Miskawayh, Ahmad ibn Muhammad


Miskawayh, Ahmad ibn Muhammad
(320–421/932–1030)
   Philosopher, historian, physician, chemist and librarian, the Persian-born Miskawayh was one of the most learned and cultured courtiers of the cosmopolitan Buyid dynasty. Like many of the great Islamic humanists of his age, Miskawayh’s forte lay not in his metaphysical speculations (a somewhat unsystematic mélange of Aristotelian, Neoplatonic and Islamic ideas), but rather in his engagement with the imminently practical question of how to live a good life and achieve happiness (sa‘ada). His principal work, The Refinement of Character (Tahdhib al-akhlaq), artfully blends a Platonic conception of the soul (as immortal, ontologically distinct and separable from the body) with Aristotelian virtue ethics (casting virtue as a ‘mean’ between two vicious extremes) and Cynic-Stoic therapies for irrational passions (in order to restore and preserve the ‘health’ of the soul), as well as the Arabic adab tradition (focusing on the education and cultivation of wellmannered and urbane individuals). The single thread that winds its way through this generous synthesis is a commitment to human reason; indeed Miskawayh conceives of virtue itself as the perfection of the rational aspect of our soul, which is what makes us uniquely human. The tone of the book is practical rather than theoretical. Miskawayh discusses various traditional Greek and Arabic virtues, but focuses in particular on justice, love and friendship. He thus makes much of the fact that we are necessary to each other’s perfection, even if the highest form of happiness ultimately transcends such social requirements (and indeed, physical conditions altogether), culminating in proximity to the divine, which he describes as ‘God’s friendship and love’. In keeping with Miskawayh’s humanistic orientation, Islam (and religion as such) is recognized as important, practically useful and essentially reasonable, but is relegated to an instrumental role in the pursuit of human virtue and happiness. The Refinement of Character has remained an important didactic text in the Islamic philosophical tradition, as much for its serene, elegant, rigorous, yet popularly accessible style as for its learned and tolerant synthesis of moral insights. Its lasting influence can be seen in the ethical thought of al-Ghazali, al-Tusi, al- Dawani and Muhammad ‘Abduh, among others.
   See adab; ethics; humanism; Ibn ‘Adi
   Further reading: Fakhry 1991; Goodman 2003; Kraemer 1986a/93, 1986b; Miskawayh 1968/2002

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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