An Introduction to the Work of Averroes

Averroes may be the most prolific philosophical and scientific author of all time. His voluminous writings include 39 commentaries on Aristotle, Porphyry and Plato, numerous legal and theological writings, a still unknown number of short treatises on various philosophical, scientific, and medical topics, and a massive, encyclopedic work on the general principles of medicine. Relatively few of his works survive in their original Arabic, probably as a result of prohibitions against studying philosophy in Western Islamic lands after Averroes’ life. Most of his writings were preserved in Hebrew and Latin translations made in the Middle Ages and Renaissance; indeed the great number of manuscripts and printed editions of these translations indicate the profound influence Averroes had on European Jews and Christians. This influence was often perceived as threatening and “Averroism” was often criticized strongly by both Jews and Christians and even suffered condemnations and purges in Christian Universities and Monasteries. The most famous of these condemnations was that of Stephen Tempier, Bishop of Paris, whose prohibition against 219 theses was directly aimed at “Averroists.” Such a reaction to Averroes was primarily due to the perception that Averroes only nominally upheld religious views, while in fact believing in a kind of radical Aristotelianism that considered true only those things that could be scientifically proven according to the standards developed in Aristotle’s logical works. Unfortunately, the number of Averroes’ writings, the different languages in which they are found, and the possibility that he wrote for different audiences in different works make it extremely difficult to identify Averroes’ true views.

Legal and Theological Works

Between 1174 and 1180, Averroes wrote a number of works in which he argued that philosophical and scientific inquiry is permitted, even recommended or perhaps even obligatory according to Islamic Law. The best known of these is the Decisive Treatise Determining the Connection between the Law and Wisdom, in which Averroes sets out to show that logic and philosophy are mandatory for adherents of Islam. Despite its name, the treatise is not entirely “decisive,” as Averroes acknowledges that some people are not by nature suited for philosophical inquiry. The natures of people differ, according to Averroes, in how they form assent; most people assent to things based on rhetorically persuasive claims, others by dialectical arguments and some by scientific demonstrations alone. Those of the latter nature, Averroes argues, require philosophical and scientific grounding for their religious views. Similarly, Islamic Law, Averroes says, divides people into three groups and proscribes different rules for interpretation of scripture, though it is not entirely clear that the legal division can correspond to the natural one. The rhetorical class of people, who are the majority of humanity, are not to interpret scripture at all, but to take it literally. The dialectical class is to interpret scripture using dialectical methods, while the demonstrative class is to interpret the Quran in accordance with scientifically and philosophically discovered truth. Since Averroes does not permit the demonstrative class to declare their interpretations to the rhetorically or dialectically inclined, he was widely considered to have promoted a doctrine of “double truth,” according to which truth can come from either religious texts or demonstrated knowledge. Such reasoning left Averroes and Averroists open to accusations that, while they accepted religious doctrines in public, they denied central tenets in private. Averroes explores the relationship between philosophy and the law in all of his theological/legal works, but, as he states explicitly in his work criticizing Al-Ghazzali’s critique of philosophy, these works do not contain philosophical demonstrations. For Averroes’ purely philosophical views one needs to turn to his commentaries.


Averroes’ largest, most important, and ultimately most influential project was the writing of commentaries on the entire body of Aristotle’s works then available in Arabic. Generally speaking, these commentaries take three forms: 1. “Short Commentaries,” summaries or outlines of Aristotle’s works; 2. “Middle Commentaries,” close restatements, in some cases reorganizations and slight elaborations of works of Aristotle; and 3. “Long Commentaries,” line by line elucidations that contain the entirety of Aristotle’s text in Arabic translation with comments on nearly every word. As yet no complete study of all of Averroes’ commentaries has been made and Averroes’ precise goals and intended audience for each commentary remain open questions. Nevertheless, it is possible to highlight some features of the commentaries in general.

The commentaries treat works of Aristotle that were translated into Arabic by Greek speaking Christians living in Baghdad in the 9th and 10th centuries. These translators, along with the intellectuals of the time, basically had to invent a philosophic and scientific Arabic that could accommodate Aristotle and other Greek thinkers. While the pioneering work of these translators allowed philosophy to be studied in the Arabic speaking world, their uses of technical terminology was not yet always consistent or clear. By the 12th century linguistic developments in scientific Arabic and the development of an independent Arabic philosophical tradition made those earlier translations quite difficult, in some cases nearly impossible to understand. Averroes’ first task as commentator was thus to update the language of Aristotle in Arabic and render the texts comprehensible to intellectually curious Arabic speakers. This kind of linguistic updating is especially apparent in the “Middle Commentaries” where Averroes’ restatements of the text present a new, easier to read version of each Aristotelian work.

The commentaries do not agree with each other on all points. In fact, even three commentaries on a single work of Aristotle may give three (or more) different positions on a topic. It is difficult to determine the cause of all of these discrepancies. On the one hand, it is unlikely that Averroes did not change his mind about any part of the voluminous writings of Aristotle over the more than forty years he spent writing his commentaries. On the other hand, some of these discrepancies concern issues that were controversial and may have been frowned upon by the religious establishment. One such issue is the extent to which man’s connection to the First Cause, i.e., to God, is intellectual. In earlier works, Averroes appears to have emphasized man’s intellectual connection to God, implying that philosophy is the highest form of religion. In later works, he deemphasized this connection, leaving room for non-intellectual forms of religious expression. It is still an open question to what degree political considerations motivated Averroes’ various positions in his commentaries.

The “Long Commentaries” present Averroes’ most sophisticated and complicated views, yet these views are couched in an apparently restrictive genre of word for word, line by line interpretation. The format of these commentaries encourages the view that the original content they contain is fairly minimal. Yet many readings in the “Long Commentaries” explicitly contradict readings in the “Middle Commentaries” and “Short Commentaries” and by tracing these divergences and other clear divergences from Aristotle’s views one can reach an original Averroan philosophy.

Averroes’ commentaries exhibit a great deal of caution. He does not explicitly criticize the prevailing views of his time and place. Not only does he give less controversial positions in his later works, he even reedited and revised his earlier commentaries at least in part so as to avoid criticism from the theologians.

Averroes’ Commentary on Plato’s Republic differs in form from Averroes’ other commentaries; it is not a summary or outline, not a close restatement or reorganization, and certainly not a line-by-line elucidation of the Republic. Indeed it is not certain whether Averroes had access to the entire Republic in Arabic, or whether his commentary is made on the basis of a good summary of the work made by another thinker. In any case, Averroes used what he had of the Republic as a springboard for exploring the ideal form of governance, usually in implicit, though occasionally even explicit dialogue with Islamic law and the Almohad view of the caliphate. This dialogue manifests itself in such places as the equation of philosopher, lawgiver, and prophet and the description of using war (much like jihad) to make the world fit for philosophy. In a few places, he apparently identifies the ideal Islamic regime with one ruled by philosophy and hints at ways that such a governance could be achieved. It is not likely that Averroes thought that the Almohad regime could, in practice, be made into Plato’s ideal regime, but his explorations of Plato allowed him to delve into questions of the limits of legally prescribed beliefs and the reach of philosophic ideas of the good.

–Yehuda Halper, Visiting Assistant Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Tulane University