Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children (Harcourt Harvest, 2003)

Once upon a time in the West, in Spain, to be exact, a collection of documents that had lain in darkness for more than one thousand years was brought to light, and the effects of the discovery were truly revolutionary. Aristotle’s books were the medieval Christians’ star-gate. For Europeans of the High Middle Ages, the dramatic reappearance of the Greek philosopher’s lost works was an event so unprecedented and of such immense impact as to be either miraculous or diabolical, depending on one points of view. The knowledge contained in these manuscripts was “hard” as well as “soft,” and it was remarkably comprehensive. Some three thousand  pages of material ranging over the whole spectrum of learning from biology and physics to logic, psychology, ethics, and political science seemed to be a bequest from a superior civilization.
Or, I should say, from two superior civilizations. For Aristotle’s books were not discovered written in Greek and stored in clay jars, but written in Arabic and housed in the libraries of the great universities at Baghdad, Cairo, Toledo, and Cordoba. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of order in Europe, the works of Aristotle and other Greek scientists became the intellectual property of the prosperous and enlightened Arab civilization that ruled the great southern crescent extending from Persia to Spain. As a result, when Western Europeans translated these works into Latin with the help of Muslim and Jewish scholars, they also translated the works of their leading Islamic and Jewish interpreters, world-class philosophers like Avicenna, Averroës, and Moses Maimonides.


This dramatic prologue sets the stage for Rubenstein’s primary discussion of the intellectual history of twelfth- and thirteenth- century Europe. He begins further back, with Aristotle himself and then the workings of the fourth- and fifth-century Church, to explain the foundations of the Church as we move into this period of focus, and show the impact the re-discovery of some of Aristotle’s texts – for some of them had been long extant and merely overshadowed by Neoplatonism – on theology, on science, and on history itself, as all these areas are interlinked. While adding a dash of dramatic flair, Rubenstein’s use of the Star-gate analogy (referring to Arthur C. Clarke’s use of the term in 2001: A Space Odyssey) is not merely rhetorical. One of his points is that, just as Clarke’s star-gate was located in a place that humanity could only reach at a certain level of functioning, a culture chooses its primary mode of intellectual investigation depending on the ethos of the time:

To comprehend this choice, it helps to recognize that, in some periods of history, Plato’s ideas and attitudes make obvious sense to thinking people, while in others, Aristotle’s vision of the world seems far more realistic and inspiring. In Aristotelian epochs, economic growth, political expansion, and cultural optimism color the intellectual atmosphere. People feel connected to each other and to the natural world. Confident that they can direct their emotions instead of being dominated by them, they are generally comfortable with their humanity. Proud of their ability to understand how things work, they believe that they can make use of nature and improve society…. Curiosity and sociability are their characteristic virtues, egoism and complacency their most common vices.
Platonic eras, by contrast, are filled with discomfort and longing. The source of this discomfort is a sense of contradiction dramatised by personal and social conflicts that seem all but unresolvable. Society is fractured, its potential integrity disrupted by violent strife, and this brokenness is mirrored in the souls of individuals. People feel divided against themselves – not ruled by reason but driven by uncontrollable instincts and desires. The universe as a whole may not be evil, but it is far from what it should be….They believe that a better and truer self, society, and universe await them on the other side of some necessary transformation. Earthly life is therefore a pilgrimage, a stern quest whose pursuit generates the virtues of selflessness, endurance, and imagination. The characteristic Neoplatonic vices (the dark side of its virtues) our self hatred, intolerance, and fanaticism.

Chapter 2: The Murder of “Lady Philosophy”

He supports this view with a look at the periods involved:  the optimism in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as economies and populations grew, and the decline of Aristotelian inquiry by the thirteenth century when even the weather stopped cooperating (the beginning of the “Little Ice Age”) and growth slowed and stopped.

Rubenstein tells his story by tracing the lives of various thinkers, from Aristotle himself, to Augustine and Boethius, and then to the main cast beginning with Peter Abelard and Anselm, moving on to Thomas Aquinas and finishing with William of Ockham. Various groups also feature prominently: the Dominicans and Franciscans, the Picardy Nation, the Cathars. Then there are the popes and other ecclesiastical leaders, and the academic institutions: the early School at Notre Dame, the University of Paris.

One of his primary points is that all this takes place within the Catholic Church. This is in contrast to the usual mindset that the Church squelched all scientific inquiry. Not so, shows Rubenstein: a great deal of effort was expended to find a way to bring reason and faith into a relationship, one laden with creative tension:

The belief shared by virtually all medieval scholars that, in case of conflict, faith trumped reason clearly had limiting effects on scientific inquiry. …For the most part, however, the attitude of Catholic intellectuals toward scientific research was remarkably sanguine. Although they agreed that the faith must at all costs be preserved, both Dominicans and Franciscans, teaching friars and secular masters, assumed that what the researchers were discovering by using their senses and their reason was real, and that religion would have to come to terms with it. The great issue, in other words, was not whether inquiring into nature’s workings was a good thing or a bad thing. It was a good thing, since both reason and nature were from God. The issue was how to define the proper territory and boundaries of the religious and scientific (“philosophical”) modes of inquiry, how to establish a healthy relationship between them.

Chapter 5: Aristotle and the Teaching Friars

This setting of boundaries makes up a great deal of the central portion of the book. At times, teaching of certain Aristotelian precepts was banned. Some theological notions were considered matters of faith, particularly the nature of God and of salvation through Christ. Aristotle’s idea (supported by Averroës but challenged by Maimonides) that the universe was eternal was never accepted, as that would have implications leading to something like pantheism. And so on.

Rubenstein uses the metaphor of marriage between faith and reason to explore the dual approach to inquiry. Thus, he sees Thomas Aquinas as a kind of marriage counselor, trying to keep the duality together, with William of Ockham as the judge granting the divorce decree on the grounds of simplicity:

Ockham’s razor, on the other hand, implied that the task undertaken by Thomas – the attempt to construct a unitary system capable explaining both natural and divine things – was impossible. Behind his call for simplicity, in other words, lay a conviction that natural science and theology must go their separate ways. On the science side, there are concepts and methods derived from experience and processed by reason that help us to understand the natural world and the world of human society. On the theology side, there are doctrines revealed by Scripture or the Church that help us to understand God and what he requires of us. From Ockham’s point of view, Thomas had made a hash of things by conflating the two realms of understanding. His system had mystified nature. Worse yet, by claiming that we could reason our way to an understanding of God’s attributes and intentions, it had demystified God. The job of the new school of philosophers theologians, as William saw it, was to reverse this mistake – that is, to demystify nature and remystify God.

Chapter 7: The Divorce of Faith and Reason

Rubenstein ends by looking at why today we see the Middle Ages as anti-science, in spite of this attempt to integrate reason into faith, and how the relationship might be improved in the present age by  understanding the difficulties of the past.

The use of story-telling technique and metaphors make this a far more readable book than it might be, considering the detail of history and philosophy included. I found it remarkably clarifying in the brief but clear explanation of the heresies of early Christianity: Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism. It might just be that I was ready to absorb that material, having encountered it before; like the theory that a culture is primed for Neoplatonism or Aristoteliansim by its nature, I was primed by prior reading. It does get quite complicated when it comes to the politics of the Church, at least for someone, like me, who isn’t that familiar with such things.

This was my first detailed encounter with the faith-reason interaction, and with some of the persons mentioned within. I’ve heard of Peter Abelard in connection with Heloise; while that story is a pretty wild ride, Abelard’s philosophic-religious journey is none the less exciting, and I’d like to know more about that. Anselm, as well, interests me. These two predated the release of the Latin translations of the Aristotelian documents, but they were on the way to science – or reason, or natural philosophy, whichever term works – in their day. The Cathars are described as a kind of puritanical gang, and I’m interested in them as well. I’ve never really understood the Orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, and so that’s something else I need to learn more about.

This book goes nicely with Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, another tale of a “lost” intellectual document found. I remember there was significant push-back on that book, since it portrayed the late Middle Ages as anti-intellectual, and rescued by Lucretius. That makes these two books somewhat in tension with each other. And, just as Rubenstein credits the tension between reason and faith as generating great creative energy and discovery, so this tension between the two books inspires me to find out more.

I found out about this book in the first place through Edith Hall’s recommendation on Five Books, a site I highly recommend, by the way. I’ve discovered several interesting reads through them this year since I started following them on Twitter instead of waiting for some other account I follow to retweet them. I find them most useful for nonfiction, since I have numerous sources for fiction, but it’s always fun to see what different people recommend.

2 responses to “Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children (Harcourt Harvest, 2003)

  1. I read Aristotle’s Children years ago. I’ve also read The Swerve. It bugs me I can’t retain all the details and information I consume when reading nonfiction. It’s like putting together a million piece jigsaw puzzle and finding several pieces that fit together near each other, so you kind of see something. But when I go on to read other books, and those pieces all come apart. Another book that fits in with these is How To Live or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Not the same, but still makes you want to read classical studies.

    • Yes, it’s all confusing, the overlaps between history and philosophy and religion and even math and science. It’s why I keep reading introductory books, getting different points of view, and hope at some point to come up with a 3-D picture. That’s why your Auxiliary Memory idea is so cool to me, it’s exactly why I’m blogging this stuff, I go back and read old posts to remind me of what I’ve already read.
      The problem with delving into these complex, interrelated subjects is that you have to read everything, then you have to read it all again because now you know more and more of it makes sense, and then you have to read it yet again, and again… I keep thinking I need to do some re-reading, but I think I still have some basic layers to get down first.
      What I remembered about The Swerve wasn’t in the book itself, but in reactions to the book: a lot of people felt he portrayed the late Middle Ages as having no thought at all outside of what the Church taught, and Lucretius change all that, but Lucretius was just one more link in the chain from medievalism to modernism and probably wasn’t all that obscure.
      That Montaigne book is on my list! I first encountered Montaigne in a story by Frederick
      Tuten, “The Tower” from Pushcart 2015, a guy who compares himself to Montaigne. The Blakewell book was on Five Books (that site is amazing) in a couple of places, and her other book the Existentialist Cafe is also on my list.

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