Robert Drummond Lamberton-The Arabic ‘Transmission’ Of Homer

The House of Wisdom, Bayt al-HikmaThe House of Wisdom (Arabic: بيت الحكمة‎‎; Bayt al-Hikma) was a major intellectual center during the Islamic Golden Age. Photograph of Mustansiriya Madrassa by Taisir Mahdi


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Robert Drummond Lamberton’s study, ‘Homer the Theologian‘, (Transformation of the classical heritage; 9) University of California Press, Ltd. London, England. First Paperback Printing 1989 © 1986 by The Regents of the University of California. Here, from chapter VI, ‘The transmission of the NEOPLATONISTS’ HOMER to the Latin Middle Ages‘.

Here is the first survey of the surviving evidence for the growth, development, and influence of the Neoplatonist allegorical reading of the Iliad and Odyssey. Professor Lamberton argues that this tradition of reading was to create new demands on subsequent epic and thereby alter permanently the nature of European epic. The Neoplatonist reading was to be decisive in the birth of allegorical epic in late antiquity and forms the background for the next major extension of the epic tradition found in Dante.



Greek philosophy entered the Near Eastern tradition in two major waves, the first in the sixth century (following the closing of the philosophical schools by Justinian in 529 and doctrinal disputes within the church that later in the century drove the Nestorians and Monophysites of Edessa east to Persia), and the second from the eighth century to the tenth cen­tury, when the Alexandrian schools were revived in Baghdad and the central Platonic dialogues (including the Timaeus and the Republic) were translated into Arabic. In the absence of translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, readers in this tradition must have been bewildered by Socra­tes’ attacks on the epic poets and by the wealth of literary references in the dialogues. Aristotle reached the Arabs by way of the schools of Syria and intermediate Syriac translations in the eighth century. The Organon came first, and was relatively easily separable from the tradition of Greek literature, but by the early tenth century the Poetics had been translated and used by al-Farabi”.


It should be no surprise that the Arab commentators tend simply to absorb from their philosophical sources traditional judgments of Greek poets, and to pass over in silence passages that demand a direct knowl­edge of Greek poetry. This is exactly what Avicenna does in his commen­tary on the Poetics (ca. 1020); he echoes Aristotle’s praise of Homer and declares him the model encomiastic poet, avoiding references to the specifics of Greek poetry. There is a similarity between the dim and garbled perceptions of Homer we find among the Arabs and those that penetrate the Latin West-a similarity that is simultaneously surprising and sobering. There is, of course, no reason why we should expect the Iliad and Odyssey to have taken root in Visigothic Spain or Ostrogothic Italy but not in the cultural centers of the Arab world, but to find on ei­ther side the same rudimentary perceptions based on the same incom­prehension of Homer’s language and the same inheritance of judgments and interpretations encysted in the philosophical authors is nevertheless a reminder that for nearly a thousand years the undying fame of Homer glimmered only faintly outside of Byzantium.


At the same time, however, a very special aura attached to that fame and to the name of Homer (or Ümirus), an aura that was the product of the transformation of Homer brought to completion by the Neoplato­nists. His name appears in lists of sages that include Hesiod, Pythago­ras, and various ill-matched heroes and gods. Although the first translation of the Iliad into Arabic would appear to have occurred only in 1904, there is evidence from the late Middle Ages for a Syriac version of “the two books of Ümirus on the ancient conquest of the city of Ilyun” prepared in the eighth century by Theophilus of Edessa, court astrolo­ger of the Maronite Khalif al-Mahdi. It is striking that it was thus within the Syrian Christian community, with its link to the Greek tradition by way of the Greek scriptures and the Church Fathers, that a need was felt to translate Homer into a Semitic language. The Arab translators of the period (who often worked from Syriac intermediaries) knew Homer in the original, but apparently felt no need to translate him into Arabic, be­ yond minor elaborations of Homeric texts found quoted in Greek philo­sophical authors, and even these quotations of Homer are frequently garbled, and eventually tend to be replaced by lines from Arab poets.


Jorg Kraemer’s survey of the fate of Homer in Islam notes a number of isolated survivals that bear along with them the baggage of the interpre­tive tradition. The eleventh-century writer on India al-Biruni cites a supposedly Homeric verse on the harmony of the spheres. Whatever the lost connection between the passage quoted and Homer, one can clearly see Pythagoreanizing interpreters at work here. Another citation from the same author seems to be lifted from a commentary on Aratus and brings along a Stoicizing gloss as the opinion of the poet, interpreting Zeus as equivalent to spirit (ar-ruh= πνευμα-pnevma) active in matter (al-hayula = υλη-yli). Among the varied shreds of the Greek tradition that the Arabs at­ tributed to Homer, the most remarkable-and the most indicative of what must seem to us a chilling insensitivity to the range and richness of Greek literature-are the “Sayings of Menander” transmitted as excerpts from Homer. These were preserved independently in Greek, but other facile moral precepts and observations equally transmitted by Arabic collections as dicta Homeri are untraceable beyond the Arabic and re­ surface (without Homer’s name) in medieval books of precepts. Homer the Sage was clearly at home in Islam, and although the Arabs, in ignorance of the development of non-philosophical Greek literature, naively incorporated into their “Homeric” corpus material from other poets and genres, the broad lines of the development of the figure of the visionary, allegorical poet remain the familiar ones. The principal difference would seem to lie in the Arabic tradition’s greater willingness to go to the poets for moral precepts than for metaphysical or cosmological ones, a tendency that led them to create a Homer who was primarily a purveyor of instructions on how to live and not on the fate of souls and the structure of the universe.


The Arabic tradition, then, did not constitute an important path of communication between the Byzantine tradition and the Latin West for the “divine Homer,” but our brief consideration of the Arabs here has revealed instead a pattern of cultural assimilation vividly analogous to that which emerged in Western Europe. The traditions of Homer the Sage in the Arab world and in the Latin West are siblings that have fol­lowed separate paths to such an extent that their common ancestry can only rarely be perceived.


Although the translation of Greek philosophical works from Arabic into Latin, along with the creation of Latin versions of Arabic pseude­pigrapha, constituted an influential channel for Greek ideas reentering the West in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the importance of these texts for the Neoplatonists’ idea of Homer would appear to have been negligible. The Greek texts that entered the Latin tradition by way of the Arabs were translated into Latin for the most part during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, a date too late to be of much help to us. The importance for the Latin tradition of the Arabic transmission of Plato is only now receiving intensive study, and until the Plato Arabus project progresses further, it would be premature to predict what might be found in these texts to illuminate our inquiry. There are already tantalizing hints. Klibansky mentions the (unpublished) preface to al­-Farabi’s paraphrase of the Laws, containing a discussion of “the theory of a discrepancy between the literal and the real meaning,” and this raises the possibility that the Neoplatonists’ theories of interpretation may in fact have gained some currency in the Latin West by way of the Arabs.


Moreover Averroes (in the twelfth century) expresses a conviction that allegorical interpretation of theological narratives is necessary, though the work in question (Fasl al-maqal, “The Decisive Treatise“) was not translated into Latin along with his commentaries on Aristotle. What­ ever hidden influence may lie here, it remains true that in the latter part of the twelfth century, the Latin West already knew about texts that were “screens” (παραπετασματα-parapetasmata in Proclus; integumenta or involucra in the in­terpretive vocabulary of the School of Chartres) for hidden meanings. Whatever contributing elements may be found coming from the Arabs are unlikely to constitute more than a superfetation.


Mention should be made in this context, however, of the influence of two twelfth-century translations from the Arabic that swelled the Aristo­telian corpus, the Liber de pomo and the Liber de causis. Both are pseudepigrapha of Arabic origin, the former a dialogue depicting Aristotle’s last moments (and clearly an imitation of the Phaedo), the latter (also titled De expositione bonitatis purae) a discourse on causality and the structure of the universe, derived from Proclus. Both of these works were probably known to Dante and will be mentioned later in that context, and neither mentions Homer or interpretation as such. Their importance here relates to the position of Aristotle in late medieval philosophy. If Aristotle is the “maestro di color che sanno” for Dante, that opinion (which comes to him through Aquinas) is at least in part inherited from the Arabs, who treated Aristotle somewhat in the same way they treated Homer. That is, Aristotle was taken as a model sage, the Greek philosopher par excel­lence, and much that was in fact non-Aristotelian (including material from Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus) was attributed to him. In this form, and so attributed, it entered the Latin West, either in the late Middle Ages with the two books in question, or during the Renaissance with the Theologia Aristotelis, a compendium of Plotinian Neoplatonism. As Richard Walzer emphasizes, “The essential identity of Plato’s and Ar­istotle’s thought” was an idea “common to all the Muslim philosophers” and derived ultimately from the Neoplatonists’ synthesis of Plato and Aristotle initiated by Porphyry, but this situation was made consider­ably more complex by the naïve attribution of a variety of extraneous texts and ideas to Aristotle himself.


If the Arabs can give us little of substance to add to our understand­ing of the transmission of the Neoplatonists’ visionary Homer, they nevertheless set the stage for a period in which Aristotle could be imagined describing the contents of his Metaphysics as follows: “Blessed is the soul that is not infected with the corrupt works of this world and per­ceives its creator; this is the soul that returns to its home in great ec­stasy.” This Aristotle also expounds a stratified model of the universe extending from the first cause beyond all speech by way of intelligentia and anima down to the level of sensus and the physical world (Liber de causis, ch. 11). The disguise was not impenetrable; Aquinas saw through it and realized that the Liber de causis was mistakenly attributed to Aris­totle, and Dante himself may have done so as well. But for those of their respective contemporaries who did not, central ideas of pagan Neopla­tonism constituted the consummation of “Aristotelian” philosophy, and the model of reality the Neoplatonists had found in Homer (and indeed wherever else they chose to look) could easily be attributed to Aristotle as well.


Professor Robert D. Lamberton. Department of Classics. Washington University in St. Louis.
More about Robert D. Lamberton:
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