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Al Kindi-About First Philosophy

Picture by Phil Koch.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are some excerpts of the opening paragraphs of Al Kindi’s ‘About First Philosophy’ treatise, translated by Peter Adamson and Peter P. Pormann, in ‘The Philosophical Works of Al-Kindi’, Oxford University Press. 2012.


I-2. ‘Of the human arts, the highest in rank and the noblest degree is the art of philosophy, which is defined as the knowledge of things as they really are (bi-haqa iqiha), insofar as this is possible for man. For the objective of the philosopher is that by knowing it (sc. Philosophy), he should achieve the truth, and that by practicing it, he should act truthfully. Yet activity is not ceaseless, because we come to rest and the activity stops when we come finally to the truth. We do not find the truth that we seek without finding a cause, and the cause of the existence and stability of each things is the truth, because everything that has being (‘anniya) has truth. So, the truth necessarily exists, and therefore beings have existence.

I-3. The most noble philosophy of the highest degree is that of the first philosophy, by which I mean the knowledge of the first truth who is the cause of all truth. The complete and most noble philosopher is therefore necessarily the man who comprehends this most noble knowledge, because the knowledge of the cause is more noble than the knowledge of the effect. For we only know each of the effects completely when we comprehend the knowledge of its cause.

I-4. For every cause is either matter, form, agent (that is, that from which something is). There are four kind of scientific questions, as we have determined elsewhere in our philosophical treatises: ‘Whether’, ‘what’, ‘which’, and ‘why’. Whether enquires only about being (‘an al-anniya faqat). In the case of every being that has a genus, ‘what’ enquires about the being’s genus, while ‘which’ enquires about the specific differences. So, ‘What’ and ‘which’ taken together enquire about the being’s species. ‘Why’ enquires about its final cause, since it enquires about the absolute cause (al-‘illa al mutlaqa). It is clear that once we comprehend knowledge of its matter, we have comprehended knowledge of its genus, and having comprehended knowledge of its form we have comprehended knowledge of its species. Knowledge of the species includes knowledge of the specific difference. If we comprehend knowledge of its matter, its form, and its final cause, then we have comprehended knowledge of its definition. The reality (haqiqa) of everything that is defined is in its definition.

I-5. One may with good reason (bi-haqq) call the knowledge of the First Cause ‘first philosophy’, since all aspects of philosophy are comprised in knowledge of it (sc. This First Cause or first philosophy). Thus, it is first in nobility, first in genus, first in order with respect to scientific certainty, and first in time, since it (sc. The first Cause) is the cause of time.


II-1. It is truly incumbent upon us to refrain from criticizing those who have brought us benefits, even small, meagre ones. How then can we criticize those who have brought us great, real, enormous benefits? For, even if they have fallen short of the truth, they have been our collaborators and associates in offering us some fruits of their thoughts, which have become for us paths and instruments that lead to extensive knowledge of things whose truth they did not manage to attain.

II-2. This is especially so since the following is clear to us and to the outstanding philosophers before us, who did not speak our language: no single person attains the truth as it deserves by exerting himself in study, and not even all of them together have comprehended it fully. Rather, each one of them has attained either nothing of it all, or only a little bit, in comparison to what the truth deserves. Yet, if one collects together the little truth that each one of them has attained, the result is of considerable extent. So, we ought to be very grateful to those who have brought a small part of truth, since they have shared with us the fruits of their thoughts, and facilitated our studies into things that are true but hidden, by offering us introduction that pave the way to the truth.

II-3. Had it not been for them (sc. the previous philosophers), we would never-not even with intense enquiry over the course of all our lives- have collected these true principles, by means of which we proceed to the ultimate aims of our study into what is hidden. Indeed, it has only been possible to collect this knowledge over the course of previous ages, century after century until our own time, through the most intense enquiry, requisite persistence, and predilection for toil. It is impossible to collect in a single man’s lifetime-even if his life is long, his enquiry is intense, his contemplation is subtle, and he has a predilection for persistence-that which has been collected with similar intense enquiry, subtle contemplation, and a predilection for persistence, over a period many times as long. Aristotle, the towering figure of Greek philosophy, said: “We must thank the fathers of those who brought some truth, since they (sc. The fathers) were the cause for their sons’ being, to say nothing of the sons, since they transmit the wisdom of the fathers, and since they have caused us to attain truth. “(‘Metaphysics’, chapter I-993b 15 and 16). How fine is what he said about this!

II-4. We must not be ashamed to admire the truth or to acquire it, from wherever it comes. Even if should come from far-flung nations and foreign peoples, there is for the student of truth nothing more important than the truth, nor is the truth demeaned or diminished by the one who states or conveys it; no one is demeaned by the truth, rather all are ennobled by it.’


III-1.’We must be on guard against the pernicious interpretations of many in our own time who have made a name for themselves with speculations (nazar), people who are far away from the truth although they crown themselves with its laurels. They have no right to do this, because they have a narrow grasp of the ways of truth, and lack the understanding which is the rightful possession of those who are sublime in their insight and who exert themselves for the common benefit of everyone, including them (sc. The critics of the philosophers).

III-2. A filthy envy abides in their bestial souls, which shields the vision of their thought from the light of truth with dark veils. They have set down those who have the human virtues, which they themselves fall short of attaining-being in the region furthest removed from them (sc. these virtues)-as insolent, cheating enemies. They defend the fraudulent positions in which they have undeservedly been installed, in order to achieve supremacy and traffic in religion, although they have no religion themselves. For whoever traffics in something sells it, and whoever sells something no longer has it. Thus, one who traffics in religion does not have religion anymore. It is right to divest someone of religion if he resists the acquisition of the knowledge of things as they are really are, and calls it unbelief.

III-3. By knowing the things in their true nature, one knows divinity (rububiya), oneness (wahdaniya), virtue, and, in general (gumlatan) everything, beneficial and how to obtain it, and how to stay away from, and protect oneself against, all harm. The way to acquire all these is what the true prophets brought from God, great be his praise. For the true prophets (may God’s blessings be upon them) brought the assurance that God alone is divine, and made us adhere to the virtues that are pleasing to Him, whilst forsaking the vices that are essentially opposed to the virtues and preferring the latter to the former.

III-4. Therefore, it is necessary to take hold of this possession that is precious to those who have the truth, and that we strive to obtain it with the outmost effort. We have already stated the reason for this, and now we add the following: It is absolutely necessary to acquire it (sc. The precious possession), even according to its opponents. For they have to say either that it is necessary to acquire it or not. If they say it is necessary, it is necessary also for them to strive for it. If they say it is not necessary, it is yet necessary for them to supply the reason for this, and to give a demonstration of this. But to give a reason or demonstration, one need to possess knowledge of things as they really are. Therefore, according to them (sc. the opponents themselves) it is necessary to strive for this possession, and it is incumbent upon them to take hold of it.

III-5. We beseech Him who can see into our hearts-who knows our efforts to establish a proof of His divinity, to show His oneness, and to drive away those who stubbornly resist and disbelieve Him through proofs that refutes their unbelief, tear aside the veils of their infamies and declare openly the deficiencies of their destructive creeds-to protect us and those who follow our path by fortifying us with His unceasing might; to dress us in His shielding and protective armour; and to grant us the aid of the edge of His piercing sword, and the support of His mightily victorious strength, so that He may thereby let us reach the end of our intention in aiding the truth and supporting what is right, and that He may put us in the same rank as those whose intention He favours, whose action He approves, and to whom He gives triumph and victory over His opponents who do not believe in His grace, and who deviate from the path of truth that is pleasing to Him. Let us end this first section, through the support of Him who bestows blessings and receives good things.’

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. Matthew 7:15.
For more pictures by Phil Koch:
Al Kindi-About First Philosophy

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