Project: Travel of Ideas and Techniques

[su_quote cite=”Giuseppe Billanovich, 1987″ style=”modern-light”][su_frame][/su_frame]«Every day in the bus that took me from ‘uptown’ to ‘downtown’ New York, I saw many faces of every color rallying around me, and I thought that either we, the heirs of Western civilization, will be able within a few decades to propose as still valid the values of classical culture – literature, philosophy, art – (…) to the people of different origins and tradition, which have become more and more partakers of our lives, or that culture will be reduced to a fossil: no longer ruled by pastors of many souls, but only guarded by pious pallbearers in libraries and museums».[/su_quote]


Specialist knowledge in Antiquity, i.e. the knowledge of scientists and mathematicians as well as engineers, architects and physicians, deserves closer scrutiny. In science, perhaps even more than in any other field, the vicissitudes of the transmission of knowledge have narrowed the amount of the originally existing material to a tiny fraction. For the most ancient times, for instance in the West before the age of Plato (4th century BC), we often only have scraps of information. In some fields, such as those of ancient engineering or architecture, we know almost nothing about how technical knowledge was handed down from one generation to another, and the idea is widespread that this kind of knowledge was transmitted orally. Even about mathematics – for all its importance in every aspect of the life of the Ancients, from temple planning and building to music, theology and philosophy – we begin to have substantive information only starting from the end of the 4th century BC, and know next to nothing of the first paramount achievements and how they were obtained, such as for instance the birth of the fundamental notion of incommensurability.

For one field we have more information than for any other: medicine. In this case, we can handle a mass of material, but still it can’t bestressed enough how important it is to concern ourselves with convincing interpretations of the heterogeneous information that we have access to. First comes the traditional question, was scientific knowledge originally devised and conveyed in oral or in written form? Were handbooks available to the novice, or did the specialist write notes for himself and orally instruct his pupil? A second question follows: how was scientific knowledge circulated and transmitted, both horizontally and vertically, i.e. across different countries and civilizations, and from one generation to another? What was the role played by translations in knowledge transmission?


The thematic issue: A “look East” policy

After Cleopatra’s death in the 1st century BC Rome conquered Egypt and established itself as the new political and cultural centre. Greece was already a Roman province. Technology had by then reached its highest point, and this meant the possibility to make the results of science available for everyday life. At the same time, technical and scientific knowledge began to spread across the world. Manuscripts were copied, texts were translated. Cross-cultural contacts among different countries became a fundamental vehicle of fertilization. Cuneiform tablets had recorded the contacts between Greeks and Mesopotamians as far back as the 7th century BC; Egyptian texts were translated into Greek; Greek texts from then on would be regularly translated into Latin. Later on, from at least the 5th-6th century AD, the knowledge available in Greek and Latin began to be translated into Arabic and given new life. This was a paramount turning point. Arabic translations, whose height was reached in the 9th cent. AD with Ḥunain ibn Iṣhāq and his school and their translations of Greek medical texts, contributed to the spread and circulation of scientific knowledge, mainly of medicine and mathematics but also of philosophy and natural science.


Cross-cultural fertilization

Did such a cross-cultural fertilization also reach China? Chinese-Arab cultural and scientific contacts are attested with certainty since the 7th century BC. An eastward orientation runs through all the science of Islam. A few examples suffice. In the 9th century, a great medical work entitled Firdaus al-Ḥikmah (“The Garden of Wisdom”) was written, and it is remarkable that quotations from Indian physicians are intertwined with texts from Hippocrates, Galen and Dioscorides, which still require investigation. Fundamental contacts took place also in other fields of science. How did medical manuscripts reach Arabic scholars? And what happened to oriental texts? Towards the end of the 8th century, the astronomical work Sūrya Siddhānta was brought by an Indian scholar to Baghdad, where it was soon translated, thus contributing to the knowledge of Hindu numerals in the Mediterranean region. The production of the well-known Ibn Mūsa al-Khwārizmī, considered the greatest medieval work on algebra, also shares this trend. Geographical and historical accounts of India and China were written between the 10th and 13th century, and these also contained wide-ranging examinations of science. We should also mention the important work of the Persian physician Rashīd al-Dīn al-Hamdānī (13th cent.), which contains a great quantity of information on China, and an encyclopaedia of Chinese medicine which was written in the 14th century, concerning pulse theory, anatomy, embryology, gynaecology, pharmaceutics and other medical subjects.

As regards Greek medicine, we have a remarkable account that attests an eastward transmission. This is an isolated testimony, found in the Index of the Sciences (Fihrist al-‘ulūm) of Abū’ l-Faraj ibn Abū Ya‘qūb al-Nadīm, a bibliographical catalogue written in the 10th century, where a story concerning the great Persian physician and alchemist Rhazes can be read. He is told to have said: “A Chinese scholar came to my house, and remained in the town about a year. In five months he learnt to speak and write Arabic, attaining indeed eloquence in speech and calligraphy in writing. When he decided to return to his country, he said to me a month or so beforehand, ‘I am about to leave. I would be very glad if someone would dictate to me the sixteen books of Galen before I go’. I told him that he had not sufficient time to copy more than a small part of it, but he said, ‘I beg you to give me all your time until I go, and to dictate to me as rapidly as possible. You will see that I shall write faster than you can dictate’. So together with one of my students we read Galen to him as fast as we could, but he wrote still faster. We did not believe that he was getting it correctly until we made a collation and found it exact throughout.”

As J. Needham noted, “this fascinating glimpse of Arab-Chinese contact (…) strongly indicates, if it does not absolutely prove, that there was at least one translation of Galen into Chinese in the 10th century”. Although as yet no perceptible influence of Hellenistic medicine upon Chinese medicine has been found, and Chinese medicine remained faithful to its own distinct notions, it is beyond doubt that this kind of cross-cultural link should be investigated, on the one hand with the fascinating although remote chance of discovering some as-yet unidentified new source of information on Western medicine in Chinese translation, but also with the aim of a better understanding of the ways in which science was circulated and transmitted, and how such a fertilization exerted an influence on the transformation of knowledge. It would stimulate new directions of research into the history of ancient scientific culture. In order to achieve this, a network of scholars with different expertise is necessary, since no single specialist possesses the knowledge needed to master material from such different cultures and countries.