"…man's love of God is identical with his knowledge of Him."The Guide for the Perplexed
- The Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 51
is the literary masterpiece of Moses Maimonides, perhaps the greatest Jewish thinker of the middle ages if not of all time. The work's historical importance is insured merely by the fact that it was the primary conduit through which the rationalism of Aristotle's philosophy was transmitted from medieval Arabic high culture to Christian theologians such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. In this way Aristotle was reintroduced into the Western culture to which he had been lost for almost a millennium, and it was through the rediscovery of Aristotle that the first seeds of Renaissance humanism and early modern scientific optimism were sown. But the historical, philosophical, and spiritual importance of The Guide for the Perplexed
is so extensive and diverse as to be nearly immeasurable. It is one of the rare perfect jewels of world spiritual literature, a profound and timeless statement of man's relation to himself, to God, and to society. Yet it is simultaneously, as Maimonides acknowledges in his introduction, an intellectual labyrinth, permeated by contradiction. It offers modern readers, like their medieval predecessors, a stiff challenge: do you have the tenacity to penetrate the interrelated paradoxes of The Guide for the Perplexed
, the mind, and the universe in order to join the fortunate few who have glimpsed the ultimate truths of existence
Maimonides lived an eventful life in a time of widespread upheaval. Born Moses ben Maimon in Cordova, Spain, in A.D. 1135 to adistinguished local rabbi, Maimon ben Joseph, and his scandalously lower-class wife, Maimonides was to become widely regarded as a legendary figure during his lifetime. In his youth, Cordova was a flourishing and tolerant center of Islamic culture and its heady blend of Aristotelian philosophy, the latest in the arts and sciences, and a highly comfortable lifestyle infused the thriving Jewish community that Maimonides would later recall with nostalgia. But the freedom of Jews to worship as they pleased was not destined to last. In 1148, the fanatical Islamic sect the Almohades, which demanded of its Jews conversion or exile, conquered Cordova. At first the Maimon family remained in Cordova, outwardly acting as converts to Islam while privately practicing the Jewish faith. But this proved an increasingly insecure way of life, and Moses' family ultimately left its homeland and began a journey, punctuated by temporary residencies in Morocco, Palestine, and Alexandria, that would end in Fostat, Egypt. Amazingly, Maimonides continued studying throughout this period of transience and even wrote the majority of his first monumental study of Jewish law, Commentary on the Torah
. His life, however, had changed into one of persistent hardship. Shortly after settling in Fostat, his father died. Several years later, his beloved half-brother, who operated the family's jewelry business alone so that Maimonides could devote his talents exclusively to his studies, died in a shipwreck that consumed the family's entire savings. Maimonides - now nearly forty years old - suddenly became responsible for his and his brother's households and required a financially viable career. Though eligible for support by his community in exchange for his services as rabbi, Maimonides chose to practice medicine - a field he had mastered solely to satisfy his intellectual curiosity. His reputation as an excellent doctor spread quickly, and in 1187 he was appointed court physician by the vizier of the sultan, Saladin.
Despite his time-consuming new obligations, Maimonides continued studying and writing. In 1180, he completed an unimaginably comprehensive synthesis of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah
. Many contemporary Jewish authorities believed Maimonides overstepped the boundaries of acceptable commentary in this controversial work by presuming to settle, under his own authority, questions that only prophets were qualified to answer definitively. Nevertheless, given the paucity of noteworthy Jewish thinkers in the Islamic and Christian regions of Europe, North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean, few could argue with the fact that Maimonides' authority was becoming increasingly secure. His advice was sought by laypeople and religious leaders throughout the region, and ultimately he was officially named "nagid," or leader of the Egyptian Jewish community. Severely overworked for the remainder of his life, Maimonides continued writing prolifically, answering countless religious and legal inquiries, compiling medical treatises that would remain definitive for centuries, and, in 1190, publishing the summation of his philosophical and religious studies, The Guide for the Perplexed
. But his health inevitably declined under the strain of his endless official duties. In later life he suffered from exhaustion and a weak heart, and, in 1204, he died a frail old man.
Due to a dearth of intellectually stimulating companions in Egypt, Maimonides made efforts to meet any learned colleagues. It was as a result of one such fortuitous meeting that The Guide for the Perplexed
was written. A young scholar, Joseph ben Aknin, approached Maimonides for instruction and Maimonides consented to teach him. Maimonides' method was slow and deliberate - math and science had to be mastered before metaphysics could be approached - and Ibn Aknin wanted to learn hastily. Nonetheless, the two grew close, and when Ibn Aknin was forced to relocate before completing his course of instruction, Maimonides worried that his student had mastered enough philosophy to question his religious beliefs, but not enough to recognize that the highest truths of philosophy and religion are compatible. "Perplexed" by apparent opposition between the truths of reason and revelation, Ibn Aknin would, Maimonides feared, become alienated from Judaism. Thus Maimonides composed The Guide for the Perplexed
"to enlighten a religious man who. . .has been successful in his philosophical studies" and "finds it difficult to accept as correct the teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Law." The book quickly aroused widespread interest and mixed reactions, but Maimonides was apparently unmoved by the attention or criticism. He was satisfied that the readers for whom the book was intended would "derive much benefit from every chapter." The Guide for the Perplexed
was written in clear and, for the most part, non-technical Arabic. Maimonides' prose is forceful and direct. Nevertheless, the work is puzzling. Simply reading it like any book, from beginning to end, is insufficient to give one an understanding of it. As one makes one's way through the chapters, one finds an account of the complimentary truths of philosophy and Judaism, but one also encounters contradictions that seem to go unresolved. After finishing the book, the dilemmas raised in the reader's mind begin to point to a different way of understanding the book's topics than the one explicitly presented. These topics seem designed to shake loose from their moorings in the book's structure and to realign in an alternative order that the book implies but never articulates. The reason for this is that Maimonides believed the highest wisdom could not be imparted to everyone alike. The majority, he thought, would never devote sufficient effort to understanding it and would likely abuse what little they grasped. Maimonides felt no disdain for the general public - he spent his mature life in its service - he merely believed his knowledge could only benefit the majority if it was aimed at their level. Thus The Guide for the Perplexed
is written so that the casual reader will get something genuinely useful from the letter of the text while seekers of the highest wisdom will find it hidden between the lines.
Like Maimonides' student, Ibn Aknin, readers today wish to know immediately the most profound truths Maimonides possessed. Thus they may be discouraged to read that The Guide for the Perplexed
is written in such a way "that the truths should be at one time apparent, and at another time concealed." They may also be displeased to find Maimonides' admission that the contradictions in the book are purposeful and, given the topic, necessary. Such readers may justifiably wonder how to approach this renowned and influential work if it is intentionally obscure.
One way is to take a cue from Maimonides' own statements. In his introduction he writes, "if a person, who has attained a certain degree of perfection, wishes to impart to others. . .the knowledge which he has acquired. . ., he is utterly unable to be. . .systematic…. For this reason, great theological scholars gave instruction in all such matters only by means of metaphors and allegories." In this light it seems significant that Maimonides places near the end of his work an allegory, the striking nature of which has caused the passage containing it to be ranked among his most famous. A brief examination of the chapter containing this allegory will illuminate the main themes of The Guide for the Perplexed
and offer a preliminary insight into the interrelated message and function of Maimonides' great intellectual cipher.
Chapter 51 begins: "The present chapter. . .is a kind of conclusion. . .it will explain in what manner those worship God who have obtained a true knowledge concerning God; it will direct them how to come to that worship which is the highest aim man can attain…." Maimonides' famous allegory follows:
A king is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly in the country and partly abroad. Of the former, some have their backs turned towards the king's palace, and their faces in another direction; and some are desirous and zealous to go to the palace. . .but have not yet seen even the face of the wall of the house. Of those that desire to go to the palace, some reach it, and go round about in search of the entrance gate; others have passed through the gate, and walk about in the ante-chamber, and others have succeeded in entering into the inner part of the palace, and being in the same room with the king in the royal palace. But even the latter do not immediately on entering the palace see the king, or speak to him; for, after having entered the inner part of the palace, another effort is required before they can stand before the king - at a distance or close by - hear his words or speak to him.
Maimonides proceeds to explain the spiritual capacities of each group named, but what interests us here is the description of those who finally "stand before the king." Of them Maimonides states: "those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who have a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained. . .have reached the goal."
These quoted passages are pregnant with the implications of Maimonides' fusion of Aristotelian rationalism with Judaism. To begin to understand how to enter the company of "the king" is to begin to unlock the secrets of The Guide for the Perplexed
For Maimonides, knowledge gained through Aristotle's philosophy does not lead away from true knowledge of God. Rather, it assists one in delineating the limits of possible rational knowledge concerning God and thereby helps one recognize the false or metaphorical nature of most religious ideas. The cornerstone of Maimonides' integration of Aristotelian rationalism and biblical Judaism is their shared affirmation of the truth of monotheism. Using several arguments, Aristotle claimed to have proven rationally that there was one first cause of the universe (i.e., God). Maimonides leaves these proofs essentially unchallenged, but when it comes to Aristotle's characterizations of God and his activities, Maimonides claims Aristotle runs afoul of reason. Maimonides accepts Aristotle's view that God must be a simple unity and, therefore, that nothing positive can be affirmed of Him, because in affirming His possession of various
qualities, one implicitly denies His simplicity and unity. From this it follows, Maimonides argues, that Aristotle's positive characterization of God as passive and impersonal violates his own restrictions on meaningful language usage. In this way Maimonides establishes the possibility
that the actively creative and personal God of Jewish revelation - rather than the abstract God of Greek philosophy - belongs atop Aristotle's rational system of thought.
A consistent thread running throughout Maimonides' treatment of this and many other themes in The Guide for the Perplexed
is his insistence, following Aristotle, that reason provides secure knowledge only of mathematics and earthly things apprehended by our senses. We can logically extrapolate from this knowledge ideas concerning metaphysical reality, but these are merely speculative possibilities. Reason, for Maimonides, demonstrates its own limits, and this fact is of the greatest religious importance because a rational understanding of both the truths of religion and the limits of reason is essential to grasping the necessity of revelation for the advancement of human morality and spirituality. Rational thought, according to Maimonides, is the primary means whereby God prepares man to receive His inspiration. Thus the man who perfects his intellect through the pursuit of a rational proof "for everything that can be proved" prepares himself to receive as much of God's truth as possible - truth that is identical with the deep meaning of the Bible once the latter's symbolism has been rationally decoded.
Solving the puzzle of The Guide for the Perplexed
thus means recognizing that it is more than a book. It is an instrument of contemplation meant to function as a pathway to the highest rational knowledge concerning God and thereby as a preparation for the reception of divine inspiration and the experience of the presence of the Lord. In this light the advice Maimonides gives his readers in chapter 51 becomes clear: "When you have arrived by way of intellectual research at a knowledge of God and his works, then commence to devote yourself to Him, try to approach Him and strengthen the intellect, which is the link that joins you to Him…. [R]educe the hours which you spend in other occupations and during which you are not striving to come near unto Him. This instruction suffices for the object of this treatise
." In other words, the goal of The Guide for the Perplexed
is to enable readers to approach God by facilitating their cultivation of their capacity for reason. If Maimonides has achieved his extraordinarily ambitious objective with this work, then continually reading, rereading, and contemplating the philosophical arguments and logical dilemmas of The Guide for the Perplexed
should be sufficient to bring one into "the inner palace" and the presence of "the king." The book's enduring influence testifies to the fact that throughout history at least some readers have found this to be so. David Taffel
is the author of Nietzsche Unbound: The Struggle for Spirit in the Age of Science
and managing editor of The Conversationalist,
a global news and culture website. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Graduate Faculty of the New School University where his dissertation was awarded the Hans Jonas Memorial Prize for Philosophy.