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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


MAIMONIDES

(1135 — 1204)

 

JUDAIC ARISTOTELIANISM

The son of a judge, Maimonides (Moses Ben Maimon) was born in Cordoba, Spain but left when young owing to the persecution of the Jews. In 1160 he went to Fez, the sacred city of Morocco, and then to Cairo, where he became the Court Physician and leader of the Jewish community. He later also became physician to Saladin's family.

 

METAPHYSICS/ RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY

[1] [Guide, I and II.] Much of Maimonides' thinking is concerned with the conflict between religious teaching and what can be known by the intellect. In general he says that when what we learn through our reason seems to be inconsistent with scripture the latter should be interpreted allegorically. However, while his aim was to harmonize reason with faith he recognised that reason may not always be adequate and may have to give way [a]. Thus, while religion tells us the temporal world was created by God's will in time and out of nothing, when we see that the causes of things are grounded in Nature we can well conclude that the world must always have had the same structure and is thus eternal and necessary. The creation therefore cannot be demonstrated and seems miraculous [b]. Nevertheless it may be that the empirical data from which the conclusion is drawn are insufficient and that what reason gives us must then be rejected.

[2] God for Maimonides is regarded as immaterial, pure intellectual act, at once efficient, formal, and final cause, the Prime Mover, the only necessary being; and He is One transcendent, and omnipotent, having the absolute power to suspend the laws of Nature [a]. However, strictly speaking, qualities can be attributed to the 'being' of God only negatively: we can say only what He is not, and any terms applied to Him — even 'existence' itself — will have an equivocal sense. But Maimonides allows that we can describe him positively by reference to His effects [b]. Thus we may describe Him as merciful or vengeful, for this is how we interpret His activity in and his control of natural events. Indeed it is from recognition of change and contingency in the natural created world that we can prove God's existence [c]. God produces both matter and form freely from his intellect:. For Him to know is in effect to create [d]. Being, that is, existence, says Maimonides, is an 'accident' of essences in that essences may or may not be actualized to form substances [e]. Between God and the corporeal world is a hierarchy of pure, immaterial Intelligences or spirits (Maimonides confines hylomorphism to corporeal beings): but in so far as He knows these intelligible principles He is in a sense identical with them [f]. The tenth (and last) Intelligence is called the Active Intellect, and through which God 'informs' and thereby actualizes essences [g].

[3] Maimonides distinguishes between natural and moral evil. Natural evil is real from the point of view of individual men, but it should be seen as a consequence of the cosmic order. Moral evil, on the other hand, is attributable to man's free-will [a]. Maimonides sees no incompatability between this and God's providence [b] — His foreseeing of all that will happen.

 

KNOWLEDGE/ PSYCHOLOGY

[4] [Ibid.] Maimonides distinguishes between the soul's passive and an external Active Intellect (the tenth 'Intelligence') [a]. To acquire knowledge our passive intellects, on receiving sensory data, must be endowed with forms by this Active Intellect [a]; and conclusions reached by the reason through deductive inference will be true if the experiences which constitute the starting-point are reliable. He seems to regard man's intellect as similar in kind to God's in that there is an identity between the intellect, the act of intellection, and the object cognised [b]. He accepts immortality, but only in a limited sense. The soul, although form of the body, is a 'sensitive' soul and perishes with the body. The 'actualized' individual intellects of those who, through their exercise of their freedom of will have become just, do survive. However, no individuality survives death [c], although individual knowledge can advance to the Intelligence [c] which everybody is affected by. The Active Intellect working through special men (the prophets) gives them the capacity to receive divine revelation and thence by means of the imagination to experience visions and similar phenomena [d]. Nevertheless, Maimonides rejects any suggestion of a mystical ascent as being on the same level or comparable to an intellectual one [e] — and this is limited: we can have no knowledge of the transcendent God as He is in Himself; through the intellect we can know Him only negatively. But positive knowledge of Him is possible through His effects in Nature [f].

 

ETHICS/ POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

[5] [Guide, III.] Maimonides distinguishes between ordinary people and rulers. Ordinary people should be guided by their leaders and follow the rules of their society and the scriptures. They should aim at moderation, control of the passions [a]. The rulers, however, should be more ascetic. There is no place in their lives for passion. They should seek to love God both by knowledge (through science and metaphysics) and in their actions (by imitating His activity in the world). They should also endeavour to realize an ideal state, in which their concern should be for the majority without regard to the individual [b] (thereby reflecting God's attitude towards the natural order).

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Maimonides' concerns are very much those of his contemporaries — though from a Judaic perspective. Of particular interest is his attempt to harmonize faith and reason. Broadly Aristotelian rather then Neoplatonic his philosophy is important for its influence on Christian Scholasticism. However, his rejection of personal immortality and his view that the survival of the passive intellect depends on the universal active intellect gives rise to difficulties for theological orthodoxy. There is also arguably an inconsistency between his commitment to the negative way and his assertion that human cognition is similar to God's.

 

READING

Maimonides: Guide for the Perplexed [Dalālat al-Hā'irīn], trans. and ed. S. Pines, in edition by M. Friedlander.

Studies

A. C. Ivry, 'Maimonides', in J. J. E. Garcia (ed.), A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages.

O. Leaman, Maimonides.

Collections of essays

S. Baron (ed.), Essays on Maimonides: An Octocennial Volume

D. H. Frank and O. Leaman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy.

K. Seeskin (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Maimonides

 

Note: Maimonides and Averroes were both brought up in Cordoba and were contemporaries. But although Maimonides used Averroes' Commentaries on Aristotle it would seem that Averroes was not acquainted with the Jewish philosopher's major work.

 

[1a] Reason and faith/ revelation; allegorical interpretation of scripture; reason may be subordinate to faith

   Philo

   Avicenna

   Averroes

Wm of Auvergne

Aquinas

Spinoza

[1a]

[5d]

[1a]

[1a]

[1a]

[2a]

 

[1b] Creation of world through God's will in time or is it necessarily eternal?

   Aristotle

   Avicenna

Wm of Auvergne

Aquinas

[12e]

[3a]

[1e]

[3f]

 

[2a] God: pure act, Prime Mover, necessary being, efficient, formal, and final cause, totally omnipotent

   Aristotle

   Avicenna

   Averroes

Wm of Auvergne

Aquinas

Spinoza

[12e]

[1d]

[2d]

[1e]

[3a]

[2b]

 

[2b] God/ Being: attribution of predication of qualities — negative and sense equivocal

   Avicenna

   Averroes

Wm of Auvergne

Aquinas

Spinoza

[5e]

[2b]

[1j]

[3c]

[2f]

 

[2c] God: proof from natural world

   Aristotle

Aquinas

[12e]

[3e]

 

[2d] Free creation of matter and form from God's intellect

   Aristotle

   Avicenna

   Averroes

Aquinas

[12e]

[3a b]

[2e f]

[3f]

 

[2e] Existence 'accidental' — as actuality of essence (primacy of essence)

   Aristotle

   Avicenna

Averroes

Aquinas

[13a]

[2e]

[2a]

[1d]

 

[2f] Hierarchy of Intelligences — pure act; God's knowledge; hylomorphism confined to corporeal beings

   Aristotle

   Avicenna

   Averroes

   Grosseteste

Wm of Auvergne

Aquinas

[12d]

[1f 3d 3e]

[2g]

[1d]

[1c 1e]

[2a 3b]

 

[2g 4a] Final Intelligence as active intellect: actualizes (gives forms to created beings and passive intellects)

   Aristotle

   Avicenna

   Averroes

Wm of Auvergne

Aquinas

[15d 16c e]

[3e 4c 5a]

[2h 2c 3b e]

[2c]

[5f]

 

[3a b] Evil: natural and moral; human freedom; providence

   Aristotle

Aquinas

   Spinoza

[12g]

[4a]

[5a]

 

[4a c] Knowledge through active intellect informing passive → 'acquired' intellect

   Aristotle

   Avicenna

   Averroes

Wm of Auvergne

Aquinas

[16c e]

[4c 5a]

[3c]

[2c 3b 3c]

[5b 6d]

 

[4b] Knowledge: 'identity' of intellect, act, and object

   Aristotle

Aquinas

[16d]

[6d]

 

[4c] External active intellect; soul's non-personal immortality; qualified monopsychism [?]; soul sensitive form of body

   Aristotle

   Avicenna

   Averroes

Wm of Auvergne

Aquinas

   Spinoza

[15e]

[4b d]

[3d e]

[2a 2d]

[5e f 5e]

[4c]

 

[4d e] Active intellect and imagination: visions and revelations — mystical and intellectual ascent

   Avicenna

   Averroes

Spinoza

[5e]

[3a]

[2a]

 

[4f; cf. 2b] Knowledge of God — negative but also positive (from order of Nature)

   Avicenna

   Averroes

Aquinas

[1d 5e]

[3a]

[7a]

 

[5a] Ethics: moderation and passions; man's purpose

   Plato

   Aristotle

[11g]

[19b]

 

[5b] Ideal state and the majority    Plato [sec 14]