The Fate of Ancient Greek Natural Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Islam and Western Christianity

By Grant, Edward | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Fate of Ancient Greek Natural Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Islam and Western Christianity

Grant, Edward, The Review of Metaphysics

THE ENDURING IMPACT of ancient Greek science and natural philosophy on the civilizations of Islam and Latin Christianity is one of the great success stories in the history of the world. The successful transmission of Greek science into Arabic and then of Greek and Arabic science into Latin compels us to speak of "Greco-Islamic-Latin" science in the Middle Ages. It was Greco-Islamic-Latin science and natural philosophy that unquestionably set the stage for the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, which would otherwise have been impossible. The transmittal of science and natural philosophy from Greek to Arabic and from Greek and Arabic to Latin was largely a one way process, a one-way belt of transmission. There was little, if any, backward movement--that is, there were no meaningful translations from Arabic to Greek and from Latin to Arabic and Greek--and therefore no significant interactions between Western Christianity and Islam.

But if there were no mutual interactions in science and natural philosophy between Latin Christianity and Islam, the two religions on which I shall focus, there were important contrasts in the way each religious tradition responded to, and utilized, the scientific heritage it received. Perhaps the differences in their long-term responses to secular pagan philosophical and scientific learning were shaped to a lesser or greater extent by the culture and civilization in which each was born and the manner in which each came into being.


Major Differences that Transcend Science and Natural Philosophy. Christianity was born inside the Roman Empire and was spread slowly and quietly, but persistently. By comparison with Islam, Christianity was disseminated

at a snail's pace. Not until 300 years after the birth of Christ was Christianity effectively represented throughout the Roman Empire. Only in 313, by the Edict of Milan, or Edict of Toleration, was Christianity given full equality with other religions in the Empire. And it was not until 392--almost four centuries after the birth of Christ--that Christianity became the state religion, when the Emperor Theodosius ordered the closing of pagan temples and forbade pagan worship.

In striking contrast, Islam was spread over an enormous geographical area in a remarkably short time. In less than one hundred years after the death of Muhammad in 632, Islam became the dominant religion in a vast area stretching from the Straits of Gibraltar in the West to India in the East. Such a rapid spread could only have occurred by conquest. Where Christianity spread slowly, by proselytizing, Islam came from outside the Roman world as an alien intruder, and although its converts were pagans and often former Christians, the mind set of the invaders was one which viewed Greek learning as alien, as is illustrated by the fact that Muslims distinguished two kinds of sciences: the Islamic sciences, based on the Koran and Islamic law and traditions, and the foreign sciences, or "pre-Islamic" sciences, which encompassed Greek science and natural philosophy. We might say that the slow spread of Christianity provided Christians an opportunity to adjust to Greek secular learning, whereas Islam's rapid dissemination made its relations with Greek learning much more problematic.

Another dramatic difference concerns the relationship between church and state. From the outset, Christianity recognized the state as distinct from the church. The separation is encapsulated in these momentous words of Jesus: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:21). Thus did Jesus acknowledge the state and implicitly urge his followers to be good citizens. Although Church and state were contending powers throughout the Middle Ages, each acknowledged the independence of the other. They regarded themselves as two swords, although, all too often, they were pointed at each other.

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