Persian physician, philosopher, astronomer, chemist, geologist, logician, paleontologist, mathematician, physicist, poet, psychologist, scientist, and teacher.
Ibn Sina, Abu ‘Ali al-Hysayn b.’ Abd Allah b. Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. He followed the encylopedic conception of the sciences that had been traditional since the time of the Greek Sages in uniting philosophy with the study of nature and in seeing the perfection of man as lying in both knowledge and action. He was also as illustrious a physician as he was a philosopher.
His life is known to us from authoritative sources. An autobiography covers his first thirty years, and the rest are documented by his disciple al-Juzajani, who was also his secretary and his friend.
He was born in 370/980 in Afshana, his mother’s home, near Bukhara. His native language was Persian. His father, an official of the Samanid administration, had him very carefully educated at Bukhara. His father and his brother were influenced by Ismaili propaganda; he was certainly acquainted with its tenets, but refused to adopt them. His intellectual independence was served by an extraordinary intelligence and memory, which allowed him to overtake his teachers at the age of fourteen.
It was he, we are told, who explained logic to his master al-Natili. He had no teacher in the natural sciences or in medicine; in fact, famous physicians were working under his direction when he was only sixteen. He did, however, find difficulty in understanding Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which he grasped only with the help of al-Farabi’s commentary. Having cured the amir of Khurasan of a severe illness, he was allowed to make use of the splendid library of the Samanid princes. At the age of eighteen he had mastered all the then known sciences. His subsequent progress was due only to his personal judgment.
His training through contact with life was at least equal to his development in intellectual speculation. At the age of twenty one he wrote his first philosophical book. The following year, however, the death of his father forced him to enter the administration in order to earn his living. His judgment was swiftly appreciated. Having consulted him on medical matters, the princes had recourse to him also in matters of politics. He was a minister several times, his advice being always listened to, but he became an object of envy, sometimes persecuted by his enemies and sometimes coveted by princes opposing those to whom he wished to remain loyal. He took flight and was obliged to hide on several occasions, earning his living by medical consultations. He was imprisoned, escaped lived for fourteen years in relative peace at the court of Isfahan and died at Hamadan, during an expedition of the prince ‘Ala’ al-Dawla, in 428/1037. He was buried there; and a monument was erected to him to celebrate the (hijri) millenary of his birth.
If his works are to be understood, they should not be thought of as those of a philosopher who lived in his books. He was occupied all day by affairs of state, and he laboured by night on his great works, which were written with astonishing rapidity. He was never safe, and was frequent compelled to move, he would write on horseback, and sometimes in prison, his only resources for reference being his memory. It has been found surprising that he differs from Aristotle in his works: but he quoted him without re-reading him, and above all, his independence of mind inclined him to present his own personally worked out thought, rather than to repeat the works of another. Besides, his personal training was different. He was a man who lived in touch with the concrete, constantly faced with difficulties, and a great physician who dealt with specific cases. Aristotle’s Logic seemed to him insufficient, because it could not be applied in a way that was sufficiently close to life. Many recent controversies have been aroused since the study of his works has increased, especially at the time of his millenary, but the most plausible view of his personality is still the following: he is a scientific man, who attempts to bring the Greek theories to the level of that which needs to be expressed by the study of the concrete, when apprehended by a great mind.
The secret of his evolution, however, will remain concealed from us as long as we do not possess such important works as the Kitab al-Insaf, the ‘Book of Impartial Judgment’ which investigated 28000 question, and his ‘Eastern Philosophy’, of which we have only a fragment. (to be concluded)