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The Perplexing Nature of the Guide for the Perplexed

Mark Daniels introduces the most famous work of Moses Maimonides and asks – was he a philosopher, a heretic or a mystic?

Moses Maimonides (Moses the son of Maimon – or the RaMBaM – Rabbi Moses ben Maimon in Hebrew) was the leading Jewish medieval philosopher. In addition to his work in philosophy, he was one of the foremost medieval halakhists (experts in Jewish Law), and a leading commentator on the Talmud. An important doctor, he wrote some ten books on medicine; his work on poisons and their antidotes was taught in the medical school at Oxford for several centuries after his death, and he was a physician in Saladin’s court. He also wrote on astronomy; his work on the intercalation of the calendar was written in his early 20’s.

The Problem of Aristotle

Aristotle’s thinking caused a major revolution in the medieval world when the philosophers of the day belatedly realised that rather than just agreeing with his teacher, Plato, he was frequently saying something very different. On the positive side, Aristotle was sensible, logical and systematized many areas of human intellectual endeavour. On the negative side he had offered proofs of various views which were a major problem religiously: that God did not create the world (which had always existed), that God was ignorant of anyone else’s existence and did not communicate with religious prophets of any denomination.

Maimonides the Philosopher

Maimonides’ greatest philosophical work was his Dalalat al-haïrin or Guide for the Perplexed. He wrote it in Arabic and it was translated twice into Hebrew, and also into Latin (Dux Perplexorum) and later into Italian (in 1583). It comprises three books with an intriguing introduction.

On a straightforward reading Maimonides is sorting out the problems of those like the dedicatee of the book – Joseph ibn Aknin – who are learned philosophically on the one hand – and thus know of Aristotle’s proofs above, but on the other hand wish to remain religious Jews.

He starts off with a rigorous analysis of the descriptions of God in the Hebrew bible, showing how they are too be taken allegorically rather than referring literally to God’s Hand, Eye, Throne etc. He then moves on to his version of the Via Negativa, arguing that God cannot be accurately described in language. He pokes holes in various Islamic arguments about the nature of God as put forwards by the schools of the Mutakallemin (theologians), and then includes several arguments for the existence of God (variations of the cosmological and teleological proofs).

In the second book, Maimonides moves on to consider the Creation of the World and Aristotle’s demonstration (proof) that matter is eternal. He concludes that the religious view of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing) is not inferior to that of the eternity of the world and that he can refute all objections to the religious view. He then analyses the nature of prophecy and the need for ethical perfection by a prophet.

In his third and final book Maimonides begins with a philosophical analysis of the most mystical section of the Bible – the description of the heavenly chariot at the beginning of the book of Ezekiel. In essence he treats this entire section as an allegorical representation of Aristotle’s thinking in the Physics and Metaphysics! He then moves on to the consideration of the problem of evil (which comes from the material nature of the world) and then to the nature of Divine Providence and an analysis of the book of Job. Next, Maimonides considers the 613 commandments from the Torah of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) and explains that they fall into two classes – those concerned with the relationship between man and his fellows (which lead towards the perfection of human society) and those dealing with the relationship between man and God which are intended to improve our moral and intellectual faculties.

Maimonides concludes with an analysis of the varying forms of human perfection: possessions (“I have the best philosophy magazine”), body (“I have the best biceps”), morality (“I am the most humble”), and, finally intellect (the true perfection of man – the possession of such notions as lead to true metaphysical opinions concerning God).

Maimonides the Heretic

The straightforward reading summarised above has not been accepted by all. Many thinkers during the Middle Ages objected, such as Samuel ibn Tibbon, who was the second to translate it from Judeao-Arabic into Hebrew, Judah Alfakar and Moses Narboni. In more modern times Leo Strauss and his American neo-conservatives have also taken issue with the simple synopsis above (when not advising George Bush on Iraqi policy!). The argument is that Maimonides actually agreed with the Aristotelian (heretical) position summarised at the start and wished to communicate this covertly to his student ibn Aknin.

Why think this? The first hint that the book is not necessarily what it seems is found at the end of the introduction where Maimonides lists seven causes as to why inconsistencies are found in books. Two of these are relevant: the 5th cause is that complex matters are usually simplified in an inaccurate form for purposes of reference elsewhere and not corrected until the complex matter is dealt with at length. The 7th cause is “It is sometimes necessary to introduce such metaphysical matter as may partly be disclosed, but must partly be concealed; while, therefore, on one occasion the object which the author has in view may demand that the metaphysical problem be treated as solved in one way, it may be convenient on another occasion to treat it as solved in the opposite way. The author must endeavour, by concealing the facts as much as possible, to prevent the uneducated reader from perceiving the contradiction.” Maimonides then claims that all contradictions found within the Guide will be due to only these two causes!

The second consideration, as Leo Strauss explains in his Persecution and the Art of Writing, is that in religious societies those who hold heretical views are usually persecuted. Therefore Maimonides would have needed to write between the lines in order to say what he really thought if he wished to survive the experience.

Whilst in a short article there is no space to indulge in a deep analysis of all of the contradictions in the Guide, let’s look at one. Maimonides refers to God’s providence (God’s caring guidance of worldly affairs) several times in his Guide. In his analysis of the traditional Jewish perspective he writes:
“Another fundamental principle taught by the Torah/Law of Moses is this: Wrong cannot be ascribed to God in any way whatever; all evils and afflictions as well as all kinds of happiness in man, whether they concern one individual person or a community are distributed according to Justice, they are the result of strict judgement that admits no wrong whatever. Even when a person suffers pain in consequence of a thorn having entered into his hand, although it is at once drawn out, it is a punishment that has been inflicted on him [for sin], and the least pleasure he enjoys is a reward [for some good action of his]; all this is meted out by strict justice…”
Maimonides then moves on to his own view:
“My opinion on this principle of Divine Providence I will now explain to you. … in what follows I do not rely on demonstrative proof but on my concept of the divine Law and books of the Prophets.… below the heavens Divine Providence does not extend to individual members of a species except in the case of mankind. It is only in this species that the incidents in the existence of the individual human beings, their food and evil fortunes, are the result of justice … But I agree with Aristotle as regards all other living beings, and a fortiori as regards plants and all the rest of earthly creatures.
“Understand thoroughly my theory, that I do not ascribe to God ignorance of anything or any kind of weakness; I hold that Divine Providence is related and closely connected with the intellect, because Providence can only proceed from an intelligent being, from a being that is itself the most perfect intellect. Those creatures, therefore, which receive part of that intellectual influence, will become subject to the action of Providence in the same proportion as they are acted upon by the intellect.” (Book 3 Chapter 17).
But later, in Chapter 51, he throws a spanner in the works:
“… those who, perfect in their knowledge of God, turn their mind sometimes away from God, enjoy the presence of Divine Providence only when they meditate on god; when their thoughts are engaged in other matters, Divine Providence departs from them. … Those who have no knowledge of God are like those who live in constant darkness and have never seen light: the sun does not shine for them on account of the cloud that intervenes between them and God.
“Hence it appears to me that it is only in times of such neglect that some of the ordinary evils befall a prophet or a perfect pious man; and the intensity of the evil is proportional to the duration of those moments, or to the character of the things that thus occupy their mind.” (Book 3 Chap 51).
So in his official treatment of the subject, Maimonides argues that animals and plants are not subject to divine providence but that all of humanity is. But later, at the end of the Guide, stuck in the middle of a chapter about the worship of God, Maimonides argues that only a handful of philosophers are affected by Divine Providence – and they only when they think of God. And let’s not forget, according to Maimonides how do you truly think of God? By thinking of what God is not! Is that thinking of God or thinking of ‘not God’?

Maimonides the Mystic

As you are reading a philosophy magazine rather than a Kabbalistic one, I’ll keep this brief! The same analysis of his introduction and the contradictions in the Guide, combined with the interest in mysticism shown by some of his family (his son wrote the mystical Kisayat al Obidim or guide to the service of God in Judeao-Arabic, and his grandson Obadya was also a mystical author), joined with disbelief that Maimonides who was so knowledgeable about all the other areas of Judaism could have been ignorant of and reject the Kabbalah, has led a number of Kabbalists over the centuries to see the Guide as a work of mysticism. This view was openly argued by one of the greatest medieval kabbalists Abraham Abulafia who talks of the 36 Kabbalistic concepts enunciated in the Guide (the Intellect of God, the Divine Flow, the Nature of Prophecy, the Marble Stone etc), as well as later mystics such as Mordecai Jaffe and Abraham Horowitz. Many of the more learned Kabbalists such as the Lubavitcher Hasidim still argue this point today. Maimonides is seen as arguing for the kabbalistic understanding of the relationship between God as God really is and God as we perceive Him, his explanation of the Work of the Chariot (one of the primary Kabbalistic texts) is seen as Kabbalistic rather than philosophical and there are also Kabbalistic interpretations of his views on prophecy etc.


It is remarkable that a book can be prone to so many utterly conflicting interpretations. This has contributed to Maimonides’ continuing appeal within all sections of the Jewish world. Our Ultra-Orthodox brethren look at his work as one of Kabbalah and value it from that perspective. Those of us who live within the modern orthodox world value his project of reconciling some of the views currently in vogue in the surrounding culture with traditional Judaism. He even appeals to those in the more progressive groupings whose views of God have more kinship with Aristotle’s than those of the Bible. This of course ignores his appeal to those who have studied philosophy in the American schools under one of Strauss’s students or those who appreciate intellectual endeavour for its own sake!

© Mark Daniels 2005
Mark Daniels is minister at Croydon Synagogue in London and was on the Philosophy Now staff in the 1990s.

Finding Out More

Maimonides was the major Jewish philosopher and has accordingly amassed a vast array of published analyses of his life and thought.

• The two main translations of the entire Guide are Friedlander’s 1904 translation now published by Dover of New York (cheap and cheerful, also downloadable below) and the Shlomo Pines 1963 translation (with an introduction by Leo Strauss) University of Chicago Press in 2 volumes. Dover also produce a small anthology of aimonides ethical writings, whilst the Maimonides Research Institute have translated his medical works. His Mishnah Torah has been translated by Yale University Press (over a dozen volumes).

• Two good books about his thought are Moses Maimonides by Oliver Leaman (Routledge; 1990) locating his thinking within the Arabic world and Interpreting Maimonides by Marvin Fox (University of Chicago Press; 1990). Other interesting monographs have been published by Moshe Halbertal and Menachem Kellner. Two good anthologies of papers include Studies in Maimonides (ed. I. Wersky; Harvard 1991) and Perspectives on Maimonides (ed. J. Kramer; Littman Library; 1996)

• A good anthology of Leo Strauss’ writings can be found in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism (ed. T. Pangle; 1989 – read the essay on medieval philosophy) and see also his Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952/88 – read the eponymous paper and also the Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed). Both books are published by the University of Chicago Press.

Maimonides Timeline

  • 1138 Moses Maimonides born in Cordoba, Spain under Almoravid rule.
  • 1148 Cordoba invaded by the fundamentalist Almohades. The family disappear from the records for 12 years. Some maintain that they were forcibly onverted to Islam, others hold that they wandered around Spain, Provence and Morocco.
  • 1158 Maimonides starts work on intercalation of Jewish calendar & Astronomy
  • 1160 Family surfaces in Fez, the Almohad capital in Morocco.
  • 1165 Family spends 6 months in Acre, Crusader Palestine before leaving for Cairo
  • c. 1166 Maimon dies and Moses’ younger brother David supports him financially.
  • 1168 Maimonides finishes commentary on the Talmudic Mishna – a ten year project.
  • 1170 Writes the Sefer haMitzvot – his analysis of the 613 biblical commandments.
  • 1171 He is appointed the Ras al-Yehud (Chief of Jews) in Fostat, Cairo where he serves for 5 years. Saladin and his Ayyubids replace the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt.
  • 1180 Finishes the Mishneh Torah (2nd Law), his legal magnum opus.
  • 1185? With the disappearance of his brother David at sea, Maimonides obtains position as doctor of al-Fadil, Saladin’s vizier.
  • 1190 Finishes the Dalalat al-haïrin (Guide for the Perplexed).
  • 1204 Maimonides dies.

But beware! To quote R.J.Z. Werblowsky:
“The biographies of famous Jewish Rabbis are rarely more than a thin cloth of hazardous combinations of guesses, wrapped around a meagre skeleton of assured fact.”