By JUDE DOUGHERTY
Belo, Catarina. Averroes and Hegel on Philosophy and Religion. Burlington, Vt., Ashgate Publishing Co., 2013; 225 pages.
The orientalist, Ernest Renan, author of Averroes et l’averroisme, writing in 1852, noticed the similarity between Hegel’s view of religion and that of the medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), better known in the West as Averroes.
Renan found that G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), much like Averroes, defended the idea that philosophy and religion have the same content even though they express that content in different ways, i.e., religion through imagination and representation, philosophy in a conceptual, logical, and rigorous way.
Taking her cue from Renan, Catarina Belo sets out to examine at length the relationship between philosophy and religion in the two authors without making the claim that Hegel was influenced by Averroes. Far from it, Hegel does not regard Islamic philosophy to have contributed anything special to the history of philosophy.
In her narrative, Professor Belo draws heavily upon Averroes’ Decisive Treatise, wherein he seeks to demonstrate that the message of the Koran is identical with the pursuit of truth undertaken by philosophy, notably by that of Aristotle. Philosophy, Averroes is convinced, does not contradict Islamic religion. There cannot be a philosophical truth and a religious truth that are at odds; there is but one truth. There are different ways of presenting the same truth, namely, by demonstrative, dialectical, and rhetorical means, employed respectively by philosophy, theology, and the Koran.
Averroes, a Sunni Muslim, known to Aquinas and the scholastics as the “Commentator” because of his many commentaries on the works of Aristotle, defends a rationalistic approach to the interpretation of the Koran. If no disagreement is to be found between the Koran and Aristotle, the Koran is to be taken literally. If any disagreement becomes apparent, then the Koranic verses in question must be interpreted in the light of Aristotle’s metaphysics.
For Averroes there is no question of a double truth, or a different message conveyed by religion and philosophy; both express the same reality. Given that philosophy supports Islam, those able to study philosophy are obliged to do so less they fall into disbelief. Yet, a philosopher cannot accept as literally true the anthropomorphic descriptions contained in the Koran.
There are three ways of believing in God as well as the prophetic missions and the afterlife. There can be no compromise regarding these tenets, but the way of believing in them differs according to the class to which one belongs.
Whereas a philosopher cannot accept as literally true the anthropomorphic descriptions contained in the Koran, someone belonging to the rhetorical class is allowed — and indeed — expected, to do so.
Rhetorical speech is used to convey religious truths to the majority of people who have no formal education. Demonstration, by contrast, consists in the art of inference and is based on necessary, universal, and certain first principles as well as sound syllogistic reasoning, but the range of demonstrative knowledge is limited to mathematics, physics, and metaphysics; it is not available, for instance, in history or ethics. Dialectics, as employed by Islamic theologians when they seek to become authoritative interpreters of scripture, engage in a discussion of opinions and that which is commonly accepted. Though it uses induction, it does not achieve certainty.
The similarity of Hegel’s take on the relation between philosophy and religion to that of Averroes is found in Hegel’s 1827-1828 lectures, The Philosophy of Spirit. Like Averroes, Hegel claims that philosophy and religion represent the same intellectual substance but in different ways, philosophy as conceptual, religion as representational. Emphasizing the role of reason in explaining Christian doctrines, Hegel as a Lutheran believed that Christian doctrines can be better understood and explained by philosophy rather than theology, so much so that he was known to speak of philosophers as “a priestly class.”
Yet philosophy is for the few. For most people, religion provides access to the ultimate reality, to God or the Spirit. “All religions,” Hegel will say, “are manifestations of the Spirit, but only Christianity contains God’s self-revelation to mankind, because it proclaims God made man in Christ.”
Catarina Belo proves to be an equally astute student of Hegel as she is of Averroes. Beginning with an examination of Hegel’s attitude to religion in his early writings, she follows with a discussion of philosophy and consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit and concludes with a chapter on “Representation and Christianity” as found in The Berlin Lectures.
Throughout her treatment of both philosophers, the reader cannot help but recognize a metaphysical depth enhanced by her broad knowledge of the history of philosophy. One is not likely to find a clearer English-language exposition of the doctrines under consideration.
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(Dr. Dougherty is dean emeritus of The School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.)