The faith of the philosopher

Download: Averroës the Aristotelian Muslim: Rectifying the Ernest Renan Depiction (PDF)

After two years of research, writing, re-writing, and yet more re-writing, my Master’s thesis on Averroës’ Decisive Treatise is finally completed and submitted. Soon, I shall sit before a panel of three professors to defend it. If all goes well, this would probably mean the end of my time at the Hoger Instituut voor Wijsbegeerte; where I go from here is as yet uncertain. I find myself reflecting: what have Averroës, Leuven and I been doing together all this time?

My journey with the Commentator has been long. Within the length of my consciousness, it actually begins in the autumn of 2003, during my semester at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I discovered Averroës by accident and was fascinated by the way in which he seemed to stand at a cultural and historical crossroads. I ended up writing a paper, under the influence of Ernest Renan and Jacques Pirenne, on his impact upon the West, during the course of which I made a sojourn to the Vatican and beheld his face in Raphael’s “School of Athens”. Then 2004 came, and somehow Averroës and I drifted apart.

Fast forward five years later to 2009: the Commentator had been in the back of my mind, waiting. I arrived in Leuven to discover, much to the chagrin of professors back home who sent me here, that the university had not developed strong resources in the arena of Islamic studies. It was a failure of due diligence on our part, but now there I was, determined to make the best of the situation. After some research, I learned that what the university did have in abundance were resources on the Aristotelian tradition, in which Averroës figures prominently. Thus, necessity determined my choice to return to the Commentator.

Or perhaps fate was tricking me onto the path it desired for me. Very quickly, signs began to bubble up: that Erasmus and Lemaître taught here, all the many connections I was shocked to discover that I could draw from my childhood to Belgium (e.g., here and here), the generous scholarship from the Flemish government, and even the personal story of my promoter, Dr. Jules Janssens, which I found exemplary. Perhaps the biggest came when Dr. Richard C. Taylor, one of the leading experts on Averroes, was brought here as a visiting professor. With his arrival, it was if the universe were saying: If the best resources aren’t already at Leuven, they shall be brought to you. Seize your chance.

There were tensions, though. Although many of the professors here commended my journalistic work (I shall never forget the wonderful conversation with Dr. Martin Moors about Hegel watching Napoleon on his horse), some demeaned it as indicative of a “lack of academic seriousness”; when my book on Central Asia was published, some were excited for me, while others considered it meaningless; and the most painful criticisms came when some called me “undisciplined”, even after I had suffered weeks of surviving on bread and cheese and the loss of the chance to see family members in their dying moments just to be here. Worst of all has been this terrible disjunction: that those who have liked me have also wanted me to leave, and those who haven’t couldn’t have cared less whether I stayed.

The tensions were not always external; they were also within myself. During these last two months it finally became clear to me that my Emersonian mind, with its desire to inspire and poeticize, is at irreconcilable odds with the Scholastic character demanded of an Aristotelian scholar (and quite possibly with the “scientific” rigors of the overall academic philosophical industry, too). Journalism, for all its ethical merits, was only ever intended to be a means to an end, but after experiencing firsthand so many positive reactions from my Central Asian readers and slamming headfirst against my own philosophical character, I’m now standing at a crossroads, wondering whether the different parts of my career can still be reconciled (to say nothing of whether they can actually survive without each other).

But beneath and alongside these problems were all those divine confirmations, small, subtle, often hard to describe, but no less important. For all the discordance between Leuven and I, somehow I have also been right at home here: fate brought me to the West’s capital of the reconciliation of faith and reason in all its forms – a topic that has meant so much to me spiritually and philosophically, as it did for Averroës. Here is where the life of the mind and the life of the soul strive to be friends and not enemies. That friendship has not been without its sore tests, but it has persevered: our faculty, in its best moments, is proof of it.

And then there was the big discovery: that Averroes had impacted the intellectual life of my own family. My grandparents, particularly my grandfather, had been successful lawyers, instrumental in the establishment of Columbia Pictures and counting the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Al Jolson as clients, as well as creating some of the pillars of copyright law. They wrote a book of popular philosophical Jewish theology entitled Faith Through Reason, that contained many strange ideas, like comparing the relationship between God and the individual soul to a ball of copper string, or that science and religion, logic and faith were somehow intimately, ontologically related, leading to each other.

Once I began learning about Averroës’ metaxological beliefs about the ontological structure of inquiry and his psychological doctrine of the monopsyche, pieces to a jigsaw puzzle I didn’t even knew existed began to fall into place. Suddenly, I could see that the time I’ve spent with the Commentator far exceeded the length of my finite consciousness, stretching back through unknown ancestors and the stream of ideas flowing through history. Then came the revelation of long-lost family in America and France, tracking me down through this blog. When I subsequently went to Paris to meet some of them, the monopsyche became real and vivid: this was the city where Averroës’ Latin ghost first resurrected in the West, as Thomas Aquinas and Siger van Brabant dueled about the fate of the soul, and there a small band of Jews persevered against Nazi brutality and the amnesia of a shamed continent to one day call me cousin. The synchronicity has been too immense not to convince me that somehow the human species is conjoined in some enormous, intricate ball of copper string, that we are all characters being written in a vast, intimate story of God.

But all of these amazing experiences had to concretize, take some focused physical form, and that incarnation has been my Master’s thesis. As friends and colleagues know, writing it has been a deeply painful and emotional struggle. The smash with my own philosophical character occurred during it; after my rage had spent, I was possessed by the terrible feeling that some profound misunderstanding had occurred between myself and Leuven (and even as I write this, there still looms over me a fear that some angry break is about to occur). After all the turmoil, naturally one asks: was it worth it? Was this all just some empty exercise to appease the arbitrary whims of the academic industry? Have I suffered just to earn a credential and please faceless egos lurking somewhere in the scholastic jungle? The answer cannot be despair, for then I would be lost. And so I do the only thing I can do at this point: read Averroës.

First, there is his mysterious notion that we are all weaved together into a single soul, a single mind. As Paul A. Cantor explains it,

“Averroës was most famous, or rather infamous, for his understanding of [the mind], worked out in terms ultimately derived from Aristotle, the Possible and the Active Intellects… that all humanity shares a single intellect. [W]hen we think a rational truth, such as 2 + 2 = 4, we all think alike and in that sense participate in the same intellect [and] insofar as we participate in the unity of the Possible Intellect, we also participate in its eternity.

“In talking of the unity of the Possible Intellect, he was basically coming up with a notion of species immortality for the human race. […] In Averroës’s understanding, as individual human beings we die, but our thoughts may live on. This outcome is especially true for someone who writes his thoughts down in books, thus making it possible for later generations to react to them. Indeed, in the realm of the written word, philosophers can in effect converse with each other over the centuries, as Averroës did with Aristotle when he wrote his commentaries on the Greek philosopher’s works””(Cantor, “Uncanonical Dante”, pp. 145-146).

Then, in the Decisive Treatise, the Commentator speaks of a “faith of the philosophers”. I was long puzzled by this strange concept until Taylor came to my aid, bringing to my attention a statement from the Arabic version of Averroes’ Long Commentary on the Metaphysics that did not survive in the Latin version:

“The Sharī’a specific to the philosophers [as-sharī’a al-ḫas’ṣṣah bi-l-ḥukamā’] is the investigation of all beings, since the Creator is not worshipped by a worship more noble than the knowledge of those things that He produced which lead to the knowledge in truth of His essence — may He be exalted! That [investigation philosophers undertake] is the most noble of the works belonging to Him and the most favored of them that we do in God’s presence. How great is it that one perform this service which is the most noble of services and one take it on with this compliant obedience which is the most sublime of obediences!”

This is a remarkable statement, for he is essentially saying that philosophy in general and metaphysics in particular is nothing less than a religious ritual.

What happens to the philosopher during the course of this rite? We can see a resemblance between Averroës’ vision here of speculative inquiry and his belief that the movement of the planets is propelled by the cosmos’ drive to, as Charles Genequand has described it, “apprehend the various aspects of the prime mover,” i.e., God:

“The unmoved mover is the ’cause of various existents’, i.e., of various motions insofar as various aspects of it are ‘intellected’. Thus, each intellect of each sphere ‘intellects’ a specific ‘aspect’ (naḥw) of it and as a result of this intellection, moves in a specific way. There is only one unmoved mover for all spheres, but this unmoved is different in the representation (or intellection: taṣawwur) of each sphere’s intellect. The spheres attain their perfection (yastakmilu) by the representation of their cause…

“There is one formal and final cause governing all the intellects of the spheres, which are apparently the forms of the spheres, but not their final causes. The ‘common and universal cause’ is the common act of all the individual spheres. Ibn Rushd seems thereby to indicate that the prime mover contains in some way all the individual forms of the universe…” (Genequand, Ibn Rushd’s Metaphysics, pp. 41-42)

In both cases, the drive is always toward God via the mind; what differs is the medium – the nearly limitless heavens for the celestial bodies, the sublunary realm and the interiority of the human being for the philosopher. All of existence, from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, is striving to understand and emulate the divine. God becomes both source and mirror, beginning and end, creator and telos.

Thus, as I prepare for my defense, to suffer whatever skull-cracking Scholasticisms might befall me, I stand once more upon the threshold of an awe that passes through then ascends beyond exegesis: Averroës, have you and I been talking to each other this entire time? And through our secret conversation, through this thesis paper that I’ve written and re-written, have I been unwittingly engaging in some mysterious act of consecration? Have I been descending through the darkness of my own being, like a comet soaring through the void of space, drawing closer to my truest self and beyond? Have I been worshipping You, my Lord, my Creator, my End?

And Leuven, you and I have loved each other the best ways we knew how. You have suffered my indiscretions, my insecurities, and my madness patiently, and I have begged you to grab hold of your dreams and ride them to the end. Perhaps we were not meant to last forever in this life, but I have faith that it has not been for naught. No, through each other we have seen wonders that we could have never known in America or Belgium; together we have danced through the heavens of within, beholding in each other glimmers of the vast divine.

[Note: A slightly revised version of this post shall appear in the Hoger Instituut voor Wijsbegeerte’s student newsletter, De Wijzer, later this semester.]

6 Replies to “The faith of the philosopher”

    1. Hahaha I hope so. And now you can get a taste of my academic style vis-a-vis the prospective LAS/book submissions. 😉

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