Avicenna: The leading sage


Nowadays, not many philosophers are prominent enough to get nicknames. In medieval times the practice was more popular. Every scholastic worth their salt had one: Bonaventure was the “seraphic doctor”, Aquinas the “angelic doctor”, Duns Scotus the “subtle doctor”, and so on. In the Islamic world, too, outstanding thinkers were honoured with such titles. Of these, none was more appropriate than al-shaykh al-ra??s, which one might loosely translate as “the leading sage”. It was bestowed on Ab? ?Al? Ibn S?n? (d.1037 AD), who was known to all those medieval scholastics by the Latinized name “Avicenna”. And not just known, but renowned. Avicenna is one of the few philosophers to have become a major influence on the development of a completely foreign philosophical culture. Once his works were translated into Latin he became second only to Aristotle as an inspiration for thirteenth-century medieval philosophy, and (thanks to his definitive medical summary the Canon, in Arabic Q?n?n) second only to Galen as a source for medical knowledge in Europe.

In the Islamic world, Avicenna’s influence was even greater. Here he effectively replaced Aristotle as the central authority for philosophy. Even the term “Peripatetic”, which originally meant “Aristotelian”, started to mean “Avicennan” instead. Critics and admirers of Avicenna agreed that his thought was all but equivalent to philosophy (falsafa) itself. To criticize the “philosophers” as did al-Ghaz?l? in his famous Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tah?fut al-fal?sifa), or as did al-Shahrast?n? in his much less famous but more entertainingly titled Wrestling Match with the Philosophers, was to enumerate the errors of Avicenna, not those of Plato or Aristotle.

Apart from the emphatic criticism, this is pretty much what Avicenna had in mind. He deliberately set out to supplant Aristotle by re-organizing and re-thinking “Peripatetic” philosophy. For this reason he did not write commentaries on Aristotle, like others did (for example al-F?r?b? and Ibn Rushd, known in Latin as “Averroes”), but instead produced original treatises with varying lengths and levels of difficulty. Even in his most Aristotelian compendium of philosophy, the one that would prove most popular in Latin translation, Avicenna departed from Aristotle’s teaching whenever he saw fit. This was the Shif?? (Healing), a many-volume text with sections on every area of philosophy including mathematics and physics. Avicenna wrote other overviews of his own thought, such as the Naj?t (Salvation), (more or less a shorter version of the Shif??), and al-Ish?r?t wa-l-tanb?h?t (Pointers and Reminders), still lengthy but much more compressed, designed to make the student reader work to reconstruct the line of thought behind the teachings.

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