Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Islamic Philosopher Farabi & Our Times

When philosophers get involved in the shadow world of everyday politics, there is danger both for them and the people. Leo Strauss said this was indicated in Farabi's politics by his leaving out of his exposition (in his book on Plato and Aristotle) how religion and philosophy were two ways of looking at the same thing all reference to invisible things like the soul and Plato's ideas, leaving out religious things aside from religion's application to politics. That intellectual failure is the danger for philosophers. Philosophers would also be kings, putting into political effect their philosophy in the form of religious law. That practical failure is the danger for the rest of us.

Philosopher-kings are hard to come by, and if they were at hand, most would have to be forced into the business of selling soulless laws to non-philosophers. What we get instead is politicians each with their crude political theories claiming to have the authority of god. We now read Farabi as saying religion is a sort of imitation philosophy that dangerously is liable to fall into the hands of a imitation philosopher who has grabbed the job of ruler.

In the 13th century, when Farabi was translated and entered into the West with his exposition of Plato and Aristotle, both Christian and Jewish philosophy took him not at his word, but his intention: they separated philosopher from king, made the ruler exclusively responsible for politics and the philosopher for seeking the truth. And the king's politics was not to be formed by religion as a kind of image of the philosopher's truth. Religion and philosophy remained together, but outside of politics.

This successful communication seems like a miracle. Farabi writes in the 10th century, living under the threat of religious law, in a kind of code, the same practiced by Plato in his Republic, and across centuries and on another continent, in translation and by people of other nations he is exactly understood.

We can summarize the understanding as: politics at best is a kind of darkness, not lit up by the glare of deliberately false religious structuring, but illuminated from individual points of religion by the human individual's understanding. The idea that crossed centuries and continents and nations has not quite gotten to us here. We are too liable to take political ideas seriously, that is, religiously. Ideas like small government, free trade, financial restraint, tolerance, even allowing ourselves to be terrified by attacks meant to create terror.

These are ideas of philosophy from within politics. They are known falsehoods, manipulations to create order within the darkness. The philosophers outside politics, the individuals in a democracy who have a share in the direction taken by the government, exercise their philosophy in rejecting all such ideas and demanding practical, technical exploration of present problems.

We return to Farabi these days because we are living in a religious state, just like he did. Our religion is not Islam, but money. And this is not a religious statement: we are not talking about capitalism, socialism, we are describing what is happening. People who place making money first are imposing this preference of theirs on politics. Determining how government works. Who it listens to, who it favors, what it does. It is not an "idea", it is something already accomplished.

We see ourselves as a religious nation, but don't see what kind of religious nation we are. In our religious politics we are close to our chosen enemies. We share a way of thinking with them: we bury our religion in politics. We understand our enemies, we compete with them on the same terms, we are playing a game with them agreeing upon the rules. Fighting them we distract ourselves from noticing we don't have to think as we do.