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  • The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
  • Mehmet Karabela
The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. By Rémi Brague. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Pp. 287. Hardcover $35.00.

The majority of The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam has been published previously in different forms, but this edition has been completely revised by the author, the well-known French [End Page 605] medievalist and intellectual historian Rémi Brague. It was first published in French under the title Au moyen du Moyen Âge in 2006. The book consists of sixteen essays ranging from Brague's early years at the Université Panthéon-Sorbonne (Paris I) in the 1990s up until 2005. As a collection of articles, therefore, The Legend of the Middle Ages is not designed to be a monograph; one should not expect a single argument from the book, although it does explore key intersections of medieval religion and philosophy that I will touch upon later.

The Legend of the Middle Ages opens with an interview that clearly establishes the character of the author. In this section, Brague makes a distinction between institutionalized philosofia and private falsafa in Islamic countries, where philosophy remains a matter for small numbers of individuals. According to Brague, the tensions between philosophy and religion were not negotiated in the same way in the Muslim world as they were within Christianity: even though Jewish and Muslim philosophers achieved something like the Christian Scholastics, they were often isolated, and their influence was largely concentrated on the margins of society rather than in the center. On the other hand, philosophy became a university course of studies in medieval Europe, and more importantly, in practical terms, it became a breadwinning career (pp. 1-2).

Within this context, the reader encounters a type of Christian exceptionalism while enjoying Brague's style of witticism and seriousness (not only in the interview section but across the whole book). For example, one of his arguments is that "philosophic activity, in the Middle Ages, was institutionalized only within Christianity [whereas] in Islamic lands and in the Jewish communities, it remained a hobby, a passion indulged in apart from one's true occupation" (p. 228). Averroes is cited as a core example; it is pointed out that his true occupation was "religious law," not philosophy, a fact that Brague establishes quoting Warren Z. Harvey: "Socrates was judged; Averroes and Maimonides were judges" (p. 49).

These differences in the Christian and Islamic philosophical worlds, Brague explains, were due to different models of revelation that produced dissimilar interpretations of ancient Greek sources. Previously, Leo Strauss had spent a great deal of effort demonstrating the antagonistic relationship between Greek philosophy (reason) and the Biblical understanding of the world (revelation) in order to understand the transformation of Western civilization. For Strauss, this tension between reason (represented by Athens) and revelation (represented by Jerusalem) was a rich source for the vitality of the West. Within this broader context, Brague, in his Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (St. Augustine's Press, 2002), has expanded the Straussian dialectic of revelation and reason by emphasizing that Greek wisdom was always in the service of Qur'anic revelation and never accommodated the autonomy of the philosophical enterprise. Instead it was "a kind of Greek wisdom in an Islamic mantle," or a sort of theologically approved philosophy.

However, in the first part of The Legend of the Middle Ages, Brague concludes (as opposed to his method in earlier works) by submitting an antithesis to the use of the term "Islamic philosophy." For him, this term can only be used with the condition that "we understand 'Islamic' to denote a civilization, rather than a religion" (p. 70). This brings two elements to mind: (1) religious-flavored Islamic philosophy, and (2) [End Page 606] philosophy in Islamic civilization (referring to any philosopher, both Muslim and non-Muslim, under Islamic rule). In the second part of the book, Brague narrows his focus to common themes and considers three topics in medieval philosophical...


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