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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Moses Maimonides (1135–1204)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Rabbi Gottheil
 
“THE CONCLUSION of the whole matter is, Go either to the right, my heart, or go to the left; but believe all that Rabbi Moses ben Maimon has believed,—the last of the Gaonim [religious teachers] in time, but the first in rank.” In such manner did the most celebrated Jewish poet in Provence voice in his quaint way the veneration with which the Jewish Aristotle of Cordova was regarded. For well-nigh four hundred years, the descendants of Isaac had lived in the Spanish Peninsula the larger life opened up to them by the sons of Ishmael. They had with ardor cultivated their spiritual possessions—the only ones they had been able to save—as they passed through shipwreck and all manner of ill fortune from the fair lands of the East. The height of their spiritual fortune was manifested in this second Moses, whom they did not scruple to compare with the first bearer of that name.  1
  Abu Amram Musa ibn Ibrahim Ubeid Allah, as his full Arabic name ran, was born in the city of Cordova, “the Mecca of the West,” on March 30th, 1135. His father was learned in Talmudic lore; and from him the young student must have gotten his strong love of knowledge. At an early period he developed a taste for the exact sciences and for philosophy. He read with zeal not only the works of the Mohammedan scholastics, but also those of the Greek philosophers in such dress as they had been made accessible by their Arabian translators. In this way his mind, which by nature ran in logical and systematic grooves, was strengthened in its bent; and he acquired that distaste for mysticism and vagueness which is so characteristic of his literary labors. He went so far as to abhor poetry, the best of which he declared to be false, since it was founded upon pure invention—and this too in a land which had produced such noble expressions of the Hebrew and Arab Muse.  2
  It is strange that this man, whose character was that of a sage, and who was revered for his person as well as for his books, should have led such an unquiet life, and have written his works so full of erudition with the staff of the wanderer in his hand. For his peaceful studies were rudely disturbed in his thirteenth year by the invasion of the Almohades, or Mohammedan Unitarians, from Africa. They not only captured Cordova, but set up a form of religious persecution which happily is not always characteristic of Islamic piety. Maimonides’s father wandered to Almeria on the coast; and then (1159) straight into the lion’s jaws at Fez in Africa,—a line of conduct hardly intelligible in one who had fled for the better exercise of the dictates of conscience. So pressing did the importunities of the Almohad fanatics become, that together with his family Maimonides was compelled to don the turban, and to live for several years the life of an Arabic Marrano. This blot upon his fair fame—if blot it be—he tried to excuse in two treatises, which may be looked upon as his “apologia pro vita sua”: one on the subject of conversion in general (1160), and another addressed to his co-religionists in Southern Arabia on the coming of the Messiah. But the position was an untenable one; and in 1165 we find Maimonides again on the road, reaching Accho, Jerusalem, Hebron, and finally Egypt. Under the milder rule of the Ayyubite Caliphs, no suppression of his belief was necessary. Maimonides settled with his brother in old Cairo or Fostat; gaining his daily pittance, first as a jeweler, and then in the practice of medicine; the while he continued in the study of philosophy and the elaboration of the great works upon which his fame reposes. In 1177 he was recognized as the head of the Jewish community of Egypt, and soon afterwards was placed upon the list of court physicians to Saladin. He breathed his last on December 13th, 1204, and his body was taken to Tiberias for burial.  3
  Perhaps no fairer presentation of the principles and practices of Rabbinical Judaism can be cited than that contained in the three chief works of Maimonides. His clear-cut mind gathered the various threads which Jewish theology and life had spun since the closing of the Biblical canon, and wove them into such a fabric that a new period may fitly be said to have been ushered in. The Mishnah had become the law-book of the Diaspora: in it was to be found the system of ordinances and practices which had been developed up to the second century A.D. In the scholastic discussions in which the Jewish schoolmen had indulged their wit and their ingenuity, much of its plain meaning had become obscured. At the age of twenty-three Maimonides commenced to work upon a commentary to this Mishnah, which took him seven years to complete. It was written in Arabic, and very fitly called ‘The Illumination’; for here the philosophic training of its author was brought to bear upon the dry legal mass, and to give it life as well as light. The induction of philosophy into law is seen to even more peculiar advantage in his Mishnah Torah (Repeated Law). The scholastic discussions upon the Mishnah had in the sixth century been put into writing, and had become that vast medley of thought, that kaleidoscope of schoolroom life, which is known by the name of Talmud. Based upon the slender framework of the Mishnah, the vast edifice had been built up with so little plan and symmetry that its various ramifications could only be followed with the greatest difficulty and with infinite exertion. In turn, the Talmud had supplanted the Mishnah as the rule of life and the directive of religious observance. Even before the time of Maimonides, scholars had tried their hand at putting order into this great chaos; but none of their efforts had proved satisfactory. For ten years Maimonides worked and produced this digest, in which he arranged in scientific order all the material which a Jewish jurist and theologian might be called upon to use. Though this digest was received with delight by the Jews of Spain, many were found who looked upon Maimonides’s work as an attempt to crystallize into unchangeable law the fluctuating streams of tradition. The same objection was made to his attempt to formulate into a creed the purely theological ideas of the Judaism of his day. His ‘Thirteen Articles’ brought on a war of strong opposition; and though in the end, the fame of their author conquered a place for them even in the Synagogue Ritual, they were never accepted by the entire Jewry. They remained the presentation of an individual scholar.  4
  But his chief philosophical work, his ‘Guide of the Perplexed’ (Dalālat al Hāïrīn), carried him still further; and for centuries fairly divided the Jewish camp into two parties. The battle between the Maimonists and anti-Maimonists waged fiercely in Spain and Provence. The bitterness of the strife is represented in the two inscriptions which were placed upon his tombstone. The first read:—
  “Here lies a man, and still a man;
If thou wert a man, angels of heaven
Must have overshadowed thy mother.”
This was effaced and a second one placed in its stead:—
  “Here lies Moses Maimuni, the excommunicated heretic.”
  5
  In the ‘Guide of the Perplexed’ Maimonides has also produced a work which was “epoch-making” in Jewish philosophy. It is the best attempt ever made by a Jew to combine philosophy with theology. Aristotle was known to Maimonides through Al-Farābi and Ibn Sînâ (Avicenna); and he is convinced that the Stagyrite is to be followed in certain things, as he is that the Bible must be followed in others. In fact, there can be no divergence between the two; for both have the same end in view,—to prove the existence of God. The aim of metaphysics is to perfect man intellectually; the same aim is at the core of Talmudic Judaism. Reason and revelation must speak the same language; and by a peculiar kind of subtle exegesis—which provoked much opposition, as it seemed to do violence to the plain wording—he is able to find his philosophical ideas in the text of the Bible. But he is careful to limit his acquiescence in Aristotle’s teaching to things which occur below the sphere of the moon. He was afraid of coming into contact with the foundations of religious belief, and of having to deny the existence of wonders. The Bible teaches that matter was created, and the arguments advanced in favor of both the Platonic and Aristotelian views he looks upon as insufficient. The Jewish belief that God brought into existence not only the form but also the matter of the world, Maimonides looks upon much as an article of faith. The same is true of the belief in a resurrection. He adduces so little proof for this dogma that the people of his day were ready to charge him with heresy.  6
  Maimonides is able to present twenty-five ontological arguments for his belief in the existence, unity, and incorporeality of God. What strikes one most is the almost colorless conception of the Deity at which he arrives. In his endeavor to remove the slightest shadow of corporeality in this conception, he is finally led to deny that any positive attributes can be posited of God. Such attributes would only be “accidentia”; and any such “accidentia” would limit the idea of oneness. Even attributes which would merely show the relation of the Divine Being to other beings are excluded; because he is so far removed from things non-Divine, as to make all comparison impossible. Even existence, when spoken of in regard to him, is not an attribute. In his school language, the “essentia” of God involves his “existentia.” We have therefore to rely entirely upon negative attributes in trying to get a clear concept of the Deity.  7
  If the Deity is so far removed, how then is he to act upon the world? Maimonides supposes that this medium is to be found in the world of the spheres. Of these spheres there are nine: “the all-encompassing sphere, that of the fixed stars, and those of the seven planets.” Each sphere is presided over by an intelligence which is its motive power. These intelligences are called angels, in the Bible. The highest intelligence is immaterial. It is the noûs poiëtikós, the ever-active intellect. It is the power which gives form to all things, and makes that which was potential really existent. “Prophecy is an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the active intellect, in the first instance to man’s rational faculty and then to his imaginative faculty. The lower grade of prophecy comes by means of dreams, the higher through visions accorded the prophet in a waking condition. The symbolical actions of the prophets are nothing more than states of the soul.” High above all the prophets Maimonides places Moses, to whom he attributes a special power, by means of which the active intellect worked upon him without the mediation of the imagination.  8
  The psychological parts of the ‘Guide’ present in a Jewish garb the Peripatetic philosophy as expounded by Alexander of Aphrodisia. Reason exists in the powers of the soul, but only potentially as latent reason (noûs húlikos). It has the power to assimilate immaterial forms which come from the active reason. It thus becomes acquired or developed reason (noûs epíktëtos); and by still further assimilation it becomes gradually an entity separable from the body, so that at death it can live on unattached to the body.  9
  In ethics Maimonides is a strong partisan of the doctrine of the freedom of the will. No one moves him, no one drives him to certain actions. He can choose, according to his own inner vision, the way on which he wishes to walk. Nor does this doctrine involve any limitation of the Divine power, as this freedom is fully predetermined by the Deity. But Maimonides must have felt the difficulty of squaring the doctrine of the freedom of the will with that of the omniscience of God; for he intrenches himself behind the statement that the knowledge of God is so far removed from human knowledge as to make all comparison impossible. Again, in true Aristotelian style, Maimonides holds that those actions are to be considered virtuous which follow the golden mean between the extremes of too much and too little. The really wise man will always choose this road; and such wisdom can be learned; by continued practice it can become part of man’s nature. He is most truly virtuous who has reached this eminence, and who has eliminated from his own being even the desire to do wrong.  10
  The daring with which Maimonides treated many portions of Jewish theology did not fail to show its effect immediately after the publication of the ‘Guide.’ His rationalistic notions about revelation, his allegorizing interpretation of Scripture, his apparent want of complete faith in the doctrine of resurrection, produced among the Jews a violent reaction against all philosophical inquiry, which lasted down to the times of the French Revolution. Even non-Jews looked askance at his system. Abd al-Latīf, an orthodox Mohammedan, considered the ‘Guide’ “a bad book, which is calculated to undermine the principles of religion through the very means which are apparently designed to strengthen them”; and in Catholic Spain the writings of “Moyses hijo de Maymon Egipnachus” were ordered to be burned. In Montpellier and in Paris, his own Jewish opponents, not content with having gotten an edict against the use of the master’s writings, obtained the aid of the Church (for the ‘Guide’ had been translated into Latin in the thirteenth century), and had it publicly consigned to the flames. But all this was only further evidence of the power which Maimonides wielded. The Karaites copied it; the Kabbalah even tried to claim it as its own. Many who were not of the House of Israel, as Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, acknowledged the debt they owed the Spanish Rabbi; and Spinoza, though in many places an opponent, shows clearly how carefully he had studied the ‘Guide of the Perplexed.’  11
 
 
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