Dag Nikolaus Hasse


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

Cover Interview of April 05, 2017

A close-up

One chapter of the book, for which I have a particular liking, bears the title “Humanists on Laxatives.” It tells the story of the reception of Arabic pharmacology in the Renaissance by focusing on a specific drug: the laxative senna. It leads the reader from the Arabic sources to the famous Renaissance botanists and from there to the eighteenth century. For some humanists, pharmacology was a textual science that needed to be purged of all Arabic accretions – which these authors achieved by way of deceptive textual manipulations. Other humanists were more empirical: they planted and tested senna themselves, comparing it with other laxatives. In the course of the sixteenth century, most pharmacologists realized that their Arabic predecessors in fact wrote very useful things.

However, I know from personal experience that not everybody is as enthusiastic about the history of laxatives as I am. Other parts of the book may have more appeal to those readers. Those with a taste for exquisite polemics might like the chapter on how the humanist Juan Luis Vives demonstrated what he believed to be Averroes’s ignorance. Vives analyzes a passage from Averroes’s Aristotle commentaries, debunking the Arabic commentator in grand fashion. In spite of all the rhetoric, Vives was right on much of the philological detail: The quality of Averroes’ exposition indeed suffered severely from the accumulated errors of transmission and translation. But Averroes was able to balance some of these defects with his enormous knowledge of the Aristotelian corpus. This is the secret behind his continuing success as a commentator on Aristotle in the Renaissance.

Some readers may feel deterred from reading a whole chapter about astrology, a discipline that most of us today, including myself, do not believe to be a serious science. But many Renaissance intellectuals did, and immersing oneself into the technical structure of famous astrological doctrines can be a real intellectual pleasure. For example, when important thinkers of the time, such as Girolamo Cardano and Johannes Schöner, compare competing Greek and Arabic astrological doctrines, with great acumen.

Personally, my favorite protagonists are those Renaissance scholars who take impressive intellectual turns in the midst of the heated controversies about Arabic sciences – such as Jacob Mantino, whose elegant and precise Hebrew-Latin translations successfully adopt Arabic scientific traditions to the expectations of humanist readers; or Giovanni Manardo, a hard-nosed humanist physician, who does not find fault with commenting on Arabic pharmacological sources; or Agostino Nifo, the Averroist philosopher who suffers from the pressure of orthodoxy, but finds a way out by molding himself into a champion of Averroes’s interpretation, without adopting any contentious doctrine himself.