William of Moerbeke (c. 1215–c. 1286)

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(c. 1215c. 1286)

William of Moerbeke, one of the most competent and influential translators of Greek philosophical texts in the Middle Ages, was born at Moerbeke, near Ghent. He spent a number of years at the papal court in various Italian cities and also lived for some time in Greece and Asia Minor. His translations of Aristotle and other Greek authors began to appear about 1260. At the court of Pope Urban IV (12611264) in Orvieto, he made the acquaintance of his fellow Dominican, Thomas Aquinas, then beginning his series of Aristotelian commentaries, who encouraged him in his project of translating Aristotle. For several years before his death William was archbishop of Corinth.

Despite the claims that have sometimes been made about him, William of Moerbeke was not the first to translate the bulk of the Aristotelian corpus directly from Greek into Latin. It is true that in the twelfth century Western scholars had necessarily depended on translations from the Arabic, made in Spain or Sicily, for their knowledge of Aristotle. In the thirteenth century, however, at least partly as a result of the Fourth Crusade, a wider dissemination of Greek scholarship and easier access to Greek manuscripts encouraged Western translators to work directly from Greek originals, and many new translations came into use in the first half of the century. Thus, William's translation of Aristotle's Metaphysics, for example, while it may have been the first complete version, was apparently the third Latin translation to be made from the original text. A translation from Greek into Latin (the so-called Metaphysica Vetus ) was in use at Paris as early as 1210, some time before the appearance of the Metaphysica Nova, based on the Arabic version, and a second translation from the Greek (the Translatio Media ) seems to have been used by Albert the Great as the basis of his commentary. Many other works of Aristotle were similarly available by the middle of the thirteenth century in translations from the Greek as well as from the Arabic. While the extent of his indebtedness to earlier translators has not yet been precisely determined, William is known to have used some of the existing translations from the Greek in his own work.

Considered in themselves, then, William of Moerbeke's translations of Aristotle must be reckoned a less than revolutionary contribution to Aristotelian studies in the medieval West. It is not even known with certainty how far Thomas Aquinas, the outstanding interpreter of Aristotle in the thirteenth century, made use of his colleague's work. Nevertheless, William's translations of Aristotle and of other Greek philosophers, taken as a whole, can be said to have inaugurated a new phase of Aristotelian scholarship in Latin Christendom.

To begin with, William's new translations and revised versions of Aristotle's works gave the West a much more accurate text of "the Philosopher" than it had hitherto possessed. As a translator he was unquestionably superior in most respects to his predecessors. His strict adherence to the letter of the original text has been stigmatized as slavish, but it made his translations an unrivaled instrument of exact philosophical scholarship in his day.

Furthermore, William's translations of various post-Aristotelian authors helped Western scholars to form a clearer picture of the history of Greek philosophy and of the distinctive traits of Aristotle's doctrine. The Arabic versions of Aristotle's works had reached the West in the company of Neoplatonizing commentaries and Neoplatonic writings falsely attributed to Aristotle. Thanks to William's translations of important commentaries by Alexander of Aphrodisias, Simplicius, Themistius, and John Philoponus, and of the Elementatio Theologica and other works of the Neoplatonist Proclus, the figure of the historical Aristotle stood out much more clearly than before, and Western thinkers were enabled to distinguish more precisely between the Platonic and Aristotelian approaches to philosophy. William's translation of Proclus was especially important in this connection, showing as it did that the influential Liber de Causis, far from being a genuine work of Aristotle, was in fact derived from Proclus's Elementatio Theologica.

Through his translation of Proclus William also influenced the development of medieval Neoplatonism. The works that he translated gave a fresh stimulus to the Neoplatonic school formed by Ulrich of Strasbourg and other disciples of Albert the Great and through that school helped to shape the mystical doctrine of Meister Eckhart.

See also Albert the Great; Alexander of Aphrodisias; Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Eckhart, Meister; Liber de Causis; Medieval Philosophy; Neoplatonism; Philoponus, John; Proclus; Simplicius; Themistius; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Ulrich (Engelbert) of Strasbourg.


See Martin Grabmann, Guglielmo di Moerbeke, O.P., il traduttore delle opere di Aristotele (Rome: Gregorianum, 1946).

Eugene R. Fairweather (1967)

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William of Moerbeke (c. 1215–c. 1286)

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