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Ali Sakr


Theory of Poetry as a Part of a Philosophical System: Avicenna’s Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle in His Summa The Cure (Aš-Šifāʾ)

Avicenna and The Cure
The Persian doctor Avicenna (c. 980–1037), bestknown in the West as the author of The Canon of Medicine – a medical textbook which remained a standard through the eighteenth century in Europe – is also generally acknowledged in the scholarly world as one of the most significant thinkers in intellectual history. Avicenna was a polymath who wrote about 450 works. His summa, The Cure, covers almost all scientific research fields, dealing, for instance, with logic, rhetoric, poetics, physics, meteorology, psychology, botany, zoology, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, and metaphysics. From a purely formal point, these sciences are in turn classified by him, based on a method of division that was already being used by Ammonius Hermiae (c.440–520), the sixth-century head of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy in Alexandria: according to Ammonius the division of the sciences is initially the division of what philosophy implicates as a study of “kinds of being”. The division can be made generally (diairesis), then from a certain point of view (epidiairesis) or in even more detail, when subdivisions of a division are also considered (hypodiairesis). Against this background, philosophy will be divided by Avicenna into theoretical and practical philosophy; theoretical philosophy will be divided again into theology, mathematics, and physics, and practical philosophy into ethics (concerning the relation one has to oneself), economics (in the sense of household management), and politics. Avicenna considers these scientific fields and disciplines against the background of a theistic world view, i.e. in respect of the idea of a first cause and source, ending up with a hierarchical system of sciences, with metaphysics at the pinnacle. Based on this, he will call his philosophical summa The Cure in congruence ostensibly with his day job as a doctor but at a deeper level with the conviction that he has produced “a complete course of treatment” by means of which souls are “cured” of the disease of ignorance and led (back) to their intelligible origin. Now, Avicenna also offers more down-to-earth or anthropological considerations for the integration of sciences into a hierarchical system, stating, for instance, in The Cure (Introduction, Chap. 2) that the scientific activities of human beings have two aspects: as a knowledge-seeking expedition for its own sake and as an undertaking whose aim is to apply newly acquired knowledge in a social, economic, or technical environment. The different character of scientific activities results from two factors:

1. From the instruments required to engage in a particular activity – for instance, eyes, ears, hands, microscopes, stethoscopes, measuring instruments, a shovel

2. From the origin and consistency of the research objects – celestial bodies, seasons, human decisions

Now, the method of hierarchizing the sciences here is, at least on the surface, quite simple: the less the purpose of a science is outside itself (as in the case of the theoretical sciences) and the less human beings rely on scientific instruments during scientific activity – i.e. the more dependent they become on mathematical or logical demonstration methods – the higher the ontological status and self-consistency of the research object will be.


Avicenna’s Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle

While anthropological considerations are the background of his hierarchical system, to put the sciences in a certain subordinate relation to one another, he will also rely on a theory formulated by Aristotle in his logical work, the Posterior Analytics. There, Aristotle teaches that one science can provide premises that are put to use in another. His example is geometry as a higher discipline providing the premise for optics. Against this background Avicenna will argue that Aristotle’s Poetics – which he aims to explain for his contemporaries – also depends on certain premises provided by higher sciences: as the subject matter of poetry is, according to Aristotle, “human action” and, we may concede, praise and blame, most tragedies and comedies take place inside the human being (in the soul), in the family or in society, psychology, ethics, household management, and politics will in a certain sense provide the premise for a theory of poetry. Therefore Avicenna seems to have done everything right, as he subordinates poetics under the practical branch of philosophy, and integrates it as a part of his philosophical system – emphasizing that poetry can serve “civil purposes” and leaving the study of metres and forms of versification for other disciplines. Unfortunately, this is only half the story: what is left out in this description is that Avicenna wishes to deal with Aristotle’s theory of poetry not as an aesthete but in his role as a “logician”. This surprising circumstance would deserve “special treatment” and is in fact beyond the scope of this short presentation. A brief remark that one could make in this regard is that, for Avicenna, logic in general teaches us to “acquire the unknown from what is known” (Cure – Introduction, Chap. 3) and that outer human acts – the subject matter of poetry, according to Aristotle – refer to their inner motives, which in turn, without their outer acts, are unknown (to others).


Aim of my dissertation

The strange approach of Avicenna to poetry from the perspective of a logician and the fact that he was at best unfamiliar with the Attic cultural history to which Aristotle belonged lead most current researchers on the Poetics of Aristotle to regard Avicenna’s Commentary as a complete failure. I ask the following: Could there not be an objective basis behind Avicenna’s logical approach, given the fact, that the Greek and Syrian Aristotelians before Avicenna and the Scholastics of medieval Europe after him also attempt a “logical” approach to the Poetics? Furthermore, might a new evaluation of Avicenna’s Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle be possible, if his systematic approach to philosophy and the milestones he himself sets in this regard in the introduction to his commentary are taken more into account? My purpose is to find answers to these questions. In my thesis, I will elaborate more precisely the factual basis of Avicenna’s philosophical system, so that terminological overlaps in the system context will become more significant, and the dependencies of his Poetics on more fundamental writings, such as his Logic, Psychology, or Metaphysics, will be illuminated. Against this background, Avicenna’s explanations of key concepts in Aristotle’s Poetics might be better assessed and his poetical horizon of understanding determined more adequately.


First Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Beatrice Gründler