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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

David Yellin and Israel Abrahams

Jewish Publication Society of America
Philadelphia, 1903

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 11

 p160  Chapter X
"The Guide of the Perplexed"

In all his previous works Maimonides had touched upon philosophical questions. He held that the Scriptures were not only a guide to conduct, but that they contained, enveloped in a more or less allegorical wrapping, the essence of all metaphysical truth. If the ordinary Jew had lost hold of this metaphysic, it was because "barbarians deprived us of our possessions, put an end to our science and literature, killed our wise men, and thus we have become ignorant" (Guide, II, c. XI). Maimonides more than once makes this claim, and Jewish authors have not been the only ones to maintain that Greek Philosophy was derivative from Hebraic inspiration.72 Even Aristotle, the legend  p161 goes, accompanied his pupil Alexander the Great to Jerusalem, and obtaining possession of the original works of King Solomon, utilised them in developing his own system. Though, however, Maimonides contended that philosophy was the heritage of Israel, he had, in his treatment of such subjects in his earlier books, never forgotten that to the generality even of learned readers the technique of metaphysics was strange. He now felt that he also owed a duty to a class of students other than "unlettered tyros," and in whom a "previous knowledge of logic and natural philosophy" might be presupposed (Introd.). "My theory aims at pointing out a straight way, at casting up a high-road. Ye who have gone astray in the field of the Holy Law, come hither and follow the path which I have prepared. The unclean and the fool shall not pass over it. It shall be the Way of Holiness."73

 p162  That "Metaphysics cannot be made popular" is the subject of a whole chapter of the Guide (IXXXIV). Maimonides enumerates five reasons why it is undesirable "to instruct the multitude in pure metaphysics." The subject itself is difficult. "He who can swim may bring up pearls from the depth of the sea; he who cannot swim will be drowned." Again, though every man possesses perfection in potentia, it does not follow that every one can realise this potentiality. Thirdly, the preliminary studies (including geometry, astronomy, physics, and logic) are of long duration, and "man in his natural desire to reach the goal finds them frequently too wearisome. . . . He who approaches metaphysical problems without due preparation is like a man who starts on a journey and falls into a pit. He had better remain at home." But it is not intellectual preliminaries alone that are required. There are, fourthly, moral qualifications,  p163 which include a seasoned integrity, moderation, and humility. Such qualities are incompatible with the heat of youth. Hence a certain age is required before the study of metaphysics is advisable. Finally, most men are too occupied with the concerns of the world to acquire philosophical taste and aptitudes. "For these reasons it was proper that the study of metaphysics should have been exclusively cultivated by privileged persons, and not entrusted to the common people. Such studies are not for the beginner, and he should abstain from them, just as the little child must abstain from solid food and from carrying heavy weights."74

In Joseph Aknin Maimonides felt that he had a disciple worthy of receiving his fullest confidence. He tells Aknin in his Prefatory Epistle: "Your absence has prompted me to compose this treatise for you and for those who are like you, however few they may be." Even so, the  p164 author hesitated very much before writing his Guide for "thinkers whose studies brought them into collision with religion," yet, he adds, "When I find the road narrow, and can see no other way of teaching a well-established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing ten thousand fools, I prefer to address myself to the one man, and to take no notice whatever of the condemnation of the multitude." To Aknin, then, he sent the Guide, chapter by chapter, as he completed each in Arabic. The book was, as the author himself remarks, a supplement to his viva voce lessons to Aknin (II.24). The perplexities to which Maimonides directed himself were not those of sceptics, but of believers; men firm in their religious faith, yet bewildered "on account of the ambiguous and figurative expressions employed in the Scriptures." In a sense the problem before Maimonides was the same that faced the Christian  p165 scholastics, that faces all men who cannot but serve the two masters, Reason and Faith. But the scholastics of the twelfth century took two lines equally far from that taken by Maimonides. Some of them deposed Reason from her throne, and made her the handmaid of Faith. Others simply substituted Athens for Rome, and set up Aristotle in place of the Pope. Maimonides trusted Reason completely, but he rendered no slavish worship to Aristotle. Spinoza accuses him of disingenuousness in asserting that he could always find in Scripture the truths which reason revealed; that, when his philosophy contradicted the plain utterance of the Bible, he would not therefore suspect the former, but would seek for a new interpretation of the latter.75 No doubt Maimonides does confess that he was guided by this principle in his reconciliation of theology with metaphysics. "I do not reject the Eternity of the Universe," says Maimonides  p166 (II.25), "because certain passages in Scripture confirm the creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation." "Those passages in the Bible, which, in their literal sense, contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise." But Maimonides simply perceived that certain passages in Scripture must either be allegorised or pronounced false; he preferred the former to the latter alternative. "Employ your reason," he says (II.47), "and you will be able to discern what is said allegorically, figuratively, and hyperbolically, and what is meant literally, exactly according to the original meaning of the words. You will then understand all prophecies, learn and retain rational principles of faith, pleasing in the eyes of God, who is most pleased with  p167 truth, and most displeased with falsehood; your mind and heart will not be so perplexed as to believe or accept as law what is untrue or improbable, while the Law is perfectly true when properly understood." (Very much of Maimonides' allegorising is, let it be noted, based on perfectly sound exegesis. "Every prophet has his own peculiar diction" (II.29) is a true generalisation.) But how comes it that that the Scriptures need an esoteric explanation? Because the Word of God was designed for all men, for simple believers as well as for men whose faith was reinforced by philosophy. The Bible has its message for both. On the one hand, in Rabbinic phrase, "The Law speaks the language of man," and its object is to serve for the instruction "of the young, of women, and of the common people." But, on the other hand, "Faith consists in inmost conviction, not in mere utterances. . . . Faith is apprehension by the  p168 soul" (I.50). It is possible even for men "to declare the Unity with their lips, and assume plurality in their hearts," if their reason has not come to the aid of their faith by philosophically analysing the meaning of Unity. "Show me thy way that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight" (Exod. xxxiii.13), said Moses; and Maimonides comments thus: "We learn from these words that God is known by His attributes, for Moses believed that he knew Him, when he was shown the ways of God. The words, 'that I may know thee,' etc., imply that he who knows God will find grace in His eyes. Not only is he acceptable and welcome to God who fasts and prays, but every one who acquires a knowledge of Him" (I.54). Maimonides believed, but with the mind as well as the heart. "In this manner," he concludes one of his characteristic allegorisations, "will those understand the dark sayings of the prophets  p169 who desire to understand them, who awake from the sleep of forgetfulness, deliver themselves from the sea of ignorance, and raise themselves upward nearer to higher things. But those who prefer to swim in the waters of their ignorance, and to go down very low, need not exert the body or heart; they need only cease to move and they will go down by the law of nature" (II.10). If this was the scholastic attitude, it was the attitude of Erigena rather than of Abelard. Maimonides was not a reconciler of two distinct bodies of truths — he was a unifier. Reason and Faith taught one truth. And though we may now differ from Maimonides in our reading of the message delivered on the one hand by revelation, and on the other by reason, we have still to thank him for introducing into Judaism the spirit of fearless intellectual freedom wedded to severe moral discipline. It is sometimes amusing and even painful to observe the  p170 desire of Maimonides to read his own thoughts into ancient books. "Consider," he remarks in one place (I.70), "how these excellent and true ideas, comprehended by the greatest philosophers, are found scattered in the Midrashim." Yet it was impossible for a man to go further in defiance of mere authority than he did, unless he was prepared like Spinoza to discard authority altogether.76

This favourable view of the attitude of Maimonides is confirmed by his relations to Aristotle. Strange as the statement may appear with reference to a schoolman and Aristotelian, no man was ever less a slave to prejudice and preconceptions than he essentially (though not consistently) was. In several passages his indignation breaks out against the men who dare to assert nothing for which they cannot quote chapter and verse. Observe, for instance, his relations to the Arabian Mutakallemim — the Philosophers of the  p171 Kalam, or Word — with whom he held important points in common. He differed from them in rejecting the atomic theory, the impossibility of the existence of substance without accidents, the denial of the infinite, the untrustworthiness of the senses. Against all of these doctrines he protested vigorously and successfully. But when he agreed with the exponents of the Kalam as he did on the question of Creation (he, with them, holding the Creatio ex nihilo against Aristotle, who maintained the Eternity of the Universe), such agreement with the Mutakallemim does not moderate his onslaught upon their method, for it is their method rather than their results which he is determined to demolish. They made the existence of God dependent on Creation; and thus Aristotelians denying Creation would thereby overthrow the doctrine of the existence of God. Maimonides accordingly prefers to adopt for argument's sake the belief  p172 in the eternity of the universe, and to prove on that basis the existence and unity of God; he then returns on his premise, and proves Creation. If the latter is admitted, the existence of God follows, for a Creation presupposes a Creator. It may well be that Maimonides was partly led to follow this course by a latent sense that his proofs of Creation were but imperfectly conclusive. But his opposition to the method of the Kalam must be given in his own words, for it will be clearly seen that the utterer of these remarks was no ordinary scholastic. His hostility to the Mutakallemim arose because "first of all they considered what must be the properties of things which should yield proof for or against a certain creed; and when this was found, they asserted that the thing must be endowed with these properties. . . . They found in ancient books strong proofs for the acceptance or rejection of certain opinions,  p173 and thought there was no further need to discuss them" (I.71). Maimonides did not accept the Ptolemaic astronomy as final or perfect (II.24). With regard to Aristotle, the revolt of Maimonides is even more remarkable. He differs from him on the Creation controversy, but more than that. He casts ridicule on those "who blindly follow" the Greek philosopher — who "consider it wrong to differ from Aristotle, or to think that he was ignorant or mistaken in anything" (II.15). It would be difficult to match this independence in other schoolmen of his age, and hence it is that despite the obsolete nature of many of the problems to which Maimonides directs himself in the Guide, his treatise breathes a modern spirit, or rather a spirit which responds to the intellectual necessities of all ages.

It would be unprofitable to offer a full analysis of the contents of the Guide. The spirit of the book is immortal, but much  p174 of its actual content is obsolete. Thus one of the main objects of the work is to explain certain terms occurring in the Bible, to bring its anthropomorphic expressions into relation with the true theory of the nature of God. Mohammedan critics had energetically attacked Judaism on this ground, urging that its conception of God was degraded by the application of corporeal attributes to Him.77 The true reply to this, that the Bible enshrines expressions dating from different strata of religious belief, and that the final message of the Hebrew Scriptures is to be found in its highest and purest ideas, not in its more primitive and popular phraseology, was impossible to Maimonides and his age, though it is remarkable how near Maimonides approached to the modern view in some points. Early Jewish philosophers and theologians had explained these corporeal expressions as figurative, but Maimonides is not satisfied  p175 with this: he attempts to assign to each of them some definite metaphysical meaning. Thus the narrative of Adam's sin is interpreted as an allegorical exposition of the relations between Sensation, Intellect, and the Moral Faculty. Adam originally possessed in perfection the intellectual faculty by which he distinguished between the true and the false qualities inherent in the things themselves. His sin lowered this intellectual faculty, and his passions being no longer under its control, the moral idea of good and evil replaced the intellectual contrast of true and false; for morality restrains the desires and appetites, which only come into play when the supremacy of the intellect is weakened or overthrown. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, represent the intellect, the body, and the imagination. Adam's three sons typify the three elements in man the vegetable, the animal, and the intellectual. Abel and Cain perish, but  p176 Seth (the intellect) survives and forms the basis of the human race (II.30, 31).

Maimonides proceeds to show, soundly enough, that ordinary men consider matter or body the only true and full existence; that which is neither itself a body nor a force resident in a body, is to such men non-existent and inconceivable. Again, life is commonly identified with motion, although motion is not a part of the essence but a mere accident of life. Perception, again, is the most conspicuous means of acquiring knowledge. Especially is this true of sight and hearing, while language is the only mode of communication between one mind and another. Hence, says Maimonides, the God of the Bible who "rides on araboth" (i.e. presides over the highest sphere of immaterial things), and is identical with the Primal Cause and Ever-active Intellect of the philosophers — this God is described in Scripture as acting, seeing, hearing,  p177 and speaking, and even the organs by which those functions are performed in man are ascribed to Him; for in man those functions are perfections, and they are predicated of God because we wish to assert His perfection. Yet Attributes are, according to Maimonides, utterly in applicable to God. We cannot even predicate his essence; we can only assert that he exists. No definition of God is possible per genus et differentiam, since these are the causes of the existence of anything so defined, and God is the final cause. Even Unity is inadmissible as an accident to God; God is One, but does not possess the attribute of Unity. To say in the usual meaning of the term that God is One, is to imply that His essence is susceptible of quantity; that, as metaphysics is forced to employ inadequate language, in order to assert that God does not include a plurality, we declare that He is One. Hence, since only negative attributes  p178 are admissible, and since these are infinite in number, there is no possibility of obtaining a knowledge of the true essence of God. Yet, paradoxically enough, Maimonides holds that the greater the number of the negative attributes one can rationally assign, the nearer one has reached to a knowledge of God.78

This leads us to consider an important part of Maimonides' philosophy, viz., the meaning of communication between God and man. In passing at once to his theory of prophecy, we are omitting his proofs of the Existence of God. For the latter purpose, he enunciates (Part II) twenty-six propositions, which are an admirable summary of the Aristotelian metaphysics. He holds these propositions inadequate, and proceeds to adduce his own proofs for the existence of an "infinite, incorporeal, and uncompounded Primal Cause. The series of causes for every change is finite, and terminates in the Primal  p179 Cause." This remains the most acceptable proof of the existence of God. Again, as regards Creatio ex nihilo. The Universe is a living, organic being, of which the earth is the centre. There are obvious points of contact between this view and modern scientific theory, a view which is as far from materialism on the one hand as from Pantheism on the other. Over and over again Maimonides, amid the most obsolete of medieval metaphysics, strikes an eternally vital chord. He continues to argue that all life and change in the Universe depend upon the revolutions of the Spheres, each of which has its Soul and Intellect (the Scriptural Angels are identical with the Intellects of the Spheres). This well accords with Aristotle, but Maimonides parts company with his master when there are holds that these Spheres and Intellects co-exist with the Primal Cause. Faithful to the Scriptural view, Maimonides maintains that  p180 the Spheres and their Intellects had a beginning, and were brought into existence by the will of the Creator. He derives the doctrine of Creatio ex nihilo from this theory as to the creation of the spheres. "Admitting that the great variety of the things in the sublunary world can be traced to those immutable laws which regulate the influence of the spheres on the beings below, the variety in the spheres can only be explained as the result of God's free will."79

As to the divine communication with man (II.32 seq.), Maimonides agrees with the Platonic or general Greek view that prophecy, or attainment of direct knowledge of the truth, is a natural faculty of men which may be reached by all who submit to the necessary preparation, and who can raise themselves to the requisite intellectual and moral perfection. Maimonides endeavours to show that this is also the view of the Bible, but he is not  p181 successful in the attempt, and most of his Jewish successors have severely attacked him on this point. He seeks to anticipate obvious objections by declaring that men duly qualified may be withheld from prophecy by the will of God. But in reply to this one must urge that according to Scripture the will of God is the regular and normal condition for acquiring the prophetic spirit. Prophecy, in the view of Maimonides, is an emanation through the Active Intellect to man's rational and imaginative faculty, i.e. the faculty of receiving sense-impressions, and retaining and combining images of them. The latter part of the faculty is most active in dreams, which differ from prophetic vision in degree and not in kind. The imagination (in the psychological meaning of the term) acquires such an efficiency in its action that it regards the image as if it came from without, and as if it were perceived through the bodily senses.  p182 Granted that a man possesses a brain and body in perfect health, that his passions are pure and well balanced, that his thoughts are engaged in lofty matters, that his attention is directed to the knowledge of God — such a man must be a prophet. If he be of the highest order, his imagination will represent things not previously perceived by the senses, which his intellect will have been perfect enough to comprehend. Maimonides' view seems to come to this, that prophecy does not differ essentially from ordinary intellection: perception is always the result of a divine influence, and prophecy is that state of intellection in which the preliminary sense-perception is more or less dispensed with; in a word, when the divine influence, by acting immediately on the perfect intellect, is (psychologically speaking) represented by the perfect imagination, without the intermediation of the faulty and defective senses.

 p183  By this and other original conceptions, too technical to reproduce here, Maimonides introduced a fresh spirit into Jewish theology. God was realised in thought as in action; and the Law of God became at once a guide to conduct, and a rational bond between the human and the divine. In the third part of the Guide Maimonides insists again and again that the purpose of the Law is man's perfection. "The well-being of the soul is promoted by correct opinions. . . . the well-being of the body is established by a proper control of the relations of practical life." The Law aims at producing this "double perfection" of man. In his investigation of the origins of certain precepts of the Law, Maimonides adopts a modern standpoint: his importance in the scientific study of religion has not yet been fully realised. There are few parallels in the twelfth century to his interest in other forms of religion, his appreciation of the  p184 value of primitive ideas in explaining the developed theology of Israel. He is less admirable in his attempt to derive the food laws of the Pentateuch from hygienic and medical principles, for his theory explains only a part of the facts. Whatever the primitive origin of the dietary code, it is, in the Pentateuch, a detail of the great law of "holiness," which includes within its range both spirit and body, and makes for that very "double perfection" of which Maimonides himself speaks in other connections. No part of the Guide, again, led to more controversy than his theory as to Sacrifices80 (III chs. XXXII and XLVI). Here Maimonides collects many facts as to sacrificial rites among other peoples, proves the general prevalence and affection for this method of worship, and argues that in the Pentateuch sacrifices were a concession rather than an ordinance. "It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God,  p185 as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used. It would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name that we should not pray to Him, nor fast, nor seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought and not by any action" (III.XXXII). This is the theory of Maimonides, the individual thinker. It is not inconsistency, still less dishonesty, that made Maimonides, as a codifier, include in his Mishneh-Torah the restoration of the Sacrifices among the tenets of traditional Judaism.

Apart, then, from any specific contributions to religious thought, the Guide is  p186 a permanent influence in Judaism, an influence entirely for good. True, every age has its own perplexities, and needs its own Guide. But the spirit of Maimonides may help us now as it helped sympathetic souls in the twelfth century. The scholastic theory that spirit and mind are one, that God reveals Himself in nature, in man, and in His Word, that philosophy and faith lead equally to truth and to the same truth, that religion to be a force in life must satisfy its intellectual as well as its moral and emotional necessities, that he lives unto God who lives unto truth, — this great and abiding conception finds its culmination in the Guide of Maimonides. All further development in Judaism starts with and from the Guide. Its logic may no longer satisfy, its metaphysics no longer suffice, but its spirit must be with us if we would serve God as He would be served, if the knowledge of God is to fill the earth as the waters cover the  p187 seas. "The highest kind of worship," says Maimonides as he approaches the end of his treatise, "is only possible when the knowledge of God has been acquired. . . . The fear of God is produced by the practices prescribed in the Law; the love of God is the result of the truths taught in the Law. . . . That perfection in which man can truly glory is attained by him when — as far as this is possible for man — he has acquired the knowledge of God, of His providence. . . . With this knowledge to help him he will determinedly seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus imitate the ways of God. . . . May He grant us, and all Israel with us to attain that which He promised us: 'The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped'; 'the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined'  p188 (Isaiah xxxv.5; ix.2)." Then, as though to show that this light, far from being the privilege of the philosophical few, may after all enter into the heart of all men, Maimonides closes the Guide with these words:—

"God is near to all that call upon Him, if they call upon Him in truth, and turn to Him. He is found by every one who seeks Him, if he, the seeker, goes steadfastly towards Him, nor ever turns astray. Amen."

The Authors' Notes:

72 Philo, Josephus, Eusebius (Prep. Ev. IX.3), and Arab authors all repeat this theory. See the references in Buxtorff (end of his edition of the Cusari), Munk (Mélanges, p466), and Jellinek (in Contros Havichuach). These facts are collected by Harkavy, Appendix to Hebrew Graetz, IV p57.

73 These sentences are aptly used by Dr. Friedländer as the motto to his translation of the Guide. See next note.

74 The quotations from the Guide are mostly derived from Dr. Friedländer's English translation (London, 1881‑85). The original Arabic, Dalalat al ʽhaïrin, was published with a French translation by Munk (Paris, 1850‑1866), his work being entitled Le Guide des Égarés. The Arabic MSS. of the Guide are enumerated by Dr. Friedländer, op. cit. III p. ix seq. The Guide is mostly cited by its Hebrew title, Moreh Nebuchim.

75 Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, ch. VII, severely criticises the principle of Maimonides. "Harmful, useless, absurd," he terms it, but it is clear that he did not fully realise the inwardness of the theory that he was denouncing.

76 Several passages in this account of the Guide are repeated from an article by I. Abrahams in Mind, XI p97 seq. The reader is referred to the same article for some further discussions of Maimonides' logical method.

77 For an interesting illustration of this see Hirschfeld, Mohammedan Criticism of the Bible (Jewish Quarterly Review, XIII p222 seq.).

78 On the philosophical import of Maimonides' theory of the divine attributes see Kaufmann, Geschichte der Attributenlehre in der jüdischen Religionsphilosophie des Mittelalters, 1877, p428 seq.

79 Friedländer, Analysis, Guide, vol. I p. lxv.

80 Nachmanides opposed this view strongly. See Friedländer, ad loc.

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