Friday, March 8, 2013
The Eye of Prayer
It is one of the great ironies of philosophy that, as the mind extends heavenward, thoughts invariably plummet earthward. Philosophical momentum propels the mind to the cerebral stratosphere and beyond, but without an additional thrust, the gravitational pull of logic will prevail. Such is the case today, and such was the case with the great Jewish and Islamic luminaries of the middle ages. As they reached for an understanding of God, they consistently reverted to descriptions of mankind. Metaphysical might produced corporeal concepts. Notwithstanding the apparent exercise in futility, reasoning plays an important role in the search for truth and meaning.
In fact, the perpetual failure of reason points to truths that might otherwise be overlooked. In book II of Metaphysics Aristotle wrote: “For as the eyes of bats are (to) the blaze of day, so is reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.”[i] Perhaps it is not the fault of bats that they are blind, but they don’t fly around in the daylight pretending to be eagles. If reason in the soul is so blind, how will truth ever be obtained? Fortunately Aristotle compared only one part of the soul, reason, to the eyes of bats. Only a part of the soul is so utterly and helplessly blind. Thus, something other that reason must dwell in the soul, something indispensable for understanding things that are “most evident of all”. At least a bat acknowledges its own blindness, and delicate sonar instruments guide its flight. What other recourse remains when sight is abolished?
The science of vision permeated Medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy to such a degree that the boundary between visual reality and visual metaphor was all but erased. In other words, thinkers such as Al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, Isaac Israeli and Maimonides studied optics and visual theories with a view toward opening the door to the knowledge of God. The study of the eye was just as much, if not more, a spiritual endeavor as it was a scientific practice. Paradoxically, in light of the discoveries of the medieval philosophers, the symbol of the eye reveals man’s blindness and foolishness, while simultaneously leading the way to man’s potential clarity of vision and god-like intelligence.
Of course, optical symbolism did not originate in medieval Spain or Persia. Visual metaphors can be traced through the works of earlier philosophers such as Plato, and through scientists such as Euclid and Ptolemy. By the time Greek texts were made available to Arab translators and interpreters, many developments had already occurred in the field of optics. But the Arab translators did more than just translate – they transformed and perfected the metaphors that they inherited. The works of Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, based on the science of Euclid and Ptolemy, as well as the anatomy and physiology of Galen, were particularly influential in later works.[ii]
Qusta Ibn Luqa wrote one of the first books of Arabic optics, in which he praised the science:
The best demonstrative science is that in which physical science and geometrical science participate communally, because it takes from physical science the sensory perception and takes from geometrical science demonstrations with the help of lines. I have found nothing where these two disciplines are united in a more beautiful or perfect way than in the science of rays, above all, those which are reflected onto mirrors.[iii]
Qusta Ibn Luqa was not alone in his enthusiasm for optics. A contemporary of Qusta Ibn Luqa, Al-Kindi, wrote the Liber de causis diversitatum aspectus (De aspectibus), in which he defined a ray as: “an impression of the luminous body on an opaque body…”[iv] Al-Kindi modified some earlier theories of vision to assert that the eye emitted rays of light in all directions from the surface of the eye. In this way, the eye could actually work as an extension of the body, “touching”, as it were, visible objects. With great respect and gratitude for past philosophers, Al-Kindi nevertheless corrected and improved upon their theories. One important characteristic of Al-Kindi’s own theory of vision was that God created the eye in a spherical shape and gave it mobility in order to move around and choose the direction in which to send out light rays.[v]
Al-Kindi wrote on a variety of subjects, but his theories on vision closely parallel his more philosophic works. As it was his goal to discover “the knowledge of the true nature of things”[vi], the “knowledge of divinity”, and to assist truth and support veracity, the study of vision occupied much of his thought. Al-Kindi’s work on vision demonstrates a concern both for attaining the truth and for discovering how truth is obtained. His search for lofty truths, beyond physical vision, ironically brought him back to the study of something very physical and close at hand, that is, the eye. Thus, while striving for spiritual knowledge, a physical reality commanded his utmost attention.
Approximately one century after elaborating upon the extromissive theories of vision, Al-Kindi's work met considerable opposition. The Persian philosopher Avicenna (980-1037) refuted Al-Kindi's explanation of vision in favor of a more Aristotelian view:
As to the seeing power, philosophers have differed on the question of how they perceive. Thus one set among them asserts that they perceive wholly and solely through a ray that shoots out beyond the eye, and so encounters the sensible objects that are seen. This is Plato's way. Others assert that the perceiving power itself encounters the sensible objects that are seen, and so perceives them. Still others say that visual perception consists in this: - when an intervening transparent body becomes effectively transparent by light shining upon it, then an impression of the outspread [flattened] individual of such sensible objects as are seen is effected in the crystalline lens of the eye, just such a pictorial impression as is effected in looking-glasses [mirrors]; indeed the two effects are so similar that were mirrors possessed of a seeing power they would perceive the form imprinted in them. This is Aristotle's way; and it is the sound reliable opinion.[vii]
If opinions differ so greatly on the nature of physical vision, how can one hope for a philosophical consensus concerning the nature of spiritual vision or knowledge of the truth? That is, if human beings fail to comprehend even simple physical objects, how can they expect to grasp lofty spiritual ideals? How can truth be known? Avicenna's refutation of Al-Kindi's theories on vision, and his deeply spiritual works On Prophecy and On Prayer, provide insights for responding to such questions.
First of all, Avicenna's theory of vision seems much more passive than that of Al-Kindi or the Platonists. Sight is a result of light coming into, not flowing out of, the eye. Although such passivity may seem to limit the potential of the eye, Avicenna's writings affirm that the opposite is true. The purpose of the soul, like the purpose of the eye, is to receive light:
The function of the human, rational soul is the noblest function of all, for it is itself the noblest of spirits. Its function consists of reflecting upon things of art and meditating upon things of beauty; its gaze being turned toward the higher world, it loves not this lower abode and meaner station. Belonging as it does to the higher side of life and to the primal substances, it is not its business to eat and drink, neither does it require luxury and coition; rather its function is to wait for the revelation of truths, and to reflect with perfect intuition and unclouded wit upon the perception of subtle ideas, reading with the eye of inner vision the tablet of Divine Mystery and opposing with strenuous devices the causes of vain fancy.[viii]
Here Avicenna has rocketed deep into religious space, amongst the stars of beauty, revelation and divinity, yet his speech is locked into orbit around quite corporeal notions, such as the eye. This orbit, rather than restricting knowledge of how truth is obtained, actually directs the mind in a better direction. Something other than reason must inhabit the soul. The inner, spiritual eye, of which the outer eye is the physical manifestation, must be the key to receiving and understanding truth.
Of course, Avicenna equated the inner eye with reason, and not something apart from reason. But his definition of reason departs from conventional definitions, and it even differs from Aristotle's definition of blind reason. In sum, Avicenna's idea of reason is not necessarily Reason in the strictly rational sense. Avicenna's reason moves away from blind reason, portrayed as bats in Aristotle, to a seeing reason, an inner eye. But what is the difference between these two reasons? Why is the one reason blind, and the other endowed with sight?
Answers to these questions can be gleaned from Avicenna's treatise On Prayer. Avicenna rates prayer as the pinnacle of worship and the ultimate expression of reason. It is through prayer that man connects with God. To extend the analogy, the physical eye is to light as the inner, spiritual eye is to prayer:
The Prophet's words, "The man at prayer is in secret converse with his Lord," are therefore only to be predicated of that inward knowledge which belongs solely to pure souls that are abstracted and free from events in time and directions in space: they contemplate God intellectually, and behold Him with spiritual, not corporeal vision. It is thus evident that true prayer is spiritual contemplation, and that pure worship is spiritual Divine love.[ix]
Therefore, the inner eye is blessed with sight inasmuch as it focuses on God in prayer. Prayer is the missing piece for the blind reason described by Aristotle. Truth is obtained when the inner eye is opened through prayer, willing to receive light.
Fascination with the physical and the spiritual eye was not unique to the Arab philosophers. Isaac Israeli, a Jewish contemporary of Al-Kindi, worked as an oculist in Egypt. Israeli was later promoted to the position of court physician, but evidences of his training in optics surface in later works, such as the Book on the Elements. In this work, Israeli describes the teaching methods of the great doctors. Corporeal forms are presented because of their proximity and accessibility to the brain. Like Avicenna, Israeli believed that reason played a fundamental role in communication with God:
For when the Creator wishes to reveal to the soul what He intends to innovate in this world, He makes intellect the intermediary between Himself and the soul, even as the prophet is an intermediary between the Creator, blessed be He, and the rest of His creatures. It is only the corporeal and imaginative form which will be impressed upon the sensus communis, thanks to the prevalence of the corporeal sense upon it. This is due to the proximity of the sensus communis to the corporeal sense, seeing that it [the sensus communis] is intermediate between the corporeal sense of sight and the imaginative faculty, which resides in the anterior ventricle of the brain and is called fantasiya. It is for this reason that it is called 'common sense', for it receives from the corporeal sense, i.e. that of sight, the corporeal aspects of things and transmits them to the spiritual sense mentioned before, i.e. the imaginative faculty.[x]
Israeli confirms the importance of physical vision in the learning process, but he also recognizes the superiority of spiritual vision or vision with the inner eye:
For some are animal-like and foolish, who will never allow anything to enter their minds and to occupy their thoughts except what they have perceived with their senses and seen with their own eyes. Others are intelligent, of an inquiring mind, keep their eyes open to the truth of words, and distinguish between their spiritual and corporeal meaning.[xi]
Once again, the philosopher speaks of the eye both literally and metaphorically. Israeli agrees that the physical eye by itself is blind, but he also accents the relationship between it and the spiritual or inner eye. Similar to Avicenna, this inner eye is the intellect. Furthermore, this inner eye receives truth through prayer, first by contemplating the physical manifestations of truth, and later embracing the essence of the truth itself.
Thus far the philosophers have begun to respond to the question: why is the inner eye necessary for apprehending the truth? But none of these philosophers epitomizes the paradoxes of knowledge and vision as much as Moses Ben Maimon. Ironically, Maimonides' perplexities and entanglements of thought unravel the beautiful simplicity of the knowledge of God. Through seemingly complex and convoluted optical symbolism, a simple and predictable pattern emerges, guiding the mind like the delicate sonar instruments guide bats. This pattern, hinted at by Al-Kindi, Avicenna and Israeli, is a witnesses of the power needed to escape the stubborn gravitational pull of logic.
Maimonides is quick to admit that the acquisition of truth is not an easy process. At the beginning of The Guide of the Perplexed he confesses:
You should not think that these great secrets are fully and completely known to anyone among us. They are not. But sometimes truth flashes out to us so that we think that it is day, and then matter and habit in their various forms conceal it so that we find ourselves again in an obscure night, almost as we were at first. We are like someone in a very dark night over whom lightning flashes time and time again. Among us there is one for whom the lightning flashes time and time again, so that he is always, as it were, in unceasing light.[xii]
These flashes of light are only caught by prayer or the open inner eye. When explaining the use of parables, Maimonides introduces optical metaphor to his great work: "My remarking that it is a parable will be like someone's removing a screen from between the eye and a visible thing."[xiii] He even professes that the eyes of those who study his guide will be delighted!
In the fourth chapter of the Guide, Maimonides expounds upon different verbs that apply to the eye: to see, to look at, and to vision. According to Maimonides:
Every mention of seeing, when referring to God, may He be exalted, has this figurative meaning – as when Scripture says: I saw the Lord; And the Lord became seen to him; And God saw that it was good; I beseech Thee, let me see Thy glory; And they saw the God of Israel. All this refers to intellectual apprehension and in no way to the eye's seeing, as the eye can only apprehend a body, one that is placed in some direction and, in addition, with some of the accidents of the body, I mean the body's coloring, shape and so forth. Similarly God, may He be exalted, does not apprehend by means of an instrument, as will be explained later.[xiv]
Like the philosophers that preceded him, Maimonides focused on the spirituality or incorporeality of deity, and his insistence on this teaching found expression in optical metaphors. This expression, contrasting the physical and the spiritual eye, actually contradicts his teachings about the incorporeal nature of God. Of course, Maimonides claimed to teach by deliberate contradictions, but this is perhaps one contradiction that was not deliberate. By insisting on the exclusively spiritual vision of God, or "seeing" God through contemplation, Maimonides' argument recoils upon itself. A pattern emerges in which prayer, spiritual vision, is inextricably bound to physical vision. The more Maimonides persists in proving God's physical invisibility, the more his argument relies upon physical realities, such as the eye.
For example, Maimonides claims that:
The purpose of everyone endowed with intellect should be wholly directed to rejecting corporeality with respect to God, may He be exalted, and to considering all these apprehensions as intellectual, not sensory.[xv]
This invitation, however noble and well intentioned, raises unavoidable suspicions. The more the philosophers fight against corporeality, the more their discourse is physically bound. This is not, as it would seem, a failure on their part, but simply a reminder that if even the physical world exceeds human comprehension, then the spiritual world is light years away. In other words, if philosophers fail to understand even the physical eye, how can they expect to understand the spiritual eye? If philosophers cannot admit that reason is blind, how will they ever see by means of prayer?
In the Mishneh Torah: The Book of Knowledge, Maimonides at least acknowledges his own blindness by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
'Eye hath not seen beside Thee, O God, what He prepareth for him that waiteth for Him.' (Is. 64:3); that is, the bliss which neither the eye of the prophet nor any one else but God, hath seen, He hath prepared for the man who waits for Him. The sages say, 'All the prophets prophesied concerning the days of the Messiah. But the world to come, 'no eye hath seen but Thine, O God'.[xvi]
Thus Maimonides' confesses that the acquisition of truth depends upon the opening of the spiritual eye, and receiving that which the closed spiritual eye or the weak physical eye cannot receive. The opening and focusing of the spiritual eye is both strenuous and rewarding:
Man needs to subordinate all his soul's powers to thought, in the way we set forth in the previous chapter, and to set his sight on a single goal: the perception of God (may He be glorified and magnified), I mean, knowledge of Him, in so far as that lies within man's power. He should direct all his actions, both when in motion and at rest, and all his conversation toward this goal so that none of his actions is in any way frivolous, I mean an action not leading to this goal. For example, he should make his aim only the health of his body when he eats, drinks, sleeps, has sexual intercourse, is awake, and is in motion or at rest. The purpose of his body's health is that the soul find its instruments healthy and sound in order that it can be directed toward the sciences and toward acquiring the moral and rational virtues, so that he might arrive at that goal.[xvii]
Maimonides teaches that the only way to know the truth is to direct all powers and faculties toward the source of the truth. Only the man who "directs all the powers of his soul solely toward God"[xviii] will obtain the truth.
As with preceding philosophers, Maimonides includes physical appetites and passions among the parts of the soul that must be channeled. This arduous work includes all of the rational soul, but is not limited to it, blind as it is. It includes the physical and the whole body, but neither is it limited by these. This work, the opening of the spiritual eye, which may be called prayer, lifts the veil that obscures our view of the things which are most evident of all. The philosophers of medieval Judaism and Islam, implementing the ostensibly complex symbolism of the eye, actually demonstrate the plainness and simplicity required for receiving and understanding truth. Just as the physical eye cannot see without light, neither can the spiritual eye see without prayer.
Works Cited and Consulted
Lindberg, David C. Studies in the History of Medieval Optics. London: Variorum
Macy, Dr. Jeffrey. Jewish and Islamic Theology and Philosophy in the Middle Ages.
Reader, Volume 1. Hebrew University School for Overseas Students.
Mahdi, Mushin and Ralph Lerner. Medieval Political Philosophy. Itahaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1963.
Moses Maimonides. The Guide of the Perplexed. Volume 1. Trans. Shlomo Pines.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963.
Plotinus. On Beauty. Daedalus Boston: Fall 2002. Vol. 131, Iss. 4, pp. 27-34.
Rasheed, Roshdi. Encyclopedia of The History of Arabic Science. Vol. 2. London:
Smith, A. Mark. "What is the History of Medieval Optics Really About?" Proceedings
of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia: Jun 2004. Vol. 148, Iss. 2, pp. 180-194.
Strauss, Leo. "Persecution and the Art of Writing." Westport Connecticut: Greenwood
Press, 1988, pp. 7-21.
[i] Macy, pp. 17
[ii] Rashed, pp. 660
[iii] Ibid, pp. 646
[iv] Ibid, pp. 651
[v] Lindberg, pp. 427
[vi] Macy, pp. 15
[vii] Lindberg, pp. 142
[viii] Macy, pp. 58
[ix] Ibid, pp. 61
[x] Ibid, pp.19
[xi] Ibid, pp.20
[xii] Maimonides, Guide, pp. 7
[xiii] Ibid, pp. 14
[xiv] Ibid, pp. 28
[xv] Ibid, pp. 61
[xvi] Macy, pp. 107
[xvii] Ibid, pp. 113
[xviii] Ibid, pp. 114