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IT is the object of this work “to afford a guide for the perplexed,” i.e. “to thinkers whose studies have brought them into collision with religion” p. 9), “who have studied philosophy and have acquired sound knowledge, and who, while firm in religions matters, are perplexed and bewildered on account of she ambiguous and figurative expressions employed in the holy writings (p. 5). Joseph, the son of Jehudah Ibn Aknin, a disciple of Maimonides, is addressed by his teacher as an example of this kind of students. It was “for him and for those like him” that the treatise was composed, and to him this work is inscribed in the dedicatory letter with which the Introduction begins. Maimonides, having discovered that his disciple was sufficiently advanced for an exposition of the esoteric ideas in the books of the Prophets, commenced to give him such expositions “by way of hints.” His disciple then begged him to give him further explanations, to treat of metaphysical themes, and to expound the system and the method of the Kalām, or Mohammedan Theology.11See infra, page 4, note 1. In compliance with this request, Maimonides composed the Guide of the Perplexed. The reader has, therefore, to expect that the subjects mentioned in the disciple’s request indicate the design and arrangement of the present work, and that the Guide consists of the following parts: — 1. An exposition of the esoteric ideas (sodot) in the books of the Prophets. 2. A treatment of certain metaphysical problems. 3. An examination of the system and method of the Kalām. This, in fact, is a correct account of the contents of the book; but in the second part of the Introduction, in which the theme of this work is defined, the author mentions only the first-named subject. He observes “My primary object is to explain certain terms occurring in the prophetic book. Of these some are homonymous, some figurative, and some hybrid terms.” “This work has also a second object. It is designed to explain certain obscure figures which occur in the Prophets, and are not distinctly characterised as being figures” (p. 2). Yet from this observation it must not be inferred that Maimonides abandoned his original purpose; for he examines the Kalām in the last chapters of the First Part (ch. lxx.–lxxvi.), and treats of certain metaphysical themes in the beginning of the Second Part (Introd. and ch. i.–xxv.). But in the passage quoted above he confines himself to a delineation of the main object of this treatise, and advisedly leaves unmentioned the other two subjects, which, however important they may be, are here of subordinate interest. Nor did he consider it necessary to expatiate on these subjects; he only wrote for the student, for whom a mere reference to works on philosophy and science was sufficient. We therefore meet now and then with such phrases as the following “This is folly discussed in works on metaphysics.” By references of this kind the author may have intended so create a taste for the study of philosophical works. But our observation only holds good with regard to the Aristotelian philosophy.
The writings of the Mutakallemim are never commended by him; he states their opinions, and tells his disciple that he would not find any additional argument, even if he were to read all their voluminous works (p. 133). Maimonides was a zealous disciple of Aristotle, although the theory of the Kalām might seem to have been more congenial to Jewish thought and belief. The Kalām upheld the theory of God’s Existence, Incorporeality, and Unity, together with the creatio ex nihilo. Maimonides nevertheless opposed the Kalām, and, anticipating the question, why preference should be given to the system of Aristotle, which included the theory of the Eternity of the Universe, a theory contrary to the fundamental teaching of the Scriptures, he exposed the weakness of the Kalām and its fallacies.
The exposition of Scriptural texts is divided by the author into two parts the first part treats of homonymous, figurative, and hybrid terms,22See infra, page 5, note 4. employed in reference to God; the second part relates to Biblical figures and allegories. These two parts do not closely follow each other; they are separated by the examination of the Kalām, and the discussion of metaphysical problems. It seems that the author adopted this arrangement for the following reason first of all, he intended to establish the fact that the Biblical anthropomorphisms do not imply corporeality, and that the Divine Being of whom the Bible speaks could therefore be regarded as identical with the Primal Cause of the philosophers. Having established this principle, he discusses from a purely metaphysical point of view the properties of the Primal Cause and its relation to the universe. A solid foundation is thus established for the esoteric exposition of Scriptural passages. Before discussing metaphysical problems, which he treats in accordance with Aristotelian philosophy, he disposes of the Kalām, and demonstrates that its arguments are illogical and illusory.
The “Guide for the Perplexed” contains, therefore, an Introduction and the following four parts: — 1. On homonymous, figurative, and hybrid terms. 2. On the Supreme Being and His relation to the universe, according to the Kalām. 3. On the Primal Cause and its relation to the universe, according to the philosophers. 4. Esoteric exposition of some portions of the Bible (sodot): a. Maaseh bereshith, or the history of the Creation (Genesis, ch. i-iv.); b. on Prophecy; c. Maasen mercabhah, or the description of the divine chariot (Ezekiel, ch. i.).
According to this plan, the work ends with the seventh chapter of the Third Part. The chapters which follow may be considered as an appendix; they treat of the following theological themes the Existence of Evil, Omniscience and Providence, Temptations, Design in Nature, in the Law, and in the Biblical Narratives, and finally the true Worship of God.
In the Introduction to the “Guide,” Maimonides (1) describes the object of the work and the method he has followed; (2) treats of similes; (3) gives “directions for the study of the work”; and (4) discusses the usual causes of inconsistencies in authors.
1 (pp. 2–3). Inquiring into the root of the evil which the Guide was intended to remove, viz., the conflict between science and religion, the author perceived that in most cases it originated in a misinterpretation of the anthropomorphisms in Holy Writ. The main difficulty is found in the ambiguity of the words employed by the prophets when speaking of the Divine Being; the question arises whether they are applied to the Deity and to other things in one and the same sense or equivocally; in the latter case the author distinguishes between homonyms pure and simple, figures, and hybrid terms. In order to show that the Biblical anthropomorphisms do not imply the corporeality of the Deity, he seeks in each instance to demonstrate that the expression under examination is a perfect homonym denoting things which are totally distinct from each other, and whenever such a demonstration is impossible, he assumes that the expression is a hybrid term, that is, being employed in one instance figuratively and in another homonymously. His explanation of “form” (ẓelem) may serve as an illustration. According to his opinion, it invariably denotes “form” in the philosophical acceptation of the term, viz., the complex of the essential properties of a thing. But to obviate objections he proposes an alternative view, to take ẓelem as a hybrid term that may be explained as a class noun denoting only things of the same class, or as a homonym employed for totally different things, viz., “form” in the philosophical sense, and “form” in the ordinary meaning of the word. Maimonides seems to have refrained from explaining anthropomorphisms as figurative expressions, lest by such interpretation he might implicitly admit the existence of a certain relation and comparison between the Creator and His creatures.
Jewish philosophers before Maimonides enunciated and demonstrated the Unity and the Incorporeality of the Divine Being, and interpreted Scriptural metaphors on the principle that “the Law speaks in the language of man” but our author adopted a new and altogether original method. The Commentators, when treating of anthropomorphisms, generally contented themselves with the statement that the term under consideration must not be taken in its literal sense, or they paraphrased the passage in expressions which implied a lesser degree of corporeality. The Talmud, the Midrashim, and the Targumim abound in paraphrases of this kind. Saadiah in “Emunot ve-de‘ot,” Bahya in his “Ḥobot ha-lebabot,” and Jehudah ha-levi in the “Cusari,” insist on the necessity and the appropriateness of such interpretations. Saadiah enumerates ten terms which primarily denote organs of the human body, and are figuratively applied to God. To establish this point of view he cites numerous instances in which the terms in question are used in a figurative sense without being applied to God. Saadiah further shows that the Divine attributes are either qualifications of such of God’s actions as are perceived by man, or they imply a negation. The correctness of this method was held to be so obvious that some authors found it necessary to apologize to the reader for introducing such well-known topics. From R. Abraham ben David’s strictures on the Yad haḥazakah it is, however, evident that in the days of Maimonides persons were not wanting who defended the literal interpretation of certain anthropomorphisms. Maimonides, therefore, did not content himself with the vague and general rule, “The Law speaks in the language of man,” but sought carefully to define the meaning of each term when applied to God, and to identify it with some transcendental and metaphysical term. In pursuing this course he is sometimes forced to venture upon an interpretation which is much too far-fetched to commend itself even to the supposed philosophical reader. In such instances he generally adds a simple and plain explanation, and leaves it to the option of the reader to choose the one which appears to him preferable. The enumeration of the different meanings of a word is often, from a philological point of view, incomplete; he introduces only such significations as serve his object. When treating of an imperfect homonym, the several significations of which are derived from one primary signification, he apparently follows a certain system which he does not employ in the interpretation of perfect homonyms. The homonymity of the term is not proved; the author confines himself to the remark, “It is employed homonymously,” even when the various meanings of a word might easily be traced to a common source.
2 (pag. 4–8). In addition to the explanation of homonyms Maimonides undertakes to interpret similes and allegories. At first it had been his intention to write two distinct works — Sefer ha-nebuah, “A Book on Prophecy,” and Sefer ha-she‘vaah, “A Book of Reconciliation.” In the former work he had intended to explain difficult passages of the Bible, and in the latter to expound such passages in the Midrash and the Talmud as seemed to be in conflict with common sense. With respect to the “Book of Reconciliation,” he abandoned his plan, because he apprehended that neither the learned nor the unlearned would profit by it the one would find it superfluous, the other tedious. The subject of the “Book on Prophecy” is treated in the present work, and also strange passages that occasionally occur in the Talmud and the Midrash are explained.
The treatment of the simile must vary according as the simile is compound or simple. In the first case, each part represents a separate idea and demands a separate interpretation; in the other case, only one idea is represented, and it is not necessary to assign to each part a separate metaphorical meaning. This division the author illustrates by citing the dream of Jacob (Gen. xxviii. x a sqq.), and the description of the adulteress (Prov. vii. 6 sqq.). He gives no rule by which it might be ascertained to which of the two categories a simile belongs, and, like other Commentators, he seems to treat as essential those details of a simile for which he can offer an adequate interpretation. As a general principle, he warns against the confusion and the errors which arise when an attempt is made to expound every single detail of a simile. His own explanations are not intended to be exhaustive; on the contrary, they are to consist of brief allusions to the idea represented by the simile, of mere suggestions, which the reader is expected to develop and to complete. The author thus aspires to follow in the wake of the Creator, whose works can only be understood after a long and persevering study. Yet it is possible that he derived his preference for a reserved and mysterious style from the example of ancient philosophers, who discussed metaphysical problems in figurative and enigmatic language. Like Ibn Ezra, who frequently concludes his exposition of a Biblical passage with the phrase, “Here a profound idea (sod) is hidden,” Maimonides somewhat mysteriously remarks at the end of different chapters, “Note this,” “Consider it well.” In such phrases some Commentators fancied that they found references to metaphysical theories which the author was not willing fully to discuss. Whether this was the case or not, in having recourse to that method he was not, as some have suggested, actuated by fear of being charged with heresy. He expresses his opinion on the principal theological questions without reserve, and does not dread the searching inquiries of opponents; for he boldly announces that their displeasure would not deter him from teaching the truth and guiding those who are able and willing to follow him, however few these might be. When, however, we examine the work itself, we are at a loss to discover to which parts the professed enigmatic method was applied. His theories concerning the Deity, the Divine attributes, angels, creatio ex nihilo, prophecy, and other subjects, are treated as fully as might be expected. It is true that a cloud of mysterious phrases enshrouds the interpretation of Ma‘aseh bereshit (Gen. i.-iii.) and Ma‘aseh mercabah (Ez. i.). But the significant words occurring in these portions are explained in the First Part of this work, and a full exposition is found in the Second and Third Parts. Nevertheless the statement that the exposition was never intended to be explicit occurs over and over again. The treatment of the first three chapters of Genesis concludes thus: “These remarks, together with what we have already observed on the subject, and what we may have to add, must suffice both for the object and for the reader we have in view” (II. xxx.). In like manner, he declares, after the explanation of the first chapter of Ezekiel: “I have given you here as many suggestions as may be of service to you, if you will give them a further development. . . . Do not expect to hear from me anything more on this subject, for I have, though with some hesitation, gone as far in my explanation as I possibly could go” (III. vii.).
3 (pag. 8–9), In the next paragraph, headed, “Directions for the Study of this Work,” he implores the reader not to be hasty with his criticism, and to bear in mind that every sentence, indeed every word, had been fully considered before it was written down. Yet it might easily happen that the reader could not reconcile his own view with that of the author, and in such a case he is asked to ignore the disapproved chapter or section altogether. Such disapproval Maimonides attributes to a mere misconception on the part of the reader, a fate which awaits every work composed in a mystical style. In adopting this peculiar style, he intended to reduce to a minimum the violation of the rule laid down in the Mishnah (Ḥagigah ii. 1), that metaphysics should not be taught publicly. The violation of this rule he justifies by citing the following two Mishnaic maxims: “It is time to do something in honour of the Lord” (Berakot ix. 5), and “Let all thy acts be guided by pure intentions” (Abot ii. 17). Maimonides increased the mysteriousness of the treatise, by expressing his wish that the reader should abstain from expounding the work, lest he might spread in the name of the author opinions which the latter never held. But it does not occur to him that the views he enunciates might in themselves be erroneous. He is positive that his own theory is unexceptionally correct, that his esoteric interpretations of Scriptural texts are sound, and that those who differed from him — viz., the Mutakallemim on the one hand, and the unphilosophical Rabbis on the other — are indefensibly wrong. In this respect other Jewish philosophers — e.g. Saadiah and Baḥya — were far less positive; they were conscious of their own fallibility, and invited the reader to make such corrections as might appear needful. Owing to this strong self-reliance of Maimonides, it is not to be expected that opponents would receive a fair and impartial judgment at his hands.
4 (pag. 9–11). The same self-reliance is noticeable in the next and concluding paragraph of the Introduction. Here he treats of the contradictions which are to be found in literary works, and he divides them with regard to their origin into seven classes. The first four classes comprise the apparent contradictions, which can be traced back to the employment of elliptical speech the other three classes comprise the real contradictions, and are due to carelessness and oversight, or they are intended to serve some special purpose. The Scriptures, the Talmud, and the Midrash abound in instances of apparent contradictions; later works contain real contradictions, which escaped the notice of the writers. In the present treatise, however, there occur only such contradictions as are the result of intention and design.
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