Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Moses Maimonides (March 30, 1135)

Maimonides was a radical thinker in medieval Judaism. According to Kenneth Seeskin writing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
"His philosophic masterpiece, the Guide of the Perplexed, is a sustained treatment of Jewish thought and practice that seeks to resolve the conflict between religious knowledge and secular." He influenced many subsequent philosophers, including "Aquinas, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Newton."
I'm no philosopher, but I recognize that some grasp of Maimonides' thought is necessary if one is to follow a historic discussion of the development of Jewish philosophy, and the argument over which approaches are valid. According to the previously cited article:
"Judaism ... is based on a particular philosophy. Maimonides (GP 1.71) takes this to mean that before Plato and Aristotle introduced science and philosophy to the Greeks, the patriarchs introduced it to Israel. To someone who asks why we have no explicit record of their philosophy, Maimonides answers that any record of such teaching was destroyed when Israel went into exile and suffered persecution. So despite the appearance of a split between Jerusalem and Athens, Maimonides thinks there is only one tradition worth preserving: that which affirms the truth."

"He makes this point in the Introduction to the Guide when he says that what Jewish tradition taught under the guise of ma'aseh bereishit (the account of the beginning) is what Greeks thinkers taught as physics, while what Jewish tradition taught under the guise of ma'aseh merkavah (the account of [Ezekiel's] chariot) is what Greek thinkers taught under the guise of metaphysics. In short, Jewish tradition has always been philosophical. The problem is that these subjects are too difficult for the average worshipper to grasp and must be expressed as parables or metaphors that the educated few will interpret at one level and the average worshipper at another."
Beginning in Maimonides' own lifetime, religious Jews were disturbed by the way he seemed to go to the brink of disbelief (if I understand correctly -- they often used the term "Aristotelian" for this edge). But as a disbeliever, despite my lack of philosophical sophistication, I find him very appealing for this clarity. As the article states: "For an atheist, Maimonides' philosophy shows us what happens if you remove all anthropomorphic content from your conception of God: you remove all content of any kind. In the end, you are left with a God whose essence is unknowable and indescribable Of what possible value is such a conception either to philosophy or religion?"

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