Dag Nikolaus Hasse


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

Cover Interview of April 04, 2017

The wide angle

There are many forgotten heritages in Western history, but the issue of Arabic influence is particularly contested because the heritage has its roots in a culture that suffers from Western prejudices today. A sensitive topic such as this calls for a sober historical approach. Yet, in recent years, the Arabic influence in Europe has been the subject of a number of biased studies, which minimize or maximize the influence in a way that distorts history.

There is the temptation to cherish a narrow and comfortably simple ideal of European high culture as formed by Greek, Roman, and Christian traditions, and at the same time to marginalize the contributions of other traditions to that culture — for example, pagan, oriental, Jewish, or Islamic — which make the history of the West much more complicated. In the eyes of those who cultivate this narrow ideal, scholarship today exaggerates the intellectual achievements of medieval Islam and the Arabic influence in Europe for reasons of political correctness. On the other hand there is the more forgivable temptation to overemphasize the blending of cultures and to celebrate Arabic influences, which upon closer inspection, turn out to be very thin.

My work is sustained by the conviction that the reaction to ideological accounts of the past can come only from the careful historical and philological scrutiny of sources, and from scholarship that does not shy away from judgments based upon such scrutiny.

At the traditional German Gymnasium in Kiel, where I was educated, Anton Raphael Mengs’ eighteenth-century copy of Raphael’s School of Athens adorned a wall of the auditorium, reminding everybody of the true torchbearers of culture. Later, as a student of Arabic, I realized that my Renaissance heroes of Greek and Latin culture were, on many occasions, bitterly opposed to my new heroes, the great Arabic philosophers and scientists. Was it possible that humanism had deteriorated into ideology and blinded humanists to the intellectual quality of Arabic science? Or was it that, by 1500, the tradition of Arabic science had outlived its historical role and that its supporters were men of the past whose obsolete theories deserved to be set aside? Without a satisfying answer, with sympathies for both sides, and with increasing awareness of the political implications, I studied the phenomenon with the aim of arriving at impartial and historically grounded answers. Nevertheless, the issue never lost its provocative sting for me.

It is a consoling thought – and perhaps a historical lesson – that ideology, the enemy of true knowledge, grows out of a very humane and productive property: partiality, the incessant motor of cultural change. In this respect, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg is right: “All impartiality is artificial. Man is always partial and is quite right to be.” It seems to me that the Renaissance epoch offers a rich array of the various gradations of partiality, and of the many gains and losses that such partiality entails.