The Fons Vitae of Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021-1058/70) is essentially an eleventh century attempt to present the first part of wisdom as the source of life for the intellectually oriented Jews of the Western world. As such it suffered almost complete sterility right from the start. Written in Arabic, it seems to have by-passed the greater majority of Gabirol's own Jewish contemporaries. And, even when translated in the twelfth century into Latin by the combined efforts of Ibn Daud (Avendehut), who is better known by his assumed Christian name of John of Spain, and Dominic Gundissalin it was not immediately recognized as a work in medieval Jewish philosophy. This was probably due to the fact that the author of this work was designated by the Arabic form of his name: Avicebron. The florilegia selected and translated into Hebrew by Shem Tob Fahquera (1225-1290) made scant impression on his contemporaries, if we can judge from the fact that only one manuscript of it seems to have been circulated. Another fundamental reason for its lack of influence on the Jewish world may be the fact that Gabirol never betrays his Jewish commitments by the insertion of biblical phrases or references to the vast literature of Talmudic developments. Indeed, the neo-platonic linguistic structures and their somewhat Christian adaptations made his work appear positively non-Jewish. Abraham Ibn Daud (ca. 1110-1180) actually criticizes Gabirol for treating such an important topic, that has so many religious implications, in a purely rationalistic way and, also, for expressing teachings apparently dangerous to Judaism itself. Later evaluations bring out the obvious lack of an appealing style, quite unexpected in a work by one recognized as pre-eminent in poetry.
The course of the Fons Vitae reached more fertile ground in the western Christian world of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The very fact that Raymond, Archbishop of Toledo, had the translation prepared was some indication of the reception it was to get later. Its obvious neoplatonic orientation was welcomed by medieval schoolmen, already nourished by the speculations on universal hylomorphism derived from the writings of Augustine and elaborated within the Augustinian view of formlessness as the root distinction separating God and creatures. The wisdom of God and the wisdom of man meet quite amicably in the concept of a Will overflowing with light that enlightens every man, that perfects every thing and illumines the path from the First Author, supreme and holy, to the least manifestation of reality, the substance supporting the nine categories. Though there appears to be in Gabirol a neo-platonic universe dependent on the Will of the First Agent, it is not quite appropriate to consider that Agent as Yahweh, in a truly Jewish sense. There are more Christian than Jewish delights savored in this treatise by the Christians of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
After an introduction, in which the author explains that the Fons Vitae is the first part of wisdom or more accurately the first foundation and root of wisdom, he elaborates the steps to be followed from a knowledge of matter and form through the knowledge of will to the science of the First Essence. This is wisdom: to know the First Essence. The total universe of man's knowledge includes the "per se nota" and what can be proved by the rules of the dialectical art. Employing such rules he established the existence of matter and form, their combinations and implications. The cause of all things is the Prime Essence and Will is the medium between it and all these hylomorphically constituted things.
At first glance one may be apt to place Gabirol's understanding of matter and form in the Christian-Aristotelian tradition. Yet, on the surface, at least, there seem to be basic differences. One of these is the equation of the form of man with "the composition of his members" and another is the designation of body as a combination of matter, or hyle, and quantity in such a way that quantity is the first form, that is 'corporeitas.'Unlike Avicenna and later Christian universal hylomorphists he does not speak of a form of corporeity but only of a "matter of corporeity"; corporeity or quantity is the basic corporeal form. "Forma quantitatis cum coniungitur materiae inferiori constituit speciem corporis et eam ducit ad esse." (II. 8.) The composite corporeal substance is either the corporeal matter supporting the forms of qualities by means of quantity (Tract I) or spiritual matter which sustains the corporeal form (Tract II). Simple spiritual substances are shown to exist in the accompanying selection (Tract III); the way of understanding matter and form in simple substances (Tract IV) and universal matter and form (Tract V) rounds out the complete work.
There is a general method to be followed in this investigation: if you know that there are properties of something and know what they are, then you know the existence of the thing which has these properties. If there is one universal matter for all things it will have the following properties: it is "per se existens," "unius essentiae,""sustinens diversitatem," and "dans omnibus essentiam suam et nomen."Such properties are found in things and hence there is one universal matter. If you abstract all forms, sensible and intelligible, the remainder is universal matter. And the process is to go from color to figure, to corporeity, to substantiality, to "intellectus spirituales." Created being supporting all these forms is universal matter. The properties of universal form are: "subsistere in alio,""perficere essentiam illius in quo est," "dare ei esse."
The particular method is to inspect natural sensibles both universal and particular and you will find matter and form. To the four modes of matter: artificial-particular matter, natural-particular matter, natural-universal matter and celestial matter, there correspond four grades of forms. Sensible body is known or perceived by the sensible qualities adhering in it. This sensible body is understood in terms of substance when viewed with the forms; when conceived as receptive of these forms it is designated as matter or hyle. These sensible forms require an extended subject which is the body, composed of matter and corporeity (i.e., quantity). When the first form is added to the highest matter it constitutes the species of an intelligence. The form of the intelligence is a simple one whereas the form of quantity is many complex units. Of all forms, the former is the closest form to the highest matter, the latter is closest to the lowest matter. The form of the intelligence is not separated from the highest matter and quantity is not separated from the lowest. Each penetrates the total essence of its corresponding matter and supports all other appropriate forms.
It would be quite fascinating to conjecture about the antecedents of the basic ideas found in the Fons Vitae. With the sole exception of Plato there is no author mentioned by name throughout the whole five books. And even the references to Plato are quite vague and undeveloped. Because of certain anonymous references such as "it is said," "They have described,""why does one say," "I have often heard it said,""philosophers are accustomed to say," it may not be out of order to postulate that he considered his teaching within the generally accepted framework of Arabian-neo-platonism current at the time. Similar key ideas are found in the Karaitic writings of the tenth century under Mutazalite influences. He may be trying to reconcile the Arabian atomism and neoplatonic hylomorphism with a First Cause responsible for all because of Will, yet keeping that idea well within the Kalamite tradition. Such influences may have come through the Brethren of the Purity, who are generally conceded to have tried their hands at such typical neo-platonic attempts at unification. There are certain recognizable ideas of Avicenna, especially in regard to quantity and matter in itself. Though emanationism is a common neo-platonic explanation for the derivation of the many from the one, the intermediary of Will may be a somewhat later Sufi influence. Through the intermediary of Will, which is the divine power making matter and form and binding them together within the highest beings even down to the lowest, there flow from the First Essence the universal intelligence, souls, nature, the four elements and the particular corporeal beings of our experience.
The excerpt from the Fons Vitae presented here in English for the first time is taken from the third and middle tractate. Its primary purpose is to establish the existence of simple substances between the corporeal things of our experience and the First Agent or Author of all. Two methods are utilized: one is to consider the properties of the First Agent and the properties of the substance that supports the nine categories; the other is to examine the effects produced in the latter substance in accord with the general emanation of all from the First Author. The first really establishes the existence of simple substances; the second leads, synthetically and analytically, to a knowledge of what they are in themselves and how they are and why. Solomon Ibn Gabirol presents the complete integration of the simple substances into the overall pattern of universal hylomorphism. Here we have a very thorough cosmogony, cosmology, psychology and metaphysics.
Theodore E. James
Pupil: What is the problem that we are now to discuss in this book?