ibn Khaldûn, 'Abd-ar-Rahmân Abû Zayd ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad, 1332--1406

13 Aug 2015 13:23

Having tried my hand at explaining the core of ibn Khaldûn's theory of history already, I will basically repeat myself for the next three paragraphs.

Ibn Khaldun's theory of culture and society was complicated; it was, in fact, a science in the proper Aristotelian mode, starting from certain premises regarded as secured by other sciences, observation, etc., from which it deduced the formal, material, efficient and final causes of human societies, especially their growth, their decay, and their built-in drives to attain certain ends (entelechy). A full and proper exegesis would require a mastery of Arabic, and of medieval philosophy, which I lack, but the core of it is what he took to be an observation of a historical cycle, and its causes, and that I think I can explain. This concerns the inter-relationships between economic life, social solidarity, cultural refinement, and military effectiveness.

The goal of human society, ibn Khaldun thought, was the development of culture and the sciences. For the arts and sciences to become developed and refined, specialists must train and practice for long periods of time, in order to develop the necessary habits to a high pitch. (Ibn Khaldun, a noted poet in his time, nicely described poetry as "a technical habit of the tongue".) For these specialists to be able to make a living while doing so, they must live in cities, and those cities must be flourishing economically, so that there is enough demand for their specialties, and so that there is a surplus to pay for such luxuries as poetry, skilled craftwork and astronomy. This is only possible if there is government and the state --- ibn Khaldun, rather more realistically than Weber, defined the state as that institution whose function is to suppress all such injustices as it does not itself commit. For the state to be able to do this, it must be militarily effective. Military effectiveness, he thought, depends not just on individual courage, but also the solidarity ('asabiyya) of the soldiers with one another and with their leaders. (He ignored differences in military technology, I suspect because there were no important ones within his sphere of observation.) People raised in conditions of luxury do not (reliably, or for the most part) have such feelings of solidarity, nor do ordinary townsmen and peasants, since their safety and survival is guaranteed for them by the state. It is only barbarians living in mountains and deserts, whose survival is crucially dependent on mutual support against the elements and against other tribes, who will develop the feelings of solidarity on which military power rests.

Fortunately enough, men are naturally ambitious for power, wealth and a life of ease. Thus, the leaders of tribal groups which possess the necessary size and solidarity to have military power will desire to seize control of cities and their states, and become governing powers. The size of the state they will be able to found will depend on their degree of solidarity and the size of their armies. Initially, the rulers will be vigorous, expansive, and uncultured. Gradually their descendants, raised in the luxury and security of cities, will grow more refined and improve their patronage of the arts and sciences; this condition, at the peak of a dynasty, is in ibn Khaldun's view the natural end (telos) of human society. Everything that grows must decay, however, and for ibn Khaldun this decay takes the conjoined form of the dynasty losing the feelings of tribal solidarity which was the basis for its power, owing to the dynasts' new, softer mode of life, and at the same time hastening their economic decline through corruption and excessive taxation. This sets the stage for a new dynasty to emerge from the hills or deserts.

All of this was elaborated in the 1300s, with astonishingly little by way of forerunners. (Though see Mahdi's book.) It's an Aristotleian social science, but it's recognizably a social science, and not noticeably inferior to the contemporary Aristotleian natural sciences. So why didn't this go anywhere? Or is my impression that it didn't an illusion? (The only book on ibn Khaldun's influence I can find is Ibn Khaldun et ses lecteurs, by Ahmad Abdesselem, and my French is definitely not up to the test.) And how many other astonishing productions like this are sitting un unread medieval manuscripts, or have vanished because they never aroused the interest which ibn Khaldun's history proper did, and so not been copied?