1902 Encyclopedia > Avicenna

Persian philosopher, theologian and physician

AVICENNA (in Arabic, Abu Ali el-Hosein Ibn-Abdallah IBN-SINA) was born about the year 980 A.D at Afshena, one of the many hamlets in the district of Bokhara. His mother was a native of the place; his father, a Persian from Balkh, filled the post of tax-collector in the neighbouring town of Harmaitin, under Nuh ibn Mansir, the Samanide emir of Bokhara. On the birth of Avicenna's younger brother the family migrated to the capital, then one of the chief cities of the Moslem world, and famous for a culture which was older than its conquest by the Saracens. Avicenna was put in charge of a tutor, and his precocity soon made him the marvel of his neighbours,—as a boy of ten who knew by rote the Koran and much Arabic poetry besides. From a greengrocer he learnt arithmetic; and higher branches were begun under one of those wandering scholars, who gained a livelihood by cures for the sick and lessons for the young. Under him Avicenna read the Isagoge of Porphyry, and the first propositions of Euclid. But the pupil soon found his teacher to be but a charlatan, and betook himself, aided by commentaries, to master logic, geometry, and the Almagest. Before he was sixteen he not merely knew medical theory, hut by gratuitous attendance on the sick had, according to his own account, discovered new methods of treatment. For the next year and a half he worked at the higher philosophy, in which he encountered greater obstacles. In such moments of baffled inquiry he would leave his books, perform the requisite ablutions, then hie to the mosque, and continue in prayer till light broke on his difficulties. Deep into the night he would continue his studies, stimulating his senses by occasional cups of wine, and even in his dreams problems would pursue him and work out their solution. Forty times, it is said, he read through the metaphysics of Aristotle, till the words were imprinted on his memory; but their meaning was hopelessly obscure, until one day they found illumination from the little commentary by Alfarabius, which he bought at a bookstall for the small sum of three drachma. So great was his joy at the discovery, thus made by help of a work from which he had expected only mystery, that he hastened to return thanks to God, and bestowed an alms upon the poor. Thus, by the end of his seventeenth year, he had gone the round of the learning of his time; his apprenticeship of study was concluded, and he went forth a master to find a market for his accomplishments.

His first appointment was that of physician to the emir, whom the fame of the youthful prodigy had reached, and who owed him his recovery from a dangerous illness. Avicenna's chief reward for this service was access to the royal library, contained in several rooms, each with its chests of manuscripts in some branch of learning. The Samanides were well-known patrons of scholarship and scholars, and stood conspicuous amid the fashion of the period, which made a library and a learned retinue an indispensable accompaniment of an emir, even in the days of campaign. In such a library Avicenna could inspect works of great rarity, and study the progress of science. When the library was destroyed by fire not long thereafter, the enemies of Avicenna accused him of burning it, in order for ever to conceal the sources of his knowledge. Meanwhile, he assisted his father in his financial labours, but still found time to write some of his earliest works for two wealthy patrons, whose absolute property they became. Among them was the Collectio, one of those short synopses of knowledge which an author threw off for different patrons.

A.t the age of twenty-two Avicenna lost his father. The Samanide dynasty, which for ten years had been hard pressed between the Turkish Khali of Kashgar on the north and the rulers of Ghazni on the south, came to its end in December 1004. Avicenna seems to have declined the offers of Mahmud the Ghaznevide (who, like his compeers, was rapidly gathering a brilliant cortege of savants, including the astronomer Albiruni), and proceeded westwards to the city of Urdjensh in the modern district of Khiva, where the vizier, regarded as a friend of scholars, gave him a small monthly stipend. But the pay was small, and Avicenna wandered from place to place through the districts of Nishapur and Merv to the borders of Khorasan, seeking an opening for his talents. In the restless change which threw the several cities of Iran from hand to hand among those feudal emirs of the Buide family, who disputed the fragments of the caliphate, the interests of letters and science were not likely to be regarded. Shems al-Maali Kabus, the generous ruler of Deilem, himself a poet and a scholar, with whom he had expected to find an asylum, was about that date (1013) starved to death by his own revolted soldiery. Avicenna himself was at this season stricken down by a severe illness. Finally, at Jorjan, near the Caspian, he met with a friend, who bought near his own house a dwelling in which Avicenna lectured on logic and astronomy. For this patron several of his treatises were written; and the commencement of his Canon of Medicine also dates from his stay in Hyrcania.

He subsequently settled at Rai, in the vicinity of the modern Teheran, where a son of the last emir, Medj Addaula, was nominal ruler, under the regency of his mother. At Rai about thirty of his shorter works are said to have been composed. But the constant feuds which raged between the regent and her second son, Shems Addaula, compelled the scholar to quit the place, and after a brief sojourn at Kaswin, he passed southwards to Hama dan, where that prince had established himself. At first he entered into the service of a high-born lady ; but ere long the emir, hearing of his arrival, called him in as medical attendant, and sent him back with presents to his dwelling. Avicenna was even raised to the office of vizier ; but the turbulent soldiery, composed of Koords and Turks, mutinied against their nominal sovereign, and demanded that the new vizier should be put to death. Shems Addaula consented that he should be banished from the country. Avicenna, however, remained hidden for forty days in a sheikh's house, till a fresh attack of illness induced the emir to restore him to his post. Even during this perturbed time he prosecuted his studies and teaching. Every evening extracts from his great works, the Canon and the Sanatio, were dictated and explained to his pupils, among whom, when the lesson was over, he spent the rest of the night in festive enjoyment with a band of singers and players. On the death of the emir Avicenna ceased to be vizier, and hid himself in the house of an apothecary, where, with intense assiduity, he continued the composition of his works. Meanwhile, he had written to Aba Jaafar, the prefect of Ispahan, offering his services; but the new emir of Hamadan getting to hear of this corre' spondence, and discovering the place of Avicenna's concealment, incarcerated him in a fortress. War meanwhile continued between the rulers of Ispahan and Hamadan ; in 1024 the former captured Hamadan and its towns, and expelled the Turkish mercenaries. When the storm had passed Avicenna returned with the emir to Hamadan, and carried on his literary labours; but at length, accompanied by his brother, a favourite pupil, and two slaves, made his escape out of the city in the dress of a Sufite ascetic. After a perilous journey they reached Ispahan, and received an honourable welcome from the prince. The remaining ten or twelve years of Avicenna's life were spent in the service of Abu Jaafar Ala Addaula, whom he accompanied as physician and general literary and scientific adviser, even in his numerous campaigns. During these years he began to study literary matters and philology, instigated, it is asserted, by criticisms on his style. But amid his restless study Avicenna never forgot his love of enjoyment. Unusual bodily vigour enabled him to combine severe devotion to work with facile indulgence in sensual pleasures. His passion for wine and women was almost as well known as his learning. With much gaiety of heart, and great powers of understanding, he showed at the same time the spirit of an Aristippus more than that of an Aristotle at the courts of the wealthy. Versatile, light-hearted, boastful, and pleasure-loving, he contrasts with the nobler and more intellectual character of Averroes. His bouts of pleasure gradually weakened his constitution ; a severe colic, which seized him on the march of the army against Hamadan, was checked by remedies so violent that Avicenna could scarcely stand. On a similar occasion the disease returned; with difficulty he reached .Hamadan, where, finding the disease gaining ground, he refused to keep up the regimen imposed, and resigned himself to his fate. On his deathbed remorse seized him ; he bestowed his goods on the poor, restored unjust gains, freed his slaves, and every third day till his death listened to the reading of the Koran. He died in June 1037, in his 58th year, and was buried among the palm-trees by the Kiblah of Hamadan.

It was mainly accident which determined that from the 12th to the 17th century Avicenna should be the guide of medical study in European universities, and eclipse the names of Rhazes, Ali, and Avenzoar. His work is not essentially different from that of his predecessors Rhazes and Ali; all present the doctrine of Galen, and through Galen the doctrine of Hippocrates, modified by the system of Aristotle. But the Canon of Avicenna is distinguished from the El-Ham (Continent) or Summary of Rhazes by its greater method, due perhaps to the logical studies of the former, and entitling him to his surname of Prince of the Physicians. The work has been variously appreciated in subsequent ages, some regarding it as a treasury of wisdom, and others, like Avenzoar, holding it useful only as waste paper. In modern times it has been more criticised than read. The vice of the book is excessive classification of bodily faculties, and over-subtlety in the discrimination of diseases. It includes five books ; of which the first and second treat of physiology, pathology, and hygiene, the third and fourth deal with the methods of treating disease, and the fifth describes the composition and preparation of remedies. This last part contains some contingent of personal observation. He is, like all his countrymen, ample in the enumeration of symptoms, and is said to be inferior to Ali in practical medicine and surgery. He introduced into medical theory the four causes of the Peripatetic system. Of natural history and botany he pretends to no special knowledge. Up to the year 1650, or thereabouts, the Canon was still used as a text-book in the universities of Louvain and Montpellier.

The rank of Avicenna in the mediaeval world as a philosopher was far beneath his fame as a physician. Still, the logic of Albertus Magnus and succeeding doctors was largely indebted to him for its formulas. In logic Avicenna starts from distinguishing between the isolated concept and the judgment or assertion ; from which two primitive elements of knowledge there is artificially generated a complete and scientific knowledge by the two processes of definition and syllogism. But the chief interest for the history of logic belongs to his doctrine in so far as it bears upon the nature and function of abstract ideas. The question had been suggested alike to East and West by Porphyry, and the Arabians were the first to approach the full statement of the problem. Alfarabius had pointed out that the universal and individual are not distinguished from each other as understanding from the senses, but that both universal and individual are in one respect intellectual, just as in another connection they play a part in perception. He had distinguished the universal essence in its abstract nature, from the universal considered in relation to a number of singulars. These suggestions formed the basis of Avicenna's doctrine. The essences or forms—the intelligibilia which constitute the world of real knowledge—may be looked at in themselves (metaphysically), or as embodied in the things of sense (physically), or as expressing the processes of thought (logically). The first of these three points of view deals with the form or idea as self-contained in the principles of its own being, apart from those connections and distinctions which it receives in real (sensuous) science, and through the act of intellect. Secondly, the form may be looked at as the similarity evolved by a process of comparison, as the work of menjal reflection, and in that way as essentially expressing a relation. When thus considered as the common features derived by examination from singular instances, it becomes a universal or common term strictly so called. It is intellect which first makes the abstract idea a true universal. (Intellectus informit agi. universalitatem.) In the third place, the form or essence may be looked upon as embodied in outward things (in singularibus propriis), and thus it is the type more or less represented by the members of a natural kind. It is the designation of these outward things which forms the " first intention " of names ; and it is only at a later stage, when thought comes to observe its own modes, that names, looked upon as predicables and universals, are taken in their " second intention." Logic deals with such second intentions. It does not consider the forms ante multiplicitatem, i.e., as eternal ideas—nor in multiplicitate, i.e., as immersed in the matter of the phenomenal world—but post multiplicitatem, i.e., as they exist in and for the intellect which has examined and compared. Logic does not come in contact with things, except as they are subject to modification by intellectual forms. In other words, universality, individuality, and speciality are all equally modes of our comprehension or notion ; their meaning consists in their setting forth the relations attaching to any object of our conception. In the mind, e.g., one form may be placed in reference to a multitude of things, and as thus related will be universal. The form animal, e.g., is an abstract intelligible, or metaphysical idea. When an act of thought employs it as a schema to unify several species, it acquires its logical aspect (respectus) of generality; and the various living beings qualified to have the name animal applied to them constitute the natural class or kind. Avicenna's view of the universal may be compared with that of Abelard, which calls it " that whose nature it is to be predicated of several," as if the generality became explicit only in the act of predication, in the sermo or proposition, and not in the abstract, unrelated form or essence. The three modes of the universal before things, in things, and after things, spring from Arabian influence, but depart somewhat from his stand-point.

The place of Avicenna amongst Moslem philosophers is seen in the fact that Shahrastani takes him as the type of all, and that Algazali's attack against philosophy is in reality almost entirely directed against Avicenna. His system is in the main a codification of Aristotle modified by fundamental views of Neo-Platonist origin, and it tends to be a compromise with theology. In order, for example, to maintain the necessity of creation, he taught that all things except God were admissible or possible in their own nature, but that certain of them were rendered necessary by the act of the creative first agent,—in other words, that the possible could be transformed into the necessary. Avicenna's theory of the process of knowledge is an interesting part of his doctrine. Man has a rational soul, one face of which is turned towards the body, and, by the help of the higher aspect, acts as practical understanding ; the other face lies open to the reception and acquisition of the intelligible forms, and its aim is to become a reasonable world, reproducing the forms of the universe and their intelligible order. In man there is only the susceptibility to reason, which is sustained and helped by the light of the active intellect. Man may prepare himself for this influx by removing the obstacles which prevent the union of the intellect with the human vessel destined for its reception. The stages of this process to the acquisition of mind are generally enumerated by Avicenna aa four; in this part he follows not Aristotle, but the Greek commentator. The first stage is that of the hylic or material intellect, a state of mere potentiality, like that of a child for writing, before he has ever put pen to paper. The second stage is called in habitu ; it is compared to the case of a child that has learned the elements of writing, when the bare possibility is on the way to be developed, and is seen to be real. In this period of half-trained reason, it appears as happy conjecture, not yet transformed into art or science proper. When the power of writing has been actualised, we have a parallel to the intellectus in actu—the way of science and demonstration is entered. And when writing has been made a permanent accomplishment, or lasting property of the subject, to be taken up at will, it corresponds to the intellectus adeptus—the complete mastery of science. The whole process may be compared to the gradual illumination of a body naturally capable of receiving light. There are, however, grades of susceptibility to the active intellect, i.e., in theological language, to communication with God and his angels. Sometimes the receptivity is so vigorous in its affinity, that without teaching it rises at one step to the vision of truth, by a certain " holy force " above ordinary measure. (In this way philosophy tried to account for the phenomenon of prophecy, one of the ruling ideas of Islam.) But the active intellect is not merely influential on human souls It is the universal giver of forms in the world.

In several points Avicenna endeavoured to give a rationale of theological dogmas, particularly of prophetic rule, of miracles, divine providence, and immortality. The permanence of individual souls he supports by arguments borrowed from those of Plato. The existence of a prophet is shown to be a corollary from a belief in God as a moral governor, and the phenomena of miracles are required to evidence the genuineness of the prophetic mission. For man, in order to his well-being and the permanence of his kind, requires in the first place a clear vision of right and truth, and must, secondly, depend upon some power capable of carrying out these discoveries of moral law. If providence has so arraiiged that the eyelids and the hair of the eyebrows shall grow to protect the eye, much more is it needful for a prophet to arise who shall preach the truth of God's unity, prescribe laws for men, and exhort them to well-doing by the promise of recompense to come. The weal of humanity demands the revelation from God, and, to certify his office, the prophet must work miracles. Just as in ordinary states the soul influences the bodily organs, so in exalted conditions it may attain the level of those high immaterial spirits, whose energy is strong enough to permeate the whole passive world. This mystical union with the hidden universe is a mystery which the ordinary mind cannot understand. Many things then become visible as by a lightning flash in the darkness, and are apprehended by the vigorous grasp of pure intuition. But more generally the imagination throws itself on these intuitions, and presents them to the lower soul under the semblance of forms and sounds—the angelic beauty which the seer beholds, and the harmonious speech which a heavenly voice seems to utter in his ear. Thus Avicenna, like his predecessors, tried to harmonise the abstract forms of philosophy with the religious faith of his nation. But his arguments are generally vitiated bv the fallacy of assuming what they profess to prove. His failure is made obvious by the attack of Algazali on the tendencies and results of speculation.

Upwards of 100 treatises are ascribed to Avicenna. Some of them are tracts of a few pages, others are works extending through several volumes. The best-known amongst them, and that to which Avicenna owed his European reputation, is the Canon of Medicine; an Arabic edition of it appeared at Rome 1593, and a Hebrew version at Naples in 1491. Of the Latin version there were about thirty editions, founded on the original translation by Gerard of Cremona. The 15th century has the honour of composing the great commentary on the text of the Canon, grouping around it all that theory had imagined, and all that practice had observed. Other medical works translated into Latin are the Medicamenta Cordialia, Canticum de Medicma, Tractatus de Syrupo Acetoso. Scarcely any member of the Arabian circle of the sciences, including theology, philology, mathematics, astronomy, physics, and music, has been left untouched by the treatises of Avicenna, many of which probably varied little, except in being commissioned by a different patron and having a different form or extent. He wrote at least one treatise on alchemy, but several others have been falsely attributed to him. His book on animals was translated by Michael Scot. His Logic, Metaphysics, Physics, De Cœlo, are treatises giving a synoptic view of Aristotelian doctrine. The Logic and Metaphysics have been printed more than once; the latter, e.g., at Venice in 1493, 1495, and 1546. Some of his shorter essays on medicine, logic, &c, take a poetical form (the poem on logic was published by Sehmcelders in 1836). Two encyclopaedic treatises, dealing with philosophy, are often mentioned. The larger, Al-Shefa (Sanatio), exists nearly complete in manuscript in the Bodleian Library and elsewhere; part of it on the De Anima appeared at Pavia (1490) as the Liber Sextus Naturalium, and the long account of Avicenna's philosophy given by Shahrastani seems to be mainly an analysis, and in many places a reproduction, of the Al-Shefa. A shorter form of the work is known as the Al-Nedjat (Liberatio). The Latin editions of part of these works have been modified by the corrections which the monkish editors confess that they applied. There is also a FMlosophia Orientalis, mentioned by Roger Bacon, and now lost, which according to Averroes was pantheistic in tone.

For Avicenna's life, see Ibn Khallikan's Biographical Dictionary, translated by Slane (1842) ; "Wustenfeld's Geschichte der Arabischen Aerzte und Naturforscher, Gottingen, 1840 ; Abul-Pharagius, Historia Dynastiarum. For his medicine, see Sprengel, Histoire de la Médecine; and for his philosophy, see Shahrastani, Germ, transi, vol. ii. 213-332 ; Prantl, Geschichte der Logih, ii. 318-361 ; Stfickl, Phil. d. Mittelalters, ii. 23-58 ; Munk, Mélanges, 352-366 ; and Haneberg in the Abhandlungen der Philos.-Philelog. Class, der Bayerischen Académie, 1867. (W. W.)

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