Joe's Reviews > On the Perfect State: Mabadi Ara Ahl Al-Madinat Al-Fadilah

On the Perfect State by أبو نصر الفارابي
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's review
Jan 03, 11

it was amazing
bookshelves: reviewed, medieval-philosophy, falasifa, commentary, esoteric, political-thought, farabi


March 2007

Farabi and some modern scholars

This is the only English translation of 'Mabadi ara ahl al-madina al-fadila' (henceforth referred to as the Ara) of which I am aware. Richard Walzer provides a very suggestive annotated commentary that is about 170 pages long. The text itself is almost 300 pages and it appears in both Arabic and English on facing pages. Walzer "left the manuscript of the present work ready for publication" upon his death but did not live to see it through the publishing process. He made use of 10 manuscripts in preparing this critical edition. One of the main problems he faced in establishing the text for this edition was that it was "written in an ordinary naskhi, eighteen lines to the page, with no vowels and very few diacritical consonantal signs, so that quite a few words can be understood in different ways. [...] Numerous variant readings in later MSS. of the Ara are best explained in this way." Following the introduction Walzer indicates which manuscripts he found most useful in preparing this edition and why he thought they were useful.

Walzer argues that Farabi is something of a Shia who clearly preferred the Imamiyya to the Ismaili's. I do not have enough knowledge of the times Farabi wrote to have a judgement one way or the other about this. However, I did find Walzer's continual assurance in his commentary that Farabi must have had a Greek predecessor every time he is original really quite annoying. For instance, on page 424, Walzer, while speaking of the difference between Farabi's way of handling political Platonism and his neo-Platonic and Aristotelian predecessors, muses about who his 'Greek predecessor' must have been: "One obviously wonders who the author of this unusual synthesis of Aristotle and Plato may have been or, if this question cannot be answered, whether at least his place in the history of later Greek philosophy can somehow be circumscribed." In other words, even if a putative predecessor is never found we must assume he did exist! I will, btw, concede that if there is a predecessor Walzer is surely correct to say that it would be among the Middle Platonists, and not the Neoplaonists, that we would find him.

But why are we even looking for him? Walzer says, "the best evidence of a continuous appreciation of Plato's political thought in later Antiquity is provided by its impact on Arabic philosophical literature." Isn't this a bit like arguing that the best proof early moderns had something like refrigeration is that late moderns have it? I think the reason that Islam (and also Judaism in the Medieval period) had philosophers that made a great deal of Plato's Political Philosophy is that the Prophet Mohammed was above all a bringer of Law (as was Moses) but Jesus in the Gospels brings no Law (except to love others as you love yourself) at all. The fact of the Prophet/Legislator in Islam and Judaism thus dovetails rather nicely with Plato's political discussions in his Republic and Laws. This provided the opportunity for Farabi to speak of the Prophet as if he were Plato's Philosopher-King. Thus we should find that the originality of Farabi's Platonic Politics is explained by the fact that he was immersed in a revealed Religion that also contained a detailed revealed Law. This 'political interpretation' of the Platonic texts first becomes possible in Islam.

In Walzer's defense I want to add that it was not very long ago that it was thought that Islamic philosophers (falasifa) weren't really philosophers but merely transmitters of original Greek thought and texts. Thus it was typical that whenever one of the falasifa said something that wasn't in precise agreement with some Greek predecessor it was assumed that the Islamic philosopher had made a mistake. In other words, according to the accepted scholarship, originality was always taken to be an error. Charitably one could say that perhaps Walzer bent over backwards to show that Farabi was a genuine philosopher by insisting he belongs in the line of Middle Platonism. And I do not doubt for a moment that this was indeed part of his motivation. After all, Walzer does say that, "none of the 'political' works of al-Farabi - such as the Ara - which were well known and popular all over the Muslim world, from Spain to India, was ever translated into medieval Latin, although this important section of the Greek legacy had been seen in a new and very original light by al-Farabi." So we see that Walzer is somewhat aware of Farabi's originality. Now, further down this page (32) Walzer remarks that the reason these texts weren't translated into Latin by the Christians was that "Platonic 'political' thought as applied to Islamic situations of the tenth century A.D. was useless for them, and thus they did not embark on latinizing any such texts." Well, all I would add (as stated earlier) is that if we can explain the absence of Farabi's political Platonism in the West by the situation of Christianity then why can't we go ahead and explain the appearance of an original political Platonism in Farabi by the situation of Islam?

So, why does Walzer insist upon looking for a supposed 'Greek predecessor'? The problem is that all scholars worry about, can worry about, is the source of a given philosophical position and the accuracy of its transmission; but all that genuine philosophers can worry about is the appropriateness of a philosophical position in given circumstances. If the works of Plato were only discovered yesterday a scholar would have no trouble 'showing' that all the elements (positions) in Plato had come from Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus and Socrates. This would be exactly how one would expect a scholar to 'reason'! But Plato, by putting each of these elements together in the proper measure, as the circumstances of Athens and Greece required, creates Western Philosophy. So too Farabi, by weaving together prior elements into a properly measured whole, virtually creates Islamic philosophy. The Falasifa that follow him continually refer back to Farabi (known as the 'Second Philosopher' or 'Second Master', i.e., second after Aristotle, throughout much of the medieval period) in their works. Indeed, one can say (through Farabi's distant heirs, the 'Latin Averroists') that Farabi's decisive turn to (and distinctive interpretation of) Platonic political philosophy has even influenced Western philosophy itself.

As far as the text goes I can say that of the translations of Farabi that I have seen the Ara goes further in what might be called a neo-Platonic direction than any of the others. In fact, if one wanted to keep Farabi in the neo-Platonic canon this would certainly be the translated text one would choose to argue the point. As such, it is a very good antidote to those that see Farabi as only, I do not say merely, a political Platonic esotericist. He really does have metaphysical interests too! Now, the question how the political and the metaphysical hang together is a vexed one and it certainly can't be clarified in a few sentences and I won't even try here. I will just note that for Farabi the metaphysical is best approached through philosophy; everything else is a step down from philosophy. This is a recurring motif among the falasifa, as Ghazali well knew. Averroes will later make the same point, in somewhat altered circumstances, in his tremendous 'Decisive Treatise'.

Lastly, I want to mention how unconcerned Farabi seems, compared even to Averroes, about how the orthodox view him. Look at what Farabi says about prophecy in chapter 14, 'Representation and Divination'. He speaks of prophecy in a manner that separates it from the rational faculty and places prophecy in the realm of the representative faculty. Thus Farabi seems to indicate that the Koran itself is beneath philosophy and its ability to reason. Walzer correctly says that Farabi, "accepted the inherited fabric of beliefs but gave it -and theological speculation with it- an inferior place in his philosophical interpretation of the universe and man. He can, in this respect, be compared with Plato himself..." Thus one wonders if this acceptance of "the inherited fabric of beliefs" is to be understood as acceptance of the beliefs themselves or 'acceptance' of the utility of said beliefs. If Plato 'accepted' paganism and Farabi 'accepted' monotheism due to their utility at the time one finds oneself wondering about modern philosophers and their 'acceptance' of modernity. But that is another story...

I haven't even touched on the complex argument that Farabi here weaves. Suffice to say that a discussion of the subtle argument requires far more words than an Amazon review is allowed. But there are several questions that kept occurring to me as I worked my way through the text. Most importantly, how does Farabi keep the various (middle) Platonic, neo-Platonic, and Aristotelian elements from contradicting each other? That is, how does Farabi 'harmonize' (a term of art in philosophic circles in the later Roman Empire) these various elements? Next, does Farabi intend the final 'political' chapters (15 - 19, but also 13 and 14) to overpower our reading of the text as a whole as they do for so many of us today? Finally, one wonders about the extent of Farabi's influence, not only among the falasifa or within Islam but also his influence on Maimonides, Jewish philosophy, and the Latin West too. I give 5 stars for Farabi but only 4 stars for Walzers commentary and his inane insistence that there is a 'Greek predecessor' to virtually every position Farabi takes. ...It really does wear one down. But, that said, I did find many gems of information in his commentary; it would be foolish to simply ignore it.

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