Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980–1037)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Thomas Davidson (1840–1900)
ABU ALI AL ’HUSAIN ABDALLAH IBN SINA, known to the Western world as Avicenna, the greatest of Eastern Muslim philosophers and physicians, was born A.D. 980 at Afshena, near Kharmaithan, in the province of Bokhara. His father, a Persian, was for a time governor of Kharmaithan, but later settled at Bokhara, where Ibn Sina, an extremely precocious child, was reared with great care. At the age of ten he knew the Koran by heart, and had studied law and grammar. The elements of philosophy he learnt from a private tutor, Abu Abdallah Natili. While still a mere boy he went to the famous school of Bagdad, where he studied successively mathematics, physics, logic, metaphysics, and finally—under a Christian—medicine. At the age of seventeen he had already gained such a reputation that he was called to the sick-bed of Nu’h ibn Mansûr, King of Bokhara. Having effected a cure, he was richly rewarded by the King, and allowed free access to the palace library, which enabled him to satisfy his thirst for knowledge. The library having been burnt up some time after, he was accused of setting it on fire in order to obtain a monopoly of knowledge. At the age of twenty-two, having lost both his patron and his father, and being unpopular in Bokhara, he left that city and wandered about for several years, finally settling at Jorjân, where, having been presented with a house, he opened a school and gave lectures. At the same time he began to write his great medical work, the ‘Kanûn’ (Canon). Becoming uncomfortable at Jorjân, he removed to Hamadân (Ecbatana), whose king, Shems ed-Daula, made him wasîr. In this position he again became unpopular, possibly on account of his opinions; so much so that the soldiers seized him, and but for the strenuous intervention of the King would have put him to death. Having remained in laborious retirement for some time, he was recalled to court as physician to the crown prince. Here he composed his great philosophic cyclopædia, the ‘Shefâ.’ His life at this time was very characteristic, being divided between study, teaching, and reveling. Every evening he gave a lecture, followed by an orgy continued far into the night. Shems ed-Daula having died, Ibn Sina fell into disfavor with his successor through entering into correspondence with his enemy the Prince of Ispahan, and was imprisoned in a fortress for several years. Finally escaping from this, he fled to Ispahan, where he became attached to the person of the prince, accompanying him on his various expeditions. Having resumed his double, wasteful life, he soon wore out his body, whose condition he aggravated by the use of drastic medicines. Feeling himself at last beyond remedies, he repented, distributed alms, and died at Hamadân a good Muslim, in July 1037, at the age of fifty-seven. He left a brief biography of himself. A longer one was written by his pupil Jorjâni.  1
  Ibn Sina was a complex, versatile character, leading a double life,—that of the patient, profound student and thinker, and that of the sensual worldling,—and perishing in the attempt to combine the two. He seems a combination of Bacon, Bruno, and Goethe, with the best and worst traits of all three. He appears among the mighty in Dante’s Limbo.  2
  WORKS.—His literary activity was prodigious. He wrote over a hundred treatises, covering all branches of knowledge, and in such a masterly way as fairly to deserve his title, the Supreme Teacher (Sheikh ar-raïs). His chief productions are:—(i.) The ‘Kanûn,’ a medical work of enormous bulk, dealing with man as part of the organism of the world, and comprising all the medical knowledge of the time. It was translated into Latin in the twelfth century, and into Hebrew in the thirteenth; and was for several hundred years the chief medical authority in the civilized world. (ii.) The ‘Shefâ’ (Healing), an encyclopædia of philosophic sciences in eighteen volumes. The subjects are distributed under four heads: (1) Logic, (2) Physics, (3) Mathematics, (4) Metaphysics. This work, in the original, exists almost entire in the Bodleian Library, but it is little known as a whole. Parts of it were translated into Latin in the twelfth century, and into Hebrew in the thirteenth, and exercised a powerful influence on the schoolmen, as well as on Arab and Hebrew thinkers. In 1495, 1500, and 1508 there appeared at Venice a collection of these, including (1) Logic, (2) Sufficiency, (Physics!) (3) On Heaven and Earth, (4) On the Soul, (5) On Animals, (6) On Intelligences, (7) On Intelligences, (by Al Fârâbî!) (8) On Metaphysics. Other portions of the ‘Shefâ’ have appeared at different times under different titles. (iii.) The ‘Najâh,’ an abridgment of the ‘Shefâ,’ omitting the mathematical part. (iv.) ‘On Oriental Philosophy,’ that is, mysticism; a work frequently referred to by Western Arab writers and by Roger Bacon, but now lost. (v.) A poem, ‘On the Soul,’ translated by Hammer-Purgstall in the Vienna Zeitschrift für Kunst, 1837. There exists no complete edition of Ibn Sina’s works; the most complete bibliography is to be found in Brockelmann’s ‘Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur’ (Wiemar, 1899).  3
  PHILOSOPHY.—Valentine Rose’s verdict, “Plotinus and Aristotle, that is the whole of Arab philosophy,” is not quite true of the philosophy of Ibn Sina. As in life, so in thought, the Persian Muslim tried to combine two utterly incompatible things: in the latter, Muslim orthodoxy with Neo-Platonic, emanational Aristotelianism, or even with Persian and Hindu mysticism. To the orthodox he wished to appear orthodox; to the philosophers, a philosopher of the popular, Aristotelian sort; and to the Mazdeans, a Mazdean mystic,—being in reality it seems the last. Like Scotus Erigena and others, he believes that revelation, being a mere anticipation of philosophy for the benefit of the masses, must be interpreted by philosophy in accordance with the laws of reason. His chief merit as a philosopher is that he makes clear and systematic what Aristotle had left dark and confused; and this he does chiefly through Neo-Platonic conceptions. Accepting from Aristotle the classification of Being into necessary, actual, and possible, he spreads it over his geocentric universe, and classifies the sciences according to it. At the summit of this universe is the necessary Being, God, the subject of Metaphysics; at the other end are sublunary things, merely possible, the subject of Physics; and between the two are things possible made necessary by the first cause, and therefore actual,—the spheres and their moving intelligences, the subject of Mathematics, i.e., Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Mechanics, Optics (cf. Dante, ‘Banquet,’ ii. 14, 15). He seeks to combine the Aristotelian doctrine of the (derived) eternity of matter and the world with Neo-Platonic emanationism, holding the latter to be a timeless process. The Supreme Being being one, can produce but one thing, the First Intelligence or Word; but this, having a triple consciousness, (1) of God, (2) of its own actuality, (3) of its own possibility, produces by the first, the Second Intelligence; by the second, the first spheral soul; and by the third, the first moving sphere, as the body to this soul. This process goes on, producing ever greater and greater multiplicity, until the sphere of the moon is reached (cf. Dante, ‘Paradise,’ ii. 112 seq.). Here is produced finally the “active intellect” (see Aristotle, ‘De Anima,’ iii. 5, 1), and the physical world with its manifold souls, including the human. The human soul is not actually, but merely potentially intelligent, being dependent for actual thought upon the “active intellect,” which is thus the same for all men; just as the sun is the same for all colors. In the sublunary world prevails generation, whose function is to prepare souls for the action of the “active intellect.” This action, like that of the spheral intelligences, is not physical, but like that which a beloved object exerts upon a lover (see Aristotle, ‘Metaph.’ xi. 7: 1072b 3). Hence there prevails throughout the universe not only an outward action from God down to the lowest extremity of being, but also an inward return action, due to love, up to God (see Dante, ‘Paradise,’ i. 103 seq.). This is the Ma’âd (sometimes translated Resurrection, Hereafter!), which plays so important a part in subsequent thought, giving the practical formula for mysticism. Through love, any soul may rise above sublunary matter from sphere to sphere, until at last it loses itself in the superessential unity of God,—the Nirvana of Buddhism (cf. Dante, ‘Paradise,’ as a whole). Though holding these pantheistic emanational views, Ibn Sina maintains the immortality of the individual soul; a fact hardly due to deference for Muhammad, since in spite of him he pointedly denies the resurrection of the body and maintains the freedom of the will. How he reconciled the latter view with his belief in sphere influences is hard to see.  4
  Ibn Sina’s general view of the world and of man’s relation to it is on the whole Neo-Platonic. In logic he follows Aristotle and Al Fârâbî, but champions a conceptualist doctrine of universals. He is the author of the favorite scholastic maxim, “It is the intellect that gives universality to the forms of thought” (Intellectus in formis agit universalitatem). In Psychology he gives definiteness and system to the doctrines of Aristotle, and has some original views, e.g., on the psychology of prophecy. He thinks that whereas man generally derives his knowledge from the phantasms of the senses, as illuminated by the “active intellect,” in certain extraordinary cases the process is reversed. Then the “active intellect,” under the influence of God, rouses phantasms, and these are the stuff of prophecy (see Dante, ‘Purgatory,’ xvii. 13 seq.).  5
  The influence of Ibn Sina upon the thought of the Middle Age, among Arabs, Jews, and Christians alike, was wide and deep. Men like Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, while cursing Ibn Rushd (Averroës), spoke of Ibn Sina with respect, perhaps because he maintained the immortality of the soul. Yet he was bitterly attacked on all sides: by the Muslim orthodox Al Gazâlî and heterodox Ibn Rushd, by the Jewish Maimonides, and by Christian thinkers generally. Especially obnoxious were his doctrines of (1) the eternity of the world, which conflicted with the orthodox notions of creation, and (2) the unity of the “active intellect,” which seemed to preclude the freedom and responsibility of man. It was against these, especially as formulated by Ibn Rushd, that the chief efforts of scholasticism in its best period were directed. And though these efforts were formally successful, yet the influence of the great Persian remained and remains. It may be said that Dante’s great poem is soaked in it, and it had much to do with the great heretical movements of the Middle Age, from the days of Joachim of Floris onward. It lives even to-day.  6

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.