The following is the second chapter from my third book on Maimonides called “Maimonides: Reason Above All.” I gave my book this name because both he and Aristotle were convinced that the most important part of humans is their ability to reason, something most humans do not do.
Aristotle, Maimonides’ Philosophical Ancestor
Many people are mistakenly convinced that the Jewish holiday of Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Jewish religion over Hellenism and that the enemy was Greece. Neither supposed fact is true.
As pointed out by Jonathan Kirsch and many others, the Jews in Judea, Egypt and other countries of the diaspora had a longstanding favorable relationship with the Greeks and Hellenism well before and long after the incidents that prompted the rebellion of Judah Maccabee, his father and brothers in 168 B.C.E.
The Jews of Egypt had translated the Bible into Greek around 250 B.C.E. in a work called the Septuagint, and Aquilas did so again for the Jews in Judea in the first third of the second century C.E. A half a millennium later, the rabbis of the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds related that the completion of these tasks was greeted with enthusiastic joy by the sages, rabbis and lay community.
The Talmuds and Midrashim tell imaginary tales of how Alexander the Great was welcomed to Jerusalem by the nation’s high priest when he marched with his army to conquer Egypt in 332 B.C.E. Alexander was extolled in Jewish tradition. Even today, many Jewish families name their sons and daughters after him.
Hellenistic paganism was open-minded toward all religious beliefs and practices. There was no religious conflict between Judaism and the various Greek nations, with the exception of the events of Chanukah. Even after 164 B.C.E., when the Judeans were victorious against their enemies, the family of Judah Maccabee continued unbroken relations with Greek nations, including faraway Sparta. Many members of his family adopted Greek names, including the king, John Hyrcanus. Several later rabbis also adopted Greek names, such as Tarphon and Antigonus. Rabbi Judah the Prince, redactor of the Mishnah, taught half his students, those capable of learning the subject, Greek ideas.
And Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher, drew the ideas of his philosophy of Judaism from Aristotle, the fourth-century B.C.E. Greek teacher of Alexander the Great.
- What, then, really occurred that resulted in Chanukah?
- Who was Aristotle?
- What was Aristotle’s basic philosophy?
- Does mainstream religion, both Jewish and non-Jewish, follow Aristotle or his teacher Plato’s philosophy?
- What parts of Aristotle’s thought did Maimonides accept?
The True Story of Chanukah
When Alexander died in 332 B.C.E., his virtually worldwide kingdom was divided among his generals. His cavalry commander Seleucus seized the area of Syria, to the north of Israel, as well as other northern territories. In 175 B.C.E., the Seleucid dynasty was ruled by Antiochus IV, a vile, hateful and self-centered man who ran his kingdom arbitrarily and impulsively. He arrogantly called himself Antiochus Epiphanes (Antiochus the Manifestation of God). The Jews mockingly renamed him Antiochus Epimanes (Antiochus the Madman) behind his back.
Antiochus criminalized the fundamental rites of Judaism: circumcision, observance of the Sabbath and holidays, the dietary laws, and other practices such as sacrifices. He also placed an idol in the Jewish Temple. The king did so “that they [the Jews] might forget the Law and change all their religious ordinances.” These acts were contrary to the general open-mindedness of Hellenism. And these were the acts that prompted the Jewish rebellion.
Thus the Hasmonean battle was not against the Hellenistic culture of the Greeks but against the religious innovations – or, more precisely, prohibitions – introduced by the Syrian Greek, King Antiochus IV, in 175 B.C.E.
Greek Philosophy Enters Jewish Thought
Notwithstanding the decrees of one radical Greek leader, the Jews lived in peace with the Greeks and turned to their writings for enlightenment.
The Bible was not written to teach philosophy and does not even hint at the subject. It teaches about God and proper behavior. Philosophy was introduced to the world through Greek teachers and many Jews adopted the thinking or elements of the thinking of one Greek philosopher or another. The very first Jewish philosopher of note, whose writings still exist today and whom we will discuss more fully in a later chapter, was Philo. Philo accepted the mostly mystical otherworldly notions of Plato, while Maimonides, as we will see, preferred the realistic, rational and scientific views of Plato’s disciple Aristotle.
Who Was Aristotle?
Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) was part of a line of great philosophers. His teacher was Plato (c. 427–347 B.C.E.), who was the student of Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.). Socrates is best known for his frequently annoying tendency to ask people questions and exasperate them by showing them that they did not understand what they were talking about. He so angered the leaders of Athens that they forced him to commit suicide. His method of trying to find the truth through questions – what is called the Socratic method – is used today in most law schools to teach aspiring lawyers how to think and analyze issues. He is famous for his view that the proper pursuit of all intelligent men is philosophy. Although he did not use the Socratic method per se, Maimonides agreed with Socrates that people are obligated to think and understand the world.
Socrates’ student Plato accepted his teacher’s premise but took it in an almost mystical direction, one that Aristotle and Maimonides could not accept. Plato was convinced that everything in this world was a copy of an idea or ideal. Thus, for example, a table was a table because it resembled an ideal table. Similarly, something was beautiful because it was like the ideal of beauty. Plato never revealed if this ideal truly existed or where it existed. Is it in heaven or in the mind? Scholars debate this subject.
Needless to say, this somewhat mystical approach to reality is not very helpful in deciding on life goals, how to live properly, and how to improve oneself and society. Thus, when Plato, for example, describes his teacher Socrates to us, we learn how to ask questions and how to think, but we have no real concept of what we are expected to do. Accordingly, Aristotle, Plato’s student, dismissed his approach, an unstructured, amorphous way of thinking favored by most mystics and many religious thinkers. Using a well-known metaphor, Plato’s method might be described as “pie in the sky,” while Aristotle takes the pie in hand, savors it and eats it.
Aristotle the Empiricist
Empiricist philosophers derive their knowledge from observable facts, experience and sound logical deductions, not from imaginary Platonic ideals. Similarly, empiricist doctors do not base their diagnoses on what they suppose people should be or how they suppose the world functions – like witch doctors or demon exorcists – but from careful observation, extensive experience and scientific findings. So, too, religious empiricists do not base their lives on notions that are contrary to facts – such as virgin births or wafers turning into flesh or the faith that God will save us from dangers – but on a hard look at the world and how it functions and on rational thinking. Aristotle was an empiricist, and Maimonides accepted his way of thinking.
Aristotle began with the assumption that everything in this world has a purpose. An item is good or functional, according to Aristotle, if the item achieves its purpose. A chair’s purpose is to afford people a comfortable place to sit, so an excellent chair is a chair that allows for comfortable sitting.
Aristotle defined the purpose of humans – a purpose that distinguishes people from animals and inanimate objects – as rationality. People are people because they think, and an excellent person – a person who is truly human – is a person who is fully rational.
This basic teaching of Aristotle cannot be over-emphasized. It is key to everything he says about humanity. It is also the teaching that Maimonides emphasizes, and it underlies all of his statements about people.
This teaching about the need for thinking is not fundamental to most religious people who view religion the Platonic way. Such people rely on blind unthinking idealistic faith, acting as they are told, performing without reasoning. They contemplate, if they think at all, without any depth, somewhat like individuals musing over a gallery portrait, delighting in what they see – but without analysis, without understanding how the picture fits in with other pictures, why it is good, and why other pictures are also good or are bad.
The Aristotelian premise convinced Maimonides, contrary to many but not all Jewish thinkers, that the Torah commandments, the mitzvot, are the means, but not the end goal of Judaism. Maimonides writes that the mitzvot are designed to help people acquire proper understandings and improve themselves and society through their knowledge.
Aristotle’s teachings were considered dangerous to the Dominican heresy-hunters of the early thirteenth century in Montpellier, France. To protect themselves against Aristotle’s ideas, they cruelly tossed his physics and metaphysics books into bonfires. Just two decades later, incited by the “revered talmudist, Solomon b. Abraham…blindly followed by two fanatical disciples, David b. Saul and Rabbi Jonah Gerundi,” they did the same to “the Jewish Aristotle.”
Application of Aristotle’s Philosophy
Beside the scientific method and the emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge, four other teachings of Aristotle’s are significant. Maimonides made all of them part of his philosophical system.
- The Soul: People are not made up of a soul and body, as Plato taught. Nor is the soul the holy part of an individual that must be kept separate from the degrading and ever-decomposing body as maintained by many religious people today. If one wants to use the term “soul,” it should refer to the various functions of the physical body, including the digestive and respiratory systems, five systems in all. However, the “soul” also contains the intellect, and it is the intellect, not the “soul” that “is not destroyed with death of the body. It continues as a separate form after death.”
- Seclusion and Self-development: Is solitary contemplation the goal of people, as many mystics teach? Aristotle insisted that people are political or social beings. Thus, as stated, people attain knowledge not only to improve themselves, but also society.
- Developing Habits: How can people learn to act properly? Aristotle observed that people could not simply decide to be good; they must practice good behavior and develop habits of these behaviors.
- The Golden Mean: What is proper behavior? It is not – as Plato taught – copying an otherworldly non-specific ideal. It is acting according to the “golden mean,” between extreme behaviors of deficiency and excess. The famous example is courage, which is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness.
Judaism has been influenced by Greek culture ever since Jews first came into contact with Greeks and absorbed Greek ideas. Teaching about the existence of God and about proper behavior, the Bible contains no philosophy. Jewish philosophy, as indeed most philosophy today, is based on Greek thinking.
At the time when the Greeks ruled Judea, there were Jews who feared the influence of Hellenism, just as there are Jews today who insist that any idea that comes from a non-Jew should not be considered. These Jews imagine that Chanukah recalls the Jewish abhorrence of all things of Greek origin. Neither idea is correct. As Maimonides and many others taught, the truth is the truth no matter what its source. Chanukah recalls the rebellion against the persecution by a particular Syrian Greek, not a rejection of Greek culture.
Many different schools of Greek philosophy existed at the time and Jews were influenced by each of them. We discussed two – the Platonic, somewhat mystical, amorphous, otherworldly and impractical school and the Aristotelian earth-bound, rational, empiricist school. Both influenced how people think, even today. The faith-based otherworldly approach of many religious people follows Platonic ideas, while fact-based rational thinkers prefer the thinking of Aristotle.
According to Aristotle and Maimonides, individuals who do not use their intellect, who focus their lives on the “soul” while avoiding anything that helps and improves their mind and bodies, who live in isolation, who act without training themselves through proper habits, or who tend to excess or the avoidance of the joys of this world are neither religious or pious – nor are they appropriately human.
In the coming chapters, we will see that, while Maimonides followed the Aristotelian approach, his father and descendants were more attuned to Plato.
 A History of the End of the World, 32–34.
 “The First Book of Maccabees” in The Apocrypha, translation by E. J. Goodspeed (New York: Modern Library, 1959), 378. In what scholars identify as the post-talmudic period, a short work was composed called Megillat Antiochus, which states that the king outlawed “Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and circumcision.” Saadiah Gaon was the first person to mention this book. It is found in Siddur Hashalem, ed. Philip Birnbaum, (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1949).
 There are highly respected Maimonidean scholars who feel certain that Maimonides was a Platonist. See Drazin, Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind, chapter 10.
 The various views on this subject are discussed in my Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind, chapter 10.
 Neuman, The Jews in Spain, II:117–145. Neuman writes: “By some unknown method and agency, the followers of Solomon were apprehended, convicted of the crime of informing, which was then a capital offense, and in accordance with the barbarous laws of the time, their tongues were cut out. It would seem that Solomon himself lost his life.”
 Maimonides lists them in his introduction to the Ethics of the Fathers, called Chelek.
 Husik, A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy, xxxv.