Transcript: 360. Dag N. Hasse on Arabic Learning in the Renaissance

An interview with Dag Nikolaus Hasse on the Renaissance reception of Averroes, Avicenna, and other authors who wrote in Arabic.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: People with long memories who are listening to this may recall that you have in fact been on before. You were on with Charles Burnett to talk about the medieval translations of philosophical and scientific works from Arabic into Latin. And so I was thinking maybe we could start by having you just kind of bring us up to date now that we're in the Renaissance. What's been happening with translations from Arabic into Latin since we last met, so to speak? 

Dag Nikolaus Hasse: Yeah, there are translations from Arabic in the Renaissance too. When you think of translations from Arabic into Latin, you think of Toledo, obviously, and you think of the Middle Ages, but it's important to see also to understand what Renaissance philosophy is about and Renaissance thought is about, that there's a new wave of translations of Arabic philosophers and scientists from about 1480 to 1550. That is, we have a second translation movement. We have a medieval translation movement and we have a Renaissance translation movement. Perhaps it's good to compare the two. The first movement I mentioned Toledo is located mainly in Spain and southern Italy. Now we have translations in Italy but also in Damascus. We have Western scholars in Damascus that translate from Arabic into Latin and scholars in Italy in the Renaissance, Jewish scholars that translate from Hebrew into Latin, Arabic authors such as Averroes or Ibn al-Haytham. 

PA: And so they're not just translating philosophical works, they're also translating scientific works of Ibn al-Haytham, for example, as famous for his work in optics. 

DNH: Yes, some scientific works too, but I think there's a difference. In the Middle Ages you have the entire range of sciences. Here we have two major projects, Averroes and Avicenna's Canon of Medicine. These are the two areas where they focus on less mathematics, less astronomy. That's the difference. It's mainly philosophy of Averroes and Avicenna, and it's in fact very impressive and very successful because at the end of these 70 years we have 19 commentaries by Averroes translated newly and six new versions of Avicenna's Canon of Medicine, which was such an important piece of medical learning in the West and the East. 

PA: So those are six complete translations of the Canon

DNH: No, it's not complete. It's new versions, six versions. Not all of them complete. Some are very important chapters that were read regularly in the universities. One is very important because it was done by Andrea Alpago and it's corrections for most of the text, and it's very clever corrections. It's done in Damascus from the Arabic, and the text is really better now, the Latin text. In 1521, Alpago returns to Padua from Damascus and his colleagues in Padua University are enthusiastic about it, and they convene and they recommend you should read this Canon version, these corrections, and there are many corrections. 

PA: So they appreciated his work? 

DNH: Yes. It gets printed and you have major printing enterprises with these new versions of the Canon.

PA: That actually is another difference between the medieval period and the Renaissance, obviously, which is now that we have printed books. And in a big book that you yourself published about this whole process of transmission of Arabic learning into Latin, at one point you give some statistics for printed additions of work from basically scientists and philosophers in the Islamic world, and I was wondering if you could kind of tell the audience what we can learn from these statistics about how many printings there were of various authors, like who was most influential and so on. 

DNH: Yeah. It's only one page in this book.

PA: But it's a really interesting page. 

DNH: Yeah, and I love this table. It's about the, it's a list of the printed editions in Latin of Arabic authors after the invention of printing until 1700. What we get is 44 Arabic authors and a list of Arabic names such as Averroes or Avicenna, and then the number of these editions. And for Averroes, you don't get 10 or 20 or 30. You get 114 editions. 114 editions, and some of you may know there was, these editions can be really long. These editions can be really big, multi-volume editions. For instance, Averroes, the Long Commentaries, every line in a long commentaries on Aristotle, every line in Aristotle is commented upon. And you get 13 volumes of, it's only one edition. Or Avicenna's Canon is five, a five-volume book. These are Avicenna's 78 editions, all in all in the Renaissance. Ibn Masawaih, Mesue, 72, and Razi, Ibn Zakariyya al-Razi, Rhazes, 68. These names were known to basically everybody in the Renaissance because you would find these books on bookshelves. At that point as today, it was a commercial enterprise. If you print something, it doesn't sell, you don't print it again. You can see that this is part of the general learning of the time. And if you compare it, for instance, to other famous figures of the history of philosophy, take Peter Abelard or Roger Bacon. They are printed once or twice. But 114 is a difference. 

PA: When you say 114 editions, maybe one thing we need to emphasize here is that a single edition produces many copies, right? 

DNH: Yes. 

PA: I don't know what the average print run would be. 

DNH: I can't tell. 

PA: But we're talking about, you know, not, we're not talking about 114 individual copies of books. We're talking about thousands of copies of books. 

DNH: Yes. 

PA: So that means that Averroes would presumably have been available in any decent library that had a philosophical collection anywhere in Europe. Is that right? 

DNH: Absolutely, yes. The major printing places for these authors were Venice, Lyon, and Basel. And they were in three different countries. And you can see the effects. You can see that it's easy to quote, that you have libraries all over Europe where these exemplars are to be found. And if you ask humanists, for example, take Erasmus, you ask Erasmus, do you know these names, Averroes, Avicenna, Mesue, al-Razi? He would probably say, oh, yes, yes, of course I know them, but I don't like them. It's bad Latin, and it's not very educative to read them. But my colleagues in medicine and philosophy, of course they read this. In his education, in his university education, come across it. But he would not necessarily like it. 

PA: Right. Let me ask you about that and the use of these texts by scholastics in the universities as opposed to the humanists. I guess that when we think about these universities that are carrying on the traditions of scholasticism and also medicine and other sciences from the Middle Ages, we probably imagine the philosophers reading Aristotle and we imagine the doctors reading Galen. But from what you just said, I guess we can infer that the philosophers are reading a lot of Averroes and the doctors are reading a lot of Avicenna as well. 

DNH: Absolutely, yes. You can see this in the university curricula, institutes. Not so much in philosophy because in philosophy the curricula contain Aristotle. But in medicine you can see in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, you get Greeks and Arabs, Galen, Hippocrates, Avicenna and some other Arabs like Razi. In philosophy, Averroes is read as the companion literature basically. He doesn't appear on curricula only if there's a problem. If, for instance, in Louvain in the 1440s they wanted to ban Ockham and they said, please read Aristotle with Averroes. I think there's a development here. Averroes was always quoted, but in the Renaissance around 1500, the 16th century, Averroes becomes the focal interest of large group of philosophers. You can see this because they put a lot of effort in these new editions. These editions need to be made by scholars. It's not as if a printer could do this by himself. They also concentrate in a different way on Averroes. Averroes was always there, but it takes a new format. Some of them write super commentaries. That is, they write commentaries on the commentaries of Averroes. Agostino Nifodastis or later Marcantonio Genua in the 16th century. And that takes a lot. See, if you comment on the comment, we have that in Hebrew, but we didn't have that before in Latin. And they quarrel about how to understand Averroes. What is the proper meaning of a certain doctrine or line? 

PA: So that means they're not just using Averroes as a kind of instrument to understand Aristotle, who is really the object of focus. You're saying that they start to be interested in the interpretation of Averroes even for its own sake? 

DNH: Yes. That was a development that started certainly with the John of Jandun in the early 14th century, but in tiny bits. And now it's like a time-delayed rock. You have that kind of thing. Like a bomb with a time delay. It's getting explosive around 1500. It resonates differently with people. Obviously that has many reasons, but I think one is that there was a cult of expertism surrounding it. It's not easy to understand Averroes. It's not easy to understand Aristotle. It's not easy to understand Averroes. And it takes a lot. And some of these doctrines, as you mentioned before when you were in the podcast talking about Averroes, one of the doctrines is the theory that there's only one intellect for all human beings. This is a very simple doctrine in a sense. One intellect for all human beings is very easily explained. But in Averroes, it's supported by a very technical argumentation. You need to be a thoroughgoing expert to do this. I think that was one of the attractions of it. You really need to be a hard-nose philosopher. 

PA: Yeah, there were probably more people in 15th and 16th century Europe who understood Averroes' theory of the intellect than there are now. 

DNH: Definitely. Many more. And you have Marcantonio Genua, for example, in the 1540s, writes 45 columns, you would say 45 pages only on comment 3.5 in Averroes' Long Commentary on the Anima

PA: So that's a commentary on about half a page of Aristotle. 

DNH: Yeah, exactly. And Pietro Pomponazzi, who is himself a famous Aristotelian philosopher of the Renaissance, he says once, and he likes Averroes, but it's a love-hate relationship, in fact, to Averroes. He once says, if I don't defend Averroes, I won't have any friend in Padua and Ferrara. 

PA: Wow. 

DNH: Yeah. And then he says, well, I take the liberty to criticize Averroes because it's important to be a heretic in philosophy if you want to find the truth. A portuid, ereticum. And that's very interesting because it doesn't fit with our concept of Renaissance philosophy. The mainstream philosopher was Averroes. And if you want to do something new, you would have somehow move against this current. If you ask Pomponazzi who is the mainstream philosopher of his day, he wouldn't say Ficino or Plato or a commentator would say Averroes. In a sense, Averroes is very much at the centre of Renaissance philosophy. 

PA: I guess it follows from that that the debate that we have about Latin medieval tradition, whether there's this phenomenon called Latin Averroism in the late 13th century with the arts masters in Paris, it's a debate we don't really have to have about Italy and the Renaissance because in that context there just clearly is Averroism. Is that right? 

DNH: Yes. Yes, absolutely. And they use terms for this. They use the term Averroes term or scholar, Averroica, movement of Averroism. And here they usually use the term Averroista to say this about someone else. It's usually a derogatory term. 

PA: The term of abuse. 

DNH: Yes, the term of abuse. It's easy to identify these people. We know the names of these people. There's a long line of teacher student relationships in Padua University and other Italian universities. And there's some kind of group coherence. They know of each other. They criticize each other. And this is a new phenomenon. And they quarrel about the proper direction of the movement. 

PA: Okay. I guess then that one thing that's different about the Renaissance approach to philosophy in Arabic and the approach that we have now is that I would say there's general agreement among specialists that by far the most interesting philosopher from the Islamic world, at least in the sort of medieval period, is Avicenna, not Averroes. Averroes is kind of difficult to love. We have long commentaries on Aristotle. Okay. And you've already said that Avicenna in this context was very influential because of his medicine. So he wrote this work, The Canon, the Qanun in Arabic, which is long kind of systematic presentation of medicine. To what extent does Avicenna also have a lot of influence on philosophical debates in this period? 

DNH: Avicenna's influence is not as penetrating as Averroes’ influence in the Renaissance, but there's still some influence in important areas. For instance, in natural philosophy, theories of spontaneous generation of life, or in logic, the idea that second intentions are the proper object of logic. But it's not on the same scale anymore as it was in the 13th century. But some of these doctrines that were there for several centuries now resonate with people. And one of these doctrines, to take an example, is Avicenna's explanation of miracles and of prophecy. It's a naturalistic explanation. The number of philosophers such as Ficino, but also Pomponazzi and others pick this up. Avicenna speaks about three different kinds of prophecy by imagination, by willpower, by intellect. Avicenna gives us a naturalistic interpretation of prophecy by focusing on the capacities of the human soul. The prophet with visions has a very strong imagination. The prophet who is able to change the exterior world, such as by producing rain, has a very strong willpower. The greatest prophet is basically a philosopher who understands everything. 

PA: Now, I'm imagining listeners in England thinking, why would you want to produce rain? I want to remind them that this was originally written for people who live in deserts and in Tuscany.

DNH: Yes. Yes.

PA: It would be very useful to produce rain. 

DNH: You should send some prophets producing dryness. And these theories get picked up by Renaissance authors. It's a new wave of reception. For instance, Pietro Pomponazzi writes a very interesting treatise on the causes of natural effects, also called On Incantations. And in this treatise, he discusses a lot of miracles, and one miracle is in the town of Aquila of his time in 1520. There was a lot of rain, almost like in Britain, and they didn't know what to do. And then the population of this village came together. They prayed fervently. Then the rain disappeared and the saint of the village, Saint Celestine, appeared in the sky. Okay. Now Pomponazzi comes and says, okay, I have six explanations for this phenomenon. One is the stars somehow influenced the sky. The prayers didn't do any good. The second and third is by basically Arabs. It's because the prayers influenced over long distance the sky by emitting vapors or directly by immaterial causation of material effects. And this later theory would be by Avicenna. Kindi would have a theory where you emit rays, and then he used other explanations such as that it was a psychological kind of problem with the population that just thought that there was something in the sky. So why does this resonate with Pomponazzi and other scholars in this time and not before? Perhaps because religion was a topic of philosophical thinking, very much so, and reform of religion too. Another factor is there was a drive towards more natural scientific explanation of phenomena. Some people have thought, well, this is Renaissance. They are interested in occult things, in alchemy, in general, in the occult sciences and so on. 

PA: Magic. 

DNH: Magic, yeah. But with this, you can see it's that would be too superficial to say. It's really to try to explain difficult effects where you today have electricity or magnetism, or we have different theories of gravitation for long distance effects. Pomponazzi wanted to explain the torpedo fish, the magnet, miracles of prophets, and that's why he was drawing on Avicenna. And in fact, that's quite typical, I think, also of Arabic philosophy. They were very strong in natural explanation of phenomena. 

PA: And they would actually prefer these naturalistic explanations that you get from a figure like Avicenna to be in a way more obvious and easy answer, which is that God just does it? 

DNH: Yeah. One of the six explanations is that God just does it. But there are other possibilities. 

PA: Right. So he's just giving you the option of thinking about it rationalistically rather than appealing directly to divine power. 

DNH: Yes. Okay. Interesting. Before we stop, actually let me just come on to something that you kind of hinted at just now, which is the interest in all these occult sciences, one of which is astrology. At least we would nowadays think about that as an occult science. I guess over the whole podcasts we've seen that astrology often is connected to philosophy and also that astronomers have often been astrologers. One could think here of Ptolemy in late antiquity, for example. I was struck reading your book about the transmission of Arabic sciences into the Renaissance Latin tradition that there was a lot of debate over the status of Arabic astrology and in particular a kind of competition between the merits of Arabic astrology and the merits of Greek astrology. So could you say something about that? 

DNH: Yes. We have such a discussion. The antagonism between Greek and Arabic traditions in many corners of Renaissance thought, in medicine, in philosophy, and in astrology. Humanists would say don't read Averroes, read the Greek commentators. Or they would say don't read Avicenna, in medicine read Galen and Hippocrates, and in astrology they would say don't read Abu Ma'shar and al-Qabisi but Ptolemy. In astrology that's very interesting, of course. It's a pseudo-science from my point of view today, but it's intellectually very interesting to study it in the past. And if you look at a chart, a map of the sky of the Renaissance, it's like a chess field. It has certain rules and various strategies, what you can do with it and how you can read it. Now the problem with, for instance, with Pico della Mirandola, he wrote a book against astrology. And in this book he also tries to reform astrology and make it more Ptolemaic. But Ptolemy in the second century after Christ wrote a big book on astrology, the Tetrabiblos, the four-book book. This book is more or less the black sheep of Greek astrology. It is very unlike the other astrology we have. It's very theoretical. You can't do really astrology with it. Many things that later appear in Arabic astrologers are in other Greek astrologers as we know today. But the humanists couldn't see that really. They were attacking Arabic astrologers for what was basically to a large extent also Greek. It was a label, the Greek, which was somehow an ideological label. 

PA: So an author like Pico was basically attacking Arabic astrologers like Abu Ma’shar for diverging from the Greek tradition, even though what was actually happening was that the Arab astronomers and astrologers were using Ptolemy in a more thorough way. Is that right? 

DNH: They were also using other Greek scholars like Dorotheus of Sidon, which the humanists didn't yet know which we know only today. And Dorotheus had been transmitted via Persia and Arabic into the West. But perhaps it's important still to add something about humanists because I've been talking today and we both about these traditions that are very academic and happen in the universities. And I don't want to give the impression that humanists were not interested in Arabic sciences. In fact, the radical humanists didn't like it. But humanism is not a uniform movement. You have many different shades. A good number of humanists actively engaged and promoted Arabic sciences. They were very interested in the lives and works of Arabic scholars and wrote biographies. They were involved in the translation movement. And a good number of them tried to produce new Latin versions in the Latin of the day, the humanist Latin of the day, Canon and humanist Latin we have from Ledesma in Spain. Also, some humanists contributed to philosophy and medicine by comparing with the Greek. It was very fruitful, in fact. And some, like Domenico Grimani, financed translations from Hebrew into Latin. That is, we don't have two clear-cut camps here. That would be a cliché view of the Renaissance. It's really intertwined. And you get Domenico Grimani, for example, is admired for his collection of Greek manuscripts. And he's visited by Erasmus. But he's also the patron of Averroes’ translations. And that's the Renaissance. 


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