Al-Kindī was the first thinker in the Islamic world to think of himself as a “philosopher” (in Arabic faylasūf), a proud heir to the wisdom of the Greeks. He played a crucial role in the transmission of Greek science and philosophy into Arabic, and was honored with the epithet “philosopher of the Arabs.” None of which prevented him from falling prey to a court intrigue during the reign of Mutawakkil in the middle of the ninth century CE. Thanks to the conniving of rival scholars, al-Kindī fell from favour and was beaten, and his library was confiscated. I like to think that in this testing moment, he was able to put into practice what he preached in a little treatise he composed called “How to Dispel Sorrow.”
Like just about everything al-Kindī wrote, the work is an original composition yet takes inspiration from Greek exemplars. There is an extended version of a metaphor that already appeared in the Stoic Epicetetus, which compares our life here on earth to a sojourn on land that interrupts a sea journey. Just as the voyager should be prepared to race back to the boat if called, so as to get the best seats, so the most favorable afterlife awaits those who are prepared for death. Another Greek thinker appears in the guise as an indomitable moral hero. This is Socrates, who is presented as having been invulnerable to grief and sadness because, as he explained, “I own nothing whose loss would sadden me.” This is the core of al-Kindī’s own advice on how to avoid grief. Sadness is the predictable result of forming an attachment to things that can be taken away from you. To push the point home al-Kindī tells the story of king Nero, who was so fond of a fabulous pavilion that he had it brought to him to enjoy on an island excursion. Unfortunately for Nero the boat carrying the pavilion sank on the way. Al-Kindī draws the following moral from this story: “if you want to have few misfortunes, you should have few possessions outside you.”
"If you want to have few misfortunes, you should have few possessions outside you"
Though al-Kindī does not dwell on the point, the implication is that sadness can be warded off by avoiding attachment to anything that is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of fortune. That would include friends and family, something pointed out by the aforementioned Epictetus – who gave the unnerving advice that when kissing one’s child, one should remind oneself that the child could easily die tomorrow – and somewhat later than al-Kindī by another ethicist named al-Rāzī, who unsentimentally suggests that we should avoid loving anyone or at least value other people lightly.
This advice, that we can avoid sadness by avoiding attachment to things in the world around us, may remind us of Buddhism. But al-Kindī was no Buddhist. He did not deny the reality of the self, nor in fact did he recommend avoiding all attachment. To the contrary, he encourages us to place high value on things that cannot be taken away from us. For the Stoics this would have meant virtue. To quote Epictetus again, “you can chain my leg, but not my will,” and it is completely in my power to govern my own will virtuously. Al-Kindī however takes a more metaphysical view. He thinks that there is a whole realm of objects that provide us with great pleasure and are invulnerable to loss. These objects reside in “the realm of the intellect.” His point is that the person who is immune to sadness is the philosopher, who aim in life is not to own pavilions or flatscreen televisions, but to grasp intelligible truth.
None of which is to say that we have to avoid bodily pleasures and possessions at all costs. That was the strategy suggested by some ancient philosophers, like Diogenes the Cynic who lived rough with only a winejar for a shelter, and who upon finding a sweet in his breakfast cast it away saying “away with tyrants”! Al-Kindī’s more moderate advice is that we should neither avoid nor pursue pleasures or wealth. Rather, we should treat them like the noble king greets his guests. The king “neither advances towards a person nor sees him off when he departs, but enjoys whatever he encounters acting most calmly and showing that he has no need for it.”
"The lesson to draw may not be that we should avoid forming attachment entirely, but that we should do so sparingly and only for good reason."
It seems like excellent advice when it comes to pavilions and televisions, but is less appealing when it comes to, say, one’s children or friends. A person who could endure the horrible death of their loved ones without sadness is, you might argue, not a moral hero but an immoral monster. I tend to agree, yet even here we have something to learn from al-Kindī. His key insight, also seen by the Cynics, Stoics, and Buddhists, is that the grief you will feel in life is directly proportional to the attachment you form to things that you can lose. The lesson to draw may not be that we should avoid forming attachment entirely, but that we should do so sparingly and only for good reason. To put it another way: love your children, but not your flatscreen television. Furthermore, al-Kindī can help us cope with the loss of things we did rightly value. He tells another story featuring a king: when Alexander the Great was near death he told his mother to invite to his funeral only those who had never faced misfortune. Of course no one turned up, bringing home to her that she was not alone in her grief. We all get attached to things and people, we all can and will lose what we love. For those of us who are not Socrates or the Buddha this makes sorrow inevitable, but if we take al-Kindī’s advice and prepare ourselves by knowing that loss is sure to come, then the sorrow will be easier to bear.