When I studied philosophy in graduate school many years ago, we had a distinguished visiting Jewish professor from Harvard University who taught about Maimonides. He taught us that Ibn Tufayl’s book made a profound effect upon Maimonides and caused him to write his books for two audiences; intellectuals would find profound truths in the books while the masses would only see what they want to see. Why? Because the general population is unable to understand and accept the truth. I understood that this must also apply to the Torah. It is impossible to teach the truth in the Torah. I wrote a book about the subject for which the following is the first chapter. It is called “Rational Religion.” Since I knew that I would be berated for writing about this subject, I wrote it under the pseudonym Daniel A. Diamond. My upcoming book “Mysteries of Judaism: How the Rabbis and Others Changed Judaism,” which will be available in April, approaches the same subject from another angle, Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed 3:32.
Most People Can’t Understand the Truth
There are many valuable lessons in philosopher Ibn Tufayl’s book Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. But what is most startling in his parable is his view that wise people, philosophers, and religious leaders must refrain from telling the general population what they understand because most people cannot deal with the truth. This is especially true, he states, about religion because organized religion, as understood by the masses, is not entirely true, but is necessary in order to control the masses. But wise people need to understand the real truth. This basic understanding has, as we will see, profound ramifications.
Abu Bakr Ibn Tufayl (circa 1110–1185) prefaces his parable with a short history of how his predecessors hid truths from the multitude. The wise men wrote certain stories in books that they expected the general population to read and wrote something entirely different in books that they expected scholars to read.
The famed Arab philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi (870–950), for example, wrote in The Ideal Religion that the souls of wicked people live on after death and are perpetually tortured, but in his Civil Practice and in his commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics—Aristotle lived from 383 BCE to 322 BCE—he wrote that the notion of life after death is plainly wrong: “senseless ravings and old wives’ tales.”
Similarly, the highly respected Arab philosopher Avicenna (980–1037) warned intelligent people to be careful in how they read Aristotle because “if you take everything in Aristotle (literally) you will end up far from perfection.” Wise people need to read between the lines.
So too, while discussing Ghazali (1058–1111), Ibn Tufayl points out that this wise Arab philosopher hid what he truly meant so that only those who were learned would understand what is true: “Most of what he said was in the form of hints and intimations, of value to those who hear them only after they have found the truth by their own insight or to someone innately gifted and primed to understand. Such men need only the subtlest hints.”
Ibn Tufayl reveals that he himself, despite his intelligence and years of study, had to work hard to unravel the truth from the lies he was taught by his teachers and the deceptions he saw in books. They are fabrications based on blind faith and are wrong.
How did Ibn Tufayl dramatize this truth in his Hayy Ibn Yaqzan parable? Hayy, he tells us, was either spontaneously generated on an equatorial island or born like all humans. He was placed in a box while still a baby and put in the ocean to protect him from a king who wanted to kill him. The box washed up on the island. There are no predatory animals on the island, so Hayy was safe from attack. A deer found him, fed him her milk, and raised him. Little by little, Hayy grew up, cared for by the deer. He was exceptionally intelligent and learned about nature and how to care for himself. He figured out how to protect his food from animals, how to build a storehouse and a door, and other necessary things.
When the mother deer died, Hayy had difficulty understanding what death was. He cut up her body and came to understand that there was something beyond the physical that is responsible for life. By age twenty-eight, using his intelligence, he figured out that God exists, that “all actions attributed to (everything on earth) were brought about through them by another Being,” and he began to study the heavenly bodies. By age thirty-five, “Hayy found marks of wisdom and divine creativity that exhausted his power of admiration and confirmed his belief that all this could only have a Cause of consummate perfection—beyond perfection… By now thought of this Subject was so deeply rooted in his heart that he could think of nothing else.”
Thus, and this is significant to the understanding of the parable, Hayy attains true knowledge. It is irrelevant that people can argue that it is impossible to attain “true knowledge,” that humans have insufficient brainpower to do so. It is important to realize that this is a parable and that the author is saying Hayy attained this goal. Ibn Tufayl then spends about a dozen pages telling us how this “true understanding” shapes Hayy’s behavior. This is interesting, but what is important is that Hayy, who attains “true understanding,” also encounters the “true religion.”
In the parable, the “true religion” exists in an island close to Hayy. The “true religion (is) based on the teachings of a certain ancient prophet… Now the practice in this religion (as it is in all religions) was to represent all reality in symbols.”
Two “fine young men of ability and high principle” grow up on this island: Absal and Salaman. Both study the religion and both accept it “enthusiastically. Both hold themselves duty-bound to abide by all its laws and precepts for living.” But Absal “was the more deeply concerned with getting down to the heart of things, the more eager to discover spiritual values, and the readier to attempt a more or less allegorical interpretation” rather than accepted the religion’s teachings literally. But Salaman, like most religious people today, “was more anxious to preserve the literal and less prone to seek subtle intensions. On the whole he avoided giving too free rein to his thoughts.”
Absal spends many hours studying, and he wants to find a place where he can seclude himself, delve into the truth underlying the symbolic teachings of the “true religion,” contemplate them, and understand them. He hears about the secluded island where, unbeknownst to him, Hayy is living and studying the truth. He sails there and studies there as he planned.
Hayy sees him and after some time is able to learn Absal’s language and speak to him. Absal tells him about the island where the “true religion” is taught and practiced. Hayy wants to see the island and its people. He hopes that he can learn from these people, so the two sail to the island.
Hayy sees two things that puzzle him. First, why did the prophet of the “true religion,” who knows the truth, “rely for the most part on symbols to portray the divine world, allowing mankind to fall into the grave error of [the truth about God, the functioning of the universe, and reward and punishment] instead of revealing the truth?”
Second, while Hayy is impressed with the religion’s rituals, he can’t understand why the religion doesn’t emphasize that people should spend time studying and understand the unvarnished truth that is hinted at by its symbols. He asks some of the islanders these questions.
Why did he question them? This is Ibn Tufayl’s significant point. It “was his naïve belief that all men (were like him and Absal and) had outstanding character, brilliant minds and resolute spirits. He had no idea how stupid, inadequate, thoughtless, and weak willed they are, ‘like sheep gone astray, only worse.’”
Hayy pities the people and naïvely hopes that he can save and improve them. Absal, who has lived among people and understands them, tries to warn Hayy that his plan cannot work. Not only are the people incapable of understanding the truths behind the symbols they are taught, they will see any attempt to teach them these truths as a threat to their religion, to the very foundations of their lives.
The people listen to Hayy at first. They marvel at his teachings, but “the moment he rose the slightest bit above the literal and began to portray things against which they were prejudiced (against their preconceived superficial notions), they recoiled in horror from his ideas and closed their minds.” They become repulsed, disgusted, and angry: “Their inborn infirmity simply would not allow them” to listen to him speak.
Looking at their faces and listening to their angry comments, Hayy understands that his goal, although important and well-meaning, is impossible. He “understood the human condition” and why he had failed. He now knew that the “sole benefit most people could derive from religion was for this world, in that it helped them lead decent lives without others encroaching on what belonged to them.” Hayy now knew that this was why the prophet could only teach them the symbols of the truth and was unable to encourage them to delve deeper. He recognizes that while the “true religion” cannot teach people the truth, it has an important social value.
So Hayy stops and decides to eliminate the agitation he created. He goes to the people and apologizes. He tells them that he was wrong. He says that he now sees the light and realizes that they are right. He urges them to hold “fast to their observance and all the statutes regulating outward behavior and not delve into things that did not concern them, submissively to accept all the most problematical elements of the tradition and shun originality and innovation, follow in the footsteps of their righteous forbears and leave behind anything modern.”
Then Hayy and Absal leave the island of “true religion,” sail back to the island where Hayy had learnt to truth, and the two men spend their lives there delving into and contemplating that truth.
So, Ibn Tufayl ends his dramatization of what the ancients understood. The vast majority of people cannot be taught the truth and are threatened by it.
Once we know this truth, we realize that we must approach philosophical and other books with the understanding that the author is hiding some things from us.