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The homonymous expressions which are discussed in the First Part include — (1) nouns and verbs used in reference to God, ch. i. to ch. xlix.; (2) attributes of the Deity, ch. l. to lx.; (3) expressions commonly regarded as names of God, ch. lxi. to lxx. In the first section the following groups can be distinguished — (a) expressions which denote form and figure, cii. i. to ch. vi.; (b) space or relations of space, ch. viii. to ch. xxv.; (c) parts of the animal body and their functions, ch. xxviii. to ch. xlix. Each of these groups includes chapters not connected with the main subject, but which serve as a help for the better understanding of previous or succeeding interpretations. Every word selected for discussion bears upon some Scriptural text which, according to the opinion of the author, has been misinterpreted. But such phrases as “the mouth of the Lord,” and “the hand of the Lord,” are not introduced, because their figurative meaning is too obvious to be misunderstood.
The lengthy digressions which are here and there interposed appear like outbursts of feeling and passion which the author could not repress. Yet they are “words fitly spoken in the right place”; for they gradually unfold the author’s theory, and acquaint the reader with those general principles on which he founds the interpretations in the succeeding chapters. Moral reflections are of frequent occurrence, and demonstrate the intimate connexion between a virtuous life and the attainment of higher knowledge, in accordance with the maxim current long before Maimonides, and expressed in the Biblical words, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. cxi. 10). No opportunity is lost to inculcate this lesson, be it in a passing remark or in an elaborate essay.
The discussion of the term “ẓelem” (cii. i.) afforded the first occasion for reflections of this kind. Man, “the image of God,” is defined as a living and rational being, as though the moral faculties of man were not an essential element of his existence, and his power to discern between good and evil were the result of the first sin. According to Maimonides, the moral faculty would, us fact, not have been required, if man had remained a purely rational being. It is only through the senses that “the knowledge of good and evil” has become indispensable. The narrative of Adam’s fall is, according to Maimonides, an allegory representing the relation which exists between sensation, moral faculty, and intellect. In this early part (ch. ii.), however, the author does not yet mention this theory; on the contrary, every allusion to it is for the present studiously avoided, its full exposition being reserved for the Second Part.
The treatment of ḥazah “he beheld “ (ch. vi), is followed by the advice that the student should not approach metaphysics otherwise than after a sound and thorough preparation, because a rash attempt to solve abstruse problems brings nothing but injury upon the inexperienced investigator. The author points to the “nobles of the children of Israel” (Exod. xxiv. 11), who, according to his interpretation, fell into this error, and received their deserved punishment. He gives additional force to these exhortations by citing a dictum of Aristotle to the same effect. In a like way he refers to the allegorical use of certain terms by Plato (ch. xvii.) in support of his interpretation of “ẓur” (lit., “rock”) as denoting “Primal Cause.”
The theory that nothing but a sound moral and intellectual training would entitle a student to engage in metaphysical speculations is again discussed in the digression which precedes the third group of homonyms (xxxi.–xxxvi.). Man’s intellectual faculties, he argues, have this in common with his physical forces, that their sphere of action is limited, and they become inefficient whenever they are overstrained. This happens when a student approaches metaphysics without due preparation. Maimonides goes on to argue that the non-success of metaphysical studies is attributable to the following causes: the transcendental character of this discipline, the imperfect state of the student’s knowledge, the persistent efforts which have to be made even in the preliminary studies, and finally the waste of energy and time owing to the physical demands of man. For these reasons the majority of persons are debarred from pursuing the study of metaphysics. Nevertheless, there are certain metaphysical truths which have to be communicated to all men, e.g., that God is One, and that He is incorporeal; for to assume that God is corporeal, or that He has any properties, or to ascribe to Him any attributes, is a sin bordering on idolatry.
Another digression occurs as an appendix to the second group of homonyms (ch. xxvi.–xxvii.). Maimonides found that only a limited number of terms are applied to God in a figurative sense; and again, that in the “Targum” of Onkelos some of the figures are paraphrased, while other figures received a literal rendering. He therefore seeks to discover the principle which was applied both in the Sacred Text and in the translation, and he found it in the Talmudical dictum, “The Law speaketh the language of man.” For this reason all figures are eschewed which, in their literal sense, would appear to the multitude as implying debasement or a blemish. Onkelos, who rigorously guards himself against using any term that might suggest corporification, gives a literal rendering of figurative terms when there is no cause for entertaining such an apprehension. Maimonides illustrates this rule by the mode in which Onkelos renders “yarad” (“he went down,”), when used in reference to God. It is generally paraphrased, but in one exceptional instance, occurring in Jacob’s “visions of the night” (Gen. xlvi. i), it is translated literally; in this instance the literal rendering does not lead to corporification; because visions and dreams were generally regarded as mental operations, devoid of objective reality. Simple and clear as this explanation may be, we do not consider that it really explains the method of Onkelos. On the contrary, the translator paraphrased anthropomorphic terms, even when he found them in passages relating to dreams or visions; and indeed it is doubtful whether Maimonides could produce a single instance, in favour of his view. He was equally unsuccessful in his explanation of “ḥazah” “he saw” (ch. xlviii.). He says that when the object of the vision was derogatory, it was not brought into direct relation with the Deity; in such instances the verb is paraphrased, while in other instances the rendering is literal. Although Maimonides grants that the force of this observation is weakened by three exceptions, he does not doubt its correctness.
The next Section (ch. I. to ch. lix.) “On the Divine Attributes” begins with the explanation that “faith” consists in thought, not in mere utterance; in conviction, not in mere profession. This explanation forms the basis for the subsequent discussion. The several arguments advanced by Maimonides against the employment of attributes are intended to show that those who assume the real existence of Divine attributes may possibly utter with their lips the creed of the Unity and the Incorporeality of God, but they cannot truly believe it. A demonstration of this fact would be needless, if the Attributists had not put forth their false theses and defended them with the utmost tenacity, though with the most absurd arguments.
After this explanation the author proceeds to discuss the impropriety of assigning attributes to God. The Attributists admit that God is the Primal Cause, One, incorporeal, free from emotion and privation, and that He is not comparable to any of His creatures, Maimonides therefore contends that any attributes which, either directly or indirectly, are in contradiction to this creed, should not be applied to God. By this rule he rejects four classes of attributes viz., those which include a definition, a partial definition, a quality, or a relation.
The definition of a thing includes its efficient cause; and since God is the Primal Cause, He cannot be defined, or described by a partial definition. A quality, whether psychical, physical, emotional, or quantitative, is always regarded as something distinct from its substratum; a thing which possesses any quality, consists, therefore, of that quality and a substratum, and should not be called one. All relations of time and space imply corporeality; all relations between two objects are, to a certain degree, a comparison between these two objects. To employ any of these attributes in reference to God would be as much as to declare that God is not the Primal Cause, that He is not One, that He is corporeal, or that He is comparable to His creatures.
There is only one class of attributes to which Maimonides makes no objection, viz. such as describe actions, and to this class belong all the Divine attributes which occur in the Scriptures. The “Thirteen Attributes” (shelosh esreh middot, Exod. xxxiv. 6, 7) serve as an illustration. They were communicated to Moses when he, as the chief of the Israelites, wished to know the way in which God governs the universe, in order that he himself in ruling the nation might follow it, and thereby promote their real well-being.
On the whole, the opponents of Maimonides admit the correctness of this theory. Only a small number of attributes are the subject of dispute. The Scriptures unquestionably ascribe to God Existence, Life, Power, Wisdom, Unity, Eternity, and Will. The Attributists regard these as properties distinct from, but co-existing with, the Essence of God. With great acumen, and with equally great acerbity, Maimonides shows that their theory is irreconcilable with their belief in the Unity and the Incorporeality of God. He points out three different ways of interpreting these attributes: — 1. They may be regarded as descriptive of the works of God, and as declaring that these possess such properties as, in works of man, would appear to be the result of the will, the power, and the wisdom of a living being. 2. The term “existing,” “one,” “wise,” etc., are applied to God and to His creatures homonymously; as attributes of God they coincide with His Essence; as attributes of anything beside God they are distinct from the essence of the thing. 3. These terms do not describe a positive quality, but express a negation of its opposite. This third interpretation appears to have been preferred by the author; he discusses it more fully than the two others. He observes that the knowledge of the incomprehensible Being is solely of a negative character, and he shows by simple and appropriate examples that an approximate knowledge of a thing can be attained by mere negations, that such knowledge increases with the number of these negations, and that an error in positive assertions is more injurious than an error in negative assertions. In describing the evils which arise from the application of positive attributes to God, he unsparingly censures the hymnologists, because he found them profuse in attributing positive epithets to the Deity. On the basis of his own theory he could easily have interpreted these epithets in the same way as he explains the Scriptural attributes of God. His severity may, however, be accounted for by the fact that the frequent recurrence of positive attributes in the literary composition of the Jews was the cause that the Mohammedans charged the Jews with entertaining false notions of the Deity.
The inquiry into the attributes is followed by a treatment of the names of God. It seems to have been beyond the design of the author to elucidate the etymology of each name, or to establish methodically its signification; for he does not support his explanations by any proof. His sole aim is to show that the Scriptural names of God in their true meaning strictly harmonize with the philosophical conception of the Primal Cause. There are two things which have so be distinguished in the treatment of the Primal Cause: the Primal Cause per se, and its relation to the Universe. The first is expressed by the tetragrammaton and its cognates, the second by the several attributes, especially by rokeh ba‘arabot, “He who rideth on the ‘arabot” (Ps. lxviii. 4)
The tetragrammaton exclusively expresses the essence of God, and therefore it is employed as a nomen proprium. In the mystery of this name, and others mentioned in the Talmud, as consisting of twelve and of forty-two letters, Maimonides finds no other secret than the solution of some metaphysical problems. The subject of these problems is not actually known, but the author supposes that it referred to the “absolute existence of the Deity.” He discovers the same idea in ehyeh (Exod. iii. 14), in accordance with the explanation added in the Sacred Text: asher ehyeh, “that is, I am.” In the course of this discussion he exposes the folly or sinfulness of those who pretend to work miracles by the aid of these and similar names.
With a view of preparing the way for his peculiar interpretation of rokeb ba‘arabot, he explains a variety of Scriptural passages, and treats of several philosophical terms relative to the Supreme Being. Such expressions as “the word of God,” “the work of God,” “the work of His fingers,” “He made,” “He spake,” must be taken in a figurative sense; they merely represent God as the cause that some work has been produced, and that some person has acquired a certain knowledge. The passage, “And He rested on the seventh day” (Exod. xx. 11) is interpreted as follows: On the seventh Day the forces and laws were complete, which during the previous six days were in the state of being established for the preservation of the Universe. They were not to be increased or modified.
It seems that Maimonides introduced this figurative explanation with a view of showing that the Scriptural “God” does not differ from the “Primal Cause” or “Ever-active Intellect” of the philosophers. On the other hand, the latter do not reject the Unity of God, although they assume that the Primal Cause comprises the causa efficiens, the agens, and the causa finalis (or, the cause, the means, and the end); and that the Ever-active Intellect comprises the intelligens, the intellectus, and the intellectum (or, the thinking subject, the act or thought, and the object thought of); because in this case these apparently different elements are, in fact, identical. The Biblical term corresponding to “Primal Cause” is rokeb ba‘arabot, “riding on ‘arabot.” Maimonides is at pains to prove that ‘arabot denotes “the highest sphere,” which causes the motion of all other spheres, and which thus brings about the natural course of production and destruction. By “the highest sphere ” he does not understand a material sphere, but the immaterial world of intelligences and angels, “the seat of justice and judgment, stores of life, peace, and blessings, the seat of the souls of the righteous,” etc. Rokeb ba’arabot, therefore, means He presides over the immaterial beings, He is the source of their powers, by which they move the spheres and regulate the course of nature. This theory is more fully developed in the Second Part.
The next section (chap. lxxi.–lxxvi.) treats of the Kalām. According to the author, the method of the Kalām is copied from the Christian Fathers, who applied it in the defence of their religious doctrines. The latter examined in their writings the views of the philosophers, ostensibly in search of truth, in reality, however, with the object of supporting their own dogmas. Subsequently Mohammedan theologians found in these works arguments which seemed to confirm the truth of their own religion; they blindly adopted these arguments, and made no inquiry whence these had been derived. Maimonides rejects à priori the theories of the Mutakallemim, because they explain the phenomena in the universe in conformity with preconceived notions, instead of following the scientific method of the philosophers. Among the Jews, especially in the East and in Africa, there were also some who adopted the method of the Kalām; in doing so they followed the Mu’tazilah (dissenting Mohammedans), not because they found it more correct than the Kalām of the Ashariyah (orthodox Mohammedans), hut because at the time when the Jews became acquainted with the Kalām it was only cultivated by the Mu‘tazilah. The Jews in Spain, however, remained faithful to the Aristotelian philosophy.
The four principal dogmas upheld by the dominant religions were the creatio ex nihilo, the Existence of God, His Incorporeality, and His Unity. By the philosophers the creatio ex nihilo was rejected, but the Mutakallemim defended it, and founded upon it their proofs for the other three dogmas. Maimonides adopts the philosophical proofs for the Existence, Incorporeality, and Unity of God, because they must be admitted even by those who deny the creatio ex nihilo, the proofs being independent of this dogma. In order to show that the Mutakallemim are mistaken in ignoring the organization of the existing order of things, the author gives a minute description of the analogy between the Universe, or Kosmos, and man, the mikrokosmos (ch. lxxii.). This analogy is merely asserted, and the reader is advised either to find the proof by his own studies, or to accept the fact on the authority of the learned. The Kalām does not admit the existence of law, organization, and unity in the universe. Its adherents have, accordingly, no trustworthy criterion to determine whether a thing is possible or impossible. Everything that is conceivable by imagination is by them held as possible. The several parts of the universe are in no relation to each other; they all consist of equal elements; they are not composed of substance and properties, but of atoms and accidents the law of causality is ignored; man’s actions are not the result of will and design, but are mere accidents. Maimonides in enumerating and discussing the twelve fundamental propositions of the Kalām (ch. lxiii.), which embody these theories, had apparently no intention to give a complete and impartial account of the Kalām; he solely aimed at exposing the weakness of a system which he regarded as founded not on a sound basis of positive facts, but on mere fiction; not on the evidences of the senses and of reason, but on the illusions of imagination.
After having shown that the twelve fundamental propositions of the Kalām are utterly untenable, Maimonides finds no difficulty in demonstrating the insufficiency of the proofs advanced by the Mutakallemim in support of the above-named dogmas. Seven arguments are cited which the Mutakallemim employ in support of the creatio ex nihilo.33Saadiah proves the existence of the Creator in the following way: — 1. The Universe is limited, and therefore cannot possess an unlimited force. 2. All things are compounds the composition must he owing to some external cause. 3. Changes observed in all beings are effected by some external cause. 4. If time were infinite, it would be impossible to conceive the progress of time from the present moment to the future, or from the past to the present moment. (Emunot vede‘ot, ch. i.). — Baḥya founds his arguments on three propositions: — 1. A thing cannot be its own maker. 2. The series of successive causes is finite. 3. Compounds owe their existence to an external force. His arguments are: — 1. The Universe, even the elements, are compounds consisting of substance and form. 2. In the Universe plan and unity is discernible. (Ḥobot halebabot, ch. i.) The first argument is based on the atomic theory, viz., that the universe consists of equal atoms without inherent properties all variety and change observed in nature must therefore be attributed to an external force. Three arguments are supplied by the proposition that finite things of an infinite number cannot exist (Propos. xi.). Three other arguments derive their support from the following proposition (x.): Everything that can be imagined can have an actual existence. The present order of things is only one out of the many forms which are possible, and exist through the fiat of a determining power.
The Unity of God is demonstrated by the Mutakallemim as follows: Two Gods would have been unable to produce the world; one would have impeded the work of the other. Maimonides points out that this might have been avoided by a suitable division of labour. Another argument is as follows: The two Beings would have one element in common, and would differ in another: each would thus consist of two elements, and would not be God. Maimonides might have suggested that the argument moves in a circle, the unity of God being proved by assuming His unity. The following argument is altogether unintelligible: Both Gods are moved to action by will; the will, being without a substratum, could not act simultaneously in two separate beings. The fallacy of the following argument is clear: The existence of one God is proved; the existence of a second God is not proved, it would be possible; and as possibility is inapplicable to God, there does not exist a second God. The possibility of ascertaining the existence of God is here confounded with potentiality of existence. Again, if one God suffices, the second God is superfluous; if one God is not sufficient, he is not perfect, and cannot be a deity. Maimonides objects that it would not be an imperfection in either deity to act exclusively within their respective provinces. As in the criticism of the first argument, Maimonides seems here to forget that the existence of separate provinces would require a superior determining Power, and the two Beings would not properly be called Gods.
The weakest of all arguments are, according to Maimonides, those by which the Mutakallemim sought to support the doctrine of God’s Incorporeality. If God were corporeal, He would consist of atoms, and would not be one; or He would be comparable to other beings: but a comparison implies the existence of similar and of dissimilar elements, and God would thus not be one. A corporeal God would be finite, and an external power would be required to define those limits.
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