Maimonides and the Mean of Doctrines
Just about every essay written about Maimonides and the contradictions apparent in his philosophic magnum opus, the Guide for the Perplexed, begins with some pithy statement about how Maimonides’ use of contradictions created more controversy than conclusions. Arthur Hyman, in his essay, “Interpreting Maimonides,” states that, “Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed is a difficult and enigmatic work which many times perplexed the very reader it was supposed to guide.”[i] Warren Harvey writes, “Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed is a book of puzzles… No one will gainsay that Maimonides did a superb job of concealment. After almost eight centuries, students of the Guide are still trying to figure out its puzzles.”[ii] Menachem Kellner states, “Maimonides precipitated a cottage industry in Jewish intellectual circles, and has kept his interpreters busy ever since for close to a millennium.”[iii]
This serves as a warning of sorts for the reader of interpretations of the Guide. How can one proceed to ascertain Maimonides’ true belief? When there are multiple interpretations which seem correct, which one should be accepted? The discussion invariably involves Maimonides’ declaration of his use of contradictions early in the Guide, especially the seventh contradiction. The seventh reason for contradiction, one that Maimonides promises he will employ in the Guide, is translated thusly by Pines (18):[iv]
In speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts and disclose others. Sometimes in the case of certain dicta this necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of a certain premise, whereas in another place necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of another premise contradicting the first one…The vulgar must in no way be aware of the contradiction; the author accordingly uses some device to conceal it by all means.
The interpretations of this passage are too numerous in number to be discussed in their entirety here.[v] What I would like to offer here is one possible approach to some of the seeming contradictions, one which I have not seen emphasized elsewhere. That is, when there are competing sources of truth, such as the Aristotelian and the popular-religious, and the conflict cannot be resolved through logical demonstration, the position one should take is the middle path, the mean of opinions. This means adopting aspects of the two opinions and synthesizing the best of the religious and philosophical approaches, in order to relieve the tension between the two accepted sources of truth. This is most obvious in cases where Maimonides lists conflicting or competing opinions in the Guide, such as with regards to providence and prophecy, and his own opinion is obscured by other passages in the Guide. Before attempting to apply this theory to those cases to show its possibility as an interpretive method of some of the contradictions of the Guide, first we will establish the philosophical and religious basis within Maimonides’ thought for such an approach.
Firstly, given Maimonides’ consistent advocacy of the middle path as the ultimate goal of man in so many of his writings, his approach to writing the Guide could align with this as well. In his commentary to the Mishnah,[vi] in his Mishneh Torah,[vii] and in his Guide,[viii] he repeatedly refers to a type of middle path reminiscent of Aristotle’s, with some important changes.[ix] That is, in most cases, one should seek the middle way between two extremes of moral vices, such as the middle way between greediness and being a spendthrift. Similarly, one should find the middle path between cowardice and recklessness. And so on for most moral ills. Generally, the Golden Mean is understood to be a way of perfecting and maintaining moral attributes. How can opinions be considered in that category? Strikingly, Maimonides seems to consider both faith and reasoning itself as moral virtues.[x] In the Guide, 3:53, Maimonides states (631):
[W]hen you walk in the way of the moral virtues, you do justice to your rational soul, giving her the due that is her right. And because every moral virtue is called zedakah, it says: “And he believed in the Lord, and it was accounted to him as zedakah” (Gen. 15:6). I refer to the virtue of faith.
Thus, ideas and concepts can be included in the category of moral perfection, to be done through the Golden Mean.
There is another way that intellect and moral virtues converge in Maimonidean thought. Though Aristotle derived the basis for the Golden Mean from the tendency of nature to follow the middle path, Maimonides derives the basis instead from the religious invocation to imitate God, imitatio dei.[xi] As Marvin Fox put it, “Maimonides works here fully inside the Jewish tradition. He readily adopts the outer form of the mean as his theoretical base and principle of explanation, but the specific contents of the good life are defined not by way of nature but by way of the imitation of God.”[xii] Imitatio dei, another recurring theme in Maimonides’ writings, covers two areas that Maimonides was most interested in: the perfection of character traits, and also the perfection of one’s intellect.[xiii] If the perfection of the intellect occurs in the same fashion as the perfection of character traits, it makes sense that one should seek the mean of intellectual ideas when it would not compromise rational perfection.
Further, the very use of contradictions for pedagogical purposes can be an expression of imitatio dei, according to Maimonides. Maimonides states that the way the prophetic works of the Bible are written is such that the true opinions are hidden in the text, whether through the contradiction of differing parables, or the contradiction of stating a proviso out of its proper place, because of a certain necessity, such that it seems to be a contradiction. But he goes on to write that the question of whether the “seventh cause” described above, that of concealment and obfuscation, is to be found in the books of the Prophets is “a matter for speculative study and investigation” (19). Although he expresses doubt if the seventh cause was actually employed or not, he concedes its possibility. Thus, by employing it in his own writing, he is following after those who have had communion with God, a God-approved style of writing. From here we see that, at least in certain aspects, “imitatio dei” is relevant to the manner of inquiry necessary to determine metaphysical truths, and thus could be applicable regarding the Golden Mean as well.
It is also clear from Maimonides’ declaration of the purpose of the Guide, and the audience he is writing to, that he sought a kind of religious solution as well. In the very beginning of his introduction to the Guide (5-6) he describes the student who is “a religious man for whom the validity of our Law has become established in his soul and has become actual in his belief.” On the other hand, the student has also “studied the sciences of the philosophers and come to know what they signify.” Maimonides proposes to help this student “remove most of the difficulties.” His task, then, is that this must be done in a way that will allow the student to feel that the Torah law is still valid, and that he is not abandoning reason by believing in and following the Torah. Submission to one truth over another would not seem to work if Maimonides is to be successful. Many times, not all contradictions are merely apparent, and many seem insurmountable. Thus, when truth is unknown – when there are two competing sources for truth – the Golden Mean must be employed. A synthetic approach can at times be the best solution for Maimonides’ audience.
Maimonides writes regarding the contradictions in the Guide that the masses must not be aware of their existence. According to the above suggestion, this is because Maimonides only wants the reader to see the synthesized version, but not out of what it was created. To accept this synthesized version, one is required to accept two sources of truth when dealing with doubt— the philosophical and religious—and also be willing to come to a moderate position between both of them. The ignorant philosopher would not accept the religious truth, and the ignorant religious person would not accept the philosophic truth,[xiv] and the nuanced mean is where neither has to suffer.
As mentioned previously, Maimonides’ method can be most easily seen in lists of multiple opinions in the Guide for a given topic. In each case, there are at least three opinions, two of which are at the extremes. It is my contention that in each of these cases, Maimonides advocates the moderate position, the ‘mean’ of opinions. The listing of multiple possible positions occurs primarily in three places in the Guide: regarding creation, prophecy, and providence.
Maimonides tells us that, in some fashion, the positions regarding creation aligns with that of prophecy. Specifically, he states in the Guide 2:32 (360), “The opinions of people concerning prophecy are like their opinions concerning the eternity of the world or creation of the world. I mean by this that just as the people to whose mind the existence of the Deity is firmly established, have, as we have set forth [in 2.13], three opinions concerning the eternity or creation of the world, so are there three opinions concerning prophecy.” The mystery, or puzzle, is in what way did Maimonides intend that these align?[xv] A quick listing of the positions and who believes them are as follows:
C1 – Creation ex nihilo (those who believe in the Torah)
C2 – Creation out of eternal matter (Plato)
C3 – Eternal universe (Aristotle)
P1 – Prophecy is given to whomever God chooses (the vulgar)
P2 – Prophecy is a natural process and God has no part in who receives it (the philosopher)
P3 – Prophecy is natural but can be hindered by God at His choosing (the Torah and our foundation)
The maximum number of possible combinations, at the face of it, is nine in all. However, there are a few combinations that are highly improbable. We have to assume that there must be some sort of philosophical parallel, or group parallel, with each of the correspondences. Meaning, we can say with certainty there are specific combinations that Maimonides would never had had in mind. He never would have thought that Aristotle’s eternity of the world would correspond with the view of prophecy that it can be presented to nearly anyone, because one philosophically casts God as impotent, and the other omnipotent as regards to choice and communication with man. Thus there has to be some sort of line-up regarding the philosophical underpinnings of the positions. Similarly, it is difficult to argue that the “philosopher” group as regards to prophecy could line up with the vulgar group as regards to creation, simply because the groups themselves are so incompatible.
Thus, we seem “stuck” with three opinions about possible combinations, and each of those possibilities do indeed find expression in the works of three modern Maimonidean scholars: Harvey[xvi], Davidson[xvii], and Kaplan[xviii]. Where Creation is the first number and prophecy the second, Harvey sees it as 1:1, 2:2, 3:3, Davidson sees it as 1:1, 2:3, 3:2, and Kaplan lines it up as 1:3, 2:1, 3:2, and each possibility has its advantages and disadvantages.
Let us begin with Harvey’s combination. Creation ex nihilo lines up well with ultimate freedom by God to choose anyone as a prophet, both granting God omnipotence. This would mean, however, that Maimonides believes Creation ex nihilo lines up with the position of the vulgar, which defies the exoteric reading of the Guide. The Platonic view of creation also lines up as a group parallel with the naturalist view of prophecy, which Maimonides marks as the position of the philosophers. But there is a great disadvantage with this view, because Maimonides emphasizes that the naturalist view does not allow God to step in and block prophecy from those who deserve it naturally, while the Platonic view would allow it. Additionally, Aristotle’s view of creation should not concur with God’s ability to prevent prophecy from someone. Harvey is forced to explain that Maimonides would have to argue against the accepted Aristotelian view that the eternality of the world necessitates God’s inability to act in it—a necessity that Maimonides seems to accept within the Aristotelian view.
Kaplan represents a “religious” approach to Maimonides, wherein Maimonides aligns creation ex nihilo with prophecy that allows for God obstructing it from certain people. But Kaplan lines up Platonic creation with absolutely free choice by God in prophecy. It is difficult to understand why each one could not apply to the other. Meaning, it is even easier to argue creation ex nihilo could align with absolutely free divine choice in prophecy, and Platonic creation with a limited divine choice.
That is, in fact, the position argued by Davidson. Thus, the Platonic creation would line up with the “Law of Moses” view of prophecy, and based on this analysis he concludes that Maimonides believed the Platonic view of creation to be true. However, there are still a few issues to work out. This interpretation relies on a rarely-held position that Maimonides is really a Platonic philosopher, at least as regards to creation. While it is true that he allows for the Platonic view of creation as a “possible opinion” in the Guide, he is fairly explicit in his vehement denial of Jewish belief to allow for the Platonic view, which he equates to the Aristotelian one in that regard. Furthermore, the Platonic view of creation does not appear to be obviously present in the Guide or in Maimonides’ other writings. As Davidson himself notes, it also seems to go against the thrust of Maimonides’ argument in the Guide for the creation of the world. Maimonides spends a large amount of his book showing that creation ex nihilo is equal in demonstrative proof as Aristotle’s theory of an eternal world, meaning that both do not have it. He spends very little time on the Platonic theory. If he was hiding his theory through esotericism, it would be the Aristotelian one, which he fights against in the Guide, if anything. So why would he do this?
By supposing Maimonides is seeking the middle of these opinions here, these issues could be resolved. Within the theories of creation, there is an Aristotelian view of eternity of the universe, and there is the religious/traditional view of creation ex nihilo. The middle path, then, is a Platonic view that allows for creation and miracles. The others could not be chosen. If creation ex nihilo is picked, Maimonides’ audience would feel it has abandoned its intellect. If the view of an eternal world is picked, Maimonides’ audience will feel its religious foundation crumbling, with no miracles and no revelation. Instead, Platonic creation can take the best features of both Aristotelian eternity and religious creation ex nihilo: eternal matter but with the possibility of miracles.
Indeed, Maimonides explicitly states that he agrees with Aristotle half-way. In Guide 2:29 (346) he states, “We agree with Aristotle with regard to one half of his opinion…” He goes on to state this half as being an eternal world a parte post, until God miraculously changes it. Is this really any part of Aristotle’s position? It can hardly be said to be in any semblance to Aristotle’s theory of an eternal universe. The real half that could be agreed upon would be the state of eternal matter. That is closer to Aristotelian philosophy than that of agreeing to an eternal world a parte post were God never to miraculously change it. However, he could not do this if the audience remained convinced the philosophic demonstrable truth lies of with Aristotelian eternity. So his first job was to lower the demonstrable truth of eternity to the same level as Platonic creation and creation ex nihilo. Then, and only then, could he create a successful synthesis. While not necessarily believing in the Platonic view of creation himself, Maimonides allows his religiously and philosophically committed reader to take a middle path between the two.[xix]
Similarly, there are three opinions regarding prophecy. One is a view of prophecy that sees it as wholly miraculous, and anyone God chooses can receive it. Another is a view of prophecy that is wholly naturalistic, believing that God cannot choose any particular person to receive or not receive that prophecy. Both pose a problem to the religious philosopher. The philosopher believes in divine overflow, and the perfection of the intellect to receive prophecy, so the first view of prophecy cannot be true. The second position, however, poses a problem to the religious person who believes that God has an active part in the process in which the person to which prophecy is conveyed receives his prophecy. Thus, Maimonides chose the opinion that represents the best of both, that prophecy is a natural process in which God has the power to withhold prophecy should He will it. In this synthesis model, Maimonides was not saying that there is a correspondence of a precise nature in both discussions. Rather, there are three opinions, two of which are at extremes, and a third opinion exists that can be seen as a moderate view.
Another area Maimonides discusses various views and has his own in the Guide is in regard to divine providence. In Guide 3:17, Maimonides lists six opinions as regards to providence, including his own. These are:
- Everything is random, there is no providence (Epicurus)
- Only permanent and ordered things have providence, but not individuals (Aristotle)
- Everything has divine providence (Asharite)
- Man has free will, but divine providence also acts over everything using divine wisdom (Mutazilite)
- Man and God have free will, and God is just. Divine providence acts over all humans using divine justice. This may imply some “suffering of love.” It may also imply violations of natural law. (Believers in the Torah)
Maimonides explains the problems he has with each of these theories, and proposes his own that combines the Torah theory with Aristotle’s theory. It is important to point out that Maimonides explicitly connects Aristotle’s view with that about creation. Regarding Aristotle’s view, he writes, “This view is closely connected with his theory of the Eternity of the Universe and with his opinion that everything different from the existing order of things in Nature is impossible. It is the belief of those who turned away from our Law…” If so, it would make sense for Maimonides to take elements of it into account as he did for creation. Thus, his own opinion is such that he agrees with the Torah view in that Divine providence exists for human individuals who excel in intellectual perfection. However, Aristotle is correct about other aspects of the world, such as individual animals, the natural world, which are left to chance. A leaf blows because of natural chance, not because God specifically willed it. In doing this, he explicitly combines the two approaches to form a synthesized third.[xx]
In summation, Maimonides’ method of contradictions could be related to his doctrine of the mean, at least in cases of unproven opinions. We have seen that faith and reasoning are subject to the category of virtue and vice, and that following the middle path among both moral and intellectual extremes can fulfill imitatio dei. We proposed that Maimonides wrote his Guide with contradictions that are resolved through the mean because it would fulfill another aspect of imitation dei, following God’s own use of contradictions. In some cases, where Maimonides lists multiple opinions and obfuscates what his own opinion is, he appears to support the position which follows the mean. In other cases, it is clear that his own position does, in fact, combine aspects of other opinions. Thus, it can be said that Maimonides believes not only in the doctrine of the mean, but also the mean of doctrines.
Aryeh Sklar is a student at Bernard Revel School for Jewish Studies majoring in Jewish Philosophy
[i] Arthur Hyman, “Interpreting Maimonides,” Gesher, Vol. 5 (1976), 46
[ii] Warren Z. Harvey, “A Third Approach To Maimonides’ Cosmogony-Prophetology Puzzle”, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 74, No. 3 (July, 1981), 287
[iii] Kellner, Menachem, “Reading Rambam: Approaches to the Interpretation of Maimonides,” Jewish History Vol. 5, No. 2 (Fall, 1991), 75
[iv] All translations of the Guide of the Perplexed and pagination are from the Pines translation of The Guide of the Perplexed, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963
[v] See for example, Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, IL: Free, 1952) 38-94; and his “How to Begin to Study The Guide of the Perplexed,” Pines’ Guide of the Perplexed, xi-lvi, and Joseph Buijis’ response, “The Philosophical Character of Maimonides’ Guide – A Critique of Strauss’ Interpretation,” Judaism, Vol. 27 (1978), 448-457. For an approach not too dissimilar from the one argued in this paper, see especially Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides: Studies in Methodology, Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 67-90, and Yair Lorberbaum, “On Contradictions, Rationality, Dialectics, and Esotericism in Maimonides’ ‘Guide of the Perplexed’”, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Jun., 2002), 711-750
[vi] Such as his introduction to Avot and Avot 4:4
[vii] Such as Code of Maimonides, Laws of Temperaments (Hilkhot De’ot) Chapters 1 and 2
[viii] Such as his reasoning for circumcision in Guide 3:49
[ix] See Fox’s “The Doctrine of the Mean in Aristotle and Maimonides” in Interpreting Maimonides: Studies in Methodology, Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 93-123, also found in Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays (IN: Notre Dame Press, 1998), 234-263
[x] See Menachem Kellner, Science in the Bet Midrash (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2009), 165-173
[xi] See Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Temperaments 1:6, and his Book of the Commandments: positive commandment #8
[xii] Fox ibid., 253
[xiii] See Howard Kreisel, “Imitatio Dei in Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed,” AJS Review Vol. 19, No. 2 (1994), 169-211
[xiv] Indeed, this is what drives Maimonides to write in his introduction to Avot that he will censor the names of the philosophers he has in mind, as the masses would throw out the very valid ideas just based on where they came from.
[xv] It is true that some suggest that Maimonides only meant a simple relationship in terms of the number three, see Masha Turner, “Examining the Relationship Between the Opinions on Creation and the Opinions on Prophecy in the Guide of the Perplexed” (Heb.), in Daat: A Journal of Jewish Philosophy & Kabbalah, No. 50/52 (2003), 73-82. However, even early figures such as Abravenel (in his commentary to the Guide, 2:32) realized that this is a very difficult approach, as there was no reason for Maimonides to create an explicit relationship between the two, and the similarity of the number three has no real importance and could have manifested in the similarity to the number of forefathers, or other such famous “threes”.
[xvi] Harvey, “A Third Approach To Maimonides’ Cosmogony-Prophetology Puzzle”, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 74, No. 3 (July, 1981), 287-301
[xvii] See Herbert Davidson, “Maimonides’ Secret Position on Creation,” in Isadore Twersky, ed., Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1979) 16-40
[xviii] The Harvard Theological Review, Vol 70 (1977), 233-56
[xix] Presented here are only a few positions regarding Maimonides on creation. For further study into the topic, see Jewish Philosophy: Perspectives and Retrospectives, Academic Studies Press, 2012, 157-232
[xx] To appreciate the vast literature and for further study into the topic of Maimonides on divine providence, see Israel J. Dienstag, “Maimonides on Providence – A Bibliography” (Heb.), Daat: A Journal of Jewish Philosophy & Kabbalah, No. 20 (Winter 1987), 17-28
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