Book of Morals of Philosophers

Sefer Musre Hafilosofim (Book of Morals of Philosophers), 13th -15th century, ink and opaque watercolor on parchment, Spain (The Hispanic Society of America, New York)

Additional resources:

Biography of Hunayn ibn Ishaq

The Iberian Peninsula, 1000-1400 C.E. from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Timeline of Art History

Definition of Sephardim from the Jewish Virtual Library


[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] I’m in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Dr. Ronnie Perelis, who has tremendous expertise in medieval Iberia, this period of transformation where three cultures are interacting in enormously complex ways — the Jews, the Muslims and the Christians.

Dr. Ronnie Perelis: [0:20] We’re looking at a Hebrew book. It’s a book based on an earlier Arabic source, it’s an anthology of philosophy.

Dr. Zucker: [0:26] So this a book in Hebrew, that is a copy of a book in Arabic, that was itself a translation of works that come from the classical world, that come from ancient Greece. This is ancient Greek philosophy making its way into the modern world.

Dr. Perelis: [0:40] Yes, and it was translated and put together and anthologized by a Nestorian Christian from the south of modern-day Iraq, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, who was a world-renowned doctor and translator of Greek text, who mastered — in addition to his Arabic and Syriac — Greek, and was able to translate all the great medical works, but also was interested in philosophy and theology.

[1:01] All these things were interconnected during this time period in the 9th century when the Muslim world was encountering the great works of Hellenism and realizing its power and usefulness in their everyday life.

Dr. Zucker: [1:13] It’s so interesting because, if I want to read Aristotle, I just go onto the Internet and I read Aristotle, but it’s really important to ask, why do we have Aristotle now? Why is it that, when so many ancient Greek temples, buildings of stone, are ruined, why would we have the fragile words on a page?

Dr. Perelis: [1:29] It’s remarkable. They were originally preserved in the monasteries of the Byzantine world, which fell into the hands of the Islamic conquerors who left Arabia after the death of Muhammad in 632. They enter these great urban centers, and instead of pillaging, instead of destroying, realized there’s a lot to be gained here from these cultural resources.

[1:49] Over time, there becomes a massive project of translation of Hellenic sources into Arabic, which becomes this international language, stretching from Iberia, which was conquered in early 8th century, all the way to India. We have this international language that people, wherever they are, can now read these texts.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] This book is not in Arabic. This book is in Hebrew. This book is made in Iberia, that is, what we would recognize as Spain and Portugal.

Dr. Perelis: [2:13] And it’s many centuries later. That book is originally from the 9th century and we are now in the 13th century. Much has changed. The Muslims conquered Iberia in 711 from the Visigoths, who were Christians, who took over from the Romans.

[2:26] With the conquest by the Muslims, we see the small Jewish community of Spain turn into, within a few centuries, one of the most important Jewish communities of the world. A place that produced many, if not the majority of the classic Jewish authors and thinkers of the medieval period.

[2:44] That culture was highly Arabized. These were Jews who were fully conversant in classical Arabic and through that were part of this larger Arabic culture.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] One can imagine how politically complicated that relationship must have been, and that there were times of toleration, but there were also times when Jews were not tolerated, but I’m imagining that the reason that the end date is the 15th century is because by 1492, the Jews were expelled.

Dr. Perelis: [3:09] Individuals weren’t allowed to own Hebrew books or books about Judaism after the expulsion for fear of you being a Judaizing Christian.

Dr. Zucker: [3:16] What I find fascinating is that what we’re really looking at here is Greek, but we’re looking at it through the lens of all of these surviving cultures.

Dr. Perelis: [3:23] Yes.

[3:23] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Ronnie Perelis and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Book of Morals of Philosophers," in Smarthistory, July 13, 2017, accessed May 18, 2024,