Abû Nasr al-Farabî: ‘Opinions Of the Dwellers Of The Virtuous City – From Book V
The round city of Baghdad in the 10th century,
the peak of the Abbasid Caliphate.
Illustration: Jean Soutif.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, is an excerpt from Abû Nasr al-Farabî’s masterpiece, ‘The Opinions of the Dwellers of the Virtuous City’ (El-Medinetu’l-Fadila), here in professor Richard Walzer first edition and English translation, Oxford University Press, published in 1985. Excerpt are from book V, chapter 15: odd pages 229, 231, 233, 235, 237, 239.
A little background information from the book cover
Al-Farabî (d. 950 AD), known in medieval Latin texts as Alfarabius or Avennasar, was one of the most outstanding and renowned Muslim philosophers. He became known as the “second teacher,” the first being Aristotle. On the Perfect State reflects al-Farabî’s view that philosophy had come to an end everywhere else and that it had found a new home and a new life within the world of Islam. Philosophy, in his view, gives the right views about the freedom of moral choice and of the good life altogether. The perfect human being, the philosopher, ought also to be the sovereign ruler. Philosophy alone shows the right path to the urgent reform of the caliphate.
Al-Farabî envisages a perfect city state as well as a perfect community and a perfect world state. His importance for subsequent Islamic philosophers is considerable. His impact on the writings of 10th century AD authors such as the Ikhwan al-Safa, al-Masudi, Miskawayh and Abu ‘l-Hasan Muhammad al-Amiri is undeniable. Ibn Sina seems to have known his works intimately and Ibn Rushd follows him in the essentials of his thought. Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher who lived in Muslim Spain and wrote in Arabic, appreciated al-Farabî highly.
Al-Farabî’s political ideas had a belated and lasting success from the 13th century onwards. A few of his treatises became known to the Latin school men while more were translated into medieval Hebrew.
From Book V- Chapter XV- Perfect Associations
§ 1. ‘In order to preserve himself and to attain his highest perfections every human being is by his very nature in need of many things which he cannot provide all by himself; he is indeed in need of people who each supply him with some particular need of his. Everybody finds himself in the same relation to everybody in this respect. Therefore man cannot attain the perfection, for the sake of which his inborn nature has been given to him, unless many (societies of) people who co-operate come together who each supply everybody else with some particular need of his, so that as a result of the contribution of the whole community all the things are brought together which everybody needs in order to preserve himself and to attain perfection. Therefore human individuals have come to exist in great numbers, and have settled in the inhabitable (inhabited?) region of the earth, so that human societies have come to exist in it, some of which are perfect, others imperfect.
§ 2. There are three kinds of perfect society, great, medium and small The great one is the union of all the societies in the inhabitable world; the medium one the union of one nation in one part of the inhabitable world; the small one the union of the people of a city in the territory of any nation whatsoever. Imperfect are the union of people in a village, the union of people in a quarter, then the union in a street, eventually the union in a house, the house being the smallest union of all. Quarter and village exist both for the sake of the city, but the relation of the village to the city is one of service whereas the quarter is related to the city as a part of it; the street is a part of the quarter, the house a part of the street. The city is a part of the territory of a nation, the nation a part of all the people of the inhabitable world.
§3. The most excellent good and the utmost perfection is, in the first instance, attained in a city, not in a society which is less complete than it. But since good in its real sense is such as to be attainable through choice and will and evils are also due to will and choice only, a city may be established to enable its people to co-operate in attaining some aims that are evil. Hence felicity is not attainable in every city. The city, then, in which people aim through association at co-operating for the things by which felicity in its real and true sense can be attained, is the excellent city, and the society in which there is a co-operation to acquire felicity is the excellent society; and the nation in which all of its cities co-operate for those things through which felicity is attained is the excellent nation. In the same way, the excellent universal state will arise only when all the nations in it co-operate for the purpose of reaching felicity.
§4. The excellent city resembles the perfect and healthy body, all of whose limbs co-operate to make the life of the animal perfect and to preserve it in this state. Now the limbs and organs of the body are different and their natural endowments and faculties are unequal in excellence, there being among them one ruling organ, namely the heart, and organs which are close in rank to that ruling organ, each having been given by nature a faculty by which it performs its proper function in conformity with the natural aim of that ruling organ. Other organs have by nature faculties by which they perform their functions according to the aims of those organs which have no intermediary between themselves and the ruling organ; they are in the second rank. Other organs, in tum, perform their functions according to the aim of those which are in the second rank, and so on until eventually organs are reached which only serve and do not rule at all. The same holds good in the case of the city.
Its parts are different by nature, and their natural dispositions are unequal in excellence: there is in it a man who is the ruler, and there are others whose ranks are close to the ruler, each of them with a disposition and a habit through which he performs an action in conformity with the intention of that ruler; these are the holders of the first ranks. Below them are people who perform their actions in accordance with the aims of those people; they are in the second rank. Below them in tum are people who perform their actions according to the aims of the people mentioned in the second in- stance, and the parts of the city continue to be arranged in this way, until eventually parts are reached which perform their actions according to the aims of others, while there do not exist any people who perform their actions according to their aims; these, then, are the people who serve without being served in tum, and who are hence in the lowest rank and at the bottom of the scale.
But the limbs and organs of the body are natural, and the dispositions which they have are natural faculties, whereas, although the parts of the city are natural, their dispositions and habits, by which they perform their actions in the city, are not natural but voluntary-notwithstanding that the parts of the city are by nature provided with endowments unequal in excellence which enable them to do one thing and not another. But they are not parts of the city by their inborn nature alone but rather by the voluntary habits which they acquire such as the arts and their likes; to the natural faculties which exist in the organs and limbs ‘of the body correspond the voluntary habits and dispositions in the parts of the city.
§5. The ruling organ in the body is by nature the most perfect and most complete of the organs in itself and in its specific qualification, and it also has the best of everything of which another organ has a share as well; beneath it, in tum, are other organs which rule over organs inferior to them, their rule being lower in rank than the rule of the first and indeed subordinate to the rule of the first; they rule and are ruled. In the same way, the ruler of the city is the most perfect part of the city in his specific qualification and has the best of everything which anybody else shares with him; beneath him are people who are ruled by him and rule others.
The heart comes to be first and becomes then the cause of the existence of the other organs and limbs of the body, and the cause of the existence of their faculties in them and of their arrangement in the ranks proper to them, and when one of its organs is out of order, it is the heart which provides the means to remove that disorder. In the same way the ruler of this city must come to be in the first instance, and will subsequently be the cause of the rise of the city and its parts and the cause of the presence of the voluntary habits of its parts and of their arrangement in the ranks proper to them; and when one part is out of order he provides it with the means to remove its disorder.
The parts of the body close to the ruling organ perform of the natural functions, in agreement-by nature-with the aim of the ruler, the most noble ones; the organs beneath them perform those functions which are less noble, and eventually the organs are reached which perform the meanest functions. In the same way the parts of the city which are close in authority to the ruler of the city perform the most noble voluntary actions, and those below them less noble actions, until eventually the parts are reached which perform the most ignoble actions. The inferiority of such actions is sometimes due to the inferiority of their matter, although they may be extremely useful-like the action of the bladder and the action of the lower intestine in the body; sometimes it is due to their being of little use; at other times it is due to their being very easy to perform. This applies equally to the city and equally to every whole which is composed by nature of well ordered coherent parts: they have a ruler whose relation to the other parts is like the one just described.
§6. This applies also to all existents. For the relation of the First Cause to the other existents is like the relation of the king of the excellent city to its other parts. For the ranks of the immaterial existents are close to the First. Beneath them are the heavenly bodies, and beneath the heavenly bodies the material bodies. All these existents act in conformity with the First Cause, follow it, take it as their guide and imitate it; but each existent does that according to its capacity, choosing its aim precisely on the strength of its established rank in the universe: that is to say the last follows the aim of that which is slightly above it in rank, equally the second existent, in tum, follows what is above itself in rank, and in the same way the third existent has an aim which is above it.
Eventually existents are reached which are linked with the First Cause without any intermediary whatsoever. In accordance with this order of rank all the existents permanently follow the aim of the First Cause. Those which are from the very outset provided with all the essentials of their existence are made to imitate the First (Cause) and its aim from their very outset, and hence enjoy eternal bliss and hold the highest ranks; but those which are not provided from the outset with all the essentials of their existence, are provided with a faculty by which they move towards the expected attainment of those essentials and will then be able to follow the aim of the First (Cause). The excellent city ought to be arranged in the same way: all its parts ought to imitate in their actions the aim of their first ruler according to their rank.’
There is a resemblance between Al-Farabî’s text and the little excerpt shared below from the teaching of the Brethren of the East (Rose+ d’Orient, Ephesus School), which was mainly based in Constantinople and the Aegean, called, ‘The Universal Codex’, here in a Via-HYGEIA English translation:
Of the Analogy between Man and the Community
‘…Man is a form of life composed of multiple other forms of life that participate in his making. The whole of the form of life that is man presents since birth the necessary conditions to the application of the law of life. When one organ in man breaks the balance and does not present anymore the necessary conditions, that organ or a part is killed, impacting the form of life of man (deceases, weaknesses, aneurism, psychosthemia, etc…)
Every organ constituting the body of man having suffered a transformation, can by a counter-activity regenerate itself and bring back activity and balance in the life of man. Man is a conscious form of life, when animals are an instinctive form of life. Man must watch in him the maintaining of the necessary conditions to his form of life, for the full application in him of the law of life.
The man that abandon this watch and does not bring the usual precautions risks getting sick or dying, that is, partial or total transformation. If your apply these remarks on the community gathered as a life form, they apply fully like for man. The study of man is also the study of the life form of the community of men. The laws of harmony lead man to live in good health and lead also a communal life form to live in harmony. By learning about them we facilitate their application in the communal form of life…‘
Source: From the archives of the Brethren of the East in its Via-HYGEIA dedicated repository.
Albert Jounet (1863-1923) was a French mystical writer. The below excerpt is a Via-HYGEIA English translation from the original French:
‘Humanity is like a body of which every individuality is an exactly animated limb: The arm, the legs, etc., of man are intimately part of his body. If the arm, the leg, etc., are suffering from a harmful and cruel disease to the point of compromising the collective existence of the body, would someone be so unwise to harm the sick limb, to burden it, to seek revenge from the suffering it has brought? No, definitely. The first desire of this man would be to provide to the ailing limb all the necessary care it asks for and heal it. This is why we must watch over the well-being of any other person, as an integral part within the great body of humanity, like we watches over our own personal limbs because they are an integral part of our individuality.’
Source: ‘Albert Jounet, son Oeuvre’. From Etienne Belot’s biography. Quote is page 26. Biblithèque Chacornac, 1905.