Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Avicenna and the capacity for discernment

While Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) is on our minds, I thought I might point out something else about his perspective on animal minds that could provide food for thought. Unlike Plato, whose dualistic concept of the ideal image and the fundamentally flawed or imperfect nature of materiality results in his near-absolute censure of carnal love and full exaltation of sublime love (at best, carnal love excited by physical beauty is nothing more than a stepping stone to higher truths and should be cast aside as soon as possible), Ibn Sīnā believes that the different faculties of desire are all essentially positive forces, each with a role to play in the elevation of the spirit. The key to moral conduct lies in your knowing which faculty comes first, which takes precedence over the others. In his Treatise on Love (al-risālah fī al-ʿishq), he expands on Plato and divides the soul's capacity for desire into five categories: the love of the simple and inanimate, the love of the vegetative faculty, the love of the animal faculty, the love of the noble-minded and gallant (ẓurafāʾ and fityān) for external beauty, and the love of divine souls. These loves do not cancel one another out, but rather add to one another to cumulatively produce a higher state of existence.

A donkey, in Ibn Sīnā's example, possesses no less than three faculties for discernment, the simple, the vegetative, and the animal (spirited). These all contribute to his well-being by allowing him to discern different levels of Good; the vegetative faculty tells him that grass is tasty, but when a lion appears on the horizon, his spirited faculty tells him that continued life is better, and he accordingly runs away. He chooses the greater good over the lesser, and this is a sign of his acting according to God's plan, a behavior that is fundamentally good. Humanity is merely expected to do the same. Possessed of the capacity for discerning sublime truth, we should be able to override our appetites just as the donkey did and choose
eternal pleasure in virtue over the temporary pleasure of earthly desire. It is not that the desire of the appetitive soul is inherently bad, it simply needs to be held in check by the higher faculties at the appropriate time. The bulk of humanity, of course, rarely strays beyond the appetitive faculty of other animals, and therein lies our shame; we dishonor our Creator by ignoring the capacity for exalted thought we possess.

I find it interesting that in this text, as well as some of the others we have read, Ibn Sīnā does not see any fundamental difference between humans and other animals as far as how our minds work. Like humans, animals are capable of discernment and choice between lesser and greater goods. The only thing that separates humanity from the rest of the animal world is this question of capacity, which is more rooted in the realm of the potential than in that of the actual.

You might want to check out:

Von Grunebaum, G. E., ‘Avicenna’s Risāla fī ʾl-ʿIšq and Courtly Love’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 11 October (1952):4, 233–238

Bell, Joseph Norment, ‘Avicenna’s Treatise on Love and the Nonphilosophical Muslim Tradition’, Der Islam, 63 (1986):1, 73–89

--Cam C

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! But does Ibn Sina really not see any difference in how our minds work? From your discussion (I haven't read the treatise you'r discussing), it sounds like he believes animal and human minds work by two separate mechanisms. Although both are layered, it sounds like an animal mind automatically defaults to the highest order (fear of the lion will override enjoying the grass every time). Humans, on the other hand, have to make a choice between the lower, carnal desire and the higher, pure desires. Although we are 'expected' to do the same as animals and default to the highest possible reason, it doesn't sound like Ibn Sina is suggesting that we HAVE a built-in default to the higher desire and then choose to give in to the lower.