ibn Rushd?

Ibn Rushd was a great Muslim philosopher of the High Middle Ages, who lived most of his life in Spain. The Spanish found it easier to pronounce his name as Averroes. Averroes had a significant role in spreading Aristotle’s ideas and helping other scholars comprehend them better.

Q: Was Averroes a scholastic?

Averroes was a scholastic intellectual who died in 1198. Scholasticism was thriving around the same time and continued into the 13th century, and Averroes—or Ibn Rushd, as he was originally called—played an important role in popularizing Aristotle’s philosophy.

Q: In which field did Ibn Rushd earn his fame?

Ibn Rushd, or as he was known in Europe—Averroes—was famous for his commentaries on Aristotle’s texts. He was a Muslim philosopher but lived in Spain for most of his life.

Keep Reading
The Franciscan Order: What Made Them Unique in the High Middle Ages?
Heresy in the High Middle Ages
The Leading Heretics in the High Middle Ages