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Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages Hardcover – October 15, 2003

4.0 out of 5 stars 57 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 12th-century Toledo, in Spain, a group of Christian monks, Jewish sages and Muslim teachers gathered to study a new translation of Aristotle's De Anima (On the Soul). In Rubenstein's dazzling historical narrative, this moment represents both the tremendous influence of Aristotle on these three religions and the culmination of the medieval rediscovery of his writings. In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle fashioned a new system of philosophy, focusing on the material world, whose operations he explained by a series of causes. As Rubenstein (When Jesus Became God) explains, in the second and third centuries A.D., Western Christian scholars suppressed Aristotle's teachings, believing that his emphasis on reason and the physical world challenged their doctrines of faith and God's supernatural power. By the seventh century, Muslims had begun to discover Aristotle's writings. Islamic thinkers such as Avicenna and Averroes, in the 11th and 12 centuries, embraced Aristotle's rationalist philosophy and principles of logic. Christian theologians rediscovered Aristotle through the commentaries of the monk Boethius, who argued in the sixth century that reason and understanding were essential elements of faith. There resulted a tremendous ferment in the study of Aristotle in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, culminating in the work of Thomas Aquinas, who used Aristotle's notion of an Unmoved Mover and First Cause to construct his arguments for God's existence. Aquinas, too, argued that reason was a necessary component of faith's ability to understand God and the world. Although the book purports to trace Aristotle's influence on Christianity, Islam and Judaism, it devotes more attention to Christianity. Even so, Rubenstein's lively prose, his lucid insights and his crystal-clear historical analyses make this a first-rate study in the history of ideas.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School--This is a challenging, intricate book for mature students who are fascinated by the paradox of the Middle Ages: How was the knowledge of Greece and Rome lost, and how was it found again? To set the scene, Rubenstein provides an introduction to the lives and works of Plato and Aristotle, and to the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. He then shifts his focus to the year 1136, when a group of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars working together in Toledo began translating the philosopher's forgotten works. The dissemination of those translations sent shock waves through Europe as religious leaders tried to reconcile Aristotle's scientific theories with Church doctrine. The struggles between secular rulers and the Church hierarchy, and the development of the medieval universities, are presented with rich detail and feeling. The author shows readers the similarities between those conflicts and the Darwinist/creationist clashes. Students researching topics on the Middle Ages will find this title a useful reference source. Multiple pages are devoted to the lives and works of important figures, such as Abelard, Aquinas, and Innocent II, but the author does not neglect the less well known, such as William of Ockham or Siger de Brambant. Religious orders, heretical movements, and philosophical works are equally well covered. This is a compelling account of how the rediscovery of the writings of Aristotle changed the way the Western world looked at humans, God, and nature.--Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt; 1 edition (October 15, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 140256872X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1402568725
  • ASIN: 0151007209
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #730,091 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Thomas H. Lynch on February 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book covers an enormous amount of intellectual history and is worth reading for its summary of thinkers from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, Avicenna, Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, to William of Ockham. The book sets out the theme that the intellectual turn that led to scientific understanding actually started, not with Copernicus and Galileo, but much earlier, at least by the 12th Century as Aristotelean works on natural phenomena began to flood the libraries of Europe's scholars. Aristotle's work on logic had been long known, thanks to Boethius' 6th Century translations. But this was all the West had until the Christian gradual retaking of the Iberian Peninsula made possible rediscovery of his other works. The libraries of the Muslims and Jewish scholars there had Aristotle's works, and Latin scholars eagerly translated them with help of the Jews and the Muslims.
The impact of Aristotle's natural philosophy derived from his outlook that human reason, not tradition, revelation or sentiment, is the road to uncover objective truths about the universe. This outlook regularly leads to conflicts with a faith-based outlook. So what were the Muslims doing with these time-bombs? Rubenstein traces the route that preserved Aristotle's work. The Nestorians translated much of Greek philosophy, not only Aristotle, into Syriac, and these got further translated to Persian, and therefore they fell into the hands of the Arabs with their 7th Century conquest of Persia. These treasuries, at least initially they were seen this way, resulted in the arabic translations and Muslim philosophy flourished.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is a knockout. As hard as it may be to imagine a book about the "Aristotelian Revolution" of the Middle Ages being a page-turner, I could not put this one down.
To begin with, the story itself is incredibly interesting and important. When Aristotle's complete works, lost to the West for 700 years, were rediscovered in "reconquered" Spain, European thinking was changed forever. As Rubenstein says, it was as if some document discovered in our own time were found to contain the science of the future -- the secret of time travel, or a cure for AIDS.
Catholic officials were therefore forced to decide whether to ban the new learning, which contained all sorts of ideas at odds with traditional Christian thought, or to try to reconcile faith with reason. Surprisingly, after a ferocious struggle involving "superstars" of Christian learning like Peter Abelard, Saint Bernard, Bonaventure, Aquinas, and William of Ockham, they opted for reconciliation. The result was Europe's first Scientific Revolution -- and a creative dialogue between reason and religion that, Rubenstein suggests, might serve as a model for us modern folk.
What makes this book so appealing is the author's ability to make complex debates crystal-clear to ordinary readers, and his gift for vivid historical narrative. We are there when Peter Abelard goes on trial before his nemesis, Saint Bernard;
when Pope Innocent III calls down the fires of Crusade upon the heretical Cathars; and when Aquinas fights it out with enemies to his left and right at the tumultuous University of Paris.
You don't have to know much about medieval history to enjoy this story, but reading it made me want to learn more about the origins of modern Western thinking -- and about ways of healing the split between what Rubenstein calls "the culture of the heart" and "the culture of the head."
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Format: Hardcover
Aristotle's Children costs $18 or less - not unreasonable, perhaps, for history light. Even that price, however, is perhaps too high to pay for the truths it correctly states: "The Aristotelian Revolution transformed Western thinking and set our culture on a path of scientific inquiry that it has followed ever since the Middle Ages (ix-x);" Aristotle's newly recovered Natural Books (libri naturales) did provide "the most comprehensive, accurate, well-integrated and satisfying account of the natural world that medieval readers had ever encountered" (80). "Europe depended upon Muslim and Jewish scholars for the recovery of its classical heritage (7)."

It may be a mistake to buy the book because the evidence Rubenstein offers for these truths is too often unreliable. Some of the mistakes Rubenstein makes are so obvious that they could be corrected on the internet, including its opening: The book begins with a paean to the Christian churchmen working in formerly Muslim Toledo rediscovering the bulk of Aristotle's writings. The first chapter begins with a sort of medieval medallion labeled: De anima by Aristotle. Then in chapter one bishop Raymond (d. 1187) holds the "new translation of De anima -- Aristotle's lost book on the soul" (12); the translators are Gundissalinus and his friend Avendauth. Much about what Rubenstein reports about the two is controversial, but one thing is certain: They did not translate Aristotle's De anima. Aristotle's De anima was first translated in the first half of the 12th century, not in the second half; it was first translated not in Muslim Spain from the Arabic, but by James of Venice from the Greek. What Gundissalinus and company translated was Avicenna's influential Liber de anima and Algazel's Logica et philosophia.
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