Friday, August 7, 2009

Aristotle's Children

Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and illuminated the Dark Ages
© 2003 Richard Rubenstein
368 pages

That title is a touch misleading. While Rubenstein will mention Christians, Muslims, and Jews rediscovering ancient wisdom, he only does so in one chapter. What this book is really about is the growth of intellectual life in western Europe after Aristotle's works begin filtering into the continent -- and subsequently, the development of Catholic theology as it resists, co-opts, and is finally changed by Aristotelian thinking. This is presented in a very readable narrative, often focusing on key individuals whose names are typically well-known, with some exceptions. Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas are two examples of characters who feature prominently.

Much of the book concerns the growing intellectual life of the Catholic church. Some readers may find it unusual that the Catholic Church served to make Aristotle a part of the culture, but as far as I know, the church was the only way any intellectual idea could have made its way into the culture. The universities themselves developed from cathedral schools: for a long while, the Church was the only culture-producing entity in Europe. As a result, the Church is the subject throughout the bulk of the book with the exceptions of its first and final chapters. Rubenstein keeps the narrative grounded in more material history, weaving political and economic stories in with the intellectual history.

Rubenstein uses the last chapter -- in which Aristotle's logic is used to disprove his ideas about the geocentric universe -- to call readers to question traditional narratives written about science and religion that pit the two always against one another, as well as to recognize that modern science, despite its depth of knowledge, does not have what Aristotle had in a unified view in which science, ethics, and metaphysics were one. That's a discussion for another time, I think. As said, the book reads well and if you're interested in the influence of Aristotle or the growth of intellectual life in the Church during the time period of the opening centuries of the second millennium, this is for you and you'll find it a worthy read, I think.

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