An Essay by Daniel Joshuva
This essay was written by my friend, Dany (Daniel) Joshuva, who’s been my colleague as we’ve both been studying literature, philosophy, theology, and various other topics for the past few years. Last semester he took a class regarding the Introduction to Classics of Western Thoughts and wrote this amazing examination on Plato’s Republic and Al-Farabi’s thoughts on Plato’s work. Al-Farabi (872-950 A.D.) was an Islamic Philosopher who lived during the Golden Age of Islam in the Abbasid Caliphate. He studied and wrote much on the ancient works by the Greeks, especially Plato and Aristotle. This essay will cover much on the ideals of Happiness for a city’s population, and the the basis on what makes a good ruler; that is the Philosopher-King.
The ideas of Plato’s Republic have both influenced and antagonized philosophy from cultures all over the world ever since it was written in the 4th century BC. Specifically, the philosopher-kings of his Republic have been debated and interpreted in so many ways, it’s hard to imagine anything new being said. However, in the 9th century AD, the brilliant Islamic philosopher Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (AD 870-950) would do just that. His breadth of knowledge and understanding of both Greek and Muslim thought is impressive, even by today’s standards. His originality is also seen in his attempts to synthesize the two traditions. In this essay, I would like to explore two things. First, what are the similarities and differences between the philosopher-kings of Plato and the philosopher-kings of Al-Farabi? If there are any, what changes did Al-Farabi make to Plato’s theory? Second, what can the modern-day reader learn from a comparison of these two thinkers that come from vastly different contexts?
Although the Republic is large and covers a variety of issues; for the purposes of this essay, the main discussion will come from books 5,6, and 7. As mentioned in the introduction above, the philosopher-kings of Plato have been interpreted in many ways since the text was written over 2 millennia ago. One of the more popular interpretations is that the philosopher-kings described by Plato are meant to stay in an idealistic context. This is important because many people have dismissed the concept of Plato’s philosopher-king on grounds that they are not a practical solution to any real political situation. Whereas this very well be true, Plato in this section is philosophizing on his ideal city, a city that he most likely doesn’t see coming to fruition in any real sense. As he tells Glaucon in Book V
Let me, as if on a holiday, do what lazy people do who feast on their own thoughts when out for a solitary walk. Instead of finding out how something they desire might actually come about, these people pass that over, so as to avoid tiring deliberations about what’s possible and what isn’t. They assume that what they desire is available and proceed to arrange the rest, taking pleasure in thinking through everything they’ll do when they have what they want, thereby making their lazy souls even lazier. (Republic 458a)
As Plato tells us, he is writing under the assumption that the aims of his ideal city are already assumed possible. He does this to “avoid tiring deliberations about what’s possible and what isn’t.” Instead, he wants to talk about all the necessary parts that would be required for his ideal city, if the ideal city is already assumed to be possible. In this sense, the philosopher-kings are truly an idealist notion. Dr. Robin Barrow describes Plato as, “a poet”, with, “a touch of the mystic about him and more than a touch of imagination” (Barrow 209). In my opinion, it is important to remember this aspect of Plato’s thought when discussing his theory of philosopher-kings in his ideal city.
It is towards the end of Book V, after his discussion on the role of women and the family in his ideal city, that Plato states his controversial thesis that has caused debates ever since
Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils, Glaucon, nor, I think, will the human race. And, until this happens, the constitution we’ve been describing in theory will never be born to the fullest extent possible or see the light of the sun. It’s because I saw how very paradoxical this statement would be that I hesitated to make it for so long, for it’s hard to face up to the fact that there can be no happiness, either public or private, in any other city. (Republic 473c-e)
As he admits in the last sentence, Plato does not believe that a city can find happiness unless the rulers of the city become “philosopher-kings”. So, what are they?
Plato, through Socrates, spends the rest of Book V establishing what is means for a ruler to be a philosopher. When Glaucon asks Socrates who the true philosophers are, he responds “Those who love the sight of truth” (Republic 475e). “The outcome of the whole discussion”, as Cross and Woozley explain in their commentary of the Republic, “is that the latter does not possess knowledge, does not really know anything, but has only belief (doxa), is a philodoxos, i.e. a lover of belief, whereas the genuine philosopher possesses knowledge, is able to apprehend the truth, and thus alone merits the name of philosopher” (139). In Book V, Socrates establishes that the philosopher-kings he is about to discuss further are those that possess true knowledge, as opposed to those that rely on “doxa” or belief.
Although much more time could be spent on what Plato understands as knowledge, which is a true understanding of his theory of Forms, for the purposes of this discussion it is better to move on to Book VI. It is in Book VI that Plato begins to give the specific qualities that should be seen in his ideal philosopher-king. After establishing again that the philosopher-king, in his nature, has, “a love for the truth” (Republic 485c); he then lists more specific characteristics associated with this nature. Wooley and Cross summarize these characteristics as, “a good memory, he is quick to learn, magnanimous, gracious, a friend and kinsman of truth, courage, justice and temperance” (195). It is these characteristics that Plato believes will be visible in the nature of every philosopher-king.
For the purposes of this essay, the other important takeaway from Book VI comes from Plato’s discussion about what the best constitution should be in relation to these guardians of the city. As he states, if we, “were to find the best constitution, as it is itself the best, it would be clear that it is really divine and that other natures and ways of life are merely human” (Republic 497d). It is here that Plato acknowledges the importance of laws and lawmakers in relation to his ideal city. He understands that true knowledge of the forms is not enough; the rulers must also use this knowledge in the making of the laws in the city. As Wooley and Cross state, “There must, as is said at 497d, be some authority in the state with the same idea of its constitution, the same understanding of it, as Glaucon and Plato, the original legislators. That is, the rulers must have knowledge, must in fact be philosophers” (200). The ideal rulers of Plato’s city must not only be philosophers, they must also be legislators.
Only if the rulers of Plato’s city also become philosophers and legislators will the happiness of Plato’s ideal city come to fruition. It must be remembered that the philosopher-kings Plato imagines only exist to create and maintain happiness in his ideal city. They do not have any selfish motives of their own. The rest of Books VI and VIII are Plato trying to explain how and what the education of these philosopher-kings might look like. He highlights this process with three different allegories: Allegory of the Sun, Allegory of the Divided Line, and the Allegory of the Cave. These allegories represent the process guardians are supposed to go through to obtain true knowledge. As described by Narges Tajik, “Philosophers pass through the steps of their own education, whether physical or mental, in the city. They, after training in music and literature as a preliminary education, learn mathematical disciplines-arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmonics” (59). It is through this process of education, as the infamous allegory of the Cave shows us, that the philosopher-kings ascend from darkness to light. Plato summarizes the goal of this process in Book VII, “But our present discussion, on the other hand, shows that the power to learn is present in everyone’s soul and that the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body… education is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it” (Republic 518c-d). Is it through this process of ascent that the philosopher-kings learn the Good, which is what is necessary for the ideal city.
As Plato makes clear, however, learning about the truth is not enough. Those that learn must not be allowed, “to do what they’re allowed to do today”, which is, “To stay there and refuse to go down again to the prisoners in the cave and share their labors and honors, whether they are of less worth or of greater” (Republic 519d). The guardians must go back and educate the rest of the city. Glaucon then asks if it is wrong to force these guardians to live a worse life when they could live a better one by not going back. As Socrates then reminds Glaucon, the philosopher-kings only exist in the first place for the happiness of the whole city. “The law produces such people in the city, not in order to allow them to turn in whatever direction they want, but to make use of them to bind the city together” (Republic 520a). The guardian that returns to Plato’s city is not only ruler, but now a philosopher and legislator as well. Happiness for the city and for themselves is only found when they use their newfound knowledge for this purpose.
Although he was largely known in the medieval Islamic world for his expertise on Aristotle, even known as the “Second Master” because of this, the influence of Plato on Islamic philosopher Al-Farabi’s thought is also undeniable. However, the influence of Plato on Al-Farabi is largely, “an un-Platonic interpretation of Plato, at least of Plato as seen by the Hellenistic traditions” (Mahdi, Philosophy and Political Thought 17). The importance of Plato on Al-Farabi’s thought is largely a political one, while viewing the other-worldly aspects of Plato as “accidental” (Mahdi, Philosophy and Political Thought 17). This is noticeable when one sees the special importance Al-Farabi places on both Plato’s Republic and Laws in his political works. In this context, The Attainment of Happiness is especially important, because according to Mahdi, “it is here that he gives an account of the theoretical foundation on the basis of which those other works should be understood, and of the philosophic principles that are applied in the other works” (Mahdi, Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle 9). A comparison between the philosopher-kings of Plato and Al-Farabi becomes insightful when viewed through this light.
Before Al-Farabi arrives at his discussion of what philosopher-kings should be in his The Attainment of Happiness, he splits the books into two sections. He first discusses “the human things through which nations and citizens of cities attain earthly happiness in this life and supreme happiness in the life beyond are of four kinds: theoretical virtues, deliberative virtues, moral virtues, and practical arts” (Al-Farabi, Attainment of Happiness 13). Of these the theoretical virtues are most important because, “[It] is primary knowledge. The rest is acquired by meditation, investigation and inference, instruction and study” (13). After telling us what each of these are, he tells us that theoretical perfection is comprised with the knowledge of these four things (25). He then goes on to discuss in depth the methods by which one can attain knowledge in each of these things. Although much more could be said on this section of the book, Al-Farabi arrives at the conclusion that knowledge comes to be understood by man through one of two ways: philosophy or religion. As Mahdi points out, “The main argument of the Attainment of Happiness is so constructed as to lead inevitably to a view of the relation between philosophy and religion” (Mahdi, Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle 9). As we will see, the ruler of Al-Farabi’s ideal city becomes a different variation of Plato’s when this is fully understood.
Al-Farabi finally states the central thesis of his philosopher-kings towards the end of the book when he says
So let it be clear to you that the idea of the Philosopher, Supreme Ruler, Prince, Legislator, and Imam is but a single idea. No matter which one of these words you take, if you proceed to look at what each of them signifies among the majority of those who speak our language, you will find that they all finally agree by signifying one and the same idea. (Al-Farabi, The Attainment of Happiness 46)
It is clear from reading this that his idea of philosopher-kings is very similar to Plato’s. The rulers described by both authors are those that work for a single idea: the happiness of the city. To begin, let us compare the first four categories that are almost identical to Plato’s: Philosopher, Ruler, Legislator, and Prince.
The philosopher that Al-Farabi describes is almost identical to the role the philosopher plays in Plato’s Republic. The philosopher, like Plato’s, is someone that understands the truth of being at deeper level than the rest of the city. For Al-Farabi, this is someone that is knowledgeable in the “theoretical virtues”, which as mentioned earlier is described as “primary knowledge”. Knowledge is not enough however, because, “To be a truly perfect philosopher one has to possess both the theoretical sciences and the faculty for exploiting them for the benefit of all others according to their capacity” (Al-Farabi, The Attainment of Happiness 43). Just like the example from Plato’s cave, the philosopher cannot stand idly by after learning truth, he must go back into the city. His philosophy must not only be theoretical, but practical as well. He goes as far as to say that those that isolate themselves with the theoretical alone practice a “defective philosophy” (43).
For the philosopher, the “practical virtues” in Al-Farabi’s system are the virtues used to bring the rest of the city happiness. For the city, it is not enough that the philosopher understands truth, he must be able to apply what he knows towards the benefit of the city. And because of the belief that Plato and Al-Farabi have that not all citizens can learn truth the same way the philosophers do, other “practical” methods must be used. It is for this reason that Al-Farabi declares that the philosopher must be a “supreme ruler” as well (44). The philosopher needs this authority so that he may apply practically what he knows how to demonstrate theoretically. Therefore, when someone considers, “the case of the true philosopher, he would find no difference between him and the supreme ruler. For he who possesses the faculty for exploiting what is comprised by the theoretical matters for the benefit of all others possesses the faculty for making such matters intelligible as well as for bringing into actual existence those of them that depend of the will” (Al-Farabi, The Attainment of Happiness 43). In short, the supreme ruler brings about practically, through will, what the philosopher theoretically demonstrates as truth.
As was discussed above, the legislator aspect of Plato’s philosopher-king is an acknowledgement by Plato that knowing the truth is not enough, the rulers must also be able to create laws so that this same truth can be realized in the city. Al-Farabi understands the legislator role in a very similar way. He states that, “to bring the actual existence of intelligibles”, the philosopher also needs to, “prescribe the conditions that render possible their actual existence” (Al-Farabi, The Attainment of Happiness 45). Once the conditions to bring about truth are considered, the philosopher becomes legislator in creating laws to bring his knowledge to the city. “Therefore the legislator is he who, by the excellence of his deliberation, has the capacity to find the conditions required for the actual existence of voluntary intelligibles in such a way as to lead to the achievement of supreme happiness” (45). Al-Farabi’s legislator, just like the philosopher and supreme ruler, has one goal: achievement of supreme happiness. Al-Farabi reminds us that the legislator must be a philosopher first for this very reason. He believes that it is impossible for the legislator to find the conditions necessary for supreme happiness unless he experiences this happiness first with his own intellect (45). He then emphasizes the inverse as well: the philosopher that understands the theoretical virtues but cannot bring them about practically “has no validity” (46).
The Prince category that Al-Farabi mentions is also heavily inspired by Plato’s thought. Al-Farabi believes that humans have different “natural virtues”, or in other words, different humans have different natural states of character. It is only after this natural virtue is “coupled with deliberative virtue” that moral virtues can be formed by the will (Al-Farabi, The Attainment of Happiness 33). For Al-Farabi, it follows from this that, “some men who are innately disposed to a [natural moral] virtue that corresponds to the highest [human moral] and that is joined to a naturally superior deliberative power, others just below them, and so on… Therefore the prince occupies his place by nature and not merely by will” (34). It is important for Al-Farabi that it is not only outside things that give the prince power, he must also show innate ability to understand truth. In fact, he tells us the name prince itself is supposed to signify, “sovereignty and ability” (46). And just like the other categories, the perfect prince exists only for the attainment of supreme happiness. “If his ability is restricted to goods inferior to supreme happiness, his ability is incomplete and he is not perfect” (46).
After Al-Farabi mentions the Philosopher, Supreme Ruler, Prince, and Legislator, he mentions the last category that truly separates him from Plato: The Imam. The ingenuity that Al-Farabi shows in synthesizing the Imam with the philosopher-king is incredible. It is this synthesis that has lead scholars like Farouk A. Sankari to state that it is, “Alfarabi’s great contribution to political philosophy” (9). So, what exactly does Al-Farabi’s Imam represent? He tells us that the idea of the Imam in Arabic, “signifies merely the one whose example is followed and who is well received: that is, either his perfection is well received or his purpose is well received” (Al-Farabi, The Attainment of Happiness 46). In short, the Imam represents someone that brings the truth to the people through religion.
It is the incorporation of religion in Al-Farabi’s theory of philosopher-kings that separates him from Plato. Religion is important for Al-Farabi because, aside from philosophy, it is the other way that man can assent to truth. Philosophy, as discussed above, is when truth can be demonstrated by the intellect, when the philosopher shows proficiency in the “theoretical virtues”. Religion, on the other hand, knowing the same truth as the philosopher, persuades not through demonstration but through imitation. In fact, it is these “popular, generally accepted, and external [philosophical]” methods of persuasion through imitation that Al-Farabi understands as religion. “In everything of which philosophy gives an account based on intellectual perception or conception, religion gives an account based on imagination” (Al-Farabi, The Attainment of Happiness 44). The divine revelation of religion for Al-Farabi is symbolic imitation, meant to persuade those that cannot understand the demonstrative methods of the philosopher. In this context, the Imam becomes important because he translates the demonstrated truth of the philosopher into symbols so that the rest of the city may be persuaded to truth through imagination.
In Al-Farabi’s own time, this religion was Islam. The bold claim that religion and philosophy ascend to the same truth by merging the Imam with the philosopher-king is what makes Al-Farabi stand out from Plato. As Ali and Qin state, “Unlike Plato’s philosopher king, the ruler of Alfarabi’s virtuous city is a philosopher prophet who receives divine revelations. Revelation as his source of knowledge differentiates him from the ruler of Plato’s The Republic and associates him with the prophet Muhammad, rightly guided Sunni caliphs and Shia Imams who received guidance from God through revelation” (5). Al-Farabi’s Imam, someone that receives divine truth and translates it into images for the benefit of the people, is clearly modeled after the prophet Muhammad. Religion can be the link that reveals truth to those that cannot understand the universal truths passed down through philosophy. For Al-Farabi, if philosophy is universal, then religion is cultural. As he states, “Philosophy gives an account of the ultimate principles (that is, the essence of the first principle and the essences of the incorporeal second principles), as they are perceived by the intellect. Religion sets forth their images by means of similitudes of them taken from corporeal principles and imitates them by their likeness among political offices. It imitates the divine acts by means of the functions of political” (45). Philosophy only gives an account of truth; it is religion that imitates this truth in the real world by the formation of political offices that try to bring this truth to reality. Ali and Qin go on to conclude, “Although Alfarabi makes a distinction between the knowledge of a philosopher and the nonphilosophers, he, nonetheless, seeks perfection for ‘all the people of the excellent city’, and argues that all of them ‘ought to’ have the basic knowledge about everything. While Plato either excludes or expels imperfect natures, Alfarabi’s policy towards them seems to be that of reformations through the knowledge they can grasp which is religion, the symbolic imitation of philosophy” (8). Al-Farabi links the Imam to the philosopher-king of Plato so that “ultimate principles” can be understood by all, even if this understanding must come through symbolic images created by religion to imitate the “ultimate principles” of the philosophers.
Takeaways for the Modern-Day Reader
When it comes to comparing philosophers with the magnitude and breadth of knowledge that Plato and Al-Farabi showed throughout their work, the hardest part comes in narrowing down what can be learned. The beauty of these great intellectuals for the modern-day reader is that they can continue to inform and expand our thinking in so many ways, even thousands of years later. The philosopher-kings of both writers is just one example of a jumping off point in a comparison between these two. However, in doing research for this comparison, there was a theme that is continually seen throughout both works that I believe is still relevant for any student of political philosophy. The theme is in the title of Al-Farabi’s work that has been discussed, sa adah in the Arabic, or in the English translation: happiness.
In my view, the philosopher-kings of both Plato and Al-Farabi cannot be critically examined unless the emphasis on happiness that both authors display is understood fully. This happiness, however, is different than what many people think of when they think of happiness in the 21st century. For most people in the modern world, happiness starts on the individual, personal level. This understanding of happiness never usually escapes the realm of feelings; feelings that change as consistently as the seasons. Some may go a little further, and extend this understanding of happiness not only to themselves, but to those they care about as well. However, for Plato and Al-Farabi, this is almost the exact wrong way to look at it. For them, happiness only exists when the city is happy. Everything they theorize for their ideal cities is always viewed through this lens, especially in relation to philosopher-kings. For both authors, it is not that the philosopher-kings come first, followed by ideal happiness. For them, it is that ideal happiness already exists, and it is the philosopher-kings that come to learn this truth to benefit the overall happiness of the city. It is why Plato’s philosopher-king must return to the cave, because his existence in the first place is only for that purpose. As Tajik reminds us, “Plato believes that the philosopher ought to return to the city, because if he does not promote the citizens towards the happiness, his own happiness will not be perfect” (60). Al-Farabi reminds us of this “supreme happiness” as well, which is seen in how he continually emphasizes both the theoretical and practical knowledge that rulers must have to properly govern a city. In these theoretical cities, every individual lives for the happiness of the city, and it is this happiness that comes back to then be experienced by the individual. Even the philosopher-kings, in their quest for ultimate truth, only exist in the end for this purpose.
Another takeaway that branches off this overall theme of happiness, is the significant impact that religion plays in the role of Al-Farabi’s city when compared to Plato’s. Al-Farabi, by looking at the world around him, knew that philosophy was not enough in bringing everyone to understand happiness in the same way as the philosophers did. His proof was not only the Islamic world around him, but also the other religions of the past. He understood the power religion could play in helping so many people come to understand happiness. Like Plato, Al-Farabi believed that because different people have different natures, not everyone could come to understand truth in the same way. Whereas Plato seems to leave behind those that cannot understand the truth of philosophy, Al-Farabi tries to bring them back in through religion. By imitating philosophy, religion tries to bridge gap between the philosophers and non-philosophers. Al-Farabi wants everyone to know the truth of the philosophers, even if they must come to understand this truth through methods of persuasion instead of methods of demonstration (Al-Farabi, The Attainment of Happiness 44).
As mentioned previously, the attempt to compare writers with the level of stature of these two was a difficult task. However, it has also been an extremely rewarding one. On the most basic level, having to dive deeper than I ever have into two different philosophers has greatened my interest not only in their philosophical contexts, but in their historical contexts as well. More specifically, Plato’s concept of philosopher-kings was what I found most interesting reading through the Republic earlier this semester, so getting to learn a little more about how it has been understood over time has also been rewarding. In my opinion, Plato’s philosopher-kings remind us that his ideal city was one in where every citizen lived for the happiness of the entire city. This means that the rulers are not only included in this, but that in his ideal city, the rulers would not even exist outside of this. Al-Farabi then takes this concept from Plato and expands on it brilliantly. In his attempt to synthesize the concept of Plato’s philosopher-king with the Imam of Islam, Al-Farabi displays great respect for the philosophy of the past without ignoring the people of his own historical context. If there is an overarching lesson to be drawn from Plato and Al-Farabi, it is this one. Plato’s philosopher-kings serve to remind us that the knowledge of existence outside the cave is useless unless one goes back in. Al-Farabi’s addition of religion is his acknowledgment that this knowledge should be known by all, not only the rulers. Although Plato and Al-Farabi both agree that philosophy contains truths that are eternal, it is Al-Farabi that reminds us that these truths can be understood in more than one way. If Plato’s emphasis on philosophy reminds us of universal truths, it is Al-Farabi’s addition of religion that reminds us that these truths are always being told in new eras, in new places, to new people.
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