Success and Suppression: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy in the Renaissance by Dag Nikolaus Hasse (review)
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Success and Suppression: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy in the Renaissance. By Dag Nikolaus Hasse (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2016) 660pp. $59.95

In this admirable study, Hasse demonstrates the significant position of Arabic writings among Renaissance philosophers, physicians, astrologers, and scholars. He targets the belief that Renaissance humanism’s turn to antiquity entailed the wholesale rejection of Avicenna, Averroes, Mesue, Rhazes, and other luminaries of the Arabic medieval tradition, who were attacked for their supposedly barbarous prose and their deviations from classical authorities. Despite humanists’ anti-Arabic polemics and ecclesiastical attempts at suppression, Italians who were associated with universities readily printed and translated Arabic works, incorporating them into understandings of medicine and nature. Hasse, going beyond the rhetoric of Renaissance authors, is more concerned with what they did with their sources than what they said that they did with them. Accordingly, he finds that anti-Arabic purists’ calls for the Hellenization of knowledge were impractical and, despite their proliferation in the 1520s and 1530s, went largely unheeded.

The volume is valuable in numerous ways. The research is pro-found, based on extensive philological, philosophical, and historical analyses. The argumentation is sober yet revelatory. The appendix, which lists Renaissance Latin editions of Arabic natural philosophical, astrological, and medicinal works, is an indispensable research tool. The book proceeds through comparative diachronic analysis based on case studies of Renaissance discussions of biography, translation, botany, philosophy, and astrology.

The biographical tradition about Avicenna reveals that attempts to improve historical accuracy were impeded by a lack of reliable Arabic sources (Leo Africanus’ De viris illustribus [c. 1527] is not an entirely trustworthy source) and shifts to humanist histories more concerned with establishing chronology than recounting lives. Hasse’s examination of Renaissance translations shows that scholars applied humanistic philological techniques to the writings of Arabic authors with mixed results. [End Page 251] Andrea Alpago’s revised translation of 1527, based on Arabic manuscripts, made small improvements to Gerard of Cremona’s twelfth-century Latin translation of Avicenna’s Canon (c. 1025). Yet, the philological acumen of medieval translators, like Gerard, still compares favorably to many of the new attempts.

In the field of medical botany, Renaissance discussions of the plant senna, still used as a laxative, demonstrate the failings of those who desired to trace all knowledge back to the Greeks. Pietro Andrea Mattioli, in his 1565 commentary on Dioscorides’ De materia medica, rightly chastised Jean Ruel for misidentifying senna in his 1536 De natura stirpium in an attempt to make it correspond with a plant known by the Greeks. To the contrary, Mattioli highlighted the usefulness of the Opera of Ps.-Mesue (probably compiled in the thirteenth century), which provided better pharmacological information than did humanists, who were intent on dropping Arabic sources.

Averroes’ notorious position, in his Long Commentary on the De anima (second half of the twelfth century), regarding the unicity of the material intellect was widespread among Northern Italian philosophers. Despite ecclesiastical attempts at suppression beginning in the 1480s, it died a slow death; no one openly promoted the unicity thesis after the 1560s. Nevertheless, Averroes’ commentaries remained central to interpreting Aristotle for decades thereafter. Finally, Renaissance reformers of astrology, relying on Ptolemy and a skewed image of ancient practice, rejected some forms of prognostication associated with Arabic writings but had little effect on the doctrine of great conjunctions, which Giovanni Pico della Mirandola had attacked in his Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem (posthumously printed in 1504). In fact, the use of great conjunctions flourished in the seventeenth-century astrological histories of Johannes Kepler, contained in his De trigono igneo (1606) and Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae (1618), and of Giovanni Battista Riccioli, found in his Almagestum novum astronomiam veterm novamque complectens (1651), among other works.

Proceeding through these case studies has the merit of unfolding the fine details in the debates surrounding Arabic writings. The risk of case studies is in offering exceptional rather than typical examples. Hasse’s choice to analyze the influence of Averroes’ theory of the unicity of the material intellect may not be the best one to show his centrality to the Renaissance thought. This theory, along with the eternity of the universe, were the...