Ibn Gabirol Discusses The Virtues

If we accept the premise that personal sufferings and misfortunes provide excellent grist for philosophy’s mill, then we must concede that Solomon Ibn Gabirol was provided with incomparable ingredients for speculative thought.  He was born to a prosperous family in Malaga, Spain around 1022.  Yet life wasted no time in dealing him cruel cards; his parents died when he was a child, making him an itinerant orphan.  He seems to have been stricken by a degenerative disease as a teenager, and this fact lodged in his breast an enduring sense of alienation and resentment; but like many other thinkers, he would find refuge from his pain by taking up the pen. 

Poetry and philosophy flowed from him in abundance before he had reached the age of thirty.  His abilities and caustic personality earned himself both renown and a multitude of enemies.  He moved to Zaragoza, finding it expedient to seek the protection of Ibn Qabrun, a powerful local patron; but when this political figure was assassinated in 1045, Gabirol was forced to leave the city.  Fortune then smiled on him.  He was befriended and sponsored by Samuel Ibn Naghrillah, then probably the most influential Jewish scholar in Muslim Spain.  This arrangement was short-lived, however; the two men became estranged, probably as a consequence of Gabirol’s sharp tongue, and our unfortunate philosopher found himself again an unprotected wanderer in a hostile world.      

A statue of Ibn Gabirol in Israel

We do not know the precise date of his death; most sources give the date as 1069 or 1070, and the location as Valencia.  His productivity was impressive; before the age of thirty he had generated an impressive catalogue of works in poetry, grammar, philosophy, and theology.  One of these books was the celebrated Fons Vitae, which proved popular in Latin Christendom.  Indeed he was so beloved by the medieval schoolmen that some of them, including William of Auvergne, mistook him for a Christian.  One of Ibn Gabirol’s modern translators, Stephen Wise, informs us of these remarkable facts:

The Fons Vitae was attributed for centuries to a scholastic philosopher, Avicebron, until [the scholar] Munk recognized in 1846 that Ibn Gabirol and Avicebron were one, the name Avicebrol (Avicebron) being a corruption of Ibn Gabirol or Ibn Gebirol.  The Arabic original of the Fons Vitae is lost, but a Latin translation has been preserved which was made by Johannes Hispalensis, with the aid of Dominicus Gundisalvus…Munk discovered the identity of Avicebron and Ibn Gabirol through a comparison of the Paris manuscript of the Fons Vitae with a Hebrew work by Shemtob Palquera in the Paris Library, which proved to be a paraphrase of the Arabic original, of which the Fons Vitae was evidently likewise a translation.  This discovery was of the greatest importance, inasmuch as Avicebron the Jew, Salomon ibn Gabirol, played no unimportant part in the development of scholastic philosophy.

So is philosophy’s fertile ground irrigated by unexpected streams.  Gabirol’s philosophical, but not his poetical, writings were mostly ignored by the Jewish community of his era, likely because the Neoplatonist tone of his works was uncongenial to the doctrinal mood of his sectarian peers.  Gabirol takes his wisdom wherever he finds it.  He courageously draws from Greek and Arabic philosophy without a trace of judgment or disapproval, shading and coloring what he finds to produce something uniquely his own.  Not everyone endorsed this approach, however.  There are indications that Gabirol’s style of writing was perceived by the rabbinical establishment as being insufficiently deferential to scripture.  “For this additional reason,” writes his translator Stephen Wise, “his philosophy was ignored by his contemporaries and he personally was persecuted.”  Abraham Ibn Daud set out expressly to refute him; Maimonides contemptuously ignored him.  Latin Europe knew and venerated him as Avicebron, and the Arabs as Abu Ayyub Sulaiman Ibn Yahya Ibn Jabirol.     

An original page from a manuscript of “The Improvement of the Moral Qualities”

One of his famous treatises was the manual of virtues The Improvement of the Moral Qualities, or Islah Al-Ikhlaq (إصلاح الأخلاق), written in Arabic with Hebrew letters.  As we will see, the work was innovative for a number of reasons.  First, it boldly attempted to link the virtues to the five human senses.  Other philosophers have not taken up his banner on this point, but at least Gabirol attempts to cut new pathways through forests long entangled by the same brambles and thickets.  Second, in an age when theology ruled the roost, his discussion of the virtues attempted to bring a rationalist flavor to an analysis unencumbered by religious dogmas.  This was not an insignificant achievement.

For Ibn Gabirol, the five physical senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) are directly tied to the virtues and vices.  These senses in turn are connected to the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm), which are themselves linked the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water).  The wise man wishing to master the virtues must therefore be able to regulate and control his senses on command.  To each sense, Gabirol assigns the following qualities:

Sight:  Pride, Meekness, Pudency (i.e. Modesty), Impudency

Hearing:  Love, Hate, Mercy, Cruelty

Smell:  Wrath, Goodwill, Jealousy, Awakeness

Taste:  Joy, Grief, Tranquility, Penitence

Touch:  Liberality, Stinginess, Valor, Cowardice

Residing within each of us, says Gabirol, is the dormant potential to master the virtues and attain excellence. But while this potential may exist in theory, not everyone will seek to activate it in practice:

Know thou that all the qualities of man, of the possession of which he gives evidence at the period of his youth and manhood, are in him during his infancy and boyhood:  though it be not in his power to manifest them, they are nevertheless within him in potentia, if not in actu.  Thou wilt observe that in some boys the quality of pudency manifests itself, and in others impudence; some incline to enjoyment, others aspire to virtue, and still others are disposed to vices; these qualities above mentioned and others similar to them being among those of the animal soul; and when men reach unto the stage of maturity, the strength of the rational soul displays its activity and it directs him that possesses it to a proper understanding with regard to the improvement of the qualities, since it is not the practice of the animal soul to improve these.  [Trans. by S. Wise]

Ibn Gabiron then embarks upon a discussion of a number of different virtues.  We will not treat them all, but will satisfy ourselves with a healthy sampling.  He is keenly aware of the dangers of arrogance and pride, reminding us: 

The divine Socrates said:  ‘From whom doth disappointment never part?  He who seeks a rank for which his ability is too feeble.’  Again he said, ‘He who sets himself up as wise will be set down by others for a fool.’  I hold that bad manners are attributable to superciliousness.  Socrates said, ‘Aversion is always felt for him who has an evil nature, so that men flee away from him.’…It is told of Ardeshir, the king, that he gave a book to a man accustomed to stand at his side, and said unto him,  ‘When thou seest me become violently angry give it to me,’ and in the book was written, ‘Restrain thyself, for thou art not God; thou art but a body, one part of which is on the point of consuming the other, and in a short while it will turn into the worm and dust and nothingness.’

Love he depicts in purely physical terms; and here he is alert to the outward indications of love’s close relative, lust:  “One of the signs of him, who is overcome by his lust, is that he is very changeable, restless, and fickle of speech.  Especially if, added to this, the bloody temper prevail in his constitution and he be in the period of youth and the season of spring, then it proves too strong for him.”  If this quality is allowed to master the soul, a man becomes inert and useless, because all the other senses become blunted.  Conversely, those animated by hate will never find a moment’s peace:

Thou shouldst know that he who hates men is hated by them, and when this quality takes firm hold of the soul, it destroys it, because it leads to the hatred of the very food and drink with which man sustains life.  Besides, he suffers injury through the hostility of men. When excessive love is expended on other than divine things, it is changed into the most violent hatred…It has been said that the fretful cannot abide by one state; he has not a friend; his circumstances are always disturbed, and misery never parts company with him. 

Joy is the sign of a healthy soul; a perpetual frown or grimace is not consistent with nobility of spirit:  “Peculiar to it [joy] is continual smiling without apparent cause.”  Anger or wrath is nothing but the baggage of the fool, which he carries for no good purpose:  “It is said that as scab is a disease of the body, so is wrath a disease of the soul.  The moral man must not become wrathful often, because, by reason of his wrath, he is compelled to bear burdens.”  Valor is the stuff of life itself; Ibn Gabirol counsels that “Valor consists in persevering in the right and overcoming thy desires, until thou feel that to die in the best way thou hast found is more desirable than to live in the opposite (i.e., evil) way.” 

Ibn Gabirol’s discussion of the virtues is redeemed by the originality of his approach and the conciseness of his speech.  We must not fault him if he occasionally descends into platitude, for any discussion of the virtues is unavoidably bounded by a certain fixed range of verbal expression.  The linkage of human behavior, in the form of virtues, to the senses was an important insight, one that would wait centuries for psychologists to investigate more deeply.  For is it not true that the five senses guide the mind, and the mind directs bodily action?   

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Read profiles of other notable figures in the collection of essays, Digest:

    

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