“The Guide for the Perplexed” by Moses Maimonides

Fairly or unfairly, I have always tended to prefer ancient wisdom to modern wisdom. This may be in response to a commonly held view that all thought previous to the 1600s is not worthy of consideration. This is patently false. Moses Maimonides (1135—1204), the great Jewish thinker of the medieval era, is a case in point.

His most famous and influential work, The Guide for the Perplexed, was written for people who felt baffled or discouraged by the contradictions between the science of that time and the religious beliefs of Judaism. Like Thomas Aquinas after him, Maimonides argued that science and religion can and should be harmonized; the contradictions between the two are only apparent. For both thinkers, Aristotle was the chief representative of scientific or rational thought while the Bible provided the most important expressions of faith.

Maimonides begins his treatise with a consideration of various biblical homonyms (a homonym being a word the same as another in spelling but different in meaning). His approach is methodical and extensive but the overall point is quite simple: he is stressing that God is not a bodily being, even though the Bible uses language that seems to say otherwise (the hands of God, the eyes of God and so forth). When Maimonides discusses the attributes of God, he states:

‘All we understand is the fact that He exists, that He is a Being to whom none of His creatures is similar, who has nothing in common with them, who does not include plurality, who is never too feeble to produce other beings, and whose relation to the universe is that of a steersman to a boat; and even this is not a real relation, a real simile, but serves only to convey to us the idea that God rules the universe; that is, that He gives it duration, and preserves its necessary arrangement.’

This is not an especially comforting picture of God; to me, it sounds more like something from Kafka than, for example, the Psalms. But if nothing else, it demonstrates that the philosophers of the Middle Ages were less naïve than we are led to believe.  

The Guide has its share of shortcomings. For one thing, its science is frequently erroneous; and the religious intolerance it sometimes advocates is medieval in the worst sense of that word. But what comes through for me, above these defects or any point of disagreement, is the austere intelligence and literary beauty of Maimonides’ work.

The Guide for the Perplexed is not an easy read. The edition I have, translated by M. Friedlander, is close to four hundred pages of small print. But I think that if the interested reader goes through it slowly, attentively and prayerfully, the experience has a good chance of being positively transformative.

Two final suggestions:  Mortimer Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody can serve as a helpful preparation for The Guide; and at least some familiarity with the Old Testament is indispensable.