Adelard of Bath: The Impact of Muslim Science
Preface to His Very Difficult Natural Questions, [D
odi Ve-Nechdi] c. 1137
Many texts of Greek science and philosophy were first translated
into Syriac, then Arabic, before becoming available in the Latin.
But Arab science was not only matter of conveying Greek ideas,
but was also open to Persian and Indian science, as well as its
own internal creativity. In some respects - for instance problems
arising from a belief in a personal creator God - Arab/Muslim
thinkerswere the first to deal with issues they had in common
with Christian and Jewish thinkers. The Englishman Adelard of
Bath (d. post 1142) was the first significant popularizer of Muslim
science in the West. He studies and then taught at schools in
France, and traveled throughout the Mediterranean. In particular
he introduced Euclid and aspects of astronomy.
As well as more technical treatises, he wrote Natural Questions - the selections here are from its preface and part of the
body - which expresses his fundamental belief that God should
not be invoked to explain what human knowledge can.
On my return the other day to England, in the reign of Henry [Henry
I, r. 1100-35-, son of William,-it was he who had long maintained
me abroad for the purpose of study-the renewal of intercourse
with my friends gave me both pleasure and benefit.
After the first natural inquiries about my own health and that
of my friends, my particular desire was to learn all I could about
the manners and customs of my own country. Making this then the
object of my inquiry, I learnt that its chief men were violent,
its magistrates wine-lovers, its judges mercenary; that patrons
were fickle, private men sycophants, those who made promises deceitful,
friends full of jealousy, and almost all men self-seekers: this
realised, the only resource, I said to myself, is to withdraw
my thoughts from all misery.
Thereupon my friends said to me, "What do you think of doing,
since you neither wish to adopt this moral depravity yourself,
nor can you prevent it?" My reply was "to give myself
up to oblivion, since oblivion is the only cure for evils that
cannot be remedied; for he who gives heed to that which he hates
in some sort endures that which he does not love." Thus we
argued that matter together, and then as we still had time left
for talking, a certain nephew of mine, who had come along with
the others, rather adding to the tangle than unraveling it, urged
me to publish something fresh in the way of Arabian learning.
As the rest agreed with him, I took in hand the treatise which
follows: of its profitableness to its readers I am assured, but
am doubtful whether it will give them pleasure. The present generation
has this ingrained weakness, that it thinks that nothing discovered
by the moderns is worthy to be received -the result of this is
that if I wanted to publish anything of my own invention I should
attribute it to someone else, and say, "Someone else said
this, not I." Therefore (that I may not wholly be robbed
of a hearing) it was a certain great man that discovered all my
ideas, not 1. But of this enough.
Since I have yielded to the request of my friends so far as to
write something, it remains for you to give your judgment as to
its correctness. About this point I would that I felt less anxiety,
for there is no essay in the liberal arts, no matter how well
handled, to which you could not give a wider range. Grant me,
therefore, your sympathy. I shall now proceed to give short answers
to questions put by my nephew.
Here begins Adelard's treatise to his Nephew.
ADELARD: You will remember, Nephew, how seven years ago when you
were almost a child in the learning of the French, and I sent
you along with the rest of my hearers to study with a man of high
reputation, it was agreed between us that I should devote myself
to the best of my ability to the study of Arabic, while you on
your part were to acquire the inconsistencies of French ideas.
NEPHEW: I remember, and all the more because, when departing,
you bound me under a solemn promise to be a diligent student of
The result was that I applied myself with great diligence to this
study. Whether what I have said is correct, the present occasion
will give you an opportunity of discovering; since when you have
often set them forth, 1, as hearer only, have marked the opinions
of the Saracens, and many of them seem to me quite absurd; I shall,
therefore, for a time cease to exercise this patience, and when
you utter these views, shall attack them where it seems good to
me to do so.
To me it seems that you go too far in your praise of the Arabs,
and show prejudice in your disparagement of the learning of our
philosophers. Our reward will be that you will have gained some
fruit of your toil; if you give good answers, and I make a good
showing as your opponent, you will see that my promise has been
ADELARD: You perhaps take a little more on you than you ought;
but as this arrangement will be profitable not only to you but
to many others, I will pardon your forwardness, making however
this one stipulation, that when I adduce something unfamiliar,
people are to think not that I am putting forward an idea of my
own, but am giving the views of the Arabs. If anything I say displeases
the less educated, I do not want them to be displeased with me
also: I know too well what is the fate which attends upon the
teachers of the truth with the common herd, and consequently shall
plead the case of the Arabs, not my own.
NEPHEW: Let it be as you will, provided nothing causes you to
hold your peace.
ADELARD: I think then that we should begin with lighter matters,
and if here I fail to give you a reasonable account, you will
know what to expect in more important subjects. Let us begin then
at the bottom, and so proceed upwards. . . .
ADELARD: It is a little difficult for you and me to argue about
animals. 1, with reason for my guide, have learned one thing from
my Arab teachers, you, something different; dazzled by the outward
show of authority you wear a head-stall. For what else should
we call authority but a head-stall? Just as brute animals are
led by the head-stall where one pleases, without seeing why or
where they are being led, and only follow the halter by which
they are held, so many of you, bound and fettered as you are by
a low credulity, are led into danger by the authority of writers.
Hence, certain people arrogating to themselves the title of authorities
have employed an unbounded licence in writing, and this to such
an extent that they have not hesitated to insinuate into men of
low intellect the false instead of the true. Why should you not
fill sheets of paper, aye, fill them on both sides, when to-day
you can get readers who require no proof of sound judgment from
you, and are satisfied merely with the name of a time-worn title?
They do not understand that reason has been given to individuals
that, with it as chief judge, distinction may be drawn between
the true and the false. Unless reason were appointed to be the
chief judge, to no purpose would she have been given to us individually:
it would have been enough for the writing of laws to have been
entrusted to one, or at most to a few, and the rest would have
been satisfied with their ordinances and authority. Further, the
very people who are called authorities first gained the confidence
of their inferiors only because they followed reason; and those
who are ignorant of reason, or neglect it, justly desire to be
called blind. However, I will not pursue this subject any further,
though I regard authority as matter for contempt. This one thing,
however, I will say. We must first search after reason, and when
it has been found, and not until then, authority if added to it,
may be received. Authority by itself can inspire no confidence
in the philosopher, nor ought it to be used for such a purpose.
Hence logicians have agreed in treating the argument from authority
not as necessary, but probable only. if, therefore, you want to
bear anything from me, you must both give and take reason. I am
not the man whom the semblance of an object can possibly satisfy;
and the fact is, that the mere word is a loose wanton abandoning
herself now to this man, now to that.
How the Globe Is Supported in the Middle of the Air
NEPHEW: . . . I will put the first question that comes into my
head: How is it that this earth of ours which supports all weights
(I am speaking not of simples, but of compounds), how is it that
it remains in the same place, or by what is it supported? If all
heavy bodies, such as stone, wood, etc., require support, and
cannot through their weight be supported by the air, then much
more does the earth, which is heavier than everything else put
together, require to be supported, nor can it be held in position
by so unstable a body as the air. Hence it is contrary to reason
that it should maintain its position.
ADELARD: Certainly it is inexpedient that it should fall, and
that we also shall not fall along with it. I will show that its
remaining in its position is in accordance with reason. From the
character of its primary qualities, we know that the earth has
weight; that which has weight is more secure in the lowest position;
and everything is naturally fond of that which preserves its life,
and tends towards that for which it has a liking. It follows therefore
that everything which is earthy tends towards the lowest possible
position. But in the case of anything round, it is clear that
the middle and the lowest are the same, and therefore all earthy
things tend towards the middle position. Now the middle position
is a simple and indivisible middle point, and it is therefore
clear that all earthy things tend towards a local and simple point.
But this local point is not several but one, and must necessarily
be occupied by one thing, not by several; but to it, as has been
said, all things tend: consequently each one thing presses on
something else, since all and sundry are hastening to the same
point. Now the point to which all weighty bodies are hastening
is that to which they are falling, for the fall of weighty bodies
is merely a hastening to a middle point. By the point to which
they are falling I mean the fixed middle point. The place to which
they are falling-the middle point -remains fixed; and therefore,
while falling into a stable position, they yet remain fixed, unless
some force be impressed on them as a result of which they are
diverted from their natural course. The very opposite then is
the case to what you thought; and you will now see clearly that
it is what you thought to be a reason for falling which gives
stability and coherence to heavy bodies. They are, therefore,
in some way sup ported by the point to which they are hastening;
and if it should move in any direction, all the things which are
affected towards it would also of necessity move, though of course
in that selfsame spot we have not the first but the second cause
of stability: for, in accordance with the reason previously given,
the first cause of this equilibrium is the property of the subject,
the second the stability of the point which it makes for.
From Adelard of Bath, Dodi Ve-Nechdi, ed. and trans. H. Gollancz, (London: Oxford University Press, 1920), pp. 91-92, 98-99, 137-138
This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.
Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.
(c)Paul Halsall Mar 1996