The great St. Augustine's life is unfolded to us in documents of unrivaled richness, and of no great
character of ancient times have we information comparable to that contained in the "Confessions",
which relate the touching story of his soul, the "Retractations," which give the history of his mind, and
the "Life of Augustine," written by his friend Possidius, telling of the saint's apostolate.
We will confine ourselves to sketching the three periods of this great life: (1) the young wanderer's
gradual return to the Faith; (2) the doctrinal development of the Christian philosopher to the time of his
episcopate; and (3) the full development of his activities upon the Episcopal throne of Hippo.
From his birth to his conversion (354-386)
Augustine was born at Tagaste on 13 November, 354. Tagaste, now Souk-Ahras, about 60 miles from
Bona (ancient Hippo-Regius), was at that time a small free city of proconsular Numidia which had
recently been converted from Donatism. Although eminently respectable, his family was not rich, and
his father, Patricius, one of the curiales of the city, was still a pagan. However, the admirable virtues that
made Monica the ideal of Christian mothers at length brought her husband the grace of baptism and of
a holy death, about the year 371.
Augustine received a Christian education. His mother had him signed with the cross and enrolled among
the catechumens. Once, when very ill, he asked for baptism, but, all danger being soon passed, he
deferred receiving the sacrament, thus yielding to a deplorable custom of the times. His association with
"men of prayer" left three great ideas deeply engraven upon his soul: a Divine Providence, the future life
with terrible sanctions, and, above all, Christ the Saviour. "From my tenderest infancy, I had in a manner
sucked with my mother's milk that name of my Saviour, Thy Son; I kept it in the recesses of my heart;
and all that presented itself to me without that Divine Name, though it might be elegant, well written,
and even replete with truth, did not altogether carry me away" (Confessions I.4).
But a great intellectual and moral crisis stifled for a time all these Christian sentiments. The heart was
the first point of attack. Patricius, proud of his son's success in the schools of Tagaste and Madaura
determined to send him to Carthage to prepare for a forensic career. But, unfortunately, it required
several months to collect the necessary means, and Augustine had to spend his sixteenth year at
Tagaste in an idleness which was fatal to his virtue; he gave himself up to pleasure with all the
vehemence of an ardent nature. At first he prayed, but without the sincere desire of being heard, and
when he reached Carthage, towards the end of the year 370, every circumstance tended to draw him
from his true course: the many seductions of the great city that was still half pagan, the licentiousness of
other students, the theatres, the intoxication of his literary success, and a proud desire always to be
first, even in evil. Before long he was obliged to confess to Monica that he had formed a sinful liaison
with the person who bore him a son (372), "the son of his sin" — an entanglement from which he only
delivered himself at Milan after fifteen years of its thralldom.
Two extremes are to be avoided in the appreciation of this crisis. Some, like Mommsen, misled perhaps
by the tone of grief in the "Confessions", have exaggerated it: in the "Realencyklopädie" (3d ed., II, 268)
Loofs reproves Mommsen on this score, and yet he himself is too lenient towards Augustine, when he
claims that in those days, the Church permitted concubinage. The "Confessions" alone prove that Loofs
did not understand the 17th canon of Toledo. However, it may be said that, even in his fall, Augustine
maintained a certain dignity and felt a compunction which does him honour, and that, from the age of
nineteen, he had a genuine desire to break the chain. In fact, in 373, an entirely new inclination
manifested itself in his life, brought about by the reading Cicero's "Hortensius" whence he imbibed a
love of the wisdom which Cicero so eloquently praises. Thenceforward Augustine looked upon rhetoric
merely as a profession; his heart was in philosophy.
Unfortunately, his faith, as well as his morals, was to pass though a terrible crisis. In this same year, 373,
Augustine and his friend Honoratus fell into the snares of the Manichæans. It seems strange that so
great a mind should have been victimized by Oriental vapourings, synthesized by the Persian Mani (215276) into coarse, material dualism, and introduced into Africa scarcely fifty years previously. Augustine
himself tells us that he was enticed by the promises of a free philosophy unbridled by faith; by the
boasts of the Manichæans, who claimed to have discovered contradictions in Holy Writ; and, above all,
by the hope of finding in their doctrine a scientific explanation of nature and its most mysterious
phenomena. Augustine's inquiring mind was enthusiastic for the natural sciences, and the Manichæans
declared that nature withheld no secrets from Faustus, their doctor. Moreover, being tortured by the
problem of the origin of evil, Augustine, in default of solving it, acknowledged a conflict of two
principles. And then, again, there was a very powerful charm in the moral irresponsibility resulting from
a doctrine which denied liberty and attributed the commission of crime to a foreign principle.
Once won over to this sect, Augustine devoted himself to it with all the ardour of his character; he read
all its books, adopted and defended all its opinions. His furious proselytism drew into error his friend
Alypius and Romanianus, his Mæcenas of Tagaste, the friend of his father who was defraying the
expenses of Augustine's studies. It was during this Manichæan period that Augustine's literary faculties
reached their full development, and he was still a student at Carthage when he embraced error.
His studies ended, he should in due course have entered the forum litigiosum, but he preferred the
career of letters, and Possidius tells us that he returned to Tagaste to "teach grammar." The young
professor captivated his pupils, one of whom, Alypius, hardly younger than his master, loath to leave
him after following him into error, was afterwards baptized with him at Milan, eventually becoming
Bishop of Tagaste, his native city. But Monica deeply deplored Augustine's heresy and would not have
received him into her home or at her table but for the advice of a saintly bishop, who declared that "the
son of so many tears could not perish." Soon afterwards Augustine went to Carthage, where he
continued to teach rhetoric. His talents shone to even better advantage on this wider stage, and by an
indefatigable pursuit of the liberal arts his intellect attained its full maturity. Having taken part in a
poetic tournament, he carried off the prize, and the Proconsul Vindicianus publicly conferred upon him
the corona agonistica.
It was at this moment of literary intoxication, when he had just completed his first work on æsthetics
(now lost) that he began to repudiate Manichæism. Even when Augustine was in his first fervour, the
teachings of Mani had been far from quieting his restlessness, and although he has been accused of
becoming a priest of the sect, he was never initiated or numbered among the "elect," but remained an
"auditor" the lowest degree in the hierarchy. He himself gives the reason for his disenchantment. First of
all there was the fearful depravity of Manichæan philosophy — "They destroy everything and build up
nothing"; then, the dreadful immorality in contrast with their affectation of virtue; the feebleness of
their arguments in controversy with the Catholics, to whose Scriptural arguments their only reply was:
"The Scriptures have been falsified." But, worse than all, he did not find science among them — science
in the modern sense of the word — that knowledge of nature and its laws which they had promised him.
When he questioned them concerning the movements of the stars, none of them could answer him.
"Wait for Faustus," they said, "he will explain everything to you." Faustus of Mileve, the celebrated
Manichæan bishop, at last came to Carthage; Augustine visited and questioned him, and discovered in
his responses the vulgar rhetorician, the utter stranger to all scientific culture. The spell was broken,
and, although Augustine did not immediately abandon the sect, his mind rejected Manichæan doctrines.
The illusion had lasted nine years.
But the religious crisis of this great soul was only to be resolved in Italy, under the influence of Ambrose.
In 383 Augustine, at the age of twenty-nine, yielded to the irresistible attraction which Italy had for him,
but his mother suspected his departure and was so reluctant to be separated from him that he resorted
to a subterfuge and embarked under cover of the night. He had only just arrived in Rome when he was
taken seriously ill; upon recovering he opened a school of rhetoric, but, disgusted by the tricks of his
pupils, who shamelessly defrauded him of their tuition fees, he applied for a vacant professorship at
Milan, obtained it, and was accepted by the prefect, Symmachus. Having visited Bishop Ambrose, the
fascination of that saint's kindness induced him to become a regular attendant at his preachings.
However, before embracing the Faith, Augustine underwent a three years' struggle during which his
mind passed through several distinct phases. At first he turned towards the philosophy of the
Academics, with its pessimistic scepticism; then neo-Platonic philosophy inspired him with genuine
enthusiasm. At Milan he had scarcely read certain works of Plato and, more especially, of Plotinus,
before the hope of finding the truth dawned upon him. Once more he began to dream that he and his
friends might lead a life dedicated to the search for it, a life purged of all vulgar aspirations after
honours, wealth, or pleasure, and with celibacy for its rule (Confessions VI). But it was only a dream; his
passions still enslaved him.
Monica, who had joined her son at Milan, prevailed upon him to become betrothed, but his affianced
bride was too young, and although Augustine dismissed the mother of Adeodatus, her place was soon
filled by another. Thus did he pass through one last period of struggle and anguish. Finally, through the
reading of the Holy Scripture light penetrated his mind. Soon he possessed the certainty that Jesus
Christ is the only way to truth and salvation. After that resistance came only from the heart. An
interview with Simplicianus, the future successor of St. Ambrose, who told Augustine the story of the
conversion of the celebrated neo-Platonic rhetorician, Victorinus (Confessions VIII.1, VIII.2), prepared
the way for the grand stroke of grace which, at the age of thirty-three, smote him to the ground in the
garden at Milan (September, 386). A few days later Augustine, being ill, took advantage of the autumn
holidays and, resigning his professorship, went with Monica, Adeodatus, and his friends to Cassisiacum,
the country estate of Verecundus, there to devote himself to the pursuit of true philosophy which, for
him, was now inseparable from Christianity.
From his conversion to his episcopate (386-395)
Augustine gradually became acquainted with Christian doctrine, and in his mind the fusion of Platonic
philosophy with revealed dogmas was taking place. The law that governed this change of thought has of
late years been frequently misconstrued; it is sufficiently important to be precisely defined. The solitude
of Cassisiacum realized a long-cherished dream. In his books "Against the Academics," Augustine has
described the ideal serenity of this existence, enlivened only by the passion for truth. He completed the
education of his young friends, now by literary readings in common, now by philosophical conferences
to which he sometimes invited Monica, and the accounts of which, compiled by a secretary, have
supplied the foundation of the "Dialogues." Licentius, in his "Letters," would later on recall these
delightful philosophical mornings and evenings, at which Augustine was wont to evolve the most
elevating discussions from the most commonplace incidents. The favourite topics at their conferences
were truth, certainty (Against the Academics), true happiness in philosophy (On a Happy Life), the
Providential order of the world and the problem of evil (On Order) and finally God and the soul
(Soliloquies, On the Immortality of the Soul).
Here arises the curious question propounded modern critics: Was Augustine a Christian when wrote
these "Dialogues" at Cassisiacum? Until now no one had doubted it; historians, relying upon the
"Confessions", had all believed that Augustine's retirement to the villa had for its twofold object the
improvement of his health and his preparation for baptism. But certain critics nowadays claim to have
discovered a radical opposition between the philosophical "Dialogues" composed in this retirement and
the state of soul described in the "Confessions". According to Harnack, in writing the "Confessions"
Augustine must have projected upon the recluse of 386 the sentiments of the bishop of 400. Others go
farther and maintain that the recluse of the Milanese villa could not have been at heart a Christian, but a
Platonist; and that the scene in the garden was a conversion not to Christianity, but to philosophy, the
genuinely Christian phase beginning only in 390.
But this interpretation of the "Dialogues" cannot withstand the test of facts and texts. It is admitted that
Augustine received baptism at Easter, 387; and who could suppose that it was for him a meaningless
ceremony? So too, how can it be admitted that the scene in the garden, the example of the recluses, the
reading of St. Paul, the conversion of Victorinus, Augustine's ecstasies in reading the Psalms with Monica
were all invented after the fact? Again, as it was in 388 that Augustine wrote his beautiful apology "On
the Holiness of the Catholic Church," how is it conceivable that he was not yet a Christian at that date?
To settle the argument, however, it is only necessary to read the "Dialogues" themselves. They are
certainly a purely philosophical work — a work of youth, too, not without some pretension, as Augustine
ingenuously acknowledges (Confessions IX.4); nevertheless, they contain the entire history of his
Christian formation. As early as 386, the first work written at Cassisiacum reveals to us the great
underlying motive of his researches. The object of his philosophy is to give authority the support of
reason, and "for him the great authority, that which dominates all others and from which he never
wished to deviate, is the authority of Christ"; and if he loves the Platonists it is because he counts on
finding among them interpretations always in harmony with his faith (Against the Academics, III, c. x). To
be sure such confidence was excessive, but it remains evident that in these "Dialogues" it is a Christian,
and not a Platonist, that speaks. He reveals to us the intimate details of his conversion, the argument
that convinced him (the life and conquests of the Apostles), his progress in the Faith at the school of St.
Paul (ibid., II, ii), his delightful conferences with his friends on the Divinity of Jesus Christ, the wonderful
transformations worked in his soul by faith, even to that victory of his over the intellectual pride which
his Platonic studies had aroused in him (On The Happy Life, I, ii), and at last the gradual calming of his
passions and the great resolution to choose wisdom for his only spouse (Soliloquies, I, x).
It is now easy to appreciate at its true value the influence of neo-Platonism upon the mind of the great
African Doctor. It would be impossible for anyone who has read the works of St. Augustine to deny the
existence of this influence. However, it would be a great exaggeration of this influence to pretend that it
at any time sacrificed the Gospel to Plato. The same learned critic thus wisely concludes his study: "So
long, therefore, as his philosophy agrees with his religious doctrines, St. Augustine is frankly neoPlatonist; as soon as a contradiction arises, he never hesitates to subordinate his philosophy to religion,
reason to faith. He was, first of all, a Christian; the philosophical questions that occupied his mind
constantly found themselves more and more relegated to the background" (op. cit., 155). But the
method was a dangerous one; in thus seeking harmony between the two doctrines he thought too easily
to find Christianity in Plato, or Platonism in the Gospel. More than once, in his "Retractations" and
elsewhere, he acknowledges that he has not always shunned this danger. Thus he had imagined that in
Platonism he discovered the entire doctrine of the Word and the whole prologue of St. John. He likewise
disavowed a good number of neo-Platonic theories which had at first misled him — the cosmological
thesis of the universal soul, which makes the world one immense animal — the Platonic doubts upon
that grave question: Is there a single soul for all or a distinct soul for each? But on the other hand, he
had always reproached the Platonists, as Schaff very properly remarks (Saint Augustine, New York, 1886,
p. 51), with being ignorant of, or rejecting, the fundamental points of Christianity: "first, the great
mystery, the Word made flesh; and then love, resting on the basis of humility." They also ignore grace,
he says, giving sublime precepts of morality without any help towards realizing them.
It was this Divine grace that Augustine sought in Christian baptism. Towards the beginning of Lent, 387,
he went to Milan and, with Adeodatus and Alypius, took his place among the competentes, being
baptized by Ambrose on Easter Day, or at least during Eastertide. The tradition maintaining that the Te
Deum was sung on that occasion by the bishop and the neophyte alternately is groundless. Nevertheless
this legend is certainly expressive of the joy of the Church upon receiving as her son him who was to be
her most illustrious doctor. It was at this time that Augustine, Alypius, and Evodius resolved to retire
into solitude in Africa. Augustine undoubtedly remained at Milan until towards autumn, continuing his
works: "On the Immortality of the Soul" and "On Music." In the autumn of 387, he was about to embark
at Ostia, when Monica was summoned from this life. In all literature there are no pages of more
exquisite sentiment than the story of her saintly death and Augustine's grief (Confessions IX). Augustine
remained several months in Rome, chiefly engaged in refuting Manichæism. He sailed for Africa after
the death of the tyrant Maximus (August 388) and after a short sojourn in Carthage, returned to his
native Tagaste. Immediately upon arriving there, he wished to carry out his idea of a perfect life, and
began by selling all his goods and giving the proceeds to the poor. Then he and his friends withdrew to
his estate, which had already been alienated, there to lead a common life in poverty, prayer, and the
study of sacred letters. Book of the "LXXXIII Questions" is the fruit of conferences held in this retirement,
in which he also wrote "De Genesi contra Manichæos," "De Magistro," and, "De Vera Religione."
Augustine did not think of entering the priesthood, and, through fear of the episcopacy, he even fled
from cities in which an election was necessary. One day, having been summoned to Hippo by a friend
whose soul's salvation was at stake, he was praying in a church when the people suddenly gathered
about him, cheered him, and begged Valerius, the bishop, to raise him to the priesthood. In spite of his
tears Augustine was obliged to yield to their entreaties, and was ordained in 391. The new priest looked
upon his ordination as an additional reason for resuming religious life at Tagaste, and so fully did
Valerius approve that he put some church property at Augustine's disposal, thus enabling him to
establish a monastery the second that he had founded. His priestly ministry of five years was admirably
fruitful; Valerius had bidden him preach, in spite of the deplorable custom which in Africa reserved that
ministry to bishops. Augustine combated heresy, especially Manichæism, and his success was
prodigious. Fortunatus, one of their great doctors, whom Augustine had challenged in public
conference, was so humiliated by his defeat that he fled from Hippo. Augustine also abolished the abuse
of holding banquets in the chapels of the martyrs. He took part, 8 October, 393, in the Plenary Council of
Africa, presided over by Aurelius, Bishop of Carthage, and, at the request of the bishops, was obliged to
deliver a discourse which, in its completed form, afterwards became the treatise "De Fide et symbolo".
As bishop of Hippo (396-430)
Enfeebled by old age, Valerius, Bishop of Hippo, obtained the authorization of Aurelius, Primate of
Africa, to associate Augustine with himself as coadjutor. Augustine had to resign himself to consecration
at the hands of Megalius, Primate of Numidia. He was then forty two, and was to occupy the See of
Hippo for thirty-four years. The new bishop understood well how to combine the exercise of his pastoral
duties with the austerities of the religious life, and although he left his convent, his episcopal residence
became a monastery where he lived a community life with his clergy, who bound themselves to observe
religious poverty. Was it an order of regular clerics or of monks that he thus founded? This is a question
often asked, but we feel that Augustine gave but little thought to such distinctions. Be that as it may, the
episcopal house of Hippo became a veritable nursery which supplied the founders of the monasteries
that were soon spread all over Africa and the bishops who occupied the neighbouring sees. Possidius
(Vita S. August., xxii) enumerates ten of the saint's friends and disciples who were promoted to the
episcopacy. Thus it was that Augustine earned the title of patriarch of the religious, and renovator of the
clerical, life in Africa.
But he was above all the defender of truth and the shepherd of souls. His doctrinal activities, the
influence of which was destined to last as long as the Church itself, were manifold: he preached
frequently, sometimes for five days consecutively, his sermons breathing a spirit of charity that won all
hearts; he wrote letters which scattered broadcast through the then known world his solutions of the
problems of that day; he impressed his spirit upon divers African councils at which he assisted, for
instance, those of Carthage in 398, 401, 407, 419 and of Mileve in 416 and 418; and lastly struggled
indefatigably against all errors. To relate these struggles were endless; we shall, therefore, select only
the chief controversies and indicate in each the doctrinal attitude of the great Bishop of Hippo.
The Manichæan controversy and the problem of evil
After Augustine became bishop the zeal which, from the time of his baptism, he had manifested in
bringing his former co-religionists into the true Church, took on a more paternal form without losing its
pristine ardour — "let those rage against us who know not at what a bitter cost truth is attained. . . . As
for me, I should show you the same forbearance that my brethren had for me when I blind, was
wandering in your doctrines" (Contra EpistolamFundamenti 3). Among the most memorable events that
occurred during this controversy was the great victory won in 404 over Felix, one of the "elect" of the
Manichæans and the great doctor of the sect. He was propagating his errors in Hippo, and Augustine
invited him to a public conference the issue of which would necessarily cause a great stir; Felix declared
himself vanquished, embraced the Faith, and, together with Augustine, subscribed the acts of the
conference. In his writings Augustine successively refuted Mani (397), the famous Faustus (400),
Secundinus (405), and (about 415) the fatalistic Priscillianists whom Paulus Orosius had denounced to
him. These writings contain the saint's clear, unquestionable views on the eternal problem of evil, views
based on an optimism proclaiming, like the Platonists, that every work of God is good and that the only
source of moral evil is the liberty of creatures (City of God XIX.13.2). Augustine takes up the defence of
free will, even in man as he is, with such ardour that his works against the Manichæan are an
inexhaustible storehouse of arguments in this still living controversy.
In vain have the Jansenists maintained that Augustine was unconsciously a Pelagian and that he
afterwards acknowledged the loss of liberty through the sin of Adam. Modern critics, doubtless
unfamiliar with Augustine's complicated system and his peculiar terminology, have gone much farther.
In the "Revue d'histoire et de littératurereligieuses" (1899, p. 447), M. Margival exhibits St. Augustine as
the victim of metaphysical pessimism unconsciously imbibed from Manichæan doctrines. "Never," says
he, "will the Oriental idea of the necessity and the eternity of evil have a more zealous defender than
this bishop." Nothing is more opposed to the facts. Augustine acknowledges that he had not yet
understood how the first good inclination of the will is a gift of God (Retractions, I, xxiii, n, 3); but it
should be remembered that he never retracted his leading theories on liberty, never modified his
opinion upon what constitutes its essential condition, that is to say, the full power of choosing or of
deciding. Who will dare to say that in revising his own writings on so important a point he lacked either
clearness of perception or sincerity?
The Donatist controversy and the theory of the Church
The Donatist schism was the last episode in the Montanist and Novatian controversies which had
agitated the Church from the second century. While the East was discussing under varying aspects the
Divine and Christological problem of the Word, the West, doubtless because of its more practical genius,
took up the moral question of sin in all its forms. The general problem was the holiness of the Church;
could the sinner be pardoned, and remain in her bosom? In Africa the question especially concerned the
holiness of the hierarchy. The bishops of Numidia, who, in 312, had refused to accept as valid the
consecration of Cæcilian, Bishop of Carthage, by a traditor, had inaugurated the schism and at the same
time proposed these grave questions: Do the hierarchical powers depend upon the moral worthiness of
the priest? How can the holiness of the Church be compatible with the unworthiness of its ministers?
At the time of Augustine's arrival in Hippo, the schism had attained immense proportions, having
become identified with political tendencies — perhaps with a national movement against Roman
domination. In any event, it is easy to discover in it an undercurrent of anti-social revenge which the
emperors had to combat by strict laws. The strange sect known as "Soldiers of Christ," and called by
Catholics Circumcelliones (brigands, vagrants), resembled the revolutionary sects of the Middle Ages in
point of fanatic destructiveness — a fact that must not be lost sight of, if the severe legislation of the
emperors is to be properly appreciated.
The history of Augustine's struggles with the Donatists is also that of his change of opinion on the
employment of rigorous measures against the heretics; and the Church in Africa, of whose councils he
had been the very soul, followed him in the change. This change of views is solemnly attested by the
Bishop of Hippo himself, especially in his Letters, 93 (in the year 408). In the beginning, it was by
conferences and a friendly controversy that he sought to re-establish unity. He inspired various
conciliatory measures of the African councils, and sent ambassadors to the Donatists to invite them to
re-enter the Church, or at least to urge them to send deputies to a conference (403). The Donatists met
these advances at first with silence, then with insults, and lastly with such violence that Possidius Bishop
of Calamet, Augustine's friend, escaped death only by flight, the Bishop of Bagaïa was left covered with
horrible wounds, and the life of the Bishop of Hippo himself was several times attempted (Letter 88, to
Januarius, the Donatist bishop). This madness of the Circumcelliones required harsh repression, and
Augustine, witnessing the many conversions that resulted therefrom, thenceforth approved rigid laws.
However, this important restriction must be pointed out: that St. Augustine never wished heresy to be
punishable by death — Vosrogamus ne occidatis (Letter 100, to the Proconsul Donatus). But the bishops
still favoured a conference with the schismatics, and in 410 an edict issued by Honorius put an end to
the refusal of the Donatists. A solemn conference took place at Carthage, in June, 411, in presence of
286 Catholic, and 279 Donatist bishops. The Donatist spokesmen were Petilian of Constantine, Primian
of Carthage, and Emeritus of Cæsarea; the Catholic orators, Aurelius and Augustine. On the historic
question then at issue, the Bishop of Hippo proved the innocence of Cæcilian and his consecrator Felix,
and in the dogmatic debate he established the Catholic thesis that the Church, as long as it is upon
earth, can, without losing its holiness, tolerate sinners within its pale for the sake of converting them. In
the name of the emperor the Proconsul Marcellinus sanctioned the victory of the Catholics on all points.
Little by little Donatism died out, to disappear with the coming of the Vandals.
So amply and magnificently did Augustine develop his theory on the Church that, according to Specht
"he deserves to be named the Doctor of the Church as well as the Doctor of Grace"; and Möhler
(Dogmatik, 351) is not afraid to write: "For depth of feeling and power of conception nothing written on
the Church since St. Paul's time, is comparable to the works of St. Augustine." He has corrected,
perfected, and even excelled the beautiful pages of St. Cyprian on the Divine institution of the Church,
its authority, its essential marks, and its mission in the economy of grace and the administration of the
sacraments. The Protestant critics, Dorner, Bindemann, Böhringer and especially Reuter, loudly
proclaim, and sometimes even exaggerate, this rôle of the Doctor of Hippo; and while Harnack does not
quite agree with them in every respect he does not hesitate to say (History of Dogma, II, c. iii): "It is one
of the points upon which Augustine specially affirms and strengthens the Catholic idea.... He was the
first [!] to transform the authority of the Church into a religious power, and to confer upon practical
religion the gift of a doctrine of the Church." He was not the first, for Dorner acknowledges (Augustinus,
88) that Optatus of Mileve had expressed the basis of the same doctrines. Augustine, however,
deepened, systematized, and completed the views of St. Cyprian and Optatus. But it is impossible here
to go into detail. (See Specht, Die Lehre von der Kirchenachdem hl. Augustinus, Paderborn, 1892.)
The Pelagian controversy and the Doctor of Grace
The close of the struggle against the Donatists almost coincided with the beginnings of a very grave
theological dispute which not only was to demand Augustine's unremitting attention up to the time of
his death, but was to become an eternal problem for individuals and for the Church. Farther on we shall
enlarge upon Augustine's system; here we need only indicate the phases of the controversy. Africa,
where Pelagius and his disciple Celestius had sought refuge after the taking of Rome by Alaric, was the
principal centre of the first Pelagian disturbances; as early as 412 a council held at Carthage condemned
Pelagians for their attacks upon the doctrine of original sin. Among other books directed against them
by Augustine was his famous "De naturâ et gratiâ". Thanks to his activity the condemnation of these
innovators, who had succeeded in deceiving a synod convened at Diospolis in Palestine, was reiterated
by councils held later at Carthage and Mileve and confirmed by Pope Innocent I (417). A second period
of Pelagian intrigues developed at Rome, but Pope Zosimus, whom the stratagems of Celestius had for a
moment deluded, being enlightened by Augustine, pronounced the solemn condemnation of these
heretics in 418. Thenceforth the combat was conducted in writing against Julian of Eclanum, who
assumed the leadership of the party and violently attacked Augustine.
Towards 426 there entered the lists a school which afterwards acquired the name of Semipelagian, the
first members being monks of Hadrumetum in Africa, who were followed by others from Marseilles, led
by Cassian, the celebrated abbot of Saint-Victor. Unable to admit the absolute gratuitousness of
predestination, they sought a middle course between Augustine and Pelagius, and maintained that
grace must be given to those who merit it and denied to others; hence goodwill has the precedence, it
desires, it asks, and God rewards. Informed of their views by Prosper of Aquitaine, the holy Doctor once
more expounded, in "De Prædestinatione Sanctorum", how even these first desires for salvation are due
to the grace of God, which therefore absolutely controls our predestination.
Struggles against Arianism and closing years
In 426 the holy Bishop of Hippo, at the age of seventy-two, wishing to spare his episcopal city the
turmoil of an election after his death, caused both clergy and people to acclaim the choice of the deacon
Heraclius as his auxiliary and successor, and transferred to him the administration of externals.
Augustine might then have enjoyed some rest had Africa not been agitated by the undeserved disgrace
and the revolt of Count Boniface (427). The Goths, sent by the Empress Placidia to oppose Boniface, and
the Vandals, whom the latter summoned to his assistance, were all Arians. Maximinus, an Arian bishop,
entered Hippo with the imperial troops. The holy Doctor defended the Faith at a public conference (428)
and in various writings. Being deeply grieved at the devastation of Africa, he laboured to effect a
reconciliation between Count Boniface and the empress. Peace was indeed reestablished, but not with
Genseric, the Vandal king. Boniface, vanquished, sought refuge in Hippo, whither many bishops had
already fled for protection and this well fortified city was to suffer the horrors of an eighteen months'
siege. Endeavouring to control his anguish, Augustine continued to refute Julian of Eclanum; but early in
the siege he was stricken with what he realized to be a fatal illness, and, after three months of
admirable patience and fervent prayer, departed from this land of exile on 28 August, 430, in the
seventy-sixth year of his age.
Moses ben Maimun (Arabic, Abu Amran Musa), Jewish commentator and philosopher, was born of
Spanish Jewish parents at Cordova in 1135. After sojourning with his parents in Spain, Palestine, and
Northern Africa, he settled down at Old Cairo, Egypt, in 1165. There he received the office of court
physician, and at the same time, as head of the Jewish communities in Egypt, devoted himself to the
exposition of the Talmud. He died at Cairo, 13 December, 1204, and was buried at Tiberias in Palestine.
His writings include: (1) Commentaries: (a) "Kitáb al-Siraj", a commentary on the Mishnah, written in
Arabic and translated into Hebrew (first published 1492), Latin (Oxford, 1654), and German (Leipzig,
1863); (b) "Mishneh Torah", or "Yad ha-Hazakah", written in Hebrew, and many times published (first
ed. in Italy, 1480; latest, Vilna, 1900); translated in part into English in 1863 by Bernard and Soloweyczik;
(2) Philosophical Works: (a) "Dalalat al-Ha’irîn", translated into Hebrew as "MorehNebûkîm" (1204), and
into Latin as "Doctor Perplexorum", "Dux Dubitantium". The Arabic Original was published, with a
French translation entitled "Guide des égarés" by Munk (13 vols., Paris, 1856-66). An English translation
of portion of it by Townley appeared as "The Reasons of the Laws of Moses" (London, 1827), and a
version of the whole work under the title "The Guide of the Perplexed" by Friedländer (London, 1889);
(b) Minor Philosophical Works: "On the Unity of God", "On Happiness", "On the Terminology of Logic",
"On Resurrection" etc.; (3) Medical and Astronomical Works: Several treatises on poisons, on hygiene, a
commentary on Hippocrates, on the astronomical principles of the Jewish calendar etc.
Through the "Guide of the Perplexed" and the philosophical introductions to sections of his
commentaries on the Mishna, Maimonides exerted a very important influence on the Scholastic
philosophers, especially on Albert the Great, St. Thomas, and Duns Scotus. He was himself a Jewish
Scholastic. Educated more by reading the works of the Arabian philosophers than by personal contact
with Arabian teachers, he acquired through the abundant philosophical literature in the Arabic language
an intimate acquaintance with the doctrines of Aristotle, and strove earnestly to reconcile the
philosophy of the Stagirite with the teachings of the Bible. The principle which inspired all his
philosophical activity was identical with the fundamental tenet of Scholasticism: there can be no
contradiction between the truths which God has revealed and the findings of the human mind in science
and philosophy. Moreover, by science and philosophy he understood the science and philosophy of
Aristotle. In some important points, however, he departed from the teaching of the Aristotelean text,
holding, for instance, that the world is not eternal, as Aristotle taught, but was created ex nihilo, as is
taught explicitly in the Bible. Again, he rejected the Aristotelean doctrine that God's provident care
extends only to humanity, and not to the individual. But, while in these important points, Maimonides
forestalled the Scholastics and undoubtedly influenced them, he was led by his admiration for the neoPlatonic commentators and by the bent of his own mind, which was essentially Jewish, to maintain
many doctrines which the Scholastics could not accept. For instance, he pushed too far the principle of
negative predication in regard to God. The Scholastics agreed with him that no predicate is adequate to
express the nature of God, but they did not go so far as to say that no term can be applied to God in the
affirmative sense. They admitted that while "eternal", "omnipotent", etc., as we apply them to God, are
inadequate, at the same time we may say "God is eternal" etc., and need not stop, as Moses did, with
the negative "God is not not-eternal", etc.
The most characteristic of all his philosophical doctrines is that of acquired immortality. He distinguishes
two kinds of intelligence in man, the one material in the sense of being dependent on, and influenced
by, the body, and the other immaterial, that is, independent of the bodily organism. The latter is a direct
emanation from the universal active intellect (this is his interpretation of the noûspoietikós of
Aristotelean philosophy), and is acquired as the result of the efforts of the soul to attain a knowledge of
the absolute, pure intelligence of God. The knowledge of God is, therefore, the knowledge which, so to
speak, develops in us the immaterial intelligence, and thus confers on man an immaterial or spiritual
nature. This immateriality not only confers on the soul that perfection in which human happiness
consists, but also endows the soul with immortality. He who has attained a knowledge of God has
reached a condition of existence which renders him immune from all the accidents of fortune, from all
the allurements of sin, and even from death itself. Man, therefore, since he has it in his power to attain
this salutary knowledge, is in a position not only to work out his own salvation, but also to work out his
own immortality. The resemblance between this doctrine and Spinoza's doctrine of immortality is so
striking as to warrant the hypothesis that there is a causal dependence of the later on the earlier
doctrine. The difference between the two Jewish thinkers is, however, as remarkable as the
resemblance. While Spinoza teaches that the way to attain the knowledge which confers immortality is
the progress from sense-knowledge through scientific knowledge to philosophical intuition of all things
sub specie æternitatis, Moses holds that the road to perfection and immortality is the path of duty as
described in the Law of God.
Among the theological questions which Moses discussed were the nature of prophecy and the
reconciliation of evil with the goodness of God. He agrees with "the philosophers" in teaching that,
man's intelligence being one in the series of intelligences emanating from God, the prophet must, by
study and meditation, lift himself up to the degree of perfection required in the prophetic state. But
here he invokes the authority of "the Law", which teaches that, after that perfection is reached, there is
required the free act of God before the man actually becomes the prophet. In his solution of the
problem of evil, he follows the neo-Platonists in laying stress on matter as the source of all evil and
First published Tue Jan 24, 2006; substantive revision Wed Jun 12, 2013
Moses ben Maimon [known to English speaking audiences as Maimonides and Hebrew speaking as
Rambam] (1138–1204) is the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval period and is still widely read
today. The Mishneh Torah, his 14-volume compendium of Jewish law, established him as the leading
rabbinic authority of his time and quite possibly of all time. His philosophic masterpiece, the Guide of
the Perplexed, is a sustained treatment of Jewish thought and practice that seeks to resolve the conflict
between religious knowledge and secular. Although heavily influenced by the Neo-Platonized
Aristotelianism that had taken root in Islamic circles, it departs from prevailing modes of Aristotelian
thought by emphasizing the limits of human knowledge and the questionable foundations of significant
parts of astronomy and metaphysics. Maimonides also achieved fame as a physician and wrote medical
treatises on a number of diseases and their cures. Succeeding generations of philosophers wrote
extensive commentaries on his works, which influenced thinkers as diverse as Aquinas, Spinoza, Leibniz,
1. Life and Works
2. Fundamental Orientation
3. Demythologized Religion
4. God and the Via Negativa
6. Practical Philosophy
Other Internet Resources
1. Life and Works
Maimonides was born to a distinguished family in Cordova, Spain in 1138. At that point, Cordova was
under Muslim rule and stood as one of the great intellectual centers of the world. In addition to
Maimonides, it was the birthplace of Averroes. But events took a turn for the worse when the Almohads
invaded in 1148 and offered all non-Muslims the choice of conversion, exile, or death. Maimonides'
family was forced to leave Cordova and travel through southern Spain and arrived in Fez, Morocco in
1160. His first philosophic work of note was the Treatise on the Art of Logic. Around this time, he began
work on his first religious masterpiece, the Commentary on the Mishnah, which was finished in 1168. It
is noteworthy for the emphasis Maimonides places on Oral Torah, by which he means the details,
specifications, and interpretations derived from the Written Torah, which was revealed to Moses at
It is also noteworthy for Maimonides' commentary on Chapter 10 of the Mishnaic tractate Sanhedrin.
While discussing the claim that all Israel has a share in the world to come, Maimonides lists 13 principles
that he considers binding on every Jew: the existence of God, the absolute unity of God, the
incorporeality of God, the eternity of God, that God alone is to be worshipped, that God communicates
to prophets, that Moses is the greatest prophet, that the Torah was given by God, that the Torah is
immutable, that there is divine providence, that there is divine punishment and reward, that there will
be a Messiah, that the dead will be resurrected. This was the first attempt to introduce articles of
faith to Judaism and set off a controversy that persists to this day [Kellner, 1986; 1999].
Maimonides arrived in Egypt in 1166 and eventually settled in Fustat, a section of Cairo. With the
publication of the Mishneh Torah, he established himself as a thinker for the ages. Not only does this
work systematize all the commandments of the Torah, it tries to show that every part of Jewish law
serves a rational purpose and nothing is given for the sake of mere obedience.
Of particular note are Book One (The Book of Knowledge), which sets forth the philosophic foundations
of Jewish belief, a theory of moral traits or dispositions, the need to study the Torah, the laws
concerning idolatry, and the importance of repentance. Also of note is Book Fourteen (Judges), which
ends by arguing that a Messiah will come, restore sovereignty to Israel, establish peace with the other
nations, and lead the world in the study of science and philosophy. By contrast, the Messiah will not
make people rich, introduce changes in the Torah, or be required to perform miracles.
The Guide of the Perplexed was completed in 1190 and contains Maimonides' most extensive
philosophic discussions. Ostensibly a letter written to an advanced student who cannot decide whether
to follow philosophy or the teachings of his religion, it is in reality much more: a commentary on biblical
terms that appear to ascribe corporeal qualities to God, an uncompromising defense of negative
theology, an extended critique of the kalam, a systematic treatment of creation, prophecy, and
providence, and a theory of jurisprudence.
According to Maimonides, all of Jewish law aims at two things: the improvement of the body and the
improvement of the soul. The former is in every case a means to the latter. The soul is improved by
acquiring correct opinions and eventually knowledge on everything humans are capable of knowing. The
more knowledge the soul acquires, the more it is able to fulfill the commandment (Deuteronomy 6:5) to
love God. The biggest stumbling block to love of God is the belief that the only way to remain true to the
Bible is to interpret it literally. The result of literal interpretation is a material conception of God, which,
in Maimonides' opinion, amounts to idolatry.
The Guide has long been considered a controversial work and in some rabbinic circles was originally
banned. By rejecting literal interpretation, it raises the question of whether Maimonides' reading of the
Torah corresponds to what the prophets understood or represents a philosophic reconstruction that
owes more to Aristotle and Alfarabi than it does to Moses. It also raises the question of whether the real
meaning of the Torah is too controversial to be taught to the average worshipper and should be
restricted to the educated few; in short the question of esotericism.
Maimonides' last two works of note are the Treatise on Resurrection, published in 1191, and the Letter
on Astrology, published in 1195. The former was written in answer to the charge that while he may
profess belief in bodily resurrection, Maimonides did not really hold it. The charge is not without merit
given that Maimonides' conception of the afterlife is purely intellectual and that his naturalism makes
him suspicious of miracles. He defends himself by saying that the important issue is not whether and
how resurrection will occur but whether it is possible for it to occur. As for the latter, once one accepts
belief in creation, the possibility of bodily resurrection follows immediately. The Letter on Astrology was
written at a time when many people believed that the heavenly bodies exert influence over human
events. Nevertheless, he argues that there is no scientific basis for this belief and that it should be
abandoned even if support for it can be found in the sacred literature.
Facing ever-growing demands on his time, Maimonides worked himself into a state of exhaustion and
died in Fostat in 1204. An old saying has it that from Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses.
2. Fundamental Orientation
Maimonides presents a challenge to the modern reader because his view of truth is totally unhistorical.
We saw that he was guided by the need to systematize. Given 613 original commandments, he argues
that all are means to the fulfillment of the first two, which he interprets as belief in the existence of God
and rejection of idolatry. Together these commandments make up what we call monotheism. From
Maimonides' perspective, however, there is more to monotheism than belief in a single deity. To satisfy
the first two commandments, one must believe in a timeless, changeless, immaterial deity who is one in
every respect and unlike anything in the created order. A person who fails to recognize such a deity is
accorded the status of an idolater no matter how many other commandments she may fulfill or how
fervently she may fulfill them. Simply put, to worship God under a false description is not to worship
God at all. Not only is this true at present, as Maimonides sees it, it has been true since God first spoke
Early in the Guide (1.2), Maimonides argues that Adam is depicted as having the most perfect
metaphysical knowledge a human being can achieve prior to his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. By
necessity this would have to include belief in a timeless, changeless, immaterial deity. Even if the biblical
text makes no mention of Adam's theology, Maimonides thinks (MT 14 Kings and Wars, 9.1) it would be
impossible for someone to be this close to God and harbor a fundamental misunderstanding.
Unfortunately Adam's knowledge was lost during the time of Enosh and had to be rediscovered by
Abraham (MT 1, Idolatry, 1.1–2; GP 3.29). Again Maimonides thinks he is justified in saying that
Abraham discovered proofs for the existence of a God who is neither a body nor a force in a body even
though the Bible is silent on such matters. These proofs were supposedly passed down to Isaac and
Jacob but lost during the Egyptian captivity when the Israelites adopted the pagan beliefs of their
When Moses arose to lead the people out of captivity, he faced a serious problem. If all he did were to
offer philosophic proofs again, the people would forget them just as they had forgotten before. So
instead of offering proofs alone, he offered the blueprint for a social order that would help the people
remember their history and the principles on which it is founded. That is why in addition to the first two
commandments, there are 611 others designed to create an environment in which people will have the
time, health, and mental facility needed to grasp the truth of monotheism (GP 3.27–28).
Judaism then is based on a particular philosophy. Maimonides (GP 1.71) takes this to mean that before
Plato and Aristotle introduced science and philosophy to the Greeks, the patriarchs introduced it to
Israel. To someone who asks why we have no explicit record of their philosophy, Maimonides answers
that any record of such teaching was destroyed when Israel went into exile and suffered persecution. So
despite the appearance of a split between Jerusalem and Athens, Maimonides thinks there is only one
tradition worth preserving: that which affirms the truth.
He makes this point in the Introduction to the Guide when he says that what Jewish tradition taught
under the guise of ma'asehbereishit (the account of the beginning) is what Greeks thinkers taught as
physics, while what Jewish tradition taught under the guise of ma'asehmerkavah (the account of
[Ezekiel's] chariot) is what Greek thinkers taught under the guise of metaphysics. In short, Jewish
tradition has always been philosophical. The problem is that these subjects are too difficult for the
average worshipper to grasp and must be expressed as parables or metaphors that the educated few
will interpret at one level and the average worshipper at another [Stern, 2013].
Looking at his own situation, Maimonides concludes that the tradition of learning that began in Israel
has been lost once again. People pray to a material God and justify their actions on the basis of literal
interpretation. Someone was needed to reverse this situation and reintroduce Jews to the teachings of
their own tradition. Strictly speaking, such truths are Jewish only in the sense that Jews were the first to
discover them. From an ethnic standpoint, they are no more Jewish than the Pythagorean theorem is
All this goes to show that Maimonides did not conceive of progress as we do. Although he regarded
mastery of science and philosophy as essential parts of human perfection, he did not view them as
cumulative. Rather than take us into new territory, his goal was to reacquaint us with the territory that
Moses and the patriarchs had already staked out. The important truths do not change. Human progress
is measured by the degree to which they are identified and understood. That is why the primary
function of the Messiah will be to teach these truths and help create conditions in which more people
are able to reflect on them.
3. Demythologized Religion
It is clear that the religion Maimonides envisions is not the normal kind. He recognizes that when one is
first exposed to Bible stories and the ritual of daily prayer, one may need anthropomorphic descriptions
of God and promises of material reward. As he points out time and again, the Torah speaks in the
language of ordinary people. If it did not, its appeal would be greatly reduced. But, Maimonides
continues, the purpose of the religion is to get one to the point where these things cease to matter and
are eventually overcome.
To take a few examples, the Bible often suggests that a prophet, or in one case the elders of Israel, saw
God (e.g., Exodus 24:10, Numbers 12:8, Isaiah 6:1–3, Ezekiel 1:26–29). Maimonides counters (GP 1.4) by
saying that the kind of seeing involved is intellectual rather than visual — as when one sees her way to
the solution of a geometry problem. By the same token, when God is described as near or close, the
Bible is not talking about physical location but intellectual apprehension — as when scientists say they
are close to finding a cure for a disease (GP 1.18). The many places where the Bible says that God spoke
to a prophet do not indicate that God has vocal cords that produce sound but that the prophet came to
understand what God wants (GP 1.65). In a more complicated way, Jacob's dream refers to the
hierarchical structure of the physical world and represents the path the philosopher follows from
knowledge of the sublunar realm to knowledge of the spheres and awareness of the existence of God
Again one is inclined to ask: Is this the religion of the prophets or a philosophically sanitized religion
concocted by a medieval thinker under the sway of Aristotle? Maimonides would reply that there is no
difference. The highest human achievement is the perfection of the intellect (GP 3.27), which is
impossible without the pursuit of truth. As a sacred document, the Bible is a source of truth. While the
truths contained in the Bible may not always be apparent, we know in principle that they are there if
one wishes to dig deeply enough. It follows that if one's interpretation ascribes to the Bible a doctrine
that is demonstrably false, such as the claim that God is corporeal, the interpretation is incorrect no
matter how simple or straightforward it may seem. Should human knowledge advance and come up
with demonstrations it previously lacked, we would have no choice but to return to the Bible and alter
our interpretation to take account of them (GP 2.24). Anything else would be intellectually dishonest.
Where does this take us? In the Parable of the Palace (GP 3.51), Maimonides describes the person who
enters the inner habitation of the King as:
He … who has achieved demonstration, to the extent that it is possible, of everything that may be
demonstrated; and who has ascertained in divine matters, to the extent that that is possible, everything
that may be ascertained; and who has come close to certainty in those matters in which one can only
come close to it …
This is not just an intellectual achievement but a spiritual one as well. In Maimonides' opinion, it is the
goal to which all of the commandments of the Torah point. There is an obvious sense of satisfaction that
goes with this, but it has nothing to do with satisfaction material needs or “ecstasy” as normally
4. God and the Via Negativa
Maimonides offers several proofs for the existence of God, all of which are versions of the cosmological
argument (GP 2.1). Rather than begin with a definition of God and try to show that God's essence
implies existence, he begins with a description of the world as we know it and tries to show that it
implies the existence of God. According to one such argument, we assume that the heavenly bodies are
engaged in eternal motion. We then recognize that it is impossible for there to be an infinite body or an
infinite number of finite bodies. So every corporeal thing is finite. If it is finite, it can only contain a finite
amount of power. If it can only contain a finite amount of power, it can only explain motion over a finite
period of time. Because the heavenly bodies are always moving, the only thing that can explain that
motion is an infinite power. Because an infinite power cannot be contained in a finite thing, it cannot be
corporeal. If it is not corporeal, it is not subject to division or change. Seeing that its power is infinite, it
cannot derive that power from something else. Thus the only way to explain the motion of the heavenly
bodies is to posit the existence of a being that is neither a body nor a force in a body.
Although Maimonides thinks this argument gives us sufficient grounds for saying that God is, he does
not think it provides any grounds for saying what God is. To see why not, we have to recognize that God
is not one in a way comparable to anything else: one person, one number, one idea. According to Guide
There is no oneness at all except in believing that there is one simple essence in which there is no
complexity or multiplicity of notions, but one notion only; so that from whatever angle you regard it and
from whatever point of view you consider it, you will find that it is one, not divided in any way and by
any cause into two notions …
If Maimonides is right, there can be no plurality of faculties, moral dispositions, or essential attributes in
God. Even to say that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good is to introduce plurality, if one
means thereby that these qualities are separate attributes. The same is true if we say that God is a
composite of matter and form, genus and specific difference, or essence and accident. All introduce
plurality where none can be tolerated.
Aside from religious considerations, plurality is objectionable because it compromises logical priority. If
God were a composite of F and G, some reason would have to be found for what brought them together
and keeps them together. In short, if God were a composite, there would have to be a cause prior to
God, which is absurd (GP 2. Intro., premise 21). For the same reason, God cannot be subsumed under a
wider concept as man is subsumed under animal (GP 1.52). Once God fell under a genus, there would be
something prior to or more inclusive than God, either of which is absurd. Without a genus or a minimal
form of composition, there is no possibility of defining God and thus no possibility of saying what God is.
Even superlatives are of no help. To say that God is the wisest or most powerful thing in the universe is
still to subsume God under a wider description.
Worse, to say that God is the wisest or most powerful thing is to imply that God's wisdom or power
bears some likeness to ours. This Maimonides firmly denies (GP 1.56–57). The power manifested by a
body is finite and can be measured in foot/pounds. No matter how powerful it is, we can easily imagine
something whose power is greater. What is more, if we are talking about the power of a body, it always
makes sense to ask from what it derives its power or how its power is related to something else, e.g. its
goodness. None of this is true of God. Maimonides therefore concludes (GP 1.56) that it is not true to
say that God's power is greater than ours, that God's life is more permanent than ours, than God's
knowledge is broader than ours, or that God's will is more universal than ours, if that means that God
can be put on the same scale as something else, that God is a bigger, stronger, better version of
something in the created order.
Does that mean that statements like “God lives” or “God is powerful” are nonsense? The answer is yes if
one insists on interpreting them as normal subject/predicate propositions. But they can be understood if
one analyzes them as disguised negations. Thus “God is powerful” should be taken as “God is not lacking
in power.” Maimonides' appeal to negation (GP 1.58) is often misunderstood because in normal speech
a double negative usually indicates a positive. If I say that this dog is not lacking in the power of sight,
you would be justified in concluding that it can see for the simple reason that sight is a power normally
associated with dogs. What Maimonides has in mind is a more extreme form of negation. Thus “God is
powerful” means “God does not lack power or possess it in a way that makes it comparable to other
things.” Can God do something like move a book off a shelf? Yes, to the extent that God does not lack
power but no to the extent that God does not have to move muscles, summon energy, or receive a
supply of food or fuel. The power to create the whole universe is so far beyond that needed to move a
book that any comparison cannot help but mislead.
From an epistemological standpoint, a statement like “God is powerful” is objectionable in so far as it
implies that we have insight into the essence of God. The advantage of the negative formulation is that
it implies nothing of the sort. To say that God does not lack power or possess it in a way comparable to
other things is to say that God's power is beyond our comprehension. And similarly for God's life,
wisdom, unity, or will. Thus most of the terms we use to describe God are completely equivocal as
between God and us. There is then no reason to think that every time we praise God, we are identifying
a separate part of the divine persona and comparing it to something else.
As severe as Maimonides' position is, even this is not enough. Although negation is preferable to
affirmation, even negation is objectionable to the degree that it introduces complexity: God is neither
this nor that. What then? Maimonides' reply (GP 1.58) is that ultimately any kind of verbal expression
fails us. Rather than provide a precise metaphysical account of the nature of God, the purpose of
theological discourse is heuristic: to “conduct the mind toward the utmost reach that man may attain in
the apprehension of Him.” Theological language is important to the degree that it eliminates error and
sets us along the path of recognizing God's transcendence. Unless one could speak about God, she could
easily fall into the trap of thinking that God is corporeal. But in the end, the only thing it reveals is that
God is beyond the reach of any subject/predicate proposition. Thus GP 1.59:
Know that when you make an affirmation ascribing another thing to Him, you become more remote
from Him in two respects: one of them is that everything You affirm is a perfection only with reference
to us, And the other is that He does not possess a thing other than His essence …
Citing Psalm 65, Maimonides concludes that the highest form of praise we can give God is silence.
Maimonides knows (GP 3.32) that a religion based entirely on silent reflection would never succeed, and
insists that daily prayer is mandatory (MT 2, Prayer, 1.1). His point is that the qualities mentioned in
prayer are either negations or descriptions of the effects of divine activity; in no case do they provide
knowledge of God's essence. To illustrate this point, he asks us to consider the effect of fire on various
things that could be put before it. It would soften wax, harden clay, blacken sugar, and whiten other
things. This does not mean that fire is soft, hard, black, and white simultaneously but that it has these
effects on various things.
Applying this analogy to God, we can say that God is merciful to the extent that the order of nature
(what God created) exhibits merciful characteristics and angry to the extent that it is harsh toward
things that do not take proper care of themselves. The point is not that God possesses emotions similar
to ours but that the effects of God's actions resemble the effects of ours. Maimonides refers to these
qualities as attributes of action and identifies them with the goodness God revealed to Moses at Exodus
33. In that passage, God refuses to let Moses see the divine face (which Maimonides identifies with
essence) but allows him to see God's backside (which Maimonides identifies with the consequences or
effects that flow from God). We can therefore praise God as long as we realize that all such praise is
indirect and leaves God's essence undescribed and unknowable.
Throughout the Guide, Maimonides considers four accounts of creation: that of the kalam, Moses, Plato,
and Aristotle. He rejects the kalam account (GP 1.71–73) according which one demonstrates that the
universe must have been created and then reasons that if it was created, it must have a creator. Like
Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides believes it is impossible to show by logical considerations alone either
that the universe was created or that it is eternal. Though Maimonides says he believes in creation, he
admits one can do no more than tip the scales in this direction. As of Guide 2.13, he limits his discussion
to the theories of Moses, Plato, and Aristotle.
Unfortunately Maimonides' characterizations of these alternatives are neither precise nor historically
accurate [Seeskin, 2005]. Suffice it to say that his treatment of them is mainly thematic. Briefly stated,
Moses: the world was created de novo and entirely ex nihilo.
Plato: the world was created de novo from a preexisting material substrate.
the world is eternal and its existence is best understood as eternal information of
Based on his explicit remarks, Maimonides prefers the theory of Moses but allows one to hold that of
Plato as a reasonable alternative. But there has always been a school of thought that maintains that he
is secretly committed to the view of Aristotle [Harvey 1981]. My own position is with those who argue
that Maimonides' explicit remarks are an accurate account of his view and that all the arguments he
offers point in that direction [Davidson 1979; Feldman 1990; Hyman 1988; Wolfson 1973).
The historical Aristotle did argue that the world is eternal and that whatever is eternal is necessary [On
Generation and Corruption 338a1–4, Physics 203b 29, Metaphysics 1050b8–15]. His medieval followers
took this to mean that while the world is ontologically dependent on God, there is no moment when it
first comes to be and therefore does not owe its existence to a decision to create. As we might say, it
exists not because of anything God does but simply because of what God is. Because God's nature does
not change, according to this position, neither does the existence or fundamental structure of the world.
The most important consequence of this view is that God does not exercise free choice, which is to say
that according to the Aristotelian alternative, the world is governed by necessity.
The standard arguments in favor of this position take one of two approaches: either they show that
there is something inherent in the nature of the world that makes creation impossible or that there is
something inherent in the nature of God that does. An example of the former is that change always
proceeds from something to something else, as when a chicken springs from an egg or an acorn
develops into a full grown oak tree. If this is true, it is impossible for something to come to be from
nothing (ex nihilo). An example of the latter is that if God is perfect, it makes no sense to suppose that
God could ever do anything new such as bring the world into being.
Maimonides' answer to the first argument (GP 2.17) is that given the world as we know it, change does
proceed from one thing to something else. But why should we assume the creation of the world has to
follow the same pattern? An account of creation is a theory of origin, how a thing comes to be initially.
By contrast, an account of change is a theory of development or alteration, how one existing thing
emerges into another. For all we know, the origin of a thing may be completely different from its
development later on. Thus it is presumptuous to suppose that we can extrapolate from our experience
of the world as it is at present to the moment of its creation. It follows that the first argument against
creation is not decisive, which means that creation remains a possibility.
Maimonides' answer to the second argument (GP 2.18) is that in a perfect being, willing something new
need not imply change. If I will today to take a trip tomorrow and events intercede to spoil my plans, I
may have to change my mind, but to suppose that something analogous happens to God is absurd.
Assume I will today to do something tomorrow independent of external circumstances — to think about
the numerical characteristics of pi. And assume that when tomorrow comes, I do exactly as planned.
While I would be undertaking something new, to the degree that I had intended to do it all along, it
would be misleading to say that I underwent a change. Certainly I did not undergo a change of mind.
Maimonides takes this to mean that it is possible for a being not affected by external circumstances to
will something new as long as it is part of his original intention. This is sometimes expressed by saying
that changing one's will is not the same as willing change. So once again, the argument against creation
is not decisive.
Maimonides is aware that all his arguments establish is the possibility of creation, not its actuality. To go
further, and argue for the actuality of creation, he returns to the claim that everything that is eternal is
necessary. If it could be shown that there are features of the world that are not necessary, it would
follow that the world must have been created. Here Maimonides challenges Aristotle and his followers
on the issue of astronomy.
Medieval Aristotelians believed as follows. God thinks and manifests self-awareness. Because God is one
and simple, what emerges from God must be one and simple as well. In this way, God generates the first
heavenly intelligence. According to Alfarabi, because the first intelligence is aware of two things — itself
and God — it is capable of generating two things: the second heavenly intelligence and the outermost
sphere of the universe. By contrast, Avicenna held that because the first intelligence is aware of God and
duality in itself, it generates three things. The difference need not concern us here. The important point
is that God's production of the outermost sphere is indirect; the immediate cause is the activity of the
first intelligence. The process continues until we get the ten intelligences and nine primary spheres that
make up the standard picture of medieval cosmology.
Maimonides criticizes this account in two ways. First if the originator of a causal sequence is one and
simple, there is no way for complexity to arise, and everything else in the sequence should be one and
simple as well (GP 2.22). Even if the sequence contains thousands of members, there is no way to
account for the complexity of a celestial sphere, which is a composite of matter and form. When we get
to the inner spheres, we have to account for even more because not only is there the sphere itself but
the stars or planets attached to it. They too are composites of matter and form. How can we have such
complexity if we start with something that is radically one?
Second, there are features of the heavenly bodies that defy scientific explanation and thus appear to be
contingent in the sense that they were chosen rather than necessitated (GP 2.19–24). If the outer
spheres impart motion to the inner ones, we would expect spherical motion to slow as we move closer
to the earth. But this is hardly the case. As Maimonides points out (GP 2.19):
We see that in case of some spheres, the swifter of motion is above the slower; that in the case of
others, the slower of motion is above the swifter; and that, again in another case, the motions of the
spheres are of equal velocity though one be above the other. There are also other very grave matters if
regarded from the point of view these things are as they are in virtue of necessity.
If there is no explanation for why the spheres behave in this fashion, or why some stars and planets emit
more light than others, or why some regions of the heavens are relatively crowded while others are
empty, there is no reason to think the phenomena in question are what they are by virtue of necessity.
If there is no necessity, there are no grounds for eternity. The alternative is to say that God created the
world as a result of a free choice and fashioned it in a particular way.
Maimonides recognizes (GP 2.24) that his argument does not constitute a demonstration. Just because
science cannot explain something now, it does not follow that it will never be able to explain it. As he
himself admits, science can and does make progress. But in the case of the heavenly bodies, he thought
progress very unlikely. Because they too far away to make close observations, and too high in rank, we
can only rely on inferences based on accidental qualities size, speed, and direction. As long as this is
true, we will never know their essential natures and will never be able to support claims of necessity. As
long as this is true, creation, though not demonstrated, will always be preferable to eternity.
Maimonides (GP 2.25) also offers a practical reason for believing in creation: How can a God without
free will issue commandments? Beyond this there is a textual reason: belief in creation does less
violence to scripture than belief in eternity. He concludes that the theory of Moses offers the best
alternative, while that of Plato, which retains the idea of creation de novo, is acceptable. Though some
people fault Maimonides for not coming up with a stronger argument on behalf of Moses, he would
reply by saying that given the limits of our knowledge, this is the strongest argument we can expect.
Although Maimonides is often seen as part of the Aristotelian tradition, and often expresses praise for
Aristotle, his account of creation indicate that he is willing to depart from Aristotle when he thinks the
arguments lead in that direction.
6. Practical Philosophy
We have already seen that for Maimonides the highest perfection is intellectual and consists in
ascertaining in divine matters everything that can be ascertained. Proper behavior, whether for the
individual or the community, is a means to this end (GP 3.27). On a political level, this means that the
state must do more than protect life and property; it must see to it that all its citizens are educated in
religious matters and that a small number achieve mastery (GP 2.40). On a personal level, it means that
morality is not an end in itself but a way of controlling the passions and creating an atmosphere in which
science and philosophy can flourish (GP 3.8). While intellectual perfection is oriented to truth and falsity
and aims at demonstration, moral perfection is oriented to good and bad and rests on commonly
Accordingly Adam was blessed with perfect metaphysical knowledge in the Garden of Eden but still did
not know that it is wrong not to cover one's genitals. Although this knowledge cannot be known with
scientific precision, it does not follow that it is arbitrary. On the contrary, it is among the most basic
customs one can imagine. Maimonides expresses this point (GP 2.40) by saying that revealed law
“although it is not natural, enters into what is natural.” I take this to mean that unlike scientific truth,
law presupposes a social context and a sense of shame. In Maimonides' opinion, it still needs to be
studied in detail. Thus the quote continues: “It is a part of the wisdom of the deity with regard to the
permanence of this species.”
Maimonides' practical philosophy begins with Eight Chapters, an introduction to his commentary on the
tractate PirkeiAvot and part of his Commentary on the Mishnah. In concert with Plato and Aristotle,
he holds that like the body, the soul can be diseased or healthy. Just as those with sick bodies seek a
physician, those with sick souls need to seek the wise rulers, who are physicians of the soul. Not
surprisingly major portions of his work attempt to show that Jewish law is based on a thorough
understanding of the soul and the conditions needed for its perfection. Chief among them is the
attainment of a mean between extremes. In Eight Chapters 3, he writes: “The virtues are states of the
soul and settled dispositions in the mean between two bad states, one of which is excessive, the other
deficient.” Later, in the first book of the Mishneh Torah (1, Character Traits, 1.4), he follows up by
saying: “The right way is the mean in every one of a person's character traits.”
Like Aristotle, Maimonides recognizes there will be variations from one person to another and that
sometimes a person may have to overshoot the mean for therapeutic reasons (Eight Chapters 4 and MT
1, Character Traits, 2.2). Also like Aristotle, he stresses that virtue is a habit that can only be developed
by practice. A wise ruler will therefore prescribe actions and moral habits that must be repeated until
they are no longer burdensome and become part of a person's character. If a person develops the
wrong habits and goes to excess, the ruler “must follow the same course in treating it as in the medical
treatment of bodies,” which is to reestablish equilibrium (“Eight Chapters” 4).
Maimonides claims his theory is sound in its own right and can be distilled from the sayings of the
prophets and sages. He offers Psalm 19:8 (“The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the
testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple”) as evidence that the Bible recognizes the idea of
psychic health and disease. He also connects adherence to the mean with the doctrine of imitatio Dei
(imitation of God), by arguing that (GP 2.28): “The works of the deity are most perfect, and with regard
to them there is no possibility of an excess or a deficiency.” As God governs nature, so Maimonides
thinks, the wise ruler will attempt to govern society.
It is true, as Maimonides says many times, that Jewish law does not ask people to live as hermits, starve
themselves, beat themselves, or jeopardize their health. Though it allows for a category of extremists in
the laws dealing with the Nazirite, Maimonides is right to say that it treats the Nazirite with suspicion
(“Eight Chapters” 4). The qualities that really matter are good judgment, kindness, and compassion — all
things Maimonides explains by going back to the doctrine of the mean. People are asked to give to
charity, honor their parents, refrain from certain sexual relations, not hate or take vengeance, and not
eat certain foods in order establish a moderate disposition. By the same token, the holidays are
arranged so that some involve rejoicing while others involve moderate forms of self-denial. In no case
does the law require anything for the sake of obedience alone.
Maimonides points out there are cases where the analogy between body and soul breaks down, in
particular the fact that legal reasoning is different from medical reasoning. The physician does not treat
the concept humanity but the particular person who comes to her. But this is not true of the law, which,
in Maimonides' opinion (GP 3.34), treats the general case and pays no attention to rarities. That is why
the law is not dependent on time and place but tries to establish a standard that is absolute and
universal. To take a modern example, the law prescribes a limit to the amount of alcohol a person can
have in his blood and still be able to drive. Undoubtedly there are variations among individuals that
allow one person with a certain amount of alcohol to be much more alert than another. But it is not the
purpose of the law to take these differences into account. All it can do is set a norm and enforce it
Still anyone familiar with Maimonides will see that acceptance of the mean is hard to reconcile with
other aspects of his thought. When he describes God as governor of the universe balancing justice with
mercy, the doctrine of the mean makes good sense; when he describes God as lacking emotion and
incomparable to anything in the created order, it does not. Similarly, when he describes prophets as
law-givers, the mean is an appropriate standard; when he describes them as people who begrudge the
time they spend with others and prefer to contemplate God alone in silent meditation (GP 3.51), it fails.
Much has been written on which of these approaches represents Maimonides' real view [Fox, 1990,
Davidson, 1987, Schwarzschild, 1990]. Fortunately we do not have to survey all of this literature because
the problem arises in the space of a few paragraphs in MT 1, Character Traits, 1.4–6. Unlike “Eight
Chapters,” where the only justification for overshooting the mean is therapeutic, this passage recognizes
that there are times when deviation from the mean represents a higher standard. As Maimonides puts
it, a person whose character traits are balanced can be called wise (hakham), while a person who goes
beyond the mean when circumstances warrant is known as pious (hasid):
Whoever moves away from a haughty heart to the opposite extreme so that he is exceedingly lowly in
spirit is called pious; this is the measure of piety. If someone moves only to the mean and is humble, he
is called wise; this is the measure of wisdom. The same applies to all the rest of the character traits. The
pious of old used to direct their character traits from the middle way toward one of the two extremes;
some character traits toward the last extreme, and some toward the first extreme. This is the meaning
of “inside the line of the law” *i.e. going beyond the letter of the law+.
Piety then involves going beyond the mean to a higher standard. In this connection Maimonides cites
Numbers 12:3, which does not say that Moses was meek but that he was very meek.
Similar remarks apply to Maimonides' analysis of anger. For Aristotle [NicomacheanEthics 1125b31–
1126a8] a person should be praised for being angry with the right people in the right way and at the
right time. A person who allows himself to be abused by insults without getting angry lacks feeling and
behaves in a manner that is slavish. Virtue is worthy of honor. Just as it is wrong to ask for too much, it is
equally wrong to ask for too little.
With respect to anger, Maimonides disagrees, claiming (MT 1, Character Traits, 2.3) it is “an extremely
bad character trait” and that “it is proper for someone to move away from it to the other extreme and
to teach himself not to be angry, even over something it is proper to be angry about” *Frank, 1990+. For
Aristotle meekness indicates a loss of self-esteem; for Maimonides it is not a virtue but virtue par
excellence. By ascribing it to Moses, he implies that it represents the highest level a person can achieve.
A similar sentiment is expressed earlier in the Mishneh Torah (1, Basic Principles, 4. 12), when
Maimonides discusses the need to study physics and metaphysics. He concludes with praise for those
who are lowly of spirit:
When a man reflects on these things, studies all these created beings, from the angels and spheres
down to human beings and so on, and realizes the divine wisdom manifested in them all, his love for
God will increase, his soul will thirst, his very flesh will yearn to love God. He will be filled with fear and
trembling, as he becomes conscious of his lowly condition, poverty, and insignificance, and compares
himself with any of the great and holy bodies; still more when he compares himself with any one of the
pure forms that are incorporeal and have never had association with any corporeal substance. He will
then realize that he is a vessel full of shame, dishonor, and reproach, empty and deficient.
It is not that Maimonides has abandoned the idea that nature avoids excess or deficiency but that he
seems to be saying the highest level of human excellence sometimes requires an extreme. Thus Moses
went without water for forty days and nights when he was alone on the mountain and attained such a
high level of concentration that in Maimonides opinion “all the gross faculties in the body ceased to
function.” Seen in this light, the highest goal is not practical wisdom in the Aristotelian sense but
humility, awe, and shame in the presence of God.
In other places, Maimonides argues that our goal should not be to moderate emotion but to rise above
it. We saw that God is not subject to emotion. Maimonides takes this to mean that the ideal state is one
in which a person acts in a completely dispassionate way deciding cases on their merit without recourse
to feeling. While such a person must still make the appropriate judgment, there will be no character
trait or disposition from which it springs. According to Guide 1.54:
It behooves the governor of a city, if he is a prophet, to acquire similarity to these attributes [jealousy,
hatred, or anger], so that these actions may proceed from him according to a determined measure and
according to the deserts of the people who are affected by them and not merely because of his
following a passion. He should not let loose the reins of anger nor let passion gain mastery over him, for
all passions are evil; but, on the contrary, he should guard against them as far as this lies within the
capacity of man. Sometimes, with regard to some people, he should be merciful and gracious, not out of
mere compassion and pity, but in accordance with what is fitting.
In the treatise on Character Traits, he admits that there may be times when it is necessary for a person
to show anger, but insists that inwardly she should remain completely tranquil.
What happened to balance and the idea of mental health? The answer is that while they are still
valuable, they are not ends in themselves. Throughout his rabbinic and philosophic works, Maimonides
insists (MT 1, Character Traits, 3.1) that it is impossible to love God and achieve the highest levels of
concentration if one is sick, undisciplined, or living in fear of bodily harm. But in the end, moral
perfection is only a necessary condition for intellectual perfection.
Like Plato, Maimonides believes in the therapeutic effects of philosophy. In the last chapter of the Guide
(3.54), he claims that philosophy teaches that most of the things to which people direct their lives are
“nothing but an effort with a view to something purely imaginary, to a thing that has no permanence.”
Just as Job came to see that the things he once valued are unimportant, philosophy teaches us to give
up our obsession with money, garments, and land and focus attention on the eternal.
In the end, the relation between moral and intellectual virtue is more complicated than Maimonides
first presents. It is not just that the former is a means to the latter but that after the latter is achieved,
after one comes to see that earthly goods are fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying, his behavior will
undergo a transformation: rather than aim for a moderate amount of earthly goods, he will forgo them
and spend as much time as possible in a state of awe and reverence, where the distinction between
moral and intellectual perfection may even break down.
Since the publication of the Guide, scholars have struggled with a thorny issue: whether to take
Maimonides' words at face value or whether to take them as hints or clues pointing to a hidden or
deeper meaning (Ravitzky, 1981, 1990, 2005; Strauss, 1952). By rejecting literal interpretation and
playing down the importance of miracles, he knew he was taking a controversial stand. As he notes in
the Introduction to the Guide, Jewish law prohibits one from discussing esoteric matters like the
Account of the Beginning or the Account of the Chariot in public. The idea is that these matters should
only be discussed with an advanced student capable of finding the truth on her own. In Maimonides'
view, both the Bible and the rabbinic commentaries that grew up around it are esoteric in the sense that
the real meaning is often different from the surface or apparent meaning. The reason for this is that the
people who read them have different levels of comprehension. But Maimonides goes further, saying
that in some cases it is necessary for an author to contradict himself.
Of the seven reasons for using contradictions, Maimonides says he will avail himself of two. The first is
relatively unproblematic: sometimes it is necessary for a teacher to say one thing to reach a student's
level of understanding and say something else when the student becomes more advanced. The second
is more troublesome: on very obscure matters, it is necessary to launch a discussion that proceeds
according to one assumption and later launch one that proceeds according to another. He then adds: “In
such cases the vulgar must in no way be aware of the contradiction; the author accordingly uses some
device to conceal it by all means.”
This raises several questions. (1) Does Maimonides employ contradictions of the troublesome variety?
(2) If so, where? (3) Of two contradictory discussions, which represents his view? In the twentieth
century, Leo Strauss argued that contradictions are central to understanding the Guide and that the
more evidence Maimonides presents for a particular view, the less likely it is that he held it. [Strauss,
1952]. There is general agreement that Maimonides' writing is esoteric to the degree that he addresses
difficult topics and does not put everything he has to say on a particular topic in any one place. The
question is whether his esotericism goes deeper than this. We saw for example that he criticizes
Aristotle's on the eternity of the world. Does this mean that he believed in creation or that if you strip
away the surface meaning, he is really committed to eternity? As often happens, one question leads to
another: Do we settle the matter by examining the strength of his arguments or by looking for hidden
clues? Of late the esotericist reading appears to be losing favor [Davidson, 2005, Ivry, 1991, Manekin
2005, Ravitzky, 2005, Seeskin, 2000].
How one assesses Maimonides' philosophy depends on one's own philosophic view. For a traditional
theist like Aquinas, he is right to say that there are issues, e.g. creation, that cannot be resolved by
demonstration and to insist that all attempts to anthropomorphize God are misguided. The problem is
that in rejecting anthropomorphism, he may have gone too far. If God bears no likeness to the created
order, and if terms like wise, powerful, or lives are completely ambiguous when applied to God and us,
the conception of divinity we are left with is too thin for the average worshipper to appreciate.
For a naturalist like Spinoza, Maimonides is too willing to dismiss science and take refuge in traditional
concepts like creation and divine volition. Granted that medieval astronomy did not have a good
explanation of planetary motion; with the advent of the scientific revolution, it found one – at least in
Spinoza's opinion. If Maimonides were to remain true to his word and accept the strongest argument
wherever it leads, as far as Spinoza's is concerned, he would have to embrace the new science, the
eternity of the world, and the necessity of every event that takes place in it. In order to do this, he
would have to abandon the idea that the Bible is a source of philosophic and scientific truth and look to
it only for the light it sheds on how to live. Needless to say, this would be a disaster for Maimonides.
Even if Maimonides were to make this move and read the Bible for its ethical content, problems would
remain. Maimonides is an elitist. Closeness to God is measured by how much knowledge one acquires.
The result is that people whose situations prevent them from pursuing advanced studies cannot be close
to God or love God. Whether it is right or wrong, this view offends modern sensibilities, which are much
Finally for an atheist, Maimonides' philosophy shows us what happens if you remove all
anthropomorphic content from your conception of God: you remove all content of any kind. In the end,
you are left with a God whose essence is unknowable and indescribable Of what possible value is such a
conception either to philosophy or religion?
At his trial for impiety in 399 B.C., Socrates was asked how it is that the wisest person in Athens claims
to be ignorant of the knowledge he seeks. His answer (Apology 23a-b) is that he is wise because unlike
others, he recognizes that when measured against divine wisdom, human wisdom is of little or no value.
Although it is doubtful that he read Socrates' words, there is little question that this is the insight
Maimonides is trying to preserve. That person is wisest who recoils in awe and humility in the face of
something infinitely greater than he or she can fathom. This is the point where piety and wisdom come
together. Viewed in a sympathetic light, Maimonides' elitism stems from the recognition that few
people will be satisfied with this. Although not everyone in the history of philosophy would agree, there
is no question that Maimonides' view has a long history and remains a powerful alternative.
Literary Forms of Medieval Philosophy
First published Thu Oct 17, 2002; substantive revision Thu Jun 6, 2013
Medieval philosophical texts are written in a variety of literary forms, many peculiar to the period, like
the summa or disputed question; others, like the commentary, dialogue, and axiom, are also found in
ancient and modern sources but are substantially different in the medieval period from their classical or
modern instantiations of these forms. Many philosophical texts also have a highly polemical style and/or
seem deferential to the authoritative sources they cite. Further, medieval philosophical thinkers
operated under the threat of censure from political and religious authority, moving them, some have
argued, to write esoterically or indirectly to protect themselves from persecution for their true views. All
these literary and rhetorical features make medieval philosophical texts considerably more difficult to
understand and interpret than modern or even classical philosophical texts. Moreover, the broad range
of genres used in medieval philosophy raises questions about the nature of philosophical writing in
general when compared to the much more restricted set of accepted forms in modern and
contemporary philosophical works.
1. Historical Sources
2. Literary Forms
2.1 Allegory and Allegoresis
2.6 Disputation, Quaestio, Quodlibetal Question
2.7 Meditation, Soliloquy
2.8 Sentences and Sentences Commentaries
2.9 Sophismata, Insolubilia, Obligationes
3. Role of Authorities
4. Esotericism, Censorship, and Polemics
5. Development in the Literary form of Medieval Philosophy
Other Internet Resources
1. Historical Sources
Medieval philosophical texts have as their formal sources Greek commentaries, Neoplatonic treatises,
dialogues, and allegories, as well as Aristotelian treatises, and the works of Augustine. Before the formal
development of universities and university curricula that dictated the established forms for writing
philosophical/theological texts in the 13th century, medieval philosophical texts were written in a wide
variety of forms. From the 10th to the 12th century, writers in the Christian, Jewish and Arabic traditions
composed dialogues, allegories, axiomatic works, disputations, and summae, while the 13th and 14th
centuries in the Latin West were dominated by commentary, principally on Peter Lombard's Sentences
and the works of Aristotle, various forms of the disputed question, and the summa.