Ibn Gabirol, Solomon ben Judah (c. 1021–1058 or 1070)

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(c. 10211058 or 1070)

Solomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol was first mentioned by Sāʿd the Qadi of Toledo (c. 10291070), who claimed that ibn Gabirol lived in Saragossa, was a keen student of philosophy, especially logic, and died sometime around 1058 CE, after he had passed the age of thirty. The Andalusian Jewish poet Moses ibn Ezra (c. 10601139) claimed that ibn Gabirol was born in Malaga and reared in Saragossa and spent a short but fruitful life in the service of philosophy and poetry. The Jewish philosopher Abraham ibn Daud (c. 11101180) said that ibn Gabirol died in 1070, but 1058 is more generally accepted.

The tone of some of Ibn Gabirol's secular songs, gloomy and bitter, is sometimes considered an indication of his unhappy lotorphaned at an early age, poor, and ostracized by many of his contemporaries because of his irascible disposition and unorthodox philosophy. He did find some favor with Yequtiel ben Ishaq ibn Hasan, a veritable Maecenas, at the court in Saragossa, and later with his patron, Samuel ibn Nagrella, at the court of Zirid in Granada. Most, if not all, of this patronage seems to have resulted from his reputation as the greatest Jewish poet of his time in the West.

There are some 400 extant secular and religious poems attributed to ibn Gabirol. One, The Kingly Crown, has become a part of the Sephardic Jewish liturgy for the Day of Atonement. Its rhythmical, rhymed simplicity gives it a distinct biblical flavor. In this poem of forty stanzas, ibn Gabirol celebrated the divine attributes, the last of which is Will, so prominent in his philosophical work The Fountain of Life, and the wonders of creation, reminiscent of an Aristotelian-Ptolemaic worldview. He concluded with an Augustinian self-analysis, marked by confession, penitence, and supplication.

In addition to his work in poetry, an anthology of ethical and sapiential sayings, Choice of Pearls, is attributed to him, but its authenticity is doubted by some.

Ibn Gabirol's The Improvement of the Moral Qualities exists in one known Arabic text and four Hebrew versions, as well as in translations into other languages. The ethical aspect of Ibn Gabirol's philosophy is interesting because it appears to be an early, if not the first, attempt to systematize the basic principles of medieval Jewish ethics independently of religious dogma, ritual, or belief. The impulses of the human soul and how they can be trained to virtue or permitted to fall into vice are explained in relation to the five external senses, which are in turn explained by the four-element, or simple-body, theory of Aristotle. Stephen S. Wise claimed that "Gabirol's object is to establish a system of purely physio-psychological ethics." Certainly it is true that his interest was mainly in the animal rather than the rational soul. He emphasized the virtuous order that can be achieved in the external senses under the direction of the rational soul. In his treatment of the virtues and vices, Ibn Gabirol did refer to biblical writings, but in a superficial and summary way, as a support of his own allegorical-poetic viewpoint.

It was not until nearly the end of the first half of the nineteenth century that Salomon Munk showed conclusively that ibn Gabirol, the great Jewish poet, was the same man as Avicebron, the recognized author of The Fountain of Life. An examination of the abstracts translated into Hebrew from the original Arabic by Shem Tob Falaquera in the thirteenth century and attributed to ibn Gabirol showed substantial agreement with related passages of the Fons Vitae attributed to Avicebron by the twelfth-century translators John of Spain (Ibn Daud, Avendehut) and Dominic Gundissalin. In the text of The Fountain of Life are found references to two other works by ibn Gabirol, "The Treatise on Esse," Book 5.8, and the book of the Will, which is titled "Origo Largitatis et Causa Essendi," Book 5.40. Unfortunately, these works cannot be found or identified. They may constitute, with The Fountain, the three parts of Wisdom: knowledge of matter and form (The Fountain ), knowledge of Will (The Origo ), and knowledge of the First Essence (De Esse ). The Fountain is like the ethical work in its purely rational approach but differs in its complete lack of references to the Bible, the Talmud, or the Midrash. It is a treatise in the strict philosophical area of Neoplatonism as related to an eleventh-century Jewish mind. In it we find a Neoplatonic universe dependent on the Will of the First Author, supreme and holy.

The Fountain of Life, though composed in a dialogue form involving master and pupil, has none of the beauty and charm of the dramatic dialogues of Plato, the only other person mentioned by name in the work. The pupil seems to be a fictitious straight man, asking the proper questions at the proper time and giving a verbal nod of the head when appropriate. The opening section tells us that the discussion concerns the first part of Wisdom, the science of universal matter and universal form. Because of the nature of the topics involved, the work falls neatly into five parts:

  1. What we must presuppose in order to assign universal matter and form and predicate them of composite substances.
  2. The substance upholding the corporeity of the world.
  3. The acceptance of simple substances, such as the separated intelligences (i.e., angels).
  4. The science of understanding matter and form in simple substances.
  5. Universal matter and universal form in themselves.

The general method followed in this dialectical investigation is a search for the nature and existence of certain properties, which when found reveal the existence of the being that has these properties. In things we find there is something that "exists in itself," "is of one nature," is the "vehicle of diversity," and "gives everything its essence and name." These are the properties of universal matter. If one abstracts every sensible and intelligible form from things, the remainder is the common denominator called universal matter. Universal form is found "to subsist in another," "to perfect the essence of that in which it is," and "to give it being." By inspecting universal and particular sensible things, one finds four grades of matter and form: artificial-particular matter and its appropriate form, natural-particular matter (the matter of art products) and its form, natural-universal matter and its form, and celestial matter (the matter of the simple intelligences) and its form. Hence, there are common denominators for both matter and form: universal matter and universal form.

Every reality, except the First Essence, when viewed with its form is called a substance; when one conceives of something as receptive of form, then it is called matter, or hyle. Sensible forms require an extended substrate or body. The corporeal body is formed out of matter (which is itself incorporeal) and the corporeity-form, quantity. The first and simplest form and the highest matter are those that when united constitute the Intelligence. The Intelligence is the highest existence next to the First Essence. Below this are the rest of the hylomorphically composed soulsrational, sensitive, and vegetativeand then nature, the foundation of all inorganic things. Nature serves as the matter for the corporeity-form, quantity; the resulting substance is the matter of sensible qualities, like color.

One might say that Ibn Gabirol's universal hylomorphism represents an intermediate between the universal formlessness of Augustine and the later Franciscan variations. There are many differences from, as well as similarities to, scholastic thought, but the influence of Jewish religious ideas provides a basis for creation in his Neoplatonic universe. It seems that the Neoplatonic element in his thinking led ibn Gabirol to consider the origin of all things as a necessary emanation from the First Author. But the Jewish element may have rebelled against this, as a necessary emanation would be in conflict with the absolute transcendence of God. The solution results in an intuitive view of the relation of all things to the First Author. This relation is necessary because matter is an expression of the essence of God, who is himself necessary. However, the dynamism of the Will of God leads to the need for a variety of forms that are initiated by God. Hence, the relation is voluntary and therefore free. In The Fountain of Life we have at times a strange mixture of Jewish religious ideas, Arabian Aristotelianism, and Alexandrine Neoplatonism, though we cannot be absolutely sure of the source of the ingredients because of the absence of definite historical information.

Solomon ibn Gabirol's direct influence in philosophy seems to have been confined to certain Franciscans of the Augustinian tradition in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They thought that ibn Gabirol's universal hylomorphism supplied them with a suitable philosophical way of expressing the difference between creatures and God. The universal principle of limitationnamely, matterbecomes spiritual matter in all other creatures.

See also Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Jewish Philosophy; Matter; Neoplatonism; Plato.


works by ibn gabirol

Munk, S. Mélanges de philosophie juive et arabe. Paris: Gamber, 1859. Includes French translation of Fons Vitae.

"'Fons Vitae' ex Arabico in Latinum Translatus ab Johanne Hispano et Dominico Gundissalino. Ex Codicibus Parisinis, Amploniano, Columbino," edited by Clemens Bäumker, in Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, Band I, Hefte 24. Münster, 18921895.

Choice of Pearls. Translated by A. Cohen. Library of Jewish Classics, IV. New York: Bloch, 1925.

The Improvement of the Moral Qualities. Translated by Stephen S. Wise. Columbia University Oriental Studies Publications, 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1902.

The Fountain of Life. Translated by H. E. Wedeck, introduction by T. E. James. New York: Philosophical Library, 1962.

Tikkun Middot ha-Nefesh, edited and translated by S. Wise as The Improvement of the Moral Qualities. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Keter Malkhut (The Kingly Crown ). Translated by I. Zangwill in Selected Religious Poems of Solomon ibn Gabirol, edited by I. Davidson. New York: Arno Press, 1973.

Duties of the Heart, edited and translated by M. Hyamson. Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1986.

works on ibn gabirol

Brunner, Fernand. La source de vie. Book III. Paris, 1950.

Gilson, Étienne. History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. New York: Random House, 1955.

Goodman, L. E., ed. Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Guttmann, Jacob. Die Philosophie des Salomon ibn Gabirol. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1889.

Kaufmann, David. Studien über Salomon ibn Gabirol. Budapest, 1899.

Pessin, S. "Jewish Neoplatonism: Being above Being and Divine Emanation in Solomon ibn Gabirol and Isaac Israeli." In Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, edited by D. Frank and O. Leaman, 91110. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Rudavsky, T. "Conflicting Motifs: Ibn Gabirol on Matter and Evil," New Scholasticism 52 (1978): 5471.

Samuelson, N. (1997) "Medieval Jewish Aristotelianism: An Introduction" In History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by D. Frank and O. Leaman. London: Routledge, 1997.

Sirat, C. A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages, 6881. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Ueberweg, Friedrich. Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie. Vol. II, 11th ed., edited by B. Geyer. Berlin, 1928.

Theodore E. James (1967)

Bibliography updated by Oliver Leaman (2005)

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Ibn Gabirol, Solomon ben Judah (c. 1021–1058 or 1070)

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