Shlomo Ibn Gvirol is known as a wonderful poet and an influential philosopher, writes Menachem Lorberbaum. However, while his philosophical writing deals with the importance of the human journey towards perfection using the intellect, poetry allowed him to relate to the materiality of the human body. On the tension between writing philosophy and writing poetry, and the complexity of the author’s world.
By Menachem Lorberbaum
Shlomo Ibn Gvirol (1022-1068) was not the first great Jewish poet from Andalusia in the Middle Ages; Shmuel Hanagid in fact preceded him. Ibn Gvirol was not the only Jewish poet who also wrote about philosophy, although he preceded the other great poet-philosophers, such as Yehuda Halevi and Avraham Ibn Ezra. However, Ibn Gvirol had several unique characteristics that are evidence of the interesting and unique connection between his poetry and his philosophical writing.
Like his successors, Ibn Gvirol wrote in a number of languages. These poet-philosophers, who spoke Arab in their day-to-day lives and received a Jewish education in Hebrew, usually differentiated between the genres and languages of their writings. In general, their scientific and philosophic writing was done in Arabic, while their poetry, both religious and secular, was written in Hebrew.
Nonetheless, the correlation between language and genre was far from a hard and fast rule. In most cases, their philosophical writing in fact focused on Jewish themes, while their Hebrew poetry was essentially built on purely Arab poetic models. Their preference for the language of the Bible, for example, was a clear reflection of the centrality of the Koran and its Arabness as a lofty model of Arab writing. Its content was also often drawn from Arabic poetry.
An exception to the rule is the philosophical writing of Ibn Gvirol, who was a staunchly neo-Platonic philosopher and who developed a unique variation of that approach. Ibn Gvirol’s philosophical prose is characterized better as dealing with universal themes, as opposed to Jewish themes. An interesting example is his book Makor Haim. The Arab source for this work was translated into Latin; however, the name of the author, who was well-known in his day, was distorted in the translation and became Avicebron.
Over the years, the original in Arab was lost, the name of the author was forgotten and the Latin version of the book (entitled Fons Vitae) was warmly adopted by the Catholic Church. The universalistic quality of Makor Haim lacked any hint of the Jewishness of the author, and Christian theologians were convinced that it was written by a Christian philosopher.
The identity of the writer was revealed only in the 19th century, when Shlomo Munk, a Jewish philosopher, discovered a Hebrew summary of Makor Haim written in the 13th century by Shem Tov Ben Yosef Ibn Falaquera. He compared the summary with the Latin translation and concluded that it was the same document.
The presence of Jewish themes in Ibn Gvirol’s poetry is more evident, but when we take a closer look we can see that the poet devoted major portions of his poetic work to themes that occupied him in his philosophical writing.
According to the neo-Platonic approach presented by Ibn Gvirol, man is in a certain sense a transitional stage in the chain of being: on the one hand, he absorbs the divine love that creates the world and on the other hand, reflects that love back to God through his longing for him. The most exalted man is he whose life journey fulfills divine love and Ibn Gvirol’s poetry deals extensively with the description of that journey.
What then did poetry give to Ibn Gvirol that his philosophical writing, which in a quite poetic manner dealt with the centrality of love, could not? This question relates to the tension within the totality of Ibn Gvirol’s writing, which reflects the great neo-Platonic drama of man’s redemption that occurs within his soul, and in particular through the refinement and development of his intellectual ability, while in his poetry he expresses the meaning of being a man of flesh and blood.
This is one of the main characteristics of his poetry: Questions of sexuality and of sickness that arise from it again and again and the world in which he lives receives concrete and material expression in this poetry. Ibn Gvirol’s poetry, in contrast to his philosophical writing, is unique in its sensitivity to the concrete.
Ibn Gvirol is an amazing poet; he has exceptional philosophical and religious vision. His description of the ascent of the soul, the perfection of the intellect and the divine world are rich and fascinating. But Ibn Gvirol was also a man of flesh and blood, and his use of poetry in order to express his bodily existence – nothing being more concrete than that – gives it an extraordinary quality.
Professor Menachem Lorberbaum is the founding chairman of the Department of Hebrew Culture Studies at Tel Aviv University, chair of the Graduate School of Philosophy and a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is currently writing a book on the poetry and thought of Shlomo Ibn Gvirol