The Islamic philosopher and jurist Ibn Rushd is known primarily for his great commentaries on Aristotle, which had a profound impact on the Mediaeval West, where he gained wide recognition among both Christian and Jewish scholars. Nearly all of his commentaries on Aristotle’s major works were translated into Latin, and some into Hebrew. He also wrote extensive commentaries on Plato’s Republic and Porphyry’s Isagoge. In his interpretations of Aristotle, he attempted to remove the elements of neo-Platonism that had hitherto distorted previous Arabic readings of the Greek philosopher. It was through Ibn Rushd that the main corpus of Aristotle’s texts was transmitted to Europe. The central endeavor of Ibn Rushd’s own major philosophical treatises, such as the Incoherence of the Incoherence (which attempted to refute al-Ghazali’s attack on philosophy, The Incoherence of the Philosophers), is to reconcile philosophy and religion, reason and revelation. While in general, Ibn Rushd believed that philosophy yields truths which are certain, he argues not for a religion of pure reason but rather for a philosophical and rational understanding of the truths of revealed religion. Ironically, it was misinterpretations of Ibn Rushd’s teachings by the Latin “Averroists” — who viewed him as believing that faith and reason were irreconcilable — that provoked the response of Aquinas’ philosophy, which labored to harmonize these domains. Ironically, and sadly for the subsequent history of Islamic thought, Ibn Rushd’s influence in the Islamic world was far smaller than his impact on Christian Europe; he failed to convince Islamic scholars and theologians of the propriety of philosophy within their religious visions.11
Born into a family of jurists, Ibn Rushd was trained in law and became a judge in Seville and Cordova. Around 1153 he was introduced by his friend, the philosopher Ibn Tufayl, to a prince of the Almohad court. There is a story that the prince asked him whether philosophers considered the world to be created in time or eternal, a conversation that instigated Ibn Rushd’s commentaries on the Greek philosophers. The text of Ibn Rushd to be considered here is his Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle, translated into Latin in 1256 by Hermannus Alemannus, a monk living in Toledo. It was printed in 1481, the first version of Aristotle’s text published during the Renaissance. Not long after the death of Aristotle, the text of his Poetics effectively vanished; for most of the late classical and early Mediaeval periods, it was not known except through intermediaries such as Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus. The oldest surviving manuscript in the West dates from the eleventh century. But this was not the version that influenced the Mediaeval West; the version that had such an impact on the Middle Ages was Arabic, a tenth century translation of a Greek manuscript dating before the year 700. This version departed considerably from the Western manuscript, and is partly responsible for the altered form of Aristotle’s ideas transmitted through Ibn Rushd’s Commentary (MLC, 81-82).
As mentioned earlier, Arab philosophers such al-Farabi (whose Catalogue of the Sciences was twice translated into Latin in the twelfth century) followed late Greek commentators in viewing Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics as part of his Organon or series of logical treatises. Poetry was thus
viewed as a faculty or method of treating language without any specific content. As O.B. Hardison, Jr. states, this “interpretation ignores imitation, plot, characterization, catharsis and most of the other subjects stressed by Aristotle in favor of…the imaginative syllogism,” which was considered to be the distinctive feature of poetry (MLC, 82). Inasmuch as this view is attributable to Ibn Rushd, however, it was somewhat modified, as we shall now see.
Since the form of Ibn Rushd’s text is a commentary, purportedly following the contours of Aristotle’s text, it contains a great deal of repetition and elaboration. We can distinguish three broad themes that are somewhat circuitously developed in the Commentary, themes that intersect at times only tangentially with the Greek text of Aristotle as we now have it. We might bear in mind that Ibn Rushd’s text is written in Arabic and its immediate audience would have been not Western but Arab scholars and writers. He purports to bring to an Arab readership the insights of Aristotle as these might impinge on Arabic literary traditions. In this light, we might discern the following three theses: (a) poetry is defined broadly as the art of praise or blame, based on representations of moral choice; (b) the purpose of poetry is to produce a salutary effect upon its audience, through both excellence of imitative technique and performative elements such as melody, gesture and intonation; and (c) poetry is viewed as a branch of logic, or logical discourse, which is compared and contrasted with rhetorical discourse.
While Aristotle is cited as the authority for all of these views, Ibn Rushd is effectively developing insights that are often only tangentially or incidentally related to Aristotle’s main arguments. For example, Ibn Rushd’s central thesis that “Every poem and all poetry are either blame or praise” is developed from Aristotle’s comment in Chapter IV of the Poetics that the first forms of poetry were praises of famous men and satire. Ibn Rushd states that the subjects proper to poetry are those that “deal with matters of choice, both good and bad.”22 These subjects, then, are concerned directly with virtue and vice since the aim of poetic representation is “to impel people toward certain choices and discourage them form others.” Like Aristotle, Ibn Rushd holds that all action and character are concerned with either virtue or vice (MLC, 91). He further defines one species of poem as a song “praising and reciting beautiful and excellent deeds,” while the other species is a song “blaming and denigrating base and immoral deeds.” As an excellent example of a poem of praise, Ibn Rushd gives the epic, citing Aristotle’s praise of Homer (MLC, 93-94). Ibn Rushd holds that a poem of praise should represent “a virtuous act of choice which has universal application to virtuous activities and not a particular application to an individual instance of virtue.” Only such a universally applicable representation can arouse the passions of pity or fear in the soul, through stimulating the imagination (MLC, 94). A tragedy, for example, should not imitate men “as they are perceived individually,” but should represent their “character” which “includes actions and moral attitudes” (MLC, 95). Ibn Rushd insists that poetry should not evoke the pleasure of mere admiration, but should seek “the level of pleasure which moves to virtue through imagination. This is the pleasure proper to tragedy” (MLC, 103). As with Aristotle, then, poetry should express what is universal, what is common to all men, not what is unique to them or their circumstances.
Another aspect of Ibn Rushd’s claim is that a virtuous act must be based on moral choice, not mere habit; as he says later, the actions portrayed by the poet must be “based on free choice and knowledge” (MLC, 104). Aristotle had urged that the action portrayed in tragedy must be “serious,” meaning that the action must have a significant moral import. Ibn Rushd also urges that the emotions of “suffering and fear” can be aroused not by the presentation of “small and unimportant” actions but by portraying the “difficult and harsh experiences…which tend to befall mankind” (MLC, 103).
Regarding poetic imitation, Ibn Rushd places great emphasis on realism. Whereas Aristotle talks of the poet representing what is probable, Ibn Rushd insists that the poet only engage in true representations, speaking “only of things that exist or may exist” (MLC, 98). The poet in fact “only gives names to things that exist,” and his representations are based on things that are in nature, not things that are “made up or imaginary.” Like Aristotle, he suggests that the poet is close to the philosopher inasmuch as he speaks “in universal terms” (MLC, 99). But Ibn Rushd insists that, just as “the skilled artist depicts an object as it is in reality…the poet should depict and form the object as it is in itself…so that he imitates and expresses the character and habits of the soul” (MLC, 105). Aristotle’s advocacy of poetic realism is couched in terms of “probability” and “necessity;” it is a realism that pertains not to the portrayal of objects but to the presentation of actions, events and the connection of events in a “plot.” In contrast, Ibn Rushd urges that a “good and skilled poet” should “describe and delineate things according to their proper qualities and their true natures” (MLC, 111). Aristotle’s own realism is largely restricted to expressing the events comprising the causal content of moral behavior. It seems that Ibn Rushd prescribes a broader pursuit of poetic objectivity which was strangely modern in its demand for objects in the world to be accurately represented; he goes so far as to say that poetry is most truthful when it is based on direct experience: like everyone else, the poet “does best in reporting those things that he has understood for himself and almost seen first-hand with all their accidents and circumstances” (MLC, 110). This emphasis on direct experience (as opposed to scripture, authority, law, convention or tradition) as the basis of understanding and poetic representation does not become a generally accepted maxim of philosophy in the West until the rise of empiricism and rationalism; it does not assume an important status in literature until the Romantics. To the extent that these insights influenced succeeding generations, their impact was restricted to the West, and did not extend to the majority of Islamic thinkers and poets.
It is clear that Ibn Rushd places at least as much emphasis as Aristotle on the moral purpose and function of poetry; he places greater emphasis on the realistic nature of poetic imitation; these emphases correspond with the greater weight that he accords to the affective elements of poetry, the elements that will produce an effect on the audience. In other words, unlike Aristotle, Ibn Rushd sees such realism or naturalism as directly increasing the affective and imaginative power, and therefore the moral impact, of poetry. Like Aristotle, Ibn Rushd attributes the pleasure we receive from poetry to the fact that representation is natural to human beings, and that we derive pleasure from images of things; he adds that we also derive pleasure from metre and melody (MLC, 92). Aristotle had distinguished between elements intrinsic to poetry, such as mode of representation, plot and character, and those elements which were “extrinsic” or belonged to the performance of the play or poem. Ibn Rushd rehearses Aristotle’s distinction between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” elements of poetry, using these two factors — imitation or representation and melody — as the basis of the distinction. In general, he acknowledges that the poet’s skill in both of these domains will affect an audience. The various features of performance “make the language more representational” (MLC, 94). Having said this, he tends to agree with Aristotle that the skilled poet does not rely on “extrinsic” performative aids (MLC, 100). Indeed, poetic speeches that express truth vividly do not need external enhancements (MLC, 112). A tragedy, says Ibn Rushd, should achieve its effect through representation.
In general, Ibn Rushd holds that excellence in poetic composition derives from two factors, arrangement and magnitude. Regarding the former, poetry should imitate nature and harbor a single subject and a single end; as for the latter, it should also have, as Aristotle had suggested, a “definite magnitude,” being neither too large nor too small for the audience’s perception and understanding. In this way, the representation as a whole will have a unity, comprising a beginning, middle and end (MLC, 98). Such a unified and ordered organization will produce the desired impact or effect upon the audience. In a formula strangely prefiguring T.S. Eliot’s notion of the “objective correlative,” Ibn Rushd stipulates that when the poet describes things as they truly are, the “imaginative stimulation is not in excess of the qualities of the things and their true natures” (MLC, 111). Eliot had suggested that a poet’s description of a series of objects and events would arouse a precisely determined emotion; Ibn Rushd also seems to recognize an internal connection between between poetic representation and human emotion, based implicitly on a correspondence between the “external” world of objects and the “internal” world of human perception.
The third insight that structures Ibn Rushd’s text is his treatment of poetry as a branch of logic. In general, he appears to divide speech into “logical” and “non-logical” speech (MLC, 103). He often refers to poetry as “poetic speech,” implying that this is one of the sub-genres of speech, varying from but fundamentally related to other types of speech. He characterizes rhetoric as “persuasive speech” and poetry as “representational speech” (MLC, 96). Indeed, he goes so far as to define poetic speech as a “variation” of “truthful or standard speech” (MLC, 117). He takes as his starting point for this claim Aristotle’s view that poetry should engage in a moderate use of metaphorical and figurative language such that it will neither be wholly obscure nor degenerate into commonplace speech (MLC, 115). The “variation” that occurs in poetry is through alteration of the meanings of words, the use of ornament, rhyme and unfamiliar diction (MLC, 117). Nonetheless, Ibn Rushd sees this variation as strictly and rationally controlled: it seems that he measures poetry by the standards of prose and indeed, sees poetry, like rhetoric, as a special type of prose. In fact, Ibn Rushd might have fuelled, or at least reinforced, the Mediaeval tendency to situate poetry as a branch of either grammar or rhetoric. He suggests that “a syllogism is one statement and a rhetorical oration is one, and a poetical composition is one” (MLC, 114). He suggests also that the epilogues or conclusions of poems should summarize the subject commemorated, “just as happens in rhetorical conclusions” (MLC, 105). At one point, deviating entirely from Aristotle’s explanation of the quantitative components of tragedy (which he uses only as a starting point), he states that Arab poems are divided into a “rhetorical exordium,” the body of the praise itself, and a “rhetorical conclusion” (MLC, 101). He is describing here the form of the Arabic qasidah or ode; interestingly, his description invokes some of the divisions of a rhetorical speech, and treats poetry as a logical statement.
Given that Ibn Rushd urges the poet to express truths, and sees it as having a morally persuasive impact on an audience, it is clear that for him poetry takes on some of the functions of philosophy, logic and rhetoric. He defines the “decorous style” as one where “the speech offers open truth and is clear” (MLC, 120). Interestingly, when poetic “variation” of language is emphatic, using excellent imagery, the purpose of this is “a more complete understanding of the thing represented” (MLC, 118). Hence poetry is accredited with the goals of convincing and promoting understanding through the use of speech which is clear and departs minimally — and rationally — from “standard” speech. Not only are the modes of departure from ordinary speech strictly regulated toward the general end of precluding outlandish metaphors and figures; but also, there are six basic errors that the poet should avoid: representing the impossible, distorted representation, representing rational beings by irrational ones, comparing a thing to its contrary, using words with ambiguous meanings; and to resort to rhetorical persuasion rather than poetic representation (MLC, 120-121).
The tendency of all of these prohibitions is to direct the poet towards realism and clarity in the expression of truth: poetic speech, though contrasted with rhetorical speech, shares the same basis, and is part of the entire family of discourses. Ibn Rushd’s emphasis on truth may derive partly from the fact that, like many Islamic thinkers, he appears to treat the Qur’an as the archetypal text He sees the Qur’an as exceptional in Arabic literature inasmuch as it praises “worthy actions of the will and blame of unworthy ones.” The Qur’an, he states, prohibits “poetic fictions” except those which rebuke vices and commend virtues (MLC, 109). Even where the Qur’an uses emphatic variations from standard speech, this is not to produce an ornamental effect but a “more complete understanding” (MLC, 118). In a striking commensurability with much Mediaeval poetics, then, Ibn Rushd’s views might be said to have a scriptural foundation: just as Vergil and the Bible were revered as authoritative texts (stylistically and grammatically, as well as in their content), so the Qur’an is invoked as a literary exemplar.
Hence, Ibn Rushd’s treatise is archetypal of scholastic views of poetry, situating it as one form of discourse among a hierarchy of discourses, at whose pinnacle stood theology. Unlike many minor scholastic thinkers who saw poetry as one of the lowest branches of logical discourse, Ibn Rushd at least grants to poetry an important moral function (as does Aquinas somewhat); unlike Aquinas, he also accords it an epistemological function; in fact, for Ibn Rushd, the two functions are integrally related.
What would later Mediaeval and Renaissance thinkers and writers have gleaned about Aristotle from Ibn Rushd’s text? Certainly an emphasis on the moral function and the truth value of poetry; in formal terms, a stress on unified poetic organization, and the need for poetry to produce a powerful impact on its audience. Also, they would have encountered the notion of poetry as one discourse intimately related to other discourses, and overlapping considerably with rhetoric and logic. In all of these aspects, it could be — a question scholars are still debating — that Ibn Rushd was reinforcing or confirming trends that were already present or congenial to Mediaeval thinking. For example, Ibn Rushd fails to distinguish between drama and narrative, between tragedy and epic, a conflation also found in writers such as Dante and Chaucer (Hardison, MLC, 85). Moreover, readers would have found in Ibn Rushd’s text a highly un-Aristotelian description of the components of tragedy. Whereas Aristotle had insisted that the plot was the most important element and that action took priority over character, Ibn Rushd, characterizing tragedy along with epic as a “song of praise,” sees its most important component “character and belief.” He describes the plot as composed of “representational speeches in the form of fables” (MLC, 95). The reader would also seek in vain for Aristotle’s characterizations of “reversal” and “recognition,” though he would find the notion that pity and fear are inspired by the spectacle of undeserved misfortune (MLC, 102).
Notwithstanding these sometimes drastic alterations of Aristotle’s views, Ibn Rushd’s text was widely influential and met with the approval of figures such as Roger Bacon, and used extensively by critics such as Benvenuto da Imola, the fourteenth century commentator on Dante, who saw Dante’s Commedia as essentially a work of praise and blame. It also influenced Petrarch’s humanist disciple Coluccio Salutati, who also made use of the principle of praise and blame, as well as of Ibn Rushd’s definition of imitation. The influence is traceable in sixteenth century writers such as Savonarola, Robortelli and Mazzoni who all believed that poetry was to some degree a branch of logic, and who all cited Ibn Rushd in support of their own positions. As Hardison observes, throughout the sixteenth century the didactic theory of poetry coexisted uneasily with Aristotelian doctrines. Ibn Rushd’s version of Aristotle was congenial to the moralistic attitudes of the humanists. The tension between the two modes of criticism reached explicit opposition in the work of Lodovico Castelvetro, whose interpretation of Aristotle’s Poetics, though highly distorted, is free of Ibn Rushd’s influence. Castelvetro was sharply opposed by his humanistic contemporary Torquato Tasso, who aligns his own views of heroic poetry as praise of virtue with the views of St. Basil, Ibn Rushd, Plutarch and Aristotle (Hardison, MLC, 88). Ironically, then, owing to a complex combination of historical circumstances, Ibn Rushd’s version of Aristotle was for a long time given more credit than the views of Aristotle himself.