Averroes (ABUL WALID MAHOMMED IBN ACHMED, IBN MAHOMMED IBN ROSCHD), Arabian philosopher, astronomer, and writer on jurisprudence; b. at Cordova, 1126; d. at Morocco, 1198. Ibn Roschd, or Averroes, as he was called by the Latins, was educated in his native city, where his father and grandfather had held the office of cadi (judge in civil affairs) and had played an important part in the political history of Andalusia. He devoted himself to jurisprudence, medicine, and mathematics, as well as to philosophy and theology. Under the Caliphs Abu Jacub Jusuf and his son, Jacub Al Mansur, he enjoyed extraordinary favor at court and was entrusted with several important civil offices at Morocco, Seville, and Cordova. Later he fell into disfavor and was banished with other representatives of learning. Shortly before his death, the edict against philosophers was recalled. Many of his works in logic and metaphysics had, however, been consigned to the flames, so that he left no school, and the end of the dominion of the Moors in Spain, which occurred shortly afterwards, turned the current of Averroism completely into Hebrew and Latin channels, through which it influenced the thought of Christian Europe down to the dawn of the modern era. Averroes’ great medical work, “Culliyyat” (of which the Latin title “Colliget” is a corruption) was published as the tenth volume in the Latin edition of Aristotle’s works, Venice, 1527. His “Commentaries” on Aristotle, his original philosophical works, and his treatises on theology have come down to us either in Latin or Hebrew translations. His “Commentaries”, which earned for him the title of the Commentator, were of three kinds: a short paraphrase or analysis, a brief exposition of the text, and a more extended exposition. These are known as the Minor, the Middle, and the Major Commentary, respectively. None of them is of any value for the textual criticism of Aristotle, since Averroes, being unacquainted with Greek and Syriac, based his exposition on a very imperfect Arabic translation of the Syriac version of the Greek text. They were, however, of great influence in determining the philosophical and scientific interpretation of Aristotle. His original philosophical treatises include: a work entitled “Tehafot al Tehafot”, or “Destructio Destructionis” (a refutation of Algazel’s “Destructio Philosophorum”) published in the Latin edition, Venice, 1497 and 1527; two treatises on the union of the Active and Passive Intellects, also published in Latin in the Venice edition; logical treatises on different parts of the “Organon”, published in the Venice edition under the title “Quaesita in Libros Logical Aristotelis”; physical treatises based on Aristotle’s “Physics” (also in the Venice edition); a treatise in refutation of Avicenna, and another on the agreement between philosophy and theology. Of the last two, only Hebrew and Arabic texts exist.
Averroes professed the greatest esteem for Aristotle. The word of the Stagirite was for him the highest expression of truth in matters of science and philosophy. In this exaggerated veneration for the philosopher he went farther than any of the Schoolmen. Indeed, in the later stages of Scholastic philosophy it was the Averroists and not the followers of Aquinas and Scotus who, when accused of subservience to the authority of a master, gloried in the title of “Aristotle’s monkey”. Averroes advocated the principle of twofold truth, maintaining that religion has one sphere and philosophy another. Religion, he said, is for the unlettered multitude; philosophy for the chosen few. Religion teaches by signs and symbols; philosophy presents the truth itself. In the mind, therefore, of the truly enlightened, philosophy supersedes religion. But, though the philosopher sees that what is true in theology is false in philosophy, he should not on that account condemn religious instruction, because he would thereby deprive the multitude of the only means which it has of attaining a (symbolical) knowledge of the truth. Averroes’ philosophy, like that of all the other Arabians, is Aristoteleanism tinged with neo-Platonism. In it we find the doctrine of the eternity of matter as a positive principle of being; the concept of a multitude of spirits ranged hierarchically between God and matter and mediating between them; the denial of Providence in the commonly accepted sense; the doctrine that each of the heavenly spheres is animated; the notion of emanation or extraction, as a substitute for creation; and, finally, the glorification of (rational) mystical knowledge as the ultimate aspiration of the human soul—in a word, all the distinctively neo-Platonic elements which the Arabians added to pure Aristoteleanism.
What is peculiar in Averroes’ interpretation of Aristotle is the meaning he gives to the Aristotelean doctrine of the Active and Passive Intellect. His predecessor, Avicenna, taught that, while the Active Intellect is universal and separate, the Passive Intellect is individual and inherent in the soul. Averroes holds that both the Active and the Passive Intellect are separate from the individual soul and are universal, that is, one in all men. He thinks that Alexander of Aphrodisias was wrong in reducing the Passive Intellect to a mere disposition, and that the “other Commentators” (perhaps Themistius and Theophrastus) were wrong in describing it as an individual substance endowed with a disposition; he maintains that it is, rather, a disposition in us, but belonging to an intellect outside us. The terms Passive, Possible, Material are successively used by Averroes to designate this species of intellect, which, in ultimate analysis, if we prescind from the dispositions of which he speaks, is the Active Intellect itself. In other words, the same intellect which, when in the act of actually abstracting intelligible species is called active, is called passive, possible, or material so far as it is acted upon, is potential, and furnishes that out of which ideas are fabricated. Besides, Averroes speaks of the Acquired Intellect (intellectus ac uisitus, adeptus), by which he means the individual mind in communication with the Active Intellect. Thus, while the Active Intellect is numerically one, there are as many acquired intellects as there are individual souls with which the Active Intellect has come in contact. (The Scholastics speak of continuatio of the universal with the individual mind, translating literally the Arabic word which here means contiguity rather than union.) The Sun, for instance, while it is and remains one source of light, may be said to be multiplied and to become many sources of light, in so far as it illuminates many bodies from which its light is distributed; so it is with the universal mind and the individual minds which come in contact with it.
The weakness of this doctrine, as a psychological explanation of the origin of knowledge, is its failure to take account of the facts of consciousness, which, as the Scholastics were not slow to point out, indicate that not merely an individual disposition but an active individual principle enters into the action which one expresses by the words “I think”. Another weakness of the doctrine of monopsychism, or the doctrine that there is but one mind, a weakness at least in the eyes of the Scholastics, is that it leaves unanswered the question of the immortality of the individual soul. Indeed, Averroes openly admitted his inability to hold on philosophic grounds the doctrine of individual immortality, being content to maintain it as a religious tenet. Averroes’ greatest influence was as a commentator. His doctrines had a varying fortune in the Christian schools; at first they secured a certain amount of adherence, then, gradually, their incompatibility with Christian teaching became apparent, and finally, owing to the revolt of the Renaissance from everything Scholastic, they secured once more a temporary hearing. His commentaries, however, had immediate and lasting success. St. Thomas Aquinas used the “Grand Commentary” of Averroes as his model, being, apparently, the first Scholastic to adopt that style of exposition; and though he refuted the errors of Averroes, and devoted special treatises to that purpose, he always spoke of the Arabian commentator as one who had, indeed, perverted the Peripatetic tradition, but whose words, nevertheless, should be treated with respect and consideration. The same may be said of Dante’s references to him. It was after the time of St. Thomas and Dante that Averroes came to be represented as “the archenemy of the faith”.