Wednesday, April 28, 2021

On Aristotle’s Influence in Europe

The notion that Thomas Aquinas reintroduced Aristotle to Europe in the thirteenth century is a myth created by some nineteenth and twentieth century historians and philosophers. Aristotle never vanished from Europe. Several scholars in the Roman Empire and in the post-Roman era studied and extensively commented on Aristotle. Aquinas could not read Greek, and the Aristotelian texts that he studied were the Latin translations done by William of Moerbeke. Aquinas can be credited with introducing a Thomistic version of Aristotle to Europe—but several other versions of Aristotle were available before him. In the Preface to his book The Republic of Plato, Allan Bloom writes, “William of Moerbeke's Latin translations of Aristotle… are so faithful to Aristotle's text that they are authorities for the correction of the Greek manuscripts, and they enabled Thomas Aquinas to become a supreme interpreter of Aristotle without knowing Greek.”


Daniel [] said...

Well, the conventional theory is that William of Moerbeke produced his translation at the request of Thomas Aquinas.

In any case, the significance of the translation was that it was from Greek into Latin, whereas the translations circulating in Europe were from Syriac into Latin, which is to say that they were translations of translations. Now, to the extent that the works of Aristoteles survived in Roman translation, they would have been translation from the Greek, and there would have been little cause to translate them from the Syriac and still less to allow those translations to displace the Roman translations.

But the Roman translations of some important works of Aristoteles had been lost before the 12th Century, and so they were not studied until the translations from Syriac into Latin began to circulate.

Anoop Verma said...

It is assumed (it is a rumor) that William of Moerbeke translated Aristotle at the request of Aquinas. There is no evidence to confirm this theory. I think this rumor has been floated by scholars who wanted to wanted to project Aquinas as the grandfather of European Aristotelianism.

The idea that Aristotle's works were lost in Europe before Aquinas is unsustainable--it is not based on facts, I think.

I say this is because it is well known that Aquinas started his work on Aristotle because he was horrified by the heathen version of Aristotle that was being preached in France--the works of mainly Avicenna and Averroës. In fact, the case can be made that there is lot of Avicenna and Averroës in Aquinas. Aquinas was exposed to Averroës when he was a student in Paris. Before Aquinas, Aristotle was already HUGELY popular in France.

Also, the works on Aristotle of Roman era and post-Roman era pre-Aquinas scholars like Apuleius, Boethius, Porphyry, Plethon, Cicero, and many others are available to this day. So it is unbelievable that these works were not available in the Middle Ages. Most importantly, we forget the great Jewish scholar Maimonodes, who tried to reconcile Aristotle with the Torah almost a century before Aquinas.
The work of Maimonodes can be seen as a precursor to Aquinas's own scholasticism.
As far as I know, only Avicenna, Averroës, and Maimonodes might have used the Syriac version of Aristotle. Rest of the scholars were using the Greek version only. I think there is much more to the story of Aristotle's fall, rise, fall, and then another rise in Europe than what is being said in the popular history and philosophy books.

Daniel [] said...

I'm not arguing for the idea that Aquinas presented Aristoteles to a Europe that had forgot him. My principal problem with what you are writing is in your use of such terms as “the works”. The Roman translations of some works survived; those of other works did not. And many European scholars could not read Greek; to them, these works were out-of-reach. Works had to be reintroduced; before Aquinas, yes, but reintroduced none-the-less. And, while that reintroduction was also not by William of Moerbeke, it is plausible that, as conventional history often claims, Moerbeke undertook his translation at the request of Aquinas.

Other than ibn Sina (Avicenna), ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Maimonedes, the Syriac translations were used by the translators in Toledo who produced the Latin versions that replaced lost Roman translations. My point, again, is that the need for replacement was because Roman versions of some works had been lost.

Yes, the influence of ibn Sina and of ibn Rushd can be found; ibn Sina more on Aquinas, and ibn Rushd more on Ockham.

Anoop Verma said...

@Daniel: Of course. There was the need for new translations of Aristotle. But don't you think that the new translations came centuries after Aquinas. Aquinas never translated Aristotle. He interpreted him. He presented Aristotle in the form of his Thomistic philosophy which a century after his demise evolved into the Scholastic establishment which dominated Europe's intellectualism till the dawn of the modern period.