Dag Nikolaus Hasse


On his book Success and Suppression: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy in the Renaissance

Cover Interview of April 05, 2017

In a nutshell

If you were asked to name some famous figures of Renaissance culture, you would probably name Leonardo, Michelangelo or Erasmus. But you could have mentioned some Arabic names too. There was an Arabic side to the European Renaissance, which is hardly known today. Arabic scientists and philosophers were mandatory reading at many Renaissance universities, especially in medicine, philosophy and astrology. On the book market of the time, Latin translations of Arabic scientific works were very successful. New, often multi-volume editions of these works steadily poured forth from presses in Venice, in Lyon, in Basle. The great names of Arabic science – Avicenna, Averroes, Mesue, Rhazes – were to be found everywhere on the academic bookshelves of Renaissance Europe. Every educated person knew these names.

This is the success side of the story. But there is also a suppression side to it. There was open opposition to Arabic traditions in Western culture, especially from humanists and church officials. Radical humanist scholars, in their enthusiasm for a return to the Greek and Latin sources, polemicized against Arabic science and demanded that university curricula be purged of Arabic authorities. As a result, these authors disappeared from many university curricula of medicine in the early sixteenth century – only to return, at least partially, at the end of the century.

In philosophy, the Arabic writer Averroes gave rise to a deep division among Renaissance intellectuals. He had dedicated partisans and bitter enemies. Many university professors believed Averroes to be the new Aristotle, but humanists protested against his lack of Greek; church officials against his alleged denial of personal immortality. In 1489 and 1513, the Bishop of Padua and the Lateran Council issued condemnations of select theses by Averroes. The effect can be traced in the intellectual biographies of some of Averroes’ partisans. But Averroes continued to be read and admired until the end of the sixteenth century.

The attempts to suppress Arabic traditions left clear traces in Renaissance scientific culture. Medicine, philosophy and astrology, the three areas of Renaissance learning most clearly influenced by Arabic sources, were greatly transformed by the polemical impact, with considerable gains and losses. The Arabic traditions lost their dominating position in many areas and subareas, in spite of the great success of some Arabic theories that we can still observe in the Renaissance. In this sense, the Renaissance is the period in which the West began to forget its debt to Arabic culture.

My book is about this double story of success and suppression.