When Philosophy Needed Muslims, Jews and Christians Alike, by Peter Adamson

From The Three Philosophers, attributed to Giorgione, ca. early 1500’s. It likely portrays a young Italian philosopher, Averroes, and Plato

If you were asked to name the most important philosopher of 10th-century Baghdad, you would presumably not hesitate to say ‘al-Farabi’. He’s one of the few thinkers of the Islamic world known to non-specialists, deservedly so given his ambitious reworking of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics and political philosophy. But if you were yourself a resident of 10th-century Baghdad, you might more likely think of Yahya ibn ‘Adi. He is hardly a household name now, but was mentioned by the historian al-Mas‘udi as the only significant teacher of Aristotelian philosophy in his day. But ibn ‘Adi is not just a good example of how fame wanes across the centuries. He is also a fine illustration of the inter-religious nature of philosophy in the Islamic world.

Ibn ‘Adi was a Christian, as were most of the members of the group of philosophers who wrote commentaries on Aristotle at this time in Baghdad. The Muslim al-Farabi, who was apparently ibn ‘Adi’s teacher, was an exception to the rule. Completing the ecumenical picture, ibn ‘Adi was involved in an exchange of letters with a Jewish scholar named Ibn Abi Sa‘id al-Mawsili, who wrote to him with questions about Aristotle’s philosophy that he was hoping to have cleared up. Admittedly, Baghdad was an exceptional place, the capital of empire and thus a melting pot that drew scholars from all over the Islamic world. But philosophy was an interfaith phenomenon in other times and places too. The best example is surely Islamic Spain, celebrated for its culture of convivencia (‘living together’). Two of the greatest medieval thinkers, the Muslim Averroes and the Jew Maimonides, were rough contemporaries who both hailed from al-Andalus. After Toledo fell into the hands of the Christians, the Jew Avendauth collaborated with the Christian Gundisalvi to translate a work by the Muslim thinker Avicenna from Arabic into Latin.

That last example is a revealing one. Philosophy in these times often involved representatives of different faiths because it often presupposed translation. Hardly any philosophers of the Islamic world could read Greek, not even Averroes, the greatest commentator on Aristotle. He and other Muslim enthusiasts for Hellenic wisdom had to rely on translations, which had mostly been executed by Christians in the 8th to 10th centuries. Knowledge of Greek had been maintained by Christian scholars in Byzantine Syria, which explains why Muslim patrons turned to Christians to render works by Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen and many other ancient thinkers into Arabic. Thus the very existence of Hellenic-inspired philosophy in the Islamic world was a manifestation of inter-religious cooperation.

All of which is not to say that the Islamic world was free of inter-religious dispute. On the contrary, it seems that one reason those Muslim patrons were interested in Aristotle was that his logic would give them the tools to keep up with Christian opponents in theological debate. A vivid example is provided by al-Kindi, the first Muslim thinker to draw on Hellenic sources. He wrote a short refutation of the Trinity in which he used Greek logic to argue that God must be wholly one, not one and three – mentioning that Christian readers should be able to follow the argument, given their familiarity with logical concepts. A nice twist to the story is that we know of this refutation only thanks to the aforementioned ibn ‘Adi, who quoted al-Kindi in order then to rebut his attack on the Christian dogma.

While men such as al-Kindi were appropriating Greek ideas to defend Islam and attack Christianity, others disapproved of the importation of these same ideas into Muslim culture: al-Kindi responded to unnamed critics who deplored the use of pagan philosophy, and the founder of the Christian Baghdad school got into a public dispute with a Muslim grammarian over the usefulness of Aristotle’s logic. The grammarian mocked the pretensions of the Christian Aristotelians, and delighted in pointing out that all this logic had not prevented them from believing that God can somehow be both one and three.

Still, it remains the case that philosophy and the sciences more generally offered a kind of meeting point or neutral ground for intellectuals of different faiths. Muslims, Christians and Jews who shared an interest in Aristotle’s metaphysics or the medical theories of Galen read each others’ commentaries and elaborations on the Hellenic tradition. This is shown even by the disputes that they had with one another: using Greek logic to debate the Trinity implicitly suggested that this was a topic that could be resolved by appeal to reason. And many of the thinkers mentioned above argued that philosophy offered the best resource for the interpretation of sacred texts, whether the Torah, the Christian Bible, or the Quran. So it is no coincidence that in the Muslim al-Kindi, the Christian ibn ‘Adi, and the Jew Maimonides, the One God of Abrahamic tradition bears a striking resemblance to the god of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Their shared enterprise as elite philosophers meant that they had more in common with one another than they did with most of their co-religionists.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is the author of several books, including The Arabic Plotinus (2002) and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi (2007) and Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016), and hosts the History of Philosophy podcast. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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Ordinary Philosophy is my little blog that’s all about thinking through the Big Questions that arise from being a conscious, curious being in a vast, fascinating universe, and a social being whose life is filled with ethical quandaries and the ups and downs of cooperation and conflict. Examples of the sort of ‘Big Questions I’m talking about:

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The Fetishization of Suffering

In the art on the walls of my childhood home, the theme of suffering was pervasive: crosses with sculptures of hanging, tortured Christs, Marys with torn and bleeding hearts, saints in various imploring poses, as if pleading for relief from the awful plight of living in this world. Suffering also popped up regularly as key to understanding reality. Why do the good and the innocent suffer as well as the wicked? Well, the wicked suffer because they are being punished, of course, but the good and the innocent suffer because they are loved, because it provides a God-given opportunity to conquer it and become even better in the conquering. So to better our characters, us kids were required to endure some sort of self-inflicted suffering from time to time, however mild: to give up candy during Lent, or or to spend an uncomfortably long time on our knees reciting rosaries. This view of suffering was held by many cultures throughout history (remember the Spartans?), and became common in modern Western societies through Christian influence. Suffering, regarded as both the indicator of and the creator of goodness in the world, and eventually became something to be desired and admired for its own sake. It became fetishized. As I grew and began to puzzle over the matter, this glorification of suffering seemed more and more strange, especially as I observed that, while suffering appears to strengthen and nobilify some, many more people tend to be broken down by it, especially if it’s pervasive in their lives, and rendered more desperate, less empathetic, less hopeful, less dignified, more scarred. I began to wonder if, on the whole, it’s a mistake to fetishize suffering.

So why do so many people so often glorify such a seemingly nasty thing as suffering? Well, for one thing, a beloved philosophy professor of mine pointed out once, there’s a distinct difference between suffering of the constructive sort and suffering of the destructive sort. There should be separate terms for different sorts of suffering as there is in ancient Greek. If there was a separate discussion concerning each kind, many of my objections to the fetishization of suffering should be rendered moot. Examples of constructive sorts of suffering is the burning sensation felt in hard exercise and the healing of wounds, the squirming mental misery of trying to finish a paper or book on time and still do quality work, or the tearing pain of bittersweet grief at the loss of a dearly loved one. Destructive suffering, such as the despair of watching children suffer from illness or starvation, the maddening confusion of feeling one’s mental acuity and individuality eroded by Alzheimer’s disease, or the disgust of watching others ruin their own and other’s lives through crime, political machinations, or thoughtlessness, is not so self-evidently beneficial, to say the least. But I don’t remember  this distinction being made clear to me at any point. Any sort of suffering can be explained away as destructive or constructive as conceived in the mysterious, unknowable mind of the creator, for example. This treatment is especially convenient in attempts to resolve the infamous ‘problem of evil’. But for those not satisfied with the ‘mysterian’ explanation and really want to understand the matter, the problem remains: how does one justify the fetishization of suffering via a reliable method of distinguishing between its destructive and constructive forms? 
 
Perhaps the distinction between these forms of suffering exists but is just too hard for individuals to distinguish most of the time because the emotions get in the way. It’s hard to recognize suffering as constructive when you feel compassion for other sufferers, or you feel discouragement or weariness in the face of your own. Or, even more encouragingly for proponents of this view, one type of suffering can be transformed into the other based on the attitude of the sufferer. There is some truth to be found in this characterization of certain experiences of suffering. There does seem to be sorts of suffering that’s unavoidable and necessary given the current state of evolution (or of a fixed human nature, for those who don’t believe in evolution, *sigh*): the helpful warning that pain provides, or the fear of death, strangers, or inexplicable noises that aids in self preservation. But upon reflection, the category of suffering of the entirely beneficial sort is really not very large compared to suffering of the harmful sort or suffering that seems to be some mixture of the two. The pain of exercise and of mental exertion seems to deter far too many people from consistent rigorous physical and intellectual exercise (I’m certainly among these!); the pain of grief leads far too many to resort to such comforting tactics as justifying the injustices of the world with flimsy excuses or to believing in flimsy or patently false metaphysical claims, or to vengeance; and so on. When I consider various sorts of suffering, I’m hard put to find any that most of the time and for most people, the result of experience it is entirely beneficial in the long run.

Perhaps the difference between constructive and destructive suffering is a matter of degree and duration, then, rather than of kind. The kind of suffering experienced in sport or in military training and combat, for example, are experienced in limited blocks of time and have a foreseeable end, allowing hope and the expectation of a better time to come mitigate the potential bad effects of suffering and strengthen the good effects. But this answer isn’t entirely satisfactory either. While it can seem true in some circumstances, it’s not for many others. People can become obsessed with and addicted to suffering, for one thing, as in the case of  over-zealous religious who become sado-masochistically addicted to corporal punishment (sadistic ruler-wielding teaching nuns of yore, anyone?) Or, suffering can burrow deep into a person’s psyche and undermine their entire personality, as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by veterans and victims of  sustained bullying. It appears, then, it’s not the degree or duration of the suffering that makes it constructive or destructive: rather, it’s more feasible that the constructiveness or destructiveness is a feature of the effects on the sufferer, not of the suffering itself.
 
I think one of the most important reasons that more kinds of suffering is destructive than not it that it tends to  draw people into themselves and away from others. For example, I’ve noticed this in some athletes: as the pain of exertion accompanies the achievement of higher levels of physical fitness, the pain becomes an addiction, an obsession, and the greater the to suffering, the greater the tendency to self-absorption. This may be an explanation for the behavior of athletes who self-destruct with steroids. I’ve also noticed this, as aforementioned, in some whose religious beliefs hold say that suffering is necessary for redemption, and so attempts to avoid it, for oneself or for others, is fruitless or even evil. Martyrdom is, then, a virtuous state of mind and even the ultimate goal. Yet, I think this tendency to lose oneself in these forms of self-absorption, of attitudes of martyrdom and addiction to suffering, can be antithetical to human flourishing, because human beings are intensely social creatures. Now, it’s true that human beings also have an individualistic side. So some level of self-absorption, some level of obsessive and addictive behavior, is not necessarily negative to the human personality taken as a whole, and when balanced against other personalty traits, can be part of an interesting and dynamic personality. They can even be more sensitive and empathetic. This goes for many creative people, political people, and other idealists. (As a working artist and daydreamer myself, and an enthusiastic fan of the arts, I’m intimately familiar with self-absorption: a certain level of it is necessary for the visions to arise, the ideas to take shape, and the drive to realize them.) It’s also a defining characteristic of “drama queens”, who can be exciting people at some level. But, there’s a real danger that this addiction to suffering, when it starts to dominate, can undermine the social instincts and emotions of a healthy personality. Consider highly neurotic people, for example, whose internal suffering can become so all-absorbing that, after a while, they reach a point where they can’t see much else in the world besides it. Also, consider the aforementioned ‘drama queens’ who sometimes become so addicted to conflict and the suffering that accompanies, it that they end up needing to create conflict and ‘drama’ where none exists. In a very real sense, very neurotic people and other suffering addicts can separate themselves from society, since they eventually find it difficult to identify closely with others, and in fact, end up imposing their need for suffering on others.

So it seems to me that, in the end, the healthiest attitude to have toward suffering is that it’s an evil to be mitigated and avoided if possible, and if neither is possible, it’s the ability to endure it and triumph over it that’s desirable, not the suffering itself. It’s true that suffering accompanies and is even an integral element to many worthy endeavors, such as athletic training, and humanitarian efforts that involve placing oneself in the same horrific surroundings as the sufferers. But it’s best seen as a tool and a means to an end, not an end in itself. It’s just too easy to allow the high that sometimes accompanies it to become an addiction that can lead from obsession and self-absorption to alienation from others, and, far worse, to a complacent attitude towards the suffering other people. Human beings are most generous, most expansive, most supportive, when free from suffering because they are happy, they are unburdened with personal cares and so are able to look outside of themselves and possess the energy to give of themselves to others. By contrast, people who have a more sacrificial, suffering-infused world outlook don’t, in the end, do so well when it comes to helping others, even if the feeling of sacrificing oneself makes it seem more difficult and therefore more virtuous than helping out of an easy-going feeling of well-being. (Daniel Gilbert’s work provides an excellent explanation of the current research on emotion and how it effects human behavior). The habit of viewing suffering as an evil and not a good does far more, overall, to help human beings flourish as the social creatures we are, In the end, I do think it’s a mistake to fetishize suffering.