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Gabirol, Solomon ibn

Category: Philosopher

Solomon ibn Gabirol, also Solomon ben Judah was an Andalusian Hebrew poet and Jewish philosopher with an interest in Neoplatonic ideas. Gabirol was one of the first teachers of Neoplatonism in Europe.  He was born in Málaga about 1021; and died about 1058 in Valencia, which would have made him only 37.

One of his best known works is "Fons Vitæ"  or "Fountain of Life" (Hebrew: Meqor Hayyim).  In this text, Gabirol aims to explain form and function – spirit and matter.   It consists of five tracts which cover

  • form and function -  form in general and its relationship to spirit  ("substantiæ corporeæ sive compositæ");
  •  spirit itself -  ("de substantia quæ sustinet corporeitatem mundi");
  •  proofs of the existence of "substantiæ simplices", that is of spirit and function
  • proofs that these "substantiæ simplices", are "intelligences",
  • energy - the first substance, "essentia prima",

The main thesis of the "Fons Vitæ" is that all that exists is constituted of spirit and that spirit  runs through the whole universe from the highest levels of the spiritual down to the lowest levels of the physical.

Needless to say few of his contemporaries understood what he was talking about, not because he was wrong , but because they came from a theological background and had been steeped in theological arguments.  Ibn Gabirol

“strived to keep his philosophical speculation free from every theological admixture."

As such the  "Fons Vitæ" is independent of Jewish religious dogma; not a verse of the Bible nor a line from the Rabbis is cited. For this reason Gabirol exercised comparatively little influence upon his Jewish successors, and was treated by  scholars as a non-Jew.  He was even accused of being a heretic.

Even after he died, the arguments about him still raged on.  Abraham ibn Daud of Toledo, in the twelfth century, criticised Gabirol for having philosophized 'without any regard to the requirements of the Jewish religious position'  - an interesting idea don't you think?   Stuff the truth, keep to the dogma.

He also played a major role in devising the Sephirot.  Through a careful study of the Tenakh, Jewish sages such as Solomon ibn Gabirol  identified ten Sephirot.

The sephirot are a combination of activity and the state it produces.  Thus if you 'know yourself' then you have reached the crown state - keter, if you have reached the stage of repentance [forgiveness] you gain the power of love - binah. The Jewish Sephirot, although more correctly it is just the Sephirot as it is used outside just the Jewish religion, is a diagram showing the states of progress on the Spiritual path.  Each bubble represents a state, each line the activity or action by which one can go from one state to the next.

 

He also wrote a book on Ethics called The Improvement of the Moral Qualities.  It was composed by Gabirol at Zaragoza in 1045.  Again, it is somewhat special as Gabirol describes the principles of ethics independently of religious dogma. “His treatise is original in its emphasis on the physio-psychological aspect of ethics”.  Gabirol arranged  the virtues and vices in relation to the senses: every sense becoming the instrument, not the agent, of two virtues and two corresponding vices.

I think we can safely assume from all this that Gabirol was a bit special.  He reminded me a little of Baruch Spinoza, beavering away against opposition and lack of understanding, only really being recognised after his death.  And he is perhaps less well known than Spinoza, which is rather sad. 

What gave him this level of wisdom?  Little is known of Gabirol's life. His parents died while he was a child. At seventeen years of age he became the friend and protégé of Jekuthiel Hassan. Upon the assassination of the latter as the result of a political conspiracy, Gabirol composed an elegy of more than 200 verses. So he was both sensitive and deeply affected by the loss of those he cared about.  The death of Hai Gaon also called forth a similar poem.

He appears to have known nothing but strife and turmoil.  Gabirol's residence in Zaragoza was embittered by strife. He thought of leaving Spain, but remained and instead took to travelling. He gained another friend and patron in the person of Samuel ibn Naghrela, whose praises he sang, but even this went wrong. Later an estrangement arose between them, and Naghrela became for a time the butt of Gabirol's bitterest irony.

So not a happy life, one filled with angst and grief.  All testimonies agree that Gabirol was comparatively young at the time of his death, which followed years of wandering and escape. The year of his death was probably 1058 or 1059.

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