Secretum secretorum is a medieval treatise also known as Secret of Secrets, or The Book of the Secret of Secrets, or in Arabic Kitab sirr al-asrar, or the Book of the science of government: on the good ordering of statecraft. It is a mid-12th century Latin translation of a 10th century Arabic encyclopedic treatise on a wide range of topics, including statecraft, ethics, physiognomy, astrology, alchemy, magic and medicine. It was influential in Europe during the High Middle Ages.
The origins of the treatise are uncertain. No Greek original exists, though there are claims in the Arabic treatise that it was translated from the Greek intoSyriac and from Syriac into Arabic by a well-known 9th century translator, Yahya ibn al-Bitriq. It appears, however, that the treatise was actually composed originally in Arabic. The treatise also contains supposed letters from Aristotle to Alexander the Great, and this may be related to Alexander the Great in the Qur’an and the wider range of Middle Eastern Alexander romance literature.
As for its date of origin, we cannot say with certainty whether the section on physiognomy was circulating in Arabic before AD 940: A manuscript now in the British Library (OIOC, MS Or. 12070) supposed to have been copied in 941 by one Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn Durustawayh of Isfahan which contains a physiognomy similar to the one in the Sirr al-asrar (Secret of Secrets) is probably a 20th century forgery. More safely, we may assume that a form of the text must have existed after the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-safa’ were composed and before the time Ibn Juljul was writing, quite surely in the late 10th century AD.
The Arabic version was translated into Persian (at least twice), Ottoman-Turkish (twice), Hebrew (and from Hebrew into Russian), Castilian and Latin.
There are two Latin translations from the Arabic, the first one dating from around 1120 by John of Seville for the a Portuguese queen (preserved today in some 150 copies), the second one from circa 1232 by Philippus Tripolitanus (preserved in more than 350 copies), made in the Near East (Antiochia). It is this second Latin version that was translated into English by Robert Copland and printed in 1528.
The Latin Secretum secretorum was eventually translated into Czech, Russian, Croatian, Dutch, German, Icelandic, English, Catalan, Castilian, Portuguese, French, Italian and Welsh.
There is another book called “Kitab al-asrar” (Book of Secrets) on practical technical recipes, classification of mineral substances, description of the alchemical laboratory, etc. by Abu Bakr Muhammed ibn Zakariya al-Razi. A Latin translation appears in Europe as Liber secretorum. This is a completely separate book entirely and is a common source of confusion because of the same names and similar subject matter and time period. In addition it is distinctly different from a treatise on physiognomy with the title Kitab fi al-firasah attributed to Aristotle and said to have been translated into Arabic in the 9th century by Hunayn ibn Ishaq.
Secrets of Secrets takes the form of a pseudoepigraphical letter supposedly from Aristotle to Alexander the Great during his campaigns in Persia. The text ranged from ethical questions that faced a ruler to astrology and magical/medical properties of plants, gems, numbers, and a strange account of a unified science, of which only a person with the proper moral and intellectual background could discover. An enlarged version appearing in the 13th century includes some alchemical references and an early version of the tabula smaragdina (the Emerald Tablet). The Arabic treatise is preserved in two forms: a long version of 10 books and a short version of 7 or 8 books, preserved in a total of about fifty copies.
It was one of the most widely-read texts of the High Middle Ages, or even “the” most-read. Medieval readers took the ascription to Aristotle as authentic and treated this work among Aristotle’s genuine works. Roger Bacon cited the Secretum in own his works more often than his contemporaries, and even produced one manuscript with his own introduction and notes, something rather unusual for him to do with others’ works. Although it is generally accepted that the Secretum held a special place in Bacon’s world, more dashing proposals like that of early 20th century medievalist Robert Steele—claiming that Bacon’s contact with Secretum was the key event pushing Bacon towards experimentalism—have been regarded with skepticism in more recent reevaluations.
Scholarly attention to the Secretum waned around 1550 but lay interest has continued to this day in particular with devotées of the Occult. Scholars today see it as a window onto medieval intellectual life: it was used in a variety of scholarly contexts, and had some part to play in the scholarly controversies of the day.
The Secret of secrets, or in Latin Secretum or Secreta secretorum is a translation of the Arabic Kitab sirr al-asrar, fully the Book of the science of government, on the good ordering of statecraft. It takes the form of a letter supposedly from Aristotle (and considered as such by medieval readers) to Alexander during his campaign in Persia. This text is taken from Robert Copland’s printed edition of 1528, a copy of which resides in Cambridge University Library.
For this edition all spellings have been left as in the original with the following changes made for easier reading:
1) y, where it represents ‘thorn’, has been transcribed as ‘th’;
2) the letters u, v, and j have been deployed according to modern usage. (The original text uses v as a variant of u wherever it occurs at the beginning of a word, and does not use j save as a flourish at the end of Roman numerals such as .viij.)
A few obvious typographical errors have also been corrected.
For a scholarly edition of this text, as well as eight other versions of the Kitab sirr al-asrar, see M. A. Manzalaoui, Secretum secretorum: nine English versions, Vol. 1, Early English Text Society No. 276, Oxford University Press (1977).
This text is in the public domain.