The greatest of the Arab philosophers of Medieval times, Alfarabi, wrote a commentary on Plato’s Laws and he wrote a special introduction explaining Plato’s method of writing, which requires the reader to read in a special way. If we read Plato properly, we will know his true intent, because his writing is an action in and of itself that gives an argument that is different from the written text. Here, I will quote the text and comment it on it in brackets. The translation is by Muhsin Mahdi. I have made a couple of grammatical changes that have not altered the meaning.
Farabi: 1 Whereas the thing owing to which man excels all other animals is the faculty that enables him to distinguish among the affairs and matters with which he deals and that he observes, in order to know which of them is useful so as to prefer and obtain it while rejecting and avoiding what is useless;
[Human beings are the only creatures for whom uselessness is a possibility; moreover, what is useless is a matter of discernment. Lower animals do not think as human beings do, and therefore live only for what is useful, as instinct makes them live that way. But discernment is a faculty of man, and it allows him to distinguish his own affairs, presumably unlike other animals that are not capable of such discernment. What is useful, however, is preferable to what is useless. However, it is not clear here what constitutes what is “useful”, except to the extent that we know the very faculty of discernment is “useful”. In itself, it is preferable to not having it and not using it well.
[Yet, of course, what is useful has a moral dimension as well. For what is useful to me can be something that is very evil. It may be useful for me to have some killed. Of course, what is truly useful, then, is at issue, not just my opinion of what is useful.]
and that faculty only emerges from potentiality into actuality through experience (“experience” means reflection on the particular instances of a thing and, from what one finds in these particular instances, passing judgment upon its universal characteristics)—therefore, whoever acquires more of these experiences is more excellent1 and perfect in being human.
[This faculty exists as a potential in man, and can come to be only by reflecting on the particular instances of a thing and drawing common properties of the particular instances. The common property is a universal. Hence, we might say that the more one reflects upon the various instances of discernment itself, we come to know more about it. Hence, the greater the reflection upon this reflection, the more excellent the human being and the closer he is to fulfilling his perfection. It should also be noted that the general is not the universal and the general here is missing, drawing attention to itself in its absence.]
However, the one guided by experience may err in what he does and experiences so that he conceives the thing to be in a different state than it really is.
[An individual who reflects upon the particular instances and draws a false universal from them makes an error. Error is always a possibility, unless one sees something for what it really is. Error, too, must be seen for what it is. At the same time, we have to wonder how many instances are necessary to formulate a true universal. In some cases, one can envision that there are so many instances that it would be impossible to examine every instance to see whether the universal is valid. Thus, it appears that we have to find a way to go from the many to one in a way that we prove the one is one.]
(There are many causes of error; these have been enumerated by those who discuss the art of sophistry. Of all people, the wise are the ones who have acquired experiences that are true and valid.)
[The sophist is distinguished from the wise man insofar as the sophist reflects wrongly. It is obvious, therefore, that anyone who is not wise, but thinks he is is a sophist. This pretension is one cause of error.]
Nevertheless, all people are naturally disposed to pass a universal judgment after observing only a few particular instances of the thing (“universal” here means that which covers all the particular instances of the thing as well as their duration in time);
[Farabi creates one universal: All people by nature are inclined to pass a universal judgment after observing only a few particular instances of something. This “all people” means all people who have ever lived or shall ever live. That does not mean, however, that every universal is correct. We must consider whether Farabi’s own universal here, all people, is valid and true. Secondly, we are forced to consider how many particular instances of something makes something valid and true. Is there any exception to any universal? If there were, would that universal be a universal? Of course not, one would say immediately. Nevertheless, we are forced to consider whether every effort to pass universal judgment is truly valid. It is only universal if it is valid for every particular instance. If a person believes he has a universal, but does not, then he is wrong. It appears then that the only true universals are universals. There is nothing less. While everyone by nature may be inclined to pass universal judgments, few will make valid ones. The inclination or even the desire is the not the same as making a true universal judgment.]
so that once it is observed that an individual has done something in a certain way on a number of occasions, it is judged that lie does that thing in that way all the time.
[The habitual is considered to be universal. But why? Because it is useful to do the same thing over and over again. The basic problem is that human life is not consistent unless one makes it so. Moreover, there is no reason to assume that life, as inconsistent as it is, ought to be consistent or could be consistent in anything else but inconsistency. We are told, however, that the wise man is consistent in his judgment. Therefore, his reflection upon the particular instances and the universals, including the very character of his reflection, strives to be the same all the time. Thus, he actualizes his potential. In short, the wise man universalizes his life, while still being a particular man. There is no Adam Kadmon, the universal man.]
For instance, when someone has spoken the truth on one, two, or a number of occasions, people are naturally disposed to judge that he is simply truthful; similarly when someone lies.
[Truth, as it is universal and is believed to be so by people, is naturally accepted to be so when spoken by a person. Truth and deception are not the same. Hence, the person who tells the truth is considered not deceptive. The deceptive person, the liar, including the inadvertent liar, the worse liar of all, however, has great difficulty repairing his reputation, because lying is considered deceptive. To be deceptive means to take advantage of others unjustly. To be consistently truthful with others is a part of being just, while even lying once, as it is a part of injustice, implies that a person will not be consistent to others, i.e., do others good. The wise man, as he is consistent about his universals, is likely to be just at all times. For not to be just would mean that he had made a misjudgment about what is just. For a wise man to be unjust, then, would lessen his wisdom. But then, there are those who assert that the wise man would lie to others, at least nobly, i.e., judged by social standards to be beautiful or noble to others. Some would assert that to lie at times is just. To deceive others for a good purpose is the way of the wise man. But how can that be? A just man’s behavior is consistently just, as justice demands consistency. The unjust man, like the individual, who errs in his judgment, is inconsistent in doing the good of others. How can a just man be just and unjust at one time and then another? Wouldn’t the wise man tell the truth all the time? But to speak the truth all the time means that he must be able to speak the truth in a way that is true, which, at times, make him seem wrong or unjust to others.]
Again, when someone is observed on a number of occasions to act with courage or as a coward, or to give evidence of any other moral habit, he is judged to be so wholly and always.
[We have arrived at another virtue, courage, along with wisdom. If one has good moral habits, one does not necessarily have to think about one’s behavior at all times. Moreover, in everyday life, one does not need to be courageous all the time. There are not many opportunities to be exercise courage. However, we would consider a man courageous when at those times he needed to be courageous that he was so. We expect a courageous man to be courageous consistently, always. In the same way we would consider a man wise who is always wise. For most people, very few have to exercise any wisdom most of the time, which is why they tend to err and lie. A wise man’s very life of wisdom is a life lived courageously, because to live life truthfully is a dangerous thing as Socrates well knew.]
Whereas those who are wise know this aspect of people’s natural disposition, sometimes they have repeatedly shown themselves as possessing a certain character so that people will judge that this is how they always are.
[Even if men are not completely virtuous or wise, they tend to believe that virtue, being a consistent and universal way of life, is perceived to be practiced by an individual that he will be that way. Of course, this not the case; however, an unvirtuous man who is perceived to be unvrituous will be suspect. If, however, an unvirtuous man were to pretend to be virtuous, he could do so only in his behavior, his deeds, as well as his words. He would have to deceive everyone regarding his thoughts. But his hypocrisy would only manifest itself once he is caught doing something wrong, like lying. But such a man who thinks evil but attempts to preserve his reputation for goodness must of necessity restrain himself greatly to carry off his deception. If he does nothing wrong, however, he would be virtuous in his behavior, but not his thinking. It appears, then, that a man’s thought and his behavior can be at odds. However, no one can see a man’s thought, but they can see his behavior. That is the problem. Man’s life is opaque and thus allows for lies and inadvertent lies, errors.]
Then, afterwards, they would act in a different manner, which went unnoticed by people, who supposed they were acting as they had formerly.
[It is not unusual for people not to notice until someone does something wrong that affects his good reputation. The reason is that they expect consistency of behavior from people, including themselves.]
It is related, for example, that a certain abstemious ascetic was known for his probity, propriety, asceticism and worship, and having become famous for this, he feared the tyrannical sovereign and decided to run away from his city.
[The man is a religious man, an ascetic and pious man. He prefers the unpleasant to the pleasant apparently as he is willing to be abstemious. He has a reputation for probity, propriety, asceticism, and worship. This is his reputation, a reputation that is so great that he is famous for it. Fame is also a kind of universality, as it is a good reputation that is known by many or all. Now believes that his fame has incurred the wrath of the tyrant. He fears what the tyrant may do to him. He assumes a consistency of behavior about the tyrant, that the tyrant would envy his fame and do him an evil. He has made a universal judgment about the tyrant. Now we must judge whether the pious ascetic is courageous. We find that he is in a crisis that demands courage. But he is fearful. It is not clear that a fearful man is necessarily a true coward. A courageous man may fear; it is possible. But what is fear? It is the expectation of a pain or suffering of some kind. The ascetic fears that the tyrant will hurt him in some way, perhaps even take his life. He chooses safety over challenging the tyrant. But what can the tyrant do the ascetic? He could torture or kill his body. As the ascetic prefers pain to pleasure it would seems that the amount of pain he willing to endure does not extend to great torture upon his body. The tyrant might incarcerate the ascetic; thus, the ascetic may fear losing his freedom. It is not clear, however, that the tyrant could change the ascetic’s mind, or could he? Is the very threat the tyrant makes enough to make the ascetic change his way of life by lying in deed?
[There are additional problems: First, is this story true? Or is this ascetic a fiction created by Farabi? If it is a fiction, do we consider this story a “lie,” a deliberate deception? Is there any way to ascertain whether this story is true? Its substance, its lesson, whatever it is, may be true; however, is it a biographical truth? We are not told in what city it happened, nor do we know the names of the ascetic or the tyrant. One possible answer is that this story is a symbol, a riddle, or an obscurity in the manner that Plato created such things. If it is, then it would not matter if this story actually happened.
[The second problem is the character of the tyrant. We are given to understand that he somehow envies or himself fears the reputation of the ascetic. The fear, then, would be grounded in the ascetic’s reputation for being pious and religious man, which might call into question the tyrant’s own behavior, whatever it is. We are not told whether the tyrant is a bad, except by the title of tyrant. We must presume that a tyrant is evil. Secondly, if the tyrant envies the ascetic, it is owing to the ascetic’s good reputation. The inferior tyrant would like to be known to be better, which he could be by simply behaving better. Hence, are we not then faced with this problem of the morally good man who is consistently good versus the man who is bad but wants to have a good reputation? But then why would the tyrant want to capture the ascetic? What good would it do him? If the tyrant wants to kill the ascetic, then we would have to assume that the tyrant simply wants to eliminate a rival, which the ascetic seems to be. Of course, we might also speculate that the ascetic’s good reputation is being used against the tyrant politically, and that the ascetic might be involved in intrigues against him. We are told that the man has a reputation for probity, piousness, propriety, and asceticism, but does that preclude the man from being involved politically against the tyrant? It seems not. There is no reason to assume that the ascetic is apolitical. In truth, such a good reputation is an excellent political start. This political possibility also can be the work of others besides the ascetic. Because of the ascetic’s good reputation, others might promote him as a possible rival to the tyrant, for example.
[If the ascetic is involved politically, then he definitely has a lot to fear as the tyrant is after him, because the tyrant is likely to have a great motivation to do the ascetic in. However, assuming that the ascetic is a Muslim, we also must consider whether the ascetic is living up to his religion in various ways: First, if the ascetic were a morally good man, why would he fear death? Wouldn’t he be convinced of his place in heaven in the event that he is killed? If he were not political, what would he fear from the tyrant’s arrest? Clearly, in the mind of the ascetic, physical and moral courage do not coincide. We are presented with a body soul problem here. The ascetic might argue that even if he were courageous morally his body might not reflect his moral courage. But then his fear is of bodily pain, either leading to death or simply lingering torture. If he were a political man, then the ascetic might argue that his self-preservation is important as he lives to fight another day, even if he abandons the city to the tyrant. If he is apolitical, then he might argue that he does not care what happens to the city and that his own interest is paramount. Presumably, if he were a pious man, however, then we are presented with the possibility that his religious character demands a concern for others. He must not be interested only in his own salvation, whether it is physical or spiritual. If that is the case, then we might infer that he has been politically active against the tyrant.
[But then what if the ascetic’s reputation were not deserved? What if it were only the product of the people’s misapprehension of the ascetic’s behavior? Assuming that the ascetic’s faith is not profound, then we must expect that he would compromise it. However, the issue is to what extent he would do so.]
The sovereign’s command went out to search for and arrest him wherever he was found. He could not leave from any of the city’s gates and was apprehensive lest he fall into the hands of the sovereign’s men.
[Again, the ascetic is fearful.]
So he went and found a dress worn by vagabonds, put it on, carried a cymbal in his hand and, pretending to be drunk, came early at night out to the gate of the city singing to the accompaniment of that cymbal of his.
[If the ascetic were a Muslim, obviously drinking would be entirely illegal and not part of his normal religious practice. Now, we must assume that as a religious ascetic, he had a different kind of clothing that was known in the city. To be an ascetic, however, does not mean to look homeless and a drifter. Hence, the ascetic assumes that the habit and convention will make his deception work. Carrying the cymbal, of course, is an attempt to draw attention to him. An ascetic who habitually observes propriety would not make noise in the night. The ascetic is hiding in the open.]
The gatekeeper said to him, “Who are you?” “I am so and so, the ascetic!” he said jokingly.
[The ascetic must sound as if he were making fun, for the deception to work. The deception works because the ascetic takes the conventional identity of someone else who is of little consequence in the town. People generally do not care for the homeless vagabond, nor do they truly take enough care to distinguish what they are about. Hence, it is one of the easiest of disguises to take on.
[However, isn’t the ascetic also taking on an actuality of what he is?]
The gatekeeper supposed he was poking fun at him and did not interfere with him. So he saved himself without having lied in what he said.
[The gatekeeper is not offended by the ascetic’s remark, although the gatekeeper divines that the ascetic is truly making fun of him. There is no offense taken because the gatekeeper believes that the drunk is harmless. But why would he do that? Isn’t drunkenness illegal in Islam? The gatekeeper betrays a moral laxity here. Perhaps, then, the city is much looser in its morals than we would normally suspect; perhaps the tyrant has had a bad effect on the moral structure of the city; perhaps it is this moral laxity that allows the ascetic to escape, not just the disguise. We may infer, then, that perhaps the ascetic’s good reputation is in part owing to the generally bad moral behavior of others in the city.
[Now Farabi notes that the ascetic saved himself without lying in speech. But he lies in deed. We are drawn to the separation between speech and deed again. The speech is not taken seriously because it is disguised in humor and put into the context of a deed that denies the verity of the speech. The truth is hidden in the lie.
[Now we must admit that the lie of the deed is a genuine lie, because it is not self-revealing. A lie attempts not to be discovered at any cost, or else the lie is not efficacious. The lie is not discoverable, because the gatekeeper is not discerning enough or because he is not doing his job properly. He demands no identification; he simply accepts the one volunteered by the ascetic. The gatekeeper’s downfall is that he assumed he knew what was going on in front of his eyes. In other words, the deception worked because the ascetic knew that the gatekeeper had a pretense to knowledge. Moreover, it ought to be noted that in the event that the ruse is discovered after the ascetic escapes, the gatekeeper may be held responsible for what happened. The tyrant could punish him. It appears that the ascetic does not worry about this possibility. He cares more for the good the gatekeeper can do for him, rather than the ill that he might cause the gatekeeper.
[But can we believe that the reputation of the ascetic is also the product of such deception? Isn’t the ascetic possibly doing the same thing to the city regarding his reputation? In part, we must question the moral character of the ascetic because he created a deception, a lie. If he can create one lie of this kind for his self-preservation, could he not also do the same in his everyday life previously? Couldn’t his reputation be a clever deception created by the ascetic? The issue stands and falls on whether it is morally correct to lie in the way the ascetic did.
[An ancillary problem also emerges: As a representative of a religion, could not the religious man in general be like the ascetic? On what basis can we say that the ascetic is correct or incorrect to do what he did?]
2 Our purpose in making this introduction is this: the wise Plato did not feel free to reveal and uncover every kind of knowledge for all people.
[Plato was not an ascetic, but a philosopher. His concern with knowledge is what it might do to others. His concern is with others first.]
Therefore he followed the practice of using symbols, riddles, obscurity, and difficulty, so that knowledge would not fall into the hands of those who do not deserve it and be deformed, or fall into the hands of someone who does not know its worth or who uses it improperly.
[Plato used various techniques; however, an obvious one is missing: the lie. To use symbols is not necessarily to lie. To use riddles is not necessarily to lie. To use obscurity and difficulty is not necessarily to lie. Now knowledge has a hierarchy, which can affect the individual. Only certain people are deserving of some kinds of knowledge. Needless to say, if one writes, it is possible that anyone might read what one has written, no matter what his level of understanding. Moreover, some knowledge can hurt the individual. It is not clear what kind. Knowledge is both useless and useful. But is misused knowledge useful to the individual who misuses it? Perhaps what is at issue is whether knowledge can be damaged, more than whether the individual himself can be damaged. Also, Plato’s difficulties may be inherent in the truth of what he writes. In other words, there are some things that cannot be said, especially about something that is a non-being or a reality that is completely ineffable as it is beyond all being, which in Plato is the Good.
[We also must confront the issue of whether Plato is self-serving, that he adopted his mode of writing not so much to protect others, but himself. If he were to say some things openly, he might offend someone like a tyrant. In other words, the method used by Plato is prophylactic. What the ascetic did was after-the-fact. The ascetic clearly did not take the necessary precautions to avoid the kind of reputation that inspired the tyrant to seek him out. Plato appears to have much more prudence than the ascetic does. Moreover, it appears that Plato does not resort to lying, only to difficulty, riddles, and so on. However, one might say that Plato’s protection is only speech, and that the ascetic did not lie in speech any more than Plato does. But then one might say that Plato doesn’t have to resort to lies in that he has taken precautions against having to lie.]
In this he was right.
[Farabi does not say that the ascetic was right. The ascetic demonstrates the weakness that people have who draw general conclusions based on only a few instances. In other words, the people of the city did not know the ascetic well enough. They had no seen enough instances of his behavior to judge that he was capable of deception. One wonders whether this was the only deception he practiced on everyone; perhaps the greatest deception is that he was a good man.]
Once he knew and became certain that he had become famous for this practice, and that it was widespread among people that he expresses everything he intends to say through symbols, he would sometimes turn to the subject he intended to discuss and state it openly and literally; but whoever reads or hears his discussion supposes that it is symbolic and that he intends something different from what he stated openly.
[Where did Plato become famous for this practice? Clearly, among those who read him well. But Farabi doesn’t tell us who read him well and that number may be very small and the fame only among a small few. However, it is clear that many of his readers did not understand Plato. Farabi says that Plato intended to have people believe that everything he said was said in symbols. A symbol is shorthand for an argument. It is the compression of an argument usually in the form of an image of some kind. However, in any symbol, a riddle, difficulty, etc., what is absent is most important.
[We wonder, then, whether the ascetic is more of a symbol rather than an historical figure.
[We are told, moreover, that on occasion Plato would state the truth openly and literally, but then people would supposed that what he said was a symbol referring to something else. How is it that someone can mistake a clear literal statement for a symbol? We must find an example.
[Now we must come to the obvious problem: Socrates and his absence not only from Farabi’s commentary, but from Plato’s Laws. As this introduction is to Farabi’s commentary on the Laws, we must assume that Farabi has read the Laws and knows something about it. The most critical initial problem of the Laws is the identity of the Athenian Stranger. It is well known and was quite known to Farabi, who had read Aristotle very carefully, that the Athenian Stranger is Socrates, a Socrates who would have carried on this conversation if he had escaped Athens and his death sentence. We are forced to compare the ascetic with Socrates.
[First, Socrates shows absolutely no fear in his dealing with Athens, not at his imminent arrest, at his trial, or at his execution. Faced with the alternative to escape, Socrates chooses to die for the sake of philosophy and his own glorious immortality. But Socrates notes a bit about his age, that it had something to do with the acceptance of death. However, the Athenian Stranger answers the riddle of where Socrates would go had he escaped. Socrates would have gone to Crete, the oldest of the Greeks where he would have examined their laws and their relationship to the other Greeks who came afterwards.
[What is characteristic of Socrates is not characteristic of the ascetic. Socrates never resorts to any deceptions to save himself. Socrates predicates self-preservation on making the city accept the truth of his assertions. Socrates keeps himself out in the open throughout, while the ascetic runs away. While the ascetic is reputed to be truthful, Socrates clearly is. Socrates’s reputation is much more controversial. The cause of his trial includes allegations of hubris or bringing in new gods—impiousness. The ascetic is reputed to be pious.
[Both men, however, incur the wrath of their tyrant or the city. It appears that the ascetic inflamed the tyrant, because of his piety. The tyrant probably interpreted the ascetic’s religious work as a political threat to his rule. In Socrates’s case, however, the city sees Socrates as undermining the city’s morality and laws. In other words, the pious ascetic is faithful to his religion; Socrates is not. Socrates, accused of undermining the laws of Athens, dies upholding the law. The old pious ascetic flees for his life while breaking the law. Socrates was an historical figure, while it is not clear that the pious old ascetic is.]
This notion is one of the secrets of his books.
[Of course, this sentence is highly suspicious. If Plato wanted to keep a secret, he would do so and no one would know. So, there is no secret, because Farabi knows what Plato did. In fact, anyone who reads Plato carefully will know what Plato did. To say that Plato has secrets, however, is a kind of safety term. It makes the reader hesitate about Plato, not to judge him immediately, and to encourage curiosity. If one seeks the secrets, then one might actually learn something.]
Moreover, no one is able to understand what he states openly and what he states symbolically or in riddles unless he is trained in that art itself, and no one will be able to distinguish the two unless he is skilled in the discipline that is being discussed. This is how his discussion proceeds in the Laws.
[Thus, by believing that Plato has secrets means that one has to train oneself in reading and finding out what the secrets are. What that means is that there are secrets, but what the true secrets are are not necessarily what one would believe to be secret. Of course, one trains by reading carefully and at the same time one trains oneself in moderation and other virtues. The very serious reading of the work is the training of the mind and the soul.]
In the present book we have resolved upon extracting the notions to which he alluded in that book and grouping them together, following the order of the Discourses it contains, so that the present book may become an aid to whomever wants to know that book and sufficient for whomever cannot bear the hardship of study and reflection. God accommodates [to] what is right.
[Farabi then proceeds with the explanation of the dialogue. It must be said that his reading of the Platonic text is not precisely what Plato wrote. So, we must assume that there is an intent that is beyond Plato’s in Farabi’s text. He is using Plato in much the same way he used the ascetic at times. Not everything he writes is simply commentary on what Plato wrote. As Farabi says, “God accommodates…”]