Friday, July 11, 2014

Maimonides - The Guide to the Perplexed Book Two

Statue of Moshe Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain
image wikimedia

Book two: the physical universe 
The second book begins with the exposition of the physical structure of the universe, as seen by Maimonides. The world-view asserted in the work is essentially Aristotelian, with a spherical earth in the centre, surrounded by concentric Heavenly Spheres.

While Aristotle's view with respect to the eternity of the universe is rejected, Maimonides extensively borrows his proofs of the existence of God and his concepts such as the Prime Mover:

"But as Maimonides recognizes the authority of Aristotle in all matters concerning the sublunary world, he proceeds to show that the Biblical account of the creation of the nether world is in perfect accord with Aristotelian views. Explaining its language as allegorical and the terms employed as homonyms, he summarizes the first chapter of Genesis thus: God created the universe by producing on the first day the "reshit", or Intelligences, from which the spheres derived their existence and motion and thus became the source of the existence of the entire universe.

A novel point is that Maimonides connects the Heavenly Sphere with the concept of an angel: these are seen as the same thing. The Spheres are essentially pure Intelligences who receive spiritual essence from the Prime Mover. This energy overflows from each one to the next and finally reaches earth and the physical domain.

While novel in Judaism, this concept of intelligent spheres of existence also appears in Gnostic Christianity as Aeons, having been conceived at least eight hundred years before Maimonides. Maimonides' immediate source was probably Avicenna, who may in turn have been influenced by the very similar scheme in Ismaili thought.
It seems to me that the stages of emanations as shortly described in the quoted article have their origins not in Aristotle but rather in Neoplatonism for example in the writings of Plotinus..

Maimonides worldview is geocentric but it is combined with an interesting view of spiritual realities in the physical universe above Earth.

Is the universe eternal?
This leads into a discussion about the merits of the debate whether the universe is eternal or created. As in the first book, Aristotle's theory of the eternity of the universe is seen as the best, philosophically. However, this is because Maimonides considered the proofs that the universe was created to be inferior. He still points out supposed problems with the Aristotelian view and states that, while Aristotle's argument is the best, the possession of Divine Revelation from the Torah is the extra piece of information necessary to decide the matter.

This is followed by a brief exposition of Creation as outlined in Genesis and theories about the possible end of the world.
The somewhat convulsed paragraph states the view that Maimonides accepted the scientific worldview of his days which was equivalent to the Aristotelian view that the universe has always been and will always be. Nothing better had been developed during the over thousand years after this Greek genius.

The famed Jewish scholar suggested that Divine Revelation in the Torah complements the scientific worldview adding extra pieces of information to the question of the eternity of the world. Of course, this is soft glossing over the real contrast between Aristotle's eternal world and the Biblical world which has both a clear beginning and dramatic end.

Prophecy and knowledge
The second major part of the book is the discussion of the concept of prophecy.

Maimonides departs from the orthodox view in that he emphasizes the intellectual aspect of prophecy. According to this view, in Biblical times, when God still revealed himself through prophecy, it was possible to combine logic and intelligence with a knowledge of God through the tradition (i.e. the Written and Oral Torah) in order to achieve a certain level of prophecy.

Maimonides outlines 11 levels of prophecy, with that of Moses being beyond the highest, and thus most unimpeded. Subsequent lower levels reduce the immediacy between God and prophet, allowing prophecies through increasingly external and indirect factors such as angels and dreams. Finally, the language and nature of the prophetic books of the Bible are described.
Maimonides raises a very significant hermeneutical point after discussing science and religion, Aristotle and the Bible. He keeps the Jewish concept of Divine Revelation but works on the matter more giving a challenging definition of prophecy vis a vis knowledge.

We can see the great mind at work here doing a selfie of his personal relationship to the Torah. An Einstein in his time, he cannot give up intellectual thinking and submit to blind adherence to Divine Revelation as a package that just has to be accepted in faith. Rather, for him prophecy is a combination of revelation and intellectual thinking, knowledge.

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