Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages
By Richard E. Rubenstein
Published in 2002
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
I read Aristotle’s Children as part of my ongoing studies of Islam in the Middle Ages. When I picked up the book, I thought it would be similar to the House of Wisdom and cover Islamic Golden Age thought. Instead, this book discusses the transmission of Aristotle’s works throughout the Middle Ages.
Instead, Islam is only mentioned in passing. Despite this, I thought that Aristotle’s Children made for a great read, especially for people interested in the history of philosophy.
I’ve not read very much Aristotle - the only text attributed to Aristotle that I’ve finished is Politics. Reading Aristotle’s Children helped re-familiarize myself with Aristotle’s works, and better understand the history of his writing.
There are two particularly stunning insights that Rubenstein lays out in the introduction. Both insights kept repeatedly hitting me over and over throughout the book, and have reshaped my way of thinking about philosophical and scientific progress.
The first is the idea of a “monolith.” There is a common trope in sci-fi movies, such as 2001 Space Odyssey, where humans find artifacts from a more ancient advanced alien civilization. These artifacts enable humans to progress rapidly technologically.
The reason why these stories resonate so strongly is because they actually happened. In the past, technological progress was not linear. Instead, there were pits and downturns. When people, during one of these long term technological downturns, rediscover the ancient works of an author such as Aristotle, they have their own “monolith moments.” The most obvious examples being the Islamic Golden Age’s translation movement and the Italian Renaissance where interest in the ancient classics was revived.
The second revelation was that the Catholic church has promoted, rather than opposed, historical progress. In modern pop culture, we imagine a dichotomy where the religious authorities are opposed to scientific and technological progress. This idea, however, only comes from the post-reformation world where reactionary protestants and Catholic Jesuits actively fought change.
By contrast, in the Middle Ages, much of the progress came from the church itself. The great thinkers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were funded, promoted, and endorsed by the church. A similar parallel phenomenon existed at the same time in the Islamic world, where the secular authorities and religious scholars worked together to promote the Islamic golden age.
Each chapter is written as a little history of a major thinker who supported or opposed Aristotelean thought.
The book opens with a biography of Aristotle himself, and a cursory summary of his thoughts and writings. It then covers the lives and thoughts of later thinkers such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Peter Abelard, and St. Thomas of Aquinas.
What I found to be the most fascinating was Rubenstein’s description of the loss and regaining of Aristotelian knowledge. At times, his work had slipped into obscurity, with all but his most famous tracts forgotten. Later, Aristotle would be placed on a pedestal, blindly followed by scholars regardless of the actual merits of his ideas.
It really goes to show that the authors of the past we remember today are different to those remembered in forgone days.
Another aspect I found fascinating was how various political and intellectual movements throughout medieval Europe would either support or reject Aristotle. Late in the Middle Ages, there would be significant intellectual battles fought in the universities of France and England over the degree to which Aristotle should be embraced or rejected.
Overall, this is a fascinating read. I recommend it to people interested in the history of philosophy, or to people doing a more in depth study of the Middle Ages.
The House of Wisdom: The remarkable story of how medieval Arab scholars made dazzling advances in science and philosophy and of the itinerant Europeans who brought this knowledge back to the West
By Jonathan Lions and Jim Al-Khalili
Published in January 2009
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
I decided to read this book after I saw Jim Al-Khalili’s 2015 Al Jazeera documentary series about the Islamic Golden Age.
Jim Al-Khalili is an atheist Iraqi British physicist living in the UK who, in addition to studying science directly, also studies the history of science. I found his documentary series to be very interesting, and his book, accordingly, did not disappoint.
This book covers how Islam went from a religion followed by backwards Arab nomads into the world’s most advanced reigning civilization for centuries.
Al-Khalili’s main argument is that the medieval Muslims, like other civilizations that rapidly progressed, did not do so from scratch. Instead, they did so by incorporating the knowledge of past civilizations such as the Greeks, Romans, Indians, Persians, and Chinese into their own.
The House of Wisdom’s main focus is the translation movement, which was funded by the Caliphs in order to transcribe the learning of other civilizations into Arabic. Al-Khalili argues that Islam achieved its high level of progress by understanding and assimilating this information, then building upon it.
Interestly enough, this model of civilizational progress seems to hold true for other civilizations - the Italian renaissance would, in turn, draw its own inspiration from the Islamic Golden Age.
In this book I learned about a wide variety of early scientific advancements made by the Muslims. This includes extensive progress in medicine, optics, and chemistry. Al-Khalili also covers Islamic scholarship in other areas such as theology and philosophy, albeit in less detail.
Most interesting was how the Muslim scholars integrated the Indian concept of “zero” with Greek mathematics to create modern math as we would understand it today. If it hadn’t been for the Arabic ability to integrate knowledge from different regions in Eurasia, the development of mathematics would have been significantly delayed.
Even modern scientific language often originates from Arabic. For example, the word “algebra” comes from the bastardized Arab word “al-jabr” which means the union of broken parts. Other obvious examples starting with “al” include “alchemy,” “alkaline,” and “alcohol.” Many stars were first named and observed by Muslims, as well as a wide variety of botanical names.
The scientifically curious and philosophically pondering Islam from the Abbasid Golden Age is long gone. Now, it has been replaced with a backwards and inwards looking religion that fails to produce quality scientists and thinkers.
The House of Wisdom offers modern readers a glimpse of a time when Islam was very different, and when Muslims led the world’s thinkers.
Overall, this book is a must read for anyone interested in several categories of knowledge: the history of science, Islam, or the Middle Ages. This book is well written, easy to listen to as an audiobook, and accessible to just about anyone.
By Chris Wickham
Published in November 2016
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
Medieval Europe is a survey history that focuses on institutional change in Europe from 500 until 1500. Due to its brevity, this book does not focus on the specifics, but rather on broad trends shaping states and social institutions.
I didn’t really like this book that much. First, I found that the information was too basic for me, because I have been studying the Middle Ages in depth for several years. However, I also think that this book is likely to be too complicated and too uninteresting for a neophyte who doesn’t have any background in the Middle Ages.
Chris Wickham’s writing style doesn’t jive well with me either. He makes many arguments to “go against” popular or academic conceptions of the Middle Ages. I don’t really care about oppositional statements, and find them very off putting in historical works like this.
The book had a lot of boring sections. Part of this is because the book is neither a narrative or a historiographical treatise. Narrative histories are less accurate and more prone to legends, but are interesting as they have characters and motives. Historiographical histories focus more on the methods of text analysis and archaeology, and are very intellectually stimulating.
This book does not cover many specific narratives as it is only intended to serve as a very broad survey. It also doesn’t cover the methods of historians and archeology.
I thought it was a pretty boring and very milktoast book which doesn’t have very many gems hidden in it. My recommendation is for readers to skip it entirely.
I did not finish the book, only made it roughly two thirds until the end before I put it down.
The Intelligent Investor
By Benjamin Graham (Updated by Warren Buffet and Jason Zweig)
Originally Published in 1949 (This edition updated in February 2006)
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The Intelligent Investor was originally published in 1949, but has been regularly updated every decade or so since. The result is that the original spirit of Benjamin Graham is there, at the bottom of the book, but the actual book I read recently is a mess of statistics and examples from a wide variety of disconnected decades.
I didn’t really like the Intelligent Investor that much. I thought that the advice was very much in the category of “do this do that” rather than a systematic explanation of concepts.
I was looking for a book that would tell me in depth what a stock and bond was, why people bought and sold them, and about the laws.
Instead of a descriptive work, this work is almost entirely prescriptive.
The book gives specific advice such as putting 75% of your money in stocks, and 25% in other instruments. It also gives vague advice like “don’t speculate.”
This book is great for average sophistication and intelligence people who have no idea what to do on the stock market with their life savings. It is essentially useless for people who just want to understand financial markets in greater depth.
That being said, there is good advice. Avoiding highly speculative investments, being conservative, and focusing on not losing rather than making big wins are all good to know. I like how he stresses to avoid the crowds.
This advice meshes well with the advice I’ve gotten from the many extremely rich and successful investors I’ve met.
However, some of his advice doesn’t mesh at all with what I’ve heard from the wise and successful.
For example, he advises against investing in industries that you are familiar with because you will enter the market with biases. This might be true for people who are doing things at a low level and have enough knowledge to be at the top of the Dunning-Kruger curve. However, this does not apply to people who are working at higher levels or as industry analysts. It also does not apply to people who have a pessimistic bias, only to those who have either an optimistic or greedy bias.
I recommend this book to anyone who is tempted by get rich quick schemes, but not to anyone else. Anyone who believes that ICOs, penny stocks, hot tech stocks, and amateur day trading will get them rich needs to read this book to disillusion them from their dangerous beliefs.
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed
By James Scott
Published in 1999
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
This is one of the best books I have read since I have started reviewing books. It is one of the few books that is a must read for everybody.
James Scott explains how the perceptions states have, which are often based off statistical ideation, often fail to align with reality. The result is that well intentioned policies often turn into disastrous affairs which ruin the lives of real people.
The book, despite having been written 20 years ago, is still completely relevant.
He goes over numerous examples of state policies throughout history, and explains how they failed because the states which sought to implement them did not perceive the realities on the ground. Scott’s examples are clear, interesting, and wide ranging through time and space.
Whether discussing forestry in Prussia, agriculture in the Soviet Union, or urbanization in Brazil, James Scott always impresses. His examples are so interesting and clearly written, that the reader always immediately understands what he wants to say.
This is the single best book I’ve ever read, with perhaps one or two exceptions, that explains why government policies fail.
Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain
By Joseph F. O'Callaghan
Published in September 2013
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
After reading two very biased histories about Spain in the Middle Ages, this book was a refreshing clear headed and impartial analysis of the period.
The Ornament of the World was biased towards the idea that Islamic reign was peaceful and tolerant. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise was specifically written to refute the arguments laid out in The Ornament of the World.
Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain acknowledges the achievements and horrors of both Islamic and Christian reigns. It was not written as an attempt to alter or rewrite the nature of history, or promote a political agenda.
The book focuses especially on the reconquest period, although it does briefly discuss the initial Arab occupation of Iberia. One key argument made by the author is that the Christian reconquest of Spain can be classified as a proper crusade, and fell well within the tradition of Middle Eastern crusades.
I recommend this book as a good starting place for people who want to learn more about the wars between Christians and Muslims in Spain throughout the Middle Ages, and does not want to be bombarded with a modern political opinion.
The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain
By Dario Fernandez-Morera
Published in February 2016
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is a refutation of the scholars like Maria Rosa Menocal who argues in books such as The Ornament of the World that Islamic Spain was a tolerant society.
I was shocked when I read Fernandez-Morera’s book to find that his view of Medieval Spain contrasted so sharply with Maria Rosa’s view, and that she barely described any of the violence.
Most notably was the ubiquitous presence of sex slavery in Islamic society. Muslim men would buy Christian women as sex slaves, then mass impregnate them. They would allow Christians to breed to keep a livestock population of second class citizens.
The sex slavery was just the tip of the iceberg. Countless massacres, genocides, and population displacements tormented the people of medieval Iberia. Churches and synagogues were razed, books burnt, and art destroyed.
In Dario Fernandez-Morera’s image of the epoch, Muslims are not enlightened despots. Instead, they are ravaging invaders.
I suspect that Dario Fernandez-Morera is closer to the truth than Maria Rosa Menocal, but need to questions his historiography as well. I am not sure that neighboring Christian societies were not just as barbaric as Muslim Spain. The Crusader States, which I have recently read about, also seem like they were very barbaric.
Either way, I gained a lot from reading the two books side by side. I recommend reading both books, and keeping in mind that both are biased.
The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
By Maria Rosa Menocal
Published in April 2003
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The point of this book is to argue that Islam was very tolerant and highly learned in the Middle Ages in Spain. This book was written with a clear agenda to make Muslims look good, and that is immediately disclosed in the book’s opening pages.
The history of the era is fascinating. I enjoyed learning about how Jews re-created Hebrew, and how Muslims preserved and translated Roman Classics. However that enjoyment was muted by what felt like a constant propagandistic tone that permeates the book.
For example, Maria Rosa Menocal tries very hard to downplay the martyrdom of Christians who protested against the Islamic government. She argues that the Christian martyrs deserved to be killed because they were troublemakers and provocateurs. This position struck me as very morally dubious.
My favorite chapter was the one describing how Maimonides developed Jewish doctrine. He essentially invented Hebrew, using old oral traditions and Spanish Arabic.
Overall, I don’t recommend reading this book alone. It is very biased in favor of the Muslim invaders. I read this book alongside The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise and found it really strange that Maria Rosa Menocal doesn’t address any of the horrors and extremely brutal aspects of the Islamic domination.
I do recommend reading this book along The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise for the sheer polemic value.
When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision of the Ages
By Jon M. Sweeney
Published in September 2014
Thibault’s Score: 1/5
After reading The Pope Who Quit by the same author, I decided to give his biography of St. Francis a go. Unlike his biography of Peter of Monroe which just jumps straight into the story, this book is laden down by unnecessary prefaces.
Out of the 4 1/2 hour audiobook, the first hour or so is entirely contained of disclaimers. These include warnings such as “This book will overturn what you learned in Sunday school” and “Saint Francis wasn’t perfect.” If there are more than 10 minutes / 4 pages of disclaimers on a book, I generally give it a bad review (unless its a 1000+ page survey of the Middle Ages by Chris Wickham, then its completely respectable).
For example, he relates a conversation with someone uninterested in history that he had. If someone is reading the book, then you don’t need to sell them on reading history books.
Long disclaimers seem characteristic of pop fiction. I’ve seen many short books where a quarter or half of the book will be nothing but disclaimers.
By the second hour, I still didn’t know the basics of who St. Francis was, so decided to stop listening and move on.
The Pope who Quit
By Jon M. Sweeney
Published February 2012
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The Pope who quit is a popular history of Pope Celestine V / Peter of Morrone.
Peter of Morrone was a Christian hermit monk and mystic who lived a hard and simple life. Because of papal infighting, he was named pope in 1294. He proved to be an incompetent pope, because he was more concerned with his spiritual life than he was the papacy. He only was pope for a few months until he retired, and died 10 months later.
I really enjoyed reading about the hard and simple life of medieval hermits. The extreme devotional behavior s shocking - displays of fortitude, pain endurance, and rigor.
It is always interesting to learn about the internal politicking and conflicts of the 13th century.
I recommend this book to people studying the Middle Ages. It is an interesting case study that neatly intersects with the rest of my research about the period.
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