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Aristotle from Reykjavík to Bukhara: The First Global Phase of the Classical Tradition

Erik Hermans

Renbrook School, West Hartford (USA)

The early Middle Ages is an underappreciated phase in the classical tradition. Overviews of the inheritance of classical thought and literature often jump from antiquity to the rise of universities in the high Middle Ages or to the Renaissance (Ziolkowski, 2010). Nevertheless, the corpus of classical texts that made it to modern times is to a large extent shaped by the choices that early medieval intellectuals made. Most of the existing manuscripts that survive today trace their origins back to early medieval copies: if a text was not copied in the eighth or ninth century, then the chances that it would experience any subsequent ‘classical tradition’ were small. Moreover, the early medieval period is crucial in another regard, since it was the first period when classical learning expanded far beyond the Mediterranean and its hinterlands. By the year 1000 scholars who were studying ancient Greco-Roman texts and ideas could be found in areas as far apart as Northwestern Europe and Central Asia. This paper discusses the transmission of one classical idea, Aristotle’s theory of the ten categories, to illustrate this first global phase of the classical tradition.

            The theory of the ten categories originates in Aristotle’s Categories, one of the seven logical texts of the Organon that were studied intensively in the philosophical schools of the late Roman Empire. From the seventh century onwards, paraphrases and epitomes of the Organon disseminated in Western Europe in Latin, in Byzantium in Greek and in the emerging caliphate in Syriac and Arabic. The disintegration of the Mediterranean world in the period 550-750 CE caused traditional elites to disappear along with the study of many classical genres. The fact that the study of the Organon not only continued in this period, but even geographically expanded, is therefore remarkable. The first part of this paper will discuss how this diffusion can be explained, focusing on the language barriers that the Aristotelian texts overcame (Mavroudi, 2015; Hugonnard-Roche, 1991). The Categories of Aristotle is an ideal case study to understand the much-discussed Greco-Arabic translation movement of ninth century Baghdad (Gutas, 1998). Since this text was simultaneously received in Baghdad, Constantinople and at the Carolingian court (Marenbon, 1981), a comparison of these three centers of learning will elucidate the conditions under which the Categories became an essential part of the Arabic intellectual tradition. Three eighth and ninth century scholars that will receive special attention are Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, Ḥunayn ibn ’Isḥāq and al-Kindī (Georr, 1948).

            In the second part of this paper the concept of the ten categories will be used to trace the impressive geographic diffusion that classical ideas experienced in the Islamic world after they had been integrated in the intellectual discourse during the ninth and tenth century. In this regard the ten categories is a suitable case study as well. The comparison with the contemporaneous European transmission can serve to bring out salient features of the social context of the Arabic reception as well. More importantly, however, Aristotelian logic is one of few Greco-Roman intellectual traditions that did not disappear from the Islamic world in the twelfth and thirteenth century. In the late medieval and early modern period, basic Aristotelian notions such as the ten categories could be found in texts that were used in Islamic schools as far apart as North Africa and India (El-Rouayheb, 2010). The conditions of this later diffusion will be explained to understand why Islamic scholars did not continue to study other classical texts, such those by Galen and Ptolemy, after the twelfth century. As a result, this paper will argue that before the early modern dissemination of the classics by Western Europeans, that in particular during the early Middle Ages the classical tradition had already experienced a global phase.

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Global Classical Traditions

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