- Success and Suppression: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy in the Renaissance by Dag Nicolaus Hasse
Historiography of Renaissance philosophy and science has long been characterized by tendencies to minimize the influence of medieval Arabic philosophy and science. According to the standard narrative, the humanists successfully eliminated Arabic writers, along with their Latin scholastic interpreters. Against this background (and in the sensitive political context of present day polemics about the contribution of Islamic civilization to European culture), Dag Nikolaus Hasse calls for a "sober historical approach" (xii) in order to "assess the factual influence of Arabic sciences and philosophy in the Renaissance" (xiii). His narrative is summarized by the title of his impressively erudite and well-documented Success and Suppression; in the Renaissance, Arabic philosophical and scientific traditions reached the height of their influence while at the same time being actively suppressed.
Hasse's book follows a twofold approach. The first part ("The Presence of Arabic Traditions") focuses on the dissemination of Arabic philosophy and science by means of editions, bio-bibliographies, and translations. This part first gives a concise overview of the pre-1700 printing history of the writings by forty-four Arabic authors in Latin translation and of the place these works occupied in university curricula (chapter 1). It then documents the way in which Renaissance writers increasingly included Arabic authors in their bio-bibliographical accounts of learned men (chapter 2). Finally, it offers a reconstruction of the (Arabic-Latin and Hebrew-Latin) translation movement of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, focusing on five specific translation projects (chapter 3). In this first part of his book, Hasse provides strong evidence of the positive role played by the humanists in the process of distribution of Arabic works in Latin.
The second part of Hasse's book ("Greeks versus Arabs") consists of three case studies of philosophical and scientific debates in which Arabic authors played a key role. The first case study is taken from the domain of medicine, more specifically, pharmacology (chapter 4). It focuses on the debate concerning the laxative senna, known from Arabic sources but absent in Greek writings (especially in Dioscorides's De materia medica). This case study makes it clear that, in the field of medicine, radical humanist attempts to rely exclusively on ancient Greek sources failed, and that, for scientific reasons, the Arabic pharmacological tradition remained indispensable (172). The second case study covers the field of philosophy (chapter 5). It focuses on the most influential Arabic philosopher, Averroes (d. 1198), in particular, on his view of the "unicity of the human intellect" and its reception in the Averroist movement in Italy. Hasse demonstrates that Averroes's highly controversial theory was suppressed more actively by clerics and theologians (in particular by the Paduan bishop Pietro Barrozzi and the Paduan theologian Antonio Trombetta) than by humanist writers. But this religiously motivated attack against Averroes did not bring about the complete disappearance of Averroes (neither as a philosopher nor as a commentator on the works of Aristotle) from the philosophical stage. The third, and most technical, case study deals with astrology (chapter 6). Focusing on points of disagreement between ancient Greek (Ptolemaic) and Arabic astrology, Hasse shows, on the one hand, that the Renaissance revival of Greek astronomy led to the gradual disappearance of certain forms of prognostication present in the Arabic astrological tradition, but, on the other hand, that [End Page 557] the influence of Arabic astrology (in particular the Arabic theory of the great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter) reached its highpoint between 1550 and 1650. All three case studies offer an impressive degree of detail and precision.
In his massive appendix ("The Availability of Arabic Authors in Latin Editions of the Renaissance," 317–407), Hasse presents a comprehensive inventory of the pre-1700 Latin editions of the works of the forty-four Arabic authors (listing for each edition the date and place of publication and offering brief quotations from the title page). Thanks to this precious and accurate inventory...