For the most part, we English-speaking historians of 17th century philosophy continue in a state of relative ignorance of the history of Arabic and Jewish philosophy. The works of Sadr a-Din Shirazi or Mulla Sadra are a case in point.[^1] Most of his works have not been translated. And, despite some useful studies and surveys, an analytical literature of interest to philosophers is still missing, as Hossein Ziai has noted.[^2] There are a number of reasons why we historians would like to have more. The first is that, as late as the mid-17th century Islamic and Christian philosophers were drawing on the same ancient and medieval background.[^3] In metaphysics and the theory of knowledge there was a common body of knowledge and a set of well-understood controversies based on Aristotelian, Neo-platonic, and Gnostic sources. On the theological side, where Christian and Islamic sources differed, the metaphysical issues were nevertheless similar. For, as monotheistic religions, both Christianity and Islam faced a perplexing set of issues having to do with creation, divine will and power, identity and the afterlife, and both religions offered both analytical and revelatory treatments of them. Second, a reading knowledge of Arabic and Hebrew was not uncommon amongst learned Europeans up to the 17th century, and many Arabic texts were available in Hebrew translations. It is therefore remarkable, in light of this level of common philosophical culture, that we have so few comparative studies and so little understanding of influences. The European or North American student is still taught that history of philosophy led from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus and Ockham and thence to Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza. A. N. Whitehead’s claim that the history of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle is still taken quite seriously. Even our advanced students are likely to think of Plotinus, as a footnoter of Plato and of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rshd as footnoters to Aristotle, and to be wholly unaware of Ibn Gabirol or al-Ghazzali. They are unlikely to realize that there is an Arabic background to the lengthy debates in metaphysics over causality, power and natural law that are carried on by Malebranche, Leibniz, and Hume, and that there are contrasts and comparisons to be made between Suhrawardi mysticism and that of the Latin writers. (Indeed “difficult” aspect of 17th century European authors are sometimes referred simply to “mysticism,” or a “lapse into mysticism,” as though mysticism were an unpredictable affliction striking philosophers unpredictably rather than both a literary-philosophical tradition and a very widespread disposition of the human mind.
But perhaps this ignorance is not only to be deplored but also explained.
What presents Western scholars with a research problem--too little material available and too little linguistic competence to be able to establish connections and make comparisons between early modern Christian and Islamic metaphysics-- is perhaps not an accident but the consequence of a much larger gulf in aims and understanding that opened between European philosophy and the rest of the world in the 17th century. “Islamic philosophy,” Nasr says, “followed a different course from Western philosophy in nearly every domain despite their common roots and the
considerable influence of Islamic philosophy upon Latin scholasticism.” Where Western philosophy came to be concerned with a “world of solidified objects,” Islamic philosophy still saw God as the ultimate reality.[^4] Historically, this gulf was perceived by Europeans in a self-serving way as the consequence of their having been so independent, hardworking, and fortunate as to have discovered the true sources of knowledge while the rest of the world carried on in its old way. In this narrative, Enlightenment finally penetrated, more or less, and modern science and technology became ubiquitous, even where superstition, harmless and dangerous, continues to hold sway. This self-glorifying view, it is safe to say, is now reeling under postmodernist criticism that is highly critical of the ideological and moral basis of Western “scientism.” The history of philosophy has not been spared this critique. It has been argued that, with Bacon (1561-1626 ) Descartes (1596-1650), European philosophy developed its uniquely destructive as well as productive, utilitarianism. Where the traditional concerns of philosophers had been unworldly and anti-worldly, the pursuit of wealth and health are the declared aims of both Bacon and Descartes at the start of the modern era. The thrust of Bacon’s message is that humans can become happy when they learn to manipulate the essences of natural things to transmute one substance into another, e.g., dross into gold. The thrust of Descartes’s is that the health of the mind depends entirely on the constitution of the body, which can be altered and improved, provided one understands its hidden constitution and micromechanical organization.
Of course, the intellectual situation is more complex than this. Subsequent developments in European metaphysics somewhat reversed the materialistic trend, but at the price of separating the idealisms of “pure metaphysics” from scientific inquiry in such a way as eventually to render the social influence of metaphysics nugatory. It is fascinating to see, moreover, how much contemporary criticism of Cartesianism amongst philosophers is based on the accusation that is insufficiently concerned with materiality. Embodiment has always been of great interest to Western philosophers. While the “knowledge by presence” of Islamic philosophy has been compared by recent commentators with Heidegger’s notions of experiential immediacy, Heidegger too seems to me to be stamped in the earthy, utilitarian European mode. From a distance one sees local disagreement, not the extraordinary divergence that faces us when we look at Eastern and Western traditions.
The purpose of my paper today is to effect a comparison between Sadra (980/1571-1050/1640) and the somewhat younger Benedict Spinoza (1043 /1632 – 1087/1677) in order to try to explain and defend the hypothesis just presented. Like Sadra, Spinoza is a much-revered figure who is read today not only by professional philosophers but by reflective laypeople as a source of ethical solace and inspiration. Of course Spinoza was only 7 years old when Sadra died; nevertheless, had their lives actually overlapped and had they met, Spinoza and Sadra, would have had little difficulty in understanding each others’ theology, metaphysical terminology, or ethical values, so substantial was the basis they had in common. But there were some discussions they might have had in which they would not have seen
eye to eye. For Spinoza was not only a philosopher working within the traditions of analytic metaphysics and aspirational moral philosophy, he was also a Cartesian. Spinoza is both a confirming and a disconfirming instance to the claim that the behaviour of solidified objects became paramount in the West, for Spinoza manifestly did understand God as the ultimate reality. He maintained in his Ethics published shortly after his death that there that there existed only one substance, that it was infinite and eternal, and that creatures were what he called “finite modes” of this substance, flickering in and out of their local and insubstantial being.
Anglo-American historians of philosophy are frequently baffled by Spinoza. One of the most perceptive describes his metaphysics as a curious hybrid. The suggestion is that two incompatible philosophical traditions are mingled together, but this is a strictly retrospective judgement that makes sense only given what happened later. But the point of the judgement is this: If we read Spinoza as a late medieval philosopher, the manner in which he handles questions concerning the nature of God, intuitive knowledge, and immortality seems fully intelligible. He holds many doctrines that are recognizable from the common heritage. Chief amongst them are the unity of God and the world, the possibility of moral achievement through self-knowledge and self-discipline, and the primacy of intuitive knowledge. Indeed many of the central images of Spinoza’s and Sadra’s philosophies are the same. Nasr tells us that “For Mulla Sadra… there occurred a vision in which he saw the whole of existence not as objects which exist or existents, but as a single whole (wujud) whose delimitations by various quiddities (mahiyyat) gives the appearance of a multiplicity which “exists” with various existents being independent of each other.”[^5] Visible nature, as it is for Spinoza, “…is forever changing and transforming and flowing, (into particular forms) according to the substance of Its essence….”[^6]
Compare the following texts:
In general, the more powerful and the more intense the being becomes, the more perfect it is in essence, the more completely comprehensive of all notions and quiddities, and the more (capable) in its activities and efforts.[^7]
…[T]he power of any thing, or the conatus with which it acts or endeavours to act…, that is, the power or conatus by which it perseveres in its own being, is nothing but the given or actual essence of the thing.[^8]
There is a difference of emphasis in the passages. Sadra asserts of a thing that is increasing in power that it is becoming more perfect in its essence; Spinoza asserts of essences that they confers the power of action and perseverence. Yet both writers are making an equation that is not dissimilar. They might not have agreed with each others’s precise formulations of the identity, but there is no doubt they would have understood them as meaningful and important assertions.