Avicenna and the Islamic Golden Age

One of the most brilliant minds of his time, Avicenna was a self-educated Persian scholar, scientist, physician, and an expert on Aristotelian philosophy. 

Born at Bukhara, a prominent city on the silk trade route, Avicenna was the Latinised name for Ibn-Sina. As early as the age of 10 Avicenna had learnt the Quran by heart, and, always seeking to widen his education, he acquired the basics of arithmetic from a humble greengrocer. Using the income he earned, Avicenna started buying books, including Ptolemy’s Almagest, and he soon became skilled in advanced mathematics, geometry, logic, and astronomy. A polymath teenager! He then proceeded to study medicine and became a practicing doctor at the young age of 16. 

Avicenna (980-1037)

Avicenna’s fame was widespread all over the Muslim world, and he was soon appointed as Royal Physician by the Sultan of Bukhara. He wrote his first work at age 21 and proceeded publishing more than a hundred books. Avicenna devoted himself especially in the study of the Aristotelian corpus. His ‘Canon of Medicine’, is considered one of the greatest medical text-books ever written, as it includes most of the medical works of  both Aristotle and Galen. The ‘Canon’ was written in Arabic, but was translated into Latin in the 12th century by Gerard of Cremona and became the standard text-book in most Schools of Medicine in the West. 

The knowledge of anything, since all things have causes, is not acquired or complete unless it is known by its causes. Therefore in medicine we ought to know the causes of sickness and health.


Avicenna argued the existence of God from the necessity for an absolute Being in whom essence and existence coincide. In his works he attempted to define the relationship between the existence of a thing and its essence, and the dynamics between what is possible and what is necessary.

The universe is eternal because God -the First Cause, the Necessary Being- could not first have willed, and then later not willed, the existence of the world. As Avicenna explains: “God, the supreme being, is neither circumscribed by space, nor touched by time; he cannot be found in a particular direction, and his essence cannot change. The secret conversation is thus entirely spiritual; it is a direct encounter between God and the soul, abstracted from all material constraints.”

God appears as an all-pervading Presence from whom humans can never escape, with the consequence that it is not man who thinks but God who thinks in him. This is a form of the doctrine of the ‘unity of the Active Intellect’, which was the subject of extremely hot debates throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. 

Avicenna and his Arab colleagues such as Averroes, pioneered the Islamic golden age and helped re-introduce forgotten treasures of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy and science to the West, mainly through Sicily and Spain but also through the Byzantine Empire.  


Forever Friends: Damon and Phidias

Many know what the phrase “these two are Damon and Phidias” means, but very few remember the historical origin of these two names and how they were established as the synonym of an invincible friendship that defied death. The basic facts of this story are not imaginary; on the contrary, they are historically accurate. References are found in the works of historians such as Cicero, Valerius Maximus, Porphyrios, Diodorus, Sicilian and others: Damon and Phidias were two Pythagorean philosophers who lived or found to live in the Syracuse during the time of the tyrannical Dionysius the Younger, between 367 and 343 BC According to historians, Phidias was accused of participating in a conspiracy to overthrow Dionysius, and was sentenced to death. The sentenced man asked for a few hours of freedom to catch up with his unfinished business before he died.

Dionysius agreed to temporarily let Phidias go, keeping his close friend, Damon, in his place. In some sources, that was an idea of Dionysius himself, knowing that Damon would definitely come back. Other sources tell us that Dionysius proposed this solution, seeking to prove that the famous friendship that the Pythagoreans displayed among themselves was in reality fake.

Whatever the source, however, Damon accepted to take his friend’s place on his own will, and was not forced to. The rest of this story is more or less well known. Phidias left, but as the hour of the execution was approaching, he was nowhere to be seen. Dionysius started to mock Damon by telling him that his friend turned him into ‘an Iphigenia’, sacrificing him while he escaped and was already enjoying life. But right at the time when Damon was led to be executed, Phidias appeared running. He immediately demanded to take his friends place and be executed.

Then right in the presence of Dionysius, the two friends started arguing!
Damon said he had to be executed since his friend had arrived late. Phidias on the other hand claimed that he had kept his word and therefore his friend had to be released and he had to be put to death instead as he was the one who had done the offense.

Dionysius after witnessing this scene was so moved that he decided to pardon them and asked to be accepted as their new friend.


Democracy = Participation

In ancient Athens, contributing to politics -and in extent to your country- was considered the norm and highly desirable. Being apolitical and selfish was frowned upon. All good citizens aspired to be politically active.

It was rare for someone to demonstrate apathy towards what was happening in their state and remain indifferent to common/public issues. The overwhelming majority of Athenians participated in politics to a greater or lesser extent.

Anyone who was interested only in his own affairs and refused to take part in the current affairs was by definition considered a weakly presented member of Athenian society, and therefore a person of low intelligence, apathetic, and almost worthless.

If you did not demonstrate social responsibility and political awareness you were considered uneducated and ignorant. Those who did not contribute to politics and the community were known as “idiotes”, that being the term for a person that chose to remain a private citizen. The opposite of an “idiotes” was a “polites”, an active citizen. It still is…