History of Philosophy in Islam, by T.J. de Boer , at sacred-texts.com
1. We have arrived at the point of time when the tenth century is passing into the eleventh. Farabi's school has apparently died out; and Ibn Sina,--destined to awaken into fresh life the philosophy of his predecessor,--is still a youth. Here however we have to make mention of a man, more allied, it is true, to Kindi than to Farabi, but who yet agrees with the latter in essential points, by reason of employing the same sources with him. He affords an instance also of the fact that the most sagacious minds of his time were not disposed to follow Farabi into the region of Logico-Metaphysical speculation.
This man is Abu Ali ibn Maskawaih, physician, philologist and historian, who was the treasurer and friend of the Sultan Adudaddaula, and who died full of years in 1030. Amongst other things he has left us a philosophical system of Ethics which up to this day is valued in the East. It is a combination of material taken from Plato, Aristotle, Galen and the Muslim Religious Law, although Aristotle predominates in it. It commences with a treatise on the Essential Nature of the Soul.
2. The Soul of Man, as Ibn Maskawaih explains, is a
simple, incorporeal substance, conscious of its own existence, knowledge and working. That it must be of a spiritual nature--follows from the very fact that it appropriates at one and the same time Forms the most opposed to each other, for example, the notions of white and black, while a body can only take up one of the two forms at a time. Farther, it apprehends both the forms of the Sensible and those of the Spiritual in the same spiritual manner, for Length is not 'long' in the soul, nor does it become 'longer' in the memory. Accordingly the knowledge and endeavour of the soul extend far beyond its own body: even the entire world of sense cannot satisfy it. Moreover it possesses an inborn rational knowledge, which cannot have been bestowed by the Senses, for it is by means of this knowledge that it determines the True and the False, in the course of comparing and distinguishing between the objects presented to it in Sense-Perception,--thus supervising and regulating the Senses. Finally, it is in Self-Consciousness, or knowing of its own knowing, that the spiritual unity of the soul is most clearly shewn,--a unity, in which thinking, that which thinks, and that which is thought--all coincide.
The human soul is distinguished from the souls of the lower animals particularly by rational reflection as the principle of its conduct, directed towards the Good.
3. That by which a Being, possessed of will, attains the end or the perfection of his nature is, in general terms, 'good'. A certain capability, therefore, or disposition, directed to an end is requisite, in order to be good. But as regards their capability men differ very essentially. Only a few,--Maskawaih thinks,--are by nature good, and
never become bad, since what is by nature, does not change; while on the other hand, many are by nature bad, and never become good. Others, however, who at first are neither good nor bad, are definitely turned either in the one direction or the other, through upbringing and social intercourse.
Now the Good is either a general good or a particular good. There is an absolute Good, which is identical with the highest Being and the highest knowledge; and all the good together strive to attain to it. But for every individual person a particular Good presents itself subjectively under the aspect of Happiness or Pleasure; and this consists in the full and active manifestation of his own essential nature,--in the complete realisation of his inmost being.
Speaking generally,--Man is good and happy, if he acts as Man: Virtue is human excellence. But since humanity is presented as occupying different levels in different individuals, Happiness or the Good is not the same for all. And because an individual man, if he were left to his own resources could not realize all the good things that might otherwise be obtained, it is necessary that many should live together. As a consequence of this condition, the first of duties, or the foundation of all the virtues, is a general love for humankind, without which no society is possible. It is only along with, and among other human beings that the individual man attains perfection;--so that Ethics must be Social Ethics. Friendship therefore is not, as Aristotle would have it, an expansion of Self-love, but a limitation of it, or a kind of love of one's neighbour. And this, like virtue in general, can find a field of exercise only in society, or in citizenship, and not in th e
pious monk's renunciation of the world. The hermit, who thinks he is living temperately and righteously, is deceived as to the character of his actions: they may be religious, but moral they certainly are not; and therefore the consideration of them does not belong to Ethics.
Besides, in Ibn Maskawaih's opinion, the Religious Law when rightly apprehended, pre-eminently accords with an Ethics of Benevolence. Religion is a moral training for the people. Its prescriptions, with regard to the worship of God in common and the pilgrimage to Mecca for instance, have plainly in view the cultivation of the love of one's neighbour in the widest acceptation.
In certain special points Ibn Maskawaih has not been successful in combining harmoniously the ethical doctrines of the Greeks,--which he incorporates in his Scheme,--either with one another or with the Law of Islam. That however we pass over; and in any case we ought not only to praise in general terms his attempt to give a system of Ethics which should be free from the casuistry of the Moralists and the asceticism of the Sufis, but also to recognize in the execution of his design the good sense of a man of wide culture.