The Transmission and Reception of the Intellectual Legacy of Greece

The Late Harvest of Hellenism: Muslim Baghdad and Christian Toledo

Introduction

Almost four decades ago I wrote a book called The Harvest of Hellenism. I am still very fond of the title, though I must confess that it is only half mine. The first half I stole from Heiko Oberman, the celebrated Reformation historian.  His work was called The Harvest of Medieval Theology, and I thought he would never miss the first half of his elegant title, as apparently he has not.  I wrote my Harvest when I was a member of a Classics Department, the Ministry of Internal Affairs for Hellenism, so to speak. My credentials were very mixed. I was a classicist—indeed, I could actually speak Latin—but my more recent training had been in what I suppose might be called Hellenism’s Foreign Office, in Princeton’s  Department of Oriental Studies, as it was called in those more innocent days. It was there that in I learned my still proud trade as an Orientalist—this was fifteen years before Edward Said appeared on the scene—and my particular field of Orientalism had to do with Aristoteles Arabus. The acute observer will note the Latin designation, am absolutely certain indication that here we are here dealing with something right out of the dark heart of Orientalism.

But indulge me a bit.  The transmission of Aristotle to the Arabs, or even the passage of Hellenic material generally into Islam, was a subject about which Professor Said either knew nothing—he was after all, as we never tired of remarking, a professor of comparative literature–or else cared nothing.  In any event, it was a rather odd omission on the part of someone so deeply interested in the encounter between the “Orient” and the “West.”  For Aristotle is surely “Western” and Muslims were, on the Saidian model, the very archetypes of the “Oriental.” If “Western” and “Oriental” no longer seem quite so useful as cultural tags, it is because we have all come to understand that our boundaries were in reality far more osmotic than we, or the fathers of our disciplines who set them, once thought, or, to change the figure, that cultural sowing might bear fruit in very different, and even very remote, fields.  What was sown in Athens was, if you will permit the expression, harvested in remote Baghdad and equally remote Toledo.

The Making of Hellenism

But before we look to the harvest, we must pay somewhat closer attention to the seed. I do not intend to rehearse the Harvest of Hellenism, though if I did, I suspect it would sound—or rather, I hope it would sound—quite a bit different from the debut version of forty-odd years ago.  Here I wish merely to point to a number of Hellenistic developments that profoundly influenced the entire future of what we call Hellenism.  My book was an attempt to look at what now appears far more clearly to all of us as the evolutionary history of Hellenism, its growth from a fifth and fourth century BC phenomenon in a few entirely Greek centers around the eastern Mediterranean into a far more widespread phenomenon in the age that followed upon the conquests of Alexander the Great, the era first described by art historians as “Hellenistic.”  I have no quarrel with that label—habent sua fata onomastica.  One knows that the life and society and art of the Greeks in the second century was different from what it had been two or three centuries before, and the word simply signals that we recognize that fact.

Before I describe its evolution, perhaps I should say what I mean “Hellenism.”[1]  Hellenism is, of course, a construct, one with a very long and important history in the West.  It has been constantly tampered with as it passed through our ancestors’ hands into our own, most notably perhaps during the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century and in the era of German Romanticism in the eighteenth.  What it meant to them was some kind of ideal, sometimes intellectual, sometimes political, sometimes aesthetic.  The last century, the old benighted twentieth, was not much taken with ideals after the bloodbath that opened the era, and laterally, even less taken by constructs.

But Hellenism was neither a modern nor even a European devising.  Hellenismos was “Greekness” to the generations after Alexander that had reason  to contemplate “Greekness” as a quality distinct from the “Otherness” that surrounded them.  The Hellenistic Greeks may have had the concept thrust upon them by the otherness of the surrounding world, but it was they who gave it content , not by stuffing it with their own considerable achievements but rather, as seems often to happen in such circumstances,  by archaicizing it.  There is unmistakable evidence that at least some Greeks of Periclean Athens thought they were living in a golden, even a paradigmatic age, but it was left to the Hellenistic Greeks living in other times and in other places to define that paradigm in concrete terms.

In our view, and certainly in Pericles’, the cultural goods of fifth century Greece were embodied in both its works and its institutions, the polis, for example, and in its primary transactional medium, the Greek language.  But the polis was overtaken by different political and social circumstances in the third and second century BC, and in Late Antiquity those who called themselves Hellenes lived amidst the physical remains of the polis, but with few of its institutions intact.  The language too was transformed, and despite frequent nostalgic glances backward toward the golden Attic ideal, the inevitable and entirely natural march of  Greek through koine to demotike went on.

What the Greeks of the Hellenistic era did manage to do was to freeze part of their inheritance, to halt its evolution or, as some prefer, its degradation into a later product.  You cannot freeze life, not yet in any event, but you can freeze a corpse and—I’m not sure if this is a pun or simply a callida junctura—the corpse in question was the corpus of Greek literature.  No random collection of body parts, this corpse.  It was a designer body, assembled out of what was regarded as the aesthetic and moral and intellectual best the Attic Greeks had to offer.  The process is the well known one of canonization, the task that falls to epigones, as surely as those second and third century Hellenes in Alexandria and Antioch and Pergamum and even Athens felt themselves to be.  That self identification is no simple matter, of course but I do not intend to pause on it since there are other equally complex matters to discuss.  The world had changed and those Hellenes now dwelling among the barbaroi,  as a triumphant minority, as in Alexandria, or as a sometimes beleaguered one as in Jerusalem, or Dura Europus or Bactria.

I have just called these latter-day Hellenes epigones, and they considered the past, their past, worth preserving, but not in a museum or in a Photian time-capsule in the manner of survivors, as the later Byzantines may have felt themselves to be.  The motive for the creation of a classical canon in Hellenistic times was of course aesthetic, to guarantee that the works measured up to an ideal style and tone, as we can observe in the instance of the pinakes-makers in Alexandria.  More, there was an attempt on the part of the Academic diadochoi to secure the authenticity of the contents of the canon, like those Christians who later assembled the New Testament canon.  Thus, in the first century BC, Andronicus of Rhodes put together the Aristotelian cannon by establishing both the authenticity of the work—he rejected the De Interpretatione as not from the master—as well as the authenticity of the text by comparing different manuscript traditions of the same works; he produced, in short, critical editions.

But there was another, more powerful motive at work, one that explains the profusion of handbooks, eisagogai, grammars and lectionaries that appeared at the side of the canons.  Two later philosophers of note, Porphyry in Greek and Boethius in Latin, had identical objectives, to present the work of the master, in this case, as often, Aristotle, in a readily intelligible form.  The aim was to achieve what we would call “packaging.”  What was being packaged was a vetted and closed body of texts and their Hilfsmitteln for the purpose of converting the barbaroi into Hellenes.  The school as an instrument of instruction had been devised earlier, but, apart from the odd Babylonian attempting to enroll in Plato’s  Academy, the employment of the school for the instruction of the barbaroi,  the mustyunaniyyun or “would-be-Hellenes,” as the Arabs might have called them, was the achievement of the Hellenistic Greeks who did not build walls to keep the barbarians out but scholastic filters to guide them in.  Conversion to Hellenism was not a difficult matter: you simply had to be willing enough and rich enough and smart enough.

It is important to understand what Hellenistic scholarship did.  If Hellenism is in one sense, our sense, all of what the fifth century Greeks thought and devised, their Hellenistic successors drastically reduced that total by winnowing out what was unwanted or unwonted, as Andronicus did with Aristotle’s Dialogues, or by compressing the merely useful into even more useful handbooks and digests.  No succeeding generation, including our own resourceful one, has succeeded in breaking through or working around that radical pruning: Hellenism is in content what the Hellenistic age tells  us it is and neither prayer nor fasting nor anthropology will add a single play to the Aeschylean canon.[2]

How did that extraordinary moment in human history get reduced to a package of texts?  The rapid answer is “times change.”  The glory that was Greece was not the glory that was Alexandria, to say nothing of the more diminished glories of Philadelphia Ammonitis or Selucia on the Tigris.  The world changed, and the earlier age left behind, thanks to the piety of  their  Hellenistic descendents, their footprints cast in texts and, in the end, only in texts.  As time passed most of the performative elements of Hellenism, the activities that were routinized in institutions, fell by the wayside: what went on in the assembly, the gymnasium, and the theater disappeared out of disinterest or disapproval, leaving behind the monumental but quite empty husks of the buildings that once housed their activities.

But if the content of we may now call the classical canon was reduced by Hellenistic tastes and scholarship, it was also expanded in another direction.  The Hellenistic era was the first great age of Western scholasticism, with its familiar twin pillars of classicism, a reverence for the literary past, and academicism, the handling of that textual past with tools and programs devised in and for the classroom.  Academic instruction was overwhelmingly oral in Plato’s day, but Socrates may have been the last academic who could get by without writing a book.  Indeed, the very notion of canon implies a text, as does the whole paraphernalia of Hellenistic scholarship.  The so-called apo phonês method of a teacher talking in the lecture hall and a student writing it down, the remote ancestor of today’s celebrity book, “as told to…”, though still attested in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, gradually yielded to the literary composition, the treatise tout court.

If the belletristic tradition of the later Hellenes veered off into prettiness or obscurantism or pure silliness, its more sober-minded cousin in the philosophy faculty embraced the ideal of didacticism.  It was important to understand the masters, hence the familiar propaedeutic triad of aim, utility and authenticity that appear in almost every introduction to the masters’ works.  And once these preliminaries were dispatched, the scholar-teacher who presided over the philosophical treasures of the past put his practiced hand to the hallmark composition of all scholasticism, the commentary.

For us who revere creativity more than canons, the commentary that combination of classical reverence and academic didacticism, seems like an overly altruistic exercise, an unfolding of someone else’s thoughts rather than our own.  And yet anyone who has dealt with any of the varieties of scholasticism, the Hellenistic, the medieval Western or the Islamic, understands that beneath the cover of classical piety there is innovation aplenty going on.  The Greek commentators on Aristotle from Andronicus of Rhodes onwards brought new and different understandings to the texts as did much later Ibn Rushd and Thomas Aquinas, because they were thinkers in their own right engaged in the ongoing pursuit of the philosophia perennis.  As is well known Alexander of Aphrodisias tweaked Aristotle’s remarks on the agent intellect “from the outside” in such a consequential fashion that echoes of it were still resounding in fourteenth and fifteenth century Europe.  Aristotle’s First Mover of the Physics and the Metaphysics Lambda was tossed and turned until Christian commentators like John Philoponus got it exactly to their liking.  And both Alexander and John Philoponus and what they did to Aristotle were well known to both the translators and philosophers working in Arabic in eighth, ninth and tenth century Baghdad.

Another familiar figure to the Arabs was Porphyry, Furfuriyus, as they called him and his innovations too had a profound affect on them, as we shall see.  Simplicius tells us that there was much ancient discussion on whether Aristotle’s Categories were about ways of  being or ways of speaking about being, terminal logic or what would have been for a good Platonist terminal metaphysics.  Plotinus thought the latter and wrote a critical treatment of them under the title “On the Classes of Being,”[3] but his student Porphyry thought not.  He maintained That the Categories were discussing not being but terms, albeit terms as signifying states of being.  The consequences were considerable.  By reason of Porphyry’s exegesis, Aristotle’s Categories, and indeed Aristotle generally, was inscribed in Neoplatonic discourse, and under this new dispensation logic could no longer be regarded as a part of philosophy but merely its instrument or organon,  useful whether the philosophy in question was Peripatheticism or Platonism.  Boethius in the West read and followed Porphyry’s Eisagoge in the fifth century, as did the Arab commentators in the eighth and ninth centuries and so both, the Latin and the Arab philosophical traditions embraced a metaphysics-free Aristotelian logic as the royal road into philosophy,

The Internal Transformation of Hellenism

I just remarked that some of the performative elements of antique Hellenism disappeared because of disapproval.  That note of disapproval, a flat-out opposition to Hellenism and its values, brings me to the next stage in the internal transformation of the construct, the resistance of  the Others.   It is a familiar subject; or rather, it is a complex story with one very brightly lit chapter.  We are all well informed and so well aware of the row some Jews put up when invited, sometimes politely, sometimes not so politely, to join the Hellenic feast.  Josephus has told us about it in detail and the books of Maccabees have laid out in chapter and verse—all in quite passable Greek, of course—the Jews’ encounter with Seleucid Hellenism.  The dust-up did not amount to much after all, and the Hellenization of Palestine seems to have continued apace before, during and after that more horrific Jewish collision with the Romans in 66-70AD.

That Jewish encounter with Hellenism and the Jews’ hostile reaction was repeated at other times and other places, among the Scythians and Lydians for example though we are far less well informed about those other instances.  We do not know how the Egyptian priesthoods reacted to the new order of things or the Magi of Iran, though we may suspect that they were somewhat more patiently compliant than the monotheistic fanatics in Palestine.  There is a more germane example at hand however, certainly for our purposes.  The Christians inherited their fanaticism honestly from their Jewish forbears, but they were not always easy with it, since, unlike the Jews, the second, third and succeeding generations of Christians down to perhaps the fifth century were Hellenes before they became Christians, a profound difference from the experience of both Jews and Muslims, and with critical consequences for these latters’  reception of Hellenism.

The coming together of Hellenism and Christianity is then a chapter in the internal transformation of Hellenism and not one of the passage of Hellenism into an alien culture.  By disposition and training, Origen, Chrysostom and the Cappadocians were perfectly at home with dialectic and episteme, and the reconciliation, if that is even the right word, of Hellenic discourse with its Scriptural counterpart seem neither daunting nor dangerous to the Greek Christians.  The dangers lay elsewhere, in the imperial chanceries where the fabric of Roman law had to be stretched and twisted to accommodate Christianity—the criminalization of paganism and then of heresy are two glaring examples—and in the streets of the great metropolises where popular fervor and/or sun-dizzied bands of Christian ascetics cast their strident and often violent vote against the trophies of Hellenism.  And it was the imperium it should be noted and not the Fathers who closed down the Academy in Athens in 529 and, if Agathias is to be believed, sent packing its faculty to a forced sabbatical in Iran.  They returned, Simplicius certainly did, but they were changed men, at least changed enough to pass the scrutiny of Church and empire.

The Roman Empire became officially Christian in the 380s when it completed its transit from an ignored assembly during much of the first and second centuries, to a persecuted sect in the third century, to a tolerated then a favored church under Constantine, and then finally the officially established religio of the empire under Theodosius.  The Christian attitude toward pagan cultus had been unwaveringly hostile from the beginning, and with Constantine that attitude began being incorporated into Roman law.  Paganism was finally banned, but again what was chiefly at stake was pagan worship, and in the first instance the state-supported cults.  But while Christians were willing to scrap over statues and altars and to tear down temples and tare up sacred groves, they did not much exercise themselves over what we might call pagan thought, including those of philosophy that provided an alternative view of God and the world from their own Scripturally derived version of the truth.  The Church fastened with great alacrity and glee upon the biblical notion of spoliatio Aegyptiorum, picking the pockets not now of Egyptians as the Israelites did, but of the Hellenes.  Christians, Greek Christians, might mock the myths but they were not about to mock Homer—which was, as Paul had already taught them to say, “an allegory”–much less Plato and Aristotle.

The fifth and sixth centuries were a critical period in the history of Greek philosophy.  An earlier generation of Christian intellectuals had pillaged the Greeks for all they were worth; delicacies from the table of  Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics were ingested and digested by the Fathers with little apparent harm to the well-being of Christianity.  But the long tradition of the schools had taken a turn where the Christians could not follow.

The Late School Tradition

In tracing the transmission and evolution of Middle Eastern Hellenism, we are served better by beginning close to the end of the process and attempting to work our way back to what appears to be crucial stage in that history, the school tradition of Late Antiquity. In 987 or 988 AD, the Baghdad bookseller Abu al-Faraj Muhammed ibn al-Nadim compiled his Fihrist or Catalog.  The work may have begun simply as a bookseller’s handlist, but the author’s own learning and curiosity and the bracing intellectual climate of Baghdad in that era eventually produced something more ambitious: the Catalog is nothing more or less than a 10th century A.D. encyclopedia of the literary arts and sciences of Islam.  From calligraphy to alchemy, Ibn al-Nadim noted down, with biographical and historical comments, the sum of the books of Islam.  But it is something more as well.  The Catalog pays particular attention to the Muslims’ translation activity, and so it is one of our better guides to their understanding of the philosophical and scientific landscape of the world as it passed from Late Antiquity to the high culture of medieval Islam.  With the Catalog in hand it is possible to describe in some detail how much and what kind was the “foreign” heritage available to the Muslims, and to make the surmises as to why it was such.

Two extraordinary elements of the Hellenism inherited — or Brad’s better, expert created — by Islam spring immediately to eye from the pages of Ibn al-Nadim.  The complex of literary, political and philosophical values we call Hellenism had met and in varying degrees transformed other cultures, even religious cultures, in earlier encounters, but it was normally through a native intelligentsia that had already learned Greek.  The encounter of Hellenism with Islam was, however, remarkable: the Muslim accepted neither the language nor the humanistic values nor, he thought, the religion of the Greeks; his borrowings came exclusively through translation and, more, was severely limited to a technical and scientific Hellenism.  The few professional translator apart, the Muslims knew Greek philosophy but no Greek, read Plato and Aristotle, Euclid, Galen and Ptolemy, but never so much as glimpsed a page of Homer, Sophocles or Thucydides.

This latter omission was not the Muslims’ own choice.  In the centuries before the Muslims came in contact with that culture, the humane values of the Hellenic legacy were absorbed, transformed or discarded by Christianity.  As a result, the rich horde of scientific learning that the Cataloge reveals was transmitted almost intact to the Muslims, accompanied by a few random ethical gnomai but with little real understanding of Greek paideia, the cultural and humane ideals of Hellenism. His easy separation of the head from the trunk reflects ominously on the educational practices of Late Antiquity, when higher education must have been so severely professional in tone and content that was possible to pass to others the curricula of the natural sciences, medicine and philosophy without any intimation that they were once part of an enkyklios paideia, a general education that included grammar and rhetoric.

As we read the evidence, Frederick was the chief vehicle for the professional study of humane letters in Late Antiquity.  It was a popular subject even among the Christian intelligentsia, and they were in doubt municipal chairs and rhetoric scattered over the provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire.  But there was one venue in Late Antiquity that was, despite its high professional standards in medicine, philosophy and the mathematical sciences, notoriously uninterested in rhetoric.  Egypt with its great intellectual center at Alexandria, conforms very precisely to a hypothetical source for the Muslims’ scientific but decidedly illiberal version of illness.  The University there, which was still very much alive in the seventh century A.D., had a curriculum that was strongly developed in philosophy and the sciences (particularly medicine and mathematics, and weak in rhetoric — the humanities and law.

We are not very well informed on the higher schools of the early Byzantine Empire. Something is known, however, of the teaching of philosophy at Athens in Alexandria in the fifth and early sixth centuries A.D., and what is plain in the evidence is that whatever the homage rendered to Aristotle, it was one or another variety of Platonism/Neoplatonism that dominated the few places where philosophy was formally taught. The Muslims were confused on this matter.  Most of them were transparently Neoplatonists and yet they were we so oblivious of the true nature of their Platonism that they could not identify its author.  The lecturers at Athens and Alexandria knew its true identity, however.  Truth lies in Platonic orthodoxy, Plotinus had taught, and his Greek successors did not forget the lesson.  But the Muslims, who had as much claim to be the heirs of Plato as the Hellenized Damascius or Olympiodorus, did not recognize their affiliations and read Plotinus as a pseudepigraphon: an abridgment of Books 4-6 of the Enneads circulated in Islam under the title of the Theology of Aristotle.

Ibn al-Nadim knew nothing of the actual Plotinus.  Even his treatment of Plato in the Catalog is foggy and unenlightening; a jumble of academies, a scattering of commentaries that had been turned into Arabic and not much more.  The entry represents, we assume, the little about the Platonic school tradition or its practitioners that was known to ibn on the Dean or his sources and catalogs review of the post-Aristotelian philosophers reveals the same perspective.  The list includes Theophrastus, Proclus “the Platonist,” Alexander of aphrodisiacs, porphyry and others, a hodgepodge of names drawn from unknown sources in which include Gregory of this pantheon of Smyrna, “whose periods and order of sequence are not known.”  In the entire group only Proclus and neon identified as Platonists; the rest are seen almost exclusively to the focus of an Aristotelian exegetical tradition.

When and where did this curious myopia arise? in talking about the Late Antique scholastic tradition, we mean nothing more than the history of the Platonic schools.  At the beginning of the third Christian century, the actual schools of Epicurus, Zeno and Aristotle were more abundant, if not dead: after 200 A.D. there existed among the Greeks of the Empire only the Platonic academies at Alexandria and Athens and their lesser reflections at the media and Pergamum.  And 400 years later, on the eve of the Muslim invasion, there remained only Alexandria.  The final Masters in Alexandria and the solitary and non-teaching Platonic contemporary at Athens, where, however, deeply invested in his study of Aristotle.

Somewhere within this paradox lies the explanation of the Muslims’ confusion about their own philosophical identity.  The Athenian Academy traced its mixed Platonism of the second and third centuries A.D. to the insights first of Plotinus (d. 270), and then of Porphyry (d. circa 306), Iamblichus (d. 325) and Proclus (d. 485), men whose penchant for magic and the occult proved dangerous and finally deadly to Athenian Platonism.  The pains of this transformation from Platonists to somewhat disingenuous syncretizing, from philosophers to theosophists, were lost on the Muslims, though they had perhaps inherited, without fully understanding it, the same dissimulations that enabled the Alexandrian Platonists to outlive their Athenian colleagues.

One of Proclus’ fellow students at Athens under the brief tenure of Syrianus as scholarch (432-437 A.D.?)  was Hermias, and it was from him that the last Alexandrians descended.  At Athens itself Proclus’ immediate successors, Isidore and Zenododtus, were not distinguished.  We are aware of them solely from Damascius’ Life of Isidore, an important historical source denied to the Muslims; no trace of their own work survives.  There were, in addition, growing difficulties with the Christian authorities.  Even Proclus, who could be prudent when need be on the subject of his paganism, was forced to go into exile for a year.  His successors in the Academy were apparently less careful in a world that had reached the limits of its tolerance of the old heathen cults, and in 529A.D the Emperor Justinian closed down the Athenian school for good and confiscated its properties.

There followed a curious and interesting sojourn of the seven Athenians philosophers, including the current Platonic “successor” Damascius and his student Simplicius, at the court of the Sasanian Shah Khusraw I at Ctesiphon.  Their stay there was exceedingly brief, less than a year perhaps, before they returned to Byzantine territory under the terms of the peace treaty of 532, and so it is probably unwise to draw many conclusions from the episode. When it was all over what was left can be described only as a chastened Platonic paganism.  Such was certainly the posture of Simplicius who, upon his return to Athens after 533, devoted his researches exclusively to the study not of Plato but of Aristotle.  On his return from Persia Damascius was well into his 70s, but Simplicius still had an active career before him.  But not as a teacher.  Lecturing had ceased forever in the Athenian Academy, and so Simplicius became of necessity a library scholar, a philosopher whose chief monuments are his learned commentaries on Aristotle. Of these the Muslims appear to have known only those on the Categories and On the Soul.  They did not possess his extensive commentaries on the Physics or On the Heavens, though they were well instructed on the controversies with the Christian philosopher John Philoponus that unfolded there.

How Philoponus and Simplicius, both students at Alexandria of Ammonius, who had in turn matriculated with Proclus at Athens, came to be debating Aristotle and not Plato in the first half of the sixth Christian century carries us back to Ammonius himself.  Like his father Hermias, Ammonius had gone to Athens for his philosophical education.  Both men, father and son, eventually return to Alexandria to teach and write, hernias on Plato and Ammonius chiefly on Aristotle.  The interest in Aristotle is not strange in someone trained in the Platonic tradition that had been studying peripatetic works at least since the days of Plotinus and porphyry, but the publication of almost exclusively averaged Acadian material is curious and abrupt.  And among its results was the fact that the Muslims, who had limited literary access to Late Antiquity, regarded Ammonius and his successors almost exclusively as Aristotelian commentators.

Ammonius’ students dominated at both Athens and Alexandria during the next generation; the Athenian “successor” Damascius, who was unknown to the Muslims, and his student Simplicius; Olympiodorus, Asclepius and John Philoponus at Alexandria.  Olympiodorus, who was almost certainly not a Christian, appears to have moved nonetheless to a more accommodating posture vis-à-vis Christianity, but there is no mention of a Christian in the Catalog until the next of Ibn al-Nadim entries that on John Philoponus, “a bishop over some of the churches of Egypt, upholding the Christian sect of the Jacobites.”

John “the grammarian,” as the Muslims called him and as he styled himself (grammatikos) in his own works, was a well-known figure in Islam as an Aristotelian commentator, a medical writer and historian, and, considerably more obscurely, as a Christian theologian.  Over the years John’s interests apparently turned away from his earlier scholastic work under Ammonius.  His redaction of his professor’s notes on the Physics dates from 517A.D, but by 529, the same year that Justinian closed the Academy for its flagrant paganism, Philoponus was working in a far more Christian vein.  In that year it appeared his On the Eternity of the World against Proclus, followed shortly by the complementary Against Aristotle, a twofold attack on the current Neoplatonic position on the eternity of the cosmos.  The Muslims, who naturally shared Philoponus’ view of creation in time, were highly interested in the controversy and could follow it closely through their Arabic versions of the Timaeus (albeit in an epitome), Aristotle’s On the Heavens and Physics, Proclus’ Arguments and commentary on the Timaeus, and, finally, Philoponus’ own refutation.  But they knew or cared nothing about the rest of Philoponus’ career after 530A.D, his progressive involvement with Christian theology and his final bout with tritheism.

In the Muslims’ version of the history of philosophy, Olympia adores’ Christian students at Alexandria, Elias and David, have no place, nor do the Christian Platonists of Gaza: NES, Zachary is the Bishop of nephilim the, and his brother Procopius.  The last known skull Ark at Alexandria, Stephen, was summoned to Constantinople sometime about 616A.D to assume a teaching post their.  His portrait among the Muslims is thin but congruent with Greek sources.  Stevens commentaries on the Categories and On Interpretation were extant in Arabic, as well as some medical writings.

This is the end of the Greek philosophical tradition in Late Antiquity.  Stephen, who served Heraclius, touches the chronological limits of Islam.  The Muslims who followed piece together their knowledge of that tradition from the philosophical texts available to them, and from a far less easily identified set of historical perspectives.  Both, however, betray their origins in a clear way: clustered around the works of Aristotle on the names of the great commentators from the Platonic school tradition at Alexandria from Ammonius in the fifth century A.D. to Stephen in the seventh.  From there it is possible for us, though not for Ibn al-Nadim and his Muslim contemporaries, to trace the connections back to Porphyry in the fourth century, the man who introduced the textual exegesis of Aristotle into the curriculum of the Platonic schools.

Porphyry and the Organon

On the witness of Porphyry’s biography of his teacher, Aristotle was  carefully and critically studied by Plotinus.  Porphyry did the same, and in a somewhat more systematic manner than Plotinus, whose approach to philosophy had been formed in his own teacher’s notoriously informal seminars.  There may have been some sense of a school curriculum in the Platonic academic tradition before Plotinus, a notion that was ignored by Plotinus but reestablished by Porphyry.  And it is clear from  Porphyry’s own work that Aristotle was part of that curriculum.  Porphyry was the first Platonist to produce formal commentaries on the treatises of Aristotle, a fact that guaranteed in the sequel that Aristotle would be studied in the Platonic schools.

According to the view that emerged in the post-Porphyrian version of the (Neo-)Platonic school tradition, they were two major branches of philosophy, that which had to do with the various manifestations of physical reality, the study known generally as physics, and that which devoted itself to the contemplation of super-sensible reality, that is theology, or, to use the word favored by the later Platonic pietists, “mystical viewing” (epopteia).  Whatever role ethics might have played in the scheme, it was severed from its original connection with politics and reduced to the status of a cathartic preliminary to the study of philosophy proper.

The position of logic was paradoxical.  On the Aristotelian view, logic was a method, or instrument (organon), and not a part of philosophy.  This was a departure from Plato’s teaching, which united dialectic and metaphysics, philosophy and philosophizing, in an intimate and inviolable union.  The later Platonists continued to pay lip service to the Platonic ideal, but in reality they were dogmatists and not dialecticians.  Whatever they might have said about dialectic, they used logic as a tool, and in the manner set down by Aristotle.  Porphyry installed the Aristotelian logical Organon as the starting point of the curriculum, and it remained there during the rest of the history of the Platonic  School

From the Organon, prefaced by Porphyry’s own enormously popular Introduction (Eisagôgê), the Platonist place proceeded to the study of the Aristotelian philosophy proper, particularly the physical and psychological treatises.  When Proclus was doing his studies at Athens in the fifth century, the Aristotelian part of the curriculum took two years.  At its completion the student was ready for natural theology, a theology that was, of course, Platonic and centered upon the exegesis of the Timaeus and the Parmenides. Beyond that lay the sacred theology of the Chaldean Oracles, the touchstone of late Platonic theosophy.

This was, we are certain, the standard curriculum in the only surviving philosophical school in Late Antiquity the Platonic.  It was not, however, what was passed on to the Muslims.  What they knew of the curriculum came from translated examples of a standard “Introductions to Aristotle” and not from what was actually being taught in the schools of Athens or Alexandria.  The laying out of the Aristotelian treatises from the Categories to the Metaphysics, the arrangement found in Ibn al-Nadim’s Catalog. What determined the structure of most Muslim encyclopedias of the “foreign sciences,” was not a curriculum at all area rather, it was a scholastic “division of the sciences” familiar from a number of preserved Muslim examples.  The simple fact is that neither we nor the Muslims have much information about the actual curriculum of any Aristotelian school.  

From Alexandria to Baghdad, But How?

Before we look to the reception of Hellenism in Islam, we must return briefly to the stages along the way from Alexandria to Baghdad.  This last phrase “from Alexandria to Baghdad,” is the title of a monograph published in 1930 by the medical historian and Orientalist Max Meyerhof.  In it he exploited a number of brief notices in Arab authorities, the earliest preserved being the work of the cultural historian Mas’udi from ca. 955-6, to the effect that the sole remaining school of higher education in Late Antiquity, that at Alexandria, was transferred sometime about 720 AD to Antioch, thence to Harran ca. 850 which was the place from which teachers of ancient learning reached Baghdad in the first decades of the10th century.  It is a very schematic tale, this hitching of Islamic learning to its Greek antecedents by what the Arabs call an isnad, an unbroken chain of authorities that guarantee the authenticity of the product.  In this particular case what was being guaranteed was the authenticity of the scholarly tradition in Baghdad, in the first place the medical tradition, but philosophy was involved as well.

Though there is no echo of this tradition in any of our Greek sources, it has long prevailed among Islamicists.  More recently it was revisited by Gotthard Strohmaier in 1987, by Joep Lameer in 1997, and Dimitri Gutas in 1998 and its credibility attacked.  In fact, we know nothing about the philosophy faculty at Alexandria after the departure of  Stephen to take up residence in Constantinople in the 610s.  The presence of Antioch in the isnad may be, as Lameer has suggested, merely a nod toward the Nestorian Christians whose theology had scholarly connections with Antioch in an earlier day and who were certainly prominent, though by no means unique, contributors to the translation movement into Arabic.

But what of Harran?  Here the issue is far more complex since the Sabians, a group of Syriac-speaking pagans originating in Harran, were high-profile figures in Baghdad in the 9th and 10th centuries as both translators and scientists.  There was arguably a Harranian scientific tradition; was it also a school tradition as the story just related seems to indicate, or was Harran included in the tale as a nod to the Sabians as the inclusion may have been to the Syrian Nestorians?  That may be, but when we turn from surmise to hard information, we must confess that Harran remains an enigma to us.  According to the Muslims, the Sabians were people of Harran, a town whose remains still exist just south of Edessa (Urfa) in modern Turkey not far from the Syrian frontier.  The Sabians were pagans who managed to gain at least a temporary tolerance from the Muslims on the grounds that they too were “People of the Book” and so a protected minority.  There scholars were tri-lingual in Greek, Syriac and Arabic and were particularly skilled in Greek mathematics and astronomy.

If we attempt to move backward from this well attested academic if occult tradition at Harran to the days before Islam, we have trouble in making the connection.  The Greek sources remember Harran as a pagan enclave–how it managed to avoid Justinian’s pagan-hunting expeditions in Anatolia is hard to explain—and the extant remains point to an elaborate cultus of the heavenly bodies.  But there is no sign of a school tradition of the type underlying the scholarship of the Harranians working in Baghdad in the 9th and 10th centuries.  Recently, an attempt has been made by Michael Tardieu to find, or rather to verify, just such an academic tradition at Harran.  We have just heard the Arab tale of the movement of the Alexandrian school to Antioch and then Harran before it reached Baghdad.  Tardieu has connected this with another famous and previously cited story that of the migration of the Athens faculty to Iran and the return of at least Simplicius to resume his work in the Byzantine Empire, though now not on Plato but on the far safer Aristotle.  Tardieu thinks that Simplicius was actually teaching in some type of philosophical academy at Harram and thinks to have found some trace of this sojourn in Simplicius’ Commentary on the Physics, in particular in a reference to a calendar in use in Harran.  Simplicius was certainly in the area, and Tardieu has pointed to a mention in Simplicius’ commentary on the De Coelo to his own descent of the river Khabur in Mesopotamia, which flows from Resh  Ayna near the Turkish border into the Euphrates east of modern Dayr al-Zur.  Reaction to Tardieu’s hypothesis has been mixed: some have embraced the notion of a Harran academy, others remain skeptical.

Sergius of Resh Ayna

Resh Ayna brings us, not entirely by coincidence to one of the major figures in the passage of Greek thought into Islam.  Most of the works of Hellenism passed through Syrian hands on their way into Arabic.  Chief among those Syrians in pre-Islamic times was Sergius (d. 536), physician, priest and archdeacon of that same Resh Ayna.  Before he began his scientific and philosophical work in Resh Ayna, Sergius had studied in Alexandria, certainly medicine, as is apparent from his translations of Galen, but likely philosophy as  well since recent analyses of his studies of the Categories have revealed a close correspondence to the commentaries of the influential Alexandrian scholarch Ammonius who was teaching there in Sergius’ day.  If Ammonius was an immediate influence, Sergius took his Aristotle, the Aristotle of the Categories, from Porphyry as surely as Boethius did in the West.  Syriac translations of both the Categories and Porphyry’s Eisagoge have been falsely attributed to Sergius ; he certainly wrote on the Categories and he equally certainly knew of the Eisagoge.  And, again like Boethius, Sergius had in mind a large scholastic project of explaining and commenting upon the works of Aristotle, though here too only a fragmentary piece of the project was completed.  Finally, Sergius, the Christian and the churchman, brought into Syriac a  substantial part of the Pseudo-Dionysian body of writings and so opened another broad passage of Platonism into Christian thinking.

Hellenism and Eastern Christianity

The widespread Muslim celebration of Aristotle’s, to which Ibn al-Nadim bears such detailed witness, was novel event in the Middle East.  During the preceding five centuries, the few professionals apart, all those who studied the philosopher did so from a far more limited and pragmatic perspective than that which the Muslims brought to the task. The Neoplatonists had granted him a place in their curriculum, but it was a subordinate one.  And the Christians too, when they discovered their own need of Aristotle, was even more severe in their restrictions on his use.

The Christian use of Aristotle was, in the end, more important than the restrictions placed upon it.  The works of the great Eastern Neoplatonists appeared in no other language but their original Greek until the coming of Islam; Christianity and its theologians leapt cultural frontiers, including that which separated the hellions from the Semites of the Aramaic speaking East.  Before there was an Arabic Aristotle, there was a Syriac Aristotle, who served, in this limited capacity, the cause of Christian theology and whose chief interpreter among the Christians Arameans east of the Euphrates was Sergius of Resh Ayna.

The Syriac literature was properly a creation Christian times, the Aramaic-speaking peoples of the Middle East had been living within a Hellenized media since the time of Alexander’s conquests.  And if that Edessa the contact between Aramaeans and Hellenes produced a literature that was overwhelmingly Christian in its sentiments and interests, the same contact at nearby Harran brought forth a far different cultural mix: pagan, scientific and occult rather than meditative, ascetic, musical and primarily Christian.  Harran produced no literature until the days of the Muslim conquest, but what was otherwise revealed there shows that Greek learning had been at work in some of the Semitic centers of the Middle East for a considerable time, and that not all of its offspring were impeccably Hellenic.

The Christian embrace of scholastic Platonism of the type prevalent in the schools from Porphyry to Proclus was hesitant and, in the end indirect.  The Neoplatonists were among the severest intellectual critics of Christianity, and neither the polemics of Porphyry, the attempts at a Neoplatonic revival by the Emperor Julian, nor the theurgic pieties of Proclus reassured the Christian intellectual that there was some common ground between Jerusalem and Athens.

What chiefly concerning Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries was the great Christological debate erupted into open schism and the two Church councils of Ephesus (431 and 449 A.D.) and the climactic one at Kelsey done in 451 A.D..  The fathers assembled at Kelsey done had condemned and not the site is in, but by the mid-sick century of Egypt and Syria were largely mum Hasidic in their sympathies and conviction.  The great ideologue of the sect was a Bishop Severus of Antioch (died 538), but their great strength lay in the labors of missionaries, not theologians, men like Jacob Baradei (d. 578), who, through the friendly influence of the Empress Theodora, was consecrated bishop of Edessa and, in the years that followed, almost single-handedly reconstituted the sore-pressed Monophysite hierarchy in the East.

Aristotle and the War of Words

Severus was a theologian of some subtlety, and the Christological controversy itself was inextricably interwoven with semantic considerations.  The Chalcedonians, Monophysites and Nestorians were engaged, as none of their predecessors had been, in a veritable bellum lexicographicum fought over the meanings of substance, nature, person, and hypostasis. The terms had arisen gradually into view since Nicea, but by 500 A.D. none could follow the turnings of the polemics without considerable instruction in what had unexpectedly come to be the handbook to the theological warfare, the Organon of Aristotle.

The theologians of Antioch may have been the first to lay their hands on the new weapons, and because they were primarily exegete rather than metaphysicians in the Alexandrian style, they found the logician Aristotle of more use than the theologian Plato.  The primary exegete of the Antiochene school, “The “Interpreter” par excellence, was Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428 A.D).  His approach to Scripture was carefully literal and historical, and his exegetical instruments were dialectical in the manner of Aristotle rather than allegorical in the style of Plato and the later Platonists.

Edessa and Nisibis

Whatever the judgments about Theodore’s own orthodoxy, he held for the East Syrians the same position that he held that Antioch, that of the authoritative exegete of the Christian Scriptures.  We do not know a great deal about theological instruction at Antioch, but it seems highly likely that during Theodore’s lifetime, or in the century following, training in Christian exegesis was necessarily preceded by some kind of instruction in Aristotelian logic since the introduction of Theodore’s works and methods into the Syriac-speaking school at Edessa was marked by the simultaneous appearance of the Organon in the curriculum there.

The school at Edessa, which was founded during the lifetime of the famous deck for an is Syrian (died in 373A.D), was the primary center for higher theological studies among the Aramaic Christians of the East, both those within the borders of the Roman Empire and those farther East under the rule of the Sasanian shahs. During the first half of the fifth century A.D. instruction in Edessa was closely tied to the theology of Antioch, and it was during that period that the works of Theodore were translated into Syriac and made the basis of the program of studies.  It was then too that Proba, one of Theodore’s translators, turned his hand to the Aristotelian logic.  Parts of this Syriac translations of Porphyry’s Eisagoge and Aristotle’s On Interpretation and Prior Analytics have been preserved, and the Categories too must have come into Syriac at that time.

In 431A.D that same Council of Ephesus condemned the Christology of Theodore’s student Nestorius.  The notorious connection of the Edessan faculty both with Nestorius and Antioch began to create problems with the ecclesiastical authorities in Syria at this time, and particularly when Hiba, a great champion of Theodore of Mopsuestia, was promoted to the bishopric of Edessa in 435.  Keep his power and prestige protected the school until his death in 457, but they are after the faculty at Edessa, still faithful to the end of teen tradition, was discomforted by the rising tide of my Monophysitism, until in 489 the Emperor Zeno ordered the school to be closed for good.

Even before the final closure, some of the faculty at Edessa had begun to migrate to the friendlier atmosphere of the Shah’s territories to the east. They included Narsai, who had been the director at Edessa for 20 years and who, sometime after 471, crossed the frontier to the town of Nisibis and opened their a new school, or rather a continuation of the old school in a new location.  In the genuine and you are keen in the guessing tradition, a skull Ark was also “Interpreter.”  But if exegesis was the principal concern of the school, he was undergirded by instruction in the elements of writing, including a copy of manuscripts, and in reading the Scriptures of Syriac-speaking Christianity.

It is difficult to draw many conclusions about the substance of the curriculum at my seat is except that it was, on the face of it, resolutely theological.  There are, however, some occasional illuminations.  One is the work of the Syrian called “Paul the Persian” in the Byzantine sources.  This Paul debated with a Manichaean in Constantinople in 527, and later wrote for Junillius, the Quaestor of the Sacred Palace, a Greek version of the hermeneutical textbook used at Nisibis.  This Parts of the Divine Law shows the now close relationship between the Antioch-Edessa-Nisibis exegetical tradition on the one hand and the Aristotelian logic on the other.  The first part is quite simply an adaptation of a Porphyrian-Aristotelian “How to Read a Book” to the reading of the Bible; the terminology is lifted directly from the early Syriac translations of On Interpretation.

The second section of the Parts of the Divine Laws lays down, in a didactic manner, the theological principles underlying the study of Scripture: God, His essence and power; the Divine Names; creation and providence; the present world, its creation and governance; an analysis of free will and its works; and finally, the world to come.  Again, the method is scholastic and Aristotelian, and the resemblance to what Muslim theologians would be discussing in the eighth century A.D. is no less striking.

In the sixth century the school of Nisibis fell upon hard days.  In 541 one of the teaching staff, Mar Aba (d. 557) was named Nestorian Catholicos or patriarch at the Sasanian capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, but the promise of the event came to nothing when Khusrau Anushirvan Kris closed down the school and shortly afterwards sent the new Catholicos is a into exile.  What occurred instead is that Christian physicians began appearing in Sasanian court circles, and when Nisibis was eventually we opened, it boasted a new medical faculty.

The last great director at Nisibis was Henana, who after a stormy 30 year career as “The Interpreter,” led the bulk of his students and faculty out of Nisibis and into a form of self imposed exile.  This occurred about 600, and the school never recovered.  The immediate cause of the dispute was Henana’s  attempts at replacing Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Antiochene exegetical tradition with something palpably more Alexandrian and Platonic, a position that struck many of his Nestorian contemporaries as tantamount to betraying their Christology to the Monophysites.

By his day Aristotelian logic was thoroughly domesticated in Syriac and was a hallmark of the education shared by the Christian exegetes and the theologians who constituted the East Syrian intelligentsia.  The study of medicine was likewise flourishing.  The Alexandrian medical school curriculum was translated into Syriac at the beginning of the sixth century by the West Syrians and must already have been in use at what was emerging as the Nestorians’ chief medical center at Jundeshapur in Khuzestan in Persia.  The material was Hellenic and Hellenistic, but its study did not necessarily imply a knowledge of Greek.  The only East Syrian churchman of the sixth century who is credited with the knowledge of Greek is Mar Aba, who was educated at Nisibis but had to return to Byzantine Edessa to learn Greek

Preliminary Thoughts on Hellenism in Islam

Let me be clear from the outset: there is no question of the passage of Hellenism into Islam, not in the broad cultural sense that the Hellenistic Greeks understood that term or even as the narrower set of aesthetic ideals embodied in Greek literature and art, as German Romanticism fancied it, and certainly not as political and cultural and moral norms glorified by the Renaissance.  What the world of Islam received, from 950 onward, was a sense of intellectual vitality, of argumentative and demonstrative vigor and even the joy of inquiry, but these notions grew from a contemplation of Hellenica and not from closure with Hellenism.  And rapidly to characterize them, those pieces of Hellenica were textual not material—there would be, needless to say, no Winkleman in Baghdad; secular, not religious, which eliminates everything from the Greek myths to the Greek Fathers; scientific and philosophical, not literary or historical; all quadrivium and no trivium.  Or to put faces on the pieces, Aristotle and Ptolemy and Euclid and Galen, but no Homer or Sophocles or Thucydides.

More, the reception was via translation and not, save possibly in medicine,  through contact with the living tradition: the Arabs, as we shall see, disavowed the contemporary Greeks, the Byzantines as degraded in language and hostile to their own cultural past.  Thus, the Muslims’ reception of Hellenica was not after the fashion of Sergius of Resh Ayna, who had studied with Greek philosophers in Alexandria, or even in the manner of twelfth century Spain, where four living linguistic and cultural traditions were at hand and available for either translation or scholarly purposes—a scholar in Toledo might be expected to read not only Maimonides and Ibn Rushd but Anselm as well—and certainly not in the manner of 15th century Italy, where Italians learned Greek to read Plato and Aristotle in the original.  Those who knew Greek in Baghdad were all professional translators, the majority of them Christians, who used language to gain a handsome living not to philosophize.  Leonardo Bruni’s remark, “Greek is the language of philosophy and is worth learning for the sake of other disciplines as well” found no echo in Islam.[4]

On the available evidence, and it is plentiful and convincing, translation activity centering on turning Greek works into Arabic began during the reign of the Caliph Mansur (r. 754-755), one of the makers and builders of the new Abbasid dynasty that ruled the Abode of Islam.  It has never been entirely clear just why it was undertaken; the Muslim sources portray the patrons and practitioners of translation  as people who are already interested in Hellenica, which they then track down and translate.  But now we have from Dimitri  Gutas the first sustained analysis of why they were interested.  His Greek Thought, Arabic Culture (1998) is an attempt to put what Werner Jaeger called “the first era of international scholarship that the world has seen,” in its social and political context.

One of the first things to catch our attention about the translation movement in Islam is that it takes place not where we might expect it, in the old Damascus in Greco-Roman Syria under the Umayyads (r. 661-750), but in the new Muslim foundation of Baghdad outside the borders of what had once been the Roman Empire.  It is this counter-intuitive event that sets off Gutas’ inquiry.  The precise difference between the Umayyads of Damascus and the Abbasids of Baghdad is the latter’s attempt to build Islamic society not on an exclusive Arab base that used its Greek-speaking subjects as mere instruments but on an international convert base: to allow the non-Muslim converts to Islam access to the seats of power in the new multi-cultural Baghdad.  This was the stated policy of al-Mansur and the first beneficiaries of his vision may have been the Iranians.  The first visible intellectual fruits of his policy  was the translation of works from Pahlevi into Arabic, wisdom literature mostly and mathematical and astronimical works.  These latter had already been profoundly influenced by Greek astronomy—the Iranians fancied it the other way around—and that path soon led back to the Greeks, to Ptolemy’s Almagest, to Euclid, and eventually to Aristotle’s logic.  In this regard Gutas makes an important point.  It was the interest in science, Greek science, in the first  instance astronomy and astrology, that led to the need and desire to translate and not, as is often assumed, that the translations were the seeds and the science the fruit.

Under al-Mahdi (r. 775-785)  new interests and new concerns began to manifest themselves.  The consequence of Mansur’s multi-cultural society was open discussion and its inevitable corollary polemical discourse among the members of the Abode of Islam’s three “People  of the Book,” Jews, Christians and Muslims, and, if we are to credit contemporary sources, Manicheism (if that is what zandaqa, the omnipresent word which, like the Jews’ minim,  came to stand for heresy of every stripe).  The weapon of choice here was jadl, dialectic, and it was the caliph himself who requested the nuclear weapon of dialectic, Aristotle’s Topics, to be translated for him.  He went to the very top with his request, the Nestorian  patriarch Timotheos, who politely obliged him, and then the caliph, in a bravura display of chutzpa, invited Timotheos to come and debate with him on the subject of the divinity of Jesus.

The Reception of Hellenism into Islam

One line of translators from Greek into Arabic—some of them Greeks but more Syriac-speaking Nestorians—that stretches across the middle of the ninth century is connected with what appeared to be a fierc scientific competition at the caliphal court in Baghdad.  One party was led by the Banu Musa, three brothers with scientific interests, considerable money and an entrepreneurial spirit who sent manuscript hunters deep into Byzantine territory, the Bilad al Rum, in Anatolia in search of Greek texts and then handsomely commissioned the leading translators of the day, Hunayn ibn Ishaq and Thabit ibn Qurra chief among them, to turn them into Arabic.  Another group was under the direction of al Kindi (d. 870), the Arab polymath—many of the court intellectuals came from Iranian backgrounds and Arab descent was worth boasting about—who competed with the Banu Musa in bringing Greek science to caliphal attention, and, of course, under the rich umbrella of caliphal patronage.

Kindi had broad scientific interest; his 361 attested titles range from astronomy and astrology to optics, from medicine to musical theory.  The Banu Musa too were deeply interested in science and they competed  directly with al Kindi in having Aristotle’s work on meteorology and various Alexandrian treatises on mechanics translated into Greek.  But what sets Kindi apart from the sons of Musa and from earlier directors and movers of translation activity is that with him we are for the first time in the presence of the Alexandrian school tradition in philosophy.  There had been earlier translations of Greek philosophica, as early as the 720s or 730s perhaps but it was Hellenistic pop-philosophy, the doxa, placita, gnomai and sententiae with which Late Antiquity contrived to instruct and entertain itself.  The spurious letters of Aristotle to Alexandria on how to be a world ruler were in fact translated almost a century before his school treatises.  With al Kindi, on the other hand we  reach the heart of philosophical Hellenism, as that was understood of course by the Hellenistic and later school tradition.

What al-Kindi received from the hands of his translators is an excellent illustration of the transformation of philosophical Hellenism in the schools of the Hellenistic Roman and Byzantine era.  Al Kindi arranged to have translated the Metaphysics—the work was done by a certain Eustathius, a Greek by his name, but otherwise unknown.  The Metaphysics was Aristotle unalloyed, but the next piece of Aristotelica put before Kindi was “Aristotle’s theology,” a commentary or paraphrase of most of Enneads IV-VI.  Other pieces of this same Plotinus source—same since both the style and the understanding is identical—have been identified in the Arab tradition, sometimes attributed simply to “the Greek sage.”  The origina of  this farrago and, more tellingly, its mislabeling was likely something that occurred under late Greek and not Arab auspices, surely as part of the project of saving Platonism under an Aristotelian cover, in somewhat the same fashion that the Aristotelian teaching on the Categories was rendered more acceptable to neo-Platonists by reading it more nominally than its author may have intended.

The third piece is equally illuminating.  Kindi had before him still another Greek potpourri.  This time combed out of Proclus’ Italics of Theology, though they are presented as Alexander of Aphodesias’ excerpts from that same “Theology of Aristotle.”  Al Kindi did possess some genuine Alexander of Aphrodisias, however, like his tract On Providence and some other material embedded  in one of the most important texts from Late Antiquity,  On the Eternity of the World Against Proclus by John Philoponus.  Kindi had excerpts of this latter work, though it was identified as Alexander’s.  The Arab philosopher knew another of Philoponus’ works, his commentary on Aristotle’s  Dei Anima though only at a second remove.  It was a late sixth century paraphrase that relied on Philoponus that was translated into Arabic in the al Kindi circle.

Greek Philosophy in Arabic

If we step back and look more generally at the philosophical material passing from Greek into Arabic in the late eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, we can begin to add some nuances to the history of later Greek philosophy as it unfolds for us from the prefaces of the commentaries on Aristotle made at Alexandria or the biographical notices passed on to us by Porphyry or Damascius or Zachary Rhetor.  The Arabs in fact knew little of this carefully reconstructed history, but what was available to them in Greek, and who they thought had written those works tells us something more about what was going on at Alexandria and Athens at the end of antiquity.

The Muslims had, of course Aristotle and Plato, the former in integral Arabic versions and the latter in resume, a situation which once again points to Alexandria, where from Ammonius onward the publishing emphasis was on the Aristotelian lectures and where the scholars lectured on texts.  Oddly, there are at present no textual remains of the great Alexandrian commentators discussed so knowingly by Ibn al-Nadim.  It is difficult to believe that the exegetical works of Simplicius, Olympiodorus, Ammonius et al. were not once preserved in Arabic, but if they were translated, transcribed and studied, the texts themselves have since disappeared without a trace, over and above the texts of Plato and Aristotle.

What has been preserved is of a somewhat different orientation: the work of two Peripatetic paraphrasts, Nicolas of Damascus and Themistius, and a number of treatises by the Aristotelian Alexander of Aphrodisias. Were these three men important in the curriculum at Alexandria in the fifth and sixth Christian centuries?  We do not know.  The second group of Greek philosophical texts derived not from the Aristotelizing Alexandrian school tradition but from the Neo-Platonists.  As has already been seen the Arabs did in fact possess texts of Plotinus and Proclus, though they were transmitted, from some unknown point in time, under false attributions to Aristotle.  Finally, there was available in Islam a body of philosophical material from the pre-Plotinian Platonism, chiefly Galen and Plutarch of Chaeronea.

The syncretistic anomalies of this collection of texts have already been explored.  One of the fruits of Alexandrian prudence in the face of an increasingly aggressive Christianity was precisely the sliding of Plotinus and Proclus into the safety of an Aristotelian curriculum under assumed names.  The actual abbreviation of the Enneads may well have been the work of porphyry, done for the best — or worst — of academic motives but it’s circulation as the quote Theology of Aristotle” is not necessarily the doing of the same person.  That this person or persons were cautious or frighten Platonists of the six entry is an attractive posit possibility, particularly since that century produced in just another such pseudepigraph, the corpus of Proclan theology masquerading as the literary output of a Christian contemporary of St. Paul, Dionysius the Areopagite.

The End

The translation movement that carried so much Greek learning into the heart of Muslim intellectual life ended about 1000 AD, perhaps, as Dimitri Gutas has suggested, because there were no more useful works to translate, or, to put it another way, because the Muslims had all they needed: the classics in medicine (Galen), mathematics (Euclid and Nicomachus), astronomy and astrology (Ptolemy), and in philosophy and the natural sciences (Aristotle).  It was roughly what Europe possessed in the twelfth and thirteenth century, and it apparently satisfied them as well.

But two things later occurred in the West that had no parallel in Islam.  On the basis of what was available in the thirteenth century, Aquinas constructed a major synthesis of Christian theology and the newly available Aristotle, a synthesis that won eventual acceptance in both Catholic and Reform circles and that constituted the philosophical basis of official Christian theology well into the twentieth century.  The closest the Muslims came to such a synthesis, the eleventh century work of ibn Sina (d. 1038), a philosopher and not a theologian, was judged “incoherent” by Ghazali (d. 1111),  the chief theologian  of the twelfth, and that decision has never been reversed in traditional circles.  Ibn Sina may in fact have been unconvinced by his own synthesis, and in the end he turned elsewhere, toward the East as a matter of fact, and contrived his famous “Oriental Philosophy,” a type of illuminationism that has dominated most philosophical thinking in Islamic circles down to the present day.

The other critical turn taken in the Western regard for the Greek past that has no echo in Islam is European intellectuals’ reestablishing contact with the Greek originals in the fifteenth century, with profound effects on Western political consciousness and the opening  of the riches of literary Hellenism to Western minds.  But in a sense, they were rediscovering what they already knew.  The intellectuals of the late Roman  Republic and of the Roman Empire had already profoundly Hellenized the West in literature, history and philosophy by dressing the Greeks in Latin raiment, and long before Aquinas, Augustine, without reading a work of Greek, had affected his own synthesis between Greek philosophy and Christian theology.

A Muslim Theology

Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers was not the first Islamic reaction, if not to Greek learning generally, then certainly to the rationalist value system embodied in Greek philosophy.  Muslims never lost their admiration for Galen and Euclid and Ptolemy, and Muslim astronomers and mathematicians continued to build knowingly and even astonishingly on the Greek foundations that the translators had laid down for them.  Though there may have been an occasional tear shed over the loss of the old Arab lore that had once passed for science in the days before Islam, the utility and elegance of Greek-style science left few doubters among the Muslim intelligentsia.  But if Ptolemy cast down the star-gazing of the Bedouin, Aristotle’s rationalizing approach to truth, and the truth he found at the end of his rationalizing, challenged other, more profound assumptions of Muslim society.  The age of the translations coincided in large measure to the era when the bases of traditional Islam were being laid down in the law, Quranic exegesis, theology, and when the very foundation myth of the society was being assembled in Baghdad in the form of Muhammad’s biography.  Alongside the alien wisdom of the foreign sciences,  there was taking shape a body of what was called the Islamic sciences, and at the head, or the tail, of that latter list stood, awkwardly, the science of kalam.

The Caliph al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833) had plans for the Islamic community over which he presided.  Gutas has reviewed them at length (pp 75-94), and has called particular attention to his drive toward centralization and control, and to its most notorious manifestation the mihna or “scrutiny”—a less kind translation would be “inquisition”.  Unlike his caliphal predecessors, Ma’mun undertook to define Islamic “orthodoxy” as belief in the createdness of the Quran and those who failed the “scrutiny” were subject to flogging or imprisonment.  The theological point may strike someone not listening to religious discourse in early ninth century Baghdad as a rather arcane issue upon which to construct a theological loyalty oath, but beneath it was concealed an enormous iceberg of philosophical argument that derived in turn from Aristotelian notions of matter, space and time and, indeed, of God himself.  Ma’mun knew what he was about.

As often seems to happen,  Ma’mun caught one very large martyr in his net.  Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the leader of  Baghdad’s traditionalists  preferred jail to a created Quran, and the forces of conservatism and, on a larger plan, of decentralized religious authority, had their rallying point.  Mansur’s open society had become a polarized one, the rationalists versus the traditionalists and, by way of corollary the philosophical theologians versus the lawyers.

The mihna came to an end, quietly and ingloriously but the antagonism between religious rationalism associated with Ma’mun’s court theologians called the Ma’tazilites, and through them, with the Greeks and religious traditionalism continued, and in the end it was the latter that triumphed.  Aristotelian dialectic and some of the problematic of the philosophers found some modest foothold in the science that the Muslims called kalam, dialectical theology, and were allowed  an untenured place on the edges of the legal curriculum, the only one that counted in Islamic higher education.  But even so, there was a caliphal ban on selling books dealing with kalam or falsafa in 892 which was repeated again in 897.  The upheavals of those years were connected to the rise of Isma’ilism, a political and ideological movement whose esoteric philosophical underpinnings are unfolded in the preserved Tractates of the Brethren of Purity.  The contents of the Tractates  turn out to be not so esoteric after all; they are a familiar blend of Neoplatonic occultism crossed with Aristotelianism and spiced in this instance with a goodly dose of Neopythagorean numerology.  The Tractates give off the strong odor of later Greek philosophy from beginning to end, albeit in a thin Islamic disguise.  The thinness of the disguise was soon seen through by the Sunni intelligentsia, however and one critique by the philosopher Abu Sulayman al Sijistani is particularly telling for our purposes.  The Isma’ilis have attempted the impossible he says, to combine Islamic law and falsafa.  But it is impossible: “Islamic law is derived from God by means of an envoy between Him and humankind.  By way of revelation.”

If thinking about God comes naturally in a religious society, dialectical thinking about God is a more acquired taste.  As we have just seen,  theology had become a fully articulated science by Ma’mun’s day, thanks in part to the introduction of Greek physical and metaphysical underpinnings to the burgeoning rationalist tradition in Islam.  Ma’mun embraced that tradition, and confronts us with a somewhat unexpected bundling of authoritarian orthodoxy and rationalistic inquiry that surfaces once again in Western Islam, where the Spanish “Unitarians” known to the West as “Almohads” encouraged one of Islam’s prime philosophers, and certainly its most accomplished Aristotelian, Ibn Rushd or Averroes (d. ??) to pursue his researches.

The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century

I am not certain whether it was Charles Haskins who first called it “The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century,” that great flowering of intellectual activity in European intellectual centers, but the name is an apt one.  And it is particularly interesting for our present purposes since that activity, which is everywhere visible in Western Christendom took part of its momentum from new translation activity from Arabic into Latin.  The translations were done in urban centers like Toledo and Palermo, where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together in what the Spanish call, sometimes optimistically, la convivencia.  The resemblance to early Baghdad is notable.  These twelfth century cities too were multi-cultural centers, the regimes were new and ambitious—Christian rulers had only recently been installed in what was still very Muslim cities—and the patronage was princely: Alfonso el Sabio passes easily for a Mansur or a Ma’mun.

Again, like the transmission of Hellenica into Islam, the twelfth century acquisition of Greek philosophy and science was a thick transmission.  Aristotle came into Islam wrapped in the layers of commentary from Late Antiquity that was part of the legacy of scholastic Hellenism, some of it identifiable to the Muslims some not.  In like manner, what passed into Latin in the twelfth century was accompanied by explanation by authors whom the Latin schoolmen knew as “Farabius,” Avicenna and Averroes.  The western schoolmen were more quickly aware of  this Muslim exegetical  tradition and more readily turned to resist it since it did not bear, as the Greek commentators did in Arabic either a classical or an antiquarian cachet.  Thomas in the end would see Aristotle more clearly than ever Farabi or Ibn Sina could.

But there were other differences as well.  On the front line where the two religions met, there may indeed have been convivencia, dictated at least in part by the new rulers’ pragmatism with regard to their newly absorbed and sizable  Muslim population.  But one had only to move backward, into northern Spain or southern France, or from convivial Sicily northward into the Papal States, to find a rising tide of hostility toward Islam.  The Church did not fancy convivencia  or an easy pragmatism; for it Islam was unmistakably the enemy.  It was in these church circles that Peter the Venerable commissioned translations from the Arabic—the first Latin translation of the Quran among others—as part of his program to convert the infidel and where popes attempted to mount crusades—against Palestine or Spain; it made no difference—to drive the Muslims from lands the Christians regarded as their own.  We should not forget that if Aquinas dexterously  folded Aristotle into Christian theology in the Summa Theologica, he was equally adept at taking up the Greek master to flog the Muslims in the Summa Contra Gentiles.

But a far more profound difference separates the Western and Muslim reception of the Greek past.  The Europeans, whether translators or philosophers or scientists, had a working memory of antiquity: they were, quite simply, the heirs to a profound degree of Hellenization that had already occurred in Europe, first under the Romans—Cicero, always present, always read, was an extraordinary agent in the Hellinization of Europe in every epoch—and then, courtesy of  both Greek and Roman paganism, in the intellectual tradition of the Latin church.  Next to Cicero, Augustine stands as the other great pillar upon which Western Hellenism was built.  Augustine’s works, which were read by every generation of the West’s inteligentsia down to the Enlightenment, introduced his readers not ony to a Platonic world view but to great chunks of the cultural past of the Romans and, through them and alongside of them, the Greeks.  And finally, there was the beginning of the Latin translation of the Greek works themselves begun by Marius Victorinus in the fourth and Boethius in the fifth century AD.  After Boethius direct contact with the Greek is lost in the West but there remained nonetheless in the West an enormous heritage of mediated Hellenism to go with the unfinished torso of translations.

When the translators took up Aristotle again under very different circumstances in Toledo, in the third quarter of the twelfth century they were, first of all, no longer working directly from the Greek which was not readily available in Muslim or Spanish libraries, but from the Arabic.  The work began in almost paradigmatic fashion.  The primary translator was Dominic Gundisalvi, a Christian churchman and canon of the cathedral of Toledo, who required the assistance of Arabic speaking scholars—and surely more of Toledo’s scholars spoke Arabic than Latin at that point—one of whom was a Jew and a philosopher in his own right, Abraham ibn Da’ud.  The translations were somewhat fragmentary, pieces of Aristotle’s logic and of the Physics and  of the De Anima.  I have already said that the Latins received a “thick” tradition, and it is already apparent in the work of Gundisalvi: he also translated part of Ibn Sina’s  philosophical encyclopedia, the Kitab al-Shifa, two of Farabi’s  division of the sciences works and treatises by the Jewish falâsifa Ibn Jabirol and Isaac Israeli.  Less certainly attributed to the team but from the same time and the same place were sections of al-Kindi’s and al-Farabi’s On the Intellect and the set-up section of Ghazali’s refutation of the Muslim falâsifa, though not the knock-down sections that followed.  Within fifty years Ibn Rushd’s commentaries on Aristotle had been translated into Latin in Sicily and Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed in France.

Alien Wisdom

In 1975 the historian Arnaldo Momigliano published a book Alien Wisdom and subtitled it The Limits of Hellenization.  The two titles taken together describe the reception of Hellenism in Islam and indeed the first, Alien Wisdom is an almost perfectly nuanced translation of the phrase the Arabs themselves used to describe their inheritance from the Hellenes. ‘Ilm ‘ajami, “foreign science,” they called it, to distinguish it,  in an almost  columnar fashion, from ‘ilm ‘arabi, “Arab science,” or, somewhat more arrestingly, “Islamic science.” This latter category included some primitive reckonings from pre-Islamic Arabia but referred more generally to disciplines, chiefly philological and hermeneutic that first  four or five generations of Muslims employed to unpack the Quran.

Why did the Arabs qualify logic and physics, geometry and astronomy as alien?  Because they were aware of their origins.  Their other, more openly descriptive name for them was ‘ilm yunani, Greek science.  The Arabs had another more evocative name for the Greeks, Rum, itself another more political legacy from the past  in this case from the Byzantines, who insisted that they were the imperial heirs of the Roman Empire.  Autokrator Romaiôn, the Byzantine emperors contrived to call themselves, and the Arabs picked it up: they named their Byzantine neighbors Rum and Anatolia Bilad al-Rum.  So the Arabs were not deceived: they knew that the body of knowledge they imported  was not Byzantine, ‘ilm rumi, but echt Hellenisch, ‘ilm yunani.  The Arab litérateur Jahiz (d. 869), in his Refutation of the Christians, draws the distinction very knowingly: “Christians and Byzantines have neither wisdom nor clarity of mind nor depth of thought but are merely clever with their hands,” and they really should be droped from the ranks of the philosophers and sages, al Jahiz thought, because “the Organon, De generatione et corruptione and the Meteorologica were written by Aristotle and he was neither a Byzantine or a Christian; the Almagest by Ptolemy and he was neither a Byzantine or a Christian;  the Elements by Euclid etc. etc.  They were Greeks (yunani) and their religion was different from the Byzantines’ and their culture was different from the Byzantines’.”  And a century later the cultural historian Mas’udi could state the point even more clearly.  The language of the Byzantines was of course Greek “though they never reached the level of the Greeks either in the essential purity or absolute eloquence of the language.  The language of the Byzantines is inferior in comparison  with that of the Greeks and its syntax…is weaker.”

These are not random or eccentric statements .  From the end of the ninth century or, more precisely, from the reign of the Caliph Ma’mun which began in 813 the theme that the Byzantines  were not only unphilosophical but even antiphilosophical, while the Muslims were thoroughly philhellenic, is sounded again and again by Muslim cultural apologists:  falsafa, as Greek philosophy came to be called in Muslim circles, was in fact the legitimate ancestor of the ancient Greeks’ wisdom, the true Hellenic philosophia.

This is a somewhat odd game to play for a Muslim.  The immediate enemy in the ninth century were the Rum the very real and very dangerous Byzantines across the present Turkish frontier from Syria and Iraq.  The Muslims were parvenus, and despite their recent self-conscious clambering up onto the peacock throne of the shahs of Iran, they suffered a serious inferiority complex there in the shadow of the not-too-distant magnificence of Constantinople, where the emperors knew how to display the full panoply of empire to dazzle the likes of Bulgarian khans from the Danube and Arab caliphs from the Tigris.

The caliphs responded with a ploy as old as the Quran itself.  Islam was a descendent of neither Judaism nor Christianity we are told in the Book; it is the religion of Abraham, more pristine than either of those others, numquam reformata quia numquam deformata.  So to hear, explicitly from the reign of Ma’mun who knew how to take chances, Islamic cuture was portrayed as the heir of Hellenism, as we may call it, and not of Byzantinism.  And what was the difference between the two?  The Byzentines despised wisdom and burnt the books of the ancient Hellenes.  Because those Hellenes were pagans, we can add, but the Muslims dared not.  Muslim scholars could not regularly appear to be promoting paganism, of course, since Islam was opposed to the ancient polytheism as surely as the Christian Byzantines were.  So the point was elided: the Byzantines, who were Christians were degraded Greeks, scornful of wisdom, and it was left at that.  That they were scornful of wisdom because they were Christians was a somewhat more problematic proposition.

Christianity was in fact scornful of certain forms of wisdom, as Islam soon proved to be as well.  But there are two elements in the saga of the passage from Athens to Jerusalem that the Muslims were unaware of.  First, that from at least the second century onward Greek intellectuals carried their Hellenic philosophical baggage directly into the baptismal font and out the other side, that Christian theology was riddled with the assumptions, language, methods and proofs of Greek philosophy, whether Stoic ethics, Platonic metaphysics or Aristotelian dialectic, cosmology and psychology.  The Muslims had little sense of that save perhaps that the Christians of their own day had seemed highly skilled in Aristotelian dialectic.  Second the Muslims were unaware of the struggle that had gone on in the ate philosophical schools to Christianize that Hellenic heritage and how successfully it had been accomplished in some areas.  The measure and  magister is John Philoponus.  John’s success in fashioning a Christian Aristotelianism in the sixth century made that Aristotelianism all the more readily acceptable to the Muslims in the ninth.


[1] I have returned to this a number of times, most recently in my Monotheism (Princeton, 2003), vol.1, pp. 35-37.

[2] Or almost.   After Andronicus closed the canon on Aristotle, Nicholas of Damascus the scholarly advisor to Herod the Great, provided another part of the Metaphysics, now awkwardly spliced into the text after Book A as Book a.  Andronicus did not include in his canon Aristotle’s research works like his study of Greek  constitutions preparatory to writing the Politics, but a chance and celebrated nineteenth century papyrus find turned up the Constitution of Athens.

[3] Enneads 6:1-3,

[4] One interesting side-bar.  When Mehmed the Second settled into Constantinople in 1453, he ordered copies be made of two works in Greek “for his personal use.”  One was Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander and the other no less than Demetrius Kydones’ (d. 1398) Greek translation of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa contra Gentiles.

No Comments

Leave a Reply