27 Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed”
by Moses Maimonides
translated by M. Friedländer
Moses ben Maimon, commonly known as Maimonides, was a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher who became one of the most important Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, and became well enough known to influence mainstream philosophy as well as Jewish scholarship. Born in Córdoba, Spain in about 1135 CE, he worked as a rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt. He died in Egypt in 1204 CE and was transported and buried in Tiberias, in what is now Israel. He wrote the Guide for the Perplexed to make 3 major points:
- God cannot really be described in human terms, using anthropomorphic images, even though the scriptures do this
- Creation in Genesis is a metaphor, and the physical universe is the result of intelligences being created by God, and everything else coming from those intelligences.
- The universe has moral aspects, and the problem of evil is solved because it is solely the work of humans.
This section is solely focused on the moral aspects of the universe and the character of Evil.
Section III CHAPTER XII–on the character of Evil
MEN frequently think that the evils in the world are more numerous than the good things; many sayings and songs of the nations dwell on this idea. They say that a good thing is found only exceptionally, whilst evil things are numerous and lasting.
Not only common people make this mistake, but even many who believe that they are wise. Al-Razi wrote a well-known book On Metaphysics [or Theology]. Among other mad and foolish things, it contains also the idea, discovered by him, that there exists more evil than good. For if the happiness of man and his pleasure in the times of prosperity be compared with the mishaps that befall him,–such as grief, acute pain, defects, paralysis of the limbs, fears, anxieties, and troubles,–it would seem as if the existence of man is a punishment and a great evil for him. This author commenced to verify his opinion by counting all the evils one by one; by this means he opposed those who hold the correct view of the benefits bestowed by God and His evident kindness, viz., that God is perfect goodness, and that all that comes from Him is absolutely good.
The origin of the error is to be found in the circumstance that this ignorant man, and his party among the common people, judge the whole universe by examining one single person. For an ignorant man believes that the whole universe only exists for him; as if nothing else required any consideration. If, therefore, anything happens to him contrary to his expectation, he at once concludes that the whole universe is evil. If, however, he would take into consideration the whole universe, form an idea of it, and comprehend what a small portion he is of the Universe, he will find the truth. For it is clear that persons who have fallen into this widespread error as regards the multitude of evils in the world, do not find the evils among the angels, the spheres and stars, the elements, and that which is formed of them, viz., minerals and plants, or in the various species of living beings, but only in some individual instances of mankind. They wonder that a person, who became leprous in consequence of bad food, should be afflicted with so great an illness and suffer such a misfortune; or that he who indulges so much in sensuality as to weaken his sight, should be struck With blindness! and the like.
What we have, in truth, to consider is this:–The whole mankind at present in existence, and a fortiori, every other species of animals, form an infinitesimal portion of the permanent universe. Comp. “Man is like to vanity” (Ps. cxliv. 4); “How much less man, that is a worm; and the son of man, which is a worm” (Job xxv. 6); “How much less in them who dwell in houses of clay” (ibid. iv. 19); “Behold, the nations are as a drop of the bucket” (Isa. xl. 15). There are many other passages in the books of the prophets expressing the same idea. It is of great advantage that man should know his station, and not erroneously imagine that the whole universe exists only for him. We hold that the universe exists because the Creator wills it so; that mankind is low in rank as compared with the uppermost portion of the universe, viz., with the spheres and the stars: but, as regards the angels, there cannot be any real comparison between man and angels, although man is the highest of all beings on earth; i.e., of all beings formed of the four elements. Man’s existence is nevertheless a great boon to him, and his distinction and perfection is a divine gift. The numerous evils to which individual persons are exposed are due to the defects existing in the persons themselves. We complain and seek relief from our own faults: we suffer from the evils which we, by our own free will, inflict on ourselves and ascribe them to God, who is far from being connected with them! Comp. “Is destruction his [work]? No. Ye [who call yourselves] wrongly his sons, you who are a perverse and crooked generation” (Deut. xxxii. 5). This is explained by Solomon, who says, “The foolishness of man perverteth his way, and his heart fretteth against the Lord” (Prov. xix. 3).
I explain this theory in the following manner. The evils that befall an are of three kinds:–
- (1) The first kind of evil is that which is caused to man by the circumstance that he is subject to genesis and destruction, or that he possesses a body. It is on account of the body that some persons happen to have great deformities or paralysis of some of the organs. This evil may be part of the natural constitution of these persons, or may have developed subsequently in consequence of changes in the elements, e.g., through bad air, or thunderstorms or landslips. We have already shown that, in accordance with the divine wisdom, genesis can only take place through destruction, and without the destruction of the individual members of the species the species themselves would not exist permanently. Thus the true kindness, and beneficence, and goodness of God is clear. He who thinks that he can have flesh and bones without being subject to any external influence, or any of the accidents of matter, unconsciously wishes to reconcile two opposites, viz., to be at the same time subject and not subject to change.If man were never subject to change there could be no generation: there would be one single being, but no individuals forming a species. Galen, in the third section of his book, The Use of the Limbs, says correctly that it would be in vain to expect to see living beings formed of the blood of menstruous women and the semen virile, who will not die, will never feel pain, or will move perpetually, or will shine like the sun. This dictum of Galen is part of the following more general proposition:–Whatever is formed of any matter receives the most perfect form possible in that species of matter: in each individual case the defects are in accordance with the defects of that individual matter. The best and most perfect being that can be formed of the blood and the semen is the species of man, for as far as man’s nature is known, he is living, reasonable, and mortal. It is therefore impossible that man should be free from this species of evil. You will, nevertheless, find that the evils of the above kind which befall man are very few and rare: for you find countries that have not been flooded or burned for thousands of years: there are thousands of men in perfect health, deformed individuals are a strange and exceptional occurrence, or say few in number if you object to the term exceptional,–they are not one-hundredth, not even one-thousandth part of those that are perfectly normal.
- (2) The second class of evils comprises such evils as people cause to each other, when, e.g., some of them use their strength against others. These evils are more numerous than those of the first kind: their causes are numerous and known; they likewise originate in ourselves, though the sufferer himself cannot avert them. This kind of evil is nevertheless not widespread in any country of the whole world. It is of rare occurrence that a man plans to kill his neighbour or to rob him of his property by night. Many persons are, however, afflicted with this kind of evil in great wars: but these are not frequent, if the whole inhabited part of the earth is taken into consideration.
- (3) The third class of evils comprises those which every one causes to himself by his own action. This is the largest class, and is far more numerous than the second class. It is especially of these evils that all men complain, only few men are found that do not sin against themselves by this kind of evil. Those that are afflicted with it are therefore justly blamed in the words of the prophet, “This hath been by your means” (Mal. i. 9); the same is expressed in the following passage, “He that doeth it destroyeth his own soul” (Prov. vi. 32). In reference to this kind of evil, Solomon says, “The foolishness of man perverteth his way” (ibid. xix. 3). In the following passage he explains also that this kind of evil is man’s own work, “Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright, but they have thought out many inventions” (Eccles. vii. 29), and these inventions bring the evils upon him.The same subject is referred to in Job (v. 6), “For affliction cometh not forth of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground.” These words are immediately followed by the explanation that man himself is the author of this class of evils, “But man is born unto trouble.” This class of evils originates in man’s vices, such as excessive desire for eating, drinking, and love; indulgence in these things in undue measure, or in improper manner, or partaking of bad food. This course brings diseases and afflictions upon body and soul alike.
Take some time to watch an animation from Jewish artist Hanan Harchol. Especially relevant might be his discussion of Apology:
The sufferings of the body in consequence of these evils are well known; those of the soul are twofold:—First, such evils of the soul as are the necessary consequence of changes in the body, in so far as the soul is a force residing in the body; it has therefore been said that the properties of the soul depend on the condition of the body. Secondly, the soul, when accustomed to superfluous things, acquires a strong habit of desiring things which are neither necessary for the preservation of the individual nor for that of the species. This desire is without a limit, whilst things which are necessary are few in number and restricted within certain limits; but what is superfluous is without end–e.g., you desire to have your vessels of silver, but golden vessels are still better: others have even vessels of sapphire, or perhaps they can be made of emerald or rubies, or any other substance that could be suggested.
Those who are ignorant and perverse in their thought are constantly in trouble and pain, because they cannot get as much of superfluous things as a certain other person possesses. They as a rule expose themselves to great dangers, e.g., by sea-voyage, or service of kings, and all this for the purpose of obtaining that which is superfluous and not necessary. When they thus meet with the consequences of the course which they adopt, they complain of the decrees and judgments of God; they begin to blame the time, and wonder at the want of justice in its changes; that it has not enabled them to acquire great riches, with which they could buy large quantities of wine for the purpose of making themselves drunk, and numerous concubines adorned with various kind of ornaments of gold, embroidery, and jewels, for the purpose of driving themselves to voluptuousness beyond their capacities, as if the whole Universe existed exclusively for the purpose of giving pleasure to these low people.
The error of the ignorant goes so far as to say that God’s power is insufficient, because He has given to this Universe the properties which they imagine cause these great evils, and which do not help all evil-disposed persons to obtain the evil which they seek, and to bring their evil souls to the aim of their desires, though these, as we have shown, are really without limit. The virtuous and wise, however, see and comprehend the wisdom of God displayed in the Universe. Thus David says, “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep His covenant and His testimonies” (Ps. xxv. 10). For those who observe the nature of the Universe and the commandments of the Law, and know their purpose, see clearly God’s mercy and truth in everything; they seek, therefore, that which the Creator intended to be the aim of man, viz., comprehension. Forced by the claims of the body, they seek also that which is necessary for the preservation of the body, “bread to eat and garment to clothe,” and this is very little; but they seek nothing superfluous: with very slight exertion man can obtain it, so long as he is contented with that which is indispensable.
All the difficulties and troubles we meet in this respect are due to the desire for superfluous things: when we seek unnecessary things, we have difficulty even in finding that which is indispensable. For the more we desire to have that which is superfluous, the more we meet with difficulties; our strength and possessions are spent in unnecessary things, and are wanting when required for that which is necessary. Observe how Nature proves the correctness of this assertion.
The more necessary a thing is for living beings, the more easily it is found and the cheaper it is; the less necessary it is, the rarer and clearer it is. E.g., air, water, and food are indispensable to man: air is most necessary, for if man is without air a short time he dies; whilst he can be without water a day or two. Air is also undoubtedly found more easily and cheaper [than water]. Water is more necessary than food; for some people can be four or five days without food, provided they have water; water also exists in every country in larger quantities than food, and is also cheaper. The same proportion can be noticed in the different kinds of food; that which is more necessary in a certain place exists there in larger quantities and is cheaper than that which is less necessary.
No intelligent person, I think, considers musk, amber, rubies, and emerald as very necessary for man except as medicines: and they, as well as other like substances, can be replaced for this purpose by herbs and minerals. This shows the kindness of God to His creatures, even to us weak beings. His righteousness and justice as regards all animals are well known; for in the transient world there is among the various kinds of animals no individual being distinguished from the rest of the same species by a peculiar property or an additional limb. On the contrary, all physical, psychical, and vital forces and organs that are possessed by one individual are found also in the other individuals. If any one is somehow different it is by accident, in consequence of some exception, and not by a natural property; it is also a rare occurrence.
There is no difference between individuals of a species in the due course of Nature; the difference originates in the various dispositions of their substances. This is the necessary consequence of the nature of the substance of that species: the nature of the species is not more favourable to one individual than to the other. It is no wrong or injustice that one has many bags of finest myrrh and garments embroidered with gold, while another has not those things, which are not necessary for our maintenance; he who has them has not thereby obtained control over anything that could be an essential addition to his nature, but has only obtained something illusory or deceptive. The other, who does not possess that which is not wanted for his maintenance, does not miss anything indispensable: “He that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack: they gathered every man according to his eating” (Exod. xvi. 18).
This is the rule at all times and in all places; no notice should be taken of exceptional cases, as we have explained.In these two ways you will see the mercy of God toward His creatures, how He has provided that which is required, in proper proportions, and treated all individual beings of the same species with perfect equality. In accordance with this correct reflection the chief of the wise men says, “All his ways are judgment” (Deut. xxxii. 4); David likewise says: “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth” (Ps. xxv. 10); he also says expressly “The Lord is good to all; and his tender mercies are over all his works” (ibid. cxlv. 9); for it is an act of great and perfect goodness that He gave us existence: and the creation of the controlling faculty in animals is a proof of His mercy towards them, as has been shown by us.
Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
THE GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED
THE ORIGINAL ARABIC TEXT
M. FRIEDLANDER, PHD
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
Originally Scanned and OCRed by Andrew Meit and David Reed. Additional proofing and formatting by Richard Hartzman. Extensive additional proofing and formatting by John Bruno Hare at sacredtexts.com. This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was published prior to January 1st, 1923. Abridged and Reformatted by Seth Goldstein.