Thursday, July 4, 2013

BkRev: Rubenstein's Aristotle's Children

Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages, Orlando, Harcourt, 2003, 368 pages.

The usual reason to write a book review is to bring a book to readers' attention. The usual review either encourages readers to buy it it or discourages them if the reviewer thinks readers are hearing unjustly positive views elsewhere. Sometimes book reviews are useful for other purposes. In the following brief review, one of my purposes is to show that the author uses his book of history to support his side in the today's war between reason and mysticism. His book is an example of indirect activism.

(I have used my own books, The Aristotle Adventure and The Power and the Glory, for activism, though to support the reason side of the war.)

SUBJECT OF ARISTOTLE'S CHILDREN. Often the title of a book is a "hook" that catches readers' attention. The subtitle is the part that follows a colon or appears in smaller type; it states the subject. That is the case for my book, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith. That is not the case for Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages.

Rubenstein's book is partly about the influence of Aristotle's philosophy on intellectuals in the religious cultures of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. However, the book is mostly about the conflicts that arose in the Middle Ages when Christian intellectuals tried to "integrate" Aristotle's philosophy of this natural world with their Christian ethics based mystically in supernaturalism. (Admirers of philosopher Leonard Peikoff's book, The DIM Hypothesis, reviewed here, will recognize the medieval attempt at "integration" as M, misintegration.)

Conflicts, as well as the failed attempts to "resolve" the conflicts, are the dominant subject of the book. That is a natural choice of subject for the author, Richard E. Rubenstein. He was a professor of "conflict resolution," at George Mason University, at the time of the publication of the book, 2003.

The subject is important, Rubenstein says, because in the Latin-reading culture of the Middle Ages Aristotle's philosophy "forever altered the way we think about nature, society, and even about God." (p. ix) Rubenstein says further that

[t]he Aristotelian Revolution transformed Western thinking and set our culture on a path of scientific inquiry that it has followed ever since the Middle Ages. The confrontation between faith and reason that turned the medieval universities into ideological battlegrounds continues to this day in societies around the globe. (pp. ix-x)

Why study this medieval conflict today? We should study it, Professor Rubenstein says, because "the concerns of these medieval thinkers resonate so sonorously with ours." (p. xi); and the underlying conflict of reason vs. faith is emerging again in our own time. (p. 11)

In Aristotle's Children, Rubenstein is mainly a storyteller. He relies on the scholarly research of academics (as I did in The Aristotle Adventure). He uses a story-teller's techniques. He begins with a puzzle: The central medieval conflict over Aristotle's influence was not mainly between the Church and outside Aristotelians, but a conflict within the Church, with the Church leadership generally calling for inclusion of Aristotle's works in the course of university studies. (p. 7) Why did the Church leadership—unlike religious leaders among Muslims and Jews—do so?

Throughout the book, Rubenstein makes a case for his answer:

Rather than choose between the new learning and the old religion, the popes and scholars of the High Middle Ages tried to modernize the Church by reconciling faith and reason. (p. xi)

STRUCTURE OF ARISTOTLE'S CHILDREN. In structure, as well as content, this book is a history, as both the author's own statement (p. 2) and a reading of the chapter subheadings in Table of Contents show. Unfortunately, in the Table of Contents the author does not supply dates to make the progression clear. I have added them here: Aristotle's philosophy of this world and Aristotle rediscovered (Ch. 1); how Aristotle was lost in the ancient world and found again (Ch. 2); Peter Abelard and the revival of reason in the 1100s (Ch. 3); Aristotle among the West European heretics in the 1100s and 1200s (Ch. 4); Aristotle and the friars who debated the heretics (Ch. 5); friars debating friars at the University of Paris in the 1200s (Ch. 6); William of Ockham's divorce of faith and reason in the 1300s (Ch. 7); and the emergence of modern science in the 1500s and 1600s, resulting in today's split between reason and faith (Ch. 8).

THEME OF ARISTOTLE'S CHILDREN. The Aristotelian Revolution erupted in Latin-reading Western Europe in the late 1100s and early 1200s when Aristotle's philosophy overall became available for the first time in Latin texts, thanks to translations from Greek and Arabic sources. Part of the theme of the book is that in the 1300s, a century after the Aristotelian Revolution, "faith and reason were already headed toward the conflict-ridden separation that has characterized their relations ever since." (p. xii)

Rubenstein sees here an opportunity for modern culture: We can learn from the medieval attempt at synthesis of faith and reason that preceded the split. Perhaps we can apply some form of synthesis of faith and reason to our own time. (See Ch. 8, but especially pp. 272-273, 281, 292, 293, and 296-298.)

Today "we have much to learn from their [the Aristotelians'] vision of science infused by ethics [coming from religion] and a religion unafraid of reason." Tying together science (reason) and religious ethics (faith) can lead to "a more humane and integrated global future." (p. xii) In essence that is the theme of the book: To solve the many conflicts of religion versus secularity, such as the conflicts over homosexuality and abortion, modern world culture must integrate religion and science by integrating faith and reason.

What is mythical is the idea that faith and reason have always been implacable enemies—an idea that implies that any other relationship between them is impossible. (p. 273)

Reason could transform the earth, if only science and technology were inspired and guided by a new global morality. Faith would expand and mature, if only the world's religions addressed themselves to long-term trends in society and nature, and helped to create that global morality. (p. 298)

So, a "global morality"—that would be developed, I note, in a consensus among the Taliban in Afghanistan, Christian nationalists in the USA, the orthodox in Israel, Hindu nationalists in India, and others—would "guide" reason everywhere around the world. Knowingly or not, Rubenstein is, in his own multi-cultural way, echoing Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), who in his 1998 encyclical letter (to bishops), Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), called for faith and reason to work together, with faith providing the guidance, that is, the ethics. The assumptions of both Rubenstein and John Paul II are that reason cannot create ethics (our guide to action in this life) and ethics can come only from God through revelation to religious people. (Philosopher Ayn Rand's 1961 essay, "The Objectivist Ethics," has developed the foundation of an ethics using reason alone—here.)

CONCLUSION. Rubenstein's call for "integration" of reason and faith is support for mysticism. Reason and mysticism are opposites. Any attempt to reconcile them gives mysticism respect it has not earned. Rubenstein does not object. "Resolving" conflict is his goal. His book, Aristotle's Children, though informative historically, argues for mysticism.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here