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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Spanish Arabs
By William Hickling Prescott (1796–1859)
From ‘Ferdinand and Isabella’

NOTWITHSTANDING the high advances made by the Arabians in almost every branch of learning, and the liberal import of certain sayings ascribed to Mahomet, the spirit of his religion was eminently unfavorable to letters. The Koran, whatever be the merit of its literary execution, does not, we believe, contain a single precept in favor of general science. Indeed, during the first century after its promulgation, almost as little attention was bestowed upon this by the Saracens as in their “days of ignorance,” as the period is stigmatized which preceded the advent of their apostle. But after the nation had reposed from its tumultuous military career, the taste for elegant pleasures, which naturally results from opulence and leisure, began to flow in upon it. It entered upon this new field with all its characteristic enthusiasm, and seemed ambitious of attaining the same pre-eminence in science that it had already reached in arms.  1
  It was at the commencement of this period of intellectual fermentation that the last of the Omeyades, escaping into Spain, established there the kingdom of Cordova; and imported along with him the fondness for luxury and letters that had begun to display itself in the capitals of the East. His munificent spirit descended upon his successors; and on the breaking up of the empire, the various capitals, Seville, Murcia, Malaga, Granada, and others, which rose upon its ruins, became the centres of so many intellectual systems, that continued to emit a steady lustre through the clouds and darkness of succeeding centuries. The period of this literary civilization reached far into the fourteenth century, and thus, embracing an interval of six hundred years, may be said to have exceeded in duration that of any other literature ancient or modern.  2
  There were several auspicious circumstances in the condition of the Spanish Arabs which distinguished them from their Mahometan brethren. The temperate climate of Spain was far more propitious to robustness and elasticity of intellect than the sultry regions of Arabia and Africa. Its long line of coast and convenient havens opened to an enlarged commerce. Its numbers of rival States encouraged a generous emulation, like that which glowed in ancient Greece and modern Italy; and was infinitely more favorable to the development of the mental powers than the far-extended and sluggish empires of Asia. Lastly, a familiar intercourse with the Europeans served to mitigate in the Spanish Arabs some of the more degrading superstitions incident to their religion, and to impart to them nobler ideas of the independence and moral dignity of man than are to be found in the slaves of Eastern despotism.  3
  Under these favorable circumstances, provisions for education were liberally multiplied; colleges, academies, and gymnasiums springing up spontaneously, as it were, not merely in the principal cities, but in the most obscure villages of the country. No less than fifty of these colleges or schools could be discerned scattered over the suburbs and populous plains of Granada. Seventy public libraries are enumerated in Spain by a contemporary, at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Every place of note seems to have furnished materials for a literary history. The copious catalogues of writers still extant in the Escurial show how extensively the cultivation of science was pursued, even through its minutest subdivisions; while a biographical notice of blind men eminent for their scholarship in Spain proves how far the general avidity for knowledge triumphed over the most discouraging obstacles of nature.  4
  The Spanish Arabs emulated their countrymen of the East in their devotion to natural and mathematical science. They penetrated into the remotest regions of Africa and Asia, transmitting an exact account of their proceedings to the national academies. They contributed to astronomical knowledge by the number and accuracy of their observations, and by the improvement of instruments and the erection of observatories, of which the noble tower of Seville is one of the earliest examples. They furnished their full proportion in the department of history; which, according to an Arabian author cited by D’Herbelot, could boast of thirteen hundred writers. The treatises on logic and metaphysics amount to one-ninth of the surviving treasures of the Escurial; and to conclude this summary of naked details, some of their scholars appear to have entered upon as various a field of philosophical inquiry as would be crowded into a modern encyclopædia.  5
  The results, it must be confessed, do not appear to have corresponded with this magnificent apparatus and unrivaled activity of research. The mind of the Arabians was distinguished by the most opposite characteristics, which sometimes indeed served to neutralize each other. An acute and subtile perception was often clouded by mysticism and abstraction. They combined a habit of classification and generalization with a marvelous fondness for detail; a vivacious fancy with a patience of application that a German of our day might envy; and while in fiction they launched boldly into originality, indeed extravagance, they were content in philosophy to tread servilely in the track of their ancient masters. They derived their science from versions of the Greek philosophers; but as their previous discipline had not prepared them for its reception, they were oppressed rather than stimulated by the weight of the inheritance. They possessed an indefinite power of accumulation, but they rarely ascended to general principles, or struck out new and important truths; at least this is certain in regard to their metaphysical labors.  6
  Hence Aristotle, who taught them to arrange what they had already acquired rather than to advance to new discoveries, became the god of their idolatry. They piled commentary on commentary; and in their blind admiration of his system, may be almost said to have been more of Peripatetics than the Stagirite himself. The Cordovan Averroës was the most eminent of his Arabian commentators, and undoubtedly contributed more than any other individual to establish the authority of Aristotle over the reason of mankind for so many ages. Yet his various illustrations have served, in the opinion of European critics, to darken rather than dissipate the ambiguities of his original, and have even led to the confident assertion that he was wholly unacquainted with the Greek language.  7
  The Saracens gave an entirely new face to pharmacy and chemistry. They introduced a great variety of salutary medicaments into Europe. The Spanish Arabs, in particular, are commended by Sprengel above their brethren for their observations on the practice of medicine. But whatever real knowledge they possessed was corrupted by their inveterate propensity for mystical and occult science. They too often exhausted both health and fortune in fruitless researches after the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone. Their medical prescriptions were regulated by the aspect of the stars. Their physics were debased by magic, their chemistry degenerated into alchemy, their astronomy into astrology.  8
  In the fruitful field of history their success was even more equivocal. They seem to have been wholly destitute of the philosophical spirit, which gives life to this kind of composition. They were the disciples of fatalism, and the subjects of a despotic government. Man appeared to them only in the contrasted aspects of slave and master. What could they know of the finer moral relations, or of the higher energies of the soul, which are developed only under free and beneficent institutions? Even could they have formed conceptions of these, how would they have dared to express them? Hence their histories are too often mere barren chronological details, or fulsome panegyrics on their princes, unenlivened by a single spark of philosophy or criticism.  9
  Although the Spanish Arabs are not entitled to the credit of having wrought any important revolution in intellectual or moral science, they are commended by a severe critic as exhibiting in their writings “the germs of many theories which have been reproduced as discoveries in later ages,” and they silently perfected several of those useful arts which have had a sensible influence on the happiness and improvement of mankind. Algebra and the higher mathematics were taught in their schools, and thence diffused over Europe. The manufacture of paper, which, since the invention of printing, has contributed so essentially to the rapid circulation of knowledge, was derived through them. Casiri has discovered several manuscripts on cotton paper in the Escurial as early as 1009, and of linen paper of the date of 1106; the origin of which latter fabric Tiraboschi has ascribed to an Italian of Trevigi, in the middle of the fourteenth century. Lastly, the application of gunpowder to military science, which has wrought an equally important revolution, though of a more doubtful complexion, in the condition of society, was derived through the same channel.  10
  The influence of the Spanish Arabs, however, is discernible not so much in the amount of knowledge, as in the impulse which they communicated to the long-dormant energies of Europe. Their invasion was coeval with the commencement of that night of darkness which divides the modern from the ancient world. The soil had been impoverished by long, assiduous cultivation. The Arabians came like a torrent, sweeping down and obliterating even the landmarks of former civilization, but bringing with it a fertilizing principle, which as the waters receded gave new life and loveliness to the landscape. The writings of the Saracens were translated and diffused throughout Europe. Their schools were visited by disciples, who, roused from their lethargy, caught somewhat of the generous enthusiasm of their masters; and a healthful action was given to the European intellect, which, however ill directed at first, was thus prepared for the more judicious and successful efforts of later times.  11
  It is comparatively easy to determine the value of the scientific labors of a people, for truth is the same in all languages; but the laws of taste differ so widely in different nations, that it requires a nicer discrimination to pronounce fairly upon such works as are regulated by them. Nothing is more common than to see the poetry of the East condemned as tumid, over-refined, infected with meretricious ornament and conceits, and in short, as everyway contravening the principles of good taste. Few of the critics who thus peremptorily condemn are capable of reading a line of the original. The merit of poetry, however, consists so much in its literary execution, that a person, to pronounce upon it, should be intimately acquainted with the whole import of the idiom in which it is written. The style of poetry, indeed of all ornamental writing, whether prose or verse, in order to produce a proper effect, must be raised or relieved, as it were, upon the prevailing style of social intercourse. Even where this is highly figurative and impassioned, as with the Arabians, whose ordinary language is made up of metaphor, that of the poet must be still more so. Hence the tone of elegant literature varies so widely in different countries,—even in those of Europe, which approach the nearest to each other in their principles of taste,—that it would be found extremely difficult to effect a close translation of the most admired specimens of eloquence from the language of one nation into that of any other. A page of Boccaccio or Bembo, for instance, done into literal English, would have an air of intolerable artifice and verbiage. The choicest morsels of Massillon, Bossuet, or the rhetorical Thomas, would savor marvelously of bombast; and how could we in any degree keep pace with the magnificent march of the Castilian! Yet surely we are not to impugn the taste of all these nations, who attach much more importance, and have paid (at least this is true of the French and Italian) much greater attention to the mere beauties of literary finish than English writers.  12
  Whatever may be the sins of the Arabians on this head, they are certainly not those of negligence. The Spanish Arabs, in particular, were noted for the purity and elegance of their idiom; insomuch that Casiri affects to determine the locality of an author by the superior refinement of his style. Their copious philological and rhetorical treatises, their arts of poetry, grammars, and rhyming dictionaries, show to what an excessive refinement they elaborated the art of composition. Academies, far more numerous than those of Italy, to which they subsequently served for a model, invited by their premiums frequent competitions in poetry and eloquence. To poetry, indeed, especially of the tender kind, the Spanish Arabs seem to have been as indiscriminately addicted as the Italians in the time of Petrarch; and there was scarcely a doctor in Church or State but at some time or other offered up his amorous incense on the altar of the Muse.  13
  With all this poetic feeling, however, the Arabs never availed themselves of the treasures of Grecian eloquence which lay open before them. Not a poet or orator of any eminence in that language seems to have been translated by them. The temperate tone of Attic composition appeared tame to the fervid conceptions of the East. Neither did they venture upon what in Europe are considered the higher walks of the art, the drama, and the epic. None of their writers in prose or verse show much attention to the development or dissection of character. Their inspiration exhaled in lyrical effusions, in elegies, epigrams, and idyls. They sometimes, moreover, like the Italians, employed verse as the vehicle of instruction in the grave and recondite sciences. The general character of their poetry is bold, florid, impassioned, richly colored with imagery, sparkling with conceits and metaphors, and occasionally breathing a deep tone of moral sensibility, as in some of the plaintive effusions ascribed by Condé to the royal poets of Cordova. The compositions of the golden age of the Abassides, and of the preceding period, do not seem to have been infected with the taint of exaggeration, so offensive to a European, which distinguishes the later productions in the decay of the empire.  14
  Whatever be thought of the influence of the Arabic on European literature in general, there can be no reasonable doubt that it has been considerable on the Provençal and the Castilian. In the latter especially, so far from being confined to the vocabulary, or to external forms of composition, it seems to have penetrated deep into its spirit, and is plainly discernible in that affectation of stateliness and Oriental hyperbole which characterizes Spanish writers even at the present day; in the subtilties and conceits with which the ancient Castilian verse is so liberally bespangled; and in the relish for proverbs and prudential maxims, which is so general that it may be considered national.  15
  A decided effect has been produced on the romantic literature of Europe by those tales of fairy enchantment so characteristic of Oriental genius, and in which it seems to have reveled with uncontrolled delight. These tales, which furnished the principal diversion of the East, were imported by the Saracens into Spain; and we find the monarchs of Cordova solacing their leisure hours with listening to their rawis, or novelists, who sang to them
  “Of ladye-love and war, romance, and knightly worth.”
  The same spirit, penetrating into France, stimulated the more sluggish inventions of the trouvère; and at a later and more polished period called forth the imperishable creations of the Italian Muse.  17
  It is unfortunate for the Arabians, that their literature should be locked up in a character and idiom so difficult of access to European scholars. Their wild, imaginative poetry, scarcely capable of transfusion into a foreign tongue, is made known to us only through the medium of bald prose translation; while their scientific treatises have been done into Latin with an inaccuracy which, to make use of a pun of Casiri’s, merits the name of perversions rather than versions of the originals. How obviously inadequate, then, are our means of forming any just estimate of their merits! It is unfortunate for them, moreover, that the Turks, the only nation which, from an identity of religion and government with the Arabs, as well as from its political consequence, would seem to represent them on the theatre of modern Europe, should be a race so degraded; one which, during the five centuries that it has been in possession of the finest climate and monuments of antiquity, has so seldom been quickened into a display of genius, or added so little of positive value to the literary treasures descended from its ancient masters. Yet this people, so sensual and sluggish, we are apt to confound in imagination with the sprightly, intellectual Arab. Both indeed have been subjected to the influence of the same degrading political and religious institutions, which on the Turks have produced the results naturally to have been expected; while the Arabians, on the other hand, exhibit the extraordinary phenomenon of a nation, under all these embarrassments, rising to a high degree of elegance and intellectual culture.  18
  The empire which once embraced more than half of the ancient world has now shrunk within its original limits; and the Bedouin wanders over his native desert as free, and almost as uncivilized, as before the coming of his apostle. The language which was once spoken along the southern shores of the Mediterranean, and the whole extent of the Indian Ocean, is broken up into a variety of discordant dialects. Darkness has again settled over those regions of Africa which were illumined by the light of learning. The elegant dialect of the Koran is studied as a dead language, even in the birthplace of the prophet. Not a printing-press at this day is to be found throughout the whole Arabian peninsula. Even in Spain, in Christian Spain, alas! the contrast is scarcely less degrading. A death-like torpor has succeeded to her former intellectual activity. Her cities are emptied of the population with which they teemed in the days of the Saracens. Her climate is as fair, but her fields no longer bloom with the same rich and variegated husbandry. Her most interesting monuments are those constructed by the Arabs; and the traveler, as he wanders amid their desolate but beautiful ruins, ponders on the destinies of a people whose very existence seems now to have been almost as fanciful as the magical creations in one of their own fairy tales.  19

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