Thoroughly Modern Maimonides?: A Rejoinder

I very much appreciate Josef Stern’s courteous, thoughtful, and substantive reply to my critique of his skeptical reading of The Guide of the Perplexed, which affords me the opportunity to continue our “open but critical exchange of ideas” about Maimonides.

Stern, of course, is correct in asserting that “the first thing to be said” about Maimonides’ statement in Guide 2:47 “For only truth pleases God and only falsehood angers Him” is “that for Maimonides this . . . anthropopathic statement about God is not literally true, since neither truth nor falsehood either pleases or angers God, who is utterly impassive and neither pleased nor angered by anything.” Indeed, this is precisely why after citing this statement I
immediately proceeded to paraphrase it in non-anthropopathic terms, maintaining that for Maimonides “only truth . . . is of value.” To sharpen Stern’s point, we may say that the person who believes God literally gets angry metaphorically angers God. While Stern’s elucidation of Maimonides’ statement in its context is well taken, the ringing nature of this Maimonidean declaration suggests that its implications extend well beyond that context.

That this is so is borne out by Maimonides’ very similar statement in Guide 1:54:

 

He who knows God finds favor in His sight . . . Accordingly, those who know Him are those who are favored by Him, and permitted to come near Him, whereas those who do not know Him are objects of His wrath and kept far away from Him. 

 

Here, as in 2:47, it is the knowledge about God, not the search for knowledge about Him, that is of value. Note, particularly, that Maimonides here proceeds to say “We have gone beyond the limits of this chapter,” thus underscoring the statement’s general significance.

Stern claimed that Maimonides’ statement that “the description of God . . . by means of negations is the correct description” (1:58) means “‘correct’ only relative to our other linguistic alternatives for talking about God.” In response to my criticism that his claim is on “shaky ground,” Stern points to his very next sentences, where he refers “to a specific ‘alternative nonaffirmative method of describing God,’ [namely] Al-Farabi’s logical category of ‘indefinite nouns’ . . . Neither negative attributes nor indefinite nouns yield truths, but the former are ‘correct,’ . . . because they raise fewer problems than the latter.” But this begs the question. If one assumes that Maimonides’ affirmation that “the description of God . . . by means of negations is . . . correct” means “‘correct’ only relative to our other linguistic alternatives,” then the question arises as to what other linguistic alternative he is referring, and Stern’s answer is as good as any, perhaps the best possible. But what I was questioning is the basis for that initial assumption.

I apologize for overlooking Stern’s reference to Maimonides’ discussion of the term “conduct” in Guide 1:57. In partial extenuation, let me note that Stern does not, as he does in his letter, cite Maimonides’ remarks, but only paraphrases them. More to the point, his paraphrase weakens their force. Maimonides states there that negative attributes “conduct the mind to the truth of the matter”; Stern paraphrases this as saying that “they conduct us in the right direction.” My question remains, in fact it is sharpened: Why does Stern choose to weaken Maimonides’ statement in Guide 1:58 “that negative attributes conduct the mind toward the uppermost reach that man may attain in the apprehension [of God]” by referring to Maimonides’ discussion of the term “conduct” in 1:46, instead of referring to his use of the term in 1:57, the very chapter Stern himself referred to on the previous page?

I am pleased that Stern considers my proposal that Maimonides’ description of Moses in his palace parable as “putting questions and receiving answers” (3:51) refers to his similar description in 1:54 of Moses “making requests of God and receiving answers” to be as possible as his own. But Stern’s surprising equation of Moses’ inability to know God’s “essence and true reality” with his supposed inability to know “truths about God” is simply wrong. Maimonides, as both Herbert A. Davidson and I (naïve readers that we are) stress, consistently distinguishes between the two. Moreover, Moses’ knowledge of the attributes of action includes, at least in 1:54, the celestial spheres and the incorporeal intellects. While Maimonides in 1:54 does not treat Moses’ knowledge about God, in 1:58–59 he affirms that Moses’ positive knowledge of the cosmos served as the basis for his negative knowledge about God. Stern’s conclusion that 1:54 corroborates his skeptical reading thus lacks any basis, as far as I can see.

This is not the place for a full critique of Stern’s attempt to situate Maimonides within the Hellenistic tradition of philosophy as spiritual exercises in support of his skeptical reading of the Guide. I note that in The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide page 8, note 7, and page 313 he quietly concedes that it is not clear how and even if this tradition reached Maimonides. Stern plausibly contends that Maimonides’ statement in 3:13 that “when man knows his own soul . . . and understands every being according to what it is, he becomes calm and his thoughts are not troubled by seeking a final end for what has no final end” may be viewed as a type of spiritual exercise. But, contrary to Stern, Maimonides does not claim here that “inquiry calms,” but that understanding calms. Inquiry that does not result in understanding is ineffective therapy.

Josef Stern evidently believes that his skeptical reading of Maimonides, for all its apparent modernity, is true both to the Guide’s letter and its spirit. In short, his answer to the question of my review’s title “Thoroughly Modern Maimonides?” is in the affirmative. With the greatest respect for the wide learning, close reading, and analytic acuity displayed throughout his book, I remain unconvinced.

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