Transmission of Greek philosophical ideas in the Middle Ages

Transmission of Greek philosophical ideas in the Middle Ages

The introduction of Greek philosophy and science into the culture of the Latin West in the Middle Ages was an event that transformed the intellectual life of Western Europe. It consisted of the discovery of many original works, such as those written by Aristotle in the classical period, commentaries by Hellenistic philosophers written in late Antiquity, and commentaries from early Muslim philosophers in the Arab world, or Muslim world, written during the Islamic Golden Age from the ninth to twelfth centuries. [Grant p. 27]

The Dark Ages

As knowledge of Greek declined with the fall of the Roman Empire, so did knowledge of the Greek texts, many of which remain untranslated. [Lindberg 52] The Byzantines, for whom Greek was the dominant language, were either reluctant or unable to investigate the ideas of Plato and Aristotle while warring with Arabs, Turks, and Huns. Thus, for a long time in Europe after the execution of Boethius (one of the last to understand both Latin and Greek philosophy), there was a disregard for Greek ideas. Scribes destroyed old books, cutting the pages from the binding and burning them or rubbing out old, philosophical words in order to create religious books. After a while, only a few monasteries had Greek works, and even fewer of them copied these works (mainly the Irish). [Laughlin 139] Irish monks had been taught by Greek and Latin missionaries who probably had brought Greek texts with them. [Laughlin 140] However, Irish preservation of these ideas, though valuable, did not introduce nearly as much Greek philosophy and science to the west as did the work of translators of Arabic from 1100 – 1300 CE. Arab logicians had inherited Greek ideas after their invasion of southern portions of the Byzantine Empire. Their translations and commentaries on these ideas worked their way through the Arab west into Spain and Sicily, which became important centers for this transmission of ideas. This work of translation, though largely unplanned and disorganized, constituted one of the greatest transmissions of ideas in history.

Two periods of translation

The transfer of Greek works from the Byzantines to the Latin West took place in two main stages. The first occurred in Babylon, when Greek works were translated into Arabic in the 8th and 9th century during Abbasid rule.Long 96] The second is “the great age of translation” in the 12th and 13th centuries as Europeans conquered formerly Islamic territories in Spain and Sicily. Scholars came from all over Europe to benefit from Arab learning and culture.. About the same period, after the Fourth Crusade, scholars such as William of Moerbeke gained access to the original Greek texts that had been preserved in the Byzantine empire, and translated them directly into Latin. [Grabmann - but note that many of William's works were redactions rather than original translations, as is commonly supposed]

First period: Greek – Arabic translations

thumb|An_ArabSocrates teaching his students.]


The first period of transmission during 8th and 9th centuries was preceded by a period of conquest, as Arabs took control of previously Hellenized areas such as Egypt and Syria in the 7th century. [Rosenthal 2] At this point they first began to encounter Greek ideas, though from the beginning, many Arabs were hostile to classical learning. Because of this hostility, the religious Caliphs could not support scientific translations. Translators had to seek out wealthy business patrons rather than religious ones. Until Abassid rule in the 8th century, however, there was little work in translation. Most knowledge of Greek during Umayyad rule was gained from those scholars of Greek who remained from the Hellenistic period, rather than through widespread translation and dissemination of texts. A few scholars argue that translation was more widespread than is thought during this period, but theirs remains the minority view.Rosenthal 3-4]


The main period of translation was during Abbasid rule. The Abbasids, who came from the Persian East, were at an advantage in this area when compared to the Umayyads because they had accepted many Greek ideas already. One of the kings of Persia in the 6th century, Noshinvan the Just, had freely invited pagan philosophers fleeing the Byzantines free refuge in his country, thus introducing many Greek ideas into his kingdom.Brickman 84-85] Aided by this knowledge and juxtaposition of beliefs, the Abassids considered it valuable to look at Islam with Greek eyes, and to look at the Greeks with Islamic eyes. Abassid philosophers also pressed the idea that Islam had from the very beginning stressed the gathering of knowledge as important to the religion These new lines of thought allowed the work of amassing and translating Greek ideas to expand as it never before had. [Rosenthal 5]

yrian translations

The first stage of this process was the translation into Arabic of Greek 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 Abbasid period. 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, then into Arabic. Despite this process, the translations were generally accurate, aiming for a literal reading rather than elegance.

Almost all translators were Nestorian and Syrian Christians. [Palencia 269] Greek-speaking Christian missionaries had spread their religion to Persia, Egypt, and Syria long before Arab rule. Thus, many in these areas had kept Aristotle’s ideas alive in order to debate philosophy and increase the quality of their medical practices. They now found themselves in an Arabic-speaking world, and saw that they could be valuable as translators of Greek ideas. [Laughlin 106] It was not until later that actual Muslims, rather than Christians, undertook translation on a large scale.

The first text to be translated by Syriacs was probably the New Testament [Reynolds 55] . This may have been an unfortunate choice, as many Muslims, eager to point out the evils of Greek philosophy or any philosophy not truly Arab, trumpeted the fact that Greek translators were “infidels.”Lindberg 55] [Rosenthal 6] Oddly enough, the fact that the Greeks themselves were pagan and polytheistic was less of a problem. Most translators didn't know enough of Greek mythology to see Aphrodite, Zeus, and Apollo as anything more than mysterious names. Also, Greek references to “the gods” were often simply translated as “Allah.” [Walbridge 390-391]

Overall, religious confusion, Christian or otherwise, did not prevent Abassid rule from lessening anti-Greek sentiment to a point that even clergymen (“Caliphs”) were permitted to support translation. [Rosenthal 7] In this early period, Hellenistic schools which had survived the Islamic conquest led the charge. [Rosenthal 10] Since Islam was born in a Hellenistic world, it was fortunate to have an affinity for the classics from the beginning, and many used Greek philosophies to give added vigor to their religion, beginning what has been called a “Renaissance of Islam.” [Rosenthal 12-13]

Baghdad's House of Wisdom

The Abassids moved their capital from Arabia to Baghdad. Here, translation work exploded within the House of Wisdom, a university of sorts created in 830 under Caliph Abdallah-al-Mamun. Al-Mamun had sent emissaries to the Byzantines to gather Greek manuscripts for his new university, making it a center for Greek translation work in the Arab world. At first only practical works, such as those on medicine and technology were sought after, but eventually works on philosophy became popular.Lindberg 56]

Most scholars agree that during this period rhetoric, poetry, histories, and dramas were not translated into Arabic, since they were viewed as serving political ends which were not to be sought after in Arab states. Instead, philosophical and scientific works were almost the entire focus of translation. This has been disputed by a minority of scholars, however, who argue that stories such as Arabian Nights carry clear parallels to Greek literature—evidence that many Arabs were familiar with Greek humanities more than is thought. [Grunebaum 277-278]

After translation: Arabic commentary on Greek works

Al-Kindi, another famous logician of Baghdad, is now frequently called the first Arab philosopher. His synthesis of Greek philosophy with Islamic beliefs met with much opposition, and at one point he was flogged by those opposed to his ideas. He argued that one could accept the Koran and other sacred texts, and work from that point to determine truth. Whenever he ran into an impasse, he would abandon the Greek ideas in favor of the Islamic faith.Laughlin 114-117] He is considered to be largely responsible for pulling the Arab world out of a mystic and theological way of thinking into a more rationalistic mode. Previous to al-Kindi, for example, on the question of how the immaterial God of the Koran could sit on a throne in the same book, one theologist had said, “The sitting is known, its modality is unknown. Belief in it is a necessity, and raising questions regarding it is a heresy.” Few of al-Kindi's writings have survived, making it difficult to judge his work directly, but it is clear from what exists that he carefully worked to present his ideas in a way acceptable to other Muslims.

After Al-Kindi, several philosophers argued more radical views, some of whom even rejected revelation, most notably the Persian logician, Al-Razi or “Rhazes.” Considered one of the most original thinkers among the Persian philosophers, he challenged both Islamic and Greek ideas in a rationalist manner. Also, where Al-Kindi had focused on Aristotle, Al-Rhazi focused on Plato, introducing his ideas as a contrast.

After Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi introduced Neo-Platonism through his knowledge of the Hellenistic culture of Alexandria. Unlike Al-Kindi or Al-Rhazi, Al-Farabi was hesitant to express his own feelings on issues of religion and philosophy, choosing rather to speak only through the words of the various philosophies he came across.

Decades after Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina ("Avicenna") compiled the ideas of many Mulim philosophers of the previous centuries and established a new school which is known as Avicennism. After this period, Greek philosophy went into a decline in the Islamic world. Theologians such as Al-Ghazali argued that many realms of logic only worked in theory, not in reality. His ideas would later influence Western European religious ideas. By 1200, when philosophy was again revived in the Islamic world, Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi were no longer remembered, while Ibn Sina's compilation work still was.Laughlin 119] Ibn Sina, otherwise know as Avicenna, would later heavily influence European philosophical, theological and scientific thought, becoming known as “the most famous scientist of Islam” to many historians.

Reintroduction of Greek ideas into Europe

While Greek ideas gradually permeated the Islamic world, Muslims conquests extended to the European continent. Sicily and Spain were conquered by the Arabs at around 700 CE, even reaching as far as southern France by about 730. With the aid of Greek and other ideas, Spain in particular quickly became the most heavily populated and thriving area in Europe. One of the rulers of Muslim Spain, Al-Hakam II, made an effort to gather books from all over the Arab world, creating a library which would later become a center for translation into Latin. [Lindberg 57-8]

As books were gathered, so were many Arab scholars who had studied Greek ideas in the east. For example, Muhammud ibn 'Abdun and 'Abdu'l-Rahman ibn Ismail came to Spain and introduced many ideas about medicine as well as several of the works of Aristotle and Euclid. Ibn Bajjah (known as “Avempace”) and Ibn Rushd (known as “Averroes”) were among the other famous philosophers of Spain who furthered the expansion of Greek ideas in medicine and philosophy. [Laughlin 120]

Prior to Averroes, many Arab philosophers had confused Aristotle with Plotinus, a Hellenized Egyptian who founded Neoplatonism and had mixed Aristotle's ideas with Plato's. Averroes rediscovered the “true” Aristotle by translating key texts reintroducing him to Arab Spain. He also challenged Al-Ghazali's largely anti-Greek philosophies and offered some of the best reconciliation of Islam and philosophy of the time.Laughlin 121] Key to his arguments was the idea that although there was only one truth, that truth could be expressed in many ways, including both philosophy and religion. He even used the Qur'an to back up his arguments in favor of Greek philosophy and logic, especially the passage: “It is [Muhammad] who has revealed the Book to you...some of its verses are unambiguous...and the others are ambiguous...only God and those confirmed in knowledge know its interpretation.” Averroes argued that “those confirmed in knowledge” were philosophers.

The Scholastic philosophers and theologians of the middle ages such as Aquinas later called Averroes “The Commentator,” and Michael the Scot translated several of Averroes' works within fifty years of the Arab's death. However, Averroes' reception in Western Europe contrasted with his ultimate rejection by Arabs in Spain. [Laughlin 122] Soon after Averroes, Greek ideas in the Arab world were largely opposed by those who disliked anything not “truly Arab.” [Laughlin 124]

econd period: Arabic – Latin or Vernacular

While Arabs were busy translating and adding their own ideas to Greek philosophies, the Latin West was still suspicious of pagan ideas. Leaders of the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire also frowned upon philosophy, and the Empire had just gone through a period of plague, famine, and war [Laughlin 104] . Further west, several key figures in European history who came after Boethius had strengthened the overwhelming shift away from Greek ideas. St. Jerome, for example, was hostile to Aristotle, and St. Augustine had little interest in exploring philosophy, only applying logic to theology. [Laughlin 128-129] For centuries, Greek ideas in Europe were all but non-existent. Only a few monasteries had Greek works, and even fewer of them copied these works. [Laughlin 139]

There was a brief period of revival, when the Irish-influenced monk Alcuin reintroduced some Greek ideas during the Carolingian Renaissance. [Laughlin 141] After Charlemagne's death, however, intellectual life again fell into decline.Laughlin 143-46] Excepting a few persons promoting Boethius, such as Gerbert of Aurillac, philosophical thought was relatively quiet in Europe for about two centuries. By the 12th century, however, scholastic thought was beginning to develop, leading to the rise of universities throughout Europe.Laughlin 147-48] These universities gathered what little Greek thought had been preserved over the centuries, including Boethius' commentaries on Aristotle. They also served as places of discussion for new ideas coming from new translations from Arabic throughout Europe.

By the 12th century, European fear of Islam as a military threat had lessened somewhat. Toledo, in Spain, had fallen from Arab hands in 1085, Sicily in 1091, and Jerusalem in 1099.Watt 59-60] Lindberg 58-59] These linguistic borderlands proved fertile ground for translators. These areas had been conquered by both Arab and Latin-speaking peoples over the centuries and contained linguistic abilities from both cultures. Surprisingly, the crusaders contributed very little to the translation efforts. Sicily was in a better state for it, since it had seen rule under Byzantines, Arabs, and Italians, and many were fluent in Greek, Arabic, and Latin. Sicilians, however, were less influenced by Arabs and instead are noted more for their translations directly from Greek to Latin. Spain, on the other hand, was an ideal place for translation from Arabic to Latin because of a combination of rich Latin and Arab cultures living side by side.

pain and Italy

As early as the 10th century, scholars in Spain had begun to gather translated texts, and in the latter half of that century began transmitting them to the rest of Europe. [Lindberg 60-61] After the Reconquista of the 12th century, however, Spain opened even further for Christian scholars, who were now able to work in “friendly” religious territory.Lindberg 62-65] [Palencia 270] As these Europeans encountered Islamic philosophy, their previously-held fears turned to admiration, and from Spain came a wealth of Arab knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. Foreigners came to Spain to translate from all over Europe, and Toledo became a center for such travelers, since so many of its citizens wrote daily in both Arabic and Latin-based languages.

Although there was a huge amount of work being accomplished in Spain, there was no central school for translating and no real organized effort, as there had been at times among the Arabs. Translators came from many different backgrounds and translated for many different reasons. For example, non-Christian Jewish scholars participated by translating Arabic works which had already been translated into Hebrew, into Latin and Vulgate languages.Lindberg 67] Brickman 86] Some scholars, however, have suggested that Archbishop Raimundo of Toledo seems to have started an organized movement of support for translations, and many scholars who seem to be associated with him in history may have translated two-by-two, working together.

Whether Raimundo actually started a truly central, organized effort at translation in Spain remains unknown. What is known is that most translations coming out of Spain dealt with either medicine or astronomy. Hugo of Santalla, for example, translated a large selection of Arabic works all dealing with astronomy, as well as tracing the history of astronomic thought through history, underscoring the work of the Greeks, Persians, Hellenists, an Arabians in one large preface to his volume. [Pingree 227-9]

By the 13th century, translation had declined in Spain was on the rise in Italy and Sicily, and from there to all of Europe. Adelard of Bath, an Englishman, traveled to Sicily and the Arab world, translating works on astronomy and mathematics, including the first complete translation of Euclid’s Elements. [Clagett 356] Powerful Norman kings gathered men of high knowledge from Italy and other areas into their courts a signs of prestige.Lindberg 70-72] Even the Byzantines experienced an Aristotelian revival in the mid 12th century and gathered men from Italy as well.

William of Moerbeke

William of Moerbeke was one of the most prolific and influential translators of Greek philosophical texts in the middle half of the thirteenth century. Very little is known of William's life [see Grabmann 1946 and the short account by Minio-Paluello 1974] . He was born probably in 1215 in the village of Moerbeke, now in Belgium, and probably entered the Dominican convent in Leuven as a young man. Most of his surviving work was done during 1259-72.

Though William's contribution to the 'recovery' of Aristotle in the thirteenth century was not as significant as is sometimes claimed, his work undoubtedly helped in forming a clearer picture of Greek philosophy, and particularly of Aristotle, than was given by the Arabic versions they had previously relied on, and which had distorted or obscured the relation between Platonic and Aristotelian systems of philosophy [Fryde] . William's translation of Proclus was also important, demonstrating that the influential book "Liber de Causis", was not a genuine work of Aristotle, but derived from Proclus' "Elementatio Theologica" ["Encyclopedia of Philosophy" 2001, Macmillan Reference USA] .

According to a tradition originating in the later Middle Ages, William knew Thomas Aquinas and was commissioned by him to make some of the translations. But there is no contemporary record of the friendship or the commissions. If they did meet, it is most likely during the three or four years Aquinas was working at Orvieto, i.e. not before the election of Pope Urban IV in August 1261, who invited Aquinas to serve at the Papal court, and not after 1265, when Aquinas left for Rome. His translation of "De motu animalium" is cited by Thomas in Summa Contra Gentiles, probably completed in 1264 [Fryde] .

ee also

* Latin translations of the 12th century
* Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe



*Brickman, William W. “The Meeting of East and West in Educational History.” Comparative Education Review. (Oct 1961) 5.2 pgs. 82-89.
*Clagett, Marshall. “William of Moerbeke: Translator of Archimedes.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. (Oct 1982) 126.5 pgs. 356-366.
* Fryde, E., "The Early Palaeologan Renaissance", Brill 2000.
* Grant, E. "The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages", Cambridge 1996.
* Grabmann 1946, "Guglielmo di Moerbeke, O.P., il traduttore delle opere di Aristotele, Miscellanea Historiae Pontificiae", vol. XI, fasc. 20, Rome, 1946.
*Grunebaum, Gustave E. von. “Greek Form Elements in the Arabian Nights.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. (Dec 1942) 62.4 pgs. 277-292 .
*Laughlin, Burgess. The Aristotle Adventure a Guide to the Greek, Arabic, and Latin Scholars Who Transmitted Aristotle's Logic to the Renaissance. Flagstaff Ariz.: Albert Hale Pub., 1995.
*Lindberg, David C. (Ed.) Science in the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
*Long, Pamela O. Technology and Society in the Medieval Centuries Byzantium, Islam, and the West, 500-1300. Washington DC: American Historical Association, 2003.
*Palencia, A. Gonzalez. “Islam and the Occident.” Hispania. (Oct 1935) 18.3 pgs. 245-276.
*Pingree, David. “Classical and Byzantine Astrology in Sassanian Persia.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. (1989) 43 pgs. 227-239.
*Reynolds, L. D. Scribes and Scholars a Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature. 3rd ed. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
*Rosenthal, Franz (Ed. and trans.). The Classical Heritage in Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
*Walbridge, John. “Explaining Away the Greek Gods in Islam.” Journal of the History of Ideas. (Jul 1998) 59.3 pgs. 389-403.
*Watt, W. Montgomer. The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe. Edinburgh: University Press, 1972.

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