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The Improvement of Human Reason - Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan
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 The Improvement Of Human Reason
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To the LIFE of Hai Ebn Yokdhan.

In the Name of the most Merciful God.(( In the Name, &c—This is the usual Form with which the

Mahometans begin all their Writings, Books and Epistles. Every Chapter in the Alcoran begins so, and all their Authors have followed this way ever price. The Eastern Christians, to distinguish themselves from the Mahometans, begin their Writings with Bismi’labi Wa’libni, &c. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son,and of the Holy Ghost, One God:and so do the Æthiopians. We here in England observe something like this in Wills, where the usual Form is, In the Name of God, Amen.]))

Blessed be the Almighty and Eternal, the Infinitely Wise and Merciful God, who hath taught us the Use of the PEN ((These words,—Who hath taught us the Use of the Pen; who hath taught Man what he did not know, are taken out of the XCVI. Chapter of the Alcoran, according to those Editions of it which are now in use: but Joannes Andreas Maurus, (who was Alfaqui, or chief Doctor of the Moors in Sciatinia, in the kingdom of Valentia in Spain, and afterwards converted to the Christian Religion in the Year of our Lord 1487) says, that it is the first Chapter that was written of all the Alcoran. But be that how it will, we may from hence, and infinite other places, observe the strange way which these Eastern Writers have of Quoting the Alcoran; for they intermix those Expressions which they take out of it with their own words, without giving the Reader the least Notice or Hint whence they had them, or where to find them.])), who out of his great Goodness to Mankind, has made him understand Things which he did not know.

I praise him for his excellent Gifts, and give him thanks for his continued Benefits, and I testify that there is but One God, and that he has no Partner ((And I testify, &c.—After be testified the Unity of the Godhead, be immediately adds La Sharica Leho, That he has no Partner. These words frequently occur in the Alcoran, and are particularly levell’d against the Christians, which Mahomet frequently will Mushricoun, i.e.. Associantes, Joyning Partners with God, because they acknowledge the Divinity of our Blessed Saviour.])); and that MAHOMET is his Servant and Apostle ((The whole Mahometan Creed consists only of these two Articles, 1. There is no God but God, [i.e. There is but One God] and 2. Mahomet is his Apostle. A very short Creed, but their Explications of it, make amends for its shortness. The Reader may see a Paraphrase of it out of Algazâli, in Dr. Pocock’s Specimen Historiæ Arabum, p. 174.])), endu’d with an excellent Spirit, and Master of convincing Demonstration, and a victorious Sword: the Blessing of God be upon him, and his Companions, (Men of great Thoughts, and vast Understandings,) and upon all his Followers, to the End of the World.

You ask’d me, Dear Friend, (God preserve you for ever, and make you Partaker of everlasting Happiness) to communicate to you what I knew concerning the Mysteries of the Eastern Philosophy, mention’d by the Learned Avicenna ((The Learned Avicenna—This great Man was born in Bochara, a City famous for the Birth of a great many very Learned Men; it lyes in 96 Degrees, and 50 Minutes of Longitude reckoning from the Fortunate-Islands, and 39 Degrees and 50 Minutes of Northern Latitude. A pleasant place, and full of good Buildings, having without the City a great many Fields and Gardens, round about which there is a great Wall of XII Parasangæ, or 36 Miles long, which encompasses both the Fields and the City Abulphed. Golius ‘s Notes upon Alferganus. Thus much concerning the Place of his Nativity; he was born in the Year of the Hegira 370, which is about the 980 Year of Christ. He was indeed a prodigious Scholar; he had learn’d the Alcoran, and was well initiated into Human Learning before he was Ten years old; then he studied Logick and Arithmetick, and read over Euclid without any help, only his Master show’d him how to demonstrate the first five or six Propositions; Then he read Ptolemy’s Almagest, and afterwards a great many Medicinal Books; and all this before be was sixteen years old. He was not only a great Philosopher and Physician, but an excellent Philologer and Poet. Amongst other of his Learned Works, he wrote an Arabick Lexicon; but it is lost. Besides all this, he was a Vizier, and met with a great many Troubles, which nevertheless did not abate his indefatigable Industry. The Soldiers once mutiny’d, and broke open his House, and carry’d him to Prison, and would fain have persuaded the Sultan Shemfoddaulah to have put him to Death, which he refusing, was forc’d to Banish him. After a Life spent in Study and Troubles, having written more Learned Books than he liv’d Years, he died, Aged 58 Years.])): Now you must understand, that whoever designs to attain to a clear and distinct Knowledge, must be diligent in the search of it. Indeed your request gave me a noble turn of Thought, and brought me to the understanding of what I never knew before; nay, it advanced me to such an elevation, as no Tongue, how eloquent soever, is able to express; and the reason is, because ’tis of a quite different nature and kind from the Things of this World; only this there is in it, that whoever has attained to any degree of it, is so mightily affected with joy Pleasure, and Exultation, that ’tis impossible for him to conceal his sense of it, but he is forced to utter some general Expressions, since he cannot be particular.

Now if a Man, who has not been polish’d by good Education, happens to attain to that state, he tuns out into strange Expressions, and speaks he knows not what; so that one of this sort of Men, when in that state, cry’d out, Praise to be me! How wonderful am I! ((Subhhéni—Praise be to me. Which is an expression never us’d but when they speak of God.]))

Another said, I am Truth! ((I am Truth—or, I am the True God. For the Arabick word Albákko signifies both, and is very often us’d for one of the Names or Attributes of God. Kamus. Dr. Pocock, Specimen pag. 168.])). Another, That he was God.

Abu Hamed Algazâli ((Abu Hamed Algazâli—What Abu Hamed Algazâli thought concerning those Men who were so wild and Enthusiastick as to use such extravagant expressions, appears plainly from those words of his quoted by Dr. Pocock in his Specimen. p. 167, where he says, “People ran on to such a degree, (of madness you may be sure) as to pretend to an Union with God, and a fight of him without the interposition of any Veil, and familiarly discourse with him.

And a little after, which sort of Speeches have occasion’d great mischiefs among the common People; so that some Country Fellows laying aside their Husbandry, have pretended to the same things: for Men are naturally pleas’d with such discourses, as give them a liberty to neglect their business, and withal promise them purity of Mind, and the attainment of strange degrees and proprieties.

Now the most stupid Wretches in Nature may pretend to this, and have in their Mouths such false and deceitful expressions. And if any one denies what they say, they immediately tell you, that this Unbelief of yours proceeds from Learning and Logick: and that Learning is a Veil, and Logick labour of the brain, but that these things which they affirm, are discovered only inwardly then by the Light of the TRUTH.

And this which they affirm, has spread it self through a great many Countries, and produc’d a great deal of Mischief.” Thus far Algazâli. How exactly this answers the wild extravagancies of our Enthusiasts, let themselves judge. And withal I would have them from hence learn the Modesty not to pretend to be the first after the Apostles who had endeavour’d to turn Men from Darkness to LIGHT, since they see so many worthy Persons among the Mahometans gone before them.])), when he had attain’d to it, express’d himself thus,

‘Twas what it was, ’tis not to be express’d; Enquire no further, but conceive the best.

But he was a Man that had good Learning, and was well vers’d in the Sciences. What Avenpace ((Avenpace—This Author is oftentimes quoted by the Name of Ebn’olfayeg; he was accounted a Philosopher. of great Ingenuity and Judgment. Maimonides, in his Epistle to R. Samuel Aben Tybbon, gives him a great Character. Abu’l Hasen Ali, who collected all his Works, and reduced them into One Volume, prefers him before all the Mahometan Philosophers whatsoever. He was famous for his Poetry as well as Philosophy; he died young, being prison’d at Fez, in the Year of the Hegira 533. i.e. of Christ, 1138, or 39, others in the Year 525, which answers to 1131. Most of his Works are imperfect. See Dr. Pocock’s Elenchus Scriptorum prefix’d to the Arabick Edition of this Book.])) says at the end of his Discourse concerning the UNION, is worth your Observing; There he, says That ’twill appear plainly to any one that understands the design of his Book, that that degree is not attainable by the means of those Sciences which were then in use; but that he attain’d to what he knew, by being altogether abstracted from any thing which he had been acquainted with before; and that he was furnish’d with other Notions altogether independent upon matter, and of too noble a nature to be any way attributed to the Natural Life, but were peculiar to the Blessed, and which upon that account we may call Divine Proprieties, which God (whose Name be prais’d) bestows upon such of his Servants as he pleases.

Now this degree which this Author mentions, is attainable by Speculative Knowledge,(nor is it to be doubted but that he had reach’d it himself;) but not that which we have just now mention’d, which notwithstanding is not so much different from it in kind as in degree: for in that which I mention’d there are no Discoveries made which contradict those which this Author means; but the difference consists in this, viz. that in our way there is a greater degree of Clearness and Perspicuity than there is in the other; for in this we apprehend things by the help of something, which we cannot properly call a Power; nor indeed will any of those words, which are either us’d in common discourse, or occur in the Writings of the Learned, serve to express That, by which this sort of Perception do’s apprehend.

This degree, which I have already mention’d, (and which perhaps I should never have had any taste of, if your request had not put me upon a farther search) is the very same thing which Avicenna means, where he says; Then when a Man’s desires are raised to a good pitch, and he is competently well exercised in that way, there will appear to him some small glimmerings of the Truth, as it were flashes of Lightning, very delightful, which just shine upon him, and then go out;

 Then the more he exercises himself, the oftner he’ll perceive ’em, till at last he’ll become so well acquainted with them, that they will occur to him spontaneously, without any exercise at all; and then, as soon as he perceives any thing, he applies himself to the Divine Essence, so as to retain some impression of it; then something occurs, to him on a sudden, whereby he begins to discern the Truth in every thing; till, through frequent exercise, he at last attains to a perfect Tranquility; and that which us’d to appear to him only by fits and starts, becomes habitual; and that which was only a glimmering before, a constant Light; and he obtains a constant and steady Knowledge.

Thus far Avicenna. Besides, he has given an account of those several steps and degrees by which a Man is brought to this perfection; till his Soul is like a polish’d Looking-glass, in which he beholds the Truth: and then he swims in pleasure, and rejoyces exceedingly in his Mind, because of the impressions of Truth which he perceives in it, When he is once attain’d thus far, the next thing which employs him is, that he sometimes looks towards Truth, and sometimes towards himself; and thus he fluctuates between both, till he retires from himself wholly, and looks only to- ward the Divine Essence; and if he do’s at any time look towards his own Soul, the only reason is, because that looks to-wards God; and from thence arises a perfect Conjunction [with God.]

And, according to this manner which he has describ’d, he do’s by no means allow that this Taste is attain’d by way of Speculation or Deduction of Consequences. And that you may the more clearly apprehend the difference between the perception of these sort of Men, and those other; I shall propose you a familiar instance.

Suppose a Man born Blind, but of quick Parts, and a good Capacity, a tenacious Memory, and solid Judgment, who had liv’d in the place of his Nativity, till he had by the help of the rest of his Senses, contracted an acquaintance with a great many in the Neighbourhood, and learn’d the several kinds of Animals, and Things inanimate, and the Streets and Houses of the Town, so as to go any where about it without a Guide, and to know such people as he met, and call them, by their names; and knew the names of Colours ((Tho’ this instance will serve to explain the meaning of the Author, yet ’tis very improper, because ’tis utterly impossible to give a Man that is born Blind, the least notion or idea of Light or Colours.])), and the difference of them by their descriptions and definitions; and after he had learn’d all this, should have his Eyes open’d: Why, this Man, when he walk’d about the Town, would find every thing to be exactly agreeable to those notions which he had before; and that Colours were such as he had before conceived them to be, by those descriptions he had received: so that the difference between his apprehensions when blind, and those which he would have now his Eyes were opened, would consist only in these two great Things, one of which is a consequent of the other, viz., a greater Clearness, and extrema Delight. From whence ’tis plain, that the condition of those Contemplators, who have not yet attain’d to the UNION [with GOD] is exactly like that of the Blind Man; and the Notion which a Blind Man has of Colours, by their description, answers to those things which Avenpace said were of too noble a nature to be any ways attributed, to the Natural Life, and, which God bestows upon such his Servants as he pleases.

But the condition of those who have attain’d to the UNION, to whom God has given that which I told you could not be properly express’d by the word POWER, is that second State of the Blind-man cur’d. Take notice by the way, that our Similitude is not exactly applicable in every case; for there is very seldom any one found that is born with his Eyes open, that can attain to these things without any help of Contemplation.

Now (my Dear Friend) I do not here, when I speak of the Ideas of the Contemplative, mean what they learn from the Study of Physicks; nor by the notions of those who have attain’d to the UNION, what they learn from the Study of Metaphysicks (for these two ways of learning are vastly different, and must by no means be confounded.)

But what I mean by the Ideas of the Contemplative is, what is attain’d by the Study of Metaphysicks, of which kind is that which Avenpace understood; and in the apprehension of these things, this condition is necessarily requir’d, viz. that it be manifestly and clearly true; and then there is a middle sort of Speculation, between that, and those who have attain’d to the UNION, who employ themselves in these things with greater perspicuity and delight.

Now Avenpace blames all those that make any mention of this pleasure which is enjoy’d in the UNION, before the Vulgar; besides he said, that it belonged to the imaginative Faculty; and promis’d to write a Book about it, in which he design’d to give an account of the whole matter, and describe the condition of those who were so happy as to attain it clearly and perspicuously; but we may answer him with the Old Proverb, viz. Don’t say a thing is sweet before you taste on’t; for he never was so good as his word, nor performed any thing like it.

But ’tis probable that the reason why he did not, was either because he was streightn’d for Time, being taken up with his Journey to Wahran; or else, because he was sensible, that if he should undertake to give a description of that State, the Nature of such a kind of Discourse, would unavoidably have put him upon a necessity of speaking some things, which would manifestly have reproached his own manner of living, and contradicted those Principles which he himself had elsewhere laid down; in which he encourages Men to heap up Riches, and proposes several ways and means in order to the acquiring them.

We have in this Discourse (as necessity required) disgress’d something from the main Design of what you desir’d; it appears from what has been already said, that you must either mean, 1. That I should describe to you, what they see and taste, who are so happy as to enjoy the UNION,(which is impossible to be described as it really is; and when any one goes about to express it, either by Speech or Writing, he quite alters the thing, and sinks into the speculative way.

For when you once come to cloath it with Letters and Words, it comes nearer to the corporeal World, and does by no means remain in the same State that it was in before; and the Significations of these Words, which are used in the explaining it, are quite alter’d; so that it occasions a great many real Mistakes to some, and makes others believe, that they are mistaken, when indeed they are not; and the reason of this is, because it is a thing of infinite Extent, comprehending all things in it self, but not comprehended by any.)

2. Or else the meaning of your Request must be this, that I should shew you after what manner they proceed, who give themselves to Contemplation. And this (my good Friend) is a thing which is capable of being express’d both by Speech, and Writing; but ’tis as scarce as old Gold, especially in this part of the World where we live; for ’tis so rare, that there’s hardly one of a thousand gets so much as a smattering of it; and of those few, scarce any, have communicated any thing of what they knew in that kind, but only by obscure Hints, and Innuendo‘s. Indeed the Hanifitick Sect[11], and the Mahometan Religion, doe forbid Men to dive too far into this matter.

Nor would I have you think that the Philosophy which we find in the Books of Aristotle, and Alpharabius[12], and in Avicenna‘s Book, which he calls Alshepha, does answer the end which you aim at, nor have any of the Spanish Philosophers[13] writ fully and satisfactorily about it. Because those Scholars which were bred in Spain, before the Knowledge of Logick and Philosophy was broach’d amongst them, spent their whole Lives in Mathematicks, in which it must be allow’d, they made a great Progress, but went no farther. After them came a Generation of Men, who apply’d themselves more to the Art of Reasoning, in which they excell’d their Predecessors, yet not so as to attain to true Perfection. So that one of them said,

T’is hard the kinds of Knowledge are but two, The One erroneous, the Other true.

The former profits nothing when ’tis gain’d, The other’s difficult to be attain’d.

After these came others, who still advanc’d further, and made nearer approaches to the Truth; among whom there was one that had a sharper Wit, or truer notions of things than Avenpace, but he was too much taken up with Worldly Business, and Died before he had time to open the Treasury of his Knowledge, so that most of those pieces of his which are extant, are imperfect; particularly his Book about the Soul) and his Tedbíro ‘lmotawahhid, i.e. How a Man ought to manage himself that leads a Solitary Life So are his Logicks and Physicks. Those Pieces of his which are compleat, are only short Tracts and some occasional Letters. Nay, in his Epistle concerning the UNION, he himself confesses that he had wrote nothing compleat, where he says, That it would require a great deal of trouble and pains to express that clearly which he had undertaken to prove; and, that the method which he had made use of in explaining himself, was not in many places so exact as it might have been; and, that he design’d, if he had time, to alter it. So much for Avenpace, I for my part never saw him, and as for his Contemporaries, they were far inferiour to him, nor did I ever see any of their Works. Those who are now alive, are, either such as are still advancing forwards, or else such as have left off, without attaining to perfection; if there are any other, I know nothing of them.

As to those Works of Alpharabius which are extant, they are most of them Logick. There are a great many things very dubious in his Philosophical Works; for in his Méllatolphadélah, i.e. The most excellent Sect, he asserts expressly, that the Souls of Wicked Men shall suffer everlasting Punishment; and yet says as positively in his Politicks that they shall be dissolv’d and annihilated, and that the Souls of the Perfect shall remain for ever. And then in his Ethicks, speaking concerning the Happiness of Man, he says, that it is only in this Life, and then adds, that whatsoever People talk of besides, is meer Whimsy and old Wives Fables. A principle, which if believ’d would make all Men despair of the Mercy of God, and puts the Good and Evil both upon the same Level, in that it makes annihilation the common end to them both. This is an Error not to be pardon’d by any means, or made amends for.

Besides all this, he had a mean Opinion of the Gift of Prophecy, and said that in his Judgment it did belong to the faculty of Imagination, and that he prefer’d Philosophy before it; with a great many other things of the like nature, not necessary to be mention’d here.

As for the Books of Aristotle, Avicenna‘s Exposition of them in his Alshepha [i.e. Health] supplies their Room, for he trod in the same steps and was of the same Sect.

In the beginning of that Book, says, that the Truth was in his opinion different from what he had there deliver’d, that he had written that Book according to the Philosophy of the Peripateticks; but those that would know the Truth clearly, and without Obscurity, he refers to his Book, Of the Eastern Philosophy. Now he that takes the pains to compare his Alshepha with what Aristotle has written, will find they agree in most things, tho’ in the Alshepha there are a great many things which are not extant in any of those pieces which we have of Aristotle.

But if the Reader, take the literal Sense only, either of the Alshepha or Aristotle, with, out penetrating into the hidden Sense, he will never attain to perfection, as Avicenna himself observes in the Alshepha.

As for Algazâli[14], he often contradicts himself, denying in one place what he affirm’d in another. He taxes the Philosophers with Heresy[15] in his Book which he calls Altehaphol, i.e. Destruction, because they deny the Resurrection of the Body, and hold that Rewards and Punishments in a Future State belong to the Soul only. Then in the beginning of his Almizân, i.e. The Balance, he affirms positively, that this is the Doctrine of the Suphians[16], and that he was convinc’d of the truth of it, after a great deal of Study and Search. There are a great many such Contradictions as these interspers’d in his Works; which he himself begs Pardon for in the end of his Mizân Alamal [The Ballance of Mens Actions]; where he says, that there are Three sorts of Opinions; 1. Such as are common to the Vulgar, and agreeable to their Notions of things. 2. Such as we commonly make use of in answering Questions propos’d to us. 3.

Such private as a Man has to himself, which none understand but those who think just as he does. And then he adds, that tho’ there were no more in what he had written than only this, viz. That it made a Man doubt of those things which he had imbib’d at first, and help’d him to remove the prejudices of Education, that even that were sufficient; because, he that never doubts will never weigh things aright, and he that does not do that will never see, hut remain in Blindness and Confusion.

Believe your Eyes, but still suspect your Ears, You’ll need no Star-light[17], when the day appears.

This is the account of his way of Philosophizing, the greatest part of which is enigmatical and full of obscurity, and for that reason of no use to any but such as thoroughly perceive and understand the matter before, and then afterwards hear it from him again, or at least such as are of an excellent Capacity, and can apprehend a thing from the least intimation.

The same Author says in his Aljawâhir [i.e. The Jewels] that he had Books not fit to be communicated, but to such only as were qualified to read them, and that in them he had laid down the Naked Truth; but none of them ever came into Spain that we know of: we have indeed had Books which some have imagin’d to be those incommunicable ones he speaks of, but ’tis a mistake, for those are Almaâreph Alakliyah [Intellectual notices] and the Alnaphchi waltéswiyal [Inflation and Æquation] and besides these, a Collection of several Questions. But as for these, tho’ there are some hints in them, yet they contain nothing of particular use to the clearing of things, but what you may meet with in his other Books. There are, ’tis true, in his Almeksad Alasna, some things which are more profound than what we meet with in the rest of his Books, but he expressly says, that that Book is not incommunicable; from whence it follows, those Books which are come to our hands are not those incommunicable ones which he means. Some have fancy’d that there were some great matters contain’d in that Discourse of his, which is at the end of his Meschâl [i.e. Casement] (which Belief of theirs, has plung’d them into inextricable Difficulties) where speaking of the several sorts of those who are kept from nearer Approaches, by the Brightness of the radiation of the Divine light, and then of those who had attain’d to the UNION, he says of these later, That they apprehended such Attributes to belong to the Divine Essence as were destructive of its Unity; from, whence it appear’d to them that he believ’d a sort of Multiplicity in the Godhead, which is horrid Blasphemy.

Now I make no Question but that the worthy Doctor Algazâli was one of those which attain’d to the utmost degree of Happiness, and to those heights which are proper to those who enjoy the UNION; but as for his secret or incommunicable Books, which contain the manner of Revelation, they never came to my hands: and that pitch of knowledge which I have attain’d to, is owing to his other works and to Avicenna, which I read and compar’d with the Opinions of the present Philosophers, till at length I came to the Knowledge of the Truth. At first indeed, by way of Enquiry and Contemplation;but afterwards I came to have a perfect sense, and then I found that I could say something which I could call my own.

Now I was resolv’d that you should be the first, to whom I would Communicate what I knew about these matters, both upon the account of the Intimacy of our Friendship, and your Candor and Integrity. Only observe, that my discovering to you the Ends which I attain’d in this way, without proving the Principles to you first, by which those Ends are attain’d, will do you no more Service, than any other Story which you receive by tradition, or any thing told you in general, of which you don’t know how to make a particular application.

Presuming that you will accept it kindly, not for any merit of the Author, but upon the account of our Friendship and Acquaintance; and I heartily desire that you mayn’t stop here, but aspire to a loftier degree: for this is so far from being able to bring you to those heights, that is not sufficient to save you.

Now I would lead you by the same paths which I have walk’d in before you, and make you steer by the same Compass, till you arrive at the same Point, and see with your own Eyes what I have seen before you, so as not to take it on trust any longer from me, but to experience it yourself. But this is a matter which will not only require considerable Time, but also that you are free and disingag’d from all manner of Business, and follow it close with great Application. And if you are really in earned, and set about it heartily, you will rejoyce as one that has Travelled all Night do’s when the Sun rises upon him, and will receive a Blessing for your Labour, and take delight in your Lord, and he will delight in you. And for my own part, you will find me, according to your own Hearts desire, just such an one as you could wish; and I hope that I shall lead you in the right way, free from Evils and Dangers: and really I perceive some Glimmerings now, by the help of which I shall inflame your Desire, and put you upon entring this way, by telling you the Story of Hai Ebn Yokdhan and Asâl, and Salâman (as Avicenna calls them); in which, those that understand themselves right will find matter of Improvement, and worthy their


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