In his account of the biblical prohibition against idolatry in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides says:
Idol worshippers have compiled many books about [idol] worship…. The Holy One Blessed be He has commanded us not to read those books at all, not to think about [idol worship], not even about one of its details.… It is not only idol worship that it is forbidden to turn after in thought, but regarding any thought that causes man to uproot one of the roots of the Torah we are cautioned not to raise it to our hearts [i.e., not to think about it], not to direct our intellectFootnote 1 toward it, not to think about it, and not to be pulled after the murmurs of the heart. For man's intellect is short, and not all intellects can grasp the truth in its essence. If each person would be pulled after the thoughts of his heart, each would be found to destroy [or: one would be found who destroys] the world by the shortness of his intellect. How? Sometimes he would err after star worship and sometimes he would think about the unity of the Creator, whether He is or whether He is not, what is up, what is down, what is in front, and what is behind. Sometimes [he would think] about prophecy, whether it is true or not, and sometimes about the Torah, whether it is from heaven or not. He would not know the measures by which to judge [these questions] until he knows the truth in its essence. [Such a person] would find himself in fulfilment [of the legal definition] of heresy. The Torah warns against this when it says, “so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.”Footnote 2 This is to say, every one of you ought not be pulled after his short intellect and imagine that his thought grasps the truth.… Even though this negative commandment causes man to be driven out of the world to come, it does not carry the punishment of lashes.Footnote 3
Maimonides apparently leaves no room here for philosophical inquiry or even freethinking in a Jewish context. According to this passage, following one's own heart, often associated with the seat of thought and even intellect in the Middle Ages, causes a person to go astray. Suspending judgment until one “knows the truth in its essence” leads to heresy. The human intellect is small, cannot grasp the truth, and thus should be satisfied with received knowledge about God, prophecy, and even “what is up, what is down…” According to this account, freethinking about these issues is legally forbidden to all; Maimonides makes no exception for an intellectual elite or for himself, and indeed highlights this with his use of the first-person plural. Consequently, philosophy and scientific inquiry are incompatible with Jewish law.
This passage does not accord with the depiction of Maimonides we find in the literature. Indeed, this passage is rarely cited in academic scholarship. For the most part, those who mention it, such as Leo StraussFootnote 4 and Jacob Levinger,Footnote 5 do so only briefly and treat it as an example of a law not applicable to the intellectual elite, even though Maimonides gives no indication that such is the case. Elsewhere, the passage is dealt with in connection with Modern Orthodox notions of Torah u-maddaʿ (the relationship between Judaism and science).Footnote 6 The ample rabbinic scholarship on the Mishneh Torah, when it treats this passage, is primarily focused on Maimonides's talmudic sources and other medieval interpretations of them.Footnote 7 The talmudic passages on whose basis Maimonides is assumed to have written the statement above are, however, neither as broadly condemning nor as forceful as Maimonides's words.Footnote 8 Moreover, Maimonides's comments on these passages in his Commentary on the Mishnah do not presage his views in the Mishneh Torah.Footnote 9 That is, Maimonides's prohibition of freethinking in the Mishneh Torah represents a break from talmudic precedent and even his own previous legal writings.Footnote 10 Nevertheless, the implications of this prohibition are broad.
Scholars have long noted that Maimonides's description of God at the opening of Sefer ha-maddaʿ (the book of knowledge), the first of the fourteen books that make up the Mishneh Torah, is heavily indebted to Aristotle and the Islamic falāsifah. God is the first existent, who gives existence to every existent. All existents in the world thus depend on God, but God does not depend on other existents. Moreover, God conducts the concentric spheres that make up the universe. Nevertheless, God is not a body, not a force of body, but is “the Knower, the Known and the Knowledge itself—all one” (הוא היודע והוא הידוע והוא הדעה עצמה—הכל אחד).Footnote 11 This description does not come from the Bible or Talmud, but from the philosophers, some of whom—most notably Aristotle—were idolaters. Nevertheless, Maimonides is not advocating open and free thought about these issues. Instead, acceptance of these principles is equated with various central biblical precepts. “Knowledge of this thing [i.e., this description of God],” Maimonides tells us, “is a positive commandment, as it says, ‘I am the Lord your God.’”Footnote 12 Maimonides's biblical source for this commandment is no less than the first of the Ten Commandments.Footnote 13 Rejection of this account of God is thus, for Maimonides the jurist, a rejection of the first of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, even questioning the oneness of God is, according to Maimonides the jurist, a violation of the second of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”Footnote 14 That is to say, although Maimonides draws on philosophers for developing his account of the divine, his juridical position does not allow that crucial element of philosophical inquiry, namely, questions.Footnote 15
Indeed, those who reject the description of God and prophecy that Maimonides lays out can be considered heretics or Epicureans, neither of whom has a “share in the world to come” according to Maimonides.Footnote 16 Among those considered heretics are those “who say that there is no God and that the world has no Conductor” and those who say that God is a body.Footnote 17 Maimonides enumerates three kinds of Epicureans: “those who say that there is no prophecy at all and that there is no knowledge [maddaʿ] that reaches man's heart from the Creator; those who deny the prophecy of Moses our master; and those who say that God does not know the actions of human beings.”Footnote 18 While Epicurus and other materialists are clearly included among the condemned here, so are all pagans. Moreover, even Jewish Aristotelians would be included in this condemnation, since, as Maimonides tells us in the Guide of the Perplexed III 17, “in Aristotle's opinion God's providence ends at the sphere of the moon.”Footnote 19
It is in light of these observations that we must interpret Maimonides's call to Torah study. Maimonides famously places study as the center of Jewish life in his Mishneh Torah, as a commandment legally binding on all Jewish men, to be performed every day and every night until the day of one's death.Footnote 20 Yet, this study is of the religious sort, rather than of the questioning, even skeptical academic sort we promote in modern universities. According to Maimonides:
One is required to divide his study time into three: one third directed to the Written Torah, one third directed to the Oral Torah, and one third to understanding and contemplating the end of a thing from its beginning, to inferring one thing from another, to likening one thing to another, and to discussing the mores [deʿot] that the Torah treats so as to know what the root of the mores is and how to derive the permitted and forbidden and the like from among the things learned from tradition [mi-pi ha-shemuʿah]. And this matter is what is called “Talmud.”Footnote 21
In other words, one's study should consist of three parts: Written Law, Oral Law, and Talmud. Given the elaborate description of the latter, there is no reason to assume that the first two are anything but reading and understanding the texts of the Bible and the Mishneh Torah itself (which Maimonides says encompasses the entire Oral Law and relieves the need for reading any other text of law). It is in Talmud that we find topics associated with philosophy in the ancient world. Thus, it seems to include logic, ethics, and the relationship between ethics and law. Moreover, all of this study that Maimonides calls “Talmud” is governed by tradition (ha-shemuʿah), that is, it would seem, not open for independent inquiry.
That what Maimonides has in mind when he says “Talmud” is not the same as what today's talmudic scholars have in mind is emphasized when he gives another description of Talmud in the next paragraph. There he says, “One contemplates with his intellect so as to understand one thing from another; … and the matters that are called ‘Pardes’ are included in Talmud.” Thus, it seems that the scholar ought to begin with logical inferences and use them to lead to an understanding of the “Pardes.” The “Pardes” (orchard) is used in the Mishnah and Gemara to refer to the esoteric knowledge of the Account of Creation and the Account of the Chariot.Footnote 22 Here Maimonides includes it as the pinnacle of study and one to which one can increasingly devote himself after attaining proficiency in the Written and Oral Law.
Yet for Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah “Pardes” refers to the account of God, angels, elements, animals, humans, and the world in the first four chapters of Hilkhot yesode ha-Torah (laws of the foundations of the Torah) with which he opens his code of law.Footnote 23 There Maimonides made clear that the study of the Pardes is not for questioning or skeptical inquiry, but rather “to see the wisdom of the Holy One Blessed be He in all of his creatures,” thereby increasing man's love for God in fulfilment of the commandment to love the Lord thy God.Footnote 24 This study of God and the world is not available to all, Maimonides tells us, and even some of the great sages of Israel “did not have the power to know or grasp all these things in their essence.” Maimonides cautions his readers not to “walk about in the Pardes unless one has filled his belly with bread and meat—and this ‘bread and meat,’” he says, “is clear knowledge of the permitted and forbidden.”Footnote 25
Maimonides, then, places contemplation of God and the world—subjects treated by the philosophers as metaphysics and physics—as central pillars of Judaism. Yet the contemplation he has in mind is not philosophical inquiry. Error about any of these topics leads to violation of central tenets of religion and can even lead to heresy and idolatry. Maimonides thus urges would-be scholars to fill their minds with knowledge of what is permitted and what is forbidden and only then to undertake to navigate the seas of such contemplation. Only one who is well acquainted with what the law allows should set out to contemplate God. For, as we have seen, even thinking about uprooting a principle of Judaism is a violation of the Law.
The Guide of the Perplexed
Maimonides's hardline anti-free-inquiry viewpoint in the Mishneh Torah meets with a major difficulty: the Guide of the Perplexed. In the Guide, Maimonides raises all of the questions that he said could cause someone to uproot one of the roots of the Torah. Indeed, his approach to these questions, as has been noticed by a number of scholars, is perhaps less answer focused than many would like, and in some cases contains contradictions, leading commentators to radically different views of what Maimonides says. Here we note that Maimonides radically contradicts his legal opinion in the Mishneh Torah, hilkhot ʿavodah zarah (laws of idol worship) 2:2–3.
In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides forbids thinking about and questioning six things: (1) God's unity; (2) the existence of the Creator; (3) what is up, down, inside, or outside; (4) prophecy; (5) the divine origins of the Torah; and (6) idolatry, including reading idolatrous books and thinking about their contents. In fact, these are the main topics of the Guide. While the complexities of the Guide generally do not permit a simple characterization of its 179 chapters, divided into three parts, these forbidden topics of inquiry could make up a kind of loose outline of the topics of the Guide.Footnote 26
1. The first part of the Guide dedicates some thirty-six chapters to corporeal Hebrew terms used in the Guide for describing God.Footnote 27 One of the main points of these chapters, and indeed of the first part of the Guide as a whole, is to explain that God is in fact incorporeal and also one, even though numerous biblical passages apparently present God as corporeal and having more than one body part.Footnote 28 That is, the chapters raise the question of God's unity and, while ultimately arguing in favor of it, they present the opposing view, note its origins in the Bible itself, and certainly encourage thinking about it.Footnote 29
2. God as Creator (boreʾ in the Hebrew of the Mishneh Torah) is discussed in the first half of the second part of the Guide. This discussion culminates in Maimonides's famous account of the different views of whether and how the world was created in II 13 and following. We might note that Maimonides famously supports creatio ex nihilo here (though aeternitas post creationem), while he maintains the eternity of the sphere in the Mishneh Torah.Footnote 30 The reader of this section would certainly be led to raise the question of creationFootnote 31 and therefore also the question of the existence of the Creator.Footnote 32
4. The second half of the second part of the Guide is dedicated to a discussion of prophecy. Chapters 32–48 of the second part form a detailed, though at times contradictory, account of prophecy as intellectual overflow. That prophecy as such could be understood in a radically different way is suggested by Maimonides's insertion, perhaps invention, of “the philosophers’ view of prophecy” in II 32.Footnote 33 That the philosophers have a view of prophecy raises questions about the extent to which prophecy is a natural phenomenon. Maimonides is explicit in raising these questions, though his answers have led some medieval commentators to say that Maimonides himself prefers the naturalistic account of prophecy to the view of “our Law.”Footnote 34 That is, Maimonides's words here can lead, indeed have led, to questioning what he calls the Jewish view of prophecy.
5. Part 2 of the Guide ends with the specific difficulties inherent in the biblical depictions of prophecy, especially in biblical parables. Maimonides turns to the most difficult of these parables, the chariot seen by Ezekiel, at the beginning of part 3 of the Guide. He then turns to the Law's understanding of providence and evil, continuing with an interpretation of the perhaps most challenging biblical depiction of providence and evil: the book of Job. The second half of part 3 of the Guide treats the reasons for the commandments in the Bible. Maimonides's assumption throughout is that there is “a cause for all of the commandments.”Footnote 35 Yet the causes for the commandments are often historical, based not on universal truths, but on eradicating certain opinions prevalent among the people at the time of the giving of the Torah. Maimonides famously points out a kind of evolution of thought about the divine in III 29 and suggests ways in which common opinion may change further in the future. The discussion in part 3 of the Guide invariably leads readers to question the divinity of the Torah. Even while Maimonides clearly advocates for the divine roots of the Law, the reader is at the very least led to question whether the Torah is from heaven or not.
6. The Mishneh Torah’s prohibition against reading books of idolatry or even thinking about their content turns out in the Guide to be related to, perhaps even a special case of, the prohibition against questioning the divinity of the Torah. Maimonides discusses this in Guide III 29 and 37, where it becomes clear that he himself has read books of idolatry and even used them to understand the historical context of the biblical commandments. In Guide III 29 he says:
The meaning of many of the laws became clear to me and their causes became known to me through my study of the doctrines, opinions, practices, and cult of the Sabians.Footnote 36 … I shall mention to you the books from which all that I know about the doctrines and opinions of the Sabians will become clear to you so that you will know for certain that what I say about the reasons for these laws is correct.… The knowledge of these opinions and practices is a very important chapter in the exposition of the reasons for the commandments. For the foundation of the whole of our Law and the pivot around which it turns, consists in the effacement of these opinions from the minds and of these monuments from existence.Footnote 37
Not only does Maimonides acknowledge having read, indeed studied books of idolatry, he explicitly draws on these books for interpreting the reasons for the commandments of the Torah. Lest there be any ambiguity, Maimonides in the same chapter refers to the “books of idolatry” (ספרי עבודה זרה) in Hebrew, rather than Arabic, the language of the Guide, using the same expression he uses in the Mishneh Torah. His ensuing summary of these idolatrous books is apparently intended for the reader to verify his claims about idolatry, thereby encouraging the reader to open the books himself. Far from the Mishneh Torah's prohibition against thinking about idolatry, Maimonides's Guide says that idolatry must be understood so that Judaism can be understood. That is, thinking about idolatry and thinking about the divinity of the Law go hand in hand—one needs to consider one in order to think about the other.
Careful readers may have noticed that I skipped number 3: the Mishneh Torah’s prohibition against asking “what is up, what is down, what is in front, and what is behind.”Footnote 38 The language of this prohibition is taken from the Babylonian Talmud, Ḥagigah 11b, where it is framed less as a prohibition, more as good advice. The Mishnah there states, “Every one who tries to know the following four things, it were better for him if he had never come into the world.”Footnote 39 In context and in the ensuing discussion it is clear that these “four things” are connected to, and perhaps constitute the essential parts of the Account of the Beginning and the Account of the Chariot. These two areas of study, the Talmud makes clear, make up the Pardes, the orchard of divine knowledge that only few can enter and only with extreme care. We have already seen that Maimonides associates this Pardes with his account of God, the angels, and the world at the beginning of the Mishneh Torah. The prohibition against these four questions would thus seem to be a prohibition against asking questions about the Pardes, or at the very least asking potentially critical questions.Footnote 40
The Pardes is treated quite differently in the Guide of the Perplexed. In the introduction to the first part of the Guide, Maimonides apparently includes the Account of the Beginning and the Account of the Chariot among the parables that the Guide seeks to explain. Under the guise of repeating something from the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides says, “The Account of the Beginning is identical with natural science, and the Account of the Chariot with divine science.”Footnote 41 In fact, Maimonides does not call these accounts “science” in the Mishneh Torah, and it is not entirely clear that he even has a Hebrew word for science in the book, that is, a word equivalent to the Arabic ᶜilm, which he uses throughout the Guide.Footnote 42
What is clear is that the science that is to be employed by the addressee of the Guide is fundamentally different from the way the Pardes is to be employed by the addressee of the Mishneh Torah. In the Mishneh Torah, the Pardes leads directly to a better understanding of God's wisdom; in the Guide, the subjects of the Pardes lead, at least initially, to perplexity. The addressee of the Guide is not only expected to study the Pardes, he is also expected to be perplexed. This perplexity is a result of the addressee's confusion as to how to reconcile the Pardes with the Law. Maimonides says:
It is not the purpose of this Treatise to make its totality understandable to the vulgar or to beginners in speculation, nor to teach those who have not engaged in any study other than the science of the Law—I mean the legalistic study of the Law. For the purpose of this Treatise and of all those like it is the science of the Law in its true sense. Or rather its purpose is to give indications to a religious man for whom the validity of our Law has become established in his soul and has become actual in his belief—such a man being perfect in his religion and character, and having studied the sciences of the philosophers and come to know what they signify. The human intellect having drawn him on and led him to dwell within its province, he must have felt distressed by the externals of the Law.… Hence he would remain in a state of perplexity and confusion as to whether he should follow his intellect, renounce … the foundations of the Law. Or he should hold fast to his understanding of [the Law] and not let himself be drawn on together with the intellect, rather turning his back on it and moving away from it. … [He] would not cease to suffer from heartache and great perplexity.Footnote 43
The Guide of the Perplexed is dedicated to the reader who has studied sciences and strives to maintain his religious belief. In other words, the study of science has not (or at least not only) led this reader to deeper understanding of the manifestation of God's wisdom in the world or even to love of God, but to perplexity. That is, it has led to questions. These questions place the addressee in a quandary: he can either give up the Law or live a life of heartache and perplexity.
The passage from the Mishneh Torah with which I opened this article describes an individual in a similar quandary. He is questioning the fundamentals of the Law on the basis of his “short intellect” and finding himself at an impasse. In the words of the passage from the Mishneh Torah, such a person “would not know the measures by which to judge until he knows the truth in its essence.” This impasse, in both the Mishneh Torah and the Guide, can lead to abandoning the Law and becoming a heretic. Yet the two works approach the perplexed in a strikingly different manner. The Mishneh Torah prohibits the free use of the mind, while the Guide encourages the perplexed to study further, in particular, to study the Guide.
The main discussion of the talmudic prohibition against asking “what is up, what is down, what is in front, and what is behind” in the Guide occurs in the context of the discussion of the limitations on human knowledge in I 32. Here too we see a difference in approach from the Mishneh Torah. In the Mishneh Torah Maimonides advocates not asking open questions about the Pardes at all, but instead recommends using logical reasoning to back up and support the basic depiction of the Pardes Maimonides gives in chapters 1–4 of Hilkhot yesode ha-Torah. In Guide I 32, Maimonides explains that these four questions—what is up, what is down, what is in front, and what is behind—have as “their purpose, in its entirety … to make known that the intellects of human beings have a limit at which they stop.”Footnote 44 Maimonides asserts here that human beings ought not ask what is beyond their capacity to understand, but, nevertheless, the sages’ purpose in the talmudic text “is not … wholly to close the gate of speculation and to deprive the intellect of the apprehension of things that it is possible to apprehend.”Footnote 45 That is, in Guide I 32, there is no general prohibition against asking open-ended questions about metaphysics, only against extending the intellect beyond what it can comprehend.
The limitations mentioned here are natural, not legal, as in the Mishneh Torah. Moreover, they concern only those things that are demonstrated. R. Akiva, “who entered [the Pardes] in peace and went out in peace” is said by Maimonides to have believed only those things that have been demonstrated and to have rejected only those things whose contradictories have been proved false.Footnote 46 Regarding everything else, R. Akiva is said to have suspended judgment, in a manner comparable to the ἐποχή (suspension of judgment) of the ancient Pyrrhonists.Footnote 47 Elisha ben Abuyah is said by Maimonides to have earned his condemnation from the Talmud because he believed things that were not demonstrated and was consequently “overcome by imaginings.”Footnote 48 Unlike Elisha, R. Akiva is said to have pursued demonstration as far as it goes and not to have aspired to go beyond the limits of demonstration. The limitations imposed by demonstration are clearly different from those imposed in Mishneh Torah, hilkhot ʿavodah zarah, chapter 2.
We might ask further: How would the R. Akiva of Guide I 32 treat the subjects of the Pardes discussed in Hilkhot yesode ha-Torah, chapters 1–4? Certain points of the Pardes are demonstrable, according to Maimonides, such as the existence of God and His unity, but others are not.Footnote 49 The eternity of the world, for instance, is maintained at Hilkhot yesode ha-Torah 1:5, but said to be questionable if not entirely incorrect at Guide II 25. Other issues, such as the number of spheres, the unchanging character of the heavens, and the natural makeup of ether, also turn out to be not demonstrated and perhaps not demonstrable. R. Akiva, then, would not be able to accept the Pardes of the Mishneh Torah. R. Akiva may have entered the Pardes in peace and gone out in peace, but he could not have accepted those propositions in the Pardes that are not demonstrations. As exclusive followers of demonstration, he and the readers of the Guide who adopt his approach must place themselves in some sense outside of the Pardes of the Mishneh Torah and outside of its theoretical assumptions. They may in some sense be at peace with the Pardes, that is, not disturb it, but they must also “go out” of the Pardes into a place where they can dedicate themselves to following only demonstration.
The Guide of the Perplexed, then, is directed to one who is in violation of the Mishneh Torah’s prohibition against freethinking about the foundations of the Law. What are the consequences of this violation? At the end of the statement from the Mishneh Torah quoted at the beginning of this article, Maimonides notes that violation of this law “causes man to be driven out of the world to come, [but] does not carry the punishment of lashes.” That is, there is no court-ordered punishment for violation of this prohibition in the Mishneh Torah, only a threat about the world to come.Footnote 50 Lashes, of course, are relegated by Maimonides and his contemporaries to the time of a functioning Sanhedrin, but Maimonides grants wise men the authority to apply isolation and exile to, inter alia, heretics and people who speak ill of the sages.Footnote 51 Yet, the perplexed inquirers into the foundations of the Law incur no such penalty so long as they do not make their views too public.Footnote 52 Practically speaking, someone who asks questions and raises doubts about any of the six things about which he is forbidden from thinking would have only to worry about the threat of being driven out of the world to come. If the questioner is at all serious, his worry about his share in the world to come cannot be too great, since most of his questions would entail questioning reward and punishment in the world to come as a kind of corollary.Footnote 53
Violators of this precept would then find themselves without any consequence in this world. Indeed, they would find an entire book, Maimonides's other magnum opus, dedicated to them. Rather than court-ordered punishment, they would have a book to read. That is, the Guide of the Perplexed serves in some sense in lieu of other punishment, or perhaps, indeed, it is their punishment. Instead of lashes or isolation, they read the Guide.
Yet the Guide is not entirely silent on the notion of punishment for theoretical sins; Maimonides addresses this notion in his discussion of sacrifices and divine worship in Guide III 46. There, he develops a principle according to which the external act of atonement, including at least some sacrifices, is reminiscent of the sin that was committed.Footnote 54 While Maimonides's application of this principle to the sacrifices is not entirely convincing (presumably, intentionally so),Footnote 55 it does seem to work for other kinds of atonement. Thus, for example, people can seek atonement for sins involving property by expending property, or for corporeal pleasures in corporeal afflictions like fasting and awakening at night. Maimonides explicitly mentions that disobedience in connection with morals requires attaining the contrary moral habit “as we explained in Hilkhot deʿot” in the Mishneh Torah.Footnote 56 The explanation in the Mishneh Torah concerns not atonement or forgiveness, but correction of moral imbalance. Thus, in Guide III 46 Maimonides moves seamlessly from sacrificial atonement to moral balance and adjustment of habits toward the mean.
It is in this context that he brings up sins caused by theoretical errors: “If the act of disobedience consists in theorizing—I mean by this that if he believes in an opinion that is not sound because of his incapacity and his slackness in inquiry and in devoting himself to theorizing—he must counter this by suppressing his thinking [fikratihi] and preventing it from thinking about anything pertaining to the things of this world [al-dunyā], but direct it exclusively to the intelligible [maᶜqūl] and to an exact study of what ought to be believed.”Footnote 57 Maimonides here discusses a person who is led to an incorrect opinion through incapacity, the Arabic of which literally means “because of his shortness,”Footnote 58 or by his unwillingness to study and theorize enough. Such a person repents by not thinking about this world, but thinking only about the intelligible and analyzing what ought to be believed. That is, the corrective counter to sins of theorizing is theorizing, albeit of a different kind. The kind of thinking the penitent theorizer is supposed to undertake concerns only metaphysics and opinions. Even the “exact study of what ought to be believed” places the focus of the corrective measures on the study, rather than on the beliefs; Maimonides does not advise revising one's beliefs, but rather better inquiry.Footnote 59
The suppression of thought about this world is not a suppression of inquiry into natural science, as might seem from the English translation above. Rather the word for “this world” that Maimonides uses, al-dunyā in Arabic, is derived from the word daniya, “to be low,” and accordingly refers to the “lower world,” usually in opposition to the final world, al-ākhira, that is, the world to come. Maimonides uses the term dunyā only two other times in the Guide, once in his discussion of Ash'arite views of reward and punishment in this world (fī al-dunyā) and the world to come in III 17, and once in his discussion of intellectual prayer in III 51. The relevant passage in III 51 states, “Know that all the practices of the worship, such as reading the Torah, prayer, and the performance of the other commandments, have only the end of training you to occupy yourself with His commandments, may He be exalted, rather than with matters pertaining to this world [al-dunyā]; you should act as if you were occupied with Him, may He be exalted, and not with that which is other than He.”Footnote 60 This passage is part of Maimonides's recommendations to the reader about how to pray and observe the commandments with a view to attaining “intellectual worship” (al-‘ibādah al-‘aqliyyah) of God.Footnote 61 This intellectual worship bears two striking similarities to the repentance Maimonides recommends for theoretical errors in III 46: removing oneself from the world (al-dunyā) and focusing on the intellectual, that is, the intelligible. Both also concentrate on the conventional, whether established opinions or rituals. In III 51, the conventional rituals are used to train one to be truly occupied with God, that is, to intellect actively. It is not impossible to read the passage from III 46 as giving a similar role to conventional opinions. That is to say, the penitence of theoretical sinners is very similar, if not entirely identical, to Guide III 51's ideal form of worship that either is or leads to “intellectual worship.” If so, then Maimonides may see theoretical errors as part of the path to ideal theoretical achievement.
Perhaps it is with this in mind that Maimonides addresses the Guide precisely to the perplexed, that is, to those who, if not guilty of theoretical errors, are in danger of becoming so. Such people have the potential to attain the ideal “intellectual worship” of Guide III 51. Yet this potential is not always realized, and while Maimonides states that introducing and encouraging intellectual worship is the goal of III 51,Footnote 62 his stated goals for the entire Guide of the Perplexed are more circumspect. Thus, for instance, toward the end of the introduction to the Guide, Maimonides says regarding the goals of the entire book, “I claim to liberate that virtuous one from that into which he has sunk, and I shall guide him in his perplexity until he becomes perfect and finds rest.”Footnote 63 Maimonides does not claim to do away with the perplexity entirely, as one might expect from the successful intellectual worshipper, but rather to help the perplexed choose perplexity over heresy and thereby find perfection and rest.Footnote 64
One who is in violation of the Mishneh Torah’s prohibition against freethinking about the foundations of the Law would find in the Guide the theoretical counter to both potential and actual theoretical sins. As we saw in Guide III 46, those guilty of theoretical sins are urged to abandon the things of this world and concentrate on the intellectual objects of thought and accepted opinions. Reading and studying the Guide itself, insofar as it would involve the precise study of the relationship between the intelligible and accepted Jewish opinions, could fulfill the requirement for punishment for theoretical sins.
The function of the Guide as a punishment has a parallel in Plato's Laws. The Laws is one of the few of Plato's dialogues extant today in some form in Arabic. Sources mention two Arabic translations of the Laws, neither of which is now extant,Footnote 65 and at least two Arabic summaries of the work, one of them a translation of Galen's epitome of the Laws,Footnote 66 as well as al-Farabi's well-known commentary on the Laws.Footnote 67 One of these summaries and al-Farabi's commentary include only the first nine books of the Laws, but it is possible that other texts containing more of the Laws were available to Maimonides. We do not know, therefore, in what form Maimonides could have encountered Plato's Laws. It is thus not impossible that the similarity pointed to below is entirely coincidental. However, this similarity is also loose enough that Maimonides could even have heard it indirectly from a secondhand account of the Laws.
In Plato's Laws, an unnamed Athenian stranger, in discussion with a Spartan and a Knossian, comes up with a system of laws for a city to be built in the Cretan countryside. While the Athenian Stranger gives some accounts of what law is in general, most of the dialogue is dedicated to laying out actual laws, some in great detail. Thus, we find laws about market regulation, marriage and families, and also numerous laws related to worshipping the gods through sacrifices, games, and choral dances. In books 9 and 10 of the Laws, the Athenian Stranger turns to the punishments due to violators of various laws. He is especially concerned with violators of divine laws. In book 9, he begins with temple robbery, and book 10 concerns laws of heresy.
The laws of heresy of book 10 are primarily directed at young people who do not believe that “the gods are according to the laws” (885b)Footnote 68 and are thus likely to act or speak impiously in the future. Yet these wayward youths are not interested in “doing unjust things” (885d),Footnote 69 but want to be persuaded of the laws’ account of the gods. According to the Athenian Stranger, they turn directly to the lawgivers, in this case the interlocutors of the dialogue the Laws, for gentle persuasion that the gods exist, are concerned with human affairs, and are not easily bribed through sacrifices and prayers. Their request for gentle persuasion puts a demand on the lawgivers to come up with an account of the divine, an apology, as it were, for the laws, and one that can without spiritedness (θυμός) convince the questioning youth to follow the laws. The requirement that the account not involve spiritedness means that it must involve rationality, or something close to rationality.
The account the Athenian Stranger gives is a critique of materialism and an argument for the centrality, indeed divinity of soul. Soul is a god and the first soul is a kind of One God. As conductor of the world, soul governs all things and is not easily bribed to do injustice. These arguments, which take up the better part of book 10 of the Laws, are said to be a “prelude” (προοίμιον) to the law against impiety, that is, a kind of persuasive argument encouraging its hearers to follow the law.Footnote 70 Following the prelude, the Athenian Stranger gives the law: impious words or actions are to be reported to the magistrates who are to punish the impious with imprisonment.
The prison for those who are not convinced by the Athenian Stranger's account of divine soul is to be separate from the other prisons. It is to be in the center of town, near the senior council. Its prisoners are to be those who have been deemed to reject the arguments about divine soul because of lack of νοῦς, not because of “evil temperament and mores.”Footnote 71 That is, these prisoners are not intellectually convinced of the arguments, but are not otherwise a threat to the peace of the city. Their sentence is to be imprisoned for at least five years, during which time they meet with members of the senior nocturnal council, who admonish and teach them for the “salvation of the soul.”Footnote 72 That is, they are imprisoned in the center of town for five years, during which they discuss soul and the divine with the eldest and most respected members of the city—a fate closer to college than to what we typically consider prison.
The goal of this prison is to induce a kind of “moderation” (σωϕροσύνη) in the imprisoned. Accordingly, the Athenian Stranger calls this prison a σωϕρονιστήριον, probably a wordplay on the ϕροντιστήριον of Aristophanes's Clouds. In the ϕροντιστήριον of the Clouds Socrates convinces young men to become ϕρόνιμος, “thoughtful.” In the σωϕρονιστήριον the nocturnal council is to convince the wayward, questioning youths to be become moderate. The Athenian Stranger says no more about what this moderation consists of, other than that the one who becomes moderate can then dwell among the moderate.Footnote 73 The goal then is apparently that the youths be reintroduced to society and then dwell as citizens among them.
The wordplay with Aristophanes's ϕροντιστήριον emphasizes that “thought” (ϕρονήσις) is in fact not the object of the Athenian Stranger's σωϕρονιστήριον; “moderation” (σωϕροσύνη) rather than thought is the object. Indeed, the Athenian Stranger does not specify that the imprisoned need agree with his account of soul and the divine or with the other arguments put forward by the members of the nocturnal council. The goal of the prison sentence is moderate living, not agreement with the views of the city. The penalty for those who do not agree to live moderately is death.Footnote 74 This penalty is not said to be for disagreement with the city's views, but for not agreeing to live within the city “moderately.” The wayward youth, then, has every incentive to live within what the city considers a moderate lifestyle, even if he is not necessarily convinced by all the arguments of the city.
Moderation and Rest in the Guide of the Perplexed
If we take the Guide of the Perplexed in the context in which it fits in the Mishneh Torah, it seems to play the part of the σωϕρονιστήριον of Plato's Laws. The Mishneh Torah, Maimonides's code of law, prohibits questioning the divine and the connection of the divine to humanity. There is no direct punishment in this world for violating this prohibition, but Maimonides wrote a separate book directly addressing all of the main issues brought up in the prohibition, namely, the Guide of the Perplexed. This book, in my own estimate, should take about five years to read. Moreover, the Guide ostensibly answers the questions raised in the Mishneh Torah, but the answers are complicated, contradictory, and often so unclear that commentators disagree on what they are. Its goal, indeed, may not be to provide answers to all questions.
Is the goal of the Guide to provide σωϕροσύνη? I want to suggest that moderation is included as part of the “rest” (’istirāḥ) that Maimonides tenders as a reward for the reader of the Guide. We saw above that in his introduction to the Guide, Maimonides says he will guide his addressee “in his perplexity until he becomes perfect and he finds rest.” Later, at the end of his introduction to part 1 of the Guide, Maimonides says that the Guide will be a “key permitting one to enter places the gates to which were locked. And when these gates are opened and these places are entered into, the souls will dwell therein, the eyes will be delighted, and the bodies will find rest [’istirāḥ] from their toil and from their labor.”Footnote 75 In this place to which the Guide leads souls can dwell, but it is bodies that will find rest.Footnote 76
“Rest” is not a standard philosophical term and Maimonides does not tell us precisely what he means by it. We are thus left to look to the other uses of the term in the Guide to discern its senses from context. This term for “rest,” or its base form, rāḥah, appears in ten other chapters in the Guide.Footnote 77 Two of these chapters use “rest” in contrast to “toil and labor”Footnote 78 and pain and suffering.Footnote 79 Three of these chapters refer to the process of changing habits,Footnote 80 four chapters discuss rest in relation to the Sabbath and holidays,Footnote 81 and one chapter refers to rest (’istirāḥ) as self-knowledge and not “seeking a final end for what has not that final end.”Footnote 82 In all cases, Maimonides appears to understand rest as not doing some kind of labor, either bodily toil or the toil of thinking and having opinions.
This latter kind of rest from having opinions, especially those inculcated by habit, is associated with civilized life in Guide I 31. Maimonides makes the following analogy:
The people of the desert—notwithstanding … the lack of pleasure and the scarcity of food—dislike the towns, do not hanker after their pleasures, and prefer the bad circumstances to which they are accustomed to good ones to which they are not accustomed. Their souls accordingly would find no rest in living in palaces, in wearing silk clothes, and in the enjoyment of baths, ointments and perfumes. In a similar way, man has love for, and the wish to defend, opinions to which he is habituated and in which he has been brought up and has a feeling of repulsion for opinions other than those. For this reason also man is blind to the apprehension of true realities …Footnote 83
In this analogy, someone raised in a desert is compared to one brought up on certain (religious, it turns out, text-based) opinions and one who apprehends true reality is compared to one enjoying the pleasures of civilized life. Just as the desert dweller will not enjoy civilized pleasures, one immersed in certain opinions cannot easily abandon them to begin to contemplate true realities, that is, metaphysics. One who intends to contemplate true realities must somehow overcome those opinions inculcated in his youth so that he can enjoy the pleasures of the intellectual life.
Surprisingly, Maimonides gives an entirely contradictory description of the relationship between habit and civilized rest in III 24: “It is as if [the Bible] said that He, may He be exalted, has first accustomed you to misery in the desert in order to make your rest greater when once you came into the land. And this is true, for to pass from weariness to rest is more pleasant than to be constantly at rest. And it is known that but for their misery and weariness in the desert, they would not have been able to conquer the land and fight.”Footnote 84 That is, Maimonides says not only that the Israelites became tougher by enduring the hardship of desert life, but that they were better able to enjoy the pleasant settled life of Israel after, indeed because of, the hardship of the desert. This is a direct contradiction: in I 31, Maimonides says that those accustomed to desert life do not enjoy civilized pleasures, while in III 24, he says they enjoy civilized pleasures more because they have become accustomed to greater hardship! If the analogy of I 31 were to be applied to this statement in III 24,Footnote 85 it would suggest that opinions inculcated through habits can be a good preparation for civilized life, that is, it would seem, for proper metaphysical speculation. Moreover, it could perhaps also imply that habits and opinions need to be viewed as toil and hardship in order to aid people in apprehending true realities beyond them.Footnote 86
I propose another interpretation. In I 31, the civilized pleasures are the apprehension of true reality. In III 24, the civilized pleasures are associated with living in the Land of Israel, with following the Law in its full application under a political regime. That is, in III 24, the analogy of civilized pleasures refers to actual civilization, with its accompanying laws, habits, and opinions. In III 24, the Israelites are not abandoning their habituated opinions in favor of apprehending the true realities. Rather, they are abandoning those opinions and habits they adopted in Egypt in favor of a new set of opinions and habits with which they will conduct their civilized life. Maimonides famously does not consider this an easy process,Footnote 87 but as more conducive to pleasure than abandoning opinions altogether.
“Rest,” then, has two different meaning in I 31 and III 24. In I 31, rest is apprehension of the true realities, and in III 24, rest is living according to acceptable habits and opinions, such as those adopted by the Israelites when they took possession of the Land of Israel. This comparison highlights that the civilized pleasures of the apprehender of true realities of I 31 are not shared by the entire civilization; indeed, they are not civilized in the sense of being political goals or politically attained goals. The city inhabited by the apprehender of true realities in I 31 is a city of the mind, which can perhaps be identified with the divine city of apprehenders of God described in III 51. It is a city where law is insufficient and habit and opinion must be overcome in pursuit of pure intellectual apprehension. In contrast, the civilization of III 24 is a political association and as such has laws, habits, opinions, and even a holy text. The pleasures of resting in the civilization of III 24 surely do not involve undermining that political order by dissolving those laws, habits, etc.
The other meanings of rest can be understood in accordance with these two views of civilized pleasures: proper opinions and apprehension of true realities. Most of the meanings concern developing the former, proper opinions through rest. In III 41, Maimonides connects rest with “noble moral qualities” when explaining the biblical command to allow a captured woman to mourn for a month before assuming full marital relations. Maimonides says she finds “rest in weeping and grieving” until she is too tired to continue.Footnote 88 This rest seems intended to relieve the captive woman of her previous idolatrous opinions as part of the process of adopting new opinions, that is, of joining the community of Israel. In another instance of the term for “rest,” one of the main purposes of the Sabbath, Maimonides says repeatedly, is to support the opinion that the world is created.Footnote 89 This opinion is important, we learn in one place, because “at first go and with the slightest of speculations [it] shows that the deity exists.”Footnote 90 However, in I 71, Maimonides argues at some length that proving God's existence from the creation of the world is a fallacy of the kalām and incompatible with demonstration.Footnote 91 The Sabbath, then, promotes opinions about the creation of the world and the existence of God, but not according to scientific demonstration. Rest on the Sabbath, then, is a rest with acceptable opinions, not a rest with true apprehension of reality, which presumably relies on demonstration. The role of rest (rāḥah) in these examples is somewhat different: in III 24, it is the state of holding acceptable opinions, in III 41 it is part of the process of adopting new opinions, and in the chapters that refer to the Sabbath it supports and presumably promotes the acceptable opinions. Yet, despite these disparities, in all of these cases, rest (rāḥah) is part of the process of adopting and keeping acceptable opinions, one of the hallmarks of Maimonides's understanding of Judaism.
We find the second view of rest in Maimonides's characterization of the Garden of Eden, where he associates rest with pure intellectual apprehension and “toil and labor” with man's removal from pure intellect in the realm of good and evil.Footnote 92 Later in the Guide, in III 13, Maimonides states that when man knows himself and his limits, his thoughts are at rest and he does not seek the unknowable final cause of the universe.Footnote 93 This seems similar to the peace (Hebrew, shalom) R. Akiva is said to have found when he went out of the Pardes. Yet Maimonides does not say in III 13 that one should not apply his intellect at all, but rather that he should not apply his intellect to things that are beyond the intellect. In fact, the addressee of III 13, like R. Akiva of the Pardes, is encouraged to contemplate only those things that can be grasped by the intellect. That is, this person finds rest only through intellection and not through extending the intellect beyond what it can comprehend. This rest, like that of the Garden of Eden, is one of pure intellectual cognition.Footnote 94
A third meaning of the term “rest” that does not fit into my twofold categorization is given in Maimonides's account of the Sabbath in Guide I 67. There Maimonides says, “refraining from speech is likewise called rest [menuḥah].” Now, Maimonides is primarily interested in divine speech, which he associates with divine will and creation. But he notes, “the signification of the [Hebrew] verb [va-yanaḥ] derives from that of rest [al-rāḥah]”Footnote 95 and relies on examples of resting from speech from the human realm. These examples are 1 Samuel 25:9, where David's emissaries to Nabal speak and then rest from speech while waiting for a response, and Job 32:1, where Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar finish up their speeches, that is, their theological arguments. Indeed, the Arabic word for speech here is kalām, a word perhaps not unsuitable for the style of arguments of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Rest, in this view, means not speaking, or possibly not engaging in kalām.Footnote 96
Let us now return to Maimonides's promise of rest to the addressee of the Guide. The first mention of it is ambiguous, permitting one to read all three meanings of rest into it: pure intellectual apprehension, adopting and keeping acceptable opinions, and refraining from speech. The second mention at the very end of the introduction notes, “bodies will find rest [’istirāḥ] from their toil and from their labor.”Footnote 97 This cannot refer to rest as intellectual cognition, since that rest does not involve bodies. It can only refer to the two other meanings of rest: adopting and keeping acceptable opinions and refraining from speech. The addressee of the Guide, then, can be expected to live among other members of his faith with a quiet acceptance of their opinions. While this addressee may continue to strive for pure intellectual cognition, also called rest by Maimonides, he is also expected to adopt the other forms of rest: accepting, or at least not contradicting the general opinions of his society. If indeed, the addressee of the Guide is one who is in violation of the Mishneh Torah’s laws against freethinking, then he can be expected to return to accept the common opinions, or at least refrain from speaking about them after reading the Guide.Footnote 98 That is, Maimonides's Guide could lead wayward, perplexed youths to a kind of σωϕροσύνη.
* * * * *
It is possible, then, to view the Guide of the Perplexed as a vehicle for philosophical punishment for theoretical crimes, as defined in the Mishneh Torah and perhaps also in Guide III 46. This notion of philosophical inquiry as punishment is a Platonic notion that is seen most clearly in the Laws, where inquiry into the divine only comes up in a developed way as a response to freethinking youth.Footnote 99 That is, inquiry into the divine in the Laws develops out of a concern for protecting the laws of the city. This is in contrast to Plato's discussion of the development of inquiry into the divine in book 2 of the Republic, where Socrates builds his account of the divine prima facie as a preface to saying what kinds of speech, especially poetry, can be allowed in the city.Footnote 100 That is, in the Republic, the account of the divine determines the makeup of the city, while in the Laws the makeup of the city, namely, the laws, determines the account of the divine. It is only in the moderation-inducing prison that thoughtful but wayward-leaning youths are able to publicly discuss the divine outside of concerns for the city. Once they leave this prison, these youths are expected to keep their thoughts to themselves. Maimonides's Guide similarly provides a semipublic forum in the form of a publicly disseminated book for the perplexed to ask questions explicitly forbidden in the Mishneh Torah. After finishing the Guide, readers are encouraged to live in the city and quietly accept the traditional law.
Yet at the same time, the addressee of the Guide is encouraged to adopt intellectual worship in III 51 and to strive for rest through pure intellectual cognition of reality. This goal may not contradict Maimonides's other goal of bringing bodily rest, that is, moderation, since intellectual activity is a solitary pursuit. Indeed, it is clear from numerous chapters throughout the Guide that nearly everyone who seeks such intellectual activity is quite far from accomplishing it. It is possible, then, that one could strive for perfect intellectual comprehension of reality while at the same time quietly living in accord with the opinions and habits of one's society.
Let us end by noting that the punishment that the violator of the Mishneh Torah’s laws against freethinking faces in the Guide is in crucial respects the opposite of the punishment Adam faced when he was expelled from the Garden of Eden. Adam, according to Maimonides, enjoyed rest (rāḥah) in Eden, until he was punished with “work and toil.” This work and toil, it seems from the context of Guide I 2, refers to opinions and politics. The body of the addressee of the Guide is to “be eased of [its] toil and of [its] labor” and to find rest. In one sense, the addressee can be made to go beyond opinions, habits, and politics to enjoy rest in intellectual apprehension, that is, to return to the Garden of Eden. In another sense, the addressee of the Guide finds rest in quiet accommodation to society. He thus both returns to Eden and lives in the world around him.