Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 February 2018
Strauss's view is that Alfarabi revived ancient, especially Platonic, political philosophy. Two obvious things seem to confirm this: that Alfarabi devoted more attention to politics than perhaps any other medieval philosopher—indeed, placing a majority of the nonlogical works that have come down to us in a political frame—and that at the end of the Attainment of Happiness, Alfarabi underlines that he had learned from Plato and Aristotle how to revive philosophy when it had ceased to be actively pursued. The more widely received view among scholars, however, is that Alfarabi is a Neoplatonist of some kind. Of course, Neoplatonism is hardly known for its interest in politics. Indeed, Neoplatonists prefer to focus on things that transcend earthly existence. In doing so, they highlight the way in which one thing proceeds from another in an ineluctable descent from the mysterious One or Good that is beyond Being—putatively following book 6 of the Republic. Now, even though Alfarabi never speaks of a One or Good beyond Being—but rather of a First Cause—he does frequently describe a hierarchy of being and of ascents and descents through such hierarchies. Indeed, many of his nonlogical works contain some form of this ascending, descending process (Political Regime, Virtuous City, BR, AH). As a result, Alfarabi appears to fit a premodern mold made most famous by the Neoplatonists and captured by Lovejoy's phrase, the Great Chain of Being, which is often invoked to explain why premodern thinkers were so enamored of hierarchy in politics as well as a corollary claim: theology or metaphysics as higher than politics must be its ground. The main purpose of this chapter is to show that Alfarabi, following Plato and Aristotle, highlights failures within the apparently hierarchical ordering of things, and these failures are in turn linked to and support his denial that theoretical science provides the ground of practical science.
Before turning to the evidence in Alfarabi, let us outline the parallels to the challenging of hierarchy that we find in Plato and Aristotle. We do not begin in chronological order because Aristotle's subversion of hierarchy is in some ways more obvious—even though Aristotle is often cited as maintaining that metaphysics grounds politics.