Maimonides Disparages Morality



One book of the Talmud is devoted to what the rabbis considered proper behavior. It is called in Hebrew Pirkei Avot and in English Ethics of the Fathers, the “fathers,” meaning the ancient rabbis.[1] Maimonides, Judaism’s greatest thinker (1138-1204), wrote a commentary on parts of the Talmud and sometimes introduced his commentaries with extended essays. His extended essay on Pirkei Avot contains eight chapters and is called “Eight Chapters.” Rabbi Yaakov Feldman’s 2008 version of Eight Chapters offers readers the Hebrew and English of all of the chapters, each chapter introduced by an explanatory introduction and followed by a synopsis, with a detailed explanation of everything Maimonides says, which generally takes up at least half of every page. Feldman also includes 59 pages of Supplementary Notes.

In this work, Maimonides tells readers that he will give the thinking of the philosophers regarding the subject of ethics. He adds he will not name the philosophers, and stresses that we should “accept the truth from whoever utters it.”[2]


The Soul

Maimonides rejected the now widespread belief that there is a soul that is separate from the body. In chapter 1, he states, as Aristotle did before him,[3] that if one wanted to use the term “soul,” it is the various parts of the body’s functions. He says they are the digestive system, senses, imagination, emotions, and intellect. All die with the body except the intellect.[4] He explains the function of each. In chapter two he writes that people can only control their emotions, senses, and intellect. Chapter 3 discusses diseases of the soul and 4 how these diseases can be treated. He explains the concept of the Golden Mean in chapter 4. “Good deeds are those which lie midway between two extremes, both of which are bad – one because it goes too far, and the other because it does not go far enough.”

Significantly, as will be discussed shortly, he adds in 4:6 “the pious would not allow their dispositions to remain balanced.[5] Instead, they would lean somewhat toward excess or inadequacy in order to safeguard themselves.”[6]

In chapter 5, Maimonides states that the “goal in all this…(is) to acquire knowledge.” This includes secular subjects. Studying leads to “actions [that are] truly human – that foster virtues and [the knowledge] of truths.”[7] This discussion of learning as much as one can about nature should prompt readers to realize that Maimonides “pious” ones refers to those people who think, as we will see shortly.

In chapter 6, he discusses the difference between the “Pious” person and an individual who controls his or her desire. The seventh chapter focuses on prophecy, which Maimonides considers a higher level of intelligence, an ability all people of all religions can achieve. Maimonides states that God can stop an intelligent person from being able to prophesy. He is not speaking about a divine intervention.[8] He means that emotions, such as anger or depression, can block one’s intelligence and stop the ability to prophesy. In chapter 8, he emphasizes: “It is important to know…that the Torah agrees with Greek philosophy which substantiates conclusively that man’s actions are in his own hands, no one [even God] compels him to do anything.” In this chapter, he also says that what people think are miracles are actually part of nature. He quotes the rabbis in Midrash Kohelet and the Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 54b, “the world always pursues its usual course.”[9]



Morals describe proper conduct, what is good and bad. They inform people how to live a blameless life. They “seem” to show how all people should act. But is this true?

Maimonides (1138-1204) disagreed. The best life is not the moral life, but a life based on reason. Like Aristotle, Maimonides stressed in his Guide of the Perplexed 1:1 that people must develop and use their intellect.[11] In 1:2, he interpreted the Garden of Eden story as a parable that distinguishes “[the tree of] good and evil” from “truth and falsehood,” and emphasized that scripture is teaching that intelligent people must not focus on good and evil, but on what is true and false: and it is “through the intellect [that] one distinguishes between truth and falsehood.”[12]

Distinguishing between truth and falsehood is, according to Aristotle and Maimonides, the ideal human state. In the parable, it was Adam’s initial stage before he ate the forbidden fruit. “When man was in his most perfect and excellent state [before he ate from the forbidden fruit] …he had no faculty that was engaged in any way in the consideration of generally accepted things, and he did not apprehend them [meaning, he had no concept of good and bad]. So among these generally accepted things[13] even that which is most manifestly bad, namely, uncovering the genitals, was not bad according to him, and he did not apprehend that it was bad [because he did not think that way]. However, when he disobeyed [by eating the forbidden fruit]…he was punished by being deprived of that intellectual apprehension.”[14]

Maimonides distinguished “truth and falsehood,” the ideal human state, the way intellectuals think, from “good and bad,” how most people think. In the parable, before eating the fruit, during the ideal state, humans focused on reality, what is true and what is false, what exists and what does not exist. After digesting the fruit, a metaphor describing common people today, people only know moral truths, “generally accepted things,” also called “essential truths,” ideas that are “essential” for the general population to know.[15] They are not real truths. They are ideas, teachings, and guidance that are taught to the general public who are not capable of understanding and acting upon the real truth, unable to evaluate every occurrence in their lives and make decisions each time how to act based on reason, on what is true and false. The Greek philosopher Plato named them “noble lies” because while untrue, they aid people by making it easy for people to act in a manner that is least harmful to them and to other people.

Maimonides saw the Torah’s Garden of Eden parable teaching that an intelligent person should live a life based on reality, on what is true and false, while the average person who lacks the ability to do so should live according to “essential truths,” morality. True, Maimonides stressed the Aristotelian “middle path,” the need to avoid extremes, in his Eight Chapters, but a close reading of the chapters reveals that he wrote this advice as an “essential truth” for the general population, not for people who use their minds.

Maimonides makes it clear in his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 1:4 and 5, and in chapter six of his Eight Chapters that the moral “middle path” is only the “essential truth.” The ideal path, the way intellectuals should act, is “the virtuous way,” the carefully considered rational behavior beyond the middle path, when reason dictates the need for such behavior. Maimonides writes:

משנה תורה הלכות דעות א:ד-ה

[ד-ה] כָּל אָדָם שֶׁדֵּעוֹתָיו כֻּלָּן דֵּעוֹת בֵּינוֹנִיּוֹת מְמֻצָּעוֹת, נִקְרָא ‘חָכָם’. וּמִי שְׁהוּא מְדַקְדֵּק עַל עַצְמוֹ בְּיוֹתֵר, וְיִתְרַחַק מִדֵּעָה בֵּינוֹנִית מְעַט, לְצַד זֶה אוֹ לְצַד זֶה, נִקְרָא ‘חָסִיד’. כֵּיצַד: מִי שֶׁיִּתְרַחַק מִגֹּבַהּ הַלֵּב, עַד הַקָּצֶה הָאַחֲרוֹן, וְיִהְיֶה שְׁפַל רוּחַ בְּיוֹתֵר, נִקְרָא ‘חָסִיד’; וְזוֹ הִיא ‘מִדַּת חֲסִידוּת’. וְאִם נִתְרַחַק עַד הָאֶמְצָע בִּלְבָד, וְיִהְיֶה עָנָו, נִקְרָא ‘חָכָם’; וְזוֹ הִיא ‘מִדַּת חָכְמָה’. וְעַל דֶּרֶךְ זוֹ, שְׁאָר כָּל הַדֵּעוֹת. וַחֲסִידִים הָרִאשׁוֹנִים הָיוּ מַטִּין דֵּעוֹת שֶׁלָּהֶן מִדֶּרֶךְ הָאֶמְצָעִית כְּנֶגֶד שְׁתֵּי הַקְּצָווֹת. יֵשׁ דֵּעָה שֶׁמַּטִּין אוֹתָהּ כְּנֶגֶד הַקָּצֶה הָאַחֲרוֹן, וְיֵשׁ דֵּעָה שֶׁמַּטִּין אוֹתָהּ כְּנֶגֶד הַקָּצֶה הָרִאשׁוֹן; וְזֶה הוּא ‘לִפְנִים מִשּׁוּרַת הַדִּין’. וּמְצֻוִּין אָנוּ לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכִים אֵלּוּ הַבֵּינוֹנִיִּים, וְהֶם הַדְּרָכִים הַטּוֹבִים וְהַיְּשָׁרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר (דברים כח:ט), ‘וְהָלַכְתָּ בִּדְרָכָיו’.

Maimonides introduced the concept of the “golden mean” in his Eight Chapters and in his Mishneh Torah. He advised people to behave according to a middle path between two extremes. For example, people should not be overly stingy nor should they be spendthrifts; they should not laugh excessively nor be sad and dispirited. He calls this derekh hachakhamim, “the path of the wise.”

But, he taught, an individual who is very careful about himself deviates somewhat from the mean to either side and is called virtuous.[16] For example, the individual who distances himself from pride and turns to the other extreme and becomes very humble – this is the virtuous quality. But if he only moves toward the middle and is slightly humble is called[17] wise.

Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah: “The virtuous people of old would arrange their behaviors away from the middle path toward the two extremes. There were [times when] the behavior would veer toward one extreme, while [there were times when] the behavior would veer toward the other extreme. This is [behavior] that is beyond the legal requirement.[18] We [Maimonides states humbly, who lack their intelligence] are required to take the middle paths. They are good and proper paths, as it is states ‘walk in His ways.’”[19]

Thus, while many people would argue that all people should be moral, Maimonides says in Guide 1:2 that this is only the “essential truth,” Plato’s “noble lie,” the behavior for the general population. But the ideal is that people should, if they are able, use their intelligence in everything they do. This is the “virtuous behavior.”

In short, both “essential truths” of morality and “real truths” advocating using intelligence seek proper conduct. However, “essential truths” focus on what the average person is capable of doing, morality. The general public is advised to follow the middle path for it is easier than having to analyze each situation independently; but intellectuals, who can scrutinize events and understand the results of their behavior, are told to deviate when advisable from the moral middle path.


[1] The Roman Catholic Church also calls its priests “fathers.”

[2] In his Supplementary notes, Feldman explains that Maimonides principle source for the concept of the “Golden Mean,” which is discussed in this book, is the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle. While Maimonides does not mention the sage here, he mentions him in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:17, 19, 24. Maimonides said the same thing in his commentary on Pirkei Avot 4:22; “Don’t judge a wine by its flask.” While he stressed here and elsewhere that “the truth is the truth no matter what its source,” he knew that many people are xenophobic and will reject a truth simply because it was stated by an individual who was not a co-religionist, and this prompted him to delete Aristotle’s name.

[3] In contrast to Aristotle, his teacher Plato believed that there is a soul that is distinct from the body.

[4] He does not describe what happens to the intellect, whether it can recall its life when joined with the body, and if it retains the personality of the dead person. He says it joins a sphere surrounding the earth. Scholars debate what he meant. Most agree that this is obscure.

[5] This is Feldman’s translation. The wording suggests that generally the “pious” would follow the Golden Mean, and deviate from the mean only on occasions. But the Hebrew does not contain the word “remain.”  Without it, Maimonides is saying, the pious never follow the Golden Mean.

[6] Maimonides is giving two messages here. He is stating that the masses should always follow the Golden Mean. But if they found themselves going to an extreme, they would start acting close to the other extreme, not the middle path, because habits cannot be changed by going to the medium. After acting close to the other extreme for some time, they should slowly move back to the medium. Yet, the “pious” should not, as we will see, act in this way, they should not take the middle path ever, but should use their intellect.

[7] Maimonides states in his Guide 1:58 and 59 and elsewhere that one cannot know God, and this is the message of Exodus 33:18ff, but we can understand God somewhat by understanding the laws of nature. Thus studying the sciences teaches us about God as well as how to live a good life and how to aid society.

[8] As is made clear in Guide 2:48.

[9] Nachmanides disagreed very strongly and insisted that divine intervention occurs daily.

[10] The following analysis is not in Rabbi Feldman’s book.

[11] Translation by Shlomo Pines, The Guide of the Perplexed, pages 21-23. Maimonides repeats this lesson frequently.

[12] Pines, page 24.

[13] Emphasis added.

[14] Pines, page 25.

[15]  Maimonides borrowed the term “generally accepted things” and “essential truths” from the Greek and Muslim philosophers. See, for example, Ibn Tufayl, Hayy ibn Yaqzan, University of Chicago, 2003, where ibn Tufayl mentions many philosophers holding this view.

[16] The Hebrew is chasid, which could also be translated “pious,” but the concept of piety seems inappropriate here.

[17] While this is what Maimonides says, it is clear that what he means is “while this is not the best behavior, it is still considered wise behavior.”

[18] Meaning, that while the preferred behavior, it is not obligatory; for as we are showing, most people cannot do this.

[19] My translation.