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Ovi Symposium; Seventy-Third Meeting
by The Ovi Symposium
2016-09-15 09:58:36
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

Between Professors Emanuel Paparella, Ernesto Paolozzi, Michael Newman and Azly Rahman
Seventy-third Meeting: 15 September 2016



Symposium's regular participants (in alphabetical order)

papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.


enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

newmanProf. Michael Newman received his Master’s of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Eastern Michigan University.  He discovered his love for teaching English as a Second Language while living abroad. He moved to South Florida and began his journey for a tenure track position at Broward College where he has recently earned a tenured position teaching English for Academic Purposes.  Another great passion of his is that of philosophical writing and discussion.  

azlyDr. Azly Rahman holds a doctorate in International Education Development from Columbia University, and multiple Masters Degrees in the fields of International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, and Education. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. He has edited and authored seven books. He resides in the US where he teaches courses in Education, Philosophy, Cultural and American Studies, and Political Science. His interest in research and writing lies in the cultural interplay between Cybernetics, Hegemony, and Existentialism.


Subtheme of session 73: Can the religious concept of Salvation be elucidated philosophically by the harmonization of reason and faith? Is it esoteric, private and for the few, or exoteric, public and for all?

Indirect Participants within the Great Imaginary Conversation across the ages: Vico, Nietzsche, Whetehead, Wittgenstein, Averroes, Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Aristophenes, Charlemagne, Bonaiuto, Ghazali, Albert the Great, Duns Scotus, Avicenna, Al-Farabi, Pascal, Philo, Boethius, Augustine, Lombard, Maimonides, Pecham, Philoponus, Bonaventure, Ghent, Aquasparta, Oyta, Middleton, Aureol, Alnwick, Marseliu, St. Victor, Giles, Godfrey, Harclay, Wilton, De Brabant


Table of Contents for the 73th Session of the Ovi Symposium 

Preamble by the Symposium’s coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

Presentation for the session: “An Imaginary Conversation between Aristotle, Averroes, and Aquinas on the Nature of Philosophy and the Problem of Reason vs. Faith” by Emanuel L. Paparella


Coordinator’s Preamble


The fresco of Andrea di Bonaiuto in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, depicting the “Triumph of Aquinas”
as an allegory of Christian Learning. The Medieval Muslim Philosopher Averroes can be spotted at Aquinas’ feet

In our previous symposium Azly Rahman extended an invitation to a dialogue with those two acute questions: 1) is a marriage of Liberalism and Islamism possible? And 2) how is Islam to be re-imagined? I would add these corollary questions: “is philosophy itself to be re-imagined? More to the point: is philosophy’s nature esoteric or exoteric? What do philosophers themselves think of the subject nowadays?”  We may initially be skeptical of ever obtaining an answer to all these questions, since, as Rahman points out, our tumultuous times seem to be trapped in their own words and rhetoric, what he dubs “the prison house of language.” In the last session we were offered the illustrious figure of Al Rushid (Averroes in the West) as somebody who might have an answer or two in this regard. Imaginatively, Averroes via Rahman asks us this intriguing question, begging for an answer: “Have we taken the wrong semiotic turn?” which is the equivalent, in my opinion, to saying “Are we all trapped in Plato famous cave or in more Kantian terminology in the world of the phenomenon determined by language and rationality? Or can we still hope to get out of the cave into the light of the sun?

To begin to answer such questions we’d have to delve into certain luminaries of modern philosophy who stressed the importance of language for history and culture, the likes of Vico, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Whitehead. But perhaps initially, for our more limited purposes, Averroes, together with his predecessor Aristotle, and his Medieval near contemporary Aquinas may prove to be more than adequate. Besides, both Averroes and Aquinas chose Aristotle as the fountain-head of their own philosophical speculation.

Out of these initial considerations has risen an imaginary conversation, here presented, between three philosophical giants. They discuss a wide range of agreements and disagreements arriving at some insights which may have to be further elucidated. Hopefully, that will inspire us all, contributors, readers, editors, to do likewise and engage in a frank dialogue under the guide of reason, wherever it may lead. Indeed, philosophy’s aim is and remains the truth, even when its acceptance turns out to be inconvenient.


Perhaps the summer vacations or other pressing commitments has led to a scarcity of contributions by our regular participants for this particular issue of the Ovi symposium. Fortunately, the idea of a symposium or a philosophical dialogue transcends even physical space, time, civilizations, cultures, religions. Therefore, there is a remedy of sorts. Imagination remedies even rational logical strictures. And so, the intended actual conversation has been substituted with a virtual one to be presented as Symposium 73. We have done this previously.

The three chosen luminaries will present and discuss the issues that have concerned them and continue to affect and concern us. Some of those issues, such as the creation of the universe and time and space, remain perennial and to a certain extent eternal, at least in the realm of ideas, what Plato dubbed the Forms. To be sure, this dialogue among Aristotle, Averroes and Aquinas, already hinted at in the previous symposium meetings, delves with the very nature of philosophy and how philosophy and rationality has interacted throughout human history, and continues to interact, with faith, myth and imagination. We imagine the conversation to take place at a philosophical convention in Baghdad, a city that today is a place of chaos and political turmoil, yet it aims at a peaceful rational ecumenical dialogue among religious faiths, principally the Jewish, Christian and Moslem faiths, the so called religions of the Book. Philosophically speaking they are based on “the philosopher,” as Aquinas used to call him.

Any beginner philosophy student knows about Aristotle’s principles of non contradiction and first cause and that Aquinas wrote his Summa Teologica not for the experts but for beginner philosophy students, as he specifically mentions in its preface, to teach them that reason and faith can abide in harmony. Less known is that there was another philosopher, already introduced in our last session by Azly Rahman, who while less known (given that he was not a Christian but a Moslem), preceded Aquinas in his comments on Aristotle by at least a century and may have well have inspired Aquinas, despite some religious doctrinal disagreements, to envision the harmonization of reason and faith based on Aristotle’s philosophical scaffold. In fact Aquinas, who always gave credit where credit was due, used to call him “The Commentator.” We are referring of course to Averroes, as he is generally known in his Hellenized designation in the West.  Well, let’s see where this imaginary dialogue leads to. In any case, let us be prepared for surprises and challenges to our assumptions, for indeed, truth leads people into the strangest places.



An Imaginary Conversation between Aristotle, Averroes and Aquinas
on the Nature of Philosophy and the Problem of Reason vs. faith

A presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella


Aristotle                       Averroes                          Aquinas 

Moderator’s Introduction: Eminent scholars and gentlemen, welcome to this symposium in Baghdad, and thank you for accepting our invitation to a convivial dialogue among friends and colleagues passionate about philosophy. A special welcome goes to our three special guests and key-note speakers: Aristotle, Averroes, and Aquinas. Before beginning this wide-ranging conversation I’d like to express a few introductory comments about these philosophers, their noble profession, and why we chose to convene this convention at such a venue. 

You have certainly already taken notice that one of our three distinguished guests gathered here today is none other than Aristotle referred by Thomas Aquinas, another one of our illustrious guests, as “the Philosopher.” That particular endorsement by Aquinas clearly implies that among the myriads of brilliant professional philosophers throughout history, it is Aristotle that may best deserve such a designation, even while Socrates and Plato remain the fathers of an academic subject best understood as a veritable passion for knowledge and wisdom. In and out of academic circles, its light may have weakened from time to time, but it has never been wholly extinguished.

Within academia, philosophy is considered an essential offering in the humanities, but alas, precious few schools, with the possible exception of Catholic schools, make the subject mandatory as a requirement for a complete and holistic education. The appropriateness of this statement may become more apparent as our guests help us in surveying the perennial millennial history of this fascinating subject. For indeed, philosophy may be considered a rather abstract subject and Plato might have had a point in suggesting that those who could not handle the abstractions of mathematics should not specialize in philosophy either, but it is not, and never was, an impractical ethereal subject for people with their heads in the clouds, as it has been unfortunately portrayed at times. One thinks of the lampooning of Socrates in the ancient Greek play The Clouds. I see Aristotle nodding his head in assent as we speak. Almost as a reaction to this bizarre phenomenon we moderns have invented “existentialist philosophy” to imply that the enterprise has to do with man’s very existence, purpose, and destiny; but also to suggest, I suppose, that it has a history and to ignore it, is to run the risk of misinterpreting its very “telos,” or purpose.

As we all know, philosophy was born and flourished in ancient times and in fact predates Christianity by at least half a millennium. Its cradle was Greece during what we today rather condescendingly dub “pagan times” predating Christianity and Islam. After the fall of the Roman Empire it declined as an academic discipline and almost disappeared, together with other academic enterprises. Those were appropriately called the Dark Ages of barbarism. But the seed remained under the snow. It began to germinate again in the 9th century AD at the beginning of the High Middle-Ages. What has to be kept in mind is that in the West there was around at this time a new phenomenon which was not originally Western, it came from Palestine with its roots in Judaism, it was called Christianity (at least since the 4th century in the West) and it formed an important institution, the Christian Church, which a few centuries later, in the high middle ages, came to assume enormous importance for Western civilization, for good as well as for bad.

But an important caveat needs to be mentioned since it is quite often overlooked: in the year 900, by far the most robust and impressive philosophical tradition was found not in Europe, not within Christianity, but in the Middle East within a new religion, only a century old, named Islam and whose cradle is Saudi Arabia. Islamic scholars beginning with the 8th century had already embarked on a wholesale program to recover the traditions of Greek philosophy (particularly the works of our present eminent guest Aristotle), translate them into Arabic, and rethink their message in light of the newly revealed teachings of the Qur’an. Anyone able to observe from on high these distinct intellectual traditions at the end of the first millennium would surely have put their money on the Muslims as the group most likely to inherit the Greek philosophical legacy, and so it was for several centuries, as a series of brilliant philosophers and scientists made Baghdad the intellectual center of the early medieval world. One of those brilliant philosophers was our second eminent guest Averroes. All three of you, Aristotle, Averroes and Aquinas, eventually became the foundation of a robust and still ongoing Western philosophical tradition. 

Perhaps these remarks explain why we have chosen Baghdad as our meeting place. You’ll never guess it from today’s disastrous historical events, but in the 9th century, it, and in fact, the whole Muslim world, was the center of philosophical and scientific ferment. What we call the Middle Ages, was in Islam the great classical era of philosophy and science (including mathematics, astronomy, architecture, medicine) when philosophical forms of thought reemerged and flourished; and this came about way ahead of the Renaissance which begins to tentatively emerge in the West in between the 11th and 13th century, in Italy, to be precise with the establishment of the first European university in Bologna in 1088 and other major cities of Europe. To tell Muslims to come out of the Dark Ages and join modernity is to give evidence of much ignorance of the history of philosophy. The fact is that the Muslims had already come out of barbaric ignorance some four centuries before the West began to come out of it.

This is not to deny that there were afoot at the beginning of the second millennium other independent philosophical schools such as the Byzantine and the Latin West which later capture the ascendancy over the Muslim School via the academic university, and the rise of the enlightenment and science. But for the moment, whatever little scholarship was going on, went on in the scriptoriums of Christian monasteries and, even more importantly, in Moslem schools, and not in Western universities which begin to truly flourish in the Renaissance.

In more geo-political terms we have to keep in mind that the East of the Roman Empire continued unabated for another thousand years with its capital in Constantinople; it was called the Byzantine Empire. In the West, with the arrival of Charlemagne, we have an attempt to reconstitute the Roman Empire as a Christian empire, the so called Holy Roman Empire. Of course it had been Christian since Constantine in the 4th century AD but the barbarians not only destroyed it but threatened to re-make it pagan. One thinks of the Vikings. Enter Charlemagne who like Constantine has a program of Christianization for the barbarians, and resurrects the cultural influence and prestige of the Christian Church. Constantine, Charlemagne and the Muslims in general were acutely aware of the power of religion to function as cultural cement of sorts for an entire civilization. 

In any case part of the ascendancy in the 10th century was the fusion of Christian doctrine with ancient Aristotelian Greek philosophy; a sort of Hellenized Christianity. Our guest Aquinas will surely have much more to say about this fusion already begun with Constantine. But for the moment I’d like to focus on our other guest Averroes. Why, you may ask, place him in the list of Western philosophers to begin with, given that he was a Muslim? Well, for one thing, he was born in Southern Spain, which, together with North Africa was at the most western edge of the Islamic empire almost overlapping the West which felt threatened by Islam (hence the Crusades later on), and was also in the forefront of renewed philosophical interests.


Detail from the 14 century fresco Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas by Andrea di Bonaiuto.
It depicts Averroës with the heretics Sabellius and Arius at Aquinas’ feet, right beneath his throne

To be sure, our guest Averroes was one of the last great Islamic philosophers and the one who made the strongest argument on behalf of philosophy. That is why we chose him together with Aristotle and Aquinas for this conversation. He precedes Aquinas by one century. Abū al-Walīd Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd—or Averroës, as he was known to Latin readers—was born in 1126 at the far western edge of the Islamic world, in Córdoba, Spain. As mentioned, he devoted much of his scholarly efforts to a series of commentaries on Aristotle, producing both brief epitomes and exhaustive, line-by-line studies. These commentaries would eventually take on a life of their own, but the most striking feature of Averroës’s career is how little influence he had on the Islamic world of his time, despite his obvious brilliance. Many of his works no longer survive in Arabic at all, but only in Latin or Hebrew translation. Indeed, even during his life, Averroës became a controversial figure. For in 1195, when the then-reigning caliph felt the need to make concessions to conservative religious figures suspicious of Greek philosophy, he banished Averroës to the small Spanish town of Lucena, and ordered that his philosophical works be burned.

What made Averroës so controversial, and what does this show us about the way in which philosophy has and has not persisted over the centuries? I think it was this: he did in his own way want to mix and harmonize philosophy with religion, and, in particular, he promoted logic as the key to a true understanding of religion. Religion should never be anti-rational, or the enemy of reason. This idea of the harmonizing of faith and reason is picked up later by our guest Aquinas. Again, I see him assenting with a nod. Indeed, I think the influence is unmistakable and cannot be denied. As to whether the results were heretical, as some of their coreligionists certainly thought, remains a matter of dispute. Like all the great philosophers, Averroës and Aquinas, arrived at their share of heterodox views. If I remember correctly, Aquinas too, for a while was under suspicion of heresy for simply adopting Aristotle as the foundation of his philosophy, rather than sponsoring the taken-for-granted Platonic-Augustinian approach.

Nobody today would dare accuse them of unorthodoxy or heresy or even of disrespect toward the religious sensibility and imagination. To the contrary, Aquinas is now not merely one of the twenty-two doctors of the Church, but he is considered the doctor of the Catholic Church, his Summa is studied by all Catholic and even non-Catholic Christian clergy, and Averroes is not just another commentator to Aristotle, he is the revered Commentator. They themselves will explain these paradoxes in their own words and in greater detail. As a preview let me just say that what put them outside the mainstream of their times, was as much the fact that they were revolutionaries, suspected of heresy, as the fact that they were deemed the greatest among the philosophers of their time but the sheer brilliance and daring of their controversial ideas.


The Hellenization of the Persian Empire under Alexander        The Roman Empire at the Height of its expansion

There were great institutions of higher learning in the Islamic world during this time. The Karaouine University of Fes, Morocco, dates from the ninth century, and al-Azhar in Cairo from the tenth, way before the first European university. But they were strictly religious institutions, with no place at all for philosophy or science in their curriculum. After several centuries of flourishing, however, the private scholarly study of philosophy and science faded in Muslim countries, even while it was being pursued with increasing vigor in the Latin West culminating with the Renaissance and going on within post-Renaissance, Enlightenment and modernity.


The Moslem Empire at the height of its Expansion -  Western Holy Roman Empire and Eastern Byzantine Roman Empire

The question naturally arises: what happened? How did Western Europe, by the late Middle Ages, become the prime locus for philosophical and scientific research? To begin to understand what took place we need to consider the life and work of Averroës who made the strongest argument on behalf of philosophy and thus influenced both Islam and, indirectly, Christianity. I say “indirectly” since his influence took place via Aquinas.

Just a few years after Averroes’ death in Marrakesh, the great universities of Europe began operation, most notably in Bologna, Naples, Padua, Paris and Oxford. Unlike the strictly religious character of their nearest Islamic counterparts, these European universities were, from the start, thoroughly secular in their undergraduate curricula. The usual course of studies ran through subjects such as logic, metaphysics, ethics, and natural science—in short, they were exposed to all the various parts of philosophy. Students might go on to the advanced study of medicine, law, or theology, but each of those disciplines were taken to have their foundation in philosophy.

By the middle of the thirteenth century, that philosophical curriculum had become thoroughly Aristotelian, and the great guide to Aristotle was none other than Averroës, who became known in the Latin West as simply “the Commentator.” His various paraphrases and commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus were studied wherever Aristotle was studied, and this remained the case all the way into the modern era. Even though, by the end of the Middle Ages, there were countless Christian commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus, it was still the writings of Averroës that were most likely to be found alongside early printed editions of Aristotle’s work. I think that Aquinas would agree with such an assessment. Again, I see his head assenting.


Imam Al Ghazali

There was however another philosopher, named Abū Hamid al-Ghazālī, who is worth mentioning. He had urged Muslims to set aside secular learning in favor of a Sufi-influenced program of spiritual purification. Ghazālī’s famous Revivification of the Religious Sciences argues that believers should set aside not just philosophy and logic, but also the contentious debates of the theologians. Even mathematics was suspect. Ghazālī himself was writing in opposition to the great earlier figures of Islamic learning such as al-Fārābī and Avicenna, who like Averroes, were at the forefront of incorporating Aristotle’s philosophy into the Islamic worldview. His ambition was to tear down that whole edifice of learning founded on Greek philosophical thought, and to put in its place the sort of spiritual practices promoted by Sufism. He himself famously acted on these principles when, at the height of his own academic career, he abandoned his distinguished position as professor of theology here in Baghdad, and devoted the next decade to a life of ascetic meditation. Ultimately, it was not Avicenna, or al-Farabi who won, but Ghazali.



In responding to Ghazālī’s attack on philosophy, Averroës first insists that there can be no conflict between philosophy and faith: “Truth does not contradict truth.” Although this is so in principle, Averroës goes on to make an interesting and subtle concession—he accepts that not everyone is suited to pursue religious questions in the way that philosophy demands. This is similar to Plato’s contention that not everyone is suited to be a philosopher. Following Ghazālī, he distinguishes between “the people of demonstration” and “the people of rhetoric”—that is, between the few who are able to pursue philosophical reasoning, and the vast majority, who can only follow simple and superficial teachings. The masses, the people of rhetoric, ought simply to accept at face value the words of the Qur’an and the Prophet—such material was, indeed, meant for them.

But this does not mean that everyone should follow such crude methods. Those who have the aptitude and the training have the duty to go deeper. To prohibit such people from studying philosophy would be quite wrong: “those who prevent someone from reflecting on the books of philosophy when he is adept at so doing, on the grounds that some very disreputable people are supposed to have erred due to reflecting upon them, are like those who prevent thirsty people from drinking cool, fresh water until they die of thirst, because some people choked on this water and died.”

Many of Averroës’s interpretations of Aristotle were deeply contentious, especially since they were often incompatible with core teachings of Christianity. When Aquinas returns to Paris in 1268 for an unusual second term as master of theology, he had to deal with the so-called “Averroists” among the philosophy professors who defended the very views that had been controversial a century earlier in Muslim Spain. Against Averroës, then, Aquinas argued that the world has not always existed, but was brought into existence anew by God, that the very bodies we possess now will be resurrected in the life to come, and that we each possess our own intellect, making us distinct individuals with our own individual destiny. Yet even while Aquinas and other Christian theologians such as Albert the Great and John Duns Scotus disagreed with Averroës on various high-profile questions, they gladly profited from Averroës’s commentaries on countless other matters, great and small.


So Averroës, you found the sort of posthumous fame in Christian Europe that had eluded you in the Islamic world. Your passionate defense of philosophy, and your career-long efforts to make Aristotle intelligible even to the likes of a busy caliph, found few readers among your fellow-Muslims, who by the next century had largely turned against philosophy. If history had turned out differently, it is imaginable that you might have been one of the last of the great philosophers—as you were indeed one of the last great Islamic philosophers. The Islamic tradition bears witness to the fact that there is nothing inevitable about the place of philosophy in the modern world. But, as it happened, your ideas took root in an entirely different cultural atmosphere, north of Spain, among Latinate, Christian readers, who shared your vision of a religion grounded in rigorous philosophical thinking, inspired by Aristotle, as carried on later, and in an exemplary way, by Aquinas. Thanks in part to you and Aquinas, philosophy took its rightful place at the core of the European academic curriculum. Alas, it no longer occupies such an eminent place, but it has never been vanquished either.

And now without any further ado, I’d like to call on the great Aristotle to open the symposium for us by outlining its general parameters and goals.

Aristotle: thank you for the invitation and the warm welcome. A greeting to my fellow-philosophers Averroes and Aquinas and to all of you. I hope that this symposium will result in a wider participation of all interested persons; those interested in ecumenical relations among religions, in philosophy in general, in the nexus between reason and faith; in short, in determining if philosophy is an esoteric subject for the few or an exoteric subject for the majority of people. This ought to be much easier for you moderns, given stupendous modern inventions like the internet, tweeting, texting, face-book, and so on. In my time we of course, had Hermes as our super-fast messenger, but more often than not he did the bidding of the gods and ignored those of us humans.


Now, to talk about esoterism and exoterism in philosophy/theology is quite similar to contrasting salvation for the few and the chosen, and salvation for the many. Salvation for a Socrates could be as simple and immanent as living a meaningful natural life according to one’s human nature, or it could be as complex as finding the destiny or appointed purpose of one’s individual Self. It is, in short, to resurrect the ancient conundrum of Plato about philosophy: should it be exercised by the philosopher kings, brilliant persons of extreme intelligence who consorts with the gods of Mount Olympus and would then govern the people kept docile and obedient to the laws and the morality of religious prescriptions? Or perhaps it is to reintroduce the famous slogan of our modern colleague Karl Marx, that religion and philosophy do not mix very well and branded religion as “the opium of the people.”

Even more crucially, is it to end up with the war of religions to determine which one has the truest revelation; or with cultural imperialism as depicted visually by Andrea di Bonaiuto in the Church of Santa Maria Novella showing my friend and colleague Aquinas sitting on a throne and beneath his feet three alleged heretics, Averroes, Sebellius and Arius. Here is the painting, I brought a replica with me for illustrative purposes. You will notice that the title of the painting is “The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas.” What is funny in the painting is that you Aquinas too were at the time suspected of heresy and were hardly triumphant; you might have handed up in the hands of the Inquisition.

The question arises: Who is triumphing over what? Well, for one it is the triumph of Christianity over paganism, heretical teaching, and Islam. I dare say, that’s how most Christians of the time interpreted it. But one may ask: could it also be the triumph of reason and logic? The logic that I had insisted upon for any rational scheme to survive.  After all, all three of us maintain in our works that truth is one and cannot be dichotomized into religious truth and secular truth, or contradicted or obviated by merely intuited certitudes; that when a logical or metaphysical contradiction is detected there is a philosophical problem to be resolved and it is usually has to do with the interpretation of the holy scriptures (be it the Torah, or the Bible or the Q’uran, or for us pagans: the will of the gods). After these preliminary remarks I yield the podium to Averroes.

Averroes: Good evening fellow-lovers of philosophy. Thank you for your generous ovation. Thank you Aristotle for your introduction.  Who would have thought!...If I may, I’d like to return to di Bonaiuto’s (around 1360) painting alluded to by Aristotle. All three of us are in this painting. Indeed, often a visual painting can be just as powerful a narration as a book of philosophy. The Italians of the Renaissance were genial at that. You may ask, what am I doing at the feet of Aquinas who is sitting on a throne like a philosopher king governing his subjects? I think Aristotle is right, the painting is in fact grossly misinterpreted when alleged to represent the triumph of one religion or theological system over another; of Christianity over Islam. Ideally, of course, it is an allegory of Christian learning or of salvation through Christ, which is a wholly different thing. The representations of abstract notions via allegorical figures is an enduring tradition of the Italian Renaissance. Consider the allegorical figure of Alma Mater at the Sterling Library of Yale University.


Allegorical figure of Alma Mater at the Yale University Sterling Library

What we observe in Buonaiuto’s allegorical painting is Aquinas holding in his hands Solomon’s book of Wisdom (Wisdom 7: 7-8) which in Latin reads thus: “Optavi, et datus est mihi sensus et invocavi, et venit in me Spiritus sapientiae te preposui illam regnis te sedibus” (“And so I prayed, and understanding was given me; I entreated, and the Spirit of Wisdom came to me. I esteemed her more more than scepters and thrones; compared with her, I held riches as nothing.” Rather ironic, given that Aquinas is sitting on a throne like a philosopher king. Perhaps the whole idea of a philosopher king is a myth. Be that as it may, flying over the throne are the seven virtues: four are cardinal (temperance, prudence, justice, fortitude) and three theological (faith, hope and charity). Sitting with Aquinas on his left we see Job, David, Paul, Mark, Matthew. On his right we see John, Luke, Moses, Isaiah, Solomon holding his kingly crown and his open Book of Wisdom.

It does not take long for that misinterpretation of knowledge to become Western Imperialism which proclaims “I conquer, therefore I am,” or “knowledge is power,” i.e., the triumph of the West over the rest of the world. One thinks of Napoleon in Egypt berating the alleged “backwardness” of Islam vis a vis European “enlightenment” and proclaiming that victory belongs to those with bigger cannon.

To be sure, there is another such painting by Raphael in the Vatican rooms titled The School of Athens where I also appear with a white turban on my head. But Aristotle, you are quite right in suggesting that it could also be interpreted, and more rightly so, not as an institutional triumph based on political power but as a triumph of philosophy and reason over intolerance, bigotry and xenophobia; and if so, a more accurate representation would have been to place me, not at the feet of Aquinas, but as a colleague of Aquinas on the same scaffold. But the debate goes on.


Averroes behind Pythagoras in the group to the left of Plato in the School of Athens by Raphael

Further down in Bonaiuto’s fresco on the left we observe allegories of the seven sacred sciences: Civil Law with a sword in her right hand, to enforce the law; at her feet we see Justinian whose code became the law of the Roman Empire. Canonical Law who holds a model of a church on her left knee at whose feet sits pope Clement V. Philosophy who holds a glass sphere in which Christ is teaching; at her feet we see Aristotle. Holy Scripture at whose feet sits Jerome wearing a wide brimmed cardinal’s hat and stoking his chin. Theology at whole feet sits John Damascus. Contemplation at whose feet sits Dionysius the Areogagite. Preaching who holds a bow and represents Polemic Theology engaged in disputations at whose feet sits St. Augustine.

On the right of Aquinas are the Seven Liberal Arts (which includes the Quadrivium and the Tirvium): the allegorical figure of Arithmetic holding a tablet at whose feet sits Pythagoras. Geometry with a T-square under her arm at whose feet sits Euclid. Astronomy at whose feet sits Ptolemy looking up at the heavens. Music holding a portative organ at whose feet sit Tubal Cain, with his head tilted as he listens to the pitch of his hammer hitting the anvil. Dialectics in a white robe at whose feet sits Pietro Ispana. Rhetoric with a paper list at whose feet sits Cicero. Grammar teaching a young boy at whose feet sits Priscian (the last three are Trivium.

To return to the issue at hand, there were three factors that put me outside the mainstream. First, I contended that both philosophy and the text of the Qur’an point toward the conclusion that the world has always existed in some form or another—that although God has shaped the nature of creatures, the physical world itself has eternally existed, just as God himself has. Second, I contended that although our souls survive death, our bodies do not, and will not be resurrected. Both these contentions seemed to contradict the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. I believed that our souls will acquire some kind of body in the next life, but I denied that this will be the same body we have now, or even the same kind of body. This is something that many Christians no longer find contradictory to Christian doctrine. One thinks of a Theilard de Chardin and his “spiritual evolution.” Furthermore, I denied that we should take literally the Qur’an’s various enticing pronouncements about the garden of delights that awaits the believer. Third, and most strange to modern ears, I denied that we each possess our own intellect. Instead, I thought of the intellect as something cosmic, the way the Greeks understood, as nous, the cosmic intelligence, something separate from our souls, some singular, immaterial thing that we are able to access when we think, and that we all share as humans.

Each of these views was disputed, and widely regarded as heretical in both Islam and Christianity, but I continued to think that each was at least consistent with religious teachings and that each could be decisively established on philosophical grounds, drawing on the teachings of Aristotle and philosophy, even in the context of religious questions, since, were it not for philosophy, the believer would come to the wrong conclusion about each of these problems. In one of my best-known works, the Decisive Treatise, I argue at length for the value of philosophy: not just that it should be permitted, but that its study is, in fact, required for those who would truly understand religion. To ban philosophy would be “a wrong to the best sort of people and to the best sort of existing things.”

Nevertheless I fully understood that to tell the ordinary Muslim that the next life is not what the Qur’an describes, but more like an endlessly boring philosophy seminar, would mean to ensure that the consequences for religious piety might be very bad indeed. Mine was a highly attenuated defense of philosophy. It was an enterprise reserved for the select few, philosophy as an essential tool for understanding in religion and other academic fields. It is, in other words, a dangerous activity, to be taught only with extreme care. Thus we are quite far from the familiar modern view of philosophy as a core ingredient in any humanistic education. I yield to Aquinas.

Aquinas: Thank you Averroes. I am glad to be here and concur with my illustrious colleagues that a convivial dialogue is much needed in these cynical times of extreme rationalism and utilitarianism and materialism in which we live. Aristotle, yours is indeed the philosophical foundation on which I built my philosophy and theology. As previously hinted at by the moderator, this was bound to raise eyebrows in the so called “age of faith,” given that the official Church philosopher up to then had been Plato with his transcendent forms as adopted by Augustine in the 5th century AD. I was put under the radar, to use one of your colorful modern expressions, of both the Archbishop of Paris and the Inquisition but fortunately I died rather young, in my early fifties, and the issue never came to a head. Now, as already pointed out, I am the official doctor of the Church, out of a total of 22 of them. No congregation of the faith would dare to raise objections to my philosophy which has become foundational to the Church’s theology too. Human history, as it unfolds, can be quite bizarre and paradoxical.

As you may already know, toward the end of my life I came out of chapel after having undergone a mystical experience, pronouncing everything I had worked for and written up to then as so much straw fit to be burned. This puzzled and alarmed many of my fellow Dominicans and colleagues. They persuaded me not to carry out my threat and I suppose that was a good thing. What I was driving at was the fact that even in a pagan’s life there is something transcendent and mysterious that seems to go beyond reason and makes even the wonder of reason and philosophy appear puny and rather insignificant; this is true even on purely psychological level when we frequently notice that “the heart has reasons that reason knows not” to borrow from Blasé Pascal. What neither Averroes and myself, with all our disagreements on points of religious doctrine, never said is that there are two truths, one for religion and one for science.

We never said that truth is relative. In fact we said the contrary: reason can be reconciled to faith, even on a logical plane. This is ultimately what bothers the religious fanatics ready to go on a Crusade and become martyr for the faith. Those who have to place philosophers on a throne with the vanquished at their feet to establish the superiority of one religion over another. Averroes instead belongs in the pantheon of medieval philosophers, not vanquished at my feet, nobles oblige, but collegially as a colleague and a collaborator promoting the Stagirite as the highest expression of truth, somebody who greatly inspired and encouraged me in my quest to teach genuine philosophy to my students as simply and as honestly as I could.

On the contrary, I dare say that those who would start Crusades and religious wars to give witness to one’s faith are ultimately skeptical about the potential ability of reason to harmonize religion and philosophy and foment ecumenism and peace. In my writings I state that logically “the abuse of something never obviates its use.” The fact that some people abuse wine and get drunk does not mean that we should outlaw wine. Similarly, the fact that we have had, and unfortunately continue to have, religious disagreements and, alas, even religious litigations and wars, and corruption within religions which are governed by corrupt men, does not mean that we ought to cavalierly proceed to outlaw religion, or declare it poison for the people, or banish it from the public agora, or relegate it to the private sphere for one hour a week, or declare the luminaries of other faiths the archenemy of one’s own faith. My Summa was written to prove this simple point, that truth does not contradict itself and can potentially be harmonized to faith. I dare say that Averroes writings also attempt to put this point across.


We, to the contrary, are not skeptical in that regard and our works attest to it. I have no problems in frankly acknowledging that I was influenced by the comments on Aristotle of the Great Commentator Averroes and in fact I adopted his style of commenting and in the process I revolutionized the way philosophy had been done up to then and started a new process in the Latin West which culminates with the Enlightenment and Positivism. While it is true that Positivism, whatever one may think of it, could not have been born within Islam where philosophy after the 12th century was pretty much neglected, it is also true that not everything positivism proposes, among which the denial of the transcendent, is good and true and beautiful. Some of it, such as the idea of “inevitable deterministic scientific progress” is downright harmful.

So basically what we did in philosophy is simply to teach beginners the nature of philosophy; and not only we taught beginners and experts, we also taught the vast majority of human-kind, for whom philosophizing happens to be innate and integral part of their rationality and humanity, whether they realize it or not. Ask any parent nurturing children. We taught that truth cannot contradict itself and that the contradictions of faith and reason can be reconciled and harmonized or God would be a trickster and deceiver of sort who gave us reason and then commanded us to suspend it once in a while, park it outside our houses of worship, so to speak. In that sense we have never considered philosophy and philosophizing an esoteric enterprise which properly belong to a few experts and academics. We consider it exoteric, good and proper for all the people. As in the religious sense of salvation, philosophy belongs to all or it belongs to no one. Catholic schools are on the right track in mandating it to all those who wish to pursue a liberal arts or humanistic education.

Thank you for your applause, what I just said may sound revolutionary to some ears, but in the final analysis it is mere common sense, which also belongs to all the people and not just a few intellectually privileged individuals; it’s what makes democracy possible. Aristotle has also taught me and Averroes that common sense is the common denominator of universal perennial philosophy. And now, in this particular dialogue I’d like to briefly explore one particular item on which the scholastics disagreed with the Muslims and perhaps discover, to our surprise, that the disagreement was mostly due to political and religious disagreements on doctrine; that on a purely philosophical level, the gap was not so wide as it is made out to be, and could be easily bridged. I invite my two colleagues to participate and contribute to this effort and interrupt me and comment at any time. 

The Arabic-Latin translation movements in the Middle Ages, which paralleled that from Greek into Latin, led to the transformation of almost all philosophical disciplines in the Medieval Latin world. The impact of Arabic philosophers such as al-Fārābī, Avicenna and Averroes on Western philosophy was particularly strong in natural philosophy, psychology and metaphysics, but also extended to logic and ethics. Among the influential Arabic theories, these can be enumerated: the logical distinction between first and second intentions; the intension and remission of elementary forms; the soul's faculty of estimation and its object, the intentions; the conjunction between human intellect and separate active intellect; the unicity of the material intellect (Averroism so called); naturalistic theories of miracles and prophecy; the eternity of the world and the concept of eternal creation; the active intellect as giver of forms; the first cause as necessary existent; the emanation of intelligences from the first cause; the distinction between essence and existence; the theory of primary concepts; the concept of human happiness as resulting from perfect conjunction of the human intellect with the active intellect. This alone is quite a contribution, and it would take us too long and too far afield to go through all of those theoretical constructs. As mentioned, I have picked the issue of the eternity of the universe vs. Creation as the one to explore in some depth in our conversation.

The problem of the eternity of the world was much debated in Western philosophy from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, but its history goes back as far as Philo of Alexandria and the Church Fathers. The principal topic of controversy was the possibility of a beginning-less and yet created world. They seem to be mutually exclusive The arguments that fashioned the medieval discussion rested upon assumptions concerning the concepts of eternity and creation. In addition, the issue of eternity intertwined with discussions of the relationship of God to creation, with proofs of the existence of God (something I deal with in my Summa), with the nature of the material universe and with the nature of infinity. It should be prefaced that some of the most ingenious ideas in these debates were not original with Christianity but were obtained from pagan Greek, Islamic and Jewish traditions. One thinks of Aristotle’s First Cause which I adopt in my five proofs of the existence of God.


Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher of the 1st century AD

According to Judeo-Christian tradition, based in particular upon the opening words of Genesis (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”), the universe had a beginning. From the fourth century onwards, however, Christian thinkers had to take into consideration accounts from antiquity, transmitted by authors such as Augustine and Boethius, according to which the existence of the material universe (mundus) was “from eternity” (ab aeterno), that is, beginning-less.

In its early stages, the medieval discussion of the eternity of the world was preoccupied with two types of questions, one asking whether the world had existed from eternity and the other examining the concept of eternity and its relation with time. In general, “time” (tempus) was understood to imply having both a beginning and an end, and perpetuity (aevum) involved a beginning but not an end, whereas “eternity” (aeternitas) had neither beginning nor end. “Eternity” in this sense was understood as a temporal notion, meaning “infinite temporal extension”. However as Boethius pointed out in De consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy),”eternity” could also be taken as a-temporal. This conception of eternity, sometimes called 'eternity proper' by later authors, introduced the notion of timelessness within the notions of “all at once” (tota simul) and of “life”, and referred to God's mode of existence.


God, Eternity, the Universe, and the unfolding of temporal History

Most ancient and medieval thinkers, whether they were pagans, Jewish, Christians or Muslims, all agreed that the universe was not coeternal with God. They were divided, however, over the question whether the universe had always existed in a temporal sense, and over how this question should be understood in the first place. Using a distinction derived from Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (The City of God) and Confessiones (Confessions), many medieval thinkers would observe that the world was created together with time, and in this sense had always existed: there was no past at the time of creation.

In the early thirteenth century, the discussion of the eternity of the world was raised to a higher level. Three events contributed to this. First, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) declared the temporal beginning of the world to be an article of faith. Second, around that same time the Sentences by Peter Lombard, which included a statement (Book 2, distinction 1) about the world's eternity, became an official textbook in the faculty of theology. Third, the translation into Latin of Aristotle's books on natural philosophy (Libri naturales), especially Physics VIII, brought medieval thinkers in the arts faculty into routine contact with arguments proving the eternity of motion and generation. Aristotle's views on eternity, especially the question whether he had intended to prove the beginning-lessens of the world, became an issue of debate. Aristotle's views were perceived through the interpretations offered by Averroes' Commentary on Aristotle's Physics and Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed, works that had also been translated recently into Latin.


Peter Lombard writing his Sentences

Averroes: Indeed Aquinas. The issue would not have come to surface had it not been for the Aristotelian-Moslem philosophers. The most important result of these events was that the issue to be debated came into sharper focus: could the world have been eternal, if God had so willed? In other words, must the beginning of the world be accepted as an article of faith, or can it also be proved by (demonstrative) arguments? In this way, the issue of the eternity of the world helped to determine the position philosophers held with regard to the relation between faith and reason of which you eventually became the greatest exponent.


Maimonides, one of the great Medieval Jewish scholars, author of Guide to the Perplexed

Most of the arguments were drawn from Aristotle's widely accepted theory of the infinite, but were here employed in a new context to substantiate the un-Aristotelian conclusion that the world is not eternal but had a beginning. In particular, the following generally accepted Aristotelian rules were considered to be violated by the idea of a beginning-less world: first, that it is impossible to add to the infinite; second, that it is impossible to traverse what is infinite; third, that it is impossible for the infinite to be grasped by a finite power; and fourth, that it is impossible that there be simultaneously an infinite number of things. In addition, the theory of a possible eternal world seemed to clash with self-evident principles such as that the whole is greater than the part (John Pecham) or that, since the infinite is infinite, one infinity cannot be greater than another, or that there is no order in the infinite because there is no first element (Bonaventure). Some of these alleged contradictions had already been pointed out by John Philoponus in his De aeternitate mundi contra Proclum (On the Eternity of the World Against Proclus) and had circulated among Arabic authors such as Algazel in his Metaphysica before they were transmitted to the Latin West.


Philoponus, the Grammarian, a Christian theologian who wrote on Aristotle in the 6th c. AD

Aquinas: Quite right Averroes, quite right. The various conceivable ways of responding to the question of the eternity of the world can be reduced to the following two positions. One group of thinkers, of whom Bonaventure is the archetype, claimed that it could be demonstrated that the world began to exist. Other adherents of this position were Matthew of Aquasparta, Henry of Ghent, John Pecham, Richard of Middleton, Peter Aureol, William of Alnwick, Henry Totting or Oyta and Marseliu of Inghen.


Cardinal Matthew of Acquasparta

The demonstrations hinged on two basic assumptions concerning creation and eternity. The Christian view had come to be that God had created the world where before there had been nothing: in other words, creation from nothing. In an argument that goes back to Richard of St Victor, it was maintained that since creation from nothing (ex nihilo) is a transition from non-being (nihil) to being, non-being necessarily precedes being. Hence, creation necessarily implies a beginning in time. In sum, creation 'from nothing' was understood as creation 'after nothing' (post nihil).



Furthermore, an eternal world was conceived to imply the existence of an infinite series of past events. The contradictions that allegedly arose from this assumption were considered reasons why an eternal world is impossible. Another group of thinkers, including myself, are Siger of Brabant, Boethius of Dacia, Giles of Rome, Godfrey of Fontains, William of Ockam, Henry of Harclay, Thomas of Wylton and Thomas of Strasbourg, argued that the universe could have existed from eternity. In part, their argumentation rested on the rebuttal of those arguments that the proponents of a demonstrable beginning had invoked to refute the possibility of an eternal world. They concluded that since the beginning of the world could not be demonstratively proved, the universe could have existed without beginning to exist. That is to say, the universe could be an emanation of God eternally co-existing with him but always emanating from Him. Were he to disappear, so would the universe, but the reverse would not be true.


Aquinas, Dante, Beatrice, and Siger de Brabant

Proponents of the possibility of a beginning-less universe interpreted creation out of nothing as creation not out of anything, that is, not out of any independently existing matter. Creation was understood as a relation of causal dependence of creatures upon God, and in this interpretation the status of being a creature was not necessarily inconsistent with being beginning-less.


Giles of Rome

Averroes: Thomas, may I add here that the argument that the universe depends for its existence upon a superior principle that is not prior in time but prior in the order of things can be found in Avicenna's Metaphysica, and was at the heart of your rebuttal of Bonaventure's interpretation of creation from nothing.


 Avicenna            St. Bonaventure        William of Ockam

Aristotle: And who would have thought that my simple concept of First Cause enunciated four centuries before Christ, would have produced so many ongoing dissensions among philosophers fifteen centuries later?

Aquinas: Indeed, my fellow philosophers. But, if truth be told, those dissensions were due less to philosophy and more to the urge for domination and the imposition of one’s religious doctrine as the only royal road to salvation; to ultimately end up depicting me sitting on a Machiavellian throne more redolent of temporal power than transcendent eternal realities. Be that as it may, the infinity arguments in favor of a beginning were considered off the mark by the proponents of the possibility of an eternal world. With regard to the traversal argument, for instance (that is, the argument that if the world had always been, an infinite past time would have been traversed), they emphasized that the traversed infinite time was a successive and not a simultaneous infinity, and hence, that the contradictions that seemed to follow from the premise of an eternal world were not pertinent. There will always be only finitely many past days between this and any past day. A beginning-less world does not imply that any past day was infinitely remote from this day.

In general, the adherents of a possible beginning-less world held the same Aristotelian views on the infinite as their opponents. They disagreed only over the kind of infinity that was involved in a possible eternal world. So, what becomes apparent is that when a dialogue is properly pursued, to search for truth wherever it may lead, rather than pursuing an agenda of religious indoctrination and the winning of an argument at any cost, then a logical solution begins to appear. To the contrary, it become apparent that when proselytizing and religious fanaticism, intolerance and propaganda are the hidden agenda the predictable result can be expected to be religious disputes and even religious wars. Those are usually deemed regretful but necessary by religious fanatics out to save the world by coercion if necessary, but they have never been very helpful in fomenting peace and harmony on earth. They are especially harmful when promulgated in the name of the prince of peace. Philosophy with its passion for truth, on the other hand, has a better record in this regard. It may not ensure eternal salvation, nor bring final peace on earth (the peace of the desert or the cemetery), but it can potentially render our existence more meaningful and purposeful hic et nunc.

I am afraid that Tuesday’s vicious all-out response to a Monday’s mendacious attack will not save us. What may save us is the search and the honoring of truth, no matter on which journey it leads us to, even when it turns out to be inconvenient. What will save us is avoiding the peril of confusing res extensa for existence, or empty words for essences. Extracting the truth out of contradiction is indeed philosophically more laborious, may even appear paradoxical and illogical, but perhaps in the long run it may turn out to be more helpful in saving us from our own self-deceptions and delusions about existence and destiny and in leading us to the light out of the proverbial dark cave of ignorance and appearances.

Aristotle to Averroes (looking at each other, while applauding enthusiastically): Excellent, spoken as a true philosopher! 




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Emanuel Paparella2016-09-16 10:41:54
A note by the Symposium's coordinator to its readership: stay tuned for the next meeting of the Symposium when the theme of faith/reason will continue to be discussed by its contributors as one of the main pillars of our ongoing dialogue.

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