The Not-So-Dark Ages

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Some very good things from the French mind are appearing among us. Daniel Mahoney brought Pierre Manent to our attention. He re-presents Raymond Aron, Charles de Gaulle, and the pertinent French background to Solzhenitsyn’s work. Jean-Luc Marion, Alain Besançon, and Rémi Brague have become “must-reads” if we want to escape modern ideology – unfortunately, not everyone does.

Last semester a French exchange student attended one of my classes. Her father, a medical doctor from Nice, visited one day. I mentioned a review of Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne (“Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: The Greek Roots of Christian Europe”). Weeks later, his daughter presented me with a copy from Nice. I have now read this remarkable, enormously learned book.

It examines the now often heard and widely popular assumption that civilization was stimulated to become “modern” because of “enlightened” Islamic philosophy that arrived in the stagnant West through Toledo and Sicily. The Christian Dark and Middle Ages are pictured as be-knighted, populated mostly by primitive folks just vegetating till the Enlightenment came from Islam to early modern Europe.

Gouguenheim’s method often is to take a learned citation advocating this thesis, and then to demolish it. For example, he cites the following passage from a study of Islam in Europe: “Europe would not be that which it is if it did not know Islam. It belongs to its patrimony.” We should greet this thesis, he says, with a “profound reserve.” The reason is that the impetus in question came ultimately from the Greeks and the Christians, not Islam. And even when a Greek text appeared in the Arabic language, it was usually translated by Christians or those conquered by Islam.

Gouguenheim attacks the notion that the so-called Dark and Middle Ages were so backward that they could not recognize a self-evident principle if it stared them in the face. The book’s title refers to manuscripts of the works of Aristotle that were found in the famous abbey at Mt. Saint-Michel where they were translated into Latin not from Arab sources but directly from Greek texts. This endeavor happened before Arabic translations of Aristotle reached Toledo.

Gouguenheim then examines the whole history of what happened to Greek texts of the classical authors translated into Arabic. In general, he finds that writers often forget the Byzantine world, the world of the Eastern Roman Empire, a world that had Greek as its language. Christianity from the beginning recognized that it had to deal with precisely Greek philosophy and culture. Benedict XVI in the Regensburg Lecture remarked that the Christian mind was concerned not so much with classical myth or religion as with classical philosophy, with Plato, Aristotle, and friends.

Gouguenheim, in an erudite study, shows that the Arab conquests in the beginning were of Persian, Syrian, and Byzantine territories. Only one Muslim philosopher was actually an Arab, al-Kindi; the others, the great ones, were Persians, Syrians, or Spaniards. Moreover, most of the texts that were translated from Greek to Arabic were translated by Arab speaking Christians: Syrians, Copts, or Greeks.

All through the classical, Carolingian, and Ottonian periods we find constant exchanges of texts. What Gouguenheim points out is that interest in Greek science and philosophy was restricted to a few scholars in the Muslim world. These acted as private citizens. They were often condemned or restricted in their philosophic activities.

In the Christian world, however, primary interest was devoted to finding the exact meaning of the dynamic Greek texts. This search was both religious and philosophic. So the classical texts were not “Islamicized” to meet the requirements of Koranic culture. The Christian understanding of reason led to a desire to know what Aristotle actually teaches, even if on some point he might be criticized.

This book is eye-opening. It is far more realistic than most things we read about the ease of multicultural “adaption” or endless dialogue. Gouguenheim’s approach is blunter than we usually encounter in the discussion of different religions: “Fundamentally, European civilization remains Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian in inspiration. In its further course, European philosophy or science developed its own proper and original conceptions. Islam was, from the redaction of the Koran on, the bearer of another global system. From that point of view, Greek knowledge was able to be integrated only in a particular manner, limited to certain sectors or to certain thinkers.”

Islamic scholars, as Gueguenheim shows, go through contortions to demonstrate that the Koran preceded the Old and New Testament. Therefore, Jews and Christians must have deliberately rewritten the text so that the Muslim interpretation of its own revelation would still hold.

Gueguenheim concludes that Western civilization does not owe its genius or energy to Islam. It has its own roots. In its dynamic form, Islam was not itself able to assimilate the Greek heritage. It proved too dangerous to the Koranic understanding of reality.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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  • Willie

    De facto
    This is a great article because it sets the historical record straight. It cannot be denied that Islamic culture contributed greatly to the science, medicine and philosophy of the West during the Middle Ages. For sure we got Arabic numbers and Algebra from Islamic culture. In these days when it is in vogue to denigrate Western culture, one needs to be reminded that philosophy, science and medicine originated with Greek culture and was borrowed by Islam, and Roman culture contributed to our laws.

  • W.

    In a medieval phil class during study of Avicenna, Averroes, and Al-Ghazali, I came across some criticisms and read similar points as Fr. Schall: “Islam was not itself able to assimilate the Greek heritage. It proved too dangerous to the Koranic understanding of reality.”

  • W.

    Not sure
    What does Fr. mean: “Islamic scholars, as Gueguenheim shows, go through contortions to demonstrate that the Koran preceded the Old and New Testament. Therefore, Jews and Christians must have deliberately rewritten the text so that the Muslim interpretation of its own revelation would still hold.”

  • Dan Deeny

    Very interesting. Fr. Schall should review a recent book by Dr. David Levering Lewis that, I think, discusses this topic.

  • DPence

    Another book making somewhat the same argument is Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages (Paperback)
    by Richard E. Rubenstein

  • Stephen MacLean

    Organic Tory
    Fr Schall’s ‘not-so-dark ages’ are topical, too — apart from their synthesis of Platonic-Aristotelian political thought. Aquinas’s personalist principle is mediaevalism’s most gravid idea, with origins in Trinitarian anthropology: citizens are inter-dependent ‘individuals’ within society, while autonomous, free-willed ‘persons’: an analogy based on the Trinity. This feudal dynamism connects conservatism’s emphasis on individualism to a larger communal framework, based on Thomistic personalism.

  • Ivan


    The ‘Arabic’ number system is Indian in origin, it’s the work of Hindus. Muslims merely passed it on. As for Algebra, it’s a case of giving too much credit to children. Try working through a geometry book from from the ancient Greeks, it is subtle and challenging even for university students. Then go through the basic algebra credited to Muslims. An average 12 year old kid can master that stuff in a couple of months. But its a far cry from the vertiginous algebra taught in colleges now.

  • Achilles

    Jargon and semantic gymnastics aside, Fr. Schall’s essay stands as solid commentary. The strong currents of multi-clturalism in the rivers of modern thought are not even tributaries to the ocean of truth revealed by the Great Western Tradition. That this notion brands us “racists” or “extremists” or “opressors” or whatever other idiotic label speaks nothing of the truth. Thank you so much Fr. Schall.

  • Achilles

    We traverse dangerous territory when we put our accidentals in front of Truth. Fr. Schall wrote a book called The Order of Things, and in it he puts things in such an order that a review of David Levering Lewis would be so utterly out of order as to make………….I can’t even finish this sentence……..

  • Ronald Thomas

    Another French Author
    Thank you again, Fr. Schall. Among the new, persuasive French writers one would also find the philosopher Chantal Delsol, whose books ISI has wisely been translating for us. Icarus Fallen is as great a help to negotiating the post-modern morass as one could wish for. RT

  • Nicolas Albonico

    Christopher Dawson made this same argument–that it was Arabic speaking Christians that transmitted Greek philosophy to the Western Europeans, and that Islam did not pursue or achieve a synthesis with Greek philosophy– more than 75 years ago in “The Making of Europe”. I’m heartened to see European scholars rediscovering and reasserting this fact.

  • Leonard K

    I think the question over there being two ‘truths’ — one truth for religious ideas and another for science — was confronted when Muslim philosophers like Averroes came in contact with thinkers like Aquinas.

  • jason taylor

    Ivan, “passing it on” is not a merely. It required hundreds of years of travellers going accross about a third of the world well before the internal combustion engine.