Alfarabi: Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Revised Edition
Translated with introduction by Muhsin Mahdi
Foreword by Charles E. Butterworth and Thomas L. Pangle
Cornell University Press, 2001, 158 pages
ISBN 13: 978-0-8014-8716-3
ISBN 10: 0-8014-8716-1
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 5, 2010
The ancient Greeks were the first people who wrote about philosophy and the greatest of these Greeks were Plato (428/427-348/347 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322). They wrote in Greek, and since many later people did not know Greek, if it were not for Islamic writers who knew Greek and who translated their writings into Arabic, Jews and Christians would have had no knowledge of these great men or of philosophy. One of first of these Islamic writers was Alfarabi (870-950). Alfarabi tells us that Plato could not reveal the truth to everyone because they would not understand it and would feel threatened by ideas that conflict with what they felt was true:
The wise Plato did not feel free to reveal and uncover every kind of knowledge for all people. Therefore he followed the practice of using symbols, riddles, obscurity, and difficulty, so that knowledge would not fall into the hands of those who do not deserve it and be deformed, or into the hands of someone who does not know its worth or who uses it improperly. In this he was right.
Thus, Alfarabi, Muhsin Mahdi writes, also hid the truth from the general population by brazenly using "self-contradiction – between works, between passages, and even, at least once, within the same sentence. The uses of this device are manifold."
Alfarabi states that one of these truths, in fact the basic truth that Plato could not teach the general population, is that spending one's life developing one's mind is the only true fulfillment of human existence. The thinking must focus on the practical and political, the sciences that benefit the individual and society. This knowledge can only be obtained by associating and cooperating with others and living next to them.
Plato, Alfarabi writes, was not speaking of religious knowledge, another idea that the general population could not accept. Religious thinking "is not sufficient." "Religion is "an imitation of philosophy." It supplies an imaginative unexamined account of nature that the general population needs to know, but not the truth. But the perfect person, according to Plato, is one who learns the real truth and lives a life that reflects it. This was the problem faced by Plato's teacher:
For when he [Socrates] knew that he could not survive except by conforming to false opinions and leading a base way of life, he preferred death to life.
Aristotle, Plato's student, Alfarabi wrote, had the same understanding as Plato "and more." Aristotle investigated and described the causes of everything that he could see and think about, practical and theoretical science. He examined the purpose of everything by looking at all of its parts. He divided what he found into classes. He gave an account of all he saw. He spoke of logic, drama, poetry, and other subjects and described how they should work.
Alfarabi portrays Aristotle as taking some of Plato's ideas, as well as others that Plato did not discuss, and examining them as a scientist would probe them today. Thus, for example, while Plato speaks about the soul, Aristotle defines it as the various parts of the body, such as the nutritive and respiratory systems that keep the body alive, as well as the intellect. This intellect is the true and only aspect of humans that differentiates them from animals and inanimate objects. Thus people who do not develop their intellect have failed to become truly human. All the parts of the soul die with the body, except for the intellect, but Aristotle seems to say that this surviving intellect has no recollection of its prior life.
Aristotle's view of the soul is another philosophical teaching that would disturb the general population.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.