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At the same time, and as a result of this view, he developed a unitary epistemological approach — namely, that of mathematics. This focus explains the fragmentary nature of the translations from Proclus and Plotinus that he commissioned, just as it explains his philosophical eclecticism: he was interested primarily in the question of the One or God as the first principle and in all the issues — methodological, metaphysical, cosmological — related to that concept; he was, accordingly, fashioning his own approach from the disjecta membra of Greek philosophy available in the written but not living tradition.

This is why his philosophical thinking does not belong to a school tradition, why it does not rest on preexisting translations of Greek philosophical works, and why it is an original creation, in Arabic, of the intellectualism of early Abbasid society. The resurrection of philosophy in Arabic in the early ninth century was a revolutionary event, as mentioned above, because up to that point anybody doing philosophy creatively in multicultural post-classical antiquity — regardless of linguistic or ethnic background — did it in Greek, while all the other philosophical activities were derivative from, and dependent upon, the main philosophizing going on simultaneously in Greek.

Arabic philosophy engaged in the same enterprise Greek philosophy did before its gradual demise, but this time in its own language: Arabic philosophy internationalized Greek philosophy, and through its success it demonstrated to world culture that philosophy is a supranational enterprise. This, it seems, is what makes the transplantation and development of philosophy in other languages and cultures throughout the Middle Ages historically possible and intelligible.

Arabic philosophy was also revolutionary in another way.


Although Greek philosophy in its declining stages in late antiquity may be thought to have yielded to Christianity, and indeed in many ways imitated it, Arabic philosophy developed in a social context in which a dominant monotheistic religion was the ideology par excellence. Because of this, Arabic philosophy developed as a discipline not in opposition or subordination to religion, but independent from religion — indeed from all religions — and was considered intellectually superior to religion in its subject and method.

Arabic philosophy developed, then, not as an ancilla theologiae but as a system of thought and a theoretical discipline that transcends all others and rationally explains all reality, including religion. It is possible, for instance, to discern a major structural change in the medical curriculum in Alexandria toward the end of the sixth century, perhaps as a reaction to the decline of philosophical instruction in that last remaining center of Greek philosophical studies.

The theological applications of philosophy in Greek patristic literature, by contrast, were many and longevous, though clearly harnessed to their theological, apologetic, and polemical goals rather than free philosophical discourse. It is characterized by the continuation of the engagement with the remnants of philosophy in Greek, Syriac, and Middle Persian that have just been reviewed, though in Arabic this time — by the study, that is, of the logical curriculum and the application of philosophical ideas to theological concerns of the time Once thus introduced and sponsored from the top, the translation movement found further support from below in the incipient scientific tradition in Arabic, which was developing at the hands of scholars and scientists actively recruited to the capital by the same elite who were commissioning the translations.

David Leith.

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