- Success and Suppression: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy in the Renaissance by Dag Nikolaus Hasse
The Medieval use of Arabic sources is well known. The twelfth-century recovery of Greek science from Arabic libraries helped spur a renewal of classical learning and scientific study using Arabic translations and commentaries. The Renaissance use of Arabic sources is less well understood. The humanist movement during the Renaissance cast its ire at such Arabic learning along with scholasticism. These arguments against Arabic texts and ideas have been taken at face value to argue they successfully turned Europe’s back on the likes of Avicenna, Averroes, and their linguistic compatriots. In Success and Suppression, Dag Nikolaus Hass provides an erudite and persuasive corrective to this characterization. Rather than a simplistic narrative of humanist redaction of Arabic thought, Hass shows that Arabic science and philosophy experienced significant success as well as concerted suppression during the Renaissance.
Hass tells his story thematically. He separates the book into two parts: the first establishes the existence of a significant and conscious presence of Arabic thought in Renaissance learning; the second focuses on the place of Arabic medicine, philosophy, and astrology in the Renaissance in three respective chapters. After an introduction that shows the pervasive nature of Arabic texts in Renaissance printing—which only ended in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries depending on the discipline—Hass demonstrates how Renaissance bio-bibliographers included Arabic authors in their texts of famous scholars. He argues that their inclusion was a product of their appreciation for the “three-step development and transmission of medicine from antiquity to the Arabs and from the Arabs to Italy” (68). The next chapter shows that humanists played an important part in the renewed translation movement of Arabic books and were supported by important groups. The first chapter of the second part discusses the debate on the Arabic medicinal laxative senna. He shows that Arabic materia medica reached its high point in the sixteenth century, and even “anti-Arabist humanist scholars openly adopted Arabic theories on senna” (177). Hass then focuses on the controversy surrounding the Averroist unicity thesis. He shows the study of Averroes and his thesis survived religious and humanist attacks only to decline later in the face of Second Scholasticism, changes in “classroom usage of commentaries,” and, to a lesser extent, the rise of Greek commentaries (225). In addition, Hass shows the existence of a veritable Averroist movement that [End Page 180] perpetuated even his more controversial theories and debated the proper direction of the movement. The final body chapter discusses the debate surrounding the great conjunction theory in astrology that survived the humanist onslaught and gained its greatest resonance in Latin Europe in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
One of the great strengths of Success and Suppression is its ability to place the various authors within their appropriate intellectual milieus. In doing so, Hass makes clear that the debates were not the product of a new school of humanism attacking en bloc an old school that refused to give up their praised Averroes and Mesue. The supporters and detractors fomented debate from within and without humanist circles. He studiously identifies authors’ connection to these various milieus through their patronage connections, interactions with colleagues, stated goals, and application of humanist ideals and techniques. Humanists actively participated in the translation of Arabic scholars like Avicenna and Averroes, the debates surrounding Arabic medicines, the perpetuation of Averroist philosophy, and the flourishing Arabic astrology. This humanist participation was not merely some “side-episode of history,” but as Hass shows, it was “a dramatic intervention” (313).
Success and Suppression is not, however, some romanticization of Arabic science in Europe. Hass makes clear that there was a significant suppression effort. The radical humanists sought to eliminate all barbarity, including Arabic thought, from the purity of Greek sciences and even “the destruction of the Arabic inheritance in Europe” (177). As one might expect, non-philosophical issues drove much, but not all, of the suppression. There were times that purely intellectual...