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Howard (Haim) Kreisel, Moses Maimonides, in Michael T. Gibbons, ed., The Encyclopedia of Political Thought (Wiley, 2015)

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Howard (Haim) Kreisel, Moses Maimonides, in Michael T. Gibbons, ed., The Encyclopedia of Political Thought (Wiley, 2015)
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  The Encyclopedia of Political Thought  , First Edition. Edited by Michael T. Gibbons.© 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.DOI: 10.1002/9781118474396.wbept0637  Maimonides (1138–1204) Haim Howard Kreisel Moses Maimonides (b. 1138, Cordoba; d. 1204, Cairo) – Jewish theologian and legal authority – was head of the Jewish community in Egypt and physician at the royal court. Maimonides’s fame rests primarily on his having composed the first complete code of Jewish law,  Mishneh Torah  , and on having subsequently written the most significant Jewish philosophical-theological treatise of the Middle Ages, The Guide of the Perplexed   . Both of these works exerted a profound influence on Jewish law and thought from the time of their appearance to the present. While Maimonides wrote no treatise devoted specifically to political philosophy, or even to philosophy in general (with the possible exception of the small philosophical com-pendium Treatise on Logic  , whose authorship is currently debated), his political thought emerges from the views he presents in his legal and theological works, as well as in his various epistles. In a crucial sense Maimonides’s most important contribution in this realm lies in his interpretation of Judaism in light of the political thought of his Greek and Arabic philosophical predecessors, most notably Plato, Aristotle, Alfarabi, and Avempace (Ibn Bajja). Maimonides accepted the Aristotelian view that human beings are by nature social animals requiring society in order to meet their material needs and to satisfy their psychological need for companionship. He also agreed with Aristotle that all beings are characterized by a natural end – telos. The end of human beings as indi- viduals is the mastery of all the theoretical sciences, which culminate in metaphysics – for intellection is the unique and most noble activity distinguishing the human species from all others, and it characterizes God as well – while their perfection as social beings lies in a life of moral virtue. With Plato Maimonides shared the view that the ideal society is ruled by philosophers, who recognize the nature of true human felicity and strive to steer society to its ultimate level of perfection, essentially emulating in the human sphere the harmony characteristic of the ordering of the world. Philosophical intellection, then, is the practice through which one imitates God as an individual; and ideal political governance is the practice through which one imitates God as a social being. The perfection of one’s character traits is regarded by Maimonides as a necessary condition for attaining the perfection of the intellect, as well as for becoming an ideal leader. The Arabic philosopher who already built a political model by combining Platonic and Aristotelian views is Alfarabi (870–950), par-ticularly in his treatises  Attainment of Happiness  , The Political Regime  , and Opinions of the People of the Virtuous City   . Alfarabi exerted a decisive influ ence on subsequent political philosophy in the Arabic-speaking world. In a crucial sense, Maimonides was, first and foremost, a disciple of Alfarabi in this area; he interpreted Judaism as the ideal legislation in accordance with Alfarabi’s model and, more importantly still, he sought to (re)formulate Jewish law and thought in a manner that was consistent with this model. From Avempace (1095–1138), Maimonides borrowed the idea of how an individual is to act when one’s society proves to exercise a corrupting influence to a much greater extent than a beneficial one. Alfarabi conceived of the ideal state as the kind of state ruled by a law laid down by the perfect individual – one who has attained all scientific and philosophic knowledge, possesses all the moral virtues, has a perfect practical intellect, and is endowed with all the other gifts necessary for governance – for instance courage and the art of rhetoric. Such an individual achieves a state of conjunction with the lowest of the supernal intellects, the Active Intellect, by  2   means of which he attains revelation ( wahy   ), namely the illumination of the intellect (rather than specific messages or commands from a transcendent being). This attainment enables him to formulate a perfect legislation for his society by guiding its members to true eternal felicity, which primarily lies in grasping true  views on God and the world through the theo-retical intellect. The perfection of the theoret-ical intellect, in turn, can only be fully achieved by living a life of ethical virtue. In contrast to the ideal virtuous state, nonvirtuous polities are constituted in a way that promotes false goals such as wealth, power, and so on. While the law of the ideal state is concerned not only with ethical virtues but also – and to a greater extent – with beliefs, these beliefs must be presented in imaginative form, that is, in myths, given that most people are, by nature, incapable of grasping abstract truths. The nature of true eternal felicity remains constant, and so do the perfections necessary to attain this state, for they characterize humanity as such. The laws themselves, however, must  vary in light of changes in historical circum-stances. The imaginative forms in which true beliefs are taught by the law, as well as the tales of edification it contains, will also vary in accor-dance with the social-cultural circumstances of the people. Alfarabi thinks that progress in bringing society closer to perfection is possible, hence the need, in time, for new legislations and myths that are superior representations of abstract truths, as the minds of the people grow better prepared to receive them. He goes so far as to envision a situation in which there is a succession of supreme lawgivers and each one legislates a new law. In Alfarabi’s view, the state governed by these ideal legislations is inevi-tably a theocracy. There can be no separation between religious and civil law. The supreme legislator is also a religious ruler and his law is presented as a divine law, for only in this manner can the supreme legislator effectively rule the state and properly guide it to its end. One is left to conclude that, for Alfarabi, the notion that God is the immediate author of the law is itself a myth – one designed to promote adherence to the law. Yet it should be regarded as a philosophic myth. The person who legis-lates as a result of having achieved the state of conjunction with the Active Intellect and of having acquired the illumination of the intellect that is characteristic of this state can in fact be regarded as having attained revelation, and the legislation he lays down as a result of this attain-ment should justly be labeled “divine law.” Alfarabi accepts the possibility that a number of ideal legislations can exist simultaneously, each one being appropriate to the society for which it is formulated. He knows, however, that the opposite is often the case and that no person achieves all the qualifications of serving as supreme lawgiver. In this case he counsels: “One will have to adopt the laws prescribed by the earlier ones, write them down, preserve them, and govern the city by them. The ruler who governs the city according to the written laws received from past imams will be the prince of the law [ sunnah  ]” (Alfarabi 1972 : 37; 1985: 251). These leaders grasp not only the details of the law but also its intent, and they know how to rule accordingly. Political activity, then, is ideally the practical implementation of the principles of political philosophy, which in turn is grounded in the theoretical knowledge of God and in the order of the world. Maimonides adopts Alfarabi’s model to Judaism, while at the same time he introduces several significant modifications in this model. In general, political leadership for Maimonides results from a natural gift that is embedded in the divinely designed order of the world. Maimonides points out the seeming paradox that, while humans are by nature social ani-mals, at the same time they are not naturally capable of living together, due to the extreme diversity of their temperaments. The weak and the meek would always succumb to the strong and the cruel. It is the natural ability of some individuals to govern that overcomes this diversity and allows individuals possessing extremely different characteristics to function together in society (Maimonides 1963 : Guide  2.40). Maimonides traces the ability to govern to a superior imaginative faculty ( Guide  2.37).    3The shortcoming of this form of governance, however, is that those leaders who lack intellec-tual perfection do not direct society to ultimate human perfection. Far superior, then, is pro-phetic governance. The classical prophets are depicted in the Guide  as philosophical leaders, prophecy being treated by Maimonides as a natural phenomenon dependent upon a per-fect theoretical intellect, perfect imagination, and the attainment of the moral virtues ( Guide  2.32, 36–7). Maimonides resolves the dilemma formulated by Plato in the Republic  that it is precisely those best equipped to rule who have no desire to rule – they would continue con-templating the divine truths in the light of the sun rather than return to the shadowy world of the cave – by positing a feeling of internal com-pulsion that accompanies the reception of rev-elation in the case of the superior prophets and results in their issuing a call to the people, to guide them to truth and to the proper course of action despite the dangers that such a call entails. Not only revelation, then, is a natural phenomenon in Maimonides’s view, so too is the prophetic “mission.” When a prophet pro-claims that God spoke to him and ordered him to tell the people to do such and such, he is in fact referring to the insights he has attained in the state of illumination of his intellect and imaginative faculty – rather than to a specific message formulated directly by God – and to the overpowering feeling he has that he must make this knowledge public. The ultimate expression of prophetic gover-nance is the law of Moses. For Maimonides, the defining characteristic of the divine law revealed to Moses is the perfect equilibrium of its commands, which guide its adherents to achiev-ing a proper balance in gratifying the demands of the body without indulging them. Even more important is its concern to inculcate true beliefs about God ( Guide  2.39–40). Hence the divine law is directed not only at the “welfare of the body” – that is, the harmonious arrangement of the body politic – which it achieves by forbidding its mem-bers to harm one another and by inculcating in them the moral virtues, but also at the higher end of the “welfare of the soul” – which it achieves by teaching true beliefs and by mandating that everyone strive to understand these beliefs to the best of his/her ability, the most fundamental belief being the monotheistic idea ( Guide  3.27–8). In short, the divine law is designed to create the optimal environment for the pursuit of intel-lectual perfection, though few are equipped by nature to attain this goal. Maimonides accepts the idea that the divine law must deliver many true  views in imaginative form, given the limited intellectual level of the masses, and at times pres-ents beliefs that are socially necessary but not true (such as the belief that God is angry with wrong-doers), in order to goad people into proper action. All the commandments of the divine law, even the seemingly irrational ones, are depicted by Maimonides as promoting the “welfare of the body” or the “welfare of the soul.” For him, the greatest challenge to the monotheistic idea is idolatry – the worship of gods other than the one transcendent God. Maimonides sees that many of the divine law’s commands and prohibitions that on the surface do not seem to be rooted in reason are in fact designed to combat the prac-tices and false beliefs of the idolatrous religion prevalent in the world of antiquity, thereby elimi-nating the greatest stumbling block to the attain-ment of intellectual and moral perfection ( Guide  3.29–32). Thus many of the commandments were in fact formulated with an eye on the histor-ical situation of the recipients of the divine law in Moses’ time. How Maimonides reconciled this approach to the commandments with his insis-tence on their eternally binding nature will be explored below. In short, for Maimonides, all forms of governance and legislation, whether human or divine, are strongly related to nature and in a crucial sense complete it. They all result from a natural capacity possessed by some human beings and are related to the human beings’ natural condition and ends. Human governance and legislation are, however, defective in that they do not guide human beings to their final perfection, though they enable human beings to function together in society. Though Maimonides accepts the division between human, natural, and divine  4   in his political thought, the distinction between these concepts in the final analysis is not always so clear-cut when one examines carefully his approach. In his earlier legal writings Maimonides treats as a dogma the belief that God dictated the divine law to Moses word for word and that this law alone is the one divine law for all time. In the Guide  , however, he ties the uniqueness of the divine law to the uniqueness of Moses’ perfection ( Guide  2.39), Moses alone receiving a purely intellectual revelation  , without the intermediation of the imaginative faculty (though it is clear from Maimonides’s treatment of Moses that he too possessed a perfect imagination and employed it in governing the people). Moreover, Maimonides attempts to prove the divinity of the law through an examination of its content and goals rather than by proving that God is its immediate author ( Guide  2.40; 3.27). If one adopts an esotericist approach to Maimonides’s philosophy – claiming for instance that Maimonides wrote to different audiences simul taneously and conveyed his true  view in subtle hints, intended to be discerned only by the intellectually astute reader – one may well conclude that he in fact did not believe that God was the immediate author of the divine law: rather Moses was its author, on the basis of his unique perfection. Maimonides refrained from alluding to this view in a less veiled manner, due to its detrimental consequences on the preserva-tion of Judaism. Any law not considered to come immediately from God would be viewed by the masses as a law legislated by humans and hence replaceable, since the masses are incapable of appreciating divinity in terms of perfection rather than agency. In short, not only does Maimonides’s treatise reflect his views on political philosophy and how they are embodied in Judaism, but the  very manner in which he chooses to present these  views is an expression of how a responsible philosophical educator should present true but potentially socially harmful views in the public sphere. Nonetheless, Maimonides’s continued insistence, in the Guide  , on the eternal unique-ness of the law laid down by Moses – not only will it never be replaced by a different divine law, but it will undergo no modification what-soever – creates a position difficult to defend from a philosophical perspective. Historical changes demand new legislations, or at least extensive modifications in the existent one. Maimonides’s radical stance on this issue would appear to condemn Mosaic law to obso-lescence, particularly given the fact that it is concerned with all aspects of life and not only the cultic aspect. Furthermore, Maimonides’s historical- anthropological approach to the rea-sons behind many of the commandments leads to the conclusion that extensive changes in the law are in fact mandatory once the srcinal historical reasons are no longer relevant. Both Maimonides’s critics and his followers were aware of this problem. Moreover, Maimonides himself hints that, if the divine law were laid down by a prophet in his own period, it would contain many different commandments, for example it would no longer command sacri-fices, which were instituted as a historical com-promise ( Guide  3.32). It appears that the paramount consideration motivating Maimonides’s problematic stance on this issue is his desire to preserve the Jews’ com-mitment to Mosaic law and to the oral tradition transmitted by the sages of late antiquity on how the commandments were to be interpreted – that is, to preserve this com mitment in the face of all the competing challenges, internal (Karaites) and external (Muslims and Christians), that threatened it. Any formal change, even in a part of the law, can easily lead to the abrogation of the law in its entirety. Furthermore, Mosaic law contains built-in mechanisms allowing the sages of each genera-tion to adapt the legislation to their own period without introducing any formal changes in the commandments. It is perhaps this sensitivity to the current situation of the Jews in history that leads Maimonides to reject Alfarabi’s view on the possibility of successive divine laws and to posit instead Moses alone as the “recipient” of the one true divine law through all history, while all subsequent prophets and rabbinic sages, both past and future, serve as “princes” of the law, interpreting it to meet the needs of their    5period. Maimonides himself appears to have assumed this role, particularly in his legal works. Many of the ideas that Maimonides expressed, or at least alluded to, in the Guide  had already found a binding legal expression in  Mishneh Torah  , his code of Jewish law. Hence he not only interpreted Judaism in light of his political thought, but he sought to formulate Jewish law accordingly. While his code is for the most part a conservative work in its legal rulings, which are based on the whole corpus of legal literature prior to his time, the very endeavor of composing a complete code of Jewish law, its organization, the manner in which the laws are presented, the laws he chooses to present at the very beginning – all combine to produce a work that is radical in nature. Maimonides organizes the laws according to topics determined by him and presents each law in a concise manner with no reference to sources or divergent opinions (which is highly uncharacteristic of legal writ-ings prior to Maimonides). As Maimonides indicates in the introduction, his aim is that all Jews living all over the world should now have easy access to a single source of Jewish law. He thereby seeks to counter the diversity of legal opinions and the ignorance of many rabbinic leaders in their interpretation of the law, which threatens the continued existence of a single law for the entire Jewish people. He also includes in the code the entire gamut of Jewish law – not only the laws that are relevant to his period, but also the many laws not practiced in his own day due to the nonexistence of the Temple in Jerusalem (e.g., all the commandments involving sacrifice) – thereby giving concrete expression to his view of the law’s inviolability. Moreover, he occasionally adduces reasons for these com-mandments that underscore their permanent relevance – in distinction to his subsequent approach in the Guide  . In short, he wished to create a type of virtual state, his  Mishneh Torah  , rooted as it was in Mosaic law but reflecting all the subsequent Jewish legal developments, serv-ing as its foundation. In keeping with his view that the ultimate goal of the divine law is the “welfare of the soul,” which in turn is dependent upon the “welfare of the body,” Maimonides opens his code with the section “Laws of the Principles of the Torah,” which is followed by the section “Laws of Character Traits.” He rules that certain commandments are performed by the intellect alone, that is to say, by the knowledge grasped by the mind, and involve no action. Moreover, these are the most important com-mandments, and they consist in intellectually grasping God’s existence and unity. Even the command ments of loving and fearing God are completely dependent upon one’s knowledge of God and the order of his world. Jewish law thus sets the attainment of true human perfection as its goal. The learning of philosophy and science, rather than seen as a heretical act, is treated by Maimonides as the highest religious obligation. It is – at least in part – with this end in mind that Maimonides, already in his earlier com-mentary on the  Mishnah  , the most authoritative text of the oral law, sought to make Judaism into a belief-centered religion rather than an action-centered one; and he did so by composing 13 dogmas of Judaism that all Jews are legally bounded to accept in order to remain part of the Jewish community and to have “a share in the world to come.” He begins these dogmas with a list of true beliefs regarding God – existence, unity, incorporeality, eternity, and being the one who alone is to be worshipped – before turning to beliefs related to the uniqueness and invio-lability of the law of Moses, and these are followed by beliefs involving reward and pun-ishment. These beliefs also find their expres-sion in Maimonides’s code. It would appear that Maimonides wished thereby to refine the beliefs of the Jewish people, particularly in regard to the deity, while at the same time he formulates beliefs that he feels are necessary for maintaining the Jews’ commitment to the law. The traditional institutions of Jewish gover-nance as they find their expression in Jewish law are the king (responsible for civil and fiscal mat-ters and relations with other countries), the high court (combining judicial and legislative functions, as well as entrusted with the interpre-tation of the law of Moses), and the priesthood (responsible for sacrifices and other cultic mat-ters). No individual is above the law; all are
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