This is an example of the ability of an obscure little book from the 12th century to shape the philosophical and political landscape of the entire Western world. Oh wait, maybe it’s unfair to refer to it as obscure: I was at fault for having ignored its existence until last week!
I am talking about the utopian novel Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān (“The Living Son of the Wakeful”), written in the 1170s by an Andalusian philosopher, physician and astronomer by the name Ibn Tufayl. The book (according to some, the first novel written in Arabic) was translated into Hebrew and commented in a publication from 1349 by Moses ben Joshua (Moses of Narbonne). Later, in the late 15th century, it was translated into Latin by Pico de la Mirandola, then translated into English by Edward Pococke in 1671 [Correction: the 1671 edition published in England was bilingual (Arabic/Latin); the first English-language edition came out in 1703]
. This is very significant, considering the role played by the respective translators: the first was a staunch advocate of rationalism and “appropriate autodidacticism” in rabbinical circles, the second dedicated his short life to grafting Hermeticism and Kabbalism onto Christianity (with the approval of the higher echelons of the Renaissance Church of Rome, despite an occasional slap on the wrist for the sake of appearances), and the third was the mentor of John Locke, whose concept of ‘tabula rasa’, clearly inspired by the novel, had an enormous influence on the development of empiricism in modern Western philosophy. Many other important European thinkers were influenced by “The Living Son of the Wakeful”, including David Hume, George Berkeley, Gottfried Leibniz, Melchisédech Thévenot, John Wallis, Christiaan Huygens, George Keith, Robert Barclay, the Quakers, Samuel Hartlib and Voltaire.
In England, philosopher and statesman Thomas More looked to Pico’s fascination with Hayy as he developed his own theories on mankind’s relationship to God, nature and society. Some have identified analogous, autodidactic themes in More’s 1516 classic “Utopia”, a political and philosophical tale of an ideal civilization, which he just so happened to set on an island, cut off from corrupting influences from the outside world. Meanwhile, England’s Francis Bacon, regarded as the father of empiricism, also conceived of a mythical island in his own utopian novel, “New Atlantis”. With an eye to both Heptaplus and Hayy, Bacon envisioned an insular society in which the religiously devout inhabitants are also devoted to the pursuit of pure, scientific knowledge. Located at the “very eye of this kingdom” is “Salomon’s House”, an institution that anticipated the modern research university, and in 1660 inspired the establishment of England’s Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. The Society, among whose early presidents was Isaac Newton, chose as its motto a shorthand version of one of Pico’s favored, autodidactic advisos of the Roman poet Horace, “Nullius in verba.” Rough translation: “Don’t take anyone’s word for it.”
https://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/2 ... crusoe.htm
Image: same source as the quote above.
Tufayl was the personal physician of the Almoahad prince Abū Ya’qūb Yūsuf. It was Tufayl who introduced his close friend Averroes (Ibn Rushd) to the prince as his successor. Averroes, a rationalist himself, was a vocal opponent of the mystical and intuitive theology of al-Ghazāli. His classification of people into three types according to their way of assimilating truth earned him (some say, undeservedly) the reputation of dividing humanity into simple-minded people, to whom religion could be preached, and enlightened people, to whom science could be taught (hmm, where have I heard this before?). In any case, in Averroes we see the early seeds of atheistic humanism, rationalism, casuistry, gnostic elitism and relativism (although he would likely cringe at any of those labels) and this might explain why he became a household name in the West while considered a minor thinker in the Islamic spiritual economy, which at the time was awash in Sufism.
The book tells the story about Hayy who is generated ‘spontaneously’ on an island in the Indian Ocean, south of the equator. This is possible because “the island enjoys the most perfect temperature on earth and receives its light from the highest possible point in heaven”. For skeptics or for conservatives who are troubled by the absence of a Creator, the author offers an alternate backstory: a princess on a neighboring island secretly gives birth to a child and, for fear of persecution by her brother, the king, places the baby in an ark and casts it into the sea at nightfall (sound familiar?). In any case, once on the island, the boy becomes the foster child of a doe who has just lost her fawn. Eventually, the aging and death of the doe elicits existential ruminations in Hayy and, at seven years of age, he dissects his mother’s body in search of the ‘vital principle’.
Combining sensory experience and reasoning, Hayy develops the practical arts and the rudiments of empirical science. Later, as an adult, he combines reasoning with intuition to lay the foundations of metaphysics, theology and asceticism, culminating in the ‘intellectual vision of God’ (a gifted fellow, this Hayy). Interestingly, Hayy imitates the behavior of the celestial bodies, creating his own ‘astrology’: the sun’s provision of light and warmth he emulates by taking loving care of animals (until it’s time to eat them), the brightness of the stars he translates into cleanliness, perfume and pompous clothing, and the rotation of the firmament he expresses by whirling like a dervish and running around his own house, in a caricature of the circumambulation around the Kaaba.
At 50 years of age, Hayy meets another human being for the first time: Absal, a devout Muslim, lands on Hayy’s island in search of a hermit’s refuge. Absal takes Hayy (who has quickly learned to speak) back to his island which is inhabited by people of different religions. Hayy is surprised to learn that people there only access philosophical truths through images and parables. The two friends conclude that i) Hayy’s autodidactic philosophy is no different from the revealed religion of Islam, and ii) the majority of people cannot assimilate philosophical truths and are best served with religious practices. One commentator identified the book’s central argument thus: i) if not distracted by social interests or prejudice, man will naturally attain to the equivalent of neoplatonic philosophy, and ii) the practice of this philosophy will lead man to supreme happiness, which is defined as a mystical state of the soul. But life may not be as simple and romantic as that. In any case, Absal, who was raised in a society with schools and customs, never attains to Hayy’s level of contemplation.
The parallels between “The Living Son of the Wakeful”, by Ibn Tufayl, and “Robinson Crusoe” (1719), by Daniel Defoe, are difficult to dismiss as a coincidence.
Beyond the many mechanical plot similarities between Hayy and Robinson Crusoe—the cave-shelter, the animal-skin clothing, the Absal/Friday secondary character—Crusoe’s philosophical reflections deeply echo those of Hayy. Sitting on his isolated beach, gazing at the sea, Crusoe asked the same questions Hayy and all philosophers before and after have posed.
https://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/2 ... crusoe.htm
- Both propose reasoning, gradualism and the empirical method of science as a viable path to philosophical truths and technical know-how. The latter includes fishing, hunting, farming, animal husbandry, sewing, saddlery, and the ‘gradual discovery’ of fire (no idea how that works) and, time permitting, would likely also include architecture and metallurgy.
- Both defend the ability of man to live in the ‘natural state’, without society, history or tradition. I hear a faint echo of Edenic nostalgia here.
- Both believe in man’s ability to attain to the knowledge of God and obtain ‘salvation’ without the aid of institutionalized religion or formal schooling.
- Both question existing religious teachings and values, propose changes to the same, and defend religious tolerance and pacifism. While tolerance is always a virtue, Hayy’s and Crusoe’s attitudes nevertheless prefigure religious and cultural relativism and, in due time, apostasy and dissolution.
- Both triumph over nature, which gives them more time to tend to things of the mind and spirit. Being relieved of scouring the woods for food every day sounds nice, but it also sets up a dichotomy between the irksome demands of physical existence and the delights of immaterial pursuits -- a classic ‘gnostic temptation’ and a hallmark of the industrial age. Or it could be a peculiar interpretation of the Martha and Mary dilemma in Luke 10:38-42. In earlier cultures, bodily work was not seen as an impediment to self-realization, but, whenever possible, was made to reflect a larger meaning and symbolism in existence, which is why trades could serve as a trampoline for initiation in the Middle Ages. Martial arts also seek a potentially perfect union between the physical and philosophical dimensions.
- Neither Robinson Crusoe nor Hayy has the slightest sexual instinct. But what if they did?
Hmm...the font chosen for the title makes “Yaqzan” look like “Tarzan”.
Like in most other things, the propositions made in “The Living Son of the Wakeful” are a complex mix of good and bad ideas. Basically, it is the promotion of ‘self-power’ over ‘other-power’, a valid spiritual perspective, though problematic when implemented outside a traditional world like that of Buddhism. On one side, the story celebrates reason, the very attribute which makes us human. On the other, it opens up the flood gates to dangerous social experiments based on the belief that humans are born a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate on which any ‘new man’ or ‘novel operating system’ can be written if you apply enough violence to the task.