Alfarabi (Fārābī, Al-)

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Arab philosopher and theologian, fuller name AbūNar Muammad ibn Muammad AlFārābī; b. Wasig, Transoxania, in the district of Fārāb, c. 870; d. Damascus, 950. Of Turkish descent, he spent most of his life in Iraq and Syria. At Baghdad, where he came in contact with Christian scholars, he acquired a knowledge of Greek philosophy. His works on philosophy, particularly his commentaries on Aristotle, gained him wide notice; he was considered the "second Teacher" after Aristotle himself. He wrote on other subjects, however, including mathematics, music, medicine, and astronomy. He passed several years at the court of Saif adDawlah, ruler of Aleppo, engaged mostly in study. Otherwise his life was uneventful.

Emanation. neoplatonism and the Islamic religious tradition offered Alfarabi the notion of a first being, the One, who is absolute unity, perfect transcendence, and pure existence, and thus a necessary being who is present to himself in an act of knowledge where intellect, object of intellect, and act of intellect are absolutely one. From this being, according to the Neoplatonic principle accepted by Alfarabi, only one creature could derive immediately, and this by a process of "emanation" (Faid). Emanation, however, proceeds by degrees. Thus a first intellect, supremely perfect and yet essentially inferior to the One, is the first creature. He is also the first form of multiplicity, for his essence is necessary when viewed in relation to God (the One) and contingent when viewed in itself. This duality of aspect, distant ancestor of the real distinction between essence and existence, leads to a duality in the act of knowledge. The first intellect knows God and itself by two acts, which themselves are creative: the act by which he knows God is the cause of a second intellect, and that by which he knows himself gives rise to a heavenly sphere with its own soul and body. The process continues, according to common Neo-platonic doctrine, until the spheres of the planets and the fixed stars are produced. The lowest of these pure intellects, the active intellect, tenth in rank after the first cause, is the author of the matter and form in the sublunar world. Finally, under the influence of the heavenly bodies, common matter is prepared to bring forth the forms given it by the active intellect (dator formarum ). A gradual growth in perfection takes place, culminating in the emergence of the human soul, the highest form associated with matter.

Man and Society. At this point, Alfarabi describes the growth of human consciousness. The activity of the senses furnishes the materials for universal ideas, and illumination by the active intellect puts the human intellect in act. Man's grasp of universals grows as he frees himself from matter and comes more under the influence of the active intellect. The final step in the process is reached when man has an "acquired intellect," which for Alfarabi is almost on a level with the active intellect.

In all this Alfarabi depends heavily on his Greek predecessors, above all on Alexander of Aphrodisias. But there is present in most of his writing a mystical element that reminds one of plotinus. The difference, of course, lies in the fact that Alfarabi considers union with the active intellect as the highest form of existence for man, and not union with the One, as Plotinus held. Alfarabi defines man's happiness as a permanent state of being wherein he is freed from matter and enjoys the society of pure spirits. He insists on the collaboration of intellect and will in the tendency toward this goal.

Moreover, for Alfarabi man is a social being who needs the society of other men to grow toward happiness. In his notion of society Alfarabi is greatly indebted to Plato, particularly to the Republic. The "virtuous state" he sees as analogous to the human body, with the ruler as the heart. The ideal ruler is both philosopher and prophetphilosopher to have attained the perfection of the theoretical intellect, prophet to be able to receive inspiration that will lead men to happiness. Since this ideal is almost impossible to realize, Alfarabi was satisfied if the ruler were to possess only the essential qualities. Again, like Plato, he contrasted the ideal state with its imperfect imitations, for example, democracy, timocracy, and tyranny.

Appreciation. In general, Alfarabi relied heavily on the Greek tradition as he knew it. Although he made frequent references to Plato and Aristotle, the extent of his knowledge of their works is not easy to assess. He did write a commentary on Aristotle's De interpretatione, gave a summary of the Metaphysics, and claimed to have read nine books of Plato's Laws. But in most cases his knowledge came from the commentators Alexander and Themistius and from the many manuals of philosophy then available.

Alfarabi's influence in Islam was considerable, for he determined the principal lines of its philosophical speculation. He was generally appreciated by his successors, despite the attacks of algazel. His works were frequently translated into Latin and Hebrew in the Middle Ages. He seems to have influenced the political theories of maimonides, but for the most part ranks far behind Avicenna and Averroës in importance for medieval philosophy.

Bibliography: Works. Philosophische Abhandlungen, ed. and tr. f. h. dieterici (Leiden, Arab. text 1890; Ger. tr. 1892). Abhandlung: Der Musterstaat, ed. and tr. f. h. dieterici (Leiden, Arab. text 1895; Ger. tr. 1900). De intellectu et intellecto, critical edition of Arab. text m. bouyges (Beirut 1938). Commentary on Aristotle's "De interpretatione," ed. w. kutsch and s. marrow (Beirut 1960). Católogo de las ciencias, ed. and tr. a. gonzÁlez palencia (2d ed. Madrid 1953), Span., Arab. and 2 Lat. Versions. De Platonis philosophia, ed. f. rosenthal and k. walzer (Plato arabus 2; London 1943), Lat. and Arab. Compendium legum Platonis, ed. and tr. f. gabrieli, (ibidem 3; 1952), Lat. and Arab. Alfarabi's Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, tr. with introd. m. mahdi (New York 1962). English selections in r. lerner and m. mahdi, Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook (Glencoe, Ill. 1963). Literature. m. steinschneider, AlFarabi des arabischen Philosophen Leben und Schriften (Memoires de l'Academie Imperial des Sciences de St. Petersburg 13.4; 1859). i. madkour, La Place d'al Fârâbi dans l'école philosophique musulmane (Paris 1935). e. i. j. rosenthal, Political Thought in Medieval Islam (Cambridge, Eng. 1958). n. rescher, AlFārābī: An Annotated Bibliography (Pittsburgh 1962). r. walzer, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (VeniceRome 1957) 2:269270.

[j. finnegan]