Guide for the Perplexed

How to read Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed

The Guide of the Perplexed

Many readers fail to pay heed to Maimonides’ explicit statement that he will not openly state any controversial views. He wrote that his Guide was addressed to only a select and educated readership, and that he is proposing ideas that are deliberately concealed from the masses. He writes in the introduction:

“A sensible man should not demand of me, or hope that when we mention a subject, we shall make a complete exposition of it” and “My object in adopting this arrangement is that the truths should be at one time apparent and at another time concealed. Thus we shall not be in opposition to the Divine Will (from which it is wrong to deviate) which has withheld from the multitude the truths required for the knowledge of God, according to the words, ‘The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him (Psalm 25:14)'”.

Why would Maimonides do this? Many of his ideas were vilified by the religious standard bearers of his day; for many reasons his books were often banned by rabbis. (See the entry “Maimonidean Controversy, under Maimonides, in volume 11 of the Encyclopaedia Judaica.)

It wasn’t until almost three centuries after his death that he became accepted by the rest of the Jewish community. See “Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought”, Menachem Kellner. We must understand his cautious position: in the medieval world one was rarely at liberty to state one’s views freely, without risking severe repercussions.

Since Maimonides hid his most controversial views, how can we discover what he really believed?  The modern philosopher Leo Strauss noted that Maimonides stated that he would deliberately contradict himself in a certain fashion; by studying these contradictions, one could determine which statements held together in a systematic and consistent manner, and which did not; those that did not fit must be misleading statements that only sounded pious.

Strauss demonstrated that whenever Maimonides explicated two contradictory views, the view stated less often was invariably his true view. Strauss’s essays inspired the next two generations of Maimonidean scholarship. Even Strauss’s critics, such as Marvin Fox, admit that Strauss was correct in saying that we need to identify the contradictions as a tool to discover Maimonides’ esoteric views.

In “Interpreting Maimonides”, Marvin Fox proposes a more refined way of determining which statements actually are contradictions, and which are not, but the basic model of identifying contradictions is held to be correct and indispensible. Fox’s differences with Strauss are in how to identify which statements are true contradictions, and in other areas.

Maimonides himself approved of this technique of reading the Guide. Consider Samuel Ibn Tibbon, a contemporary of Maimonides.

During Maimonides’ lifetime Ibn Tibbon became a translator of the Guide and many of Maimonides’ other works, and was engaged in an extensive correspondence with Maimonides. Ibn Tibbon wrote an explication of how to read the Guide and gave his conclusions of many of the Guide’s “secrets”.

His views are stunningly modern; they prefigure Leo Strauss’s methods. Ibn Tibbon rejects the supernaturalistic interpretations of providence, and concludes that Maimonides held that Providence is intellectual only; Providence is when a man no longer is bothered by any material affliction. No miracles occur. A person of perfected intellect simply no longer gives world problems any significane.

Aviezer Ravitzky, “Samuel Ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of the Guide of the Perplexed”, Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) Review, Vol.6, 1981, p.87-123

Ibn Tibbon’s teachings held sway as the model of Maimonidean scholarship for over two centuries. However, over time the rational study of Maimonides’ views eventually became the minority view, and an uncritical revisionist reading of Maimonides as “orthodox” became prevalent until the beginning of the 20th century. It was not until the 1930s that most modern day scholars independently came to the same conclusions that Ibn Tibbon and other early Maimonidean scholars had already written about some 700 years before.

Is Ibn Tibbon’s understanding of the esoteric nature of Maimonides’s views reliable? I can think of no better approbation than that of Maimonides’ himself:

“Abraham Maimuni, the son of Maimonides, testifies that Maimonides considered Samuel Ibn Tibbon a sage who understood the secrets of his teaching: ‘…Indeed he was a great and respected sage of great understanding; my righteous father and master told me that [Ibn Tibbon] reached all the way to the depths of the secrets of the treatise Guide of the Perplexed as well as the rest of [Maimonides’] writings, and understood his intention.'”

Aviezer Ravitzky, “Samuel Ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of the Guide of the Perplexed”, Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) Review, Vol.6, 1981, p.87-123

Given this, we must accept Maimonides’s statement that he provided two views: an exoteric, surface view which was designed to placate the masses, and an esoteric, hidden view that represented his true views.

Professor Marvin Fox writes the following:

In his introduction to the Guide Maimonides speaks repeatedly of the “secret” doctrine that must be set forth in a way appropriate to its secret character. Rabbinic law, to which Maimonides as a loyal Jew is committed, prohibits any direct, public teaching of the secrets of the Torah. One is permitted to teach these only in private to selected students of proven competence; even to such students it is only permissible to teach the “chapter headings” (Mishnah Hagigah 2.1) Thus, anyone who proposes to write a book dealing with natural philosophy and metaphysics of the Torah faces a problem. Basic a book, by nature, is available to an unrestricted readership, there is no way to guarantee that it will fall only into the hands of those whom we may expose to this subject matter. Furthermore, if the author sets forth his teachings openly so as to make them readily available to his readers, he violates the rule against teaching more than “chapter headings.”

It would seem that there is no way to write such a book without violating rabbinic law. For a faithful Jew this is not acceptable. Yet at times it is urgent to teach a body of sound doctrine to those who requite it. Indeed, in a generation in which worthy and qualified students are spread throughout the Diaspora, and there are few fully qualified teachers, it would seem that there is no choice but to write a book that conveys the true teaching… The problem is to find a method for writing such book in a way that does not violate Jewish law while conveying its message successfully to those who are properly qualified.

Maimonides decided that to abide by the rabbinic ruling, he would have to write his book in such a way that it would offer no more than the “chapter headings”. The presentation would have to be so artful that none but the most highly qualified students would be able to follow his explanations and come to know his teachings.

For this reason, as he tells us, even the chapter headings “are not set down in order or arranged in coherent fashion in this Treatise, but rather are scattered and entangled with other subjects that are to be clarified. For my purpose is that the truths be glimpsed and then again be concealed, so as not to oppose that divine purpose which one cannot possibly oppose and which has concealed from the vulgar among the people those truths especially requisite for His apprehension.”

Such an exposition must be carefully constructed so as to protect people without a sound scientific and philosophical education from doctrines that they cannot understand and that would only harm them, while making the truths available to students with the proper personal and intellectual preparation.

Maimonides writes “In speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts and to disclose others. Sometimes in the case of certain dicta this necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of a certain premise, where in another place necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of another premise contradicting the first one. In such cases the vulgar must in no way be aware of the contradictions; the author accordingly uses some device to conceal it by all means.” (I, introduction)

Despite the inherent hazards in producing such a book, Maimonides felt that it was his absolute duty to find an acceptable way of preserving his insights and understanding of the highest truths in a form accessible to others. He says that “if I had omitted setting down something of that which has appeared to me as clear, so that the knowledge would perish when I perish, as is inevitable, I should have considered that conduct as extremely cowardly with regard to you and everyone who is perplexed.” (III: introduction)

It is one of the mysteries of our intellectual history that these explicit statements of Maimonides, together with his other extensive instructions on how to read his book, have been so widely ignored. No author could have been more open in informing his readers that they were confronting no ordinary book.

[Marvin Fox “Interpreting Maimonides”, Univ. of Chicago Press. 1990]

Professor Aviezer Ravitzky writes:

Those who upheld a radical interpretation of the secrets of the Guide, from Joseph Caspi and Moses Narboni in the 14th century to Leo Strauss and Shlomo Pines in the 20th, proposed and developed tools and methods for the decoding of the concealed intentions of the Guide. Can we already find the roots of this approach in the writings of Samuel Ibn Tibbon, a few years after the writing of the Guide? …Ibn Tibbon taught that “wise men assert something novel which is not in harmony with the belief of the many when their reflections warrant it, and when the belief of the many is beneficial and greatly needed for the stability of the world and for the political order, they will assert their novel teaching in a way which the vulgar will not grasp, but will try as much as they can to conceal it by using riddles, parables and hints, so that only the wise may understand.”

Ibn Tibbon’s comments reveal his general approach toward the nature of the contradictions in the Guide: The interpreter need not be troubled by contradiction when one assertion is consistent with the “philosophic view” where as the other is completely satisfactory to “men of religion”. Such contradictions are to be expected, and the worthy reader will know the reason for them and the direction they tend to, and he will be able to distinguish between those “said truly” and “said for the purposes of concealment.”

The correct reading of the Guide’s chapters should be carried out in two complimentary directions: on the one hand, one should distinguish each chapter from the rest, and on the other one should combine different chapters and construct out of them a single topic. Again, one the one hand, one should get to the bottom of the specific subject matter of each chapter, it specific “innovation”, an innovation not necessarily limited to the explicit subject matter if the chapter. On the other hand, one should combine scattered chapters which allude to one single topic so as to reconstruct the full scope of the topic.

Aviezer Ravitzky, “Samuel Ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of the Guide of the Perplexed”, Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) Review, Vol.6, 1981, p.87-123

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