Living Wisely Among Unwise People: On Ibn Bajja’s ‘Governance of the Solitary’ – Forbes

Living Wisely Among Unwise People: On Ibn Bajja’s ‘Governance of the Solitary’ – Forbes

Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Bajja (ca. 1085-1138) was, setting aside his rather colorful professional career, an influential Arabic/Islamic political philosopher whose many writings have, by and large, not survived. Of the texts we do have, most are short treatises, and of these, most have succumbed to the corruption of both time and man.

But there is one writing we might praise God for preserving: The Governance of the Solitary. In this special text Bajja treats, or perhaps it is more accurate to say revives, a central question for thinkers beginning with Plato. Namely, how ought the philosopher to live in the midst of an imperfect city?

Reformulating the concern in a slightly different manner, even at the risk of descending to a sub-philosophic vista, renders it more intelligible: How, and in what manner, should a wise person live among vulgar or simply unwise people? Understood in this frame, what Bajja is investigating turns out to be a going preoccupation for many of us. Indeed, how we answer this question determines our public posture, the advice we give our children, and even, with advent of the digital world, how we act in private.

The Governance turns out to be a notoriously difficult text to decipher. Another great philosopher, Averroes, commented “this book is incomplete, and besides, it is not always easy to understand its meaning…. He is the only one to treat this subject, and none of his predecessors surpassed him in this respect.” Why Bajja did not make himself easier to understand is an interesting question. Perhaps his advice to the solitaries is at variance with the wishes of the city. After all, the true philosopher, who by definition is devoted to a life of ceaseless uncovering, by his nature is at odds with the conventionality necessary for stable regime life.

Leaving all of this aside, there are a three things would-be-students of the Governance should know to begin. First, what Bajja means by perfect and imperfect cities has a predicate in Plato, especially his great work, The Republic, where four imperfect regimes—timocracy, oligarchy. democracy, tyranny—are discussed. Bajja takes for granted we accept this account. And he helpfully, but elliptically, provides a definition of the perfect city, “which is characterized by the absence of the art of medicine and of the art of judication.” Healthy bodies, healthy souls.

Second, we must also accept that philosophers walk among us. Bajja, following Alfarabi, designates these wondrous souls as “Weeds”. The description is not, to be clear, pejorative, though one is forced wonder what an imperfect ruler would do should he find them in garden. In the imperfect city, Weeds live, it would seem, in perpetual peril. Bajja wants to offer them assistance—why? He wants, in his words, to counsel “how he should achieve happiness if he does not possess it, or how to remove from himself the conditions that prevent his achieving happiness.” There is a lot, one begins to sense, at stake.

Finally, to uncover the reasoning behind Bajja’s advice to the Weeds, we must accept the challenge of a difficult, lengthy middle section to the Governance. This must be must be worked through. No cutting corners. Indeed, it is only by tracing carefully this main part of the text will the reader be convinced of the appropriateness of Bajja’s end destination. Most interestingly, it should also reveal, if only for a flash, answers to his subtle manner of presenation.

For now, I don’t think I spoil anything by noting that Bajja does indeed believe the philosopher can exist, even experience unlimited flourishing, in an imperfect city. Provided, of course, this sensible fellow follows the prescribed guidelines. The good news for us, we simple, lazy plants, is that Bajja’s advice can be approximated. And in this respect, the Governance is not simply intended for the wise but as lasting gift to future generations of thoughtful men and women.

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