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Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Abravanel, Judah ben Isaac ?

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Judah ben Isaac Abravanel was born in Lisbon. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Leone, as he was known, and his family migrated to Naples, but fled two years later following the French invasion. After brief residences in various Italian cities, Leone returned to Naples where he served as court physician to the Spanish Viceroy. Well-versed in the sciences of his day, including physics, medicine and philosophy, whether Jewish, Islamic or Christian, he composed his major work, Dialoghi d’amore (Dialogues of Love), in 1501-2. Although the work influenced such important thinkers as Montaigne, Bruno and Spinoza, its main influence was in literature rather than philosophy. Its style resembles that of other Renaissance works in the ambit of Ficino’s commentary on Plato’s Symposium but, unlike these works, it is neither philosophical commentary nor courtly literature. Adopting the idiom of courtly love and drawing on Platonic and Neoplatonic sources, it complements them with mythological, biblical and Aristotelian sources to produce a novel synthesis of Plato and Aristotle with ideas drawn from the pagan and the revealed traditions, aiming to demonstrate that love is the animating principle of the universe and the cause of all existence, divine as well as material. The three dialogues between Philo, the poetic lover, and his beloved Sophia address the relations between love and desire, the universality of love and the origin of love. Each discussion pivots on an apparent opposition between Philo’s Aristotelian and Sophia’s Platonic views. The discussion of the relations between love and desire raises fundamental questions about the relations of soul and body.

 

« Abravanel, Judah ben Isaac (c.1460/5-c.1520/5) Judah ben Isaac Abravanel was born in Lisbon.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Leone, as he was known, and his family migrated to Naples, but fled two years later following the French invasion.

After brief residences in various Italian cities, Leone returned to Naples where he served as court physician to the Spanish Viceroy.

Well-versed in the sciences of his day, including physics, medicine and philosophy, whether Jewish, Islamic or Christian, he composed his major work, Dialoghi d'amore (Dialogues of Love), in 1501-2.

Although the work influenced such important thinkers as Montaigne, Bruno and Spinoza, its main influence was in literature rather than philosophy.

Its style resembles that of other Renaissance works in the ambit of Ficino's commentary on Plato's Symposium but, unlike these works, it is neither philosophical commentary nor courtly literature.

Adopting the idiom of courtly love and drawing on Platonic and Neoplatonic sources, it complements them with mythological, biblical and Aristotelian sources to produce a novel synthesis of Plato and Aristotle with ideas drawn from the pagan and the revealed traditions, aiming to demonstrate that love is the animating principle of the universe and the cause of all existence, divine as well as material.

The three dialogues between Philo, the poetic lover, and his beloved Sophia address the relations between love and desire, the universality of love and the origin of love.

Each discussion pivots on an apparent opposition between Philo's Aristotelian and Sophia's Platonic views.

The discussion of the relations between love and desire raises fundamental questions about the relations of soul and body.

1 Life Son of the well-known Jewish thinker and statesman Isaac Abravanel, Judah ben Isaac Abravanel, known as Leone Ebreo, was born in Lisbon (the Italian Leone rendering the Hebrew Judah, in accordance with custom).

Despite the family's fame, our knowledge of Leone's life is scant and rife with rumour and surmise.

The following is restricted to what is relatively certain.

After serving for years as treasurer to the Portuguese King Alfonso V, Don Isaac Abravanel and his family fled Lisbon for Spain in 1483 when, after Alfonso's death, Don Isaac was accused of conspiring against the new king.

He was soon summoned to the service of Ferdinand and Isabella and raised funds needed in their consolidation of power.

The monarchs none the less decreed the tragic expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

The Abravanel family migrated to Naples but were forced to flee again by the wars following the French invasion of 1494.

After brief residences in various Italian cities, including Genoa, Barletta and Venice, Leone returned to Naples and became court physician to the Spanish Viceroy, Don Gonsalvo de Cordoba.

The last reliable evidence about him is a document dated 1520 exempting 'Master Leon Abarbanel, the physician' and his family from all tribute in recognition of his services to the Viceroy.

He died in Naples at some time between 1520 and 1525.

Leone was well-versed in the sciences of his day, including physics, astronomy, medicine and philosophy from the Presocratics to the Renaissance, spanning the Jewish, Christian and Islamic philosophical traditions.

During his sojourns in various Italian cities, he visited the Italian academies, met celebrated Renaissance thinkers and wrote a treatise De Coeli Harmonia (On the Harmony of the Heavens), at the request of Pico della Mirandola (probably the elder Pico, Giovanni, rather than his nephew Gianfracesco, who studied Hebrew under another well-known Jewish thinker, Yohanan Alemmano).

Leone also composed poetry, including an autobiographical Hebrew poem, T'lumah 'al ha-Z'man (A Plaint on Time).

2 History and structure of Dialoghi d'amore Uncertainties and controversies surround Leone's famous work, but by the author's own testimony, it was written in 5262 of the Hebrew calendar, that is, 1501/2.

It was published in 1535 at Rome, when Leone's friend Mariano Lenzi 'rescued the work from the shades in which it was buried'.

It first appeared in Italian, but the language of its original composition is disputed.

Spanish, Ladino and Hebrew have their advocates, all more or less nationalistic in their motives and all prepared to argue that so erudite an author as Leone Ebreo should exhibit a more elegant style, even in an acquired language, than the published text presents.

The only tangible evidence for a Hispanic original is a single late Ladino manuscript extant in the British Museum.

Arguments for a Hebrew original are based on the presumed Jewish audience of the work, the long delay in its publication, and the survival of different Italian versions.

The desire to claim Leone extends to his religious affiliation.

The title page of the second and third editions of Dialoghi d'amore, describes Leone as Hebrew by nation but Christian by faith, prompting claims that he converted late in life.

But there is no evidence of such a conversion, and the inscription, published in a period of religious intolerance (1541 and 1545), may well be bogus or wishful.

Ironically, in view of the efforts to claim them, Dialoghi d'amore is often dismissed as derivative of the Renaissance Platonist tradition that began with Marsilio Ficino's commentary on Plato's Symposium.

Yet the influence of Dialoghi d'amore extended far wider than Ficino's work.

In the twenty years following its appearance the work had five Italian editions, three Spanish translations, two French translations, and translations into Latin and Hebrew.

It influenced thinkers from Montaigne and Burton to Bruno and Spinoza, whose library contained a Spanish edition.

Its poetic, dialogical style and what may superficially appear as an indiscriminate blending of sources focused its abiding acknowledged influence more in literature than in philosophy.

Dialoghi d'amore comprises three discussions of love as the animating principle of the universe.

Philo is the poetic lover; Sophia, his beloved.

The first dialogue discusses the relations between love and desire; the second the universality of love; the third the origin of love.

The theoretical discussions in each dialogue are framed by a brief preliminary dialogue represented as an actual exchange between lovers, in which Philo voices his desire for Sophia and she critically refuses his seductive attempts to unite with her. The dialogical structure of the text arises from a fundamental difference between two philosophical views about love, broadly stated: (1) that love and desire are essentially the same, since we desire what we love, since love and desire are always for the good, and since genuine desire is based upon knowledge; (2) that love and desire are opposites, since love originates in knowledge of what is and is good, desire in knowledge of what is lacking in being and in goodness.

The first opinion is Philo's and can loosely be called Aristotelian; the second is Sophia's and can be identified as Platonic.

The entire exchange, of course, is an allegory of philosophy.

Philo's desire for Sophia is the philosopher's quest for wisdom, which is human perfection.

The three successive dialogical attempts to resolve an apparently fundamental disagreement between Plato and Aristotle are also attempts to delineate the relations between the human and the divine.

The dialogues progress from the more to the less evident, gaining in abstraction and complexity.

Each later discussion develops the conclusions of what has gone before.

The second discussion is twice as long as the first; the third, over twice as long as the second.

No resolution of the question is presented,. »

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