Ernest Renan and Averroism: The Story of a Misinterpretation
My essay sets Ernest Renan’s famous study of Averroism, Averroès et l’averroïsme (first edition 1851) into the context of its author’s intellectual development. It shows how it can be seen in some respects as the precursor to his best-selling Vie de Jésus, because of its awareness to the importance of myth in intellectual history: myth not just around the founding figures of religions, but also in connection with the scientific texts which, by constituting an orthodoxy, obstruct scientific progress. Renan’s view emerges as a complex one, which holds in tension both the human spirit’s fecundity in fostering myth and misinterpretation, and the philologists’ scientific expertise in demythologizing and in correcting error. The concluding section examines how recent scholarship has cast aside the whole notion of Latin Averroism but, by doing so, risks missing the links captured by Renan between philosophy and wider intellectual life in the Middle Ages and early modern period.