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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Solomon ibn Gabirol (Avicebron) (1021?–1058)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
AVICEBRON, or Avicebrol (properly Solomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol), one of the most famous of Jewish poets, and the most original of Jewish thinkers, was born at Cordova, in Spain, about A.D. 1028. Of the events of his life we know little; and it was only in 1845 that Munk, in the ‘Literaturblatt des Orient,’ proved the Jewish poet Ibn Gabirol to be one and the same person with Avicebron, so often quoted by the Schoolmen as an Arab philosopher. He was educated at Saragossa, spent some years at Malaga, and died, hardly thirty years old, about 1058. His disposition seems to have been rather melancholy.  1
  Of his philosophic works, which were written in Arabic, by far the most important, and that which lent lustre to his name, was the ‘Fountain of Life’; a long treatise in the form of a dialogue between teacher and pupil, on what was then regarded as the fundamental question in philosophy, the nature and relations of Matter and Form. The original, which seems never to have been popular with either Jews or Arabs, is not known to exist; but there exists a complete Latin translation (the work having found appreciation among Christians), which has recently been edited with great care by Professor Bäumker of Breslau, under the title ‘Avencebrolis Fons Vitæ, ex Arabico in Latinum translatus ab Johanne Hispano et Dominico Gundissalino’ (Münster, 1895). There is also a series of extracts from it in Hebrew. Besides this, he wrote a half-popular work, ‘On the Improvement of Character,’ in which he brings the different virtues into relation with the five senses. He is, further, the reputed author of a work ‘On the Soul,’ and the reputed compiler of a famous anthology, ‘A Choice of Pearls,’ which appeared, with an English translation by B. H. Ascher, in London, in 1859. In his poetry, which, like that of other mediæval Hebrew poets, Moses ben Ezra, Judah Halévy, etc., is partly liturgical, partly worldly, he abandons native forms, such as we find in the Psalms, and follows artificial Arabic models, with complicated rhythms and rhyme, unsuited to Hebrew, which, unlike Arabic, is poor in inflections. Nevertheless, many of his liturgical pieces are still used in the services of the synagogue, while his worldly ditties find admirers elsewhere. (See A. Geiger, ‘Ibn Gabirol und seine Dichtungen,’ Leipzig, 1867.)  2
  The philosophy of Ibn Gabirol is a compound of Hebrew monotheism and that Neo-Platonic Aristotelianism which for two hundred years had been current in the Muslim schools at Bagdad, Basra, etc., and which the learned Jews were largely instrumental in carrying to the Muslims of Spain. For it must never be forgotten that the great translators and intellectual purveyors of the Middle Ages were the Jews. (See Steinschneider, ‘Die Hebräischen Uebersetzungen des Mittelalters, und die Juden als Dolmetscher,’ 2 vols., Berlin, 1893.)  3
  The aim of Ibn Gabirol, like that of the other three noted Hebrew thinkers, Philo, Maimonides, and Spinoza, was—given God, to account for creation; and this he tried to do by means of Neo-Platonic Aristotelianism, such as he found in the Pseudo-Pythagoras, Pseudo-Empedocles, Pseudo-Aristotelian ‘Theology’ (an abstract from Plotinus), and ‘Book on Causes’ (an abstract from Proclus’s ‘Institutio Theologica’). It is well known that Aristotle, who made God a “thinking of thinking,” and placed matter, as something eternal, over against him, never succeeded in bringing God into effective connection with the world (see K. Elser, ‘Die Lehredes Aristotles über das Wirken Gottes,’ Münster, 1893); and this defect the Greeks never afterward remedied until the time of Plotinus, who, without propounding a doctrine of emanation, arranged the universe as a hierarchy of existence, beginning with the Good, and descending through correlated Being and Intelligence, to Soul or Life, which produces Nature with all its multiplicity, and so stands on “the horizon” between undivided and divided being. In the famous encyclopædia of the “Brothers of Purity,” written in the East about A.D. 1000, and representing Muslim thought at its best, the hierarchy takes this form: God, Intelligence, Soul, Primal Matter, Secondary Matter, World, Nature, the Elements, Material Things. (See Dieterici, ‘Die Philosophie der Araber im X. Jahrhundert n. Chr.,’ 2 vols., Leipzig, 1876–79.) In the hands of Ibn Gabirol, this is transformed thus: God, Will, Primal Matter, Form, Intelligence, Soul—vegetable, animal, rational, Nature, the source of the visible world. If we compare these hierarchies, we shall see that Ibn Gabirol makes two very important changes: first, he introduces an altogether new element, viz., the Will; second, instead of placing Intelligence second in rank, next to God, he puts Will, Matter, and Form before it. Thus, whereas the earliest thinkers, drawing on Aristotle, had sought for an explanation of the world in Intelligence, he seeks for it in Will, thus approaching the standpoint of Schopenhauer. Moreover, whereas they had made Matter and Form originate in Intelligence, he includes the latter, together with the material world, among things compounded of Matter and Form. Hence, everything, save God and His Will, which is but the expression of Him, is compounded of Matter and Form (cf. Dante, ‘Paradiso,’ i. 104 seq.). Had he concluded from this that God, in order to occupy this exceptional position, must be pure matter (or substance), he would have reached the standpoint of Spinoza. As it is, he stands entirely alone in the Middle Age, in making the world the product of Will, and not of Intelligence, as the Schoolmen and the classical philosophers of Germany held.  4
  The ‘Fountain of Life’ is divided into five books, whose subjects are as follows:—I. Matter and Form, and their various kinds. II. Matter as the bearer of body, and the subject of the categories. III. Separate Substances, in the created intellect, standing between God and the World. IV. Matter and Form in simple substances. V. Universal Matter and Universal Form, with a discussion of the Divine Will, which, by producing and uniting Matter and Form, brings being out of non-being, and so is the ‘Fountain of Life.’ Though the author is influenced by Jewish cosmogony, his system, as such, is almost purely Neo-Platonic. It remains one of the most considerable attempts that have ever been made to find in spirit the explanation of the world; not only making all matter at bottom one, but also maintaining that while form is due to the divine will, matter is due to the divine essence, so that both are equally spiritual. It is especially interesting as showing us, by contrast, how far Christian thinking, which rested on much the same foundation with it, was influenced and confined by Christian dogmas, especially by those of the Trinity and the Incarnation.  5
  Ibn Gabirol’s thought exerted a profound influence, not only on subsequent Hebrew thinkers, like Joseph ben Saddig, Maimonides, Spinoza, but also on the Christian Schoolmen, by whom he is often quoted, and on Giordano Bruno. Through Spinoza and Bruno this influence has passed into the modern world, where it still lives. Dante, though naming many Arab philosophers, never alludes to Ibn Gabirol; yet he borrowed more of his sublimest thoughts from the ‘Fountain of Life’ than from any other book. (Cf. Ibn Gabirol’s ‘Bedeutung für die Geschichte der Philosophie,’ appendix to Vol. i. of M. Joël’s ‘Beiträge zur Gesch. der Philos.,’ Breslau, 1876.) If we set aside the hypostatic form in which Ibn Gabirol puts forward his ideas, we shall find a remarkable similarity between his system and that of Kant, not to speak of that of Schopenhauer. For the whole subject, see J. Guttman’s ‘Die Philosophie des Salomon Ibn Gabirol’ (Göttingen, 1889).  6
 
 
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