East and West, Present and Past: The Cultural and Political Interplays between the Arabic World and Europe

The course will consist of three main sections, historical, political, and aesthetic, respectively.

1) Historical Background: “Philosophy from West to East, to West again”. Analysis of the process through which a “terra franca” of philosophical culture spread in the Abrahamitic monotheisms (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) around the Mediterranean Sea in the Middle Ages, and joined intellectuals belonging to each of these three religions in a trans-national scientific community. Basic information on the key-figures and moments of the process: from Aristotle to Dante Alighieri (d. 1321), passing through the Greek-into-Arabic and the Arabic-into-Latin translations of classical texts of philosophy, with special attention to the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian protagonists of the process, and to specific examples of trans-religious interaction. Reflexes of the philosophers’ views in Medieval art and iconography.

2) Political Perspective: “The Past and the Present”. Through the aforementioned process, a well-defined paradigm of intercultural synergy took shape in the Middle Ages for the first time in history: Greek philosophy, shared through translations, provided a common rational basis to distinct cultures, each one of which affirmed its own language, religion, and political status, but was nonetheless able to interact with the others at a high cultural level, notwithstanding religious and political antagonisms, thanks to the universalizing force of the shared philosophical tradition. The peak of Medieval rationalism is reached in Arabic-Islamic philosophy, which pursues the goal of a totally rational – and, by the same token, moderate and tolerant – version of the Muslim religion, in replacement of the more literalist and radical interpretation by theologians. This Medieval pattern holds significant actuality and can be applied in various ways to the contemporary scenario: it regards the role of education in multi-ethnic communities; the emergence of new international and a-confessional issues and concerns; the re-assessment of the “de-radicalizing” role of philosophy in contemporary culture. Discussion of the motives of “clash of civilizations”, “cultural roots of Europe”, and “radicalism vs. tolerance”.

3) Aesthetic Dimension: “Images in Texts, and Texts in Images”. On the one hand, a decorative apparatus of “Western” ascendance is an integral part also of Eastern medieval manuscripts of philosophy: illuminations highlight pivotal parts of the text, illustrations help understanding the content, and decorations depict visually the work in globo; the status of “image” in Eastern medieval philosophical manuscripts has peculiar cognitive aspects of its own, since the text is often copied in geometrical and artistic shapes, raising the issue of whether the text or the image is the copyist’s main aim and the reader’s prime visual object, and of the perceptive relationship between the two. On the other hand, the Arabic script, deprived of any conceptual meaning, detached from religious connotations, and taken simply as an image, appears frequently as a decorative element in Western pieces of art (paintings, sculptures, buildings).