top of page
< Back

Maimonides and England

Dr. J. L. Teicher

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Maimonides and England1 By J. L. Teicher, Ph.D. The subject of this paper, which deals with the influence of the writings of Moses Maimonides on English civilization during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is so vast and the time at my disposal so short that I cannot attempt more than a general outline of the problems involved. A brief summary of the principles of Maimonides5 philosophy seems, however, to be indispensable for the purpose. It is generally assumed that Maimonides5 philosophy is the result of an endeavour to harmonize the rationalistic doctrines of Aristotle with the religious ideas and moral teachings of the Bible. In fact, Maimonides rejects both the main metaphysical preconceptions of Aristotle and the theory of emanation which Arabic philosophers had evolved by combining astronomy with Neoplatonic and Aristotelian meta? physics ; he further disposes effectively of the claim that the concepts employed in Aristotelian physics are an adequate means of explaining the universe as a whole. Indeed, the salient characteristics of Maimonides5 philosophy are a dissatisfaction with Aristotelian physics and metaphysics and a predilection for the biological processes of life as the proper object of philosophical and religious inquiry. The core of Maimonides5 philosophical system is the notion of God as the source of all processes of growth and development in the universe, that is, of all creative processes. The universe itself is the result of such a process ; for Maimonides understands the creation of the world as taught in the Bible to mean that the present constituted and fixed Being of the world is the result of a phase in which the universe was involved in a process of Becoming, of creative evolution. This is an eminently modern concept and a clear sign of the originality of Maimonides5 thought. But Maimonides stops, as it were, half-way : he applies the concept of evolution only to the phase of the universe preceding the actually constituted and formed universe which, apparently according to him, is no longer involved in the process of evolution. The dead weight of the ancient philosophy, which had no notion of true evolution, was too great for Maimonides and he was unable to overcome it. Maimonides5 approach to the study of living beings is again modern. He equates Nature, the inner dynamic power which produces and maintains the entire scale of forms and degrees of life, with God, the Creator. The wisdom and design of the Creator are, indeed, manifest in the organization of the living body, with its co-ordination of organs and functions, and in the phenomena of growth from embryonic life to full development, in which the perfect adaptation of the changing living organism to the different conditions of environment and food can be observed. But the terms " wisdom and design 55 as predicated of God, the Creator, have, as Maimonides states with a deep and original insight, quite a different meaning from that given to them in ordinary usage. The reality of God and of His creation, namely the process of Life, cannot, according to Maimonides, be properly expressed by rationalistic concepts. Rational intuition, as opposed to rationalistic categories, is the only adequate means of apprehending God and His works. Hence springs the reformulation of man's supreme religious duty, the knowledge of God, which is offered by Maimonides : man's task consists in overcoming the rationalistic schemes 1 Paper read before the Jewish Historical Society of England on 15th February, 1942. 97 k</page><page sequence="2">98 MAIMONIDES AND ENGLAND of thought and in attaining the intuitive apprehension of God. Man may achieve this by studying the phenomena of Life ; for thus he attains directly, by rational intuition, the process of creation itself, and his mind becomes joined with the source of creation, with God. Moral and religious perfection is the indispensable, but subordinate, condition of man's union with God. God's work in creation has its counterpart in history. The whole period of biblical history is conceived by Maimonides as a continual process of development in which a " divine contrivance ", similar to that of the phenomenon of adaptation of the living organism to its environment, was operating. The mind of the Jewish people after the liberation from Egypt was still impregnated with the heathen customs and ritual of the Egyptians and was hardly capable of comprehending the rational nature of God and of the divine cult?intuitive knowledge?appropriate to Him. Hence the divine revelation communicated to the people through Moses assumed a form adapted to the mentality of those who were to receive it. The revelation, therefore, contained regulations concerning the ritual, the sacrifices and other religious ceremonies, the purpose of which was purely pedagogical : to lead the people gradually, by making proper use of the religious forms to which they were accustomed, to the true knowledge of God. The principles of social justice and peace embodied in the civil legislation of the Tor ah aimed in their turn to create the founda? tions of the healthy and happy society which is the indispensable condition of a higher spiritual life. The teachings of the prophets, into whose intellect and imagination God's creative power directly emanated, acted, during the course of biblical history, like the dynamic factor in the growth of an organism, until the full develop? ment of the Jewish nation, consolidated in its just institutions and with the knowledge of God inculcated in the mind of every member, was achieved. There is, thus, in Maimonides an exact analogy between the phase of creative evolution in the history of the universe and the phase of creative evolution in the history of the Jewish nation. And just as, in the history of the universe, the process of evolutions stops with the consolidation of the universe in a formed Being, so, according to Maimonides, does the creative development of the Jewish nation stop with the cessation of prophecy. And again, just as in the universe the creative process is still present in all phenomena of life, so, according to Maimonides, the channel through which the creative power of God flows is still open in the mind of those select men who achieve the union with God in an intuitive act of knowledge. Their effort is, apparently, merely individual, they attain immortality for themselves, but do not promote the develop? ment of the society in which they live. There is an aristocratic strain in Maimonides' outlook derived probably from Plato. The ultimate state of human society, called by the religious term, the " Kingdom of the Messiah ", will therefore come suddenly and miraculously, that is, unrelated to the past history of humanity. This stage will be characterized, according to Maimonides, by the realization of universal peace and prosperity, and by the emanation of the creative power of God upon the mind of every man. The City of Reason, of creative, intuitive Reason, will then be established on earth. This all too brief summary of Maimonides' philosophy may perhaps convey, at least, a sense of his achievement. It is a transposition of the traditional Jewish religious notions, such as the creation of the world, the revelation of the Torah, prophecy, the duty of man, etc., into a rational intuitive?not rationalistic, and hence not Aristotelian?system of philosophy. True religion is, for Maimonides,</page><page sequence="3">MAIMONIDES AND ENGLAND 99 identical with intuitive philosophy, which is based on the apprehension of the creative process of evolution and life. Among the factors which contributed to the formation of the philosophical and religious climate of opinion in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Maimonides' writings and especially his Moreh Nebhukkim, which were then widely and eagerly read, occupy a foremost place. His identification of true religion with intuitive philosophy exercised a powerful attraction on all the members of the Cambridge Platonic school and particularly on the Cambridge divine, John Smith, who seems to have set himself the task of performing for the Christian religion what Maimonides achieved for the Jewish religion, namely, of" translating " the religious terms into those of an intuitive philosophy. The similarity of the results achieved by Smith to those of Maimonides is, indeed, remarkable : it offers an interesting field of speculation for those interested in comparative religion. Smith's writings exhibit both a deep insight into Maimonides' conceptions and a simplicity of method in adopting them that are, indeed, very striking. Thus, for example, his dissertation on Prophecy, entirely derived from Maimonides and his Jewish commentators, contains a description of prophecy which is still the best interpretation of Maimonides' con? ception : We must remember what hath been often suggested, that the Prophetical scene or Stage upon which all apparitions were made to the Prophet, was his Imagination ; and that there all those things which God would have revealed to him were acted over Symbolically, as in a Masque, in which divers persons are brought in, amongst which the prophet himself bears a part. Smith's adaptation of Maimonides' conception of prophecy to his own Christian ends is achieved by merely replacing Moses with Jesus, a replacement which we also find in Spinoza, who may have derived his inspiration on this point from Smith's writings. Another Cambridge man, the famous lawyer, John Spencer, was so impressed by Maimonides' historical approach and his description of the origin and signifi? cance of the biblical ceremonial laws that he elaborated it in two massive volumes of comparative religion, which played a considerable part in the religious controversies of the time. The most significant influence exercised by Maimonides in those centuries is clearly discernible in the peculiar English brand of natural religion, which, in contrast to the similar movements on the Continent, was not atheistic. The chief tenets of the English movement?that the existence of God can be proved from the works of Nature and that it is a religious duty to demonstrate God's wisdom through a scientific investigation of the organization of the body of living beings?are directly inspired by Maimonides. The holy alliance which was then struck between science and religion created an attitude of mind and a programme of work that resemble the execution of Maimonides' injunctions to seek the union with God through the study of nature. We witness then the unusual spectacle of scientists, like Newton or Boyle, pursuing their scientific research with a religious end in mind ; we see divines preach sermons and compose theological treatises which embody the results of their scientific observations and investigation carried out in various fields ranging from geology and anatomy to entomology and zoology. The pages of Tillotson, Ray, Derham, Paley, and even Priestley, testify to the profound inspiration which these</page><page sequence="4">100 MAIMONIDES AND ENGLAND authors derived, directly or indirectly, from Maimonides, though the latter's teaching became diluted to a great extent when rationalistic schemes of thought were superimposed on the principles of intuitive philosophy. Sometimes a significant sentence in the works of Hobbes, Hume, or Gibbon can be traced back to the Moreh Nebhukhim, and on one occasion Bishop Derham celebrated in Oxford the institution of the Sabbath as the commemoration of God's work of creation in terms similar to those used by Maimonides. If the great creation of a poet may be considered the expression of the aspira? tions and ideals of his age, the depth of Maimonides' influence in seventeenth century England may be best gauged from observing that a leading motif in Milton's " Paradise Lost", namely, the Fall of Adam, is directly derived from the Moreh Nebhukhim. Milton conceives Adam's fall, not in the usual Christian manner as a lapse from the state of innocence to the knowledge of sin, but, like Maimonides in chapter two of the first book of Moreh Nebhukhim, as the overpowering of reason by passion : Reason in Man obscur'd, or not obey'd, Immediately inordinate desires And upstart passion catch the government From Reason. . . . A true understanding of the intuitive principles of Maimonides' philosophy and a detailed investigation of the extent of its influence on English thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will certainly lead to a better comprehension of one of the most important periods of English civilization.</page></plain_text>

bottom of page