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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: May 2011

1 - Origins in Baghdad

from I - Fundamentals



Philosophy died a lingering death before Islam appeared. The long demise started arguably with the reign of Diocletian (284–305), as the social, demographic, administrative, and other changes that would eventually lead to the end of the ancient world first set in; in consequence of these changes, philosophy – as the living practice of rational thinking about human beings and the universe outside socially instilled and institutionally sanctioned mythologies and superstitions – was seen to represent attitudes and habits of mind little appreciated and even less tolerated. After Justinian’s 529 edict prohibiting pagans to teach, whatever was left of the much attenuated academic practice of philosophy limped on for another two or three generations until, as the current interpretation of the evidence has it, the last philosopher in Alexandria, Stephanus, was invited by the Emperor Heraclius to Constantinople around 610. And that is the last we hear for some time of philosophy in Greek, for in the ensuing two centuries – during, that is, the Iconoclastic controversy in Byzantium and the so-called “Dark Ages” – philosophical treatises were not even copied, let alone composed. This situation continued until the Macedonian renaissance of the second half of the ninth century when there was, if not a resurrection of philosophy, at least renewed interest in philosophical literature apparently occasioned by the Graeco-Arabic translation movement in Baghdad. The interest manifested itself in the transcription of philosophical writings in new manuscript copies – an activity to which we owe the very survival of many an ancient text – and in the production of some logical scholia by men like Photius and Arethas.

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