In the course of clarifying the relationship between philosophy and Divine revelation in his essay, "The Law of Reason in the Kuzari," Leo Strauss observed that it is impossible for the philosopher to assume a merely defensive stance vis a vis the claims of the intelligent believer. Rather, the philosopher's ignorance of the religious experiences that the believer appeals to as Divine revelation is actually an expression of principled ignorance and profound distrust. In short, he must go on the offensive and deny the very possibility of Divine revelation as the believer understands it by means of a conclusive refutation. The believer, in turn, acting in defense of religion, will attempt to refute this refutation by showing what is fallacious about it. In doing so, both take sides in a dispute that is ultimately joined on the level of human wisdom.
It is this dispute between philosophy and revelation, or between Athens and Jerusalem, that Strauss came to see as "the most important fact about the whole past" (Strauss, 1952, 107). To underscore its centrality, he cited Goethe's claim that, "The characteristic, sole, and deepest theme of world and human history, to which everything else is subordinated, remains the conflict of belief and unbelief" (Strauss, 1952, 107 n. 35. Cf. Goethe, 1949, 2:208). However, as Werner Dannhauser has recently pointed out,2 Strauss does not quote the great poet in full, at least not his concluding remarks on the human significance of his observation. What Goethe goes on to say is this:
All those epochs in which belief prevails, whatever form it might wish to take, are splendid, heart-stirring, and fruitful for contemporaries and for posterity. By contrast, all those epochs in which unbelief, whatever its form, wins a miserable victory—even if it should boast of a moment accompanied by apparent splendor—disappear before posterity, because no one willingly chooses to put forth great effort to gain knowledge of what is sterile. (Goethe, 1949, 2:208)
Whether Strauss agreed with Goethe's generalization that ages of belief are ages of splendor and that ages of unbelief are ages of misery whose splendor is momentary at best, and counterfeit even then, is unclear. But he certainly did recognize that for men like al-Ghazali and Halevi, the confrontation with philosophy could be as corrosive as it was tempting precisely because of its power to create "a spiritual hell" for the one who engages in it (Strauss, 1952, 109). In what follows, I would like to examine briefly the evidence indicating that each thinker experienced just such a crisis in his confrontation with philosophy and then argue that each one recovered from that crisis by selectively appropriating a part of his philosophical inheritance to reestablish a basis for religious belief and action.
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), the great lawyer, theologian, and mystic of medieval Islam, tells us in his autobiography, Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (Deliverance from Error), that once he had concluded that genuine knowledge must be immune from doubt, error, and deception, he soon found himself devoid of any knowledge capable of meeting this standard, with the possible exception of sense-data and self-evident truths. But further scrutiny made it clear that these sources were also suspect. Even the most familiar cases of sense experience, like seeing a shadow standing still, turn out to be misleading, when only an hour later the shadow appears in a different place with a different shape. Sense experience suggests that it is motionless, whereas reason refutes this and argues that it actually moves all the time, but only gradually and imperceptibly. Similarly, skeptical questions can also be raised against the conclusions of reason. He specifically mentions the possibility that his wakeful exercise of reason might actually be comparable to dreaming in relation to a higher and even more wakeful state of mind, regardless of the confidence he previously placed in the judgments of reason. As he puts it, "...there may be beyond the perception of reason, another judge. And if the latter [i.e., that judge] revealed itself, it would give the lie to the judgments of reason, just as the reason-judge revealed itself and gave the lie to the judgments of sense" (McCarthy, 1980, 65, sec. 12).
Repeated efforts to refute such objections by constructing some form of proof failed, because every form of proof likewise involved an appeal to equally primary cognitions. Al-Ghazali thus found himself mired within a profoundly disturbing skepticism for two months, which he pointedly refers to as a sickness and a mysterious malady. In the end, he indicates that he was restored to health and equilibrium, not by his own efforts at putting together the desired arguments, but by "a light which God Most High cast into my breast" (McCarthy, 1980, 66, sec. 15; 122 n. 44).
From this episode, he seems to have drawn two conclusions which help to explain his subsequent views on both the philosophers and philosophy. The first is that "whoever thinks that the unveiling of truth depends on precisely formulated proofs has indeed straitened the broad mercy of God" (McCarthy, 1980, 66, sec. 16). In essence, this amounts to a moral claim on behalf of non-discursive ways of knowing. It proposes that there really are more things between heaven and earth and more ways to know them than are recognized by philosophy, and that one ought not to turn his back on them, lest he treat divine mercy as something less generous than it is. The second conclusion is that "one should be most diligent in seeking the truth until he comes to seeking [what is] unseekable. For primary truths [al-awwaliyyat, 'first things'] are unseekable, because they are present in the mind; and when what is present is sought, it is lost and hides itself."3 In seeking the truth, then, one must ultimately recognize some limit to inquiry, lest the truth of what is given or already present be lost. One need only recall that for him, experience was one of those givens or first things that disclose what is already present, and experience, at least for some—and certainly for al-Ghazali in this context—attests to illumination by God not only as a real possibility, but as a factual and veridical occurrence.
Unlike al-Ghazali, Judah ben Samuel Halevi (ca. 1075-1141), medieval Judaism's most gifted poet and first great critic of Aristotelian thought, left behind no autobiography to record his personal confrontation with philosophy or the crisis it may have generated.4 One can turn only to several of his poems or to his remarkable theological dialogue, The Kuzari or The Book of Refutation and Proof on Behalf of the Despised Religion, for reverberations of the experience; and even these are expressed in an artful, idealized form, like the Platonic dialogues on which they are modeled (Strauss, 1952, 104 n. 27 and Motzkin, 1980, 111-124). Nevertheless, in the final discourse of the Kuzari, the King of the Khazars, a former pagan who had searched for the one way of life that is pleasing to God and ultimately found it in Judaism (after first examining and then rejecting the proposals of a philosopher, a Christian, and a Moslem in response to his inquiry), asks the rabbinic sage who has been his guide and chief interlocutor for a clear and accessible account of the "roots" and the articles of faith following the methods of the dialectical theologians. He explains the request in a revealing way. He admits that the sublime level of pure belief without recourse to investigation is simply beyond him because he has already been exposed to doubts and opinions put forth by philosophers and representatives of the various religious communities. "Tradition," he concludes, "is beautiful only in connection with a willing soul, but when it is in a faulty condition, investigation is more appropriate, especially when investigation leads to confirmation of that tradition."5 To this the rabbinic sage replies in a poignant and equally revealing way:
Who among us has [the kind of] steadfast soul that is not misled by the opinions that pass through it, like those of people who study the natural sciences, as well as astrologers, experts in talismans, sorcerers, materialists, students of philosophy, and others? One arrives at faith only after having come through many ranks of unbelievers. But "life is short, and art is long." Only unique individuals have faith by nature. All of these [faulty] opinions are repugnant to them, and the points where they are mistaken occur to them immediately.6
Whether it is the king or the sage who speaks for Halevi here, the striking thing is that both acknowledge having been exposed to serious doubts and opinions that misled them and left them unable to approach the ideals of "pure belief" and "faith" that they respectively articulate. By the Khazar king's standard, both he and the sage seem to have lacked the kind of soul that is willing to accept tradition, which protects one from descending into a spiritual hell. By the sage's standard, neither one has faith by nature. Still, the rabbinic sage is clearly in the better position to lead his companion through the process that will take them beyond the various ranks of unbelievers.
What qualifies him to do so, broadly speaking, is his mastery of tradition. Tradition is thus assigned the task of making up for what is either entirely lacking or not fully provided by nature, except for the fortunate few—a good, i.e., willing, soul or faith. Here tradition seems to be a substitute for something else which would presumably be decisive even for the philosopher, were it available, and that something is experience of what tradition reports.7 If such experience is available at all, nothing else is as evident and near at hand; what is more, nothing else is as capable of gripping the heart as it is.8 It is therefore no surprise to find the sage asserting close to the beginning of the dialogue and again near the end that "[reliable] tradition is like [i.e., as valid as] what is personally experienced,"9 thereby implying that one can rely on it with equal confidence.
The question of whether this claim is at all tenable lies very close to the heart of the controversy between philosophy and revelation. It is clearly related to the question of whether one should place one's confidence chiefly in oneself or in others when it comes to determining the truth of any claim or what the standards of right and wrong really are. To al-Ghazali, the philosophers were the principal exemplars of the first option—placing confidence in oneself. Thus, he describes them in the introduction to the Tahafut al-Falasifah (Incoherence of the Philosophers) (1095) as people who believe themselves to be without peer because of their superior intelligence, who belittle and reject the religious duties mandated by Islam, particularly those associated with worship, and in general cast off the restraints of religion.10 When he later tries to account for this in his autobiography, he records what he regards as a characteristic response by those who have studied the works of "theistic philosophers," such as Ibn Sina and al-Farabi:
I do not do this out of servile conformity. Rather, I have studied the science of philosophy and I have grasped the real meaning of prophecy. I know that it [ultimately] comes down to what is wise and beneficial and that the aim of religious prescriptions is to control the masses and to curb them from internecine strife and contention and from unrestrained indulgence of their passions. [But then,] I am not one of the ignorant masses and therefore subject to being commanded [as they are]. Rather, I am one of the wise. and in my wisdom I can get along without servile conformity! (McCarthy, 1980,104, sec. 130)
The philosopher's rejection of servile conformity or placing his confidence in tradition [taqlid] could hardly be more emphatic, and we must suppose that he would be equally emphatic in rejecting any alleged equivalence between tradition and personal experience as well.
Interestingly, al-Ghazali indicates that his own natural disposition from youth on was to seek out the truth about things for himself, with the result that the fetters of servile conformity as well as inherited beliefs lost their hold on him relatively early (McCarthy, 1980, 62-63, sec. 5-6; Cf. 61, sec. 2). This remarkable intellectual vigor and independence continued to be one of his most distinctive personal traits, and it indicates that for al-Ghazali, in contrast to Halevi's rabbinic sage, tradition cannot be truly on a par with personal experience or individual understanding. Nevertheless, al-Ghazali also recognized that freeing oneself from conformity to received tradition in favor of knowing for oneself may all too easily result in substituting one form of conformity or conventional imitation for another. Thus, in his first preface to the Tahafut al-Falasifah, he argues that the real basis for the philosophers' unbelief is simply another form of conventional imitation, much like that of Jews and Christians, only in this case resulting from speculative inquiry born of sophistical doubts. He then explains precisely how this came to be.
The source of their unbelief is their hearing high sounding names such as "Socrates," "Hippocrates," "Plato," "Aristotle," and their likes, and the exaggeration and misguidedness of their followers in describing their minds, the excellence of their principles, the exactitude of their geometrical, logical, natural, and metaphysical sciences, and in [describing these as] being alone—by reason of excessive intelligence and acumen—[capable] of extracting these hidden things; [also hearing] what [these followers] say about [their masters, namely] that concurrent with the sobriety of their intellect and the abundance of their merit is their denial of revealed laws and religious confessions and their rejection of the details of religious and sectarian [teaching], believing them to be man-made laws and embellished tricks.
...When this struck their hearing, that which was reported of [the philosophers'] beliefs finding agreement with their own nature, they adorned themselves with the embrace of unbelief, siding with the throng of the virtuous, as they claim, affiliating with them, exalting themselves above aiding the masses and the commonality, and disdaining to be content with the religious beliefs of their forbears. [They have done this,] thinking that the show of cleverness in abandoning the [traditional] imitation of what is true by embarking on the imitation of the false is a beauteous thing, being unaware that moving from one [type] of imitation to another is folly and confusedness.11
By conducting his own inquiry, al-Ghazali concluded, first of all, that the ancient philosophers, unlike their modern epigones, were not entirely guilty of denying the validity of religious laws.12 Those whom he regards as significant among them, the theistic philosophers who include Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, are even commended for having refuted the materialists and the naturalists in their respective denials that the universe has a Creator or Ruler and that the soul survives the death of the body for purposes of reward and punishment. Aristotle, in particular, is singled out for his systematization of logic and for refining the various philosophical sciences by his careful formulations and analyses of earlier theories. But even here, in his final assessment, he notes that ".Aristotle refuted Plato and Socrates and the Theists who had preceded him in such a thorough fashion that he dissociated himself from them all. Yet he too retained remnants of their vicious unbelief and innovation which he was unsuccessful in avoiding. So they all must be taxed with unbelief as must their partisans among the Muslim philosophers" (McCarthy, 1980, 72, sec. 34).
Second, al-Ghazali goes to considerable lengths to show that it is both groundless and pernicious to claim that the works of the philosophers in mathematics, logic, the natural sciences, and metaphysics, are all equally rigorous and cogent. It is groundless because their findings in mathematics and logic are plainly demonstrative, whereas only some of their findings in the natural sciences would deserve this status (e.g. their theory of eclipses), in contrast to others which would not (e.g. their theory of necessary causal connections in nature). Worse still, their views on metaphysical questions directly related to religion are conjectural at best, and typically lack logical rigor,13 as his devastating critique of the Avicennian theory of emanation amply shows.14 "Had their metaphysical sciences been perfect in demonstration, free from conjecture, as their mathematical [work], they would not have disagreed among themselves regarding [the former], just as they have not disagreed in [regard to] their mathematical sciences."15 What was pernicious about this popular supposition of equivalent cogency was the fact that it tended to generate either wholesale rejection of the teachings of the philosophers by ignorant partisans of Islam, or uncritical admiration of everything they claimed. Al-Ghazali saw himself as pursuing the more judicious course of engaging the philosophers on their own ground by mastering the entire range of philosophic disciplines and assessing their epistemic and religious status alike. This procedure enabled him to recognize the solid accomplishments embodied in Aristotelian logic and empirical science, and even to appropriate them within the framework of Ash'arite theology. At the same time, the claim of equivalent cogency provided a focus for his philosophical skepticism and dialectical skill. For he directed both against those claims of the metaphysicians that he considered either unsupportable or inimical to Islam.
Finally, the privileged status he accords to divine revelation ultimately depends upon an appeal to a special category of sense experience, to the perceptual faculty that makes it possible, and to its corresponding range of objects. He associates all of these with Sufi mysticism and classical prophecy. In the case of Sufism, he has in mind the experience of dhawq, which is variously translated as "tasting," "savoring," and "fruitional experience."16 Its essential connotation is one of enjoying the most intimate kind of association with the Godhead and seems to imply that knowing here becomes a way of being. This is why al-Ghazali contrasts it with intellectual understanding, when he says, "How great a difference there is between your knowing the definitions, causes, and conditions of health and satiety, and your [actually] being healthy and sated" (McCarthy, 1980, 90, sec. 82)! When he speaks of this special category of experience in terms of prophecy, he typically characterizes it in visual terms, postulating a hierarchy of perceptual faculties that culminate in the eye of prophecy.
Beyond the stage of intellect there is another stage. In this, another eye is opened, by which man sees what is hidden and what will take place in the future, and other things from which the intellect is as far removed as the power of discernment is from perception of the intelligibles and the power of sensation is from things perceived by discernment. And just as someone with the power of discernment, if presented with things perceptible to the intellect, would reject them and consider them outlandish, so some men endowed with intellect have rejected the things perceptible to the prophetic faculty and considered them wildly improbable. That is the very essence of ignorance!17
Ignorance of this kind, of course, is actually invincible ignorance, and it represents for al-Ghazali more of a moral fault than an intellectual deficiency; it is an unwillingness to be guided by the full range of what experience has to show. Merely because one has not attained a certain stage of experience does not mean that it does not exist and cannot be veridical. The proof of its possibility consists in the very fact that it does exist, as the historical prophets and contemporary Sufis attest, while the proof of its actual existence consists in all those examples of intuition and discovery that cannot be adequately explained in terms of intellectual understanding alone. Here, what he has in mind are discoveries in astronomy, medicine, and divination through dreams.18
For al-Ghazali, in sum, if philosophical reason is not to be judged guilty of injustice by claiming for itself more than it is entitled to claim (e.g. demonstrative status for its controversial metaphysical claims) and claiming less for experience than what actually belongs to it (e.g. the possibility of veridical religious experience), its proper task will be, as he puts it, "to bear witness to prophecy by giving assent to its reality" and "to certify its own blindness with respect to perceiving what the eye of prophecy perceives" (McCarthy, 1980, 102, sec. 123). Perhaps, then, by following the way of life of the prophets and the way of the Sufis, philosophers will perceive something of what prophets and Sufis have experienced by direct vision of their own.19
When one turns to Judah Halevi's treatment of philosophy and the philosophers, it quickly becomes evident that he is quite familiar with al-Ghazali's views and draws heavily upon them. Nevertheless, he adapts them to his own purposes which are often quite different from those of al-Ghazali. What is more, he also draws upon the views of the philosophers themselves in unexpected ways. As the original title of the Kuzari suggests, Halevi wished to develop as cogent a defense of his ancestral faith as possible against its cultured despisers. Towards that end, he builds the dialogue upon a solid factual basis, the actual conversion of the Khazar royal house to Judaism in the middle of the eighth century C.E. (Dunlop, 1954). But the various exchanges that make up the dialogue are certainly Halevi's own creation, leaving it very much to the reader to determine which of them the author might have found cogent.
The story opens when the Khazar king repeatedly has the same dream. Halevi indicates it was as though an angel told the king that his intention (comprising all mental activity that is ordered to an end) was pleasing to God but that his behavior was not.20 The king's initial response was to perform the rites of his pagan religion with even greater diligence than before, but the recurrence of the dream convinced him that he must embark on a thorough-going inquiry to determine which way of life is truly pleasing to God. He turns first to a philosopher presumably because he expects him, as an expert on how thought should be directed towards ultimate ends, to clarify what his already-acceptable intentions require him to do. But the philosopher responds by flatly denying the presuppositions of the king's dream. God, as the perfect and changeless First Cause, cannot feel either satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the king's behavior or anyone else's. Indeed, the Deity has no knowledge of it at all, since knowledge of this kind and affective reactions like those mentioned in the dream would introduce both mutability and imperfection into God. In short, the First Mover is by nature unmoved. For the same reason, God is not to be regarded as the Creator of either the universe or the individuals in it except in a metaphorical way, as the ultimate cause of everything that arises in the world by emanation and natural causation. But the world itself is eternal, and men have always come into being from those who came before them, just as Aristotle claimed.
It turns out that the interplay of such factors as natural disposition, traits deriving from one's parents and relatives, as well as the influence of climate, geography, food, water, and even the celestial bodies, and, of course, education and training, is crucial in determining what level of perfection one can attain. Not surprisingly, we are told that it is the philosopher who is favored with the best combination of these factors. After instruction and training, he emerges as the one best equipped to perfect himself. He does so by extending his knowledge of the eternal system of necessary causes and effects emanating from God, and ultimately by attaining union with the Active Intellect, the source of everything knowable in the sublunar world. Actually, the philosopher first suggests this possibility in a qualified and tentative way, but concludes in a far more confident tone:
Accordingly, a light from the divine order [of being], called Active Intellect, will attach itself to the perfect individual, [and] his passive intellect will attach itself to that light [with such] accord [literally, "attachment-union"] that the individual will think that he is that Active Intellect, with there being no difference between the two of them. The limbs of that individual will come to be used only in [performing] the most perfect actions, at the most appropriate times, and in accordance with the very best conditions, as though they were the organs of the Active Intellect itself. This degree is the ultimate end for which the perfect individual hopes after his soul has been purified of doubts and acquired mastery of the sciences according to their true character. Thus, the soul of the perfect individual and that [Active] Intellect become one [and the same thing]2 (emphasis added)
If the outcome of such union is to live the most rational and self-sufficient life possible, the main prerequisite is to purify one's soul so as to cultivate the moral virtues and knowledge of the sciences. Those who have already achieved this goal—like Hermes, Aesclepios, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—look for nothing further from life and never fear death. What is more, as objective perceivers of the truth, they are all of one mind about it, quite literally. They share the same truth-content because they and the Active Intellect, which encompasses that content, are one and the same. The practical consequence of this intellectual achievement is that it makes no rational difference whatever what particular regimen of worship and action one adopts to lead one's life. Accordingly, the philosopher advises the king either to accept one of the rational nomoi, that is, one of the humanly constructed regimens of the philosophers, or simply to create one of his own. The traditional religions, to all intents and purposes, are omitted. In effect, while there must be one and only one truth, where theoretical knowledge is concerned, in matters of morals, political practice and worship, pluralism reigns. Here, it seems, one may choose whatever he likes. In the end, the king is told to concentrate on achieving union with the Active Intellect and thereby to acquire knowledge of the whole. Only in this way and through whatever prudential acts support this goal can he ever hope to acquire knowledge of hidden things, even if it comes through the kinds of veridical dreams the king associates with prophecy and paranormal experiences.22
The philosopher's speech clearly implies that the king's dream is not a divine revelation, since the king thoroughly misunderstands both the nature of the divine and what is required for revelation to occur. His reaction to the dream anticipates Hobbes' observation that if a man comes to you claiming that God spoke to him in a dream or vision, all that we may safely conclude is that he dreamed that God spoke to him, since he may either be in error or lying (Hobbes, 1960, 3:32; 243-244). Thus, he rejects, much as we would expect, both claims to a privileged kind of experience and reliance on reports or traditions that attest to it. For, at the end of the day, the angel reports only what
God supposedly finds pleasing and displeasing, while the king reports only what he is told as well.
Perhaps the first observation Halevi makes about the king's claim to have had a revelatory dream and the philosopher's claim to know for certain what is and is not possible in such matters, is not a statement in reply to each, but rather the way in which he describes them as making their respective claims. In the king's case, we are first told that "a dream came to him repeatedly as though an angel were addressing him." Several lines later there is an almost imperceptible change; we are told that ". each time he exerted himself in [performing] those acts [prescribed by his ancestral religion] the angel came to him at night... "23 Similarly, in the philosopher's speech, the philosopher first says that the perfect individual "will think that he is that Active Intellect." But later, he tells us that "the soul of the perfect individual and that [Active Intellect] become one [and the same thing]."24 In both cases, we first find a careful and qualified statement about how each figure interprets his actual or anticipated experiences. These statements underscore the apparently subjective character of the interpretation. Subsequently, these statements are followed by a re-description of the two experiences without qualification, a. re-description that confidently portrays each one as objective and veridical. In effect, we move from opinion about what happened and happens to a confident claim of knowledge about such transformative events and their ultimate significance. But neither knowledge claim follows necessarily from the initial description. Neither one is known conclusively to be the case, although each one is a possible interpretation, perhaps indeed a plausible one, for the experience described, given the speaker's aims and assumptions. Each claim is obviously believed, but neither is known to be true. Still, there seems to be no good reason to suppose that Halevi is neutral about the two accounts. The king, after all, was a flesh-and-blood ruler, who repeatedly dreamed the same dream and whose personal history lends weight to what the recurrent dream said. But the perfect man is only an abstraction or an ideal whose actual experience is unknown. He is someone whom one might at best only approximate, but whom one might also altogether fail to become. Ultimately, one must decide between them, and the very necessity of making the choice—of deciding on a course of action with practical consequences for one's life— seems to tip the scales against the philosopher and in favor of the practical life.
The king indicates this clearly by telling the philosopher that while his account may be persuasive on its own terms, it fails to address the issue that launched the inquiry; namely, to identify, in all its particulars, the kind of life that is pleasing in itself. In effect, philosophy proves to be "thin" and incomplete when it comes to praxis; it cannot provide any "thick description" of what goes into the best life. What is more, when it assumes that the perfection of one's intentions through purifying the soul or polishing the mirror of the mind is sufficient for living such a life, we find that, contrary to its claims, people are not of one mind about how to live it. That is why the king describes both the Christians and Muslims of his day as having pure intentions. Nevertheless, they have divided up the whole world between themselves and have gone off determined to kill one another in the belief that doing so brings one closer to God. Obviously, good intentions are not enough; both sides cannot be right. If the philosophers cannot fill in the blanks on the particulars of praxis, people with both pure and less than pure intentions will do it for themselves, often with devastating results. All the more reason, then, to search for the kind of behavior in all its particularity that actually pleases God.25
Later in the dialogue, the rabbinic sage goes on to acknowledge the personal virtues of the philosophers in their renunciation of wealth, honor, pleasure, and even children; but he also underscores the fact that such virtues are actually needed by those who believe that human happiness ultimately consists in attaining theoretical knowledge about reality. For one cannot expend one's entire life in inquiry and continuous reflection with the added burdens of family and a worldly occupation. In effect, even exemplary philosophic morality reduces to a kind of prudence; but this prudential view of morality implies that under certain circumstances, moral principles or the accepted norms may be suspended, if that is deemed necessary. As the rabbinic sage puts it,
.They have commanded [people to do] what is beneficial and have forbidden [them to do] what is blameworthy in the most excellent and appropriate way, and [they have also commanded them] to imitate the Creator, who established things in the best way. Accordingly, they produced the nomoi, namely, political regimens [which are] not legally binding. Exceptions may be made with respect to them if there is not some [overriding] necessity [to preclude this]. But the Law is not like that except in its political parts, [and] it has already been explained in the science of jurisprudence just what is subject to exception and what is not subject to it.26
In philosophic morality it turns out that exceptions are not necessarily rare. For one actually needs an overriding necessity not to treat some unique set of circumstances as exceptional and therefore worthy of a new norm or new response. What the rabbi seems to envisage here is a succession of ever newer moralities to deal with each new set of "exceptional" circumstances. Accordingly, the possibilities for moral adaptation and accommodation appear to be virtually limitless.27 By contrast, the religious Law embraces a science that can distinguish, at least in principle, between what is genuinely exceptional and what is not. Here, the norm is clearly not identified with or made dependent upon what is exceptional. Moral principles or moral rules will remain both recognizable and capable of enduring, while exceptions will be treated as the rare occurrences they are, to be dealt with in ways that do not undermine the Law itself, as the nomoi of the philosophers—so conspicuously plural in name and number—inevitably would.
When we turn finally to Halevi's appraisal of the philosophers' theoretical claims, we find both appreciation for their achievements and disparagement of philosophical speculation as such. Soon after the rabbinic sage makes his initial statement to the king, he points out that the king will not find them agreeing on either a single action or belief because whatever they have to say on matters of behavior and belief amounts to little more than claims ^^-Some of them they can demonstrate. Others they can show to be persuasive only on dialectical grounds. But others are not even up to this level, let alone established by demonstration.28 He says nothing further at this point to indicate which subjects or kinds of claims should be assigned to each of these three categories. But after an extensive review of the teachings of the philosophers on natural science, epistemology, and metaphysics in the fifth and final part of the dialogue, he indicates that they actually provide demonstration only in the purely formal disciplines of mathematics and logic. Indeed, he expresses this in characteristically Ghazalian fashion.
When the king indicates that he finds the sage's summary of philosophy superior to other accounts in terms of both precision and verifiability, the sage replies that he was afraid the king would respond to their opinions '^"^by allowing himself to be misled by them. For "after [their] demonstrations in mathematics and logic turned out to be sound—according to them—people were happy [to believe] everything they said about physics and metaphysics, [since] it was thought that everything they said was a demonstration."29 Subsequently, he launches into a detailed and very perceptive critique of their views in other fields.
In physics, for example, the philosopher's account of the four elements goes far beyond what the empirical evidence warrants and is sometimes directly at odds with it, for experience supports only the existence of the four primary qualities of hotness, coldness, wetness, and dryness, and not the elementary bodies themselves. In psychology and epistemology, the theory of the actualized human intellect as being itself a separate substance is beset by numerous unresolvable problems concerning personal identity, the effects of material variables on thought, and the actual pre-requisites for attachment to the Active Intellect. In metaphysics, where he draws explicitly on Ghazali's Tahafut, he shows that philosophic accounts of the causes of celestial motion are hopelessly weak and riddled with doubts, so that there is little wonder that no two philosophers would agree on such questions.30 The force of this critique amounts to a reversal of Hobbes' proposal: if a man comes to you and claims that he has conclusively understood the nature of reality as a whole, all you may conclude with certainty is that he has finally understood his most recent conception of it, for he is assuredly either in error or deceiving himself.
Still, even if the philosophers possess neither conclusive demonstrations nor shared intuitions about these subjects, so remote from the realm of immediate experience, Halevi is nonetheless remarkably generous in his estimate of them. After reminding his reader of what they have not and probably cannot accomplish, he then underscores what they have accomplished and—in noticeable contrast to al-Ghazali—expresses this with a palpable sense of appreciation.
To be sure, they have excelled in human wisdom, as Socrates used to say to the people of Athens, "O, people! I do not deny your divine wisdom; I say, rather, that I am not conversant with it. On the other hand, I am wise in terms of human wisdom." (Cf. Apology 20d-e and Halevi, supra 4:13) Actually, they should be excused because they took refuge in their reasonings due to the absence of prophecy and the divine light among them. [Even so,] they brought the demonstrative sciences to a [level of] perfection that cannot be surpassed, and they were unique in that respect. There is no difference [of opinion] between any two individuals about those sciences; but there is almost no agreement between any two individuals about what they undertook [to explain] beyond that with respect to [their divergent] opinions concerning metaphysics and, yes, concerning many things in physics as well. Even if you did find a group [of philosophers] agreeing on a single opinion, that is not because of an investigation [they conducted] and a conclusion at which their [collective] opinion arrived. On the contrary, the fact is that they are followers of some individual who engaged in such discussions, whom they follow without question, like the followers of Pythagoras, the followers of Empedocles, the followers of Aristotle, the followers of Plato, and others, as well as the Stoics, and the Peripatetics, namely, those who belong to the followers of Aristotle. They have opinions about the principles [of things] that weaken the intellect and which the intellect considers weak. There are doubts about all of that [speculation] and no agreement between one philosopher and another. But, they should be excused in any case and also thanked for what they were able to conclude from nothing more than their own reasonings. They meant well, fulfilled the intellectual nomoi, and lead pious, ascetic lives in this world. In any case, they should be regarded as virtuous, since it is not incumbent on them to accept what we have [i.e., a revealed Law and reliable tradition]. But we ourselves must accept what has been witnessed [by our ancestors] as well as the continuous tradition [that reports it], which is as valid as what has been witnessed personally..31
In all of this, we find familiar Ghazalian themes, and we are now in a position to sum up both the similarities and the differences between the two men on philosophy and the philosophers. Both knew philosophy well but rejected it as a way of life for themselves on moral and epistemological grounds. Both turned the skepticism originally directed by philosophers against their respective religious traditions against the claims of philosophy itself. In doing so, they both made an important contribution to philosophy. In conflicts between argument and experience, both men accorded primacy to experience, even though they recognized the interpretative problems that inevitably attend the effort to make sense of experience. Both underscored the fact that philosophers, no less than men of faith, think and write within distinctive traditions whose fundamental assumptions presuppose a kind of faith or trust as long as one remains within that tradition.
However, al-Ghazali's critique of philosophy and the philosophers is far more comprehensive and harsh than anything Halevi has to say on the subject. Indeed, his Tahafut al-Falasifah ends with a legal finding that three of the philosophers' principal beliefs constitute expressions of outright infidelity, punishable by death, while seventeen others represent heretical innovations. The consequences of that finding for the study of science and philosophy in medieval Islam were in many ways chilling and momentous, and they can still be felt today. Significantly, even what al-Ghazali appropriated from Aristotelian logic and natural science was adapted to the canons of A&h'aritetheology, so that even his accommodations to philosophy and the philosophers proved to be limited indeed. By contrast, Halevi seems to reject only the more metaphysical claims of the philosophers and those scientific views that stray from the empirical data. But instead of condemnation, he actually expresses praise and appreciation, albeit within limits, for their behavior and their intellectual accomplishments. What is even more intriguing is that his defense of Judaism does not reject but in fact implicitly accepts many of the philosophers' general criteria concerning what kinds of causes and conditions ultimately perfect human life. While he differs with them about the particulars, he nonetheless remains unusually open-minded about what they have to say. For a conservative defender of the despised religion and its adherents, that is a remarkable but little recognized achievement. But what went into that achievement must remain the topic for another inquiry.
Was this article helpful?