Joe's Reviews > Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy

Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy by Muhsin Mahdi
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's review
Jul 12, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: esoteric, essays, falasifa, political-thought, medieval-philosophy, reviewed, straussian, farabi


A Superior work by a superior scholar

The radicalism and centrality of (philosophical) politics for the Muslim philosopher Farabi (around 900 CE) is the first thing that greets you, like the bristling edge of a row of thorn-bushes, in this amazing book; that uncomfortable impression never leaves you. Mahdi situates Farabi in the midst of neoplatonic philosophers intent upon harmonizing Plato and Aristotle. "Yet the complete absence from his [Farabi] authentic writings of the central Neoplatonic philosophic doctrines -of the One, Intellect, and Soul- should have been sufficient to suggest to students of Islamic philosophy who read him that they were in the presence of a philosopher who made use of certain elements drawn from the Neoplatonic philosophic tradition but whose Neoplatonism must remain suspect."

We are shown how Farabi denies(!) that revealed religion is in any real sense an innovation and we are also shown the underlying similarity between pagan and monotheistic religion. "Alfarabi's treatment of these subjects in his works on political philosophy and religion is not an innovation. It points to the similarity between the virtuous royal craft or art and the art of the lawgiver, between the virtuous city as envisioned by Plato and the religious community based on revelation." It seems that Mahdi is here indicating that Farabi said (of the Prophet) what Machiavelli said (of Moses in 'The Prince', chapter 6) many hundreds of years later. ...They were great political (and/or philosophical) innovators, nothing more. Now we find ourselves nervously wondering, has (political) philosophy then made everything?

But why does (political) philosophy make what it does? "The opinions expressed in these two works [Farabi's 'Virtuous City' and 'Political Regime'] not only originate in a political context (in that they are legislated) but are politically relevant, important, and even crucial. For they point to the ends (or the view of happiness) for which the actions are performed, a fundamental subject matter of political science." This suggests that happiness is the fundamental subject of political philosophy. But, as I hope we all know, philosophy itself aims to make men reasonable, not happy. These two views, it should be noted, may not be entirely compatible.

...But what of philosophy proper and its interest in the Cosmos? Is it too an artifact of political philosophy? "The question here is whether, and to what extent, the cosmos and the human body are already interpreted politically or certain conclusions of scientific inquiries are modified to make them more adequate opinions for the citizens and to present them as patterns for the construction of the city" One is tempted to say that if the founder of a religion (or political philosopher masquerading as founder) decides what can be said and not said about cosmos, body and soul then there is only political philosophy.

But the City (and its myths and opinions) cannot be entirely built on myth and opinion otherwise Science and Philosophy could not survive. ...Not any myth is good. "For it is precisely the relationship between science and the city that is at issue," Mahdi correctly reminds us. "Differently stated, the integrity of scientific knowledge should be maintained even when it is used to help form the opinions of the citizens." Can science and philosophy remain free of opinion and myth while spreading myths and opinion among the people? The problem, one suspects and fears, is that after a millennium or two, the differences between philosophy/science and opinion/myth tend to blur. ...Who, for instance, can dare say they see with utter clarity after 2000 years of the 'Platonism for the people'?

Or to perhaps state the same question in another manner: The City (opinion, myth) becomes more real the longer it survives. Its reality challenges the ancient 'realities' of Cosmos and Soul, or if you prefer, nature and individual psyche. The difficulty is twofold; nobody knows how to change nature or the human soul, or even if this can be done. But, and this is the second difficulty, we do know how to change the city, its opinions and myths. Changing religion or regime (these are both the city) is far easier than changing cosmos/nature or soul/psyche.

Thus political philosophy would seem to be doomed to only treat opinion and myth. How does philosophy, or if you prefer, political philosophy, maintain its status as science in such circumstances? Would a medical science that only treated symptoms, never causes - indeed; some of the symptoms were even caused by this so-called medical science - still be worthy of the title of Science?

We have only here scratched the surface of the issues dealt with in this book. I only give 4 stars because in the future I will want to give 5 stars to Farabi himself.

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