Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021–1058) was the first Jewish philosopher in Spain, but medieval Christians knew him only by his Latinized name, Avicebron, and they assumed that he was either a Christian or a Muslim. Most scholastics also thought he was a deeply misguided thinker. Gabirol was identified with the doctrine of universal hylomorphism—the idea that everything God creates is composed of form and matter—and treated as a precursor of the nominalist emphasis on the absolute freedom (and thus inscrutability) of God’s will. Some of his poetry remains in liturgical use in Judaism to this day, but his philosophy was all but forgotten. Even experts in medieval theology typically treat him as little more than a footnote to scholastic debates about how angels can be individuated without being embodied.
Two books make it possible to read Gabirol as our contemporary rather than an obscure and minor impediment to the triumph of Thomism. The first is the new translation of Gabirol’s masterpiece, Fons Vitae (The Font of Life), by John A. Laumakis. The original Arabic of this work does not survive, but it was translated into Latin and Hebrew. An earlier English translation is widely regarded as idiosyncratic, so we are all in Laumakis’s debt, especially for his helpful introduction. Still, Fons Vitae is an incredibly difficult text, and Laumakis highlights the complexities of Gabirol’s metaphysics without trying to resolve them. Gabirol can sound like a parody of Neoplatonic speculative proclivities in even the best of translations. For that reason, we are even more in debt to Sarah Pessin for writing the first full length study in English of Fons Vitae. Laumakis published his translation in 2014, so Pessin does not comment on it in her 2013 book, Ibn Gabirol’s Theology of Desire, yet Pessin’s work should be held in one hand while reading Laumakis with the other.
Reading these two books together convinces me that Gabirol is now poised for the recognition he deserves. Few debates in contemporary theology and metaphysics are more contentious and pressing than the relationship of matter and spirit, a topic that includes the relationship of mind to body as well as the origin, value, and destiny of the physical world. Thomas Aquinas did not invent the idea of immaterial substances, but for many Catholic theologians, he elevated the Aristotelian definition of matter as pure potency to the level of nearly dogmatic status. And his severe criticisms of Gabirol still serve as a model of how to draw a thick, straight line between things otherworldly and mundane.
Aquinas thought that Gabirol wanted to extend hylomorphic analysis to purely spiritual entities, and by Aquinas’s own metaphysical assumptions, this was indeed absurd. If matter is pure potency, it is nothing without form, and thus it would make little sense to say that souls, which are the forms of bodies, are themselves composed of matter and form. A material soul could not be the form of a body because it would itself require a form.
But that is not what Gabirol wanted to do. Instead of being a universal (rather than limited) hylomorphist, he wanted to get to the root of the Aristotelian definition of matter—and to pull it out. Gabirol offered the most systematic and creative alternative to hylomorphism possible, and he did so by working within the very parameters of the Neoplatonist project. Plotinus pictured the divine emanations flowing downward from a singular unity until they settled into the opacity of matter before petering out into nothingness. Scholars debate whether Plotinus put matter at the bottom of the chain of being or off the metaphysical chart altogether, but there is little doubt that he left it in an ambivalent ontological state. Gabirol dramatically reverses this valuation by arguing that the lower actually sustains the higher.
Matter can function as form and form can function as matter because matter itself is the universal spiritual substance out of which all things are formed. Matter only appears lower than form when we look at it from our limited perspective. When seen from God’s viewpoint, matter is the medium of God’s intention to bring the entire cosmos into a state of redemption. This point should carry enormous weight for Christian theology. The lower, in the end, is actually the higher. Matter appears to serve form, but form is destined to give way to matter’s consummation (or, we could say, matter’s transubstantiation).
In two brilliant moves, Pessin demonstrates why a great translation can convey revelatory power. First, she avoids the term “prime matter” and instead employs a new term, “Grounding Element.” Second, she replaces “Divine Will” with “Divine Desire.” These changes work like an expert in art restoration removing multiple layers of misinterpretations from Gabirol’s text. In Pessin’s hands, Gabirol’s obscure talk of universal matter becomes transparent to the light of God’s longing for his beloved creation. Matter desires form for Gabirol because God desires us.
Pessin overreaches in her reading of Gabirol when she interprets the multiple levels of his cosmology in existentialist terms. By reducing his cosmology to psychology, she risks making his metaphysical insights mere instruments for psychological insight. When she says that the “grounding element” is a condition of “what must be true about God and ourselves if we are to live meaningfully toward virtue and knowledge,” she sounds more like Kant than Plotinus. Nonetheless, the theological implications of her retrieval of Gabirol are immense. Aquinas defined God as pure act in contrast to matter as pure potency. What if matter is not that? Indeed, from Gabirol’s perspective, Aquinas’s definition of matter as pure potency could not be further from the truth.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.