The part of the mind that deals with the universal forms of things, called the “active” or “agent intellect” by Aristotelians, has long been the subject of intense debate. Is it immaterial? If so, how then does it interact with its material counterpart, the “passive intellect”? Is it identifiable with the soul? Is the interaction between the two intellects what we normally call the self? The Medievals labored over these and many other related questions.
I have found the Andalusian school of thought, which includes my subject of study, the legendary Averroes, as well his disciple, the luminary Maimonides, the most imaginative of their fellows, for they employed the concept spiritually. For example, Maimonides defined prophecy as an “emanation” from the divine through the medium of the active intellect, moving through reason onto imagination. Avicenna and Ibn al-Arabi had similar ideas.
Averroes and his teacher, the tragic Avempace, as well as their notorious disciple here in Belgium, Siger, were particularly fascinated with the conception of the active intellect as a single external entity possessing or having access to the forms, a “monopsyche“, literally “universal mind/soul”, a unity of correct knowledge of the universe. In their view, the only way that all human minds can possess the same correct knowledge is if we all had access to some central knowledge store.
On the one hand, their meaning was literal: Kraemer compares the monopsyche to the internet, with a vast array of terminals connected to a mainframe computer, the “mind” of the universe, which makes all other cognition possible. On the other hand, the monopsyche is more powerful as a metaphor for the desire of all human beings to escape, however momentarily, from subjectivity and join with objectivity.
Indeed, Avempace seemed to have an almost Stoic vision of the active intellect, believing that only “sound knowledge” obtained through “intelligence” can “enable one to attain prosperity and build character”, similar to the logos. “The aim of life,” he wrote, “should be to seek spiritual knowledge and make contact with the active intelligence and thus with the divine.” In other words, nothing short of philosophical nirvana.
There is also a strong tone of apatheia in Avempace, that is, achieving serenity in the face of existence’s vicissitudes through a reason deeper than reason — an enlightened moral fortitude. So I wonder to what extent Averroes, at the end of his troubled life and as the last and greatest thinker of a once glorious but doomed society, found solace in the monopsyche.
With the cinders of his life and era gathering around his feet, did he look up at the slowly spinning spheres of the Aristotelian cosmos and feel deep within himself the hidden tethers connecting him to something infinitely more immense than his own finite self?
Did he sense an eternal gaze peering upon and through him as he, with sight and reason enabled and empowered by this vaster vision, peered back? And in that gaze, did he find the transcendence to confront his death as neither failure nor philosopher, neither finitude nor human being, but as a tiny fragment of eternity, feeble, fragile, even fleeting, yet somehow forever?