Legacies and Lessons

This research cluster will focus on the telescoping layers of the classical “legacy,” beginning in antiquity, and ranging through the medieval period into the twenty-first century. We will investigate the complex pathways by which notions of the “classical” (particularly with respect to philosophical and religious thought) made their way into a series of “contemporary” contexts, paying careful attention to how conceptions of the “ancient” simultaneously shape and are shaped by new societies and cultures. We will pay particular attention to the ways in which new religious landscapes affect the pathways of reception.

We offer here just two of many possible instances in which classical “legacies” were received, adapted, and transmitted within new religious contexts:

1. Christian apologetic literature of the second century, in its defense of nascent Christianity against “pagan” criticism, paradoxically disavows Greek culture and philosophy while expressing Christian ideas that are steeped in precisely those traditions. Justin Martyr, for example, claims that Christianity is morally superior to Greek religion and that Greek mythological narratives are distorted versions of prophecies pointing toward Jesus, while simultaneously appealing to similarities between “pagan” and Christian doctrine and identifying the Stoic and Platonic elements in his own thought. Tatian, Justin’s student, rails against Greek philosophies and philosophers by name (Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Aristippus, Epicureans, Platonists, Cynics, etc.); at the same time, he presents Christianity in explicitly Middle-Platonic terms. For both of these thinkers (as well as many others), the Greek philosophical legacy was something to be thought both with and against—but it could hardly be escaped.

As researchers in this cluster, we might ask not just how second century Christians were shaped by this legacy, but the degree to which they themselves reshaped and distorted it. What parts of the Greek philosophical tradition did they particularly interact with? What did they get wrong, what did they get right? And further: how would their version of the Greek philosophical legacy influence later generations of thinkers? The reverberations of these early Christian attempts to wrestle with the Greek philosophical and religious inheritance are felt in a bewildering variety of iterations throughout the medieval and into the modern period: our own Thomas Jefferson, along with other deists of the 18th and early 19th centuries, attempted to purge Christianity and the New Testament of the “Platonists and Plotinists,” leaving only the “simple evangelists” and their “genuine system” of beliefs—a position no less ironic than Justin’s and Tatian’s, given Jefferson’s well-known appreciation of all things Greek and Roman.

2. The translation of Greek learning into Arabic was a foundational intellectual project in the medieval Islamic world. This project was supported by Islamic rulers and carried out by translators beginning in the ninth century—most notably Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-73), whose translations of Plato, Aristotle, and Galen as well as other Greek classics became the foundation for the robust tradition of Islamic science and philosophy. Hunayn was remarkable not only for his sound translation technique and his scientific expertise, but also because he was not a Muslim but rather a Nestorian Christian Arab. He rendered texts first from Greek to Syriac, and subsequently from Syriac to Arabic. His mastery of the first two languages, which were instrumental to his success as a translator, was a product of his cultural and religious background. Throughout Islamic history we find talented scholars, administrators, poets, and scientists—indeed, those whose accomplishments are highly lauded within Islamic society—who identify themselves as Jews or Christians, Persians or Berbers, and others.

These outsiders practiced a kind of cultural pluralism within a predominantly Muslim society, in which Arabs often enjoyed a privileged status. In the medieval Mediterranean, we find cases of shuʾubiyya—that is, a claim made by non-Arab Muslims, and by extension those who are neither Arab nor Muslim, that their cultures and values must be maintained and promoted in the face of Arab and Islamic hegemony. We find, for example, high-ranking Persian administrators within Arab dynasties conducting certain affairs of the state in their ancestral language, or Jewish diplomats in the service of Islamic rulers producing Hebrew poetry and asserting the elegance of Hebrew over Arabic. Notably, these cultural or religious outsiders maintained their prominence within the wider Arabic culture even while they asserted the value of their own cultures.

The intellectual productivity and cultural diversity of the medieval Islamic world was long misunderstood by scholars with a Euro-centric viewpoint. They imagined that Islamic scholars and scientists had passively received classical texts and served as a repository for them so that later European thinkers could recover Greek learning simply by translating the texts from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin. This notion was challenged in seminal studies by A. I. Sabra, who argued that Islamic thinkers transformed and expanded Greek thinking, not just in language but also in form and content, when they actively appropriated it and developed it over many centuries.

What lessons can be drawn from these types of investigations? Researchers involved in the “Legacies and Lessons” cluster will host workshops, develop courses, and present public-oriented lectures that call on us to think critically about our contemporary reception classical legacies: What have we selected out? What have we ignored? What have we reshaped or distorted? What do our attitudes towards the past reveal about ourselves in the present?