BMCR 2005.10.30

Averroes on Plato’s Republic. Translated, with an Introduction and Notes. Originally published in 1974. Agora paperback editions

, , Averroes on Plato's Republic. Agora paperback editions. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xxix, 176 pages).. ISBN 9780801471650 $16.95 (pb).

“The intention of this treatise is to abstract such scientific arguments attributable to Plato as are contained in the Republic by eliminating the dialectical arguments from it” (p. 3). So writes Averroes at the beginning of his Epitome of Plato’s Republic.

What has come down to us is a Hebrew translation of the Arabic, due to Samuel ben Judah of Marseilles, in the early fourteenth century. The Arabic original is lost, whereas the Hebrew translation is preserved in eight manuscripts of varying quality and completeness. Erwin Rosenthal edited the Hebrew text in 1956, with an English translation;1 the present book, which is a reprint, without modification, of the 1974 edition, contains only an annotated English translation, with introduction, notes, and some appendices. Lerner sometimes departs from Rosenthal’s edition (he based his translation on an older manuscript), but the texts are rather close (the main differences and textual problems are listed pp. 159-162).

Faced with such a book, a classicist might wonder what benefit he could gain from it: how could this book contribute to our knowledge of Plato’s views? Judging from some reactions to the first edition, half a century ago, of Alfarabi’s Compendium of Plato’s Laws,2 one may think that many will definitively answer in the negative. Since making a detailed presentation of the contents of Averroes’ Epitome would be outside the scope of a review of reasonable length, it seems that the reviewer has two main tasks: one is to give a short but accurate presentation of the present book, while assessing its worth; the other is to give good reasons for classicists to take a look at it. I will briefly answer these two questions, which are of course linked.

Lerner’s work is excellent. Judging from an Arabic retroversion of the Hebrew text,3 his translation is faithful and as clear as possible, given the density of the text. Lerner provides judicious references, and his notes are reasonable in number. The comparison with the Republic is made easy: when Averroes follows Plato’s text closely, the reference is indicated in margins. The introduction (pp. xiii-xxviii) is full of good sense; it is true that Lerner owes much to Straussian hermeneutics, but there is a great deal in the introduction that a reasonable non-Straussian should not contest. The gliding from “He (Plato) says” to “we say” and back again, for example, should be taken seriously, and Lerner is right to stress this point (p. xv). Nobody can dispute that Averroes at times speaks in his own name, and he often attempts to relate Plato’s analyses and examples to aspects of Islamic history, past and present.4

When Averroes doesn’t step back from the contents of the Republic to expound his own views, he sometimes repeats what Plato says, and sometimes he explains what Plato says or he paraphrases what Plato makes clear.5 However, he may also express his reservations more and less discreetly (for example p. 13, where Plato’s idea that the Greeks are the people most disposed to receive wisdom is deemed doubtful) and pass over in silence significant parts of the Republic, sometimes implicitly, sometimes deliberately, as for the whole of Books I and X (some reasons why Averroes occasionally departs from Plato’s text are sketched below).

This Epitome of the Republic is part of a larger project, a series of commentaries, of various lengths, on Aristotle’s works. The present paraphrase is thus a nice example of Averroes’ way of doing philosophy in commentary form. But Averroes was confronted with a serious problem about the political art: “The first part of this art [the political art] is in Aristotle’s book known as the Nicomachea and the second in his book known as the Governance [ Politics ] and also in this book of Plato’s that we intend to explain since Aristotle’s book on governance has not yet fallen into our hands” (p. 4).6 For Averroes, writing a commentary on Plato’s Republic is a second best. His original project required a commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, but since this book is unavailable, he turns to Aristotle’s master. Therefore, once he has treated, in a general manner, “the habits and volitional actions and conduct” in his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, he considers now, following Plato’s Republic, “how these habits are established in the souls, which habit is ordered to what other habit so that the resulting action from the intended habit may become as perfect as can be, and which habit hinders which other habit” (p. 4).

As an orthodox Aristotelian (and we should remember that, contrary to Aristotle, Plato was not particularly esteemed in the philosophical circles of Andalusia7), Averroes could have been disturbed by some of the teachings of the Republic — as is well known, Aristotle disagreed with Plato, for example concerning communism and the community of women among the guardians. One could have found it likely that Averroes would display the same kinds of reservations as the Philosopher. As a rule, it is true that what in Plato’s thought is not reducible to Aristotle is not of interest for Averroes (that is enough to explain his silence on Book X). In other words, what is demonstrable from an Aristotelian point of view is examined, what is not is, in the best cases, summed up, and in the worst, omitted. But there are some surprises, and not small ones. Some of Averroes’ reactions are striking: to get back to the examples cited above, he unflinchingly accepts Plato’s proposals regarding communism and the community of women (pp. 61ff).

To the eyes of a modern reader, some aspects of the book are rather unpleasant, like Averroes’ remarks about courage and war, which go far beyond Plato, and display an irritatingly bellicose flavour (p. 12); but others are quite pleasant, and manifest more insight, for example about women. Commenting upon Plato’s idea that women can be competent for guardianship and that it is the treatment they receive in erring cities which causes their alleged incompetence, Averroes remarks that “[Plato’s argumentation] is all self-evident” (p. 59).

In short, Averroes tries (and often manages) to keep together his strict adherence to Aristotelism, a sympathetic presentation of the political art displayed in Plato’s Republic, and his desire for political and theological reformation along the lines of Almohadism. He hopes that, if there were a succession of enlightened rulers, then the Muslim state of his time could become the virtuous Republic described by Plato (p. 102).

So far, so good: there are excellent reasons to read this text for a medievalist — it is, to be sure, a key in Medieval political philosophy — but is there something here especially valuable for the classicist?

In fact, Averroes’ Epitome of Plato’s Republic is inestimable evidence for anyone interested in the history of Platonism. Apart the commentary by Proclus, it is the most ancient commentary on the Republic still extant (the commentaries by Harpocration, Albinus, and Theon of Smyrna are lost). Of course, it is very different from Proclus’: it is the upshot of a subtle tradition of reading Plato with Aristotelian lenses (of which Alfarabi is perhaps, at least in the political field, the most gifted member), which deserves to be taken seriously, philosophically and historically. Moreover, this book is a first-rate witness regarding the transmission of Platonic philosophy to the Arabic world.

Indeed, whereas we can read many Medieval Arabic translations of Aristotle, not a single Arabic translation of a complete Platonic work has yet come down to us. Therefore, we do not know the kind of text Averroes had before him when he composed his work. Some of the discrepancies between his Epitome and the Republic may come from the translation he used: it could have been based on manuscript tradition other than the one we know, or it could have been sometimes faulty. But the discrepancies may have a much more radical reason: Averroes could have used, not a translation properly speaking, but an Arabic paraphrase or (more probably) an Arabic translation of a Greek paraphrase.

This last hypothesis remains to be proved,8 and one could perhaps advance a more cautious supposition: in addition to something more or less close to the full text of the Republic, the Commentator also used a paraphrase (and had in mind Alfarabi’s works). The author of this paraphrase is easy to identify: Galen, who is mentioned five times by Averroes (pp. 29, 45, 62, 63, 147), and not with sympathy. Galen had written various works on Platonic dialogues (on the Republic, the Laws, the Timaeus and the Parmenides), which we know to have been translated into Arabic.9 It is likely that Averroes knew (directly or through quotations) Galen’s summary of the Republic, and that he thought it appropriate to criticize it. However, Averroes’ dependence on Galen remains difficult to assess: maybe Galen is used only when he is mentioned, but maybe he is discreetly used in the whole book and is mentioned only when his heterodoxy toward Aristotle needs a response by Averroes.

All this, of course, needs further study. Averroes’ Epitome, apart from its philosophical worth is, without a doubt, essential evidence for tracing the transmission of Platonism in the Arabic world10 — transmission where Galen played a major role.


1. Averroes’ Commentary on Plato’s “Republic”, edited with an introduction, translation and notes by E. I. J. Rosenthal, University of Cambridge Oriental Publications, 1, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1956, reprinted with corrections, 1966, 1969.

2. Cf. Compendium Legum Platonis (Talkhîs nawâmîs Aflâtûn), edited by Francesco Gabrieli, London, Warburg Institute, 1952, and the assessment of S. M. Stern in his review of the book: “The present little “Compendium of the Laws” (…) gives an extremely imperfect rendering of the contents of [the Laws]”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 17, 1955, p. 398. The conclusion, of course, is that no insight about Plato’s thought could be drawn from it. To be sure, Alfarabi’s text is much more intricate and enigmatic than Averroes’. There is anyway a good reason to mention here Alfarabi’s Talkhîs, alongside Averroes’, since these two works constitute the only Medieval Arabic commentaries on Platonic dialogues. The Farabian influence on this Epitome is also patent.

3. See Ibn Rushd (Averroes), ad-Darûri fi s-siyâsa [sic]. Mukhtasar kitâb as-siyâsa li-Aflâtûn, Arabic retroversion from the Medieval Hebraic translation of the Paraphrase of Plato’s Republic, by M. Shahlan, Beirut, Markaz dirâsât al-wahdat al-‘arabiyya, 1998. See also Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Commentary on Plato’s Republic (Talkhîs as-siyâasa), translated into Arabic by H. M. al-‘Ubaidi and F. K. al-Thabi, Beirut, Dâr at-Talî’a, 2nd edition, 2002. Since Lerner’s first edition, German and Spanish translation have been published. Cf. Kommentar des Averroes zu Platons Politeia, herausgegeben und kommentiert von E. I. J. Rosenthal, ins Deutsche übersetz von Simon Lauer, mit einer Einleitung von Friedrich Niewöhner, Zürich, Spur, 1996; and Exposición de la “República” de Platón, estudios preliminar, trad. y notas de Miguel Cruz Hernández, Madrid, Tecnos, 5a, 1998.

4. On this point, Lerner’s annotation could perhaps have been more detailed, most notably concerning Averroes’ relations with the political program of the Almohad dynastic. See Dominique Urvoy, Averroès. Les ambitions d’un intellectuel musulman, Paris, Champs Flammarion, 1998, especially pp. 150-151.

5. Note that Averroes never mentions the participants in the dialogue; he only sets out the philosophical contents and arguments that can be drawn from its general economy.

6. Aristotle’s Politics (contrary to Averroes’ expectation) were never translated into Arabic. See Rémi Brague, “Note sur la traduction arabe de la Politique d’Aristote. Derechef, qu’elle n’existe pas”, in Aristote politique, édité par Pierre Aubenque, Paris, PUF, 1993, pp. 423-433.

7. See for example Maimonides’ letter to Samuel Ibn Tibbon: the writings of Plato are parables and are hard to follow; one can be spared the necessity of reading them since Aristotle’s writings are enough. Cf. A. Marx, “Texts by and about Maimonides”, Jewish Quaterly Review, N. S., 25, 1935, p. 378. Averroes is not far from Maimonides in criticizing the use of stories and dialectical arguments (pp. 148-149).

8. Note that Dimitri Gutas has argued that Alfarabi’s summary of Plato’s Laws was not a summary of the Laws properly speaking, but a summary of another summary, probably Galen’s Synopsis of Plato’s Laws. See his “Galen’s Synopsis of Plato’s Laws and Fârâbî’s Talkhîs“, in R. Kruk et G. Endress (eds), The Ancient Tradition in Christian and Islamic Hellenism, Leiden, l997, pp. 101-19. The matter is disputed. See contra Muhsin Mahdi, “The Editio princeps of Fârâbî’s Compendium Legum Platonis“, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 20, 1961, pp. 1-24 (particularly pp. 4-6) and Thérèse-Anne Druart, “Le Sommaire du Livre des “Lois” de Platon, édition critique et introduction”, Bulletin d’Etudes Orientales 50, 1998, pp. 112-113. Unfortunately, the manuscript evidence which permits this discussion is lacking in the case of Averroes’ Epitome.

9. See Hunain ibn Ishaq. Über die syrischen und Arabischen Galen-Übersetzungen, Arabic Text and German Translation by G. Bergsträsser, Leipzig, 1925.

10. One should mention the newly discovered Arabic translation of a very important passage from Plato’s Republic (Book VI, 506d3-509b10) found in the work entitled Kitâb fi Masâ’il al-umûr al-ilahiyyât (“Metaphysical Questions”) by Abu Hamid al-Isfizari. See David C. Reisman, “Plato’s Republic in Arabic: A Newly Discovered Passage”, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 14, 2004, pp. 263-300.