History: The Poetics of Avicenna

Ibn Sina (Avicenna)
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Aziz Ali Dad

Avicenna (Abdallah Ibn Sina) lived in a period in the history of Islamic societies which witnessed efflorescence of philosophy and translations of Greco-Roman and Indian texts into Arabic. It was common among the scholars of the day to study Greek philosophy. Being a part of the cultural and intellectual ambience, Avicenna was also actively engaged with philosophical, scientific and literary debates of his time. His was the age when Muslim philosophers were studying Greek masterpieces, an indispensable component of their scholarship. Among the Greek writers they studied, Aristotle (384-322 BC) held a special position, and Arab philosophers presented their understanding of the ideas of Aristotle in the form of summaries and commentaries. As part of this tradition, Avicenna presented his views and understanding of Aristotle’s Poetics in his own Commentary.

Avicenna’s was the age when Muslim philosophers were studying Greek masterpieces, an indispensable component of their scholarship

For his Commentary Avicenna relied on Arabic translations of Poetics. One of the main features of Arabic translations of Poetics is that Arabs used the Syriac translations as their source. Those translations were based on the Greek version of Poetics. The Arabic translation by Abu Bishr Matta contained deficiencies in syntax, nomenclatures, understanding and transliteration, and Avicenna used this translation to write his Commentary. In addition, he used the translation of Abu Bishr’s student Yahya ibn Adi and al-Farabi. F. C Peter in his book Aristotle and the Arabs describes Yahya ibn Adi as the leader of the Peripatetic School of Baghdad of which Avicenna’s Aristelianism was a direct product. While using these translations, Avicenna imbibed the shortcomings, misconceptions and fallacies of Poetics. It can be deduced that the sources of Avicenna were twice removed from the real source.

Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt

InPoetics, Aristotle discussed different genres of Greek poetry and the art of poetry in general. Later on Neo-Platonist philosophers erected an elaborate schema of classification of his works. This resulted in a classification of all the sciences. The classification or division of the works of Aristotle was called the ‘context theory’. This classification was the work of philosophers such as Porphyry (234-304 AD) and Alexander of Aphrodisia. In this classification, Poetics came under the category of Logic. Alexander of Aphrodisias is considered as one of the proponents of the scheme of the context theory. He places Poetics in the lowest position in the hierarchy of the classification of Aristotelian logic. These ideas about the status of Poetry were products of Neo-Platonists who attributed different concepts to Aristotle that were not actually an integral part of his works.

When the Arabs conquered Alexandria and Syria, they came into contact with Neo-Platonist philosophers

When the Arabs conquered Alexandria and Syria, they came into contact with Neo-Platonist philosophers. Muslim philosophers were very impressed by the philosophical vigor of Greeks and appropriated it to explore and explicate different dimensions of life, religion, society and science. Avicenna came into contact with the classification of Neo-Platonists through Abu-Sahl al-Masihi who was a distinguished physician and his companion. By making Neo-Platonist classification his base, Abu-Shal presented the order of sciences that ought to be studied. According to an account given by Abu-Sahl, Aristotle incorporates Poetics in the category of the Logic, which holds the eighth position preceded by Rhetoric and Sophistics.

Plato considered poetry an inferior knowledge, inferior even to the demonstrative or logical knowledges

Avicenna’s own approach was informed by the view of logicians. A major feature of his criticism is that he analyzed poetry from a logician’s point of view. Owing to this, literary criticism of Avicenna seems more logical than aesthetical. There are two cogent reasons for the lack of an aesthetical element in his commentary. First is the logical approach that demands objectivity. Logical inquiry binds one to inquire about the nature of things by barring his/her subjectivity.

According to logicians, objectivity saves one from misunderstanding and leads one towards truth. But the problem arises when logicians extrapolate cold logic into the field of poetry, whose fountains emanate from deep subjectivity and personal involvement. The incompatibility of the subjective and objective in an investigation forces the logician to concentrate on aspects that are amenable to logical analysis. Although logician and poet use the same language, their meaning, approach, purpose and method remains different.


Avicenna’s views about poetry are rooted in the Platonic tradition of the opposition to poetry. Plato considered poetry an inferior knowledge, certainly inferior to the demonstrative or logical knowledges. His criticism of poetry initiated the poetics of the rejection of poetry. In addition, he accepted the lower status of poetry in the classification of knowledges by the Neo-Platonists. Avicenna opines that the use of imagination in poetry is far from seeking a truth or being ascribed a cognitive validity, and this aspect makes the aesthetic use of imagination even more peripheral to theoretical contemplation. At best it is at a remove from knowledge that is even farther than the cognitive use of imagination. Poetry in contrast to practical reason relies on emotion and pleasure and does not signify a very self-conscious or autonomous form of behavior. So Avicenna places poetry in the lowest level of knowledges. He prefers demonstrative sciences to poetry, for these sciences are supposed to “give a message” and educate the reader or listener.

According to Avicenna, the poet is an imitating animal, but this [man] differs from speechless animals in that he is more capable of imitating than all other animals

Commenting on the fountainhead of poetry, Avicenna identifies two causes which make the human mind create poetry. The first cause is “the pleasure of imitating and the use of imitation from childhood”. According to Avicenna, the poet is an imitating animal, but this [man] differs from speechless animals in that he is more capable of imitating than all other animals. The speechless animal has an insignificant capacity for imitation, whereas man has an inborn capacity for it.


 When the poet combines gestures of imitation with expression, he conveys his meaning. Because of this, imitation poetry acquires an instructive quality. Through imitation we can present and make men contemplate their own lives; we can make them think by showing them hateful and abhorrent objects in portrayed forms, which otherwise men hate and abhor in their ordinary life. When a poet depicts a picture or object that lay dormant in the soul of his audience, he creates the impression that the thing imitated has been experienced before by the audience members in their own lives. The pleasure will be incomplete until men and women have not perceived the thing before this portrayal, i.e. they must recognize the thing portrayed. So the complete delight or pleasure men take is not only in watching the thing being imitated (a reminder of their own experiences) but also by learning from it. This aspect of imitation leads Avicenna to the conclusion that “learning is pleasant not to philosophers alone but to common people”.

 For delight or pleasure it is incumbent that men should have perceived the imitated things before their portrayal. However, if a man has not undergone the experience of perceiving things in their original or in soul, he can still be delighted in the outer form itself. Commenting on poetical imitation, Avicenna writes: “Men therefore find great delight in portrayed forms if they can well relate these to their originals. If [men] have not perceived [the forms] before, their pleasure would not be complete, but approximate; in this case, they delight in the form itself – its manner, composition, and so forth.”

 But the pleasure does not completely dependent on the audience; the roles of the poet and his creation are equally important. If a poet unable to evoke the likeness of an original thing or feeling, he fails to deliver a crucial part of his task. But, despite such a failure, the poet can still give approximate pleasure to men through the form of his poetic composition.

A poem can be called a poem even if it does not have powerful content. But it must then combine imitation and well-made form in it, for these two elements of poetry fulfill or achieve the purpose of poetry, which is to provide pleasure in the portrayed forms for evoking their original through imitation. Avicenna avers that the poem is even capable of giving delight only through form. With the help of ingredients like cadence, rhythm and harmonic combination, a poem gives pleasure to its listeners. To Avicenna the poem is like a body that can give pleasure even when it has no soul.

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