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  • The Political Writings. Volume 2: Political Regime and Summary of Plato's Laws by Alfarabi
  • Philippe Vallat
Alfarabi. The Political Writings. Volume 2: Political Regime and Summary of Plato's Laws. Translated by Charles E. Butterworth. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. Pp. xvi + 204. Cloth, $39.95.

Butterworth here offers a perfectible translation of the Political Regime and a commendable, skilled rendition of the Summary of Plato's Laws. These two texts are published together and in this order because the contrast between their respective contents and methods would show that only in the last fourth of the first, as opposed to the whole of the second, "does Alfarabi consider political life as it usually is" (8), that is, shorn of what Leo Strauss's disciples regard as metaphysical humbug. Metaphysics, they contend, is synonymous with Neoplatonism, which, in turn, is synonymous with specious religious rhetoric. In Butterworth's opinion, Alfarabi resorted to it as a veil, opaque and gilded enough to keep his less gifted readers from seeing through it, and translucent enough to lead his acute readers to suspect that politics has nothing to do with metaphysics or religion after all, as the Summary would confirm. So, the Political Regime, being metaphysical, rhetorical, and hence exoteric, would aptly introduce the esoteric Summary.

Butterworth thus explains: "Part 1 of the Political Regime is especially difficult to put into clear English, because it is laden with terminology evoking a Neoplatonic metaphysical perspective used by Alfarabi to demonstrate its limits, even while presenting a detailed and apparently sympathetic exposition of it" (6). English readers need to sense the antiphrastic bearing of Alfarabi's phraseology—an arduous task for the translator, admittedly. But part 2, we are told (6), is almost equally Neoplatonic. The aim of the entire Political Regime would therefore be to disprove indirectly the metaphysics which defines felicity and immortality as the goals of a life lived in a philosophical polity, and to suggest, to those able to hear, that the philosophers' sole real ambition is to promote "virtues that prolong decent political life" (xi). The Arabic is translated accordingly, in a mundane language meant to reproduce in English the effect Butterworth believes Alfarabi's prose had on its tenth century readers.

I think Strauss was right about Alfarabi using an esoteric art of writing in connection with the theologico-political question. In two key passages of the Political Regime (74–75, 91; cf. 19), Alfarabi indeed spelled out, quite explicitly and in terms strikingly reminiscent of Strauss, the dialectical method he used in The Virtuous City in order to recruit naturally [End Page 344] gifted students among its readers. This however does not confirm that he only believed in "virtues that prolong decent political life." Butterworth apparently misconstrued the passages where he thought Alfarabi was suggesting that his own elaboration on the souls' immortalisation was mere storytelling. If "Alfarabi offers no reason for humans needing to shed their bodies" (10), this is not because he meant to trick his duller readers into believing that the souls have to "lose their corporeal attributes," as Butterworth suggests (10), but because the Arabic says nothing about disembodiment. This error indicates that the main argument of the treatise somehow eluded him. It runs as follows: being forms at first inseparable from their bodily substrates (see Aristotle, De Anima 413a3–5), souls are mortal; but in certain conditions, only fulfilled in a philosophical city, their intellective selves can reach immortality (see 430a23), beyond matter and form, when the bodies die. There is nothing "fraught with difficulties" (24) here. Alfarabi is simply speaking of bodily death. Moreover, to which extent does the idea that in the virtuous city humans lose their corporeal attributes "respect the conventional opinions of [Alfarabi's] time and place" (xi)? Likewise, to which degree does the doctrine found in the Arabic, i.e. conditional immortality, "buttress opinions set forth in religion" (25)? Butterworth also translated the passage on hylomorphism as though Alfarabi stated that "material" is "the subject in" and "by which" forms are "constituted" (see §13–14). Should this mean that they are intrinsically material, as we are given to understand, they would not even be intelligible...


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