Joe's Reviews > Metaphysics as Rhetoric: Alfarabi's Summary of Plato's "Laws"

Metaphysics as Rhetoric by Joshua Parens
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Was Plato a Metaphysician?

Metaphysics as Rhetoric is a study of Alfarabi's `Summary of Plato's Laws'. To the best of my knowledge this has never been fully translated into English. There is a partial translation (Intro + 2 of 9 chapters) in Lerner & Mahdi (Eds.) `Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook' of which I have the 1967 edition. Not having seen seven original chapters of Farabi's summary I give (a somewhat paranoid) 4 star rating. But I want to add that I quite often found myself in agreement with this book.

Agreement with what, you might ask ...based on what? Parens begins this book (in the Preface) with a note on Heidegger. Why? He wants to show that the turn Heidegger makes from metaphysics, the history of metaphysics, can (perhaps) be said to be anticipated by Farabi. (Indeed, he wants to show that Plato himself is innocent of this `metaphysics.') Heidegger turns from this history because `metaphysica specialis' (for our purposes here, theology) came to dominate and overwhelm `metaphysica generalis' - the study of being qua being. Not that Heidegger is uninterested in Being. Gods Forbid! His `Ontological Difference' is his way of taking the question of Being qua Being seriously, his attempt at overcoming, the confusion of beings with Being.

Farabi's Plato (like the Plato of Leo Strauss) has precious little to say about the Ideas. He (Plato) is interested, like Heidegger, in the human things. "Heidegger reorients his questioning about Being towards human finitude; Being is understood, above all, vis-à-vis human action." Yes, it can be objected (as Parens points out) that Farabi speaks of theology; but he only speaks of the role it plays in human socio-political life. In Farabi theology is not the ground for politics; it is the result of (philosophical) politics. Farabi, like Farabi's Plato, builds (also like Nietzsche, `psychology is the queen of the sciences') metaphysics on the human things.

Not that Heidegger and Farabi's Plato begin or proceed in the same manner. Parens reminds us that Heidegger is forever talking about everyday humble actions (hammers, peasants shoes) while Plato is forever dragging us into the heart of the polis. Parens thinks this has to do with the fact that we view politics (the state) as growing out of civil society while this distinction did not exist for the Greeks. ...Perhaps. But I think this maneuver on the part of Heidegger has also to do with his (in)famous `turn' from authenticity/commitment to the `quietism' of his post-war works. ...But that is another story.

This preface by Parens is an attempt to show up-to-date moderns and even more up-to-date post-moderns that reading a commentary on an untranslated work of Farabi is well worth our time. Farabi (and his Plato) anticipate the very modern `turn' from theory to practice that has interested so many of us over the past 50 years. If one builds only on the human things there can only be politics. ...But the prelude to the law, the `justification' or `explanation' of the law, is not a law. I am afraid that would take us into the heart, or very near the heart, of this superb book. Let us just say that Farabi's (and Plato's) art of Kalam (Parens defines this as `the rhetorical art of defending the opinions and actions that law inculcates) does not rest on an art of Kalam.

In closing, I would say that while I find this politically esoteric reading of Farabi and Plato quite congenial and convincing - it is rather peculiar to have the commentary before the book itself.

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