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Arabic Thought and Its Place in History

Arabic Thought and Its Place in History

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by De Lacy O'Leary

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Well-documented study of the mutual influence of Arabic and Western worlds during the Middle Ages traces the transmission of Greek philosophy and science to the Islamic cultures. A fascinating portrait of medieval Muslim thought, it illustrates commonalities with Judaic and Christian teachings as well as points of divergence.


Well-documented study of the mutual influence of Arabic and Western worlds during the Middle Ages traces the transmission of Greek philosophy and science to the Islamic cultures. A fascinating portrait of medieval Muslim thought, it illustrates commonalities with Judaic and Christian teachings as well as points of divergence.

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Arabic Thought and Its Place in History

By De Lacy O'Leary

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-42762-1



The subject proposed in the following pages is the history of the cultural transmission by which Greek philosophy and science were passed from Hellenistic surroundings to the Syriac speaking community, thence to the Arabic speaking world of Islam, and so finally to the Latin Schoolmen of Western Europe. That such a transmission did take place is known even to the beginner in mediæval history, but how it happened, and the influences which promoted it, and the modifications which took place en route, appear to be less generally known, and it does not seem that the details, scattered through works of very diverse types, are easily accessible to the English reader. Many historians seem content to give only a casual reference to its course, sometimes even with strange chronological confusions which show that the sources used are still the mediæval writers who had very imperfect information about the development of intellectual life amongst the Muslims. Following mediæval usage we sometimes find the Arabic writers referred to as "Arabs" or "Moors," although in fact there was only one philosopher of any importance who was an Arab by race, and comparatively little is known about his work. These writers belonged to an Arabic speaking community, but very few of them were actually Arabs.

After the later Hellenistic development Greek culture spread outward into the oriental fringe of people who used Syriac, Coptic, Aramaic, or Persian as their vernacular speech, and in these alien surroundings it took a somewhat narrower development and even what we may describe as a provincial tone. There is no question of race in this. Culture is not inherited as a part of the physiological heritage transmitted from parent to child; it is learned by contact due to intercourse, imitation, education, and such like things, and such contact between social groups as well as between individuals is much helped by the use of a common language and hindered by difference of language. As soon as Hellenism overflowed into the vernacular speaking communities outside the Greek speaking world it began to suffer some modification. It so happened also that these vernacular speaking communities wanted to be cut off from close contact with the Greek world because very bitter theological divisions had arisen and had produced feelings of great hostility on the part of those who were officially described as heretics against the state church in the Byzantine Empire.

In this present chapter we have to consider three points; in the first place the particular stage of development reached by Greek thought at the time when these divisions took place; secondly the cause of these divisions and their tendencies; and thirdly the particular line of development taken by Hellenistic culture in its oriental atmosphere.

First stands the question of the stage of development reached by Hellenism, and we may test this by its intellectual life as represented by science and philosophy, at the time when the oriental offshoot shows a definite line of separation. English education, largely dominated by the principles learned at the renascence, is inclined to treat philosophy as coming to an end with Aristotle and beginning again with Descartes after a long blank during which there lived and worked some degenerate descendants of the ancients who hardly need serious consideration. But this position violates the primary canon of history which postulates that all life is continuous, the life of the social community as well as the physical life of an organic body: and life must be a perpetual series of causes and results, so that each event can only be explained by the cause which went before, and can only be fully understood in the light of the result which follows after. What we call the "middle ages" had an important place in the evolution of our own cultural condition, and owed much to the transmitted culture which came round from ancient Hellenism through Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew media. But this culture came as a living thing with an unbroken and continuous development from what we call the "classic" age. As the philosophy of the great classic schools passes down to these later periods it shows great modifications, but this alteration is itself a proof of life. Philosophy, like religion, in so far as it has a real vitality, must change and adapt itself to altered conditions and new requirements: it can remain pure and true to its past only in so far as its life is artificial and unreal, lived in an academic atmosphere far removed from the life of the community at large. In such an unnatural atmosphere no doubt, it is possible for a religion or a philosophy to live perfectly pure and uncorrupt, but it is certainly not an ideal life: in real life there are bound to be introduced many unworthy elements and some which can only be described as actually corrupt. So it is inevitable that as a religion or a philosophy lives and really fulfils its proper functions it has to pass through many changes. Of course the same holds good for all other forms of culture: it may be true that a country is happy if it has no history, but it is the placid happiness of vegetable life, not the enjoyment of the higher functions of rational being.

In considering the transmission of Greek philosophy to the Arabs we see that philosophy still as a living force, adapting itself to changed conditions but without a break in the continuity of its life. It was not, as now, an academic study sought only by a group of specialists, but a living influence which guided men in their ideas about the universe in which they lived and dominated all theology, law, and social ideas. For many centuries it pervaded the atmosphere in which Western Asia was educated and in which it lived. Men became Christians, for a time the new religious interest filled their minds, but later on it was inevitable that philosophy should re-assert its power, and then Christian doctrine had to be re-cast to conform to it: the descendants of these people became Muslims and then again, after an interval, religion had to conform itself to current philosophy. We have no such dominant philosophical system in force to-day, but we have a certain mass of scientific facts and theories which form an intellectual background to modern European life and the defenders of traditional religion find it necessary to adjust their teaching to the principles implied in those facts and theories.

But the important point is that then Christian teachers began to put themselves into touch with current philosophy, and so when the Muslims later on did the same, they had to reckon with philosophy as they found it actually living in their own days: they did not become Platonists or Aristotelians in the sense in which we should understand the terms. The current philosophy had changed from the older standards, not because the degenerate people of those days could not understand the pure doctrines of Plato and Aristotle, but because they took philosophy so seriously and earnestly as an explanation of the universe and of man's place in it that they were bound to re-adjust their views in the light of what they regarded as later information, and the views had altered to adjust themselves with the course of human experience.

From Plato onwards philosophy had been very largely concerned with theories which more or less directly concerned the structure of society: it was perceived that a very large part of man's life, duties, and general welfare, was intimately concerned with his relations to the community in which he lived. But soon after the time of Aristotle the general conditions of the social order were seen to be undergoing a profound modification: great empires with highly organised administrations replaced the self-governing city states of the older period, and social life had to adjust itself to the new conditions. A man who was a citizen of the Roman Empire was a citizen in quite a different sense from that in which one was a citizen of the Athenian Republic. The Stoic philosophy, which is of this later age, already pre-supposes these new conditions and in course of time the other schools orientated themselves similarly. One of the first results is a tendency to eclecticism and to combination of the tenets of several schools. The new outlook, broader in its horizon, perhaps shallower in other respects, impelled men to take what was an imperialist attitude instead of a local or national one. Precisely similar changes were forced upon the Jewish religion. Hellenistic Judaism, at the beginning of the Christian era, is concerned with the human species and the race of Israel is considered chiefly as a means of bringing illumination to mankind at large. It was this Hellenistic Judaism which culminated in St. Paul and the expansion of the Christian Church, whilst orthodox Judaism, that is to say the provincial Jewery of Palestine reverted to its racial attitude under the pressure of circumstances partly reactionary against the too rapid progress of Hellenism and partly political in character.

The old pagan religions showed many local varieties, and from these a world-wide religion could only be evolved by some speculative doctrines which reconciled their divergences. Never has a religion of any extension been formed from local cults otherwise than by the ministry of some kind of speculative theology: sometimes the fusion of cults has spontaneously produced such a theology, as was the case in the Nile valley and in Mesopotamia in early times, and when the theology was produced it brought its solvent power to bear rapidly and effectively on other surrounding cults. As many races and states were associated together in the Greek Empire which, though apparently separated into several kingdoms, yet had an intellectual coherence and a common civilization, and this was still more definitely the case when the closer federation of the Roman Empire followed, philosophy was forced more and more in the direction of speculative theology: it assumed those ethical and doctrinal functions which we generally associate with religion, the contemporary local cults concerning themselves only with ritual duties. Thus in the early centuries of the Christian era Hellenistic philosophy was evolving a kind of religion, of a high moral tone and definitely monotheistic in doctrine. This theological philosophy was eclectic, but rested upon a basis of Platonism.

Whilst the philosophers were developing a monotheistic and moral system which they hoped to make a world religion, the Christians were attempting a similar task on somewhat different lines. The earlier converts to the Christian religion were not as a rule drawn from the educated classes and shewed a marked suspicion and dislike towards those superior persons, such as the Gnostics, or at least the pre-Marcionite Gnostics, who were disposed to patronise them. Gradually however this attitude changed and we begin to find men like Justin Martyr who had received a philosophical education and yet found it quite possible to coordinate contemporary science and Christian doctrine. In Rome, in Africa, and in Greece the Christians were a despised minority, chiefly drawn from the unlettered class, and ostentatiously ignored by the writers of the day. Like the Jew of the Ghetto they were forced to live an isolated life and thrown back upon their internal resources. But in Alexandria and, to a lesser degree in Syria, they were more in the position of the modern Jew in Anglo Saxon lands, though bitterly hated and occasionally persecuted, and were brought under the intellectual influences of the surrounding community and thus experienced a solvent force in their own ideas. When at last Christianity appears in the ascendant it has been largely re-cast by Hellenistic influences, its theology is re-stated in philosophical terms, and thus in the guise of theology a large amount of philosophical material was transmitted to the vernacular speaking hinterland of Western Asia.

The Arabic writer Masûdi informs us that Greek philosophy originally flourished at Athens, but the Emperor Augustus transferred it from Athens to Alexandria and Rome, and Theodosius afterwards closed the schools at Rome and made Alexandria the educational centre of the Greek world (Masûdi: Livre de l'avertissement, trad. B.Carra de Vaux, Paris, 1896, p. 170). Although grotesquely expressed this statement contains an element of truth in so far as it represents Alexandria as gradually becoming the principal home of Greek philosophy. It had begun to take a leading place even in the days of the Ptolemies, and in scientific, as distinguished from purely literary work, it had assumed a position of primary importance early in the Christian era. The schools of Athens remained open until A.D. 529, but had long been out of touch with progressive scholarship. Rome also shows great philosophers, most often of oriental birth, down to a late age, but although these were given a kindly welcome and a hearing, Roman education was more interested in jurisprudence, indeed the purely Roman philosophical speculation is that embedded in Justinian's code. Antioch also had its philosophy, but this was never of more than secondary importance.

In the course of what we may term the Alexandrian period the Platonic school had steadily taken the first place. It was indeed considerably changed from the ancient Academic standards, chiefly by the introduction of semi-mystical elements which were attributed to Pythagoras, and later by fusion with the neo-Aristotelian school. The Pythagorean elements probably can be traced ultimately to an Indian source, at least in such instances as the doctrine of the unreality of matter and phenomena which appears in Indian philosophy as maya, and the reincarnation of souls which is avatar. The tendency of native Greek thought, as seen in Democritus and other genuinely Greek thinkers, was distinctly materialistic, but Plato apparently incorporates some alien matter, probably Indian, perhaps some Eygptian ideas as well. We know there was a transmission of oriental thought influencing Hellenism, but very little is known of the details. Certainly Plotinus and the neo-Platonists were eclectic thinkers and drew freely from oriental sources, some disguised as Pythagorean, by a long sojourn in Greek lands.

In the 3rd century A.D. we find the beginnings of what is known as neo-Platonism. A very typical passage in Gibbon's Decline and Fall (ch. xiii) refers to the neo-Platonists as " men of profound thought and intense application; but, by mistaking the true object of philosophy, their labours contributed much less to improve than to corrupt the human understanding. The knowledge that is suited to our situation and powers, the whole compass of moral, natural, and mathematical science, was neglected by the new Plantonists; whilst they exhausted their strength in the verbal disputes of metaphysics, attempted to explore the secrets of the invisible world, and studied to reconcile Aristotle with Plato, on subjects of which both these philosophers were as ignorant as the rest of mankind." Although this passage is coloured by some of the peculiar prejudices of Gibbon it fairly represents a common attitude towards neo-Platonism and might equally apply to every religious movement the world has ever seen.

The neo-Platonists were the result, we may say the inevitable result, of tendencies which had been at work ever since the age of Alexander and the widening of the mental horizon and the decay of interest in the old civic life. The older philosophers had endeavoured to produce efficient citizens; but under imperialist conditions efficient citizens were not so much wanted as obedient subjects. Through all this period there are very clear indications of the new trend of thought which assumes a more theological and philanthropic character, aiming at producing good men rather than useful citizens. The speculations of Philo the Jewish Platonist give very plain indications of these new tendencies as they appeared in Alexandria. He shows the monotheistic tendency which was indeed present in the older philosophers but now begins to be more strongly emphasized as philosophy becomes more theological in its speculations, though no doubt in his case this was largely due to the religion he professed. He expressed the doctrine of a One God, eternal, unchanging, and passionless, far removed above the world of phenomena, as the First Cause of all that exists, a philosophical monotheism which can be fitted in with the Old Testament but does not naturally proceed from it. The doctrine of an Absolute Reality as the necessary cause of all that is variable, something like the fulcrum which Archimedes needed to move the world, was one to which all philosophy, and especially the Plantonic school, was tending. But, as causation to some extent implies change, this First Cause could not be regarded as directly creating the world, but only as the eternal source of an eternally proceeding emanation by means of which the power of the First Cause is projected so as to produce the universe and all it contains. The essential features of this teaching are, the absolute unity of the First Cause, its absolute reality, its eternity, and its invariability, all of which necessarily removes it above the plane of things knowable to man; and the operative emanation ceaselessly issuing forth, eternal like its source, yet acting in time and space, an emanation which Philo terms the Logos or "Word." Although these theories are to a large extent only an expression of logical conclusions towards which the Platonists were then advancing, Philo had curiously little influence. No doubt there was a tendency to regard his teaching as mainly an attempt to read a Platonic meaning into Jewish doctrine, and certainly the large amount of attention he devoted to exegesis of the Old Testament and to Jewish apologetics would prevent his works from receiving serious attention from non-Jewish readers. Again, although his ideas about monotheism and the nature of God were those to which Platonism was tending, they represent also a Jewish attitude which, starting from a monotheistic standpoint was then, under Hellenistic influence, making towards a suprasensual idea of God, explaining away the anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament and postulating an emanation, the Hochma or "wisdom" of God as the intermediary in creation and revelation. Undoubtedly Philo, or the Philonic school of Hellenistic Judaism, was responsible for the Logos doctrine which appears in the portions of the New Testament bearing the name of St. John. He had an influence also on Jewish thought as appears in the Targums where the operative emanation which proceeds from the First Cause is no longer the "wisdom" of God but the " Word." He seems to have had no influence at all on the course of Alexandrian philosophy generally.


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