Arab Transmission of the Classics
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This article analyzes the claim that Muslims 'saved' the works of Greek philosophers from destruction.
The Arab transmission of the classics is a common and persistent myth that Arabic commentators such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd 'saved' the work of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers from destruction. According to the myth, these works would otherwise have perished in the long European dark age between fifth and the tenth centuries, had the Islamic philosophers not preserved them by translating them into Arabic, to be passed on to the Latin philosophers in the western world after the reconquest of Spain from the Muslims during the twelve and thirteenth centuries. This is incorrect. It was actually the Byzantines in the East who saved the ancient learning of the Greeks in the original language, and the first Latin texts to be used were translation from the Greek, in the 12th century, rather than, in most cases, the Arabic, which were only used where Latin texts could not be found or were unintelligible.
It is nevertheless true, and no myth, that the work of the Arabic commentators, particularly Ibn Rushd, had a profound influence on the scholastic philosophers of the Latin West in the thirteenth century. Aristotle's Greek is terse and difficult to understand. The work of the Arabic commentators helped in explaining and clarifying Aristotle's dense and apparently obscure thought. Thus Western intellectual tradition owes a great debt to the Arabic scholars in terms of understanding Aristotle's thought. In terms of the texts, however, these would have survived had the Arabic commentators never existed.
What we know as the Western Intellectual Tradition began in ancient Greece in the fifth century, with the work of mathematicians such as Euclid, philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, and scientists such as Eratosthenes (who calculated the circumference of the Earth around 240 BC). The main principle underlying this tradition is naturalistic, humanistic and rational, emphasizing the role of human reason in arriving at truth, rather than reliance on supernatural or revealed 'truth'.
Greek science and philosophy was inherited by the ancient Romans, but their culture was lost after the collapse of the Roman empire in the West during the fifth and sixth centuries. Ancient learning was not 'recovered' in the West until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The recovery was a result of the transmission both of Greek ideas which had been preserved and developed in the Byzantine and Arab world in the early middle ages, and also of the texts themselves, which had been almost completely lost in the West. These texts had to be translated into Latin, the language of educated people in that period, because few scholars understood Greek.
Knowledge of Aristotle came by two routes to the West. One was by Latin translations directly from the Greek made in the twelfth century (see below). The other was by Latin translations from the Arabic, which were themselves translations from Syriac into Arabic of philosophical and scientific works that had been preserved by Eastern Christians in Mesopatamia, Syria and Egypt. The translators were mostly Nestorian and Jacobite Christians, working in the two hundred years following the early Abbasid period (c. 800). The most important translator of this group was the Syriac-speaking Christian Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (809-873), known to the Latins as Joannitius. The texts were first translated into Syriac from the Greek, then into Arabic. Despite this process, the translations were generally accurate, aiming for a literal reading rather than elegance.
Thus the Latin translations from the Arabic came via an indirect route: Greek to Syriac, Syriac to Arabic, Arabic to Latin.
James of Venice
The other route was from Latin directly from Greek, beginning with the work of James of Venice. James was an Aristotelian scholar who flourished in the 12th century, and is generally regarded as the most important of the 12th century translators of Greek texts into Latin. He is thought to have translated Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, Sophistici elenchi, Metaphysics and several important works of natural philosophy as well as most of the Parva naturalia, most of which were widely circulated. We know little of his life.
According to passage from Robert of Torigny's chronicle 'James, a cleric from Venice, translated from the Greek into Latin several books of Aristotle and commented on them, viz. the Topics, Prior and Posterior Analytics, and Elenchi, although an earlier translation of these same books was already in existence' [MP 1952]. According to other documents, James was a Greek from Venice, who called himself a philosopher. In 1136 he appears to have been present at a theological debate in Constantinople between Anselm of Havelberg and the archbishop of Nicomedia. In 1148 he advised the archbishop of Ravenna on the precedence of Ravenna over other archbishoprics. In Bologna in the 1140's, he may have disputed with Magister Albericus over the interpretation of the Sophistici Elenchi. His commentary on the Elenchi is mentioned in a 12th century grammatical quaestio and an early 13th century author mentions his commentary on the Posterior Analytics [Ebbesen 1977].
James' translation of the Metaphysics was directly from the Greek. However, this included only the first four books, meaning that scholars in the early thirteenth century to rely on translations from the Arabic (in particular, the one by Michael the Scot mentioned below) for the complete work.
There has been debate among scholars as to whether the Latin versions of the so-called logica nova (the Prior Analytics, Topics and Sophistici elenchi, and the Posterior Analytics) should be ascribed to Boethius or James. Stylistic analysis by Minio-Paluello published in 1952 suggested that the common versions of the Prior Analytics, Topics and Sophistici Elenchi are consistent in style with each other and with the known Boethian translations of the 'logica vetus'. By contrast, the Posterior Analytics has the same features of style as a passage translated from the Greek in James' advice to the archbishop of Ravenna, and Latin translations of some of the other works of Aristotle that were not known to the early medieval philosophers, including (according to Minio-Paluello) the Metaphysics itself.
Michael Scot was a thirteenth century translator from the Arabic. He translated two major works from Arabic to Latin in Toledo, Spain, then moved to Palermo, Sicily, where he was associated with the court of Frederick II Hohenstaufen. There he dedicated the translation of Avicenna’s book on animals to Frederick, and mentions that two books of his own were commissioned by Frederick. Michael was apparently the first to make a complete Latin translation from the Arabic, called the Metaphysica Nova, some time between 1220 and 1235. Michael also translated De Anima, the Physics, De animalibus, Averroes great commentaries on the Physics, De caelo, De anima, the middle commentaries on De Generatione et Corruptione, Meteorologica, also Averroes epitomes (summaries) of De sensu, De memoria, De somno, De longitudine.
Another translator who may have been associated with the Hohenstaufens was William of Luna, working in the area of Naples. He was probably associated with Manfred Hohenstaufen. William translated Averroes' middle commentaries on the Categories (??), on De Interpretione, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, and others.
There was also an anonymous translation of the Metaphysics from the Greek (the media) which was nearly complete, though lacking book 11, which formed the basis of William of Moerbeke's later complete translation. However, this seems to have remained unknown until the middle of the century, based on the numbers of surviving manuscripts.
In most cases, it was the translations from the Greek that the Latin scholars used, turning to Arabic-Latin translations only when the more intelligible and more accurate Greek-Latin ones were missing. The only Syrian-Arabic-Latin texts to achieve widespread circulation were the De caelo, Metereologica I-III, De Animalibus and Metaphysics, and in any case all of these except the De Animalibus were soon replaced by William of Moerbeke's versions made directly from the Greek.
William of Moerbeke
William of Moerbeke (c. 1215 – 1286) was one of the most prolific and influential translators of Greek philosophical texts in the Middle Ages. Very little is known of William's life. He was born probably in 1215 in the village of Moerbeke, now in Belgium, and probably entered the Dominican convent at Louvain as a young man. Most of the his surviving work was done during 1259-72.
William is probably the most famous of the translators from the Greek. Another myth, however, is that he was the first to translate Aristotle directly from the Greek. This is not true in most cases. For example, his translation of the the Posterior Analytics is also a revision of an earlier translation by James of Venice (see above). However, he made important translations of the remaining works only available in Arabic translations in common use in the middle of the thirteenth century, namely De Caelo (1260), Metereologica I-III (c. 1260), De Animalibus (1260) and parts of the Metaphysics (before 1272).
He was also the first to translate lesser works such as De motu animalium, De progressu animalium (1260), as well as the important Politics (1260, an important witness to the Greek text) and Poetics (1278). He made new translations of Categories, De interpretatione (1268). He revised the Posterior Analytics (1269), Sophistici Elenchi (before 1270), Physics (c. 1260-70), De anima (before 1268), Parva naturalia, and Metaphysics.
William also translated the works of the Greek commentators: Simplicius on the Categories and De caelo, Ammonius on De Interpretatione, Alexander on the Meteorologica and De sensu, Philoponus on the De anima (Book III) and Themistius on the De anima. He also translated a non-Aristotelian work, the Elementatio theologica of Proclus (of which an Arabic-Latin translation once ascribed to Aristotle and referred to as Liber de causis).
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- E. B. Fryde (2000) The early Palaeologan renaissance (Brill)
- Hyman and Walsh (1973) Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Indianapolis.
- The myth persists even on 'scholarly' websites. See e.g. here. "It was only through the transfer of Greek knowledge (including Aristotle's philosophy, Ptolemy's geography, Hippocrates' medicine) by Islam Spain that this information ever got to Western Europe." [Our emphasis]
- Hyman & Walsh p. 204
- LMP, cited in the Cambridge History of later Medieval Philosophy
- See Fulvio delle Donne in an article in the latest issue of the Recherches de Theologie et philosophie médiévales
- See Grabmann 1946 and the short account by Minio-Paluello 1974
- This section is indebted to the work of the late Edmund Fryde (1923-1999) - Obituary