Saturday, October 30, 2010


"Your problem is you think you can change the world."

I have gone back to Farabi lately, because I am interested in the question of why someone like me who loves ideas more than the world keeps throwing himself back into the world. Farabi interprets Plato in this way: most people never get beyond the received thinking of childhood, thinking that is so which is taught to be so, seeking reward and avoiding punishment. The philosophic law-giver composes religion as the best form of received thinking, while the philosopher himself lives above the shadowy realm of religious doctrine and seeks and attains to some extent the truth. The religious community is constructed as something lower, from conclusions derived from the higher life of philosophy.

Philosophy as creative and protective of a lower, dogmatically enforced religious doctrine is a good definition of fanaticism. This kind of thinking involves both no loyalty to any community, no love of particular people or places or things, and an insistence on loyalty to what is known to be partly arbitrary, and inevitably treating people for whom one has no particular love as means to the end of maintaining the orthodoxy and sustaining the philosophers' higher lives.

But is there a community of philosophers living above religion but imposing religion on others? We know there are communities of clerics in the Arab and Christian worlds who would see themselves in this way.

Within our own communities we are always partial strangers to each other, and so inevitably betrayers of each other in this strangeness to the sense of home each offers the other. We have known about this for a very long time, and have made exactly this the essence of our society's development. Falling in love, romance, is the story of this adjustment. Cervantes' Don Quixote imagining ideals in ordinary life is the corrective to seeing "religious" life as the irrevocably fixed place of ideas instituted from above. We create, as it were from below, the ideas on which are based the modifications of the always partly arbitrary rules of religious community. Knowing that not ourselves alone we are engaged in this is what we mean by public spirit.

Love is divine, not philosophical, because it arises from community, from a bond we do not know. Yet love is also the beginning of philosophy. Knowledge is the successor to religion, and is superior to it. Knowledge is the product of love, the solution to the problem of religion. So when philosophy is separated from religion it is also is separated from love. "Make the beings and what they contain intelligible with certainty", wrote Farabi, but why do that if not from love? The knowledge we obtain we return back to management of our religious and personal lives.

When we know what we are doing, that we from within the community are recreating the community, there no longer is a separate class of law-givers. A citizen of a democracy is much more importantly a re-maker of the law than a maker of the particular laws under which he presently lives.

Our philosophers, thinking their way out of confusions of their own religious group, when they reach new conclusions, these are necessarily practical, they refer to real life lived among others. Thinking like this lends itself to developing technology of everyday life amid things to be made use of, not only of the best social organization. The Arab world, following the tradition of superior class of interpreters and givers of divine law to an inferior world, failed in this application, for a simple reason:

When politics is also the realm of philosophy, practical life, though lower, because it is the product of the higher becomes sacred and untouchable. On the other hand, Aristotle's picture of philosophers in contemplation separate from the practical, more influential on the West than Plato's complex and provocative philosopher-king, leaves the practical world open to experiment.

This is paradoxical: when philosophers are seen as outside the practical world, practical philosophy, science flourishes. When philosophers impose themselves on societies as givers of religious law, science fails. When philosophers as a functioning social class keep to themselves, philosophy flourishes in society in the form of science. When philosophers direct social life as the authority behind religion, science does not advance.

Understanding the place of religion in politics means wanting to have problems.