In this excerpt from The Philosopher Responds: An Intellectual Correspondence from the Tenth Century, the litterateur Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥidī asks the philosopher Abū ʿAlī Miskawayh why opposites seem to attract, and Miskawayh offers a response on the nature of and reasons for affection.
On why friendship arises between apparently dissimilar individuals—a volitional and ethical question
Why does reciprocal affection arise between two individuals who do not resemble each other in external appearance, are dissimilar in physical build, and do not dwell in physical proximity, so, say, one hails from the city of Farghānah, the other from Tāhart, one is tall and well-built, the other short and unattractively diminutive, one is lean and meager, the other sturdy and tough, one is hirsute and covered in thick hair, the other smooth and with very little hair, one is more tongue-tied than Bāqil, the other more eloquent than Saḥbān Wāʾil, one is more generous than a rain cloud after a lightning storm, the other more avaricious than a dog nursing a fleshless bone it toiled to secure, so that the divergence and discordance between the two provoke the spectator and inquirer to wonder?
Speaking of divergence and discordance, what are they, and what are amity and concord? Indeed, you notice these individuals continually involved in relations of give and take, honesty and fidelity, agreement and loyalty, contraction and growth, while sharing no common faith, joint opinion, uniting condition, or comparable nature. Such reciprocal affection does not obtain exclusively between males, but between males and females, and also between females. If we expand our remit, we can see a number of different permutations. The relationship may extend over time, or may be curtailed, with some lasting forever, while others endure for no longer than a month, maybe even less than a month. Perhaps most remarkable is when it creates enmity and rancor, envy and hatred, as if this very reciprocal affection were reciprocal antipathy, and heinous and uncommon atrocities are generated, including the destruction of wealth, be it ancestral or recently acquired, and the premature end of lives. Sometimes the enmity spreads to the children, as if it formed part of their inheritance—sometimes it grows even fiercer than it was among the parents. This is a difficult subject that gives free rein to wonder, and the causes are obscure. In this day and age, one seldom meets a mind keen to inquire into its mysteries and fervent about investigating its ambiguities. Yet what a relief it would be if those with no interest in such nuggets of wisdom left off incriminating with their calumnies those of us who try to unearth them!
The causes of the friendships that arise between people divide into two high-level categories, namely, essential causes and accidental causes. Each of these subdivides into further categories, and the categories that pertain to amicable relations also apply to the causes of hostile relations. By understanding one of the two opposite terms one can understand the other, as the categories of the one mirror the categories of the other. The essential cause of relations of affection is powerful and stable and, if it extends over time, does not change and endures so long as the individuals do. It is an affinity between two substances stemming either from the specific constitutive elements of their mixture or from the soul and nature. An affinity that stems from the elemental mixture might be found between two human beings or between two beasts. For a likeness in mixture unites and attracts like beings to each other without the operation of any intention, reflection, or choice, a phenomenon one encounters among many types of beasts, birds, and insects. Similarly, one encounters relations of hostility and antipathy between mixtures that lie far apart from one another without the operation of any intention, reflection, or choice. If you reflect on this, you will find that there are more cases than can be counted.
If we go up a level, from mixtures to simple elements, we encounter the same phenomenon—I mean likeness and love, and antipathy and hostility. We are all familiar with the antipathy and animosity between water and fire, and with the way each element flees the other and strives to keep its distance from it, and also with the way each inclines to its own kind, seeking out its like to join itself to. If a harmoniously related mixture with a congruent composition is added, the cause becomes manifest and grows stronger, as it does in the case of magnets and iron and between the two vinegar stones—I mean the one attracted to, and the one repelled by, vinegar. The instances of this principle are so obvious among animals that they do not require detailed enumeration, making our response longer. If the agreement between two bodies by virtue of their substance and specific mixture necessitates affection, it is all the more fitting that agreement between two souls should also necessitate it, if there is affinity and likeness between them.
There are many accidental causes of affection, and some are stronger than others. One such cause is habit and familiarity. The second is benefit, or the supposition of benefit. The third is pleasure, the fourth hope, the fifth crafts and practical ends, the sixth doctrinal affiliations and opinions, and the seventh partisanship. The length of time one of these relations lasts is determined by how long the cause abides. Examples of relations of affection based on benefit are the relations between subordinates or servants and their masters, between business partners and merchants, and between those pursuing profit and those pursuing financial gain. Examples that are based on pleasure are the relations between men and women—though this also involves the affection based on benefit and the affection based on hope, hence its strength and tenacity—and the relations between lovers, between those who eat or drink or travel in each other’s company, and the like. Examples of relations of affection based on expectation and hope abound, and perhaps the affection of parents toward their children contains an element of that. For when hope disappears and despair takes hold, parents withdraw from children, affection disappears, and hatred develops. The affection experienced by children is based on benefit, and additionally comes to be based in familiarity. I am certainly not saying that the causes I mentioned as being at work in the affection of parents are exhaustive, for there are other, natural, causes in operation; but there is a large share of this element involved. There are many obvious examples of relations based on crafts and practical purposes—so evident as not to require separate treatment. Examples of relations based on religious creeds and partisan loyalties are equally plain and evident.
These categories range themselves under the beastly, irascible, and rational powers of the soul. Those that derive from an affinity and likeness between the growing and beastly souls yield the causes of affection for pleasure or benefit. Those that result from a likeness in the irascible soul yield the causes of affection for victory, such as hunting parties, military expeditions, and the other partisan activities in which the irascible power is in operation. The ones that derive from an affinity and likeness in the rational soul yield affection for religion and doctrinal views. These may be found in compound or in isolation. The relation of affection is stronger when they enter into compounds and the causes multiply. The relation of affection is weaker when they appear in isolation, and the length of its duration also depends on this. The isolated accidental causes that derive from the rational soul are the strongest, followed by those that derive from the irascible soul. You can study and clarify the particulars on your own, so that my response does not violate the condition of synoptic presentation. When their causes disappear, so do these relations—none of them endures indefinitely apart from those based on what is substantial and essential, whether in the soul or in nature.