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Al-Kindī and Nietzsche on the Stoic Art of Banishing Sorrow
Peter S. Groff
The world is deep, deeper than the day knows. Deep is its sorrow; joy—deeper still than grief can be. Sorrow implores: Go! But all joy wants eternity—wants deep, deep eternity!
Now just give me the worst throw of your dice, fate. Today I am turning everything into gold.
The "Philosopher of the Arabs" and the "good European": two unlikely figures, perhaps, for a comparative engagement.2 What could serve as the basis of a dialogue between Abū Yūsuf Ya'qūb ibn Ishaq al-Kindī, the first major figure in the Islamicate philosophical tradition,3 and Friedrich Nietzsche, the figure in whom the Western philosophical tradition arguably culminates and overcomes itself? Al-Kindī lived and wrote in ninth-century Baghdad, the heart of the cosmopolitan 'Abbāsid caliphate. His home was a world shaped by Islam, whose newly emergent culture was still just beginning to feel and exercise its own profound creative-intellectual powers. By most accounts he was a pious man, but also a learned polymath, dedicated to demonstrating the harmony of Greek philosophy and the divine truths of the Qur'amn.4 Nietzsche inhabited a different world altogether: the twilight of late European modernity. It is a time indelibly marked by the "death of God"—an event that Nietzsche will diagnose, interpret with great sensitivity and insight, and, ultimately, celebrate. Two thinkers; two radically different worlds. What could al-Kindī and Nietzsche possibly have to say to each other, separated as they are by such an enormous cultural, historical, and philosophical chasm?
As it turns out, they have quite a lot to say to each other. For each thinker in his own way was committed to the recovery of classical Greek and Hellenistic thought, in order to put its resources to work in a new, unprecedented historical moment. Thus, in spite of their many disparities, al-Kindī and Nietzsche draw from a common philosophical heritage and share some of its most fundamental concerns. In this essay, I shall focus specifically on their appropriation of the Stoic tradition. I hope to show that by provisionally situating al-Kindī and [End Page 139] Nietzsche within the lineage of Stoicism, we can recognize the ironic affinities of their thinking, while at the same time see the distinctiveness and peculiarity of their philosophical projects.
By characterizing al-Kindī and Nietzsche as "Stoics," I mean several things. First, they both conceive of philosophy not simply as the theoretical project of knowing the real (to the extent possible for a human being), but also, more importantly, as offering a practical "way of life" or an "art of living."5 That is to say, they recognize the intimate connection between physics, epistemology, and ethics: the fact that knowledge is not an end in itself, and that what we take to be most real can have a profound effect upon what kind of lives we choose to live and what kind of people we become. This leads to the second point: their similar approach to physics gives rise to a remarkable structural similarity in their practical philosophy. For both are concerned with the sadness and resentment that they see as the common—albeit not inevitable—product of generation, destruction, and contingency in nature. In short, al-Kindī and Nietzsche are committed to the task of banishing or overcoming sorrow, and I shall make the case that they appropriate many of the Stoics' therapeutic techniques toward this end.
Finally, in pursuing this project, they take up two interrelated themes that are central to the Stoic tradition in particular. The first is that of "fatalism," by which I mean that (a) there are a whole host of facts that appear to condition our lives in potentially painful and frustrating ways, (b) these things are not ultimately up to us, and (c...