The West’s Cultural Continuity: Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel

Sylvain Gouguenheim’s "Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne" reviewed by Thomas F. Bertonneau

Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners – Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold – to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. The sultan and dervish look with amused tolerance on the gaucheries of the European rubes. The rubes swing their elbows and knock over the pottery. It was the Eighteenth-Century philosophes and illuminati who coined the pejorative term Dark Ages to refer to the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman imperial administration in the West under pressure of the Gothic assertions of the Fifth Century. Liberal discourse often casually extends the same term to apply it to all of medieval European civilization up to the Renaissance. Specialist historians have, however, long since demonstrated that no such absolute discontinuity as the term Dark Ages insinuates ever existed, which means that the Enlightenment version of history is at least partly wrong. And yet the usual story retains its currency, as an item in a kind of liberal folklore.

Part of that story is the motif of the Islamic middleman role in the transmission of classical knowledge to Christendom. According to this motif, the West in the Eleventh Century possessed no first-hand knowledge of the Greek and precious little of the Roman classics. Fortunately (so the story goes) the Muslims had translated Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, knew all about them, and bestowed the gift of their lore on the benighted monks of Italy and France. The benefactors under this notion behave suavely and generously, while the beneficiaries are – to paraphrase a line from a David Lean film – ignorant, barbarous, and cruel.

In the spasm of western Islamophilia that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, the myth of medieval Muslim learnedness and medieval European illiteracy gained strong new power for the Left whose acolytes have disseminated it with vigor from their ensconcement in the colleges and universities. Facts might have dispelled the myth had anyone cared to notice them. For one thing, Europeans never lost contact with the Byzantine Greeks, who blithely went on being scholarly classicists until Mehmet II bloodily vanquished Constantinople in 1453, slaughtering the literate elites and forcing the peasantry to submit to Allah. The Eighth-Century English church-chronicler Bede reports in his Ecclesiastical History that one of the first bishops of Canterbury, Theodore, was an educated Greek. The Twelfth-Century Icelandic myth-collector Snorri Sturlusson suggests in his Edda that the Norse gods were actually Trojan heroes escaping, like Aeneas, from Agamemnon’s destruction of their city – an interpretation that implies his knowledge of the theory called Euhemerism. Eighth-Century England and twelfth-Century Iceland were remote places, but, in Bede and Snorri, one can attest links to the classical tradition.

Facts like these could easily be multiplied – and a man who multiplies them with muscularity and clear-sightedness is the French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim, who documents them in his remarkable new book Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les raciness grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne (Seuil, 2008). [Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: the Greek Roots of Christian Europe.] The book is not as yet translated, but it deserves to be known to Anglophone audiences because it brings important truths to many a contemporary conversation.

For American readers, Gouguenheim’s title will have a familiar resonance. Henry Adams called his study of medieval European civilization Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres. Adams took Gothic Christianity, as typified in the discourses of Aquinas and Abelard and in the architecture of the Lady Churches, to have begun its flowering in the monastery at Mont Saint-Michel on the French Atlantic coast that also figures in Gouguenheim’s account. Adams thought of the High Middle Ages as a dynamic, spiritually adventurous, and, in its way, modern period, directly the precursor of our own technically accomplished and intellectually audacious modernity. Gouguenheim has something of Adams’ view of the medieval world’s clear-sightedness and vigor and he begins by addressing the prevalent méconnaissance of those vital centuries, which in his judgment indeed established the kernel, or rather the “roots,” of our own. If, “for a long time, the cultural history of Europe in the High Middle Ages was presented in negative terms,” and if “the fall of the Roman Empire associated with the Germanic conquests had, in the course of the Fifth Century of our era, made a brutal rather than a progressive end to antiquity” – or if that is what people thought, Gouguenheim asserts: yet “in reality, recent work in ancient and medieval history has shown that the period of the Fifth to the Eighth Centuries was not so catastrophic, the effects of dislocation while quite real being mitigated by elements of continuity.” Greek Christendom constituted one such continuity, as already mentioned. It stood in somewhat aloof reserve, but it had the character of a resource capable of responding to western queries.

Gouguenheim cites the fact that educated Latin-speaking westerners, even after Boethius, could command Greek as explaining in large part the dearth of Greek texts in Latin translation between 500 and 1100 AD. But Latin compendia of Platonist and Aristotelian teachings did circulate, as did medical handbooks in the tradition of Galen. The Latin-speaking Church Fathers thus undertook their reflections “with the help of the logical categories of Greek thought,” such that classical philosophy “impregnated” their arguments as a type of “intellectual matrix.” One could bolster Gouguenheim’s observations in this regard by a reference to Bryan Ward-Perkins’ recent study of The Fall of Rome (2005), in which he remarks that even among the Gothic usurpers of Roman sovereignty in Spain, Gaul, and Italy, civilized individuals emerged who prized classical learning and did their best to preserve it. Theodahad (he reigned as Ostrogothic king of Italy from 534 to 536) offers the outstanding case, having been “learned in Latin literature and Platonic philosophy,” even though he “kept his Gothic moustache.”

In Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel, Gouguenheim points out that a Greek demographic presence linked the culminating period of Late Antiquity with the incipient phase of the Middle Ages in the West; and that presence persisted for centuries. “In the Europe of the High Middle Ages, many regions sheltered knots of ethnic Hellenes: Sicily, Southern Italy, and again Rome.” These communities supported literate elites, who contributed actively to the Latinate majorities among whom they lived, giving rise to such notable figures as Gregory of Agrigento (born 559), who became bishop in his native city later in life; George, Bishop of Syracuse, killed by the Arabs while on a mission to them in 724; Saint Gilsenus (mid-Seventh Century), a Greek-born monk living in a Roman monastery who evangelized in Hainault with Saint Armand; and Simeon of Reichenau, known as “The Achaean,” who belongs to the Tenth Century. In men like Simeon this Byzantine Diaspora reached well beyond Mediterranean Europe into the Rhine and Danube regions. Not only Greek but also Syriac Christians became additional mediators of the classical heritage at this time, driven from their homeland by the Jihad. “Paradoxically,” writes Gouguenheim, “Islam from its beginning transmitted Greek culture to the Occident by provoking the exile of those who refused its domination.” So, to be fair, did the Puritanical spasms of Byzantine court-theology in its regular iconoclastic moods. The persecuted iconodules, like the Syriac Christians, often sought refuge in Italy, Spain, or France.

Gouguenheim makes clear the conscious and deliberate indebtedness of the Carolingian Renaissance to these sustained currents from the East; he emphasizes the importance of the Carolingian Hellenophile project to the preservation and recirculation of Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian thought before the school of Aquinas. “From the court of the Carolingians to that of the Germanic emperors of the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, one does not cease to encounter men who interested themselves in Greek knowledge and culture.” Gouguenheim mentions how Pépin le Bref (reigned 751-768) petitioned the Pope for Greek texts and how Paul I responded by committing to royal custodianship various “liturgical books, manuals of grammar and orthography, of geometry [and] works of Aristotle and pseudo-Dionysius” along with “men capable of translating them.” Charlemagne himself employed an Italian of Greek background, Paul Diacre (720-799), “to teach Greek to the clerics” at a moment when a marriage seemed possible between his daughter Rothrude and a Byzantine prince. Charles the Bald (reigned 840-877) “was fascinated by Greek culture, to the point that he asked the Irish savant Duns Scotus Erigena to translate the work of [pseudo-Dionysius] towards 855.”

With respect to Aachen, Gouguenheim senses an “irresistible attraction for the Greek authors,” which carries over into the Ottonian period and even intensifies. “The reputedly obscure centuries of the Middle Ages were in reality animated by multiple intellectual rebirths.” Gothic Christianity, far from being averse to or irreconcilable with antique philosophy, “succeeded in the task of integrating antique culture within the Biblical framework of which [Christendom] was the issue.”

In addition to passing remarks, Gouguenheim devotes a separate chapter to the classicizing tendencies of the Syriac and Arab Christians, as distinct from their linguistic cousins and brethren in the Islamic faith. As part of Byzantium, of which their main region of Cappadocia was a province, Syriac Christians played a central role in constituting the Eastern theological discourse during the medieval centuries, continuing to do so even after they had fallen under the sway of the Caliphs, thereby assisting in the westward transmission of Attic and Alexandrian lore. Gouguenheim writes: “Insofar as one speaks of ‘Arabic-Muslim culture’ in the Seventh through the Tenth Centuries, one commits an anachronism… because the culture was at that time barely Muslim and was Arab only by displaced appellation.” Truly, “Syriac is closer to Hebrew than to Arabic,” and the elites of the Nestorian and Monophysite dispensations could generally boast bilingualism in their own tongue and the Koine of the Empire. The jolly idea of Muslim competence in classical learning, as Gouguenheim argues, rests on a misunderstanding: what Islam knew of Greco-Roman wisdom, which it possessed at no time extensively, it knew largely thanks to Syriac scholars. “The Syriac [Christians] were in effect the essential intermediaries of the transmission into Arabic of the philosophical texts of the ancient Greeks,” who generously gave far more than the reluctant takers took. Obtuse westerners betray their lack of discrimination and their poverty of real knowledge in failing to differentiate between Syriac culture and the Arabic-Muslim culture that, by means of the Jihad, conquered and cruelly stamped out Nestorian (and Coptic and Byzantine) society.

Unlike their Muslim beneficiaries, however, the Syriac Christians could assimilate the full range of Greek logic and speculation. The Johannine Logos stemmed from the Greek Logos and the Christianity of the Patres – whether Greek, Latin, or Syriac – therefore comported itself as a rational theology; already in Late Antiquity, Cappadocians and Syrians stood out as the chief developers of Neo-Platonism; emperors both Pagan and Christian sought counsel from the professors of Antioch’s renowned Daphnaeum.  In a chapter on “Islam and Greek Knowledge,” Gouguenheim notes that for Muslims, on the other hand, the Logos constituted an inassimilable scandal, subversive of the absolute submission to Allah’s commands, as articulated in the Koran, that the name Islam denotes. Islam kept of Greek thought “in general [only] that which could not come in contradiction with Koranic teaching.” Furthermore, “Greece – and so too Rome – represented a world radically foreign to Islam, for reasons religious, but also political”; and, unlike the Latinate and Frankish peoples, “Muslims did not interest themselves in the languages of those whom they had conquered” because “Arabic was the sacred language par excellence, and that of revelation.”

More aggressively, “Muslim rejection – or indifference – to Greek knowledge manifested itself again through the destruction of the cultural centers that were the monasteries, the Muslims not acting in this way any differently from the Vikings.” One could remark here, however, that the Vikings at least had the decency after two centuries to cease their predatory behavior and settle down as members of Christendom.

Multiculturalists and Islamophiles have pointed to the Abbasid establishment in Spain (Andalusia) called the Bayt al Hikma or “House of Wisdom” as proof of Muslim enthusiasm for classical learning. Gouguenheim demonstrates that this is another “seductive” misunderstanding, to which the fanciful eagerly yield. The “House of Wisdom” never functioned other than as a Koranic school, and even in that capacity it enjoyed only a truncated existence.

Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel celebrates a central figure, Jacques de Venise (Twelfth Century), who, not only metaphorically, brought Aristotle to Mont Saint-Michel. Jacques was a cleric of Venetian origin, as his name tells, who studied in Constantinople before reestablishing himself in France. Jacques, as Gouguenheim phrases it, through his Herculean labor of scholarship and translation, supplies “the missing link in the history of the passage of Aristotelian philosophy from the Greek world to the Latinate world.” It is a matter of colossal importance that Jacques, as Gouguenheim reports, “translated a considerable number of Aristotle’s works directly from Greek to Latin, making him a pioneering figure.” (Emphasis added) According to the story prevalent today, Aristotle in his fullness returned to the ken of Christendom through a complicated chain of transactions, beginning with supposed Arabic translations out of Greek, and then, by way of Moorish generosity, from Arabic back into Latin and over the Pyrenees. But the story does not wash. It is plagued by linguistic problems, which Gouguenheim duly rehearses, but it is flatly demolished by what Gouguenheim has discovered concerning Jacques’ work. Jacques’ manuscripts, which are in almost every case the earliest attested for a given Aristotelian opus, swiftly gained a reputation, well founded, for being the most accurate and idiomatic. Jacques’ translations gained wide currency and formed the basis for an Aristotelian revival all across Western Europe.

As Gouguenheim writes, “The two great names of theological and philosophical reflection in the Thirteenth Century, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, utilized [Jacques’] Greco-Latin translations.” In a manner, Jacques brought his project to too fine a point of perfection, reestablishing the Aristotelian tradition so effectively that his own pioneering status lapsed into oblivion, exactly in proportion as knowledge of The Metaphysics and the Analytics came to be taken for granted. Many of his original manuscripts lay unrecognized in the archives at Mont Saint-Michel until recent decades.

Perhaps the most stimulating of Gouguenheim’s chapters is the antepenultimate one, under the title of “Problems of Civilization.” “Medieval Islam,” Gouguenheim notes, “had not developed any real curiosity for societies exterior to it.” While the magnum opus of Persian literature, The Thousand Nights and a Night, saw its first European translation early in the Eighteenth Century, neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey ever interested any Muslim translator. “This absence of curiosity explains in part why the Middle Ages seem to comprise a paralyzing confrontation of several centuries, more often violent than peaceful, which the shared monotheistic belief better sustained than it ameliorated.”

But the notion of a common monotheism, while hopeful, might be misleading:

To proclaim that Christians and Muslims have the same God, and to hold to that, believing thereby that one has brought the debate to its term, denotes only a superficial approach. Their Gods do not partake in the same discourse, do not put forward the same values, do not propose for humanity the same destiny and do not concern themselves with the same manner of political and legal organization in human society. The comparative reading of the Gospel and the Koran by itself demonstrates that the two universes are unalike. From Christ, who refuses to punish the adulterous woman by stoning, one turns to see Mohammed ordaining, in the same circumstances, the putting to death of the unfaithful woman. One cannot follow Jesus and Mohammed.

Christianity was ready, moreover, to receive, not only the philosophy, but also certain basic political principles, of the ancient Greeks, particularly of the Athenians, such as “liberty, reason, and democracy.” Christian Europe in the medieval centuries was, indeed, in a position to admire from the ancient heritage – and to adopt critically – whatever might enhance its Gospel-based conviction of the free will of the individual. Thus the Attic achievement in particular lies at the elective root of a paradoxically self-identifying European culture. Islam knows only that it is Islam whereas Europe, when at its best, has always understood that it is itself and yet something else at the same time. A European sense of intellectual insufficiency and need gave unexpected strength to the progress and consolidation of the medieval mind. Europe would prove itself “permeable” in a way that Islam could not – convinced as it was of its own perfection ab origine. Thus, concludes Gouguenheim, “the Hellenization of medieval Europe was the fruit of Europeans,” who discovered, on their own, their filiations with the ancient societies.
Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel
is one of the most significant publications of the last few years. It is, I believe, destined to become a classic – not only in its original French, but also in the other European languages, once it has been translated. It dispels a myth, an invidious one that has long been central to the perverse palaver of western self-hatred. For those who, like me, command their French a bit unsurely, Gouguenheim’s prose is a miracle of balanced sentences and clear meaning. I would say that Gouguenheim’s study has a potentially large audience outside the academy and could become something of a popular success in the Anglophone nations.

Interesting, but...

... the devil may well be in the details here. My understanding has always been that Greek culture was transmitted jointly by Carolingians, Byzantines, and the Arabs. I haven't spent too much time figuring out who was responsible for which work being transmitted. According to K.J. Dover in his book Aristophanic Comedy, "we owe our enjoyment [of Aristophanes' comedies] today to the enthusiasm of a few Byzantine scholars and churchmen of the late ninth century" [p. 2].

And as I understand it, western Europe had always had access to a few works of both Plato and Aristotle. In the twelfth century, culture shock ensued when suddenly all of Aristotle's works became available. This was via the Arabs, and of course one can count on the left to spin this as much as possible to Muslims' credit and to the West's discredit. A few centuries later, all of Plato's works became available, and this was due to the Byzantines.

This, as I said, is my understanding, but I was educated before the left's "spasm" of Islamophilia -- nicely put, by the way -- so who knows what young people are absorbing these days? Anything that would counter what they are hearing from the left would be welcome.

"Charles the Bald (reigned

"Charles the Bald (reigned 840-877) “was fascinated by Greek culture, to the point that he asked the Irish savant Duns Scotus Erigena to translate the work of [pseudo-Dionysius] towards 855.”"

Perhaps the name meant is John Scotus Eruigena, b.810? John Duns Scotus, Doctor Subtilis, was born circa 1265.

Aristotle Has a Flemish Connection

Forgive me if you mentioned this but I did not spot it in my quick scan of the article. But does not the West owe a debt to a Fleming for our understanding of Aristotle?


"Willem van MoerbekeO.P.,(Moerbeke Geraardsbergen1215 - Corinth, circa 1286) known in the English speaking world as William of Moerbeke was a prolific medieval translator of philosophical, medical, and scientific texts from Greek into Latin. His translations were influential in his day, when few competing translations were available, and, more to the point, are still respected by modern scholars...At the request of Aquinas, so it is assumed—the source document is not clear—he undertook a complete translation of the works of Aristotle directly from the Greek or, for some portions, a revision of existing translations.."