Potestas Essendi

A Virtual Space for Thoughts on the Middle Ages, by Nicola Polloni

From Toledo to Oxford

During the second half of twelfth century more than one hundred philosophical and scientific works were translated from Arabic into Latin in Toledo. This «translation movement» provided the Latin philosophers with many texts of primary importance, as the Aristotelian corpus, Avicenna’s Metaphysics, and the Liber de causis. The renewed access to Aristotle—whose metaphysical and physical writings were not previously transmitted to Latin philosophers—will cause a progressive change of perspective in the thirteenth century: a whole new speculative paradigm for Latin philosophy.

Gerard of Cremona is in Toledo at least since 1157, and until his death, in 1187, he works in collaboration with Galippus at the translation of more than sixty texts. Among these, we can find a remarkable number of Aristotelian works, such as the Physics and the Metereologica, but also al-Kindi, Galen, ar-Razi, Avicenna’s Canon and Ptolemy’s Almagest, and the Liber de causis, following a plurality of interests and different disciplines, from philosophy to astronomy, medicine, and geomancy. On the contrary, the list of the translations made by Gundissalinus is quite less prominent, counting around twenty translations from Arabic into Latin. Nonetheless, there are some characteristic that make Gundissalinus’s work extremely fascinating. In the first place, the kind of writings he translates: they are all philosophical writings. Moreover, if we leave apart the De intellectu et intellecto of Alexander Aphrodisias, the authors of these texts are all Islamic or Jewish philosophers, while in Gerard’s production, as we have seen, there is a wide number of Greek-into-Arabic texts translated into Latin. And in the third place, we have to recall the peculiar bond linking Gundissalinus to Avicenna, a bond with some personal issues.

irht_15314-pGundissalinus moves to Toledo in 1162 from Segovia, where he was archdeacon of the diocese of Cuéllar. With all probability, Gundissalinus’s transfer to the Castilian capital is a consequence of the arrival in Toledo of the Jewish philosopher Abraham ibn Daud, a convinced Avicennist and a strenuous detractor of Ibn Gabirol. Around 1161 Ibn Daud translates into Latin the famous preface of the Liber sufficientiae—i.e., the Kitab ash-Shifa—dedicating this work to the archbishop of Toledo, John II. In the dedicatory letter to John, Ibn Daud asks the archbishop to sponsor the translation of the whole Shifa, an invitation accepted by John since a few years after he is addressed the translation of what is supposedly the first Avicennian work translated in Toledo, the De anima, realised by Ibn Daud and Gundissalinus. The particular relation between Gundissalinus and Avicenna—as that between Gundissalinus and Ibn Daud—is to be found in the very beginning of his activity as translator, since Gundissalinus moves to Toledo with the exact purpose of collaborating with Ibn Daud at the ‘Avicenna project’. The outcomes of this fact can be seen through the list of the translations realized by Gundissalinus, where Avicenna plays a leading role, not only as for the number of works translated, but also for the doctrinal relevance of those works, like the Liber de philosophia prima or the Liber de anima and the first three books of the Physica. And together with Avicenna, we find other writings that will play a crucial role for Gundissalinus and the subsequent philosophical debate: al-Ghazali’s Summa (that is, the Maqasid), al-Kindi’s De radiis and, above all, Ibn Gabirol’s Fons vitae.

Nonetheless, Gundissalinus does not just translates these texts: he studies them, speculates on them and sometimes criticises them. Gundissalinus indeed is a learned scholar of his time: having studied in Chartres, probably with Thierry and William of Conches, he was extremely aware of the despicable state of the contemporary philosophical debate, quite wrapped up in itself as a system that, as a matter of fact, will be exceeded by a new philosophical paradigm in a few decades, based on Aristotle rather than the Latin Platonism. Willing to renovate the Latin philosophical debate, Gundissalinus writes some interesting treatises, whose precise number is still a matter of debate, for nowadays, scholars are still discovering and proposing new texts that could have been elaborated in that philosophical milieu that Charles Burnett called ‘the Gundissalinus circle’. Traditionally, the original writings by Gundissalinus are six De unitate et uno, De scientiis, De immortalitate animae, De anima, De divisione philosophiae, and De processione mundi. To this writings at least another one should be added, that is, the Liber mahamelet whose production is directly related to Gundissalinus’s team as pointed out by Burnett; while the attribution of De immortalitate animae  is still a matter of debate.

irht_15309-pAn examination of the manuscript witnesses of Avicenna’s Metaphysica, translated in Toledo by Gundissalinus, reveals something of the means by which knowledge was transmitted: many of the manuscripts copied in the first part of the thirteenth century consist of a collection of Toledan translations accompanied by Gundissalinus’s own treatises. Later readers encountered Avicenna not only mediated through Gundissalinus’s translation but with his examples of how these new conceptual frameworks might be applied. The extent of this dual influence is shown in the peculiarities of Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of Ibn Gabirol’s hylomorphism (the notion of being as a compound of form and matter), which stem from his adherence to Gundissalinus’s interpretation of the text.  A little later, Albert the Great, a dominant voice in later 13th century natural philosophy identified Gundissalinus as one of the main followers (with al-Ghazali) of Avicenna’s philosophy (De Homine, 55,3).

The works translated in Toledo soon spread throughout Europe: a host of Muslim and Jewish writers, for example Avicenna, Ibn Gabirol and al-Farabi, and, most importantly, Aristotle’s writings on natural philosophy. The availability of these texts to masters and students across western Christendom, transformed the intellectual landscape. They were crucial to the development of new scholastic institutions and the formation of Universities, especially in France (Paris) and England (Oxford), and to what western scholars understood the nature of science and learning to be. Nevertheless while this sea-change in the way in which western thinkers approached the world is well-known in general, there is a marked lack of attention to how the new translations, especially those from authors writing in Arabic, affected the teaching and learning of individual scholars.

Among the western thinkers on whom the Toledan metaphysical corpus appears to have exerted a major influence, Grosseteste and Bacon have a particular position. The significance in particular of Avicenna’s Metaphysica, al-Ghazali’s Summa, Ibn Gabirol’s Fons Vitae, and Gundissalinus’s De processione remains to be established in detail.  In the case of Grosseteste his ‘metaphysics of light’ merges the Aristotelian framework with Ibn Gabirol’s hylomorphism and joined to the scientific knowledge of optics. Bacon’s approach to the philosophical discussion starts with a similar approach, but with far extended conclusions.  He uses, like Grosseteste, a wide variety of philosophical and scientific sources, from Aristotle to the ‘Arabs’, to his Latin contemporaries including Grosseteste. Bacon frequently attacks the Parisian masters for their ignorance and frequent misinterpretations regarding the Aristotelian authoritative texts. In this context Bacon’s confidence in Arabic scientific and philosophical knowledge is striking.