Thursday, September 3, 2009

How to begin to Study the Guide of the Perplexed - Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss begins his discussion of the Guide by giving an outline of its contents. This outline is very useful as the principles governing the structure of the Guide is difficult to ascertain.

Strauss asserts early on that the first premise of the Guide is that being a Jew and being a philosopher are two incompatible things, which he claims is an old Jewish adage, where this adage appears, however, is far from clear.

Strauss explains that the purpose of the Guide is to explain the true science of the law, in particular to give the proper explanations of the Account of the Beginning and the Account of the Chariot. However, he notes that to give such explanations publically violates the Law. Therefore, he believes that Maimonides took pains to write esoterically.

However, Strauss stresses not all of the Guide is devoted to secret, non-public teachings. In fact, the teachings of the Guide are partly public and partly private. In any event, Strauss stresses that what Maimonides could mean by identifying the Account of the Beginning with physics and the Account of the Chariot with metaphysics is the secret par excellence of the Guide.

Strauss then, without addressing that secret, moves to a consideration of who the intended audience of the Guide could be. He concludes that "the addressee of the Guide is a man regarding whom it is still undecided whether he will be a genuine man of speculation or whether he will remain a follower of authority, if of Maimonides' authority. He stands at the point of the road where speculation branches off from acceptance of authority." The point on which this decision stands is, according to Strauss, the study of Natural Science because natural science upsets habit and traditional authority.

Strauss describes how in the Guide the exegesis of Biblical text stands in the place of the knowledge of the natural sciences that the addressee lacks. It provides the foundation from which to ascend to a consideration of the divine sciences, with the advantage, however, of not upsetting habit and tradition. It establishes what could be established through natural science, that God exists and that he is one. However, it seems to conflict with what is taught in natural sciences when it seems to attribute to God corporeality. Thus, Maimonides must show that, in fact, it does not indicate God's corporeality.

Strauss then discusses how Maimonides begins with incorporeality because he wants to rule out worship of other Gods. However, he maintains that Maimonides designs the Guide in order to obscure the different cognitive status between belief in God's unity and incorporeality on the one hand and belied in purposive creation on the other. The former is demonstrable, the later must be taken on authority. However, only the later can really forbid worship of other entities besides God.

Strauss also discusses how Maimonides introduces Reason in the guise of authority by interpreting the corporeal statements about God in the Bible metaphorically. Maimonides know that this must be so based on reason, but his typical addressee only accepts this based on authority.

In addition to the intended addressee of the Guide, there is also an atypical addressee. This addressee knows the philosophic issues involved in demonstrating God's incorporeality. He will also look more critically at Maimonides's interpretation of Biblical passages as well as notice contradictions in the Guide. Strauss then makes all sort of hints as to what to look for in Maimonides discussions of Biblical terms.

Strauss now begins to discuss particular subsections of the Guide:

First Subsection: Strauss claims that it is devoted to explanation of the two most important passages in the Bible that seem to imply incorporeality. While Strauss does this however he throws out tantalizing claims about how a corporeal view of God is connected to seeing God as Will instead of Intellect; additionally, that embedded in Maimonides exegesis is of the Bible are indications that he believes that Bible is implicated in Sabianism (idolatrous beliefs).

Second Subsection: Strauss believes that this subsection is riven with tensions between Maimonides interpretations so as to remove changability from God and his claims that God does act providentially for Israel's sake. Strauss then embarks on all sorts of textual and numerological speculations.
Strauss also claims that in the second sub-section Maimonides draws us to the differences between Biblical and post-Biblical teaching. Additionally, according to Strauss, Maimonides is indicating that Isaiah reached a higher intellectual level of knowledge of God than Maimonides. Progress is possible beyond Moses' prophecy, according to Strauss, because Moses' achievement reflects the limitations of Law as opposed to philosophical speculation. It is also possible to progress beyond Moses because Moses' teachings was given during the period of Sabianism. Consequently, it contains a political response to the need to eradicate Sabian worship, even while making allowances for Israel's inner Sabianism.

Maimonides also discusses the problems with Maimonides' claims that Moses' prophecy was entirely intellectual, that it was devoid of any hint of the imagination. The most important problem with this is that there are parables in the Torah, which are supposedly the result of the imagination. Metaphorical interpretation, then, presumes imagination. The absence of imagination entails literalism, which Maimonides obviously does not espouse.

Strauss then hints that all of these issues are wrapped up in the proper relationship between the Account of the Creation on the one hand, which is Mosaic, and the Account of the Chariot on the other, which is from Isaiah. Involved also in this relationship is the issue for free purposive creation and all that that entails.

This consideration also allows for the possibility of post-Biblical progression, through the Talmud to Maimonides himself. Through this progress there is a diminution of corporealism and an increase in asceticism. This progress is possible because of the spread of Monotheism in Christianity and Islam and of philosophy from Greece and Rome. However, the threat of internal Sabianism remains and Maimonides attempts to vanquish it through the Guide. He does this through allegorical interpretation and by subtly indicating the progress that occurs throughout the Bible.

After all of this Strauss returns to discuss the different divisions in the second sub-section.

He now turns to the third subsection. It deals with a number of issues. Chief among them is the relationship of forbidden knowledge to forbidden worship. Maimonides stresses the danger of overstepping the limitations of proper knowledge.

The fourth subsection: this serves as a transition from a consideration of God's incorporeality to his unity, which had been presupposed.

Fifth subsection: the first purely speculative or philosophic subsection. This subsection also assumes that God is one, however, based off of this assumption it draws many implications, including eliminating the predication of attributes to him. Strauss believes that Maimonides is trying to secretly indicate how radically different the philosophic notion of God's oneness is from the Biblical idea that God is One. It is only the idea of God as perfect, according to Strauss, that saves Maimonides from being entirely subversive. Many would think that this is Strauss being Straussian.

Sixth subsection: Maimonides discusses the divine names, which moves him into speculation again, or philosophy proper in the seventh subsection. According to Strauss, this subsection is meant to finish the task of this entire first part which is to move the reader from the creaky and insecure foundations of authority to a search for demonstrative knowledge, which will be the theme of the second part of the guide. This transition is indicated by Maimonides' movement from consideration of the views of the Islamic Kalam thinkers to those of Aristotle, from those that deny natural science to those that begin with natural science.

In the second part the ambiguity which will dominant Maimonides writings are whether God's will can be said to be identical with his intellect or whether will and intellect are exclusive possibilities. This issue will come to a head over the issue of the creation or eternality of the world. However, Maimonides does not explicitly decide between them, rather he vacillates between the two possibilities throughout. The biggest problem though is that the eternality of the world entails the rejection of the law. This motivates Maimonides to argue that Aristotle's view has not been demonstrated and is not even probable. Maimonides is less clear, however, about the acceptability and implications of Plato's view.

Strauss then discusses that Maimonides seem at the end to reduce all knowledge to that of natural science, foreclosing the possibility of the knowledge that we wanted most. Finally, Strauss himself closes with enigmatic phrases about perplexities and how they freeing.

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