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al-Razi's Philosophy of Reason

Of all the past Islamic philosophers/scholars, none are probably more interesting than al-Razi (864-925). His basic philosophy was basically that a person’s life should be governed only by reason. Sometimes, though, his rationale for reason went beyond what was reasonable, proposing ideas like emotion, pleasure, grieving, and bowel movements to all be irrational tendencies.

However, despite his eccentrics he was a very accomplished person. If we were not reading about his life philosophy, we would still be reading about him in our science textbooks.

He considered himself primarily a physician, studying under the tutelage of the famed Islamic physician al-Tabari. Among his contributions to medicine is his discovering the difference between measles and small pox.

He also wrote al-Hawi (Liber Continens), which was his major work in medicine, and was translated into Latin in 1279.

Though he primarily considered himself a physician, and was obviously a philosopher, he was also a chemist, alchemist, astronomer, grammarian, theologian, and logician.

During his lifetime, al-Razi claimed to have written over 200 books on a variety of subjects.

Regarding his philosophy, he believed everything can be viewed from a rational perspective, and all things could be overcome by reason.

He was famous for being one of the most vocal Platonists and Aristotelians in the Islamic World. Constantly referring to the three great philosophers (the other being Socrates) as his “teachers” and “masters”.

Because of his views and take on theology and philosophy, al-Razi was considered a heterodox. Often, however, you can read in his works his attempts to reconcile philosophical ideas with Islam.

His philosophical works consisted of a discussion on many topics: including morality and rationality, pleasure and pain, the nature of pleasure, the soul and the afterlife, love and friendship, and virtue and vice, among other things.



Morality and Rationality


al-Razi sees a close connection between morality and rationality. He gives two main reasons for his view:


The first is that reason is what makes us distinctively human, and is what distinguishes us from “beasts”.

He argues there is an implicit notion that we have been made the way we are for a reason, and that reason was given to us by God. Most his arguments in this respect are teleological. I guess we could say he was a vitalist, where he saw a spark of the divine in all creation.


Reason is a means to the least painful life, and to discoveries that benefit our lives.

He argues here that reason has allowed us to understand so much of what is around us, that it should be used as a guide. So much technological advances and so much benefits to our daily lives are due to using reason, that to go against the use of reason would be to go against the very cause of our existence and against God.

In terms of reason being a means to the least painful life, al-Razi feels we should be suppressing and controlling our passions and instincts. He often compares the two as a dichotomy, contrasting reason with passion.


Pleasure and Pain

His take on pleasure and pain is that reason enables us to avoid pain. Based on the pattern of dichotomization, you would think he would equate reason to pleasure. So does this mean reason is equitable to pleasure? Not according to al-Razi.

Al-Razi separates the notion of pleasure and pain from reason.

So what is pleasure and pain according to al-Razi?

He explains pleasure as a short-lived state-of-being. A transitory state between pain and equilibrium, or as he calls it, a “state-of-nature”.

Al-Razi argues that what rational humans must strive for is this state-of-nature. All other states-of-nature are irrational.



The Nature of Pleasure


al-Razi's ultimate point about pleasure was that what he deemed “pleasure” was not worth pursuing. He had two reasons.

1. It’s a transitory state, not permanent by its nature
2. There’s no pleasure without proportionate pain before hand.


Objections to al-Razi’s reasoning was that, if his assertion is correct, than why can’t we go directly to pleasure from the normal state? Does it have to be ephemeral?


To this objection, al-Razi seems to have three replies.

First, he argued humans become habituated to pleasure. Sort of like a high. We can become habituated to it, however, because it is something we constantly seek, it is not a permanent state.

Secondly, humans cannot experience pure, unmixed pleasure. His definition of pure, unmixed pleasure was attainment of pleasure without the worry of losing the thrill. It is a pleasure that we attain without having any worries. An animal, he said, could attain pure, unmixed pleasure, because the animal did not have any burdens or worries of which it is aware at the time of the attainment of pleasure. Because humans naturally have something on their mind, or have burden or worries in some form, however minor, cannot attain this pure, unmixed pleasure.

Thirdly, the human physique isn’t made for pleasure, since our bodies lose the sensation. It naturally regresses back to the normal state.


Soul and Afterlife


On the human soul, al-Razi’s theory was that the soul is divided into three parts: the rational soul, the choleric soul, and the appetitive soul.

According to al-Razi, all 3 aspects of the soul work together. The concept itself is not dissimilar to the Freudian Theory on the id, ego, and superego.

Observe; al-Razi argues that to lead a good life, the rational soul should curb the appetitive soul using the choleric soul. The choleric soul, in turn, is the faculty that controls anger, shame, indignation, and other such emotions.

In this regard, al-Razi’s theory of the soul involves a hierarchy of behaviours, with the appetitive soul being the most primitive, the choleric soul being the controlling aspect of the appetitive soul and the bridge between it and the rational soul. The rational soul, in turn, is the highest, most developed part of the soul.


Love and Friendship

Regarding love and friendship, when considering his views on pleasure, it is not hard to see how al-Razi takes a negative attitude towards love.

al-Razi argues that love chooses short-term gratification and leads to long-term gain, and that you are bound to lose your love in death, if not before that. Thus, al-Razi argues that it is better to not love so you do not endure pain.

Even familiarity he says, is in the same “boat” as love because of the inevitable loss that arises in the future. This also applies to carnal love, and companionship.

So it is easy to see how al-Razi discourages friendship and love, since it is rational to him to avoid pain. And pain includes losing a loved one, or someone you are familiar with.


Virtue and Vice


According to al-Razi, all vices are the result of obeying passion, as opposed to reason. To avoid vice, al-Razi backtracks a little on his position on companionship, arguing that a general method of ridding oneself of it involves choosing a constant companion.

This companion is there to keep you ethical and moral, and to keep you responsible for your actions and behaviour.

This approach to ethics and morality involves character-building rather than obedience to a system of rules.

So al-Razi’s philosophies are a composition of reason, however, reason according to al-Razi is basically a method for avoidance of pain. However, according to al-Razi, this method for pain avoidance has allowed man to attain high levels of rationality and spirituality, and is the key to living a good life, and attaining a pure soul in the eyes of God.

Despite his own philosophy, al-Razi followed in the footsteps of Socrates, where even though he preached a consistent, almost extreme adherence to reason, he himself admitted that such a lifestyle was near impossible to practice.

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hermanseele said... October 12, 2014 at 9:39 PM

al-Razi was NOT Islamic!! This is what he had to say about the Koran: “By God what you say astonishes us! You are talking about a work which recounts ancient myths, and which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful information or explanation. Then you say: 'produce something like it?!'”
This is what he had to say about Islam: "If the people of this religion are asked about the proof for the soundness of their religion, they flare up, get angry and spill the blood of whoever confronts them with this question. They forbid rational speculation, and strive to kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thoroughly silenced and concealed."

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