Category: Works of Plato

Arabic Translations of Platonic works

Arabs of the Middle Ages considered Plato (Aflāṭūn) a “divine philosopher”, but his work was not as well known as that of Aristotle or Neo-Platonists; we do not know whether there ever existed a complete translation of any of his dialogues. The Arabic world was acquainted with Plato’s work mainly through translated excerpts, summaries, commentaries, gnomologia, anthologies and falsified Platonic works, generally written in the light of “harmonizing Plato and Aristotle”.

1. The translating movement

Falsafa (philosophy) was basically the product of the contact of Muslim intellectuals with the ancient Greek tradition and a key role in this process had the translation of ancient Greek philosophical texts. Following the example of Syrian translators and utilizing the material available to them, Arab scholars proceeded in their turn to the translation of ancient Greek philosophical texts; the translational practice flourished particularly during the first two centuries of the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258), originally by independent translators, Christians, Jews or recent converts to Islam, and then from the state "House of Wisdom", an Academy and quasi translation center (in Baghdad beg. 9th century).

A significant number of ancient Greek texts survived thanks to the Arabic translations and their transfer to Western Europe by the Muslims in the Iberian peninsula, but it is difficult to argue with absolute certainty that the same thing happened in the case of Plato –in contrast to Aristotle, whose philosophical corpus was translated into Arabic nearly in its integrity, and many Neo-Platonists. Despite the fact that the Arabs of the Middle Ages considered Plato (Aflāṭūn) a “divine philosopher” and “one of the greatest sages” (Platonic and Neo-Platonic influences in Islamic philosophy and theology) the translation of Platonic works in Arabic was sporadic and fragmental. A possible reason for the absence (or at least non-perservation) of translations is that Arab thinkers focused in Plato’s philosophical ideas, and not in the form of the dialogues which in general are difficulty translated and often do not lead to definitive conclusions. Thus, the original works of Plato were known in the Arab world mainly through summaries and paraphrases, both by the Al-Kindī circle and other translations of Galen’s summaries (and his On Hippocrates and Plato's doctrines).

2. The dialogues translations

There is little evidence for the existence of integral translations of the Platonic dialogues and in any case none of them was preserved. Notably, there is no evidence for the existence even of Phaedo’s translation, although it was the most widely known dialogue in Arab thought!

Timaeus: In the valuable Catalogue (fihrist) of Ibn al-Nadīm (10th cent.) there is evidence for an early translation by Ibn al-Bitriq (Al-Kindī’s circle). Al-Kindī (c.801-873) himself treats in his works issues such as the theories of numbers, solid and harmonious proportions, which certifies the study of this dialogue by his circle. At the same time, the Syrian Nestorian Christian Ңunayn ibn Ishāq (809-873) corrected the above translation or translated again the entire work. However, only the circulation of many explanations of Timaeus is confirmed.

Laws: The evidence for their translation by Ңunayn is unsound and it was probably a translation of Laws’ summary by Galen. Medieval sources attribute a translation of the Laws to the Jacobite Christian Yahyā ibn 'Adī, although it has not been clarified if he translated directly from Greek into Arabic or through Syriac. References to the Laws and quoting of their passages are frequent in Arab sources.

There is also uncertain evidence for the existence of a translation of the Republic by Ңunayn and of the Sophist by his son Ishāq.

In medieval Arabic texts a large number of translated passages from the above mentioned and some other dialogues (Phaedrus, Phaedo, Symposium) is cited that probably derived from partial translations of the dialogues and indirect sources (doxography, gnomologia, summaries).

3. Paraphrases, summaries and explanations of the dialogues

It is known that Arab scholars had indirect access to many Platonic works and that their priority was the translation of their summaries, as well as the translation and interpretation of neoplatonic texts that were considered complementary to the Aristotelian or were wrongly attributed to Aristotle himself.

Al-Kindī’s intennsive involvement in the Platonic tradition resulted in the writing of summaries of Apology and Crito, and in his own works that paraphrase Phaedo or are inspired by Meno and Symposium. Members of his circle translated works of Plotinus, Proclus, John Philoponus and Olympiodorus. Several of the Arabic translations were not known by their real author's name: apart from works of Plotinus that were considered Aristotelian, some of Proclus works were also attributed to Aristotle and to Alexander of Aphrodisias and some of John Philoponus’ also to Alexander.

The translational activity of Ңunayn ibn Ishāq and his circle led to the translation of Galen´s summaries of Timaeus (first in Syriac and then into Arabic by his student ʿĪsā ibn Yaḥyā) and Galen’s On Hippocrates and Plato's doctrines. Olympiodorus’ Comments on the Sophist were probably translated by his son Ishāq. From Hunayn’s own works we know that some of his students (as ʿĪsā ibn Yaḥyā) translated the lost in Greek Galen’s summaries of Cratylus, Sophist, Statesman, Parmenides, Euthydemus, Republic (on which perhaps relies the commentary of Averroes), Laws and Timaeus, of which only the latter survives.

As for Timaeus, the most popular of all, it should be noted that Galen’s On what Plato said in Timaeus in a medical way, excerpts of Proclus commentary and an unidentified treatise of Plutarch were also translated. Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (865-925) presented and commented on Plutarch’s On the Generation of the soul in Timaeus.

There were also translated fragments of Proclus’ commentaries on Phaedo and the Republic (10th book), and, according to the available material, Al-Farabi and Ibn al-Tayyib have written expositions of the Laws. We also know of the existence of special studies such as those written by Thābit ibn Qurra on the geometric problems of Menon and Republic.

In the wider context of the translations of the works of the Platonic tradition we must place the translations of Elements of Theology and On the Eternity of the World of Proclus (and the answer of John Philoponus), Porphyry’s Introduction, and the comments on Golden Verses attributed to Iamblichus, as well as other commentaries on Aristotle.

Apart from the translations of Platonic works and their commentaries and summaries the circulation of falsified Platonic works such as the Liber de Causis (which is basically an adaption of Elements of Theology of Proclus) and the so-called Theologia Aristotelis (Theology of Aristotle, consisting of extracts from Arabic adaptations of Plotinus’ Enneads IV-VI) was widespread in the Arab world.

Eventually, there were also saved -or/and we just know of their existence- doxographical and gnomological collections and anthologies; the first contained authentic sayings of Plato, while the others material from non-authentic gnomologia, from falsified Platonic works or were compilations of authentic Platonic phrases and passages taken from Galen’s summaries with quotations from unauthentic gnomologia and doxograpical collections.

Thanks to Platonic works and paraphrases the Arabs came to know (and were interested mainly into) Plato's theories of temporal creation of the world and the creation of the immortal soul, love, intellect and the tripartite division of the soul, state, as well as the concepts of Platonic forms and the distinction between the two worlds.

Author: Matina-Ioanna Kyriazopoulou
  • Gutas, D. "Platon. Tradition arabe." Dictionaire des Philosophes Antiques V Paris (2012)
  • Reisman, D.C. Arabic Sciences and Philosophy. 2004.
  • Rosenthal, F. Greek Philosophy in the Arab world: A collection of essays. Aldershot 1990: Aldershot, 1990.
  • Peters, F.E. "The Origins of Islamic Platonism: the School Tradition." Morewedge, P. ed. Islamic Philosophical Theology. New York, 1979.
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