History of Philosophy in Islam, by T.J. de Boer , at sacred-texts.com
1. Abu Ali al-Hosain ibn Abdallah ibn Sina (Avicenna) was born at Efshene in the neighbourhood of Bokhara, in the year 980, of a family connected with the public service. He received his secular and religious education at home, where Persian and anti-Muslim traditions were still full of life and vigour. Then the youth, precocious alike
in body and in mind, studied philosophy and medicine in Bokhara. He was seventeen years old when he had the good fortune to cure the prince, Nukh ibn Mansur, and to obtain the privilege of access to his library. Front that time forward he was his own teacher, in scientific research and in practice, and proved able to turn to account the life and culture of his time. He kept continually venturing his fortunes in the political working of the smaller States: Probably he could never have submitted to a great prince, any more than to a teacher in Science. He wandered on from court to court, at one time employed in State-Administration, at another as a teacher and author, until he became vizir of Shems Addaula in Hamadan. After the death of this prince he was consigned to prison by his son, for some months. He then proceeded farther afield, to the court of Ala Addaula in Ispahan. And at last, having returned to Hamadan, which Ala Addaula had conquered, he died there in 1037, at the age of 57; and there his grave is pointed out to this day.
2. The notion that Ibn Sina pushed on beyond Farabi and reached a purer Aristotelianism, is perhaps the greatest error which has found a footing in the history of Muslim Philosophy. What did this our man of the world in reality care for Aristotle? It was not his concern to commit himself wholly to the spirit of any system. He took what was to his liking, wherever he found it, but he had a preference for the shallow paraphrases of Themistius. Thus he became the great philosopher of accommodation in the East, and the true forerunner of compendium-writers for the whole world. He knew how to group with skill his material, collected as it was from every quarter,.
and to present it in an intelligible form, although not without sophistry. Every moment of his life was fully employed. In the daytime he attended to State affairs or gave instruction to his pupils: the evening was devoted to the social enjoyments of friendship and love; and many a night found him engaged in composition, pen in hand, and goblet within reach lest he should fall asleep. Time and circumstances determined the direction of this activity. If at the prince's court he had the requisite leisure, and a library at hand, he wrote his Canon of Medicine or the great Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. While travelling, he composed epitomes and smaller works. In prison he wrote poems and pious meditations, but always in a pleasing form; in fact his smaller mystical writings have a poetic charm about them. When commissioned to do so, he put even Science, Logic and Medicine into verse,--a practice which came more and more into vogue from the tenth century onwards. Add to this that he wrote Persian and Arabic at will, and you get the picture of a most accomplished man. His life was superabundantly rich both in work and in enjoyment. In geniality, of course he was inferior to his older compatriot, the poet Firdausi (940-1020), and in scientific talent to his contemporary Beruni (v. infra § 9), men still of importance in our eyes. Ibn Sina, however, was the true expression of his time; and upon this fact have been founded his great influence and historic position. He did not, like Farabi, withdraw from common life to become immersed in the commentators of Aristotle, but he blended in himself Greek science and Oriental wisdom. Enough commentaries, he thought, had already been written on the ancient authors: it was now
time for men to construct a philosophy of their own,--in other words, to give a modern form to the ancient doctrines.
3. In Medicine Ibn Sinn gives diligent endeavour to produce a systematic account of that science, but here he proves by no means an exact logician. He assigns a large place, at least theoretically, to Experience, and describes in detail the conditions under which alone, for example, the efficacy of remedies can be ascertained. But the philosophical principles which are involved in Medicine, must be taken over in the form of lemmas from Philosophy itself.
Philosophy proper is divided into Logic, Physics and Metaphysics. In its entirety it embraces the science of all Existence as such, and of the principles of all the separate sciences, whereby, as far as is humanly possible, the Soul which is devoted to philosophy, attains the highest perfection. Now Existence is either spiritual, when it is the subject of Metaphysics, or corporeal, when it is discussed in Physics, or intellectual, when it forms the theme of Logic. The subjects of Physics can neither exist, nor be thought of as existing, without Matter. The Metaphysical, however is quite devoid of Matter; while the Logical is an abstraction from the Material. The Logical has a certain likeness to the Mathematical, in so far as the subjects of Mathematics may also be abstractions from matter. But yet the Mathematical always remains capable of being represented and constructed, while on the other hand the Logical, as such, has its existence only in the intellect, as, for instance, Identity, Unity and Plurality, Universality and Particularity, Essentiality and Contingency, and so on. Consequently Logic
is the Science of the Determinate Forms of Thought.
In the more detailed treatment of his subject Ibn Sina conforms entirely to Farabi's Logic. This agreement would perhaps be more apparent to us, if the logical works of his predecessor were extant in a more complete form. He frequently lays stress on the defectiveness of the intellectual constitution in man, which is urgently in need of a logical rule. Just as the physiognomist infers from the external features the character of the nature within, so the logician is called upon to derive from known premises that which is unknown. How easy it is for the errors of appearance and desire to insinuate themselves into a process of that kind! A struggle with Sense is required in order that the life of representation may be elevated to the pure truth of the Reason, through which any knowledge of a necessary kind is gained. The divinely-inspired man, but he alone, can dispense with Logic, precisely as the Bedouin is independent of an Arabic Grammar.
The question of Universals is also treated in a manner similar to that which is adopted by Farabi. Prior to any plurality, every thing has an existence in the Mind of God and of the Angels (the Sphere-Spirits); then as material form it enters upon plurality, to be raised finally in the intellect of man to the universality of the Idea. Now just as Aristotle has distinguished between First Substance (Individual) and Second Substance (cogitable as a Universal), so Ibn Sina similarly makes a distinction between First and Second Notion or Intention (Ma‘nâ, intentio). The First is referred to the things themselves, the Second to the disposition of our own thought.
4. In Metaphysics and Physics Ibn Sina is differentiated
from Farabi chiefly through the fact that, by not deriving Matter from God, he places the Spiritual at a higher elevation above all that is Material, and in consequence heightens the importance of the Soul as an intermediary between the Spiritual and the Corporeal.
From the conception of the Possible and the Necessary, the existence of a Necessary Being plainly follows. According to Ibn Sina we should not seek to demonstrate the existence of a Creator from his works, but rather should deduce, from the possible character of all that is, and all that is thinkable in the world, the existence of a First and Necessary Being, whose essence and existence are one.
Not only is every sublunary thing of a 'possible' nature, but even the heavens are, in themselves, merely 'possible'. Their existence becomes 'necessary' through another existence which transcends all 'possibility' and therefore all plurality and mutability. The 'absolutely Necessary' is an unbending Unity, from which nothing multiplex can proceed. This first One is the God of Ibn Sina, of whom many attributes may of course be predicated, such as thought &c., but only in the sense of negation or relation, and in such a way that they do not affect the Unity of his essence.
Out of the first One accordingly,--One only can proceed, viz.,--the first World-Spirit. It is in this latter Spirit that Plurality has its origin. In fact by thinking of its own Cause, it generates a third Spirit, the governor of the outermost Sphere; when again, it thinks of itself, a Soul is produced, by means of which the Sphere-Spirit exercises its influence; and, in the third place, inasmuch as it is in itself a 'possible' existence, there emerges from it
a Body, viz., the outermost Sphere. And so the process goes on: Every Spirit, thus generated, except of course the last of the series, liberates from itself a trinity,--Spirit, Soul and Body; for, since the Spirit cannot move the Body directly, it needs the Soul to bring its effectiveness into operation. Finally comes the Active Spirit (‘aql fa‘‘âl), closing the series, and generating no farther pure (separate) Spirit, but producing and directing the material of what is earthly, as well as corporeal forms and human souls.
The whole of this process,--which is not to be represented as occurring in time, takes place in a substratum,--that of Matter. Matter is the eternal and pure possibility of all that exists, and at the same time the limitation of the operation of the Spirit. It is the principle of all individuality.
Now this teaching must certainly have presented a dreadful appearance to believing Muslims. Mutazilite dialecticians had doubtless asserted that God can do nothing evil, and nothing irrational; but now Philosophy was maintaining that, God instead of being able to do all that is possible is only in a position to effect that which is in its own nature possible, and that only the first World-Spirit proceeds from him directly.
As for the rest Ibn Sina makes every endeavour to conform to the popular belief. Everything exists, he says, through God's appointment, both the Good and the Evil, but it is only the former that meets with his glad approval. Evil is either a non-existent thing, or,--in so far as it proceeds from God,--an accidental thing. Suppose that He, to avoid the evils which of necessity cling to the
world, had kept it from coming into being,--that would have been the greatest evil of all. The world could not be better or more beautiful than it actually is. The Divine Providence, administered as it is by the Souls of the Heavens, is found in the world's fair order. God and the pure Spirits know the Universal only, and therefore are unable to attend to the Particular; but the Souls of the celestial Spheres, to whose charge falls the representation of what is individual, and through whom Spirit acts upon Body, render it possible to admit a providential care for the individual thing and the individual person, and to account for revelation, and so on. Farther, the sudden rise and disappearance of substances (Creation and Annihilation), in contrast to the constant movement,--that is, the gradual passing of the Possible into the Actual,--seem to Ibn Sina to indicate nothing impossible. In general, there is a predominant want of clearness in his views regarding the relation of the forms of Existence,--Spirit and Body, Form and Matter, Substance and Accident. A place at all events is left for Miracle. In passionate forms of excitement in the Soul, which often generate in ourselves great heat or cold, we have, according to Ibn Sina, phenomena analogous to miraculous effects produced by the World-Soul, although it usually follows the course of Nature. Our philosopher himself, however, makes a very moderate use of any of these possibilities. Astrology and Alchemy he combated on quite rational grounds; and yet soon after his death astrological poems were attributed to him; and in Turkish Romance-Literature he appears as a magician, of course to represent an ancient Mystic.
Ibn Sina's theory of Physics rests entirely on the assumption
that a body can cause nothing. That which causes,--is in every case a Power, a Form, or a Soul, the Spirit operating through such instrumentality. In the realm of the Physical there are accordingly countless Powers, the chief grades of which, from the lower to the higher, are--the Forces of Nature, the Energies of Plants and Animals, Human Souls and World-Souls.
5. Farabi was above all things interested in pure Reason: he loved Thinking for its own sake. Ibn Sina, on the other hand, is concerned throughout with the Soul. In his Medicine it is man's Body which he looks to; and similarly, in his Philosophy his eyes are fixed on man's Soul. The very name of his great Philosophical Encyclopaedia is--'The Healing' (that is--of the Soul). His system centres in Psychology.
His theory of human nature is dualistic. Body and Soul have no essential connection with one another. All bodies are produced, under the influence of the stars, from the mingling of the Elements; and in this way the human body also is produced, but from a combination in which the finest proportion is observed. A spontaneous generation of the body, just like the extinction and restoration of the human race, is therefore possible. The Soul, however, is not to be explained from such mixture of the Elements. It is not the inseparable Form of the body, but is accidental to it. From the Giver of Forms, that is--from the Active Spirit over us, every Body receives its own Soul, which is adapted to it and to it alone. From its very beginning each Soul is an individual substance, and it develops increasing individuality throughout its life in the body. It must be admitted that this does not agree
with the contention that Matter is the principle of individuality. But the Soul is the "infant prodigy" of our philosopher. He is not a credulous man, and he often cautions us against too ready an acceptance of mysteries in the life of the Soul; but still he has the art himself of relating many things about the numerous wonderful powers and possible influences of the Soul, as it wanders along the highly intricate pathways of life, and crosses the abysses of Being and Not-Being.
The speculative faculties are the choicest of all the powers of the Soul. Acquaintance with the world is conveyed to the rational soul by the External and Internal Senses. In particular a full account is given by Ibn Sina of his theory of the Internal Senses, or the sensuous-spiritual faculties of representation, which have their seat in the brain.
Medical Philosophers commonly assumed three Internal Senses or stages of the representative process: 1. Gathering the several sense-perceptions into one collective image in the fore part of the brain; 2. Transforming or remodelling this representation of the general Sense, with the help of representations already existing, thus constituting apperception proper, in the middle region; 3. Storing up the 'apperceived' representation in the Memory, which was held to reside in the hinder part of the brain. Ibn Sina, however, carries the analysis somewhat farther. He distinguishes in the anterior portion of the brain the Memory of the Sensible,--or the treasure-house of the collective images,--from the General or Co-ordinating Sense. Farther, he makes out Apperception,--the function of the middle region of the brain,--to be in part brought about unconsciously,
under the influence of the sensible and appetent life, as is the case also with the lower animals, and, on the other hand, to take place in part consciously, with the co-operation of the Reason. In the first case the representation preserves its reference to the individual thing,--thus the sheep knows the hostility of the wolf,--but in the second case, the representation is extended to the Universal. Then, in the hinder part of the brain, the Representative Memory, or store-house of the representations formed by combined Sensuous Impression and Rational Reflection, follows as a fifth power. In this way five Internal Senses 1 correspond to the five External Senses, although with quite another reference than the five Internal Senses of the Faithful Brethren. The question which is raised--as to whether one should farther separate Recollection, as a special faculty, from Memory,--remains unanswered.
6. At the apex of the intellectual powers of the Soul stands the Reason. There is indeed a Practical Reason also, but in its action we have been only multiplying ourselves mediately: On the other hand, in Self-Consciousness, or the pure recognition of our essential nature, the unity of our Reason is directly exhibited. But instead of keeping down the lower powers of the Soul, the Reason lifts them up, refining Sense-Perception, and generalizing Presentation. Reason, which at first is a mere capacity for Thought, becomes elaborated gradually,--in that Material which
is conveyed to it by the external and internal senses,--into a finished readiness in Thought. Through exercise the capability becomes reality. This comes about through the instrumentality of experience, but under guidance and enlightenment from above,--from the 'Giver of the Forms', who as Active Spirit imparts the Ideas to the Reason. The Soul of man, however, does not possess any memory for the pure ideas of Reason, for memory always presupposes a corporeal substratum. As often then as the Rational Soul comes to know anything, that knowledge flows to it on each occasion from above; and thinking Souls do not differ in the range and contents of their knowledge, but in the readiness with which they put themselves in communication with the Spirit over us, in order to receive their knowledge.
The Rational Soul, which rules over that which is under it, and comes to know the higher by means of the enlightenment given by the World-Spirit, is then the real Man,--brought into existence, but as unmixed essence, as individual substance, indestructible, immortal. On this point the clearness of Ibn Sina's teaching marks it off from that of Farabi; and, since his time, the assumption of the individual immortality of the human Souls, which have come into being, is regarded in the East as Aristotelian, and the opposite doctrine as Platonic. Thus a better understanding prevails between his philosophy and the accepted religion. The human body and the whole world of sense furnish the Soul with a school for its training. But after the death of the body, which puts an end to this body for ever, the Soul continues to exist in a more or less close connection with the World-Spirit. In this union with the
[paragraph continues] Spirit over us,--which is not to be conceived as a complete unification,--the blessedness of the good, 'knowing' souls consists. The lot of the others is eternal misery; for just as bodily defects lead to disease, so punishment is the necessary consequence of an evil condition of Soul. In the same way too, the rewards of Heaven are apportioned according to the degree of soundness or rationality which the Soul has attained in its life on earth .The pure Soul is comforted amidst the sufferings of Time by its prospect of Eternity.
The highest is of course, reached only by a few; for on the pinnacle of Truth there is no room for the many; but one presses forward after another, to reach the source of the knowledge of God, welling forth on its lonely height.
7. To express his view of the Human Reason, Ibn Sina employs and explains poetical traditions,--a favourite proceeding in the Persian literature. First and foremost our interest is awakened by the allegorical figure of Hai ibn Yaqzan. It represents the ascent of the Spirit out of the Elements, and through the realms of Nature, of the Souls, and of the Spirits, up to the throne of the Eternal One. Hai presents himself to the philosopher in the form of an old man with an air of youth about him, and offers his services as guide. The wanderer has been striving to reach a knowledge of Earth and Heaven, by means of his outer and inner senses. Two ways open out before him, one to the West, the way of the Material and the Evil, the other to the Rising Sun, the way of Spiritual and ever-pure Forms; and along that way Hai now conducts him. Together they reach the well of Divine wisdom, the fountain of everlasting youth, where beauty is the curtain of beauty, and light the veil of light,--the Eternal Mystery.
Hai ibn Yaqzan is thus the guide of individual, thinking Souls: he is the Eternal Spirit who is over mankind, and operates in them.
A similar meaning is found by our philosopher in the frequently remodelled late-Greek legend of the brothers Salaman and Absal. Salaman is the World-Man, whose wife (i.e., the World of the Senses) falls in love with Absal, and contrives by a stratagem to wile him into her arms. But before the decisive moment, a flash of lightning comes down from heaven, and reveals to Absal the wantonness of the action which he had nearly committed, and raises him from the world of sensual enjoyment to that of pure spiritual contemplation.
In another passage the soul of the philosopher is compared to a bird, which with great trouble escapes from the snares of the earth, traversing space in its flight, until the Angel of Death delivers it from the last of its fetters.
That is Ibn Sina's Mysticism. His soul has needs, for which his medicine-chest provides no resource, and which the life of a court cannot satisfy.
8. The theoretical development of Ethics and Politics may be left to the teachers of the 'fiqh'. Our philosopher feels himself on the level of a inspired person, exalted like a God above all human laws. Religious or Civil Law is binding only on the Many. Mohammed's object was, to civilize the Bedouins; and, in order to aid in accomplishing that object, he preached, among other doctrines, that of the Resurrection of the Body. They would never have understood the meaning of purely spiritual blessedness; and so he had to educate them by setting before them the prospect of bodily pleasure or pain. As for the Ascetics,--notwithstanding
their willingness to renounce entirely the world and the senses,--they chime in with this sensuous multitude (whose worship of God consists in the observance of outward forms), in respect that they practise their works of piety with an eye to a reward also, even though it be a heavenly one. Higher than the many or the pious stand those who truly worship God in spiritual love, entertaining neither hope nor fear. Their peculiar possession is Freedom of the Spirit.
But this secret should not be revealed to the multitude; and the philosopher confides it only to his favourite pupils.
9. In the course of his travels Ibn Sina met with many of the learned men of his time; but it would appear that these interviews did not give rise to any enduring intimacies. Just as he feels indebted to Farabi alone, of all those who preceded him, so the only persons of his own day, whom he sees fit to thank, are the princes who patronized him. He criticized unfavourably Ibn Maskawaih (v. IV, 3), whom he met with still more frequently. With Beruni, his superior in research, he conducted a correspondence, but it was soon broken off.
Beruni (973-1048) deserves a short notice here, to illustrate the character of the time, although Kindi and Masudi have a better claim to be called his masters, than Farabi and the younger Ibn Sina. He was particularly occupied in the study of Mathematics, Astronomy, Geography and Ethnology; and he was a keen observer and a good critic. For many a solution of his difficulties, however, he was indebted to Philosophy; and he continually bestowed attention upon it, as one of the phenomena of civilization.
Beruni brings into striking prominence the harmony which exists between the Pythagorean-Platonic philosophy, Indian wisdom, and many of the Sufi views. No less striking is his recognition of the superiority of Greek Science, when compared with the attempts and performances of the Arabs and the Indians. 'India', he says, 'not to mention Arabia, has produced no Socrates: there no logical method has expelled phantasy from science'. But yet he is ready to do justice to individual Indians, and he quotes with approval the following, as the teaching of the adherents of Aryabhata: "It is enough for us to know that which is lighted up by the sun's rays. Whatever lies beyond, though it should be of immeasurable extent, we cannot make use of; for what the sunbeam does not reach, the senses do not perceive, and what the senses do not perceive, we cannot know".
From this we may gather what Beruni's philosophy was: Only sense-perceptions, knit together by a logical intelligence, yield sure knowledge; And for the uses of life we need a practical philosophy, which enables us to distinguish friend from foe. He doubtless did not himself imagine that he had said all that could be said on the subject.
10. From the school of Ibn Sina, we have had more names handed down, than we have had writings preserved. Djuzdjani annexes to his Autobiography an account of the life of the master. And, farther, we have one or two short metaphysical treatises by Abu-l-Hasan Behmenyar ibn al-Marzuban, which are nearly in complete agreement with the system of his teacher. But Matter appears to lose somewhat of its substantiality: as Possibility of Existence it becomes a relation of thought.
According to Behmenyar, God is the pure, uncaused Unity of Necessary Existence,--not the living, all-producing Creator. True enough, He is the cause of the world, but the effect is given necessarily and synchronously with the cause; otherwise the cause would not be perfect, being capable of change. Essentially, though not in point of time, the existence of God precedes that of the world. Three predicates thus pertain to the highest existence, viz, that it is (1) essentially first, (2) self-sufficing, and (3) necessary. In other words God's essential nature is the Necessity of his Existence. All that can possibly be,--owes its existence to this Absolutely Necessary Being.
Now that is quite in harmony with the doctrines of Ibn Sina; and the same is the case with the disciple's scheme of the world and his doctrine of Souls. Whatever has once attained to full reality,--the various Sphere-Spirits according to their kind, Primeval Matter, and the individually different Souls of Men,--all lasts for ever. Nothing that is completely real can pass away, inasmuch as the completely real has nothing to do with mere possibility.
The characteristic of all that is spiritual is its knowledge of its own essential nature. Will is nothing else, in Behmenyar's opinion, than the knowledge of that which is the necessary outcome of that nature. Farther, the life and the joy of rational souls consist in self-knowledge.
11. Ibn Sina achieved a far-reaching influence. His Canon of Medicine was highly esteemed even in the West, from the 13th century to the 16th, and it is still the authority for medical treatment among the Persians of the present day. On Christian Scholasticism his influence was important.
[paragraph continues] Dante placed him between Hippocrates and Galen; and Scaliger maintained that he was Galen's equal in Medicine, and much his superior in Philosophy.
For the East he stood and yet stands as the Prince of Philosophy. In that region Neo-Platonic Aristotelianism continues to be known under the form which was given it by Ibn Sina. Manuscripts of his works abound,--an evidence of his popularity,--while commentaries on his writings, and epitomes of them, are countless. He was studied by physicians and statesmen, and even by theologians: It was only a few who went farther back and consulted his sources.
From the very first, of course, he had many enemies, and they were more noisy in their demonstrations than his friends. Poets cursed him: theologians either chimed in with him, or tried to refute him. And in Bagdad in the year 1150, the Caliph Mustandjid consigned to the flames Ibn Sina's writings, as part of a certain judge's philosophical library.
141:1 [Translator's note.--Accordingly Ibn Sina's Five Internal Senses are: 1. The General or Co-ordinating Sense; 2. Memory of the Collective sense-images; 3. Unconscious Apperception, referring to individuals; 4. Conscious Apperception, with generalization; 5. Memory of the higher apperceptions].