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. However, by the 11th Century the Muslim religious establishment banished Aristotle from the universities concluding his outlook was inimical to their faith, just before Aristotle was rediscovered in the West. Many religious scholars, both Muslim and Christian, were so fascinated with Aristotle's knowledge of the natural world that they tried hard to spiritualize or "correct" Aristotle's outlook in the hope that then it would not endanger faith. Both Muslim and Christian religious authorities were wary of Aristotle's outlook and in the long run both concluded his outlook could not be papered over. The Muslims were both quicker and more vigilant, the Christians more dilatory and divided and at the same time enthralled by Aristotle's knowledge. Attempts to ban his thought in the West were made in the 13th Century, but it was too late. Modern secular thought was let out of the bottle in the West; even though it still struggles to emerge for many Muslims and well as Christians. In the West, there are still many who would like faith to dominate reason. Currently, only 23 percent of Americans, for example, believe biological evolution to be correct. The story is far from over.
Another theme Rubenstein pursues is how Plato and Aristotle differ, even though they agree on many things. The Aristotelian Stance is one of "...unabashed admiration for the material and a distaste for mystical explanations of natural phenomenon..." plus an "optimism about human nature" (page 8). The Platonic attitude is that the "really real" are abstractions such as Beauty, Goodness, Justice -- Eternal Forms or Ideas. The sensate natural world Aristotle rejoiced in only reminded Plato "of a much better place" (page 29). Mystery was Plato's meat. Rubenstein feels some periods of history favor one stance over the other. In times of economic growth, political expansion, optimism and the like, the Aristotelian stance fits in. In times of discomfort and longing, where personal and social conflicts seen all but unresolvable, the Platonic stance kicks in. Plato, with mystery and supernaturalism, may be where many will cling to now. Rubenstein would like to go beyond these tendencies. He would like to restore a creative, rather than destructive, tension between reason and faith. They cannot be fused, but perhaps there can be a integration in which technology, using reason, is guided by a new, global morality based on a "mature and expanded" faith, a faith not threatened by reason. However he offers no road map for such startling developments, let alone any evidence that those of faith see any need to "mature." On the other hand we can see many road maps and much evidence for the outcome he fears, namely, that powerful elites will use both faith and reason for keeping and extending their power.