True Wisdom Has Always Come From the East
Oscar Walle was not famous; you won’t find him by a Google search. He taught at an all-men’s midwestern college that aimed at academic excellence. The college does not exist any more, but I was in the third graduating class. Oscar Walle taught a course called “The History and Philosophy of Science,” and although there were memorable courses I carried away for the long haul, Prof. Walle’s course remains bright in my mind half a century later.
Walle emphasized that wisdom has always come from the East, and he demonstrated that by discussing the translation of Greek wisdom into the Arabic language. Avicenna was the big name for mathematics, and Averroes was the big name for philosophy. There were others in astronomy in particular whose work preceded that of Copernicus. Walle taught us that when we use terms like “algebra,” we are using Arabic. The word means “the numbers.” And the Arabs compiled the system. When we speak of alkali, alcohol, or alchemy we are using Arabic terms. (In the Mesilla Valley, Algodones Road, north of Las Cruces on Valley, is Arabic for “cotton” by way of Spanish.) The Arabs originated the number system we use in that golden period of intellectual development following the Muslim conquest of land.
Once there was land there were cities, and once there were cities there were houses of study – the earliest universities, called madrasas, were in places like Baghdad and Cairo – and once there were houses of study there was a burst of intellectual development. For many people, this remains either unknown or forgotten knowledge. Universities like Paris and Oxford and on our turf, Yale and Harvard, are youngsters in comparison to these ancient universities – all of which were free – of the Arabic Muslim world.
When we look at history, we discover that the Cordoba period was indeed a golden era. In Spain Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived and worked together in a brilliant rainbow of exploding intellectual content. Music, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, and religion – all of these flourished and grew and deepened in this crucible of human interaction. The traditions fed each other instead of being in competition with one another.
The second thing that Dr. Walle, along with other classes, helped me to realize is that the faiths that stem from Abraham – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – played an integral role in the intellectual development of the cultures that gave them birth. Nowadays people tend to think of one or two of these faith traditions (not Judaism) as anti-intellectual, even hostile to learning outside a very narrow band of thinking. Maybe so in pockets, but this was not and has never been the experience of the majority of the faithful. The scientific fervor found in the Cordoba period, for example, when these three faiths intermingled freely and exchanged ideas, concepts, and experiments, stands out as a time of bursting intellectual growth.
If this intellectual curiosity and exploration seem to be absent today, then those of us who claim these traditions must labor to make sure that they become dynamic once again. The question is, what has gone wrong so that people take some weird pleasure in being anti-intellectual? The answer seems to be that science and religion are perceived as being opposites. There are some exceedingly sad incidents in history where the two clashed, but they are that: incidents, not the main story across the centuries. We need to lay claim to the main story line once again, that intellectual advances in one area shed light upon and inform other areas. We need a generosity of spirit that embraces cooperation rather than competition.
published 19 April 2013