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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Egid

Philosophy in... Syriac

"Syriac scholars and translators were aware of the danger with using 'pagan' philosophical literature, and modified the texts accordingly"

How do philosophical ideas move between radically different languages? How do they transform themselves in the crossing of linguistic borders, and how to these ideas change the languages themselves? In this interview, Dr Yury Arzhanov, an expert in Eastern Christian literature, explores the earliest known translations of Greek philosophy into a non-Indo-European language, Syriac, in the first centuries of the Christian era. What did these earliest philosophical translators hope to achieve by their enterprise, and how did they appropriate these already-ancient texts for their own purposes? How did Syriac authors combine the ideal of the philosopher with that of the monk? And how does the classroom determine forms of philosophical thinking?

I - Philosophy in the Syriac Language

For readers who might not be familiar with the language or its literature, I wondered if you could provide a bit of background to Syriac philosophy. Who wrote in Syriac, and where, and when? Who was their audience, and why did they want to write in their own language rather than in, say Greek?

Syriac is one of the Aramaic languages, appearing in the first centuries CE in the city of Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey) and which became the standard written language of Christians in Northern Mesopotamia for around one thousand years. Literature in Syriac begins in the 2nd-3rd centuries, and has its final flourishing period in the 13th-14th centuries. After this, Arabic becomes the main literary language of Syrian Christians, which it remains to this day. Thus, Syriac literature has slightly over a millennium long history.

Before the first centuries of the Christian era, Aramaic was a common lingua franca for much of the Northern Mesopotamian region, so that it was natural for the intellectual elite to use an Aramaic language instead of Greek, which was seen as a language of Greek authorities and education. Syriac as literary language became widespread after the 2nd century CE in what could be described as Northern Mesopotamia: in terms of the modern states, we are speaking about the South East of modern Turkey (especially the region of Tur Abdin, which also played an important role in monastic history) and the Northern part of today’s Syria and Lebanon. The Syriac language was also spoken in the Northern part of today’s Iraq and Iran, and even in some of the Southern regions of these countries.

Besides, Aramaic was often seen as the language of Jesus and of the first Christian community (which appeared very early in Damascus and in Antioch on the Orontes) and thus particularly closely associated with the history of Christianity. Many educated Syrians were diglossal, i.e. they knew both Greek and Syriac, however they kept using their native language not only in their daily life, but also as a vehicle of literature.

(A page from the so-called Rabbula Gospel)

When did philosophy become a part of this literature? Are there any particular authors we should know about?

The first “philosopher of the Syrians” (labelled as such by the Ephrem the Syrian) whose name is known to us is Bardaisan of Edessa who lived in the late 2nd-early 3rd century. The only work of his which has come down to us is the “Book of the Laws of the Countries”, which has been preserved in the revision of one of his pupils. Bardaisan was probably familiar with Platonic philosophy and composed dialogues similar to those of Plato.

Both Bardaisan and his later opponent Ephrem the Syrian (d. in 373) belong to this period, which is characterized as authentically Syriac. But from the late 5th century (and up to the 9th century) we see the start of a new period, characterized by a much greater interest in Greek philosophy, particularly the philosophy associated with late ancient Alexandria.

The major figure at the beginning of this period is Sergius of Reshaina (d. in 536), who spent several years in Alexandria studying philosophy and medicine. Later on, he returned to Syria where he started to translate the works of Aristotle and Galen into Syriac. His work marks the beginning of what might be called “Syriac translation movement” and the tradition of Aristotelian philosophy in Syriac.

II - Syriac Philosophy in Translation

The Arabic translation movement of early Islam is well known and celebrated as a high point of intercultural exchange in philosophy, and a key moment in the dissemination of Greek thought, but many won’t know that in some respects this movement was a continuation of earlier translations from Greek into Syriac. Could you tell us about these early translations – which works were translated, and why?

As I mentioned earlier, we can date the beginning of the Syriac translation movement to the beginning of the 6th century, when Sergius of Reshaina prepared Syriac translations of medical treatises by Galen and Hippocrates on the one hand, and wrote a number of commentaries on Aristotelian logical works on the other. These two fields remain the main focus of interest of Syriac scholars for the following decades: first, Aristotelian logic, and secondly, medicine. The first translations of Aristotle’s Organon, which also included Porphyry’s Introduction (Isagoge), were made during the 6th century. The following Syriac translations are known to us: Porphyry’s Introduction (anonymous translation), Aristotle’s Categories (anonymous translation), De Interpretatione (translation by Proba), and Prior Analytics (partial translation by Proba), Hippocrates’ Aphorisms and Prognostic (probably translated by Sergius of Reshaina), Galen’s treatise On Simple Drugs (translated by Sergius), and some other works. Those Aristotelian works listed above, were revised or retranslated in the 7th-8th centuries CE in the Syriac Orthodox monastery Qenneshre, which became the main centre of the Greek studies in the Syriac world for two decades.

Indeed, some commentators have suggested that Syriac commentators did the linguistic ‘heavy lifting’, by translating works from one side of a huge linguistic divide: from an Indo-European language like Greek to an Afro-Asiatic language like Syriac or Arabic. Could you tell us a little bit more about the particular challenges faced by translators in crossing this boundary, and rendering Greek philosophical terminology into a Semitic language?

The Syriac world came into contact with Greek culture and literature very early. Since Alexander the Great, Greek played an important role in government and education, so Syriac scholars were usually familiar with Greek as the language of culture and it was therefore natural that someone would have the idea of translating a large part of these Greek works. The earliest Syriac translations appear as rather 'free' renderings of the Greek texts. The translation was periphrastic and rather “reader-friendly”, because they in all likelihood served as a sort of a tool to deal with the original Greek texts, which were already present in Syria. Starting from the 5th-6th centuries, we find more literal translations, designed for those readers who could not read Greek. This whole process of the transformation of the translation style from periphrastic to literal gave Syriac translators invaluable experience of rendering Greek texts in a Semitic languages, which played an important role in both the Syriac and Arabic worlds.

(A mosaic from Edessa depicting Orpheus)

I wonder if we could think about some particular examples. A number of thinkers in philosophy and linguistics have suggested that the verb ‘ειναι’ (to be), a fundamentally important philosophical term, which has a very diversified set of uses in Greek, has no equivalent Semitic equivalent. How then did Syriac translators try and translate important philosophical terms of art with no obvious linguistic equivalent?

Over several centuries of translation and original philosophical work, Syriac translators developed a very nuanced and sophisticated philosophical and scholarly terminology. Especially in their literal translations from the Greek, which are characteristic of the post 6th century period, we find a developed set of technical vocabulary, which was able to reflect practically all aspects of Greek philosophy and science. This terminology was partly based on existing Syriac terms, which simply acquired new technical meaning, but was also partly was created by the translators themselves. Many of these terms later became part of the Syriac language. Not only the word “to be”, but very complex philosophical ideas were translated into Syriac and became an integral part of the Syriac culture.

forms of philosophical literature[...] often turn out to be dependent of the use of these works in the classroom

Syrian translators also introduced certain modifications and changes to the texts, which they decided to render in their own language. One example might give us an insight into the context of their work. Greek moral works usually speak about cultivating a certain “way of life”, appropriate for a philosopher. Syriac translators often rendered this expression with a Syriac word dubbara, which was from the 4th century onwards associated with life in a Christian monastery. In this way, the monastic way of life was presented as the best mode of plasticizing philosophy and demonstrated that Christian ascetic practice was the true way of 'living' philosophy.

How did these words and concepts later move into Arabic? How would you characterise the relation between Syriac and Arabic philosophy? Was it indeed a simple process to render Greek philosophy in Arabic once it had appeared in Syriac?

We should remember that the first translators of the Greek philosophical and scholarly works into Arabic were Syrian Christians. The most prominent translators in Baghdad were Hunayn b. Ishaq, his son Ishaq b. Hunayn and Hunayn’s nephew Hubaysh, all of whom belonged to the East Syrian (“Nestorian”) Church. It was therefore natural for Syrian Christians to make use of the long tradition of Syriac translations of Greek works, which preceded their own efforts. The earliest Graeco-Arabic translation movement thus adopted a number of features characteristic of the Syriac translation style. This was all the more apparent in those cases (e.g. in case of Aristotle’s Poetics), when a Greek work was first translated into Syriac and then the Syriac version rendered into Arabic. However, this situation changed rather quickly, and already in the late 9th and early 10th centuries the Arabic translators began to translate the Greek works directly from Greek originals, and secondly, to develop a genuine and original Arabic translation style.

III - Syriac Thought between Athens and Jerusalem

I'd like to ask about the general orientation of Syriac thought. What do you think is distinctive about it, if anything?

First, we should remember that those Syriac texts and translations which have been preserved until now, derive from Christian authors (non-Christian texts probably didn’t make it…). There tends to therefore be a strong tendency to combine philosophical literature with Christian theology and with a Christian world-view. If there are some anti-Christian elements in Greek philosophical and scholarly works, they were mostly reshaped or even eliminated from the translations. Secondly, the Syriac philosophical tradition was to a large extent shaped by the educational forms from which it emerged, forms which were characteristic of Syriac Christian schools. In Syriac, we find a large number of such literary forms that disclose their school use, e.g. short introductions (instead of long systematic works), compendia and epitomes of larger works, treatises in the form of questions and answers, etc. Thus, the forms of philosophical literature turn out to be dependent of the use of these works in the classrooms.

Philoxenos of Mabouk complained that it was hard to do Christian theology in Syriac because they were ‘not accustomed to use the precise terms that are in currency with the Greeks’. Could you tell us some more about what these problems might have been?

Philoxenos wrote these words at the beginning of the 6th century when the Syriac translations of Greek works indeed had a tendency towards a rather free rendering of Greek works. However, the situation changed significantly during the 7th and 8th centuries, when Syriac translators created and established a very sophisticated philosophical lexicon, which was able to reflect nearly all nuances of Greek philosophical literature.

The words of Philoxenos should also be seen in the context of the Christological debates of the 4th-5th centuries, when a number of Greek philosophical terms (e.g., the terms ousia and physis) became a matter of severe discussions during the Ecumenical Councils and in the theological literature. Philoxenus was eager to stress a “special way” of Syriac language concerning this issue, for he was interested in distancing himself from those theologians of his time, who shared the official Byzantine point of view.

How would you characterise the relation of this philosophical literature to Christianity? Do we see attempts to reconcile pagan philosophy with Abrahamic religion as we do in mediaeval other Christian, Islamic and Jewish sources?

All Syriac authors we know were Christians. Thus, Syriac philosophical literature turns out to be Christian in its very nature. The Syriac scholars and translators were aware, of course, of the potential danger connected with the use of non-Christian (“pagan”) philosophical literature and tried to adopt the latter in such a way that it would be acceptable for their audience, meaning that in the translations of Greek works we find some modifications of the original text that, e.g., eliminated polytheistic elements (for example, mentions of the “gods” is often turned into talk of “angels”). In this sense, Syriac Christians have similar intentions with regards to their use of Greek philosophy as the later Islamic and Jewish translators of Greek works.

Dr. Arzhanov, thank you so much for your time

Yury Arzhanov teaches in Biblical Studies and Ecclesiastical History at the University of Salzburg. He has published widely on philosophy in Syriac, including Syriac versions of Plato, Aristotle, Porphyry and gnomological compendia. You can find some of his work freely available online here.

III - Word List

Truth – ܫܪܝܪܘܬܐ shariruta

Mind – ܗܘܢܐ hawna

Reason – ܪܥܝܢܐ re‘yana

Appearance – ܚܘܪܐ hawra

Reality – ܣܘܥܪܢܐ su‘rana

Eternity, Infinity – ܥܠܡܐ ‘alma

God – ܐܠܗܐ alaha

Good – ܛܒܘܬܐ tabbuta

Evil – ܒܝܫܘܬܐ bishuta

Beauty – ܫܦܝܪܘܬܐ shappiruta

Society – ܟܢܫܐ kensha

Philosopher – ܦܝܠܣܘܦܐ pilsopa

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