Maimonides Aristotelianism

I offer the foregoing for purposes of a contextual introduction to the explicit subject of this chapter, Maimonides' Aristotelianism. Let me be quite clear at the outset that I think there is a good sense to be given to the designation. I think we should continue to consider Maimonides an Aristotelian, whatever else he may be;6 nevertheless it behooves us to reflect upon what precisely we mean when we so describe him.

First of all, and most importantly, it is not on account of any of the specific conclusions Maimonides reaches that we should consider him an Aristotelian.7 Contra Aristotle, Maimonides doesn't think the world is beginningless (Guide 2.25), nor does he think that the summum bonum resides in contemplative activity (alone),8 nor does he think that the mean is normative in moral matters in quite as general a way as does Aristotle.9 Further, Maimonides accepts the distinction that Aristotle draws between the moral and intellectual virtues,10 but unlike Aristotle, Maimonides is clear that the former are necessary, even if not sufficient, conditions for attainment of the most exalted of the latter (Guide 2.32; 3.54:635). At one stage of his career Maimonides' view of the human psyche is opposed to Aristotle's in understanding it as constituted of parts utterly idiosyncratic to the human species.11 He has (as Jonathan Jacobs has recently pointed out) a considerably more libertarian view of human freedom than does Aristotle, who believes that after a certain point in human development character is fate (Shemonah Peraqim, chapter 8; Jacobs 1997, 443-54). He believes that the prophet, paradigmatic for Maimonides in both character and intellectual attainment, is insulated from contingency, a view seemingly opposed to the ineliminability of luck in the Aristotelian moral scheme.12 Perhaps most startlingly, Maimonides, an empiricist like Aristotle, believes that human knowledge is severely limited on account of our finite nature. The most important matters are beyond our ken and linguistic capacities, and a yawning chasm separates human from divine wisdom (Guide 1.52, 54, 58). I don't think it can be reasonably maintained that Aristotle was an epistemological finitist. Nor is humility an Aristotelian virtue.

Given all these unAristotelianisms in Maimonides' thought, in what way does it make sense to consider him an Aristotelian? In opposing Plato, Aristotle is not thereby a Platonist, even though we have seen that in opposing Plato, Aristotle is following Plato's own lead. In this latter sense, then, Aristotle is a Platonist like Plato himself in the latter's own revisionist spirit. Can we perhaps understand Maimonides' Aristotelianism in this way? Let me explain.

We have seen that Aristotle is a Platonist in a revisionist sort of way. Aristotle is a Platonist in the sense that he agrees with Plato (and vice-versa) that the latter's own earlier views are in need of revision. Aristotle's Platonism, thus, depends upon a theory of Platonic development. Can we appeal to something similar in Aristotle himself? Is Maimonides' Aristotelianism the Aristotelianism of an Aristotle revising his own earlier views? The answer to this is No.

There is development in Aristotle's philosophical career—Owen and Jaeger agree on this—but there is little, precious little revision, fundamental change in position. Aristotle's ontology and metaphysics are not fundamentally at odds with one another, pace Graham (Graham 1988), but address rather different questions. Presupposing the reality of spatio-temporal objects, primary substance of the Categories, Aristotle asks in the Metaphysics: What makes substances what they are? With the discovery of matter in the Physics Aristotle can now account for spatio-temporal change, and this in turn brings to the fore causal questions previously unaddressed. But though form comes to the fore— a modest "rapprochement" with Plato, as Owen put it—there is no wavering on Aristotle's part to a commitment to the reality of particulars, hylomorphic entities, even if ontological primacy is now accorded to form. Again, there is development in Aristotle's thought, but little revision. Aristotle's theology is not at odds with his metaphysics as he tries to show in Metaphysics E1, or with his physics as he tries to show in Metaphysics L6-7. Even the oft-noted dichotomy between the best lives in the Ethics, the moral life devoted to socio-political activity and the theoretical life devoted to contemplative activity, is not I think best understood as manifesting a revision in Aristotle's thought, perhaps mediated, as Cooper once suggested (Cooper 1975, 175-6), by the discussion of the active and passive intellect in De Anima, but rather can be understood as a diachronic development, as time-slices of a single life, one set of characteristic activities and priorities giving way to another.

I will admit that each of the above claims is controversial, but I think it cannot be denied that the development of Aristotle's thought is of a different order than Plato's. Aristotle commits no parricide. Given this, Maimonides' Aristotelianism is not, cannot be, of a piece with Aristotle's Platonism, and is not grounded in a revisionist spirit. Put slightly differently, Aristotle is a systematic, even monolithic, thinker in ways Plato is not. His very dialectical methodology is systemic, and a few favored sets of principles do much work over and over again in the corpus: form/matter, potentiality/actuality, means/end, etc. And it is precisely because of Maimonides' own adherence to such systematicity—the very order of the Guide replicates (pays homage to?) the Aristotelian corpus in presenting seriatim logic and language, then physics and metaphysics, and finally practical sciences such as law and politics13—and because of his own commitment to and application of a similar, limited set of principles and concepts over and over again, that I would argue that Maimonides can be considered an Aristotelian, even though he disagrees with Aristotle on such substantive issues as we have presented earlier. In sum, Maimonides is not an Aristotelian on account of any agreement with Aristotle on substantive issues, but rather on account of his creative use of Aristotelian categories and argument forms for his own purposes,14 the main purpose being of course the explication of his own tradition. Maimonides is thus not a Jewish Averroist, even though some, such as Joseph Caspi in medieval times, wished to make him out to be one and even though Maimonides, like Averroes, understands philosophy to be obligatory for those capable of philosophizing.15 Averroism is not the only way to be a medieval Aristotelian. One need not, for example, believe in the eternity of the world to be an Aristotelian. (One could even be a neoPlatonic Aristotelian, adapting Aristotelian categories to certain non-Aristotelian ends, something Maimonides undoubtedly does on occasion, especially in the Guide.16) One can be an Aristotelian simply by taking the question of whether the world is eternal or not seriously, something Maimonides certainly does in the second part of the Guide, as he argues against Aristotle (especially 2.25). Again, one need not believe in the specific hierarchy of human activities that Aristotle argues for in the Ethics to be an Aristotelian. Simply to distinguish between the intellectual and the moral virtues, and political and apolitical, contemplative activity is sufficient to remind one of Aristotle and to construe Maimonides' discussion as Aristotelian. In brief, Maimonides' philosophical starting point is Aristotle, and it is from Aristotle that he develops his own philosophical positions.17

The foregoing has been at a rather general, abstract level, and so for the remainder of this chapter I should like to illustrate Maimonides' Aristotelianism, his creative use of Aristotle for his own philosophical purposes. We should not expect Maimonides' Aristotelianism to reveal itself in specific conclusions reached, but rather in an adaptation of Aristotelian categories. My illustration is Maimonides' discussion of Job in the third part of the Guide.

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