Avicenna on Love and the Foundations of Life

Avicenna is one of the most important Islamic philosophers of all time.  He is also the most famous of the Islamic Neoplatonists.  He is, like Augustine to the Christian tradition, sometimes considered the “philosopher of love” because of the importance of love in his thought.  We will unpack the basic philosophy of love from his short but influential treatise “On Love.”

Proposition 1: Love in All Things

Avicenna opens by declaring that all things that have been created have a telos and strive for that end which is their perfection.  That striving toward perfection is the love that is embedded into them.  Thus, love is the driving force to perfection according to Avicenna for, without love, we would cease the striving to our end.

That said the issue of love is not one of hylomorphism, as in Augustine or Christian anthropology, but one of supersession.  That is, love is the first spark – so to speak – on the path toward intellectual actualization.  For, as Avicenna says, it is in the material world that we find evil.  It is attachment to the material world in which we sink into evil.  (Readers of Plotinus will immediately see a Plotinian influence on Avicenna here. Additionally, for Avicenna, love is the first emanation of creation.)  Thus what love is, is the desire to transcend the material world and bring about our perfection through unity with the One (God, or as Avicenna calls it in his treatise: the Absolute Good).  Our love, as Avicenna says, is the desire to be perfected which is the perfect state of bliss.

We can think of it as a ladder.  Love is the beginning.  It begins in the corporeal, or material, world.  But as we desire to reach the top of the ladder (perfection) we will leave the corporeal world behind us and find pure bliss in the realm of the purely transcendental (which is the realm of the soul because the soul is also the rational intellect in Islam like it is in Christianity and Greco-Roman philosophy).

Avicenna also links love with the good and pleasing.  This has bodily ramifications but this is intentionally.  For the experience of the good and pleasing gives us a taste of what perfected love and happiness is like.  Thus, it is from this phenomenological experience that, ideally, the soul is to be perfected as it comes to know the source of Perfection (God).  Therefore, Avicenna concludes that love permeates all things and is the gateway to the good and pleasing, and therefore, the gateway to God.

Proposition 2: That Love Exists even in Inanimate Entities

One of the most controversial claims of Avicenna (bordering on pantheism of a sort) is that he claimed that love is even in inanimate entities.  Avicenna claims that since God created everything, his love must be in all things.  That is because all things in nature “shy away from non-being” and in their shying away from non-being they seek perfection; the prerequisite for perfection is love as he established in the first proposition.

Proposition 3: Love in the Vegetative Soul

The vegetative soul is not from Avicenna, it is an ancient Greek position that was most fully explained in the works of Aristotle.  Avicenna, following from the first and second propositions, concludes that since vegetative souls have the faculty of procreation which is indicative of love existing within them.  He is not really talking about “plant life” here.  (Though plant life embodies the vegetative soul.)  He is discussing the vegetative soul in an anthropological sense.  That is, humans who do not have full understanding (which is the) or “noble-minded” have the quality of the vegetative soul.  But in the vegetative state of seeking procreation, the very first principle of procreation is love.  Thus, love exists in the vegetative soul.  This follows the basic neo-Platonic anthropology of desire first.  Humans have a vegetative part of the soul, and this is what Avicenna is concentrated on: he who seeks desire without any reflection as to what he is doing or wanting.

Proposition 4: Love in the Animal Soul

The animal soul includes love which stems from the faculty of procreation and desire that is established in the preceding propositions.  Again, the animalistic soul state is not merely meant to be “animals” but is included in the human soul (much like the vegetative part is also part of the soul – again, this tripartite theory of the soul is Aristotelian).  The chief characteristic of the animal soul is basic awareness, especially as it relates to sense-perception.  That said, Avicenna is also talking about animals since animal soul is – at highest – only appetitive, but he is also discussing the animal part of the human soul which is a progression away from the vegetative.  (It is important to remember that humans also possess the animal part of the soul.)

That the animal soul is appetitive it is the beginning of awareness of desire itself. Thus, Avicenna sees love here coming in two forms: natural love (which is rooted back to the vegetative which is something inborn by nature whether we know it or not, or are aware of it or not) and voluntary love.  Voluntary love is the origin of the will for Avicenna; it marks the supersession, which I mentioned earlier, of natural love into voluntary love (we should see a progression of love in Avicenna’s thought).  Thus, voluntary love is the first mark of the active intellect coming into being.  Voluntary love is the beginning of the transition into the love of the noble-minded; the noble-minded being the “truly alive” human because that human is “awakened” (in a neo-Platonic sense).  Voluntary love, while still rooted in the manifestation of natural appetitive love, marks the coming of knowing; it is also where free will enters the anthropological equation as Avicenna states toward the end of the fourth proposition.  (Like most religions Islam defends the position of human free will against hard-determinism.)

Proposition 5: Noble-Minded Love and the Young

The fifth proposition is where love most visibly emerges with concern to what it means to be human for Avicenna.  We can follow Avicenna’s thought up to this point, with the knowledge that intellectual actualization (the awakening of the soul) is what love is aiming for: 1) all being has love in it; 2) the drive for procreation and continuity is the first manifestation of love; 3) living creatures possess natural love and voluntary love which stem from our desire for love; 4) human love is the actualization of voluntary love.  Here, Avicenna rebukes those who seek love of beautiful forms from their animalistic part – that is because animals are pure desire but humans have the gift of reason which is the gateway to understanding.  Thus, in some sense, to simply desire something without understanding is to be less than human.  It is to not be perfect or perfected.  Thus, the young man, as he says, is to be rebuked if he follows the appetitive aspect for love and beauty but never moves into the stage of understanding (which is the soul’s awakening or intellectual actualization).  The rational part of the soul, in seeking understanding, aims for perfection.

(Note: Perfection is a major theme in Islamic anthropology and theology because we are measured by the Law; to be perfect is to be perfect before the Law which is to say to be perfect before God.  The drive to be perfect is propelled by love, which Avicenna already established in the first proposition.  This is why Avicenna saw himself as dutifully devout Muslim even though he rarely makes reference to the Qur’an.  He takes the drive to perfection, propelled by love, to be quintessentially Islamic in its foundation.)

Avicenna is quick to note that most human activities are, in fact, animalistic and belong to the animalistic part of the soul.  These include sense-perception, sexual intercourse, and warlike behavior.  Animals all engage in these behaviors (or have basic phenomenological awareness through sensation).  But the coming to know intelligible things is the mark of being human and the mark of the rational soul.  This is now made possible in love through voluntary love.  Voluntary love, being made intelligible, manifests itself through the want (desire) to unite with another human, to kiss it, and for sex (which is purely appetitive); however, the drive for sex takes on a human/intelligible quality through the want to embrace another human: love is beautiful and child bearing the ultimate gift of that beauty.  And procreation is the manifestation of love as we already established in the first proposition.  So procreation and sexual drive take on a human (or intelligible) quality through our coming to know, and appreciate, beauty and love in of itself (principally as a gift bestowed by God to creation).  Love is the indivisible bond formed by two humans coming together.  In this they are perfected, which is what the drive for love aims at.  But they must know this in order to be blameworthy and of “nobility and refinement” as Avicenna states in closing.

(Thus far I also hope you see how Avicenna is progressing the arc of love: it begins with the want for perfection.  Love is in the corporeal world and is meant to be experienced by the senses: sight and touch, etc.  But in these phenomenological experiences we come to an understanding of love itself, which is chiefly intellectual.  Thus, we are slowly progressing away from the animalistic phenomenological aspect of love and moving into the realm of the transcendent, which brings us closer to God.)

Proposition 6: Love of Divine Souls

By the time we reach the sixth proposition we see the transition occur to the intellectual: “the divine souls, be they human or angelic, have no claim whatsoever to divinity if they do not acquire knowledge of the Absolute Good.”  As Avicennca continues, the perfected soul is only perfect if it has gained the truth of knowledge concerning the good, true, and beautiful.  Again, we can begin to see the transition away from the phenomenological to the transcendental (e.g. intellectual).  True love is intellectual rather than phenomenological.  This radically differs from the conceptions of love found in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (and Christianity more generally).

To know the absolute good is to know one’s nature.  To know one’s nature is to have achieved perfection.  The achievement of perfection, propelled forward by the phenomenological, is the leaving behind of the phenomenological and the embrace of the purely transcendental.  This is why Avicenna closes by stating the true aim of love of divine souls, human or angelic, is the Pure Good.  The Pure Good is only offered in God.  Thus, the aim of love is knowledge of God.

This is made possible through the relations we sought from the fifth proposition: the relation of mind and body through sensation, the relation of being indivisible with another human (the union of man and woman), which is the highest manifestation of existence.  (The recognition of another not merely as an object but as a soul.)  Our phenomenological existence, as Avicenna states, is “preparation” to be filled with absolute knowledge – our phenomenological existence embodies the desire to be perfected.  This is the “straight path” of Islam: life in the world on the road to perfection.  All of our desiring from love, our drive for love, and our experience of love, is meant to lead to an understanding of love.  For Avicenna, then, love is the first principle to all understanding.

Conclusion

Thus, the conclusion of the treatise on love by Avicenna is that love seeks perfection.  Love first needs to in the phenomenological world to awaken the soul to matters transcendental – the Absolute Good which perfects our state of being.  This means that love, ultimately, transcends the material-phenomenological composition and becomes purely intellectual.  Unless we know love we cannot be perfected by love.  That knowledge of love comes through unity with the Absolute Good.  We return, then, to the ladder analogy I began with to understand Avicenna.  There is a progression from the love embedded in all things, which strives for perfection (as part of teleology), manifests itself in natural love and voluntary love, natural giving way to voluntary, voluntary being a reflection of one’s intellectual state of being, that intellectual state of being (knowledge) being the consummation of understanding.  Thus, in understanding, we are perfected.  This is why Islam is the ‘straight path’ (to perfection) from Avicenna’s perspective.

 

This essay was adapted from a post on Hesiod’s Corner, 30 January 2018.

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