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Is Arabic Trickster Actually the Greek Philosopher Socrates?

death of socrates
Death of Socrates as represented in a painting exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of New York City. Credit: wallyg / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Socrates has remained one of the most fascinating characters in the history of philosophy, but did his heritage survive in popular Arab fables too?

Socrates is one of the most iconic thinkers of Western philosophy. His thought process was oral, and recounts of his life have survived through others’ writings, notably Plato’s. It is not a coincidence that Socrates did not actually put anything into writing. He never committed to any axiom, except human ignorance, and he created the thought process of “birthing” the truth. Socrates is the epitome of the wise fool.

In the ancient world, Greek philosophical schools were not just places where people exchanged ideas. Young men were molded in the process of thinking and speaking publicly.

Philosophical schools were full-fledged communities and sites of intellectual debate and exchange in Ancient Greece. This consisted of the schools themselves and their methods that were then passed on, as well as the rules and teachings of every single institution. For instance, there was a central focus on happiness in Epicureanism, while other schools of thought included the Socratic method and the Sophistic method.

In the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, many Greek philosophical ideas were unfortunately lost. Original texts and their translations have since been lost to the sands of time.

It was Arab culture that revived Socratic thought, however, during the Islamic Golden Age, a period of time which saw Baghdad as a cultural center of global Greek culture. This was at a time when Europe had lost much of its knowledge. The Abbasid Caliphate took Greek medicine, philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics and translated the original texts to use in navigation and music, building on that knowledge by putting it into practice.

golden age of islam ancient greek
A 13th century manuscript of an Arabic translation of the ancient Greek pharmacological text “De Materia Medica” by Dioscorides. Credit: Public Domain

During this time, intellectuals would meet for wine-based banquets in Baghdad with musicians very similar to hetaera. They had started adopting similar customs and created a lavish culture that produced many civilizational advances based on Greek technology, such as fountains and running hot water bathrooms.

Islamic Golden Age, a Renaissance of Greek Culture

Many comedies were produced in pure Greek taste, but they rather took the form of short stories that were read aloud at banquets. Arabic comedy was slightly different than the Greek style, although it was famously just as naughty. This society was not built around the tight-knit community of the city-state, but, as an empire, there were small gatherings of intellectuals at court.

It was thanks to the painstaking translation work undertaken by the Arabs that many Greek manuscripts survived. They were later translated from Arabic in medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Hence, figures like the one of the wise fool, similar to the child who exposes that the king is naked, are essential in society. And yet, they are marginalized and made fun of.

In Baghdad during the Middle Ages, these distinctly Greek ideas, which we now recognize as the cornerstones of Western philosophical thought, were widely accepted and circulated. It was at this moment that the figure of the poet was born.

Abu Nwas is a wise fool, the main character of a series of short stories that filtered down in Arabic and Ottoman tradition from this early medieval version. In different traditions, he is sometimes called Giuha (Arab), Giufà (Sicilian), Pulcinella (Naples), or Nasreddin (Turkish). The stories have become a part of common popular culture in different Mediterranean countries.

These are a lot more similar to Diogenes, in a way, as Giuha is famously a trickster, a contrarian, and often manages to fool the people he meets into thinking he is an idiot.

However, Abu Nwas is much more similar to Socrates. Although he was a poet, he is remembered for the great deal of stories that were written about his conversations. He later became a figure through which others wrote their own truths, such as Socrates and Diogenes. Many of the original manuscripts from this time have gone lost during several wars, and some are still stored in libraries in Iran but have not been digitalized and translated, possibly due to their being considered heretical.

Nwas was known for crashing parties to which he was not invited, often drinking much more than the others but never getting drunk, much like Socrates in The Symposium. At these symposiums, he creates interesting situations that reveal the silliness of mankind and its fallibility. He is described as a “microcosm” in a man.

Once, a man crashed another man’s party. “Who are you?’ the host asked him. “I’m the one who saved you the trouble of sending an invitation! he replied.”

Once a party-crasher walked in the house of a man who had invited a gathering of people. “Hey, you!” the man said. “Did I say you could come?” “Did you say I couldn’t come?” the party crasher replied.

A party-crasher walked into a gathering, and they said to him, “Nobody invited you!” “But if you didn’t invite me and I didn’t come,” he replied, “think how lonely that would be!” Everybody laughed at that, and they let him stay.

The difference between God and man is the tragedy and ignorance that distinguishes human fate. The truth cannot be pinpointed or recorded, but man can always hope to appeal to his own reason to catch glimpses of it because he is made in God’s image.

In this way, the man who is aware of his limitations is wise because he knows he can never escape his own foolishness. Overthinking and cerebral discussions like the ones of the Sophists—or other wise men in medieval Baghdad—are only meant to bring man astray of an essential truth that is already within him and that he will never be able to fully embody.

In a way, he is all of us. Socrates and Diogenes are two sides of the same coin. One is a wise fool, while the other is a trickster. Both are painfully aware of their condition as men, and their self-awareness makes them universal.

Socrates created a new method of teaching, for which he credited his mother. Just as her job was to birth children that were already there, Socrates modeled his method around bringing out ideas that were already in the mind of the people with whom he spoke. He appealed to a universal sense of human reason. His end is a cruel one, and he is often elevated as a martyr for intellectual honesty.

Hence, his story almost foreshadows the figure of Jesus Christ, when the philosopher martyrs himself for mankind’s stupidity. Plato is, after all, one of the cornerstone philosophers of early European Christian thought for a reason.

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