Three Early Latin Avicennist Works

12th-century Platonism and Hermeticism

A growing thirst for knowledge accompanied the expanding economic success of Latin Europe in the 12th century.  Many scholars were keen to rediscover the wisdom and science of the ancient Greeks.  Some of the boldest of them in the middle of the century were the Platonists and Hermeticists who had links with Thierry de Chartres.[1]  Twelfth-century Platonism was, as the historian, E.Jeauneau, has pointed out, more an enthusiasm for the name and reputation of Plato, than a profession of his teachings, which were only available to students in extracts, or in comments from Roman writers such as Boethius.[2]  Similarly, they had little direct contact with the science and philosophy of Aristotle, although they did have access to his work on logic.  Probably the most accessible ancient sage of the classical world (as they would have considered him) was Hermes, thanks to one Hermetic dialogue in Latin, which they knew as the Asclepius.[3]  This book was greatly appreciated, probably because it was the only one they had, which gave a generalised (i.e. non-Christian) view of religion and philosophy.

It is, therefore, not surprising that this Platonist and Hermeticist school was in close contact with the translators, often working in northern Spain, who knew that a huge synthesis of Greek knowledge had been very successfully undertaken by Arabic philosophers.  The historian, T. Silverstein, can give an interesting example of the relationship between these two groups, in their use of the term elementata (primary substances brought into being out of the four elements).  He found the term used by Guillaume de Conches, Bernardus Silvestris and John of Salisbury (all Platonists from the circle of Thierry de Chartres) on the one hand, and in the work of Dominicus Gundissalinus, the translation of the Fons Vitae and the translation of the Magnum Introductorium (all from Spanish translators) on the other.[4] Scholars went to Northern Spain and to Sicily, in order to learn from Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews about the huge amount of work, which had been published in Arabic, to elucidate Greek science and philosophy.

Early Latin Avicennism

In the latter part of the 12th century, the intellectuals of the Latin West did not immediately get their hands on translations of the original works of Plato or Aristotle.  They did, however, make translations of Ibn Gabirol,[5] Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna)[6] and other Islamic Avicennists.  Another book that came through the same channels was a work of late classical Neopythagoreanism called the Book of First Principles or Book of Causes (Liber de Causis), also known (erroneously) as the Book of Aristotle on Pure Goodness (Liber Aristotelis de pura bonitate).[7]  They went looking for Plato and Aristotle.  What they received was a multiple dose of a philosophy which tried to harmonise the two, which is generally called Neoplatonism or, in this specific case, Avicennism (even though Ibn Gabirol often exerted as great an influence as Avicenna upon the early exponents of these ideas in Latin).

By the end of the century, not only were they sending back to Latin Europe Avicennist translations, but some of them were incorporating their newly discovered Avicennist wisdom into their own Latin Christian writings.  This development is called Latin Avicennism and, in its early days, it was particularly appreciated by Platonist and Hermeticist intellectuals.  Three representative books will be considered, which will help to characterise 12th-century Latin Avicennism.

The Immortality of the Soul

The first is The Immortality of the Soul (De Immortalitate Animae), chosen because it is a good example of the closeness of Christian Avicennist books to their Islamic sources.  This book, which is often put among the writings of Dominicus Gundissalinus, is probably a straightforward paraphrase of an Arabic work.[8]  It contains not a single Christian reference or Biblical allusion, and its 8 proofs of the immortality of the soul bear some similarity to the 8 proofs given in the final chapter of the Book of Circles of Ibn al-Sīd.[9]

It recognises a chain of being emanating from the First Cause in a perpetual “flow of life”.  The nearer a being is to the First Cause, the higher it is in the scale.  Man, who can raise himself above matter, can attain a proximity to the First Cause that is possible for no other creature.[10]  With Avicenna, the author believes that the soul has two faces, one looking down and one looking up.  One receives intellectual illumination from the examination of the phenomena of the material world; the other receives spiritual illumination sent from the incorporeal world.[11]  The author also knows that the body has to be mortified before it can receive the ecstasy of spiritual illumination.[12]  (This is very close to Ibn al-Sīd’s fifth proof.)

There are other indications that the writer is aware of some form of mystical teaching: he appreciates the desire of the soul to attain beatific perfection;[13] and he describes the final return of the soul into complete union with its source.[14]  The religious position of this straightforwardly Avicennist book, whose Arabic original may date from the time of Ibn al-Sīd, was sufficiently appreciated by some Christians, for it to be among the first philosophical works which were paraphrased from Arabic into Latin.[15]

Dominicus Gundissalinus’ book: Unity

Dominicus Gundissalinus, archdeacon of Segovia, is a key figure in the early stages of the transference of Islamic and Jewish Avicennism to the Latin West.  He seems to have helped in the translation, among many other works, of extracts from al-Kindi, al-Fārābi and al-Ghazāli and of parts of Avicenna’s books on metaphysics and psychology.[16]  He was very eclectic, taking helpful ideas from all religious traditions and, according to the historian, C. Baeumker, he was particularly interested in mysticism.[17]  In his early work, he seems to have been close to – maybe a pupil of – the Jewish Avicennist, Abraham ibn Daūd, who helped him to translate Avicenna’s book on the soul.  Ibn Daūd probably translated it out aloud into the vulgar tongue (i.e. a form of Spanish) while Dominicus made a written translation, in Latin, of what he heard.[18]  For other translations he had other helpers, including Johannes Hispanus, the main translator of Ibn Gabirol’s Fountain of Life.[19]

As well as translations, Gundissalinus wrote books of his own, incorporating material from the Arabic Avicennists.  His short, closely argued book, Unity (De Unitate), has been chosen for study here, because its theme, the authorities from which it quotes, its vocabulary and its conclusions all present a good example of Gundissalinus’ closeness to the work of Thierry de Chartres and Clarembaldus d’Arras.[20]  Early manuscripts give the author variously as Alexander of Aphrodisias, Alkindi, Aristotle, Boethius and Gundissalinus.  As it is Christian and dependent on the Fountain of Life, only the candidature of Gundissalinus remains from that list.[21]

Being is unity.  Everything is, because it participates in the oneness of being.

“It not only is, through the unity of the One; but whatever is, is what it is, only so long as unity is in it.”[22]

This is followed by a quotation from Boethius, a late Roman Platonist poet and philosopher, who was a major source of knowledge about Plato for early medieval writers:

“Whatever is, is so, because it is one.”[23]

All this is very reminiscent of the works of the Platonists of the circle of Thierry de Chartres.

Creation is the impression of form on matter.  These forms are constantly being poured forth from their source in God, so that creation can be compared to the unceasing outpouring of a fountain.[24]  A thing therefore comes to be through union (the union of matter and form); and it continues to be, through union, for when matter and form separate, that particular thing ceases to exist.  Since union is an attribute of unity:

“a thing is brought into being through unity and kept in being through unity.”[25]

It is Being, the One, which creates and sustains the universe.  All things in this world of multiplicity come from an ultimate unity, which is the source of their being, and they tend towards unity, desiring to return to their source.[26]

The book tries to link a theory of being to a theory of light.  Just as forms make matter perceptible, so does light.  Some types of matter are less penetrable by light than others.  The more dense and material a substance is, the less light it receives.  The higher a substance is in the chain of being, the more spiritual it is and the more receptive it is to light:

“This light is brighter in some, less bright in others, depending on the matter it is trying to penetrate.  The more sublime the matter, the more subtle it is, the more it will be filled with light, and so the wiser and more perfect it will be, as is the case, for example, with the intelligence and the rational soul.”[27]

Humans can receive divine illumination, because of their superior position in the chain of being.  The great chain of being stretches from perfect unity, at the top, to the hopeless confusion of an ever more complicated world, at the bottom.  It is also a band of gradations of light, from the brilliance of the pure, divine, guiding light for those who have tried to get close to God, to the total darkness of imprisonment in the ignorance of the wholly material world for those farthest from such an experience.

Gundissalinus’ book is a good example of a Latin Avicennist work which stresses the pantheist doctrine of the oneness of being.  The third Latin Avicennist work to be studied here will be keen to concentrate on the importance of illuminist mystical experience.

The Treatise on the Soul attributed to Johannes Toletanus

If Gundissalinus is a witness to the importance of a pantheist and emanationist metaphysic for the Latin Avicennists, the next work, The Treatise on the Soul (Tractatus de Anima), shows how the religious message of Avicennism was also being welcomed into Christian Western Europe at this time.  This treatise about the soul is left anonymous in most of the early manuscripts, but in some it is ascribed to Gundissalinus.  These say that he translated the book from Arabic into Latin.  It is therefore probable that there has been confusion between this treatise on the soul, which is an original work, and the book on the soul by Avicenna, on which it is based, which was translated, with considerable Jewish help, by an “archdeacon Dominicus”, i.e. by Dominicus Gundissalinus, who was Archdeacon of Segovia.[28]

The thirteenth-century scholar, Albertus Magnus, ascribed The Treatise on the Soul to a certain Toletanus,[29] and elsewhere referred to:

“Joannes Toletanus, the archbishop, in his book on the soul.”[30]

This must be Johannes, the Archbishop of Toledo from 1151-1166, to whom, incidentally, the Latin translation of Avicenna’s book on the soul was dedicated.[31]  Johannes had probably worked closely with Gundissalinus, because he had been Bishop of Segovia before becoming Archbishop of Toledo.  Before that, Johannes Toletanus is thought to have been a Cistercian monk.[32]  There are many Cistercian references in the book and it is full of Biblical quotations in the true Cistercian manner.

The book sets out to be a compendium of all the useful statements of the philosophers concerning the soul.  However, its tenth and last chapter is more interesting.  The soul has two concerns, one active and one contemplative.  The author repeats the distinction made by Avicenna of the two faces of the soul, one looking down to the physical and material world, and the other looking up to the intelligible and spiritual world.[33]  The Agent Intelligence is given its Avicennan duty of illuminator, the giver of forms and sun of the soul,[34] which can fill the soul with knowledge of the intelligible forms or divine ideals.  The illumination that follows can be of varying intensity.  The highest grade – in which all questions are answered, and the whole intelligible world is revealed – is only attained by the most holy of prophets.[35]  Thus far, the book follows Avicenna’s On the Soul, as translated into Latin.

Its illuminism

This author, however, goes on to be more specific about how such an illumination can be achieved.  He distinguishes the intellect, which acquires knowledge, from the intelligence, which acquires wisdom.  Wisdom is the understanding of what truly and eternally is:

“Just as knowledge is acquired through the intellect, so wisdom is acquired through the intelligence which, according to Boethius, is possessed by few men, and only completely by God.[36]  For intelligence is the upper eye of the soul, by which it contemplates its own self, God and what is eternal.”[37]

Wisdom is only possessed by those who can find God in the depths of the self.

For this the soul must be purified from all preoccupation with corporeal and worldly concerns, so that it can ascend with Paul to the third heaven of pure understanding.[38]  The upper eye of the soul is then given over to the contemplation of God.  But God is light.  The soul can, therefore, be infused with the brilliance of divine light.  This is the irradiating light of spiritual illumination, bringing with it the vision of God, the understanding of truth and the acquisition of true wisdom:

“From such an irradiating light, in such an irradiated intelligence, is born that illumination of the mind, that vision of the divinity, that perfection of the truth, which is true wisdom.  As the prophet said: ‘Lord, in your light we shall see light’.”[39]

To know God as light, one must be filled with light.  When the soul has succeeded in becoming all light, there is nothing between it and God.  Illumination leads to union with God:

“When the rational soul has raised itself by its understanding [intelligence] to the contemplation of God, it comes to the inaccessible light.  Between the soul and God nothing is interposed.”[40]

Cistercian themes

Using the Cistercian derivation of sapientia (wisdom) from sapor (taste), the author says that this experience of God is indeed a tasting, rather than a vision or the hearing of a voice.  In seeing or hearing, the object of perception is at a distance; in tasting the contact is direct and immediate.[41]  This is probably derived from Bernard de Clairvaux’s Commentary on the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon).[42]  Bernard had repeated the image many times, as for example in his well-known book, Of Conversion where he wrote:

“Thou wilt not see how sweet the Lord is, unless thou hast tasted his sweetness.  ‘Taste,’ says the Scripture, ‘and see that the Lord is sweet.’”[43]

The writer of the Treatise on the Soul believes that direct experience of God is possible in this life, if only in short periods of ecstasy.  He admits that a perfect, sustained vision of God is only gained in the next life.  Nevertheless, he accepts that a foretaste of that state can be attained by anyone, who subjugates his carnal appetites, concentrates his mind upon spiritual things, and seeks God in the depths of the self:[44]

“Always in receipt of the divine light of God, he may be given a foretaste, in his own self, of the beatitude to come.”[45]

In the final part of the last chapter, there is a little piece on the three stages of human development, seen as a progressive enlightenment.  In the first stage, we crawl about as beasts, experiencing everything through our senses.  This is compared to the darkness of night.  In the second stage, we gain knowledge and, uplifted by the use of our intellect, we become more like humans.  This is compared to the brightness of moonlight.  In the third stage, we try to ascend to a higher plane.  We seek after God’s wisdom and are carried up to the third heaven with Paul, where we see eternal truths in their simplicity.  This is like the brilliance of full sunlight at noon.[46]

The Treatise on the Soul finds the mystical part of Avicennist doctrine to be congenial, and teaches that God can be found in the self.  The illumined soul can become so filled with light that for a moment it becomes that light; it can be given a foretaste of the beatific vision.  These are quite strikingly illuminist doctrines, which do not just witness to a fusion of Avicennism with Latin Christianity, but very particularly with Cistercian spirituality.  It is not surprising that Cistercians, some of whom had spent the 12th century educating well-read and dedicated monks in mystical techniques,[47] should have welcomed the illuminist teachings that came with the new Avicennist scholarship.

It makes sense that Platonist scholars, like Gundissalinus, should have appreciated the more metaphysical and pantheist aspect of Avicennism, while Cistercians, like Johannes Toletanus, concentrated on its more mystical and illuminist teaching.



[1] R.W. Southern: Humanism and the school of Chartres (B.59) passim; P.Dronke: New Approaches… (B.59) passim.  These like-minded thinkers have sometimes been called the ‘Chartres school’ of Platonism, – in the sense of a school of thought, – because of their contacts with each other and with Thierry.  This must not, of course, be confused with the cathedral school at Chartres.
[2] E.Jeauneau: Glosae… (B.62) p.20 & pp.22-23, and Un représentant du platonisme… (B.61) p.7.
[3] Hermetic writings are discussed in the section entitled POSSIBLE SOURCES.
[4] T. Silverstein: Elementatum… (B.60) pp.156-161. 
[5] Fons Vitae (S.26).
[6] Avicenna is known to Western Europe at first for his Qanūn on medicine, and his Shifā’ on philosophy; the parts of the latter that had been translated by the early 13th century were: introduction, part 1, books 2&5, all on logic; extracts from part 2, books 1&5, on gen. science, mineralogy and meteorology; part 2, book 6, on the soul; and part 4, on metaphysics.
[7] Believed by the Arabs to be a book by Aristotle, it describes a great scale of being, goodness, knowledge and power, stretching from the First Cause or First Being, which is eternal, un-compounded unity, down to the world of temporality, multiplicity and relative being, through the usual Neoplatonic hierarchy of being, intelligence, soul and nature.  The more something approaches unity and simplicity, the closer it is to the eternal, and the more powerful and perfect it is.  See Liber de Causis (S.48) chap.8, pp.172-3; and chap.16, p.179.
[8] G.Bülow (B.71) pp.105-6.
[9] Kitāb al-hadā’iq tr. M.Asín Palacios: Ibn al-Sīd… (B.92) chap.7, pp.147-152.
[10] “fluxus vitae”: De Immortalitate Animae (S.40) pp.33-34.
[11]  ibid. p.19.
[12] ibid. p.7.
[13] ibid. pp.12-18 and pp.22-23.
[14] ibid. pp.37-38.
[15] This is known, because it was used in the Sentences of Robert de Melun, who died in 1167; see R.M.Martin: L’immortalité… (B.72) pp.133-8.
[16] M.T.d’Alverny: Notes sur les traductions… (B.69) pp.342-4.
[17] C.Baeumker: Les écrits philosophiques… (B.71) pp.744-5 (“nous trouvons chez lui une tendance mystique”).
[18] This is probably confirmed by a mistake in the Latin translation: ‘thing’ for ‘cause’; because both are ‘cosa’ in Spanish: M.T.d’Alverny in Millénaire d’Avicenne (B.72) p.133.
[19] F.Gabrielli (B.68) pp. 854-5; but it needs to be read in conjunction with M.T. d’Alverny: Notes sur les traductions… (B.69) pp.342-5 and Avendauth? (B.70) pp.32ff.
[20] As studied in the piece on Platonism and the ‘form of being’, in the section POSSIBLE SOURCES.
[21] P.Correns (B.71) pp.14-38.
[22] Gundissalinus: De Unitate (S.33) p.3: “Non solum autem unitate una est, sed etiam tamdiu est, quidquid est, id quod est quamdiu in se unitas est.”
[23] ibid. p.3: “quidquid est, ideo est, quia unum est”, quoting Boethius: In Porphyrium, 1:1.
[24] ibid. p.7. This is similar to Fons Vitae, 2:27.
[25] ibid. p.4: “Quapropter sicut unitate res ad esse ducitur, sic et unitate in illo esse custoditur.”
[26] ibid. p.4. This is similar to Fons Vitae, 5:44.
[27] ibid. p.8: “hoc lumen in quidusdam est clarius, in quibusdam vero obscurius, prout materia, cui infunditur, fuerit clarior vel obscurior.  Quo enim materia fuerit sublimior, fit subtilior et penetratur tota a lumine; et ideo substantia ipsa fit sapientior et perfectior, sicut intelligentia et rationalis anima.”
[28] D.A.Callus (B.73) pp.339-341; E.Gilson’s introduction to J.T.Muckle (B.73) pp.24-29.
[29] The name appears as ‘Collectanus’ in some editions: this is an error, found only in the printed editions; it is not found in any of the original MSS, according to D.A.Callus (B.73) p.339.
[30] “Ioannes Toletanus archiepiscopus in libro suo de anima” in Vaux: Notes et textes (B.72) p.143.
[31] Vaux op.cit. pp. 143-5;  G.Théry: Tolède… (B.67) p.147.
[32] G.Théry: Tolède… (B.67) p.147; R. de Vaux: Notes et textes… (B.72) pp.144-5.
[33] Johannes Toletanus (attrib.): Tractatus de Anima (S.46) chap.10, pp.84-6, (compare Avicenna : De Anima, 1:5)
[34] ibid. chap.10, p.88 (compare Avicenna: De Anima, 5:15).
[35] ibid. chap.10, pp.95-6 (compare Avicenna: De Anima, 5:6).
[36] In fact, this comes from Chalcidius’ translation of Plato’s Timaeus, 51e.  See Muckle (B.73) p.99.
[37] Johannes Toletanus (attrib.): Tractatus de Anima (S.46) chap.10, pp.98-99: “Sicut autem per intellectum scientia sic sapientia per intelligentiam acquiritur, quae secundum Boethium paucorum admodum hominum est et solius Dei.  Intelligentia enim est altior oculus animae quo se vel Deum et aeterna contemplando speculatur.”
[38] ibid. chap.10, p.99.
[39] ibid. chap.10, p.99, quoting from Psalm 35:10 in the Latin Vulgate Bible (A.V: Ps. 36: 9): “Ex qua intelligentia sic irradiata et ex luce irradiante, illa mentis illuminatio divinitatis cognitio, veritatisque perfectio nascitur, quae est vera sapientia. De qua propheta dicit: ‘Domine in lumine tuo videbimus lumen’.”
[40] Ibid. chap.10, p.100: “Nam cum ad contemplandum Deum anima rationalis per intelligentiam ascendit ad ipsum lumen inaccessibile proxime accedit.  Inter quam et Deum quoniam iam tunc nihil inter est.”
[41] Ibid. chap.10, p.100.  He could have added, – but did not, – that in being eaten, the object becomes, in a way, one with the subject.
[42] In Cant. Cant. 85:8; see E.Gilson: Les sources… (B.72) p.90.
[43] Bernard of Clairvaux: Of Conversion, chap.13, tr. W.Williams (B.36) p.36, quoting from Psalm 33:9 in the Latin Vulgate Bible (or A.V.: Ps.34:8)
[44] Johannes Toletanus (attrib.) : Tractatus de Anima (S.46) chap.10, p.101: “clausis carnalibus sensibus”… “mentem suam repleat divinis sensibus et coelestibus formis”… “in secreto cordis sibi soli loqui et Deo.”
[45] ibid. chap.10, p.101: “ex ipsius lumine semper lumen accipiens instar quoddam futurae beatitudinis iam in semetipso praeferat.”
[46] ibid. chap.10, p.102-3.
[47] See the pieces on Cistercian mystics in the section entitled POSSIBLE SOURCES.

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