The Rediscovery of Aristotle

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The Rediscovery Of Aristotle

Aristotle in the West and the East.

Owing to vagaries of history, the complete body of Aristotle's writings was lost to the Latin West. The only bits and pieces available were a couple of treatises on logic, a discipline Aristotle invented, and some commentaries on those works: in particular, the Categories and the On Interpretation (the texts translated by Boethius, both collectively referred to as the "Old Logic"); the Topics of Cicero, and the Topical Differences of Boethius, together with the latter's translation of Porphyry's Isagoge (Introduction to the Categories) as well as his commentaries on the Isagoge, Categories, and On Interpretation. This is all that was known—directly and indirectly—of Aristotle's enormous contribution until the twelfth century. The same was not the case in the Muslim world. As part of the plunder from their conquest of much of the Mediterranean region, the Arabs fell heir to the Aristotelian corpus that had been recorded on scrolls that were in the hands of Nestorian Syrians (a heretical Christian sect). The Muslim conquerors quickly translated these works into Arabic. The pagan Aristotle subsequently became, as it were, the "house philosopher" of Muslim intellectuals, and it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that to philosophize for a Muslim between the ninth and the twelfth centuries was in large measure to comment on the works of the Philosopher (as he was called). The view that was widely held was that one could not go beyond Aristotle in matters of reason.

Recovery Through Translation.

The Muslim monopoly on Aristotle's philosophy began to change radically in the twelfth century. Owing to contacts with the Muslim world—some friendly, most hostile—European Christians began the process of recovering the philosophy of Aristotle and translating it into their own language, Latin, sometimes through the intermediary of one of the vernaculars. There were several points of contact: the Middle East, especially the rich capital of Byzantium, Constantinople; Sicily, always a melting pot of cultures; and finally, and most especially, Andalusia (Spain). In the Spanish city of Toledo, for example, re-conquered from the Moors (as Muslims in Spain were called), Christian monks worked with Jewish rabbis to translate the Arabic text first into Spanish, and then into Latin—all without the benefit of dictionaries. Thus it was that many Arabic words entered the West and eventually the English language: words like alcohol, algebra, coffee, zenith, plus a word which did not exist in the Roman system of numbering, zero, essential for mathematical place-notation and hence for mathematics.

Philosophical Divisions.

It is difficult to exaggerate the impact Aristotle's writings had on Western Europe. Here was a new and radically different view of nature, of the cosmos, and of the human person, a view that challenged long-held Christian philosophical understandings adapted from Neoplatonism. The reaction of Christian thinkers to this challenge is essentially the story of philosophy in the thirteenth century. For the first time in Christian history there arose different schools of philosophy, the litmus test being how one reacted to the natural philosophy of Aristotle. Those who thought that Aristotle was right on every count were called "Averroists"—or, better, "Latin Averroists" to distinguish them from their counterparts in the Muslim world. Those who preferred the tried and true synthesis of St. Augustine and rejected the innovations of the pagan Aristotle were known to historians as "Augustinians." A third group that attempted to mediate between these two radical positions were known as "orthodox Aristotelians" or "Thomists," a name derived from St. Thomas Aquinas, who was responsible for building a masterful synthesis of Christian teachings and Aristotelian philosophy.

Access to Greek Originals.

By the middle of the thirteenth century the earliest translations of this Aristotelian material from the Arabic gave way to new translations from the Greek originals, which had been recovered in the meantime. Added to the list was the Greek version of Aristotle's Politics, a work that the Arabs never possessed. It was to these new and improved translations that thinkers like Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas had access, and one would have to have worked with the earlier Arabic-Latin versions to appreciate the improvement.


Bernard G. Dod, "Aristoteles Latinus," in The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy from the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism 1100–1600. Eds. Norman Kretzmann, Anthony Kenny, Jan Pinborg (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982): 45–79.

David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (London: Longmans, 1962): 185–192.

Charles H. Lohr, "The Ancient Philosophical Legacy and Its Transmission to the Middle Ages," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 15–22.

Timothy B. Noone, "Scholasticism," in The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy from the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism 1100–1600. Eds. Norman Kretzmann, Anthony Kenny, Jan Pinborg (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982): 55–64.

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