How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs (CHAPTER III) (continued from 17/01/08)


POLITICAL events had brought western Asia a good deal under Greek influence. There had been some centuries domination of the Seleucid kings of Syria and, though the later rulers of that dynasty were inefficient and weak, the earlier ones had been otherwise. Public business had been carried on in Greek, and all who aspired to share in the administration had to learn and use Greek. No doubt this Hellenization was superficial, we know that it was so, but it left its impress. Then came Roman rule, which brought no new culture but rather reinforced the already existing Greek influence. Finally came the Christian Church, which was more definitely Greek in its influence than either the Seleucid kings or the Roman State, and after the time of Constantine the Roman government and the Christian Church worked hand in hand.

But the Greek culture which was thus introduced, was not that of Athens. Its focus was Alexandria in Egypt. It was not Hellenic, but Hellenistic. No doubt the culture of Alexandria evolved naturally and indeed inevitably from that of the older Greece, but it took a rather different direction. Philosophy as it was down to the age of Plato began to specialize in natural science under the guidance of Aristotle, and ultimately concentrated itself in medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. All these were treated as phases of natural science, and philosophy dealt with the underlying realities of which these specialized sciences were regarded as aspects. Its aim was to get the key to the natural order which, it was believed formed one great harmonious whole, and the means to be employed in the inquiry was outlined by the strict use of logic. This, of course, meant that the methods used in science held good in theology also, and this assumption caused the Church to be a missionary of Greek intellectual culture as well as of the Christian religion.

The City of Alexandria had been founded by Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Its site was already occupied by the Egyptian town of Rakote (ñáêï“å) and this continued to be the name of the city in the Egyptian vernacular Coptic. When Alexander’s empire was divided amongst his generals, Egypt was secured by Ptolemy Soter, and remained in the hands of the Ptolemaic dynasty until it was taken over by the Romans. Ptolemy Soter made Alexandria his capital, and did much to render it the focus of Greek culture and scholarship. He founded there the Museum which before long became.a kind of Hellenic university, a rival of the older schools of Athens. Apparently there had been a kind of congregation of sages in the temple of Heliopolis before this, and these sages removed to the new foundation which thus became an heir of the wisdom of the Egyptians. But the Egyptian element seems to have been absorbed in the Greek atmosphere, so that Alexandria was the heir of Athens rather than of Heliopolis. Still, the Greek world of Alexandria lost the exclusiveness which had marked Atbenian thought. It took a cosmopolitan character and showed a marked leaning towards oriental thought. In spite of its professed exclusiveness, earlier Greek culture had not been quite free from oriental influences, and much that appears in Greek life and thought can be traced back to Egypt and Babylon. Again, it must be noted that although Alexandria became so prominent in the development of later Greek thought, such development was not confined to it; it was not local, nor even national, but cosmopolitan. The Egyptians themselves never reckoned Alexandria as a part of Egypt; to them it always was a Greek colony, the headquarters of the alien race which garrisoned and ruled Egypt.

The Museum was founded by Ptolemy Soter who attached a library, but it was the generosity of his successor Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 B.C.) which enriched this until it became the greatest library of the ancient world, and this by itself went far to make Alexandria a gathering place of the learned.

The new cosmopolitan Greek life which developed after the days of Alexander had many sides. It produced its own class of literature, and evolved a scientific literary criticism. It carried forward philosophy, often on rather new lines. It produced new research in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and other branches of science. All these were inter-related, for all show a kindred spirit, and all evolved naturally from the culture of the older Greece. But, as a matter of convenience, it will be well for us to concentrate our attention on three leading branches, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics, these two last regarded as one because closely allied and developed at the hands of the same persons.


Aristotle the philosopher had been Alexander’s tutor, but his life was more connected with Athens than with Alexandria. Yet his influence permeated Greek thought, and was mainly responsible for directing it towards natural science and mathematics, though this scientific tendency had a precedent in earlier philosophy.

The latest type of Greek philosophy, and one which had very great influence on Greek thought when it came into contact with the Arabs, was that known as neo-Platonism. This school of philosophy was fond of tracing its beginnings back to the senii-legendary Pythagoras (580-500 B.C.?), a native of Samos or of Tyre who, if not the pupil of Thales, at least visited him and was influenced by him. Thales is said to have studied mathematics and physical science in Egypt, and Pythagoras is described as following in his footsteps and going to Egypt and receiving instruction there from the priests. Amongst other things he learned from these priests the doctrine of transmigration (cf. Herdt. ii, 123)- On returning home he found that Samos was under the tyrant Polycrates, and thereupon rmgrated to Magna Graccia, ultimately settling at Croton. There he established a school in the form of a confraternity, following Egyptian precedent. This fraternity possessed all its goods in common, and kept all its teaching secret from the outside world, which caused it to be regarded with suspicion, as a secret society with potential subversive political tendency. So the fraternity experienced rough treatment and Pythagoras escaped to Tarentum, then to Metapontum. The community was broken up, but continued as a philosophical group for some two centuries, though no longer preserving secrecy about its tenets. The rule of secrecy was first broken by Philolaus (circ- 400 B.C.), in fact such secrecy was altogether alien to Greek thought. After the fourth century B.C., when Philolaus disclosed its esoteric doctrine, the Pythagorean school declined in prominence. Pythagorean schools or clubs in Magna Graecia had assumed a political character, strongly antidemocratic in their tone, and at some period in the course of the fourth century there was a rising against them during which the cities of Magna Graccia became a scene of murder, armed rebellion, and disorder of every kind (Polybius, ii, 39; Strabo, viii, 7, 1; Justin, xx, 4)- Plato shows tendencies towards Orphic and Pythagorean ideas, especially in the later treatises. Tle Old Academy was more Pythagorean than Plato, but the New Academy turned in a different direction. Whether the doctrine of the immortality of the soul came from Egypt through a Pythagorean medium is not clear, but most of the Greeks who accepted that doctrine were in touch with Pythagoreanism.

About 100 B.C. there was a revival of Pythagoreanism and a number of pseudonymous treatises appeared purporting to describe Pythagoras’ teachings, including a set of poetical maxims which were called "the Golden Verses of Pythagoras It does not seem that the Pythagorean school ever took root in Rome. In this maturer Pythagorean teaching the soul was regarded as consisting of three parts, nous, thumos, and phrenes, only the first of these immortal. All nature was regarded as being alive, animated by heat, and the sun and stars as centres of heat were esteemed to be gods. The movements of the heavenly bodies are harmoniously adjusted by number, an idea of Egyptian origin, and so certain numbers have a sacred character, e.g. io which represents the sum of a pyramid of four stages, 4ù3ù2–1=10. This consideration of numbers appears again in Philo and later philosophers. All these ideas recur again in the later neo-Platonic philosophers, whose influence was felt by the Arabs. From the beginning Pythagorean teaching was much concerned with mathematics, its geometry chiefly interested in measuring areas. The Athenian Sophists turned to the geometry of the circle which the Pythagoreans had neglected. This revived Pythagoreanism exercised great influence in later Athens, and apparently in Alexandria as well. Neo-Platonists knew Pythagorean teaching in this later form. Both Porphyry and lamblichus, leading neo-Platonists, wrote lives of Pythagoras. In itself neo-Platonism was a perfectly natural and logical development of Greek thought, not an oriental intruder. It was eclectic, but so were most of the later philosophies, and combined the systems of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics under the mgis of Pythagoras. It received its clear definition in the teaching of Plotinus and his disciples.

The Neo-Pythagorean philosopher Numenius of Apamea (circ. 160-180 B.C.), whose teaching is known by citations in Busebius (Praep. Evang., xi, 10; xviii, 22; xv, I 7), and a few other references (e.g. Porphyry in Stob., Eccl. i, 836) must be regarded as a precursor of neo-Platonism. He was the first Greek philosopher to show any sympathy with Hebrew religion, describing Plato as Moses speaking in Attic (Clement Alex., Strom. i, 342; Eusebius, Praep. Evang. xi, 10). He shows very plainly a tendency to religious syncretism such as is strongly marked in the neo-Platonists, but is not confined to them, indeed it seems to have been widely prevalent in the second century and after.

The neo-Platonic school had its parent in Ammonius Saccas or Saccophorus, so named because he had been a carrier in his youth. Very little is known of his life. The chief source of information is Porphyry cited by Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 6, I9, 7), who states that he was a native of Alexandria and a Christian educated by his parents in the faith, but when he began to study philosophy he changed his opinions and became a pagan, though this last statement Eusebius denies (ib. 6, 16, 9). It has been suggested that Eusebius confuses him with another Ammonius, his contemporary and also an Alexandrian who was the editor of a Diatessaron giving the gospel according to St. Matthew with parallel passages from the other gospels, the basis of what afterwards were known as the Ammonian sections. Hieronymus (de vir. must. 55) says, "de consonantia Moysi et lesu opus elegans et evangelicos canones excogitabit". Apparently there were two contemporary persons, both of Alexandria and both called Ammonius. According to Longinus and Porphyry our Ammonius refrained from writing any books, following the precedent of Pythagoras, but the other Ammonius was the author of several works. Amongst the pupils of Ammonius were Origen, Plotinus, Herennius, Longinus the critic, Heracles, Olympius, and Antoriius, but these may not all have been pupils of the same Ammonius. Porphyry says that his teaching was kept secret, also a Pythagorean idea, that he bound his pupils by oath not to disclose it, but that vow was broken first by Herennius, then by Origen. There were two Origens, one the well-known Christian writer, the other a pagan philosopher, both Alexandrians and contemporary, but the Christian Origen and Heracles may have been the pupils of the other Ammonius who composed the Diatessaron. As to Ammonius’ teaching, Hierocles (apud Photius) says that he endeavoured to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, but that was the aim of all the later Alexandrians. Nemesius, a bishop and neoPlatonist of the later fourth century, gives two citations, one from both Numenius and Ammonius, the other from Ammonius alone, both about the nature of the soul and its relation to the body. If it be true that Ammonius did not leave any writings, these references can only represent traditions about his teaching. The association with Numenius is significant.

Plotinus was an Egyptian, a native of Lycopolis or Siut, now known as Assiout, where he was born about A.D. 200 (Eunatius, Vit. Soph. P. 6; Suidas, sub voc., puts his birth at Nicopolis). He attended the school of Alexandria, but was dissatisfied with the teaching he heard there, until a friend took him to hear Ammonius Saccas. On hearing his lecture, Plotinus decided that he had found the right teacher. He was then in his twentyeighth year, and remained with Ammonius eleven years. Undoubtedly the meeting with Ammonius was a turning-point in Plotinus’ life and gave the clue to his doctrine. But Arnmonius wrote no books, nor did he make any effort to publish his teaching, preferring to instruct in private and u;ider a pledge of secrecy. One result of Ammonius’ teaching was to make Plotinus anxious to obtain more accurate information about the beliefs of the Indians and Persians. Reverence for, and interest in, oriental thought was characteristic of the Alexandrian school and this was inherited by the neo-Platonists. In order to gratify this desire Plotinus joined the Emperor Gordian’s expedition to Persia in 242, an expedition which turned out ill and resulted in the emperor’s death, and Plotinus had difficulty in reaching Antioch in safety. He then went to Rome, being at the time forty years of age, and there lectured for ten years and had many hearers, some of them senators and other leading citizens. But for long he followed Ammonius’ example and taught privately, writing and publishing nothing. Then in 254, he began to write, and in 263 Porphyry became one of his hearers, introduced by Ametius who had been his hearer for twenty-four years, and remained with him six years. Plotinus had written twenty-one books of his Enneads when Porphyry met him, during the six years they were together he wrote twenty-four more, which Porphyry considered his best work, and in the brief remainderofhislifehewroteninemore. He died in 269, having completed his 69th year. His death took place during a visitation of plague, but was not due to the pestilence. Apparendy he became ill because he was deprived of the ministrations of his personal attendants who had been carried off by the plague. Finding himself ill, he retired to Campania to a house bequeathed to him by the Arab physician Zethus, who had been one of his pupils, and there finished his life in peace.

Later neo-Platonists often associated themselves with the revival of paganism then in progress, as did his pupil Amelius, but Plotinus himself stood aloof. The Enneads have come down to us rearranged and revised by his pupil Porphyry who, however, outlines another arrangement disposing the books in chronological order, and by that arrangement the development of Plotinus’ thought is made clearer.

Though Plotinus was educated at Alexandria, his teaching was developed and delivered in Rome. At one time neo-Platonism was regarded as essentially Alexandrian, but this is an overstatement, if not altogether untrue, though the system contains elements which appear also in the Alexandrian Jew Philo, in the Gnostics who seem to have been of Egyptian origin, and in the Alexandrian Christians Clement and Origen. It was indeed eclectic, though claiming to be Platonism. It had a religious syncretism akin to that which appears in Plutarch and Maximus of Tyre, and which seems to have been very widely prevalent at the time.

In Plotinus’ teaching the Monad is presented as the Supreme God, the ultimate source of all good and order. God is immanent, but is also transcendent. Between God and the world is the World Soul, the creator whose work is not altogether good and orderly, whilst the phenomenal world itself is unsubstantial and unstable. It is very much like the Gnostic attitude towards the problem of evil: the Creator whose work is obviously imperfect, is a subordinate, not the Supreme God, and therefore not perfect. Knowledge may be obtained by sense-perception, by inference from sense-perception, but the highest and best knowledge is that receive directly by inspiration.

Neo-Platonism, substantially the doctrine of Plotinus’ Enneads, though developed by his successors, exercised a powerful influence over the Graeco-Roman world for several centuries. Books IV-VI of the Enneads, in an abridged Syriac translation, circulated amongst Syriac-speaking Christians, especially the Monophysites, as the "Theology of Aristotle "and were accepted as genuinely Aristotelian by the earlier scholars of Baghdad, before the time of al-Kindi, and were still so accepted by many for long afterwards. It is easy to see how such material contributed to a pantheistic and mystical tone of thought such as is apparent in Muslim philosophy.

Porphyy (b. 233, died after 301) was a Syrian, his original name Malchus meaning "king" or "royal", which he changed at the advice of his teachers to Basileus, then to Porphyry. He studied at Athens under Longinus, Ammonius’ disciple, then at Rome in 263 under Plotinus. After a visit to Sicily he returned to Rome and gave expository lectures on the philosophy of Plotinus. He married Marcella, a friend’s widow, simply for the sake of educating her children. At the time there were many sects which produced spurious apocalyptic works which they attributed to various distinguished authorities of ancient times, and with some of these Porphyry was led into controversy, especially against a book published under the name of "Zosimus" and purporting to give an account of the religious tenets of the Persians. This work he showed to be a recent forgery, and in doing so applied sound principles of criticism. The inquiry led him into controversy With the Christians, and for several centuries his writings were viewed by the Christians as the most serious attack made upon their faith. Only fragments of his work in this direction are preserved by Christian apologetical writers, but it is clear that his method of treatment was by way of historical criticism as already developed in the school of Alexandria. In one treatise, De antro nympharum, he applied the method of allegorical interpretation to the story of Ulysses’ visit to the cave of the nymphs in Homer, Odyss. 13, I 08-1 I2As a writer, Porphyry was distinguished by a clear insight into the meaning of the literary work he examined, and had an exceptionally lucid manner of stating that meaning. His Isagoge or introduction to the Categories of Aristotle was used for many centuries in east and west as the clearest and most practical manual Of Aristotelian logic, indeed that logic was to a great extent popularized by the excellence of its presentation in the Isagoge. His "Sententiae"represent his exposition of Plotinus, again lucidly expressed but much preoccupied with his ethical teaching. He wrote a history of philosophy, of which his extant Life of PYthagoras no doubt formed a part. Like many neo-Platonists he was a vegetarian and ascete, which accorded with the tradition inherited from Pythagoras, as appears in the life of Apolloniu. s of Tyana, a religious and mor-al reformer of the first century. One of his treatises, De abstinentia, deals with this ascetic ideal. He does not recommend abstinence from flesh for all, admitting that it is unsuitable for soldiers and athletes, but commends it to those who are occupied with philosophy: he disapproves the offering of animal victims in sacrifice, which he regards as a barbarous survival of the days when men had false ideas about the gods and as akin to human sacrifices which were obsolete since the days of Hadrian, animal sacrifices being in many cases a commutation of older human sacrifices. Animals have some measure of reason, and so have certain rights, they do not exist solely for the service of men. Abstinence from flesh food was practised by the Essenes, by the Egyptian priests, and by the Indian Sarmanoi, by which he denotes Buddhist priests about whom he obtained information from the Syrian Bar Daisan who had contact with an Indian embassy proceeding to Rome (Porphyry, De abstinentia, 4, i8). He repudiates the doctrine of transmigration of souls which to many people had nade Pythagoreanism ridiculous. He was the author also of several works on psychology and mathematics.

lamblichus (d. circ. 320), a native of Cocle-Syria, was Porphyry’s pupil in Rome and succeeded him as leader of the neo-Platonists. He was credited with supernatural powers, and it was said that at his devotions he was raised in the air and transfigured. His pupils asked him if this were true, and he laughed, and said that there was no truth in it Whatever, As a writer he was inferior to Porphyry, with defects in style and often obscure, but the Emperor Julian considered him the equal Of Plato, "a thinker who is inferior to him in time, but not in genius, I refer to Iamblichus of Chalcis" (julian, Oral. 4, "On the Sun King," 146 A), and for some time, it appears, he had a great vogue. He wrote a treatise tracing philosophy back to Pythagoras, and of this some portions survive, including a life of Pythagoras. His Logos Proireptikos is an exhortation to philosophy which consists largely of extracts from Plato, Aristotle, and neo-Platoriic writers. Besides these works he composed three mathematical treatises.

At the death of Iamblichus in 33o, his school dispersed, but he had a successor in Aedisius at Pergamum in Mysia, who educated the sons of Eustathius, a noble Roman who was sent on an embassy to the Persian court. By that time the Roman Empire was professedly Christian, and the philosophers who adhered to paganism had to keep their religious sympathies secret. Amongst Aedisius’ pupils was the Emperor Julian, who made an attempt to revive decaying paganism, but without permanent result. The great hope of the pagan party lay in the neo-Platonists. At the beginning of the fifth century Hypathia (d. 415) expounded neo-Platonic doctrines at Alexandria, but for the most part Alexandrian thought was not much attached to neo-Platonism. The same teaching was continued after her by Hierocles (circ. 415-450), a pupil of Plutarch of Athens (d. 481), who seems to have been responsible for introducing neo-Platonism into Athens which from his time forward became its home. Plutarch was succeeded at Athens by Syrianus of Alexandria. After him came Proclus (410-485) a native of Constantinople who received his education at Alexandria, then continued at Athens under Plutarch and Syrianus. He was the author of a treatise on "Platonic Theology "and of one called "Theological Elements ", which contains a statement of the doctrine of Plotinus modified in a form which supplied the philosophical ideas of the later neo-Platonists, so that he ranks next after Plotinus as an authority of their system. At that time the school of Athens, the home of neo-Platonism, was secretly pagan and conscious of the precarious character of the tolerance which it enjoyed. One of his pupils was Marinus, who wrote his biography.

The last head of the academy of Athens was Damascius a native of Damascus as his name denotes, but educated at Alexandria, then at Athens. He professed to accept the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of matter, in contradiction to the accepted Christian tenet of creation, and for this was viewed disapprovingly by the Emperor Justinian. But this was merely the climax of a growing antagonism of the imperial authorities for what was generally felt to be a nursery of paganism. Justinian’s ideal was a centralized and united empire, in complete conformity with the ruling prince in religion and in everything else. Official disapproval led to a species of persecution of all philosophers in 528, and in the following year the school of Athens was closed and its endowments confiscated. Of the deprived professors seven, including Damascius, migrated to Persia and were welcomed by Khusraw, who was an ardent admirer of Greek philosophy and science. This migration seems to have taken place in 532. The seven philosophers expected to find an ideal state under the rule of a philosopher king, but were quickly disillusioned and discovered that an oriental tyranny could be worse than the severity of Justinian, and begged to be allowed to go back. Khusraw tried to induce them to remain, but used no compulsion, and -when they did return took care to insert a clause in the treaty made with Justinian securing them complete liberty of conscience and freedom from molestation when under Roman rule. This return took place in 533.

Although the school of Athens was closed the philosophers who had been trained there continued to teach and both they and their pupils produced written works. Chief amongst these late neo-Platonists were Ammonius and John Philoponus. Ammonius was a pupil of ProcIus and compiled a commentary on the Isagoge of Porphyry which became the standard Greek authority and was afterwards adopted by the Nestorians. John Philoponus (circ- 530), a pupil of Ammonius, was a later commentator on the Isagoge and his exposition was preferred by the Monophysites



by  De Lacy O’Leary

First published in Great Britain in 1949

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