Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy
Part Two. Philosophy of the Middle Ages

Section One.
Arabian Philosophy

IN the West the Germanic tribes had obtained possession of what had hitherto formed a section of the Roman Empire, and their conquests were attaining to shape and solidity, when another religion dawned in the East, namely the Mohammedan. The East purified itself of all that was individual and definite, while the West descended into the depths and actual presence of spirit. As quickly as the Arabians with their fanaticism spread themselves over the Eastern and the Western world, so quickly were the various stages of culture passed through by them, and very shortly they advanced in culture much farther than the West. For in Mohammedanism, which quickly reached its culminating point, both as regards external power and dominion and also spiritual development, Philosophy, along with all the other arts and sciences, flourished to an extraordinary degree, in spite of its here not displaying any specially characteristic features. Philosophy was fostered and cherished among the Arabians; the philosophy of the Arabians must therefore be mentioned in the history of Philosophy. What we have to say, however, chiefly concerns the external preservation and propagation of Philosophy. The Arabians became acquainted with Greek philosophy mainly through the medium of the Syrians in Western Asia, who had imbibed Greek culture, and who were under the Arabian sway. In Syria, which formed a Greek kingdom, at Antioch, especially in Berytus and Edessa, there were great institutes of learning; and thus the Syrians constituted the connecting link between Greek philosophy and the Arabians. Syrian was the language of the people even in Bagdad.

Moses Maimonides, a learned Jew, gives further historical particulars in his Doctor Perplexorum of this transition of Philosophy to the Arabians. He says. “All that the Ishmælites have written of the unity of God and other philosophic dogmas” — especially the sect of the Muatzali (מעתזולה, i.e. the Separated), who were the first to take an interest in the abstract intellectual knowledge of such subjects, while the sect Assaria (האשערײה) arose later — “is based upon arguments and propositions which have been taken from the books of the Greeks and Aramæans” (Syrians), “who strove to refute and deny the teachings of the philosophers. The cause of this is as follows: The Christian community came to include within it these nations also, and the Christians defended many dogmas which were contradictory of philosophic tenets; among these nations, however, the teachings of philosophers were very widely and generally diffused (for with them Philosophy had its origin), and kings arose who adopted the Christian religion.

The Christian Greeks and learned Aramæans, therefore, when they perceived that their doctrines were so clearly and plainly refuted by the philosophers, thought out a wisdom of their own, the “Wisdom of the Words” (Devarim), and they themselves received on that account the name of the Speakers (Medabberim, כְזךַבְרַים). They set up principles which served the purpose both of confirming their. faith and of refuting the opposite teaching of the philosophers. When the Ishmælites followed and attained supremacy, and the books of the philosophers themselves fell into their hands, and along with them the answers which “Christian Greeks and Aramæans had written against the philosophic books, as for instance the writings of Johannes Grammaticus, Aben Adi, and others, they eagerly laid hold of these and adopted them bodily. Christians and Ishmælites felt the same need of philosophy; the Ishmælites, moreover, strove all the more eagerly after knowledge of this kind, because their first desire was to defend Mohammedanism against Christianity, which was the religion of a large proportion of the nations they had conquered.

The external sequence of events is this. Syriac versions of Greek works were to be had, and these were now Translated into Arabic by the Arabians; or translations were made from the Greek directly into Arabic. In the reign of Harun al-Raschid several Syrians are named who lived in Bagdad, and who had been called upon by the Caliphs to translate these works into Arabic. They were the first scientific teachers among the Arabians, and were chiefly physicians; hence the works they translated were on medicine. Among these translators was Johannes Mesue of Damascus, who lived in the reigns of Al-Raschid (d. A.D. 786), Al-Mamun (d. A.D. 833) and Al-Motawakkil (d. A.D. 847), rather earlier than the rise of the Turks to supremacy (A.D. 862); he was a hospital superintendent in Bagdad. Al-Raschid appointed him to make translations from Syriac into Arabic; he opened a public school for the study of medicine and all the sciences then known. Honain was a Christian, as was also his master Johannes, and belonged to the Arab tribe Ebadi; he applied himself to the study of Greek, and made a number of translations into Arabic, and also into Syriac, for example, Nicolaus De summa philosophiæ Aristotelicæ, Ptolemy, Hippocrates and Galen. Another is Ebn Adda, an eminent dialectician, who is quoted by Abulfaraj. Among the works of the Greek philosophers it was almost exclusively the writings of Aristotle which were translated by these Syrians, and the later commentaries on the same. It was thus not the Arabians themselves who translated the above works.

In the Arabic philosophy, which shows a free, brilliant and profound power of imagination, Philosophy and the sciences took the same bent that they had taken earlier among the Greeks. Plato with his Ideas or universals laid the foundation of the independent world of intellect, and established absolute existence as an existence which is manifestly present in the mode of thought; Aristotle developed, completed and peopled the realm of thought; the Neo-Platonic philosophy reached the further conception of the intelligible world as Idea of the existence which is independent in itself, of spirit; and then this first Idea, which we have already met with in connection with Proclus, passed over into a similar Aristotelian development and completion. Consequently it is the Alexandrian or Neo-Platonic Idea which forms the essential principle or basis of the Arabian as well as the Scholastic philosophy, and all that Christian philosophy offers; it is on it that the determinations of the Notion expend their strength, and around this that they career. A particular description of Arabian philosophy has in some parts but little interest; in other parts it will be found that the main dogmas of this philosophy have much in common with those of the Scholastics.

We may say of the Arabians that their philosophy constitutes no characteristic stage in the development of philosophy. The principal points in this, as in the later philosophy, were the question whether the world is eternal, and the task of proving the unity of God and similar dogmas. One great consideration in all this, however, was to defend the doctrines of Mohammedanism, and owing to this all philosophizing had to be carried on within the limits of these doctrines. The Arabians, like the Christians of the West, were restricted by the dogmas of their Church (if one may call it so), few though these dogmas were; yet this last circumstance of the small number of the dogmas certainly gave them greater liberty. But according to all that we know of them, they established no principle of self-conscious reason that was truly higher, and thus they brought Philosophy no further. They have no other principle than that of revelation, therefore only a principle that is external.

A. Philosophy of the Medabberim.

The Medabberim are specially mentioned by Moses Maimonides as a widely extended philosophic school or sect of considerable eminence. He speaks (More Nevochim, P. I. c. 71, pp. 134, 135) of the peculiarity of their method of philosophy somewhat as follows: “The Ishmælites, however, have extended their discourses still farther, and have aspired to other wonderful doctrines, of which none of the Greek Medabberim knew anything, because they were still on some points in agreement with the philosophers. The main point to be remarked is that all the Medabberim, whether among the Greeks who had become Christians, or among the Ishmælites, in the building up of their principles did not follow the nature of the matter itself, or draw their arguments from it, but only had in view how the subject must be regarded in order to support their assertion, or at least not to refute it altogether: afterwards they boldly asserted that these were the circumstances of the case, and adduced further arguments and maxims in support of their object. They insisted on that, and that alone, which concurred with their opinions, even though it were in the most remote degree, through a hundred links of reasoning. The earliest of their learned men adopted this practice, though professing that they reached these reflections through speculation alone, without reference to any preconceived opinion. Their successors did not follow their example,” &c.

In the pure philosophy of the so-called “Speakers” was expressed the principle, peculiar to the Oriental mind, of the dissolution of definite thought in all its consequences as the dissolution of all connection and relation. Maimonides says (P. I. c. 71, p. 135; c. 73, p. 149): “The ground-principle of the Medabberim is that men can have no certain knowledge of the nature of things, because in the understanding the contrary may ever exist and be thought. Besides this they in the majority of instances confound imagination with understanding, and give to the former the name of the latter. They adopted as a principle, atoms and empty space,” where all connection appears as something contingent. “Production is nothing but a connection of atoms, and decay nothing but a separation of the same; and time consists of many ‘nows.'” In this way nothing but the atom really exists. They have thus in the more advanced cultivation of thought brought to consciousness the main standpoint, then as now the standpoint of the Orientals — that of substance, the one substance. This pantheism, or Spinozism, if you like to call it so, is thus the universal view of Oriental poets, historians and philosophers.

The Medabberim go on to say: “Substances, i.e. individuals, which,” for the rest, “are created by God, have many accidental qualities, as in snow every particle is white. But no quality can endure for two moments; as it comes, it goes again, and God creates another and yet another in its place.” All determinations are thus fleeting or perishable; the individual alone is permanent. “If it pleases God to create another quality in a substance, it continues; but if He ceases to create, the substance perishes.” Thereby all necessary connection is done away with, so that Nature has no meaning. “They therefore deny that anything exists by nature, likewise that the nature of this or that body necessitates that it should have certain qualities rather than others. But they say that God creates all qualities instantaneously, without natural means and without the help of anything else.” General permanence is substance, and the particular is altered every moment, and so exists through the substance. “According to this principle they say, for instance, that when we think we have dyed a garment red with red dye we have not dyed. it red at all; for God created the red colour in the garment at the very moment at which we thought we had brought about the result with the red dye. God observes the invariable custom of not permitting that the colour black should be produced except when the garment is dyed with that hue; and the first colour which comes to pass on the occasion of the connection is not permanent, but disappears on the instant, and every moment another appears which is created in its turn. In the same way knowledge also is an accident, which is created by God at every moment that I know anything; to-day we no longer possess the knowledge which we yesterday possessed. A man,” when writing, “does not move the pen when he thinks he moves it, but the motion is an accident of the pen, created by God at the moment! In this way God alone is in truth the operative cause; but He might have made everything differently. “Their eighth proposition is to the effect that nothing but substance or accident exists, and natural forms are themselves accidents; substances alone are individuals. The ninth proposition is that accidents have nothing to do with one another; they have no causal connection or other relation; in every substance all accidents may exist. The tenth proposition is transition (אֶפשָךןּח, transitus, possibilitas) “All that we can fancy may also pass over into the understanding, i.e., be possible. But in this way everything is possible,” since there are no laws of the understanding; this transition of thought is thus perfectly accidental. “A man as large as a mountain, a flea as large as an elephant, are possible. Everything may just as well he something else as what it is, and there is no reason at all why anything should be one way rather than another. They term it a were habit that the earth revolves round a centre-point, that fire moves upward and that it is hot; it is just as possible, they say, that fire should be cold.”

We thus see an utter inconstancy of everything; and this whirl of all things is essentially Oriental. But at the same time this is certainly also a complete dissolution of all that pertains to reasonableness, in harmony of course with Eastern exaltation of spirit, which allows of nothing definite. God is in Himself the perfectly undefined, His activity is altogether abstract, and hence the particulars produced thereby are perfectly contingent; if we speak of the necessity of things, the term is meaningless and incomprehensible, and no attempt should be made to comprehend it. The activity of God is thus represented as perfectly devoid of reason. This abstract negativity, combined with the permanent unity, is thus a fundamental conception in the Oriental way of looking at things. Oriental poets are in a marked degree pantheists; the pantheistic is their ordinary point of view. Thus the Arabians developed the sciences and philosophy, without farther defining the concrete Idea; their work is rather the dissolution of all that is definite in this substance, with which is associated mere changeableness as the abstract moment of negativity.

B. Commentators of Aristotle.

The Arabians, moreover, made a point for the most part of studying the writings of Aristotle very diligently, and of availing themselves more especially both of his metaphysical and logical writings, and also of his Physics; they occupied themselves particularly with multiplying commentaries on Aristotle, and developing still further the abstract logical element there present. Many of these commentaries are still extant. Works of this kind are known in the West, and have been even translated into Latin and printed; but much good is not to be got from them. The Arabians developed the metaphysics of the understanding and a formal logic. Some of the famous Arabians lived as early as the eighth and ninth centuries; their progress was therefore very rapid, for the West had as yet made very little advance in culture.

Alkendi, who wrote a commentary on the Logic, flourished in and about A.D. 800, under Almamun. Alfarabi died in 966; he wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s Organon, which were made diligent use of by the Scholastics, and was also author of a work “On the Origin and Division of the Sciences.” It is related of him that he read through Aristotle’s treatise On Hearing forty times, and his Rhetoric two hundred times, without getting at all tired of them; he must have had a good Stomach. The very physicians made a study of philosophy, and formulated theories; among them was Avicenna (b. A.D. 984, d. A.D. 1064), who belonged to Bokhara, to the east of the Caspian Sea; he wrote a commentary on Aristotle. Algazel (d. A.D. 1127 at Bagdad) wrote compendiums of logic and metaphysics; be was a sceptic of great ability, with a powerful mind of the Oriental cast; he held the words of the Prophet to be pure truth, and wrote Destructio Philosophorum. Tofail died in Seville in A.D. 1193, Averroes, who died A.D. 1217, was specially distinguished as the commentator of Aristotle.

The acquaintance of the Arabians with Aristotle has this interest in history that it was thus that Aristotle first became known also in the West. The commentaries on Aristotle and the collections of passages from his writings become thus for the Western world a fountain of philosophy. Western nations long knew nothing of Aristotle, excepting through such retranslations of his works and translations of Arabian commentaries on them. For such translations were made from Arabic into Latin by Spanish Arabs, and especially by Jews in the south of Spain and Portugal and in Africa; there was often even a Hebrew translation between.

C. Jewish Philosophers.

With the Arabians are closely connected the Jewish philosophers, among whom the above-mentioned Moses Maimonides held a distinguished place. He was born at Cordova, in Spain, A.D. 1131 (Anno Mundi 4891, or, according to others, 4895), and lived in Egypt. Besides More Nevochim, which has been translated into Latin, he composed other works; of him and other Jews much more of a literary character might be said. In their philosophy a strong Cabalistic element, on the one hand, makes itself felt throughout, in astrology, geomancy, &c.; on the other hand, we find in Moses Maimonides, as in the Fathers, that the foundation is laid in history. He deals with this in a strictly abstract system of metaphysics, which is connected, in Philo’s fashion, with the Mosaic books and their interpretation. We find in these Jewish philosophers proofs brought forward that God is One, that the world was created, and that matter is not eternal; Maimonides also speaks of the nature of God. The unity of God is dealt with as it was among the ancient Eleatics and the Neo-Platonists; to prove, namely, that not the Many, but the self-begetting and self-abrogating One is the truth.

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