Breaking with Athens: Alfarabi as Founder

Colmo, Christopher. Breaking with Athens: Alfarabi as Founder. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2005.

Overview: Makes the unusual argument that Alfarabi, despite his stated admiration for Plato and Aristotle, was in fact a precursor to modern political thought. The single-handed determination with which the author drives home this point is often helpful.


“The problem of the founder is the problem of the beginning. It is at the beginning that we are most uncertain. The politics of certainty and uncertainty begins at the beginning. To know how to begin is in a way already to have made a beginning. But we do not from the outset know how to begin. The problem of certainty in politics and philosophy, as Alfarabi understands it, is the problem of where to begin and how to begin. Is a beginning even possible? Can one acquire certainty if one does not already have it? Muhammed al-Fadali al-Shafi (d. 1821) wrote that “God can never learn anything that He does not know already” (Rippin and Knappert 1986, 20 and 130). Alfarabi’s Plato recognizes the dilemma this creates for the human aspiration to acquire divine knowledge. If God cannot learn what He knows, how can a human being learn what He knows? Can anyone, God or human being, learn something new, something he does not in some way already know? Alfarabi modestly lowers his gaze. In doing so, he gives to philosophy a meaning different from the one given to it by Plato and Aristotle.”