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Islamic Neoplatonism

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  • Tzvi Langermann
    Suhrawardi certainly poses lots of problems. Some list members may be interested in Hossein Ziai s piece in the Mahdi festschrift; Ziai claims that Suhrawardi
    Message 1 of 3 , Jul 18, 2008
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      Suhrawardi certainly poses lots of problems. Some list members may be interested in Hossein Ziai's piece in the Mahdi festschrift; Ziai claims that Suhrawardi wanted to make the "prince" of Aleppo into a Platonic philosopher-king, and that led to his--Suhrawardi's--ultimate undoing. I am highly skeptical about this, but the article is worth reading.

      How much Plato could have been around for people to pick up on, either via books or orally, beyond the texts that have been identified so far, and conveniently collected by Badawi? One text that I've been looking at is the Phaedo. Biruni had some version of it, from which he selected passages that served his purpose, namely to demonstrate the affinity between Greek and Indian views on the afterlife. Shahrazuhri--one the first and most important exponents of the Ishraqi school "founded" by Suhrawardi, cites a passage not found in Biruni; this is reported by Sabine Schmidtke in her article on Suhrawardi's views on transmigration. Bakr al-Mawsili refers to the Phaedo, according to the one and only study on his essay on the soul, written by Shlomo Pines for the Levi della Vida festschrift. I chased that down in the manuscript, and it's a short but fairly literal translation; not surprising, since Bakr's correspondent and former teacher, Abu Uthman, is said to have translated some works from Greek.

      So here are two more snippets from the Phaedo. The text must have circulated, but no one seems to have been interested in transmitting the whole thing; instead, a few people chose passages that were of particular interest, and that's what has reached us. Before we begin to ponder why this is so, let's ask how much of Aristotle circulated, in complete versions of the Arabic translations? The answer seems to be, surpisingly little. For example, there are, I think, just one or two manuscripts of the Physics. Aristotelian physics reigned supreme, despite several challenges, and the alternatives proposed by the kalam, but Aristotle's book Physics was much less known. (As an aside, Herbert Davidson annoyed a lot of Maimonidean scholars by pointing out that if one bases one's appraisal on solid quotations, then Maimondies, the all-time champion of Jewish Aristotelianism, read precious little Aristotle. Of course, that does not make him less of an Aristotelian, and he unabashedly said that Aristotleian physics gives a perfect account of the sublunar sphere.)

      We come, then, to attitudes towards books and texts. Biruni, likely the best and most widely-read person of the period, had bibliographic skills as well. He put them to use in compiling a list of the works of Abu Bakr al-Razi. He felt apparently no need to do so for Plato or anyone else. Biruni's "translation" of the Yogasutra seems to be a paraphrase cum commentary, drawing on a number of earlier commentaries--much like the version of the Phaedo that he exploited, and whose author is unknown. Despite the great authority, indeed reverence, which many felt for Plato and Aristotle, this did not entail a sense of responsibilty or urgency to transmit the full and precise writings of the great ancient thinkers. My hunch, and it is only a hunch, is that people of the time tended to look on all ancient philosophy, from whatever, source, as drawing from and appertaining to one eternal wisdom--to borrow a phrase from Miskawayh (alhikma alkhalida), another important source for Platonic teachings.

      Finally, certainly a major if not ultimately the most important source for Platonic teachings are the hundreds of sayings attributed to him. Many are collected in works by Mubashshir, Ibn Hindu, and others; many more are scattered throughout all sorts of books. I've been collecting these, mostly from unpublished manuscripts. But it's hard to know just what to do with it all. Franz Rosenthal and Dimitri Gutas have written about this stuff in the Arabic tradition. I see that Denis Searby has written a whole book on Aristotle and the Greek gnomological tradition.But is there anything at all like Searby for Plato in the Greek (or Syriac) tradition?


      Y. Tzvi Langermann
      Department of Arabic
      Bar Ilan University

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • Goya
      ... Suhrawardi certainly poses lots of problems. M.C Wow! What a terrific, thought-provoking post: the kind of contribution that more than justifies the
      Message 2 of 3 , Jul 18, 2008
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        >



        Suhrawardi certainly poses lots of problems.

        M.C> Wow! What a terrific, thought-provoking post: the kind of
        contribution that more than justifies the existence of this List. I have
        only one minor point to add:


        > Despite the great authority, indeed reverence, which many felt for Plato
        > and Aristotle, this did not entail a sense of responsibilty or urgency to
        > transmit the full and precise writings of the great ancient thinkers. My
        > hunch, and it is only a hunch, is that people of the time tended to look
        > on all ancient philosophy, from whatever, source, as drawing from and
        > appertaining to one eternal wisdom--to borrow a phrase from Miskawayh
        > (alhikma alkhalida), another important source for Platoni!
        > c teachings.

        M.C> I'm sure there is a lot of truth in this "hunch". Perhaps an
        additional, complementary source would be the Platonic quotations,
        paraphrases and allusions found in commentaries, primarily Alexandrian
        commentaries on Aristotle, but also, if I'm not mistaken, on at least some
        Platonic or pseudo-Platonic or Platonizing works (Alcibiades, The Golden
        Verses, etc.). Doxographies such as the one by the pseudo-Ammonius are
        another hugely important source

        To cite parallels from other traditions: Plotinus is just a name to most
        Alexandrian commentators on Aristotle, but they all cite his (relatively
        insignificant) comment on mathematics as a ladder to the inteligible. They
        do so simply because they found this material in their source. In the
        Latin tradition, Albert the Great knows about the Presocratics primarily,
        if not exclusively, from the reports of Aristotle: but that doesn't stop
        him form reconstructing an entire theory of atomism which he attributes to
        "Parmenides, Leucippus and Melissus" and proceeds to extend to
        geometry...To be sure, this theory is "false" in that we don't "really"
        know anything about the geometry of Parmenides, Leucippus and Melissus.
        But insofar as philosophy, as Pierre Hadot has shown, is to some extent
        the history of creative mistakes, Albert's pseudo-presocratic geometrical
        atomism is a fascinating philosophical creation in its own right.




        Michael Chase
        CNRS UPR 76
        Paris-Villejuif
        France
      • John Uebersax
        Using an Excel template found online I made and uploaded a couple of timelines: Islamic Platonists and Neoplatonists
        Message 3 of 3 , Jul 19, 2008
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          Using an Excel template found online I made and uploaded a couple of timelines:

          Islamic Platonists and Neoplatonists
          http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jsuebersax/ip7.gif

          Christian and Pagan Platonists/Neoplatonists
          http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jsuebersax/cp.gif

          Some dates were estimated very liberally. Notice of really wild errors or any other suggestions would of course be appreciated.

          There's no rhyme or reason to y-axis location, though that, along with color formatting, might be used to convey natural groupings.

          The Excel template itself can be found here:

          http://www.vertex42.com/ExcelArticles/create-a-timeline.html

          (but be advised it isn't especially user-friendly).

          John Uebersax
          Brussels
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