Planet Earth

When the ancients were wise

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanAug 30, 2010 1:46 PM


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I picked up The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization on the run, as I was about go traveling somewhere. I didn't look at the contents or even the jacket summary very closely. My interest specifically was to get to know a little more about the Abbassid House of Wisdom, which like the Academy of Athens was more defined by a bustle of intellectual activity rather than a physical space. In particular I wanted to know more about Thābit ibn Qurra, arguably the most renowned translator of ancient works for the House of Wisdom, and the last pagan intellectual of note in western Eurasia before Plethon. Thābit ibn Qurra was a Sabian, a religious sect in Haran which had convinced the Islamic authorities that they were a People of the Book, but who clearly descended from the pagan tradition of that city which persisted down to late antiquity thanks to the protection given by the nearby Persian rulers (during the period when Justinian was eliminating all traces of institutional paganism from the Byzantine Empire, from the Academy in Athens, the Sun Temple in Balbek, to the Temple in Philae, Haran was spared because the proximity of the Persian Empire meant that the Byzantines did not have a free hand in disrupting the local social equilibrium without cost to their domination of the region). But The House of Wisdom is not that book at all, only a few pages are given over to the Abbassid House of Wisdom. Rather, the title refers to the interaction between the civilization of Islam and Western Christendom between late antiquity to the high medieval period, and is a metaphor for Arab Islamic civilization. If you want to know about Adelard of Bath, Roger of Sicily, and Frederick II, this is the book for you! These are some of the novel bit players in the rather well worn story of "How X Saved Western Civilization," with X being the Arabs in this narration (the other figures, such as Averroes, are well known to you from other works). I was disappointed with the framework of The House of Wisdom. Because I misunderstood the title I thought it was going to be a narrowly focused work with a scholarly bent. Instead it was meandering, broad brush, and most definitely aimed toward an ignorant lay audience. This sort of work isn't all bad. Colin Wells' Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World is of similar bent, though more focused and scholarly. The intent of the publishers in these sorts of works are clear. Here another book in the same vein, Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization (I can not recommend this as much as Wells' attempt). Jonathan Lyons tries to do the same for the Arabs as Colin Wells did for the Byzantines, but there are differences which I think are instructive. Lyons turns the Byzantines into bit-players on the margins of his story, which is really about the dance of the West, those societies which were heirs to the Western Roman Empire, and the Muslims of Araby (there is sentence where he refers to "Christians" and then to "Byzantines," with it being obvious that he's distinguishing the two. This is obviously a minor error, but it points to the fact that the Byzantines have been pushed so far to the margin Lyons' story that they aren't even included in Christendom!). Wells used the Muslims as a contrast with the Byzantines, showing how these two streams of preservation of ancient wisdom differed in the details, and how they complemented each other. So Byzantine influence was more powerful in Italy, while works derived from Al-Andalus were more prominent in what became France. The historical reasons for this moderate disjunction are straightforward and need not concern us here. But of more interest is that while the Muslims tended to focus on the abstract philosophical and technical wisdom of the Greeks, it was from the Byzantines that we derive the preservation of the Hellenic humanistic tradition. Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes. This is a substantive distinction, and one that is not often highlighted. Instead the author of The House of Wisdom spends an inordinate amount of time contrasting the civilized and the barbaric. The civilized in this case being the Arab Muslim, and the barbaric being the Latin Frank. We've been around this block many times, and I don't understand why we need to revisit this normative inversion again. Perhaps I'm not part of the intended audience, I'm the type of person who reads thousand page books on the Crusades, so I'm not really interested in rehashes of the conflict over a few paragraphs. The corrective bias which I believe Lyons is operating under because of the presumption of an Islamophobic ignorant audience is why there are counter-polemics such as Rodney Stark's God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. The Crusades were of course balanced by the Arab conquests, which was a veritable rollback of Christendom. One could write another book about "how the Greeks and Persians civilized the Arabs." The contempt with which the older cultures viewed the Arab Muslims is evident in the Shahnameh or John of Damascus' writings, and the transformation of Araby into a font of literate sophistication which the Franks encountered in the 4th Muslim century is an important story in and of itself. But instead we're treated to these black & white morality plays which satisfy the Middle Eastern urge to remind the West who was savage and backward once. This isn't serious scholarship. Positivism may not be possible in a pure form, but there's a spectrum between the objective and polemical. But there are gems of interest in The House of Wisdom. With only 200 pages at his disposal the author really didn't have time to delve into the literature which he cites and alludes to (which makes the standard West-is-bad framework annoying as it wastes space). In particular, though not explicitly fleshed out I think one can see how Arab Muslim civilization benefited from its geopolitical position and economies of scale. The Arabs reunited many parts of Alexander the Great's Empire, bringing Alexandria under the same political and social order as the Persian heartland. With the Arab conquest of Sindh, and the defeat of the Tang at Talas, we see that they had interface with other great civilizational traditions. At its height the Umayyad Caliphate was bounded on the West by Latin Christian civilization and on the east by the outposts of the Chinese cultural penumbra. In India the Umayyad's seem to have come to an understanding with both the Buddhists and Brahmins of Sindh (in particular, the tax exemptions of Buddhist monks and Brahmin priests were maintained as a holdover from the pre-Islamic order). Greek, Chinese, Indian, and Persian wisdom all came together during the Abbassid period in the House of Wisdom (as well as extinct civilizations, such as that of Persian Christianity and Central Asian Buddhism). If there is one fact which I found to be noteworthy in The House of Wisdom it is that Lyons connects the spread of paper from China to the Arab world in the 8th century with the explosion in translation in the 9th century under the aegis of Al-Ma'mun. So like the printing press paper may have triggered an intellectual revolution. It is very interesting that almost all the earliest preserved works of the ancients can be traced to the Carolingian Renaissance, the Abbassids in the 9th century, and the Byzantines under Constantine VII. This occurred over ~150 years or so, and it is to this expenditure of capital on the part of these potentates to which we can give thanks for our remembrance of secular Western antiquity. So what wisdom did the the Arabs transmit to the Franks? If you're deeply interested in that, I recommend Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages and more especially The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450. Remember that a disproportionate contribution by the Arabs was in the domain of natural philosophy, the precursor to science. The Byzantine advantage lay in works in the original Greek, but the Arabs transmitted the works through the intermediation of several languages, from Greek to Syriac to Arabic to Latin. Science's beauty is that such translation shouldn't garble the meaning so much, it is a clear and distinct enterprise with little need for semantic nuance. The introduction to most of Aristotle's thinking in the West was famously through Averroes, the "Commentator" cited by Aquinas. Averroes did not know Greek, and himself relied on Arabic versions of Aristotle's work.

The aforementioned Adelard of Bath looms large in The House of Wisdom because he brought back works from the Arab world on astrology and philosophy of immediate technical utility. Prior to the modern era astrology and other pseudo-sciences were part of the body of natural philosophy. Star charts and models of celestial mechanics were critical to a proper astrological enterprise. The ancient societies had developed excellent techniques over time, culminating in the work of Ptolemy. Additionally, the Islamic world had an infusion of complementary knowledge from Indian astrologers. The combination of the wealth of the Arab world, the fact that it had access to ancient works, and its cross-cultural connections, meant that in the domain of astrology it was far superior to anything found in the Latin West. Because of the belief in the power of the stars the Arab wisdom in this case had immediate yield and quickly spread after Adelard's translation effort. Something similar occurred in the realm of geography, where Arabs had a natural advantage over the isolated and parochial Franks. Jonathan Lyons does not explore the economic basis of these differences in cultural capital much, but if you are curious I recommend Christopher Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Of the successor polities to the Roman Empire that of the Arab Muslim world was clearly the wealthiest to start out with. Much of the subsequent advancement in various technical arts can be attributed to the ability of the Arabs to marshal their surplus capital, and the consequent positive feedback loops which might emerge even in a Malthusian world. In the big picture though The House of Wisdom has less impact on the modern mind because I believe we do not comprehend the power of the ancients over those who lived before 1800. Lyons himself observes that Western Europeans on occasion selected inferior techniques and truths from the Greeks over Arab derivations and extensions because of the presumption that the Greeks were superior in all way to later peoples. The idea that ancient peoples were wiser, and lived in a better age, is not one that most of us in a post-Malthusian consumer world of technological obsolescence can grasp, but it is a cultural universal. The Chinese, Indians, Greeks and Romans all looked to golden ages, when morals were superior, and wealth and health were the way of the world. Part of this may be that in the Malthusian world there were recollections of periods in their culture when the demographic parameters were expansionary. That is, land was in surplus, labor in a deficit, and necessities a surfeit. But whatever the origin, this model persisted down to the 18th century and the Enlightenment. The Renaissance had been an efflorescence of learning, but it had been retarded in its progress in some ways because of the reverence for ancient precedents. This is most evident in medicine and physics, where Galen and Aristotle led scientists astray. There are some domains where the ancients still hold sway today. Religion is one. To some extent the literary humanities as well. Among non-scientific, and even some scientifically minded, there is still the idea that "ancient wisdom" can unlock secrets which we moderns have forgotten. To understand psychology I know of individuals who go seeking wisdom in the Sufis or Bhagavad Gita. I suppose that says something about the state of modern psychology. But it is also testament to the fact that despite our modern reliance on technological and scientific advancement the mind still craves ancient wisdom which can be gotten for free. Many believe that just by digging in musty archives one can find magics which unlock the secret of the universe. Magics which the ancients had stumbled upon, and which we have forgotten. To me that is the real polemical lesson that books such as The House of Wisdom should be teaching us,

that pre-modern man thought that wisdom could be excavated and borrowed, and not created de novo.

Instead, these sorts of popularizations are aimed toward an ignorant and dull modern audience caught up in Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann's latest hobby-horses. Image Credit: Howard Wiseman

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