The History of the Books and the Preservation of Greek Philosophy

The History of the Books and the Preservation of Greek Philosophy

   The works of the ancient philosophers which remain for us have barely escaped the ravages of time and war, through two thousand years of luck and careful diligent preservation. Most have perished through the hostility and neglect of mankind. We may not appreciate what it means, for example, that the thought of the Western world developed without direct access to Plato’s Politea, or “Republic.”  The Republic was not even available in Latin until late in the Fifteenth Century. The entire discussion, for example, of faith and reason occurs without the greatest statement of classical philosophy regarding reason. And so we have muddled along for two millennia assuming that we know what faith and reason are, then seeing if these opinions cohere, or how they fit together.

   Plato wrote in the early Fourth Century B. C., and his works were preserved in Athens, and then at the library of Alexandria. The most significant events in the loss of the books are the division of the Roman Empire (AD 395) then the sacking and destruction of the Western Empire (410, 476) and the destruction of the library at Alexandria. Alexandria was burned in 48 B.C. when Caesar was conquering Ptolemy, then partly restored when Cleopatra conquered Antony, when he gave her the library at Pergamum. Through the period of time we call medieval, the ancient works were both preserved and destroyed by each of the three Biblical religions, in part on the basis of the kinship and conflict between the ways of faith and reason. There was a library in ancient Egypt about 1300 B.C., at Armana, and in the 1200’s at Thebes, but these do not seem to have lasted to become part of the Alexandrian library of the Fourth Century B.C. At Athens, Pisistratus is said to have set up the first Athenian library, and Aristotle had one at the Lyceum, as is likely too for Plato’s Academy. The vast majority of the ancient works have been lost, including all but some fragments of the writings of the pre-Socratic philosophers, and all but a few of the works of the Greek tragedians. The Latin speaking West, including all the nations of Europe, did not acquire the texts of Aristotle until 1230, and seem to have never possessed even Latin translations of the most significant Platonic texts, including the Republic and the Laws, until the latter half of the Fifteenth Century, when the Platonic Academy at Florence acquired the Greek texts from Byzantium, and Ficino achieved a complete translation, after 1453. English, German and French translations seem not to have existed until the Nineteenth Century. As John Uebersax reports, Harry Spens translated the Republic in 1763, and then Thomas Taylor published the complete works in English in 1804. Again, this means that the thought of late antiquity and the middle ages, including that of Augustine (354-430 A.D.) and Aquinas (1225-1274), occurs without direct access to the works of Plato.

   The whole body of the Greek writings was nearly preserved by the library at Alexandria. The city of Alexandria was founded in 332 B.C. on the western edge of the Nile Delta, by Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror who was for a while a pupil of Aristotle. After the death of Alexander, the empire was divided into three, the Ptolemic, Seleucid and Macedonian empires, in the areas of Egypt, Syria and Greece. The great library and school at Alexandria was founded by the first Ptolemy, then enhanced by his successors, the second and third Ptolemies. Books were borrowed and copied especially from Athens, and some originals kept. Complete collections of the works of the pre-Socratic philosophers, the tragedians Aeschylus and Sophocles, and the Historians Polybius, Tacitus and Livy, have been lost.

   Unlike the very ancient cuneiform writing on clay tablets, the ancient libraries of papyrus scrolls were very fragile, and are transmitted by the copying of manuscripts throughout the generations. The transmission of the books was then dependent on a more or less unbroken tradition of copying. More dangerous than the ravages of time for the papyrus of philosophy was the suspicion of the orthodox Muslim and Christian worlds. But under Roman, Christian and Byzantine rule, the school and library suffered hostility and neglect, so that much is said to have been destroyed long before the Seventh Century. Part may have been burned by the Alexandrian patriarch Theophilus in 392. This seems to have been about the time that the Nag Hammadi Library was buried, and a single leaf of Plato’s Republic (588b-589b) in Coptic is included. While the Christians were persecuted by Rome, no division and suppression of heretical texts would be likely. But after about 336, Constantine and his son Constantius turned Rome Christian, and St. Helen began the middle ages, heretics were killed and texts suppressed by Christendom, beginning with a “Docetic” heresy, of those denying the reality of the incarnation. Along with certain secondary works, books by Thomas, James and Philip, and possibly others, seem not to have been available to Athenasius when the scriptures were settled upon. This James is written in Hebrew, and is explicitly not for many, as is the New Testament. Much of Greek philosophy seems to have been inaccessible in the Latin speaking West by the time of Augustine. He seems to have read Plotinus and the neo-Platonists of the third century, but not to have Plato himself, due to the lack of a Latin translation. Boetheus (480-523) studied at Athens, read Plato in Greek at Rome near the start of the sixth century, and planned to translate the whole of Plato and Aristotle into Latin, though he was interrupted by political affairs and his misfortune at the hands of Theodoric, the first Gothic emperor of Rome, from 493-526 (The Consolation of Philosophy.) He is said to have translated Plato’s Timaeus, read or cited by  Chaucer in the Canterbury tales (I. 741). His translations of part of the logical works of Aristotle survived into the Twelfth Century. In the Eastern empire, Justinian closed the schools of Athens in 529, seized the property of members, and forbade pagans from holding office. After 11 centuries Greek philosophy had degenerated into metaphysics, an attempt to know being directly though faculties similar to those of mathematics and calculation, which is what we measure in “intelligence” tests in our “psychology.” The Platonic manuscripts must have been preserved in Athens or Byzantium in secret. There is an old story, not recorded until the Eleventh Century, that in the Muslim conquest of Egypt and Alexandria in 642, the general Amr wrote to the Calif Omar to ask permission to give the books to John Philoponus, an Alexandrian grammarian. The Calif replied:

If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless, and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious, and should be destroyed.

It is said that four thousand furnaces in the public baths were fueled for six months with the papyrus of some 700,000 books.

   At the Western edge of the Roman world,  temporarily neglected by the invaders from the north, Irish monks are credited with having preserved many of the Latin classics, including Virgil, Ovid, Livy, and what remains of Cicero, and with reintroducing literacy into the West after the crumbling and fall of the Rome in the Fifth Century. Roman soldiers abandoned Britain in 409, just before the sack of Rome by Aleric the Goth in 410. Saint Patrick, one of the last of the Roman Britons, was captured and enslaved in Ireland, escaped back into Britain, and then returned to convert the Irish to Christianity after 432. The Irish monks copied and collected manuscripts which then were preserved and reintroduced into England through the monasteries founded in the north, in what became Scotland, by St. Colomba, after 557. The English were converted not by the Celtic, but by the Roman church, in 597. The reunion of the Celtic and Roman churches in 665 allowed for the introduction of the books into England, so that the English Mercian school of Bede and Alquin had access to the works of the Irish scriptoriums. So it is from England and Ireland, rather than directly from Rome, that classical literacy and the Latin works re-entered the European continent.

   Late in the Eighth Century, Charlemagne brought the English scholar Alquin from the monastery school at York to France, and began a school and manuscript project, at the founding of what became the University of Paris. That project is credited with preserving the best Latin poetry, such as Virgil and Ovid, and prose, such as Cicero and Livy. At the beginning of the Ninth Century, as the Vikings were pillaging the last of the Irish monasteries, John Scotus Eriugena journeyed to Paris. This John the Irish born Scot is said to be one of only two men in Western Europe at that time who could read Greek, and the first to think philosophically since Boethius. He may have read some of the works of the philosophers in Greek, and wrote a Latin work called the Division of Nature, though he was apparently unable to bring the works of Plato from Byzantium or Baghdad, where the House of Wisdom was just then being founded. Twelfth Century English or British writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and William of Mamsbury had only Latin and no Greek.

   Some important works, including those of Aristotle, re-entered the medieval world of the Latin speaking Western Roman empire through the narrow passage of Islamic science, early in the Thirteenth Century. The Alexandrian school, and some of the ancient manuscripts, survived by being moved to Antioch in Syria, under the Umayyad dynasty, early in the Eighth century. Philosophy was preserved here due to the continued presence of a Greek speaking educated class among the peoples subject to the Muslim empire. Enrollment in the Alexandrian Academy at Antioch fell until only one professor and two students remained. One of these in turn taught one of the greatest translators of the Abbasid dynasty, and the other taught Yuhanna Ibn Haylan, who became the teacher of Al-Farabi (870-950) at Harran and Baghdad. Farabi read Plato, and is one of the greatest commentators.

   The capitol of the Muslim empire shifted East to Baghdad, founded in 763, while the Umayyad dynasty continued in Spain. The Abbasid Calif al-Mansur sent to Byzantium for Greek mathematical texts. In a catalog of books composed near the end of the first millennium, Ibn al-Nadim elates the story in which Aristotle appeared to al-Mamun in a dream and assured him that there was no conflict between reason and revelation, or between the Quran and Greek philosophy. Al-Mamun then founded the House of Wisdom, in 830, where salaried Christian and Muslim scholars translated from the Greek into Syriac and then into Arabic. Hunain ibn Ishaq, a Nestorian physician, translated Plato’s RepublicTimaeus and Laws into Arabic.

   From Arabic, philosophy was introduced late into the Latin-speaking West, through  Spain. A few works of Aristotle, translated from Arabic into Latin at Toledo by Gerard of Cremona after 1165, and a few more, including the Metaphysics and Ethics, by Michael Scott, after 1217, 800 years ago. Aristippus of Catania translated Plato’s Meno and Phaedo directly from Greek into Latin after 1260 for Thomas Aquinas, and some Aristotle, including the Politics, Metaphysics, Rhetoric and On the Soul. 

   The Republic and Laws of Plato were not translated into Latin until the Fifteenth Century. As a consequence, Christian medieval thought is primarily based on Aristotle, while Arabic and Hebrew thought is based more on Plato.  Averroes, writing in Cordova in the Twelfth Century, was not able to acquire a copy of Aristotle’s Politics, and so contented himself with writing his commentary on Plato’s Republic. This commentary itself was itself not translated into Latin until the Sixteenth Century.

   Petrarch, writing in the Fourteenth Century, solidified a new fashion of classic book collecting, acquiring 16 dialogues he could not read, but igniting the project to acquire Byzantine texts, just in time. Then in the first half of the Fifteenth Century, just before the fall of Constantinople, in 1453, Italian humanists traveling in Greece bought back many manuscripts salvaged from the Eastern Empire. It was in Florence in the mid Fifteenth Century, that the lectures of Gemistius Pletho are said to have ended the reign of Aristotle in European philosophy and led to the 1445 founding of the Platonic Academy and the lifelong project of Marsilio Ficino to translate the Platonic dialogues into Latin. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, brother to King Henry V, collected Greek manuscripts which later added to the Bodeline library at Oxford. William Tilley, William Grocyn, and Thomas Lincere studied under Politian in Florence from 1487-1499, and may have had access to the Latin Translations of Ficino. John Colet, a younger  student at Oxford, read Plato, Plotinus and Cicero, probably in Latin and Greek, in the generation preceding Sir Thomas Moore and Erasmus. Erasmus lectured on Greek at Oxford and then held a professorship at Cambridge, visiting England  three times from 1499-1517. Pico nearly restored  the ability to read Plato, though his works suffer again the misfortune and jealousy of doctrine. We say that the failure of the renaissance Platonists to recover Socratic philosophy allowed for the development of the sophistic and pre-Socratic strain of Thrasymachus, Critias and Callicles, anti-Christian strain of modern political theory exemplified especially in Machiavelli, Marx and Nietzsche, rising unopposed, except by such godsends as Shakespeare, Leo Strauss and the American founding.

   But this means that we have better access to the Republic of Plato and the Socratic philosophers than any of the medieval writers possibly excepting  the Arabic School of Al Farabi. The question of the relation of faith and reason, or of the Bible and Greek philosophy, is potentially accessible to us in a new and more complete way than at any time since the height of the Alexandrian school. Both Erasmus and Ficino address the question introduced by the soul and mind of Socrates with the paradoxical reference to Socrates as a “saint.” Justin Martyr, the first Christian known to have read Plato, in the Second Century, writes that those who live “meta-logia,” in accord with reason, are Christians, referring to the natural mysteries of the soul rather than to something man made, or to Christian convention.


1) “Science: The Islamic Legacy” (An Aramco World Magazine).

2) Durant, Will and Ariel. The Story of civilization, Vol. 3-7.

3) Fortin, Ernest L. “Aquinas.” in The History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, p. 224.

4) Mahdi, Mushin. Introduction to Medieval Political Philosophy, p. 16.

5) Nachod, Hans. Introduction to Petrarch, in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Edited by Ernst Cassirer, Kristeller, Paul Oscar, and Randall, John Herman Jr. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press1956.

6) World Book Encyclopedia, (Library, pp. 227-228), 1972.

7) Uebersax, John. “Harry Spens and the First English Translation of Plato’s Republic.” WordPress, January 13,  2015.