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The Influence of Epicurean Thought on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The rubaiyat (quattrains) of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131 CE), familiar to us in five English translations by Edward FitzGerald (1st ed., 1859) is often regarded as among the finest verses in the English language. T. S. Eliot, generally acclaimed as the greatest poet of the Twentieth Century, said that he decided to become a poet after reading FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as an adolescent. There are echoes of some of the themes from the Rubaiyat in Eliot's first celebrated poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and some imitation of the Rubaiyat's distinctive rhyme scheme (aaba). FitzGerald was much in agreement with Omar Khayyam on the numerous themes contained in the Rubaiyat including: the meaning of life and death, the existence and nature of God, free will and predestination, and the problem of the existence of evil. The Rubaiyat covers a lot of the same ground as the materialist philosophy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341- 271 BCE). The thesis of this book is that Omar Khayyam's thinking, as reflected in his anonymous rubaiyat, is indebted to a philosophical tradition whose beginnings can be traced to the ancient Greek atomists Democritus and Leucippus (c. 5th cent. BCE) through Epicurus and other materialists such as the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 1st cent. BCE). From thence, this secular philosophy and the Greek sciences followed the conquests of Alexander to the Near East. Various Arab and Persian thinkers embraced the Epicurean philosophy in the medieval Islamic world including: al-Shahrastani (6th cent. CE), al-Rawandi (9th cent. CE), ar-Razi (9th cent. CE) and al-Maarri (11th cent. CE). Much of the discussion in this book is devoted to the striking similarities in the themes and poetics of al-Maarri (Syria) and Omar Khayyam (Persia) who lived in the next generation. In Khayyam's lifetime, under the influence of al—Ghazzali and his students, Islam became increasingly intolerant of Greek philosophy. As a result, Omar Khayyam was compelled to write his rubaiyat anonymously. This book explains the origins of what can be considered the world's first secular philosophy and follows its influence over time and around the world to Omar Khayyam in eleventh century Persia. In Khayyam's time, the Seljuq dynasty (Turks) had conquered all of the lands from Persia to the Mediterranean and was threatening the Byzantine Empire just before the start of the Crusades. The modern secular West is arguably tied to this thread in the history of philosophy through Epicureanism and FitzGerald's Rubaiyat. But that is another story.