Averroes’ Three Short Commentaries on Aristotle’s ”Topics”, ”Rhetoric”, and “Poetics”

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 Averroes Three Short Commentaries
  • Book Author:
Charles E. Butterworth
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Born in C0rdoba in 1126 C.E. (520 Anno Hegirae),1 Abü al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes, received a traditional education in the principal disciplines of Islamic culture: jurisprudence and theology.

 He also studied medicine, eloquence, poetry, literature, and philosophy.. His reputation as a man of learning brought him to the attention of his sovereign, Abii Ya’qiib Yiisuf, the ruler of the Almohad dynasty, who encouraged him to explain the difficulties in the works of Aristotle and appointed him as a judge, eventually naming him the chief justice of Seville.

Except for a brief period of legal exile, Averroes occupied this post, also serving as personal physician and sometime adviser to the Al­mohad sovereigns, until almost the end of his life in 595/1198.

Still, his reputation among learned men of the Middle Ages was due to his skillful interpretations of pagan philosophy and defense of theoretical speculation, rather than to these practical accomplishments. Even today his theoretical accomplishments could interest thoughtful men, but most of his writings are largely inaccessible to them-existing only in medieval manuscripts or barely intelligible Latin translations.

An attempt is made here to fill that void by presenting three treatises of historical and theoretical significance to all interested in philosophic thought.

 None of these treatises has ever before been edited and published in Arabic or translated into a modern language.2 Because the Arabic manuscripts were apparently lost at an early date, the closest replicas of the original Arabic version now available to interested scholars are two Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts.

 They have been used as the hasis ofthis edition. According to the scribe of one of the manu­scripts, the copy was completed in 1356 C.E. Unfortunately there is no reliable information about the date of the other manuscript: the date of1216, written in the kind of Arabic numerals used by Westerners in recent times and in a hand other than that of the scribe, appears on the title page; it has no connection with any of the textual material.

The fourteenth century manuscript contains a Hebrew translation opposite the Judaeo-Arabic text. The Arabic text was first translated into Hebrew in the thirteenth century. Subsequently, it was translated into Hebrew a number of other times, and one translation was even­tually published in the mid-sixteenth century.3 Collating the Hebrew translation with the Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts proved to be of little help for establishing an accurate Arabic text.

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Numerous Latin translations of Averroes’s works were made in the early thirteenth century, many ofwhich were published in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, the only known Latin version of the texts presented here is that of Abraham de Balmes who died in 1523 C.E.

This translation, made directly from the Hebrew, was published in Venice in the sixteenth century. It has gained wide acceptance and is the principal source cited by those interested in the logical thought of Averroes. it, too, was collated with the Judaeo-Arabic versions, but was of even less help than the Hebrew translation for establishing an accurate Arabic text.

To appreciate why only two manuscripts of such an important work have survived and why those manuscripts have survived in Judaeo­Arabic rather than in Arabic, it is necessary to reflect upon the sus­picion in which Averroes was placed as a result of legal exile in the later years of his life. it is also necessary to consider the significance of the purge of unorthodox opinions carried out by the Almohad dynasty shortly after his death.

At that time, religious intolerance reached such intensity that books suspected of heresy were frequently burned before the public. it is probable that in this setting works attributed to a figure as controversial as Averroes readily disappeared. However, largely because of Maimonides’s influence, Averroes had very early gained such fame in theJewish community that most of his works were transliterated intojudaeo-Arabic, translated into Hebrew, and widely circulated in North Africa and even France.

The collection to which the treatises presented here belong, as well as Averroes’s more formal commentaries on works by Aristotle, were of special importance to those members of the Jewish community interested in peripatetic philosophy and were consequently carefully preserved. Even though Latin Aristotelian studies became more prominent than Jewish Aristotelian studies in the later Middle Ages, Jewish interest in Averroes and in Judaeo-Arabic or Hebrew versions of his works did not diminish. As a result, many of the medieval Judaeo-Arabic and Hebrew versions of his works are still available.4

However, these considerations do not explain why the treatises presented here have been neglected since their recovery more than a century ago. üne reason for that neglect appears to be their subject matter: logic. The writings of Averroes on logic were not studied very carefully by fellow Arabs nor by the Latin Aristotelians who were first attracted to his works.

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Similarly, even though the academic community knew about the existence of these treatises in Judaeo­Arabic manuscripts and about the existence of the Middle Commentaries on Aristotle’s Organon in Arabic manuscripts during the latter part of the nineteenth century, scholars preferred to edit Hebrew trans­lations of other works by Averroes while deploring the lack of Arabic manuscripts. it was not until the first third of the twentieth century that one of the logical works was thoroughly edited.5

Another reason why these treatises have been neglected is that, as commentaries, they were considered to be less original than other writings by Averroes. Throughout the nineteenth century, the image of an Averroes who was a faithful disciple of Arisotle prevailed. For a long while it was accepted without question and passed on as rigorously confirmed.

 Only recently has the doctrine begun to be doubted. However, while it reigned supreme, scholars expressed more interest in those works of Averroes which were obviously independent and original. Turning their attention to these works, they left the commentaries, and especially the commentaries on logic, aside.6

Whatever the full explanation might be, it is clear that neglect of these treatises has not resulted from an informed judgment about the quality of the arguments they set forth. Far from having thoroughly investigated these arguments, the academic community has never been very knowledgeable about the most superficial aspects of the treatises.

 When Munk first announced the existence of one oftheJudaeo-Arabic manuscripts in 1847, he simply identified it asAverroes’s Short Commen­tary on the Organon without any reference to its possible significance. Shortly afterward, Renan reported Munk’s discovery, but paid such little attention to the content of the treatise or to its identity that he spoke ofthe Hebrew version ofthe ShortCommentary on Logic (which he called Abrege de Logique) and of the manuscript discovered by Munk (which he called Abrege de l’Organon) without ever associating the two.

More importantly, he insisted that the treatises on rhetoric and poetics contained in the Florence manuscript of Averroes’s Middle Commentaries on Aristotle’s Organon, which he had catalogued, were short commen­taries. Although he recognized differences between the treatises on rhetoric and poetics in the Florence manuscript and the Latin trans­lations of these works by Hermannus Alemannus and Abraham de Balmes, he never compared them with the manuscript discovered by Munk.7

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Despite Renan’s acknowledgement of the manuscript’s existence and Munk’s subsequent reminder of its significance as the Arabic source, the German historian oflogic, C. Prantl, showed no awareness, as late as 1861, that the treatise existed in any form but the old Latin version. Some years later, Steinschneider attacked Prantl for this apparent lapse of scholarship and used the occasion to announce his discovery of the other manuscript containing the Judaeo-Arabic version ofthis collection oftreatises on the art oflogic.8

Still, nothing prompted anyone to edit the manuscripts. They remained neglected after Father Bouyges mentioned their existence in 1922 and erroneously identified a notebook manuscript he had found in Cairo as a possible Arabic copy ofthe ShortCommentary onRhetoric. EvenWolfson’s repeated call for a Corpus Commentariorum Averrois in Aristotelem did not lead to an edition of the treatises.9

Such neglect must be decried, for, in addition to the historical signi­ficance attached to these manuscripts, the treatises are iınportant for other reasons. Above ali, they command serious attention because of their daring critique of traditional Islamic thought and of the dialectical theologians who considered themselves its true defenders. Starting with the particular perspective of Islam, Averroes was able to raise the universal question of the relation between philosophy, politics, and religion.

These treatises are also of special interest due to their form or literary genre. So little is yet known about the different kinds of commentaries and treatises composed by Averr.oes or about their functions that careful attention must be paid to examples of each. in that way it may be possible to learn what the art of commen­tary truly was for Averroes and how he used it to present his own, as well as Aristotle’s, thought. Only then will it be possible to form correct opinions about the quality of Averroes’s teaching. Finally, these treatises are important because of what they teach about the way Aristotle’s logical writings were interpreted at that time.

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