10 Golden Age Philosophers, and Why You Should Know Them

We can all rattle off a few Greek philosophers to win a trivia prize, but how many Golden Age philosophers are you familiar with? Here's a primer.


If challenged to name ten philosophers in ten seconds, some of us might make it to ten. Most of us could possibly hit seven. Of those, the majority are likely to be ancient Greek figures with the remainder more modern, western ones. If a non-western name is to be offered it is likely to be one of the extremely famous thinkers of Asia, such as Confucius, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, or Sun Tzu. How many of us would produce an Islamic or Arabic thinker as an example?

This is a shame, as the Golden Age (8th century – 13th century) in the Middle East produced some of the most important thought in human history. It is through these thinkers that the west was able to regain access to the thought of Aristotle and Plato. Of the stars that have proper names in common usage, most of them have the names given to them by Middle-Eastern astronomers. We use the numeral system they devised, including the zero. They set the standard for the scientific method for hundreds of years. It is impossible to fully understand western thought without understanding the ideas of these thinkers.

Here are ten of the most underrated and under-appreciated philosophers from the Middle-East, ordered by date.

 1. Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī 854 CE – 925 CE

Famed doctor, chemist, and philosopher. First person to describe smallpox and measles as separate diseases. Developed a metaphysical system, based on Plato, which described the universe as consisting of five elements; God, time, place, soul, and matter. Author of the first book on pediatrics.

"I have written 20,000 pages (in small print), moreover I spent fifteen years of my life – night and day – writing the big collection entitled Al Hawi. It was during this time that I lost my eyesight, my hand became paralyzed, with the result that I am now deprived of reading and writing. Nonetheless, I've never given up."


2. Saadia Gaon 882 CE – 942 CE

Rabbi who lived during the golden age of Islam in the various centers of the Abbasid Caliphate. Known for work on Hebrew Linguistics, translations of hebrew texts into Arabic, Jewish law, and preventing a schism in Judaism by means of simple argument. Appointed as the first foreign head of an Academy in Sura. Combined Hebrew and Greek thought.

"The composition of poems remind(s) man of his state of frailty, wretchedness and toil."

3. Yahya ibn Adi 893 CE – 974 CE

Logic theorist and doctor based in Tikrit in modern Iraq. Produced dozens of translations of Greek philosophy into Arabic. A Christian, he was able to use his philosophical knowledge to produce defenses of Christian theology grounded in classical thought.

"Many a dead man lives on through knowledge." 

4. Avicenna 980 CE – 1037 CE

Persian Polymath that is often regarded as the single greatest thinker of the Islamic Golden age. Author of 450 books, one of which was a standard medical text until 1650. Refined the scientific method past that of his philosophical idol, Aristotle. Wrote on Astronomy, Chemistry, Geology, Religion, Logic, Mathematics, Physics, and even wrote poetry. His commentaries and translations of Aristotle went on to influence European thought during the Enlightenment.

"The world is divided into men who have wit and no religion and men who have religion and no wit."


5. Sohrevardi 1154 CE – 1191 CE

Persian Philosopher. Founder of the Islamic school of Illuminationism. Built a metaphysics and Islamic school based largely on Platonic ideas, later went on to write dozens of books on philosophy, mysticism, and their relation to Islam.

"Whoever knows philosophy and perseveres in thanking and sanctifying the Light of the Lights, will be endowed with royal glory." 


6. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi 1149 CE – 1209 CE

Scientist, Philosopher, and Theologian. Proposed several possible models of the cosmos including a multiverse model. Wrote “Tafsir Al-Kabeer”, The Great Commentary, on the Qur’an which is still often referenced. Wrote additional books on logic and medicine, in addition to other topics.

"The arguments of the philosophers for establishing that the world is one are weak, flimsy arguments founded upon feeble premises." 


7. Kâtip Çelebi 1609 CE – 1657 CE

Ottoman historian and geographer. Wrote a bibliographic encyclopedia with 14,500 entries. Wrote extensively on Islamic law, ethics, and theology in addition to history and geography. Primary source for social change in the 16th and 17th century ottoman empire – including the introduction of coffee to the empire.

"With the coming of the period of decline, the winds of knowledge stopped blowing."

 

8. Dara Shikoh 1615 CE – 1659 CE

An Indian prince with a life befitting a drama, Dara was executed for being on the losing side of a succession struggle after the illness of the Emperor of Mughal Empire. Despite his short life, he was able to find the time to work on the mystical underpinnings common to both Hindu and Islamic thought. Writing several books and translating several Sanskrit classics for later study by other Islamic scholars. A library established by him is still in use by the Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University.

"And whereas I was impressed with a longing to behold the Gnostic doctrines of every sect and to hear their lofty expressions of monotheism and had cast my eyes upon many theological books and had been a follower thereof for many years, my passion for beholding the Unity, which is a boundless ocean, increased every moment." 


9. Muhammad Abduh 1849 CE – 1905 CE

Egyptian scholar, jurist, reformer, and philosopher. A founder of the school of Islamic Modernism, and theorist of the application of liberal thought to Islamic nations.  Exiled from Egypt by British authorities for using his newspaper to advocate independence. Argued that many western ideas had roots in Islamic thought.

"I went to the west and saw Islam, but no Muslims. I went to the east and saw Muslims, but not Islam."

10. Fatema Mernissi 1940 CE – 2015 CE

Moroccan Feminist and sociologist. Studied the history of Islamic thought and the role of women in it, publishing works suggesting that the condition of women in Islamic countries is not in line with statements that can be proven to be the thought of Muhammad. Author of the work Beyond the Veil.

"When a woman thinks she is nothing, the little sparrows cry. Who can defend them on the terrace, if no one has the vision of a world without slingshots?"

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.