Averroes: The Decisive Treatise (II) – Faith, Reason, and Rhetoric

Averroes devotes his Decisive Treatise to a single theme: a defense of synthesizing the dictates of revealed religion with external philosophical concerns. Inasmuch as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all been forced to deal with this question, it seems that believers in a transcendent God who communicates rationally to His creatures must explain the relationship between God’s Word and God’s world. In this light four characteristics of the relationship of faith and reason stand out in Averroes.

First, human reason is not to be downplayed in the name of fidelity to revelation (“the Law”). Averroes says that “the Law makes it obligatory to reflect upon existing things by means of the intellect, and to consider them.”:”(Averroes, The Book of the Decisive Treatise Determining the Connection Between Law and Wisdom & Epistle Dedicatory, trans. with introduction and notes by Charles E. Butterworth [Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2001], pg. 2.)”: Reason and philosophy are religiously neutral. God’s Word and God’s world are a rationally comprehensible unity.

Second, the ideas of unbelievers are not worthless to faith: “it is not obligatory to renounce something useful in its nature and essence because of something harmful in it by accident.” He who forbids reflection on the books of the Ancients “bars people from the door through which the Law calls them to cognizance of God.”:”(Ibid., pp. 6-7.)”:

Third, Averroes exhibits concern to secure human knowledge from skepticism. Averroes argues that “true knowledge is the knowledge of a thing as it is in reality,” but by destroying causal connections Al-Ghazali makes God like a tyrant “of whom no standard or custom is known to which reference might be made.” Without “a fixed standard for His will either constantly or for most cases, according to which things must happen,”:”(Cited from The Incoherence of the Incoherence, in Basic Issues in Medieval Philosophy, second edition, eds. Richard N. Bosley and Martin M. Tweedale [Broadview Press, 2006], pg. 31.)”: reason is helpless. Averroes wants no part of such skepticism and irrationality.

Fourth, owing to the wide differences in what is required to obtain people’s assent, Averroes sees three modes of cognizing God: the dialectical, the rhetorical, and the demonstrative.:”(The Decisive Treatise, pg. 8.)”: Averroes favors the third, but he thinks that most people cannot follow this track and so remain on the level of dialectic and rhetoric. By way of oblique approach, I will offer some thoughts on rhetoric and philosophy which will hopefully shed light on Averroes’ predilection for demonstration.

Rhetoric and the Theological-Philosophical Task

Since the Arab philosophers had access to Aristotle’s Rhetoric as part of the logical curriculum,:”(John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction [London and New York: Routledge, 2007], pg. 9, 98.)”: it is reasonable to assume that Averroes knew the work.:”(I will be citing from the edition of the Rhetoric translated by W. Rhys Roberts, and found in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon [New York: The Modern Library, 2001], pp. 1317-1451.)”: There the scope of “rhetoric” is defined as “such things as come, more or less, within the general ken of all men and belong to no definite science” (1354a2), and the thing itself as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (1355b26). Rhetoric is how truth is argued before “persons who cannot take in at a glance a complicated argument, or follow a long train of reasoning” (1357a1-4). Rhetoric is inductive rather than, like demonstration, deductive (1357a8-1358a2). Rhetoric is not a science simpliciter, but a practical faculty which deals “with words and forms of reasoning” (1359b10-15). This is why it is suited to a broader audience than demonstration, a true science yielding true knowledge.

For Averroes, applying syllogistic reasoning to the contents of the Law causes problems. Not everyone is by nature or temperament suited for rational demonstration, so variances arise between the Law and the demonstration. Although Averroes affirms that Muslims “know firmly that demonstrative reflection does not lead to differing with what is set down in the Law,” all variations must be interpreted. This is done by means of making a distinction between the “apparent” and the “inner” senses of the Law.:”(The Decisive Treatise, pp. 8-9.)”:

These categories correspond with Aristotle’s distinction between practice and theory.:”(Nicomachean Ethics 1139a25-30, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, cited above. Hereafter “NE.”)”: When Averroes writes, “True practice is to follow the actions that promote happiness | and to avoid the actions that promote misery,”:”(The Decisive Treatise, pg. 23.)”: he echoes Aristotle’s words that in practical wisdom “the good state is truth in agreement with right desire” (Nicomachean Ethics 1139a30). It is this sort of wisdom which the “apparent” sense of the Law conveys to “the overwhelming multitude” of men.:”(Ibid., pg. 26.)”: When Averroes says that “it is not obligatory for someone to know about the inner sense if he is not an adept in knowledge of it nor capable of understanding it,”:”(Ibid., pg. 11.)”: he echoes Aristotle saying “Scientific knowledge is, then, a state of capacity to demonstrate…” (Nicomachean Ethics 1139b30) – a state of capacity not all possess.

For Averroes, most people do not need to know the theoretical matters, but only the practical. For Aristotle, practical matters are governed by “practical wisdom,” which is “a true and reasoned state of capacity to act with regard to the things that are good or bad for man” (Nicomachean Ethics 1140b5). Since, then, the Koran reveals to men the Law of God, Averroes’ rhetorical mode of cognizing God is “deliberative” rhetoric (Rhetoric 1358a36) – specifically in the sub-classification concerned with “legislation” (Rhetoric 1360a18).

The point of this seemingly extra-philosophical digression is that Averroes is that athough he relegates most people to the “lower level” of rhetoric, Averroes himself writes a work of rhetoric to defend demonstration. Interestingly, the translator observes that Averroes calls the Decisive Treatise a “speech” in which he“seeks to present this argument as something like a plea before a tribunal in which the Divine Law of Islam is the sole authority.”:”(Ibid., pg. xix.)”: Weaving together rhetoric and demonstration, Averroes argues that the Koran itself makes demonstration obligatory for those Muslims who can follow it.

A “Mottled Islam” (?)

In his work The Prescription of the Heretics, the Christian Tertullian, famously mocked philosophical work: “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?…Away with a mottled Christianity.” Superficially, Averroes seems like St. Anselm (“Faith seeking understanding”) in his approach. Nevertheless, there is an important contrast I would like to explore. I do not find Averroes willing to critically modify ancient philosophy in the name of fidelity to the Law. Rather, he is interested in critically explaining the Law so that it does not appear to contradict ancient philosophy. This is especially the case in his defense of the doctrine of the eternity of the world, wherein he critically explains the “apparent sense” of the Law so as to show that theologians who contradict ancient philosophy are “interpreting” the Law in an erroneous manner.:”(Ibid., pp. 14-17.)”: Another example is Averroes’ belief that God necessarily created the world. Aristotle had made it plain that the “object of scientific knowledge is of necessity” and is therefore eternal (NE 1139b18-24). For Averroes, following the track laid down by his master, God’s knowledge is eternal, and since “eternal knowledge is the cause and reason of existence,” if God knows something it seems to follow that it must exist (or be brought into existence).:”(Epistle Dedicatory, in Butterworth, ibid., pp. 40-41.)”:

Although rhetorically Averroes consistently speaks of “the Precious Book” and uses all the usual honorifics for God and His Prophet, he readily declares that the person skilled in demonstration is to reject the “apparent” sense of the Law and work with “interpretations.”:”(Decisive Treatise, pg. 26.)”: Averroes is claiming that the demonstrative sense of the Law is the most illuminating way to understand the Law, and that it agrees with ancient philosophy. There is no need to harmonize them, for they are congruent. Averroes does not critically engage the philosophers, but assumes a naïve complementarity between them.

In part this “rationalism” may result from the fact that Islam’s encounter with philosophy occurred differently than Christianity’s. Christianity came into a world already suffused with philosophy, but philosophy came into a world already suffused with Islam.:”(I owe this intriguing point to Thérèse-Anne Druart’s “Philosophy in Islam,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy [Cambridge University Press, 2003], pp. 100-101.)”: Falsafa (philosophy) had to fight for its right to be heard, especially given the extremely high view of the Koran’s divine qualities – perfect and uncreated right down to its very linguistic structure. Many felt that the Koran was a work of poetry and rhetoric, but this left the falasifa (philosophers) on the outside looking in. Averroes, however, sees multiple types of argument in the Koran. Nevertheless, his treatment of faith and reason is heavily weighted toward the superiority of demonstrative reasoning.

Christians such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas would agree with Averroes on the compatibility of philosophy and faith. However, in their works, one finds more care to give priority to revelation, even if that means modifying the assertions of philosophy. St. Augustine famously stated that he would only take from the Platonists what did not explicitly contradict the Scriptures (On Christian Doctrine II.40), while St. Thomas critically engages Aristotle’s understanding of the necessary existence of the world.:”(See selections from the Summa Contra Gentiles in Bosley and Tweedale, ibid., pp. 37-42.)”: Averroes’ tendency to give priority to ancient philosophy and to critically interpret the Law so that not even its “apparent” sense contradicts Aristotle seems to indicate what Tertullian might have called a “mottled Islam.” Whether this was (or is) a good thing for Islam is perhaps a matter for a proper historical investigation to decide.


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