Arabic Translators Did Far More Than Just Preserve Greek Philosophy

In European antiquity, philosophers largely wrote in Greek. Even after the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean and the demise of paganism, philosophy was strongly associated with Hellenic culture. The leading thinkers of the Roman world, such as Cicero and Seneca, were steeped in Greek literature; Cicero even went to Athens to pay homage to the home of his philosophical heroes. Tellingly, the emperor Marcus Aurelius went so far as to write his Meditations in Greek. Cicero, and later Boethius, did attempt to initiate a philosophical tradition in Latin. But during the early Middle Ages, most of Greek thought was accessible in Latin only partially and indirectly.

Elsewhere, the situation was better. In the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the Greek-speaking Byzantines could continue to read Plato and Aristotle in the original. And philosophers in the Islamic world enjoyed an extraordinary degree of access to the Hellenic intellectual heritage. In 10th-century Baghdad, readers of Arabic had about the same degree of access to Aristotle that readers of English do today.

This was thanks to a well-funded translation movement that unfolded during the Abbasid caliphate, beginning in the second half of the eighth century. Sponsored at the highest levels, even by the caliph and his family, this movement sought to import Greek philosophy and science into Islamic culture. Their empire had the resources to do so, not just financially but also culturally. From late antiquity to the rise of Islam, Greek had survived as a language of intellectual activity among Christians, especially in Syria. So when Muslim aristocrats decided to have Greek science and philosophy translated into Arabic, it was to Christians that they turned. Sometimes, a Greek work might even be translated first into Syriac, and only then into Arabic. It was an immense challenge. Greek is not a semitic language, so they were moving from one language group to another: more like translating Finnish into English than Latin into English. And there was, at first, no established terminology for expressing philosophical ideas in Arabic.

What drove the political class of Abbasid society to support this enormous and difficult undertaking? Part of the explanation is no doubt the sheer utility of the scientific corpus: key texts in disciplines such as engineering and medicine had obvious practical application. But this doesn’t tell us why translators were paid handsomely to render, say, Aristotle’s Metaphysics or Plotinus’ Enneads into Arabic. Research by leading scholars of the Greek-Arabic translation movement, especially by Dimitri Gutas in Greek Thought, Arabic Culture (1998), has suggested that the motives were in fact deeply political. The caliphs wanted to establish their own cultural hegemony, in competition with Persian culture and also with the neighbouring Byzantines. The Abbasids wanted to show that they could carry on Hellenic culture better than the Greek-speaking Byzantines, benighted as they were by the irrationalities of Christian theology.

Muslim intellectuals also saw resources in the Greek texts for defending, and better understanding, their own religion. One of the earliest to embrace this possibility was al-Kindī, traditionally designated as the first philosopher to write in Arabic (he died around 870CE). A well-heeled Muslim who moved in court circles, al-Kindī oversaw the activity of Christian scholars who could render Greek into Arabic. The results were mixed. The circle’s version of Aristotle’s Metaphysics can be almost incomprehensible at times (to be fair, one could say this of the Greek Metaphysics too), while their ‘translation’ of the writings of Plotinus often takes the form of a free paraphrase with new, added material.

Peter Adamson


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