1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Avicenna
AVICENNA [Abū ʽAlī al-Husain ibn ʽAbdallāh ibn Sīnā] (980–1037), Arabian philosopher, was born at Afshena in the district of Bokhara. His mother was a native of the place; his father, a Persian from Balkh, filled the post of tax-collector in the neighbouring town of Harmaitin, under Nūh II. ibn Mansur, the Samanid amir of Bokhara. On the birth of Avicenna’s younger brother the family migrated to Bokhara, then one of the chief cities of the Moslem world, and famous for a culture which was older than its conquest by the Saracens. Avicenna was put in charge of a tutor, and his precocity soon made him the marvel of his neighbours,—as a boy of ten who knew by rote the Koran and much Arabic poetry besides. From a greengrocer he learnt arithmetic; and higher branches were begun under one of those wandering scholars who gained a livelihood by cures for the sick and lessons for the young. Under him Avicenna read the Isagoge of Porphyry and the first propositions of Euclid. But the pupil soon found his teacher to be but a charlatan, and betook himself, aided by commentaries, to master logic, geometry and the Almagest. Before he was sixteen he not merely knew medical theory, but by gratuitous attendance on the sick had, according to his own account, discovered new methods of treatment. For the next year and a half he worked at the higher philosophy, in which he encountered greater obstacles. In such moments of baffled inquiry he would leave his books, perform the requisite ablutions, then hie to the mosque, and continue in prayer till light broke on his difficulties. Deep into the night he would continue his studies, stimulating his senses by occasional cups of wine, and even in his dreams problems would pursue him and work out their solution. Forty times, it is said, he read through the Metaphysics of Aristotle, till the words were imprinted on his memory; but their meaning was hopelessly obscure, until one day they found illumination from the little commentary by Fārābī (q.v.), which he bought at a bookstall for the small sum of three dirhems. So great was his joy at the discovery, thus made by help of a work from which he had expected only mystery, that he hastened to return thanks to God, and bestowed an alms upon the poor. Thus, by the end of his seventeenth year his apprenticeship of study was concluded, and he went forth to find a market for his accomplishments.
His first appointment was that of physician to the amir, who owed him his recovery from a dangerous illness (997). Avicenna’s chief reward for this service was access to the royal library of the Samanids (q.v.), well-known patrons of scholarship and scholars. When the library was destroyed by fire not long after, the enemies of Avicenna accused him of burning it, in order for ever to conceal the sources of his knowledge. Meanwhile, he assisted his father in his financial labours, but still found time to write some of his earliest works.
At the age of twenty-two Avicenna lost his father. The Samanid dynasty came to its end in December 1004. Avicenna seems to have declined the offers of Mahmūd the Ghaznevid, and proceeded westwards to Urjensh in the modern Khiva, where the vizier, regarded as a friend of scholars, gave him a small monthly stipend. But the pay was small, and Avicenna wandered from place to place through the districts of Nishapur and Merv to the borders of Khorasan, seeking an opening for his talents. Shams al-Maʽālī Qābūs, the generous ruler of Dailam, himself a poet and a scholar, with whom he had expected to find an asylum, was about that date (1012) starved to death by his own revolted soldiery. Avicenna himself was at this season stricken down by a severe illness. Finally, at Jorjān, near the Caspian, he met with a friend, who bought near his own house a dwelling in which Avicenna lectured on logic and astronomy. For this patron several of his treatises were written; and the commencement of his Canon of Medicine also dates from his stay in Hyrcania.
He subsequently settled at Rai, in the vicinity of the modern Teheran, where a son of the last amir, Majd Addaula, was nominal ruler, under the regency of his mother. At Rai about thirty of his shorter works are said to have been composed. But the constant feuds which raged between the regent and her second son, Shams Addaula, compelled the scholar to quit the place, and after a brief sojourn at Kazwīn, he passed southwards to Hamadān, where that prince had established himself. At first he entered into the service of a high-born lady; but ere long the amir, hearing of his arrival, called him in as medical attendant, and sent him back with presents to his dwelling. Avicenna was even raised to the office of vizier; but the turbulent soldiery, composed of Kurds and Turks, mutinied against their nominal sovereign, and demanded that the new vizier should be put to death. Shams Addaula consented that he should be banished from the country. Avicenna, however, remained hidden for forty days in a sheik’s house, till a fresh attack of illness induced the amir to restore him to his post. Even during this perturbed time he prosecuted his studies and teaching. Every evening extracts from his great works, the Canon and the Sanatio, were dictated and explained to his pupils; among whom, when the lesson was over, he spent the rest of the night in festive enjoyment with a band of singers and players. On the death of the amir Avicenna ceased to be vizier, and hid himself in the house of an apothecary, where, with intense assiduity, he continued the composition of his works. Meanwhile, he had written to Abu Yaʽfar, the prefect of Isfahan, offering his services; but the new amir of Hamadān getting to hear of this correspondence, and discovering the place of Avicenna’s concealment, incarcerated him in a fortress. War meanwhile continued between the rulers of Isfahan and Hamadān; in 1024 the former captured Hamadān and its towns, and expelled the Turkish mercenaries. When the storm had passed Avicenna returned with the amir to Hamadān, and carried on his literary labours; but at length, accompanied by his brother, a favourite pupil, and two slaves, made his escape out of the city in the dress of a Sufite ascetic. After a perilous journey they reached Isfahan, and received an honourable welcome from the prince. The remaining ten or twelve years of Avicenna’s life were spent in the service of Abu Yaʽfar ʽAlā Addaula, whom he accompanied as physician and general literary and scientific adviser, even in his numerous campaigns. During these years he began to study literary matters and philology, instigated, it is asserted, by criticisms on his style. But amid his restless study Avicenna never forgot his love of enjoyment. Unusual bodily vigour enabled him to combine severe devotion to work with facile indulgence in sensual pleasures. His passion for wine and women was almost as well known as his learning. Versatile, light-hearted, boastful and pleasure-loving, he contrasts with the nobler and more intellectual character of Averroes. His bouts of pleasure gradually weakened his constitution; a severe colic, which seized him on the march of the army against Hamadān, was checked by remedies so violent that Avicenna could scarcely stand. On a similar occasion the disease returned; with difficulty he reached Hamadān, where, finding the disease gaining ground, he refused to keep up the regimen imposed, and resigned himself to his fate. On his deathbed remorse seized him; he bestowed his goods on the poor, restored unjust gains, freed his slaves, and every third day till his death listened to the reading of the Koran. He died in June 1037, in his fifty-eighth year, and was buried in Hamadān.
It was mainly accident which determined that from the 12th to the 17th century Avicenna should be the guide of medical study in European universities, and eclipse the names of Rhazes, Ali ibn al-Abbas and Avenzoar. His work is not essentially different from that of his predecessors Rhazes and Ali; all present the doctrine of Galen, and through Galen the doctrine of Hippocrates, modified by the system of Aristotle. But the Canon of Avicenna is distinguished from the Al-Hawi (Continens) or Summary of Rhazes by its greater method, due perhaps to the logical studies of the former, and entitling him to his surname of Prince of the Physicians. The work has been variously appreciated in subsequent ages, some regarding it as a treasury of wisdom, and others, like Avenzoar, holding it useful only as waste paper. In modern times it has been more criticized than read. The vice of the book is excessive classification of bodily faculties, and over-subtlety in the discrimination of diseases. It includes five books; of which the first and second treat of physiology, pathology and hygiene, the third and fourth deal with the methods of treating disease, and the fifth describes the composition and preparation of remedies. This last part contains some contingent of personal observation. He is, like all his countrymen, ample in the enumeration of symptoms, and is said to be inferior to Ali in practical medicine and surgery. He introduced into medical theory the four causes of the Peripatetic system. Of natural history and botany he pretends to no special knowledge. Up to the year 1650, or thereabouts, the Canon was still used as a text-book in the universities of Louvain and Montpellier.
About 100 treatises are ascribed to Avicenna. Some of them are tracts of a few pages, others are works extending through several volumes. The best-known amongst them, and that to which Avicenna owed his European reputation, is the Canon of Medicine; an Arabic edition of it appeared at Rome in 1593, and a Hebrew version at Naples in 1491. Of the Latin version there were about thirty editions, founded on the original translation by Gerard of Cremona. The 15th century has the honour of composing the great commentary on the text of the Canon, grouping around it all that theory had imagined, and all that practice had observed. Other medical works translated into Latin are the Medicamenta Cordialia, Canticum de Medicina, Tractatus de Syrupo Acetoso. Scarcely any member of the Arabian circle of the sciences, including theology, philology, mathematics, astronomy, physics and music, was left untouched by the treatises of Avicenna, many of which probably varied little, except in being commissioned by a different patron and having a different form or extent. He wrote at least one treatise on alchemy, but several others have been falsely attributed to him. His book on animals was translated by Michael Scot. His Logic, Metaphysics, Physics, De Caelo, are treatises giving a synoptic view of Aristotelian doctrine. The Logic and Metaphysics have been printed more than once, the latter, e.g., at Venice in 1493, 1495 and 1546. Some of his shorter essays on medicine, logic, &c., take a poetical form (the poem on logic was published by Schmoelders in 1836). Two encyclopaedic treatises, dealing with philosophy, are often mentioned. The larger, Al-Shifā’ (Sanatio), exists nearly complete in manuscript in the Bodleian library and elsewhere; part of it on the De Anima appeared at Pavia (1490) as the Liber Sextus Naturalium, and the long account of Avicenna’s philosophy given by Shahrastani seems to be mainly an analysis, and in many places a reproduction, of the Al-Shifā’, A shorter form of the work is known as the An-najāt (Liberatio). The Latin editions of part of these works have been modified by the corrections which the monkish editors confess that they applied. There is also a Philosophia Orientalis, mentioned by Roger Bacon, and now lost, which according to Averroes was pantheistic in tone.
For Avicenna’s life, see Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary, translated by McG. de Slane (1842); F. Wüstenfeld’s Geschichte der arabischen Aerzte und Naturforscher (Göttingen, 1840). For his medicine, see Sprengel, Histoire de la Médecine; and for his philosophy, see Shahrastani, German trans. vol. ii. 213-332; K. Prantl, Geschichte der Logik, ii. 318-361; A. Stöckl, Phil. d. Mittelalters, ii. 23-58; S. Munk, Mélanges, 352-366; B. Haneberg in the Abhandlungen der philos.-philolog. Class. der bayerischen Academie (1867); and Carra de Vaux, Avicenne (Paris, 1900). For list of extant works see C. Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur (Weimar, 1898), vol. i. pp. 452-458. (W. W.; G. W. T.)