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Medieval Islamic Philosophy and the Virtue of Ethics

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The goal of this essay is to set forth the ethical teaching of al-Fārābī and of Ibn Sina. However, because their writings and their philosophy are not well-known to us, it seems appropriate to move towards what is unknown by starting from what is known. The writings and philosophy of Plato and Aristotle being generally well-known to us, the essay begins by setting forth the main points of their ethical teaching and then moves to the main points of Fārābī's and Avicenna's ethical teaching. This method commands itself for another reason as well : Fārābī and Avicenna were quite familiar with the thinking of Plato and Aristotle, so familiar that they cast many of their own ideas in the idiom of their Greek predecessors or drew attention to their differences with them. This procedure leads to the basic conclusion that ethics is less important for Plato, Aristotle, and Fārābī than virtue - a point on which Avicenna presents a rather unique argument. For all of our authors except Aristotle, virtue is to be understood as subordinated to theoretical understanding. And a number of other conclusions are drawn, all serving to suggest that the current understanding of ethics is at odds with the traditional view and is unable to account adequately for political life.


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