Man's transformation from one state to another is consequent upon transformation of the laws....Since the nomoi, and especially, in the virtuous city, are not suddenly transformed--and this too because of the habits and excellent states to which they accustom its members and which they grow up--but rather are only transformed gradually and to what is proximate [to them, it follows that] the transformation in habits and dispositions necessarily changes according to that order, to the point that when t he laws are utterly corrupted, the states [of the soul] existing there will be utterly base. You can make this clear from what--after forty years--has come about among us in the habits and states of those possessing lordship and status. Because the timocratic governance under which they grew up has been undone, they have come by these base things that they now have.--Ibn Rushd Commentary on Plato's Republic, Third Treatise, translated by R. Lerner.
In context of the quoted passage, Ibn Rushd notes that he is deviating from Plato's treatment of political (and individual) corruption and decline. For present purposes, I ignore the significance of the deviations from Plato. But it is important to recognize that, here, Ibn Rushd is putting forward his own model of decline (recall also this post). In particular, it has four important characteristic:
- A genuinely virtuous city only gradually changes its character;
- forty years counts as relatively fast;
- the model can be applied to empirical phenomena, (b) including his own age.
- The reason for (1) is that the institutions of a virtuous city generate their own partial, social reproduction.
As is clear from (2) and the way he applies it, Ibn Rushd's model of social corruption offers a best-case baseline. For societies that decline faster, we can, then, say that the starting points are even more fragile than a virtuous regime.* (This is an evidential strategy we also find in Hume and Adam Smith.) This is illustrated by two earlier examples. Both are very interesting--one because of subsequent historiography, the other for its radical political implications. First, a few pages before Ibn Rushd had asserted the following:
In general, the transformation of the timocratic individual into the hedonistic individual is something evident, whether he takes his pleasure in wealth or the other remaining pleasures...We often see the kings being corrupted to the likes of these An example of this time is the kingdom of people known as the Almoraverids. At first, they imitated the governance based on nomos; this was under the first one of them. They then changed to under his son into the timocratic, though there also was mixed in him the love of wealth. Then it changed under his grandson into the hedonistic with all the kinds of things of the hedonists; and it perished in his days. This was because the governance that opposed it at the time resembled the governance based on the nomos.
Here, Ibn Rushd (12th century Cordoba) anticipates in embryonic form by almost two centuries Ibn Khaldun's model of rise and falls of dynasties (recall). And he treats it as an empirical phenomenon. Note, especially, first, how this model of transition from imitation of virtue to timocratic to extinction, is (a) fairly rapid (again under forty years), and (b) deviates from the best-case baseline model of social corruption above. And, second, that Ibn Rushd is actually offering an unintended consequence explanation here (that's pretty cool): the founder of the Amoravids dynasty aims for virtue, but produces corruption. Third, in the previous sentence I used 'aims' for two reasons: (i) Ibn Rushd actually uses (in Platonic fashion) 'imitate' and this signals that we're fare removed from the real thing; (ii) if the founder of the Amoravids dynasty had been truly virtuous, then (recall his best-case baseline model of social corruption) his polity would have lasted much longer.**
That good intentions are not sufficient to bring about good consequences is well understood. But here aiming for religious virtue, in the absence of good judgment/political science, produces the worst possible outcome. We may, but this goes beyond the text, that zealous righteousness is not self-vindicating. Okay, with that in mind let's turn to a more explosive example a few pages before. Ibn Rushd writes,
You may understand what Plato says concerning the transformation of the virtuous governance into the timocratic governance and the of the virtuous individual into the timocratic individual from the case of the governance of the Arabs in the early times, for they used to imitate the virtuous governance. They were then transformed into timocrats in the days of Muáwiya. So it seems to be the case in the governance now existing in these islands.
Now in this passage, Ibn Rushd is formally only illustrating Plato's views with two empirical examples, one from his own time and one from the so-called four righteous caliphs+ after the death of Muhammad (Muáwiya was the fifth caliph and the one that founded the Umayyad dynasty). I leave aside here to what degree this makes sense as Plato interpretation. For, we soon learn (as noted above) that Ibn Rushd will treat the "present governance" with his own model of transition from imitation of virtue to timocratic (to extinction). But he thereby implies that this model can also be used to represent the initial legacy of Muhammed. And the implications are fascinating.
For, Ibn Rushd's position entails that the first four caliphs should be understood as imitators of virtue (he says as much) and unintentionally, perhaps, produce a decline in the Ummah that leads to the less righteous Ummayad dynasty.++ That they were merely imitating virtue is entailed by three features: (a) from Muhammed's death to Muáwiya was about thirty years (so rapid decline); (b) they were, in fact, unable to reproduce their own social order (and arguably were on the precipice of civil war several times); (c) in Platonic terms, their regime was democratic (recall this post on Al-Farabi) because it was based on consensual, elected kingship.
As an aside, in the Decisive Treatise, he insists that the decline under the four righteous Caliphs is due to the inabilities of the cognitive elites who produce non-literal interpretations of the Qu'ran which become familiar to the masses. Such allegorical interpretations are not capable of generating consensus or unity among the (vulgar) masses. The theologically inclined, cognitive elites who produce such interpretations should have showed self-command and kept quiet on hidden meanings. There, Ibn Rushd is a proto-Spinozist attacking the political dangers of a certain sort of theologian.
Here, however, the problem is political and more fundamental yet. For, Ibn Rushd's analysis entails that at his death, Muhammad de facto left a flawed political regime if only because by not having dealt with succession he turned a would-be-virtuous regime in a regime that merely imitates virtue. I say explicitly that for Ibn Rushd, Muhammad's polity was not itself virtuous because it declined so rapidly. And, if this much is right, then by Ibn Rushd's lights this is further evidence of the imperfection in Muhammad's political order because its institutions were unable to slow the decline.***
*One may wonder why a virtuous regime can't endure, but like Plato, Ibn Rushd accepts the idea that all existents will perish and that the guardians will be unable to maintain their eugenic/breeding program.
**As an aside, Ibn Rushd uses unintended consequence explanations more often. About that some other time.
+At least, this is the Sunni version.
++So, he agrees with the standard narrative that the Ummayad dynasty is problematic, but he subtly undermines the premises of the standard narrative about the first four caliphs.
***I thank my students in my Islamic Political Theory class for discussion.