You are here

07.4.Izdebska

The aim of this paper is to show how a narrative about Pythagoras and hisphilosophy developed as the Greek histories of philosophy were received by the Arabs. Thus, I approach the transmission of the Pythagorean tradition not as if it consisted just of translating the Greek sources into Arabic, but rather as a complex process including both the uninterrupted persistence and modification of this tradition. There were various stages in this process: the translations of the Greek biographies and doxographies into Arabic, Arabic compilations and forgeries, and finally the Arabic intellectuals’ own histories of philosophy, created on the basis of Greek as well as Arabic sources. In the paper, I present examples of those elements of the Pythagorean tradition which were selected for transmission, those elements omitted, and those added by the Arabs. As a result, I show how the Pythagorean tradition was transformed by its transmission.

The paper is based on a broad range of sources, which can be defined generally as histories of Greek philosophy in Arabic. Only some of the Greek biographical and doxographical texts were known to the Arabs, moreover, most of what was known to them had already undergone various modifications. Therefore, Aetius’s (Pseudo-Plutarch) Placita philosophorum was relatively faithfully translated. There is also a kind of translation of the first book of Porphyry’s History of philosophy, the Vita Pythagorae. However, Hippolytus’s Refutatio omniumhaeresium was used only as the basis for the doxography of Pseudo-Ammonius, who treated his material in a very unconstrained manner.

This author, as Ulrich Rudolph (Rudolph 2007) noticed, used the Pre-Socratics (and among them Pythagoras) for describing his own metaphysical and theological ideas: not only Neoplatonism, but also the Mu’tazilite viewpoint in the controversy about the God’s possession of the Ideas in his mind before the creation of the world.

Apart from translations of the Greek histories of philosophy, Arabic intellectuals were also composing their own histories, which combined information taken from various sources. Among the authors who treated extensively the biography and opinions of Pythagoras, one may find al-Sijistānī, Ibn Hindū, al-Shahrastānī, al-Mubashshir ibn- Fātik, Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa. Each composed his narrative about Pythagoras in a slightly different manner and emphasized different elements. Furthermore, in each of these narratives one can recognise the sources which the author used (the tradition about Pythagoras attested in many Greek sources), but there are alsomany new elements, while some traditional components of the Pythagorean narrative completely disappear.

One may find a very good example of this phenomenon in al-ShahrastānÄ« ’s large work Kitāb
al–Milal wa al-Nihal
, which contains a separate chapter on Pythagoras’s doctrine. There are several statements which can be traced back to the Greek texts, such as the number as arche and the doctrine of tetraktys ; manas microcosm; the notion of harmony in metaphysics and psychology. However, these elements are inserted into a purely Neoplatonic, or even Avicennan, discourse. Although this perspective does not contradict the image of Pythagoras’s doctrine we find in the Greek sources, it does go beyond this doctrine and substantially develops several of its elements. Thus, in his presentation of Pythagoras, al-ShahrastānÄ« defines the key ideas – such as the highest God, the Intellect, the Soul, the Nature, the celestial spheres and their intelligences – in the perspective of the Platonist-Aristotelian-Arabic tradition. Finally, it is also interesting that there suddenly appears a “magic of numbers and letters”, which is a much more properly Arabic idea than the notions mentioned above. On one hand, the Pythagoreanism was associated with numerology and theology of numbers already in the Greek tradition, but the Greeks did not know this type of magic and did not attribute it to Pythagoras.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy