Saturday, November 21, 2009

Al-Farabi: The reason we know about Aristotle

The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley is so good, it's probably the only book I want with me on the desert island, and I'll be happily reading away, not noticing the circling sharks. Because it is so good, I would like to lift, whole-cloth, the following (it's also known as 'quoting,' but in this case, since I'm quoting a rather long section of the book, it can realistically be called 'stealing'):

"Al-Farabi, who lived from A.D. 87-950, was one of the "great medieval Islamic philosophers" responsible for translating Aristotle, Plato, and earlier philosophers we would have otherwise forgotten, from Ancient Greek into Arabic." [Note: This includes the Sophists, although Al-Farabi's emphasis was on Plato and Aristotle.]

"This tradition," Critchley continues, "was usually considered to have begun with Al-Farabi, known as the "Second Master" (second, that is, only to Aristotle). Avicenna, Averroes, and Moses Maimonides all acknowledge their debt to the Second Master, and many of his writings were translated into Latin.

Al-Farabi's fame rests largely on his commentaries on Aristotle, particularly his logical works, but also the Rhetoric and Poetics. But the word "commentary" has unfortunate connotations and understates the originality of Al-Farabi's philosophy. His work is an extraordinarily ambitious attempt to combine the logical rigour and empiricism of Aristotle with the more mystical intuition of the One in Plotinism and Neoplatonic thought.

The title of one of Al-Farabi's works from 900 makes this ambition plain: The Harmonization of the Opinions of the Two Sages, the Divine Plato and Aristotle. The goal of such a philosophical harmony cannot be separated from the more religious ambition of the salvation of the soul in the next life.

We do not know if Al-Farabi made it to the next life and we know very little about his life on earth. He was born in Turkestan, educated in Damascus and Baghdad and worked in Aleppo in northern Syria. According to one source, he died in Aleppo after a long trip to Egypt, but according to some medieval biographers he was violently murdered by highwaymen on the road from Damascus to Ashkelon."

This period in the history of philosophy is not as well known as it should be, and the importance of the Islamic world in transmitting Plato and Aristotle (amongst so many others) to the West is sadly underestimated.

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