Category: Works of Plato

Syriac translations of Plato’s works

In the 4th and 5th centuries Syria was home to a significant translation movement whose aim was the integration of ancient Greek philosophical education in a Christian context. Although this undertaking was primarily Aristotelian in character, Plato’s texts and the broader Platonic tradition received some attention. These Syriac translations became vehicles through which Greek philosophy disseminated in the Arabic world.

Alexandria had been a center of Greek culture for centuries and home to one of the most important philosophical schools of antiquity. Aristotelian studies, Neopythagoreanism, Neoplatonism flourished in Alexandria, even after the closure of the philosophical school at Athens. During roughly the same period, Syria emerged as Alexandria’s arch-rival in the effort to incorporate Greek thought into a new cultural and intellectual setting. By the 4th century, Greek Patristic texts were being translated into Syriac in the theological schools of Edessa and Nisibis. Philosophical texts followed in the late 5th century, with a clear predilection shown for the Aristotelian and Neoplatonist traditions, to the extent that the latter provided interpretations of Aristotelian texts. The Persians had also attempted to translate ancient Greek philosophical texts during the Sassanid dynasty (224-651). Among the most popular ancient Greek texts in Syriac translation were Aristotle’s works on logic, and the Introduction (Isagoge) by the Neoplatonist philosopher *Porphyry, which in essence represented an attempt to interpret and process Aristotelian logic.

A leading figure in the Syriac translation movement was Sergius of Reshaina (†536), who was a student of the Neoplatonist philosopher *Ammonius Hermiae at Alexandria. Ammonius had studied for a long period at Athens under *Proclus. Sergius focused on Porphyry's and Galen’s works, translating and commenting on several texts by them, as well as by other ancient authors who reproduced and commented on Platonic philosophy. He appears to have intended to translate all of Plato’s works into Syriac, around the same time when *Boethius began a similar undertaking in Western Europe.

When the region of Syria fell to the Arabs, they utilized the Syrian translators’ knowledge of ancient Greek and encouraged them to continue their work. In Baghdad (late 9th and early 10th cent.), under the direction of the Nestorian Christian Hunayn ibn Ishaq and his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn, an important portion of ancient Greek literature, including Platonic and Neoplatonist texts, was translated into Arabic and Syriac. More specifically, they translated the Timaeus, the Laws and the Sophist, while they also summarized and commented on the Republic. They also translated a synopsis of the Timaeus, and probably of the Sophist, Parmenides, Cratylus, Euthydemus, Statesman, the Republic, and the Laws (all originally compiled by Galen), all of Galen’s medical-philosophical treatises, as well as works by Porphyry, *Iamblichus, Proclus, *John Philoponus, Nemesius, *Olympiodorus and others. Syriac and Arabic speaking readers thus came into contact with Platonic philosophy. Other, less prominent groups translated *Plotinus’, Enneads as well as philosophical commentaries by Syrianus, *Simplicius, David, Elias, and Stephanus – all of them notable philosophers in the Late Antique schools of Athens and Alexandria. Translations of Plato’s and Platonic texts into Syriac decisively contributed to the philosophical education of the Arabic world and account for the intensely Platonic outlook of early Arabic philosophy.

Textual sources

Many people will be aware that a knowledge of Greek philosophy reached the medieval west by way of Arabic, traveling through Muslim Spain. What is not so widely realized is that Greek philosophy, medicine and science did not reach the Arab world direct, but normally by way of Syriac. Syriac translations of the works of Aristotle and others go back to the fifth century, but it was chiefly through the work of Syriac Christians working at Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, in the ninth century that this process of transmission actually took place. Among the most [7] famous of these translators was Hunain ibn Ishaq (died 873) who gave an interesting account of how he went about his work: having collected together the best and oldest Greek manuscripts he could find, he translated from Greek into Syriac and only then from Syriac into Arabic. The reason for this at first sight rather cumbersome procedure was that Hunain had behind him half a millennium’s accumulated experience of translating complicated Greek texts into Syriac, whereas for Arabic there existed no such tradition and so this meant that translation from Indo-European Greek into Semitic Arabic was most easily achieved by way of another Semitic language, Syriac. Thus it comes about that a knowledge of Syriac is essential as a background to the study of Aristotelian philosophy among the Arabs.

Thanks to the work of these translators both Arabic and Syriac preserve a number of Greek philosophical and medical works which would otherwise have been entirely lost, seeing that no Greek manuscripts of them survive. (Brock, S., An Introduction to Syriac Studies [Piscataway N.J. 2006] pp. 10–11)

Author: Georgios Steiris
  • Brock, SThompson, R., Mathews, T., Garsoïan, N. eds. . East of Byzantium: Syria and Armenia in the Formative Period. 1982.
  • Brock, S. "Syriac Translations of Greek Popular Philosophy." Bruns, P. ed. Von Athen nach Bagdad: Zur Rezeption griechischer Philosophie von der Spätantike bis zum Islam. 2003.
  • Gutas, D. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbasid Society (2nd-4th / 8th-10th centuries). London, 1998.
  • Watt, J. Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies. 2004.
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