Transcript: 156 - Sarah Pessin on Jewish Neoplatonism

Peter chats with Sarah Pessin about the Neoplatonism of Jewish philosophers such as Isaac Israeli, Ibn Gabirol, and Maimonides.
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Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: I guess the first thing I should ask you is: who are the Jewish Neoplatonists? So I've said a little bit about Jewish philosophy already in the podcast series, and I certainly talked a lot about Neoplatonism. I did mention one philosopher already early on, who's pretty clearly a Jewish Neoplatonist, Isaac Israeli, and more recently another one, Ibn Gabirol. Do you see them as the two leading Jewish Neoplatonists?

Sarah Pessin: Yes, absolutely. I think people use the expression 'Jewish Neoplatonist' to sometimes talk of other thinkers, but I would definitely say that Isaac Israeli and Solomon Ibn Gabirol really encapsulate, I think, what that term best means. I might also include Abraham Ibn Ezra, and Abraham Ibn Khazdai also bears in some of his works some elements that might include him as well. But I think, again, Israeli and Ibn Gabirol would probably be my two main choices.

Peter Adamson: I'll probably get on to talk about Abraham Ibn Ezra later on. Do you want to just say a little bit about Ibn Khazdai, because I haven't mentioned him yet?

Sarah Pessin: Ibn Khazdai's work, but not all of it, would be, I think, categorizable as Neoplatonic. And again, in some of the writing, there are some encyclopedic elements where folks seem to be just sort of recounting things. So it's hard, again, to know whether to include him fully in a Neoplatonic tradition. But in his work, 'The Prince and the Ascetic,' he has aspects of what is sometimes in the scholarship referred to as "Ibn Khazdai's Neoplatonist" is kind of seen as a common source of some kinds of materials that one finds in, for example, Isaac Israeli, in Ibn Gabirol, and Ibn Khazdai. These are elements that have certain pseudo-Empedoclean rings to them. And so for that reason, one can categorize some of his work, at least, as having some Neoplatonic elements.

Peter Adamson: You just mentioned the pseudo-Empedocles, and that's a source for Neoplatonism among Jewish authors that I mentioned in the last episode. But could you maybe just go over that again for the listener and talk about some of the other Neoplatonic sources that these authors were drawing on?

Sarah Pessin: It is difficult. I think not just with Jewish Neoplatonic texts, but in reading through ancient and medieval writings generally it is sometimes difficult to see exactly and figure out exactly what the sources are. But for these Jewish Neoplatonists, some of the traditions that seem to be at play are the Kalam fi mahd al-khair tradition, or the Liber de Causis tradition, Theology of Aristotle materials - which in scholarship and Jewish Neoplatonism there's discussions of a longer and shorter versions of Theology of Aristotle - and then broader Arabic Plotinus materials. You see hints or references that look like they're coming from Brethren of Purity materials, even some discussion of the Ghayat Al-Hakim, so the Picatrix tradition in the Islamic world, pseudo-Empedoclean source or sources - which is not entirely clear what exactly that tradition is, or whether there are more than one. But certainly some materials that come up in Ibn Gabirol's work are attributed by his Hebrew translator, Ibn Falaquera, to have been Empedoclean in nature. And we certainly find attribution of certain similar ideas in other Islamic sources that are attributed to Empedocles. So again, it's unclear what connection, if any, this has to Empedocles. And it's also of interest that there are differences in what seem to be the Jewish and Islamic versions of Empedocleanism - which are again pseudo-Empedocleanism. So that's a whole separate topic. But again, it's not entirely clear what exactly this tradition or traditions are. But it seems that again, there are certain shared elements that are referred to as having these pseudo-Empedoclean overtones. And then it certainly seems that they're reading a variety of Islamic and Jewish theological, mystical, and philosophical traditions of the time. And of course, also in the case of the Jewish Neoplatonists, also a familiarity with Jewish scriptural and rabbinic writings, as well as potentially some knowledge of certain Jewish mystical traditions. In the case of Ibn Gabirol, there seems to be a familiarity with some of the language, at least, that we find in Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Formation. And so again, certain familiarity, certainly with certain Jewish mystical trends.

Peter Adamson: I guess a lot of those materials, in a way, are what we would expect. So the Theology of Aristotle is just the Arabic version of Plotinus. The so-called Liber de Causis or Book of Causes is just the Arabic Proclus. But Empedocles is a presocratic philosopher and doesn't really have anything to do with Neoplatonism, at least not apparently so. So could you explain how it came to be in the Arabic tradition that Empedocles was associated with this sort of Neoplatonic doctrine?

Sarah Pessin: So again, the exact nature of what kind of a lineage this tradition or traditions has is, I think, not so clear. So I don't intend to suggest some kind of a clear-cut answer here. But we do find in Islamic materials reference to Empedocles in terms of a doctrine of love and strife. And that seems connected up with what one might more generally think of as broader Pythagorean and Neoplatonic themes of limit and unlimited. That might be a bit of a summary way of putting it, but in some conceptual way, that might be one way of thinking of a connection. Ibn Gabirol himself does not mention Empedocles. His Hebrew translator suggests that there is some Empedoclean element here. So Ibn Gabirol himself doesn't identify that. But what seems to be shared in both the Jewish and Islamic traditions, which is being referred to by scholars as a pseudo-Empedoclean tradition, is a notion of what is in Arabic "al-unsar al-awl" which is sometimes translated as 'first matter' or 'prime matter,' in which I prefer to translate as "grounding element." And in the Islamic case, there is additionally reference in those conversations to love and strife, whereas in the Jewish cases where this "al-unsar al-awl" is discussed, there seems rather to be - at least in the case of Ibn Gabriel - an emphasis on the relationship of form and matter as the kind of dyad that is being discussed.

Peter Adamson: Right. So it's like the Islamic traditions a little bit closer to the real Empedocles, as it were?

Sarah Pessin: In as much as the terms love and strife come up, yes, it seems a clear link.

Peter Adamson: So it seems like there's an obvious question here. So you've said that they're drawing on these Neoplatonic texts. You've said they're drawing on rabbinical literature and scripture. And someone might look at that and think, well, isn't the very term Jewish Neoplatonist a contradiction in terms? I mean, isn't there a problem of reconciling Neoplatonic texts, which often come from a pagan background, with the monotheistic revelation of Judaism?

Sarah Pessin: The way I think of that has to do with a broader question about what Neoplatonic methodology is. Or to put it in another way, for those thinkers who we would accurately be describing as Neoplatonic in their spirit and in their way of thinking, what is it that they think that they're doing, and what is it that they think something like a scriptural text, the Torah, is doing, or other scriptural writings in Judaism? I think from a Jewish Neoplatonic methodological perspective, these thinkers do not view scriptural texts as literal, nor do they view Neoplatonic metaphysics as literal. So when one opens up this kind of methodological space, the most important texts are not literal. They do not denote spatiotemporally or historically. They're not used simply to refer to things in the way that ordinary languages refer to things. That really opens up a deep compatibility for a whole lot of texts.

Peter Adamson: So the idea would be if you're committed to this metaphorical non-literal reading of both Neoplatonic literature on the one hand and biblical literature on the other hand, then you're never going to find yourself in a situation where you have just a flat contradiction of one against the other, because really what you're doing is trying to find a single system that lies behind both bodies of text where you can make them cohere. But it still seems like there must be philosophical doctrinal issues where the two belief systems would come into tension. So the obvious one, I suppose, is the contrast between a creation-based religion and an emanation-based metaphysics in Neoplatonism. And certainly that's something that was already felt to be a tension in late antiquity, because some Christians actually criticized Neoplatonic philosophers for saying that the world comes to be out of the first principle necessarily - like a light shining forth or water pouring forth from a fountain. Do the Jewish Neoplatonists not see that as a problem?

Sarah Pessin: So I think it's interesting from two perspectives, both in terms of thinking the possibilities of what Jewish Neoplatonists think about emanation itself as potentially, and I'll use the word "pious," I think that for a Jewish Neoplatonist, the conception of the kind of necessity that you refer to just now - as long as it's not an external necessity, as long as it's a necessity from within, which in the conceptual space would not be actually called necessity. But just to take that conception, if one thinks of something as necessitated from within, I think the Jewish Neoplatonists have no concerns with God being, again, necessitated from within, which is not the language that they would use, but to the extent that emanation is a kind of quote unquote 'necessitation of God from within,' I see no reason why a Jewish Neoplatonist would have a problem with that. Quite frankly, I don't see any reason why various religious thinkers or other Jewish thinkers who are not Neoplatonists or other thinkers who are not Jewish who are religious would have a problem with that, but that's a side point. But I certainly don't see any reason for the Jewish Neoplatonists to have a problem with that. On the other hand - so that was from the perspective of thinking about what they might think of emanation as a concept - but from the other perspective, it's, you know, what do they think the opening words of Genesis mean? Which presumably for certain religious thinkers, Jewish or otherwise, are fueling some sense that emanation and this kind of system of thought of emanation and other Greek ideas would be "impious." Again, I'm using that word to try to convey a certain idea there. Well, not only for Jewish Neoplatonists who might have a more open methodology for reading texts, but even for the tradition within Jewish rabbinic readings and certainly within Jewish mystical readings, and even within various Jewish philosophical readings, there are so many different ways that Jewish thinkers read the opening words of Genesis that again, I don't see any reason to think that a Jewish Neoplatonist would have - would ever start off with - any sense that the Genesis text 'tells me something about creation and therefore emanation will be competing with it' in one of two ways. First of all, the opening words of Genesis in various rabbinic traditions are not even about cosmogony at all. So the opening words that are frequently translated as "in the beginning" in a popular Jewish reading - which again, it's not as if Ibn Gabirol or Isaac Israeli comments on this directly - but just to think about this for Jewish thinkers who are familiar with rabbinic readings, rabbinic reading of that text has in the beginning is translated as "for the first," which is seen as referring to the idea that the world was brought about for the sake of the people Israel. The details aside, the point is that it's not seen as a claim about cosmogony beginnings. The other piece is that in Jewish mystical sources, that text is being read as very much a text about emanation, specifically of a Jewish mystical variety. Again, from various perspectives, I don't see any reason to think that a Jewish Neoplatonist would be too worried about a so-called creation versus emanation debate.

Peter Adamson: So we might say that both on the philosophical side and on the textual side, there's no problem, because on the philosophical side, they're quite happy for the universe to proceed necessarily from God anyway. And on the textual side, they don't think there's any proof text in Genesis - or anywhere else presumably - that tells you that the universe doesn't proceed necessarily from God. So it's all fine.

Sarah Pessin: Right. It's not as if either of them say this per se, but I see no reason conceptually and methodologically as on the part of scholars today to assume anything different than that.

Peter Adamson: So here's an argument against you then, just to play devil's advocate. Ibn Gabirol makes a big deal about divine will and talks about how even universal matter, which seems to be the sort of most general or highest principle in his system, comes forth from God because it's willed. And one obvious way to understand the will, the way that someone like Al-Ghazali would understand it at least, is that you're only willing something if you could have refrained from doing it. So if the universe is willed to come forth from God, we might think that then these Jewish Neoplatonists must be committed to the idea that the universe is contingent rather than necessary.

Sarah Pessin: So this notion of divine will that you find, for example, in Al-Ghazali, and that you definitely find in various Jewish thinkers as well - this notion of "al-ikhtiyar" as kind of this choosing between alternatives, it is interesting that in Avicenna's own writing, he actually takes on that particular term and actually not only the term 'creation,' but actually at one point the term "al-ikhtiyar," and this is from John Hoover's writings which have brought this to my attention, talks about that term in a way that's consistent for Avicenna with emanation. So that within the Islamic philosophical tradition itself, there is a precedent for not only a general notion of will, but even this "al-ikhtiyar," this choosing between alternatives language to conceptually use it in full alignment with emanation. So it's something that I think is interesting to think about in terms of not making assumptions that concepts are so rigid for the Neoplatonists that they can't be brought together. Similarly, In Plotinus himself, although he uses a more broad term that's not necessarily the term that chooses between alternatives, but still he does talk about divine will - that's not a key theme, but he uses the term will as well. So again, conceptually for us to keep our minds open as to how Neoplatonists themselves use the term or the concept of will. And in Ibn Gabirol, he speaks of "irada," divine "irada," which is frequently translated as "divine will," but we don't know conceptually that that rules out emanation. Just as we see in Avicenna, Avicenna speaks of creation, of "al-ikhtiyar," and of emanation in one breath, and there's no reason to think that Ibn Gabirol or any Jewish Neoplatonist cannot also speak in one breath of terms like divine "irada" and speaking of creation and of holding fully to an emanationist conception of the world. In fact, I argue that divine "irada" in Ibn Gabirol, when best understood, is not only consistent with Plotinian emanation, but actually refers to the downward unfolding of Plotinian emanation.

Peter Adamson: So they actually just think that will, at least in the case of God, means necessarily emanating forth the universe or something to that effect?

Sarah Pessin: Yes, the adverb "necessarily" helps emphasize, at least in the history of philosophy, a certain strain of critique. The Neoplatonists themselves are not - although they easily coul - but it's not as if they're going on and on about how this is a kind of necessitation. The concept space is broken up in a way where necessitation is generally seen as a bad thing, but again, this kind of necessitated from within. I don't think they're not sort of emphasizing that notion of necessity, but yes, certainly the idea of what we might describe as a necessarily emanating divine source for Ibn Gabirol, I would certainly say is consistent with, and is in fact, exactly what he means by the divine "irata" or the divine will.

Peter Adamson: Actually, I really agree with that as it happens. So I think that even in Neoplatonism, usually when they talk about necessity, so the Greek word is "ananke," they often would mean something like 'being under compulsion' or doing something against your will. And of course, that doesn't apply to the first principle and the way it gives rise to the universe. But while we're on the topic of the first principle, it seems to me that there's another potential area where they might get into trouble trying to bring together the Bible with Neoplatonism. And this is the ineffability of the first principle. So again, there's various ways of reading Plotinus on this, but a kind of standard Neoplatonic view would be that the first principle or "the One," which would obviously correspond to God in Judaism, is completely ineffable. So there's nothing we can say about him. He's beyond our thought and language. And then you have the Bible, which seems to be saying quite a lot about God. So this obviously is a tension that's felt throughout the history of Islamic philosophy and Jewish philosophy, and it's something that will be central with Maimonides, who I'll be getting to in a few episodes. But how do these Jewish Neoplatonists negotiate between the ineffability of the Neoplatonic first principle and the abundant language that's used about God in the Hebrew Bible?

Sarah Pessin: Well, you had mentioned Maimonides, and I would actually start by referring to Maimonides. I hadn't mentioned him at the start in the list of Jewish Neoplatonists, but he is actually an important Jewish Neoplatonist of a certain kind. He is sometimes referred to as a kind of Aristotelian Neoplatonism or a Neoplatonized Aristotelianism. And he is here, I think, of a piece with the tradition of Jewish Neoplatonism, in spite perhaps of some of his differences in light of his more Aristotelian focus, as it relates to the apophatic impulse to the impulse of complete ineffability as it relates to God. Here, I think, Maimonides is very clear, and here would be that his sentiments would be shared by other Jewish Neoplatonists. Maimonides is crystal clear that the biblical descriptions of God are allegorical and are in no way to be taken as literally true. And so, again, I think that this is certainly not a problem for Jewish Neoplatonists. They read the Bible, and they read the entire Bible, as I had mentioned earlier, with a certain methodological approach, which doesn't take very much literally, but maybe perhaps to say they certainly don't take the descriptions about God literally. So, to put together the Bible and a tradition about God as completely ineffable is quite easy, I think, for them to do.

Peter Adamson: So, how about the ethical side of this, then? Because if we have this sort of ineffable first principle or God that we're trying to get back to, another obvious question arises: how do we get to him? Or how does the soul return to God, as a Neoplatonist might put it? And it seems to me like there are sort of different answers here. So, you'd expect a Neoplatonist to say: you should contemplate, you should try to at least grasp the contents of intellect as a start, and then maybe work your way up to the One. Whereas the Jewish tradition might instead say, no, you should engage in certain religious practices or prayer, for example. So do you see a tension in the Jewish Neoplatonic texts on that score?

Sarah Pessin: Maimonides here is the most complicated case, and I will therefore leave him aside - other than saying that Maimonides does talk about prayer, and about commandments, and has a variety of very important rabbinical writings which are dedicated to talking about rabbinic law. So in the case of Maimonides, it is subject to much debate as to what is the relationship between his rabbinic writings and his Guide of the Perplexed, and how that all fits together in his case. So, I will leave that aside for right now. But certainly for Isaac Israeli and Ibn Gabirol, and others in the Jewish Neoplatonic tradition, their emphasis is very much of a piece with what one finds in Plotinus and what one finds in the Theology of Aristotle tradition, the kind of classic 'return' kinds of passages in which one is called upon to return to one's root in intellect, with the same sort of textual ambiguities as to whether one is returning to intellect or whether one can return beyond that. I tend to read all Neoplatonic traditions as ultimately thinking of returning to intellect, even in cases where it suggests that one returns higher. But one finds these same kinds of languages. And in the case of Ibn Gabirol, it's quite interesting that in a passage in his text, the Fons Vitae, the Fountain of Life text, one finds that the return passage that one finds actually in the Theology of Aristotle, coming from the Plotinian tradition, is amended in a very interesting way that I think sheds light on his link to this pseudo-Empedoclean tradition in describing the ascent or the return back to one's source. The highest level, as it were, that one reaches is described in normal Neoplatonic contexts as a sort of coming into contact with light - or light imagery comes in there. And in the Ibn Gabirol passage, there is this reference to coming and there being a shadow of some sort. And one finds references to shadows also in the writing of Isaac Israeli. And so what one can connect from these 'return' passages with this shadowing language, and in the case of Isaac Israeli, shadow language throughout his descriptions of the cosmos, is this vestige, I would suggest, of this pseudo-Empedoclean tradition that we had mentioned in which there is conceived a kind of grounding elemental material kind of reality, the "al-unsar al-awl" the first, again, what I call 'grounding element,' which is sometimes translated as 'first matter,' as some kind of a cosmic shadowing principle, which itself deserves much more consideration as to, again - if this is not to be taken literally, then what does that mean? I will leave that aside. But other than to say that that's an interesting feature that one finds in the Jewish Neoplatonic tradition in the discussions of ascent and also in the case of Isaac Israeli in discussions of the emanation scheme in general, one finds mentions of shadow as well as light.

Peter Adamson: So I guess the suggestion there would be that as you move up, although you get closer and closer to God, so maybe you leave the body behind by turning towards intellect, you never leave this relationship where you have both form and matter, you have both light and shadow. And so in a way that kind of binary structure that's so distinctive of Ibn Gabirol, it conditions even our ability to return back up the chain, or the hierarchy of principles.

Sarah Pessin: I think it's helpful to think of the material grounding element in Ibn Gabirol in conceptual kinship with Plotinus's own understanding of intelligible matter. It is not clear that there is historical connection or how exactly materials in which Plotinus discusses this are not necessarily the ones that are available to Ibn Gabirol. So we'll leave that aside. But at a conceptual level, intelligible matter in Platinus, just like "al-unsar al-awl," the material grounding element in the pseudo-Empedoclean tradition that you find in Ibn Gabirol can be described as the falling away from God. That is in some important sense what is signified. It is also seen as a source of desire and it has connections with love - and I won't go into those details. So it actually has various interesting connotations. But I think one way to think of why would there be shadowiness, even if you get that far up, is to think of it as you are always not-God.

Peter Adamson: And that sounds like good Neoplatonism and good Judaism. So actually, I think a lot of people have a very different reading of Ibn Gabirol, so a standard view of him would be: 'oh, he's read some basic Aristotelian metaphysics, maybe he's read the categories and the physics or whatever. And so he's thought, oh, okay, I see. So Aristotelian substances are matter and form and the intellect is a substance, so the intellect must be matter and form. And he kind of blithely then applies this matter-form structure to intellect.' But it sounds like you think he's actually sort of putting his finger on something much deeper that's always been present in the Neoplatonic tradition.

Sarah Pessin: Absolutely. And I sometimes refer to the reading that I think you're correct to say is the standard reading of Ibn Gabirol. I often refer to that as "Aristotle gone bad," which is that exactly, he takes Aristotle, Aristotelian hylomorphism, and he just doesn't get it, and he just applies it to intellect. And as if that's his reasoning - either that he has no reason or he got it wrong and didn't understand it. And neither of those is a very compelling account. So when one looks at the pseudo-Empedoclean tradition and how it connects with Plotinus, we'll leave aside. I mean, it doesn't seem clear that the material, unintelligible matter in Plotinus is necessarily what's remaining in Arabic. So it's not clear exactly how to make this connection historically, but certainly conceptually there seems to be such a strong similarity that in the conversation of "al-unsar al-awl" is a deeply neo-Platonic insight about the origin of all beings in not-being-God.

Peter Adamson: Right, and therefore being potential in some way and having to become something else like by grasping intelligible objects and so on. So the idea of 'intelligible matter' is that first you have a material or potential aspect of intellect, which then becomes actual when it grasps all of the forms.

Sarah Pessin: And I think the way that Plotinus describes it again conceptually is more vibrant than just speaking of potency. And this is how I like to think of it in Ibn Gabirol as well. But certainly what you said is correct. But just to think of the way that Plotinus describes the moment, as it were, outside of the One - this first moment of unfolding as a kind of deep expectancy, the moment in which that which is not-God first desires towards God. I think that sort of is how I talk about how Plotinus thinks of intelligible matter. And so again that's not inconsistent with thinking in terms of potency, but I do think there's this kind of, as I like to refer to it, a deep expectancy or a desire towards God which initiates the unfolding to begin to go further, as it were. And so in the case of Ibn Gabirol, both thinking conceptually along those lines, but also more broadly looking at his philosophical vision, in terms of what I call a theology of desire, I very much talk about how this material grounding element marks not only the first moment, as it were. And again, we're not talking temporally. This is an eternal first moment. It not only marks the eternal first moment of not-being-God, but it also marks a deep eternal desire at the core of being to strive back towards God. 


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